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EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

The Publisher

Jun 27, 2011, 7:18 AM

Views: 92375
EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

With school age children on summer break and the junior programs getting cranked up, the promise of a memorable sailing season was shaken last Thursday afternoon (June 23, 2011) in Annapolis, MD when fourteen-year-old Olivia Constants died during her Club 420 class out of Severn Sailing Association.

The incident occurred following a capsize near the Naval Academy, and she is said to have been underwater for several minutes. Initial news reports that her trapeze harness got tangled are not confirmed. Olivia and her skipper had just taken down the spinnaker. She was wearing a lifejacket, the winds were barely 10 knots, and veteran instructors reacted immediately and per protocol. An investigation and autopsy is underway.

Observed Amy Gross-Kehoe, veteran coach and US Sailing Youth Council Chair from Annapolis, “It has reminded me that training and procedures are important, but sometimes, are not enough. At Annapolis Yacht Club, Eastport Yacht Club and SSA, we are working hard within the community to prevent irrational fear of youth sailing as a result of this event and to avoid laying blame. This tragedy was genuinely a freak accident.”

The sailing program at SSA was closed on Friday to allow for grief counseling. Olivia’s memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday, June 28th.

- Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt

The Publisher

Jun 27, 2011, 3:36 PM

Views: 92358
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

I read about this and it hit hard with both personal and other's experiences dealing with these tragedies.

At a personal level, racing a 470 with my sister Helen in the 1975 US Youth Championships at Association Island, this same near tragedy took place. My hiking strap broke, I fell over the back of the boat and Helen (on the trapeze) literally flew around the bow, over the forestay and got trapped underneath the mainsail. I heard screaming and then it stopped. My heart stopped I'm sure. I swam as hard as I could to find her, pushed the mast up somehow at the spreaders (to this day don't know how I did it) and untangled her from the shroud she somehow got clipped into. She was half-drowned and spitting water. I dragged her around to the other side of the boat, righted the boat myself and somehow got her aboard, lying down and still spitting water (no CPR since somehow, magically, she was still breathing).

I can empathize with the tragedy and how it occurred having lived it and simply can't imagine how hard it also had to have been for Phillipe and Shark Kahn when Shark had his accident and lost a good friend. It's the hooks that create the problem, perhaps there's a better design to consider? I wonder. Perhaps more importantly, my sister Helen at the time was a real trooper, she still wanted to go racing the next day! And, up until her untimely death, loved to share her love for being on the sea with friends and family.


Stu Johnstone

The Publisher

Jun 27, 2011, 4:17 PM

Views: 92352
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

By Hal Whitacre, Commodore, Severn Sailing Association

The last several days have been notably some of the most challenging of my life. As the Commodore of Severn Sailing Association, I am faced with great responsibilities relating to the loss of a fellow sailor. Even more difficult for me, as a father of three children, are the haunting emotions and sympathy I feel for the grieving family of Olivia Constants, a young sailor on our junior race team who lost her life in a sailing accident last Thursday.

I can only reflect on this tragedy with disbelief. Surely we all often think of the dangers of the sea as we venture from the dock. Seldom, though, do we hear of a life-threatening event occurring in our local sailing community. In general, accidents of this magnitude are rare and this one involved experienced sailors and competent instructors. However, the rarity of such an accident is no comfort to me or any other parent.

My understanding thus far is that the 420 capsized to windward while sailing downwind, and then rolled into a “turtled” position (mast pointing downward). The coach immediately approached the boat, radioed for additional assistance, and worked diligently to dislodge Olivia, who at that moment appeared to be unconscious. Concurrently, another instructor phoned 911. Once she was retrieved from the water, coaches immediately performed CPR and proceeded to the Naval Academy’s seawall,which was the nearest point of land,to meet the emergency response team. Unfortunately, Olivia could not be resuscitated.

At this point the exact cause of Olivia’s drowning is unknown and under investigation by Maryland DNR.

Conditions at the time were excellent for training, and both sailors have sailed, and capsized, in much rougher conditions. Both Olivia, her skipper, and all coaches were wearing their PFDs, in accordance with our Junior Program Rules.

The Severn Sailing Association’s junior sailing program has a history of over 50 years of producing world-class sailors, from local champions to Olympic sailors; with thousands of students having safely completed the program. The current junior program, consistent with our past programs, is committed to making sailing accessible to the public and to help those wanting to pursue higher levels in the sport. Our sailing program director and his coaches have a passion to teach, and hold safety as a top priority.

