A new MAIB report into the death of Simon Speirs has revealed frequency of ‘tethered MOB’ incidents
The family of Simon Speirs, a sailor in the 2017-08 Clipper Round the World Race who died after being swept overboard in November 2017, has urged race organisers to urgently implement the recommendations of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report, which was published today.
Simon Speirs, 60, a retired solicitor from Bristol, died from drowning in heavy seas 1,500 miles west of Fremantle in Australia on 18 November 2017 when he went overboard from the Great Britain yacht (known as CV30) in Leg 3.
Mr Speirs’s family says the race organisers, Clipper Ventures, have ignored previous MAIB recommendations that might have saved his life. They are urging the company to make urgent safety improvements for the 2019-20 edition, which sets out from London on 1 September.
Simon’s widow, Margaret told Yachting World: “I want to highlight to those going on the race this time, that the race isn’t run in a way that’s as safe as it can be, so they have the conversations with their families that we didn’t have when Simon left.
“And to make sure that Clipper Ventures take on board the recommendations in this report, because I do think there has been a history of Clipper Ventures not implementing the recommendations that the MAIB has made in the past.”
In a statement released today she said: “The reason that Simon died was not just because a wave swept the deck and took him overboard. If the crew had more paid professional support, if there been more safe clipping on points, if equipment not failed, if drysuits been compulsory equipment, Simon’s life would probably have been saved.”
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Simon’s son Mike added in the statement: “Dad was the third British sailor to die in this race in three years, [Ed note: Andrew Ashman suffered fatal injuries when hit by the mainsheet during crash gybes, and Sarah Young was lost overboard, both in the 2015-16 race] and many more have had near misses when they have fallen overboard.
“We are not satisfied with Clipper’s attitude to safety, and they need to do a lot more to ensure future participants are not unnecessarily risking their lives. We also want future race sponsors, crews and their families to understand the risks they take by putting their safety in the hands of a company with such an immature safety culture.
“We urge Clipper Ventures to fully implement the safety recommendations in the MAIB report. If they had implemented recommendations of two previous MAIB reports, my dad might still be with us today.”
Simon Speirs fell overboard from the foredeck whilst tethered, but his tether hook became caught on a bow cleat and opened. He was recovered after 32 minutes but never regained consciousness.
In the weeks following Speirs’ death the MAIB released an Urgent Safety Advisory Notice highlighting the potential for tethers to open when under lateral load, particularly when twisted or snagged. While the tethers can withstand a load of over 1 tonne longitudinally, it was found that they would deform under significantly less if loaded laterally. The notice emphasised the importance of ensuring tether hooks are free to rotate.
Following Simon Speirs’ death, and the grounding of Greenings (CV24) off the coast of South Africa in October 2017, Clipper also added a professional first mate to each crew from Leg 4 onwards in December 2018.
However, the detailed MAIB investigation, which took over 18 months to complete, reveals the full circumstances that led up to Speirs’ death. They include the fact that the forward starboard stanchion bases on Speirs’ yacht had suffered damage two weeks previously. A repair was made using high modulus line.
Speirs, together with four other crew, was on the foredeck attempting to drop the No 3 Yankee. In rough seas no fewer than three members of crew went over the lifelines during the headsail drop and subsequent manoeuvres.
When the yankee was approximately three-quarters of the way down, a large wave on the port quarter caused CV30 to slew first to startboard, then port, and accidentally gybe.
The bowman fell overboard but was held by his short tether, which he had clipped to the pulpit, and able to haul himself back on board. Shortly afterwards, Simon Speirs fell overboard from the starboard side in between the forestays.
A third crew member later fell over the port guardrail while attempting to control the yankee during the MOB recovery manoeuvre, but was also held by his short tether and helped back on board by the crew on the foredeck.
The MAIB report highlighted that there had been at least 15 incidences of ‘tethered MOBs’ between 2013, when the Clipper 70 was introduced, and July 2018. Nine occurred on the 2017-18 race, and all bar one involved a crew on the foredeck.
While both the other CV30 crew members who slipped overboard were held by their short tethers, Simon Speirs was held by his long tether, and the bowman was unable to reach him. A halyard with open shackle was passed to Speirs, but he was unable to attach it to his lifejacket whilst dragging in the water before the tether hook distorted and released.
