Hearing the shout ‘man overboard’ with a novice crew on a sail training yacht is a heart-stopping moment for skipper Chris Payne. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from When the Sea Calls

Back around 1980 I was privileged to be involved with the Robert Clark-designed 72ft ketches operated by what was then called the Ocean Youth Club. My own contribution was as a relief skipper on the Solent-based Samuel Whitbread and the time I spent running the boat gave me great respect not only for the vessels themselves, but also for the permanent skippers, mates and bosuns. The size of the yachts and the ethos of the club were a perfect combination for sail training at its best.

One of the great names from those days was Chris Payne – ‘CJ’ to his shipmates – skipper of Francis Drake. CJ has made an enviable life on the water, skippering all manner of interesting craft over four decades. His book, When the Sea Calls, is an extraordinary collection of extended yarns from a man who really has been there and done it.

To say it is well worth the reading is an understatement. In the extract below, he describes a classic ‘Man overboard’ incident on the Drake. This, of course, is every skipper’s nightmare, but the way CJ and his mates deal with the emergency is a prime example of how training and cool heads can defuse a potential horror show.

Extract from When the Sea Calls

At the time of the incident we were at sea in one of the Ocean Youth Club’s 72ft Robert Clark-designed ketches, the Francis Drake. They are beautiful sea-boats, long and lean, very forgiving and able to soak up a lot of punishment, whether from the sea or the crew. OYC had had around a dozen of them over the years and they were universally loved and admired by professional staff and volunteers alike.

The day was bright rather than sunny, pleasantly warm and – since we were running downwind – the breeze seemed to be negligible. The boat, as usual when running, was rolling gently. The crew were enjoying their work, singing and joking as young people do, and surreptitiously trying to get the second mate wet when they thought he wasn’t looking.

I was below in my cabin, making a start on the inevitable pile of paperwork, enjoying an extra cup of coffee because the galley cleaners needed lots of hot water and it seemed a shame to waste it.


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Even to this day, I can still hear that shout and the immediate spine-chilling effect it had. At times of stress, the body and mind react in strange ways, and my first thought was, ‘But I haven’t thrown anything over the side!’ A split second later, realisation and conditioning took over and the enormity of those two simple words sank in.

I have no recollection at all of having made the journey from my cabin to the cockpit. I was just suddenly at the wheel, simultaneously aware of everyone watching me and waiting. It is often said that at times like these, life goes into slow motion, and that’s how it felt, as though everything was in suspended animation.

Drill perfect

I cannot give enough praise to everybody on board that day, both crew and staff alike, for the way in which they conducted themselves, and this whole scenario was the ultimate justification for all those drills.

Back to the moment. The boat was going downwind at 5 or 6 knots with a full downwind rig: boomed out genoa, main on a preventer, mizzen staysail and mizzen all set. We needed to get that lot off, and in a hurry.

“Lifebuoy and smoke float over!”

“Donna, get the mizzen staysail down, on the run, pile it on deck and get a couple of people just sitting on it!”

The Ocean Youth Club’s sail training ketch Francis Drake

“Dave, sort out the mainsail and bring it in to the centre – fast as you like!”

“Tom, get up on the foredeck, drop the genoa anyhow you like – except in the water – then stand by to recover casualty!”

“You two stand up on the seat and point at him: do not take your eyes off him for one second!”

“Bosun, start the engine, then get up here and look after the cockpit end!”

“Everybody else, keep down low, keep out of the way unless told to do something. Hang on everybody, full left rudder coming on now!”

By that time, I was already turning the boat, bringing it round on to the wind, and having to rely on the mates to use their own knowledge and experience to handle their respective jobs with no further instructions from me, since I was now busy concentrating on one tiny speck of black in the water, seemingly far, far away. Everybody did exactly that, and by the time the boat was coming onto the wind, all the sails were either down or under control.

By the time that the boat had come round through 180° and was heading back towards the cloud of bright orange smoke smearing the water behind us, it seemed an awful long way away. Even more of a surprise to me was how far the casualty was from that cloud of smoke, and a sudden realisation to everyone just how small a human head looks at 200 yards distance. Cabbages suddenly came to mind.

The Francis Drake was running downwind under full sail when the MOB incident described took place

Stay busy

The boat heeled well over as I put power into the turn and I just had to hope that everyone was busy and holding on. What I desperately did not need was another person in the water.

Looking back on it all later, and discussing and dissecting everything with the mates, they all agreed that a major contributory factor to the lack of panic and general good behaviour among the young crew members was mainly due to their being kept busy dowsing and controlling the sails.

One of the main features of the inevitable incident report that I had to write later was how well the crew had reacted and behaved, and, equally, how well the mates had done their jobs with quiet efficiency, no fuss and in record time. I had nothing but praise for everyone and I also stressed that these events prove the usefulness of the frequent man overboard practices that are a necessary part of each voyage.

The boat was now racing back towards the small black dot in the water that was the head of our casualty, and once again I could not help thinking of cabbages. My two pointers had now swivelled round and did a perfect job of keeping the arms high and pointing at the young man.

