The ‘need for speed’ has consequences

Published on November 28th, 2018

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt
It was during the safety in sailing forum at the 2018 World Sailing Annual Conference which had a line-up of speakers discussing the new risks in our sport. Sailing has always had risks, but the needle has moved further as performance continues to increase.

Yes, the faster we go, the more dangerous our sport becomes.

This shouldn’t be a secret. Driving a car fast has made this clear, and sailors do it without seatbelts, but it is handy to discuss the data to combine the appeal of pace with the cold, hard facts of its consequences.

Dr Ben Tan was presenting on the injury trends in Olympic sailing as it pertains to the newer equipment such as the skiffs and the catamaran. It was well reported how American Bora Gulari lost several fingers during a crash in 2017, and Dr Tan was remarking how leg injuries have been on the rise due to foot straps on trapeze boats.

Fast boats can slow down in a hurry, such as when offwind the bows plow into the back of a wave. While the boat may stop, the inertia of the sailor doesn’t, torqueing the ankle in the foot strap, with the body not as well designed for impact as the bow.

Dr. Tan was demonstrating the solution which he compared to ski bindings. Much like the boot releasing from the ski during a crash, his mechanism would allow the foot strap to release from the boat when under similar duress. Of course, that means the sailor is now flung forward for impact. Ask Bora how well that worked.

In the audience was Olympic medallist and Volvo Ocean Race winner Ian Walker MBE, who is the Director of Racing for the British sailing federation. Walker personally knows danger, and now as a parent of young children, is aware that our fascination with performance is in conflict with some pressing issues in our sport.

So Ian asked the rhetorical question, “When is enough, enough?”

Not only was he thinking as a parent, knowing the I420 was a safer boat than the 29er, but in how this trend in performance is arguably an obstacle toward growth in the sport. It is hard to think of an example where higher performance is not a result of higher cost, and then there is the increased skill needed to sail at a faster rate.

But getting past money and skill, the safety factor remains an issue. MOBs on fast keelboats have less of a chance, and the violent motion of the larger boat is not kind to those onboard. On smaller boats, body armor and helmets are the minimal requirement for foil slices and body crashes, and entrapment is always a risk.

I walked up to Ian after the forum, and thanked him for being the adult in the room. He smiled, noting it was not a reference generally bestowed on him. But our sport needs guidance and common sense, as this trend toward the ‘need for speed’ has consequences.

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