Overboard sailor survives day adrift

From Ocean Navigator #104
March/April 2000
A Norwegian sailor who was knocked overboard by the boom while crossing the Atlantic in December was recovered safely after he spent 18 hours in the water. Petter Noreng, captain of the Norwegian yacht Jägermeister, was thrown into the sea in the early morning hours of December 6 during an uncontrolled gybe while his vessel was more than 700 miles east of the Windward Islands.

Noreng was not located until nearly dusk the following day, after a large-scale search operation that included vessels participating in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and two U.S. Coast Guard fixed-wing aircraft. A Mayday call was first received by the ARC entrant Mazy, which forwarded the call to the Norwegian Coast Guard, which in turn contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. Four ARC yachts then diverted to the location given by the Mayday call: 16° 56′ N, 48° 44′ W.

Noreng reported later that, after being called up on deckhe had been asleep belowto assist with a fouled spinnaker, he was proceeding forward when the boat gybed suddenly and he was hit on the head with the boom and landed in the water. But he remained conscious and inflated his lifejacket, which he had been wearing in his bunk. “The first 15 minutes was the worst. I was thinking to myself: this is it! I was bleeding from my head. I didn’t know how bad the injury was. I knew my odds, as well as watching the boat disappear on the horizon,” Noreng said in a statement to the ARC, which is based at the headquarters of the World Cruising Club in Cowes.

“Through my safety training I knew all about losing body temperature, and the dangers of swallowing saltwater. I saw flares, and my boat was very close, about 600 feet, after 20 minutes. Then I understood there was no way that I could be found at night. You can see maximum 90 feet in those conditions.”

Noreng watched several vessels approach his position throughout the night, coming within 300 feet, but they eventually moved out of range. He reported blowing his whistle incessantly, but knew that he was not being heard. “Then it was another six hours with no boats. I was playing with my lifejacket, and managed to make a nice stressless chair out of it. My stomach went bad. I was shitting all the time, and understood that I had swallowed a lot of saltwater. In the beginning I took my pants off, acted like a gentleman, but after a while I figured out that it really didn’t matter,” he said.

Another vessel came into view at 0800, and Noreng noticed the crew was performing a systematic search. They came so close he even saw the faces of the several crew aboard. He witnessed the two Coast Guard airplanes flying far overhead but realized there was no way he could be seen from such an altitude. Near dark he saw two vessels searching together. He swam toward them, but they passed without noticing. “I started to prepare for another night in the water,” he said. Half an hour later, however, the vessels returned. “I saw two boats approximately two nautical miles west of me, coming into the wind. This was definitely my last call and I swam to break their course. I gave it all! I took my stupid Hawaiian shirt [for use as] a flag, whistled harder than no referee has ever done in a soccer match in South America. I was found!”

Noreng was spotted by crewmembers of the 42-foot Jeanneau Hildring during a last search attempt before squalls and darkness diminished visibility to near zero. He was reported to be in good condition, except for being cold and tired. The vessel continued its course to St. Lucia; a rendezvous with Noreng’s crew aboard Jägermeister was executed the following day. “Next day I went back [to] my boat (pasta and water, always hungry) and completed crossing with a different view about valuable things in life.”

Noreng suggested that in an M.O.B. situation after dark, the best course of action would be to return to the believed position and illuminate all lights and drift in hopes that the person in the water can swim to the vessel. He credited his survival to his having worn his lifejacket to bed, since he would not have had time to put it on, as were his standing orders, before joining the deck crew. Noreng also recommended that mariners equip lifejackets with larger, more piercing whistles.

By Ocean Navigator