Skipper overboard incident - three crew powerless to retrieve him

Lady Cilla and coastguard - horrendous conditions
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All the Man OverBoard (MOB) training in the world will not necessarily rescue a crew fallen overboard. An experienced crew were this week unable to pull their skipper back on board, even though he was tethered and was wearing a life-jacket which inflated as he hit the water.

British Skipper Dan Oliver, 40, was battling 45kt winds on his Contessa 32 yacht Lady Cilla with the rest of his crew when a three-metre rogue wave hit him head on and he was plunged into the 12C water near Brighton Marina, in Sussex.

Oliver had three crew mates on board, and the incident happened in broad daylight -about 1.00pm, but in spite of all efforts the three could not retrieve their skipper. When their efforts failed, they sent a distress message on Channel 16 which was picked up by Solent Coastguard, and a volunteer crew from the Royal National Lifesaving Institution (RNLI) was scrambled from Brighton.

There was nothing inexperienced about either Dan Oliver or his crew. They were travelling from Hamble to Brighton to take part in the Royal Escape 2011, Sussex's largest race, an annual celebration of the escape of Charles II to the coastline of Normandy in France.

Oliver was already losing consciousness, being battered by wind and waves in the dangerous seas as his crewmates tried to get hold of him in the gale force winds before the RNLI arrived and the rescuers were able to pull him on board.

The coastguard also had a helicopter hovering above in case Mr Oliver needed to be flown to hospital urgently.

RNLI senior helmsman Mark Smith noted the yachtsmen had not done anything wrong but had been struck by 'one killer wave'.

With their usual dedication, the RNLI Brighton lifeboat launched within 7 minutes of being paged and within 10 minutes had battled the towering waves to reach the yacht. Just three minutes later a volunteer crew member had been transferred to the yacht and the skipper was safely lifted back on board.

A spokesman for RNLI Brighton lifeboat said: 'Praise goes to the crew of the yacht who during this extremely stressful incident in hostile conditions managed to remain calm throughout.'

Danny Oliver, the skipper added: 'Very thankful for the guys who turned out to help, very professional.'

As observed by a spokesman for the RNLI, it certainly highlighted the value of wearing a life-jacket and harness when working on deck, but it also pointed out the inability of even several strong crew to get their skipper back on board.

This is particularly relevant for cruising sailors who are usually short-handed. Most cruising sailors agree that they would have even less chance of retrieving a lost crew member, so while MOB practice is worthwhile, the key to successful cruising is to take every possible precaution against falling overboard, no matter the conditions.