Monday, May 17, 2010

May Day

May Day -- Tragedy at Elephant Butte Lake

The first of May is known as “May Day” in some countries and nowadays is often a celebration of springtime, a time of innocent joy to celebrate sunshine, warmer days, and the renewal of life. Yet, curiously, “Mayday” (an adaptation of a cry for aid in French) is also the radio call for an urgent, life-or-death emergency.

May 1st, 2010, was a Saturday that promised a little bit of everything at Elephant Butte Lake as racing sailors prepared for the Rio Grande Sailing Club’s Spring Series 4 regatta. It would be a day of variable weather, with blustery winds and white-capping waves alternating with gentler breezes. It would be a day with some challenging sailing conditions, which the better sailors hoped would help distance themselves from their competitors in the series points standings. But it would also turn out to be a day of tragedy, a day when no races would be started, a day that would bring a crashing halt to the club’s spring race series, and a day when we would all lose forever a dedicated sailor and dear friend.

We last spoke to Marty when he joined us at the skipper/crew meeting in Hodges Corner restaurant in Elephant Butte. We member seeing him walk in, a tall man with bright blue eyes, curly silver-blonde hair, and a crinkly-faced friendly smile broadening as he said hello to a roomful of friends. Marty, a successful PhD-degreed engineer, was only a few months from early retirement. His particular passion was sailing, which was perhaps both his addiction and therapy rolled into one, and he was a particularly devoted and loyal crew member of "Team Constellation".


Fair breezes, Marty


Marty's own boat, Windependent, shown during one of the big-boat-oriented races.

Although Marty owned and sailed his own boat, for the race series he sailed, as usual, with Larry, the immensely experienced and successful skipper of the thirty-and-half-foot Etchells sloop Constellation. Larry had previously been a national champion collegiate and then professional pole vaulter. He was on the US Olympic team in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Larry had shortly thereafter taken up sailing. He’d sailed a variety of different racing sailboat types, including the challenging Soling and Star racing boats, and had gotten serious enough to participate in the US Olympic trails in sailing.

Constellation was the thirty-eighth of well over a thousand of the racing sailboats designed by Star world champion Skip Etchells, and is a sleek, narrow boat with long overhangs. "Connie" is named for one of the old America's Cup yachts and her sweet, traditional lines are highly reminiscent of the 12-meter yachts of a generation ago in which American athletes battled against the British and Australians. The Etchells is sometimes called a "giant dinghy" because it is very streamlined, with no cabin and an uncluttered deck. The Etchells has a single mast with a jib sail forward and mainsail behind. Going downwind, it also often sports a colorful, balloon-like spinnaker sail that is a joy to watch but which also requires especially careful attention to fly properly.

It is a pure racing machine, powerful and fast with many intricate adjustments required to make it reach its full performance. It typically has no auxiliary motor and is a purist's boat, prized by expert sailors. Yet it is also a stable and forgiving boat, thanks in part to the massive lead keel that makes up about sixty percent of the boat's weight, which is almost twice the typical proportion of a keel weight for a sailboat of this size.



Carol Anne and I were sailing Carol Anne's boat, Black Magic, which was the other Etchells sailboat out on the lake that morning along with Constellation.

Before Saturday's regatta could begin at Elephant Butte Lake, the boat and crew whose turn it was to serve as the race committee signal boat had anchored. Blue Agave was a beautiful black-hulled Frers 33 yacht crewed by Jon and his son Jared. As we passed by, one of them handed me a spherical orange "pin buoy" with a light line connecting it to a small concrete-filled can that was its anchor. We used Black Magic to set this buoy and anchor about a block to the side of the committee boat as the other end of the starting line for the race. Unlike a starting line for a race on land, the line for a sailboat race is invisible, defined only by a buoy at one end and a flag or particular point on a boat at the other end. The deck of the Etchells sloop is low and close to the water, and the boat is easy to control precisely, so it's a good boat for deploying and retrieving the pin buoy and its anchor.

