Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April 14, 2012

Low Speed Chase on the rocks. I copied this photo from


On April 14th I was scheduled to go racing off Newport Beach aboard the Davidson 44, Pendragon. It was a cold and blustery day with winds gusting to 25 knots and a lumpy sea running. These are not particularly rough conditions in most parts of the world so we were a bit surprised when the race committee cancelled the event. Known for its light air and mostly benign conditions, this area is among the pleasantest places I know of for casual racing.  But when it gets nasty it’s no place for the casual sailor who is accustomed to light air and easy seas, and I think the race committee made the right decision. So instead of bashing around the buoys in foulies and PFD’s we relaxed and enjoyed the winds and whitecaps from the comfort of the slip, with cold beverages and tasty snacks for all.

At the same time, four hundred miles to our north, the competitors in the Farallones Islands Race rode an ebb tide out through the Golden Gate into building westerly winds and waves.  The race starts and finishes off St. Francis Yacht Club, leaving the southernmost Farallon Islands to port. As the day wore on the winds built to 25 knots or more with seas in the 10-12 foot range as the boats bashed out toward the southeast Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of the Gate. Rocky and primitive, these islands are usually beset by rough seas and strong winds, and on this day conditions were rough but not unusually so. In any case, rough or not, sailors are well advised to give the rocky lee shores of these islands a wide berth as they pass them.

Among the racers was a Sydney 38 called Low Speed Chase with a crew of eight aboard. The crew was apparently fairly well experienced racing in the boisterous conditions that San Francisco Bay usually serves up, and at least one had some serious offshore miles under his belt. As the boat worked its way westward on starboard tack past the westernmost point on the island, they began to ease sheets and bear off around the weather side of it, seeking to save some time by cutting in close to the shore. Believing they were outside the breaker line, the Low Speed Chase was caught by an outside wave that broke over the boat, washing most of the crew overboard, snapping the rig and stripping the deck of the safety gear that was mounted there. Before the crew had time to react another wave broke over the boat, eventually washing it and one crewman who managed to stay aboard onto the rocky shore. Two other crew managed to scramble onto some rocks while the body of the fourth was found floating in the water nearby. The other four members of the crew have not been found and are presumed dead.  The boat’s EPIRB activated automatically and in a short time the Coast Guard was on the scene and rescued the three survivors and recovered the body of the fourth victim. It is impossible to overstate the heroism and professionalism of the Coasties, who regularly go into extremely dangerous situations to save lives as part of their daily routine.

I don’t know all the facts surrounding this tragedy and I may be wrong about some of the details, but basically the story is that the Low Speed Chase rounded the weather side of the island too close inshore, was caught in breaking waves and was lost. It is with considerable sorrow that I write these words. Not just because of the tragic loss of life, but also because those who were lost shared something fundamental with me. They loved the sea. In other words, while I was not acquainted with them, I know their kind because I am their kind and so are the people most dear to me.

The loss of the Low Speed Chase is a reminder that the sea, for all its beauty and for all the awe and wonder it inspires in us, is pitiless. Those of us who choose to play here and wander upon it cannot for an instant forget that first and foremost we must respect its power. It is not for me to criticize or lay blame. The lives of all who were involved in this tragedy along with their loved ones have been shattered and will carry this catastrophe with them as long as they live. At the same time, we can take heart in the fact that those who lost their lives left this world doing something they loved.

There are many lessons to be learned from this tragedy and I’m sure much will be said and written about what the crew of the Low Speed Chase should or should not have done. Ironically, my guess is that the armchair sailors of the world will express most of those opinions. But one thing those of us who spend our time racing should learn is that it’s not enough to be a great helmsman or tactician. Nor is it enough to be a great trimmer or bowman, or be possessed of great knowledge of the rules or other aspects of the sport of yachting. We must also be good seamen. Whenever we venture from the dock, whether for a Sunday sail, a race round the buoys or a long offshore passage, we have to be prepared, and armed with respect for the sea and its power, for it is not to be trifled with.

On the same day, we lost another pillar of the yachting community. Don Anderson began broadcasting weather information on SSB radio nets in the late 1990’s. A true offshore sailor, he and his wife made many passages in the Pacific aboard their Valiant 47, Summer Passage, and during those years he became an expert on the weather as well as a ham radio operator. His weather forecasts and advice on the Sonrisa net and others were geared toward sailors along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America and out to Hawaii and the Marquesas. A true curmudgeon in the best sense of the word, he sprinkled his weather reports and forecasts with his acerbic wit. Not one to suffer fools gladly, he was never at a loss for words and gave many a sailor an earful of good advice whether they asked for it or not.

It was always a treat to tune in to Don’s broadcasts and I will miss them, especially during passages along the coast of Baja California. These days we have many high tech resources for gathering information about weather and sea conditions, but somehow they don’t compare to Don’s expert advice on that stretch of the ocean.  


  1. Low Speed Chase cut the corner too close to the island.
    Why is everyone so hesitant to state the obvious?

    Jesus ... doesn't anyone take responsibility for mistakes or speak the truth anymore.

    1. Everyone knows what happened and no one is denying that the boat was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is no evidence to suggest that anyone who was involved is trying to evade responsibility for this tragedy. The survivors and the loved ones of those who died will suffer the rest of their lives over this, and there is no need to continue to harp on the obvious.

      Life is full of surprises and you may find yourself in unfortunate circumstances one day, if you haven't already. So go in peace, my friend, and let these people get on with their lives.