The loss of Team Scallywag crewman John Fisher in the Southern Ocean during the Volvo Ocean Race (see Eight Bells: John Fisher) was yet another tragic reminder, if one were needed, of the unforgiving nature of the sea and the dangers inherent in top-level ocean racing, a game of calculated risks whose dramas are played out in some of the remotest, most hostile regions on the planet.
At this level, sailing is indeed an extreme sport in which any number of scenarios could lead to injury or death. You might, therefore, be surprised to hear that such occurrences are actually quite rare, though inevitably highly publicized. In fact, Fisher was the sixth person to lose his life over the 45-year history of the Whitbread/Volvo race, the first since Hans Horrevoets in 2006. Before that, there were fatalities in 1973 and 1989. In the only other crewed round-the-world contest, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s pay-to-play Clipper race, there have been three deaths in the last few years.
Singlehanded ocean races like the Vendée Globe, where the need to sleep means boats sailing unattended at breakneck speeds, seem quite sedate by comparison; despite some close calls and a handful of amazing rescues, the solo-sailing contingent has suffered few casualties. I can think of two in the Globe, and two more in the now-defunct BOC Challenge/Velux 5 Oceans race.
There’s more, of course: 15 sailors were lost in the 1979 Fastnet Race; another four in the 1989 Sydney-Hobart; eight more drowned in 2012 in two races off California.
Sounds like a long litany of disaster, doesn’t it? And yet, sad as these incidents were, they mask the fact that sailboat racing in general—and sailing in general—is quite safe. If the statistics existed to calculate the number of deaths or injuries against the total number of hours or miles sailed worldwide in a typical year, you’d find that you are far more likely to meet your maker by slipping in the shower, falling out of bed, choking on a hot dog or being struck by a falling tree.
A look into the boating accident statistics compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard will tell you that of the 700-odd boating deaths in 2016, only 15 involved sailing craft of any type, from dinghies to large yachts. That’s 2 percent. Yes, there are fewer sailboats on the water than powerboats or kayaks, but even adjusted, those figures look good. I put it down to the fact that we sailors are keenly aware of our relationship to our watery environment, and respectful of it, as opposed to the kind of boat operator who is deluded by horsepower into thinking that nothing else is needed.
As for what kills us, forces of nature are a long way down the list. Forget about foundering in a storm. You don’t need to be in the depths of the Southern Ocean to be sent flying by the boom in an unplanned gybe, or to fall overboard in a careless moment. It’s the small things that tend to get us—falling out of the dinghy, missing a handhold, being caught out by the current while taking an evening dip off the back of the boat, all completely avoidable if you take basic precautions. I am reminded of the words of British author Arthur Ransome: “If not duffers, won’t drown.”