Leo Blockley Memorial Campaign Buoyancy Seminar

The Rowing Service

Saturday 1st February 2003
Venue: Mortlake Angian & Alpha Boat Club, Chiswick, London UK

The following is not a transcript, but a summary of what was said at a public seminar on buoyancy held on 1st February 2003 in London. Many of the presentations involved were based on documents which are published online on the Leo Blockley Campaign website. For further information consult these directly, or see the talk transcripts (more accurately: planned scripts) which have been published on the campaign website.

Attendance was around 35-40, including a few ARA officers, although as far as I am aware all of them were attending in a private, non-representational, capacity.

The afternoon began with a brief introduction from Simon Darnbrough (SD), the NW region div. rep., who had agreed to chair the seminar and present the speakers.

First to speak was Stephen Blockley (SB), father of Leo, who died on 29th December 2000 when his boat was swamped during a rowing outing on the River Ebro in Amposta, northern Spain. SB mentioned his history as a physics and design/technology teacher, and described the Ebro incident in detail. He emphasised that there was no question of negligence on the part of the club (OULRC), and that all safety procedures were followed properly. This is the incident which prompted SB and his wife Jane to begin the campaign in their son's name, lobbying for the introduction of buoyancy standards which would ensure that crews do not have to leave the boat when it is intact but swamped.

Next Caroline Smith (CS), the cox of Leo's crew at the time of the incident, stood up. Without notes, she described what she remembers feeling and thinking at the time of the incident. She mentioned how she remembers musing, as the boat filled with water: "They wouldn't let us go rowing in a boat that would sink, would they?" She described feeling confused - one of her crew made the call to get out when it was obvious the boat was becoming unrowable - and how she irrationally tried to save equipment, unplugging the coxbox and collecting floating trainers and waterbottles. She confirmed SB's statement that the bows of the boat had swung away from its rowers quicker than the stern, making it harder for them to stay with the boat, and has been told that it still took her 10 minutes to swim back to the boat, although she doesn't remember. Her conclusion is that you will be cold, wet and scared in a swamping, and if you don't have to get out, you won't be in that situation.

The next speaker was Dr. Jane Blockley (JB), a Manchester GP and Leo's mother. She went through the practicalities and details of cold-water immersion and hypothermia, describing both 'normal' drowning and the atypical "dry drowning": the latter is the cause of 20% of drowning deaths, and is thought to be when the airway closes in a shock-type reflex, possibly as a result of cold water hitting the back of the throat. She quoted figures of survival time being halved if swimmers are not wearing a personal flotation device, and said that death from hypothermia can occur even after immersion if the body's core temperature has dropped too low.

David Clinton's contribution was short and to the point. He is a marine architect and shipbuilder who has more than two decades in vessel design. He quoted the Archimedean principle that mass = volume of water displaced, and settled for pointing out that this is the only important principle in the design of boats, whether large or small, if you want to avoid them sinking or swamping. He looked about to enlarge on this, but then shrugged and reiterated that this was the only thing to consider.

The fifth speaker was rowing boatbuilder Carl Douglas (CD), who has become an integral part of the Blockleys' campaign. He went through the different buoyancies of various boat types, and how they are achieved. He pointed out that hydrostatic analysis (working out how much buoyancy and stability a vessel has under different loads of cargo/crew/water) is not done in practice: using Archimedes' principle it can be calculated theoretically (ie on paper/computer) to a high degree of accuracy. He suggested that the reason this isn't done on rowing shells is that nowadays many shell designs are derivative copies, not designed from scratch. Because 1x, 2x and 2- tend to have (through standard design) sufficient buoyancy to carry 2-3 times their crew weight when swamped, the idea of emergencies involving fours and eights isn't considered when building the larger shells. He told a story of a swamping on the Tideway, and went through the mechanism of how it happens, mentioning wave-depth figures and suggesting how the water can move to the stern in an unclosed eight. CD told the audience that FISA's view on swamping was that the cox should bail the water out, and that therefore the bulkheads should be minimal, in order to allow free flow of water to the stern. His view is that buoyancy bags are insufficient: "they are too much trouble, could blow the slide-beds out if overinflated, don't work well enough", and then discussed whether inbuilt buoyancy would affect the weight: "not if you design for it". CD described how he and the Blockleys went to the ARA, and that there has already been a letter several years ago warning the ARA that this is a problem. "The ARA does great things and we applaud it, but it has big holes. We don't want to break it." Suggested that there be a definition of buoyancy - like a Plimsoll line, involving how far the riggers should be off the water when swamped, and how far above the water the seats and cox should be. CD's view is that the ARA has a duty of care to ensure that boats have a buoyancy standard, that it's cost-free and that the lead has to come from the national governing body (NGB). He said that 2 people a year die from swamping around the world [source not quoted]. He thinks that it is the wrong way round for the ARA to ask boatbuilders: "tell us what buoyancy you can achieve". Old wooden boats should get a period of grace - "why not?" but all others retrofitted or built with sufficient buoyancy included.

