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Old 01-05-1999
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
Lessons from a Sailing Disaster

A tragic nautical smashup like December's Sydney-Hobart Race, in which six sailors died and 55 were rescued from horrendous, chaotic seas, serves as a mirror in which we can review our own practices. To echo a sentiment voiced at the memorial service in Hobart, our best tribute to those six men lies in learning from the circumstances of their loss. I write this a week after the Boxing Day storm, and can look at the disaster through experiences in equally rough situations, including the 1979 Fastnet Race. Here are some thoughts.

The loudest outcry in the broad media, always looking for a solitary villain to blame, was whether the race should have been canceled when the storm hit on the second day. Of course that's silly and irrelevant. Unlike golfers and baseball players, long-distance sailors can't retreat into a clubhouse or dugout when lightning flashes and the wind howls.

Yet it is debatable whether the Sydney-Hobart's start should have been postponed. The satellite images for the day before and day of the start, available over the Internet, showed the mother of all low-pressure systems lumbering toward the race course. Reportedly, pre-race weather forecasts spoke of winds up to 55 knots. That's far more than a capful of breeze, even by the standards of Australians used to being sometimes blasted by fast-moving, comma-shaped cells they call "Southerly Busters" running against 3-knot south-flowing currents. This Buster looked unusually vicious, and so a good argument could be made for the organizers' postponing the start, even of a Sydney-Hobart.

A good argument for postponing--but neither a popular nor a successful one. Very rarely are ocean races pushed back or canceled. When the Cruising Club of America postponed the start of a Newport to Bermuda Race several years ago, they got little but grief from the competitors. The rationale for carrying on is that crews should make their own reasoned decisions whether to head out there.

As a principle, this makes solid sense because nobody knows a boat's and crew's capabilities better than its captain, who, ideally, will accept the responsibility to make the tough decision not to compete. But ideals rarely become practice. Other forces besides cold reason often come into play. Even if a depression the width of the Tasman Sea is bearing down on you, when you're out in a harbor on a warm summer afternoon after months of preparation, surrounded by waving spectators and reminders of a generous corporate sponsor, and when you're about to start a large race to a distant port where families and vacations are waiting impatiently for your arrival — in short, in the midst of so much good cheer, the prospect of nighttime gale- force winds and 40-foot breaking seas will seem remote, if not impossible. A race has its own emotional momentum that wins over the most cautious minds.

"Every sailor, like a skier looking at a black diamond trail marker, should be able to identify the conditions in which she or he is comfortable, look at a weather map and be prepared to say 'this much and no more.' And a race committee should be willing to make the same determination in the name of the fleet. But translating those "shoulds" into practice--there's the rub."

All the same, let's review the ideal, for it is a worthy one. The key issue for cruisers and racers alike is that they must avoid imposing a human timetable on an activity that is wholly dependent on nature's uncontrollable one. Over the years, I have developed a "formula for disaster" consisting of seven factors that usually are at play when boats get into serious trouble. Number one on this list is the ill-considered departure due to a personal obligation ashore. Almost every fatal sailing accident I know about occurs when a crew for one reason or another (an appointment on shore, a plane schedule, a race start) ignores the the forecast and sails boldly into terrible weather.

Every sailor, like a skier looking at a black diamond trail marker, should be able to identify the conditions in which she or he is comfortable, look at a weather map and be prepared to say "this much and no more." And a race committee should be willing to make the same determination in the name of the fleet. But translating those "shoulds" into practice--there's the rub.

The controversy over the Sydney-Hobart's management has distracted many people from other important issues. One involves boats. We all hear that modern high-tech, light-displacement racing boats designed for protected waters aren't up to bad deep-water conditions. That's true enough. Still, half the fatalities in the Sydney-Hobart were sailors in Winston Churchill, a half-century-old wooden boat that opened up and sank. Just because those new boats probably don't belong out in the ocean, it doesn't necessarily mean that an old one will be safe there.

One sailor drowned after he was caught under his capsized boat and was unable to unclip his safety harness and swim clear. Don't take this as evidence that harnesses are dangerous. A sailor's best friend is a strong safety harness with a short tether clipped with a strong, locked shackle to a through-bolted piece of gear (not the lifelines). On the tether of my harness (which is integrated with an inflatable PFD) there's a stainless steel snap shackle--the kind you'd use for a spinnaker sheet--with a 4-inch lanyard rove through plastic beads that make the lanyard easy to locate and pull. Trip the lanyard and the shackle will open easily, even when the tether is under load.

Obviously, this is hardly the end of the discussion. We now await the report of the official study of the race. Almost 20 years ago the official report on the 1979 Fastnet Race provided dozens of findings that led to greatly improved seamanship and equipment. The forthcoming report by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia surely will provide many more insights. I predict that one of them will be that in conditions like those we had in Fastnet and others had in the Sydney-Hobart, nobody is perfectly protected. We will read of talented crews in good boats that did all the right things and still got into trouble. Such is the nastiness of such storms.

John Rousmaniere has sailed over 30,000 miles. His books includeFastnet, Force 10, about the 1979 Fastnet Race, in which he sailed and in which 15 sailors died. He also wrote The Annapolis Book of Seamanship (to be published in a new third edition this year) and, most recently, The Illustrated Dictionary of Boating Terms

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