We practice recovering a man overboard while sailing under spinnaker

One of the worst case scenarios when sailing offshore, especially beyond the range of immediate rescue help, is of a crew falling overboard when you are piling downwind under spinnaker. In a typical bluewater situation, the crew would likely be shorthanded (and suddenly one down), the yacht would be under autopilot, the boom held by a preventer and the spinnaker pole fixed with in position with a foreguy and afterguy.

Getting the crewman back safely is all up to you; it’s life and death. So how should you go about it?
This is one of the situations that we are testing and demonstrating on our latest video techniques series, which we are carrying out this week in Fiji (where else?). We have joined Dan and Em Bower, charter skippers and owners of the 51ft Skyelark of London. Dan and Em are hugely experienced sailors, with over 20 transatlantic crossings between them, and have cruised as far as Fiji with the World ARC.

Read: 30 tips for crossing the Atlantic

Over the next days, we will be making video episodes on downwind sailing techniques, navigating and anchoring in coral, using a dinghy for cruising, fishing on board and many more topics specific to bluewater cruising.

Some of the downwind sailing methods, especially spinnaker work, bring up the subject of what you should do if someone were to fall overboard. This is not quite as rare as you might think.

Spinnakers are usually flown on transatlantic crossings in lighter winds and the low apparent wind and pleasant sunny conditions during the day mean that crews don’t feel they really need to wear lifejackets or clip on. Yet, considering how long it would take to get ready to return to rescue someone, it is a prime occasion when you might really need to be safely attached.

The quickest way is simply to blow the sheet, guy and halyard and lose the spinnaker, simultaneously turning up into the wind so that the kite blows away from the boat and you don’t run over the sail or the lines.

This is what we did today, demonstrating how straightforward it is to do providing you’ve flaked lines and halyards so they are ready to run, and that crew is briefed on what to do should this happen. The bald reality of it is that you are going to lose several thousands’ worth of spinnaker in the process as the chances of retrieving casualty and sail are extremely slim (we managed it today with the aid of a chase boat), but it is the price you would have to pay.

What was rather shocking is how far, even in light winds, we were from our real man overboard by the time we could react and turn. Recovering the person is another difficulty, but that’s another subject entirely.

Storm Sailing Techniques