On the committee boat, Jon and Jared would have the job of using signal flags and horns to signal and start races. The racing sailboats would sail upwind from the starting line, sail around a navigation buoy designated by the signal flags, sail downwind and around another buoy downwind of the committee boat, and then use their original starting line as a finish line. Jon and Jared would record weather conditions, starting times, and finish times for each boat before starting additional races.

Before a race could be started, the wind shifted ninety degrees from SW to NW and the pin buoy needed to be moved so the starting line would be square to the wind. This is done in sailboat racing so that neither the left nor the right side of the starting line and race course are overly favored and increases the opportunities for the boats to pass each other and maximizes the “playing field” for the boats. Larry, who is the sailing club's race chair, and Marty, who was the only other sailor on Constellation, took on the job of moving the pin, which they had done many times before. The wind had also lightened and the waves had died down to a small chop, which should have made retrieving the buoy easy. In spite of this, Constellation’s crew required multiple attempts to retrieve the buoy.

After retrieving the buoy and most of its anchor line, Marty was holding the buoy in his lap and sitting in front of Larry, facing inboard, with a short length of line leading across the back of the boat to the submerged weight.

Suddenly, he flipped backwards, somersaulting heels over head into the water, something utterly unexpected. Larry looked back, saw Marty surface with the pin buoy still in his arms and line paying out from the boat to the buoy. Marty then never moved or called out. Larry tied the end of the line around a boat fixture, turned the boat around, and yelled for help from nearby boats, while getting the Constellation turned around within two boat lengths.

The committee boat was within twenty five yards of Marty and the pin buoy. One of its crew threw a "Life Sling" buoy attached to a line to within a few yards of Marty. Marty never responded or attempted to reach it. Larry was yelling for Marty to hold on. The crew on the committee boat then retrieved the Life Sling and Jared, the skipper's son, dove into the water wearing a life preserver and carrying the Life Sling. As Jared swam nearer and Larry and his boat approached, Marty's head tilted forward and dropped into the water and his arms fell away from the floating buoy. He then began to sink. Before Jared or Larry could arrive, he started sinking straight down into the murky green depths of the lake.

By the time Constellation returned and another boat, Kachina, arrived, Marty was just a fast-disappearing shadow and then there was nothing, not so much as a single bubble remaining.

Jared swam back to the committee boat, fatigued from his swim in the bone-chilling fifty-eight degree (surface temperature) green water. Other sailboats converged on the scene rapidly, including ours, since none had been more than about a five-minute sail away. A search was started that was quickly joined by motorboats from Rock Canyon Marina, Elephant Butte Lake State Park and the local flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. This had been a weekend in which rescue groups had already been out on the water, so their response was very rapid, with the first rescue boat arriving within a few minutes of Marty's disappearance and a full-fledged search effort underway with five State Park and CG auxiliary boats and rescue crews within ten minutes.

One of the outboard-motor-equipped racers towed Larry and Constellation to the Rock Canyon marina. Some of the other sailboats remained to help search for Marty. On Black Magic, we kept at it for more than an hour and a half before giving up and following the other boats back to the marina and the sad aftermath of shock, weary hugs, and what-ifs, and subsequent days of searching.

What happened? Why did Marty fall overboard? Why did he let go? Until Marty's body is recovered and medical tests are performed we won't know and even then we might not ever have all the answers.

We do know that falling unexpectedly into the water is shocking and traumatic and not like diving or swimming intentionally. Swallowing or inhaling water is likely in these circumstances and can have lethal results. We know about the effects of sudden cold water immersion and the "gasp reflex", which can kill a person even before hypothermia has a chance to perform its deadly, chilling embrace. We also know that people in cold water can start to lose muscle control and become unable to swim within several minutes, and we are well acquainted with the 50 - 50 - 50 rule: on average, a person in 50-degree water has a 50 per cent chance of surviving 50 minutes.

