When the sun appears in early Spring and the air temperature takes a sudden surge up in to the 80s, it's easy to forget that the water temperature is still at its all time low

When the sun appears in early Spring and the air temperature takes a sudden surge up in to the 80s, it’s easy to forget that the water temperature is still at its all time low. Take last weekend when summer-like temperatures on one day was followed, in complete contrast, by a day of ‘freezing’ conditions and over 30kts of north-easterly wind which led to all sorts of ‘fun and games’ on the Solent during the Red Funnel Easter Regatta. In such conditions it’s not unusual to hear reports of broken masts, booms and sail damage – all of which can be repaired or replaced. What is concerning however, were the reports of six crew members falling overboard during the racing, not all of whom were recovered immediately.

In a rare incident which led to four crew members from Andrew McIrvine’s J/125 ‘Wings of the Wind’ falling overboard when the lifelines gave way just moments from the finish line, two managed to clamber back on board but the other two were left wallowing for 10 minutes in ‘freezing’ water before they were rescued by the Swan 45, Wolf.

McIrvine, who took time out from his busy job as a vascular surgeon to discuss the incident realises that although this was a fairly rare thing to happen, it has highlighted just how important it is to carry out thorough safety checks and, particularly during extreme conditions, ensure crew wear lifejackets. “The lifelines were all replaced last year but the riggers tell me that by the looks of it, they weren’t done properly. They hadn’t swaged the ends on with enough force. It’s fairly obvious because the wires didn’t break; they just slid clean out of the fittings. The only thing I can say is I’m glad it happen then and not at night in the middle of the Channel.”

Another incident occurred on the X332 Exotic when a member of the crew parted company with the boat during a gybe. Thankfully Philippe Bourgeois and Pierrick Bellet on the French boat Giselle of Course spotted the crewmember in the water and managed to get her onboard before she was taken to hospital for check ups. Again, although the life jacket helped to keep her afloat during her time in the water, she would have been in a far better situation had she been wearing a drysuit.

While being thrown in the water off a yacht during racing is not a common occurrence, last weekend’s situation does highlight the fact that wearing the appropriate clothing for the conditions is of the utmost importance.

Dr Frank Newton, medial advisor to the RYA for many years, was keen to point out that preserving body temperature during a man overboard situation is the only thing that’s going to prevent the onset of hypothermia, commenting: “At this time of year when sea temperature is not much more than 10 degrees, crews are well advised to wear appropriate clothing, something that preserves body temperature. You’d be better off in a drysuit or a wetsuit rather than a super smart set of oilies. At least then, if you do fall in, you’ll not only keep dry but unlike in oilies, you’ll be able to move around and keep yourself afloat. It’s difficult to say exactly how long it takes for hypothermia to set in because it varies. The main thing is that the heart output falls proportionate to the degree of hypothermia and the heart irritability begins at about 33 degrees which isn’t that much less than the normal body temperature of 37 degrees. It then becomes increasingly more significant and sinister as the temperature falls below 33 degrees.”