Safe Sailing and Lessons Learned

  • 21 May 2019 6:41 PM | Robert (Administrator)

    A Common Accident with a Tragic Result

    On June 23, 2011, on a normal summer day in a junior sailing program at the Severn Sailing Association at Annapolis, a Club 420 was running under spinnaker when it accidentally gybed, capsized and turned turtle. As the boat went over, the 14-year-old crew, Olivia Constants, was telling her skipper she was tangled in something. This turned out to be the trapeze wire to which her harness was accidentally hooked with a connection so awkward the skipper and a sailing instructor were subsequently unable to disconnect it. The response by the sailing instructors was prompt and appropriate, with rapid communications, but despite CPR being administered by several instructors and firemen, Olivia drowned. 

    One important takeaway here is that drowning can occur surprisingly quickly, and can be caused by very small amounts of water if your mouth is open. This is the best reason for wearing a high-buoyancy life jacket that keeps your head high enough above the water so that airways are clear. (There was no indication that Olivia’s life jacket limited her ability to get into the air pocket under the boat.) A phenomenon known as the Instructive Drowning Response can also make victims incapable of helping themselves or cooperating with rescue.

    This story is rare only in its tragic ending. Sailing dinghies often capsize. Studying this accident, I learned of several other recent occasions when dinghy sailors were entrapped, but were successfully released by extremely prompt action by third parties who were close by. 

    Research should be conducted on dinghy capsize and crew entrapment. Some work has been done, including the development of masthead buoyancy systems and quick-release harnesses. The Royal Yachting Association has also studied whether it is better to first extract the crew or right the boat after a capsize and concluded the latter is best. However, while talking to instructors from across the country, I’ve noted there seems to be no standard vocabulary (including oral language and signals) for rescue. 

    Every sailing organization also should have an appropriate risk management plan for dealing with crises. The Severn Sailing Association did not have one, although its officers did develop a very good plan on the fly. Since this accident, several sailing organizations have addressed crisis management, and have run workshops on dinghy safety or have compiled lists of resources. A few yacht clubs have tested techniques and gear or have changed their procedures. US Sailing has publicized crisis plans, but could be doing more. 


  • 21 May 2019 6:37 PM | Robert (Administrator)

    Situation: A crew of four including the Skipper were on  a Chesapeake Bay private charter in June. The boat was 34’ with in mast furling and roller furling and was less than 2 years old. We all wore PFDs while on deck. Thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon. The morning sail was uneventful and very pleasant with winds 10-12 knots. We were using our phone weather radar app to monitor possible thunderstorm activity.

    We hove to for lunch and resumed sailing.

    We could see a line of storms and estimated we had several more hours before the line of storms arrived. We would be safely back in the slip well before the storms arrived. We don’t recall hearing any weather warnings on the radio.

    We could see some dark clouds in the immediate area  but they did not appear threatening. Winds after lunch diminished and we were sailing along with a full main and full 110 genoa.

    Winds continued to diminish and then suddenly became totally calm.

    Shortly after the winds went to zero we experienced a loud thunder clap followed immediately  by a flash of lightning. Winds went from calm to 40 +  knots in a matter of minutes and soon we were experiencing a heavy downpour. The boat heeled over and soon we were moving along at close to 7 knots. The sails and rig were under heavy strain.

    Action Taken. We started the engine and tried to furl the sails. This didn’t work so we headed down wind and ran with the storm. Fortunately we were in the middle of the Bay and had plenty of room.

    We all had our PFDs on.

    With the thunderstorm,all but one crew member, the helmsman, went below. 

    Running before the storm worked and there were no injuries and there was no damage to the boat. We all got quite a fright out of the experience, especially one crew member new to sailing.

    The storm passed as quickly as it developed. We had enough adventure for the day and returned to port. We docked without incident.

    What we did right:

    • wore PFDs
    • ran before the storm when we couldn’t furl  the sails.
    • started the engine.
    • luck was on our side in that we were in a place with plenty of room.

    Lessons Learned. Don’t rely entirely on your phone weather apps. Ensure you monitor and pay attention to conditions around your boat. In retrospect, since the atmosphere was generally unsettled we should have reacted to the sudden decrease in winds. We learned firsthand about the calm before the storm.

    In mast furling can be tricky to operate in strong winds.

  • 21 May 2019 6:33 PM | Robert (Administrator)

    About four years ago, a skipper was single handing for a day sail.  While heading out the channel at Herrington Harbour North about 1500, the skipper was seated at the helm,  concentrating on keeping the Green ATONS to the right and Red ATONS to the left.  While leaving the harbor, all sails were furled.  This is significant because the furled main, along with the in place mainsail cover, provided a significant blind spot to the helmsman who was...again...seated.  While striving to keep the ATONS in the right orientation, therefore assuring the boat was in the channel, the skipper did not notice a fixed ATON, Green 9, which was directly in the blind spot caused by the furled main and its cover Unfortunately the boat hit Green nine head on at about 4 knouts, causing considerable damage to the bow area of the boat, and bending the steel piling of Green 9 maybe a few degrees seaward.  All of this was very embarrassing to the skipper...and costly to fix.  Three cheers for Boat US insurances: they picked up the complete tab with no deductible.  It was the first claim.  

    Lesson learned: you can't be too careful while underway.  At all times you need to have a complete awareness of where you are vis-à-vis where other stuff is...like a super strong fixed ATON.   Never let complacently sit at the helm, particularly in a tight channel.  Stand up and look around to get a full picture of the situation.  

    This is particularly important when single handing!  

    Stuff happens.  

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