Features March 2012 Issue

Safety Lessons Learned Part 1

Recent sailing accidents and their US Sailing investigations offer important lessons for all sailors.

Youth sailors in Sarasota, Fla.
Youth sailors in Sarasota, Fla. practice their skills in Club 420s and the Optimist class (seen sailing in the background) on Sarasota Bay. A fatal accident last summer in a Chesapeake Bay youth sailing program prompted a study by US Sailing.

Psychologist Carl Jung might have called it synchronicity, or a “meaningful coincidence:” three highly publicized sailing accidents occurring in close succession—one for each month of summer 2011. In June, 14-year-old Olivia Constants tragically drowned during the first week of sailing practice on her Club 420 on Chesapeake Bay. In July, a veteran racing skipper and his partner died while still tethered to their boat, WingNuts, when it capsized in the Chicago-Mackinac Island Race. In August, the presumed epitome of racing sailing engineering, Rambler 100, lost its keel, capsized, and every member of its crew—representing the top echelon of racing sailors—survived, despite a long list of reasons why they shouldn’t have.

With summer fast approaching and with still enough time to learn from these events, Practical Sailor is taking a look at what happened last summer to try to make some sense of it all. This article is the first in a two-part series that examines three extensive reports produced by a highly credentialed team of experts who volunteered their time for US Sailing, the governing body of racing sailing in the United States. Each capsule summary of the reports is followed by a brief analysis of the US Sailing report, and our recommendations for sailors. We encourage every reader to download the full reports, available at the US Sailing website: htp://about.ussailing.org/US_SAILING_Meetings/USS_Reports.htm.

Club 420 Capsize

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Alexander and her partner 14-year-old Olivia Constants were in their first week of sailing in the Severn Sailing Association’s Chesapeake Racers Club 420 travel team. The boat they sailed was a Club 420 equipped with a trapeze, used for hiking out when sailing under the spinnaker. Their boat was among six others under the supervision of professional instructor Arthur Blodgett, who was monitoring the fleet from a 16-foot Zodiac RIB. Both wore Type III PFDs.

The team’s purpose that day was to practice trapezes and spinnakers in waves. The boats were sailing a windward-leeward course near the mouth of the Severn River, in Maryland. Conditions were described as light and gusty 5 to 10 knots, with the nearby weather station at the U.S. Naval Academy recording 8 to 15 knots.

Just prior to the accident, Sarah was steering on the leeward side trimming the spinnaker. Some 50 to 75 yards from the turning mark, Olivia began stowing the spinnaker in the forward compartment, which required her to sit in or “reach across the starboard forward corner of the cockpit, where the trapeze wire and bail—the loop that harness hooks into—were hanging.” Before the spinnaker was completely stowed, the boat accidentally jibed to port tack and the boom swung across the cockpit, pressing Olivia against the starboard stay.

“I’m stuck on something,” Olivia said, showing no distress, according to Sarah. As the boat heeled more toward the starboard side, Sarah reached over the port side for the centerboard—with the hopes of counteracting or slowing the capsize—and slid off the boat. The boat capsized and when Olivia did not appear Sarah waved for Blodgett, who was near the turning mark.

When Blodgett arrived—in less than a minute, according to Sarah—the boat was upside down. Blodgett asked Sarah to swim below and look for Olivia. She ducked under the air pocket in the overturned cockpit and saw through the murky water that Olivia was immobile and completely submerged. Blodgett then went in the water and “his efforts were so vigorous he inadvertently removed Olivia’s life jacket before he discovered the problem.” The trapeze harness was awkwardly hooked on the bail so that it could not be unhooked. Olivia had been accidentally hooked in the trapeze system. Blodgett was unable to extract the hook until he loosened a buckle on the harness. Olivia was eventually pulled free and rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.


After a fairly detailed account of what happened on the water and the rescue efforts, the US Sailing report detours in a lengthy and mostly positive discussion of the club’s response to the media blitz and the shock among club members. It also mentions several positive steps that the club afterward took to prevent such an accident from occurring—a float on the mainsail head to help prevent a full capsize, among them.