The MOB recovery manoeuvres were further hampered by multiple deck gear problems. Although the two preventers, which had been rigged as per usual practice, held during the initial accidental gybe, a block attaching a kicker to the boom parted (the vang had been damaged earlier in the leg).
The mainsheet winch developed a riding turn, and during tacks and gybes approaching Speirs in the water the mainsheet became caught around the mainsheet winch and ripped off the self-tailer, while a block for the main traveller also broke – all of which made controlling the mainsail more difficult.
Margaret Speirs explains that several factors contributed to her husband’s death.
“In the past the MAIB had recommended that measures be put in place to make the boats more controllable in rough weather, when they’re bringing down sails, and that recommendation was not acted on in the case of the CV21 accident [the deaths of Andrew Ashman and Sarah Young on IchorCoal, CV21, during the 2015-16 race].
“They had made no changes to their procedures to bringing down sails more quickly, which meant that there were five people on a very narrow bow in really rough weather trying to do a sail evolution. They subsequently put a downhaul on one of those sails, but they hadn’t done anything in the light of the previous recommendations.
“The other one that’s very crucial is the lack of clipping on points, so Simon was on the foredeck clipped on with his long tether sail… because there was nowhere on the foredeck where he could be clipped on with his short tether in order to do that task.”
The Speirs family believes that fatigue and illness among the 16 amateur crew were additional factors in Simon’s accident, which is also highlighted in the MAIB report.
Margaret Speirs added: “On top of the challenges of sailing in hugely testing conditions, the crew had to do repair and maintenance work including pumping water out of a perpetually leaking boat. In Simon’s case, he was not only watch leader and coxswain but designated sail repairer, in one instance spending 20 hours out of 24 in cramped cabin conditions repairing ripped sails.
“As a result, the crew were immensely tired, more tired than they had ever been, putting not only themselves in danger but all the people around them as they are so dependent on each other. The way the race is run imposes on participants a reckless disregard for health and safety legislation that requires rest periods.”
The Speirs family say they have also been hugely affected by the fact that Simon was buried at sea, a decision presented to them as the only option when in fact a ship was nearby which could have taken Simon’s body to shore for repatriation.
“We now understand this was unlawful as they didn’t have permission from the statutory agency. Burial at sea meant we were not entitled to have an inquest into dad’s death, denying us a public forum for evidence to be heard, to ask questions and challenge unsafe practices,” said Mike Speirs.
Clipper Ventures issued the following statement in response to the MAIB report and the Speirs family comments:
We were and continue to be very saddened at the death of Simon Speirs and our thoughts are with his family. The safety of our crew is our highest priority and has been since the race was established in 1996.
Every crew member undergoes four weeks of intensive, rigorous training, specifically designed for ocean racing, of which safety is at the core. This includes sea survival training which is carried out to industry (RYA) standards. All safety equipment on board is industry leading with every crew member equipped with a personal AIS beacon in lifejackets.
Each yacht is fully crewed and crew members are ‘off watch’ for between ten to fourteen hours in each 24 hour period. The watch system is designed to ensure each crew member has enough rest during the race.
We have followed previous safety recommendations from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), and not “ignored” them as previously stated in the MAIB report. We have had our safety system independently reviewed, as the MCA has not been able to allocate the resources to do so.
During eleven editions, 5,000 people have taken part in the Clipper Race, organised by parent company Clipper Ventures. Every measure possible is taken to ensure the safety of our crew.
Factual inaccuracies within both the MAIB report and associated statements:
It is factually incorrect to state that Clipper Ventures has ignored previous MAIB recommendations. Specifically, Clipper Ventures:
- Is installing navigation plotters on deck at the helming position
- Implemented new passage planning procedures
- Introduced a paid, professionally qualified ‘Additional Qualified Person’ (AQP) to aid each of the Clipper Race Skippers
Simon Speirs did have a dry suit, he chose not to wear it on 18th November 2017.
The reference to a nearby vessel, that could have taken Simon’s body, is factually incorrect. This was a mistake made by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which it subsequently admitted. The MCA confirmed to Clipper Ventures that they had informed the Speirs family of this mistake. The nearest suitable vessel to the Clipper Race yacht was a minimum of six days away. The MCA was notified four hours before the burial at sea.