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Managing Risk in Ocean Racing: We speak to Clipper Race Director Mark Light

by Mark Jardine 3 Feb 2017 07:39 GMT 3 February 2017
Clipper Race Director Mark Light © onEdition

We spoke to Mark Light, Race Director of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, about how Clipper Ventures are continuing to pioneer new techniques and technologies in their quest to make offshore sailing a safer sport. We also spoke to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, founder of the Clipper Race, to get his views on the subject.

The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race has trained more than 4000 participants over ten biennial editions. It has always placed safety as its number one priority, setting a highly regarded benchmark in the sector, identifying and managing risks.

The Clipper Race continually reviews and develops its standards and procedures at or beyond those required by the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). It has also introduced many safety and training initiatives in areas where there are no statutory requirements.

Having been onboard Clipper Race yachts during Man Overboard drills, which were monitored by the MCA and MAIB, I have seen first-hand just how thorough and professional a job the race organisers and Skippers do.

Mark Jardine: How did you get involved with the Clipper Race initially?

Mark Light: I've been a professional sailor and instructor for 15 years and I knew plenty of ex-Skippers that I'd worked with previously who had gone on to do the Clipper Race, and I feel the Clipper Race is the pinnacle of what sailing instructors can reach for. I had done a lot of offshore sailing and ocean instructing on big boats with large crews, and I thought it was a great stepping stone for myself.

I felt ready, I applied, and fortunately I got through the interviews and the Skipper trials and I found myself as one of the ten Skippers on the Clipper 2011-12 Race.

Mark Jardine: For that race you were Skipper of Derry~Londonderry. What did you learn during that race?

Mark Light: I learnt so much. You feel like you're ready for a race and it's only when you've completed one that you realise lots of other things, and I'm a much better Skipper and manager now than when I took on the race. You learn how to deal with so many different types of person, with different levels, abilities, physical capability, expectations and also motivations. You learn very quickly how to marry that all up together into a common goal for the race.

First and foremost we're there as a combination of facilitator, Skipper of the boat and safety manager - which is our primary objective. The secondary objective is to be competitive in the Clipper Race and give people what they've signed up for: a competitive and fulfilling ocean racing experience.

Mark Jardine: This brings me onto that delicate balancing act; you're going to have some crew who have come from a very competitive life, maybe working in the City, and some who are just wanting to go round the world. How do you get the balance right with a complete mix of crew on board?

Mark Light: A lot of hard work, a lot of discussions and a lot of engagement with your crew. It starts many months before you go racing when you get to meet your team at Crew Allocation, which could be 3 or 4 months before the race actually starts. You start to talk about the campaign and what you can offer as a Skipper but, probably more importantly, what your crew needs and what they want from the race, and there's always a compromise; your objectives at the beginning will change and adapt throughout the race. You have to keep revisiting that and keep developing those expectations.

For those people who are very interested in seeing the world, the stopover locations, enjoying the sailing and learning how to sail, very quickly they can become the most competitive and are pushing to get on that podium every time. It's a lot of hard work, a lot of discussions, a lot of brainstorming and ideas go into getting the goals correct.

Mark Jardine: When does the training start for the Clipper Race crew?

Mark Light: The training starts a long time before they set sail on the race. Some will start their training a year or more before they actually set off. The training is very important and at a very high level indeed and much experience has gone into developing the programme.

Every crew member, regardless of their previous experience, will do exactly the same training, a minimum of four weeks across four individual courses. Whether you've signed up to the Clipper Race as a complete novice or whether you've owned a boat for 25 years, you do exactly the same training so that we know everyone knows the details. Quite often it's the people who have sailed for a few years on small boats who are the harder ones to train as they have small boat habits, like holding onto lines with one hand and only putting two turns on a winch.

Mark Jardine: I'm sure that's the case! Working from a blank canvas can often be far easier than re-teaching a person something they thought they knew.

Mark Light: I agree completely.

Mark Jardine: How has the training evolved during your time at Clipper Ventures?

Mark Light: It's always evolving. I came from an instructing background with my previous employment in the sailing industry and I knew when I first joined that the Clipper training was a step above anything I'd done beforehand. We are constantly looking at the evolutions aboard the boats, the abilities of the crew, the safety equipment that's available and constantly developing and tweaking our routines.

We're very fortunate with the Clipper Race that we have a great platform to learn, study, see how people operate and see how things work. We can then refine our procedures every single time we do it; every race we're doing something slightly different and making the whole process more efficient and better overall.

Mark Jardine: In my opinion, the two key areas of safety are man overboard and going into danger areas on the boat. Do you think that as the race progresses and people become used to their surroundings that those messages could in any way be forgotten? Are they key safety points drummed in throughout the race to avoid complacency aboard a Clipper yacht?

Mark Light: From my experience as a Skipper and as Deputy Race Director for two races, I've seen a lot of crew and a lot of training go ahead and it's nigh on impossible to forget the key safety messages. Obviously there are distractions in extreme situations and weather when a lot is going on, but you certainly won't forget the messages and I think if you spoke to any of our crews who have done the race, or anyone in training now, then they'd be able to tell you what the key safety points are - it's drummed in right from the off, and it has to be. That doesn't stop until the boat is safely back from the race and then back to Gosport on the delivery home. It's absolutely continuous and it has to be.

