Skip to main content

Racing Accidents: A String of Bad Luck?

Four sailors lost their lives in the 2012 Ensenada Race—a first in the history of that event as well—just 15 days after the accident up north. The double whammy stunned the sailing community, coming only 11 months after the two fatalities, under very different circumstances...

Judgment vs. luck, luck vs. judgment. That was the talk when five sailors died in the grounding of the Sydney 38 Low Speed Chase on the Farallon Islands after being overwhelmed by breaking waves—the first fatalities since the 1907 inaugural running of the event.

To the sailors of northern California this is not just a race. It is part of the local DNA, just as the Newport-Ensenada Race has been a part of the DNA of southern California sailing since 1948, which made it, if possible, all the more tragic when four sailors lost their lives in the 2012 Ensenada Race—a first in the history of that event as well—just 15 days after the accident up north. The double whammy stunned the sailing community, coming only 11 months after the two fatalities, under very different circumstances, in the Chicago Yacht Club’s 2011 Race to Mackinac.

At press time, there was no official ruling on what destroyed the Hunter 376 Aegean en route to Ensenada, but it seems the boat was either run down by a ship or (more likely) the crew motored onto the rocks in the night. Aegean was competing in a cruising class that permitted motoring (with a mathematical correction applied to handicapping), and her transponder track showed her moving through light wind at a steady speed straight onto the bricks at North Coronado Island. For the record, skipper Theo Mavromatis had won the division twice. Given the lack of available evidence, there was no point speculating whether the crew had been overcome by carbon monoxide or simply failed to pay attention.

Without doubt, the experienced crew aboard Low Speed Chase was paying attention as they rounded the steep spires of the Farallones 17 miles outside the Golden Gate. This is the edge of the continental shelf. Seas rise dramatically even on a calm day, and this day featured a 20-23 knot northwesterly, intensifying along with the sea state near the islands—a moonscape of raw rock pounded by swells arriving across the full fetch of the North Pacific where they meet an underwater topography of sudden rises and shoals that are perfectly formed for inducing killer waves.

One of the crew’s three survivors, Bryan Chong, described the first wave that broke over the boat as “unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside of big-wave surf videos.” It lifted the boat near vertical, spun it, barrel-rolled it, broke the mast and cleared the deck of safety equipment and five of the eight crew aboard. Those three that stayed on board ultimately survived, though two of them were swept overboard by the next breaker and washed onto the rocks along with the boat.

Sailors were still in mourning when the Coast Guard temporarily suspended any further events in the Gulf of the Farallones. The ensuing consternation subsided once it was clear the Coasties would rely on a US Sailing panel chaired by two-time US Yachtswoman of the Year Sally Honey to study safety procedures and make recommendations. Sally knows the waters and the culture well.

Along with the loss of two sailors in a possibly unsuitable boat that flipped in the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac, American offshore sailors have now suffered three deadly events in quick succession, each unique. Although sailors would never accept a ban on racing around the Farallon Islands, the community did immediately discuss whether to add waypoints some distance off the rocks in deep water. By contrast, with the Coronados being obstacles on a course where choosing a route “inside” or “outside” is a make-or-break decision tactically, there may be no practical “waypoint” remedy.

Discussion regarding Low Speed Chase also focused on the fact that nobody aboard was clipped to the boat, though they all were wearing tethers. Since one survivor rode the boat all the way to the beach, that seems a tempting remedy. But let’s remember that on Lake Michigan, the crew of WingNuts was clipped on, and it was the two who failed to detach who drowned. When it comes to safety at sea, there is no simple bottom line.

Photo by Erik Simonson

Related

promo-2048x

Just Launched Mid-sized Cruisers

With so many manufacturers dreaming up bigger production boats, more and more mid-sized cruisers fall on the smaller end of their lines. However, “smaller” does not mean less, and the tricks for optimizing larger models have helped with squeezing more enjoyment into less LOA. As ...read more

05-DSC_0638

Charter: Lake Tahoe

A sail on Lake Tahoe has been on my bucket list since the day I first laid eyes on it, and come hell or high water, I decided I was going to someday charter a boat there. North America’s largest and deepest alpine lake, Tahoe sits at 6,225ft above sea level and straddles the ...read more

East-River-Rapids

Escape from New York Part 1

I was never supposed to take my boat through New York City. After getting sucked backward through the Cape Cod Canal on my way south from Maine, when the speed of the current exceeded the maximum speed of my little electric auxiliary, I wanted nothing to do with Hell Gate and ...read more

LEAD-Celeste-in-the-Tuamotu

A Watermaker Upgrade

As a classic-boat sailor, I’ve long held that simpler is the better. I still think this is true: a simpler boat is cheaper, she has less gadgets to break down and there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you’re able to handle a bit of discomfort. Thus, for a long time, I sailed ...read more

01-LEAD-IDECsport_180919_032

Sailing Speed Records

Although the 1903 defender of the America’s Cup, Reliance, was deemed a “racing freak”—the boat pushed design rules to their limit and couldn’t be beaten, at least in very specific conditions—designer Nat Herreshoff was nonetheless onto something. A century later, purpose-built ...read more

BVIFeetup

Chartering with Non-sailors

Three tips on managing the madness First-time charterers and first-time sailors aren’t at all the same thing. One group may struggle with beginner chartering issues, like sailing a multihull, catching a mooring or dealing with base personnel. For the other group, though, ...read more

AdobeStock_455372159

A Gulf Stream Crossing at Night

Even the dome of light glowing above the city behind us had disappeared as if swallowed in a gulp by Noah’s whale. The moon was absent. Not a star twinkled overhead. The night was so dark we could have been floating in a pot of black ink. The only artificial lights to be seen ...read more

00-Lead-549215sJL2uLEa

Summer Sailing Programs

Every year, countless parents find themselves navigating the do’s and don’ts of enrolling their children in a summer learn-to-sail program for the first time. While the prospect of getting your kid on the water is exciting, as a sailing camp program director, there are a lot of ...read more