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Common factors in six ocean racing deaths and two escapes

by Richard Gladwell 28 Jul 2018 06:19 PDT 29 July 2018
SV Platino awaits rescue from a passing container ship © NZDF ©2018

Maritime New Zealand's release of its report after an investigation into a double fatality aboard the 20metre yacht Platino, shows several similarities with several other deaths and a couple of near-misses over the past two years in ocean races.

Two men lost their lives during a Pacific Ocean gale in June 2016 on the SV Platino.

The Holland design was built in 1997-98 and refitted over a period of more than a year, on a no-expense spared basis, by the yard owned by one of those who lost his life. One of the changes was to move the mainsheet traveller from the supporting arch and mounting it across the coaming between cockpits. Prior to the removal of the arch the crew could pass through the arch to reach the steering position.

She left Auckland on June 11, with five crew, as part of the cruising division in the Auckland - Denarau race. Platino departed a week after the fleet due to weather concerns. The crew motorsailed for the next two days due to light winds, and then set reduced sail for stronger breezes on the night of the June 12, with strong winds and confused seas developing on June 13.

The yacht was being sailed on autopilot, which lost control during the heavy conditions, breaking the preventer on the boom, and the vessel went out of control, gybing several times.

The MNZ report noted that "evidence gathered suggested that the unplanned turn to starboard was not effectively controlled by the autopilot due to a malfunction of the rudder drive unit. This was mainly due to a lack of hydraulic oil due to an undiscovered leak in the system."

One crew member Nick Saul was killed outright when he was struck by the mainsheet/traveller, but his body remained on board. A second crew member, Steve Forno slipped over the side a few seconds after coming on deck, and his body was never recovered.

The release of the report triggered a lead item on prime time TV news in New Zealand where the comment was picked up from the report, that Steve Forno was spotted twice by the searching crew of the Platino at 50 metres distant, but no rescue gear was deployed. The report noted that the Platino was never effectively bought under control, and the crew may not have been able to get to a Rescue module carried aboard due to the uncontrolled swinging of the boom.

Approximately 21 months later, during the Volvo Ocean Race, SHK Scallywag crew member, John Fisher went over the side during a Southern Ocean gale 1400nm from Cape Horn.

Like Nick Saull, John Fisher was also struck by the mainsheet traveller during a crash gybe when the Volvo 65 was surfing in 4-5 metre confused seas in winds of 35-45kts. The SHK Scallywag incident occurred 15 minutes before sunrise, the Platino incident mid-morning.

John Fisher's safety harness was temporarily unclipped from the main cockpit jackstay, as he was about to move forward, and co-incidentally was struck by the mainsheet/traveller during the crash gybe and was hurled overboard by the impact. The yacht's safety gear was released however it was of little use as John Fisher, like Nick Saull (Platino) was killed in the incident.

Both crews pushed the MOB button, however in both reports released after the incident it appeared that the MOB button on the GPS navigation system had not been pushed for long enough (4 seconds is required) and there was no MOB position in the GPS. SHK Scallywag's navigator did note the approximate position of the incident.

John Fisher was wearing a survival suit and lifejacket along with his safety harness, albeit disconnected.

The Maritime NZ report stated that none of the crew of Platino had worn a safety harness at any time during the voyage. Platino was very well equipped with the necessary safety equipment.

From the SHK Scallywag incident, unless AIS is activated, we know that searching for a missing crew member in gale conditions is an exercise with only a very minimal chance of success - even with a fully trained and certified crew, with vast ocean racing experience.

In the Platino incident a search aircraft was overhead within 90 minutes of being notified, conducted a wagon wheel search pattern in good visibility, but found nothing. Water temperature in the area was estimated at 20-22 degrees. Maximum survival time for someone wearing a lifejacket in the water at 22 degrees temperature is 45 hours.

In the Scallywag incident the crew were able to make it back to the vicinity where the rescue gear was deployed, but found nothing.

The clear message from the seven incidents being that if you do go over board your chances of being recovered alive are very slim.

The Maritime New Zealand report noted that even through the five person crew of Platino were offshore experienced, they did not do any safety training onboard before the race, and the shakedown for the crew for the race on board Platino consisted only a few hours sailing in light weather. The report stated: " No drills had been conducted onboard Platino, nor was a written action plan available to the inspector. The investigation found that it was not common practice for inspectors to require vessels to provide information as to when drills had been completed, or to produce written action-plans, prior to the Platino accident." It seemed that the crew were relying on their individual extensive experience in an emergency situation aboard a well found and well equipped yacht.

Scallywag's crew, like all other Volvo OR crews was well trained in safety procedures, given experiential training over an extended period, and had skippers capable of taking control in an emergency situation to prevent a bad situation getting worse. It is difficult to see what could be achieved by way of further regulation or training.

Not answered in the Maritime New Zealand report was the point that even had Platino's crew been able to get alongside Steve Furno in the prevailing sea state and wind - how would the remaining crew would have been able to get him back aboard the high sided yacht? While products like the www.searescuesled.com are designed to assist with crew retrieval, it is not certain that this task could have been achieved aboard Platino with just three crew available in the prevailing conditions and onboard circumstances.

