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05 Jul 2010

Learning from the Flinders Islet Tragedy

If there is one thing that we at KORC would like to see all sailors do this year, it?s to review the report recently released by the CYCA on the Flinders Islet tragedy, and to take to heart its recommendations, particularly those based around greater training in the areas of seamanship, navigation and sea survival.

On 10 October 2009, the boat Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) was lost after running aground at Flinders Islet, during the Flinders Islet Yacht Race, run by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia ? the same club that organises the Rolex Sydney-Hobart.

The CYCA has now released its internal enquiry report, an eye-opener for the yachting world because the set of circumstances that transpired on 10 October could happen to anyone. 

Pricewaterhouse Coopers was sailed by an experienced crew of eighteen. Eleven of the crew were regular members.  The boat was well equipped with both GPS navigational equipment, and safety gear, and conditions were uncomfortable, but definitely not extreme. However, the boat came too close to dangerous rocks, was unable to navigate away from them, and two lives were lost.

Brent Marshall ? owner of Bird on the Wing and an experienced offshore skipper ? has examined the report in detail, and in an email to Yachting New Zealand he says, ?I am the last person to promote further regulation, rules and mandatory requirements but this report when coupled with the report into Sydney Hobart fatalities shows we have learnt little from these tragedies. There are many parallels.?

He cites seamanship and education as critical to safety, and here summarises the report?s key findings for us. Brent writes:

?The way Andrew Short used his GPS and navigated would be identical to the great majority of our racing (and cruising) fleet. The false sense of accuracy and comfort they give is a death trap if the operator does not fully understand the nuances of these devices and People are not aware of the errors that are still in this system.

Night navigation is very difficult particularly when close to shore and it is easy to see how these events could happen again. 

Depth perception is very hard at night and it is very hard to make accurate assessments of range to an obstruction visually. I can easily understand why crew looking at the island were not aware how close they were until the last moments. You can look at an Islet like Flinders at night and nothing much changes until you are very, very close.?

?The use of PFDs and harnesses is not a simple proposition and can create a false sense of safety. These apparatus are a fundamental safety aid but crew do still need to understand how they work. Do you use the auto inflate? In some circumstance this function is a death trap i.e. under the boat attached to the tether, in others i.e. going into the water unconscious, it is a life saver. The tethers also need to be fully understood. Most use the 2m tether attached to the windward side, this is very dangerous situation if, as Sally was, you are washed over the windward side or the yacht rolls over, if you are not moving around the yacht and just sitting on the rail the short tether is safer but few have and use one. The release of tethers is still an issue, the requirement to have a release at the harness end was implemented because of people drowning similar to what may have happened to Sally but realistically it is not working. A quick release pin is an absolute development the sport must demand of manufacturers. I don?t believe it is possible to release a clip under water with the tether under load. This topic is pretty well covered as part of the advanced sea survival course but there are very few crew who have thought through all these variables and made a plan the works for them.?

?The real shock in this report is how poor the basic seamanship was on one of Australia?s premier offshore racing yachts skippered by a very experienced and highly regarded skipper.

The rafts by the mast and unstowed, unsecured gear down below were all large contributors to the problems in the 94 Sydney Hobart, and realistic access to a raft was a contributor in the Time to Burn tragedy here in New Zealand.

Brent believes the two areas that most need to be focused on here in New Zealand are skipper education ? training in GPS and navigation for skipper navigators, especially for those racing at night. The other is that safety harness manufacturers should develop an emergency release mechanism on harnesses.

?The GPS in particular has made coastal navigation and night sailing accessible to many who would not normally take the risk,? he says. ?Here we have a premier yachtie and race crew who failed in the most basic manner. The further imposition of rules etc is not the answer - we need training and more training.?

Read the report on the CYCA website >

Learn how to survive

The CYCA?s investigation into the Flinders Islet tragedy notes that given the risks involved, the sport of ocean racing has a good record of safety, and the regulation of the sport is effective. Despite the commitment to improvement and safety, accidents have, and will happen.

Royal Port Nicholson?s Todd Olsen writes on the importance of sea survival training and the success of a Wellington based program.

Lives have been lost in NZ racing
After two tragic high profile yacht races, the Fastnet of 1979 and Sydney-Hobart 1998, yachting authorities started to put more emphasis on sea survival training for offshore racing crews.

There have also been tragic yacht races closer to home, On 21 January 1951, 19 yachts left Wellington in a Canterbury centennial race to Lyttelton (pictured). They headed into a fierce southerly storm. A week later the Press headlines told the story ? the wreckage of the Husky was found near Ohiro Bay, Wellington, and the four crew perished. The Argo was missing and eventually it was determined that all six crew members lost their lives. The Aurora, however, survived, and six men from the Astral were rescued in dramatic circumstances.

What is Advanced Sea Survival?
In May 2010 the RPNYC Sailing Academy organized the tenth running of the Advanced Sea Survival Course. This course is a comprehensive mostly theory based course approved by ISAF, CBES, YNZ and AYF. There is a practical pool session using a life raft, and is a requirement for crew competing in offshore category one races. (50% of a boats crew are now required to hold a valid certificate).

The first day covers many aspects of what to expect coastal or offshore sailing when an emergency situation arises, such as sinking, dismasting and fire. Talks were given by Search and Rescue experts and were a great insight to what to expect if you are in a rescue situation.

There was also an excellent talk on Weather from the Met Service, giving valuable insight to forecasting and predicting your own weather.

Sunday starts out with an early morning dip in the pool with full wet weather gear and lifejackets to get used to swimming in the clothing (pictured, right). It is also a chance for participants to try out their inflatable lifejackets. As most have not had to inflate them before, the process can come as shock.  As a part of being prepared for the worst case scenario, abandoning your vessel to a life raft, there was a life raft on hand to enable wet drills to take place.

Each participant had a series of drills to undertake during the pool session, they had to board the raft, swim to the life raft and climb in, the first person had the hardest climb, and then they assisted further people into the raft. Time was also then spent sitting in the raft, group huddle, HELP position, and experiencing what it would be like to be wet, cold and crammed in a life raft.

The afternoon session is mainly for revision, but there is time for a few stories from the participants of their experiences in situations at sea. There is a 20 minute exam at the end of the course, and once that has been sat and passed, you gain the Advanced Sea Survival certificate.

Basic Sea Survival Do?s and Don?ts

- Take an Advanced Sea Survival course
- Know your responsibilities as a Skipper
- Have a plan in place for Emergencies
- Have briefings with regular and new crew members
- Organise training sessions and drills, ie. Man over board drills


- Wait until you are in an emergency situation to learn
- Assume your crew knows what to do
- Assume your crew knows where safety equipment is
- Abandon a vessel until you step up into a life raft