Editorial July 2006 Issue

The high price of safety rules

Hans Horrevoets grinds aboard ABN Amro Two in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race.
The tragic death of 32-year-old Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets, who was washed overboard during the seventh leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, will likely reignite the debate over mandatory safety harness and life jacket rules. Horrevoets was the only team member on deck wearing neither when a wave crashed over the bow and swept him off the Volvo 70 ABN Amro Two.

As his teammates tell it, it was night in the middle of the North Atlantic. Winds had rapidly climbed from 12 to 25 knots, and the crew had just completed a sail change. As the crew on deck went below one by one to don their harnesses, Horrevoets was tending the spinnaker sheet, awaiting his turn. If Amro Two had nosedived into the wave minutes later, Horrevoets might still be alive.

In a remarkable display of seamanship, the crew recovered Horrevoets 50 minutes later, but they were unable to revive him. An autopsy revealed he was likely knocked unconscious before he hit the water. The oldest member of the young Amro Two team, Horrevoets left behind his 11-month-old daughter, Bobby, and his partner, Petra, who was pregnant with their second child. In the cruelest of ironies, the Whitbread veteran was invited just weeks before the start when two other sailors dropped out.

In 1998, when U.S. SAILING prescribed that crews on big boats start and finish its events wearing life jackets, the decision provoked cries of over-regulation and safety zealotry. Three years ago, the group again drew fire when it required participants in overnight races to wear harnesses and life jackets at night, in heavy weather, or when sailing shorthanded. Clipping in, which sometimes is impossible or can increase risk, is optional.

Meanwhile, the Special Recommendations for Offshore Sailing set by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) still stop short of requiring racers to wear harnesses or life jackets. The ISAF leaves it up to the national racing bodies to amend these minimum requirements, as U.S. SAILING prudently did.

The level of risk a cruising sailor is willing to take is his business, but all sailors, as well as the bodies that sanction sailing events, would be wise to adopt harness and PFD rules similar to those mandated by U.S. SAILING. Upon the high seas, a sailor endures all manner of discomfort; wearing a harness in his bunk is one more he can live with.

The topic is relevant this month as we look at vest-style PFDs for children. Since 2003, U.S. law has required that children under the age of 13 wear a life jacket while on deck in federal waters (generally beyond 3 miles offshore). Most states have similar laws for their jurisdictions. As much as sailors tend to despise regulations, PS supports these child PFD rules. Statistics show that these laws are needed, and they work. They are saving the lives of people who, unlike Hans Horrevoets, are too young to fully comprehend the risks.

Few things are sadder than losing a father and a friend at sea. Losing a child is surely one of them.

Darrell Nicholson

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