Larry himself had experienced two close calls with cold water immersion. Ironically, both were at the marina. Once he’d been flipped from a small dinghy that was at the marina and might have been in real trouble if a rescuer hadn’t been close at hand.

Marty was an experienced sailor and likely knew all of these things at least at some level. He was wearing full foul-weather gear to protect himself from the cold. We do know that if he had worn a life preserver, it would have at the very least have kept his body from disappearing and very possibly have given him time to be rescued and revived.

Marty owned an compact automatic inflatable life vest. This is a harness-like lightweight device that is easy to wear and not very bulky. When immersed, the type that Marty had would release carbon dioxide gas from a cylinder into the fabric of the vest, rapidly inflating it and providing about 30 pounds of buoyancy. Larry initially didn’t know for certain whether Marty was wearing the inflatable vest on Sunday because when Marty boarded Constellation he was wearing full foul weather gear and could have had the vest on underneath. And, when Larry had offered Marty a life jacket, Marty had said that he was “good”, which Larry took to mean that Marty was wearing the inflatable. In times past, Marty had been very consistent about wearing an inflatable life preserver, so Larry could only assume that Marty had it on.

Inflatable life vests do occasionally fail. The CO2 cartridge can become loose or unscrewed and needs to be checked periodically. If the vest is activated, the cartridge and activation system need to be replaced properly. Because we live in a part of the world without any specialty sailboat equipment or marine safety stores, we have to order replacements. Marty's inflatable vest had gotten wet while in his sailing gear bag during a recent regatta and had automatically inflated, utterly flattening the sandwiches that had also been in the bag. Although Larry didn’t know it at the time, Marty had replaced the vest that had inflated with a new one.

The sailors who were there have been scratching heads and playing the agonizing game of what-if/if only. We have a small club, with limited resources. We don't have a dedicated committee boat or safety/patrol boat. Often, during races, our boats are scattered across miles of lake with no one near enough to immediately come to the rescue of a boat or crew that gets in trouble. The park service most often does not have a rescue boat already on the lake, which can mean a significant wait for rescue. There is no Coast Guard presence on our inland lake and only a limited, very part-time Coast Guard Auxiliary presence.

Sailing has inherent risks, which can be minimized with skill, training, equipment, and good judgment, but which can never be eliminated. Skippers sign an agreement prior to each regatta acknowledging the risks they face and taking responsibility for their crews and for the seaworthiness of their boats. Sailboat racing is a voluntary activity and all boats and crews are free to withdraw from a race at any time.

However, conditions Saturday were almost ideal for a rescue. Marty was holding a buoy that had more flotation than any life preserver. He fell off a relatively slowly-moving, low-freeboard boat with several other boats within plain sight and a few minutes' sail. The anchored race committee boat was within about twenty-five yards from him. Conditions were relatively mild, with only about 8 mph of wind at that moment and no big waves to obscure him or make swimming too difficult. Larry turned Constellation around within about two boat lengths and was quickly returning to Marty. The crew of the committee boat had thrown the Life Sling float to within a few swimming strokes of Marty. The rescue boats of the State Park and Coast Guard Auxiliary were already on the lake and were on the scene within a few minutes.

In other words, we should have been able to save Marty. And it was immensely frustrating and painful that we couldn't. When Larry was turning his boat back and hollering for Marty to hang on to the buoy, it never crossed Larry's mind that he could lose Marty. Instead, he was focused on approaching Marty and bringing Constellation to a dead stop just as he reached him. Larry already had a plan for solving what he thought would be his main problem: hauling Marty, who was a tall man wearing heavy, wet foul-weather gear, onto the boat. Larry planned to attach a long, strong line around Marty and under his arms to secure him to Constellation. Then, Larry would get the help of sailors from other boats to haul Marty on board and then get him ashore and dried off and warmed.

Larry knew the regatta was over for him and Marty, that safety and common sense dictate that Marty be taken care of ashore. In fact, earlier, when conditions had been windier, Larry had asked Marty if they should return to the marina but both of them had wanted to keep sailing and hadn't considered conditions to be bad.

