Capsize Recovery - It's Not In Your DNA

By Barney Harris 6701 & 8011

Recovering from a capsize is not a skill we are all born with - it is acquired like everything else associated with racing small dinghies. All one needs to improve is to learn some basic techniques along with a basic understanding of the underlying physics of a capsized boat.

During a capsize, try to make it to the centerboard by swinging one leg over the rail and onto the board before the mast contacts the water. Take a step onto the board to prevent the mast from going under the water. If you are not able to make it to the board, then by all means, resist the natural tendency, to climb to the high side (usually greater in water below 50 degrees F) as this will only drive the rig underwater and make righting the boat difficult. Instead, fall into the water and swim around or under the boat to the centerboard as fast as possible.

First, count your crew; unless your name is Jasper, there should be one in addition to yourself. After ascertaining that your crew is okay, getting one crew onto the centerboard as quickly as possible and preventing the rig from totally submerging is the most important thing you can do. Check that the board is down, put it down if it is not. Have one person climb onto the centerboard. Ensure that the main sheet is uncleated and find the bailer. About 1 1/2 persons are required to right an Albacore - this means that one person needs to be on the board and completely out of the water and one person can be hanging on the board and partially immersed.

I have observed some persons who seem intent on swimming the boat's bow into the wind before righting. This is a waste of time and increases the likelihood that, if in shallow water, the mast will become stuck in the mud and, if in deep water, the boat will end up turtled. Furthermore, a boat pointed into the wind will be in irons after righting, and will heel towards the side on which crew climbs, placing the luffing rig outboard of the hull, and causing the boat to yaw or weather-vane towards and re-capsize onto the crew, adding insult to injury!

Now, if the capsize was to leeward, simply right the boat by applying righting moment on the centerboard. Moment is the product of force times a distance - this could mean more weight near the hull or less weight further away from the hull. Be careful to not over-stress your centerboard by standing too far from the hull; they can break; avoid walking on the trailing edge. When the mast starts to clear the water, simply swing your aft leg over the rail and walk over the boat as it rights. It is best if one member of the crew remains in the sea to minimize the amount of water in the boat after righting.

Righting is more difficult when the hull is to leeward of the rig, as often happens following a death roll, dropped tiller, or auto tack wind-shift event. since the main will fill as soon as it is raised from the water - and re-capsize the boat. There are four techniques I know of to deal with this situation: weather-vane, scoop, ride em down, and dive.

The easiest is to simply raise the mast a couple feet out of the water allowing the exposed portion of the main to fill. This will weather-vane the boat around until the mast is pointed roughly to leeward at which time the boat can be righted. It takes a bit of concentration to raise the main high enough out of the water to turn the boat, but not so high that it rights and re-capsizes.

Have one crew member swim to the windward (submerged) side of the boat and float into the cockpit. The other crew member then climbs onto the centerboard and rights the boat - as the sail fills the boat will be stood upright rapidly - the crew member on the centerboard will be lowered into the sea - and the crew member in the cockpit will be scooped up. Their weight will prevent a second capsize in all but the most extreme conditions. The scooped crew can hike a bit on what will be the windward side as the boat right, which will reduce the probability of a subsequent capsize to leeward.

A third technique is to ride the centerboard down and around. As the boat is stood upright by the breeze, drop and hug the board - and take a deep breath. You will be pulled under water as the boat is stood upright by the wind. While under water, crawl around to the opposite side of the board; do not let go! With no one in the hull to resist, the boat will re-capsize quite rapidly - and when it does, you will already be on top of the centerboard and ready to right the boat using the procedure described for rig to leeward of the hull.

The fourth technique is to dive for the new windward side. Slowly right the boat; when the mast tip just begins to clear the water surface, the breeze will fill the main, tending to stand the rig up. Continue using less and less moment as the main fills. When the sail fills to the point that the boat begins to right itself, step over the rail and move quickly to the submerged side just as the breeze stands the boat upright. One must use caution to duck under the boom, which will be swinging wildly. Assuming that you have not lost your teeth or have been clothes-lined by the vang, hike out a bit on the new windward side to keep the boat from re-capsizing. Uncleat the vang and main and jib sheets as you cross the boat for a maximum style point score. When done correctly, this is the fastest means of getting going following a windward capsize - but it is the most daunting.

Wind and wave action will tend to drive the mast of an Albacore, capsized to leeward in shallow water, into the bottom. Wind, wave, and current forces on the hull will quickly force the mast deep into the bottom, then bend/break it like a toothpick in a block of cheese, ruining your day in the process. Worse yet, if the mast fails below the jib halyard, the rig will no longer be sprung into the hull by shroud tension, the mast may come unstepped and punch holes through the hull, which could ruin your week. This is why getting to the centerboard after a capsize is the most important thing you can do - after ascertaining the safety of your crew. You must be quick to prevent or minimize damage.

