The Clipper Round the World Race is a race around the world held every two years sailed with a professional captain and paying amateur crews. In nine races starting in 1996, the contests were sailed without loss of life. That tragically changed in the 2015-2016 race, when two sailors, Andrew Ashman, 49, and Sarah Young, 40, both died in separate incidents on the same boat, IchorCoal. Last week, the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) released their report on the two deaths. The report recommended that a second professional seafarer be aboard the boats during the race, that man-overboard drills be increased and that the use and strength of certain high strength lines aboard the boats should be re-evaluated.
Andrew Ashman died due to neck injuries when the boat gybed twice unexpectedly in September, 2105. They were sailing at night in the Atlantic off the cast of Portugal on the fourth day of the race. Ashman was one of the more experienced amateur sailors aboard, having sailed all his life. In recognition of his experience, he was made one of the ‘Watch Leaders” who were responsible for supervising the deck when the captain was below, either sleeping or performing other duties.
The first tragedy began with equipment failure — a failed preventer strop. The boat was on a broad reach, sailing at night, with a relatively inexperienced helmsman. The wind had been around 20 knots but was increasing with gusts to 30 knots. Andrew Ashman decided that it was time to reef the main. With the concurrence of the captain, who was awake but below deck, Ashman began to organize the crew to start taking in the reef. He was clipped onto a D ring in the cockpit was standing in what is termed a “danger zone,” an area on other side of the main sheet traveler.
He stepped over the traveler and moved a step or two forward when the boat gybed unexpectedly to starboard and then quickly gybed back again to port. The strop holding the preventer, the line intended to prevent the boom from flying uncontrolled across the deck during a gybe, broke. While it is likely that the boom passed well over his head, Ashman was probably hit by the main sheet as the traveler slid back and forth as the boat gybed to one side and then the other. He also could have been hurt by his fall. However and by whatever Ashman was hit, he suffered severe injuries to his neck and died. One of the crew on his watch, who attempted to revive Ashman, was Sarah Young.
In March, 2016, in heavy weather with the boat running downwind in the Pacific, Sarah Young had gone below to wake other crew members to help in sail handling. She came back into the cockpit but neglected to clip her harness onto a jack-line, d-ring, or other anchor. A wave striking the boat knocked her down and a second wave, breaking in the cockpit, carried her over the side.
Young was not wearing an exposure suit when she was washed over the side, but was wearing an inflatable PDF with a light and an AIS transponder. When she went overboard, a crew member pushed the “Man Overboard” button on the GPS plotter to help mark her position. Because of the high winds, the captain couldn’t turn the boat to return to where Young had fallen overboard without first striking the headsails. It took almost an hour to strike the sails and to motor back to where Young was drifting in the water and another twenty minutes to get her aboard. By the time they got her on deck she was unconscious. All attempts to revive her failed.
In both deaths, human error played a key role. If Andrew Ashman had not been in the “danger zone” when the boat gybed, or if Sarah Young had not failed to clip her safety harness, each might have survived. The MAIB also concluded that there was a lack of effective supervision aboard and that the boat may not have maintained a “robust safety culture.”
From the report:
Lack of effective supervision featured in both accidents. … Effective supervision at the time of the previous accident would have provided an opportunity to challenge Andrew’s decision to enter and remain in the cockpit danger zone. It would also have provided an opportunity to prompt him to put a more experienced crew member on the helm as steering became more difficult. The prevailing conditions and circumstances at the time of the second accident prevented the skipper from identifying that Sarah was not clipped on. However continual effective supervision during the Race prior to the accident would have provided an opportunity to challenge similar previous lapses by the crew, and would have instilled a more robust safety culture on board.