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The Mess

This season’s Friday Night Beer Can Series has been an intense one. With many races starting in 20+ knot winds right off the shoreline and building into the higher 20s out on the Olympic Circle, we’ve certainly had our share of wind. On many nights, that wind has been accompanied by a fierce short-period chop that makes for a challenging upwind slog. Add to that the usual summertime fog pouring in through the Golden Gate and it’s made for a whole lot of “type 2” fun—the kind of fun that isn’t all that fun until you’re safely back at the bar swapping stories of white-knuckled adventure.

Amidst this sort of wind-waves-fog heavy weather trifecta, July 14th’s Beer Can race was host to an unfortunate three-boat collision at the windward mark that some have dubbed simply “the mess.” I was out racing that night, but I did not witness the incident firsthand. Accounts from those involved vary in the details of exactly what happened on the water, so I can only attest to the damage on display as the boats limped back home to Berkeley. In order of first damaged boat across the line last we had: Modern Sailing School’s J/105 Resolute with a partially functional headstay furler and signs of trauma to their bowsprit; long-time BYC racer Ranger 33 Mojo with an eye-popping gash in their topsides from waterline up through the cabintop; and 2023 rookie Olson 25 F.L.a.B. S.L.a.B. coming in under power missing their entire rig. Amazingly, given the magnitude of damage and the full complement of crew on board each vessel, no boats reported significant injuries. Watching this parade of broken boats come in past the club was a harrowing sight and a reminder of the perils that may await us each time we make our way past the breakwater.

Back at the clubhouse that night, there was much discussion of “the rules”—meaning World Sailing’s official Racing Rules of Sailing—which provide a complex and precise set of standards for how boats are to conduct themselves during a race in just about every situation you can imagine. Since no boats filed a formal protest with the race committee, there was no formal protest hearing to find the facts and determine which rules were broken and by whom. That process, as is perhaps best, will be left to the insurance companies as they sort out the financial repercussions of this incident.

Without giving all parties a fair chance to represent their version of events, I won’t speculate here on the rules one way or another. Even if I had all the facts, rules can’t patch fiberglass or splice a broken mast. Instead, I’d suggest that on nights like this, the only rule that applies unambiguously and universally is RRS 3 Decision to Race: “The responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone.” We get into racing for the action and excitement of making our boats go fast in close proximity to others. With that comes the risk of damage and injury to the things and people we love the most. And still, each of us is out there by choice, driven by a great passion to improve our sailing, make it around the buoys safely, and have a blast. We must hold both the risks and rewards of racing in balance as we make the call to head for the starting line.

Beyond raising such existential questions of why we sail, an accident like this provides a very practical lesson: go read your insurance policy and try to understand what might happen if the unthinkable happens to you. Yes, go read every piece of fine print tonight. Having recently learned the hard way myself the difference between an “actual cash value” and “agreed value” policy well after I had a chance to change it, I can wholeheartedly recommend you spend the time to read all the definitions, exceptions, disclaimers, and coverage limits. While you may look at your boat with love and affection and see all the handcrafted touches that make it a superior craft to all those other 1980s plastic classics, your insurance company sees it merely as another data point in an actuarial calculation. They will go no further than fulfilling their duties as laid out in the contract you sign up front. If you don’t like what you read, shop around and find something that better fits your needs, long before you need to file a claim.

We wish the owners and crew of Resolute, Mojo, and F.L.a.B. S.L.a.B. all the best as they assess the damage, deal with insurance, and do whatever they need to heal from what was most certainly a traumatic evening. We hope they can lean on the BYC community to find boat repair advice, a sympathetic ear, or a ride as crew.

In spite of having these three boats out of the running and at least three more regular racers knocked out earlier in the season due to equipment failures, we’ve seen a solid turnout for the past two weeks, indicating that the rest of the fleet is still going strong. It takes a special kind of person to want to race out of Berkeley on Friday nights; may that strength and spirit help everyone get back out on the water soon!

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