Cherylle Stone says efficient race management calls for a dedicated team – and some risk management proceedures.
PORT STEPHENS, 1100 hours 04 January 2008. The last race of the Nacra and Maricat national championships is underway. Only half the fleet of 53 cats has started with competitors battling to stay upright in a fresh 20-knot southeast wind and half-metre tide chop.
A radio call from the safety vessel at the wing mark adds to the tension that accompanies the recording of finish times and sail numbers, which has just commenced.
“Start boat, start boat. This is the wing boat. The 5.8 metre Nacra that capsized has a crew member whose finger is missing”.
The race officer responds immediately: “Where do you intend to take the injured person?”
Wing boat: “We will proceed to the Anchorage Marina.” (some two miles upwind).
The race officer, who is calling finishers' sail numbers, hands the radio microphone to the start boat gofer.
Start boat gofer: “Roger. Clubhouse, clubhouse. Please phone for an ambulance to meet the injured person at the Anchorage Marina and phone the Anchorage to alert them that an ambulance will be there shortly.”
Clubhouse: “Roger. That is being done. The advice we have is for the severed joint to be put in a plastic bag without washing and no ice.”
Wing boat: “The casualty says the severed piece, about one centimetre long, is/was caught in the side stay.”
Start Boat to another safety vessel: “Please go to the catamaran which is returning under headsail to the rigging area and try to retrieve the severed piece. Did you copy the advice about how to handle the digit?”
Safety boat 2: “Affirmative, but the skipper could find no sign of the missing digit.”
The safety boat carrying the casualty reached the Anchorage Marina at approximately 1120. The ambulance arrived at 1135 and transferred her 50km to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle. Meanwhile, the distraught skipper sailed his Nacra back to the rigging area and followed by car.
Volunteers working on safety vessels, the start boat and at the clubhouse were distressed to hear of such a nasty accident and that the severed joint, when subsequently found, could not be reattached.
The debrief that afternoon focused on an assessment of the systems and processes planned and implemented to cope with an emergency and ensure first aid and medical treatment is timely and adequate while racing continues safely and fairly.
Happy to be an oldie
As a young, highly competitive forward hand on a Hobie 16 at national and other championships, I would observe the “oldies” starting and finishing races, operating safety vessels or doing any of the myriad non-sailing tasks.
While I appreciated their efforts, I felt sorry for them; they were stuck with all the work and none of the fun. Now I am one of those oldies, I find my youthful assumptions were totally inaccurate.
I am still an active sailor involved in club racing and cruising. I do now derive a great deal of satisfaction from my involvement in race management as a volunteer with the Port Stephens Yacht Club when it conducts a national or state championship for off-the-beach boats.
These days national championship competitors pay substantial entry fees. They have high expectations that race management will be efficient and fair.
Race managers and club boards, whether it be for the local fun day out or national championships, are obliged to seriously consider all possible scenarios and make detailed contingency plans to ensure safety and fair racing.
This starts with a good set of sailing instructions which, for Port Stephens, usually precludes a race start for off-the-beach boats if the average wind speed at the start of a race exceeds 22kts. There are unacceptable risks not just for competitors but safety personnel associated with sticking to Rule 4 as writ in the 'Blue Book'.
We've come a long way since my experience at a Hobie 16 national championships 30 years ago on Port Phillip Bay when, for one race, of the 80 competitors, 60 including the author and her skipper decided not to race because winds were gusting into the 30s.
Although several of the gung-ho 20 did finish the shortened course, the end result was safety vessels struggling with rescues, serious injuries including broken bones and missing digits and the beaches from Frankston to Mentone littered with busted Hobies.
Well found safety vessels with suitable equipment, first aid kits and competent, physically robust operators and crew are vital. It is quite challenging to heave an injured person into a safety boat if they are even partially incapacitated.
Reliable communications equipment is essential to managing races. The HQ officer, on duty at the clubhouse, must have access to contact details for volunteers and emergency services and be able to field inquiries from all comers about what is happening on the water. Those on the water must be able to communicate effectively with each other and the club.
Each day the “weather person” must download the weather forecast from the Bureau of Meteorology website and post it in the clubhouse for all to check.
If the racing is to be fair for all competitors there must be enough people and equipment in place to ensure a race continues if the proverbial hits the fan. In addition, the use of a range of reliable technology, with backups, for race records can ensure that protests against the race committee are handled quickly and fairly.
During the recent Nacra/Maricat titles, the race officer copped a couple of protests when he called three vessels as premature starters. The hearings were quite short because he produced a tape recording of the call of the key stages of the race, including that of the premature starters. Had it been necessary, he could have produced photographic evidence to illustrate the audio.
