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Ocean Safety 2021 - LEADERBOARD

Are we really taking a safety-first approach to offshore racing?

by Mark Jardine 9 Feb 12:00 UTC
Conditions at the start of the 49th Rolex Fastnet Race proved testing for Refanut in the strong wind and steep sea © Kurt Arrigo / Rolex

The Rolex Fastnet Race saw a record turnout including a number of yachts which had never done it before. This brings in a huge number of safety aspects, as to how you manage a fleet of that size. And the 2021 race was particularly windy, particularly at the beginning.

The exit of the Solent, and going through Christchurch Bay, was an extremely lumpy sea, with quite a few incidents, and a huge amount of water going across the deck.

We spoke to Alistair Hackett, Managing Director of Ocean Safety and a member of the of the RORC Special Regulations Committee and World Sailing Safety Committee about safety at sea, how technology has changed, the Fastnet and how offshore racing safety can be improved.

Mark Jardine: How did the Fastnet Race create a unique situation in the area of safety?

Alistair Hackett: It was unique in a number of ways. Many of the crews were taking part for the first time, in conditions that you don't see that often. At least, if you do see them, you don't wish to go sailing in them! You end up in a scenario where both people and equipment are being asked to work in an environment which isn't necessarily the norm. For the people, this is excusable, but for equipment - especially safety equipment - it is not excusable.

Mark: Is that down to the equipment itself, or how the equipment is being used? And what can crews do to ensure they are familiar with their safety equipment?

Alistair: I think it comes down to the knowledge of the individual. Knowledge of what they are wearing, and how that interacts with other bits of equipment on their vessel, and also its implications on the rest of the fleet. A lot of safety equipment is integrated - especially where electronics are involved - with either your own yacht, or other yachts in the vicinity. You need to understand what the implications are when your lifejacket inflates, or your PLB goes off, by accident. It does happen! When it does you need to know what to do quickly, to turn it off, and how to tell other people so they are aware it was just an accident. What is wrong is when you end up in a scenario where things happen and nobody reacts to it just because it's happening all the time.

Mark: You talk about integration of technology. EPIRBs and AIS have become miniaturised; they are now part of lifejackets. You can end up with a huge number of 'pings' going off, and then VHF channel 16 (which everybody, especially in those conditions, should be monitoring) can end up flooded with information. How can this problem be alleviated?

Alistair: I think that the industry, to start with, needs to deal with it. We need to provide equipment that doesn't have as many false activations. That is really important. But sailors must remember the law of the sea states that you will maintain a listening watch on VHF channel 16 at all times. I know it's easy to say and difficult to do, especially when taking part in a long-distance race in difficult weather. Sea-sickness can kick in, with crews that haven't dealt with such conditions before, and then you're down on numbers. This isn't just for the Fastnet: channel 16 on the VHF is for everybody that is involved in the marine world. It's coastguard, fishermen, sailors, commercial vessel operators. To ignore it is definitely the wrong thing to do. In those scenarios, if crews were prepared correctly, then either an accurate deck speaker or a handheld VHF in the cockpit, so everybody can hear what is going on, are absolutely vital. The sailor listening to the VHF can be relaying this information to the skipper/owner, who can make a decision about hearing a Mayday and abandoning their race. So there's a mix of what needs to happen at industry level, to make sure we are providing equipment that is usable and practical, and always works, but ultimately the onus has to be on the people on board the boat.

Mark: To enter the Fastnet race, crews need to do qualifying miles. Many of them will be concentrating on getting their boat going as fast as possible in whatever conditions they encounter. This takes a lot of time. Do you think the qualifying requirements for the race should include more familiarisation with the safety aspects on board their own boat, and with what to do when there is a real emergency - on any boat - or a false activation?

Alistair: I think it's absolutely vital that more time is spent working at safety drills, looking at safety equipment to understand how it works. I've often believed that, if a crew buy a very expensive mainsail for their boat, I bet they will spend longer tuning that mainsail to make the boat go fast, than they will do practising man overboard, or talking about safety/emergency situations. That same crew, when you ask where safety sits in their priorities, will say it is right at the top. I think that most crews do have safety at the top of their priorities when it matters, but I believe it ought to be there 100% of the time; completing the race and doing well in the race need to be secondary. When all is said and done, these people are taking part in one of the world's most iconic yacht races, and it is very very difficult to step back from "let's make the boat go quickly" or "we're gaining on that boat to leeward", to focus on "something's come through on channel 16, let's tack over there because it's only a mile away from us, to check people are OK". It is very difficult to do. It is easy for us to say this while sat in our offices, but in reality it's not like that. Is it right or wrong? By the letter of the law it's wrong, but in reality it is what happens. I think industry and event organisers need to look long and hard at what is supplied, how it works in the real world, and how you can end up in the situation where you are relying on the technology - whether it be complicated or simple technology - in the racing environment. It's really important. It is like sea survival training: it's great, you learn a lot, in the swimming pool. Is that reality? Not at all! It teaches you how difficult it is to get into a liferaft in flat calm water, so you have to multiply that by 50 if you are in a 4ft sea. Or in a really big sea, multiply that by 1000. We need to look at all of these different practices, both from an industrial point of view, a supplier point of view, and as an race organiser to work out the way forwards.

