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.