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Surviving the Collision

This article was first published on SailNet in June of 2000;  we've brought it back to the homepage due to the important nature of this information.

Tight action is emblematic of the grand-prix racing arena, and somewhere, sometime, somebody's going to get hit.

Day One of the 2000 Farr 40 Worlds in Newport, RI, dawned in a boisterous fashion. Extremely windy conditions and heavy rain set the stage for on-the-water drama, and opting not to postpone, the 28 owners that had traveled here to compete headed out for the first of two races with their crews. On the way out to the racecourse, the instruments on Flash Gordon registered a solid 25 to 28 knots of true wind speed and the rain was slanting down hard. Despite this rugged environment, Race One went off without a hitch, though there were several general recalls, but that's to be expected in one of the most competitive one-design keelboat fleets on the planet.

On board Flash, we were focused on getting a much better start in Race Two. Our tactician, Ed Adams, had us execute an aggressive, pre-start plan and we rocked off the line as the gun went off. As we made our way up the beat, our position varied, changing anywhere from fifth to tenth, but we were looking much better than we did in Race One. We were on starboard tack as the course began to narrow at the top of the beat, heading a bit more to the left side of the course. To our left, Paul Cayard and the crew on Invicta-Nerone were coming in on port, looking to duck our transom. It should have been an easy duck, even in those heavy-air conditions, but, unfortunately, they missed by six to eight feet and cleaved into our topsides and deck in a way that "scary" only begins to describe.

The business end of any boat, even moving slowly, can cause serious damage and injury in a collision.
 In 28 knots of wind, with sheets eased and the boat bearing off for a ducking maneuver, Invicta-Nerone was probably moving at eight to eight-and-a-half knots by conservative estimates. They basically blew through our boat, punching a hole aft of the wheel that ran vertically from the deck to the waterline and through into the  cockpit floor. We're talking about a severe collision here.

The two boats came together with such force that they inevitably locked together. Invicta-Nerone's force spun our bow downwind, as it drove forward. Because everybody on Flash had been on the weather rail hiking hard when we collided, thankfully no one was hurt. From this point, though, it got really dangerous very quickly. The bow of our competitor was so far into Flash that our mainsail and boom were locked into position by Invicta-Nerone's headstay. At that point we were heeled beyond 45 degrees, stuck together and taking on water faster than I really want to remember. Luckily, Flash was heeled so far over that the force of the incoming water pushed Invicta Nerone's bow out of the hole. As the boats released from one another, Flash came upright in a listless manner. Invicta-Nerone broke free and sailed clear. One quick look down the companionway told us that we were taking on a scary amount of water—the cushions were floating. Immediately our mainsail trimmer John Gluek yelled: "We're going down, we need to tack."

Broad cockpits like those on the Farr 40 make it essential for sail trimmers to have the ability to act quickly in close-quarter racing.

John wasn't joking—we were definitely sinking. With the amount of water we had on board by that time, Flash Gordon was sitting flat, with part of the hole below sea level. Helmut Jahn, the owner of the boat, had been knocked from the helm by the collision, so he wasn't driving at this moment. All this was happening pretty quickly, but I think it was Ed who grabbed the wheel and spun the boat into a tack. I jumped into the cockpit to back the jib so the boat would turn faster, and we slowly moved on to port tack. Once through the tack, we had to get the whole crew to leeward so we'd have enough clearance to get the entire hole out of the water. They say hindsight is 20-20, but I'm pretty convinced that 15 more seconds without tacking and Flash would have been headed for the bottom of Rhode Island Sound.

Things calmed down a bit after that. We got the boat under control, managed to get the jib down, and started the engine to head back toward the relative safety of Narragansett Bay. The crew on Invicta sailed by right away to see if we were OK, and then they left, retiring from the race. With the trauma subsiding, we freed up six crewmembers to begin bailing out the boat by way of a bucket brigade.

Flash Gordon in better times, with the author (furthest forward) hooking up the spinnaker.

There's no getting around it—collisions happen in sailboat racing. They're just an inevitable part of the game when you have a lot of boats and a lot of wind in a small area. But these incidents don't occur by themselves, so it's only prudent to examine what happened here, and what might be done to lessen the chance of it happening again.

In the case of our collision, I learned later that the culprit was a lack of  mainsheet tail for the mainsail trimmer aboard Invicta-Nerone to ease. (Like a lot of grand prix racing boats, Farr 40s are set up with double-ended mainsheets that can be trimmed from either side of the cockpit.) In anticipation of a starboard-tack rounding at the weather mark, the mainsail trimmer on that boat had stocked all of his extra mainsheet on the leeward (starboard) side, and when he realized they had to duck us, he ran out of available sheet so the main only went out so far when he eased it. Because of this, the driver couldn't bear off sufficiently, and boom, they smacked us. It's safe to say that Invicta-Nerone would have had a better chance of avoiding the collision if they'd had a continuous mainsheet and a way to release it quickly from the high side.

That said, these things are still going to happen out on the racecourse and the best thing sailors can do is to know how to react properly. I think our crew did a great job given the circumstances. Everything boiled down to the basics: We got hit, we tried hard to free the boats, we got the hole out of the water, and we reduced sail area to control the boat. And above all, we didn't panic.

Collision Management 101

Like the rule book states, contact with other boats should always be avoided. But since these things do happen, here are the basic steps to take in the case of a collision.

 Make a quick assessment of the damage. You'll probably know by the sound of impact if it's serious. If it's not severe, nor life-threatening, fly a protest flag and hail 'protest.'
 If the damage is severe, secure the boat by getting the damaged area out of the water, or by temporarily plugging any holes with whatever is available.
 Get your boat under control. This means either reducing sail or starting the engine, or both, but quickly check for lines over the side before you turn the key.
 Check to make sure everyone is all right. (Some sailors will disagree and say this ought to be the first priority, but you need to secure a sinking or out-of-control boat first before you can assist the injured crew.)
 Determine if you can fix the problem and continue racing. If the hole is small enough, you might be able to affect a temporary patch with duct tape or sail-repair tape.
 If you drop out of the race, hail the race committee to let them know, and indicate the crew's status—injured or not.
 Determine the safest course of action. If possible, head back to port or protected waters right away.


Suggested Reading:

Lessons from a Sailing Disaster by John Rousmaniere

Blasting Across the Atlantic by Michael Carr

Avoiding Colllisions at Sea—A Proactive Approach by Mark Matthews


Buying Guide: VHF Radios

Dave Gerber is offline  
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