User Menu

Sailing close to the wind: when thrills turn to danger

Windy conditions are good for performance, so are safety concerns a storm in a teacup?

Irish youth sailing team pictured practicing during Storm Brian, Dún Laoghaire pier. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

It probably seems like stating the obvious, but sailing and boating in general are not risk-free activities.

Indeed, there must be few if any human endeavours, be they sport and/or adventure, that can be classified as totally safe. But when it comes to watersports, as land-based creatures there is an added imperative for avoiding the ultimate sanction: fatality.

Recent extreme weather events have brought sailing into the public spotlight, and for all the wrong reasons, though arguably with positives as well: there were no fatalities or injuries.

But there could have been, and that possibility has been used to a deafening extent in commentary since.

At the core of the issue is our weather and in particular the wind that drives the conditions necessary for sailing and other watersports.

In Ireland, Met Éireann operates the Yellow, Orange and Red alert system that the whole country must by now be very familiar with. But there is another system commonly used with the Gale (Force 8) warning, also a familiar part of weather forecasts.

Small craft warning

Perhaps less well-known but more commonplace is the small craft warning. This is issued when winds are likely to reach Force 6 or above on the Beaufort scale. In practice, this means winds of 22-27 knots or above.

However, a warning is not of itself an instruction not to go to sea. Mariners of whatever type will recognise the implications of the warning and apply it to their capabilities and situation.

To many enthusiasts, this wind range represents ideal conditions for best performance and testing their abilities. Training in these conditions are a required part of many established course syllabi that deliver practical experience that may one day make a difference.

In fact, many of the younger sailors participating in structured programmes appear more at home “in breeze” after gaining experience than, say, many established big boat crews that struggle to control their boats in lesser conditions.

But what happens when a forecast exceeds this wind range, or predictions indicate a weather window of acceptable conditions?

The answer remains a matter of judgement on the day under the prevailing circumstances, drawing on knowledge and experience. Most times, this works out (or we would have far more incidents, perhaps even involving fatalities), but occasionally it doesn’t.

Hue and cry

When it doesn’t, what is the best response? Is a social media-inflated hue and cry really the answer or is there an alternative?

A possible answer lies in the aviation industry, where the “just culture” is widely practiced and where blame and punishment are set aside in favour of shared learning and development. The basis for this is that only in the rarest cases do people deliberately set out to cause harm or make mistakes.

Or, put another way, a mistake is only stupid if a person has made it before and not learnt from it.

An argument can also be made that a casualty who at least has prior experience or training for extreme situations is more likely to be of use to the rescuer than a totally helpless person.

Criminalising those with good intentions is not the answer. A safety culture that enhances the activity, not restricts it, is the solution.