It was the Superyacht Challenge Antigua 2020, and for the first time in this regatta, four J-Class boats would compete. The fleet was getting ready for the first of their six races. With a minute and 40 seconds to go, S/Y Topaz approached the start line. But to port, S/Y Svea was on a collision course. At the last minute, Svea turned to bear away and Topaz luffed to avoid the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough and Svea collided with the port side of Topaz at the runner winch. Both boats were badly damaged and three crewmembers in total were injured; fortunately none too seriously.
It is anyone’s worst case regatta scenario. So, was this an example of why superyachts shouldn’t race under Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS), which allow boats to come within millimeters of each other? Peter Holmberg, helmsman on Topaz at the time, says no, it isn’t.
“The J-Class races under the normal RRS, and it is absolutely the way they should be raced when sailing amongst themselves. All the boats are expertly sailed by highly qualified sailors who are well-aware of their responsibilities. This allows these owners to have the proper, full on, close racing that they desire,” he says.
The conclusions were straightforward and undebated: Svea failed to keep clear as the port tack boat and broke rules 10 and 14. Topaz was found not to be able to avoid the collision. Holmberg classified it as a rare incident, “clearly due to a miscommunication in [Svea’s] afterguard (helmsman, tactician, navigator), not from an overly aggressive maneuver or un-seamanlike boat handling,” he says.
The incident is indeed rare in superyacht regattas. Yet over the last 10 to 15 years, the popularity of racing large yachts, whose primary purpose is cruising, has exploded. The reason for the good safety record in recent years is the formation of the SuperYacht Racing Association (SYRA).
“SYRA was founded ten years ago when the late Ed Dubois and others in the industry recognized that this rapidly growing part of the sport was fraught with issues… safe racing being the most prevalent,” says Peter Craig, SYRA executive director. The organization drew up Appendix SY, Superyacht Racing Rules, which modifies the RRS to cope with the maneuvering limitations of superyachts. Two of its most important components are rules that mandate yachts not come closer than 40 meters to each other, and that there be radio communication between yachts on a designated safety channel.
“…It is imperative to be thinking well ahead regarding one’s next maneuver and always being cognizant of any yacht in the vicinity and what their next move might be.”
“To say there were too many close calls prior to the Appendix SY and the 40-meter rule would be an understatement!” says Craig. “Over the past 15 years, owners and crews have become more competitive and keen on winning, and the result is more aggressive behavior on the race course. As Robbie Doyle pointed out regarding the 40-meter rule, ‘Now a close call is 10 meters when before it was 10 feet, or less.’”
While the J-Class collision occurred during a conventional fleet start without the Appendix SY being invoked, Craig says there are still lessons that can be learned. “The J-Class yachts, like many in the superyacht fleet, are big, heavy, slow-maneuvering yachts. As such, it is imperative to be thinking well ahead regarding one’s next maneuver and always being cognizant of any yacht in the vicinity and what their next move might be,” he says.
“It also amplifies the importance in superyacht racing of using the designated safety channel to inform any nearby superyacht of your intentions and/or to query them on their intent,” Craig continues. “This communication and advance knowledge are critical for slow-maneuvering yachts and has been instrumental in eliminating collisions and minimizing the number of close calls on the race course. Additionally, this collision between yachts with top-tier professional crews validates the requirement in superyacht racing for a Racing Rules Afterguard Member and Communications Officer.”
Jonathan Kline, skipper and program manager of Perseus and P2 for the same owner for 15 years, put together SYRA’s Racing Safety Manual, which Craig calls “must reading for any captain who is new to racing.”
Kline points out the interesting dynamic that exists between a yacht’s skipper and the professional race team, which comes into play during an incident like the Svea/Topaz collision. “You have to have a really special relationship between the helmsman and the skipper, so that it’s clear that if it comes to a snap decision having to be made, who is going to make it,” he says. “It’s very difficult if you’re not driving the boat to tell a pro helmsman what to do.” As the Racing Safety Manual states, “The permanent captain need not be afraid to hand over the con, but he must not be hesitant to take it back.”
Another of the manual’s most important takeaways is the danger that exists “when a boat that hasn’t been tested in 100 percent race conditions is suddenly put on the track with an enthusiastic owner who originally says, ‘Let’s just go out and sail around the cans and have a good time,’ but then once they get a pro helmsman, tactician, and bow team on board, everybody gets geed up, and the boat gets pushed faster or harder than it’s ever been pushed before,” says Kline. This can lead to another kind of worst-case scenario. He stresses that a yacht needs to engage in a maintenance program worthy of the loads racing places on it, and it should be sailed at “80, 90, 100 percent a few times before the regatta, not just on the day of.”
This article originally ran in the January 2022 issue of Dockwalk.