As the sea conditions deteriorated rapidly, the crew began reefing the main sail in order to reduce the yacht’s sail area; head sails needed to be lowered as well. After the main sail had been reefed, one of the crew was sent below to get extra help from the off-watch crew.
The crew member started helping in the cockpit with preparations for lowering the headsails, while she had not yet been clipped on her tether to one of the yacht’s jackstays.
It was then that a wave caused the yacht to heel to starboard and broke over the deck, throwing her off-balance; she fell to leeward and ended up lying on the deck next to the starboard guardrail.
Another wave almost immediately washed her overboard, most likely between the lower guardrail and the toe rail. Someone then shouted “man overboard” and the crew immediately initiated their MOB procedure. As the navigation station was manned, the MOB button pressed on the GPS, and a verbal “Mayday” was then transmitted.
The crewman nearest the dan buoy was unable to reach it due to his tether attachment point, so another of the crew unclipped himself and made his way swiftly aft. It is said that the dan buoy was fitted with an automatic identification system (AIS) beacon, which had to be activated prior to being deployed.
The crewman then twisted the base of the beacon one way and then the other and then threw the dan buoy, which was attached to a horseshoe life-ring and buoyant light, overboard- believing it was activated.
Further to this, as a result of the wind strength and very rough sea conditions it was impossible to tack the yacht through the wind, it took 30 minutes to lower the headsails.
It was after that an AIS target had appeared 2nm away on the yacht’s GPS plotter, and the crew at the navigation station was regularly updating the skipper with a course to steer in order to make way back to the casualty.
About a quarter of an hour later, the crew spotted lights in the water as the yacht neared the AIS position. First was the buoyant light, so the skipper headed towards the other, which was the light on the casualty’s lifejacket.
It was apparent that the casualty was still conscious, although the sprayhood on her inflated lifejacket was not deployed over her head. Due to the rough seas it took several attempts until the casualty was successfully recovered on board, by which time she was not responsive. She was then quickly carried below, where CPR was begun, but she never regained consciousness.
- UK MAIB comments that the accident is a stark reminder that in rough seas it is vital you remain secured to your yacht at all times when on deck and, ideally, that you secure yourself to the yacht before leaving the safety of the cabin. It is said that it may never be known why the crew member, who was indeed experienced with ocean sailing, did not clip on her tether. UK MAIB stresses that being tethered may be restrictive and may hamper movement around the yacht, this is no excuse for not clipping on. Such difficulties can be addressed with careful consideration of the arrangement of jackstays and secure points and with good crew discipline. For instance, safeguarding a crew member can reach the dan buoy without unclipping their tether prevents the potential risk of another crew member being lost overboard.
- MOB recovery is a vital operation that a whole yacht crew must be familiar with so that in an emergency the MOB is recovered swiftly and safely; UK MAIB highlights that recovering the crew member from the water in very rough sea conditions at night was not an insignificant achievement, and was testament to the MOB drills the crew had conducted during their training.
- While the crew member believed he had activated the AIS beacon on the dan buoy, a signal was never received from it; the MOB managed to activate her own AIS, secured to her lifejacket, which then enabled the yacht to return to her position. Without this piece of safety equipment, it is highly unlikely she would have ever been found. Therefore, the UK MAIB advises to make sure to fully consider the risks of where someone may be sailing and ensure that all the appropriate safety equipment is accessible.
- The lifejacket worn by the MOB operated correctly and kept her head clear of the water. Nevertheless, it appeared that her lifejacket spray hood was not used for reasons that cannot be determined; the spray hood is an important piece of sea survival equipment that prevents the ingestion of sea water and spray, given that a person floating in the water will naturally turn to face the weather. While it may be claustrophobic to wear, it can potentially prevent from drowning. The UK MAIB advises to be familiar with its use if you have one fitted to your lifejacket.