Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Would You Handle It?

In my last post I described how as Race Officer for the day I decided to cancel a race halfway through so I could join our safety boat in helping some of the sailors in conditions they were not prepared to handle.  Since then there has been discussion over beers about the day and while everyone supports the decision, a legitimate question has been raised about how to handle the situation where some sailors go out into conditions they should have avoided.

In our case, the wind was around 17 knots and the water was relatively flat since we sail in an area protected from big waves. The tide was coming in but nothing severe. But there were several sailors who were relative beginners and they were not able to handle the conditions well and 4 boats were either towed back or had a more experienced sailor sail it back.  Whereas the rest of the fleet was enjoying sporty, exhilarating conditions and some felt cheated the race could not finish.

So, how should that be handled ? Certainly the helm of each boat is responsible for the decision to go or not go depending on conditions. But that may not be enough.  Should the Race Officer make an independent judgment? If so, based on what?  Intuition? Feeling?  Should there be several categories of proficiency with only the higher categories allowed in certain conditions?

In the past we have tried a system where on a blustery day we had all boats go out just a little way and do a couple of tacks and gybes next to the Committee Boat and if someone felt uneasy or was judged by the Race Officer as not ready, they would return.

But of course, one never learns to handle conditions without being in them.

Another possibility is more safety boats on the water, both coaching and rescuing if necessary, but in a small club that has it limits.

Your thoughts?


  1. Is there any way to grade the sailors? Maybe have them pass a qualification test of some kind, and that way in 17-knot winds experienced, grade 1 sailors could safely go out, and grade 3 sailors would be protected against their inexperienced misjudgements; set up a scale that from 0-7 knots all sailors can go, from 7-12 some, from 12-20 fewer again or none at all, etc.

  2. It is certainly true that one never learns to handle conditions without being in them. So I'm generally in favor of allowing people to experience sailing in conditions outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they handle it well. Sometimes they don't.

    I often go out and race on days when I am doubtful if I can sail properly in the wind strength. I usually have the mindset that I'm going to do my best but that after X capsizes I will call it a day. But then I am competent enough to get myself home without help from a rescue boat unless I break something. And sometimes these days I just pack it in early because I'm tired.

    Maybe the answer in your fleet is to have extra rescue and coach boats when the wind is over 15 knots, say. Maybe the sailors could take it in turns to man the extra rescue boats so everyone gets a chance to sail in the heavier winds?

  3. In my venue, there's a race anytime three boats start on time. RC never calls off a race, (unless it can't see ther start/finish line). The reason is that the responsibility has to rest with the skipper of each boat. Once the sponsoring yacht club cancels any race because of conditions. then it opens itself to questioning & possible litigation as to why it didn't cancel X-Race in which Y numbers of sailors were lost. Having said all this, I think Tillerman's recommendations for this venue are solid.

  4. I think Doc's yacht club is criminally insane.

    What if you are racing small dinghies offshore a couple of miles away from the yacht club and the race committee monitor the weather radar and see a fast approaching thunder cell which will hit the racing area in about 60 minutes? Would they still not abandon? How are the sailors supposed to make a judgment that it is dangerous to stay on the race course when they don't have the information to make that judgement?

    1. I don't know if his club does dinghy or offshore racing or both - but in either case I would have a hard time being a member of the RC. I know all about the litigious US context and it can indeed be pernicious and bizarre at times (although it has some real strengths). I can sympathise with the RC not wanting to expose the club to liability (it would be interesting to know what legal form it is - corporation, non-profit association, etc). And their third party liability insurer may have had a say in the decision. But ultimately the RC members do have to sleep at night.

      US Sailing is well aware of the issue – a summary of issues can be found at Well-drafted waivers and disclaimers can give some level of protection, although not foolproof. And there is a fair amount of jurisprudence on sports generally that gives some limitation of liability based on participants assuming the risk.

      As for the protection offered by never cancelling, I think that if the RC did let the fleet sail into a hurricane it would not be very hard to get a jury whipped up and eager to award actual and punitive damages - despite signed waivers etc. - and maybe even against the individuals (do they have D&O insurance?).

      You correctly put your finger on information - which is a key element of the issue - if all are fully aware of the weather and its risks it is much easier to say that the decision is up to each individual who knowingly assumes the risk. But that only begs the question of what is the RC's responsibility to provide information - none? only at briefing? during the race? based on what - instruments located where? wet finger? sophisticated forecasts?

      This is not easy area to navigate.


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