It is hard to read this report without noticing the minimal attention given to harness and trapeze gear, which apparently contributed to the entrapment. Only passing mention is made of the various optional harnesses that have been designed to prevent entanglement; the rest is left to a footnote link to a public discussion on the Internet. Sailors would have been well served by photos and a brief description of the various trapeze hooks, at the least.

The premise that the crew was prepared for the conditions seems difficult to support. As the report states, neither girl had practiced capsize or escape from a trapeze-equipped boat. The appropriate number of instructors on the water is not directly questioned. Some clubs insist on having two supervisors on hand (together in one or two different boats), leaving one to go in the water if needed, and the other to maintain communication with shore. Finally, although college-age sailors race virtually the same boat without trapezes, the report sidesteps the question as to whether a trapeze-equipped 420 is an appropriate boat for young sailors who have recently stepped up from an Optimist.

Bottom line: In our opinion, the narrative of the club’s emotional public relations and management struggles, while valuable, overshadowed the more important discussion of boats, skills, gear, and training. There are far too many gaps in the sailing-training and gear-related aspect of the report. Fortunately, many clubs are already taking the most obvious steps toward a safer youth sailing program without waiting for the trials and research that the report wisely recommends. (See “US Sailing Recommendations.”) One point tucked into the final commentary deserves more emphasis—such incidents of entanglement, though seldom fatal, are not as rare as one might think.


As the report recommends, an accelerated examination of trapeze-related equipment and practices is critical. Likewise, a closer look at the equipment that reduces the chance of a full capsize in the Club 420 and other boats popular among youth sailors should be a priority. Although a one-size-fits-all solution may not exist, it is becoming clear that some of the boats and gear still in use in youth sailing programs across the country may add unnecessary risk.

In addition to the well-reasoned recommendations made by the US Sailing report, PS recommends that sailing clubs that include trapeze-equipped Club 420s in their youth program carefully assess the risk-versus-payoff of the trapeze. If a program’s purpose is to develop competent collegiate-level sailors, then the trapeze could be unwarranted at this early level, before the sailors are fully competent on the basic Club 420—or at all.

Finally, at this level in a young sailor’s development, sailing clubs and governing bodies such as US Sailing must own a share of responsibility for the boats and gear that its participants use. These organizations and individual clubs must be in a position to confidently recommend the types of equipment young sailors should be using. Avoiding this responsibility because it adds too much liability is not an acceptable solution.

Next: A look at the Rambler 100 and WingNuts accidents.

Comments (2)

Hi I am a 420 sailor from my college days, and a life long sailor. In recent years I have gotten involved in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. Through the great training programs available, I have been exposed to a risk evaluation system called the GAR or GreenAmberRed model. This article shouts at me that we as sailors are often too macho about taking risks. This risk assessment system is simple and can be used by anyone. I would recommend that Practical Sailor look at doing an article about this system. I have done many things in a sailboat that I was lucky to survive in one piece. Boating Safety is something that I always need to keep in mind.

Posted by: drydockbruce | March 5, 2012 8:13 AM    Report this comment

My son rescued a junior trapped by a trapeze harness on a 420 as it was approaching the harbor at a CORK youth event at Kingston, On. She was held under by the trapeze hook on the shrouds. My son who has life guard certification dove over to disentangle the girl. (there was a second person to man the crash boat). A second boat came over and helped right the 420 which aided in the disentanglement. The girl was unconscious but was quickly landed in the inflatable and transferred to the marina and thence by ambulance to the hospital. Rescuscitation was done on the boat ride in and she started breathing ( and vomiting) by the time they hit the marina. The save was successful because of the proximity of the coach boats (2). The 420 skipper was unaware of the problem until the rescue started. Sometime later I talked to the former safety officer who stated that there were fewer volunteers than in the past for crash boat dutie and the boat proximity and recognition was serendipity. I switched the trapeze harnesses on our 29er to the ball and socket type designed by Julian Bethwaite in response to these types of events. I have since talked to one other junior who recounted a similar near miss situation.

Posted by: JONATHAN W | March 2, 2012 9:00 AM    Report this comment

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