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LSC Final Report: “A Failure of Seamanship”

The day after the race, the remains of Low Speed Chase stood as a grim reminder of the worst tragedy in the history of Northern California offshore racing.

© Sophie Webb

At least one other boat sailed in water as shallow as did the Sydney 38 Low Speed Chase during the tragic Full Crew Farallones Race of April 14, a race which saw five of the eight Low Speed Chase crew perish as a result of their boat being hit by a breaking wave .2 of a mile from SE Farallon Island. Low Speed Chase was in 28 feet of water when she was hit by a breaking wave estimated to be over 30 feet high. These are some of the more interesting findings in the just-released final report by a special independent US Sailing investigative panel. The complete report can be found at US Sailing.

The incident was investigated and analyzed by a panel of 10 highly experienced ocean sailors, most of them with extensive experience sailing in the unique conditions found in the Gulf of the Farallones. In our estimation, the panel, headed by Sally Lindsay Honey, did an outstanding job of compiling a definitive 89-page report that was as illuminating as it was fact-based. Before anyone voices an opinion on what happened, why, and the aftermath, we think they owe it to themselves and everyone else to carefully read the entire report and examine the accompanying graphics. Based on the report, we now have a much greater and more nuanced understanding of what caused the tragedy, as well as how chaotic things were in the immediate aftermath.

As you can see by the racers’ tracks above, a second boat (green) also sailed in dangerously shallow waters.

© US Sailing / NOAA

The panel’s primary conclusion did not come as a surprise. " . . . it became clear that the cause of the capsize was that Low Speed Chase sailed a course which took them across a shoal area over which breaking waves could be expected to occur several times an hour, and encountered a breaking wave which capsized the boat." The panel concluded that Low Speed Chase was in 28 feet of water when she was hit by the breaking wave, and that by various "accepted calculations" should have been in at least 43 feet of water. (Interestingly enough, Honey’s husband, the legendary, all-universe sailor/navigator Stan Honey, uses a formula that would have indicated that boats, given the conditions, should have stayed in at least 55 feet of water.)

"Although the course sailed was the direct cause of the capsize," the panel’s synopsis continued, "there were additional safety issues that came to light during the investigation, which may have mitigated the outcome. A secondary issue involved the personal safety gear in use on Low Speed Chase (life jackets and harnesses). Improvement in the personal safety gear might have prevented some of the deaths on Low Speed Chase. There is a third level of consideration involving existing communication difficulties and discipline among the entire fleet, and a fourth concerning race management. These additional issues did not affect the outcome of the event, but improvement in these areas might save lives or reduce injuries in future accidents. The only prevention [to the Low Speed Chase tragedy] would have been more conservative course selection to avoid shallow water in breaking seas or a lee shore."

Shown here are the locations of the boat, those who survived, and those who did not when last observed.

© US Sailing / NOAA

Interesting bits and pieces:

