We all takes risks sailing downwind without a preventer, but if it goes wrong, what will the coroner say? asks Tom Cunliffe

Tom Cunliffe:

When anyone starts a story with ‘There I was…’, the next phrase usually goes along the lines of ‘…and the waves were forty feet high.’ If it’s sensation you’re after, flip the page now. This is softer stuff.

My crew and I were bound up the Finnish Gulf towards Leningrad in the grim last days of the Evil Empire. We were tooled up with visas purchased behind a bus shelter in Helsinki from a dodgy looking character hiding behind the turned-up collar of a trench coat. This honest gangster had relieved me of $400US and made off with our passports, which asked much of my faith in humanity.

My hopes of seeing him again were dim, but he told me to come back in four days. I did, and there he was, complete with stamped-up documents and a horny handshake. A week later we found ourselves hove to off the military island of Kronstadt to bring aboard the obligatory Soviet pilot.

Our relations with this worthy began badly. His heavy steel motor cutter smashed into the counter of my Edwardian gaffer and took out the oak taffrail. We waved him off and launched our own punt to bring him across. He clambered aboard in Cuban heels and a slouch hat, dragging at one of those Russian cigarettes that kill at ten paces. He’d obviously never been in a sailing boat and seemed unwilling to lose face by admitting it, but he was affable enough and was soon showing photos of his family. We were running in on a fresh breeze with the sails squared right out. The boom was 30 feet long and weighed 600 pounds, plus a further 100 pounds of gaff and 250 of flax canvas mainsail. Mercifully, the topsail was not set, because what happened next was bad enough as it was.

The pilot spoke little English beyond ‘port’ and ‘starboard’, so any finesse of communication was out of the question. When he told me to turn to starboard, it was immediately clear that this would put us well by the lee. A glance at the up-to-date chart I’d been given by the mate of a Russian timber ship somewhere down the Baltic indicated that we’d loads of room ahead. At full stretch the mainsheet was the best part of 150 feet long. Heaving it in was heavy work and took some time. I tried to point this out, knowing the boat was in safe water, but our man must have felt the need to show he was in charge, so he spun the wheel decisively. His first-ever all-standing gybe was spectacular. As the whole shooting match crashed across, it missed his head by an inch but it whipped his hat overboard in fine style. He’d no idea about applying a little opposite helm as the wind came across the stern, so the boat rounded up and lay there, headsails aback and main shaking like a drunk after a heavy night until the rest of us sorted her out. We made it in without further incident and what took place under the Red Flag is another story. It’s the involuntary gybe I want to talk about.

We all take chances from time to time when we’re running. If we aren’t by the lee, we’re too close to it for comfort, but we don’t want to make a controlled gybe for any one of a number of sensible enough reasons. Instead, we sail on without a preventer, hoping for the best. Mostly we get away with it. Occasionally we don’t and the boat gybes. Hands up who’s never been there? Nobody? I thought not.

Well, here’s the scoop: we can carry on like this for a lifetime and most of us won’t be badly caught, but every year some poor masher runs out of luck and his crew is injured, or worse. Next stop it’s the law courts and bad luck doesn’t cut it with a high-court judge. When sailing near the edge, an old colleague back in my days as an instructor used to ask himself, ‘What’s the coroner going to say?’ Thinking about our Leningrad pilot and the looming gulag, I’m still grateful he lost nothing worse than his hat.