******How many of you have been involved in a major collision at the start of a race?** Probably lots.
For those of you who have, were the boats worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Hopefully, a lot fewer.
How many of those collisions resulted in the tactician breaking both legs? Hopefully, none.
I ask because the most famous racing start of the year (so far) did not take place during the Extreme Sailing Series, America’s Cup World Series, or Olympic Classes regatta. It took place during the Banderas Bay Regatta, in Mexico, last month. Unfortunately, two non-Laser-sized boats (Camelot, a Hunter 54, and Blue, a J/160) were involved. Even more unfortunately, Mike Danielson, a Banderas Bay sailmaker who was serving as tactician for Blue, lost his footing during the incident and his legs slipped between the two boats just as the hulls came together.
The fact that Danielson suffered such a serious injury brought the start incident to the attention of the sailing world. Which was a good thing, because the eyewitness accounts of the smash-up (see here, here, and here) and the video from Blue (sadly, though probably inevitably given the insurance and legal issues, taken down), hold some good lessons for any amateur who decides to race a sailboat.
First, a brief summary of the incident, offered by Craig Shaw, who was driving Camelot:
“We—my mom, dad, sister Trudy, girlfriend Jane, and crew Jim and Laura Campbell—had a perfect start today. The Variana 44_ Olas Lindas_, with former J-World instructor Eugenie Russell at the helm, forced us up near the starting line about 10 seconds before the start. She had every right to do this, as she was the leeward boat. We were hard on the wind, maybe 30 or 40 feet from the Race Committee boat, when the J/160 Blue came barging in—which is illegal—between us and the RC boat at about 10 knots. I yelled ‘No room!’ My crew tells me that I hollered it three times. Those on the RC boat said they heard me. Blue finally responded by heading up, going over the line early. But their transom came into our boat at about the shrouds. We didn’t feel or hear any contact, but saw someone on Blue rush to the closest point of contact to help someone. We later learned that Mike Danielson had fallen while trying to cross the stern of Blue to fend off, fell overboard between the boats, and had both legs broken. Naturally, we all felt horrible about it.”
Blue_ in a better moment.
The video, which was up on YouTube for a while and was shot from a fish-eye camera at the stern of Blue, bears out Shaw’s report. Seeing a video is different from being there, but when I watched it the thing that stuck out for me is how slow Blue was to see Camelot turning up. Danielson can be heard telling the helm to put the bow down, before reversing as the boats are converging rapidly and urging bow up, and then how seemingly slow the Blue helm was to react to the imminent collision.
The Protest Committee saw it pretty much the same way:
d. As Olas Lindas and Camelot approached the starting line, Olas Lindas luffed Camelot, and Camelot luffed to keep clear.
e. Blue, sailing faster, closed on Camelot and became overlapped about 50 feet to windward of Camelot.
f. Blue, still sailing faster and lower, converged on Camelot until the boats were approximately 15 feet apart.
g. Blue then altered course to leeward toward Camelot and then windward as Camelot tried to bear away to avoid contact.
h. Contact occurred between Blue‘s stern quarter and Camelot amidships causing noticeable scratches on Camelot‘s topsides.
i. The tactician on Blue fell between the boats and suffered injuries.
j. Blue was called OCS by the R/C but quickly retired due to the crew’s injuries. Blue returned to the harbor and took the crewmember to the hospital for treatment. Camelot was not aware of the contact or the injury and finished the race.
a. Blue, the windward boat, failed to keep clear.
b. Camelot acted to avoid contact when it became clear that Blue was not keeping clear.
a. Blue‘s score is to be changed to DNF
b. Camelot is not penalized under RRS 14(a)
To Danielson’s credit, he took to the pages of Sailing Anarchy to give his perspective on what happened:
“I take responsibility on a number of levels here. While we had a bail out plan up to 12 seconds before the start, the other boat came up to below our line after having a WL situation with another boat, and then they laid on a matching course below us, opening the door wide for a boat-end start.
My biggest mistake was not learning from his erratic movement with the other boat and not anticipating possible aggravated movement from him later. BBR is definitely a cruisers’ regatta, and while it is meant to be laid back, there are always folks that know just enough to be dangerous, and they are often pushing to show they’re real racers. I’ve been racing for my entire life and I should know this kind of thing will happen; I should be looking out for erratic drivers, giving my own developing helmsperson extra time and information to deal with the head-to-wind, take-him-to-the-moon type, that are looking to prove a point. I saw the signs of him coming up aggressively, and even though he did not warn us, I should have anticipated it.”
Okay, first things first. Kudos for taking responsibility. But whatever credit attaches to that is quickly evaporated by the somewhat patronizing attitude toward the other drivers. Turning to weather to bleed speed if you are early to the line is not a very surprising maneuver, and for Camelot there was no choice (the driver of Olas Lindas, which took Camelot up, was a J-World Instructor–hardly inexperienced). That is not “erratic” driving. That is good driving. Camelot had no requirement to give a warning, and there is no reason to believe they were trying to “prove a point.” And even if their point was to prevent Blue from coming in at the last minute and rolling them, then that could even be considered reasonable racing, too. If anything it was the Blue helmsman who appears a bit erratic.
Danielson goes on to say:
“Rules are there for a reason, and perceptions of time and opportunity change quite a bit with experience. The biggest lesson for me? You must ALWAYS know your own crew and skipper’s abilities, and you must always try to stay ahead mentally of your competition – especially when they are carrying kayaks on deck. There are lots of reasons to be ‘on guard’ when racing big boats with and against infrequent racers.”
Which seems to me to be a cryptic way of suggesting his skipper and crew also were not quite up to fast and furious racing, as well as admitting that he was out of sync with the regatta itself (even if he goes on once again to pick on the competition for having kayaks on the deck).
Ultimately, maybe the real takeaway should be that if you are in a regatta where kayaks are being carried on deck, then you should dial it down a bit. When you step back from the situation it seems almost ridiculous that a day of fun racing on Banderas Bay caused so much fiberglass and lower extremity damage. Latitude 38 said it best:
“As a ‘cruisers’ regatta’, the Banderas Bay Regatta is an event where most participants ‘race their homes’. As such, the attitude of most participants is that winning a pickle dish isn’t worth the risk of a collision, which may ruin their cruising plans, and certainly not the risk of injury.”
Conclusion: Keep it in perspective, always anticipate, always have a bail-out plan, and execute it when necessary. Most important, if you want to get wild and crazy, save it for the big leagues.