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San Francisco Tragedy Leaves Sailing Community Reeling

Apr 19, 2012 08:19PM ● By Anonymous

The flags outside San Francisco Yacht Club were flying at half mast yesterday, when the U.S. Coast Guard officially announced their suspension of the rescue mission for the remaining members of Low Speed Chase, a Sydney 38, was competing in the 105th annual Full Crew Farallones Race.

The events of the tragedy are clear cut. At roughly 3 p.m., Low Speed Chase was rounding Southeast Farallon Island, characterized by steep rock faces that make rounding too close a very treacherous endeavor. But it was a race, and in sailboat racing as in everything, risks often prove rewarding. The boat was initially hit by a powerful wave that reportedly caused the boat to pitch pole and sent five experienced crewmembers overboard. Three crew who were able to stay on the boat, including skipper and owner James Bradford, managed to turn it around and head back for a rescue, but they were hit by another wave that pushed the boat into the rocks. Two more crew were sent overboard, where they clung to rocks in 50-degree water while Low Speed Chase rolled multiple times before it was slammed into the island.

An EPRB onboard Low Speed Chase was activated immediately, which greatly assisted in the Coast Guard’s ability to affectively recover crew. After 30 hours, only four male crewmembers were recovered by MH-65 helicopter dispatched from San Francisco, one deceased. The remaining four are still missing.

The San Francisco Giants held a moment of silence on the field for Alexis Busch, the 28-year old sailor who was the daughter of former Giants executive Corey Busch. Earlier in her life she was a batgirl for the team, and made an impression on fans when she was the only member of the team to greet Barry Bonds at the plate when he hit his 500th home run.

After such a tragedy, it’s easy to begin the second guessing. Questions were immediately raised as to why the crew weren't wearing tethers, and why they were so close to the rocks in an area that is known to be dangerous. The 1982 Double-Handed Farallones Race, which had the same course, saw seven boats abandoned along with the deaths of four race participants.

“They were inside—too close to the rocks,” commented Steve Hocking, an experienced single handed Bay racer who finished the race on his Beneteau 45f5, said of Low Speed Chase's position. “Once you get in that close and a wave hits you like that, it rolls you over. There’s not much you can do.”

Every sailor has that one memory of throwing caution to the wind for the sake of rounding a little sooner. It happens on Wednesday nights, and it happens in offshore racing. And while the Chesapeake Bay is an entirely different environment than the San Francisco Bay, we’re still met with challenges that take some sailors out of their comfort zones.

We asked Chip Thayer, Race Chairman for Annapolis Yacht Club whether or not tragedies like the ones in the Farallones Race make race committees reconsider their safety guidelines for races like the Annapolis to Newport Race to Bay standbys like the Oxford Race.

In racing, “the difference between a day ending safely and a tragedy is a thin line,” Thayer said. “I am a strong believer in the use of harnesses. We have learned a lot over the years about the design of harnesses location of jacklines. Nonetheless, in the study of both the Rambler 100 capsize in last year’s Fastnet Race and the Wingnuts tragedy at the Chicago-Mac, issues about releasing the harnesses nearly contributed to tragedy. While we require harnesses for our overnight race and for the Annapolis to Newport Race, I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to legislate when they must be used. The time to use them is whenever they’re needed, and that is dictated by all sorts of things—the weather, the size of the boat, the water temperature, daylight/nighttime and the size of the waves. But it is the inescapable truth that the responsibility for the safety of every boat and crew lies with each skipper and crew.”

Sailing season in Annapolis has already begun, and while it’s time to celebrate getting back out on the water, events like the Farallones Race remind us that it’s also a time to go over our safety procedures and reassess our boat’s resources. And it’s time to assess our own risk management policies for the upcoming season. The best sailors are those who have the ability to anticipate the risk, the reward, and the potential calamity. But that doesn’t necessarily happen in the heat of racing. It happens long beforehand, when you’re still on land, looking at the water and envisioning getting out for a beautiful day of racing.

Photos courtesy Brant Ward, SF Chronicle; Kat Wood, SF Chronicle. Video courtesy US Coast Guard