The difficulty of returning to a MOB incident location was underlined in an earlier incident aboard Scallywag on Leg 4 when crew member Alex Gough went overboard in daylight, moderate winds and sea condition Wearing dark clothing against a dark blue sea Gough was only glimpsed by a crew member standing in a high position on the boat as both lifted on top of a swell and Gough had the presence of mind to raise his arm making the usual surf life-saving signal. Fortunately with 10 crew aboard the VO65 the retrieval was relatively easy - with Gough being able to swim and assist with his own recovery. Quite a different situation from the high-topsided Platino in a gale and chaotic sea state and short-crewed.

Three further deaths, both safety harness related, occurred in the Clipper Race. The first involved a watchkeeper, Andrew Ashman on September 4, a crew member sustained a fatal injury during an uncontrolled gybe off the coast of Portugal. One of the factors was the failure of a boom preventer at the point where a knot had been tied in the system reducing the strength of the line at that point. Like Nick Saull on the SV Platino and John Fisher on Scallywag Ashman was killed after being struck by the swinging boom and mainsheet control as the yacht gybed. John Ashman did not go overboard, but could not be revived.

The second in April 2016, with Sarah Young (40) being washed overboard while sailing from Qingdao to Seattle. She was was tidying the cockpit at night after reefing the mainsail in 35 - 40 knots of wind, when she was knocked from her position by a wave. She fell back toward the guard wire and was swept under it by another wave. She was not tethered onto the yacht at this time.

The boat immediately applied its man overboard drill but was hampered by the conditions and lack of direct visual. Her body was recovered on board over an hour later - homing in on her AIS signal.

Scallywag lost her AIS aerial earlier in Leg 4. At that time there was no requirement for a second aerial. It was felt that had the onboard AIS been working and if John Fisher's personal AIS been activated then he could have been located.

The second Clipper Race incident occurred in November 2017 in the Indian Ocean en route from South Africa to Australia. Simon Speirs (60) was on the foredeck assisting with a headsail change when he was washed overboard. Although he was clipped on with his safety tether, he became separated from the yacht in the Southern Ocean at approximately mid afternoon in a rough sea state, in 20 knots of wind, gusting 40.

He was recovered 36 minutes later but never regained consciousness.

A subsequent investigation revealed a flaw in the tether hook design which bent when twisted to a certain angle, reducing the hook to 10% of its designed load strength, explaining why Simon Spiers was able to detach after his safety tether snagged on a cleat, twisting the load onto the hook.

The very fine line between survival and Eternity was underlined by solo sailor Conrad Colman who fell overboard at night during the 2016/17 Vendee Globe race in the Pacific Ocean en route for Cape Horn and a day ahead of a 60kt storm.

Colman was tethered to the boom while reefing the mainsail when the lazy jacks broke and the spar crashed into the water with Colman aboard. Fortuitously he was picked up by a wave and flung onto the back of the boat, where he had to make the agonising decision to detach from the safety tether and climb back aboard, unsecured, over the lifelines.

He only admitted to the incident in a media conference after he crossed the finish line, having sailed the last 700nm under jury rig.

The Maritime NZ report into the Platino incident can be read here

The British investigation into Andrew Ashman and Sarah Young can be read here

The interim British report into Simon Spiers and advisory on tether hooks can be read here

For Conrad Colman's chilling description of how he dropped off the main boom and into the Southern Ocean while sailing alone at night can be read here

Ten Questions?

It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive list of factors, as a key part of your individual safety education is to be able to read incident reports and apply them to your and your boat's situation. A key part of that exercise is to develop your own safety consciousness and disciplines particularly when tired. Another is responsibility for your own personal safety gear and systems.

A few obvious questions do stand out some of which are mentioned in the incident reports:

1. The mainsheet traveller is a danger zone and one report suggests being marked as such on deck. Good idea or not? If not what is the alternative?

2. Being tethered at all times on deck and working out a process to handle transition from one zone to the other. No-one remains tethered all of the time. How do you handle movement around the boat?

3. Realising that with yachts now capable of sailing at up to 30kts downwind does the safety thinking need to step up from the days of 10-12kt speeds - particularly remembering the speed at which a yacht and MOB crewmember disappear from sight?

4. Should hard-helmets be worn for head protection, and if so how is communication handled?

5. What is the solution for foredeck crew and others for wearing auto-inflating lifejackets when working in very wet/underwater conditions up forward? Do they retain the auto-inflate mechanism and have the jacket inflate each time they hit a serious wave? Do they remove it, and have nothing to activate the auto-inflate if they go MOB and possibly stunned?

6. Being correctly dressed before going on deck - particularly wearing a safety harness. How do you handle this - pull it on when things calm down - or just not bother?

7. Remembering to hit the MOB button for five seconds and count while you do it. Should there be a sign to do this - or is memory OK?

8. Are you aware of dropping your safety guard when tired. How do you monitor this on a boat? A buddy system?

9. Do you tell the helm when you are moving around the boat. Is it necessary or is it good enough for him/her to be able to see? (Alex Gough incident.)

10. What is the procedure for getting a MOB crew member back on board the boat? And if your strategy is to lift them using a halyard - what if the mast is broken/weakened as happened on SV Platino, coupled with being short-crewed?

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