Adrian Smith explains what happened when the bowman of the Beneteau 31.7 he was competing on in a JOG race last weekend went overboard

It is one of those situations you read about, but when the words ‘Man overboard’ are shouted for real, it’s alarmingly chilling. This happened to me aboard a Beneteau 31.7 on Saturday 4 June during a Junior Offshore Group race from Cowes to Weymouth.

We were approximately eight miles west of the Needles, Isle of Wight, and the same due south of Christchurch Ledge beating at 7 knots into a 25-30 knot south-westerly wind, and a lumpy sea state. The call was made to tack onto port, to give us an approximate track towards St Alban’s Head.

As the yacht completed the tack a wave hit the boat awkwardly. The experienced bowman was seen to flip over the guardrail. Owner Paul Harding hailed ‘man overboard’, and luckily was in the right position to immediately pull out the lifebelt and line, and throw it towards the bowman in the water. The helmsman and crew in the same instance had luffed the yacht into the wind to a stall, and dumped main and headsail to kill speed.

I looked back to see that the bowman was not too far away from our stern and to mine and everyone’s relief had managed to grab hold of the lifebelt. With the boat held in a controlled stall, we managed to haul the bowman to the boat. With the benefit of a bathing ladder, and scooped transom, the bowman was hauled out of the water and into the safety of the cockpit. It was then a question of quickly getting the crewman below, undressing him from the cold wet clothing and putting him into a thermal protection blanket.

Although the bowman had been in the water no longer than five minutes, the coastguard informed us that they were scrambling ‘Whiskey Bravo’ from Portland, and in about nine minutes she was with us. It is at that moment your thoughts turn to remembering all those things that you have read, and been schooled in evening classes. For most of the crew we’d done the RYA Sea Survival Course (something all yachtsman should do), and so we were familiar with the hi-line transfer procedure. Even so, in the trauma, and reality of the situation, there is a scrambling in your mind of what to do. Paul Harding, the owner/skipper, very quickly drilled the crew.

When the helicopter arrived, the noise deemed verbal communication well nigh impossible. A briefing of the crew in procedure, and allocation of responsibilities was organised. I was on mainsail keeping the boat trimmed on her course; there was no dropping of sails. We were instructed to sail close hauled on port tack. The reason; it is easier for the pilot to control the helicopter moving, and of course he sits at the right hand side of the flight deck. Surprisingly there was no noticeable downdraft effect on the yacht, but the noise?.well!

Even though a GPS position was given to the pilot, they still had to find us amongst 50 or so other yachts racing in the area. A white-hulled yacht is not the most obvious target. By counting down over the VHF, the pilot took an RDF fix. Fortunately our sail numbers are clearly visible on the coachroof, so that was an aid for the helicopter crew to identify our yacht quickly.

Having to concentrate on sail trim with the helmsman I couldn’t observe everything that was going on behind my back, but in a nutshell, it’s not easy to bring a winchman aboard on a yacht that is moving up an down on the sea, and heeled over. After a few attempts, and one dunking, he was aboard. The bowman was winched off without much problem – it may have been a different story if he’d been unconscious or severely injured. However, the crew of ‘Whisky Bravo’ gave precise instructions, so it’s a question of not panicking, and leave it to the professionals.