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Caught Out

A closer look at the Rambler and WingNuts tragedies, and what it means for sailors everywhere

If you’re at all interested in staying safe on the water, the reports on the respective capsizes of the Kiwi 35 WingNuts in the 2011 Chicago-Mac race and the 100-foot maxi Rambler 100 in the Fastnet Race make fascinating reading.

I took away two things from the tragic tale of the WingNuts capsize: that the unfortunate crew were in the wrong boat at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that the race organizers did not have an ISAF Stability Index (STIX) requirement for this Category 2 race, except in the doublehanded class.

Instead, as they had done for many years without incident, the organizers used an informal assessment of the crew’s experience and the boat’s characteristics to determine eligibility.

It’s safe to say that those nod-and-handshake days are over for the Chicago-Mac and for other races that don’t require competing boats to meet stability guidelines. I find that thought sad but inevitable. Yes, crew experience is important, but so is a boat’s ability to stand up to conditions it might reasonably expect to encounter on a coastal or offshore passage. It is hard for sailors to be dispassionate or objective about their boats, and the highly experienced WingNuts crew was obviously confident of her abilities—yet the boat could not heel more than 23 degrees without dipping its wing in the water, and some formulae put its limit of positive stability (LPS) as low as 74 degrees.



If WingNuts should not have been where she was, what of Rambler 100? Some different lessons emerge from this report, aside from the obvious fact that a keel bulb should not fall off a boat. I found it chilling that other competitors passed within a few hundred yards of the upturned raceboat and crew huddled on its bottom—in broad daylight—without seeing it. The EPIRB, designed to float free but trapped inside the boat, did not go off, the handheld VHF was also stowed belowdecks, and only two of the personal locator beacons worn by the crew actually worked. That no one was killed or badly hurt is down to luck and circumstance, yet here was another highly experienced crew overtaken by the unexpected, and caught unprepared for it. Cruisers as well as racers will learn something from this report.

It’s made me think about tethers in a different way, for sure—though they all wore lifejackets, none of the Rambler 100 crew was clipped in, which is probably why they all survived. They had also all disabled the auto-inflation feature on their lifejackets. The report’s recommendation of a personal offshore safety fanny pack containing a waterproof VHF radio, a PLB, a laser flare, a strobe and a knife makes sense to me for anyone going offshore, not just racers.

For more on the WingNuts and Chicago-Mac tragedy, click here.

To read the full report on WingNuts' capsizing, click here.

To read about Rambler's capsizing, click here.

To read a full report issued by US Sailing on Rambler's capsizing, click here.

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