Lessons Learned from the 2015 ACC
Lessons from the ACCs 2015
At the Atlantic Coast Championship on the Neuse River in September a fleet of 23 Scots was hit by a microburst with winds going from 12 – 15 knots to 50 – 60 knots in less than a minute and staying high for 10 + minutes. Seas quickly built to 3+ feet. The teams sailing in this championship were well qualified skippers and crews, and yet 20 capsized. There was extensive property damage including 8 -9 damaged mast, some of which are still on the bottom. We were fortunate indeed that no one was seriously injured which could have happened very easily.
A few people shared some ideas on shore aimed at avoiding or at least minimizing the risk and damage in such situations. Such conditions are thankfully rare. I have been racing sailboats very actively since 1966 and this is the fortunately the worst weather I have encountered. I emailed all the teams and asked that they share their thoughts on avoiding or managing bad weather in the future. I will summarize these ideas and suggestions for the benefit of all Scoters. I received 7 out of 23 entrants plus another from the team that did not launch after reviewing the forecast. And, they were very capable sailors.
Number One Mistake
Most admit to realizing that there was a threat in the form of an approaching thunderstorm with steel blue skies in the distance. See photo. Some saw this as early as the windward mark before the downwind finish about 1 mile toward shore and the well sheltered harbor at Blackbeard Sailing Club. Most admitted to being caught up in the competition so much that they failed to do an appropriate RISK ANALYSIS and to prioritize steps to minimize the risk. One team attempted anchoring first, then realized they were not wearing PFDs and killed time getting them on and then getting sails down. This skipper realized the steps in order should have been PFDs well before this point, sails down then anchor if possible. Another admits that when the boat to weather was so close that her boom was in their cockpit that he failed to bear away because he would not have been able to lay the finish line even though the wind had already started to build.
One skipper referred to this failure to respond being caused by the FOG of BATTLE. I personally admit to the same thing even though we were probably battling to stay in the top ten. I had observed the steel blue clouds a few minutes before with the behind the skyline of New Bern visible about 3 miles away. When we jibed for the finish only a couple of minutes later New Bern was no longer visible and the storm almost on us. We managed to get the spinnaker down before being blown over very quickly. The main and jib at first appeared to be luffing but the PRO reported a 180 degree shift as the storm hit making the sails fill quickly and dramatically. I have never gone over that fast. I was clearly too caught up in the competition.
Suggestions as a Storm Approaches
- Wear PFDs as a precaution anytime weather is threatening. Also crew should feel comfortable wearing theirs before being instructed by the skipper. NOTE: The RRS say “The responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone.” And “Hers alone” is generally understood to mean that all on board have a say in decisions regarding safety. A skipper refusing to consider the crews concerns regarding safety should consider the consequences if there were to be injuries.
- Several teams elected not to carry spinnaker for better control as the storm was still in the distance. A wise decision.
- With storm nearing, making early decisions about getting sails down is critical. It is very difficult to get the main down if filled by strong winds as the friction of the bolt rope in the track is very high. Shoot head to wind for the takedown early.
- Move weight aft.
- Raise centerboard up completely to allow the boat to slide sideways and not “trip” over the board if hit by a sudden gust.
- Steer downwind under bare pole or jib minimizes tripping risk.
- Secure the anchor or towline to the bow handle not around the mast.
- Have in mind a line that can be secured and thrown over the side as a righting line. Hard to find something easily after capsizing.
After the Capsize
- Check to be sure all crew are safe and wearing PFDs
- Put on PFDs if needed. Several were wearing inflatable PFDs and were glad they did. One skipper got separated from his boat and was adrift for 20 minutes or more. The inflatable held his head above water nicely and he is not confident he could have kept his head up as he got tired. He did say that he was able to let the inflatable do the hard work after he realized he could not get back to his boat. One skipper had difficulty finding the valve on his inflatable and will be buying an auto inflatable.
- Conserving energy is an important element. Do not attempt to right the boat while the storm rages.
- Do not climb on the boat at this point as it will cause it to turtle.
- Hold on to the boat at the bow or stern. This was not easy with 3 foot plus waves washing over you about every 10 seconds. Hold your breath and hold on tightly.
- The boat can turtle so DO NOT put yourself where it could trap you if it did. A number of years back we lost a sailor I believe on Long Island Sound that way. I only ventured a little bit behind the stern deck when the mast was on the bottom in 10’ of water and not very likely to turtle. It was then that the spinnaker washed over my head and I could not get free for what seemed like an eternity. Wish I had had a sharp knife on me then. Carry a tool such as a Leatherman on your belt to be used in emergencies like getting tangled in lines.
After the wind abates
- Take a moment to catch your breath and assess the situation and plan next steps.
- If possible check that the main sheet and jib sheets are released..