Mark Jardine: Your journey through Clipper has been pretty organic; first as a Skipper, then Deputy Race Director under Justin Taylor, and now as Race Director. Do you think that experience is vital for the role you are now in?

Mark Light: I think it's imperative really. I don't think you can take on the role of Deputy Race Director without having first been a Round the World Skipper, and we look for ex-Clipper Race Skippers to fill the role. We've just employed Daniel Smith as our new Deputy Race Director, who was a Skipper in the last Clipper Race; he's highly experienced, very competitive and fosters a great team spirit. He brings exactly the experience that you need in that role. I think it's vital.

Mark Jardine: What innovations are you currently working on with regards to safety?

Mark Light: We're always looking at different routines on board the boat; how to handle lines, where to stand, where to clip on, where we need jackstays on the boat and the best possible positions for things, but that happens continuously through racing and training.

Innovations-wise, for the last couple of races we've carried out our man-overboard drills with a life-sized mannequin, an MOB dummy. The first problem is to get back to the man overboard and the next problem is to how to get that casualty onto the deck of an ocean racing yacht that has a pretty high freeboard. That's been really successful and highlights just how difficult it can be in a MOB situation.

One of the other main innovations that we are looking at, and have been for some time - and we're implementing on this next race - are personal AIS beacons. We already have a personal AIS beacon ready to go on the danbuoy, which is one of the first actions in a man overboard sequence, to ensure the danbuoy gets thrown in and the AIS beacon gets activated. We know these personal AIS beacons are great bits of kit and massively important in an MOB situation so we are equipping all our boats with a personal AIS beacon for every crew member, attached to their lifejacket, so every crew member will have one on their person, However, we are working on a reliable automatic activation solution, but we also have the secondary AIS on the danbuoy. We know these things work and it's a really important innovation for the Clipper Race.

Mark Jardine: You spoke about jackstays and the positioning of them. Do you find you move the positions of these during the Clipper Race yacht overhauls between races?

Mark Light: Yes we do. We have a highly experienced maintenance team and through both the race and the refits of the yachts we're talking about how best to position kit, safety kit in particular. During the 2013-14 Clipper Race we moved the position of our danbuoys and our horseshoe buoys because we found in very extreme conditions that there could be an occasion where they get washed off the back of the boat. So we've relocated those onto our A-frame, slightly further inboard, and that's something which has worked really well. It's all very well having the danbuoy and horseshoe buoy on the back of the boat, but if you're clipped onto a jackstay and can't reach that to be able to deploy it in an emergency then it's no good. So we've looked at positioning of jackstays, the number of jackstays, all the positions on board the boat in which people are likely to find themselves in and making sure they can still access both helms and all the safety equipment. We're constantly looking at things like that and improving all the time.

Mark Jardine: Lastly, we've just seen Alex Thomson, an ex-Clipper Skipper, finish second in the Vendée Globe Race. This really shows just how competitive the race can be and where it can lead you to. What's your reaction to his great result in this, the pinnacle of singlehanded sailing?

Mark Light: It's fantastic for British sailing and it's brilliant for Alex Thomson. He could have easily won that race had it not been for the broken foil earlier in the race when he was in the lead. It's fantastic for the Clipper Race to have one of our Skippers to go forwards to that level - as you say it's the pinnacle of solo offshore sailing – it's an incredible achievement and he can be incredibly proud of himself. He'll probably be disappointed that he hasn't won it, but I think he's done everything within his power to get the runner-up spot there. I think it helps to show what level of Skipper we produce in the Clipper Race.

Mark Jardine: Thank you very much for your time. It's great to hear about everything that Clipper Ventures have in place for crew safety and are constantly developing.

Mark Light: It's my pleasure. Thank you for talking to me today.

We also spoke to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston about safety and the responsibility that each crew member must have for their own safety on board a yacht.

Mark Jardine: The race has extraordinary levels of risk management. What have you put in place that has changed safety on yachts?

Sir Robin: We've always taken safety very seriously. I have my core team, with enormous practical ocean racing and maintenance experience, and we're constantly looking at what we can do to make the boats safer.

At the end of the day people have to take responsibility for themselves. If you don't clip on, and you're trained to, and a wave hits you then you will go over the side, and there's nothing I can do about that. If you go into a danger area when you're told not to what can I do to stop you? All we can do is keep telling people "Don't go there and make sure you're clipped on".

Apart from that we're working on various projects including how to make a danbuoy work with an AIS beacon so we can get back to people more easily, and we're working on recovery for people over the side. There's nothing set down as to how you do that and we've got our own system and it seems to work. We're always looking at everything and asking the question as to how we improve and how do we avoid that in the future. What I cannot control is the individual who fails to obey those rules.

Mark Jardine: Do you think the experiences in the last race will make people realise that sailing can be a dangerous sport and if you don't obey the rules you can get hurt or killed?

Sir Robin: Sailing can be dangerous, but we train to make it safer, and that's what we do. It's not just in the Clipper Race, it's throughout the sport. We are in fact a very safe sport, but at the end of the day people have to remember those rules, their training and what they've been taught and then it's a safe game. If they start forgetting the rules then it becomes dangerous.

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