The Racers’ Trailing Edge
By Kimball Livingston
Take the safety standards applied to offshore racing—often enforced through inspection—and you could figure that your average race boat ought to be more fully found and more prepared for bad weather than your average cruising boat. Boathandling skills are likely to average higher; the longer races set minimum standards for crew training and experience by requiring at least part of the crew to attend pre-race safety seminars. Seamanship? That’s a separate question. But what about the argument that a race boat caught in a storm has other factors working against it? No, I don’t mean that it’s a fin-keeled lightweight. I mean that, sometimes, safety means slowing down, and racers don’t like to go slow.
The question came up when SAIL sent me out to test the leading drogues on the market – drogues are towed over the stern to reduce speed and increase control – and two types of parachute sea anchor. Sea anchors are deployed over the bow (on most boats) when it seems better to “park.”
On a cruising boat, a safety response to bad weather is a core value. The crew will slow the boat, change course or even reverse course, do whatever it takes to get through the next bit of business. The race boat is more likely to regard competing as a core value and thus stand on to make high speeds downwind
—if that is the course—or cope with seas approaching from a threatening angle if that way lies the path to success. To me, that seems only natural. We all admire a stiff upper lip and a brave winner. We know that Volvo Ocean Race crews carry on through conditions like those we see below. It’s a cheap shot to get preachy about how lesser mortals should not. You might even say that it looks like quite the ride. Keep warm, tether in, and go. But we could certainly ask, why are the hatch boards not in place?
I guess the trick is to know when to switch to a different gear, because a severe storm might leave you no choice. Even this many years on, John Rousmaniere’s 1979 classic, Fastnet, Force 10 remains a must-read on the subject of racing through a storm, and decision making, and the simple rotten bad luck of being in a certain size and type of boat when the sea state in a certain patch of water happens to be at its most malevolent for that size and type of boat. Only 85 of 303 starters completed the 1979 Fastnet Race. Fifteen people died, 24 boats were abandoned, and 5 sank amid tales of breaking seas to 40 feet. Rousmaniere was there and I’m not sorry I missed it.
There was also the 1998 Sydney-Hobart, chronicled by Rob Mundle in Fatal Storm. In that race, six sailors died and 57 were rescued from broken boats or from the sea itself. Reviewing for Business Week, Bob Dowling wrote of, “The fatal attraction that led so many to believe they could beat the storm. In a word, it was their ultracompetitiveness. When boats were upended by monster waves and survivors learned a competitor was blown out, they often saw it as a better chance to win.”
That is a competitive spirit that we can celebrate, even as we might seek to temper it with boundaries, however subjective, however rooted in the circumstances of the moment. It is truthtelling that we sail because it is an experience that is continually unfolding and surprising, a subject too grand to ever be “mastered.” Somewhere, however, judgment kicks on. There is a Coast Guard study that reports: “It is important to note that most storms, even severe storms, do not create dangerous breaking waves. Sailors who survive such storms may conclude that heaving to, lying ahull or running off, are adequate to prevent capsize. This is a serious mistake. There is compelling evidence that, while a well-found boat will survive a storm in non-breaking waves, none of those tactics will prevent capsize in a breaking wave strike.”
Sounds kinda’ scary, so come on along to our Resources page.