Serious Safety

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The capsize and rescue of Rambler 100 teaches us that not every catastrophe ends in tragedy-provided we take proper, and often simple, precautions  (published February 2012)

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, these colder winter months provide excellent opportunity for reflection on lessons learned from last year and ways to improve our sailing season in the year ahead. Equally relevant to our sailing friends in warmer climes and those brave enough to roam the extreme weather this season offers, a discussion of safety is always appropriate at this time. This past year provided some excellent lessons in the form of the RAMBLER 100 capsize and subsequent successful rescue of the entire crew. What can we, sailors of all types and passions, both mono- and multihull, learn from one of the world’s largest, fastest and best designed racing yachts on the water today? Let’s take a look.

If anyone missed the headlines and articles at the time of the incident, the gist is this: RAMBLER 100, reputedly the fastest supermaxi monohull yacht in the world, was participating in the 2011 Rolex Fastnet Race with a professional and highly experienced crew. Shortly after rounding Fastnet Rock, the ballast bulb and lower portion of her canting keel fell off, resulting in a sudden and complete capsize. She subsequently remained upside down, trapping some crew belowdecks and throwing others into the wind-whipped sea. With her VHF and AIS antennas submerged and the main EPIRBs trapped belowdecks along with the ditch bag and handheld VHF, she was unable to summon assistance from other boats in the race. Fortunately, thanks to two personal locator beacons (PLBs) alerting the Irish Coast Guard and RNLI, her entire crew were eventually rescued, and though a few required some medical attention, all survived. The yacht was later towed and refloated.

Among other organizations, US Sailing conducted a very thorough safety review of the incident that resulted in a number of changes to their offshore racing rules and recommendations for builders. Rather than a re-analysis of the event, which has been extensively covered many times already, I believe there are some good discussions yet to be had about points raised by both the crew and the US Sailing report. In particular, seven specific axioms are clearly applicable to all sailors, whether racing, cruising or just out for the day.

1. ACCIDENTS CAN HAPPEN
AT ANY TIME.
First is the universal axiom that an accident can happen at any time. Its trite to say, and often dismissed as another cliché, but if you stop for even a moment and think that whatever you are doing, wherever you are, something external and unanticipated could radically change the resulting course of your life, it gives you pause. Even more so on a boat. The important thing to remember is to constantly keep an open mind about your alternative possibilities. Train yourself to handle the unexpected and think in new and creative ways. A classic sailor’s game is to play “what if.” What if the mainsheet suddenly broke? What would that do to the rig? What would that require you to do? Is anyone likely to be in the way of the boom as it goes flying? What if the engine quits just as your sailing partner falls overboard in a strong headwind? Etc. Simply by thinking about possibilities, resulting consequences and wise ways to handle it, you become more prepared and give your mind better options when time is short and action counts.

2. ACCIDENTS CAN HAPPEN TO ANYBODY, ON ANY BOAT.
Related to the first axiom, the second is that even the newest, best-designed, most impressive boats are not immune to problems. RAMBLER 100 was designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian of Juan Yacht Design, a renowned designer, and built by Cookson Boats in New Zealand, a highly regarded builder. It was crewed by highly experienced professionals and by an owner with a history of successful offshore racing. It is safe to assume, based on currently available data, that the boat was well-constructed using accepted engineering principles and properly sailed. Extrapolating further, even on proven, older, well-made boats that are maintained and kept up to date, things can still happen. A false sense of confidence leads to lax precautions. Don’t assume that just because you replaced that part yesterday it cannot fail.

helicopter rescue3. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR COMPETENT TRAINING AND PRACTICE.
The third axiom is perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the incident, though it is strangely absent from the disciplines of the majority of cruising sailors today. So listen carefully to this quote from the report:

“The boat exceeded the required training for an ISAF Category Two event with 11 graduates of the ISAF Offshore Personal Survival Course aboard. In addition, prior to their Transatlantic Race in July the boat hired a professional safety trainer and conducted live Man Overboard and Abandon Ship drills underway. They also had all of their Safety Kits professionally inspected and repacked. The value of this training is referred to several times in the Crew Narratives and is credited with saving the lives of those who were in the water for three hours.”

Read that last sentence in particular, again. There is no substitute for competent training and practice. Its one thing to say you have a parachute anchor. It’s another to have set it and retrieved it once in calm conditions. It’s an entirely different experience to become competent with its use (and when not to use it) through frequent practice. The same could be said with not only the majority of safety gear aboard, but also with our own skills. When was the last time you actually hauled a human being aboard in a sling from the water? When was the last time you threw a cushion overboard and practiced crew recovery drills under sail without starting the engine? Have you ever taken a swimming safety course, a first aid course, or a boat firefighting course on your own volition? Several people’s lives were saved as a direct result of professional training and crew practice. Think about the inverse of that for a minute. Now go book yourself a quality hands-on, outdoors, in-the-water safety course. ISAF has a very good curriculum, but even if you can’t get into one of those courses in the near future, you can at least take a local Red Cross first aid refresher, get your certification in firefighting, or take a “drownproofing” course at the local YMCA for next to free.

