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It's still about iron men and women, sailors stronger than their boats

2011 November 1

When bad things happen in sailing, odds are that human incompetence, negligence or hubris are involved. None of those failings was present in two disturbing sailing accidents last summer. Sailors did just about everything right in both situations, yet one ended in tragedy, the other in narrowly averted tragedy on a grand scale. There is much to be learned from these events, starting with the lesson that safety at sea is a lot more complicated than putting on your life vest.

By all accounts, the crew of the Kiwi 35 Wingnuts was ready for the storm cells speeding across Lake Michigan and bearing down on the boat during last July's Race to Mackinac. The mainsail was down, the headsail was at least partially furled and all aboard were wearing inflatable PFDs and safety harnesses. That wasn't enough to save the lives of two very experienced and capable sailors.

The boat capsized. Even with sails down and keel and ballast intact, the lightweight boat with winglike deck extensions flipped over. Skipper Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel died of head injuries. Their bodies were found under the floating, overturned hull, entwined in lines and their safety tethers. This prompted speculation that they might not have survived even if they had not been injured.

I hope the panel appointed by US Sailing to investigate the deaths will look at tethers. It sounds like a good idea to tie yourself to the boat in bad weather. In practice, that's not always a safe assumption. Being dragged through the water by a safety harness tether attached to a speeding sailboat is reported to have caused drownings. Being held under water by your tether in a shipwreck is a terrifying thought.

This is not a new worry. Offshore racing safety rules now require a quick-release device on the harness end of tethers. The Spinlock inflatable PFD-harness rigs favored by serious offshore sailors come with a pocket holding a hook-shaped blade expressly designed to cut tethers. Some sailors have taken to carrying straight, non-folding knives in sheaths on their harnesses for the same purpose.

My comment about sailors doing everything right in the wreck of Wingnuts applies especially to the rescue of the six surviving members of the crew. Bob Arzbaecher and the crew of his Beneteau 40.7 Sociable, alerted to the capsize by a faint tweet of an emergency whistle heard over a dying squall, accomplished a mission fraught with potential for disaster with a seamanlike competence that should make all sailors proud.

In foul conditions at night they employed a Lifesling to drag the survivors from the inverted boat to Sociable and heaved them aboard. Meanwhile a Sociable crewman stood watch on VHF radio, and with the calm authority one usually associates with professional mariners, organized other race boats in the area in a systematic search for the missing skipper and crew member, not knowing they were beneath the turtled boat.            

I get chills reading the accounts of the sailors who were below deck on Rambler 100 when it capsized in the Rolex Fastnet Race in August. Imagine lying in your bunk deep in the cavernous bowels of a 100-foot boat when the keel breaks off, the boat instantly capsizes and you have 30 seconds to escape-through a chaotic jumble of sail bags and gear below, out of the companionway and into an upside-down, underwater world filled with the snares and traps of rigging, sheets and lifelines, holding your breath during the long, frantic swim to get clear of the 20-foot-wide deck. This is truly the stuff of nightmares.

The sailors who faced that life-or-death test survived, as did the rest of the crew of 21 who were shipwrecked in the typically nasty Celtic Sea. This amazing fact leads to what I think is the ultimate lesson of these disasters: The most important safety feature on a boat is the character of the sailors.

Equipment matters. PFDs are essential. A personal epirb was instrumental in the rescue of the Rambler crew. But it was sailors and their superb seamanship that made for outcomes far less tragic than they could have been.

The crew of Rambler were elite sailors, hardened offshore competitors who had pretty much seen it all (except the sudden capsize of an enormous boat). In 15-foot seas, most of those who were on deck were able to clamber onto the overturned hull, help their struggling mates from the off-watch to safety, rig security lines and hang on for more than two hours until they were rescued.

Five who didn't make it to the hull, including the 69-year-old owner and a slender woman who was to suffer near-fatal hypothermia, tied themselves together and managed to survive in 57-degree water for nearly three hours until they were saved by a chartered dive boat. There's plenty of true grit in this story.

On Lake Michigan two months earlier, survivors of Wingnuts, though devastated by the loss of their skipper and a crewmate, took care of themselves on a stormy night until rescue arrived in that stellar display of seamanship by other racing sailors.

We tend to throw that word "seamanship" around loosely, but it is nothing less than the heart and soul of safety at sea-possessing the skills and mindset to do what you have to do to save yourself and others.

In both capsizes, the sailors performed splendidly. But their most important piece of equipment, their boats, did not. They were, in fact, betrayed by their boats. A yacht considered fit for an offshore race should not be able to be flipped over by a gust of wind. One of the biggest, most expensive racing sailboats in the world should not lose its keel.

Remember that expression from an earlier age of sail-iron men and wooden ships? Well, the iron men part is still true.