Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desvergers
It is summertime here in the northern hemisphere. With the exception of a high humidity, scorching heat in Florida, this is my favorite time of year. Following the COVID-19 reopening of the Bahamas in July, it created a vacuum for yachts and finally throttled back the work schedule for a few days. My family and I, all avid surfers, decided to sneak away to chase the swell being produced by offshore Hurricane Isaias.
Arriving at our favorite (undisclosed) location, the salt air and building waves helped melt away the stress of life and certainly the pandemic. The beach was not crowded. It looked like a good day was about to happen. We unloaded the truck and rushed down to the shore.
The waves were decent, but nothing spectacular. It was fun. As I sat on the outside waiting for the next set, I heard a faint “Help.” My first reaction was to search for my wife and daughter. I could see that both of them were safe. I then scanned the inside section, right where the waves were breaking.
There he was. A lone swimmer with no surfboard or anything else. He was caught in the rip current, looking directly at me, and yelling. I paddled over to him. As I got closer, he went under the water, and stayed under. I slid off my board, reached out into the rough water, and got lucky when I found his arm.
Pulling him to the surface, the young man in his early 20s was semi-conscious. He came to pretty quickly and then began to panic. I put my surfboard between us as a buffer, instructing him to calm down. Thankfully, he did. We both then began to swim to shore, more my pulling than his kicking.
As a teenager, I worked as a beach lifeguard. The training came back instinctively, but the physical conditioning of 30+ years ago certainly did not. This guy was big, and I was exhausted. As we continued to get worked by the inside section of waves, I pointed us to shore. My wife, now seeing what was going on, paddled over, but the waves were too much for her to get closer. I asked her to ride in and get some help.
As she paddled away, I was met by a new face. It was my victim’s friend. He saw the distress and decided to swim out and help. What he didn’t realize was that he was an extremely poor swimmer and in no shape to be out in those conditions. He needed help. I now had two victims hanging off my surfboard as I swam them in, towing with my board’s leash.
The waves were relentless. Twenty minutes before, I was complaining that the waves could be bigger. Of course, now I think back at them as relative tsunamis. Finally reaching a point where I could stand, I turned back to my dragging cargo and advised them to put their feet down and start walking.
As we trudged toward shore, I exited the water and physically collapsed in the sand. My two victims? Walked away without even so much as a wave. My wife and daughter got to me with some fresh water. I chugged it down, let the adrenaline wear off, and eventually caught my breath.
Later that day, for an unknown reason, the earlier situation reminded me of a real-life man overboard that I had experienced during a voyage between Mexico and Panama. I was sailing as second officer on a chemical tanker. I remember the level of not only fear, but also complete exhaustion that the victim had suffered. We could clearly see him in the water. Our instincts were to jump in to save him, but the captain ordered everyone to remain at their stations. Because of the onboard training and available equipment, we were able to rescue our shipmate safely.
When we review the requirements for man overboard for yachts, we see that the applicable regulations have cascaded from those in the merchant fleet. In Section 13 of the REG Yacht Code, Part A, we note the requirements range from a man overboard recovery system, to approved operation manuals, and to the carriage of a SOLAS-approved rescue boat. The latter, in my opinion, being unsuitable for most yachts, as the efforts taken to launch a rescue boat become more dangerous than just using the yacht itself.
Under the first version of the Large Yacht Code, there was a widely approved allowance for the use of a rescue swimmer. I’m not sure how this originally came about, but it is no longer an option. On some yachts, we occasionally see this practice still in use. The crew has set up a pair of swim fins, inflatable lifejacket, approximately 25 meters of floating line, and maybe a mask with snorkel.
Upon each discovery of this rescue package, our surveyors’ instructions to the crew are to deactivate this emergency procedure immediately. With rare exception, no yacht crew should enter the water to recover another person. Even the most fit and strongest swimmer cannot guarantee their own safety and those of the victim. At worst, you will have a similar situation as experienced for my original victim’s friend. He had good intentions, responded to the call for help, but found himself in trouble, too. For a captain, putting a rescue swimmer in the water doubles-down on the emergency. There are now two people overboard versus one.
During my Navy days, I distinctly remember a safety briefing where the fellow officer explained the hazards of falling overboard, specifically during a battle engagement. Because a warship cannot freely maneuver during such times, the captain may abort any rescue attempt in order to save the rest of the crew.
Thankfully, we do not operate in such an environment within yachting.
My two victims may not have said thank you, but they were able to walk away from the situation, even if their pride was damaged. Crew safety is equally as important as those of the guests. No exception. At the end of the day, everyone must get home safely: owners, guests, and crew.
Capt. Jake DesVergers serves as chief surveyor for the International Yacht Bureau (IYB), a recognized organization that provides flag-state inspection services to private and commercial yachts on behalf of several flag-state administrations. A deck officer graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as Designated Person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org.