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Safety measures follow fatal accident

The Coast Guard lifted a monthlong safety stand-down on ocean racing in the San Francisco Bay area that followed the April 14 loss of five sailors off the Farallon Islands. It took the action after US Sailing issued a preliminary report May 22 with safety recommendations arising out of its inquiry into the race tragedy. The five sailors perished when their 38-foot sailboat rolled in breaking seas during the the Full Crew Farallones Race.

Five sailors died in the full Crew Farallones Race in April when their Sydney 38 rolled in breaking surf.

The Coast Guard approved an amended permit for the May 24 Spinnaker Cup, a 90-mile offshore race from San Francisco to Monterey, after US Sailing presented the preliminary recommendations to the San Francisco Bay Offshore Racing Council. The council is a new group representing 13 yacht clubs and local racing organizations that has been set up to coordinate offshore sailboat racing, communication and safety. “The Spinnaker Cup people amended their marine event permit to include some of the recommendations from US Sailing’s preliminary findings, resubmitted it and it was approved,” says Mike Lutz, a spokesman for Coast Guard Sector San Francisco.

The recommendations include training for sailors in navigation and piloting — in particular, instruction in how waves develop in shoaling waters and how to determine what is a safe distance from a lee shore. Low Speed Chase, the Sydney 38 that the five sailors who died were aboard, was well outside the breaker zone off Maintop, an islet just northwest of Southeast Farallon, when a “massive” wave broke over the boat and rolled it, throwing seven of the eight crewmembers into the cold, turbulent water.

“The Northern California coast is all lee shore,” says Sally Honey of Palo Alto, Calif., who chaired the US Sailing inquiry. “Most of our sailors are aware of this. We just want to make sure everybody who goes out there knows the finer points of navigation and seamanship on a lee shore, especially with building waves in a northwesterly wind.”

The panel has recommended once-a-season training seminars in safety gear, mandatory skippers’ meetings for all races and post-race inspections to ensure compliance with minimum equipment requirements. It also calls for improved race management that accounts for all boats on the course, maintains a database on crewmembers, assures compliance with marine event permits, improves communication with the Coast Guard and ensures that offshore races are consistent in their requirements and protocols. “These are very preliminary recommendations,” Honey said in late May. “We’re in the midst of this investigation. We’re still gathering information.”

The fact-finding included a questionnaire to all sailors involved in the Full Crew Farallones Race, personal interviews with racers, including survivors and witnesses, and plots and analyses of two dozen GPS tracks around Southeast Farallon Island, Honey says.

She says the new Offshore Racing Council asked US Sailing for preliminary findings so it could begin incorporating the recommendations into its planning and oversight. She expected US Sailing to issue its final report in June.

The five who died on Low Speed Chase were Jordan Fromm of Kentfield, Calif.; Alan Cahill of Tiburon, Calif.; Marc Kasanin of Belvedere, Calif.; Alexis Busch of Larkspur, Calif.; and Elmer Morrissey, who was from Ireland. Crewmembers Bryan Chong of Tiburon, James “Jay” Bradford of Chicago, and Nick Vos of Sonoma, Calif.; survived.

Two weeks after the Low Speed Chase tragedy, all four sailors aboard the Hunter 376 Aegean perished in the 124-mile Newport-to-Ensenada Race apparently after a hard grounding on North Coronado Island. An inquiry into those fatalities continues.

The ban on ocean racing off San Francisco affected just two races, the April 28 Offshore Yacht Racing Association’s Duxship Race and the May 12 Singlehanded Sailing Society’s Farallones Race, both of which went on as scheduled but with truncated courses on the Bay inside a line from Point Bonita to Land’s End.

Honey says her panel only looked into the Farallones race, but she says the group hopes its findings can be a catalyst for improving race management and safety in general in the Bay Area.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.