Smooth operators: The expert team keeping the Extreme Sailing Series™ safe

When you pit the world’s best sailors against each other in ultra-fast ‘flying’ catamarans, there are unsurprisingly ever-present risks. With both men and machines pushed to the absolute limit, the action provides a thrilling spectacle for audiences around the globe.

Inevitably incidents do occur from time to time, and when they do the Extreme Sailing Series™’ specialist on-the-water safety team jump into action to ensure the welfare of sailors, guests and spectators. A prime example of the skill of this small band of experts came during race eight of Act 6 in the Portuguese islands of Madeira, when Alinghi and Red Bull Sailing Team were involved in a high-speed crash on the start line.

The collision broke a vital part of Alinghi’s rigging and moments later the team’s 16.5-metre carbon fibre mast tumbled slowly into the water. Within seconds the Extreme Sailing Series safety team, comprising RIB driver Ian Fiddaman, paramedic Rich Bell and rescue swimmer Paul Nelhams were on the scene.

“During start sequences we’re on a heightened level because we know that all the boats are going to be confined to a small space,” Bell explained. “At the start of race eight we saw Alinghi and Red Bull Sailing Team come very close to one another, before both teams stopped.

“It became apparent very quickly that something wasn’t right. No-one could say at the time what that was but it was obvious something had happened. As always we started moving towards it so we could get a clearer picture of the incident.”

Nelhams, an osteopath specialising in back injuries, added: “Initially we didn’t know Alinghi’s rig was going to come down but we were prepared for any situation. We were right behind the boat when it happened. When we saw Alinghi’s bowsprit off to one side we knew something was wrong, then eventually the rig slowly fell down.”

With emergency procedures kicking in, the team’s first concern was the safety of the onboard guest and Alinghi’s sailors. The crew and guest were all wearing helmets and buoyancy aids, and no-one was injured.

“Within seconds we’d established everyone onboard was safe,” Bell said. “There’s so much experience on our boat that we can tell almost immediately if someone has been hurt, and thankfully here that wasn’t the case. Really quickly we could see that there was one crewmember in the water but he was unharmed, and the rest of the crew were active on the boat, pulling lines and grabbing shrouds.”

Fiddaman, a former lifeboat-man and community responder in the ambulance service, has been the safety RIB driver at the Extreme Sailing Series since the event began ten years ago. Thanks to the swift actions of his team the incident was dealt with so quickly that racing was able to continue, much to the delight of fans lining the shore and watching the live broadcast.

“The priority for us is always the guest sailor, so our first job was to take them off the boat,” he added. “We picked up another guest from Alinghi’s chase boat who had been due to sail in the following race, because that then frees up the team’s support crew to help with the salvage operation. We then radioed the Phil Lawrence, the race director, to report the two guests were secure and that allows Phil to concentrate on keeping the racing going in the knowledge that everyone is safe.”

Bell added: “Although the collision took Alinghi and Red Bull Sailing Team out of the race the rest of the teams were still blasting round the course, so as soon as we had established everyone was safe our focus switched straight back to the race at hand.

“One of the greatest things about the Extreme Sailing Series is how all the teams work together. Alinghi’s support team were on the scene seconds after us and so were the Portuguese. It was a really slick operation. Within 30 minutes Alinghi had been towed back to the dock and the shore crew were already working on her, and there was barely any delay to the racing. The show must go on!”

Watch the footage of the incident between Alinghi and Red Bull Sailing Team here.