Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . Tragedy needn’t regulate the freedom out of sailing

Tragedy needn’t regulate the freedom out of sailing

2012 June 6

Just weeks before I sat down to write this column, five sailors were lost during the Full Crew Farallones Race off San Francisco in heavy weather. It was a tragedy of the first order but, putting the sorrow aside briefly, it is an event that should make all sailors, racers or not, take a moment to reflect on their own abilities and how often they push their envelope of luck. It is a time to recognize that, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

San Francisco Bay is a treacherous mistress. It lulls you with the bright days and then raps your knuckles with a mix of wind and current unlike anywhere in the world. I know San Francisco. I was born there, I've belonged to one of the major yacht clubs there for decades, and I've spent untold hours racing and sailing there.

And it was on San Francisco Bay that I had my own near miss. I'd been racing a Finn on the bay when I capsized during a jibe and couldn't get the boat back up. With the current, I soon drifted away from the race course and any rescue boats, and quickly realized I was on my own. Luckily, I was in a full wetsuit but things weren't good: I was cold, there were no boats around and the sun was setting.

Luckily, some other sailors at the yacht club bar realized I wasn't swilling down Ramos Fizzes with them, did a head count, and sent out a crew that found a very cold me. I was incredibly lucky that my drinking habits had brought rescue.

But this isn't just about San Francisco Bay. Even the most benign sailing waters have the occasional squall, and afternoon storms can bring unexpected wind and waves.

Every time we cast off the dock lines, we are on our own and we should echo the words of the police sergeant on the old "Hill Street Blues" television show, who ended his morning briefing with the admonition, "Hey, let's be careful out there!"

It has, admittedly, been a tough 12 months for sailing, with other high-profile deaths on the race course. A 14-year-old girl drowned while sailing on the Chesapeake, two sailors died when their boat capsized in a storm during the Chicago-Mackinac race and now five off San Francisco.

I'm sorry about the lost sailors and my sympathies to their families, but they were doing what they loved. And, by the way, each of the San Francisco crew had signed an entry form for the race that clearly said that sailing is risky and they were on their own. They knew the risks and chose to sail. This latest accident was, in my mind and with knowing only a few of the facts, bad luck.

One problem these high-profile incidents cause, however, is the Monday-morning quarterbacking, often by those with little or no sailing experience. The reasons for the San Francisco deaths are known: a breaking wave, known locally as a "sneaker," washed six of the eight-person crew overboard, and the boat ended up grounded on a rocky island. There is already a hue-and-cry in the media: Why weren't they wearing harnesses? Why were they so close to the rocks (a mark of the course)? Why were they out there in the ocean on a windy day? Why? Why?

The next thing that will happen is the rules zealots will start trying to regulate sailing again. We should always wear life jackets, tethers and helmets to prevent boom injuries. We must never venture out if the wind is more than 10 knots, and a local meteorologist must sign off that there are no impending storms.

Part of the joy of sailing is the un-regulation. You can sail where you want and when you want. If you want to test yourself in a breeze, you can do so. If you want to keep racing when some of the fleet (as did the in San Francisco fleet that day) have quit, good on 'ya. Sailing is pure, unadulterated freedom.

Years ago, I learned to fly and loved what we called the "100 dollar hamburger." Get in a little plane, fly to an airport an hour or two away, have a burger at the little airstrip café and fly home. A great day. But then it got regulated, and you would spend your entire flight talking to air traffic control and being directed here and there. It took all the fun out of flying.

Listen, life is dangerous and none of us are going to get out alive. There are some laws that I approve of, with seat belts in cars being one. They clearly save lives. But for all the fear-mongers who want to add to the regulations governing sailing, I say find another sport. We've lost eight sailors in high-profile accidents in 12 months, and that's surprising to us because it's far more than usual.

For the past 35 years, an average of more than four golfers a year are killed by lightning. Should there be rules prohibiting metal golf clubs, or saying no golf can be played when there are clouds in the sky?

Take driving. Some 30,000 people die every year! And I would guess that they weren't doing something fun. They were in traffic, surrounded by drivers in a rush, and then they were gone.

No, I'm saddened when anyone is lost at sea and I grieve for their families. But they left the world doing something they loved. They were free to make their own choices, whether they were to keep going in rough weather, if they should wear a harness and when to tack to round an island.

For leaving the world while doing something they loved, I salute them.