- If possible check that the centerboard is not cleated. If you were running with it up, it was probably cleated and will not come out no matter how hard you pull once the mast is at water level during righting.
- Throw a line over the bottom of the boat that is cleated or tied securely. From the bottom side place the toes of your shoes or boot on the gunwales and keep a steady pull on the line. I have righted a boat from a complete turtled position in deep water. As the boat turns just walk up the bottom.
- When the boat is on its side one person can hold it there while the other crew pushes the centerboard out. I made a loop in the line coming over the side, slipped the line behind my back and made a slip knot through the loop. I could easily release at any time. I then laid back and let the crew tend to the board.
- TIPs for getting the board to go down. First make sure the centerboard pennant is not cleated and pull a lot of slack in the line. Then use your fingers to simply roll the board down with the rollers. This is much more effective than pushing on the board.
- If possible, rotate the boat bow to wind, otherwise you may fight righting the boat with the hull catching the wind and pulling it back down.
- If wind is still a factor the sails should be lowered while the boat is on its side. NOTE: This is when winch handles attached to the PFD are very important. A knife with a shackler slot can be used to release the halyard shackles if winch handles are not available.
- The boat can be righted from this position in a variety of ways. Crew weight on the centerboard is the traditional way. A line from the chainplate pulled by a safety boat is another and lifting the mast onto a safety boat and driving forward is another.
- Once upright attach a line to the bow handle for anchoring or towing. Do not tie around the base of the mast.
- Finish retrieving sails and nearby gear without getting away from the boat.
- Raise the board up ~2/3rds of the way for towing and use the tiller to steer in the wake of the safety boat.
- Remove the transom port and secure inside if you have not attached a line to the port and secured it to the inside at the transom. Make it a point to do this as a fleet project if you don’t have one.
- With all the crew weight aft, have the power boat pull fast enough to get the boat on a plane. The water will come out fairly fast. Replace the port while under tow when the boat is almost dry.
With the photos of all the boats towed in completely swamped it is evident that these step were not used or the ports were lost after being towed.
Equipment Prep before Racing Again
- Winch handle secured to the PFD
- Rigging knife sharp enough to cut lines - attached to you or the boat. Mine was below water on the underwater side of the tabernacle and not much use.
- Boat cushions and other floatable gear secure so it doesn’t drift away as mine did.
- Tether radios, phones to an eye so they stay with the boat.
- Put wallet, keys and other personal items in a bag with a drawstring and tether it to an eye so they don’t fall out.
- Water proof case for smart phones. Found a “JOTO” case that people actually use diving which will hopefully work well. Mine stayed in the underwater pocket in one of the roll up bags that did not work.
Blackbeard Sailing Club had 6 boats on the water for a fleet of 24 Scots which is enough under ordinary circumstances. They reacted immediately to the job at hand and seven other power boats came out from the club and nearby Fairfield Harbor marina on hearing the calls on VHF. Rescues were handled very well from the accounts we have heard about and although the equipment suffered a lot the sailors were largely unharmed.
NOTE: PLEASE DO NOT use ¼” stainless steel bolts to attach shrouds to the chain plates. When it is necessary to separate the mast from the hull, sailors can get a split ring out pretty easily but don’t carry around two 7/16” wrenches with them. One rescue took almost an hour because of this.
Two Scot sailors that came ashore early went back out to assist with the rescues of their fellow competitors. Dave Neff actually finished the abandoned race in first place on Scot #5609 and Gabe Hermans who crews with his dad Chris on Scot #4088 righted his boat and Gabe actually jumped on my boat for my tow back in. Both then jumped on safety boats and stayed out until all were in harbor. Well done gentlemen.
The forecast for the Saturday race day was for 10 -14 mph with gust to 23. It was a delightful sailing day. There were no severe thunderstorm watches in effect and no warnings were issued that afternoon. I talked with the meteorologist at the NOAA station at Newport, North Carolina which is the closest weather radar southeast of New Bern. The storm that hit us was traveling perpendicular to their radar beam making their wind estimates less accurate. The forecast winds at 1000 feet were 40 knots and did not raise concerns about a severe thunderstorm. As the storm got further from them the radar, accuracy increased and wind estimates of 60 knots prompted them to issue a severe thunderstorm warning for Pamlico and Hyde Counties north east of our location. Our PRO was watch and listening to the Newport station and could not predict the micro burst/white squall which happened. In my conversation with the meteorologist micro burst and straight line winds are caused when there is a heavy downpour from a thunderstorm with high winds aloft. This downpour brings strong winds aloft to the surface at much higher speed than the surface winds.
An excellent description of microburst and the difficulty of predicting them can be found at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/cae/svrwx/downburst.htm
We all looked at the sky and decided to continue racing, and now we all know to be more cautious and better prepared in the future. Sometimes it’s not if it’s going to hit you but when and how hard. Be prepared and hope it never happens again.