What happened when my boat capsized in 35 knot gusts .....
Updated: Jun 6
It's Saturday morning, coffee has been made and I'm looking forward to a day of sailing albeit a cold day. I make my way to the boat yard with my sailing partner and we go about erecting the mast after the boat has been packed up over winter. It's an icy cold day and the wind is picking up at around 20 knots, how exciting. Not even the rain and cold biting winds could dampen my enthusiasm for the first sail of the year!
We get into our kit and head down to the slip way to launch the boat, everyone is trying to keep warm. I'm doing squats others resort to star jumps. Finally, we are ready to go and we head out onto the water. I am sailing with someone who is new to dinghy sailing but experienced with watersports so I'm not too worried but it's in the back of my mind. The wind fills the sails and we are laughing, getting spray from the water and although it's cold we're having a great time.
We start to head downwind and wind conditions are perfect, it's manageable and we have a few gybes which go without error. Until we get fairly close the the bank and after a gybe... capsize! It's absolutely fine and we go through the capsize recovery procedure and right the boat and carry on sailing. The safety boat calls over to head in for lunch so we start sailing back in downwind at considerable speed at around 9 knots. Once we have taken down the sails, we head into the club house for some warm tomato soup and bread. Just what you need when you can't feel your fingers and toes. We lean against the radiator trying to absorb the heat as much as possible. As lunch is drawing to a close everyone starts to make their way back to the boats, the wind has picked up considerably. White ripples coursing down the reservoir, the high peaks causing strong gusts that plummet down with windy reporting 36 knot gusts.
We stood there as the 'waves' created by the wind crashed on the slipway, looking at each other. "Do you want to go out?" I said nervously, "Do you?" he said doubt flickering in his eyes. The more I looked at the water the more I thought this isn't really a good idea, not with someone new to sailing and the first sail of the year! Not to mention the boat hadn't had any maintenance over winter either, though I had taken the mast down. In the end we were both too stubborn and we decided we would go out on the water. As we hoisted the sails the boat shook violently on it's trailer butterflies were in my stomach. As soon as we left the shore I realised immediately the wind strength had increased a huge amount, more than I had imagined. We started sailing up wind with the main sail out planing. As we reached the centre of the reservoir a huge gust came down the reservoir and we capsized... this happened a few times and each time it was getting harder to come back up.
The final capsize though, was the worst. At this point we were also cold and tired and that made it harder to concentrate I said to my partner, when we get it back up let's take down the main sail and sail back in on the jib. He agreed
I said that I would right the boat because it was at great risk of flipping over hard pointing directly upwind. I tried to bag the sail and then let it fall down again to rotate the boat but it wasn't working. This is the point where I should have stopped and waited for a safety boat. I tried once more, but a gust caught the top of the sail and within seconds the boat had flipped and I was plunged under the water underneath the sail with water cascading over the top of the sail weighing it down. I tried to swim but my foot was caught in the main sheet, I pulled off my boot and discarded it pushing the sail up trying to get to air. The sail was submerged, I really needed to breathe. I started to crawl/swim along the sail to get out gulping trying not to breathe and the sail just kept going and going and going. I gasped breathing in the murky lake water.
Was this it, I couldn't believe it. Was I going to drown here in the murky ice cold water. I started seeing those little stars in my eyes but I just kept swimming kept kicking and then I felt someone grab me and pulled me out from under the sail just as I was about to take another breath. He looked at me, "Are you ok?" "No" I replied in instant then gasped for air. That first gasp doesn't feel like air it doesn't feel like anything after about 3 or 4 gasps you can feel the air in your lungs. My body frozen, he looks cold too. We get rescued by the safety boat and then start to sort out my boat. It's hard to turn it in the water but we eventually manage to take down the mainsail and I sail the boat back in with just the jib. It takes hours to warm up and we are advised to watch for secondary drowning.
In the future I will be much more diligent with wind strength and do a full maintenance check before my next sail, I have definitely learned a valuable lesson and it's important to know when you should just go home and leave the sail for better conditions!