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Busfield 2013

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Busfield Regatta

Good evening parents,

I wanted to follow up with you about the race we attended this past Saturday.  Only our varsity men made the trip to the Busfield Regatta on the Susquehanna River in Owego, NY.  The water was terrible.  Our men managed to finish their race in the 4+'s, after the course was shortened from 2000m to 1500m.  Our A-boat with coxswain Ben Sansonetti '15, stroke-seat Dan Allen '16, Aaron Dahl '15, Mark Walck '15, and bow seat Nick Bayer '15 came in 2nd, while our B-boat with coxswain Brittany DeSiato '15, stroke seat Dan Decker '14, Alex Montanarello '14, Ted Taylor '15, and bow seat Andy Chen '14 came in 4th.

In the afternoon, our men went out again to race in the 8+.  Of the four competitors, only one boat finished the race.  The rest sank, including ours.  Fortunately everyone was swiftly rescued and returned to shore, and no one needed medical attention from the EMTs on site.  The event turned into a big debacle, and the team is very upset with how the regatta was run.  I composed the attached letter, and our executive board has signed it.

We appreciate the support of the parents who helped our athletes recover from the cold and fed us during the day.  I wish the event had turned out better than it did!  We'll have to hope for better weather at the NY States Championship.  The event will be run much more smoothly and safely with USRowing referees.

-Coach Mac

Attached Letter:

Dear Patrick Elliot, Director of Athletics at Binghamton University,           

I’m writing to inform you of the events that took place on Saturday, April 20th at the Busfield Regatta on the Susquehanna River.  Numerous crews were put at risk by being sent into dangerously high and swift water.  During the varsity men’s eights event, at least three boats were swamped, and all 27 athletes had to be rescued.  Upon seeing the boats go down, I immediately called 911 in case any rowers were hypothermic.  During the event and rescue, numerous concerns were raised.  I will begin with summarizing what happened, and then provide suggested solutions to learn from this event and minimize future scenarios of this kind.

            First, I would like to say that I am disappointed in myself for allowing my crew to launch.  I unfortunately put too much trust into the regatta organizers, assuming that they were capable of executing good judgment concerning safety.  I am unfamiliar with the Susquehanna, and left the decision making to the local coaches with knowledge of the nuances of the water.  Safety should always come first, and there were numerous indicators that should have signaled an earlier end to racing.  The first events that were run were novice eights.  The boats rode precariously low in the water, with waves lapping the riggers.  All rowers returned to the dock soaking wet, and as they picked their boats out of the water, were showered with excess water that had been in the boats.  The second events that were run were varsity fours, in which I had two crews entered.

Concerning the launching of the varsity fours, there was miscommunication between the dock master and the organizers on the water.  One of my crews was launched, and then the other boats in the same event were held at the dock.  In the meantime, my boat was headed to the start line on their own.  I am unaware of any safety launches that were in that area and that could have aided them had they found themselves in trouble.  At some point it was decided that the races would be shortened from 2000m to 1500m, and I am not sure how that was communicated to the coxswains, because I saw some boats stop while other boats rowed far beyond the finish line at race pace.  Watching my crew race, the waves were up to the riggers, and the bow and stern were barely visible above the water.  Upon their return to the dock, the boats were filled with water halfway up their shoes.  One of my rowers was shivering uncontrollably, so I immediately removed him from the boat and sent him with a parent to a warm location, removing him from the lineup of his next scheduled race.

During late morning and early afternoon, the weather continued to worsen.  Gusts picked up, and at moments it snowed or hailed.  Despite the worsening weather, crews continued to launch.  I myself do not have a smart phone, so I could not get the latest weather reports, but I assumed that one of the regatta organizers would be keeping a close watch.  I launched my varsity men’s eight, and then anxiously awaited their race.  As the crews approached the halfway mark near the boathouse, I could see the bows sinking deeper and deeper.  First one crew went down, and then another, and then mine.  I am unsure of the exact number of boats that went down that day, but I believe there were possibly more than just these three men’s eights.

