PNW Race Week Statement About MOB Sailor’s Death
A month after Greg Mueller died while racing in the Pacific Northwest Race Week, the event released this statement:
Four weeks ago today, a man fell overboard during Race 2 at Race Week, and sadly didn’t survive. His name was Gregory Paul Mueller, and he was new to the crew of the J/120 with Grace. Despite the work of many who responded to the incident, Gregory never regained consciousness, and was pronounced dead on the shores of Guemes Island.
I haven’t talked publicly about the man overboard (MOB) accident, aside from a press release that I released shortly after the incident occurred. It has been a difficult event to process, and I believe that allowing for some time of reflection was necessary as a MOB has never been a part of my experience in sailboat racing before now. Gregory was on foredeck with the spinnaker full on a downwind leg of the race. He was seen with lines tangled around his ankles, and one of the crew noticed that he was leaning over to untangle these lines. Then he fell overboard with the lines still wrapped around his legs. The lines kept Gregory attached to the boat, dragging through the water before the boat was depowered and Gregory’s body was brought back to the boat. By this point, he was unconscious.
This we know.
From here, is where my mind races through all those things we don’t know. Did Gregory have a medical incident on board, such as a heart attack or stroke that caused him to fall overboard? Why didn’t the skipper sail head to wind to stop the boat? Why weren’t the lines cut that caused the drag through the water? The Skagit Valley Coroner’s Office has deemed Gregory’s death as an accidental drowning. But thankfully, they’re doing a full investigation involving pathology results to determine if Gregory had a medical event prior to the fall, or if there are any other explanations that help us know what might have happened. These results can take months, so in the meantime, we reflect and wait.
My thoughts have centered on three things: 1) Cold shock, 2) Importance of a PFD, and 3) What I, as a sailboat race event producer could ever do to minimize the chances of a death occurring on the course.
We hear about MOB drills all the time. We may have even participated in a class or workshop where we worked as a team in a very controlled setting to practice picking up someone who has fallen overboard. But I think we need to spend more time educating ourselves about what we can expect if it is us that goes overboard, and talk to our crews every single time we board a boat what our jobs would be ‘if’ a MOB happens. Everyone should have a job assigned to them so that when the stress and adrenaline kicks up, and the chaos abounds, everyone is clear what their function is in the event. What the MOB and the crew does in the first 120 seconds before help can arrive is the most critical because of what is called “Cold Shock,” when someone drops into water under 60 degrees (like Puget Sound). You could have a fleet of first responders on a race course, and the outcome would be the same. It’s why skippers must take the sole responsibility of their crew who are offshore, as these are the inherent risks that are accepted in the sport of sailboat racing.
Falling into cold water provokes an immediate gasp reflex. If your head is under water, you’d inhale water instead of air. Initial shock can cause panic, hyperventilation, and increased heart rate leading to a heart attack. This stage typically lasts less than a minute, and at this point the person should concentrate on just staying afloat with their head above water until this shock passes (and it does pass). My hope is anyone who ventures out on a boat is acutely aware of Cold Shock before they leave the dock. The message is clear: “If you fall overboard, remember what Cold Shock is, and remind yourself that you will be OK if you can just force yourself to relax, and get through the first minute with your head above water. At this time, don’t try and swim, just keep your head above water. Try and relax and float on your back to catch your breath, then try to get hold of something that will help you float.”
The bottom line, don’t panic, and keep your head up. Studies show that most victims who fall overboard never make it to a hypothermic stage since 75% of individuals succumb and die in the earlier stages of Cold Shock immersion.
Next, I think a MOB discussion should happen with the entire crew before the boat leaves the dock. When someone screams, “Man Overboard!” everyone on the crew should have a handle of what their job should be, and one person who knows everyone’s jobs should act as the alternate and take on the job of the person who has fallen overboard. I’m in no way a MOB expert, but these are some of the jobs that I think are important (and should be executed immediately) following the MOB alert:
- Spotter: the person who looks only at the victim during the ordeal and never loses sight.
