Sailing accidents

Sailing Accidents: Lessons Learned

Sailing is notably safe among adventure sports, so safe, in fact, there may be a tendency to regard serious accidents as anomalous freaks from which little can be learned. This is a mistake. One of the most important turning points in our sport came when a gale widely described as “freakish” decimated the Fastnet Race fleet in August 1979. As unusual as this storm was, the sailing community immediately got to work analyzing what happened, and that effort radically changed sailing for the better.

The term “freak” has also been used to characterize three serious accidents that occurred during the summer of 2011. One was the death of a young sailor after a racing dinghy capsized off Annapolis, Maryland. In another accident, 21 sailors almost lost their lives when the 100-foot sloop they were racing capsized in the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race. The third incident was the capsize of a 35-foot boat, with the loss of two crewmembers, in the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac, on Lake Michigan. Important lessons can be learned from all these incidents.

A Common Accident with a Tragic Result

On June 23, 2011, on a normal summer day in a junior sailing program at the Severn Sailing Association at Annapolis, a Club 420 was running under spinnaker when it accidentally gybed, capsized and turned turtle. As the boat went over, the 14-year-old crew, Olivia Constants, was telling her skipper she was tangled in something. This turned out to be the trapeze wire to which her harness was accidentally hooked with a connection so awkward the skipper and a sailing instructor were subsequently unable to disconnect it. The response by the sailing instructors was prompt and appropriate, with rapid communications, but despite CPR being administered by several instructors and firemen, Olivia drowned.

One important takeaway here is that drowning can occur surprisingly quickly, and can be caused by very small amounts of water if your mouth is open. This is the best reason for wearing a high-buoyancy life jacket that keeps your head high enough above the water so that airways are clear. (There was no indication that Olivia’s life jacket limited her ability to get into the air pocket under the boat.) A phenomenon known as the Instructive Drowning Response can also make victims incapable of helping themselves or cooperating with rescue.

This story is rare only in its tragic ending. Sailing dinghies often capsize. Studying this accident, I learned of several other recent occasions when dinghy sailors were entrapped, but were successfully released by extremely prompt action by third parties who were close by.

Research should be conducted on dinghy capsize and crew entrapment. Some work has been done, including the development of masthead buoyancy systems and quick-release harnesses. The Royal Yachting Association has also studied whether it is better to first extract the crew or right the boat after a capsize and concluded the latter is best. However, while talking to instructors from across the country, I’ve noted there seems to be no standard vocabulary (including oral language and signals) for rescue.

Every sailing organization also should have an appropriate risk management plan for dealing with crises. The Severn Sailing Association did not have one, although its officers did develop a very good plan on the fly. Since this accident, several sailing organizations have addressed crisis management, and have run workshops on dinghy safety or have compiled lists of resources. A few yacht clubs have tested techniques and gear or have changed their procedures. US Sailing has publicized crisis plans, but could be doing more.

A Rare Accident with a Fortunate Result

Rambler 100 (ex-Speedboat), a 100-foot grand prix ocean racer, capsized and inverted near Fastnet Rock on August 15 within minutes of losing her canting keel. Few of the 21 crew were wearing appropriate clothing, although those on deck were wearing life jackets. Some climbed up on the bottom of the boat, some were below and scrambled out, and five were thrown into the water, where they drifted in 55-degree water for several hours.

Without a VHF radio, an EPIRB or properly registered personal locator beacons (PLBs), the survivors on the inverted hull were not noticed until nearly three hours had passed. Had the accident occurred at night or some distance away from Fastnet Rock, all 21 crew might have been lost. “If we didn’t have life preservers on, it would have been a disaster,” said Rambler 100’s navigator, Peter Isler, who swam out of the nav station. His skipper, George David, added, “If it’s not on you, it’s useless.” Note the emphasis on the word “on.” This requires that life jackets, safety harnesses and other essential safety gear be instantly accessible.

Ron Trossbach, who reviewed the accident for US Sailing, pointed out other lessons learned here. He urged having a handheld VHF radio in the cockpit (Rambler’s VHFs were below) and storing liferafts so they can be launched no matter the boat’s attitude. (Rambler’s was inaccessible when she was inverted.) He further recommended that all ocean-racing crews undergo hands-on abandon-ship and MOB training. (Rambler’s had done this, and they felt it helped prepare them for this emergency.)

In the future, I expect (or at least hope) this accident will also lead to improvements in canting keel technology.

