Man Overboard

It is with some apprehension that I commence this article for I will surely get a right bollocking over my role in the events that follow but, I say, ‘publish and be damned’. If this story can save one life it will be worth any embarrassment to myself and will have served its purpose.

So, what happened on that fateful January day? Coffee at our favourite cafĂ© (thank you Diva) and then the agonising decision how to fill in the rest of the day. Hadn’t been sailing over Christmas as none of us wanted to lose our precious anchoring spots this time of year. ‘Gone in 60 seconds’, as they say, however most of the real workers had gone home or elsewhere and just the old hardies and retirees were left, me included.

I suggested to my new neighbour Big John, we go for a sail and strangely, he said “yes, haven’t been for a while”. Great day, nice wind, not much swell outside, boat newly anti-fouled and clean as; let’s do it. A bit too casual, cock-a-hoop maybe, didn’t really think about preparation too much, we’d just go outside the seaway for 30 minutes and come straight back, simple. Didn’t need much of a briefing, he was a man of the sea with his own boat and (although not a sail boat) he had handled a sheet or two before. So the briefest of briefings; where the lifejackets were and the operation of the engine thrust lever.

Why bother with anything more, let’s go, I’m excited, breeze is up and pointing the right enough way so up with the main and out into the channel and pull on the furled genoa. There really are fewer pleasures for a sailor when you feel the power of the wind start to propel you through the water and in particular, a trimaran which while in her late 30’s, is as spritely as when she was first wet.

As a nod to correct protocol I called the Seaway Tower and after changing frequency supplied all relevant details. Out we went into the big blue with a sea state a bit steeper than I had factored on but nothing of concern today, just pure fun to be out under Queensland sun, the cool ocean breeze soothing my Christmas tortured soul. Then he said it! “You know if you fall off this I can’t sail it”? “Yes”, I said thinking how impertinent. Now normally, regardless of regulation to the contrary, I always have a self-inflating life jacket on and insist that all else on board wear one as well. It is a requirement in NSW seaways which I think QLD should also adopt. Wearing one through the Seaway you tend to leave them on as a matter of course. Today, I didn’t. Why? I can’t tell you!… Am I telegraphing this already?

So, there we were slipping along at 8 knots or so and before long about 2 nautical miles off. “We’re going to lose that” John said, indicating the fender rolling around on the port trampoline, with some water coming through the Pirelli mesh, due to the sea state. After a small cognitive groan I stepped out on said trampoline to retrieve it and safely deposited the offending item in the cockpit.

Now here’s where it gets a little bit hazy but I remember that a bit of bucking, pitching and lurching went on under my feet which sat me unceremoniously on my bum. John was on the helm and said he heard quite a thud as I probably hit the rear crossbeam. All I remember after that was rolling quite gracefully backwards then being surrounded by salt water.

Hmm… while thinking to myself instantly that this is ‘not a good look’, I was confident that things would be OK. John would work it all out, get the boat turned around and come back to pick me up… Really?

Shortly after that, I had come to another conclusion, that it was a trimaran, doing at least 8 knots in a 2.5 metre sea with some waves white-capping, John was on his own, trying to stop the boat, get the engine started (did I show him that drill? NO) and as far as keeping an eye on yours truly, fat chance!

That is a big ask of any sailor and I wondered even if I myself would have been up to it knowing the boat as well as I do and I wasn’t happy with my response. I could see the boat had stopped and I could see my sail as it was way above the sea but I knew that John could not see me. I immediately removed my yellow shorts and began to wave them above my head as I tread water. Who was I kidding?

Surviving on the surface as possible shark bait…

Then it came to me that this could be a long haul and with no life jacket I should start conserving energy right now. I knew Big John would be superb on the radio after many years with our friends in the constabulary and obtaining a quite lofty rank, and he was. He made the appropriate calls to Seaway Tower and got a search and rescue underway. Somehow he traced the line to the furler and managed to get the genoa in; half the battle. He also managed to fire up the Lombardini diesel and, with the main still up, joined the search. At the 17 minute mark, he was joined by the Police in their 2 power cats; MV A L Greaves and MV D A Shean. VMR also attended and the search for yours truly was commenced.

Me, I was treating this a bit like a really hard day at the office and I knew that these good people would do a fantastic job, doing what they do, and it was my job for the day to still be on the surface when they found me. Was I kidding myself? It didn’t matter, I needed all the optimism I could muster. I NEEDED to be very pragmatic if I was going to make it and I forced myself to remain calm. I called in all my training as a pilot and remembered the adage dealing with crisis, ‘force yourself not to panic’. Easier said than done, but doable. I was also going to need all those meditation skills I had been taught and indeed had taught myself for some years as a counsellor.

Oh, and guilt; I had a very clear thought of, ‘if at all possible’? I would have to return in some way (spirit medium sprang to mind) to apologise to John for leaving him with such a hideous predicament, anticipating what he must have been now going through.

Did I think about sharks? Is the Pope a catholic? I did indeed very early in the piece take a look underneath me down into the black depths and decided that if I didn’t put that right out of my head it would do me in quicker than treading water! I had vaguely heard around the traps that the Mullet and Jewfish were running up the coast accompanied of course by many hungry B