Two fatal yachting incidents - what are the lessons?
by Nancy Knudsen on 30 Apr 2012
One of the safer things about racing as opposed to cruising is the overarching care of race organisers, who plot routes and decide to call off a race if the weather dictates. But with two tragically fatal racing incidents off the coast of California in the past few weeks, is there anything that the cruising sailors can learn from these?
Low Speed Chase on the rocks after the fatal incident .. .
In the latest incident, three crew are dead and one is missing after a yacht, the Aegean, apparently collided with a larger boat off the US/Mexican coast.**
The Newport Ocean Sailing Association - organiser of the 201-kilometre Newport, California to Ensenada, Mexico yacht race - said the apparent collision involving the 37ft (11m) occurred late Friday or early Saturday several miles off the coast near the ocean border of the two countries.
'It appeared the damage was not inflicted by an explosion but by a collision with a ship much larger than the 37ft vessel,' association spokesman Rich Roberts said in a news release overnight.**
The latest deaths come two weeks after five sailors died in the waters off Northern California when their 38ft yacht was hit by powerful waves, smashed into rocks and capsized during a race.
Three sailors survived the wreck and the body of another was quickly recovered. Four remained missing until one body was recovered last Thursday.
The deadly accident near the Farallon Islands, about 20nm west of San Francisco, prompted the Coast Guard to temporarily stop races in ocean waters outside San Francisco Bay.
What exactly happened in the seconds when the boat was overwhelmed by a breaking wave is still a mystery. But according to veteran sailors, there could only be two causes: bad luck or a fatal error in judgment.
There were also risky choices: The eight sailors aboard the Low Speed Chase wore survival gear but were not clipped to lines tethering them to the boat, so that when the wave hit, five of them were instantly swept overboard.
At that point it was too late to do anything - too late to head the boat around and try to pick them up, too late to turn away from the rocks.
It was an impossible situation; five of the eight crew members were in the water, the boat was on the edge of foundering, and there were only three people left to handle the sails, or start the engine. They were close to the rocks, and the waves were coming from every direction, and they were about to be hit by another wave. They were seconds from death.
In the latest incident, suspected to be a collision, details were still scarce but organisers have conjectured that it was possible that if the smaller boat was bobbing around in light wind, the crew might not have been able to get out of the way of a larger ship, perhaps a freighter. It is possible for a ship to never know about a collision until they detect some strange paint on the hull at the next port.
A total of 210 boats were registered in the 65th annual yacht race, according to the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's website. The race started off at Newport Beach on Friday and many boats finished in Ensenada Saturday, with the last ones due in overnight.
After the Coast Guard temporarily stopped races in ocean waters outside San Francisco Bay they said the suspension will allow it and the offshore racing community to study the accident and race procedures to determine whether changes are needed to improve safety.
U.S. Sailing, the governing body of yacht racing, is leading the safety review, which is expected to be completed within the next month.
In the meantime, studying tragedies can be very educational for all sailors, once the facts are known and the reports published. However, prima facie, these two incidents generally point out:
1. The ever-present danger of being anywhere close to a big ship**
2. The prime importance of tethers
3. The importance of allowing twice the room that you'll ever think you'll need to pass obstructions, and
4. That tragedies are usually caused, not by one factor, but by multiple factors occurring simultaneously.
**A tracker has now indicated they hit the North Coronado Island. The debris indicates significant destruction. Of the recovered bodies, one drowned while two others died of blunt force injuries. (This does not invalidate the advice to be ever-vigilant when within say 10nm of a ship)
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