Picture Courtesy Sailpix.com.au
You know I always considered myself a safe person - Not over zealous but someone who takes safety issues into account, especially when boating is concerned having seen long term effects from long periods of apathy. (A previous workmate had long exposure to chemicals with no PPE and serious skin complaints as a result). I recently crewed on a cruising racing boat on an overcast harbour day not dissimilar to some winter sydney sailing days (They seem to be either cold and miserable or clear blue skies, which is why we all turn up) and the issue of safety was brought to the front of mind in the most confronting of circumstances.
I will acknowledge that on most occasions I sail barefoot and on this particular day I was questioned twice by other crew members about my choice to do so, primarily because it was a cold day and my toes had turned blue. My chest and hands were warm so I thought it was ok, but the temperature proved not to be my most pressing concern.
With winds gusting at 20+ knots there was crew discussion on sail choice for the conditions, with number 3 headsail and then a new spinnaker used for the downwind leg. Nothing seemed unusual about this choice (I had minimal involvement being new on this boat) and we rounded the first mark with ease. (I might've released the headsail a bit early but was ready to work on that for the next tack). The second mark was bearing away so easing of the sails ready to hoist the spinnaker. I read 8.5 knots boat speed at one point but the fleet was gaining after we had opened a considerable lead on our direct competitors. The spinnaker hoisted a bit late but we were flying! Great fun! Then followed a couple of awkward gybes with the wind just at that angle that kept everyone on their toes and constant trim required on the spinnaker.
The third gybe proved our undoing and at the crossover moment the spinnaker halyard and spinnaker got intertwined wrapping the light sail around the forestay effectively rendering us without control. We were still sailing an almost correct course but had to get the sail untangled which was killing us for speed loss. We lost control somewhere along the way with the boat heeled at 70 degrees and everyone holding on to try and get the spinnaker untangled by throwing the sheet. Then it became a battle to stow it away, which is where my 80 something kg frame came in handy jamming the wayward luff inside the forward hatch. With the main completely flailing (It had to be, to keep the power out of the spinnaker) we were sitting ducks to the 1.5m swell coming in through the heads.
Suggestions were coming thick and fast from everyone (except the skipper/helmsman) and not much leadership being shown by anyone. The guys on the bow were trying to untangle the spinnaker which was a lost cause due to the extent it was fouled and the skipper was trying to hold onto the boat, and probably keep himself onboard.
We finally had to crank the iron sail and headed for a mooring (Still with fouled spinnaker), but once we had some momentum and could get the boat headed into the breeze, down came the main and the flapping spinnaker was not much of a concern. (We still had the foot inside the forward hatch and it was a tug-of-war between me and the gusting breeze to stop it from escaping.
Once secured on a mooring with all hands accounted-for, we ended up sending a sprite up the mast who had to cut the halyard, not before he sliced open the top of his hand raining red spots on the deck. (It looked like we had sacrificed a chicken on the deck by the time he came down the mast minus the feathers).
All is well that ends well, and we motored home with our tails between our legs after having had to retire from the race. The lessons for me were numerous and i could list some below.
Boats are not a democracy and skippers need to be leaders.
Safety gear is essential - I am buying non-slip boat shoes and wet weather gear. (A considerable investment, i might add).
Flapping sails aren’t a problem, rocks and cliffs, lee shores are dangerous.
All hands need to be accounted for - I failed to mention at one point i was in the water holding onto safety lines, if i had gone overboard, no one could see me as i was the only one on the windward side of the boat. Even if they could see me, the boat at this point would not have been able to turn around. Importantly, in these situations you need to wear safety gear.
Take into account the conditions and be ready for the worst.
No doubt there will be opinions but this was a wake up call for me.