Simon Speirs' family fear more lives could be at risk in Clipper race

The family of an amateur sailor who died after being swept overboard in a round-the-world yacht race have claimed more lives may be at risk unless the organisers implement safety recommendations.

Simon Speirs, a retired solicitor from Bristol, drowned in very rough seas in the Southern Ocean, 1,500 miles west of Fremantle in Australia as he took part in the Clipper race.

A Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report on Speirs’ death has highlighted a string of safety concerns and made recommendations to race organiser Clipper Ventures.

It said damage to a guard rail may have contributed to Speirs, 60, falling overboard and hampered his rescue. The report, published on Thursday, also said the way Speirs was tethered to the yacht resulted in him being dragged alongside it and hindered his recovery.

Simon and Margaret Speirs

Simon and Margaret Speirs

It suggested Speirs may have been affected by tiredness and the crew had an increased workload because it had to carry out maintenance that might have been done before the race.

The Clipper race, the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world, allows amateur sailors to test themselves in ocean racing.

Speirs’ widow, Margaret, said: “If you read Clipper’s material, you’d think their number one concern was to keep people safe, but they have failed in so many ways. I believe the company is compromised by their desire to make money out of these races.”

She said that, on top of the challenges of sailing in hugely testing conditions, the crew had to do repair and maintenance work. “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 family pointed out that Speirs was the third British sailor to die in the race in three years. His son, Mike, said: “While a race like this can never be entirely safe, it’s clearly time to ask some serious questions about the balance of risk and the recent increase in fatalities.”

The Speirs family have also been affected by their loved one being buried at sea, which means there will be no inquest. “That denies us a public forum for evidence to be heard,” said Mike Speirs.

The report said that when Speirs fell overboard in November 2017 he was secured to the yacht, but before he could be recovered his safety tether hook distorted and suddenly released. He was recovered, with no signs of life, from the water by the crew 32 minutes later and could not be resuscitated.

It also pointed out that, following the earlier fatalities, investigators flagged up the difficulties of lowering headsails rigged in a particular way in strong winds and recommended improvement.

The report said: “Clipper Ventures did not make any changes to equipment or amend its procedures for reducing sail prior to the 2017-2018 race. Consideration of how sail area can be reduced quickly and safely is required if similar accidents are to be avoided in the future.”

It added: “Clipper Ventures has been recommended to further review and, as appropriate, modify its risk assessments and standard operating procedures with particular regard to foredeck operations, reducing sail in rough weather and methods for recovery of both tethered and untethered MOBs (men overboard).”

A spokesperson for Clipper Ventures said: “We were and continue to be very saddened at the loss of Simon Speirs. 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 standards. All safety equipment onboard 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 10 to 14 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 MAIB … We have had our safety system independently reviewed.

“During 11 editions, 5,000 people have taken part in the Clipper race, organised by parent company Clipper Ventures. We regret any injury or loss of life and every measure possible is taken to ensure the safety of our crew.”