Learning from a “Spectacular” Death Roll

Last weekend, after rounding the windward mark in sixth in the puffiest, shiftiest breeze I’ve ever seen on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, Kim and I set the Snipe pole for another challenging heavy air run—a carefully honed yet instinctual ballet that includes shifting our weight both side to side and fore and aft, while steering and trimming sails to keep the boat planing over the waves rather than crashing into them. 

One moment, all was fine. The next, our whisker pole hit the water—and the boat pirouetted around it onto its windward side, a classic death roll. (Here’s a photo of what this looks like.)

For those of you who are not sailors, “death roll” is a more descriptive and specific term for “capsize.” “A death roll is the act of broaching to windward,” Wikipedia explains, “putting the spinnaker pole into the water and causing a crash-jibe of the boom and mainsail, which sweep across the deck and plunge down into the water.” 

This is where the Snipe whisker pole “should” be when sailing downwind: holding the jib out to windward.

Fortunately, the Snipe boom is high enough that it crossed well above our heads—but once the boat was on its side, we both fell into the water. That’s when Kim asked the perfect question: “Carol, are you all right?” —which simultaneously reassured me that she was all right, too.

Unlike my only other capsize as a Snipe skipper, I managed to pull myself around to the centerboard before the boat turtled, and eventually we righted the boat—into ear-splitting, sail-slatting, chaos. The pole had bent in two but it was also thrashing around, still attached to both jib and mast. And the jib had tied itself into an overhand knot halfway up the forestay. What a mess.

The next step was to get ourselves back onboard, but instead I got separated from the boat. Fortunately a support boat appeared, and after pulling me out of the water the driver transferred me back onto the Snipe. Once Kim pulled herself back onboard, we turned our attention to getting our sails under control again. The race was over for us, but we still needed to sail back to the dock.

Kim suggested tacking, and as soon as we got the bow through head to wind the jib somehow untied itself. She still couldn’t trim it in more than halfway because of that broken pole—but fortunately, our course back to the harbor was a reach rather than dead upwind. 

After 12 years of sailing Snipes together, Kim and I no longer need to rehash the routine mistakes. But we always try to learn from new surprises, so on the sail back to the dock we had a frank discussion about where things went pear-shaped. Since we didn’t understand the cause and couldn’t come to any firm conclusions, we moved on to hashing out a plan for the next challenge: how to separate pole from jib so we could tack up the channel into the harbor. 

None of our ideas worked, but somehow Kim managed to coax the double-bent pole around the mast without it doing any more damage. She also found a way to trim the jib sheet in enough to sail upwind. By the time we made it back to the dock, there were a few other broken boats already there; a good reminder that it had been a very tough day of sailing for everyone. 

Thanks to a few key friends, we were able to replace our broken pole that afternoon (and also straighten our bent mast). On Sunday we posted two of our best finishes of the regatta, ending on a much better note—and leaving us both hungry for more. 

Even days later, after several discussions with other Snipe experts (which included the phrase “second most spectacular death roll ever”), I still cannot fully explain the cause. Augie Diaz was right next to us when it happened; he said we’d dropped into a very deep trough between two waves, which would’ve made it impossible to steer. I think we must’ve also had a simultaneous wind shift—but I’ll never know for sure. All I can do is try not to take Wikipedia’s words too personally: “During a death roll the [keel] boat rolls from side to side, becoming gradually more unstable until either it capsizes or the skipper reacts correctly to prevent it.” (Italics mine.)

Snipes are quirky boats, and even in my 32nd season (and 12 with Kim), I’m still learning their tricks. But adding “how to tack with a broken pole” to your list of skills probably won’t be much help in the future, so instead I’ll share some more general “hindsight’ thoughts from our experience—with the sincere hope that no one else ever has to experience quite such a “spectacular” death roll ever again.

1. Check on your teammate(s) first

Boats and equipment can be replaced.

2. Always carry a knife onboard

and make sure it is sharp enough to cut through a high-tech line. 

3. Talk through disasters afterward

to see what you can learn from them. (And if it was just a freak accident, don’t beat yourself up about it.)

4. Fitness is a safety feature

Kim and I would not have been able to manage the extra demands of righting the boat, swimming, and then self-rescuing ourselves and our broken equipment if we weren’t both aerobically fit. (Actually, she’s an aerobic monster.) You never know when you’ll need that extra stamina that only daily workouts will provide.

Sailing Snipes in big breeze is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, and all it takes is one freak wave for both loads and variables to escalate. I can’t wait for another chance to test my downwind skills—and here’s hoping I won’t need any of the lessons learned last weekend, ever again.

Got a “spectacular” capsize/death roll memory? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every one, with thanks!

9 Replies to “Learning from a “Spectacular” Death Roll”

  1. Brings back memories of a death roll I had in a Snipe in Ft. Lauderdale, LOL! I learned it’s hard to swim out from under the sail with a life jacket on and big waves.

    1. Association Island Nationals, round windward mark, don’t set pole right away as we were reaching above a pack, set pole, started planing, and while in a trough, the crest of the windward wave “hit” us broadside and the boat quickly and I mean quickly death rolled. Boat turtles, board, fell through slot picking g up speed as it went and snapped safety. So, no board to help right, I took off pfd, grabbed a line floating nearby, drove under water and tied line just above spreaders. A chase boat took line and over the course of several minutes, towed the taut line until mast was floating at surface, I used line to allow me to brace my feet on the top sides and eventually right the boat, no board to slow rotation, capsized about 6 more times until my dad was able to grab hold of the other side. Old Snipe my dad built while working at Gerber Boat Works, made self rescuing, but with no board and partly full of water no way to sail, so we were towed back in.
      All I can say 50+ years later, was the consensus on shore to prevent was overtrimming mainsail. I have no clue whether or not this even works but at the time, I was a bit frightened, both by the speed at which it happened and the damage that was done.

      1. Zoiks! Yes overtrimming the mainsail (and heading up) has saved a few wipeouts for me… but this time it was just not possible. Thanks for sharing, Art!

    2. Frightening! What was going through your mind when you found yourself under the sail with extra bouyancy?

  2. Don’t throw those pieces of pole away, you never know when you might need a few feet for something!

  3. Nassau NAs puffs in the high 20kts to low 30kts range, long swells, but challenge wasn’t the waves, shifts or puffs, rather deciding to gybe inside the 1-2 boatlengths between the mark of the graveyard of 4-5 turtled Snipes, or outside the entire capsize field. We executed the gybe inside the drifting clump of hulls but “over-S’d” off the new gybe ripping down a wave until the windward chine caught corkscrewing us to windward below the death roll graveyard. None but the first ~6 boats rounded that mark without capsizing and only ~12 of 40+ registered boats finished the shortened race. Ultimately finishing 9th that race was a definite keeper.

    1. Nassau jibe marks definitely provided challenges! Love the “Over-S” which at first looked like a not-swear (and probably was, at the time).

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