When racing in the storm

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race tragedy that killed six sailors has sadly opened up questions regarding the safety of offshore racing. New safety measures are being proposed to prevent future disasters. One such measure is the possibility of postponing the start of a race if foul weather is forecasted.

The recent Sydney-Hobart race calamity was a grim reminder of the perils of racing offshore. The shocking reports from Australia brought back frightening memories for me of the 1979 Fastnet Race. Again, in 1998, as the storm unexpectedly built to near-hurricane strength, the priority shifted from racing to survival. For the unprepared or inexperienced, this is never an easy transition. Aboard Ted Turner’s Tenacious in 1979, I vividly remember the power of that storm. While at the helm, the roar of a giant cresting wave was deafening. As the wave broke over the cockpit, it felt like being at the bottom of a goal-line pileup. Even with two safety harnesses attached to the boat I could not tell if I was still on board. Adding to the long night of terror were continuous Mayday calls crackling over the VHF radio and occasional flares looming and then disappearing over the horizon. based on this experience, I can understand what it was like for the Sydney-Hobart fleet.

Sadly, six sailors perished. There is good reason to ask if the race organizer, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, or the sailors themselves could have done anything to prevent this catastrophe.

The lessons from the ’79 Fastnet inspired regulations that made offshore racing safer. The current Sydney-Hobart inquiry will likely be another harbinger. For now, there are many questions.

Should races be postponed? Can weather forecasts be more accurate? Should (and can) race committees communicate special announcements during a race? What can sailors do to prevent breakdowns, injuries, or worse, loss of life?

Sailing is impossible when the wind is over 60 knots and breaking seas crest over 30 feet. No boat can race, and few can make headway. Imagine the terror of being on a boat as it is rolled 360 degrees. The rig is broken and half in the water. Your boat lacks maneuverability. Suddenly, a crew is washed overboard. How would you respond? Considerable knowledge will be gained on how to handle a case like this through the experiences of the Sydney-Hobart competitors. We should listen carefully. The next disaster could be on any of our boats.

Even without a storm, falling overboard is the most common reason for offshore deaths. The list of sailors who have been lost is long: Nigel Burgess, Mike Plant, Makoto Namba, Rob James, Larry Klein, Andrea Romanelli, Tom Curtis, and Tom Curnow.

According to press reports, the CYCA race committee expected a fresh gale, but still sent the fleet to sea. Apparently they are comfortable with big storms since the Sydney-Hobart race has a long history of “southerly busters.” Unfortunately, the wind built to near-hurricane strength on parts of the racecourse. That’s when the problems began.

The pressure to start the race was strong. On December 26, 1998, the weather was perfect. A huge, festive crowd lined the harbor anticipating the annual spectacle. They were rewarded with a classic spinnaker start in a fresh northeasterly.

There is considerable precedent, however, for postponing the start of long-distance races. In 1982 the Cruising Club of America held back the Newport-Bermuda fleet one day because of rough weather in the Gulf Stream. The Storm Trysail Club has, ironically, also cancelled its t:t. Lauderdale-Key West race because of heavy conditions. Even the Whitbread Round the World Race postponed a leg start from Uruguay in 1993.

Interestingly, another race scheduled to start from Melbourne for Hobart on the same day was postponed.

Luckily for the stricken crews, the Sydney-Hobart race runs along the Australian coast, making helicopter rescue possible. The Australian Navy dispatched a fleet of 27 vessels and several aircraft to search a 4,000-square-mile area. In all, 55 sailors were lifted from life rafts and damaged yachts. Of the six fatalities, Bruce Guy, the owner of Business Post Naiad, had a heart attack. The other five drowned.

There were suggestions in 1979, and now again twenty years later, that the race should have been cancelled. But running for cover is not easy. And how does the race committee communicate with the fleet? Once started, it’s up to the skipper to decide when to stop racing.

Modern ocean race boats are much lighter than 20 years ago. The ride on board can be rough. But the fact is that most boats made it back safely despite broken masts, injuries, and major breakage. This is a credit to ocean-race regulations, strong equipment, and skilled sailors.

The worst case was a 55-year-old wooden boat, Winston Churchill, that sank and lost three crewmembers. Should a classic boat like this one be allowed to compete?

Strict entry requirements for long-distance races are mandatory. The Whitbread race required syndicates to complete a designated long-distance passage before being accepted for entry. The CCA has rejected boats with a history of broken masts or other chronic problems.

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race now goes in the record books as one of the two toughest offshore races on record. It was sad to learn of the deaths of six sailors. They will be missed, but the lessons learned from the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race will provide benefits to future ocean racers.

SUGGESTED SAFETY PROCEDURES

Race Organizers

  • Conduct rigorous safety inspections and hold procedural reviews with all participants.
  • Require that all crew attend safety-at-sea seminars within two years of race.
  • Track pre-start weather systems from two sources.
  • Distribute air-sea rescue procedures with sailing instructions.
  • Require life jackets, foul-weather gear, and life rafts in bright colors.

Sailors

  • Recruit a minimum number of veteran ocean racers.
  • Post “all-hands” billet and list command structure and a safety equipment storage plan.
  • Hold a safety drill, and review procedures for storm, breakdown, or man overboard, making specific crew assignments.
  • Equip foul-weather gear with floatable flashlight and whistle.
  • Inspect and set storm sails before the race.

In a Storm

  • Rotate crew regularly to avoid fatigue and the resulting bad decisions.
  • No yelling. Clear commands instill confidence.
  • Keep the boat on a comfortable, safe course. Forget about racing.
  • Be organized down below. Make every action purposeful.

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