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Improving Yacht Club Safety - Interview with US Sailing’s Dan Cooney

by Jake Fish on 13 Jul 2012
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As the Associate Executive Director of US Sailing and Rear Commodore of the Beverly Yacht Club (BYC), Dan Cooney sees safety issues through multiple lenses – what more can US Sailing do to help clubs and sailors become more educated about the issues and what practical steps can his club take to leverage US Sailing resources. This was the case when US Sailing organized an independent review panel to research a tragic accident that occurred on Severn River with a junior sailing program participant in 2011.

Cooney took the US Sailing recommendations to the BYC with the goal of implementing new and revised procedures in safety planning. In this Q&A with US Sailing, Cooney discusses how the Beverly Yacht Club put these safety recommendations in motion.

US Sailing: What prompted Beverly Yacht Club to form a Safety Committee?
Dan Cooney: Two things were happening at the same time. Last summer, a couple of our more experienced PHRF racers, led by fellow member Barry Steinberg, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable about the lack of a formal process for determining whether our Wednesday and Thursday night racing should take place or not in the face of inclement weather. First and foremost our members’ safety was at stake, not to mention significant club and member property. Our PRO’s are volunteers with varying levels of experience and so having the right tools and process available for proper decision-making is key. Although we were initially concerned about our evening races, our club runs over 300 races per year so our work needed to address our entire program.

At the same time, I was following the investigations we were doing at US Sailing and the Severn Sailing incident report written in the fall by John Rousmaniere hit me like a ton of bricks. I had also been a PRO on a night where we just missed getting caught out and thought we could do better, for starters, than using my iPhone to track thunderstorms when there were 40 boats and 200 people on the water. Our club’s board agreed that we ought to have a safety review and our Commodore appointed a committee led by Barry.

US Sailing: What was your goal?
Dan Cooney: We eventually decided we wanted to review our club’s operations on and off the water and evaluate and improve our safety preparedness in each of these areas. There’s an important cultural piece here as well and we are trying to strike the right balance between organizational mindfulness and attention to safety issues while still embracing the joys of sailing and racing despite their inherent risks.

US Sailing: Did you have comprehensive written safety procedures in place before the committee started?
Dan Cooney: We had a lot of the pieces. We had a comprehensive Storm Preparation Plan and employee handbooks. We had a solid Race Guide, proper Sailing Instructions and we had good Junior Sailing documentation but it was incomplete and not tied up in the bow it deserved.

US Sailing: Who was on the Committee?
Dan Cooney: We brought together a broad cross-section of our membership – racers, cruisers, race managers and junior sailing volunteers. It turned out to be a good move to include a lawyer and a doctor who happened to represent one or more of these constituencies, and of course our General Manager.

US Sailing: What did you look at first?
Dan Cooney: The US Sailing investigation of the SSA tragedy put 420 trapeze harnesses at the top of our list. We also were committed to do something to support PRO decision-making on GO/NO-GO calls.

US Sailing: How did you end up on the harness issue?
Dan Cooney: Our Junior Sailing representatives on the Committee looked at all the options, but we ended up retrofitting 17 harnesses with a quick release hook system. We are also going to require every 420 sailor to go through drills where, under controlled circumstances, they will capsize to windward with their harnesses on. We will have US Sailing-certified instructors on scene and a rescue diver in the water that happens to be an MD. The idea is to simulate a situation that young sailors may encounter and to help them to understand how to self-rescue if necessary. The thing that got me personally about the SSA incident was that at first people were saying that this was a freak accident and what the investigation found out was that while the tragic consequence was rare, entrapment itself was not uncommon. I should have known that but I didn’t.

US Sailing: How did you improve the GO/NO-GO process?
Dan Cooney: We struggled with that because in the end we all know that you are relying on good judgment and common sense of the PRO’s to make sound decisions. You could probably find a reason not to race about half of the time for one reason or another but we were not looking to become risk-averse in the extreme. We ended up creating a document with the idea to make explicit some of the things an experienced PRO would think about when judging potential inclement conditions – who the PRO should consult before making the call, what weather resources are available to consider, what are the options for postponement and abandonment, how and when they should communicate decisions to the fleets – simple things all. We’ll refine the document as we go but it’s a start and it pushes us in a better direction. We also put an iPad on the signal boat which allows us a larger weather radar display and that’s an improvement on a phone’s small screen!

US Sailing: What else did the Committee do?
Dan Cooney: Barry and the committee did a great job of looking broadly at the problem. We’ve taken the excellent US Sailing Burgee Program/Gowrie safety manual templates for both the clubhouse and the Junior Sailing Program and customized them for our club. This moved our documentation level up several notches. We moved our AED to a more visible location and scheduled an OSHA/EPA expert to walk through our club to suggest improvements.

We’ve put together an 'Emergency Communications Card' and will place laminated copies in every support boat. The idea of the card is to breakdown very clearly who to call in an emergency with all the numbers immediately available in addition to the 911 call. We have met with our town’s Harbormaster and have included him on regular club emails so he and his staff are better informed about our activities. He met with our instructors during their boat prep week and the officers and our council (Board) have invited his entire staff over for a cook-out just to build relationships.

We ran a CPR/First-Aid training for the general membership and we were fortunate that two of our more experienced sailors were already planning to run one of the excellent CCA-developed 'Suddenly Alone' programs. I believe the Suddenly Alone program was originally conceived by Ron Trossbach, a member of US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Committee. Both educational programs were enthusiastically embraced by the membership.

After some discussion, the club committed to invest the resources to add a support boat to our regular racing program. In the past, a beloved past Commodore voluntarily patrolled our racing fleets and towed in or assisted too many boats to count over the years. When he retired from that service several years ago we never found another way to continue that coverage. This year we are staffing the support boat with a paid US Sailing-certified instructor with CPR training and we hope to add a volunteer rotation to the support boat program soon.

After the Full Crew Farallones tragedy off San Francisco this spring, there was a local Coast Guard communication reminding sailing organizations in our area to file for Marine Event Permits for all organized sailing activity. In the past, our club had only filed the permits for special events but this year we filed for our entire regularly scheduled program which includes racing five days a week. I think some might argue how much the permitting process enhances safety but it’s a regulation and it provides the Coast Guard the right people and cell phones to call if they need to reach us. We filed the permits so that it bundled multiple classes and racing series so the paperwork wasn’t overwhelming.

US Sailing: What’s next?
Dan Cooney: There’s plenty more to do, I’m confident other clubs have done more. I’m hopeful this Q&A opens up a dialog and draws out what other clubs are doing on this issue. One of the best things I think US Sailing does is increases collaboration among clubs and speeds the learning curve for volunteers tackling similar questions. I looked back at the April 2011 Yacht Club Summit presentation list and while many topics touched on safety, there wasn’t a single specifically focused panel on safety. Our sailing world has changed since then. You can bet that won’t be the case the next time around, and until then, I hope we learn a lot from each other.
US Sailing website
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