  • 60 boats signed up for the race, but some didn’t start and others dropped out. 32 finished.
  • Alan Cahill, the Person in Charge and helmsman on Low Speed Chase at the time of the capsize, was the only professional sailor participating in the race.
  • Having had a terrible start, the Low Speed Chase crew was not battling for a pickle dish. (In fact, they anchored briefly when the wind died and they found themselves drifting backwards with the tide.)
  • The panel managed to acquire GPS tracks of the island roundings from almost half the fleet. As such, it’s possible that more than one boat may have sailed as close to the Farallones and in as shallow water as Low Speed Chase.
  • Crew lists of boats participating in the race were not accurate. Low Speed Chase, for instance, listed seven crew while they actually had eight.
  • LSC had jacklines, but nobody was tethered to them. LSC also had PFDs as required by the regulations — although the panel concluded such PFDs requirements are neither clear nor adequate.
  • It took only 1.5 minutes for Low Speed Chase to be driven .2 of a mile from the point of capsize to being dismasted, with half the rudder broken off, and stranded on the wave-swept rocks of Main Top Island.
  • Despite being thrown up on the rocks, there was relatively little damage to the hull of Low Speed Chase.
  • There were about 257 waves an hour at the Farallones. Given the forecast, it would be expected that two to three waves would have been over 30 feet high. Low Speed Chase was in 28 feet of water when she was hit. A 30-ft wave would easily break in 28 feet of water, as the rule of thumb is that waves break in water 1.3 times their height.
  • The water temperature at the Farallones was 51 degrees, which meant the entire Low Speed Chase crew suffered from ‘cold water shock’. CWS is defined as, "the body’s initial response to sudden cold water immersion. These include reflex gagging, uncontrolled rapid breathing and inability to breath-hold. Stress on the heart can also be profound and life-threatening; heart rate and rhythms frequently change, reducing blood supply to the brain, followed by confusion, disorientation and sudden loss of consciousness." The Low Speed Chase survivors all cited CWS symptoms making it very difficult for them to survive.
  • The first Coast Guard helicopter to get a report of a problem at the Farallones was low on fuel and had to return to base. As such, it didn’t arrive on the scene until almost one hour after Low Speed Chase had gone on the rocks. This was long after two of the survivors witnessed two of their shipmates being unable to survive the terrible beating they were taking.
  • It was 1 hour and 20 minutes before the Coast Guard was able to talk directly to a member of the Low Speed Chase crew.
  • One competitor witnessed Low Speed Chase being capsized, and six others saw her on the rocks. All of them felt the conditions made it impossible for them to render assistance. None of them stood by in the area.
  • There was radio chaos. One problem is that the Farallones are beyond VHF range from the race shack at the St. Francis YC (the race was actually put on by the San Francsico YC). Because of these and other reasons, the Coast Guard got lots of stepped on transmissions, unintelligible transmissions, and partial transmissions. In addition, there was at least one occasion when a sailor’s mic got stuck in transmit mode for a lengthy period, wiping out all communications on that channel. The panel called for increased radio "discipline," something we believe is inherently much easier said than done.
  • Communication was so bad between the fleet and the Coast Guard that it was 3.5 hours before the Coast Guard realized they weren’t looking for the vessel Temerity. And they only learned that after Temerity called the race committee to report they were nearing the finish line.
  • For hours the Coast Guard thought they were in communication with the PRO (Principle Race Officer) of the event, only to learn that the person they were talking to was actually just a personal friend of some of the Low Speed Chase crew.
  • It wasn’t clear what boat Low Speed Chase’s EPIRB was registered to.
  • Because the EPIRB didn’t have a GPS feature, it originally registered a position four miles from the Farallones. However, this did not inhibit rescue efforts.
  • The panel rejected the idea of putting limiting buoys at the Farallones.
  • One of the panel’s conclusions was that at least two boats sailed into water that was too shallow given the sea conditions on April 14. "One was lucky," they wrote, "the other wasn’t."

The moral of the Low Speed Chase tragedy is that when it comes to big seas, shallow water and lee shores, you never want luck to be a part of your safety equation. Please be careful out there.

A major outcome of this study is the formation of a new oversight group called the NorCal Ocean Racing Council (NorCal ORC) which will include all yacht clubs and organizations which run offshore races (YRA, OYRA, etc). It’s primary mission will be to normalize procedures, communications protocols and safety requirements, as well as implement crew and race committee training and education.

Look for more on the group’s recommendations, as well as further insights into lessons learned by the Low Speed Chase tragedy in the upcoming edition of Latitude 38.

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It’s a good thing the U.S. has Michael Phelps and many other gold medal winners in swimming and gymnastics – because our sailing team is coming up empty-handed.
Last Wednesday, August 1, Jeanne Socrates returned to Victoria, BC aboard her Najad 380 Nereida, completing a 29,000-mile solo circumnavigation via the five great capes: Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, Cape of Tasmania and the Southwest Cape of New Zealand.