Omission may put lives at risk
Published on July 31st, 2019
After Scuttlebutt reported on the findings of an investigation regarding the fatality of a crewman during competition, our friends at Practical Sailor did what they do best. They dug in further… here’s Darrell Nicholson’s report:
In June 2019, the United Kingdom’s Marine Accident Investigation Board released its investigation report on the death of Simon Speirs, the 60-year-old sailor who drowned after falling overboard during the 2017-2018 Clipper Ventures Around the World Race.
The biennial race, organized by legendary offshore sailor Sir Robin Knox Johnston, invites sailors to pay about $60,000 to compete in a nearly year-long race around the world on custom 70-foot offshore racing sloops. The race is also an advertising vehicle for corporate sponsors. The next race is set to begin in about two months.
Speirs, a retired attorney from Bristol, England, fell off the bow of CV-30 while making a sail change in heavy weather in the Southern Ocean. For eight minutes, he was tethered to the boat, dragging at 6 to 8 knots, until his tether hook failed and he became separated from the boat.
After two unsuccessful passes, Speirs was finally hauled aboard 32 minutes later, apparently drowned. His was the third death involving Clipper clients in a little over two years. Prior to the 2015 race, now in its 12th running, the race had no fatalities.
Although many of the accident details have not been made public until now, last year contributors Ralph Naranjo and Drew Frye collected enough information to produce several PS articles informed by the Clipper accidents—including Frye’s award-winning reports on safety tether hook design (see see PS March 2018 “Safety Tethers Under Scrutiny“), and Naranjo’s in-depth analysis of the risks involved in pay-to-play adventures.
After reviewing the report, I believe Naranjo’s grim assessment was spot-on (see PS January 2017 “Risk Management and Renting Adventure”). If anything, it was not critical enough. The MAIB account seems to confirm Naranjo’s assessment: The crew aboard CV-30 was outmatched—outmatched by the treacherous conditions and outmatched by the powerful race boats they were trying to manage. The report is a must-read for any offshore sailor.
According to the MAIB narrative, Speirs’ death was preceded by mistakes and gear failures—including a slack jackline, a broken vang, and an accidental jibe. The saddest part for me is not that better equipment and safer practices could have prevented Speirs’ death, but that the MAIB report itself is misleading—with errors and omissions that could perpetuate the same mistakes that led to Speirs’ death.
The most obvious blind spot in the MAIB assessment is how it handles Speirs’ tether clip failure. The report curtly waves off the need for better gear standards, calling it too “difficult to develop a standard for safety tethers that ensured hooks could not be opened accidentally . . . ”
However, as Frye’s March 2018 report shows, mountain climbers have had a far more robust standard for similar hooks—UIAA 121—for nearly 30 years. In fact, at the time Speirs went overboard, Volvo round-the-world racers used tether hooks that would meet UIAA 121.
The omission, in my view, is irresponsible. It permits racers at the highest level to continue to rely on tether hooks that can release under a mere six pounds of load—as Frye demonstrated in the video below, previously posted on in our blog “Safety Tether Clip-In Caution.”
We shared the video and our report with the MAIB, but it seems it was not persuasive enough to prompt a serious review of standards for safety tether clips and hooks.
For more details on tether hooks and safety standards, see “Safety Tethers Under Scrutiny,” March 2018 and the blog post, “Check Your Safety Tethers.” For a more comprehensive look at safety equipment and procedures, Practical Sailor publishes an e-book “MOB Prevention and Recovery” that distills the results of decades of testing in this area.