Mass Simultaneous Capsizes, the Media, and a Shiny Suit

Way back in the early 90s I was sailing at a national championship (no, not that national championship) and something quite exciting happened.

I was in my last year of sailing Optimists, and my interest had been waning over the last few months or so, something I’ll revisit in a future post. Anyway, there were so many entries that year that the fleet was split into two  by age – a senior fleet for 13 to 15 year olds, and a Junior fleet for kids aged 12 and under.

On the particular day in question, the breeze was up. So much so that the senior fleet raced early in a force 5 to 6, but it was too wild for the Junior fleet to sail outside the harbour wall. Instead it was decided they would race late that afternoon within the harbour wall, where there was a bit more protection and far less waves.

My brother and three other sailors from our club were in the Junior fleet, and so we helped them set up their boats and talked to them about the conditions and what they wind seemed to be doing across the race course. It was a really good chance to pass on some tips and be involved in helping other sailors.

The fleet headed out to the startline, and all the kids in the Senior fleet and all the parents sat on the grass to watch the racing. We were to windward of the fleet, with the windward mark not far off the shore below us, so the breeze we felt was going to go straight down the course towards the fleet. It was brilliant, a bit like the medal races they have at the Olympics, where the crowd can see the whole course and actually follow what is going on in the racing.

The fleet lined up for the start, and with less than a minute to go everyone on the shore felt the wind suddenly increase. A big squall was passing over and you could see the dark water moving rapidly down the course towards the startline. We later found out that the initial gust was in excess of 40 knots.

As many of us know, it is pretty easy to have your head in the boat at the start, watching the guys above and below you to try and get a good start. It is very easy to forget to look up the course to see what is happening. This is especially true of young sailors just learning about racing.

So it was with some trepidation and excitement that we watched this dramatic squall flying down the racecourse towards 70 boats all lining up for the gun, with hardly any of them aware of what was about to hit them.

And then it hit the fleet.

My memory is that around three-quarters of the fleet capsized simultaneously, but memory can play tricks. I do know that well over half the fleet were in the water. I’m pleased I wasn’t on a rescue boat that day – they must have been looking at the carnage and wondering where to start.

It’s a funny thing, but if ever you had to choose a fleet to suffer a mass capsize like this, then it would probably be young Optimist sailors. What other fleet regularly practices capsize drills? I’m sure some of the mums and dads were a bit worried, but I only remember thinking what a great spectacle it was, and trying to see where the guys from our club were. There was certainly no thought of abandoning the race to sort out the mess – the race went on, and those that had stayed upright had a great head-start on the rest of the fleet.

The race was played out in a spooky gloom, with sheet lightening and a double rainbow as background entertainment, and all the sailors from our club had their best race of the championship that day (with a 3rd, 11th, 16th and 17th). It was a memorable day.

Incidentally, the guy who won that Junior championship was a 12 year old Chris Draper. He now dresses like this to go sailing:

Chris Draper - Helmsman

Picture from Luna Rossa Media Room

But I didn’t bring all this up just to discuss sailor fashion sense.

No, the reason I bring it up is because a few weeks ago at the GP14 World Championship this happened:

Press Release following the incident

For those of you that didn’t hear about it, here are the bones of the story.

The 80-strong fleet had sailed one race, and then racing was abandoned for the day as the wind was getting too strong. As the fleet sailed in a heavy gust came through (about 32 knots), knocking a handful of boats over. Then another gust came through, even stronger (around 38 knots), capsizing a few more. By all accounts the breeze was pretty wild for a while.

Somehow, the coast guard was called (I don’t know by whom), but the information they received was that a heavy squall had come through and 80 boats were in the water (rather than on the water). My information is that there were about 12 boats capsized, and there certainly weren’t 80. Understandably, given the information they had received, they launched a big rescue operation, including a helicopter, and called the emergency services so as to have ambulances at the scene should they be needed.

That’s some hullaballoo over 12 boats capsizing. But it didn’t end there.

The media got wind (if you’ll pardon the pun) that something big had happened, and so started reporting a major incident at a sailing regatta. And it wasn’t just the local media -  the Guardian newspaper in the UK had an “As It Happens” link on their website

Now that really is a hullaballoo over twelve boats capsizing.

Funnily enough, this has happened before. In 2007 there was an Optimist championship in Dun Laoghaire in South Dublin where something similar to the incident that I witnessed occurred. Again, it hit the national media (although not international this time). Again, there were no major injuries.

All this would be funny if it wasn’t for the impression it leaves with non-sailors. Any non-sailing parents that might be thinking of signing their kids up for a summer sailing course could easily be put off by reports like this. It’s weird how the non-sailing media can’t just make clear that initial reports suggested something far more dramatic than the actual reality. All the regattas described were national or international events, with skilled sailors that knew what they were doing. It’s understandable that they can mis-interpret things initially – they’re not sailing experts after all – but how hard is it to admit that something has been blown out of proportion?

What should have just been really memorable days become something that could potentially put off future sailors.

How ridiculous is that?

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