Man Overboard 

Man overboard! The one cry we dread hearing.  I read somewhere from a top sailing expert that if you are unfortunate enough to go overboard then the chances of being successfully recovered alive are actually quite low. These are many stories of man overboard incidents, in particular in ocean racing events.  Why are these incidents important to cruising yachts?  Having sailed single handed a lot and been in some atrocious weather I know that if I go overboard it’s a death sentence, and if you sail two up then it will still be touch and go whether you survive.  Even when a well found yacht with a crew of extremely experienced persons get in to trouble, then man overboard and recovery becomes very challenging. So many factors come in to play, from sea state and weather to function of equipment.

Man Overboard – The Platino 

The story of the two deaths on the yacht Platino are worth being told as there are lessons to be learned for us all.  In June 2016, the 19.78 m yacht Platino was battling a Pacific Ocean gale. This was a very seaworthy yacht with no expense spared in fitting her out. During this battle 2 men sadly lost their lives. The yacht departed Auckland in New Zealand on June 11th with 5 crew aboard as part of Auckland to Denarau in Fiji yacht race, and she was entered in the cruising division. They had prudently delayed departure a week after the main fleet due to concerns about the weather.  Initially they motor sailed for two days as winds were very light and as the wind picked up they set reduced sail for expected strong winds. As the weather picked up they experienced confused seas, three way swells and strong winds on June 13th.

Man Overboard – How it Unfolded

The yacht was sailing under autopilot control, apparently sailing comfortably and then the autopilot lost control in the heavy sea conditions. The boom preventer broke and resulted in loss of vessel control, a sudden and unintentional turn and several uncontrolled gybes.  The subsequent MNZ report into the deaths noted that "evidence gathered suggested that the unplanned turn to starboard was not effectively controlled by the autopilot due to a malfunction of the rudder drive unit. This was mainly due to a lack of hydraulic oil due to an undiscovered leak in the system."

Prior to the voyage and the extensive modifications and fit-out, one of the alterations was relocating the mainsheet traveller from the supporting arch and then remounting it across the coaming between cockpits. Prior to this change, crew members were able to pass through the arch to reach the helm position. One of the crew, Nick Saull was killed when struck by the mainsheet/traveller which was hanging off the swinging boom.   

Man Overboard – The Platino 

A second crew member, Steve Furno went overboard immediately after coming up on deck, possibly hit by the swinging boom. They were unable to rescue and him or recover his body. The report stated the vessel was never effectively brought under control and the crew apparently were unable to deploy rescue gear given the uncontrolled boom motion. Given the chaotic and dangerous conditions and the lack of vessel control they were unable to affect any rescue attempt despite seeing the overboard crew member. The Maritime New Zealand did not address whether the crew had been able to get alongside Steve Furno in the prevailing sea state and wind, whether they would have succeeded in recovering him on what was a high sided yacht. 

Man Overboard - The Damage 

The boat had in-boom furling, which made the 8.6 m boom extremely heavy at 678 kg. The forces generated during the uncontrolled gybe ripped out the traveller car.  The boom was swinging wildly with a traveller car weighing about 2 kg at the end of the main sheet, and this acted like a whip. The crew described it as being like a wrecking ball and it wrecked a lot at the stern. One of the opinions offered later was the preventer was rigged improperly and was anchored mid book to a midships padeye. So many forums carried various opinions and views, ranging from sailing in big seas to how preventers should be rigged or when they should have gone to manual steering rather than trust the autopilot and so it goes on.  I know that I revisited all of these issues. I know in a Biscay gale I ended up on the tiller as the autopilot couldn’t keep up with the conditions. And I had to do that early on.

Severely damaged was the helm console, which is the location of the hydraulic sail handling controls. This was smashed off the pedestal while the owner of the yacht was at the helm and before he could complete the mainsail furling or the headsail furling which remained half furled. The broken helm console was interfering with the steering wheel creating steering issues and they had to pull the console away and tie it. The bimini was smashed off as well, and it had to be cut away and let go overboard. The cockpit table was torn from the deck and went overboard.  The steering wheel was buckled and one spoke broken, and the lifelines at the stern were knocked down.

The Maritime NZ report into the Platino incident can be read here.

Man Overboard Recommendations

The swinging boom caused serious damage leading to a total failure and loss of the mast, boom and rigging. The three surviving crew were subsequently rescued by a container ship on June 14th. Maritime NZ made 28 recommendations that were grouped under seven headings.  They were certification of pleasure craft departing on international ocean voyages, autopilot failure, preventer, mainsheet traveller failure, person overboard, emergency communication and command and control. 

Man Overboard – Plan for the Unexpected

One factor outlined was that the crew, all of whom were very experienced sailors, had not done any group training for emergency preparedness on board this yacht. They also stated they were not sufficiently familiar with equipment on the yacht. They did no safety training or drills and a few hours light weather shakedown before departure. They also noted there were no written action plans. The report stated that no drills had been conducted onboard Platino, nor was a written action plan available to the inspector.  The Maritime NZ report stated that none of the crew of Platino had worn a safety harness at any time during the voyage, however the boat was very well equipped with the necessary safety equipment. Search and rescue aircraft were overhead within 90 minutes and were unable to find the missing crew.  The estimated water temperature was around 20-22 degrees and estimated maximum survival time for someone wearing a lifejacket was about 45 hours. So what is your plan for man overboard? What did you take away from this story? Boating safety starts with you, expect the unexpected. Don’t let the deaths of these sailors be in vain.