In the two months since Seattle sailor Greg Mueller died after falling out of his team’s boat and into the water on the first day of Race Week in Anacortes, the shock of his death has reverberated throughout the close-knit sailing community.

The Skagit County Coroner’s Office ruled Mueller’s death a drowning. But the sudden nature of the accident and the confusion that ensued in the immediate aftermath have sparked renewed conversations about safety protocols in man-overboard situations, and debates over the best ways to prevent these sorts of accidents.

“It’s an insult to Greg’s memory if nothing comes of this that shows there was nothing that could have prevented this from happening,” said David Miller, a skipper who participated in Race Week in June, and who overheard the radio conversation between the crew of Mueller’s boat, With Grace, and race organizers as they tried to save Mueller. “We need to try and have something good come out of all the pain that his family and friends went through.”

Greg Mueller was a highly skilled sailor and longtime member of the Washington Yacht Club. He died June 22, 2021, after falling out of his boat, With Grace, during Race Week in Anacortes.  (Courtesy of Ken Jones)

Across the sailing community, the consensus is that there needs to be more emphasis on practicing safety protocols regularly.

Sailing is a popular sport in the Seattle area thanks to the abundance of water, but as with any sport, it comes with risks. Understanding the risks and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency, however, can make the difference in a life being saved.

“Greg’s death is a good reminder to go over safety procedures with your crew and review your own safety training,” said Elise Siv, a frequent sailor and skipper. 

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Be better prepared

In the aftermath of Mueller’s accident, Race Week organizer Schelleen Rathkopf has reflected on the ways she, as the race director, and sailors, can enhance their preparation to better handle future man-overboard situations. 

“My thoughts have centered on three things,” said Rathkopf. “One, cold shock. Two, importance of a [personal flotation device], and three, what I, as a sailboat race event producer, could ever do to minimize the chances of a death occurring on the course.”

Consequently, Rathkopf is considering adding new safety requirements to Race Week, including asking skippers to register their crews with emergency contact information, mandating that skippers go over man-overboard safety protocols with crews prior to Race Week, and keeping a crew log containing contact information and full names of all members on board the vessel.

Ultimately, trying to prevent tragedy from resulting after a person falls overboard during a race boils down to knowing what to do as a team and understanding what each team member’s role is in that situation, ideally through regular drill practice.

Rathkopf stressed the importance of regular man-overboard drills and the understanding that the first 120 seconds after someone hits the water can mean life or death, due to cold shock.

Rathkopf said cold shock occurs when someone lands in water below 60 degrees, such as the Puget Sound. Falling into such cold water produces an immediate gasp reflex. If your head is below the water, you could inhale water and potentially drown. The shock of the temperature can cause panic, hyperventilation and an increase in heart rate, causing a heart attack.

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Understanding cold shock can help keep someone calm in the event they fall overboard. Relaxing, refraining from swimming and focusing on keeping one’s head above water can buy time for the crew to toss out a flotation device.

Margaret Pommert, a full-time sailing instructor and Coast Guard-licensed captain, teaches at several of the largest sailing schools in the Seattle area. She is also vice president of The Sailing Foundation’s efforts with U.S. Sailing’s Safety at Sea program. The Sailing Foundation is a Seattle-area nonprofit that promotes safety and sailing in the Pacific Northwest. 

Pommert believes regular hands-on drill practice for emergency situations is essential to preventing tragedies. However, as an instructor, she frequently hears sailors say they’ll “figure it out when it happens.” 

Team Puff gets underway for their race on the 35-foot sailboat Puff. Earlier, skipper Margaret Pommert, second from left, trained her crew using a Lifesling on a dummy named Oscar, as well as herself, to practice rescuing a sailor fallen overboard, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“I think the best response I’ve heard to that comment is that you’re always going to have to innovate when something happens, because it will never happen exactly as you practice,” she said. “But if you practice, then you’ll only have to innovate a small percentage rather than make the whole thing up as you go along, which reduces the chances of success.”

Safety at Sea training provides experiential practice for sailors, equipping them with the information and skills to safely sail offshore. This involves navigating in inclement weather, safety equipment recommendations and preparing for emergencies at sea, including crew-overboard situations.

The training incorporates hands-on drills so sailors can learn what it feels like to be in the water loaded with a life jacket and weight, and practice climbing into a life raft. One lesson utilizes a pool and life-size dummies to practice lifting a human from the water using a device called the Lifesling.

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U.S. Sailing requires that a certain percentage of crew aboard offshore race boats take the Safety at Sea training. But that rule is not enforced for nearshore races such as Race Week because boats are much closer to land and can get to shore and access medical attention more readily. An incident offshore could mean that you are days or even weeks away from medical attention.