As a result of this incident we are reviewing and critiquing our safety procedures and equipment. As with any incident such as this, a greater light is shown on safety and with this focus good safety measures can be made even better. As this incident has had far reaching impact within the greater junior sailing community, we have reached out to other junior programs to both tell them our current safety thinking and to glean any additional information they may have to contribute.
We intend to have an independent, expert, organization perform a safety review of our junior program equipment and procedures and will share our findings with the greater sailing community.

I have been in contact with the Constants family and they are very appreciative of the outpouring of support and love expressed for Olivia. I am grateful for the outpouring of support from the community. There has been a clear message encouraging the club to continue with the current program and its positive contributions to youth instruction and the promotion of sailing. We appreciate your support of our program, and particularly to our staff.

Olivia will be greatly missed by everyone. Our thoughts and prayers remain with her family.

The Publisher

Jun 27, 2011, 4:18 PM

Views: 92352
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From Peter Commette:
Regarding the tragedy at Severn Sailing Association, Amy-Gross Kehoe makes an important point in Butt 3371; resist the knee jerk reaction to finger point. When you look at the accomplished and dedicated member volunteers who oversee the SSA junior program, the quality of their coaches, and the particular quality of the individual coach who was most closely involved, you see that this was a tragedy that can happen at any time. It's a testament to the dedication and effectiveness of all involved, from US Sailing and its coaching programs down to the coaches to whom we entrust our kids, that this sort of tragedy does not occur more often.

All sports involve inherent risk. Our sport needs to learn all that we can from the event to move forward even more safely, if possible, while at the same time preventing irrational fear of youth sailing as a result of this terrible, horrible, freak accident. A number of people's futures, young and old, are at stake here (Olivia's family and friends, the junior sailors involved in the event, the coaches involved, the SSA parent members who run the program). They will be traumatized for life. Finger pointing prevents the degrees of healing that can be accomplished and will overshadow any good for the future that may be learned, if possible, from this event.


Jun 28, 2011, 3:25 AM

Views: 92028
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

My daughter Olivia is 3 yrs old and we are at our cottage in Michigan this week and sailing a Sunfish.
A neighbors boat is a Sunfish "clone" and it will turtle in a heartbeat. The Alcort Sunfish will not.
The difference; our mast is a sealed tube, and the other is not sealed. It could be a lifesaving difference.

Jim Gardiner


Jun 28, 2011, 11:26 AM

Views: 91746
Re: [otseg] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

Having a sealed tube and some foam or cork flotation in a mast will certainly help but any small boat can turtle in the right conditions.

The Publisher

Jun 29, 2011, 8:33 AM

Views: 91521
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From Judy Hanlon, Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club:
What a horrible tragedy with the death of a junior sailor in Annapolis (Scuttlebutt 3371,3372). Personal for me because I know the family; critical to me because I am the Adult Sailing and Racing Director at BHYC. What can we do better? How can we protect against a similar tragedy at our club?

Investigations are in progress but what can we immediately do in our programs? This should be a wakeup call to every junior program. What should we teach our Junior Sailing staff?
Some immediate suggestions are below. Please add to this list:

- There should always be two instructors per coach boat, one to drive, one to deal with capsized boat and people in the water.
- There should be appropriate "tools" in every coach boat - "handyman" with sharp knife and wire cutter to deal with any sailors trapped by lines or wires.
- There should be drills/discussion with all instructors about what to do with a capsized boat - first count heads, then deal with the situation. In my cold waters of Maine we should immediately consider hypothermia.

I will be meeting with instructors to review and discuss this awful situation. Please add to my list of discussion topics.

The Publisher

Jun 29, 2011, 5:33 PM

Views: 91426
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

By Garry Hoyt, sailing innovator

Young Olivia Constants tragic death that occurred last week while sailing a Club 420 in Annapolis reveals a need to analyze the unique differences occasioned by small boat downwind capsizes. In the usual upwind capsize the boat tips over to the point that the stabilizing power of crew weight becomes useless - the rig hits the water and skipper and crew literally fall out of the boat - usually on top of the sail. This is generally a slow motion process where all involved can see and feel what is going to happen.

In contrast, the small boat downwind capsize to windward (grimly labeled the ‘death roll’) is very sudden, with the rig slamming hard into the water with enough force to often invert or ‘turtle’ the boat. And instead of the crew falling slowly out of the boat and onto the sail - both the sail and the hull crash violently on top of the crew.

