How to recover a Lightning from a Capsize!

Jeff Storck had the unfortunate experience on October 4 of catching a strong gust as he was tacking, with his centerboard temporarily on the river bottom, and quickly found his boat capsized and his crew in the water.  He was asked how he recovered; his story is listed below, along with the subsequent comments that were exchanged in the email dialog. 

One point not made in the dialog is that if there is ever any possibility of a capsize, you must put on your PFDs before you leave the dock, and keep them on until after your return.  Also, pay attention to the water temperature and be aware of the effects of hypothermia and how quickly it can slow down your mental processes — which is why it is very important, when the water is 64 degrees, as it was yesterday, to have crash boats on the race course when capsizes are possible — to rescue CREW — not boats.

Here is the dialog:


The first smart thing we did was put our preventer on with the board in about the halfway position before we left the dock and checked it frequently as we sailed. If you fail to put your preventer on, you’ve got a good chance of your centerboard falling into the slot which makes it nearly impossible to right the boat without assistance. When you start to capsize, it is best if one of you can climb over the gunwale and get on the board as quickly as possible. Sometimes this will save you from capsizing completely and then you just need to open the bailers and get rid of whatever water you have shipped aboard. In our case, it happened so quickly we were in the water before either Bruce or I had a chance to make that attempt. So what to do next? First, don’t panic and above all STAY WITH THE BOAT!  People who swim away or get separated from their boat often get hurt or worse. Next get the smallest and lightest crew member, in our case it was Becky, to nestle up as close inside the cockpit as possible while the 2 heavyweights, me and Bruce, swim around to the centerboard to pull the boat up. Make sure the main sheet is RELEASED so that you are not trying to lift hundreds of lbs of water that will get trapped on top of the sail. The 2 heavies pull on the centerboard, and eventually climb up on top of it to counter the weight of mast/sail/water etc. When the boats pops up, it will scoop up the crew left in the cockpit and you now have one person inside the boat. It’s important for that 3rd to stay on the opposite side of the boat from where the heavies are pulling, otherwise the boat will go right over the other way and you have to try again. In our case, Becky was perfect and managed to keep the boat balanced and upright while Bruce and I tried to climb in. This can be tough, especially for us old geezers, so here is a tip. One of you swim to the stern and use one of the stern bailers (i.e. scupper) as a step to get in. Once 2 are aboard its an easy thing to pull the last one in (even a heavy like me). Then it’s about bailing as much water out as you can quickly and getting her sailing so the Maxi bailer in the bilge and the stern bailers can do their work. Its not that hard, but it can be scary for a beginner. In our case neither Bruce nor Becky had ever capsized a Lightning before, so it was a first time experience for them. They did a great job, and kept their wits about them as we went through the steps.

I know Frank will tell us that capsize drills in controlled situations are great practice, and something we probably don’t do enough of with our new skippers and crew.

 Jim Dillard:

 I would suggest one additional step. I believe it is helpful, particularly in heavy air, to get the nose into the wind. Even w/ the main and jib sheets uncleated, the wind can catch the sails and over you go w/ the sails over you.



 If the spinnaker was up, have someone release the spin halyard, so you can get most of the spin down before the boat is righted….

 Very important to bring the boat up so that when it comes up, it about 30 to 45 degrees off the wind …. not straight into the wind…not 90 degrees, and definitely not with the wind behind you….

When it come up about 30 to 45 degrees off the wind you will have  a little resistance to work against, and it will be easier to get in and start sailing off on a reach…if it’s dead into the wind it just rolls around and capsizes again to weather on top of you….

Yes …. .capsize drills in controlled situations are great practice, and it is great to do it in a laser to get a feel for it…it’s just like a small lightning…

if you don’t get to the centerboard quick enough, the mast sinks into the mud and make it very difficult to get it up…..

Sometimes in heavy air, we turn lasers over between races and just sit on the side to get a rest…


 Regarding “if you don’t get to the centerboard quick enough, the mast sinks into the mud and make it very difficult to get it up ….. ”

 The mast is likely to get stuck in the mud because it typically is pointed downwind and as the wind blows on the hull the mast gets driven underwater and into the mud.  You have very little time to get to the centerboard!  Plus, there is a temptation to climb up and over the boat to avoid getting completely soaked, but if started after the capsize that just accelerates the downward dive of the mast.

 I don’t know the solution other 1) than to anticipate the capsize and be climbing over the side before the mast hits the water, 2) for all the crew to immediately sacrifice themselves to the water when they realize #1 is not possible, 3) for the foredeck to make some feeble attempt to keep the mast from going down, and 4) for the skipper to swim around the transom pronto!  Like I said, I don’t really know the solution.