Words from the ed­i­tor

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The loss of Team Scal­ly­wag crew­man John Fisher in the South­ern Ocean dur­ing the Volvo Ocean Race (see page 18) 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 VendŽe 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 nowde­funct 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.”

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