In this instance the life saving flotation force of the mandatory life jacket abruptly becomes a life threatening force that pins the wearer under the boat and sail, blocking the necessary under water escape. You literally have to dive under the water to get out and your life jacket will perversely prevent that. This situation is exacerbated by any hook up like a trapeze, and all floating or dangling lines of halyards create an immediate threat of entanglement.

The dilemma here is how to resolve two conflicting realities.

- A life jacket is essential to preserving life when separated from the boat.
- A life jacket can become a death jacket when its flotation power prevents the wearer from separating themselves from the overturned boat.

I can report from personal experience that it is very difficult to visualize the extreme underwater chaos presented by an upside down fully rigged sailboat with halyards, sheets and loose gear all dangling down in ways to ensnare the unwary. The fact that this situation is mercifully rare is of small comfort if your son or daughter is involved.

Nor is the prompt presence of a rescue powerboat a solution in this situation. For a crew trapped under a turtled hull and rig, somebody has to be ready to very quickly dive under to get them out in conditions of low visibility. That somebody also has to be a very good swimmer and free diver - equipped with mask and flippers - and preferably unencumbered by a life jacket.

All sailors need to be made aware that when their craft capsizes to windward when sailing downwind, special dangers of entrapment are created because the rig and hull come over on top of you. This calls for quick release life jackets and training that makes all participating sailors aware of how quickly that situation can turn fatal. This is a new burden that all responsible regatta organizers should provide for.

The Publisher

Jun 29, 2011, 5:34 PM

Views: 91424
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From Mike Mergenthaler:
I’m a former member of Severn Sailing Association, have every confidence the Jr Program will survive and thrive after this tragedy. Hal’s statement makes clear the Club has the leadership and dedication to pursue any changes possible to improve safety.

As we all go to the “Fourth of July Regatta” held at every sailing club around the country, I humbly suggest three things: a moment of silence for Olivia Constants at the Skipper’s Meeting; to not use this tragedy to scare our children but as a teaching moment on safety; and to hug our Junior sailors an extra time before pushing them off the dock.


Jun 29, 2011, 10:18 PM

Views: 91264
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

Might not be a good time or place to post this, so I do apologize in advance.. The Hobie Bravo has a float on the top of its mast, it can not turtle and pin a sailer under the water..The Bic or Sabot etc can turtle and will turtle...Give a yardstick point advantage to those that : put a float on their mast, wear a light weight helmet, life jacket, insits masts are sealed! Nacra have foam flotation stitched into the top of the main of many of their classes, I am not sugessting to change your junior classes but there are safer ways..


Jun 30, 2011, 10:45 AM

Views: 90756
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

As tragic as this event is, it should remind all sailors to carry a knife at all times and know how to use it.


Jul 1, 2011, 5:21 AM

Views: 90602
Re: [jamiemcarthur] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

I agree that everyone should carry a knife, but if you're only taking an overnight bag on an airplane to get to a weekend regatta, etc., there's no way to take a knife with you. Perhaps regatta organizers or boat charter companies should provide a rigging knife at registration (with a deposit if needed) to be returned at the end of sailing events?

Dawn Nelson


Jul 1, 2011, 6:19 AM

Views: 90594
Re: [otseg] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

TO JIM GARDINER: I'm moved by both your posts, especially the one on Scuttlebutt 3375 (June 30-July 1) that ends with the memories of lost friends and these words: "Surely if we sail we all know someone. Growing up in the age when we never wore a PFD, I never thought I would have lived as long as I have. I wear one now."

I would like to use that quote in safety writing and at safety seminars, with your permission. John Rousmaniere

The Publisher

Jul 1, 2011, 6:46 AM

Views: 90586
Re: [JRousmaniere] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From R. G. Newbury:
Judy Hanlon wrote that there should be appropriate "tools" in every coach boat. Those 'tools' should be on EVERY boat. Even young sailors should carry a knife. If a child can be trusted to sail, sans parent, the child is mature enough to use a knife properly.

The current demonization of knives actually increases the risk of bad outcomes despite the fear mongering to the contrary. I have carried a pocket knife since I was a cub scout, and in the ensuing 50 odd years the ONLY person I have ever cut is myself. Experience however has proven that opening a pen-knife with your teeth is exceedingly difficult. A fixed blade or one handed opener is a necessity. I carry this:

If the idiots that nanny-fy in your area stupidly ban your child from carrying a knife, then get a Rescue Hook: or others in that series. The 'blade' is only a half inch long. Amazing video of capabilities here:

Given the strength of modern line materials, the capabilities of these define the minimum level of 'appropriate' tool.

