By Joel Labuzetta, Junior Sailing Program Director at Severn Sailing Association
The Severn Sailing Association (SSA) in Annapolis, Md. has been hosting one-design racing events and running junior sailing programs for over a half-century.
On June 23, 2011, a 14-year-old girl participating in SSA’s junior sailing program drowned when her Club 420 capsized and trapped her under the boat. This tragedy not only heightened the attention of safety procedures, protocol and equipment, but introduced more awareness for effective crisis management at sailing organizations around the world.
Joel Labuzetta, the Junior Sailing Program Director at SSA, has been immersed in crisis communications over the past year. After extensive research and through the recommendations of US Sailing’s report on the incident, Labuzetta has developed a complete crisis management plan for SSA.
Learn more about his experience with this tragedy and how SSA implements its crisis management plan:
No one wants or expects to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy. Often a crisis is over in moments but its effects remain for years. Last summer, the SSA staff, students and I went through what I can only hope will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As Junior Program Director, I was deeply involved in responding to the events and analyzing what changes we should make. I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, the sailing community as a whole can benefit.
Preparation and prevention
Crisis management primarily has to do with preventative preparation for an accident. Since our sport inherently involves so many uncontrollable factors, it is important to be able to control as much of a situation as possible. The same mentality of setting a boat up properly for a race and maintaining equipment needs to be applied to safety and preparation for an emergency.
In our case, having done this as much as possible prior to this tragedy was an important factor in how everyone at SSA responded during the crisis. My staff and I had a plan in place to deal with an emergency situation. We were properly trained, the plan was efficiently executed, but a sailor still drowned. I can’t imagine having to tell someone that an accident could have been prevented and a tragedy was due to negligence or poor planning.
Aside from the guilt associated with a preventable accident, there is also the issue of legal implications. I had always been aware of the seriousness of a liability lawsuit, but thinking of such a tragedy in personal terms regarding my responsibility to the families whose children sail in my program has made a very strong impression on me.
I believe that it is the Junior Program Director’s job to continually think through scenarios and to work out the best possible preparations. The benefits of preparation and prevention came up in response to many questions raised by last summer’s tragedy.
Who contacts the family?
As Junior Program Director, I was the first one to call the parents before the ambulance left the site of the accident.
- The primary concern is for the family. Be sympathetic and supportive.
- Insist on having accurate contact numbers and emails, including emergency only numbers.
- Be honest and straightforward when speaking. Only state what you know to be true. Avoid speculating.
What about classes for the day?
Our accident happened in an afternoon race class, and the ambulance responded to an off-site location since our emergency plan called for bringing a victim to the nearest shore as a meeting point. Concurrent classes that day were not cancelled because coaches directly involved in the accident, including myself, did not return to SSA until after the program ended for the day.
- Keeping other sailors insulated from emergency proceedings and personnel is an important consideration.
- If your emergency meeting/egress point is at your club, think about how this will affect your classes.
Do you cancel the program?
Our accident happened on a Thursday. We decided to close for Friday, and were open again on Monday, with another day off Tuesday for the memorial service.
- Consider the size of your program and the nature of the crisis to make this determination.
- Have board members or others available in person to answer questions when classes resume.
How do you contact people and who does it?
We sent a group email stating that the program would be closed*. We already had email lists in place for our weekly newsletters. In addition, my Junior Board and I called the families of the race team involved in the accident to break the news and be available for questions. Almost without exception, families and sailors were already aware of the tragedy through Facebook. An important note is that our primary contacts were daytime telephone numbers and we were making calls after 6 pm, which led to making multiple calls.
- Have a method of mass-communication for your program.
- Assume that everything you write and say will be published. Again, stick to facts, do not speculate.
- Have a single point of contact for media. In our case this was Commodore Hal Whitacre. Hal drafted a widely publicized statement a few days after the accident**.
- If you operate under a yacht club organization, contact your board of directors. They need to be in the loop early, and should be part of the response.
- Call your insurance agent immediately. Know who they are and have their phone number available.
- Know who your club’s lawyer is and contact him/her.
Who is liable?
- Have all staff record written statements immediately. Even those not directly involved may have useful information about what they saw, heard, and the timing.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Were the coaches Level 1 certified including up-to-date First Aid and CPR?
- Were life jackets being worn?
- What was the class coach to sailor ratio?
- How quickly did the coach / emergency personnel respond?
What happens to the staff and sailors?
I feel lucky to be a part of a very close-knit club. Many of my staff grew up together and live locally, and many of the sailors are here year-round. However, we also have staff new to the area and from out of the country. We had several grief counselors contacted through race team parents and were able to have the staff meet with a counselor before leaving SSA for the day. Another counselor was available the next morning to meet with sailors involved and the staff. Coaches who lived alone were welcomed into others’ homes for as long as necessary.
- Ensure that the staff and sailors involved have a support structure available; family, friends, and loved ones.
