The Tragedy of the Driverless Dinghy

Published on December 3rd, 2020

by Darrell Nicholson, Practical Sailor
In the wake of a terrible tragedy that struck a few days before Thanksgiving in Sarasota, Florida, home of the Sarasota Youth Sailing Program (as well as Practical Sailor’s editorial office), we’re asking all organized sailing programs to review their chase boat safety equipment and rescue protocols. Cruising sailors with planing dinghies should also take heed.

Specifically, owners of small planing boats should make sure the boat is outfitted with a fail-safe engine cut-off system. This can be a worn lanyard attached to a release clip that activates the motor’s kill switch (our preference), or possibly one of the devices reviewed in the November 2020 issue of Practical Sailor. If you do opt for one of the new wireless systems, these systems should be appropriate for this use, and tested frequently. Some of the new devices are aimed primarily at giving solo operators a chance at recovering their vessel after being ejected. These won’t be much help when operating in close quarters or other situations when near instantaneous cut-off is required.

The accident occurred during sailing practice for the SYSP Optimist fleet. The investigation is still ongoing, and not all the details have been released. Witnesses described the conditions as challenging, but hardly unsafe, for the eight-foot boats. According to weather data, maximum winds were 14 knots on the day of the accident. The following statement from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators describes what happened based on their initial findings.

“Based on preliminary information gathered from the scene and witnesses, it appears that the operator of a 20-foot vessel involved in the youth sailing practice was assisting the operator of an 8-foot sailboat who was experiencing issues with his vessel. While assisting the sailboat operator, the operator of the 20-foot vessel lost his footing and fell, resulting in the vessel being activated into gear and the operator being thrown from the vessel. The vessel continued, unmanned, and struck several 8-foot sailboats. Sadly, a third juvenile identified as Ethan Isaacs, age 10, passed away as a result of injuries sustained in this incident.”

Ethan attended the same school as my son. – Full report

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