Simon Darnbrough interjected, after CD's speech, that the statistics on the most dangerous places to row depended on the standard of incident reporting by the regional water safety officers.

JB came back to the lectern, and went through the design of a safety strategy, including ad hoc and pre-planned risk assessments. She said that it should include agreed rules of behaviour, equipment regulation, and take account of human behaviour. She asked "does a small risk of death or injury mean we have to change it for everyone?" and asserted that the ARA data on accidents is kept secret. She then said "If a risk is fatal, we want to avoid it, however rare it is." She described the process of assessing incidence, severity, need/benefit and cost of a risk and its associated preventative action, and used the tables on the ARA website to demonstrate that swamping would be regarded as a "moderate" risk. She then went through how key players think about risk: individuals, clubs and the ARA hierarchy, with her husband playing the part of a rower thinking it would never happen to him. She discussed the way she believes the Water Safety Code should be constructed, and said that inbuilt buoyancy ought to be the default option because current rules are ignored. She quoted the response of Tommy Thompson (ARA Safety Adviser at the time of Leo's death) that 'if we make it too safe, people will take ever-greater risks.' She made the point that while the ARA say they can't tell manufacturers what to do on buoyancy, they do regulate on bowballs, and finished by stating "If the ARA don't get to grips with it, undoubtedly change will be imposed from outside."

SB got up again, and closed the formal presentations with a discussion on "where next". His main points were: a) rewrite the Water Safety Code to be clearer and more logical than the already revised version which is about to come into force. He suggested leaflets/posters/beermats etc. summarising it, to heighten awareness of good practice. b) the ARA should regulate on minimum buoyancy standards, quoting the Recreational Craft Directive (an EEC standard from which our type of rowing boats are exempt) and recommended an independent tick mark system for buoyancy similar to that used by the RYA under the RCD for stability. c) the ARA should publicise information on incidents, including near-misses, and create a national database of accidents, as is already mentioned in the existing Code. d) FISA appear to be taking the issue of buoyancy seriously, and the matter is tabled to be discussed in Lausanne in March of this year. SB noted concerns in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and the USA and that some NGB's are waiting for the outcome of this campaign. e) He stated that he and his wife do not have lawyers involved, and "litigation would be a very last resort: we do not want to damage rowing." He said he joined a club as a novice last September (Hollingworth Lake) and now understood what it was Leo enjoyed about rowing. He mentioned a letter from the coroner of Leo's inquest to the ARA about the recommendations to introduce buoyancy standards which states that "I can assure that if I have any future deaths in similar circumstances, I shall look to ensure that these recommendations have been followed". [RQ's note while compiling this - the Blockley's chronology online in fact states that this letter was sent to them, and they warned the ARA of its existence, ie the coroner has not written directly to the ARA, or if he has, the Blockleys have not mentioned it in their files.] SB ended by quoting the ARA's statement that it is "run by the members, for the members" - to be found on its website.

This concluded the lecture section of the seminar. Questions were now invited from the floor - summary below.

Question to CS and SB: Would you now get into a boat which was not fully buoyant?
CS: answered yes, and said she has already, though the risks on the stretches of water used are much lower, and she would not want to cox a non-buoyant boat on the Tideway.
CD: interjected that risks aren't always as low as you think, quoting the Tideway sinking story.
SB: described the pressure he feels under not to spoil an outing, as the new boy in the club, so yes has had outings in a boat which would not carry its crew when swamped, and felt very uncomfortable.

Question: it's been passed down to individuals to say they aren't happy to go out. Can any J13 tell me they have read the new Water Safety Code? Mentioned how there is an issue with Project Oarsome.
CD: explained that they were trying to avoid rowing being banned [by law] through a steady programme of buoyancy introduction and retrofitting.

