If you do not regularly follow news of the ‘sailing community’, you may not have heard about the recent very tragic death of experienced sailor Jan Anderson from San Fransisco. Jan and her husband Rob were sailing on their Island Packet 380 ‘Triple Stars’, in the North Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (NARC) which started in Rhode Island on November 1 and ended in St. Martin. The weather this time of year in the North Atlantic can be troublesome at best so a good weather ‘window’ was awaited before the group cast off.
It sounds like all went as planned until an unexpected low pressure system off South Carolina traveled south and created a front with 40 knot winds and 20 foot seas lasting several days. Many of the faster boats had already reached Bermuda and safety, but several boats were caught in the really bad stuff. The Andersons had to heave to and try to ride out the storm. They made the best decision they could with the information they had at the time and posted to their blog during the storm that they were prepared to ride it out and were in good spirits with plenty of supplies. These people were not newbies. They were experienced sailors on a good, solid boat. Even so, Jan was washed overboard by a 30 foot wave, never to be seen in this world again. Her husband notified the Coast Guard. He was rescued. They searched for Jan. Their beautiful “Triple Stars” was abandoned to the sea. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve heard in a lifetime of hearing sad things.
After reading the news about this tragic death, I immediately wanted to know so many things. Don’t we always try to understand tragedy logically, so we can control whether it will happen to us or not? I guess I’m just human on this point. So I wanted to know if she was wearing a life vest. Was she wearing a harness that was meant to keep her on the boat? Was it in good condition? Was she on watch single-handing it? Or did she leave the cabin ‘just for a minute’ to check something? We still don’t know the details, but I’m sure they will come out in time. And I plan to learn from them, as do many sailors around the world looking for updates on this each day.
While I wait for further news, here’s what I have learned so far, and what I hereby promise to my family and friends: I promise that when Mike and I are in bad weather on our boat, we will always wear life preservers and be harnessed to the boat with harnesses that are in excellent condition and that are meant to withstand many thousands of pounds of load. When keeping watch alone, we will be harnessed to the boat so that neither of us will ever have to come through the hatch to discover the other one gone. That’s the best we can do. Maybe it’s what Jan did. The ocean is a powerful force.
Does this story make me second-guess our plans? Does it make me afraid to go cruising? Absolutely not. People are killed every day on the highway, and yet I drive my car. People die in plane crashes, but I get on the plane. Some things we have no control over in this world and I don’t have time to worry about things I cannot control. But I can control whether I have on my safety equipment. And I can control what kind of boat I have and, to some extent, my knowledge about bad weather that’s coming. After that, I take my chances. Just like I do every day when I get out of bed and leave my house. I take my chances. I’m not willing to live my life in fear.
What this story does is remind me not to be glib. Sailing on big oceans is serious business and we haven’t done it yet. Not really. When I think of 40 knot winds and 20 foot waves, our little jaunt to Barkley Sound hardly counts. I think we will enjoy blue water sailing, even with difficult times. But it’s possible we won’t and we’ll just decide to come home. (Don’t hold your breath. It would have to get very bad very fast for that to happen.) I know we need more heavy weather experience. And the only way to get that is to get out in heavy weather. (Winter is coming…) It reminds me yet again that I want to be able to completely trust the boat I’m on. It reminds me to be careful, stay aware, and not to take the sea for granted. And it is so terribly, terribly easy to get comfortable on the boat and take for granted the solid feel of the deck under your feet. And the story reminds me how very much I rely on my husband, not only on the boat, but every day. And how much I love him.
But mostly it reminds me that life is short. And it doesn’t get any longer, either.
As tragic as this death is, I have to believe that Jan died doing something she loved with someone she loved. I have to believe, too, that her death was quick and merciful; that she didn’t have time to be terrified. These beliefs protect me from having to think about the full force of this loss, so I’ll keep them, thanks. And I have to think that people will be able to use whatever knowledge her husband has of this accident and learn from it and benefit from it in her name. I know that each time I see my life vest and harness hanging close to the hatch, I will forever think of Jan Anderson, even though I don’t know how she was washed away. They will remind me nonetheless. When we’re out in bad weather practicing in the relative safety of Puget Sound, I will think of Jan Anderson each time water splashes over the bow.
Jan, if your soul lingers, I’d like to say I wish I had met you. You’ve taught me so much.