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AMERICA'S CUP 1987 : Man Overboard Is a Real Danger in Rough Waters of Indian Ocean

January 30, 1987|EDITOR'S NOTE: Stories for this special America's Cup section were written by Rich Roberts, Times staff writer, who has been on assignment in Fremantle, Australia, since late November. Roberts, a recreational sailor, has written extensively about the sport and covered all classes of sailing for The Times during the 1984 Olympics. He will report on the final series, along with Times' sports columnist Mike Downey.

FREMANTLE, Australia — It has been weeks since anyone fell overboard into the frothing waters on the America's Cup course, but it has been no less dangerous than before.

The crews of the surviving boats have simply learned to cope.

One incident that got everyone's attention earlier was the double dunking experienced by America II crewmen Robbie Young and Charlie Santry.

"We were sliding the jib back on the deck to pack it going downwind and buried the bow into a pretty big wave," Young said. "It was probably three feet deep on the bow and we were kneeling. It was over my head.

"When you're doing 13 knots, the force of the water is pretty great. It's kind of hard to hold on."

Twelve-meters carry no lifelines because they interfere with the sails and "slow down everything," Young said.

"We have foot rails and hand rails, and we were always holding on with one hand. When we went under, I had one hand on the handrail. My hand started to slip, so I let go of the sail and was holding on with two hands and I still couldn't hold on. It was out of control. The force was too great."

The water, Young reported, is "cool but it's not icy."

He wasn't concerned about sharks, which have been said to inhabit the waters here.

"You don't even think about that," Young said. "You're so mad when you hit the water that you fell off the boat, that you don't think about the sharks or the cold or anything else."

Life jackets also are out. Too cumbersome.

"For the most part, that's the only reason," Young said, "and we have the chase boats following each boat along, anyway. If you hit the water, they're gonna be there in seconds. We're all pretty good swimmers. Even though you're wearing a lot of gear, you can hang on for a couple of minutes, and we were in the water only about 40 seconds."

Santry said: "We'd just gotten the sail down and were moving it back when we dug into the wave. (Young) was looking aft, so I had a view of it. I really didn't think it was gonna be that big a wave. I just said, 'Hold on,' but we went in a lot further than I expected.

"Going downwind, the boat rolls and digs in, and the spinnaker pulls the bow right down into the water. It's not like a wave breaking over the boat. It's just the boat running into a wall, and it comes over with the force of whatever the boat's going. When the boat's going hard, you can have some out-of-control rolls."

For a moment, Santry felt himself floating above the deck of the boat.

"When my body lost contact with the deck, I knew I was in trouble," he said. "Just being on the deck helps you stay on, but once you start lifting up, you can't even hold on with your hands.

"I was holding on with one hand with the other hand around the jib. The jib kind of went into me, and I couldn't hold on anymore."

Young and Santry sensed they weren't alone in the water.

"I was pretty sure Robbie had gone over," Santry said. "I remember seeing a little white flash going over the side."

Young said: "I couldn't see anything. Before I left the boat, I was under water until I popped up. I felt Charlie kick me in the head.

"The way I was wrapped up in the sail, I was just hoping the sail didn't go over with us all the way. Luckily, it stayed attached to the boat. If it had wound up in the water with us . . . that's the only thing that scared me."

Santry said: "If we had been wrapped up in the sail, we would have been bad news."

Young said: "Some boats with higher bows, like French Kiss, Stars & Stripes and White Crusader, have an advantage over others. They come up on a wave. Our boat was fairly low and dug in."

Safety harnesses were suggested, but Young said: "If we'd had harnesses on when we fell over. . . . "

Santry said: "We would have been dead. We would have been dragging under the sail."

Young said: "We couldn't have gotten away. You're doing 13 knots. It would have been beating the hell out of us. No way anyone could have brought us on board at that speed."

As it was, it took two men on the inflatable chase boat to pull them out.

"It's better if you do get washed off, just to get clear of the boat," Young said. "The hardest thing is getting from the rubber boat back onto the 12-meter. That was tough."

As bowman, part of Young's job was to go up the 90-foot mast when there's a jammed halyard or other trouble aloft.

"I knew exactly what the problem was and what to do to fix it because I put it together," Young said.

"Going up doesn't really bother me. It's like falling in the water. You're more upset with the fact that something broke or you're overboard. I've been doing that for five years now. It doesn't faze me at all.

"It's kind of hard to work and hold on at the same time. You have to hold on with one hand so you don't get beat up, but sometimes it takes two hands to work. You get used to holding on with your legs.

"You're tied into a chair harness. If you're at the top you don't really rock around because you're held in close to the mast by the halyard. It's harder to work 10 feet down, because then you have a swinging motion."

On one rough day America II even lost its tactician, John Bertrand, who had gone forward from the aft cockpit to assist with a jib change.

"It was a weird day," Young said, "(with) heavy seas but the breeze way down. When we tacked over and started taking the old jib down we buried into a really big wave.

"I got washed back. The guy behind me, Beau LeBlanc, got washed back and down the hatch. J.B. was behind him and he went right over the side."

Santry said: "That's the last time he came forward."

It's safer in the back of the boat.

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