The next thought going through my mind as I drove the boat flat out across that 200 yards of choppy Irish Sea, was how we were going to get him back on board. All the usual methods did work, but took considerable time to get ready. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

By this time, all the sails were down or tightly bowsed in, with most of the crew employed in sitting on them to make sure that they were kept under control, since we were now heading almost directly into the wind, making the apparent wind speed considerably higher than before.

First mate Tom and second mate Dave were now both standing by the starboard main shrouds and guiding me in, as I slowed for the final approach and lost sight of the lad from my steering position.

The Ocean Youth Club’s 72-footers weren’t of a size that allowed every youngster on board to get involved and pull their weight.

Their calls and guiding signals were very good indeed, and then suddenly I knew the answer to the little matter of recovering a person from the water. The answer is two men with an adrenaline rush.

I saw Tom and Dave duck down, flat on the deck just aft of the shrouds, lean right out, grab hold of the lad’s harness and simply haul him bodily out of the water, under the guardrails and onto the deck, where he lay wet and gasping like a stranded fish.

This was where one of those fortunate coincidences came in handy. Tom, the first mate, was a doctor, so I got him and Dave to take the sodden lad down below, get his wet clothes off, get him into a warm sleeping bag and for Tom to take over the medical care and ensure that he was okay. It transpired that the casualty was none too much the worse for his ordeal, apart from being somewhat cold and in shock. He did recover quite quickly. By the end of the day he was running around as though nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, back on deck, excitement over, I had to get the boat back to normal again. I needed to recover all the floating man-overboard gear that had been released and was still bobbing around in the Irish Sea – although we did have to wait a while until the orange smoke-float had finished disgorging its contents, as I had seen before the effects that the thick, sticky chemical ‘smoke’ could have on yacht varnish, paint, brightwork and people.

High standards were set of the crew

Then we had to get the boat underway again, get back on course and everything back to normal, which included cups of strong tea – not just for the casualty, but for everyone else as well.

The whole incident had been a salutary lesson to all of us. To me, as the skipper, it proved beyond all doubt that the interminable exercises really do pay off, and once again I must express my admiration for the way that the crew, and the mates, behaved throughout the ordeal. It was a textbook exercise, except that, this time – for once – it was no exercise, but the real thing.

Incident reports

Back then, mobile phones were still rich boys’ toys and the days when everyone would have one were still well in the future. It was therefore not until we got into Holyhead that evening that the necessary phone calls could be made.

One of the leaders of the school party was the deputy headmaster, so he elected to be the one to phone the lad’s parents, tell them what had happened and reassure them that all was well, no harm done. I had perforce to call my head office and start the business of submitting the inevitable incident report which always follows this sort of thing.

The main point that I made had far-reaching and long-lasting consequences, not just for the Ocean Youth Club, but across the whole of the UK sail training fleets. Nobody, least of all me, laid any blame whatsoever on either the young lad or the mate of the watch as being the cause of the incident. The lad had not been messing about or skylarking, he was doing the job allocated to him in a proper and conscientious way.

Crew getting involved

The watchkeeper, likewise, was actually standing next to him swinging up buckets of seawater to sluice down the deck as the lad wielded his scrubber. As per standing instructions, both were wearing safety harnesses and were properly clipped on. And that, I discovered, was exactly the problem.

The Robert Clark ketches had four permanently fitted jackstays on deck; two ran the length of the boat along each side-deck; there was a transverse jackstay fitted between the forehatch and the mainmast. A second transverse jackstay was sited just aft of the main hatch at the centre of the vessel, which was the main point of entry and exit for the crew.

The deck-scrubbing operation had started on the starboard side aft, gone all the way forward and now – quite properly – the pair had come back to the central transverse jackstay so that they could move in safety across to the port side and carry on with their work.

The lad unclipped his harness from the starboard side-deck jackstay, ready to clip on the transverse stay. As he was holding the carabiner hook in his hand, moving from one stay to the next, the boat rolled on a wave; he, caught off-balance, staggered backwards, the guardrail caught him at thigh level with the boat still rolling to starboard, and he simply rolled over the rail with the inertia – still holding tightly on to his harness hook, of course. The rest you know.


My immediate recommendation in the ‘How Can We Avoid This Happening Again’ box of the report was simple. Have not one, but two safety lines on the harness, with at least one of them ALWAYS attached to a proper strong point.

I can say that my recommendations were acted upon with commendable swiftness by the OYC management.

Within two or three weeks of my report arriving at head office, all boats had been issued with a new drum of clean white rope and a large box of carabiner clips, and many mates and bosuns were occupied for hours splicing the new second lines and hooks onto all the harnesses. Other members of the Association of Sail Training Organisations followed our lead.

The final point – and when it was pointed out to me I was amazed – was that the whole incident, from the young lad going over the side up to the time when he came back on board, was less than five minutes. It seemed like hours at the time.

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