Nearly four years after a powerful thunderstorm claimed the lives of six sailors during the Dauphin Island Regatta, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has released a report from its investigation into what caused the 2015 maritime tragedy.
Investigators suggested miscommunication among the event’s organizer, the Fairhope Yacht Club, and a lack of awareness by participants left hundreds of sailors—many with significant experience—in the middle of an unusually strong thunderstorm with little time to prepare.
However, in the report, USCG notes the thunderstorm that brought winds of close to 60 mph and 10-foot swells crashing into contestants shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, because it was part of a system that had been moving toward Alabama for hours.
“Investigators heard numerous times ‘the weather came out of nowhere,’ but throughout the day the National Weather Service tracked a line of severe thunderstorms moving across Louisiana headed for southern Alabama with recorded winds in excess of 75 mph,” the report reads.
The report goes on to state that a USCG patrol commander telephoned race organizers notifying them there was severe weather headed toward Mobile Bay, but they were of the opinion that it was going to move to the north and not affect the area where the regatta was happening.
“They decided not to pass the information over the designated race channel,” the report says. “The passing of a ‘weather alert’ to the racers, those who were actively monitoring the designated race channel, may have given participants an hour or more of advance notice to prepare for the incoming weather.”
Even if a weather alert had gone out, there’s no guarantee everyone would have heard it.
While most participants had a Marine VHF radio, the investigation revealed many sailors kept those devices stored in areas that limited crewmembers’ ability to hear urgent messages. The report said many race participants also failed to wear or were unable to access life jackets.
In the report, USCG said it’s ultimately up to those commanding a vessel to ensure the safety of themselves and their crew. However, investigators also suggested there was a “noticeable level of overconfidence” among some of the sailors who were interviewed after the event.
“Investigators heard many times, ‘we’re sailors; we sail in all kinds of weather,’” the report reads. “While this may be true, investigators believe that in those circumstances the crew is aware of and prepared for approaching events. This event started with optimal sailing conditions, and the high level of comfort with this lulled many of the participants into a false sense of safety.”
According to the report, the Fairhope Yacht Club was also unable to provide emergency responders with updated crew lists during and after the thunderstorm. Investigators wrote that “significantly contributed to USCG’s inability to determine who was onboard which vessel, exactly how many people participated in the race, and how many were potentially in the water.”
However, USCG also evaluated its own role in the events leading up to the 2015 regatta.
Investigators noted the USCG had issued a “marine event permit” for the regatta, but according to their interviews, there was a lack of communication about the “responsibilities and authority” USCG patrol commanders overseeing race had—including the authority to call it off.
The report suggests that lack of communication “may have contributed to Coast Guard personnel being unaware of their authority to terminate the event due to weather.” The report recommended USCG change its procedures to ensure that information is clearly conveyed.
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