If your mast is really stuck in the mud you may not be able to self rescue and will have to rely on outside assistance. An inexperienced crash boat crew often believes that they must come into physical contact with the stricken craft - to place their hands on the boat. Nothing could be further from the truth: two boats in close proximity in steep chop only compounds the problem and can cause more damage than they prevent, particularly in challenging sea conditions. It is imperative to keep the crash boat away from the stricken craft. The crash boat must retain their ability to manoeuvre using their engines - and they cannot do this if they are next to another boat with people in the water.

Pass a line from the crash boat to the stricken albacore by dragging a 30 or so foot length of polypropylene line behind the crash boat with an empty Clorox bottle secured to its end. The crash boat should position itself to windward of the stricken craft; the line will be blown down onto the boat where it can be easily grabbed by the crew.

Next, lead the line over the rail and tie it to the thwart with a slip knot. Keep the loose end of the slip knot in your hand and instruct the crash boat operator to slowly back down at right angles to the boat - the idea is to remove the mast from the muddy bottom as one would remove knife from a sheath. One crew member should be on the centerboard while the mast is pulled clear of the mud. As soon as the mast is out of the mud, untie the crash boat by pulling the slip knot tail. Right the boat, thank the rescue boat crew and ask them to go away.

After righting, get to the main sheet and, if you have not already done so, uncleat it. Get the tiller and hiking stick untangled, and drag the second crew member aboard like a gaff hooked tuna [I keep a gaff hook in my boat just for this purpose!] If the boat's buoyancy tanks are tight, you should be able to sail the boat out from under the water by simply sheeting in on a reach with the stern scuppers open. Sit aft in the boat to encourage water to flow out the scuppers. Sail for a while and close the scuppers when there is only a few inches of water remaining in the bilge. The suction bailers will remove the remaining water. If there is not adequate wind to sail the boat dry [shame on you!], use a bucket to remove 20 or so percent of the water and sail the boat dry using the suction bailers. It is important to keep the boat moving, to maintain steerage, and to keep the boat level and in control. What naval architects refer to as the "free surface" effect of all that water sloshing around reduces the boat's stability, since it will slosh to the low side and increase the tendency to roll.

In contrast to what some have expressed, the high degree of buoyancy in the Ontario Yachts Albacore is a blessing. After righting, the boat floats with enough freeboard to enable both crew to board and sail the boat away with little if any bailing. The solid forward bulkhead prevents water from sloshing forward and burying the bow. Having sailed - and capsized Albacores with less than adequate buoyancy [I am embarrassed to say exactly how many times!], trying to bail out swamped boat with waves washing over the rail and filling it up as fast as you can remove it is no fun.

The notion that the best Albacore is one which floats low in the water when on its side - as evidenced by the ease by which one can climb onto the centerboard of a capsized boat - is misguided. Less buoyancy is a double edged sword - and the down sides outweigh the advantages in my opinion. The current OY design may float a bit higher when on its side, but it will also float higher after being righted -and will be faster, easier, and safer to sail dry with less chance of a re-capsize.

The only downside of this buoyancy is that the boat will float a bit higher when on its side, and the centerboard will be 10 inches or so above the water's surface, making it awkward to get onto the board. I have found an easy way to climb onto the board is to swim to the forward side and reach over the board with both hands, grasping the trailing edge and floating ones body close to horizontal. Now, rapidly force your legs down as you raise your torso onto the board using both arms. Once on the board, stand up and grab the rail, keeping your feet near the hull and away from the trailing edge.

Another alternative is to equip one's Albacore with recovery lines. A recovery line consists of short length of cordage dead ended under each rail about midships, one on each side. While sailing, this line is lead aft and held taught under the rail, clear of the sea in a clam cleat or with a shock cord. A line diameter of ¼ inch with several knots is usually adequate. When capsized, the crew swims to the stern and grabs the recovery line, and use it to assist their climb onto the centerboard. Sometimes it is not even necessary to climb onto the centerboard - both crew pull the line and the boat will right. A shock cord retract on the recovery line helps will keep it out of the water after a capsize recovery.

A recovery line is particularly useful in the event of a turtling event. In this case, simply swim to the stern and grab the leeward line. Now swim to midships on the windward side of the upturned hull while clutching the line, which will now be lead over the hull. Use the recovery line to climb onto the bottom by placing one's feet on the underside of the side deck and standing up. Right the boat by hanging from the recovery line till the boat begins to rotate, and step onto the centerboard as the boat rights. Continue to right the boat as described above.

People are not more born with the skills needed to right a boat any more than they were the ability to sail it. Both are skills which can only be acquired through a combination of instruction and practice. Practising and perfecting the techniques listed above will reduce the time you spend on your side after a capsize - it has for me!

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