Sydney-Hobart disaster offers shot across the bows


Premature deployment of life rafts may have contributed to this week's Sydney-Hobart Race disaster according to a leading Cork yachtsman who has added Irish sailing's voice to the world debate on the ill-fated ocean classic.

Four sailors are dead and two missing, presumed drowned, including British Olympic star sailor Glyn Charles, following the largest civil rescue operation ever mounted off the Australian coast.

Fifty sailors were plucked from a dozen stricken craft and 70 entrants retired to seek shelter from 90 mph winds and mountainous 35foot seas that ravaged the 115-boat fleet. Two inquiries now underway into the deadly race could have safety implications for future ocean fixtures including Ireland's offshore classic, the 704-mile Round Ireland race, but Royal Cork's Donal McClement doubts whether any new lessons will be learned.

"A lot of debate surrounding this week is uneducated recriminations. The fact of the matter is offshore sailing is a risky sport and occasionally tragedies will occur," he said.

A numbed sailing world has resigned itself to the fact that this week's disaster draws unfortunate parallels with the 1979 Fastnet Race in which 17 sailors died.

In both cases, the problems arose from the weather turning suddenly and unexpectedly worse but mistakes, including the early use of life rafts in some cases, appear to have been made again.

Sydney-Hobart race officials are co-operating this weekend with a number of inquiries aimed at finding out what went wrong and, if possible, ensuring that a catastrophe such as this never happens again. These inquiries should focus, in part, on the decision to deploy life rafts. "I said it after the '79 Fastnet and I'll say it again now. Some of those who drowned this week did so because they left the safety of their yacht still afloat and went into a life raft which is a flimsy, rubber object," McClement said.

"Life rafts are a total misnomer. They are very much a last resort and misunderstood by many people. They should be renamed `emergency' raft. They are not an alternative boat as some have found to their peril. By and large you are much safer staying with your boat," added McClement, a former search and rescue helicopter navigator.

Dun Laoghaire's Michael Boyd, a 1996 Round Ireland champion, and a competitor in the 1993 Sydney-Hobart, the worst on record prior to this week's disaster, agreed with McClement that a life raft should always be the very last option.

The Royal Irish sailor competed in both races in a J35, a small sloop with an overall length of just 35-feet. "Always step up and not down to a life raft" is the often-quoted rule of the sea that puts a raft as the final place of refuge, only to be used if your boat is sinking beneath you. The nine-man crew of the Winston Churchill found themselves in that position when they abandoned ship on Sunday into two life rafts. Four men in one raft were saved, but only John Stanley and John Gibson were rescued from a second craft. Since then Winston Churchill crew members have criticised the performance of the rafts, which they say capsized eight times before rescue services arrived and was unsuited to such huge seas.

Two of the dead from Business Post Naiad, Bruce Guy and Phil Skeggs, were killed when their yacht rolled over during the peak of the storms. Before they were rescued crew-mates strapped the two bodies to the boat, then the floating coffin was towed some 100 miles back to shore.

The inquiries are now to be held amid claims that organisers knew of the potential danger 24 hours before the 115-boat fleet was decimated. Both inquiries are certain to focus on the weather and what information was passed on to crews.

Regardless of whatever facts are found it is an international rule of sailing that the decision to go to sea is the sole responsibility of the skipper.

Though the organisers, the Cruising Yacht club of Australia (CYCA), did not abandon the race when the storm hit and have subsequently received criticism for it from some quarters, it is hard to know whether abandonment would have helped.

The CYCA's Peter Bush told local radio: "Had we called the race off when we were aware of the strength of those conditions little else could have happened because these guys were already on the race course". Interestingly, the overall handicap winner of the 630-mile race, the 35-foot Midnight Rambler, declared only on Thursday was the smallest winner in 10 years.

Skipper Ed Psaltis said they sailed through the eye of the storm. "It was a very rough ride. But retirement would have been more perilous for us than continuing," said Psaltis.

"I've read the textbooks on the 1979 Fastnet race. What they said was take these waves on, don't try to run with them. We may have been lucky. Who knows, but it worked for us."

At least two Irish sailors competed in this year's Sydney-Hobart: Justin Slattery on board Nokia and Gordon Maguire on ABN Ambro.

At home, the fact that no lives have been lost in the 18-year history of the Round Ireland is now a distinguishing factor separating it from a growing number of world offshore sailing fixtures that have been marred by the death of competitors.

Safety scrutineers are drawing comparisons between the two ocean races and the results of inquiries into the Australian disaster will have repercussions that Round Ireland organisers cannot ignore. Though billed as "one of the world's most demanding offshore races" the bulk of the Round Ireland fleet are rarely more than 25 miles offshore and the race benefits from having no exposed stretches of ocean.

In the normal circumstances of an Irish summer, according to Boyd, crews would never encounter the might of the southerly buster that brought destruction in the 300-mile stretch of the Bass straits on Sunday.

But the fact that the prevailing breeze is south westerly and thus stretches of the Round Ireland are sailed against a rocky, lee shore means that up to half of the fleet have pulled out of the race in the past, seeking refuge in harbours dotted around the south and west coasts. It's a potentially dangerous situation that weighs heavy on the mind of race organiser Fergus O Conchobhair, especially when yachts fail to make the required mandatory check-in calls, which happened last June.

Some areas of the course, such as the west coast, are particularly exposed and have offered up conditions that many veterans compare with the 1979 Fastnet race.

"Our greatest fear is to lose a competitor, that's why we have such a high priority on safety and check-in procedures" O Conchobhair said.

On board safety standards are therefore of paramount importance and lack of attention to detail can be the biggest killer according to McClement, a member of the Irish Sailing Association's (ISA) safety committee: "Casual attitudes to safety is the root of the problem not safety regulations."

Expected to be included in forthcoming reports from the Sydney-Hobart are recommendations for improvements in boat design, harnesses and harness fittings as well as well as life raft construction.

Following the universal agreement that EPIRBs (electronic position-indicating beacons) were a key to the successful rescue of stricken sailors this week, Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) Round Ireland scrutineer Pat Murphy has suggested that EPIRBs should be considered for use in life rafts as well as methods of harnessing sailors to life rafts.

Very few life rafts have EPIRBs as standard equipment. Australian SAR crews involved in this week's search reported problems identifying those needing assistance. So many EPIRBs were being used in the area the situation became a dartboard arrangement with rescuers not knowing what boats were in trouble.

Ian Kiernan, skipper of the Canon Maris, who retired from the race commented: "I would like to think that in the future we would look to the satellite EPIRBs which identify the boats that release the EPIRBs so then you would know who was on board that boat," he said.