Staying Onboard – Or Not…

Posted on 13th September 2021

Dee Caffari’s brilliant ‘mea culpa’ article about her recent overboard experience, whilst racing on a fully crewed yacht, highlighted how easily events can take a turn for the worse. Happily Dee was safely and swiftly recovered - only soggy and apologetic for slowing the boat up. Dee is a top class skipper and ocean sailor (solo and fully crewed), hugely experienced and highly safety conscious for herself and her crews. But even she slipped up (no pun intended)… and was given a sharp reminder of how fine the line of survival can be.

99% of the time, when we get a little sloppy or over confident, everything is fine. Then there is the 1% when it does go wrong… the unexpected happens - crash gybe, broach, something caught on the foredeck needs urgent attention, arm or ankle unwittingly caught in a loop in a lazy sheet, etc. – and we are not prepared, we lose our hold or balance, and (if not clipped on ) risk going overboard.

Losing touch with the boat is not funny. A daylight dunking is one thing, although in rough water you are very hard to spot from even a short distance, as we saw with one of the boats in the Volvo Ocean Race. Young guy went out on the jockey pole to unloop a line – no PBA and not clipped on (against skipper’s rules) – got washed off when boat heeled. He was recovered after 20 minutes but was very hard to spot. This was daytime and slightly choppy. A night time involuntary swim is very different and every sailor’s worst nightmare, and so it should be. With the best safety equipment, including personal AIS beacons, you stand a good chance of being picked up reasonably quickly – but the kit may not work. Without it you need an experienced crew and a chunk of luck. So we all want to stay on or in the boat…

Quite rightly the maritime rules maintain that it is the responsibility of the skipper of the yacht to ensure the safety of the crew. In the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-2018, having identified on video from the prior race that some crew were not wearing PBAs and/or clipping on while sailing at speed at night, and given that anyone not versed in maritime affairs and the regime of self-reliance at sea would find this situation very odd, we elected to issue all the VOR teams with tabulated guidance on when crew should be wearing their PBAs and Safety Equipment, and also when they should be clipped on. It did not get observed all the time, but it gave everyone a point of reference to share with the team and focused minds. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the detail.

We are happy to share this guidance with you (below), and hope that it may be of some assistance. This does not just apply to ocean yacht racing, and whilst we are not all sailing at some of the speeds mentioned, the guidance is equally valid for offshore or coastal racing, and cruising anywhere - particularly when shorthanded.

Primary Rules – Night Sailing:

  • 1. PBAs to be worn by all crew on deck between Sunset and Sunrise.
  • 2. All crew venturing out of the cockpit onto side or fore decks to be clipped on to jackstays between Sunset and Sunrise.
  • 3. Crew alone on deck to clip on between Sunset and Sunrise.
  • 4. Heavy weather – see guidance notes.

John Quigley, Co-Founder and CEO YachtDataBank

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