Mailport: February 2012
Editorial off Base
Practical Sailor Editor Darrell Nicholson opens his unfortunate editorial in the December 2011 Practical Sailor by referring to the three recent US Sailing inquiries of catastrophic sailing accidents in the summer of 2011. These are the 420 dinghy capsize at Annapolis in which a young sailor died, the capsize of WingNuts in the Chicago-Mackinac Race with the loss of two lives, and the inversion of Rambler 100 in the Rolex Fastnet Race after her keel broke off, thankfully with no fatalities. I reviewed the first accident and served on the second’s panel with [West Marine Vice President] Chuck Hawley, Sheila McCurdy, and [PS Technical Editor] Ralph Naranjo. Ron Trossbach conducted the Rambler 100 review. All of us are US Sailing-certified safety-at-sea seminar moderators. The three reports are at http://about.ussailing.org/US_SAILING_Meetings/USS_Reports.htm.
I read Nicholson’s editorial with indignation. Right away, he informs us that the three reviews are flawed: “Even if you are not a racer, these reports should be required reading — so long as you read between the lines” (my emphasis). That bomb dropped, he promptly abandons the Annapolis and Rambler reviews, leaving the reader’s imagination reeling with the possible sins of commission or omission there, and devotes the remainder of his space to the Chicago-Mackinac inquiry. He twice tells us that, in this 73-page, 21,000-word report, the “between the lines” problem is that Hawley, the panel’s chairman, works for West Marine, and that he refers to West products five times in a one-page table that he compiled.
Titled “Summary of the Personal Gear at the Time of Capsize,” this table locates WingNuts’ eight sailors in the boat, describes how the survivors swam clear of the inverted hull, and identifies most of the safety harnesses, tethers, and life jackets worn by the crew. Hawley compiled this valuable table from information I gathered from survivors of the WingNuts accident and photographs of the deceased sailors’ gear provided by the Charlevoix County, Mich., Sheriff’s Office.
In the table, two items are described using their brand names: “automatic inflating Spinlock Deck Vest” and “automatic inflation Mustang Survival MD3032.” Two tethers are identified as “West Marine double tether with a snap shackle” and “West Marine single tether with a snap shackle.” Nicholson says nothing about those four identifications, though a concern for fairness and accuracy should have led him to tell his readers that Hawley listed gear from two of West Marine’s competitors.
Nicholson hones in on the table’s three other gear descriptions, all for tethers: “West type with a cow-hitch,” “West type with beaded shackle,” and “possibly a West Marine single tether with snap shackle at chest.” Nicholson apparently feels that Hawley cobbled together these descriptions to publicize West Marine equipment (rather than, say, distinguish this gear from the Spinlock’s and Mustang’s). The fact is, however, that the two “West type” quotes are nearly verbatim from my interview with a WingNuts survivor who used that term, and the third is an informed conjecture based on the second “West type” description.
The five cryptic references to West Marine gear persuaded Nicholson to write of Chuck Hawley, “His lead role in the report on tethers and harnesses suggests a conflict of interest that could undermine the report’s credibility.” Nicholson presents no evidence that the report is incredible, inaccurate, misleading, or favorable to any gear. Yet he continues to pile on, ending the editorial, “PS urges that future ‘independent’ reports by US Sailing be directed by experts who do not have a vested interest in the outcome.”
Some publications gain our attention with facts and considered judgments. Others prefer innuendo, interjecting ironic twists on value-laden words like “independent,” tossing in wink-wink “suggests” and “coulds,” and advising us to “read between the lines.” I’ve long admired Practical Sailor as an example of the first type of publication, but now I’m having second thoughts.
US Sailing Safety at Sea
Next: No Conflict of Interest