San Fran 'Stand-down' = Government Meddling?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 01:51PM - Comments: (13)

Skipper Mike Sanderson with his daughter as Team Sanya arrives from Savannah in the Downtown Miami Race Village, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race)

The Coast Guard’s call to “stand-down” and suspend any offshore racing outside San Francisco Bay in the wake of last month’s tragedy in the Farallons Race has rankled some Bay area sailors. Critics decry the move as draconian, driven by overzealous safety mavens, an example virulent government intrusion, trampling of personal freedoms, etc., etc., etc. It is a familiar rant, and not without merit in some cases. Not in this one.

According to the Coast Guard, the “stand-down” request would be lifted in a matter of weeks. It affects only offshore races, not those within the bay. The pause was meant to an allow an opportunity for the Coast Guard, sailing safety experts, and the local race organizers to review their offshore race courses and safety guidelines. The suspension directly impacted the Singlehanded Sailing Society’s Singlehanded Race to the Farallones, which was gamely renamed the Stand Down Regatta and re-routed last weekend to stay within the bay.

Accidents such as the one in the Farallons Race are preventable. The Sydney 38 Low Speed Chase was caught inside a huge wave set that broke on the underwater shelf extending from South Farallon Island, eventually washing all but one member of the eight-person crew into the water. Nick Voss, who stayed with the boat until it was driven onto the island’s rocky shore, along with two others who escaped the crushing surf, Bryan Chong and James Bradford, were the only survivors. The local sailing publication Latitude 38 pointed to one possible fix: Locate a rounding mark around the Farallones Islands in deeper water to ensure racers don’t ever suffer the same fate as Low Speed Chase. Certainly, this could have been accomplished without suspending racing, but I’m not entirely opposed to hitting the pause button for further reflection.

US Sailing has assembled a team of experts to investigate the accident, and it hopes to have findings and recommendations released to the public in June. The four-member independent review panel and panel advisors include three past contributors to Practical Sailor. Jim Corenman, developer of the popular HF radio messaging program Airmail is one of the four panelists. Past PS contributor Dr. Michael Jacobs, author of “A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine,” is one of two medical advisors. Sailing writer and two-time circumnavigator Evans Starzinger, is the Offshore Special Regulations Consultant.

Other panelists include Sally Honey, two-time yachtswoman of the year; John Craig, the highly respected race director at San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club, principal race officer for the 34th America's Cup and member of US Sailing’s Board of Directors; and Bartz Schneider, a successful racing sailor and principal race officer for the San Francisco Yacht Club’s popular Leukemia Cup races. Jim Wildey, chief of the materials laboratory at the National Transportation Safety Board, will advise on investigation procedure and formats. US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Committee Chairman Chuck Hawley will serve as a Review Panel Liaison.

It is my hope that this line-up of experts, along with other important changes in the investigative process, will ensure that the Farallones report will set a new standard for US Sailing’s accident investigations.Earlier this year, PS published a critical analysis of US Sailing's investigation of fatalities in the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac race.

While I can understand why some Bay Area sailors would be bent out of shape over the Coast Guard’s decision, it is important to keep things in perspective. The stakes are far greater than they appear. In his first-hand account of the accident, survivor Bryan Chong described how fortunate he feels to be able to see his wife and eight-week old daughter again. A similar point was driven home to me this week in Miami, as I watched racers in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race embrace their wives, young sons, and daughters after 17 days at sea. Amidst the smiles and tears and laughter of these families being reunited, the "world's greatest ocean race" suddenly seemed pretty small and unimportant.

Comments (13)

I am with the coast guard and let me tell you if people had any idea of the cut backs the CG has suffered at the same time our mission is expanding and the cost to the tax payer for one event like this maybe some wouldn't be so quick to judge the intrusion.

Posted by: SCOTT N | May 29, 2012 3:15 PM    Report this comment

No one in the sailing community wants to promote this type of tragedy. It is interesting to me that all the activity discussed in the article is coming from the sailing community not the CG or HS. Leave the government bureaucracy out of it, they will only impede progress. The sailing community doesn't need to be forced to be responsible.

Posted by: JAY R | May 23, 2012 9:21 AM    Report this comment

This tragedy it 100% the skipper's fault. While it's easy to blame the weather, the conditions, the race aggressiveness, the skipper is the one who is responsible for the safety of the crew and the boat. He could have insisted that the crew all wear harnesses, he could have taken a more conservative approach to the Farallones, he could have simply decided to not go out on that very challenging day. I would be very surprised if the USCG and the other investigations would find otherwise.

Posted by: John S | May 21, 2012 12:07 PM    Report this comment

This tragedy it 100% the skipper's fault. While it's easy to blame the weather, the conditions, the race aggressiveness, the skipper is the one who is responsible for the safety of the crew and the boat. He could have insisted that the crew all wear harnesses, he could have taken a more conservative approach to the Farallones, he could have simply decided to not go out on that very challenging day. I would be very surprised if the USCG and the other investigations would find otherwise.

