Rhumb Lines August 2011 Issue

Re-examining Youth Sailing Safety

When a promising teenage girl dies by any means, it is sure to prompt reflection—reflection on a life cut short, a family’s unimaginable grief. As a father, I can think of no greater sadness than losing a child.

How does one make sense of what was a senseless tragedy?

Fourteen-year-old Olivia Constants was participating in the Severn Sailing Association’s junior race training program on Chesapeake Bay in late June when she and her partner’s Club 420 capsized sharply to leeward and inverted. While her partner emerged from the inverted hull, Constants did not. By the time the support boat reached her and staff pulled her out of the water, she was unconscious. Attempts to revive her failed.

The circumstances surrounding the death are still under investigation. This much is known:

• Constants was wearing a life jacket.

• The boat rolled 180 degrees to leeward, ending up with the mast pointed downward.

• Severn Sailing staff, arriving in the chase boat, had to go into the water to pull her from under the boat.

A full investigation of the circumstances surrounding Constants’ death will offer a clearer picture of any specific safety measures that might prevent similar accidents, but people involved in youth sailing programs should re-examine their own safety measures now. The Severn Sailing Association is doing just that.

Statistically, preventable injuries are the leading cause of death among teenagers, and almost all of these accidents occur on shore. According to the Centers for Disease Control statistics, an average of 16,375 teenagers (ages 12 to 19) died in the U.S. from the years 1999-2006. Just .024 percent of those deaths are attributable to drowning. Motor vehicle accidents (33 percent), homicide (13 percent), and suicide (11 percent) are the leading causes of teenage death in the U.S.

Although a fatal sailing accident is extremely rare, such accidents are, by definition, preventable. Safety is paramount in any youth sailing program and requires constant vigilance, continuous evaluation, and incremental improvement.

Questions that we believe youth sailing programs should ask are:

• How well trained are staff to recognize the limits of their students?

• How well trained and equipped are staff to handle the range of emergencies that they might encounter?

• Is staffing adequate to deal with such emergencies?

• How well maintained are the boats and gear?

• How much time is spent on capsize training?

• Are there ways to modify training or hardware to mitigate the risks of injury while using a trapeze?

• Are there ways to reduce the risks of a life jacket impeding the sailor from diving clear of an overturned hull?

• Are current certifications and standards for boats, hardware, safety equipment, and instructors sufficient?

Each summer, thousands of parents put their trust in the hands of sailing programs, assuming that these kinds of safety concerns are being addressed—not just once a season, but every day. There is no way to eliminate the small risks associated with sailing (or crossing the street, for that matter), and a key part of sail training is learning to be responsible for your own safety. However, it is not unreasonable to expect that our children can be as safe on the water in the hands of a professionally run sailing program as they are in the hands of parents and trusted adults ashore.

Statistics show that they are. Let’s work to keep it that way.

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