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A day on the Safety / Rescue Boat

Set off on a sunny day looking forward to a big Competition Racing day at Bewl Water. Discovered that my usual partner was crocked. Apparently a degenerative disease called Twomushracing. Instead of competing I thought a might give my newly acquired basic qualification of Club Race Officer an airing, so off I trotted off to the Race Officer for the day.  He took one look at me and said I don't need anybody but you can come along anyway! By the time I returned ready to take off on the Committee boat he had the solution to getting rid of me, "We are short of a safety crew, would you do that?". So I made myself known to the Officer of the Day and he duly assigned me to a Safety Boat into which I was made very welcome.

The racing fleet (too many dinghies to count!) were already heading across to the start line. Conditions for racing were almost ideal, wind 10-11knots and a clear warm day. However the wind was changeable. The course was basically around 4 markers, marked 1 -4 on the briefing board with the buoys marked with letters. Nothing like confusing the fleet before the race starts!

As Safety boat we set out and positioned ourselves well behind the Start line out of the way and watched the competitors cruising along the line. The water was a little choppy but not too uncomfortable in the idling Safety Boat. The Safety Boat is usually referred to as a RIB, Rubber Inflatable Boat, but in practice it had a heavy duty fibreglass floor structure and the inflatable sections were made of what appeared to be a heavy duty smooth plastic material. It had a nice well behaved and fairly powerful engine that idled quietly but it was necessary to hang on as it accelerated if you intended to stay in the boat!

As the race started we moved slowly out alongside the fleet. By this time a number of day sailors had launched and the reservoir was getting busy. Our task was not limited to safety for the racers, all of whom were experienced and unlikely to need assistance. Our primary duty was to look after the day sailors. People ashore frequently scanned the reservoir with binoculars to spot capsized dinghies and a total of three safety boats were deployed around the reservoir. Everybody kept in touch via the radio system.

I watched our Xenon, crewed by Mark and Tim, take a very different course from the rest of the fleet! My heart sank, thats them done for, but no the Xenon was moving at a very respectable pace albeit not in quite the right direction! However they must have been psychic or dead lucky because a sudden and heavy wind change sent them racing towards the windward mark rapidly overhauling the race leaders.  There is little doubt that if you have sailing skills the Xenon can really shift and keep up with the best.

 

A Day sailor had very sensibly mentioned to the Officer of the Day that she was trying a new Pico dinghy and was a bit unsure of herself. We were asked by radio to keep an eye on her progress.  We looked across and identified her purple sails.  She appeared to be doing very well reaching backwards and forwards across the entrance to the Fishing strait. However the wind can be strong and fluky at that point, especially as the wind today was changing around the WNW direction. No sooner had I mentioned that she was doing well when we saw the splash and sails disappear into the water. As we arrived alongside she had quite expertly climbed back on board but the main sail had seemingly managed a 360° turn and her mainsheet was now wrapped around the mast. It was not possible for her to turn it head to wind in the relatively strong wind with her mainsail out of control. I hung out the front of the safety boat and held the Pico stable whilst John, my Helm edged the two boats around head to wind which successfully stopped the boom swinging around threatening us all with a headache. Held in this position it was possible to release the mainsheet and untangle it from the mast. We then moved out to a safe distance to watch her get underway but frustratingly the outhaul fastening had firmly jammed halfway along the boom and could not be released. So we decided to tow the Pico into shore where the jammed outhaul could be sorted. I hung over the rear of the safety boat holding the loop of the very short painter and gently pulled the Pico to shore.

Tip: it is a recommendation that a painter should be at least as long as your boat. Long trailing ropes can be a nuisance but a very short stubby painter is only useful for holding the dinghy head to wind and is pretty useless if you need a tow.

We have had our share of such problems on the Xenon, it happens to all of us but the Xenon is a relatively stable dinghy and on several occasions we have been able to carry out minor repairs whilst afloat with the Xenon parked head to wind (it is both very stable and well behaved with the Jib backed and the rudder locked over). I have even stood on the bridge to untangle a spinnaker hoist line, hairy but it worked! However such antics in a Pico are difficult if not impossible.

We were pleased to help the 'Purple lady' and hope she was not too discouraged by the experience. 

