At 1255 today, the waters of Rhode Island Sound off Newport will roil with activity as 184 vessels get underway, bound 635 miles southeast for Bermuda as participants in the biennial Newport to Bermuda Race. Co-organized by the Cruising Club of America (and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club), this classic contest has long been an offshore rite of passage for sailors on the Eastern Seaboard, and it is largely considered one of the three premier, point-to-point ocean races in the world. For those of us not involved, the race has served as a valuable proving ground for safety procedures, equipment, and prescriptions.
Despite a reputation for macho undertakings, the CCA is a safety conscious group that prides itself on using its "collective wisdom and experience to influence ‘the adventurous use of the sea' through its efforts to improve seamanship, the design of seaworthy yachts, safe yachting procedures, and environmental awareness." It's appropriate, then, that we take a closer look at the Newport to Bermuda Race to learn as much as possible about how its organizers approach the important issue of safety at sea.
The Newport to Bermuda Race is organized as a Category 1 event (as stipulated by the International Sailing Federation). What this designation essentially means is that the course will take the participants well offshore and thus the race organizers expect the entrants "to be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms, and prepared to meet some emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance." When you stop to ponder that statement, you can see that it truly could apply to any vessel that ventures offshore for extended periods of time.
John Winder, the chairman of this year's race, is emphatic about each participant's safety: "The number one priority of the Newport Bermuda Race organizing committee is to give the sailors a quality event with fair sailing and top competition. The race itself is a true test of blue-water sailing skill. That said, competitor safety is at the top of our list."
"We inspect every boat to make sure that it is structurally sound," continues Winder, "that all required safety gear is aboard and properly certified, and we ask for crew qualifications to assure as best we can that the crew sailing the boat is qualified for this rigorous race. If a boat and crew do not pass the established requirements, we will not invite her to race."
Sheila McCurdy is the person charged with arranging the safety training of the Newport to Bermuda Race. As the chairperson of the CCA's Safety at Sea Committee, she says that no dramatic changes have been made to the safety requirements of this race since the 2000 edition of the event, but she emphasizes that the club continues to make small refinements. "It's an evolutionary process," she explains. "For instance, this year we've required that 30 percent of the crew have at least eight hours of safety training." That's up from 25 percent in the 2000 race.
The safety training that McCurdy mentions can be accomplished by attending one of Cruising World/US SAILING's Safety at Sea Seminars, held throughout the year in a variety of locations in the US. This year, in an attempt to further prepare sailors for the Newport to Bermuda Race, McCurdy has posted a Self-Study Session on the event's website (http://bermudarace.com/sas/sas_self.htm). The text of this Self-Study Session provides two anecdotes of actual emergencies at sea and then requires that the user answer 50 questions about them.
The mandatory inspection of each boat entered in the race that Winder mentioned above is an important underpinning of safety for this event. McCurdy says that though some sailors may view this as a nuisance, it can be a tremendous benefit for boat owners to have a knowledgeable offshore sailor walk them through the required checklist, and it comes at no cost apart from the event's entry fee. The checklist used is extensive, covering everything from construction details (requiring an American Bureau of Shipping certificate or the equivalent) to having spare parts on board, like another compass in addition to the main compass. The inspection also stipulates minimum requirements for freshwater and emergency drinking water supplies, as well as the mandatory contents of the ditch bag (see sidebar).
One of the requirements of this race is that each entry verify adequate function of its SSB radio by successfully making a minimum call of 600 miles sometime between April 1 and the date of that vessel's pre-race inspection.
Overall, the requirements made of the entries in this event, which this year range in size from a CR 34 to the 80-foot maxi Boomerang
, form an ideal blueprint for any offshore sailor looking to ensure that his or her boat is properly fitted for rigorous offshore voyaging. This is especially true since the demands of the organizers don't simply extend to the boat, but to the skippers and crews as well. Aside from the safety training mentioned above, every participating boat in the event must demonstrate that 80 percent of the crew who will be on board for the race have completed practice sessions in which man overboard drills were conducted and the storm trysail was deployed. These sessions must also include a walk-through of the procedures for abandoning ship and dealing with dismasting or rudder/steering failures. Afterward, the crewmembers involved must sign the Onboard Training Certificate to indicate that they were present for these sessions.
