Jim Gardner has written asking for thoughts on coping with better safety at The Blackburn Challenge. I've shared with him my thoughts, and Shane has also written to him. Feel free to add your ideas. His email is at the bottom of this piece.
Thanks for responding. I contacted Shirwin to begin to gather comparable information on how other races are handled, specifically from a safety perspective. I don't know if you're familiar with the Blackburn Challenge... it is a 22 mile open water race that circumnavigates Cape Ann. Last year we had 230 boats with 350 competitors, in a variety of categories...OC 6, Fishing dories, Surfskis, racing shells, etc. The conditions were poor...4-6 ft seas, and we had almost 60 boats DNF. Many boats, even those who finished, capsized at one point or another around the course, so we had a high frequency of competitors in the water, which quickly got the attention of the local Coast Guard and Harbormasters. The Coast Guard has requested that we tighten up on our safety procedures this year, so we are reviewing all aspects of what we do... what safety equipment we require of the competitors, how we check for safety equipment, how we position and employ chase boats, what kind of equipment/training the chase boat operators should have, how we communicate with the chase boats, how we monitor the progress of the race and determine whether we are missing any competitors, how we handle a competitor who abandons the race but is still on the water, etc.
Currently we require each competitor to have a PFD (inflatable ok), a whistle, a cellphone, water. We may expand that to include a compass and/or GPS. We are thinking that each chase boat should have extra PFD's, binoculars, throw rope, boat hook, hand pump, VHF radio, extra food and water, blankets, ladder. We want to provide direction for the chase boats so that they know how to respond to someone in the water (reach, throw, row, (don't) go), and also how to assist a competitor who is swamped to get back underway.
We have had problems making sure all competitors have all their safety equipment because we do not have a common launch point where all boats can be checked before they start, and trying to check at the start is difficult because the groups do not have much time between starts and we have an abbreviated window within which to start the race because of the tide. The Coast Guard has requested that we be able to tell them if someone is missing and give them a zone within which that boat was last spotted. This may not be possible as it would require us to track each competitor around the course and have specific funnel points through which all competitors must pass. Because of the nature of the course some folks stay quite close to shore while others can get a mile or more offshore, trying to find the best combination of wind, current, and wave intensity. The CG has also asked that we develop rescue guidelines for each boat category, but we may push back on that because we actually do not want the chase boats trying to haul swamped boats on board or leave the course to tow a disabled boat to shore.
One thing I find interesting is your rule about not passing a competitor in the water. We may think about adopting that because it forces the competitors to police themselves. But, it could be difficult to enforce because of the wide spread between competitors.
I'd be especially interested to know what requirements you have of the chase boats...how many per course mile, how you deploy them, what gear they should have, what training they should have (or that you provide), whether you provide them with any written or verbal instructions about how to respond to someone in the water, a swamped boat, an abandonment. I'd also be interested to hear whether you try to track competitors around the course, and what kind of information, if any, you are expected to have for the local Coast Guard as the race progresses.
I've attached a video taken by an OC4 last year to give you an idea of the course and race conditions.
Blackburn Challenge 2015 Boston Outrigger's Team Duke