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the politics of dying

This past weekend there was a tragic death aboard one of the boats competing in the Clipper Round the World Race. A crew member, Andrew Ashman, was struck on the head by either the mainsheet or the boom, or both, and died of his injuries. It was the first fatality in an around-the-world race in a long time and it begs the question “is it safe to race around the world with paying amateur crew?”  I am going to answer that right up front and say yes, but let’s take a look at the issue.

Crews competing in the Clipper Race pay a fairly substantial amount of money to participate. For the entire circumnavigation it’s a number north of $75K. In return you get trained, kitted out, and given the chance to forever change your life by sailing around the world. The Clipper Race, unlike the now defunct Global Challenge, sails downwind and therefore the boats carry spinnakers which add a bit more of a challenge to an amateur crew especially when sailing downwind in the Southern Ocean. The tragedy that occurred this past weekend had nothing to do with sailing downwind; they were going upwind off the coast of Portugal in a moderate breeze.

I am sure that there are going to be some who point out that taking paying passengers on a powerful 70-foot boat is unseamanlike, even dangerous, but let’s put this into context.  This is the tenth time that they have run the race – every two years for the past twenty years. More than 3,000 people have participated and until now there has not been a single fatality. A pretty good record by any measure when you consider that so many people are out there on the open ocean for such a long period of time going through diverse weather situations that will inevitably deal out some nasty weather.

There have been a total of five fatalities in the Whitbread Round the World Race, now the Volvo Ocean Race. Two crew were washed overboard from different boats in the very first race and two crew were washed overboard from the same boat in the 89/90 race. The most recent tragedy was in 2006 when Hans Horrevoets was lost overboard from ABN AMRO TWO. Each death is to be mourned but that’s life and even more so when you are living Life at the Extreme, as the VOR slogan emphasizes.

I would wager that the Clipper crews are probably better trained before they leave the dock than many who set sail around the world. And let’s not forget this; by the time the teams reach Rio de Janeiro at the end of the first leg they will have sailed more offshore miles than many who consider themselves seasoned sailors. For the next 30,000 plus miles they are no longer amateur paying crew; they are just paying crew and pretty experienced ones at that.

Jump in the discussion thread.

Brian Hancock
allaboutsails.com