A man overboard incident at the 2017 Chicago Race to Mackinac teaches important boat safety lessons. by Ken Quant (originally published in May 2018 issue of Lakeland Boating Magazine)
Falling 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 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 on it to keep it lit. He later found out that the crew was able to see the light for a short time, but quickly lost sight of it as they sailed away.
Unable to see any other boats in the immediate area and realizing that it would be a while before the Meridian X crew would be able to douse the sails and begin their search, Wheeler took inventory of his equipment. Besides a failing safety light, he also had a knife, whistle and an AIS personal MOB transmitter. This transmitter would have been a huge help if only Meridian X, or any other nearby vessel, would have been equipped and monitoring their AIS receiver to electronically lead them to his location.
By the time the crew on Meridian X was able to get her sails down and turn around, they had traveled more than two miles. The crew had lost sight of Wheeler, who was left alone hoping for rescue. After about 30 minutes, the wind calmed down a bit but the seas were still very choppy. With a water temp in the upper 60s, Wheeler’s biggest concern became hypothermia. About that time, he noticed Meridian X’s white masthead light in the distance. His light had completely stopped working at that point, so he took to blowing the whistle about every minute. Occasionally it would fill with water, so he would have to blow sharply to clear it; however, this simple safety item proved to be his saving grace.
Wheeler noticed Meridian X’s masthead light had gotten brighter and he knew they were getting much closer. He started to blow the whistle almost non-stop. Astutely, those on-board Meridian X had the presence of mind to occasionally stop the motor and quietly listen for any indication of Wheeler’s whereabouts. About 15 minutes after hearing a first whistle, they zeroed in on the sound and spotted him in the water. Moments later, he was back onboard.
Lucky to be alive
Hypothermic and shaken, Wheeler was taken below and given dry clothes, blankets and hot water to help him warm up. He had been in the water for a total of one hour and six minutes. Once he warmed up a bit they realized he didn’t need any additional medical assistance, so they retired from the race and headed into Muskegon. Given the cool water, darkness and the rough conditions, he was extremely lucky to be found quickly and alive.
According to Eric Jones, skipper of nearby boat Triumvirate, they heard the MOB call just after completing a sail change and immediately headed toward Wheeler’s reported location. They never noticed an AIS MOB signal and were not exactly sure how to assist but figured they would head that way to try to help. Once they heard that Wheeler was recovered, they continued with the race.
“It would be helpful to have an established procedure for all assisting vessels to follow during a search,” Jones says.
After living through every boater’s worst nightmare, Wheeler says: “I consider myself a very lucky man. I will be forever grateful to the crew and my good friends on Meridian X for being able to recover from the squall and get back to the same general area in which I was lost. It certainly was not an easy task.”
Many lessons can be learned from Mark’s harrowing MOB incident, including:
- Always properly buckle your life vest when on deck.
- One hand should be gripping the boat at all times.
- Always leave your inflatable life vest on auto inflation.
- If in water, remain calm and preserve your energy.
- Always keep a whistle and working light attached to your life vest.
- A strobe light is much easier to see than a steady light.
- Do not count on personal AIS transmitters alone.
- If sailing, reduce your sail area before an approaching squall hits.
- Immediately activate the DSC / Distress function on your VHF radio and designate someone to coordinate communication with the USCG and other nearby vessels.
- If you are going offshore, spend the money and get an AIS receiver. A life is worth the extra expense.
- Stop the motor from time to time to just listen and look in an MOB situation.
- Always monitor VHF 16 and make sure it can be heard by someone.
- If equipped with an AIS receiver, remember to monitor it if you hear a MOB call because the person in the water may have a transmitter.
- An official search protocol for assisting vessels should be established and promoted.