Over The Edge

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It is sadly ironic that my musings last month on the nature of risk in sailing—and our acceptance of it— should be followed by the tragic capsize of the Kiwi 35 WingNuts (see page 16) in the Chicago Mackinac Race, and a little later by the maxi-racer Rambler 100 turning turtle in the Fastnet race after its keel fell off and plummeted to the bottom of the Irish Sea.

The WingNuts disaster made national headlines and ignited a debate on the suitability of extreme designs for offshore races. The Rambler 100 capsize made international headlines, but thus far there has been no outcry over the suitability of bulb keels for offshore racing.

Perhaps that is because every performance boat built in the last however-many-years has a bulb keel, and precious few of those keels fall off. “Precious few” is a few too many, though, and I doubt any of the 21 sailors on Rambler 100 will forget the experience in a hurry.

What these back-to-back disasters should make us think about is the nature of seaworthiness. Is the Kiwi 35 design, with its pinched waterline beam and radically flared topsides, an inherently less seaworthy concept than a boat with a massive ballast bulb set at the tip of a long, skinny steel fin where it is subject to all manner of extreme torsional forces? I would say yes, of course, but given that both boats wound up inverted, perhaps the answer isn’t as obvious as it appears to be.

The highly experienced WingNuts crew were obviously aware of their boat’s limitations and felt confident in its ability to handle the conditions typically experienced in the Chicago Mackinac Race. Its shortcomings were fatally exposed by some atypical conditions. The even more experienced crew of Rambler 100 were obviously aware of other instances of ballast bulbs falling off high-performance boats, and felt confident enough in its engineering to think it wouldn’t happen to them. But if there is a weak link anywhere in a boat the sea will eventually find it.

I expect—no, hope—the inquiry into the WingNuts tragedy will result in stability requirements for boats competing in races like the Chi-Mac. I, for one, found it hard to believe that there were none, but perhaps that’s because I’ve done most of my offshore racing in Northern Europe, where heavy weather is never a surprise and you always prepare for the worst-case scenario. I do not think a monohull should be as stable inverted as it is right-way-up. No one, though, will be talking much about keel failures, because they’ve fallen into the category of acceptable risks.

Every year, the most unlikely boats carry off the most unlikely voyages without mishap, and it has always been thus. Given the right conditions, you could go transatlantic in a bathtub. But sooner or later, the law of averages will catch up with you. As the crews of WingNuts and Rambler 100 now know, experience and preparation is no defense against being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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