Cornelis van Rietschoten tells PBO “Another 10 minutes and I would have been unconscious”

A yachtsman who was ‘catapulted’ overboard by a freak wave has praised the rescuers who saved him from hypothermia.

Cornelis van Rietschoten was enjoying a Saturday morning sail, some six nautical miles off the coast of Shoreham when he became a man overboard casualty in the cold water.

The 56-year-old keen sailor and PBO subscriber said he was quickly swept away from his Morgan Giles 30 yacht Vagabond amid choppy sea and increasing winds.

The freak wave also knocked his friend Spencer Neal into the cockpit of the yacht. The drama occurred around 12.45pm on 20 February.

Vagabond, sailing off Shoreham

Vagabond, sailing off Shoreham

Cornelis, who moors at Sussex Yacht Club in Southwick, said: ‘It was quite a windy day and we’d had a great sail, it was not particularly nice weather but we were enjoying the sail. We knew a weather front was coming over, so we turned around to go back home.

‘We were pretty much on a reach, running with the wind a lot of the time with the waves behind us.

‘The waves pushed the stern so I’m pulling on the tiller quite a lot, we were running downwind and I was worried about a jibe and pushing on the tiller.

‘I think what happened, I’ll never really know for sure, is as I was pushing on the tiller and leaning forward, sitting on the coamings, a much bigger wave came from a different direction and knocked the boat and I was literally catapulted out of the boat’

He added: ‘It all happened in a fraction of a second, it was like being thrown from a horse. I was in the water in a lot of waves. I had to pull the toggle on my lifejacket, it wasn’t an automatic.

‘I remember it opening and feeling very grateful for that, I’d only had it serviced in the spring.’

Spencer told Cornelis later that when he scrambled up he saw him in the water: ‘By then I had drifted more than 100m away.’

Spencer was struggling to control the boat, it was reefed but the furling drum had jammed.

He managed to press the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) button on his VHF hand-held radio, which alerted the rescue services and sent the co-ordinates.

By the time he was rescued, Cornelis, a web designer from Hove, had been in the water for around 35 minutes.

He said: ‘I saw my boat had disappeared all of a sudden. I was quite alarmed about that.

‘I’m a decent swimmer, I tried swimming for a bit but gave up on that very quickly.

‘I was floating in the water, considering my options, of which there were few.

‘Then I heard a helicopter, that was a relief.’

Cornelis said the helicopter disappeared. He said: ‘I was keeping my back to the wind and waves. The waves breaking over me and pushing me under.’

He heard the helicopter again and turned around: ‘I saw a winchman hanging off a wire, coming towards me.

‘He put a sling under me. I remember the jolt of the winch being pulled out of the water.

‘By this time I was fading, I wasn’t unconscious but not far off. I think 30 minutes is all anybody can stand in 8-degrees water.’

Cornelis praised his ‘impressive’ rescuers and said: ‘I was very, very lucky! My body temp was down to 30′ when I got to A&E. I owe these guys my life.’

He later found out that it was the Shoreham RNLI lifeboat volunteers who had spotted him in the water and directed the Lee-on-Solent rescue helicopter to him.

Cornelis said: ‘There was a hell of a racket in the helicopter, I was unbelievably cold and shaking uncontrollably.

‘It’s a bit hazy but I remember taking my clothes off and seeing a foil blanket.’

He was airlifted to Royal Sussex County Hospital: ‘My body temperature was just 30 degrees, which is hypothermia level, but they gave me a special warm blanket with hot air that warmed me up really quickly. They ran every test on me but I recovered remarkably quickly and they let me out at 11pm.

“The rescue crews were awesome, A&E were awesome. I can’t thank them enough.’

While Cornelis was being rescued, Spencer had difficulty getting the sails down as the furler had jammed with a riding turn.

Cornelis said: ‘He was very spooked because he heard on Channel 16 the RNLI talk about a casualty and thought that meant a dead person.

‘Shoreham Harbour is a commercial port and you have to go through a lock to get to our moorings. Spencer couldn’t get the sail down so the harbour master opened up the big commercial lock and he sailed in and somehow managed to dock the boat. He crashed into the wall but managed to tie it up.’

Cornelis said Vagabond’s headsail was ‘very badly flogged by the wind’ and there were a few scratches but ‘nothing to worry about.’

The following morning Cornelis was up early to check on his yacht and to visit the RNLI lifeboat station at Shoreham to thank his rescuers.

He said: ‘Saying thank you was the least I could do, I owe them my life.’

Lessons learned

Cornelis said: ‘I often sail single-handed and I have a tiller pilot which enables me to be away from the tiller to tend the sails, or whatever.

‘But it doesn’t get used when I have crew on board, and subsequently Spencer did not know how, or think of to use it. It would have helped him (to some extent) to control the jammed head sail.

‘Secondly, I have a GPS with a MOB button in the cockpit, which might have helped Spencer to find me. But Spencer usually brings his own VHF handheld radio which, apart from the DSC button, also enables him to navigate.

‘In both cases the lesson I have learned is to ensure the crew know what equipment is on board, and know how to use it.

‘The other lesson is, of course, to always wear a life jacket – they are useless unless worn.’