What Larry didn't know as he carried out his rescue approach was that it wasn't just this regatta that would be over for Marty. Instead, a close sailing partnership of nine years’ standing was forever sundered.

17 Comments:

At 12:27 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger Tillerman said...

I am so sorry for your tragic loss. I hope you won't find it inappropriate if I ask some questions about the facts of the accident. My only motivation is to enable us all to learn from this incident so we can avoid a recurrence.

1. You say Marty had replaced the vest that accidentally inflated. Has that vest been found? Is it know definitively that Marty was not wearing a life vest?

2. I commonly trail the submerged weight of a pin buoy in the water when moving it too. Is it possible that the line snagged on something and that was what pulled Marty out of the boat?

 
At 2:21 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:23 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:31 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

1. Immediately after the accident, Larry secured Marty's seabag in the marina office. Later, Larry, Carol Anne, and Gary, one of the marina managers, opened the bag. It contained Marty's new vest. It is possible, but seems quite unlikely that Marty wore his old vest under his foul weather gear or that he would have worn the old vest without having re-armed it.

2. The water was about 65 feet deep in the area where Marty fell overboard and the line to the buoy was about 95 feet long and had been pulled mostly into the boat, although the bottom end of the line and the can anchor at its end were in the water and dangling off Constellation's transom.

After Marty went overboard, Larry jammed the end of the line nearest the anchor into a boat fitting and line fed out from the boat to the buoy that Marty was holding. Larry steered the boat downwind and turned back within about two boat lengths of the 30'6" boat, without ever dragging the buoy, which seems to indicate that most of the line had been on the boat.

The nearest known shallower water was a submerged ridge 35' deep about 700' feet to the SE, or toward shore about 1500' E.

Marty was cradling the pin buoy in his lap. Maybe about 30 feet of line hadn't been pulled in. The anchor can was lightweight, probably only about 3 lbs.

Possibly the can could have caught or slid off the back of the boat, which might have produced a jerk. Even a small jerk might have unbalanced someone who was fatigued, relaxed, or surprised.

It doesn't seem that there was enough line let out for the anchor to catch on an obstruction on the bottom, but that can't be ruled out completely.

In hindsight, the inboard-facing position and the dangling anchor can may have both contributed to the accident.

Note that the line was trailing over the transom, so a sudden catching on an obstruction should have pulled Marty toward the stern of the boat and slightly inboard, and would not have flipped him backward and away from the centerline of the boat.

And, a release of pressure should have made Marty lean more toward the front of the boat though a startle reflex might have made him move backward and outward. However, Larry had not seen that Marty was straining against any unusually heavy pressure before he fell off the boat. Larry had told Marty to just let the buoy go if it got too tiresome to move.

The buoy-moving maneuver was one that the crew of Constellation had performed many times and was considered to be low-risk compared to foredeck work in high seas or tactical racing maneuvers. And, the actual moving of the pin seemed to be much lower risk than initially grabbing it from a moving boat.

Yet, sometimes it's during the safest-seeming activities that things go horribly wrong.

 
At 4:06 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

Just deleted a long comment. Shorter version. I'd just said that that way you describe him as being there, and then just fading away, reminded me a lot of what happened the time I lost a swimmer in one of the Hudson River swim races where I was one of the safety kayaks. Turned out he was having a heart attack but it was impossible to tell what was happening until it was too late because although I tried and tried, I could not get him to stop and talk to me. When he finally did stop, it was as though he'd just wound down. One of my most horrifying moments on the water - I had same sense of having a situation go from confusing to catastrophic in the space of a couple of deep breaths.

I'm grateful that at least he was wearing a wetsuit. The neoprene floated him & gave me something to grab when I went to get his face out of the water. He was on a safety boat (the captain & I had already exchanged a couple of worried looks as the situation developed & so he was right there & ready when it turned awful) & getting CPR a minute later but it was still too late.

I am so sorry this happened to one of your friends.

