May 2018

Page 52


alling overboard at night is every sailor’s worst nightmare. This exact scenario played out last July during Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Race to Mackinac. In just moments, visiting Chesapeake Bay boat Meridian X went from racing to emergency recovery efforts as their crewman, Mark Wheeler, was thrown overboard into the cold, choppy blackness of Lake Michigan. Amazingly, he was recovered about an hour later, but his near-death story highlights many good lessons for boaters of all kinds. Known for its blustery conditions, even Lake Michigan takes a summer vacation; its winds and water commonly become benign during the warmest months of the year. Predictably, this is when most cruisers from the southern part of the lake head north to enjoy her picturesque harbors and islands. This is also when the Chicago Yacht Club holds its popular 289-nautical-mile sailboat race to Mackinac Island. Rare as strong cold fronts are in summer, one was predicted to intersect the racers during the first night of the 2017 race. As advertised, it was exactly this type of front that greeted the fleet about halfway up the lake. Usually accompanied by thunderstorms and a


MAY 2018



sharp change in wind direction and strength, these “pneumonia fronts” can hit like a freight train and take a day to blow out. As often happens during long-distance sailboat races, many of the boats were carrying large spinnaker sails into the approaching front to take advantage of the increased wind speed. Meridian X was no different. After a spectacular day of sailing off the wind, the boat had quickly made nearly 100 nautical miles up the lake when the front approached. The accompanying thunderstorms were not directly in the area and looked to be about two hours north, when a sudden sharp increase in wind speed from an unseen dry microburst that formed in the highly unstable air mass hit the boat. A call for “all-hands on deck” was made to help douse the spinnaker as the wind exceeded 30 knots. Wheeler had come off watch about 30 minutes earlier, so he was down below when the call came. Meridian X was doing roughly 18 knots as he quickly grabbed his inflatable life vest and harness and headed above deck to help. As he went toward the transom behind the steering wheel, the boat went hard-over to starboard just before his hand reached the runner winch. In

an instant he went head first into the water. He tried to hold onto the runner, but the boat was traveling too fast and he had to let go. Alone in the water According to Wheeler’s account of the events published in a SpinSheet (SPINSHEET.COM) article, the cold, dark reality of being in the water quickly set in. Thankfully, he had grabbed his inflatable life vest before coming on deck. However, he had the inflation trigger set to manual because of all the false activations he had witnessed during other wet races, so he had to physically pull the lanyard to inflate the vest. It quickly filled, but he soon realized that because he had not taken the time to strap the vest on tightly, he needed to physically hold the tubes down with his arms to prevent them riding up over his head. He tried several times to properly buckle the vest but found it impossible while inflated. With the wind blowing at nearly 40 knots, the water was extremely rough. Wheeler was forced to concentrate on breathing without ingesting too much water. He activated a brand-new safety light attached to his life vest, but found that it would not stay on; he needed to keep banging

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