Sep 24, 2009, 3:59 PM
Post #23 of 39
The recent post in Issue 2936 by Thorny Cook, entitled "THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE", while emotional and heartfelt, fails to acknowledge the organized and effective emergency procedures that were put into effect by the Race Committee and the Host Club for a National Championship conducted using Sailing Instructions developed in conjunction with the International Star Class.
Re: [Curmudgeon] MOB at the Star North Americans
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Prior to Thorny's post, as Commodore of Cedar Point Yacht Club, I had already begun a full review of the facts surrounding the incident that occurred during the second race of the day on Wednesday during the 2009 Star North American Championship. As with all such incidents on the water there is always much that can be learned and applied going forward. The recollections of those involved differ by individual. Some accounts are more emotional and less objective than others. Creating the necessary patchwork of facts from interviewing those that were significantly involved has produced a clear story of what actually transpired on the water during that day and this objective summary of facts found.
While Thorny Cook is our friend and a respected, experienced fellow Star sailor, his conclusions and opinions are inconsistent with facts found and established maritime traditions. All of us, but most so Thorny Cook, are thankful for the favorable outcome resulting from the coordinated efforts of volunteers that worked effectively together through a well coordinated emergency plan that assured Thorny's recovery.
Facts found support the conclusion that Thorny Cook was successfully rescued as a result of the comprehensive efforts of the Race Committee under the direction of and experienced Principle Race Officer (Past Commodore Rich Gold) and other experienced Race Committee volunteers working under an emergency plan triggered by the emergency VHF communication made by Thorny Cook's crew using a VHF radio carried aboard a Star.
The 2009 Star North American Championship was, in fact, conducted under a Marine Event Permit filed with the Coast Guard, local authorities and Homeland Security. While advised of the Event, the local authorities do not and cannot provide "safety for the event" as Thorny Cook states should be available. Given recent governmental budget cuts, the resources for marine police have been substantially curtailed. The Host Club's resources, Sailing Instructions and emergency procedures were designed under the assumption that no local marine police resources would be available.
The primary VHF channel for Club, constantly monitored by Club Staff, is posted on a very large sign at the harbor entrance. Before departing the dock, every sailor and coach has an affirmative obligation to confirm emergency channels used. That is simply good seamanship and required preparation whether racing sailboats or simply going out for a "three hour tour". Further, the telephone contact number for the Host Club was included in the Sailing Instructions for those that chose to read them, despite Thorny's indication to the contrary. It was also an unfortunate fact that Thorny's cell phone had no battery power and was not available for use.
At the inception of the incident, after trying unsuccessfully to recover his skipper under sail, Thorny's long-time crew (Mike Young) used the correct, established VHF Channel for his initial emergency hail to the Club. Mike apparently did not hear the acknowledging response from the Club's high powered base radio in the conditions present. At all times following the initial emergency VHF call from Thorny's crew the Club's Manager ashore and the PRO on the main RC Signal Boat actively directed the recovery effort using VHF radios and cell phones.
Courageous and effective efforts of the crew from another Star, Kevin Elterman of Milford CT, were made to assure Thorny's safe recovery. Kevin Elterman donned his own PDF and entered the water, swimming a short distance to Thorny to provide him with a 2nd PFD to provide flotation. That was necessary because they were unable to throw a life jacket to him into the wind. Kevin then remained in the water, floating with Thorny, until they were recovered by the Canadian National Team coach boat, helmed by Tommy Wharton from Toronto Canada. That is the real story here and Kevin deserves the highest commendation for his quick thinking and effective action which surely saved Thorny Cook's life after his PFD failed to inflate. Tommy Wharton's actions and vigilance on the water in his coach boat was also commendable.
At all times Kevin and Thorny were able to see the support boats arriving to assist and boats approaching the area from a distance from their floating position about 50 meters upwind of the two drifting Star boats. While Thorny and Kevin were not connected with the two Stars in the area, Kevin reported that he never felt that they would not be recovered by the assembling support boats and with the entire Star Fleet and coach boats coming upwind towards them as they floated in their life jackets.
Kevin Elterman and his skipper Lou Roberts had been dismasted as a result of burying their pole in a wave while sailing behind, but in proximity to, Thorny Cook's boat. As with most One Design Fleets, sailors of similar abilities tend to compete intensely with each other during an event. Their dismasted Star had drifted into the area and they saw Thorny Cook floating in the water. They immediately rendered emergency assistance when they realized Thorny's life jacket had not deployed and he was in serious distress.
These two Stars were well behind the rest of the Fleet which was proceeding to the downwind mark as the incident began, having each rounded the upwind mark in last and next to last place. While support boats were in the vicinity the Press Boat was the closest boat to the incident, making its way slowly upwind. The Windward Mark boat was the next closest boat, standing by on station at the windward mark. The International Judge's boat was also observing the fleet sailing downwind in connection with their Rule 42 responsibilities but was not in the vicinity of the incident which took place well behind them. Coach boats were positioned on the wings of the course, following the bulk of the fleet downwind in accordance with the restrictions included in the Sailing Instructions to remain 100 meters away from boats racing.
Club provided Support Boats, including the main RC Signal Boat and the Windward Mark Boat were dispatched to the scene immediately upon the initial VHF alert and arrived as quickly as practical given sea conditions. The Press Boat was approaching the vicinity before the emergency VHF call and had actually reported a dismasting and a 2nd disabled boat to the main RC Signal Boat while proceeding slowly towards them to render assistance. After the emergency VHF call a full emergency response was triggered by the main RC Signal Boat. The Press Boat arrived on scene and amended their original report to indicate two people in the water, as yet unlocated and unrecovered. Shortly after the Press Boat was joined by the Windward Mark boat, the approaching main RC Signal Boat and coach boats began to arrive in the area.
