Tornado sailor drowned

Tragedy marks the end of Princess Sofia Trophy

Saturday March 30th 2002, Author: Andy Rice, Location: none selected
Olympic sailors in Palma are in shock after an Austrian Tornado sailor drowned just before the start of the final race of the Princess Sofia Trophy earlier today. Johannes and Martin Haeupl capsized and the Tornado turned upside down.

The details of what happened next are not entirely clear, but this is what madforsailing could deduce from what sailors had heard from sources close to the Austrian team. It is believed Johannes had got his hook caught in the trapeze equipment and was trapped underneath the trampoline. His brother tried to get him clear but was unable to help. A rescue RIB came to help but did not have a knife to cut through the trampoline.

The Danish Tornado coach was next to arrive and slashed through the trampoline, but this was 20 minutes after the boat had capsized. After Johannes had been cut free of his trapeze harness he was dragged out of the water and attempts to resuscitate him began, but to no avail. Johannes is believed to have drowned some minutes before the Danish coach's arrival. Johannes and Martin were brought back to shore while their Tornado was left at anchor to be recovered later. The slashed trapeze harness was still attached to the trapeze wire when the boat was towed in some hours later.

Meanwhile, the final race had taken place for the Tornados, but it was declared null and void and the fleet was sent in early. Similarly, racing on other courses was cut short as different priorities took hold. After the strong winds of the previous day, where only the 49ers completed a race, today's racing took place in bracing but quite manageable winds between 14 and 18 knots. Sailors had been complaining yesterday that the winds were raceable, and yet today's incident shows that sailing can still be a dangerous sport even in moderate conditions.

When the sailors got ashore, word soon spread of the drowning, and bar talk this evening focused not on who had won their respective classes in what had been a highly competitive regatta, but what the implications were for the sport. 49er sailor Paul Brotherton has long been an advocate of carrying a knife on board at all times when skiff sailing, and he repeated that view today. He believed carrying a knife was more important than the crew wearing buoyancy aids. "The chances of both crew being knocked unconscious at the same time are tiny, but if you get your trapeze hook caught in a piece of rigging or something, then how are you going to get free unless you've got a knife?"

Australian Tornado guru Mitch Booth commented: "I have never seen or known of someone having a fatal accident in as long as I have been sailing. This is extremely tragic." His team mate Herbert Dercksen did not attribute it to the recent modifications to 'turbo' the Olympic catamaran. "In my view the boat has only become more safe. With the gennaker the bows come out easier and the boat will not pitch pole so easily. I do not know what exactly happened and I will not speculate. This is a very serious accident and the organisation will have to come up with some answers".

The incident has raised many issues for the sport that madforsailing will consider in the coming days, but suffice it to say it has had a major impact on people's outlook in Palma. Organisers cancelled the usually lavish prizegiving to celebrate the end of the regatta, and perhaps this was sensible in light of the greater issues confronting the organisation. But it was a shame for the sailors who were denied an opportunity to share in their collective grief and to bid their farewells until the next major regatta in Hyeres in a month's time.

On a brighter note for the British team, the highpoints were Paul Goodison's performance in the Laser and Ben Ainslie's early good showing in the Finn. He recorded another OCS when he had finished 7th in the final race, so he was unhappy to have finished fourth, but should nevertheless be greatly encouraged by such impressive form so early in the campaign.

With no change in the scores in the Tornado class, Steve Lovegrove and Martin Sellars finished 6th in the catamaran class. The sailors have much to learn about their new machines, even a full year after the second trapeze and gennaker were introduced. Like the 49er, they are potentially dangerous craft, but they could be made a good deal safer by a few simple and cost-effective precautions. These are the issues that madforsailing will discuss over the next few days. It is important the lessons are learned and the appropriate action taken before what is a traditionally windy and very challenging regatta in Hyeres at the end of April.

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