Mark: So as racing sailors, we are all, in our minds, well-meaning about safety; we agree that it is hugely important... but we are racers. So we are spending our limited time on the performance of the boat. Are you working with the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) or other industry partners to provide that kind of education that's needed? Should this become a mandatory requirement once agreement has been made, so that safety really is at the top of our minds, so all crews know what to do in case the worst happens?

Alistair: Yes, definitely. As an industry, everybody is always striving to come up with better equipment. We all need to work with either regulatory bodies or event organisers, to determine if things are working in a way that is practically possible. It's very easy for people to design equipment that works wonderfully on the bench or in the swimming pool, but out on the ocean it becomes a whole different ball game. To develop these things and to determine whether we are going down the right route is really difficult. I think it is really important for event organisers and the industry to turn around and say, "you know what, that decision we made 18 months ago was wrong - we need to change something." In doing that it's important the competitors understand that an awful lot of what gets developed in the marine safety industry is designed on a drawing board, a computer screen, it is trialled to comply with ISO regulations or SOLAS etc.... but none of these stipulate that you must jump into cold water in your lifejacket in 50 knots of breeze and 15ft seas. We don't do that - none of the industry does - because it's too dangerous! So as an industry you get accustomed to what it might be like, but individuals who are wearing this kit have got to understand exactly how it works; it needs to be second-nature to them so they don't have to think about it when there is 50 knots and 15ft seas. If we can get people to think harder about what they are wearing, and how it integrates with their vessel, the rest of the fleet, and the authorities, then that is a great start. Then people will want to grow their knowledge.

Mark: You've mentioned that to simulate true usage is nigh on impossible. What is the best way to educate people or at least give them a slight taste of what it is like, so when it comes to the worst type of situation, they know what to do in an emergency.

Alistair: I think the most important thing is practice. Practice, practice, practice! It sounds really boring but this is the way. I also think that, if the opportunity for a crew to do a sea survival course, or any training course, which isn't just in a relatively warm swimming pool that is flat calm, it's really important that people take those opportunities. During the last four or five Volvo Ocean Races, we at Ocean Safety were given the most fantastic opportunity where we were allowed to train all the crews - even people who had been around the world seven or more times before. We ran a sea survival course in an environmental pool. OK, the waves you can create in these pools are probably only 3ft high, but the difference they make is phenomenal. These were professional sportsmen who had done it all before, yet when we asked them to jump in without a lifejacket and tread water, after 4 minutes some of these seasoned sailors were saying, "I need to get out." When they come out they think they have been in the water for around quarter of an hour! All of a sudden it just brings it all into perspective. So if you get an opportunity to try this in a safe way, do try to get as much experience and as much exposure to working in an environment that is closer to what you might have to deal with in real life. It's really, really important. We are never going to simulate what happened in 1979, or even what the Solent is like this afternoon (it's foul weather), but we need to practice as much as we can. And practice as a crew - not just two people doing a course one day, and another two doing a different course another time - but as a crew for the Fastnet to go out and practice a man overboard. With a person if you can do it safely! If not, at least try to see how hard it is to lift a wet person out of the water without any assistance. It's really difficult!

Mark: Do you think that, in the same way that there are race weekends in the build-up to the Fastnet, that there should be weekends scheduled purely for what you are describing? Perhaps with RORC observers, professionals from the industry, who are there on the water to see what happens (from an industry point of view, looking for improvements) and ensure the crews go through the experience.

Alistair: Yes, it would be great. Whether it could be managed with proper Health & Safety observations is hard to say - it is not easy. It would be very good if people who spare the time to look at things from a safety point of view. People's time is precious though! The vast majority of Fastnet competitors do not spend their entire working life messing around in boats; we all have jobs to do. As soon as organisers start putting more regulations and stipulations in place, the cost will increase and then less people will be willing to do it. You and I want to see people out on the water; that is what it's all about. So we need to look at how we do these things without creating more expense, and without frightening people away from this great sport. We need to put ourselves into the position where people genuinely want to do it; that is the key thing. If people really want - actually desire - to practice marine safety, such as picking up a MOB, getting into a liferaft, or operating a VHF, they will do it. Often it can be: "it won't happen to us, read the manual, it will be fine." Both RORC and the industry players want events to be a positive experience, so people decide to come back in two years' time, or maybe even go on to try the Middle Sea Race or the Sydney-Hobart.

Mark: I presume that the greatest advocates for a safety-first approach are those who have been through an emergency on the water, been through a MOB situation, or been through a time when they lost their rudder and the boat is shipping water. I presume they would say this is the best way of spending your money and your time ahead of an offshore race?

Alistair: Absolutely. I will hark back to our Volvo experience. I was standing in a classroom where there were four people who had been on Rambler when she overturned. They paid more attention in that classroom than anyone. The best position to be in, running that course, was to have attendees recounting their stories rather than you preaching to them what the book says. To have someone say, "being in an upturned hull is not funny, and it happened to four of us in this room - it does happen," really does make everyone take notice. It's not just someone delivering the syllabus, but someone who says, "I've been there, and done that, and it was bloody awful."

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Ocean Safety 2021 - FOOTER