Coast Guard Releases Incident Investigation Report for 2015 Dauphin Island Race By Steve Morrell, Editor
n April, the U.S. Coast Guard released its report on the 57th Dauphin Island Regatta that was held on April 25, 2015, and resulted in the loss of six lives and the capsizing of eight boats. One hundred and seventeen of the 125 registered boats participated in the 18nm race that was held on Mobile Bay in Alabama. Forty sailors were rescued from the water, by the Coast Guard, the State of Alabama and good Samaritans. Seven bodies were recovered, with one never found. The eight boats that capsized were all between 20 and 24 feet. A weather map showing the intensifying storm at 3:40 pm on the day of the race. Investigation Analysis (the following are summations by the author of this article of the report findings, and are not direct quotes from the report.): 1. Lack of Hazardous Weather Recognition. After multiple interviews, the Coast Guard heard “the weather came out of nowhere” multiple times, even though the National Weather Service was tracking a line of thunderstorms with winds exceeding 75mph headed for southern Alabama. Investigators found that most boats had some means to track the weather “either via VHF radio, radar or smartphone,” but most said they were so concentrated on racing that they didn’t monitor the weather. Many had handheld VHF radios down below in a waterproof jacket with some having the radio turned off—all preventing many from hearing emergency weather alerts from the race committee. Many participants said, “If they had had 10 or more minutes to drop sails and don lifejackets, they would have been better prepared to weather the storm.” The investigation also found that race organizers were not adequately informed of the weather heading towards the bay. 2. Sailing Culture. The investigation found that sailors in general have a high level of confidence, stating in the report that they frequently heard: “We’re sailors; we sail in all kinds of weather.” The race is known as a fun regatta and there has never been any “negative outcomes” in the regatta’s 56-year history. This feeling gave many a false sense of security. They also found that there is a general “cultural view” that there is no communication between boats during a race, nor should their be, but many agreed that there should be no hesitation to communicate for safety reasons.
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3. Race Delay. Due to a miscommunication with the race committee, the race was delayed by one hour and 15 minutes and although many boats finished by 1350 hours, the bulk of the boats were still racing at 1350 hours—when the severe thunderstorms were approaching the bay. This led to the conclusion in the report that if the race had started on time, there would have been far fewer boats on the water when the storm hit. 4. Participant Accountability. There was not an accurate count of how many boats actually raced and how many crew were on board all the boats. This led to difficulties for the Coast Guard to allocate its resources for rescue operations. 5. Marine Permit/Control Commander Authorities. The Coast Guard policy states that the local “Patrol Commander may terminate the event or the operation of any vessel at any time if it is deemed necessary for the protection of life or property.” In spite of this, interviews with Coast Guard station members were unaware of their authority to terminate an event due to weather. 6. Access to Personal Flotation Device (PFD). The report found that access to PFDs was a factor in the tragedy. Investigators heard that the storm came so quickly that many had no time to don PFDS, including going below to find them. When the storms hit, sailors hurried to reduce sails and secure the boats. Many survived with no PFDs on, but no recovered deceased participants were wearing PFDs. They also found that many crew came aboard boats just before the race start, being unfamiliar with the boat and where safety equipment was stowed.
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