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beware the big boat

St. Francis’s Rolex Big Boat Series continues to cling desperately to a name that becomes less and less accurate each year; just half the fleet at last month’s event – billed as the ‘climax to the summer of sailing’ – fit the 49-year old definition of the event’s namesake craft, with just two modern racing monohulls over 50 feet entered in the regatta.

That’s not a bad thing – well, not unless you’re a title sponsor whose image depends on the exclusivity of big yachts, anyway – and it’s a good sign that San Francisco’s most prominent annual regatta is adjusting to the new American reality of sailboat racing.  Everyone we spoke to loved the action on the mixed course.  ”It’s just such an amazing place to race, and practicing with the Cup going on made it even better,” said one J/boat sailor.  ”We had a MOD buzz us, we traded gybes with a big cat, and all in the middle of a tight one-design fleet – what a blast,” said another.  There’s no doubt that the new formula works, even if the old courses and the old way of thinking doesn’t.

But an incident between Melges 24 Rock n Roll and J/120 Chance and the resulting injuries raises an important question for this new reality:  How do you best insure that comparatively potato-chip sized boats don’t get run down by big lumps of lead and fiberglass?

The crash happened along the city front during a race where the bigger boats sailed to a mark a mile or two downwind of the leeward mark for the Melges 24 fleet.  While the fleet of J/120s was coming upwind along the SF shore, the Melgi were planing downwind, three abreast, on final approach to their bottom mark.

While a passel of starboard-gybe Melgi doused their kites as they reached into the mark, the J/120 Chance was rolling upwind on starboard tack.  According to several eyewitnesses, and despite the fact that the 120 had room to pinch up and let the battle by, Chance never altered course as the cruiser/racer blasted through the port quarter of longtime Etchells and Melges 24 helmsman Argyle Campbell’s Rock n Roll.

“It was maybe the most violent collision I’ve ever seen on a race course,” said one witness.  ”It was like a pit bull lunging through a chihuaua,” said another.  Campbell was thrown to the deck, splitting his chin open to the tune of 11 stitches, with the bowman landing on top of him.  Tactician Charlie Enright, one of America’s most promising young pro racers, suffered injuries to his back, and faces a month or two of recovery.

The J/120 went on to finish their race after untangling themselves from the Melges’ sheets, finishing their class in 5th.  We’re told they then requested redress for their score, and were thankfully denied.  There was no protest against Chance despite having done nothing at all to avoid a collision – because they never saw it coming.  Rock n Roll would have been DSQ for a W/L foul against the J/120 had they been able to finish their race, but with half the crew headed to the hospital that wasn’t really an option.

Other than for Enright (and Charlie, our thoughts go out to you bro), the story has a mostly happy ending; Jeremy “Troll” Wilmot flew in as a last-second sub for Enright.  Boat captain Bill Wiggins and a pile of well-meaning Melges folks rebuilt the boat. Trimmer and Bowchick Charlie and Danielle are still getting married.  And Campbell went on to finish a solid 11th at the Worlds.  But it could have been much, much worse, in a place where “much worse” has happened way too often over the past few years.

Unsafe At Any Size

We’re not sure if there’s some kind of ‘acceptable’ threshold, but too many people have died while racing sailboats lately, and if some more careful course management and a little foresight can eliminate the potential for this kind of incident, then that’s what needs to happen.  By the same token, both little boat and big boat skippers/tacticians must do a better job preparing for potential boat-on-boat issues when courses and start times are set up in a way that guarantees inter-fleet contact.  Better yet, if you see potential incidents when courses are announced, say something to your RO; they will probably appreciate the chance to make conditions safer for your fleet.  And remember: Failure to keep a proper lookout is a violation of Rule 14 as well as being a violation of COLREGS; if you crash into a boat you didn’t see, regardless of ROW, you should be DSQ from the race and may even be partially liable for damages.

If you remember the Melges 32s vs the Optimists this summer in Lake Garda, you’ll remember why it was so egregious; not because of the actual danger level, which was quite low.  The outrage came from the potential danger of a locomotive striking a potato chip which just happened to have a little kid hanging off it.  Port/starboard and windward/leeward concerns become a lot less important than common sense and seamanship when this kind of disparate destructive power is on a collision course, and organizers that fail to understand that will, sooner or later, have to send a funeral wreath instead of a ‘get well soon’ flowers.

Defenders of the St.FYC are already on the attack…Do you think we are we out of line?  Talk about it here.

 

October 7th, 2013

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