 
At 4:37 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

By "this", I'm not meaning heart attack. What you describe is such a perfect parallel of what I watched happen that day that I can't help sharing the story, but of course that is one of the questions that can't be answered until he's found.

Which I hope happens soon.

 
At 8:13 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

Chris Brooks, in the February 2008 issue of "Sea Kayaker" said that, "Cold shock also causes a massive increase in in heart rate and blood pressure. These cardiac responses may cause death, particularly in older, less healthy people."

So, a heart attack, stroke, or other trauma might have been induced by the sudden immersion, cold shock, possible water inhalation, hyperventilation, and disorientation commonly associated with sudden immersion in cold water.

 
At 11:52 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

I was actually thinking that it could have already begun on board, causing the tumble overboard in the first place, without him ever realizing that he was in trouble any more than the swimmer did. A friend who's a nurse sat down with me later that day to try to help me understand what had happened & she reminded me (i'd heard it a dozen times in CPR class) that that's actually common.

That is the end of my theorizing.

I really hope I haven't overstepped with it.

 
At 1:51 AM, May 18, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

It's too bad the sea lawyers haven't figured out a way of serving a writ of habeas corpus on a lake or the ocean. Until Marty's body is recovered, there's much that simply can't be known, and there isn't closure for Marty's family and friends.

 
At 11:31 AM, May 18, 2010, Blogger bowsprite said...

Oh, Pat. I am so so sorry.
Condolences to all who know and care for him.

 
At 6:10 PM, May 19, 2010, Blogger O Docker said...

I've not much to add, Pat, except my condolences and this PFD story, for what it's worth.

We have two types of manual inflatable vests and the canisters in both had passed their expiration dates.

We decided to test-inflate with the old canisters to see if the vests were working, before replacing the co2.

We thought it would make a cute video of us both wearing the vests and pulling the trip cords together.

At the count of three, we pulled the cords down and my vest inflated - but my wife's did not. Standing on deck, in a nice, dry boat, it took 30 seconds of fiddling until my wife's vest finally inflated.

It turned out that one of the vests tripped by pulling DOWN on the cord - but the other by pulling it straight OUT. So, I learned it's probably a very good idea to test a new vest - or any new safety gear - as soon as you get it - even though that could mean wasting a perfectly good canister.

Sadly, nothing can be done for your friend now, but perhaps this thought will help someone else.

 
At 10:24 PM, May 19, 2010, Blogger Zen said...

Very tragic, my deep condolences!

 
At 8:40 AM, May 20, 2010, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Thank you for this report, as complete as it is.

Of note is the high quality of seamanship displayed by those on the scene who tried to rescue Marty. As someone who grew up and learned to sail on Colorado lakes, I understand how mandated wearing PFD vests is. (In those days we didn't have wetsuits.) My sympathies and condolences to Elephant Butte Lake sailors. I am anticipating an eventual conclusion that a medical event initially caused Marty to pitch backwards into the water. Enough said. Sadness..............

 
At 6:24 PM, May 20, 2010, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

In thinking about this further, this report strengthens my inclination to wearing a PDF increasingly more frequently on the Central Coast of CA. Of late, I've been thinking that being of very advanced years myself, it would simplify the task of others trying to recover me, should I slip into my waters.

Last evening, I wore a vest just for warmth even though we were in a drifter.

 
At 1:04 AM, May 21, 2010, Blogger Carol Anne said...

Yes, Doc, even if Marty suffered some medical event, a PFD would have allowed his body to be recovered, saving his friends and family a great lot of suffering. His widow, especially, has been hugely distressed by the whole situation -- the closest I've ever seen to literally (rather than just figuratively) falling apart. She may be a successful career woman, but Marty was her life.

 
At 3:39 PM, May 22, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

It appears that Marty's body has washed ashore, 20 days after he disappeared overboard.

There has been some uncertainty, given that another tragic drowning just happened at the lake.

 
At 3:46 PM, May 22, 2010, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Still no closure... :-(

 

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