Skiffs, foiling multihulls and monohulls, and supercharged sportboats are raced by motivated and skilled sailors creating a new game with the potential for regular incidents. Combine overstressed equipment used by competitors who push themselves and their boats to extremes, and no matter how hard you try to prevent them, accidents will and do happen. High speed inevitably translates into equipment breakdowns, and boathandling errors, which heightens the obligation for sailors to watch out for one another.
Olympic 49er sailor Joe Morris, from Annapolis, Maryland, once dealt with a man-overboard situation in a 420 regatta when he was a teenage sailor. He found himself in a rare situation. “On a downwind leg, we passed a female sailor in the water. She was unconscious, her head was down, and she was not moving,” says Morris. “Instinct took over, and I grabbed her trapeze and hauled her into our boat. Apparently, she had been hit in the head by the boom. Her boat and skipper had drifted away.”
A patrol boat transported her to the hospital, where she recovered. One can imagine the impact such an incident would have on a teenager like Morris. Years later, he teamed up with fellow college All American Thomas Barrows in the 49er. The 49er is a tough boat to sail, he says, and things happen quickly. “While you need to keep an eye out for others,” he says, “you have to ask yourself, Is it better to go help another boat, or try to seek help?”
The first thing you should do if you end up in the water is yell to draw attention, he suggests, adding that a whistle attached to your PFD is essential.
In another incident, Morris and Barrows capsized a 49er in 30 knots of wind off Portugal. Morris couldn’t initially find Barrows, but swam around the boat and found him with his legs wrapped around the sheets, his head barely above water. Morris was wearing a PFD, preventing him from diving below the surface to free Barrows’ feet from the sheet.
“Thomas took a deep breath and found a way to clear the sheet off his legs,” says Morris. “After that incident, I made sure my kit is sorted with a knife and whistle. Taking care of little things like this are important when things happen fast. In the 49er class, we have an unwritten rule that we look out for each other.
“Overcoming problems or making rescues is nerve-racking. Training can help prepare sailors for accidents. Everyone understands that you must look out for yourself first. In times of extreme, it’s hard to know what do to. With complicated boats, that’s when mistakes happen. I suggest a two‑hour step-by-step course — maybe even an online course — explaining what you should do when there is a problem.”
It’s not easy keeping tabs on the well‑being of a capsized competitor when you are laser-focused on your performance, or your own survival. When there’s a mishap on another boat, you might have only a split second to respond. America’s Cup officials handled the issue by requiring a chase boat to assist with man-overboard and capsize recovery. In large one-design-fleet races, however, it is difficult for mark and safety boats to keep vigilance over many boats at the same time. It’s the sailors’ responsibility.
What of the safety boats and their role? I spoke with Nathan Titcomb, offshore director of US Sailing, and Matt Hill, race administration director, about guidelines for safety patrolling races. There is no published set of guidelines, they say, but there is a general rule that one chase boat should be on the course for every 10 raceboats. It depends on the skill level of the fleet, and the weather conditions.
Nacra 17 Olympian and Moth World champion Bora Gulari says his experience with on-course safety boats is they’re not needed — until they are. “If I see a boat in trouble, I verbally check in when I sail by,” says Gulari. “If there is a negative (response), I stop and assist. In extreme conditions, safety boats have their hands full rescuing people who have been separated from their boats.”
Ryan Krisher — a 2015 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, who recently published a helpful primer, The Book on Sailing Safety — says the difference between those who survive, or overcome an emergency, and those who do not is psychological. “A positive mental attitude is beneficial,” he says. “You can either panic or remain calm.”
Taking the time for proper training and having the correct equipment is essential if you have an accident on the water. Being in good physical condition has always been an asset on the racecourse, but the new generation of speedy boats has dramatically raised the need for physical training as well.
In November 2017, World Sailing set up a medical panel to study physical training and safety. Their objective is to establish guidelines and methods for physical training by sailor athletes. Addressing how to achieve strength, agility and stamina demands on sailors who race high-performance boats is important. Dr. Sam Murray, an orthopedic surgeon, is a member of the panel and has been a part of the United States Olympic program. He says they’re developing a sailing-specific conditioning program in order to diminish the number of injuries incurred in training and competition.
“One is less likely to be injured if the muscles being used (back, shoulders, core) are strengthened and can accommodate increased or expected forces placed upon them,” says Murray. “In this realm, conditioning should help with high-performance (foiling) skiffs and cats.”
When something unexpected happens, it’s important to allow for a review panel to be commissioned to learn exactly what took place, and how the rules, regulations and safety procedures can be improved. World Sailing and US Sailing regularly set up independent review panels to study catastrophic events. Oftentimes there is resistance to setting up these panels due to the threat of litigation, but in my view, reports are vital if we are to make our sport safer.
Several incidents during my sailing career impacted my thinking and my own actions. Each of these tragic events were on my mind when, as president of US Sailing, I commissioned independent review panels in 2011. Three of the reports involved fatalities. I witnessed the first incident in 1979 during the infamous Fastnet Race on the Irish Sea when a violent storm devastated the 303-boat fleet. Following that calamity, Safety at Sea Seminars were introduced, and offshore regulations were improved. The important change was education.
In 1988, at the Olympic Games in Pusan, South Korea, Canadian Finn sailor Lawrence Lemieux was leading the final race. He was on his way to earning a bronze medal when he noticed a capsized 470 on another course. He could see that two young sailors were struggling. Lemieux abandoned his race and sailed over to the 470 to assist. Two 18-year-old boys from Singapore had capsized in 25 to 30 knots. He pulled them onto his Finn and waited with the boys until a rescue craft arrived. Lemieux did not get his medal, but he was awarded the Outstanding Sportsman Medal from the International Olympic Committee, and was named the Canadian Yachtsman of the Year.
When a boat capsizes or breaks down, the nearest competitors should always sail over and ask if assistance is needed. There are many cases of juries awarding redress to competitors who drop out of races to aid a competitor in distress. Lemieux missed out on a medal, but he became an international hero and an example of how to help fellow sailors. Morris, like many sailors, has witnessed tough situations that turned out well. As boats get faster, with greater physical demands, safety procedures are an important priority. Looking out for your fellow competitors is a fundamental obligation.