April Notes from Commodore
Stay Safe While Sailing
On May 20 at 8 p.m., The Weather Channel will premiere a new program titled “Heroes and Survivors.” The program will feature extreme weather situations that many times bring out the best in people. In one of the first episodes, the program will detail recent harrowing sailing experiences, including the 2015 Dauphin Island Regatta that started with 476 sailors on the line. Tragically, six sailors between the ages of 17 and 72 lost their lives that day due to weather that hit the bay with the force of a tropical storm.
Sailors who spoke after the race said they were aware of the oncoming storm system, and it’s been reported that many thought they could outrun it, or handle whatever it threw at them. The Coast Guard later reported that of the 125 boats registered, only eight withdrew before the start.
Last fall, a Weather Channel crew came to Atlanta Yacht Club to interview accomplished sailor and US Sailing Board Member Tarasa Davis and me about this regatta and other sailing-related incidents impacted by the weather.
Prior to our interviews, we consulted with Chuck Hawley, chairman of the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee, and others at US Sailing. Some of the tips they provided are good reminders to all of us.
- Avoid rough conditions. Know the weather, delay your departure if necessary, and don’t sail in dangerous conditions if you can avoid it.
- Always wear an approved PFD since falling overboard is the leading cause of boating fatalities. Unlike the cumbersome lifejackets of the past, there are a variety of designs available today that are stylish, comfortable and wearable. In the Dauphin Island Regatta, many of the sailors did not have on their PFD, and when the storm hit, there was no time to put it on. Make it a habit to always wear your PFD.
- Ensure that the boat you take to sea has small storm sails in good condition. Storm sails (a trysail and storm jib) are about 1/3 the size of working sails and need to be tested (bent on and sheeting locations noted) prior to getting into storm conditions.
- Before embarking on a long passage, you and your crew should take US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Course.
- Experiment in heavy winds in your local waters so you can see what works. While you may not be able to experience the sea conditions associated with a storm, you can practice with storm sails, steering techniques, drag devices and other tactics.
- Lastly, the skipper must assess the strengths and weaknesses of all crew members and assign appropriate tasks decisively and coherently.
In smaller boats, I’ll add that you need to practice capsize drills and always have a bailer on board. A large orange juice jug cut off at the top makes a great little bailer.
Have fun and stay safe on the water!