Three members of the With Grace crew had voluntarily completed Safety at Sea training and the boat carried a Lifesling on board during Mueller’s man-overboard incident. Because Mueller was unconscious after he fell into the water, the Lifesling was less effective since the victim needs to put it on themself. With Grace skipper Chris Johnson said he has since invested in a pulley system to facilitate use of the Lifesling for crew-overboard situations they might encounter in the future.

Margaret Pommert, below, uses a Lifesling on herself, as she demonstrates block and tackle rigging to her crew for rescuing a sailor fallen overboard, Aug. 2, 2021, in Seattle. Clockwise from foreground: Pommert, Kathy Zaharchuk, Elisa Cottrell, Lilia Abaibourova, Susan Nelson and Lisa Meoli. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Pommert, who skippers an all-women crew on a boat similar to the With Grace, has always prioritized safety and is making changes to her crew safety protocols as a result of Mueller’s death. These include collecting emergency contact and medical information for any new crew member who joins midseason and ensuring that everyone reviews the emergency equipment diagram located in the boat’s cabin.

She also teaches her crew a series of steps to follow during a man-overboard incident.

First, she says, yell “man overboard” to alert nearby boats that there is someone in the water — they can sometimes reach the person faster. It also lets the person in the water know you’re aware they are overboard and help is on the way.

The second step is to designate someone to point to the person in the water. “One of the biggest hazards in a crew-overboard situation is when you lose sight of the victim. If you lose sight of them, you can’t help them,” she said.

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Lastly, someone needs to get a flotation device out to the person in the water, provided they are able to climb aboard.

The With Grace team had a designated communication officer to inform race organizers in the event of an emergency. As soon as Mueller went overboard, the officer did exactly that, the skipper said. A life ring was also tossed to Mueller, but he was unable to use it since he had become tangled upside down in the ropes attached to the sail.

In her news release, Rathkopf suggested that teams discuss man-overboard protocol and assign jobs to each member before leaving the dock so there is no confusion about responsibilities in an emergency. Roles include a spotter who keeps their eye on the victim, a documenter who takes photos and video, and designated people to report the incident on the radio and call 911.

One person should serve as the alternate for each role and understand what to do in each position.

Washington state does not require watercraft users to wear life jackets, only to have enough on board for each occupant. Ultimately, the skipper is responsible for the safety of the boat and calls the shots in the event of an incident, however, each team member also needs to be in charge of their own safety.

Johnson requires the With Grace crew to wear life jackets in races, including during Race Week. He has since added mandatory crotch straps for his sailors. These inexpensive additions prevent a life jacket from pulling over to one side, which happened with Mueller.

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Pommert also models the behaviors she desires in her crew. For instance, she wears a crotch strap with her life jacket. 

“Part of the reason I wear mine is so that it’s OK for other people on the boat to wear theirs,” she said. “If you’re the skipper that is too proud to wear one because it’s too dorky, then why would my crew wear theirs?”

Prioritizing and practicing safety

Miller, the Race Week skipper who overheard efforts to save Mueller, emphasizes safety training for his crew, and selects crew based on knowledge and dedication to safety. He estimates that about half his crew is trained in advanced CPR.

His boat carries an onboard automated external defibrillator, which is atypical for most amateur crews, largely due to the cost. “I have added CPR training after drownings on my to-do list, and in the offseason, I’ll probably bring in someone to provide training to my crew,” Miller said. “I think it’s something that anyone in sailing needs to know.”

Lizzy Grim, who is currently preparing for the Clipper Round the World Race, agrees that the Washington sailing community needs to start discussing safety more often.

“There’s a lot of talk on boats about what to do, but we don’t actually practice,” she said. “You need to know that your team has your back.”

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According to Johnson, the With Grace crew regularly practices drills with the Lifesling and had to use one in a previous man-overboard incident. He said every crew member knows where the safety equipment and Lifesling are located, and they review “quite often.”

To prepare crews for the Clipper Round the World Race, Grim participates in training exercises day and night with a life-size dummy to get a true feel for an incident.

Margaret Pommert, left, uses a Lifesling on a dummy named Oscar to demonstrate technique for rescuing a sailor fallen overboard before her crew’s race, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. From left: Pommert, Kathy Zaharchuk, Lisa Meoli and Lilia Abaibourova. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

She says practicing crew-overboard procedures is especially important in the Pacific Northwest, where it’s not uncommon for people to sail on a variety of boats. 

“You need to know what the crew-overboard procedure looks like on different boats,” she said. “If I’m on a smaller boat, then we might not have some of the things we have on a bigger boat to pull a man back on board.” 

She suggested that Race Week have boats go out early on Day One to practice crew-overboard drills. She’d also love to see a safety-focused event take place in the Seattle area.

Miller would like to see Race Week and other local race events include safety protocols and procedures in the sailing instructions provided to skippers during briefings.

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“We need to not let Greg’s death be in vain and honor him by being safer,” said Grim. “Moving forward, I’d like to see some safety procedures done in his honor.”

A memorial service for Mueller will be held after Labor Day weekend, Johnson said.

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