- Thrower: the person who throws floatable cushions, LifeRing, or anything that floats off the boat.
- Skipper: the person who moves the boat instantly head to wind to stop the boat.
- Radio: the person who goes to the radio to hail the Race Committee on the fleet channel that there has been an incident.
- Caller: the person who calls ‘911’ and reports the incident immediately to emergency medical services.
- Cutter: the person who cuts any lines, sails, that may cause dragging.
- Assister: the person who stays with the victim when transferred to shore for medical attention.
- Documenter: the person who is taking photos of the MOB incident and using photo time stamp, video, live commentary to record the event.
I have to say, after many sleepless nights, these are the roles I have deemed most important on a boat. Mind you, every boat is different, and every boat has varying numbers of crew. But that is why it is so critical that the conversation happen every time a new crew assembles, and before leaving the dock so that the first critical 120 seconds of the MOB incident are covered. Having crews discuss it in advance will diminish the fatalities that come from crew falling overboard.
In this incident, I’m very proud of the immediate response of our Race Committee. In this setting (versus being hundreds of miles offshore in the middle of the ocean), there are not only other racers nearby to assist in a MOB incident, but there are also power boats on the course that make up the Race Committee fleet. But this incident cast a new light on just how little we know about the crews on board the boats that are racing in our events, and going forward I think this deserves some attention. Here are a couple of new things I’m considering adding to Race Week planning going forward:
- Skippers may be asked to register their crews on the registration platform so that crew can be easily identified and next of kin can be easily notified in the event of an accident.
- Skippers may be required to go over the above personal and crew MOB safety protocols with their crews prior to the participation in Race Week.
- Skippers may be required to keep a crew log so that in the event of an emergency, the Organizing Authority can reach family members.
- We’ll maintain our fleet of judge, umpire, mark set, start and finish boats on the course so that there are resources available to assist when called.
Anyone who ventures away from the shore recognizes the dangers and risks involved. My desire is to not keep people from the fun of sailboat racing, but to remind everyone that we can do better when it comes to safety practices that can help limit fatalities should a MOB happen on our watch. Please spend some extra time with your crews and each other refreshing your MOB protocols. My condolences to the with Grace team, and to Gregory Mueller’s family.
Sage advice. Sadly these basic precautions and crew instructions are rarely practiced in my experience, including myself.
The author does all sailors a great service by writing this article. Now all we have to do is put it into practice.
The life saved could be ours.
my son suffered a similar fate 15 years ago and not a day goes buy that i don’t miss him and replay those events . No matter how well prepared you and your crew think you are, you aren’t ready for the chaos and panic. Practice continually your man overboard routines. have someone simply jump off the boat without warning to the rest of the crew and see what happens. Calm waters ,pfd and have a game plan .No one wants to live with that pain !
very sorry for your loss, Ken
So sorry! Thank you for sharing♥️
US Sailing offers an online certification Coastal Safety at Sea class and many races require one or more of the crew to have been certified. This is a stepped-down version of their Offshore Safety at Sea with required hands-on training. Lots of good info with a strong emphasis on wearing PFD’s.
We can second guess the Skipper, etc. all you want, but we weren’t there, so no amount of “Monday morning quarterbacking” will bring this person back. The fact that he had lines around his feet probably drowned him. My only comment would be, not to hail the race committee and call 9-1-1 but to issue a MAYDAY on the radio on channel 16. Not sure that a “documenter” is appropriate. All hands should be working to save the victim, it is extremely difficult to get an unconscious person back on board.
Stop the boat, #1
Very sorry to hear of your loss Ken! Hopefully your good memories of him provide some consolation.
You make some excellent suggestions on how to prepare for something you hope you will never have to deal with.
The most important thing to do when someone goes overboard is for the driver to do a crash tack. The very first thing you do after the Man Overboard Call. A crash tack is when you immediately do a 180 turn to windward without touching any sail control lines. This leaves you pointing directly at the person in the water.