A Rare Accident with a Tragic Result

Around 2300 on July 16, during the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac Race, WingNuts was overwhelmed by a powerful storm cell with 50-knot-plus gusts and capsized. Six crewmembers freed themselves from the vessel, but skipper Mark Morley and crew Suzanne Makowski-Bickel died. According to the coroner, blunt force trauma to the head was the primary cause of death, with drowning as a secondary cause

The survivors standing on the boat’s bottom signaled with lights, whistles and SPOT satellite beacons, and soon attracted 20 or more other boats, which contacted the Coast Guard. All six survivors were rescued by the able crew of the racing boat Sociable, which circled WingNuts and pulled survivors to the boat with a Lifesling. Sociable also served as the on-site radio communications boat. When the Coast Guard arrived, it assisted in the search for the sailors with helicopters, two vessels and the icebreaker Mackinaw.

An extreme light-displacement boat with hiking wings, WingNuts was one of a class of boats called Kiwi 35s that have provided exciting sailing for three decades, mostly in protected waters. However, they have a well-documented reputation for capsizing. Although Lake Michigan is a large body of water famous for its squalls and rough weather, the boat had been invited to race in several Mackinac races. Hard weather was predicted for this race. According to a survey conducted afterwards, 87 percent of the fleet experienced winds between 40 and 75 mph, 53 percent suffered damage and 22 percent were knocked down or lost control. The survey also indicated that 70 percent of the fleet depended on radar for weather forecasts.

Surveys, interviews and other sources indicated that sailors in the fleet had misunderstandings in four important areas. First, many underestimated the anticipated conditions due to inadequate knowledge of NOAA terminology. For instance, “weather watch” means bad weather is possible, but “weather warning” means bad weather is imminent. Wind predictions are for average velocity, not gusts, and wave predictions are for “significant height” (the average height of highest one-third of waves), not peaks.

Second, some racers were frustrated by the fact that the Coast Guard personnel on the scene did not immediately dive under WingNuts to search for victims. This is understandable, given that anybody who has attended a safety-at-sea seminar probably thinks that all Coast Guard personnel who come down from a helicopter to make a rescue are divers. However, unless they are wearing scuba gear, they’re classified as swimmers and are not permitted to go underwater.

The third widespread misunderstanding had to do with stability, or resistance to capsize. When a boat is measured under the Ocean Racing Rule (ORR), it’s assigned a Limit of Positive Stability (LPS), which is the heel angle at which the boat no longer tries to remain upright. Two adjustments to the LPS are made to produce another angle called Stability Index (SI), which takes into account the boat’s size and beam. (Between boats with the same LPS, a bigger boat is more resistant to capsize than a smaller one, and a narrow one is less likely to remain upside down than one with more beam.)

Every heel angle up to the SI indicates that the boat has positive stability and is upright; every heel angle beyond the SI indicates that it has negative stability and is inverted. Ideally, the area of positive stability should be at least 1.5 times the size of the area of negative stability. However, with her extreme light displacement and wide beam, WingNuts had a true SI of about 75 degrees, meaning she was more stable capsized than right side up. Worse yet, because this type of boat is extremely rare, the rule overestimated her SI as being 101 degrees, thereby misleading the Mackinac Race measurement committee.

The fourth misunderstanding concerns safety harnesses and avoiding entrapment. Every sailor knows what this means if she or he has been caught on the wrong side of a jib sheet during a tack, a spinnaker pole during a jibe, or a steering wheel or tiller during a change of helmspeople. To have a quick-release shackle at the body end of a harness can be a godsend. In fact, the Mackinac Race rules required these shackles, but the rule was not enforced by systematic inspection. The only two members of WingNuts’ crew who had these shackles were Mark Morley and Suzanne Makowski-Bickel, and they may well have been incapacitated or unconscious before they had a chance to open them. (Photographs of their tethers indicate no problems with the shackles.) The other six tethers either had snaphooks that were slow to open or were tied to their harnesses, requiring them to be cut or untied.

Following the release of the US Sailing inquiry report in late October 2011, the Chicago Yacht Club imposed a new Stability Index requirement of at least 103 degrees for Mackinac Race boats, tightened up inspection standards and strongly recommended that crews attend safety-at-sea seminars and that boats carry personal locator beacons and liferafts. It also decided to keep the race an invitational event.

To conclude this short summary of three lengthy reviews of serious accidents, I want to stress that these accidents were not isolated events, but were, in fact, community calamities. Three accidents on American boats last summer led to three deaths and 28 extremely close calls. The elements of these events should be familiar to all, and they should raise many questions, starting with: what would you do if this happened to you?

The Official Inquiries

Each of these incidents was reviewed by a panel appointed by the United States Sailing Association (US Sailing) at the instigation of its president, Gary Jobson. I served on the inquiries into the Annapolis and Lake Michigan accidents (the first alone and the second as part of a group). Anyone who wants to learn more about these incidents should study the complete inquiry reports, which are available online.