CYCA Commodore calls for an end to speculation on Flinders Islet tragedy

In an email to members of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Commodore Matt Allen has called for speculation about the cause of the accident to halt until the police enquiry is completed.

“What is important to remember is that two very dear friends of us all have lost their lives and I recommend we allow their families to remember them without having baseless innuendo compromise those fond memories.

I can assure you all that if the police release information about the accident prior to the report being finalised, I will have it made available to all members,” Mr Allen said.

Stoked by some inaccurate and at times mischievous reporting by the mainstream media, rumours have been circulating all weekend about the cause of the accident.

The only facts that are known at this stage are that while competing in the 92 nautical mile night race around Flinders Islet, the 80ft Riechel Pugh-designed PriceWaterhouseCoopers hit the islet off Port Kembla at around 3am on Saturday morning and she was then washed onto the rocks. Fifteen of the 18 crew members were able to either scramble onto the islet or to swim to the rocks. However, three crew members, including owner Andrew Short and navigator Sally Gordon, were swept away in the 2-3m swells that prevailed around the island.

A flare was sighted by two following boats, Bob Steel's Quest and Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin, and they immediately went to offer assistance. Andrew Short was taken on board Quest and Sally Gordon was retrieved from the water by the crew of Ragamuffin. On both boats, crew members trained in CPR attempted to revive the two sailors, but they were unable to do so. Both Andrew and Sally were pronounced dead by ambulance personnel when the boats reached Wollongong. The third crew member was plucked from the water by the rescue helicopter and survived.

At this stage there is no indication of how the boat came to hit the rocks. Police will be investigating all aspects of the incident.

Among other things, the mainstream media questioned the advisability of conducting night races, whether conditions were bad enough to have the race called off and whether the crew and boat were suitable for the event.

These races are conducted by the CYCA as practice races for the Rolex Sydney Hobart race, where crews could be racing for three or four full days. As Matt Allen pointed out, boats have been sailing at night for thousands of years.

Syd Fischer, Australia's most experienced yachtsman with more than 40 Sydney-Hobarts on his resume along with America's Cup, Admiral's Cup and a raft of other major events, described the conditions as “benign”. A strong wind warning was cancelled two hours before the race began, the wind at the time of the accident was gusting 12 to 18 knots and the swell was 2-3 metres. When asked by one less-than-bright media member if visibility was good, Syd pointed out that at 3am it was dark!

The event is a Category Two race and all boats sailing in the event had passed a safety inspection, ensuring that they were fully equipped with safety gear for such races. PriceWaterhouseCoopers was designed for ocean racing and was sailed from the USA to Australia when Andrew Short bought her.

As Matt Allen said in his email to members: ” The police are now conducting an enquiry into the accident and until such time as they finish their report for the coroner, we will not know how this incident occurred.”

I was present at the club for most of the day on Saturday, attended all media conferences concerned with the event and was in close contact with senior club officials for much of the time. All Emergency Management Procedures were followed to the letter and the club's flag officers are to be commended for the way they reacted to this terrible event. In particular, I would like to commend Commodore Matt Allen for his dignity and control in what was an extremely difficult situation for him. As a close personal friend of both Andrew Short and Sally Gordon, Matt was particularly affected by the tragedy.

Details of funeral arrangements and memorial services will be advised when details are know.

– Roger McMillan, editor, Australian Sailing

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