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Practice makes perfect when an idiot with his pants down goes overboard

2023 March 1

In World War II, aviators had what they called the “Caterpillar Club.” It was an organization for pilots and aircrews who had “hit the silk” by parachuting out of their damaged aircraft. I’m of a mind that sailors need a “Backstay Club” and it will be totally and politically incorrect, because it’s for guys only.

The Backstay Club would celebrate (or dishonor or, worse, commemorate) those of us who stepped to the transom, unzipped our foulies to allow nature to divest our (many) beers and in the process of refusing to take the 10 or 15 steps to the head, went overboard.

My first introduction to the Backstay Club was during a coastal race in Southern California aboard a lightweight racing yacht. Just as I was unzipping, the skipper gave the tiller a yank to catch a wave. 

Quite frankly, my memory is that the boat simply disappeared from beneath my feet as the stern went one way and I went the other. I was like Wile E. Coyote when the Road Runner sends him over a cliff and he realizes there is nothing below him.  

Immersion in cold water took precedence over berating my own stupidity, and the good news was that I was already unzipped, so I shed my foulies fairly easily. My favorite sea boots, unfortunately, lost the coin toss between living (by jettisoning them) or not living (by keeping them as water-filled concrete blocks). To add to the stupidity of my situation, it was dusk and the sea was choppy, so I was nearly invisible. 

The good news is that our crew had trained for just such a situation, so they had someone watching me, a marker buoy was thrown overboard, the sails came down in record time, and they only had to search a bit until I was dragged, soaking and swearing, back aboard.  

I was so lucky. I was part of a trained crew and, yes, I owed some of them money, but I think they still would have saved me, if only because the racing rules require all crew to be aboard at the finish. 

A while after my Backstay Club adventure, I tried to paddle around in a calm swimming pool wearing (new) boots and (new) foulies. I could not do it! So, part of my salvation, aside from a good crew, was that adrenaline apparently kicked in.

In the 1980s, a popular TV show was “Hill Street Blues” about a police squad in an unnamed city. One of the memorable parts was when Sgt. Phil Esterhaus ended his morning briefing with the words, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

That’s a phrase that we all need to remember.  

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I were trundling down I-95 on a typical Florida summer afternoon in the pouring rain and I remember thinking that there were drivers around us whose speed indicated they didn’t grasp the concept of tire adhesion.

When I wasn’t flogging sailboats around regattas in my younger days, I was racing sports cars to their limits of adhesion. This was on race tracks, of course, but it instilled a knowledge never forgotten. Moments later, a car ahead suddenly slammed on its brakes and lost control, skidding sideways into my lane.

Without thinking, I hit the accelerator and aimed at the spinning car, actions ingrained from racing because I wanted to go through the hole it was making. And so we cleared the back of the spinning car literally by inches. We blew through a hole barely wider than Darth, our big black SUV. In the mirror, all I could see were spinning, crunching cars.  

So how does this apply to sailing?

You need to be prepared for every possibility, including idiots falling off the transom while taking a leak. It’s lame, but I can attribute my salvation to a square life cushion, with which our crew had used to practice man overboard procedures. Every skipper needs to prep the crew, whether experienced or novices, on everything that might happen. And then follow that up by tossing a life cushion overboard by surprise.  

You’re going to lose a few cushions, but your crew will know what to do when the chips are down. As skipper, you also need to be prepared, mentally picking crewmembers long before an emergency for specific tasks.  

Whether it’s a cushion floating in good conditions or a surprisingly hard-to-see head in choppy water, practice and experience are your best resources.

In both cases, what had saved my bacon was experience. A trained crew and experience with cars.   

As Sgt. Esterhaus said, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” And, if you must, hang on to the backstay.