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Making Offshore Racing Safer

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The Low Speed Chase tragedy last April in which five sailors perished happened in our home waters, so it’s appropriate that the principal response has been local as well. A collaboration among yacht clubs and race organizations has resulted in the Northern California Ocean Racing Council (NorCalORC). Organized at the urging of US Sailing’s investigation panel, the group — made up of members from the OYRA, BAMA, SSS, USCG and others — is only advisory, but it has delivered in ways that are having a significant impact on offshore racing locally and beyond.

NorCalORC decided to look well beyond the specifics of the LSC accident and address a range of offshore race issues, working toward a stronger and safer set of ocean races. Improvements include greater consistency in race practices, education and information about core safety issues such as wave formation, gear lists that are practical and effective, and communications methods.

The items developed by NorCalORC are being integrated by race organizations into their programs and have been reviewed with the Coast Guard. USCG Port of San Francisco Captain Cynthia Stowe is pleased with the council's efforts. "The Coast Guard's main priority is protecting the safety of life at sea," she notes, "and the council has already enhanced the safety of offshore racing through improvements to safety gear and the education of skippers and sailors."

NorCalORC’s activities fall into four categories.

The Gear List (found at, has the biggest impact on racers. A committee that includes OYRA’s Andy Newell and US Sailing Offshore Safety Chair Chuck Hawley threw out the complex 19-page ISAF document and worked from existing races and well-understood practices to come up with a three-page list, in clear, simple language, covering structure, required gear, and educational requirements. This list, with some modifications, has been adopted by all the local race organizations. Hawley is working with his US Sailing committee to get a version of the list adopted nationally, in lieu of the ISAF tome.

The list is not, of course, without controversy. Some requirements, such as lifelines, stanchion placement, and even depth sounders and VHFs, have irked some fleets. In a few cases, organizers have waived or modified these, and in other cases the discussion continues.

Training, long mandatory under US Sailing/ISAF rules, is being adopted by the local organizations effective in 2014. One finding of the LSC incident, also demonstrated in other cases, is that racers sometimes ignore or are unaware of some core safety issues, like staying out of shallow water. (The rule is 2.5 times significant wave height, by the way).

Safety at Sea seminars, and a new half-day version for local coastal racing, are provided by NorCalORC and other groups and will be mandatory for 2014. The inaugural half-day seminar will be provided at Strictly Sail Pacific on April 14. A full-day NorCalORC SAS seminar, organized in February by Pat Lowther, sold out.

Race Management and Communications have been matters lacking consistency. US Sailing Area G Race Officer Nancy DeMauro has put together guidelines and in February presented a training seminar for 40 ocean race PROs. Key points are that inspections take place, ocean races have a consistent pre-race check-in, required information be collected, and racers demonstrate a working VHF radio. Plans are also in the works for a longer-range VHF capability to be made available to race committees, though that is farther off.

The work continues. As the first boats are being inspected under the new gear lists, racers have been incredibly supportive, but some areas, such as effective dates and certain gear specifics, need more publicity. NorCalORC and its member organizations will continue to work to keep our shared passion vibrant, competitive, fair, and reasonably safe.

— michael moradzadeh

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This story was reprinted from the Sightings section of the April 2013 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with b&w photos), use the subscription order form, and specify the 4/13 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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