One minute we’re four guys enjoying a day aboard a classic 1968 Bertram 31. The next minute, we’re three. I’m at the helm when Jeff shouts over the engine noise, “Man overboard!” I pull back the throttles and turn my head to the cockpit. Jeff is staring and pointing at Pat, who’s bobbing in the water about 60 yards behind the boat. What now? Thoughts of how to retrieve Pat flash through my head. Do the right thing and we’ll quickly have Pat back in the boat. Do something wrong and ...
Well, this time I’ll just get lectured by Cmdr. Chris Gasiorek, and he’s pretty even-tempered. He’s the one putting me through a training exercise at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. The USMMA puts its graduates into key positions on military and commercial vessels all over the world. “Our goal is to teach them to drive ships,” Gasiorek says, “but you can’t drive a ship unless you can drive a Whaler.” That’s why I’m here. Not to simply drive the Bertram, but to be led into a minefield of emergencies, just as the cadets are, during a day of real-world drilling.
Jeff is second-year cadet Jeff Musselman. He and third-year cadet Pete Kaple, also aboard, maintain and run this 31 Bertram, Sirina, as part of their training under Gasiorek’s watch at the Yocum Sailing Center. Pat is Patrick Minnick, a 17-year-old first-year “plebe” assigned to Sirina. Guess who gets picked to be the overboard “volunteer”?
Thing is, I have no idea what’s coming until it happens. So I step to the helm and put the twin Yanmar diesels in gear. Without warning, Pat, donning a life jacket, leaps off the stern. After I pull back the throttles, Pete points out my first mistake. “The first thing you do is appoint a spotter,” he says. “Usually it’s the guy who calls ‘man overboard.’” This time the spotter should be Jeff. Once Jeff locates the man in the water, his only job is to keep his eyes locked on and his arm pointed at him. Throttling back comes second. That’s me.
I turn the boat and head toward Pat in a straight line, my second mistake. “Always circle back into the weather,” Pete says. approach a man overboard from the leeward side; if you come from windward, the boat will drift faster than the person and could get pushed on top of him. I don’t think Pat would appreciate that.
We approach Pat and get ready to bring him back aboard. We have calm seas, so Pete tells me to kill the engines so the props aren’t spinning. In rough seas, though, you want to keep power to maintain control.
I grab the heaving line to throw it to Pat. Normally the captain would never leave the helm; he would assign a third person to throw the line. But I’m the one getting put to the test so I hop back to throw it. The line has a heavy floating ball at the end rather than a cushion or throw ring because it’s easier to throw the weightier ball into the wind. I coil the line and make a two-handed heave to Pat and begin pulling him in. Gasiorek, observing from another boat, throws a curve ball.
“What if he’s unconscious?” he asks. That’s the only time you put someone else in the water. Assign someone to jump overboard and put a life jacket on the victim. Depending on the severity of injuries, you can pull him up by the life jacket or fashion a harness to aid in bringing him over the gunwale. Jeff and I grab Pat by the jacket shoulders and haul him in, no worse for wear.