Safety Considerations for Race Committees

By Barney Harris 6701 & 8011

We spend plenty of time as race organizers, whether at world class events or local regattas, worrying about a myriad of pre-regatta questions. Who will lead the race committee? How will boats get transported to the event site? Who will serve on the protest committee? What is the post-race entertainment? But we often neglect the most important question of all: How will we stay safe? In reviewing my own sailing experiences, I realized that regatta planners too often spend more time on designing T-shirts and figuring out who will bring the beer than how to sail safely in the most challenging conditions.


Event planning must take into account the expected range in environmental conditions, the type of event and competitors, venue characteristics, and the available rescue assets.


Cold water and air temperatures complicate windy conditions and can have a dramatic effect on what a boat's crew can cope with. Simply stated the colder it is, the worse. Cool temperatures will sap the body's energy at a surprisingly rapid rate. Poor preparation on the part of competitors will compound the effects of cold temperatures. Some at the 2000 Canadians were heading out into these conditions clothed in fleece under a spray suit. This is foolish to the point of stupidity. I saw one crew heading out wearing cotton jeans and yellow PVC foul weather gear on a day that I was clad in both a short AND a full wetsuit. In addition to exposing themselves and their crews to significant personal risk, ill equipped teams jeopardize the conduct of the race - when they and other similarly unprepared capsize, become fatigued and unable to right their boats, they will saturate the rescue capacity and shut down the event for everyone.

The Santa Cruz Yacht Club demonstrated a great approach at the 2000 505 North Americans. Santa Cruz is a windy venue sailed in the 50 degree water and rollers of the Pacific Ocean. The RC explained during the skippers meeting that competitors having difficulty would be removed from their boats and taken to safety. Their boats would be left to drift and picked up later. This approach allowed the organizers to leverage their rescue craft while and to maintain the race schedule. The threat of hypothermia was inherently reduced for sailors stuck in swamped or crippled boats. It should be mentioned that Santa Cruz has the benefit of deep water so temporarily abandoned boats were not in jeopardy of braking masts on the bottom.

More Wind Please

High velocity, gusty and shifty winds all increase the probability that one or more competitors will capsize. Off shore breezes are more dangerous in that crews will be blown away from shore in the event of a breakdown, but have the mitigating factor of smaller chop due to less fetch. On shore breeze is safer in that boat can be nearly always be sailed downwind to shore, however, if the seas are large and the shoreline is rocky, this can be less safe.

The last day of 2000 Albacore North Americans, in which winds topped 35 kts in gusts was an excellent example. On this day, the RC trusted the competitors to use their own best judgment as to whether to sail or not. It was great that we as a class did not elect to sit on shore. Too many times an RC will make this decision for the competitors, assuming that just because a race is being conducted that everyone will want to go and sail. In reality, this was not the case. Many elected to sit the day out and several people teamed up with two skippers in a boat. The smaller fleet size increased the crash boat to competitor ratio from 1:10 to 1:4, making for safe circumstances, all things considered. There were some capsizes, but in the end no real damage was done - and we had a day on the water we will all talk about for years.

The 2001 Albacore Internationals sailed in Torquay, England and the 1985 Albacore Worlds sailed in Herne Bay were both conducted in high winds - some that bordered on the extreme. These tough conditions were mitigated by the high level of crash boat skill level and overall event organization.

Sea Conditions

Waves alone are usually not a critical deciding factor, but they can make tough conditions more difficult. Generally shorter wave lengths are more difficult to sail in, and tend to break more. Breaking seas can swamp a boat. Really large breaking seas can capsize one. Larger non breaking seas may look intimidating, but are not much of a safety issue for a smaller boat. Often, larger seas will have a greater affect on the rescue and RC craft.

Waves are fun and big waves are even more fun. The only time I felt waves had gotten to the point where they were NOT fun was one afternoon of the 2000 505 worlds in Durban. We were sailing upwind returning to the yacht club in a solid 25 kts with higher gusts. We inadvertently found ourselves a bit further from shore than we should have been, and into the larger seas. We would climb each wave - which ranged from 8-12 feet - spear the boat through the breaking surf at the top, and then fall seemingly forever till we landed with a loud BANG! in the next trough. After one such impact the compass snapped off its mount and ended up rolling around in the bilge. I am amazed the rest of the boat held together.

