survive and save

survive and save

The gnarly Southern Straits Race this weekend (straits jackets)has produced a huge amount of discussion about race safety both here on SA and across the interwebs, with the internet providing the kind of data collection and analysis that was never before possible.  This is the kind of learning tool that we must all take advantage of to prevent loss of life down the road when ‘the big one’ hits during our own race. You can certainly read tons of great stories and some tough ones from this gearbusting race in the big thread, but Anarchist WHK clued us into the following flawless report from the captain of the Radiant Heat.  That’s the J/30 that rescued two MOBs from the capsized Incisor during the race and stood by while the Coast Guard rescued the rest. Learn from it, and for a little taste of what 50 knots and 15 foot seas looks like (in protected water, no less) have a look at this serious surfing vid from the big Perry racer/cruiser Icon.  For a far more extreme view of things from a smaller boat – in this case, the J/109 Astral Plane, don’t miss this one. Watch it ’til the end. Now for Captain Tony’s report from Radiant Heat, with a big thanks to the J/30 Class site for the story.

I have done the Southern Straits race before 3 times I recall. Twice on a Hunter Legend 35.5 and one on the J-30 Radiant Heat. I have also sailed Swiftsure and Patos Island races several times and one Vic Maui and a trip on a friend’s boat up the Inside passage to Skagway and Glacier Bay. I do not consider myself a very experienced sailor but one who has been around a little bit and who is generally comfortable on and around a small sail boat in various conditions.

I had been away for 5 months and just returned to North Saanich in time to prepare the boat for Patos Island 2010 and other races and was entered and registered for the Southern Straits.

It is always difficult to have a regular crew who is available the same time as the skipper so often these races are done with short crew or strangers on board.

As both races were requiring a PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL YACHTING ASSOCIATION (PIYA) Certificate signed and on board for Category II, I went online and got the most recent copy of the updated certificate and reviewed the required boat equipment.

Category II states it is for "Yachts capable of racing in semi-protected waters, day or night, where heavy weather may be encountered." There is then a long list of requirements which must be met. This includes the specifications of the boat and the equipment to be aboard.

Category I states it is for " Yachts capable of racing exposed waters where the vessel must be self sufficient and capable of enduring heavy storms."

It would seem clear from this that Category II are not expected to race in off shore conditions or in heavy storms. Light Storms maybe??.

I checked all the supplies and placed extra harnesses, strobe lights, Flashlights and floatation gear aboard. I replaced the batteries in the man overboard gear and made sure the gear was easily deployed. This included the mandatory Life ring, MOB pole, drogue and light as a single unit (a big wave snatched it off and away it went. I was glad to see it deploy perfectly. Now I get to buy another one and do it all again) and also the rescue collar which was unpacked and repacked with the attached floatation light.

I was, I thought ready to pass inspection by the race committee if required. At this point I have not been involved in any rescues or man overboard situations although I had practiced drills but in low wind conditions and flat seas.

The inspections by the race committees were more something of a nuisance to be rid of as they usually occurred after the race was finished and only to the boats likely to place in the race results. I submit that they were treated more of a fear factor that could disqualify one from the race after the fact and so deny the prize earned rather than a real safety featured requirement.

The exception to this was the Vic-Maui Race I did in 1996 where inspections for safety gear etc were carried out before the race. Non compliance meant that one did not take part. This ensured that all participants were fully compliant before the start.

On the day before the race I took Radiant Heat from North Saanich to the West Vancouver Yacht Club. Aboard were two crew, one who had sailed with me the previous week in the Patos Race and another who had sail a few time with me. Both had some degree of competence having owned their own sail boats for some years. Two other crew drove and met us in West Van. One is a member of the Coastguard auxiliary and owns his own boat and the other a stranger to me but with good credentials for sailing experience. I felt comfortable with the number of crew and the general level of experience. Subsequently this was to be an important factor to our survival and success in the rescue of two men afloat.

The evening before the race was a skippers meeting and weather briefing at 8 pm. As we were at supper I barely made it there on time but my crew were not there nor required to be.

The briefing was comprehensive and detailed by the Canadian Environmental weather forecaster, Meteorologist David Jones.

