December 6, 2012

Ethics of singlehanded ocean racing

LESS THAN A MONTH into the race, at least seven of the 20 Vendée Globe round-the-world singlehanded racers have fallen by the wayside.  So far there has been no loss of life, but I can’t help wondering how long this class of boat will last, considering the lack of seaworthiness.  Among the casualties suffered by these multi-million-dollar racers were a dismasting and one case where the keel simply fell off.  And there were two of these Open 60 class sailboats that collided with fishing boats while their skippers were sleeping, one in the cockpit and one down below.

Technically, the whole race is in contravention of the International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, which require every vessel to keep a proper lookout. That’s something a singlehander can’t do, for he or she has to sleep some time or other. So I would imagine that an Admiralty Court would award substantial damages to any boat engaged in fishing that was struck at 20 knots by a sailboat.  I hope the sponsors of those racing boats have deep pockets.

Sleep is definitely a problem for the Vendée Globe sailors, especially in the early days of the race, where shipping lanes are congested.  Several boats were penalized for transgressing the international rules regarding one-way traffic systems and causing hazards to other shipping, but I would imagine they were there because sleep deprivation had affected their ability to make rational decisions.

With practice, I’m told, you can get sufficient sleep in short stretches. Many singlehanders sleep for 20 minutes at a time, keep watch for 20 minutes, then sleep another 20 minutes, and so on.  On a normal cruising yacht, 20 minutes is taken to be roughly amount of time for a vessel appearing on the horizon to reach you, but, of course, if you’re doing 20 knots or more yourself, as the Vendée boats often do, the collision time is greatly shortened.

To state it briefly, lack of sleep on a singlehanded sailboat is dangerous. Recklessly dangerous, possibly, because without sleep you lose efficiency.  Your temper becomes frayed and decisions are difficult.  All this makes you a danger to others at sea and those who might be sent to rescue you if the worst happens.

I think there ought to be a lot more discussion about the ethics of singlehanding, particularly singlehanded racing.  Much as I admire the guts and determination of the Vendée Globe racers, there is something else that needs to be discussed:  in the old days, if a singlehander caused a collision, his or her own small, slow-moving  craft was likely to come off the worse. So breaking the Rule of the Road was largely condoned. The rule was rarely, if ever, enforced.  But nowadays, we have flat-iron-shaped 60-footers moving at lethal speeds under autopilot only and capable of wreaking all kinds of havoc and damage.  We need to think about whether this makes sense.

Today’s Thought
No one when asleep is good for anything.
— Plato.

Two sweet young things were returning home late after a party when they discovered they’d lost the key to their apartment. They found a ladder, though, and put it alongside an upstairs window that had been left open.

One of them started climbing up the ladder and chirruped: “You know, I suddenly feel like a fireman.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake!” hissed her friend. “Where are we going to find you a fireman at this time of night?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...


we just had two large vessels collide in the North Sea, how this can happen with today's AIS technology I don't know.
I would hope the single-handed boats have AIS receivers on-board to warn them of approaching boats.

Junaid said...

Considering the amount of money sloshing around in these races, I would have thought these guys would have AIS and/or radar with proximity alarms.

John Vigor said...

Junaid, they do. But you can never account for the human factor. Remember the famous collision between the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm? (If not Wikipedia will put you right.) They had each other in view on radar and still steered straight for each other.

John V.

KevinH said...

I have done a number of single-handed ocean crossings and you're correct. :The biggest challenge is sleep deprivation. I sleep in half hour on/off snatches using an oven timer to wake me. Then in the daylight I sleep a bit longer with the (perhaps naive) hope that shipping will see me. In fact it may be easier to spot a light in the dead of night than a white sail against a whitecapped sea in the day. Having said that, and admitting that single-handing precludes you from maintaining a proper lookout, I have never once in 50 000 miles ever had to change course to prevent a collision. The ship and the yacht are pinpricks on a vast ocean and the chances of collision,though real, are slim.

Rado said...

And what about the fishing vessels involved? Is it not their responsibility to maintain watch too?

John Vigor said...

Rado, a vessel engaged in fishing is unable to maneuver to avoid a collision and is therefore accorded special rights under the rules.

John V.