Questioning Benefits of Buoyancy Aids

Published on February 27th, 2017

by H.L. DeVore
I’ve just completed a re-read of the sailing disaster books “Fastnet Force 10” and “Fatal Storm” and am very troubled by something that is prominently featured in both books.

In John Rousmaniere’s account of the Fastnet disaster and Rob Mundle’s account of the Sydney-Hobart disaster, they recount numerous incidents of boats rolling and sailors being trapped either under the boat or in the rigging temporarily. I am concerned that many more sailors would have died had they been wearing the now prevalent auto-inflating lifejackets.

I am concerned today that the risks outweigh the benefits of the auto-inflate function.

For years now very experienced sailing crew have been tampering with their mechanisms to disable the auto-inflate function, especially bowmen. But lesser experienced crew do not know the dangers of auto-inflators and are not being taught. Safety at Sea instructors are loathe to suggest tampering with a manufactured “approved” device for obvious fears of liability and “what if” thoughts.

Does anyone in the sailing community have ANY stories of sailors being saved by the auto-inflate feature or lost because they didn’t have auto-inflate? Sadly, I know personally the story of at least one death directly attributable to an auto-inflater and another suspected.

In 2004, Chris Conradi drowned. My understanding is his auto-inflated lifejacket trapped him beneath the over-turned trimaran he had been sailing in Long Island Sound.

In 2008, Roger Stone drowned. My understanding is that his body was found trapped onboard the boat. He had rushed below to get the crew out as the keel had broken off.

Are there other deaths and injuries? Who has been saved?

In 2002, Jamie Boeckel died. Still to this day I do not know if he officially drowned or if the broken spinnaker pole killed him or mortally wounded him. Certainly in this instance a lifejacket of any sort would have lessened the mystery. Admirably the Jamie Boeckel Memorial Foundation promotes wearing lifejackets.

In 1994, Daren Chew died. Daren was a friend of mine and was swept overboard in heavy seas returning to the U.S. from Bermuda. He had no lifejacket and was never found.

I have been thinking about this for years but haven’t spoken up…

I haven’t written about it for a variety of reasons. One reason is the pain of the loved ones left behind and the obvious awkwardness of writing about another person’s death or injury when I wasn’t there. I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy or re-ignite their painful memories.

I don’t want to be attacked in the nasty forums. I don’t want to get dragged into endless circular debate. I don’t want to call attention to death and injury, but I’m more of a coward if I know this topic so well and don’t say something that could save lives and avoid harm to the sport of sailing.

We all know that lifejackets can kill.

We all know that lifejackets can kill, right? I certainly do. I grew up sailing in Watch Hill, Rhode Island at the Watch Hill Yacht Club. Watch Hill is a beautiful location with a calm bay on one side and an ocean beach on the other. We used to take our Sunfish and Lasers and go flipping all the time. We were constantly in the water and often under the sail or the boat. I learned the value of swimming DOWN to clear myself from the rigging.

When there were big waves at the beach we’d skip sailing class and play in the big surf at East Beach. I learned the value of putting my head DOWN and going under wave crests rather than get caught in the whitewater. In the late 1970’s someone showed up with a “Windsurfer”. It was great fun and we were in the water a lot, often under the sail, often caught in the harness. Swimming DOWN was important to untangle and get clear of the board.

No safety conscious windsurfer would ever wear a life jacket back then, but one day the Coast Guard said we had to. There was a lot of discussion then in the windsurfing community about how unsafe this was.

Later I became a sailing instructor, and then a captain at a charter-boat sailing camp, in the Caribbean. I nearly died windsurfing in St. Martin in 1986. If I had a lifejacket on I would have died. I was caught in breaking waves over a reef. My harness was caught and I was underwater. By swimming DOWN and being patient I was able to untangle myself and re-surface.

As an experienced swimmer, beach-going body surfer, dinghy sailor and a windsurfer I know when I want my buoyancy and when I don’t. Buoyancy presses me UP into things, loads the lines or gear I am entangled in and prevents me from saving myself as much it saves later when I might be alone with nothing else to help me stay afloat.

We should all wear lifejackets.

We should all wear lifejackets ALL THE TIME. Bad things can happen on the water when we least expect them. Gear failures, collisions and man-overboard situations happen on sunny days near shore just as much as offshore in bad weather. We all need flotation to eventually not drown.

Foam jackets, like junior sailors wear, and automatic inflating lifejackets will undoubtedly save lives in certain situations of unconscious or injured sailors. But I believe the best solution for ALL lifejacket usage is manually triggered CO2 lifejackets.

I doubt we can ever gather enough data to decide which saves more lives and which takes more lives, but we do need to be sure that we don’t just blindly endorse (or require!) auto-inflating CO2 lifejackets for offshore sailors.

Background: H.L. DeVore is a lifelong sailor living in Mamaroneck, New York. He is a member of Larchmont Yacht Club, The Cruising Club of America, The Storm Trysail Club and is a new member of the New York Yacht Club. H.L. owns a J/44 “Honahlee” which he has successfully raced culminating with his 2014 winning of the Northern Ocean Racing Trophy. Since 2015 he has been navigator on Christopher Sheehan’s “Warrior Won” which in 2016 won the prestigious Newport-Bermuda Race St. David’s Lighthouse trophy. Warrior Won is preparing to participate in the 2017 Sydney-Hobart race beginning on December 26, 2017. H.L.’s oldest daughter, Katie DeVore, will be aboard.

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