Visibility or the Lack Thereof

The RC must be reasonably assured that they will not lose anyone. All the on the water assets in the world won't help if you can not find the people to rescue. This is less of an issue in a closed sailing area such as a reservoir or small lake. Conversely factors such as an open water course, strong off shore current, and an off shore breeze increases the risk. An excellent example is the final day of the Albacore 2000 UK Nationals which began with breezy mid 20 knot range winds, 3-4 foot waves, occasional squalls, and a strong off shore current. Visibility in these squalls would drop to under a half a mile. The RC elected to cancel racing for the day. While I really wanted to race, I had to admit that the RC called it correctly in keeping everyone on shore, since it would have been possible for a crew in a broken boat to be swept far out to sea during a squall before a rescue craft ever knew they were in trouble - and France was over 50 miles away.


The lakes and bays where we race in North America have no current - at least in comparison to the UK where velocities of several knots are a daily occurrence. Some UK venues must time the departure and return around the tides or arrange towing. Current is an issue if it can carry a stricken boat away from shore and into further danger. Current can increase the severity of wind driven chop and can make capsizing in shallow water treacherous. A most painful example of this was Herne Bay, site of the 110 boat 1985 Albacore Worlds. The course area water depth was fairly shallow and the tidal currents were strong, which, in combination with the high winds, created a very short, steep chop. I recall one race where we capsized three times - and that was on the first top reach!. Fortunately, the crash boat capability at Herne Bay was some of the best I have ever seen anywhere.

Water Depth

Where sailing upwind in choppy conditions is physically gruelling, running in steep chop can be more difficult since its easy to stuff the bow into a wave, load the boat up, and death roll. The Albacore mast is supported up to the hounds - where the shrouds connect to the mast. Above the shrouds the mast is tapered and is flexible. This serves us well while sailing upwind, the top of the mast flexes and feathers the top of the main sail in gusts. However, this tendency contributes to instability when sailing down wind. When the main is eased nearly to the shrouds, twist will permit the breeze to flow from the mast to the leech, and imparts a heeling force to the rig to weather. Newton again - damn that guy! A death roll occurs when the rig is suddenly loaded up from either an increase in apparent wind strength due to an increase in true wind or a decrease in boat speed - as when running into the back of the short choppy waves characterized by high wind and shallow water.

Shallow water can lead to broken masts in a capsize. This occurs when the boat is blown over, if the crew are not fast enough to be on the centerboard when the mast hits the water after a capsize to leeward, the combination of wind and wave action will drive the mast under water and into the bottom. Once stuck in the mud the pain does not stop there as wind and wave action will drive the mast further into the bottom and can break it. If one is unlucky enough to have the mast fail below the shrouds it will likely come unstepped. Now it is a battering ram constrained to the boat at the partners but free to contact the boat anywhere - and can punch holes through the hull making self rescue impossible. A RC must consider the water depth and, if possible, place the jybe mark in deep water if possible.

Distance to Safe Harbour

The 1999 Canadian national championships were conducted in breezy conditions several miles to the east of the Portsmouth Olympic sailing harbour. The conditions on the second day were cold and rough. Fortunately the racecourse was very close to the Kingston Yacht Club, which served as a convenient haven for crews who had suffered a break down of their boat or otherwise. Some competitors elected to forgo the long beat back and hauled their boats from KYC to over land to Portsmouth Olympic harbour. The proximity of the shelter of KYC to the racecourse on that day was of benefit to many competitors, effectively increasing the capacity of the crash boats. If the RC is conducting races on a course several miles out to sea, the inability of tired competitors to easily get to safety must be considered.

Rescue Assets

The rescue assets of a high wind event must be well coordinated to ensure that all those really in trouble are taken care of while never turning one's back on the big picture - keeping one's head out of the boat - sound familiar? Communication is essential. There must be a clearly understood hierarchy of what each support boat should be doing. Which boats should be assisted first? Should an RC boat move a mark or assist a downed competitor? Clearly laid out contingency and emergency plans are also very important.

