Belfast Telegraph

Strangford Lough rescue: Dunking drama won't deter these elite competitors

By Gary Law

Squalls can come out of nowhere when you're sailing.

One minute the sky can be unbroken blue and the sea a gentle roll, then with very little warning the waters turn black, white tops foam up on the waves and a ferocious gale sweeps in, slapping sailing boats over like dominoes.

Sailing dinghies are particularly vulnerable when a serious squall strikes. GP14s, like the ones being sailed on Strangford Lough, are 14-foot open boats, crewed by two people, one helming the craft and the other operating the forward sail, the genoa, as well as raising and lowering the spinnaker – the big, colourful sail that balloons out in front of the boat.

Sailing a dinghy is a balance between harnessing the force of the wind to drive the boat forward and using the weight of the people on board to keep it upright, and in elite racing competitions like the one that was hit by chaos yesterday, crews will be pushing the envelope as far as they can, sailing on the edge to get the maximum possible speed out of their boat.

Not much of a GP14 lies below the waterline, just a few inches of hull and a long dagger of wood called a centreboard which acts as a keel. When a wind strikes with the force of yesterday's freak gust, the result is inevitable. The stormy blast strikes the sail and neither the weight of the crew nor the amount of boat below the waterline can prevent it from tipping over and hurling its occupants into the water.

To a non-sailor this can seem like a terrifying prospect, but dinghy sailors learn how to cope with a capsize from the day they first step into a boat.

All competitors in yesterday's competition will have been wearing buoyancy aids and their boats all have buoyancy tanks that prevent them from sinking.

One of the golden rules of a capsize is never to leave your boat, so crews can be quickly picked up by rescue craft going to an upturned dinghy rather than carrying out a prolonged search of the waters for a sailor floating around on their own.

In most cases, crews can right the boat themselves, untangle the ropes, sort out the sails and continue on their way without any assistance at all. It's not at all uncommon during a racing competition for a boat to capsize, with both its crew thrown into the water, then they haul the craft upright, clamber back in and continue with the race.

Unless they have real problems, such as an injury, or something crucial on the boat has broken, they will refuse any help from a rescue craft as accepting that assistance will result in disqualification from the race.

What made yesterday's mishap so unusual was the number of boats caught by the squall.

This was a world championship, so there would have been a lot more boats on the water than at a regular club sailing event or one of Strangford Lough's many regattas. And those taking part were the cream of GP14 sailors, highly experienced and highly competitive, used to racing all over the world and well able to cope with difficult conditions.

However, there comes a point where even the most able sailor cannot keep his craft upright in the teeth of a ferocious squall, and that's what happened yesterday.

Safety is always a priority at events such as yesterday's competition. The race organisers will have ensured that a number of rescue boats were on the water throughout racing to provide assistance to any boats that might encounter trouble, but given the number of sudden capsizes involved yesterday, and all of them at the same time, even the most compehensive safety cover would have been stretched to the limit. It was the prudent thing to do to call in outside help.

Competitors, on the other hand, will not have been fazed by such an experience. If there had been another race an hour later, the GP14 sailors would have been back in their boats, racing as hard as they could, and quite prepared to risk another capsize in the quest for victory.

Belfast Telegraph

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