Charts, graphs, and computer simulations were displayed and as I recall the forecast went something like this. Race day would be windy with sustained winds of 25-35 knots in the morning with 30-40 knots in the midday from the south East. Around 4 PM there was the expectation that the wind would ease and veer to the Southwest. My plans were to be low of the mark on our approach and if the wind moved to the South West we would not be headed badly enough that we would overstand the mark by much and make a rounding. There was also a line drawn on this graph for "gusts". Gusts were generally in the 50 knot range but one place about 3pm showed gusts to 58 knots. This caused a level of apprehension in me that I noted. Some people muttered that the committee would postpone the start until the wind abated.

I later told the crew of the weather forecast and talked about the sustained 35-40 knots to be expected. I have sailed in 40 knots before but in protected waters. I knew it was not the wind one had to worry about but the seas. It was forecast they would reach 5 meters if the wind was as forecast. He was proven correct. The crew agreed they would sail.

We were in the club lounge and a stranger came by and sat for a chat. It was revealed that he was a lawyer from Calgary. In conversation he offered the opinion that the committee was treading on dangerous ground if they let the race continue having received the recent forecast, if there was injury or death. All skippers sign a waiver and agree that they are responsible for their own boat and crew and make their own decisions as to whether they will sail or not. However this person suggested that the committee would still have some liability in the current situation.

At this time I thought that the race would be called or postponed if there was no change in the forecast. The following morning, Race day, while at breakfast the weather was discussed but it seemed about 30 knots and there was no announcement on the bulletin board and it was a surprise to me that there was no morning pre-race skippers meeting. Talking to another competitor it was mentioned that the centre of the weather system had tracked further South over Victoria and that the race day weather was expected to ease. It seemed everyone was heading out.

The Start line for the race was off Dundarave Pier in West Vancouver. We motored out and our first indication of strong wind was the beat to English Bay. The head winds were strong enough to slow us from 6 knots plus down to three and a half. This was because of the heavy chop as well. We made the start area just in time for the warning gun for the first sequence and with a reefed main and jib sailed around the area until our warning and had a decent start with the wind almost dead down wind. The wind picked up again and after a short while of trying to sail wing on wing I decided the conservative sail plan was the best and we sailed with only the reefed main. Before we passed Point Atkinson we were doing a steady 8 knots with touching 9 now and then. It looked like plenty of wind for us and we were staying with the fleet. Our course was about 250 magnetic and this gave us a deep broad reach and lots of speed.

Over the next two hours the wind strengthened as as we moved out into the strait the seas grew more tumulus and bigger. It was hard to keep the boat on an even keel sailing with the one sail and the helm was sometimes very heavy and we suffered from more than one round up but generally the course was dead downwind and we were shooting down the backside of the waves with a steady recording of 12 knots plus. 13 and 14 knot plus were now regular events. We were largely on our own out there. We could see no other sails except 2 some way behind.We recorded over 15 knots.

At this point we had an accidental jibe and as the sail came through the stress was too much for the wire pennant on the main sheet which parted. There was no other damage and a repair was quickly effected with the placement of a new shackle and a direct fitting of the sheets to the boom. At this point we took the time to put in a second reef in the main. While this was accomplished we were slow in the water doing 3-4 knots and we were overtaken by a boat sailing under jib alone. This we now believe to be Incisor. We attempted to sail with the double reefed main but we were unable to hold a course without rounding up. The wind was much stronger. At this time we decided to quit the race and called in to the committee to let them know. Seas were now estimated to be up to 20 feet on a regular basis and we motored on a course for Nanaimo. Most of the time the boat was at a 15 deg heal due to the wind and the seas were slightly forward of abeam. We we making about 5.5 knots and all seemed well when the warning light for the engine heat appeared. This of course was a concern but I hoped it would be ok as it has happened before for no apparent reason. I had had the engine fully serviced the previous week and there appeared to be no problems. Water cooling was passing through the exhaust. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Contingency plans were talked about and abandoned as we spotted this mast above the waves. I could see no hull but I thought it strange that a boat would be healed that much. It was a strange thing but I now lost all sense of urgency and all my concentration was on the mast. Wind, seas, course, engine all passed back to the subconscious. Back to automatic pilot in my head. After saying, "Well we had better go over and see what that is about ", I simply turned downwind and shortly revealed to us was a boat, capsized, with no more than 2 feet out of the water but regularly over washed with the seas. Along this space were six people sitting, hanging, on.

