This is a tricky post, and I’m going to attempt to walk a fine line between offering some potentially useful observations and being an uninformed jerk of an armchair quarterback who wasn’t even there.
I was there, sort of.
Saturday afternoon a fierce squall blew through Mobile Bay. That, in itself, is not newsworthy. It’s that time of year, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched the anemometer peg 40+ knots more than once as a line of thunderstorms passes over.
|This is actually a frontal boundary, not a thunderstorm, though|
they can sometimes look similar. Both can carry devastating
winds -- thunderstorms through convection (winds being pulled
into the cell) or through downdrafts known as "microbursts."
Saturday was also the day of the annual Dauphin IslandRegatta, a 100-boat event. As of tonight, two people are confirmed dead and five are still missing.
Coast Guard Sector Mobile is still routinely issuing “Pan-Pan” and “Sécurité” messages on Channel 16, and AIS shows the Coast Guard Cutter Cobia just inside Mobile Point.
Out here in the Gulf, just four miles off the beaches of Dauphin Island, we clocked gusts of 57 kts and snapped the line that was holding us to our mooring buoy. Or so I was told – I slept through the entire episode.
It’s always much easier to look back at a tragic event and say: “You should have done this or that; that was a bad decision ….” than it is to make the correct decision at the time.
There is always some sort of cost-benefit analysis, which in this case probably involved the relatively low probability of an adverse weather event balanced against guest revenue for the local economy, tradition, credibility of the race organizers, opportunity costs for participants and who knows what else.
It does seem clear that the race organizers were aware of at least the possibility of a severe storm. According to *news reports, they cancelled the regatta early Saturday morning, only to reverse course a short time later. (*On the Mobile Yacht Club’s Facebook page, the commodore says the website was “hacked.”)
And while it’s not easy to look back in time on the interwebs and see exactly what weather forecasts they had in hand at that time, it is no work at all to see the forecast discussions from Saturday. Here’s what the 0400 and 1200 discussions said:
THE PROSPECTS FOR CONVECTION ARE MINIMAL ACROSS MOST INLAND PORTIONS OF THE CWFA TODAY. THE EXCEPTION MAY BE NEAR THE IMMEDIATE COAST WHERE A WEAK AFTERNOON SEABREEZE MAY DEVELOP... SO WILL KEEP A SLIGHT CHANCE OF SHOWERS AND STORMS GENERALLY SOUTH OF
THE I-10 CORRIDOR THROUGH THIS AFTERNOON. IF ISOLATED CONVECTION DOES MANAGE TO DEVELOP...A STRONG TO SEVERE STORM CANNOT BE RULED OUT GIVEN THAT MLCAPE VALUES COULD RISE TO 500-1000 J/KG ALONG WITH DEEP LAYER SHEAR VALUES AROUND 50 KNOTS.
The forecast discussion released at 1603 was a bit more bullish on the possibility of severe weather:
SHOWERS AND THUNDERSTORMS WILL INCREASE IN COVERAGE FROM THE SOUTH AND WEST. AN ISOLATED STRONG STORM IS POSSIBLE LATE IN THE DAY AS THE STORMS TO OUR WEST BEGIN TO MOVE INTO THE AREA.
But, by then, it was too late. As early as 1530, unprepared boats were broaching and sailors were swimming. Many without lifejackets.
|Inflatable PFDs are light, comfrotable and increasingly|
inexpensive: a model like this, with manual-only
activation, costs as little as $75.
So, if, in hindsight, the first problem was inadequate attention to the weather forecast or a lack of skill or experience by individual sailors to identify the developing hazardous conditions, the second problem was the fact that so many participants in the regatta were not wearing their PFDs.
I don’t know what the race rules stipulated, and I wasn’t at the skippers’ meeting so I can’t say what the organizers recommended to the participants. I do know that it is quite common for “big boat” club sailors (as opposed to dinghy racers) not to wear PFDs while racing.
The lifejackets, in fact, are most likely stashed on the v-berth (beneath the spinnaker or the #3 genoa), or in a cockpit locker the helmsman is sitting on – somewhere out of the way, anyhow.
In news reports, some participants mention that they “didn’t have time to grab a lifejacket.”
Duh. That’s why you wear them. Technology is a wonderful thing, and the lifejacket you have on is better than the one you didn’t have time to find and don. To that end, I heartily recommend inflatable PFDs – even the belt packs, which after testing I’m not sure should even be Coast Guard-approved,
But it's still better than f*ck-all, which is what many of the people in the water had.
|Waterproof, submersible, hand-held VHF|
radios are handy on and off the boat.
Around $125, depending on features.
Once in the water, what next? You are a tiny, volleyball-sized target in a maelstrom of foam and water. It would be nice if you could call someone and let them know, huh?
One victim who was rescued by the Coast Guard actually called them on her cell phone, which she had in her hand as she went overboard. Another mentioned his great fear when he found himself adrift in the Mobile Ship Channel in near-zero visibility.
In both cases, and possibly in the cases of the victims who have not yet been recovered, a waterproof, submersible, hand-held VHF radio would have been a grand thing to have at hand. In fact, if it were my regatta, I believe I would require all the boats to carry one, especially since the *route of the race carries it across a busy commercial channel.
*And no, a sailboat, even on starboard tack, and even in the middle of a race, does not have “right of way” over an inbound container ship when that sailboat is crossing the channel.
|Pelicans in ground effect, Mobile Bay, Saturday morning.|
It would be easy to carry this to an extreme, and suggest that anyone who participates in a sailboat race in coastal waters should have a personal locater beacon (PLB) or wear a Type I PFD with SOLAS reflective tape and a strobe light, or that a race should never commence with even a hint of a fraction of a possibility of adverse conditions.
That’s nonsense, and wouldn’t pass the flip side of that cost-benefit analysis.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience (and also from four years and probably 130 boating fatalities worked while at Texas Parks & Wildlife Department) that: 1.) lifejackets really do save lives and are nearly 100 percent effective when worn; 2.) VHF radios beat yelling into a gale, whether it’s to warn a ship that you’re in the water near beacons 35 and 36, or to let the Coast Guard know you can see their lights and could they please come right 40 degrees; and 3.) Weather ain’t no joke. Especially spring weather when conflicting, unstable air masses can result in huge, highly localized updrafts and downdrafts.
There has been no discussion in the news coverage thus far about what role alcohol may have played in participants’ response to Saturday’s events, but I know – again from personal experience – that an integral part of many sailboat races is a cooler of ice-cold beer.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Hard to say. It’s so ingrained in the culture it’s tough – even for me – to imagine a regatta without beer. On the other hand, I also know that if I’m toodling along on a reach with a nice buzz, I might be a little slow to douse the sails, get my lifejacket on or even notice a wall of wind headed my way.
Aviators are cautioned to remember one thing above all others: gravity – what goes up must come down. As a matter of course, or so some pilots have told me, they are always prepared for the engines to quit.
Mariners should be no less prepared, because: Water. We don’t breathe it and we can stay afloat without assistance in it for only so long.
Any of us who go out on the water, whether for work or play, would do well to remember that it is, fundamentally, an environment that is inhospitable to human life and prepare accordingly.