Taking your own measure

Offshore sailboat racing has its own degree of risks such that safety regulations have limitations in protecting sailors. A prime example is what happened in the Sydney-Hobart race in Dec 1998. The only solution that can be offered is to prepare for any situation that a sailor can face.

I remember sailing in 45-knot winds while racing offshore from Marion to Bermuda. The waves were big but not especially dangerous. Under storm jib and triple-reefed mainsail, we could manage to steer the 33-footer upwind at 5 knots without pounding too badly. One particularly big wave swept our decks, flattened our dodger, and filled the cockpit with water and foam. Although it didn’t get any windier, I remember thinking fairly often about how much more wind it would require before our skipper should call for the change to the storm trysail.

The winds eased off eventually, but I’d seen the edge, beyond which we’d have had to shift from racing to focusing on how to make it through the storm in the best way possible. Being prepared for that moment is the point of having some experienced crewmembers, carrying good safety equipment, rehearsing man-overboard drills, and learning everything you can from the accounts of racing sailors who experienced storm conditions such as occurred in the Sydney-Hobart race last December.

Our story of the race in this issue is sensational, but not an attempt by us to sensationalize the fact that six sailors died. The general media already handled that pretty well. We wanted to bring you the words and actions of sailors caught in a severe storm so you could learn from their experience and act accordingly when getting ready for your next race. In the reading, I have no doubt that you’ll also feel more connected, as fellow sailors, with those who survived and those who died.

After the official inquiry is completed, race authorities will upgrade safety regulations and other requirements and procedures for offshore races. This was the case after the ’79 Fastnet in which 15 died, and also after the ’93 Sydney-Hobart in which two boats sank and many boats suffered delaminating hulls in a much longer upwind slog.

But race officials can only do so much to protect sailors. Next year, or 20 years from now, another major storm will catch a fleet offshore. You might be there. Will you take cover, prudently, if you have the opportunity? If you can’t dodge the storm, will you organize and lead your crew effectively and make good decisions about your storm tactics? And will your crew and safety gear be ready if fate sends a wave your way that would roll and dismast any boat? Tough questions, no sure answers.

Offshore sailboat racing is an adventure sport that offers compelling personal rewards for sailors. It also bears a certain degree of risk. As a skipper, you may never face the decisions that Sydney-Hobart skippers had to make. You may not lose a mast, lose a crew overboard, or have to choose when to step into a life raft. Yet if you keep at it, something’s going to happen sooner or later. And even if it doesn’t, by going through the process of preparing for what could go wrong, you’ll take your own measure on a far larger scale than you’ll ever contemplate by counting the contents of your trophy case.

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