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Cheeki Rafiki- Questions for the Future

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The US Coastguard's decision to resume the search for the four missing crew members of Cheeki Rafiki is the right one.

While ever there is a possibility of finding the crew alive it should continue.

The chance of finding survivors is slimmer now than it was on Sunday when the search was called off, but weather conditions and visibility have improved and that should help the air crews.

Whatever the outcome of this search, the sailing fraternity will need to take a long hard look at this incident to see whether lessons can be learned for the future.

The yacht was returning from a series of races in the Caribbean after sailing over the Atlantic in November in a race called the ARC. The ARC is strictly a rally but there is a race within the event. It is held every year and follows the trade winds from the Canaries to the Caribbean.

The winds on this route tend to be more benign than those in the North Atlantic and the sea temperature is warmer at these more southerly latitudes. Further, the yachts are sailing in a fleet so in the event of an emergency a skipper will know there is likely to be another yacht somewhere in the vicinity. The "safety in numbers" feature of international yachts races such as the Vendee Glove has led to some spectacular rescues in the past.

Many of the ARC yachts stay on to compete in a Royal Ocean Racing Club race, the Caribbean 600 in February and for Antigua week, one of the most popular regattas in the international yachting calendar, held in April.

Some will then be either shipped back to Europe on a cargo vessel or they will sail back under a crew. This latter option was taken by the managers of Cheeki Rafiki. The yacht also chose the shorter North Atlantic passage for its journey back to its base in Southampton. In future it might be prudent if returning yachts buddy up with other yachts as an extra safeguard since once a yacht sails beyond helicopter range, they become more dependent in an emergency on other vessels in the vicinity.

Specialist aircraft can search the seas and can drop beacons and other equipment. But they cannot risk dropping specialist rescue personnel mid-ocean. It is a sobering thought that the largest oceans, like Mount Everest, have their death zones where search and recovery become so difficult as to be impractical.

cheeki rafiki map
*Image: see further comment here.  

In this case questions need to be asked about the commercial container ship that spotted and photographed an upturned hull of a yacht that must have been Cheeki Rafiki, even though a positive identification could not be made. Why was the cargo ship advised that it could leave the area when it was willing to stand to? Why, at the very least, didn't it mark the hull with a beacon? Surely it had devices on board.

Staying close to the hull was important because people could, even now, be alive inside it. But finding the hull from the air is even more difficult than finding a bright orange life-raft. The decision to stay or leave a capsized yacht should not be an arbitrary one. Even if it was certain that it was abandoned - and this is by no means the case here - the hull should have been marked as a danger to shipping.

Why also did no-one alert the media earlier? The outpouring of concern in the 200,000-name petition raised since news of the search efforts emerged, has helped focus decision-makers on the plight of the yachtsmen. It made a difference.

But these are all discussions that need to be held in the weeks ahead. For now the US Coastguard needs to be thanked for resuming its search. At the end of this, everyone involved in the search must be able to say to themselves: "We did what we could".

*This blog was reposted with the kind permission of Richard Donkin.  Follow Richard Donkin's sailing blog 'Cardinal Points' here.  

About the author:  

Richard Donkin is an author and columnist. He is the author of the acclaimed books 'The History of Work' and 'The Future of Work.' He also writes and comments on management, employment, sailing and fishing and was a long-standing Financial Times journalist.   

During the late 1990s Richard completed a series of travel writing assignments, including a 6,000-mile voyage around Cape Horn in 1997 BT Global Challenge Round the World yacht race.  Today he looks after the FT’s twice-yearly special report on Sailing and Marinas.

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