It might save your life, but perhaps more importantly it might save someone else’s too.

4. EQUIPMENT YOU CANNOT ACCESS IS USELESS…
Actual practice is nearly essential, but equipment is not always useful. Least useful of all is the equipment you can’t access or deploy. All of RAMBLER 100’s liferafts were found to be impossible to deploy from an inverted position. In addition, the report chillingly notes: “To the surprise of all survivors there was no time to take anything with them.” There goes your careful ditch bag deployment strategy, doesn’t it?

5. … BUT SOME EQUIPMENT IS MORE USEFUL THAN OTHERS.
That is not to forget, however, that certain equipment, when properly prepared, is highly effective. The crew strongly recommended that an easily accessible ditch bag be kept on deck and accessible at all times, including in the inverted position. Other factors such as crotch straps for PFDs, equipping every crewmember with appropriate signaling devices and spray hoods were considered essential to in-water crew survival and rescue.

Another recommendation that may be interesting to cruisers is that auto-inflation of life vests should be DISABLED. The crew credited the fact that theirs were all set for manual inflation as being crucial to helping those trapped belowdecks escape. Naturally, this presumes that the individual wearing the device is at least a reasonably competent swimmer, with enough composure in the water to find and deploy the manual inflation lanyard, which, again, requires practice and training.

The boat was eventually located only with the aid of two PLBs—the EPIRBs carried aboard could not be accessed in time as the crew struggled to egress the inverted and waterlogged cabin, demonstrating not only the effectiveness of even a PLB but also the necessity of placing EPIRBS where they will trigger and be accessible from a completely inverted hull. It is important to note that the only electronic indication of RAMBLER 100’s capsize were the two PLBs. VHF, AIS, DSC and EPIRB all failed because they were not able to be accessed or used effectively given the circumstances and the equipment location.

6. THE CREW THAT STICKS TOGETHER IS SAFEST.
Ultimately, sticking together and helping each other ended up saving the day for many crew. Those who were able to stay with the boat helped retrieve other crew from the water in a coordinated effort, reducing or preventing hypothermia and providing accountability for who was missing. Those stuck in the water found each other and huddled together, providing support and warmth while increasing visibility of the group. This tactic ensured that if one was found, all were found and was instrumental in helping Wave Chieftain, the dive boat, locate them.

7. STICK WITH THE BOAT. EVEN IF IT’S UPSIDE DOWN.
Last but not least, it’s worthwhile to note that yet again, as in the lessons learned from the 1979 Fastnet Race, the boat continued to provide a degree of safety and visibility even in its inverted position. It remains true far more often than not that the boat is more able to provide for your safety than a raft. So don’t be in such a hurry to leave it.

It should be noted that one of the US Sailing recommendations is that the underside of offshore boats be painted a highly visible color such as fluorescent orange to aid visibility and alert other boats within visual range. That might have helped other race boats notice RAMBLER 100’s upside down hull rather than sail blithely by not even 400 meters away. It’s something to think about, and carries significant value even for coastal cruisers. Perhaps a petition for vivid blaze orange bottom paint is in order? But even without the blaze orange paint, it was far, far easier for the rescue crews to find the upturned hull than to locate the huddled group of crew in the water.

CREATING YOUR OWN LUCK
Safety is often a subject brought up in the context of a relatively depressing study of disaster aftermaths. In this case, tragedy was narrowly avoided due to an abundance of preparation and precaution and despite a number of shortcomings in that preparation. The sailing author John Vigor has an apt theory called “the black box,” wherein every good and active precaution or preparation we make adds a point to an imaginary black box, and every potential action we could take that we choose to omit subtracts a point. In the event of a disaster, the point balance of the box is determined. The more positive points we have in favor over our negative points, the better the outcome of the disaster for us. Its clear that had RAMBLER 100’s captain and crew not taken the abundance of precautions they had, we would almost certainly not be reading about a fortuitous ending. Whatever motivational theory you subscribe to, the overall truth remains: luck is made, deliberately, carefully and occasionally painstakingly. There is no such thing as a “happy accident.”

Daniel Collins is a USCG-licensed Master and an ASA-certified sailing and navigation instructor. Follow his vessel preparations and maritime commentary at www.oddasea.com as he prepares an older cruising ketch for a very unconventional solo sailing voyage. He can be reached for comment at daniel@oddasea.com.

FURTHER COMMENTS

I should note that a thorough read of the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations Category 1 and 2 guidelines (available free at www.sailing.org/documents/special-regs.php) is highly recommended for all cruising sailors, as a significant number of worthwhile and generally easily implemented safety guidelines are contained within. These safety recommendations are applicable to all sailors, not just those involved in racing, and are the result of years of careful study of sailing practices.
The US Sailing Report on the RAMBLER 100 incident is also worthwhile reading and is available, along with reports from the Chicago Mackinac Race and the Severn River incident, at
http://ow.ly/7Yiz3
More on John Vigor and his (in)famous black box theory can be found at
http://ow.ly/7YiGR

Author: Daniel Collins

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