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rough territory

I read an article the other day that posed the question; “Is sailing a dangerous sport?” I kind of scoffed at it after reading that the author of a report concluded that sailing is indeed a dangerous sport. I mean seriously, how dangerous can it be to be on a boat plodding along at 5 knots on a sunny summer afternoon? Well once again I was wrong. I read the news over the weekend that there had been another fatality in the Clipper Round the World Race. A 60 year old former lawyer from England was washed overboard and by the time the crew was able to recover him he was dead. This is the third death in the Clipper Race in the last couple of years and it begs the question. “what the heck is going on with that race?”

Let’s first take a quick look at the idea of amateur sailors paying for a berth in an around the world race. I, for one, think it’s a fantastic idea and a great opportunity for sailors to experience one of life’s greatest challenges; a circumnavigation. Simon Spiers, the person who was washed overboard this past weekend, had most likely worked his backside off for most of his life and was finally able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He was likely ticking a box on his bucket list. What a grand idea. Now I know that plenty of you will point out that it probably was not such a great idea given that he is dead and you will continue on to say that he was inexperienced and should not have been out there. Let me counter by saying that Mr Spiers had at least 10,000 nautical miles under his belt in the Clipper Race alone. That’s more sea miles than most “experienced” sailors accumulate in a lifetime. That’s plenty of experience so that argument is facile.

I think it comes down to a basic law of averages. There are so many people out on the water sailing these days that the chances of something happening is increased. In terms of big offshore races right now we have the Volvo Ocean Race going on, the Clipper Race, the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Mini Transat. I am too lazy to count how many sailors that is but it’s a lot and the odds of something happening to someone is therefore increased. Mr Spiers could just as easily have been hit by a London bus had he continued on as a lawyer.
One of the first people to take on paying crew for an around-the-world race was the late Rob James. Rob was an immensely experienced sailor but ironically it was he who died in a freak accident. Rob and his crew had just delivered his 60-foot trimaran from Cowes to Salcombe on the south coast of England when he went forward to drop the mainsail and fell into the water. By all accounts it was pretty calm but it took the crew an hour and forty-five minutes to locate and recover his body.
Let’s also not forget that it’s been over a decade since the highly experienced Hans Horrevoets was swept overboard and died during one of the final legs of the Volvo Ocean Race and in the earlier versions of the race, when it was called the Whitbread Round the World Race, they lost three sailors overboard. The possibility of being washed overboard comes with the territory if you want to race a sailboat around the world. With that in mind I don’t think that there is anything wrong with the Clipper Race.
The pre-race training is rigorous and the safety standards are high. This was just bad luck. I send my condolences to his family and friends and I hope that those who are quick to criticize sit on your hands for a while longer before jumping in and condemning the race organizers. – Brian Hancock.