This year’s Race to the Straits (RTTS) had to have had the best wind in a long time, though it was a headwind race both ways. Sailing a J/88, I had been hoping for at least a downwind leg, as Sea Stories always enjoys the opportunity to go for a good run. Sunday’s breeze resulted in a memorable experience and one I’m happy to walk away from unscathed—I found myself in the water, leaving my daughter alone onboard during the doublehanded race in rough weather.

Saturday had been a great day. We had wind most of the time with a couple of wind holes, the worst of which was at the finish where the early boats were fighting against the current and dealing with zero wind to cross the line. My daughter saw this early and kept us as honest as possible, and with a puff from heaven we managed to finish with a respectable 35th out of 106 boats entered. We were feeling good going into the return trip the following day.

Sunday was a day to remember. We started in 6 knots, with a forecast predicting an increase in the wind strength to 18 knots somewhere near Double Bluff. The incessant tacking down the east side of Marrowstone Island seemed never ending (out to 40 feet, then back in to 10 feet), avoiding rocks and shallows. On the long tack from the south end of Marrowstone Island to Useless Bay and the compulsory mark at the Double Bluff buoy, the wind increased as predicted.

After the Double Bluff mark, we had a long port tack to Point No Point, during which we reefed the mainsail and the boat became comfortable in the building breeze.

Overboard Experience, Points of Learning

My story really starts after we had passed the Kingston Ferry terminal and had tacked over to start our run to Jefferson Head.

At this point in the race, the waves had become very short coupled and square. I needed to pee, so thinking safety, I handed over the tiller to my daughter. I scrunched up aft of her on the high side so that I could relieve myself into the open-transom cockpit.

There was no standing in the back of the boat on a day like that. While making all the different zipper pulls (up for the foulies, down for the inside pants) and then the subsequent clearing of clothing for the intended business, we hit a square wave and received a gust of higher wind. I was knocked off balance and was shot out through the lower life lines. I had quite literally become a man overboard.

Point: Make safety a higher priority when peeing in rough weather. Consider a short tether so when two hands are being used you cannot fall out of the cockpit. Better yet, kneel in the cockpit on the low side, or go below.

Think about this. My thirty-something-year-old daughter, who weighs not much over 130 lbs, had just watched her 74-year-old father—who weighs 214 lbs on a good day—go head first into Puget Sound.

I came to the surface and within a few seconds my PFD had inflated.

Point: When was the last time you checked your PFD?

My daughter immediately saw my PFD inflate and she started to try and get the boat under control. She was dealing with rough seas and high winds. The mainsheet had gotten a knot in it, and she was unable to turn the boat in that much wind without releasing the sheet.

I looked on as my daughter, who for some reason was unable to turn the boat, was quickly at least a half city block away. At this point, I was having a direct communication with my god. I don’t think the cold of Puget Sound had registered with me yet. Staying afloat was my major concern and my PFD was doing the work.

After a minute or two, I noticed that the Santa Cruz 27 Norn was heading towards me. They had seen my lifejacket and had dropped their headsail. After a couple of tries, they managed to get a line to me and help pull me to the transom of their boat. I would estimate that at this point I had been in the water for eight to ten minutes. I was cold.

How to get into their boat? Thank goodness Norn had an open transom. They lowered their outboard to make more room and so I could try to put my foot on the cavitation plate. Even so, I had lost a lot of my strength and I’m not sure on a good day I could have pressed myself up. It took both Norn sailors, Chris and River, pulling to drag me into their boat. I was now safe.

Point: Without crotch straps on the PFD, this would not have been doable.

Point: How would you bring a person onto your boat from the water? It’s easier with a full crew—daunting when it is just one or two.

Point: Do you have an easily deployable ladder?

Seeing me safely on board another boat, my daughter managed to roll up the jib and scandalize the main, and now she was bearing down on Norn. She shouted and asked if I was OK, and then asked, “How do I start the engine?” We have not had been sailing together for at least 15 years, and the division of labor on the boat was almost set in stone. I got on the boat and started the engine to let it warm up and she got our belongings put away.

Point: When was the last time you made sure that all members of your crew know how to start and stop your boat’s engine?

Point: Is the engine starting key in a safe place?

We headed into Kingston Marina and another boat, Tigger, crewed by Cody Pinion and his wife Letitia, had joined our little group. By the time we had docked, I was consumed by uncontrollable shakes. My daughter and Letitia helped get me out of my wet clothes. Then my daughter asked, “Where are your dry clothes?”

I replied, “It’s only a two day race, I didn’t bring any.”

Point: Do you have a set of dry clothes and a sleeping bag for emergencies?

Cody came to the rescue with a complete set of dry clothes and a warm drink. I was safe and going to be ok, and felt very fortunate and grateful to my fellow sailors. My other daughter eventually drove me home to get me out of the cold.

I hope other sailors might take a few things away from my dip into the Sound. If you spend time on the water shorthanded, racing or cruising, perhaps this offers a reality check, especially for crews where well-practiced divisions of responsibility might mean expertise in one area and unfamiliarity in another. Doublehanded sailing requires a different mindset, and it’s important to practice crew overboard skills and recovery shorthanded as well as with a full crew. And each boat is so specific; I was lucky my rescue boat had an open transom.

Matthew Gardner-Brown has owned and raced boats with his family throughout Puget Sound for many years.