Public Safety: Voluntary Industry Standards vs. Government Regulation

Imagine that your life is in mortal danger as you cling to an inverted sailboat in stormy seas, at night, in the middle of Lake Michigan, with two crewmates caught under the boat.  Whom would you put your faith in to save your life -- a bunch of amateurs writing voluntary industry standards and some Good Samaritans passing by, or federal government regulations and United States Coast Guard helicopter-borne rescue swimmers?

For the crew of the sailboat Wingnuts, this was not an academic question.  These six people found themselves in the above situation when their boat capsized last summer during the annual Chicago to Mackinac Race organized by the Chicago Yacht Club.  They were saved by the amateurs.  The bodies of their two crewmates caught under the boat were recovered by divers from the Charlevoix Michigan Sheriff's Department Marine Division and the Coast Guard after sunrise the following morning.

The story is one of good fortune combined with a sophisticated set of voluntary regulations promulgated as a condition of entry into the race.  There have been various reports and investigations made since the accident.  The official coroner's report indicated that the two fatalities were due to head trauma, as the boat rapidly inverted under the force of hurricane-strength winds, landing with brutal force atop the heads of those two who had fallen into the water in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were likely instantly rendered unconscious and trapped without access to air.  So there was probably little anyone outside those already present could do to save them.

But what about the five who survived the initial accident and now found themselves adrift and alone?  One of them, a 16-year-old young man, dove back under the boat to save his cousin, who had become tangled in lines below, thus bringing the total number of survivors afloat and accounted for to six.  But those six did not know where the other two missing souls were and would have had to dive back under the boat to search for them -- a task even the Coast Guard declined to do when its rescue swimmers arrived, due to the risks involved.  The USCG waited until daybreak to get better light and the scuba gear required for the task before recovering the bodies.

The national governing body for the sport of sailing, US Sailing, was engaged by the Chicago Yacht Club to do an independent investigation.  The results of that investigation have been publicly released.  US Sailing has also awarded Arthur B. Hanson lifesaving medals to the crew of the yacht Sociable, which was passing by in the darkness when its crew heard the sound of whistles.  Alerted by the sound, Sociable's crew saw the light on the lifejacket of one of the survivors.  Closing in, they then saw the crew in the water and began the rescue operation.  During the rescue operation, they contacted the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw WAGB-83, which was serving as the communications hub for the race by VHF radio.  The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter from its base in Traverse City, MI.  They arrived after Sociable had recovered the six survivors.

In addition to the VHF radio call from Sociable, the Coast Guard had been alerted via a satellite-based system that two Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) carried by the survivors had been activated.  The USCG press release describes the situation from their perspective.

The U.S. Coast Guard received initial notification from a private company that monitors personal locator beacons, reporting that two PLBs aboard the sailing vessel Wingnuts had been activated.

Radio watchstanders at Coast Guard Station Charlevoix, Mich., established communications with the sailing vessel Sociable, who were assisting with the coordination of a search by other responding sailing vessels in the vicinity.  The crew of the Sociable pulled six of the eight crewmembers from the Wingnuts out of the water.

A rescue crew aboard a 41-foot Utility Boat from Coast Guard Station Charlevoix, Mich., arrived on scene and located the capsized sailing vessel.  Crewmembers knocked on the hull of the vessel in an attempt to discern whether or not people were trapped inside.  Receiving no response from inside the vessel, the rescue crew began their initial search pattern.

A crew aboard an MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Mich., also began searching.

The Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw arrived on scene to assume the role of on-scene commander and coordinate ongoing search efforts.  Search and rescue coordinators at Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie contacted Charlevoix County to request dive team support.  The Air Station Traverse City helicopter crew transported the dive team to cutter Mackinaw, which was used as the dive platform.

At 8:44 a.m., EST, the dive team located the two boaters unresponsive in the vicinity of the capsized boat.  They were transported to shore and turned over to a medical examiner.  They were pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m.

So it is clear that based on the information gleaned from the PLBs, the Coast Guard would definitely have responded to the situation had Sociable not gotten there first.  But for a crew already suffering the effects of hypothermia, the issue would be whether the Coast Guard could have gotten there soon enough.  The first step in any rescue is the notification to the rescuers that a problem exists.  Ashore, that usually takes the form of a call to 911; afloat, it is usually a mayday call by VHF.  Given the suddenness of this capsize, the USCG-mandated safety signaling equipment, the VHF radio and/or flares, were unavailable under the boat.  Since PLBs are not required by regulation, the crew would have had no means to alert the Coast Guard to their predicament, and they certainly would have all died.

This brings us back to those voluntary industry standards.  For the event, the Chicago Yacht Club issues the Mackinac Safety Regulations (MSR).  The relevant paragraphs for the 2012 race read as follows (EPIRB equates to Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon & PFD equates to Personal Floatation Device):

57. EPIRBs - Any EPIRB that is required to be carried per these MSR shall be a 406 MHz EPIRB that is either:

1. connected to a continuously functioning external GPS or,

2. fitted with an internal GPS.

Further, the EPIRB shall be properly registered with the appropriate authority and should be tested in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions when first commissioned and then at least annually. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), meeting the above criteria, shall satisfy the EPIRB requirement above.

For the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac - EPIRBS are required to be carried by all boats.

 68. PFD Equipment -- Each PFD must be equipped with a whistle, a waterproof light, be fitted with marine-grade retro-reflective material, be clearly marked with the boat's or wearer's name, and be compatible with the wearer's safety harness. If the PFD is inflatable, it must be regularly checked for air retention.

69. Wearing of PFDs -- Each crew member shall wear PFDs complying with MSR 67 and MSR 68:

1. while on deck between sunset and sunrise; and

2. at all other times, unless the Person-In-Charge directs they be put aside.

So the fate of this crew depended upon equipment required by the voluntary agreement of the owner of the yacht with the Chicago Yacht Club as "Organizing Authority" for the race.  The Personal Locator Beacons, whistles, waterproof lights, and the requirement to wear the lifejackets between sunset and sunrise were all in addition to the government regulations enforced by the Coast Guard.  Those government regulations set a firm floor, but the voluntary industry standards are what saved those six lives.  As the skipper of Sociable Robert Arzbaecher put it:

Arzbaecher would marvel at how effective this basic, mandatory equipment was at saving the sailors' lives. "A life jacket, a whistle and a light. My God, how simple it can be? But that's what it was," Arzbaecher said. "This experience really re-energized our focus on safety. You can never stop learning about safety and never stop thinking about what could go wrong in these situations."

Bruce Thompson served as Chairman of the Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation Area III Safety Committee, which drafted a precursor document to the 2011 MSR in 1997.