My impression is that the seas were a little less at this point but I don’t know. I did not dare to go too close to Incisor as the windward side would blow me on to the submerged craft and the leeward side had the mast. The crew of Radiant Heat were all active and talking to each other. I was busy with the piloting and circling around. May Day calls were made, The rescue collar was deployed and trailed behind. We yelled to Incisor that help was coming and they should stay with their boat. However two of their crew jumped into the water and one swam out to the trailing life sling but we were passed by. It is pretty hard if not impossible to slow a boat off the wind in 30-40 knots of wind. Then if the throttle is cut turning into the wind the boat comes to a halt without steerage. The men in the water were too close to their boat for me to pass by and turn up and circle around without fouling Incisor.

We came around again and the men were further away and this time one grabbed the rescue collar. As I could not stop the boat even at idle I was doing 5 knots and dragging him further from Incisor. He finally let go. I came around again and this time slowed down to 1-2 knots and we pulled him to the boat. As this man was large and waterlogged he was heavy! It took, I estimate, 15 minutes to get him aboard. All 4 crew had a hold but there was nothing to get a hold of. There was nowhere to hook a line on. Nobody could get a line around the man. Nobody dare let go. Finally with several concerted shouts of heave the man was moved an inch at a time inboard over the side and under the lifelines and then he was aboard. He went head first down the companionway.

By now Incisor was a quarter mile or more away so we went back to circle around. 200 yard from Incisor we suddenly saw a man in the water. We were going upwind at this time and so I did a parking job next to the man and as he came along side he was grabbed. Same procedure all over again. This time everyone was more tired. The man in the water was weak. Another 10-15 minutes saw him finally pulled aboard, but not before we thought we had lost him. Several times his head went below the water. Finally a leg was lifted up and the crew with more coordinated shouts of heave finally got him aboard.

The Coastguard had now arrived and we turned for Nanaimo, One of the rescued had severe hypothermia in stage two and uncontrollable shivering. One was sick. Our crew helped them strip off and gave them dry bedding . An hour later we finally made it to sheltered waters and handed our passengers over to the RCMP Cat who had followed us in. All this while the engine ran with the hot light on and we made it into Nanaimo harbour and docked without mishap.(After adding oil and checking out the motor I ran the engine for 7 hours with no red light appearing while motoring back to North Saanich, Was it the oil light on??)

Our crew (in no particular order ) of Rick Slauenwhite, Stefan Gashus. Blair Kelly and Bill Schuss are to be commended for the way they worked together and achieved the unlikely and pulled two people from the water.


  1. I think the Race Committee should have called the race and postponed it pending clarification of the weather forecast. Category II is for inland protected waters. The Straits are not that protected and in some regard are worse than open ocean being subject to shallow waters and stronger currents.
  2. Most skippers should have decided not to sail. Admittedly this is a hard call when you have paid the money and done all the preparation. I should not have gone but did.
  3. There should be a morning meeting and not just for skippers but for all crew with a final weather update which is 12 hours more current than the one we received.
  4. The inflatable floatation devices are useless when being rescued and hauled aboard. One of the men had his ripped right over his head. He was left hanging on the side of the boat in a storm with no floatation gear to keep him afloat . If the crew had to let go he would have been drowned shortly afterward.
  5. It should be mandatory that all crew wear proper harness at all time as well as floatation devices. Radiant Heat has gear that can be quickly attached to the topping lift and hauled up the mast to a sufficient height, then the other end can be attached to the harness and the 4:1 purchase would have allowed the person to be hauled aboard. The person hanging on to the rescue collar did not wear it as described and none of our crew thought to tell him to put it on so it was impossible to use the tackle to get the man aboard. This is attributable to lack of preparedness and lack of practice. This includes me too.
  6. All harness must have a crotch strap to prevent it being pulled over the head of the person wearing it.
  7. Category I,II,II or IV requirements should mean all boats are inspected prior to racing and not allowed to race if not compliant. The committee has then done their due diligence as far as boat safety is concerned
  8. Skippers should take the time to explain the safety equipment and tackle to the crew. They should sign a statement to the Race committee that the crew is familiar with the boat and equipment.
  9. Maybe Coastguard can put on some courses for us to learn the best procedures needed to rescue people in the water.

For example I do not know if it would have been easier to get the men aboard from the windward side. Perhaps the waves would wash them aboard. On the other hand the freeboard was reduced to a foot on the leeward side.

None of these comments are to attach blame or are of a personal nature. These are things I have learned from last weekend. We must be better prepared. The next storm may be on the way home tomorrow