- Have a counselor or psychologist/psychiatrist contact that can be made available.
- Bring in some outside people to help. Board members and parents can be particularly valuable – you will need people who are close to the situation but removed enough to think clearly.
- Different people will have different responses to stress and loss. Recognize that everyone will not react the same way, and that’s OK.
Crisis management is about being prepared before the crisis. Know what your support structure is and be ready to use it. The stress following a tragedy is too much for one person to handle. Our response was a collaborative effort between our staff, Junior and Senior Club boards, neighboring yacht clubs, and many other people who were working together. I am very grateful for the support I continue to receive, and hope that our experience can help other clubs be prepared to deal with a crisis.
* IMPORTANT NOTICE:
For many of us, sailing offers a lifetime of challenges and rewards, but we sometimes forget, like many other sports, sailing is not without risk. Today, a tragedy of the worst kind occurred as a participant in the SSA Junior Sailing Program capsized and drowned in a horrific accident. Although coaches and emergency teams quickly responded, the victim could not be resuscitated.
At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with the victim and her family. We collectively will be mourning this great loss as well as providing our deepest sympathy. Additionally, we ask everyone to provide support to the junior sailors as well as their coaches as they cope with the shock and sorrow associated with the accident. Sadly, we are reminded of the fragility of life and how it can often be taken in a moment.
The Junior Sailing Program will be closed tomorrow as the club grieves over this loss and assesses the next steps in the healing process. Additionally, there will be a meeting Monday, June 27, at 9:00 AM and 12:00 PM for the parents of participants in the respective morning and afternoon classes to answer any questions.
SSA Junior Program Director
** “Reflecting on this Tragedy with Disbelief” By Hal Whitacre, Commodore, Severn Sailing Association, June 26, 2011
The last several days have been notably some of the most challenging of my life. As the Commodore of Severn Sailing Association, I am faced with great responsibilities relating to the loss of a fellow sailor. Even more difficult for me, as a father of three children, are the haunting emotions and sympathy I feel for the grieving family of Olivia Constants, a young sailor on our junior race team who lost her life in a sailing accident last Thursday.
I can only reflect on this tragedy with disbelief. Surely we all often think of the dangers of the sea as we venture from the dock. Seldom, though, do we hear of a life-threatening event occurring in our local sailing community. In general, accidents of this magnitude are rare and this one involved experienced sailors and competent instructors. However, the rarity of such an accident is no comfort to me or any other parent.
My understanding thus far is that the 420 capsized to windward while sailing downwind, and then rolled into a "turtled" position (mast pointing downward). The coach immediately approached the boat, radioed for additional assistance, and worked diligently to dislodge Olivia, who at that moment appeared to be unconscious. Concurrently, another instructor phoned 911. Once she was retrieved from the water, coaches immediately performed CPR and proceeded to the Naval Academy's seawall, which was the nearest point of land, to meet the emergency response team. Unfortunately, Olivia could not be resuscitated.
At this point the exact cause of Olivia's drowning is unknown and under investigation by Maryland DNR.
Conditions at the time were excellent for training, and both sailors have sailed, and capsized, in much rougher conditions. Both Olivia, her skipper, and all coaches were wearing their PFDs, in accordance with our Junior Program Rules.
The Severn Sailing Association's junior sailing program has a history of over 50 years of producing world-class sailors, from local champions to Olympic sailors; with thousands of students having safely completed the program. The current junior program, consistent with our past programs, is committed to making sailing accessible to the public and to help those wanting to pursue higher levels in the sport. Our sailing program director and his coaches have a passion to teach, and hold safety as a top priority.
As a result of this incident we are reviewing and critiquing our safety procedures and equipment. As with any incident such as this, a greater light is shown on safety and with this focus good safety measures can be made even better. As this incident has had far reaching impact within the greater junior sailing community, we have reached out to other junior programs to both tell them our current safety thinking and to glean any additional information they may have to contribute. We intend to have an independent, expert, organization perform a safety review of our junior program equipment and procedures and will share our findings with the greater sailing community.
I have been in contact with the Constants family and they are very appreciative of the outpouring of support and love expressed for Olivia. I am grateful for the outpouring of support from the community. There has been a clear message encouraging the club to continue with the current program and its positive contributions to youth instruction and the promotion of sailing. We appreciate your support of our program, and particularly to our staff.
Olivia will be greatly missed by everyone. Our thoughts and prayers remain with her family.
The United States Sailing Association (US Sailing), the national governing body for sailing, provides leadership, integrity, and growth for the sport in the United States. Founded in 1897 and headquartered in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, US Sailing is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization. US Sailing offers training and education programs for instructors and race officials, supports a wide range of sailing organizations and communities, issues offshore rating certificates, and provides administration and oversight of competitive sailing across the country, including National Championships and the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider. For more information, please visit www.ussailing.org.