Where Danger Lives: The Safety Culture in Ocean Racing

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Ocean racing is dangerous. That’s what everyone tells me, anyway, and I believe them. Racing around the world in sailboats that are purpose-built to be as light as possible and running on the ragged edge of stability through gale-force winds must be fraught with peril. And I know that sometimes risks can’t always be mitigated and accidents happen.

The loss of sailor John Fisher during the 7th leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) this week highlights that danger and its cost. It seems as if his was a true accident. He was wearing all the right gear and he and his crew were following established procedures. He simply was a victim of chance timing and the vastness of the sea.

According to a timeline released by Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, Fisher was moving between his position in the cockpit to tidy up one of the sails on deck just as the boat surfed down a wave, which lead to a crash gybe. Fisher was knocked violently overboard by the boom and may have lost consciousness from the blow. The crew threw a Jonbuoy and a horseshoe buoy to mark his position, but neither Fisher nor the buoys were seen again after exhaustive searching.

That the Jonbuoy wasn’t found is an indication of just how hard it is to find a person in the water. These buoys are bright, chartreuse-colored, man-overboard devices with a raised pole and a flag specifically designed to make a person overboard more visible. 

That the Jonbuoy wasn’t found is an indication of just how hard it is to find a person in the water. These buoys are bright, chartreuse-colored, man-overboard devices with a raised pole and a flag specifically designed to make a person overboard more visible. 

But this incident wasn’t the first man overboard from Scallywag in this race. Crewmember Alex Gough went over the side during Leg 4 back in January. Watching VOR’s video of that incident, as well as other VOR videos of the racing, makes one thing clear to me: the safety rules implemented by VOR are more like guidelines, and the focus is on sailing, not sailing safety. These sailors do what they want, and VOR doesn’t challenge them.

I think that way because I can read. The VOR publishes the “The Volvo Ocean Race General Leg Sailing Instructions” for each race. This year’s instructions are 14 pages long. The word safety appears six times. The word “life jacket” appears twice ... in the same paragraph. Here it is:

NOTE: THE OA RECOMMENDS THAT AS A MINIMUM LIFE JACKETS ARE WORN WHILE ON DECK BETWEEN SUNSET AND SUNRISE, WHILE SAILING WITH A REEF IN THE MAINSAIL AND WHEN THE TRUE WIND STRENGTH IS ABOVE 15 KNOTS. COMBINED LIFE JACKET AND HARNESSES THAT COMPLY WITH ALL OF THE ABOVE STANDARDS ARE PERMITTED. THE DILIGENT USE OF A PROPERLY ADJUSTED HARNESS IS REGARDED AS BY FAR THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY OF PREVENTING MAN OVERBOARD INCIDENTS.

To understand how little VOR pays attention to its own (very lax, in my opinion) rules for safety, you only have to watch the video (published by VOR themselves) of the Alex Gough overboard incident.

In the video, Alex Gough has fallen off Scallywag and there is not a soul wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). According to David Witt, the team captain, they were sailing in 18 knots of wind. (What did that rule above say? Something about 15 knots of wind?)

After the incident, Witt is chiding Gough as they sail off from his recovery. “In black, you’re dead! The only reason we found you is because you put your arm in the air.” Witt says this while sailing on in the exact same conditions that sent Gough over the side, while dressed exactly as Gough had been, in all black and still not wearing a PFD. That he said it and VOR proudly put it online tells me that neither Witt or VOR learned a thing.

The captain of Scallywag had just lost a man overboard and lost sight of him. There was more than a 50 percent chance of losing him forever. Upon getting him back aboard after a near miraculous find, he doesn’t think to change anything. The entire crew, sailing in conditions that resulted in losing a man over the side, doesn’t decide to don life jackets, tether up or think to change out of the black clothing they are wearing.

To those who would argue that the VOR is a World Sailing (formerly ISAF) event and that their rules are implied, well, they seem to be even lighter on real safety than the VOR.

In World Sailing’s “THE EQUIPMENT RULES OF SAILING” document you find two interesting things (in 72 pages of text) regarding the use of PFDs :

“Life-Saving Equipment and Personal Flotation Devices: A boat shall carry adequate life-saving equipment for all persons on board, including one item ready for immediate use, unless her class rules make some other provision. Each competitor is individually responsible for wearing a personal flotation device adequate for the conditions.”

Put another way, “Be safe out there, folks, it’s up to you.”

In the index of terms they note that Personal Flotation Device rules are contained in rule C.5.4; the rule doesn’t exist within the document.

World Sailing also publishes the Racing Rules of Sailing, which describes the type of PFD that a crew member must carry, but not when to wear it. In the 190-page 2017-2020 Racing Rules of Sailing, PFDs get a bit more attention, but the fundamental rule states that wearing the life jacket is primarily up to the crewman.

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The loss of John Fisher was an accident. It was tragic, and perhaps the only way it could have been prevented was if he had chosen not to be a sailor. I don’t know. But I do know that when we are proudly shown professional sailors on the wide-open ocean who are barefoot, dressed in black and not wearing a stitch of safety gear, there is a safety culture problem in the overall organizational structure of the VOR.

All we are left with is the same question for racing sailors that I have always had for commercial fishermen. Which is more dangerous; the work or the workers? VOR is clearly leaving safety decisions to the best judgments of its sailors, but that seems like an abdication of responsibility on the organization’s part. Rules, particularly ones about safety, are made to protect us from our own oversight or hubris or fatigue. It is time for VOR and World Sailing to re-evaluate their role in the safety of the events they put on. They need to create specific and actionable rules for safety aboard the boats. Because a culture is what you talk about most — the equipment that keeps sailors alive deserves more than a few words in a sea of other rules.  

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