It is not yet clear whether Miss Constants was trapped by lines under the boat. She may have been pinned by the PFD which was supposed to save her. Even 'safety' items carry risks, but provide benefits in excess of any extra risk. The idea is to lower the overall risk. A knife can do that besides having its own general utility.


Jul 1, 2011, 8:01 AM

Views: 90569
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

When I sailed and raced dinghies, we very rarely capsized to leeward, and if we did, we never went in the water. So the "death roll" constituted nearly 100% of our water entries. I can remember finding myself hooked-in to various pieces of hardware inconveniently under water and having to carefully struggle to extricate myself. As such, I never wanted to wear a life jacket. Instead we wore wet-suits, which gave us enough positive buoyancy to float, but not so much as to encumber us under water. They were also much easier to swim in and kept you warm to boot. Too bad they aren't "Coast Guard approved".

Guy Buchanan
Guy Buchanan

Dave Corcoran

Jul 4, 2011, 12:33 PM

Views: 90336
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

I have been a sailor of Lightnings and big boats for 50 years. I have been a grandfather for 14 years.
I am deeply saddened by the passing of Olivia Constants. I have a 14 year old granddaughter who by coincidence is also named Olivia and the thought of losing her is unimaginable. To Olivia and her family I offer the following:

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you
-Paraphrase of Gaelic Blessing

The Publisher

Jul 5, 2011, 10:08 AM

Views: 90148
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From Taylor Michie:
After Olivia Constants' death, there is no doubt in my mind that the Severn Sailing Association junior program will only grow stronger and closer.

As a sailor at SSA, I know firsthand the caliber of sailors that SSA has is of the highest shelf, and that Olivia Constants was no exception to that rule. While I was not close friends with her, I interacted with her at practices and can say that she was one or the most genuinely friendly people that I know; someone that would always say hi ask you how your day was going.

It is sobering to think that the sport that so much of us love and participate in can also have such a dark side, but it is not something that I believe SSA sailors will let stop them.

The tragedy of Olivia's death is not something that will or that should be forgotten. If anything, it should inspire us to sail harder and faster, because we know Olivia will be watching.

The Publisher

Jul 5, 2011, 5:24 PM

Views: 90103
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

* From Paul P. Nardone, Jr.:
Olivia Constants death brings back to me memories of why I used to carry a knife while sailing my beach cat. Our boats would always capsize as we would often push the boats to their limits whether racing or showboating and seeing how high or long you could fly a hull. We would carry a knife in case we got trapped under a sail after a pitch pole and the crew flying around the mast from the windward side to the leeward side after burying a hull into the sea.

As the crew flew around the mast he would actually pull the boat and sail down on top of himself and wearing a life jacket you can’t swim out from beneath the sail, so your only option would be to cut the sail to pop up through it.

Be safe, have a emergency plan, and use it!

From Patricio Middleton Algarrobo, Chile:
I read about this tragedy and feel that I need to share my experience. About six years ago a very good friend sailing a 29er almost died because he was trapped under the boat. The hook of his harness was trapped with a sheet. Lucky for him his life jacket was very old a he was able to destroy it. Considering that I have children sailing the 420 and 29er, we looked for a system that at least would be hook safe.

We found out that Julian Bethwaite had designed a trapeze system without the hook. You can find it in the following pages:
Bethwaite Design, Australia (
Performance Sailcraft 2000 Inc, North America (
Ovington Boats, UK (;
Takao Otani, Japan Asia (
Corsin Camenisch, Switzerland (
Joe Chan, China (
Brian Lion-Cachet, South Africa (
Martin Billoch in South America (

We have been using it for six years now with a very good experience. I hope that our experience will help others.

COMMENT: While trapeze hooks have contributed to previous accidents, it has not been determined if it was the cause of the recent death of fourteen year old Olivia Constants. -- Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt

Bruce Thompson

Jul 6, 2011, 9:05 AM

Views: 89944
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

Teach your kids to take a quick deep breath and hold it if they sense they are about to capsize.

This story from the Chicago Tribune,0,4396536.story gives an account of a drowning by gasp reflex.

A man on another boat said he saw Szmajlo come up for a last gasp of air before he disappeared into the dark waters.