It makes life easier, with less risk of seasickness for the workers, if the start/finish vessel is stable, there is space for a crew of up to eight to work in a sheltered area, they are able to move about easily and there are decent toilet and ablution facilities. For the four national and one state titles the club has conducted over the past five years, the start boat has been a 10.5 metre cruising monohull or a 13 metre catamaran. If there are several races scheduled in a day, it stays on the course for many hours and is able to accommodate the crews of the smaller safety vessels who come aboard for lunch and rest while competitors whiz back to shore for sustenance.
The first sound signal is made as the start and safety boats motor out to the course. The next 40 minutes are occupied with the start boat anchoring with enough chain to guarantee it will stick no matter how much wind or tide. The race officer determines the location of marks on a chart plotter and using a hand-bearing compass, directs the mark vessels, who also have GPS equipment, to the correct spots.
Only when mark anchors are gripping well does the starting sequence commence. If mark setting takes longer than anticipated, competitors will see a postponement signal.
Time-keeping, recording, sound signals and flag hoist/retrieval are four jobs that can appear quite daunting, especially during half a dozen starts.
The Port Stephens YC starter devised a crib sheet for a full hour, including when to hoot so that the time-keeper only needs to keep a finger on the button and call the times as appropriate. There is also a flag crib sheet handy.
Meanwhile the race officer is listening and stating who is starting and the flag officer is also listening and acting accordingly. There is no room for extraneous chitchat. Newcomers have found themselves the target of a chorused “Sshh” if they transgress the rule.
Before the start sequence commences the number one recorder sits discreetly on the foredeck noting sail numbers in the start area. She/he also notes wind speed and direction and notes premature starters as called by the Race Officer.
If there is time and the course configuration allows, the number one and number two recorders do a mark rounding check, keeping track of who is sailing the course. The start boat gofer photographs each start and any other good shots for later distribution, plies the volunteers with food and non-alcoholic refreshments and keeps eyes and ears peeled for any anomalies, problems or retirements.
At the finish the race officer calls the sail number and the time-keeper calls the time for each vessel. The only person who actually sees the boats finishing is the race officer because everyone else has their heads down writing or watching the stopwatch. There are usually three recorders for the finish. If boats are close and numerous, the time-keeper does a “running” call eg “12.52 decimal 57, 58, 59; 12.53 decimal 1,2,3…” with the race officer calling sail numbers and “now” along with instructions to the sound operator for “one hoot for next boat/sail number …” (which is first in its class to finish) as each vessel finishes. In the unlikely event that recorders cannot reconcile the finish order of boats at the end, they may refer to the taped record.
When the start boat returns to the clubhouse, the recorder hands over one set of documents for each race to the results calculators for input into the Sail 100 racing results program. The race officer notifies protest committee members, if they are needed. The on-water workers enjoy refreshments prepared by the band of volunteer bar staff and caterers at the clubhouse while the publicity officer e-mails the results to the media, the gofer prints off the day's photos for the notice board and the webmaster updates the club website.
Race management is usually the domain of older volunteers, most of whom have been or still are sailing and some of whom have completed the YA Race Officer's course. Some may have sailed at national championships and/or international level. All are committed to ensuring the racing is fair, safe and enjoyable for participants.
The pace for the on-water volunteers can be hectic but it is very rewarding to be able to contribute to the growth and development of a sport about which we are passionate, as others have done before us even if some of us have been known to have a nanno nap mid-proceedings.
Cherylle Stone and her husband Geoff spend winters cruising the Pacific aboard their 13m Grainger catamaran and summers sailing closer to their home at Port Stephens. They were members of the Australian team at the first Hobie 16 world titles in Hawaii in 1976.
Planning for a good regatta
-Class associations will make the decision about where to hold championships at least a year before, especially for popular holiday locations so that participants can book accommodation.
– Timely negotiation between host club and class associations ensure the social aspects of the regatta complement the racing.
– The host club will have a member knowledgeable about the local area on hand to assist at registration.
-The race officer has completed the YA Race Officers' course and really does know the rules.
-The race officer will have reviewed and discussed a set of bullet-proof sailing instructions with association representatives and amendments will be in place before they are distributed to participants.
– Reliable, appropriately equipped safety boats will be operated by crew who are physically fit, have first aid skills and know how to assist in righting capsized vessels.
-Course marks will be highly visible and equipped with effective ground tackle.
-The start/finish vessel will be rigged with a highly visible flagstaff and be capable of accommodating the team responsible for record and time-keeping, flag and sound signals, photography, accurate sighting of premature starters and finishers' sail numbers.
-Clubhouse volunteers will be conversant with radio operations, conduct of protests, emergency services, in touch with what's happening on the water and able to use digital technology for results calculation and publicity.
– A host club representative will be on hand at all times who will deal diplomatically with any brickbats and bouquets received.
References: Sail 100 racing results program available from www.sail100.org
Racing Rules of Sailing 2005-2008 and race officer training courses are available through Yachting Australia www.yachting.org.au
St John Ambulance conducts Senior First Aid and Remote Area First Aid courses www.stjohnnsw.com.au