Thanks for your measured comments. I heard about this tragedy very soon
after it had happened, and of course the reportage was awash with
The stuff about heel restraints, which a reddit poster describes as
"these peices of string (normally a shoelace) that keep your heels in
the boat, and don't let the shoes lift up too far" is possibly
misinformed (see later) but sadly typifies the despicable attitudes
towards rower safety whereby a bootlace of indeterminate length is
broadly considered a safety device. Would trust your life to a shoe-lace??
Most disturbing is the usual presumption of a capsize - "for how else do
rowers end up swimming?" What a pity folk can't stop idly speculating.
I deplore the knee-jerk resort to typical "blame culture" reaction, but
I do favour a careful listing of the possibilities in order of
probability. Let's explore just a little way, then await further &
better information - what do we know so far?
1. It seems to have been a 4+ as 5 people were immersed & 2 died.
2. This was on a lake, measuring about 1000m x 1700m, set in open, flat
country with very little natural shelter.
3. The wind was variously described as blowing at 20-25mph or 9-11m/sec
4. The lake is relatively shallow - a depression left by a former glacier.
5. The water temperature has been variously given as 37-40F or 3-4.5C,
& there had until recently been freezing conditions.
So the water would have been cold & rough. Crew shells are not fit for
wave heights as little as 20cm/8". If you take a fetch of 1.5km & a
wind speed of 10m/sec, expect a significant wave height of around 20cm.
At 12m/sec wind speed it might be 24cm waves. But wind is rarely
steady, & wave heights are never uniform but form a spectrum with
occasional "rogue" waves rather larger than those around them (up to 30
- 50% higher). These will rapidly fill a shell by slopping over the
sides. The next issue is that the shape of the lake, & depth
variations, can create areas of increased wave height.
The first question to ask is: did the boat actually capsize (possible
but less usual) or was it swamped & sank below the water surface?
In rough conditions an inexperienced crew could indeed capsize, but lay
people love to jump to ignorant conclusions.
However, there are no excuses for under-buoyant shells. We fought that
battle in the UK for 10 years (against unprincipled UK officialdom) from
2000 until FISA mandated full shell buoyancy, but I know that very many
shells in the USA have never been assessed for adequate buoyancy & still
lack the fully-enclosed under-seat compartments which would a) provide
up to 40kg of added buoyancy per seat (making eights and fours fully
buoyant such that they remain safely rowable when swamped) & b) prevent
water already in the boat from rushing to & depressing the least buoyant
A further question concerns type of shell: we think it was a coxed
four, but was it bow steers or stern? With bow steers you have rather
more open volume for water to fill, & it is significantly harder for cox
to extract themselves if the boat is swamped or inverted, especially if
wearing bulky clothing.
Other questions include: presence or otherwise of a capable launch,
adequacy of clothing (multilayer, close-fitting kit is a life-saver in
cold immersion as it keeps an insulating layer of non-flowing water
close to the body), self-rescue instructions, supervision, skill levels
& prior assessment of conditions.
Finally, at those indicated water temperatures to have lost 2 out of 5
after sudden & prolonged immersion is an unsurprising result - the loss
of limb strength through automatic restriction of blood circulation when
chilled can be rapid, rendering a person unable to swim within minutes.
One can understand that young people, after many months of Covid
restrictions, might tend to throw caution to the winds, but this was a
devastating & probably preventable outcome. One of my colleagues is a
volunteer with the RNLI on the R Thames & is aghast at the inane
behaviour of so many "de-mob happy" boaters following the end of the
English Covid lock-down.
Finally, while no one meant this to happen, the blame game (& with it
the denial of blame) may well take precedence over the careful learning
of lessons & proper support for the bereaved. If people messed up, then
it will be far more useful to all if they can be allowed to admit this
without having to go into denial mode in order to defend their doubtless
Our thoughts go to all affected -
Carl Douglas Racing Shells -
Fine Small-Boats/AeRoWing Low-drag Riggers/Advanced Accessories
Write: Harris Boatyard, Laleham Reach, Chertsey KT16 8RP, UK
& now on Facebook @ CarlDouglasRacingShells
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