Jeff Johnson – Behind the scenes

Published on May 2nd, 2012

jjWhen the annual Sperry Top-Sider NOOD Regatta arrived in San Diego (March 17-18), the ‘feast of famine’ winds of the winter season had promised a bountiful feast. A daunting forecast led to some pre-race pondering for San Diego Yacht Club Regatta Manager Jeff Johnson and event PRO Peter Reggio.

At the Saturday morning skippers meeting, the prospect of windy racing – rare for San Diego – had caffeinated the crowd. But when Jeff announced to the huddled masses that the ocean courses would be moved inside San Diego Bay, it was not yet apparent if this was an overreaction or a prudent plan. Jeff describes what factored into the decision…

I will tell you the process we went through to make our decision, and am happy to educate people on this topic. However, I don’t think it is productive to encourage people to second guess the Race Committee on weather calls for two main reasons:

1) While the racing is about the racers, the race committee has to be included in the ‘stay safe’ category, and there are very few competitors that understand what operating a 40′ trawler/ 30′ powerboat in rough open waters is like. Their discourse rarely includes our knowledge base.

2) I am sure there are many people that are capable in high wind/sea state, but the Race Committee is charged with the overall safety of the event. If a person goes overboard, is injured or the boat breaks and needs outside assistance, it is the RC that has to respond and puts the rest of the event in jeopardy from a resources standpoint. A plethora of light air experienced sailors in rough conditions is going to generate these problems.

We are usually set up to, and have handled isolated problems that takes a markset boat off the event (if you need a cost associated with that service – call SeaTow and ask how much they charge for similar service). But if there are multiple requests, it brings the course to a standstill. We have had competitors too sick to play and request a ride in. We have had multiple boats with non-working motors request tows. In responding to those requests, we have nearly trashed markset boats (think 10 ton surging sailboat on waves versus 5 ton motorboat trying to stay out of the way and not get drug sideways!)

Working on a boat that is anchored or idling in an agitated sea state is WAY more dangerous than sailing in same conditions. We have had skull fractures, broken arms, broken hands and separated shoulders from people just trying to ‘be’ on our primary RC boat under anchor during a regatta.

I’ll keep going on this point…

There are many people (and I’ll include myself in this group) that occasionally need saving from themselves. Unfortunately, they are often the loudest opponents to conservative decisions by the RC. They overestimate their capabilities and thrust themselves into situations that need considerable outside assistance if trouble arrives. Prime example was a Beneteau 36.7 that lost a man overboard prior to the first race and hailed on Channel 69 for assistance. Three markset boats responded in rain, low visibility, and gusty 15+ knot conditions. The boat was over to the east side of the channel, in danger of going ashore if anything bad happened (line in prop, blown ashore while attempting man-overboard drill, etc.) and things would have gone ‘all stop’ if that happened. This decision is not as simple as quoting RRS 4.

3) When I announced on Saturday that we were sailing inside, most applauded and there was an audible sigh of relief.

4) There was MUCH speculation about the tremendous winds forecast and most were asking if we were going to call it off. When driving to work in the morning, the conditions were not yet daunting. My hope was to get out to the ocean on Saturday morning and set a course, run two races and then bail as conditions deteriorated.

But instead of the model being late as I suspected, it was early. Breeze was higher than forecast at 0900, and sea state was more agitated, and barometer was still falling. Luigi (Peter Reggio) and I went out that morning at 8:30 am. The winds were still in the mid teens, but the southerly swell was already short and steep in the channel. We took two waves over the bow of a 28′ markset boat resulting in ‘green water on the windshield’…and we were only halfway out the channel.

We continued on to Zuniga Jetty and it was short/choppy and blowing 14 – 16 there. As I said to Peter, usually the hard call is when these conditions present themselves ‘during’ the frontal passage. This time, these conditions were ‘pre-frontal’, and all forecasts that I saw showed significantly deteriorating conditions. Based on observation of the sailing area, watching underground radar for rain/squalls, falling barometer, and an abundance of unfavorable forecast conditions, solidified our decision.

Might some fleets have completed a race out there…possibly? But benefits of that chance did not outweigh the consequences of a bad accident, and much, much higher chance that, in pitching seas and medium to high winds, and plentiful unskilled sailors in those conditions – something untold would happen. Let them learn heavy weather skills when someone else’s name is on the liable list.

5) The more salient question is “Why did we only do one race on Saturday?” At the conclusion of Race 1 (about 1 pm) is when the ‘white’ squall arrived (and thank your favorite deity we were not outside at this time). We clocked winds on the RC boat anchored at Shelter Island at more than 30 knots. Visibility was less than 200 yards in driving rain. Many boats were having ‘issues’ with sail handling, lots of broaches all morning long and just ducked into Shelter Island (demonstrating a control factor), and numerous withdrawals on the radio (this is an indication for the RC on the mental health of the fleet).

The RC had lost its UHF radio on the signal boat due to rain soaking/shorting it, another chase/markset boat blew a stuffing box gasket on the inboard shaft, was taking on water and dead in the water (electrical dead from the shaft slinging water inside the engine box), and another markset boat with VHF down due to water.

I was in a photo boat but with only a soft bimini top, but still accumulating wet and cold, like many of the competitors. All these operational factors led to our decision to postpone further races for the day. And of course, winds lightened up shortly after and you could spot a patch of blue sky for a bit. However the breeze was 100 degrees different and the course we had drawn up in Amendment 3 would not have been very good. Sea state outside was a mess, so that wasn’t really an option, and by 3pm, it was grey and raining with blustery winds again. With 20/20 hindsight, we probably would have done a second race on Saturday.

6) Sunday – outside was never an option.

7) I recognize that occasionally there are times/ places where gathering the fleets to discuss the merits of sail/no sail or inside/outside is warranted. With single venue/fleet events this is usually a simple endeavor. However, with two venues, and seven fleets, and boats at several marinas, the logistics begin to work against ‘spontaneous, democratic’ decision making. Voting to go/no go puts a huge amount of peer pressure on skippers, especially between fleets as diverse as Cat 36 to J/120, and if you start cherry picking fleets to go outside versus inside, and RC gear and people to serve the split fleets, in the face of inclement weather, in a traditionally moderate air venue, things get mixed up and it starts to sound like an accident waiting to happen.

In the wake of the three accidents that rocked the sailing world last year (420 drowning, Chi/Mac accident, Rambler 100 capsize), I was particularly struck by the level of inquisition that takes place when a death (person or boat) occurs. In no case was race management faulted for any wrong doing in these cases, but there are always so many contributory factors that emanate from every direction. With that in mind, trying to divine the capable and not capable on the cusp of a well documented turbulent weather system is not something I want to sign my name to.

If anyone had a problem with that, I can appreciate their frustration, but they are going to have to live with our decision, and develop their high seas skills at some other event.

Photos courtesy of Mark Burge/Sailing World


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