Safety at Sea Seminar

Roy, Kathy, Carlos and Jack, the four-person crew of the North Wind that will do the transatlantic passage from Portsmouth, Virginia to Legos, Portugal.

The four-person crew of North Wind met at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD for the two-day International Offshore Ocean Safety Course. Sailing has been re-instituted as a requirement at the Academy. About 100 civilians joined the USNA sailing team members and another roughly 200 Mids who were scheduled to participate in their summer sailing program. (Mids is the term they used to refer to Midshipmen. I’m not sure whether Mid was a gender neutral term for Midshipmen or just shorthand, but the 2021 USNA class is 27% women)

The Mids were seated in the section below to the left. There were more people that took part in the seminar than I expected.

Vice-Admiral Dixon Smith gave the opening remarks. He relayed stories of his days as a Mid and situations that he was lucky to escape without injury. He underscored the importance of learning from mistakes and taking preventive steps to avoid dangerous sailing situations.

One of the most powerful presentations included three crew members from the Meridian X, competing in the 2017 Chicago to Mackinac race. The helmsman described conditions when a crew member went overboard (MOB). It was near midnight, the wind was steady at 15 knots and then built rapidly to 30 knots. He called all hands on-deck to drop the spinnaker and set the storm sail. Eventually, the wind hit 40 knots, with a boat speed of 22. Mark Wheeler emerged from the cabin, putting on his life vest. Mark was heading for the stern winch behind the helmsman. While reaching for the winch, a sudden tack caught him off balance and he was thrown between the lifelines and out the back of the boat.

The helmsman estimated the boat traveled 2 miles before the spinnaker could be fully dropped and they could safely turn. A quick turn would have capsized the boat. Mark Wheeler described turbulent water, a new signal light that failed after a few minutes, and experiencing extreme cold. After 15 minutes he blew his whistle once a minute. After an hour in the water, he thought he was going to die. He had an AIS transmitter that would have led the boat back to him, but the boat was not equipped with AIS. Apparently other boats were not close enough to see the AIS signal on their chartplotters. Eventually, the crew of the Meridian X heard a faint whistle and headed in the direction of the sound. Bottom-line is the whistle saved Mark’s life. The overall take home message is upon exiting the cabin clip into the jackline, check your safety light, and make sure you know how to activate your AIS and PLB.

There was a session on emergency medical care. One focus was on preventing seasickness and the role of ginger tablets, acupressure wristbands, and Bonine. Hypothermia symptoms and treatment were covered, as were prescriptions to take offshore.

Communication with rescue personnel was addressed by Lt Kellen Browne of the USCG. It was an interesting presentation from the view of a helicopter pilot. I learned not to worry that a search helicopter may turn and go back to shore, while signaling another helicopter that will do the rescue. Hence, don’t get discouraged if the first helicopter departs.

John Kretschmer provided an engaging talk about voyage preparation. Other presentations included weather forecasts, storm sails and heavy weather, and care/maintenance of safety equipment.

One of the nice features of sharing a three-bedroom Airbnb was meeting the crew for our upcoming adventure. The other members of the North Wind crew, Roy, Carlos and Kathy, had sailed together. I had sailed with Roy, so it was a pleasure to meet Kathy and Carlos. After dinner on Saturday night we spent several hours processing the information we heard that day. Eventually the conversation turned to meal planning. The three days of positive interactions portend well for a smooth passage.

Our home for 6 weeks.


Jeanneau 509
An image of a Jeanneau 509 from the boat manufacturer’s website.  Hopefully, we will have great wind for the 3260 nautical miles of the passage to Portugal, just like the picture!