life savers

life savers

After some pretty dismal efforts of late, US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Committee seems to have finally figured out what accident reports are supposed to accomplish, and we commend SAS Committee Chair Chuck Hawley and the independent panel investigating the Low Speed Chase tragedy for authoring the clear and concise Farallones Report released earlier this week.  

Unlike the editorialized, agenda-driven Wingnuts report last year, this one is a template that future accident investigations can feel comfortable using, in part thanks to the experience and knowledge gained by panelist Jim Wildey in his years as an analyst with the NTSB.  After our own careful reading of the report, we have little doubt that this one WILL SAVE LIVES, and we highly recommend everyone who races outside the harbor take a long and careful look.  Your crews’ lives may depend on it.   For the attention-span impaired, here are the points we find most salient:

  • There is very little margin for error for those caught overboard in cold or extremely turbulent seas like frequently encountered outside the Golden Gate.  Yet Low Speed Chase’s crew weren’t tethered, in fact most of the crew didn’t even have tethers attached to their PFDs.  Even after being rolled and stuck in the surf zone, the boat was still, by far, the safest place to be.
  • Dinghy vests and fanny pack PFDs are near useless in these conditions, and even adequate PFDs lose most of their usefulness if worn without crotch straps, and manual pulls can be nearly impossible to reach when stuck in a surf zone.
  • Study the bottom features of any lee shores you may encounter when sailing.  Do a little simple math; while there are detailed formulae that can help, simple rules of thumb for safe depths in potentially breaking waves are the minimum any offshore sailor should know.  One such rule says to multiply the maximum height of deepwater significant wave height by a factor of 3, and stay deeper than that number.  If there’s a 14’ swell and 4 foot wind waves, that means stay outside depths of 54 feet.  It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve sailed over the same spot:  Don’t take the math for granted unless you want to tempt fate.  And for Christ’s sake, as anyone who’s been stuck in the surf zone will tell you, if you see faces start to rear up, TURN AROUND AND GO BACK THE WAY YOU CAME.
  • Never forget that significant wave height forecasts or observations are not the maximum height you will encounter.  The biggest waves will be twice the significant wave height.
  • If you don’t already know how, learn the proper way to send out a Mayday.  There’s a reason a specific (and very easy to learn) protocol is proscribed by the Coast Guard and basic seamanship concepts:  Search and Rescue personnel can help you best if you follow the procedure they most easily understand.
  • Race Officers have a duty to accurately account for each boat and each crew before the start of an offshore race, no matter how short.  Cutting corners or letting folks get away with shortcuts can create confusion that may end up costing a life.
  • Those with more experience with safety – even if not the captain — have a duty to check on their crews.  If someone doesn’t have a crotch strap on their PFD, help them put it on.  If a driver’s course isn’t accounting for leeway on a lee shore, help them steer a better course.  Don’t wait for the ‘person in charge’ to tell you to harness up, especially if you’re in cold or turbulent water.  You are literally all in it together.
  • If you see some shit going down on a nearby vessel from your own race boat – even one that can’t get to the imperiled vessel – don’t keep racing! You may be able to help in ways you don’t realize; acting as a comms relay, spotting heads in the water, or providing a visual beacon for SAR services.

Don’t screw around, folks.  While much of this info is basic seamanship to those who routinely make long passages, a great deal has not yet been fully internalized by racing crews.  It’s up to all of us to make it so.

The full discussion on the SA board starts here.