Steve Kerr (SK), Furnivall: Could you put out a piece of paper today defining an adequate safety standard?
CD: said yes, but that consultation is needed.

SK: Described the Snell Foundation approach, used in America for motorcycle helmets - the Foundation isn't NGB sponsored or in any way official, but it publishes a standard, and manufacturers then abide by it. Pointed out that the standard doesn't in fact have to come from the ARA, though enforcement is a different issue. Why doesn't the Blockley campaign publish a standard?
CD: said it was a good idea but working within the industry becomes a matter of speed of impact of ideas.
JB: described how they had discussed it with the other boatbuilders, and all want a standard from somewhere else to work from. None will advertise that they are building swampably-buoyant boats.
Boyd Little (BL) from Janousek: We made the decision not to PR buoyancy compartments as we didn't want to be seen to be taking a marketing opportunity from a death. But we would sit down with SB and JB.
JB: We would not be offended.

Question: Why don't manufacturers do it anyway, unadvertised?
CD: Yes, but boats are sold on the basis of performance not safety. Customers expect the hollowed-out designs.
SB: commented that speed is more to do with the performance of the crew (to chuckles).
CD: reasserted that buoyancy can be increased without adding weight to the boat.

Ali Boileau (AB), master i/c rowing at London Oratory School: described an incident when his coaching launch got separated from an inexperienced crew on the Tideway. Has just ordered a Janousek, but is too busy to work out a standard himself and doesn't want to worry about safety. Please put out a list of standards, and he will use it, and write to other schools to tell them.
SD: interjected that the ARA have been saying perhaps they should go to the Newcastle or Southampton marine institutes.
CD: Why do we have a NGB if it won't govern?

Question from an audience member who works in farming, which "kills one a week". Explained how they don't give farmers an option to use unsafe equipment, and suggested we don't leave it until there is legislation imposed, as there will be a lot of things we don't want. Supported the Snell Foundation idea - we don't need the ARA, why not a voluntary code of practice? How many manufacturers are there in the world?
CD: comments on the approaches of various manufacturers.
William Saunders, a rower and lawyer: CD is wrong, and these people are right: we can't move on until a standard has been proposed. Duty of care is hard to prove until there is a standard. Cited Ralph Nader's consumer lobbying in the USA which led to the introduction of car air-bags.

Comment from floor: mentioning post-Titanic standards in sailing, but you can specify the safest piece of kit you like, the problem is the human element. All behind buoyancy but watermanship and stability also matter.
CD: it's a skilled sport.
Commenter: if you really wanted to make it safe you'd double the width of boats. We're working within constraints.
This devolved into a general argument about whether rowing was a risk sport or not, compared with the likes of rock-climbing or white-water-rafting, and how part of the job is educating the rowers anyway.

Caroline Turnbull (CT), Weybridge: I'm the treasurer and will now want a standard to use when ordering a new boat.
CD: FISA are asking manufacturers to put the suggested weight of crew on.
BL: actually now it's the weight of the boat and the weight of the crew which can be carried in it.

SB: talked about how it must be put into context - could be a catalyst to get all aspects of safety upgraded - and how some boatbuilders have committed to building buoyant boats if asked but want a regulation to work to.
CD: mentioned the July 2002 meeting in Nottingham attended by all but one UK boatbuilder.
Margaret Adams (MA): we all need the experts to say it.
SK: get a code published.
AB: if you can get the ARA to "approve" such a standard, you've almost codified it.
SK: In computing (his area of work) there were no European standards so all manufacturers used the most appropriate available standard, at one stage from Germany. Start and it will gather speed.
from floor: what about the kitemark system?
CD: there's no problem in boatbuilders meeting almost any standard. MA: agreed with SK's proposal.
CD: "if all other doors are closed then by all means use it" - ie his suggested buoyancy standard. NB I hope to get this precise standard to publish here: didn't get it fully down at the meeting - RQ.

Then followed some comments (CD, JB) on how this was a self-selecting audience. MA recommended again that they publish a standard. CD answered that this would not affect many clubs. MA urged that we do it a step at a time. They then got into a dispute, CD wishing to speak privately which MA did not want to do. CT asked for a list of boatbuilders adding buoyancy - CS said it was online. There were comments about how the ARA should be responsible for doing it, and that they want to go with the FISA approach of work out the deliverables. At that point the meeting closed, with thanks to MAA BC.

Copyright Rachel Quarrell, 2003. Not to be reproduced in any form without express permission.