Posted by: John S | May 21, 2012 12:07 PM    Report this comment

Sailboat racing can be a dangerous sport and the people who participate in the races certainly are aware of that. Thus, they make their own decisions as to whether or not to accept that risk.

In perspective, simply driving an automobile results in an average of 115 deaths per day- using 2005 statistics.Perhaps the government should ask car drivers to stand down until the automobile death rate can be reduced.

I'm sympathetic to the Coast Guard issues regarding the risks that they often have to take when boaters get in trouble- some stupidly and some unavoidable.I think it was fair and proper for the Coast Guard to highlight the safety issues and request that the racers take a break until the safety issues were addressed. I believe that it was not an order, but a request so why would someone feel that big brother was ordering them around.

The efforts of Practical Sailor ( and others) to highlight the accident causes is a major step in making people aware of the potential problems. Perhaps the racing organizers should take a much more active role in establishing safety guidelines for their respective types of races.

Posted by: Charles B | May 17, 2012 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Rule number one of sailing: chill out and don't be a jerk.

Posted by: Gary R | May 16, 2012 6:36 PM    Report this comment

It's been a bad time for sailing, mostly in the high visibility arena of racing. A lot of lives have been lost in a rather brief period. And then there was the sad loss of four more lives, after this one, in the Ensenada race.

In at least three of these sad events, it appears that the losses were (at least in part) cause by questionable judgments on board: sailing into a large and nasty storm in a boat known not to behave well in the conditions, here sailing too close to the island and into the danger zone of large breakers and in the Ensenada race, apparently, powering under autopilot into the face of a cliff in the middle of the night, for reasons not yet explained.

Those events are not the fault of "mother nature," or her unpredictability. And it isn't a phenomenon that is going away with a placard.

Everyone needs to catch their breath and think about all this.

Posted by: James W | May 16, 2012 4:15 PM    Report this comment

The Coast Guard are in the first line of SAR resources and find themselves routinely requested to assist with recreational boating incidents. To the extent that incidents arising from purely recreational activities are ipso facto avoidable, it seems perfectly reasonable the CG should demand a stand-down with an eye to forcing a serious safety reassessment of organized, competitive offshore recreational boating activities.

In other words, this is basically a case of a lifeguard telling a group of people playing dangerously in an easily lethal swimming pool that they need to stop, get out of the pool and think harder about what they're doing. It's not reasonable to expect the lifeguard to be prepared to deal with the aftermath of reckless behavior without having any input into the matter.

A reasonable refusal to accede to the CG's mandate might include a binding offer to refuse CG assistance in the case of an accident.

Posted by: Douglas B | May 16, 2012 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Anyone who's ever been in the US military understands what a "stand-down" order is. It's a temporary recess from daily activities giving all the time to review what has transpired. It's valuable and, in this case, highly appropriate. The USCG is charged with, among other things, mariner safety. They were not out of line in ordering a stand down in light of the Farallone incident especially when considered with what happened in last year's Mac. And they were certainly not being "Big Brother". That's delusional!

Posted by: Lewis S | May 16, 2012 11:03 AM    Report this comment

investigating the cause of an accident is standard practice,if others can be warned of what went wrong,then we all benifit frome knowing,forwarned is forearmed,the coast gard is there to help learn what went wrong ,and is right to suspend the races untill they review the cuase of the accident ,i live in the great lakes and followed yhe chicago to mac tradgity very closely,bottem line is, the boat should not have been allowed in the race,northern lake michigan can be like sailing the north atlantic when a storm comes up,the school of hard knocks is tough,try to learn frome others mistakes,and look at the box frome all sides.

Posted by: ronin | May 16, 2012 10:49 AM    Report this comment

Maybe we'll need another plaque like the overboard-discharge ones: "Caution: the coean is big & dangerous."

Posted by: WILLIAM E B | May 16, 2012 10:41 AM    Report this comment

This isn't about the unpredictability of mother nature. This accident was the direct result of the carelessness of the victims. It isn't the stuff of Conrad and Melville but of driving too fast on the freeway and running into an abutment. Shallow water coming abruptly after deep water (the depth drops to over 600' just west of the Farallones) coupled with the predicable turbulent air that trails a cold front (one having just passed through) is a recipe for big, irregular waves.
The reason for a brief suspension of out-the-Gate sailing is to assess what rules and procedures need to protect racers and sailors from that widespread sailing condition--testosterone poisoning.

Posted by: CHUCK D | May 16, 2012 10:39 AM    Report this comment

Whats next ...the govt going to tell you when you can or cannot go cruising too ?

This is the ocean we are talking about , mother nature is unpredictable no matter how much planning and preparation. Every sailor knows and takes the chance of something going wrong out there...mitigate your odds by good preparation but we dont need the govt agencies telling us when and when it is safe to go sailing!

Posted by: Jamie B | May 15, 2012 2:22 PM    Report this comment

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