Search fails to recover skipper swept overboard during Block Island Race

Jamie Boeckel, 34, of Newport, RI, skipper of the 66ft ocean racing sloop Blue Yankee, is missing in Long Island Sound and presumed dead after he was swept overboard last night during the Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race.

Boeckel was thrown from the bow when the spinnaker pole broke, off Fairfield, CT, while the 16-man crew was making a routine sail change to a smaller running spinnaker. It was 2037 and just after dark. At the time, northwesterly winds were gusting over 25 knots following the passage of a cold front.

Brock Callen, another professional sailor on the boat, took off his shoes and jacket and jumped in after Boeckel, who was seen floating face down and was apparently unconscious. At the same time, a second crewmember released the boat’s man overboard apparatus, consisting of a flotation ring, dan buoy and strobe light.

Callen swam the 20 yards to Boeckel and tried to support the unconscious man in the cold 50-degree waters of Long Island Sound. The man overboard gear was nearby, but out of reach and drifting away in the strong winds. The boat got back to Callen within eight minutes, but Boeckel had already slipped from his rescuer’s grasp.

Blue Yankee is owned and skippered by Bob Towse, of Stamford, CT, a former commodore of the Storm Trysail Club. Towse is a highly-experienced and long-time ocean racing campaigner who has enjoyed a string of successes with a series of boats with the same name.

At least five other race boats in the vicinity abandoned racing and were joined by 14 other boats in the search for Boeckel. The fleet of rescue vessels included two US Coast Guard 41-footers, and emergency response small craft from towns bordering the Connecticut shore. Helicopters from the Fairfield Police Department and the Connecticut State Police joined in the search.

Dick Neville, Vice Commodore of the Storm Trysail Club, explained that the “spinnaker peel” procedure – hoisting a second spinnaker before retrieving the first – was routine for any sail racing boat. He added: “going out to the end of the pole to release the old spinnaker is second nature to any experienced bow man.”

Neville said that after the “Man Overboard” call, the crew of Blue Yankee had responded to the emergency in textbook fashion.

“Going back for a man overboard when running at 14 knots takes precious minutes to secure sails and gear and get turned around,” he said. “Blue Yankee’s crew knew the drill and did a fine job of promptly returning to the scene. It is a tragedy that their efforts, and the heroic actions of Brock Callen, were not rewarded with success.”

America’s Cup racer and ESPN-TV sailing analyst Gary Jobson was racing aboard Blue Yankee as helmsman and strategist. He was below and off watch when Boeckel went overboard and immediately took charge of communications with the rescue authorities.

Peter Isler, another America’s Cup racer and sailing television personality, was the boat’s navigator and worked with Jobson, tracking the man overboard position and then calculating wind and current drift scenarios for the searchers.

Isler said that prior to the start of the race Towse had gone over the details of man-overboard procedures with all of his crew as part of the regular pre-race briefing. “Bob’s a very careful, conservative guy, and the safety briefing is always part of his routine before every ocean race,” Isler said.

Blue Yankee returned to Stamford just before dawn this morning after assisting all night in the search for Boeckel.

Towse said: “Jamie was one of the best, a great individual and a thoroughly professional sailor who had sailed thousands of ocean miles. He was boat captain, in charge of the day-to-day operations of Blue Yankee for the last two years, but I had known him a lot longer than that and he was a wonderful shipmate. All the crew who make up the larger Blue Yankee team share in mourning hisloss.”

Blue Yankee had only been racing for two hours in the 57th annual Block Island Race after starting from Stamford, Connecticut at 1830. She was one of six boats in Class 1, for big IMS racing yachts, part of a 86-boat fleet competing in the ocean race from Stamford, around Block Island and back to Stamford.

As the north-westerly wind increased in strength, the crew had raised the small spinnaker, and Boeckel was attempting to spike off the big spinnaker when the boat was slammed and rolled twice by a gust of wind. The pole snapped and Boeckel was thrown in the water.

Eyewitnesses on the crew said they saw Boeckel face down in the water as the boat sailed past.

Jobson said that Callen, the other professional in the crew, dived overboard and swam to Boeckel, turned him over and found him unconscious. Callen was able to support him in the water for several minutes but Boeckel slipped out of his grasp and sank just minutes before the boat returned.

Aboard Blue Yankee, the highly experienced crew had made a crash stop in winds that had increased to 28 knots, retrieving one spinnaker from the water, and dropping the other spinnaker and getting the mainsail under control. They made sure there were no trailing ropes to foul the boat’s propeller before starting the engine and returning upwind to retrieve Callen.