I attended the 2000 505 Worlds in Durban South Africa, an event which featured sailing in some truly extreme conditions, I bring these observations. The RC has a number of craft on the course - but none of them seemed well suited for the purpose of assisting small lightweight dinghies. All were large, relatively heavy craft - some upwards of 30 feet in length. A large heavy motorboat is more of a liability than an aide - unless your objective is to mix rum drinks, since it is impossible to bring it alongside a stricken craft without inflicting significant damage and placing the crew of both craft into danger. Furthermore, the rescue craft were not equipped with some of the most elementary capability. Radios either didn't function or were not being used - as evidenced by the fact that many competitors drifted with broken boats for hours at a time while in visual contact with race management. The lack of on the water rescue ability manifested itself in a string of early morning race cancellations in what should have been, for a World Championship, sail-able conditions.

Having Trouble? Here's an Anchor

It is imperative that rescue assets not become mired with any one competitor. I have often witnessed a stricken crew attempt to right a capsized boat time and time again, the affects of fatigue becoming more and more obvious even from a half a mile away. Throughout this ordeal a rescue craft will stand off, unable to assist, and totally occupied with this one team's futile efforts to get themselves up and sailing. An alternative to this is for the rescue craft to carry several sets of mooring tackle consisting of a an anchor, rode, and a large highly visible float. When fatigue sets in, simply anchor the downed boat and remove the people. With the crew safe, the rescue boat is free to assist others. The anchored boat can be dealt with later on, even the next day. Three boats were completely lost in the 2000 505 Worlds in Durban due to the rescue boats not having this most basic gear.

The Ideal Rescue Craft

I have found that the larger and heavier the crash boat, the less utility it has on the race course, the ability to store cold beer excepted. An ideal rescue craft is small, light weight, manoeuvrable, soft, and has no propellers and is as unsinkable as can be - a jet propelled RIB (rigid bottom inflatable) checks just about all the boxes. Each rescue craft should be equipped with the following: Several 40 or so foot polypropylene tow lines with small floats, several anchors with rode adequate for the water depth and moderately sized hippity hop floats, waterproof radio with spare battery, extra bailers or buckets, basic navigation capability such as a hand held GPS and a compass, and be crewed by two able bodied persons, one of which is equipped to enter the water.

Championship Events

Knowing when to call it quits and when the day can be salvaged requires the ability to calmly assess the conditions and weather predictions, the state of the fleet, and the number and capability of rescue boats available. The RC must keep composure and not get spooked by the wind and a few capsized boats - and keep their eye on what they, and the sailors, are trying to accomplish.

The 2000 Canadian Albacore National Championships were held on the Georgian Bay and sailed out of Meaford, Ontario. Our first day started off with clear sunshine, unlimited visibility, a solid 18 knot onshore breeze, and 2-3 foot waves. A couple boats elected to go out early and practice for what promised to be one of the best racing days ever. In spite of the event's stature and near perfect conditions, the RC elected to cancel for the day well before noon, claiming that the circumstances were "unsafe."

With the organized racing for the day cancelled, several additional boat owners elected to go for a sail in some of the most spectacular conditions one could imagine. Boats were coming and going all afternoon, scattered over a wide area, with no safety net of crash boats. If someone had a problem who would have been there to assist? Racing for the day would have been an organized event in which everyone would have gone out, sailed around a closed course, and returned pretty much on cue with constant crash boat supervision. Ironically, cancelling racing on that day in the name of "safety" created an unsafe situation.

For major, end of the year regattas all teams have typically had some practice time sailing during the course of the season, and have come to the event with their best foot forward. Everyone wants events to work out; the RC wants to do a good job - and no one wants to take an undue risk. People are ready to sail and, having often travelled long distances, its always a let down when racing is cancelled for the day.

The Final Answer

Most truly unsafe conditions that do not involve lightning are due to a combination of high winds, cold temperatures, rough sea conditions, and shallow water, compounded by poorly prepared competitors and inadequate or mis managed on the water rescue capability. A small amount of fore thought on the expected and potential range in conditions, event site characteristics, the participants skill level, and a careful assessment and potential augmentation of the rescue assets will go a long way to running an great - and safe - event

Sailing in high winds is great fun. Racing in these conditions tests a different set of skills, one's physical fitness and equipment preparation. Surrounded by other boats and rescue equipment with nothing better to do than keep an eye on everyone and pick up the pieces when they fall down, organized racing is arguably the best and safest circumstance to get the stick time to become proficient at high wind sailing.

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