Coast Guard releases report on 2015 Dauphin Island Regatta disaster

Mobile County
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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — The United States Coast Guard has completed and released the investigation report on the 57th Annual Dauphin Island Regatta. Six people died and 40 others had to be rescued. A total of 8 sailboats sank into the waters of Mobile Bay. 

The race took place on April 25, 2015, when a storm hit during the Dauphin Island Regatta. A strong line of thunderstorms pushed eastward across the Mobile Bay area Saturday at approximately 3:30 p.m., resulting in winds in excess of 70 miles per hour. Mariners in the area were caught off guard, including a regatta sailing event in the Dauphin Island area. Coast Guard Sector Mobile and Station Dauphin Island quickly responded to numerous calls for help and coordinated search efforts.

In the report, investigators were able to narrow down and identify three key factors.

First, there were three environmental factors. Winds in excess of 73 miles per hour forced boaters to recover their sail(s) while in danger of capsizing. The swells of eight to ten feet continually battered the race boats. The flooding and capsizing of vessels forced race participants to abandon ships. The rain severely reduced visibility and hampered each Masters’ ability to safely navigate their boats. 

Secondly, human error was to blame. Race participants failed to use all available means to monitor the weather and urgent marine weather broadcasts. The report also states the race committee failed to immediately notify participants and/or cancel the race once they received information regarding severe thunderstorms. 

Lastly, there was one factor that involved equipment. The report says race participants failed to wear or were unable to access Personal Flotation Devices required to be onboard in accordance with Coast Guard and State of Alabama Marine regulations. 

The report also states that Coast Guard members working the event were unaware of their authority to cancel the event noting, “the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the event and its participants rests solely with the event sponsor.”

Safety Recommendations

The report begins with a number of safety recommendations as a result of the tragedy.  The first recommendation is that the US Sailing Association “amend their racing rules to require all crewmembers to wear Coast Guard [personal floatation devices]. ”  

A second safety action item concerns VHF radios.  The report says some crews stored these valuable communication devices in the cabin and that limited their ability to hear severe weather broadcasts.  The report recommends US Sailing amends its rules to require the VHF radios to be on a lanyard available for the immediate use of the skipper.  

The Coast Guard also recommends US Sailing require skippers check-in with crew members to make sure the VHF radio is available and crewmembers are wearing personal floatation devices.

“This investigation revealed that due to the last minute change in crews, several race participants did not have PFDs onboard their assigned boats.  Additionally, of those boats with last minute crew changes or first timers, many did not know where PFDs were stored, did not understand how to don the PFD, and/or were the wrong size,” the Coast Guard report said.  Page 25 of the report says none of the bodies recovered were wearing flotation devices.  

Another safety recommendation is to require every boat to submit a crew list to organizers at least a half hour before the start of the race.  The Coast Guard says their investigation revealed the lack of an updated crew list created confusion after the storm.  Rescue crews couldn’t say for sure who was on what boat or how many people were potentially in the water.  

USCG Analysis

Another interesting note from the report is that the USCG says US Sailing has a position for events known as a race officer.  This is someone whose duties include ensuring the safety of competitors and someone who adjusts course in response to changing conditions.  The report redacts the name of a woman the Fairhope Yacht club names as the Principal Race Officer. 

“At the time of the regatta the Fairhope Yacht Club had no members certified as a race officer through the US Sailing Association,” said the Coast Guard report.  In their analysis, the report cited a lack of hazardous weather recognition.  The report says some interviewees claimed the storm came out of nowhere but also notes a number of weather warnings that Saturday.  

The report describes the sailing culture.  The Coast Guard says they noted a level of overconfidence among the people interviewed.  

“The high level of comfort with this race lulled many participants into a false sense of safety and inattention to their duties,” said the report.  The analysis section also says, shortly before 2 pm, the USCG patrol commander on Dauphin Island called a race organizer to notify them a strong storm front was moving from Pascagoula to Mobile Bay. The report says race organizers felt the system would move into northern Mobile Bay and did not pass that weather alert over the race radio channel.  

“The passing of a “weather alert” to the racers, those who were actively monitoring the designated race channel, may have given participants an hour or more of advance notice to prepare for the incoming weather,” said the USCG report.  A miscommunication between race organizers delayed the start of the 2015 regatta by an hour and 15 minutes.  The report says, had the race started on time, there would have been significantly fewer boats on the water with the storm hit.  

To read the full report click the document below: 

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