That so many crews went down is a clear sign that the duty to execute an aversion of risk was grossly ignored.  Once the swamping event took place, the danger was compounded by the rescue efforts of the regatta organizers.  One of the first boats to go down was closer to the dock.  Those rowers ended up leaving the safety of their hull and swam for the dock.  I am unaware of the current temperature of the Susquehanna, but I know it is very cold.  In general, rowers sometimes find themselves accidentally swimming in the water, which is why they must pass a swim test, but every safety video will warn that rowers should never overestimate themselves and swim for shore.  The hypothermic effects of cold water are often underappreciated.  I have heard too many stories of confident swimmers unable to safely reach shore.  If rowers must leave the safety of their hull, then they should at least remove the oars and swim with the oars, as the oars are their flotation device.

I was horrified to watch the rescue of the rowers in my boat.  The launch approached the boat from upstream, heading in prop first!  Never ever approach rowers in the water with your engine running, and never ever approach rowers in the water stern first.  The evidence of these mistakes is clearly etched in our boat.  Clear parallel gashes in the stern and at other locations along the hull of the boat show where the prop sliced through the carbon fiber of the boat.  Not only did the running prop put my rowers in danger, but by slicing through the stern compartment, the hull lost its flotation.  The bow and stern decks are designed to be hollow, so that even in a swamping like what occurred this day, they will still provide enough buoyancy to allow the boat to float just below the surface of the water.  With the sliced stern compartment, our hull could have sunk, which would have just been an added insult to the swamping that had just occurred.  Our boat is now out of commission for the rest of the season due to the extensive damage done to the hull from the prop of the launch.

Once our boat was towed back to the dock, I am happy that numerous Binghamton rowers came down to help bail out the boat.  In the process of picking the boat up out of the water, however, they were not responsive to our coxswain, and ended up dragging the hull along the edge of the dock, snapping off the skeg, which is now missing downstream.

I am glad that no one was hurt, and that the rescue efforts were swift, but numerous actions were not executed properly.  Their hearts were in the right place, but the organizers were unqualified to run an event of this size.  I question whether any of the launch drivers were actually certified in boating.  Any boating certification course will instruct drivers to rescue a swimmer by first heading downstream of the victim, turning the bow upstream, turning the engine off, and then allowing the victim to float to the rescue boat.

This swamping event may have been avoided had there been better communication.  I am unaware of how the organizers communicated, but I never heard any chirping of radios anytime I was at the dock.  A well-run regatta would have regular communication on the radio between docks, marshals, and the start and finish.  The regatta director should have had communication with the dock master, and could have asked about the condition of the boats and rowers upon their return.  Hearing about the level of water in the boats would have served as an indicator that the water conditions were pushing the safety limit allowed by the low freeboard of rowing shells.  When operating in marginal weather, someone on land should also be tasked with watching the latest weather updates from a trusted source.  This is often done at regattas concerned with thunderstorms, but it should have also been done this day with concern to wind gusts.  The decision to stop racing should not occur when a boat swamps, but rather before it swamps.

Clarkson University will not be returning to this event next year unless it is run by certified USRowing referees.  Referees are trained in safety first, and carry with them extensive experience from numerous events.  Referees can also offer an unbiased decision of whether to run a regatta or not.  It may have been difficult for the hosts to cancel the regatta because they felt obliged to run it despite safety concerns.  A neutral referee would not suffer from such a conflict of interest.  Due to the shortage of rowing referees, I would suggest that the team encourage their coaches, parents, and alumni to begin the referee certification process.

I am highly disappointed with how the events turned out on Saturday.  I have, however, provided numerous suggestions on how to learn from this event.  In order for these changes to be implemented, they also have to be budgeted.  I want to encourage the administration to allow the crew to afford necessary safety equipment and education, including radios, weather instruments, additional launches, and certification courses.  Rowing is a beautiful sport, but if its dangers aren’t humbly appreciated, it could easily turn deadly.


Thank you for your sincere attention to these concerns,


Jessica McAlear, Varsity Coach, Clarkson University Crew Club, 315-323-2290,

Clarkson University Crew Club Executive Board Members:

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