From the Editor: Losses at Sea

On Saturday, April 14, I was enjoying a perfect sailing day at the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show in Oakland, California. More accurately, I was watching a steady stream of boats heading out to enjoy a perfect sailing day—racing, cruising, or just messing about—while wishing I was among them. I had no idea that just 30-some miles away, a tragedy was unfolding in a sailboat race.
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On Saturday, April 14, I was enjoying a perfect sailing day at the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show in Oakland, California. More accurately, I was watching a steady stream of boats heading out to enjoy a perfect sailing day—racing, cruising, or just messing about—while wishing I was among them. I had no idea that just 30-some miles away, a tragedy was unfolding in a sailboat race.

Peter%20Nielsen

There’s scarcely a sailor in the country who’s not aware of the loss of five of our number from the Sydney 38 Low Speed Chase at the Farallon Islands, so I’m not going to go over the details of that sad story again. The U.S. Sailing-appointed panel looking into the event and what led up to it is comprised of excellently qualified, highly experienced people, and its findings will be public by the time this issue hits the newsstands. 

The loss two weeks later of the Hunter 37 Aegean and its four crew during the Newport-Ensenada race capped an awful month for the California sailing community. Again, another sad story—again, I’m pre-empting official findings, but at time of writing the consensus was that they steamed smack into an unlit island in the middle of the night. 

I can’t speak for the Farallones panel, obviously, but I don’t think there’ll be any surprises in its findings. I will say that as a cowardly cruiser I have a deep-seated fear of a lee shore and will go a long way out of my way to avoid one. I will also admit that the competitive urge can subjugate such fears, and I’ve more than once been aboard racing boats where calculated risks were taken that would have Charles Frederic Chapman spinning in his grave. I emphasize the word “calculated” because that is what we do every time we go sailing. 

Nor do I know what led up to Aegean’s sinking, or how an experienced crew could hit a well-marked island, but the boat’s arrow-straight track as plotted by its satellite tracker leads one to speculate about the possibility of a GPS-assisted collision. More on that in the next issue.

Our heartfelt sympathies go to the families and loved ones of these nine fellow sailors. Their deaths are a sad reminder that we can never let our guard down on the water. 

They should not, however, overshadow the fact that despite the undeniable risks attendant to sailing, it remains one of the safer sports. USCG statistics from last year reveal that of 758 boating fatalities in 2011, only 28 were sailing-related. Yes, that’s still too many, but no human activity is 100 percent safe, and nor can we make it so. As sailors we have to trust in our experience and skills to either keep us out of trouble or get us out of it, while never forgetting the fact that even the most experienced of us are only one bad decision away from potential disaster.

So the International Sailing Federationhas decided to give Olympic windsurfing the boot in favor of kiteboarding. Windsurfing has been a sport in decline for many years, and youngsters are deserting it in droves in favor of the greater thrills (and smaller bills) of kiteboarding. I’m no great fan of windsurfing, a skill which has eluded my every attempt at it, but kiteboarding is an infant sport that’s hardly had time to earn an Olympic spot. Still, if ISAF thinks more Lycra-clad youngsters doing aerobatics will save sailing from Olympic extinction, it’s got to be worth a try.

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