When I arrived at Oracle Team USA’s compound in San Francisco in 2013 for a sail aboard the AC72, then-tactician John Kostecki instructed me to pay close attention to the safety briefing, which was a 30-minute routine given to anyone who stepped on the boat. This safety session was far different from any other I’d attended over my many years of racing. In that half-hour, I learned how to use a Spare Air oxygen tank and all the custom safety gear I’d be wearing, including a helmet. I felt as if I was being prepped for a fighter jet sortie.
To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, the sport it is a-changin’.
The America’s Cup is only one highly visible example of safety protocols being refined. The Cup’s foiling catamarans — and other high-performance yachts — are sailing at incredible speeds, and trained sailors are pushing ever harder to win. Their thirst to break records and capture our attention with extreme feats is placing a sharper focus on safety.
High-speed boats racing on short courses create tight crossing situations, which is an invitation for collisions, particularly when competitive crews aggressively push their boats at starts and turning marks. Exciting as this may be for the sailors and spectators, it does give me pause. I wonder how competitive sailing will evolve in the future by putting sailors at such high risk. Will insurance premiums dramatically inflate as a result? The most dangerous point on the racecourse is when several boats arrive at a turning mark at the same time. Rapid acceleration or deceleration can make maneuvering difficult. The helmsman and a tactician must keep a watchful eye at all times. So too must race committees that work directly on the racecourse. For example, at an America’s Cup World Series event in Bermuda last year, an umpire boat strayed into the path of Artemis Racing’s catamaran, resulting in a head-on collision. No one was injured, but the video is horrifying to watch.
A capsize is another dangerous moment, and we will no doubt see many more capsizes from the America’s Cup, Extreme Sailing Series and World Match Racing Tour, all using powered-up catamarans. The first priority when a boat goes over is to account for the crew. The 2013 loss of Andrew Simpson aboard Artemis Racing’s AC72 is a prime example of this need. Simpson got trapped under the trampoline and may have been knocked unconscious, but according to reports, he died of drowning. America’s Cup organizers worked extensively on injury prevention and rescue techniques afterward.
Prioritizing safety at all levels of sailing is a must, and not just when it comes to physical injury. Historically, we’ve taken for granted that the water we sail in is clean, but events leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro confirm that polluted water can be a serious health risk. The Games’ Brazilian hosts have been slow to address the problem, so in recent months Olympic organizers took action by closing off a sewer pipe that flowed directly into the marina adjacent to the sailing venue, launching garbage scows to scoop debris from the bay, and instituting hygiene protocols for sailors and race officials.
Where I grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, the water was once so polluted by a nearby chemical plant that the river was closed to swimming, but of course, we kept sailing. Dozens of my high school classmates have died from some sort of cancer, and many others (me included) have been stricken with cancer later in life, which makes me wonder deeply about a possible connection.
Water quality is a problem in many places, not just in Rio. Activist groups such as Sailors for the Sea and 11th Hour Racing, as well as National Geographic scientist Sylvia Earle, have been working to advance awareness about ocean pollution and to offer solutions. At a minimum, every regatta host should strive to run a sustainability-minded event, and sailors should support local organizations active in water-quality initiatives.
I’ve encountered very few serious accidents over decades on the water, but I have witnessed a man-overboard incident that resulted in drowning. I’ve also seen injuries that forced a withdrawal from racing, as well as equipment failures that put crews at risk. The 1979 Fastnet Race, during which 15 sailors perished in a violent storm, was a defining moment in sailing and resulted in extensive guidelines being applied to future offshore races. The need to improve safety came into sharp focus again in 2011, when a series of domestic accidents captured our attention. Each event resulted in loss of life, and as president of US Sailing at the time, I commissioned independent review panels to study each case and make recommendations on what should be done to make sailing safer. These reports are available at www.ussailing.org.
Human error was a contributing factor in all of these recent fatalities, a sobering fact that can’t be overlooked. It’s clear that meticulous preparation and common sense are essential anytime any one of us casts off lines and goes to sea.
When an aircraft pilot prepares for flight, he or she reviews a checklist of items to ensure everything is in order. Sailors should also develop their own safety lists and routines. We must ensure that the amount of pre-race preparation matches the intensity of the race by first studying the anticipated weather, evaluating the experience of the crew, and confirming that equipment satisfies all regulations. Major distance races, including the Newport Bermuda Race, now require every crewmember to have participated in a Safety at Sea Seminar within the past five years.
The 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race serves as an excellent example of the importance of pre-race safety protocol. During that race, the maxiyacht Rambler 100’s keel snapped off soon after rounding Fastnet Rock, and the yacht quickly inverted. Each crewmember had taken a survival course before the race, and everyone was rescued, but Rambler’s calamity was a reminder that an afternoon of safety drills is time well spent.
US Sailing, the Cruising Club of America, the Storm Trysail Foundation, the U.S. Naval Academy and many other organizations have been at the forefront of promoting safety for anyone going on the water. Several years ago, the CCA hosted a series of seminars titled “Suddenly Alone,” for couples who sail doublehanded (find a library of useful content at cruisingclub.org). Likewise, the Storm Trysail Foundation produced a video series on the use of storm sails, man-overboard procedures, firefighting, cold-water survival, personal safety gear and weather.
Sailing with the proper clothing and safety gear is essential as well. The debilitating effects of the sun, salt water, dehydration, hypothermia and equipment failure can be reduced with the correct gear. Simple things like wearing gloves, a head cover, an approved PFD, sunglasses, and clothes that cover the skin, as well as frequently applying sunscreen and hydrating adequately, will help you perform better and contribute to your safety.
Safety, however, isn’t only about our individual well-being. The integrity of our yachts is equally important. Stan Honey, chair of World Sailing’s Oceanic and Offshore Committee, believes passionately that equipment failures and catastrophic events at sea should be thoroughly investigated. Honey notes that the aircraft industry has made flight safer by commissioning reviews after every incident or near-miss, and he advocates for the sport of sailing to do the same.
Jason Smithwick, head of World Sailing’s Technical and Offshore Division, conducts a review after any incident, including the recent near-disaster of the 72-foot Bella Mente. The crew realized the boat’s keel was coming loose during the 2016 Caribbean 600 and immediately stopped racing. They calmly initiated abandon-ship procedures and nursed the boat to Antigua’s nearest harbor. Quick thinking saved the yacht and its crew, but only a thorough analysis of the structural failure will prevent it from happening again. The lesson here is obvious: An alert crew using common sense will keep a boat and its sailors out of harm’s way. The best crews practice their sailing techniques, but safety drills must be part of our normal pre-race routines as well.