- Posted by Amy Bell
- On March 9, 2023
By Amy Bell
Imagine you’re with friends on a yacht in the Balearic Islands, feeling the warm Mediterranean breeze as you cruise along. Suddenly one of your crew, who perhaps has had too much to drink and isn’t a strong swimmer, loses their balance and falls over the side of the boat into the sea. What should you do?
a) shout “man overboard!” and get someone to point at the casualty in the water, so you don’t lose sight of them
b) press the “man overboard” button on the GPS system and make a Mayday call on the radio
c) get on with trying to rescue your casualty, turning back to get them
Perhaps you think all three options sound sensible, and you would be right: it’s best to do them all! If you are learning how to skipper a sailing yacht like I am, then rescuing people who might fall out is, understandably, one of the things you’re meant to know how to handle. Ideally using the engine as it’s easier, but you had to, using just the sails.
In man overboard drills, you practise this by slowing down first to check where the wind is coming from, then turning in figure of eight, making sure you’re upwind of the person in the water. Then you stop and gently drift downwind towards them until you’re close enough to throw out a life ring and haul the person back on board. Don’t worry, in the drills it’s not a real person – we generally throw a danbuoy in the water (a floating vertical stick with an orange flag at the top).
On my first attempt however, last summer off the coast of Mallorca, it didn’t go so well. I tried it twice under power, driving out, turning round and back, but each time veering several metres too wide….I could see the little flag bobbing away sadly towards the distant horizon. Imagine if that were a real person, I thought?! What a disaster.
Anyway, having finally qualified as a day skipper – which means you can charter a yacht for the day in familiar waters – I wanted to get some extra practice, and was looking for something a little more challenging, ideally with tidal streams. There is admittedly great sailing to be had on the south coast of the UK, with all the fun complication of tides, but in mid-winter the sunny Canary Islands were much more appealing – plus it’s on the choppy Atlantic coast and waters are tidal.
So, in January this year, I flew from London to near Lanzarote for some more training. And this time I finally got the man- overboard-thing. We hurled the danbuoy into the water (we called him Bob). I steered the boat in a figure of eight, and carefully approached, as the waves bumped us up and down…one of the crew reached out, grabbed Bob by his flag-head and he immediately snapped in two, leaving us with just his head. Again, very glad he wasn’t a real person.
Our boat for the week was a Bavaria 39 foot yacht and we had an all-female crew, which is quite unusual in the sailing world. We had two recently- graduated sisters from Canada, a TV producer from Austria, me from the UK, and our British instructor, who came with an impressive record of skippering global sailing races and expeditions – and many excellent stories to share with us from her adventures over a glass of wine onshore in the evenings.
Together we sailed around the island’s south coast, stopping off to stay the night in different marinas, and practised various skills throughout the week, from tacking and gybing (sailing into the wind, and away from the wind), to dropping the anchor, throwing lines ashore and mooring the boat in the marina. Usually, we had dinner in one of the bars or restaurants in the marina, sometimes cooking on board.
Our sailing school also had another boat going out the same week, coincidentally an all-male crew on a racing-style yacht called a Pogo 36. We had all set out together, heading our separate ways on the Saturday, and on Sunday afternoon, they passed two French sailors on the same-style yacht. That night, they heard a distress call on the radio from the French boat: one of the two Frenchmen had gone up the mast at night to fix something, got badly stuck in the rigging and was fatally injured. The surviving crewmember was evacuated by helicopter and taken to hospital with post-traumatic stress, but in the rough night-time weather the rescue took 19 hours overall, with the Spanish coastguard initially unable to get close enough to the yacht and tow it back to land.
It was a sobering reminder of how suddenly and how badly things can go wrong at sea, no matter how experienced you are. And it also reinforced in my mind the importance of safety and taking extra caution when the weather is rough, even if it means missing out on sailing and staying in the marina for a day or two.
On Thursday, the forecast was bad, so we did just that: we stayed on the boat in the marina, and went through theory all day: going over things like weather systems, troubleshooting, engine checks. A couple of guys in their early 70s from Utah, in the berth opposite ours, knocked on the window and cheerfully offered us a few fresh tuna steaks from a catch the day before, which was delicious seared on the hob with some peppers and tomatoes.
As you go through the RYA sailing qualifications it’s good to get out and practise skippering your own boat, but I am still a bit nervous, and also sadly lacking in yacht-owning friends, so for now I’m building on my training through organised trips with sailing schools, while preparing for the next level of “Coastal Skipper” which covers you for overnight charters as well.
Next up for me is some longer passages, or “mile building”, which includes braving the UK coast this summer with an English Channel crossing. But otherwise, it’ll be back in Spanish waters – so please get in touch if you know of any good sailing spots! firstname.lastname@example.org
The sailing schools featured in this article:
Palma Sea School, Palma, Mallorca
Atlantic Sailing, Arrecife, Lanzarote