Offshore safety has long been a key concern among the members of the CCA; in fact it's one of the underlying reasons that the club was founded 81 years ago. Winder explains that safety "is a really cumulative issue that begins with an attitude on board the yacht. Every member of each crew must think through their action with regard to his own safety and the safety of his mates….I guess the most important safety requirement is to think safety at all times."
Winder says that when it comes to issues of safety for sailors, there's really no distinction between segments of the sport. "We think that our general focus on safety applies to all sailors. US SAILING publishes a minimum equipment guide for cruising sailors, which is similar to the ISAF regulations. Cruising sailors should refer to that for equipment suggestions. We would urge cruising sailors to carefully inspect their vessel's hull and equipment and to make sure that all safety equipment is up to date and in working order. We also suggest that all vessels have proper radio or sat phone communications systems and proper navigation equipment. Of course anyone setting sail on a significant voyage should be experienced to the necessary level."
McCurdy echoes those sentiments: "The CCA puts on this extra effort to make sure that participants in the race can comply with the safety regulations, but also so that they learn in the process." She's keen to point out that the club's outlook on safety for the event extends beyond the few days of racing. "We're interested not only in the safety of the racing crews going down, but also in the safety of the crews coming back. The value of the mandatory man-overboard drills and the drills for abandoning ship are equally important for cruising. Certainly racing boats push themselves harder than cruising boats, but that doesn't mean that cruising boats don't face the same risks."
The scratch sheet for the event reveals numerous boats entered that have never participated in this race. And McCurdy acknowledges that approximately 20 percent of the skippers signed up are competing in their first Newport to Bermuda Race. "That puts a bit more pressure on the inspectors," she explains. But it's a good thing. "We're doing what we want to do," says McCurdy, alluding to the issue of safety, "which is reach people."
For more information on the race and its requirements, log on to the Newport to Bermuda website (www.bermudarace.com).
Elements of Safety
As part of its emphasis on safe sailing for offshore voyagers, the Cruising Club of America has fostered and conducted a series of seminars entitled Suddenly Alone. The objective of these seminars is to provide information and knowledge so that if the captain of a pleasure vessel is suddenly lost overboard or incapacitated, a spouse or other crew member will be able to develop the tools and confidence to take charge, stabilize and control the situation, and bring the vessel to a safe harbor. (For more information on these seminars, log on to the club's website athttp://cruisingclub.org/.)
ISAF recommendations for a proper ditch bag stipulate the following items:
A lanyard and clip for attaching the bag to a life raft.
A watertight handheld VHF transceiver and spare set of batteries.
A watertight flashlight with spare batteries and bulb.
Two red parachute and three handheld flares.
Watertight, handheld GPS.
A SART (Search and Rescue Transponder Beacon) unit. Dry suits or survival bags.
A second sea anchor for the life raft.
Two safety tin openers.
A 406 or type E EPIRB registered to the boat.
A first aid kit.
A signalling mirror.
High-energy food source like energy bars.
Nylon string, polythene bags, and seasickness tablets. Watertight handheld aviation VHF transceiver (if race area warrants).
And each individual PFD used in the Newport to Bermua Race (as stipulated by the Category 1 requirements) must be equipped with the following:
Marine grade retro-reflective material
Markings bearing the vessel's name or the individual's name
It is also recommended that each PFD have a light (in accordance with SOLAS LSA code 2.2.3), a crotch strap, a splash guard, and sufficient buoyancy for the wearer.
Heading Out to Bermuda by John Rousmaniere
Overboard Emergencies by John Kretschmer
Offshore Safety Made Simple by Liza Copeland
SailNet Store Section: Safety Sale