Given conditions on the water, VHF communications were difficult, intermittent and not very effective. Facts found indicate that not all coach boats on the race course were monitoring the correct VHF channel or were generally unable to hear communications via handheld VHF radios. All Race Committee boats were fully informed of the alert by VHF radio and cell phones and responded in a coordinated fashion to the emergency alert.
Despite Thorny Cook's comments to the contrary a designated RC official on the main RC Signal Boat was assigned primary communication responsibility and effectively managed cell phone and VHF contacts, within the limitations of VHF. RC officials were also assigned responsibility for managing the number of boats racing and those that had retired. Sailing Instructions required check-in with the main RC Signal Boat before the first race of each day and there were specific "check out" instructions if leaving the Race Course for any reason. Following a series of black flag starts, all boats were sailing by the main RC Signal Boat to see the notice board and some departed the race course after being black flagged. Those boats that sailed the next race after being black flagged were protested by the Race Committee under the Racing Rules of Sailing.
Facts found are that the Race Committee was effectively accounting for all boats and that they maintained a correct list of boats racing or retired at all times. Ashore, the Club Manager was continuously notifying the main RC Signal boat by cell phone as to boats that did not leave the dock or boats that returned to the harbor prior to the conclusion of racing during each day.
Despite the difficulties with VHF communications, coach boats were an instrumental part of the recovery effort as they intersected the disabled boats on the return upwind leg. This was as was contemplated in the Sailing Instructions. The Canadian National Team Coach, Tommy Wharton, intersected Thorny and Kevin Elterman floating in the water, noticing the extended yellow sleeve on Kevin's foul weather gear as he waved to the approaching boat. Tommy quickly effected their recovery over the tubes of his RIB, advised the main RC Signal Boat of the recovery and transferred Thorny Cook to the waiting main RC Signal Boat. The coach boat then returned Kevin Elterman to his Star so that Kevin could assist in arranging the tow of the dismasted boat and Thorny's boat back to the harbor by Club support boats. Tommy's efforts were professional, effective, greatly appreciated and commendable.
Facts found indicate that Thorny Cook's successful rescue occurred despite the failure of his personal flotation device to be properly maintained (the CO2 cartridge was corroded and had leaked), his failure to understand that the PFD could be inflated with a blow tube and his failure to have a whistle or other sound signaling or strobe device attached to his PFD. Thorny fell into the water due to his failure to handle his boat in a seamanlike manner in conditions that were very raceable but challenging, with windspeeds of 14-18 knots and gusts into the lower 20's.
Personal judgment by each Skipper must consider each individuals sailing abilities and conditions on the Race Course. No Race Committee can assure total safety at sea as Thorny Cook suggests. Each competitor must draw their own conclusions as to whether they can safely handle their boat and whether or not they and their equipment are prepared for conditions encountered. To suggest otherwise is simply impractical. Despite these errors in judgment the emergency plan was effective and support boats and coach boats provided adequate on the water support throughout the regatta. Support boat resources were increased for the final two days of the regatta but were fortunately not called upon again in more normal racing conditions on Long Island Sound.
One fact is clear. The other competitors at the Event handled the challenging conditions effectively, were black flagged in earlier starts of the race or otherwise decided to retire. The PRO indicated that based on the conditions he observed on the Race Course and the competent manner in which the Star Fleet handled sailing conditions during a National Championship, no consideration was given to cancelling racing for the day, either before the day began or while either of the two races on Wednesday were in progress due to conditions. Given the successful recovery of Thorny Cook and Kevin Elterman, the PRO cancelled the emergency alert and did not abandon the 2nd race of the day in progress.
Following his recovery, Thorny was transferred to the waiting main RC Signal boat from the coach boat that recovered him. After his condition was evaluated by qualified EMT personnel on the main RC Signal Boat it was determined that Thorny's condition did not require additional medical attention. Thorny was changed into warm, dry clothes and he chose to remain on the main RC Signal boat until racing was concluded for the day rather than experiencing a wet trip in on a waiting Club Support Boat.
The RC Signal boat proceeded to the finish area and went back on station to take finishes for the race in progress. While the PRO considered abandoning the race, he allowed racing to continue after determining that those in the water had been recovered and that the emergency had ended. Finishing the race in progress was deemed to be best alternative since that resulted in all Stars proceeding to the finish line, assuring that the fleet would remain in an organized group for the sail back to shore.
This incident should be a reminder to all of us that we each have a responsibility to each other whenever we go to sea. It is our individual responsibility to assure that we are properly prepared and capable of handling the conditions present.
In summary, facts found are that Thorny Cook sailed in conditions that were beyond his personal and physical abilities. Thorny Cook's personal flotation equipment was not in good repair and lacked adequate signaling devices or a personal strobe light. Thorny Cook was not trained adequately in the use of his safety equipment being unaware that his inflatable PFD could be manually inflated. Thorny Cook's crew used the appropriate VHF Channel to signal an emergency and the Host Club and Race Committee responded effectively under an established emergency action plan.
Fortunately, established emergency procedures were effectively implemented by the Host Club's Club Manager and PRO. Those emergency procedures, combined with a courageous act by Kevin Elterman and the seamanship of Canadian National Coach Tommy Wharton returned Thorny Cook safely to shore.
For the actions of Mr. Elterman and Mr. Wharton we are all most appreciative. That appreciation was emotionally acknowledged by Thorny Cook at the Wednesday Night Mid-Week Awards Dinner. Both Mr. Cook and Mr. Elterman were provided new Inflatable Personal Flotation devices, by Bluestorm, one of our event sponsors. It is our hope that Thorny Cook will choose to wear his new PFD whenever he sails and also maintains and equips his PFD properly in the future.
Nelson Stephenson, Commodore
Cedar Point Yacht Club