Safety at Sea: The 2018 Golden Globe Race

In 1968, nine men set out from Les Sables-d'Olonne in France to be the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Before leaving the Atlantic Ocean, however, only four skippers remained, and only one person finished the race – Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

The Golden Globe Race earned its place in the history books as a test of sheer determination – and an eventful one. With just 1,200 nautical miles to go, Nigel Tetley’s plywood trimaran Victress – in the lead at the time – sank and needed to be rescued. More dramatic still, Donald Crowhurst never actually left the Atlantic. He succumbed to a psychological breakdown and is thought to have taken his own life.

The Golden Globe Race turns 50

On 1 July 2018, exactly 50 years after the start of the original, Knox-Johnston fired a starting gun to signal the start of the 2018 Golden Globe Race. 18 skippers passed between the Suhaili and the Joshua, two yachts that first competed all those years ago, to begin their long and arduous journey.

Importantly, entrants were limited to yachts and equipment akin to what was available to Knox-Johnston in the 60s. Safety is crucial at sea however, and exceptions to this rule included equipment such as distress beacons and automatic tracking systems which were allowed for emergency use.

An adventure wrought with challenges

Sailing is inherently risky in that boats can dismast or sink, and people can be injured or drown, and adverse weather is a significant hazard. On 21 September (Day 82), Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy dismasted in a storm and sustained serious injuries. He sent a message to Race HQ that read: “ROLLED. DISMASTED. SEVERE BACK INJURY. CANNOT GET UP.”

At 1,900 nautical miles from the coast of Australia, even the nearest boat – Gregor McGuchin‘s Biscay 36 Hanley Energy Endurance, about 90 nautical miles from Tomy‘s Thuriya – was dismasted in the same storm. A multinational rescue mission was required to reach them both.

Ville Sulonen, Development Manager at Wärtsilä, offers a marine safety perspective. “When out at sea, you must always be prepared for major incidents. You must be prepared to do things manually, for example, having the skills to navigate using only maps. At Wärtsilä, we use additional layers so that if one technology fails for some reason, there is a backup, which wouldn’t be the case in this sailing race.”

On 15 October (Day 106), Dutch skipper Mark Slats alerted Race HQ that his boat, the Ohpen Maverick, had suffered two successive impacts, and that he had been hit by a flying toolbox that may have resulted in him sustaining a cracked rib. He did not have time to care for the injury, however, as the winds returned, increasing to up to 35 knots.

Abhilash Tomy, Are Wiig, Fransesco Cappelletti, Loïc Lepage, Nabil Amra, Philippe Péché and Susie Goodall all retired from the race due to either dismasting or physical damage. This is the reason that the safety rules required skippers to sail their yachts under jury rig before participating in the race, to prove that they had the knowledge and equipment onboard to handle a dismasting situation.

Preparation is key

They say that preparation is the key to success, and there is nothing this applies to more than the nautical world. Being isolated for weeks and months at a time requires adequate medical and food supplies at minimum, and actively preparing for this is only the beginning.

At the time of writing, Estonian skipper Uku Randmaa is now on the home stretch and is expected to reach Les Sables d’Olonne on 10 March 2019. However, it has not always been so simple.

Randmaa faces a 72-hour penalty upon finishing in response to breaking race rules by asking for and receiving weather routing via HAM Radio. Normally, penalties are served in real-time, but the skipper was low on food after having reached the last of his food supplies and had reported not being able to catch any fish for about a week.

While Randmaa has now managed to catch some fish, he has lost over 20kg since starting the race.

Unexpected and unpredictable obstacles

Even with perfect preparation, a sea voyage can still present some unpredictable obstacles. For Finnish skipper Tapio Lehtinen, currently in 5th place with around 5,000 miles to go, a big problem has been a build-up of barnacles on the underside of his boat, Asteria.

In late October, Lehtinen couldn’t figure out why he could not keep up with British skipper Susie Goodall or Istvan Kopar of the USA. During calm weather, he dived to check that his rudder and prop system was functional, but instead found an infestation of Goose barnacles on the hull which was causing severe drag.

This is unsafe as he could have pushed his boat harder, as Nigel Tetley did in the original race (whose boat ended up sinking). Luckily, Lehtinen is a careful skipper. He said of the 2018 Golden Globe Race: “I accept the challenges, but I am not a risk taker. I take pride in preparing well and sailing in a seamanlike way. I’m competitive, but I realise that in order to do well in this race, I first have to finish.”

Safety is a mindset

Being safe, is about having the right gear and being prepared, just as it is about putting safety first. Of course, safety isn’t only needed while sailing in the open ocean. When current technology is readily available, unlike for the skippers in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, all these dangers still exist, and preparation is still vital.

“For Wärtsilä’s people, especially when they’re going on board a vessel, they need to be well prepared,” says Ville Sulonen. “Embarking and disembarking carries risks, life vests are important… When people must spend time in the engine room, or climb masts to take care of radar, it’s important to know how to act in those kinds of situations.”

Wärtsilä held its fifth annual Safety Day on 14 March 2019. According to Ville Sulonen, “the theme of our Safety Day this year is ‘10 Life-Saving Rules’, which were introduced in 2018 to prevent safety incidents and protect employees, as well as partner company personnel, from serious injuries or fatalities. This year, our theme applies to all of our operations."

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“I’m competitive, but I realise that in order to do well in this race, I first have to finish.” – Tapio Lehtinen 

© 2019 Wärtsilä