The Analysis of a Tragedy

13 Apr
The Clipper Round the World Race is one of the safest global sailing events.
I recently read the MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) report on their findings regarding the deaths of two sailors in the last Clipper Round the World Race. It’s always a tragedy when someone dies at sea (if that’s not stating the obvious then I don’t know what obvious is…:), but life at sea is a little like life on land; there are risks and potential dangers everywhere. I used to be of the mind that screw it, things are going to happen, sometimes people die so let’s just get on with it. I never was one for too much analysis and introspection, but I think I have changed. I think it adds a valuable element to the overall safety – read enjoyment – of our sport.
The report looked into the circumstances that surrounded the death’s of Sarah Young and Andrew Ashman. Ashman died when he was hit by the mainsheet as he was stepping over the traveler. It’s believed that he died instantly of a “high impact neck injury.”  Young was working the deck in rough conditions when she was hit by a wave, washed into the scuppers and then overboard by a second wave. The Clipper Race had developed their own special two-tether life jackets which are custom manufactured for each race, but two tethers or no tethers are the same when they are not used. Now I know that I have often been on my high horse about the use of tethers and life jackets when sailing offshore – I am not a fan of either – but when someone dies so unexpectedly one has to come down off the horse and recognize that had she been tethered, she may well still be alive. 
The MAIB report pretty much exonerated the event organizers from any kind of blame and they were right to do so. Clipper makes their crew members undergo rigorous training before the they can join a boat and their safety standards for each boat and crewmember are very high. Clearly a death is bad PR so they work hard to ensure that they don’t lose anyone. I think what I liked about this report was that it was not a witch hunt to place blame on someone or some entity. Instead it highlighted the fact that Clipper had done everything right, but sometimes you can’t account for human error.
I did the ’79 Fastnet Race, the one where all those people died. I was on a brand new Swan 57 and we had trouble but not like some of the other boats. It was a massive tragedy and there was a very lengthy and detailed report complied on what needed to be done to make boats safer. Two things really stood out from that report, at least that I remember. One was mandating that there be shut-off valves for gas stoves. Many boats had been knocked down or capsized and with the stove swinging around the gas lines had been yanked off leaving propane to spill into the boat. Can you imagine a time before gas shut off valves?  The other thing that the report found was that on many life rafts the tethers were on the opposite side of the life raft to the entrance meaning that people had to jump into the water and swim around to the other side of the raft in order to board it. Crazy huh?


So yes, reports and investigations are necessary and they have made sailing much safer. One thing a report can’t do, however, it to account for human stupidity and human error. That’s up to us and Darwin to sort out.
I hope that you enjoyed this blog. I invite you to subscribe so that you will not miss a blog post. You will get a great free gift and weekly sailing related blogs. Click the pic to subscribe.
Brian Hancock – owner Great Circle Sails

This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog


  1. Andy Berry

    I would like to think that Mr.Hancock’s comments are directed at the actions taken, which all of us are capable of making, rather than the victims that took them and I’m sure that is the case. May the victims family not see any animosity in his comments as they have suffered enough.

  2. Jack Gill

    “One thing a report can’t do, however, it to account for human stupidity and human error”
    A poor choice of words at best and it adds nothing to our understanding of how this tragedy
    came about except to infer it was because of her “stupidity and human error”,which I find rather mean and arrogant. Why not mention part of the report,the other part of the ” pretty much exonerated the event organizers from any kind of blame”? “Pretty much”? These were unseasoned pay for play crewmembers and as on any vessel the Captain is ultimately responsible for the safety and well being of the crew;was there adequate emphasis made to the professional sailors to insure crewmembers properly used the safety gear by the event organizers ? My point is not to witch hunt or find who to blame,but to balance the article for those two sailors who can no longer speak for themselves.

  3. Arne Fliflet

    After reading the MIAB report of the two tragic accidents involving Clipper CV21, my overall impression is that the Clipper 70 is a bit too much boat for paying crew members to handle in rough conditions. The boat should be under the control of professional watch captains and professional helmsmen, as well as the skipper, in rough conditions. The crew waited too long to begin reducing sail prior to both accidents. The personal AIS beacon was invaluable in the unfortunately unsuccessful MOB operation.

  4. Capt. Peter Watkins

    You have covered things very well, although we all take chances at sea, I would not call it stupidity, we all become complacent sometimes. quote from my military days…….”familarity breeds contempt”……This was engrained in us in all our training programs, however we still took chances. I agree with these investigations ,it brings safety to the top of the list.

    Capt. Peter Watkins

  5. Stephen Ormsbee

    You say that, “Now I know that I have often been on my high horse about the use of tethers and life jackets when sailing offshore – I am not a fan of either –”

    I’m new to your blog and am very interested in your View ands thoughts about this subject.

    Can you please provide a link to where I could read more about your views on these issues so that I may intern have a better understanding of the pros and cons.

    Respectfully, Stephen

  6. Paul Skinner

    I’m sure the families of Sarah and Andrew are left wondering if you think they were stupid, or just made an error. Shame on you Brian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

More from the AIM Marine Group