By Gary Lambrecht
For skipper Brandt Clemons ’15, leading Navy’s victorious offshore sailing crew on 44-foot Gallant in last month’s Annapolis Yacht Club Fall Series made for a very satisfying weekend.
But Clemons will always remember a most unusual twist when he savors the Midshipmen’s achievements of October 4 on the Chesapeake Bay. That day, as Gallant was more than halfway to a comfortable win in the 26-mile race, the Midshipmen were forced to change course, and hours of seamanship training became quite useful.
One minute, Clemons was at his perch in the rear of Gallant eyeing The Fish – the only boat posing any hint of a threat to the Mids’ commanding position. The next minute, Clemons saw the lower lifeline of the B-32 snap at the port aft quarter. Then, he watched two crew members tumble into the bay.
Instantly, the Navy crew shifted gears and went into a different kind of action.
“As soon as the man-overboard call happened, I completely forgot about the race. We were shocked at first. I’ve never seen anyone go overboard like that,” Clemons said.
“My driver [helmsman Charlie Morris ‘16] said, ‘What do we do?’ I told him, ‘We’re going to get ’em. Tack the boat.’ At that point, it just became reaction and rote memorization for us. Everybody had a job to do. We’ve done so many man-overboard drills that it’s almost beat into you. The crew was like an orchestra.”
Instead of being laser-focused on crossing the finish line first, the Mids, who had practiced dozens of man-overboard exercises, were now faced with a rescue operation as their top priority. They quickly realized that neither Fish crew member treading water was wearing a flotation jacket. In addition, both wore full, foul-weather gear on what was a cold, wet, windy day, with waves of three to four feet on the bay.
Wasting no time, the Mids tacked, then backed the jib to perform a quick stop, then dropped the sails and coiled all the sheets to avoid fouling the prop when the engine was started.
From there, Gallant motored back to the sailors, who had separated and were floating on opposite sides of the boat. Clemons threw a line to one of them, and the Gallant crew pulled him aboard. A Navy crew member tossed a flotation device to the other sailor, who then was pulled back on board The Fish.
The whole rescue took approximately four minutes. The exercise happened to be timed by the alert crew of a sistership Naval Academy boat crewed by Clemons’s teammates that had been trailing Gallant.
That precious time initially cost the Mids, who, after interrupting their race to aid their competitors, ended up in fourth place. But the loss proved temporary. The AYC regatta committee granted Navy’s request for a redress hearing and awarded the victory to the Mids a week later.
The rest of the Navy crew included Trevor Voegele ’15 (executive officer), Tilghman McCabe ’15 (jib trimmer), Nick Satterlee ’17 (jib trimmer), Daniel Panchevre ’17 (pit), Matt Finley ’16 (mast) and Donal Hanlon ’16 (bow).
Efforts to contact the chief judge from the regatta committee and members of The Fish crew were unsuccessful.
Jahn Tihansky, head coach of the Naval Academy Varsity Offshore Sailing team, beamed with pride at the way the Mids’ diligent practice time had reaped such a meaningful benefit.
“These guys train their butts off. They do things like 500-mile training sails to Nantucket,” said Tihansky, who estimated the team has done about 40 man overboard drills. “The fact that they were able to do this as quickly as they did is a testament to how important this training is to them.
“I’ve sailed for 40 years. I’ve been involved in three man-overboard situations personally. I know of people who have been lost at sea and not recovered. The good thing is we have standard operating procedures. We are required to wear life jackets, which is a requirement in intercollegiate sailing, but not [offshore sailing] that involves the general public. You never know what kind of tiger is hiding behind the tree.”
Clemons said the incident provided a sharp reminder of the danger involved in his chosen sport. A native of Farmington, MO, Clemons had never sailed before arriving at the Academy.
“Half of my crew has been sailing for a year or less. We do these long summer sails. When I was a freshman, we sailed to Bermuda, and we sailed through Hurricane Irene. We were 300 miles off the coast of anything,” Clemons said.
“If somebody goes overboard there, he’s going to die if you don’t get to him in time. The Coast Guard can’t get there in time. The crews take this very seriously,” he added. “At first, we didn’t think [The FISH rescue] was a big deal. I mean, the Chesapeake Bay isn’t the Bering Strait. But when we got back [to the academy] after the race, the coaches told us, ‘No. This is what could have very easily been a huge tragedy.’
“Look, we really wanted to win that race, and we knew we had sailed well enough to win the regatta. But there wasn’t a single member of the crew who resented how [the rescue] caused us to finish fourth. We got to pull two guys out of the water. Whether we got the redress or not, there’s nothing better than that.”