SOLO SAILOR OVERBOARD OFF PUERTO RICO: He Swims Ashore and Gets His Boat Back

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Enthalpy ketch

This, thank God, is a solo MOB tale with a totally happy ending. David Thompson, a retired engineer, was swept off his 49-foot ketch Enthalpy II (see photo up top) by a wave while sailing solo down the north coast of Puerto Rico this past Sunday. He was attached to the boat with a lifejacket/harness, but a second wave stripped him out of his harness, and out of his pants, and he was left to drift half-naked as his boat sailed away from him. After seven hours in the water he managed to swim ashore at Isabela, about 15 miles west of Camuy where he went over the side, and is now recovering in a hospital. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, managed to recover Enthalpy II in the Mona Passage, some 80 miles west of Camuy, thanks to her AIS transponder.

David, without doubt, is a very lucky man. He gets to keep living, and he gets his boat back! His tale also vividly illustrates some points we discussed recently regarding the advantages and disadvantages of wearing a harness and tether while sailing.

 

Take a look at Enthalpy II in that photo up there. Very tall topsides. There is what appears to be some sort of a fixed boarding ladder aft, but it ends well clear of the water.

Boarding ladder

Detail shot of the boarding ladder. This looks like it is intended to be used when boarding the boat from a tender, not from the water

If David had not been stripped out of his harness, do you think he would have been able to climb back aboard unassisted while the boat was ripping along in what was reported to be a 20-knot breeze? Maybe he could have climbed that ladder if he was really strong and adrenalized. Maybe not. And we don’t know if he was in range of the ladder while dangling from his tether. If he wasn’t, he would have had to somehow get free to get to it. I’d say unless he had some better solo boarding system rigged up and/or some remote system for stalling the boat, his chances of clambering aboard were small.

David Thompson

David Thompson prior to his ordeal

David’s situation raises two other questions in my mind. Did his lifejacket inflate? I don’t see how this would have helped him getting back aboard if it had. Also, did his harness have a crotch strap? I’m guessing he didn’t have one, though you never know; a wave capable of stripping his pants off might have been able to overcome a crotch strap too. Assuming he didn’t have a strap, I’d say it was the lack of a strap and that second wave that saved his life.

Major lessons learned: a) it is always best to stay onboard in the first place; b) if you do fall off the boat, you need a reliable system for getting back aboard; c) if you are wearing harness when you go overboard, you need to be able to get out of it while its tether is heavily loaded; and d) it is always good to be lucky!

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3 Responses
  1. Tom

    My cousin takes solo hikes every year, some in remote locations such as when he walked across Alaska through the Brooks Range. He said that he thinks about every step he takes because even something as minor as a sprained ankle could mean the end of his life. I think about this when I am on my boat. Taking an extra second to reach for a handhold when going forward could mean the difference between life and death. It’s much too easy to become complacent.

    David Thompson was extremely lucky. 99.9% of us would not have survived his situation.

  2. Anonymous

    Tom could not be more wrong in his 99% assertion IMHO. Sailors separated from vessels much farther from shore have survived. Porpoises and dolphins have been known to push unconscious sailors floating in the water onto island beaches where they eventually wake wondering how they arrived/survived. The survival instinct is much stronger than only 1% surviving the circumstances described. You can float on your back and tread water without much energy expenditure for a very very long time in salt water, covering a great distance with wind and currents pushing you along. This is a great tale of survival and a boat lost and found again, and we should take heart from such a successful survival story. However, I believe there are very many of us more than capable of not succumbing to those conditions or even worse, more than able to fight to survive such a situation. Like the mother whose adrenaline acts to give her the strength to lift an automobile off her child to save its life, we are capable of great feats of strength and endurance which far exceed our normal capacity when called upon to do so. Tom, I bet you could have survived this too!

  3. Charlie

    @Anonymous: Counting on the dolphins to save you would be a bad strategy, I submit. I believe David was one mile from shore went he went over, but had to swim 15 miles to get ashore, thanks to the current. And the big problem ultimately isn’t staying afloat; it’s keeping your core temperature up. Even if you’re in 80 degree water, that almost 20 degrees cooler than your normal body temperature.

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