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.