If you luff up to windward you will be sailing away from the victim. Sails will be flogging and the whole crew will be distracted by the noise of flogging sails and people yelling in panic.
Crash tack when sailing to windward. Basically puts the boat in a hove to situation where the boat becomes immediately stable. The boat can be sailed just fine with the jib backwinded very slowly in control. Don’t try and complete the tack.
Crash tack with a spinnaker up. The boat will immediately stop going forward away from the victim. The spinnaker will be a flogging mess backwinded against the mast. Easier to take down and not a bunch of lines dragging in the water in case you need to start the engine.
You need to immediately stop the boat from sailing away from the victim.
The next time you are out sailing do a crash tack. See why it should be the first thing you do. It may be you in the water next time. It takes no organization. Just do it.
Also the first thing you do if you see someone fall off another boat.
Your first two paragraphs don’t make sense to me. In the first you say do a 180, and in the second you say don’t luff up to windward. I think you need to start your thoughts with what point of sail you are on when there is a MOB then describe your action. I teach MOB methods including Figure 8 which when correctly executed is quick. Now I wouldn’t want to do that with a person entangled with boat lines; I wonder how quickly the crew realized the victim was really entangled or just went overboard.
Heaving-to is my approach, too. Everything just freezes and gives people a moment to calmly make the next moves.
Doc, if you’re having trouble understanding Dan, I recommend experimenting with the heave-to next time you’re on the water. On a windy day in the Slot, it offers a moment of respite from the pounding.
Defining eight different roles in a MOB situation presumes a crew of at least nine, counting the MOB, and that didn’t include anybody handling sails. I would suggest boiling it down to the bare essentials that must be remembered in an emergency.
One person keeps eyes on the MOB, nothing else.
Everything else is situational.
You make several excellent points Tod. Every MOB incident is unique.
To keep eyes on, especially with limited crew, my preference has become the Quick Turn. I don’t think this method gets the exposure and support it deserves for that very reason and only requires one person on the vessel.
The other methods are fraught with unexpected problems and crew confusion.
In 1971 my Dad, Len Delmas fell overboard at 11pm alone, taking the boat back from StFYC to MYC. Life line broke, he grabbed the main sheet as he fell in. Cal 34, main was up and engine on. He dragged around SF Bay for a little over 2 hours. High freeboard, he pulled the stanchions off the stern. Could not climb on board. Eventually she ran into the dock lines of the Red and White Harbor fleet and climbed on board. Got her back to GGYC, furled the main, blood everywhere. What was not told back then was Mom’s reaction, Dad stood 6’7” and wore Mom’s first fisherman’s knit sweater, she screamed, “what did you do to my sweater?” The cowl neck was at his knees, one leg and arm bloody. Secret never told was he had a DUI 6 months prior and rode his bike to work every day, he was in perfect health, 41 years old. Lifetime of lessons! I too have fallen overboard and have humor stories because Dad was driving but they all have one thread and that is the skipper; stop the boat!
Oops time passes – 1971 not 1991 🙂
Years ago my crew and I recovered a MOB from another boat in the Newport to Ensenada Race. His boat became disabled with the loss of rudder control and in the confusion afterwards he fell overboard. His boat, now disabled with no rudder and a line tangled in the prop, drifted away from him and his crew radioed a Mayday.
It was breezy with a lot of chop. I saw him once at about a mile away when we were both on top of waves, then nothing until we were much closer. We rounded up right next to him and threw him a horseshoe device with a line attached. He said, “I can’t use my hands.” We manhandled him aboard.
Time elapsed about twenty minutes. Later I looked at the hypothermia tables. He should have been dead.
Lessons learned: Wear a PFD at all times when on deck, they are not that confining. Use a tether in rough weather. Practice MOB recovery (which we had done). One crew (in our case, me) should remain fixed on the MOB. Respect cold water.