The 2010 Southern Straits Race (held April 2 nine years ago) marked the 42nd running of the event, which had grown to be one of the premier overnight races on the Salish Sea racing calendar. The race departs from Vancouver and takes fleets on a zigzag course around the Straits of Georgia and back to the city to finish. That particular year, the forecast was calling for sustained winds in the high 40’s, which ended up being an underestimate. Many boats made the decision to stay in the harbor to wait out the storm.
Others went out into the fray and were met with all that Mother Nature had to serve up. Sustained winds of over 50 knots and a sea state to match made the familiar waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland into a foaming mess of 15-foot waves. Nearly the entire 60-boat fleet retired before the Canadian Coast Guard officially called off the race and requested all remaining racers to head towards the nearest port. The aftermath of the race left the yacht Incisor under water and sailors in the hospital warming up for days, several other racers were injured, but thankfully alive. That everyone was alive was more of a fortunate relief than a prepared outcome. What this race did above all else was wake up the distance racing community to the potential catastrophes lurking just on the other side of the lifelines.
Following the near miss of 2010 Southern Straits, the BC Sailing organization began offering a Safety at Sea course specifically designed for recreational racers and cruisers. Several of the region’s major races now require a portion of registered crew complete this course. The primary objective of the course is to promote safety as a culture, not as a bag of gear boaters are required to carry. To help reach this objective; Swiftsure, Van Isle 360, Vic Maui, and, of course, Southern Straits now require that a minimum number of the crew take the course, as well as hands-on inspection of boats to ensure safety gear is not just stuffed into a locker where it cannot be accessed. The course is not designed to only be about skills, it is designed to change how individuals and teams approach and manage the inherent risks of being on the water.
With the 2019 Van Isle right around the corner, I had the opportunity to take this course. Reflecting on previous experiences in conditions far tamer than the west coast of Vancouver Island, adding some formality to safety training was long overdue. The two-day course we took was organized by BC Sailing and hosted out of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club that ran from 0800 to 1700 hours both days. Our team of instructors each had thousands of offshore racing and cruising miles under their belt and the stories and experience to bring what they were teaching out of the theoretical and into reality. You get your money’s worth of information as the different modules cover a huge range of topics such as hypothermia, man overboard, helicopter rescue, rigging and preparing for a storm, preparing a safety plan, communications and coordination, and distress signals, just to name a few. Breaking up the information overload of the classroom sessions were small-group exercises designed to inspire practical applications and discussions about how best to respond to a real-world scenario. Beyond the theoretical, students are also required to light flares, repack lifejackets and safety gear, and cut away steel rigging, all with the emphasis on finding what works best for everyone’s different challenges.
At the end of Day One, we broke out of the classroom and headed up the road to the University of British Columbia pool. This wasn’t just a jump off the high dive, but one of the most enlightening training experiences I’ve ever taken part in. First we donned our gear. All of it. The recommendation is to swim how you sail, so full foul weather pants, spray tops, coats, and boots were the same as if we were on the boat.
To kick things off and warm everyone up, the next instruction was to leave the lifejackets on the bench and get into the water, fully dressed, with no flotation. Swim a lap and then you begin to understand how much work it quickly becomes to move around in heavy, wet weather gear. Climbing out of the pool with waterproof gear full of water is no small task either, requiring the opening of all the straps and gaskets normally used to keep the water out, but now holding it all in.
The next step after trying to free swim in all your gear was donning a life jacket, without crotch or leg straps, and getting back into the water. The difference is instantaneous with the PFD’s auto-inflate rocketing you to the surface, only to be welcomed with a choke hold as your new best friend collapses your wind pipe when the PFD forces itself up over your head. While a step in the right direction, my takeaway was certainly that an offshore lifejacket without a crotch strap securing it and supporting your weight is difficult in a warm pool and nearly useless in any real situation where you need it to work.
Three hours of skills and drills followed, including individual and group swimming techniques and working with the often-overlooked spray hood. Wrapping things up with hands-on life-raft training brings reality to the forefront as people had to work hard to right an overturned raft as well as climb aboard in the glass-flat water and well-lit UBC aquatic center.
Over 1,000 sailors have taken part in the BC Sailing course. Combined with thousands more taking equivalent courses offered elsewhere, the change in “Safety Culture” is dramatic. As boats get faster, lighter, and more powerful, the decision-making timelines are shorter and emergencies quickly spiral out of control. New technologies make communication and coordination easier than ever and personal AIS beacons, EPIRB modules, Digital Selective Calling VHF radios, and satellite phones are commonplace aboard. While great tools are available, there is no magic wand that replaces good decision making. I walked out of the course understanding that proper training, preparation, and practice is the only way to properly mitigate the risks we accept by taking part in this sport. I would go as far to say a Safety at Sea course should
be a requirement for anyone planning to take part in coastal or offshore sailing.