We returned to our patrol having been asked by radio to stand by the Gybe mark as the racing fleet went through. Lots of skill being displayed as the boats swung past the mark and endeavoured to launch their spinnakers asap. The wind was not ideal for a spinnaker launch, coming at times from almost abeam. Several crew struggled to keep their boats under control at this point. I noted that our Xenon had lost ground. Apparently they had capsized earlier but as canny sailors had both scrambled on to the centreboard and were back up and running almost within the minute. The Xenon went through the Gybe mark well down the field. After a couple of hundred yards we saw the spinnaker slew to the side of the Xenon, helm wasn't quick enough to catch it (turn in to the wind) and like watching a slow motion video the Xenon keeled over.  At the same time we noticed another singlehanded dinghy capsized and turtled - no sign of its crew. We accelerated past the crashed Xenon (Tim and Mark were already righting it) to the help of the turtled dinghy. 

 

This was in fact a potentially more serious situation and one in which safety boats are more than justified. The dinghy was a broad single hander, probably relatively stable in most circumstances but was floating upside down in the water with the crew clinging helpless to the transom. We nosed into the stern section of the gunwhale on the windward side. I leaned across and just managed to grab hold of the centreboard before nearly getting dragged into the water. Having avoided getting a ducking I anchored my knees around the edge of the RIB and pulled the centreboard over. At this point my Helm also assumed the position and we managed to pin the dinghy on to its side. We advised the unfortunate sailor to move into the centre of the dinghy and we would right it and scoop him in. After a bit of  swimming he managed to do this and I then leaned out again to grab the dinghy gunwhale, by this time high in the air but within reach. A lot of heaving by both Helm and me and the dinghy then came upright with a rather tired sailor inside.  We moved away and watched while he sorted the lines and regained control.  We then returned to patrol.

Approximately 20mins later we saw the same dinghy go over again. This time it had not turtled and the sailor was wisely holding on the the centreboard. However he was by this time exhausted. We moved in again whilst he hung on to the safety boat lines and righted the dinghy (by this time we were experts!). I held the dinghy against the safety boat to prevent it from joining the racing fleet without a crew and invited the sailor to climb aboard over the transom. This he could not do, he really was exhausted. So with me leaning out holding the dinghy and the safety boat together (saves the gym fees!) Helm climbed aboard and dragged the sailor partially into the dinghy using his buoyancy jacket. I was then able to help by grabbing his leg.  Poor chap laid in the dinghy for a while getting his breath back. He then slowly headed back to shore while we watched - but even then his dinghy blew over just after he landed. Fortunately the usual helpful club members went to his aid.

A thought on buoyancy jackets. This sailor had his jacket very loosely fastened. So loose in fact that Helm nearly pulled it off over his head! Best to have a decent fitting buoyancy aid that will stand the strain of being used as a hoist on occasion.

This experience also gave me food for thought about the Xenon. Although the Xenon is a much bigger dinghy it is fitted with an excellent system of righting lines. The problem experienced by the sailor above stemmed from the fact that his dinghy had no righting lines. Once his dinghy turtled he was faced with a wide slippery hull, with a centreboard out of reach and no means of purchase to climb on to the hull and tip the dinghy back. I met him ashore later and suggested that he might like to look at the Xenon system with a view to rigging something similar.

Do give some thought as to how you will cope with a capsize. If you think it through it is not the frightening experience that some might believe. Indeed it is all part of the fun! Xenon owners are more fortunate than many because this problem has been addressed in the design of its lines - but good design of a safety system is useless unless you know how to use it. Don't wait for your lack of knowledge to become apparent whilst waiting for the Safety Boat. See the Xenon Capsize Guide on this site.

The only other incident was a halyard breaking on a Laser 4000. What they lacked was a pair of pliers. Fortunately I always carry a very small multi knife in the pocket of my buoyancy jacket, linked to a whistle. It has often proved useful. We went alongside, chucked the knife over and minutes later the 4000 was underway, although their race chances had been somewhat damaged.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed my day on the Safety Boat, we obviously performed a very useful function much appreciated by those we helped. I also had the opportunity of making new friends at the club and yet again appreciated the design of the Xenon.  Did our Xenon win? - no of course not! to win at Bewl Water you have to be good but it will happen one day!!

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