Darryl Merschak said he was slowly motoring his sailboat from Monroe Harbor to the lighthouse off
Navy Pier following Fourth of July fireworks when he and two passengers saw someone just below the surface of the water.

"We couldn't believe what we saw. He was just under the surface, and for a brief moment the man came up long enough to gasp before going down again. We were about 25 feet away at the time," Merschak said. "We tried to get a lifesaver to him, but he was already under," he said.

Show them how their instinct is to gasp if someone sneaks up behind them and sprays them with cold water from a squirt gun. The instinct is to gasp. However, if your lungs are full, you can't draw anything, air or water, into your already full lungs. It seems the late Mr. Szmajlo involuntarily gasped as he hit the water and sucked in a lungful of water. He was conscious and trying, but without air and with reduced buoyancy, he couldn't quite make it. That was a tragedy. Let's give our kids a chance to avoid another one by learning to protect themselves. No screaming, girls!


Jul 6, 2011, 9:33 AM

Views: 89938
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

In Reply To
* From Paul P. Nardone, Jr.:
... and wearing a life jacket you can’t swim out from beneath the sail, so your only option would be to cut the sail to pop up through it. ...

I'm always surprised at comments like this, that imply the buoyancy from a PFD prevents a person from getting out from under a capsized boat. When I was in the Air Force, we were taught to get out from under a parachute in the water by pushing up on the chute and hand-walking our way (or dragging the chute over our heads) to the edge.

I put this training to good use when I found myself under a capsized trimaran, 25 mi offshore in the Pacific. Even though I had an auto-inflate PFD, it was not very difficult to push up on the boat, thereby pushing myself down, and I simply went went hand-over-hand until I was behind the aft beam and free.

I did consider using the knife that I carry on my PFD, but it was because I had difficulty releasing the Gibbs hook on my tether, which took three tries on my part before I finally got it off. Looking out from under the cockpit, the scene is a veritable forest of dangling lines, so there is a possibility of getting entangled - one should definitely have a knife available. But it shouldn't be necessary to cut through a sail or the nets of a multihull in order to get to the surface. I think it would be much faster to make one's way to an edge of a sail than to cut through it.

It's simply crawling upside down. You don't have to swim. You don't have to fight the PFD buoyancy - instead you use it to keep in contact with the boat as you push yourself free.


Jul 7, 2011, 3:10 AM

Views: 89764
Re: [JRousmaniere] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

To John Rousmaniere

I did not wish to imply that sailing is dangerous. Motorcycles are dangerous, and I have the broken bones to prove it. I had a shallow water blackout from hyperventilation during swim team practice and was very fortunate to be pulled unconscious from the bottom of the pool and tell about it. Solo offshore sailing, either careful or lucky so far. Many other risks that could have had a bad result if you live long enough.

My parents who were born 90 yrs ago were self reliant. Mom walked me to kindergarten the first day, bought me my own bicycle at five, the use of an outboard at six and then I was on my own. I learned that there were only three rules. Get good grades in school, be home in time for dinner, and no Police calling the house after 11 PM. Then I could do whatever I wanted. Don't ask, Don't tell. I find that most of my friends grew up the same way. I think back then if a kid's Mother drove him to our sports practice every day we would have beat him up. Perhaps coming from the larger families of the day our parents were too tired to be controlling more than the first born and we grew to believe we had a big red S on our chests.

I am not ashamed to admit weeping after learning of Olivia Constants passing, and feeling a shared grief that something like that could happen to my own young daughters. The youngest one especially looks to be pay back for every mischief I ever did.

How to manage risk for my children and also let them live their own life is a great struggle to know the right answers. I pray a lot.

The Publisher

Jul 7, 2011, 10:36 AM

Views: 89700
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

From Chris Wentz:
I've been reading all the posts in response to drowning of Olivia Constants. This will sound a bit crazy gut I don't see why there couldn't be a 4-5' long zipper up the middle of a dinghy sail. I don't think it need be a detriment to the shape or the working of the sail. With a double pull slider that had long tether on each side of the sail, it could provide a readymade escape route for someone caught beneath the sail or for rescuers trying to get to the trapped sailor.

The Publisher

Nov 19, 2013, 10:02 AM

Views: 78076
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants

Olivia Constants Foundation:


Jan 15, 2020, 11:52 PM

Views: 1645
Re: [The Publisher] EIGHT BELLS: Olivia Constants