We knew the risk. We knew the forecast was for a severe thunderstorm late afternoon. We knew that one of the more esoteric forecasting services showed the possibility of a very severe thunderstorm, significantly stronger than the central forecast put out by the Swiss Meteorological service which most people on Lake Geneva follow, and which the organisers of the annual Bol d’Or regatta followed.
Careful what-if discussions in the days leading up to the race. Which life jackets would we be wearing? The ones required by the organisers that would inflate automatically and with high buoyancy, or our usual less buoyant life jackets made for the kind of sailing we do – foiling catamaran. We went for the latter aware of the risk of getting caught underneath a capsized catamaran unable to move due to an inflated life jacket. But we brought the others on the boat to fulfil the organisers’ requirements, and to carry the same weight on the boat as the five other foiling catamarans in our class doing the race.
We went over our personal gear. We made sure we had all the required individual safety equipment prescribed by the organisers, and we made sure it all worked and that we knew how to use it. We decided to wear extra lengths of rope around our waist to ensure easy access in case we needed to tie down sails. We checked tow lines and righting lines (used in case of a capsize). We checked safety knives both on the boat, and those worn individually. We made sure our safety boat driver, who would accompany us throughout the race, was briefed both about the weather and our contingency plans in case of an extreme storm.
On the morning of the race, the central forecast was still for a heavy thunderstorm in the late afternoon with one outlier forecast showing the risk of something much worse. We decided to go to the start line and start the race. We would have opportunities to reassess later during the race. Four hundred and fifty boats big and small made the same decision.
On the way to the start line, a one hour journey on a beautiful sunny morning with a light breeze, we didn’t talk much about the risk of bad weather. We looked for the other boats in our class. They were all starting. It was somehow reassuring that the other teams with some extremely experienced sailors had decided to start. But maybe it was also something less impressive – group think: “If they go, we go”. My wife would say it’s a male thing. She might be right.
The Bol d’Or is a long race. It starts at one end of the lake (in Geneva), takes the boats all the way to the other end of the lake, and then back to the finish line in Geneva. It can easily be a 24 hour thing. But after 6-7 hours of racing we were content. We had made it all the way to the bottom of the lake and were on our way back. One of us – we were three on the boat – kept an eye on the forecast on the phone. No major change in the central forecast. Might we be able to get back into the wider parts of the lake before the thunderstorm and maybe even avoid it altogether?
We felt a change in the weather. The wind picked up a bit, nothing worrying yet. In fact, we were delighted to have a bit of breeze to get our catamaran going on its foils – 20 knots, 25 knots. We would be in Geneva for dinner at that rate! But it didn’t last long. Extreme cloud formations started to appear, unmissable signs of the thunderstorm. We put in a reef and took the jib down, and had barely finished when we started seeing boats in trouble ahead of us – capsizing, loosing masts, swept flat on the water, and we knew we were in for a big challenge. We didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes and with no time to reduce sails any further, we were hit with extreme wind – probably more than 50 knots, a force 10 at least. The accompanying rain was extreme and with the lake whipped into foam by the winds, the visibility dropped to 30-40 meters.
We were busy keeping the boat upright. Securing the foresail, keeping the boat moving slowly forward, trying to maintain control. At times it felt like the boat was airborne due to wind lifting the super light catamaran up from underneath. We did everything to keep it flat. The three of us were calm, we focused on working together, staying safe. We had prepared, we were now dealing with the storm as best we could. We talked little, but exchanged information on the progression of the storm around us, and communicated what each of us was doing to keep the boat upright.
The waves were getting bigger now that the storm had been going for twenty minutes or so. They hit the catamaran and threatened to lift it up and allow the wind to flip it over. Each of us also got hit by waves trying to lift us off the catamaran. Our hiking straps were useful to allow us to hang over the side of the boat to keep it flat on the water, but now also to keep us in place when a wave tried to knock us off the boat.
I was mentally preparing for the possible scenarios ahead. We might be successful keeping the boat upright for the remainder of the storm – maybe another 20-30 minutes? But we were on knife edge. The smallest change in position of the boat and the slightest loss of control could trigger the alternative scenario – a very quick, violent capsize. There would be little warning. We would move from one scenario to the other in a fraction of a second. I felt we were prepared for a capsize and knew what to do, but the sense of being on knife edge was different from most other sailing situations that I knew. I took solace in my belief that most likely only the boat would suffer and that we were in little acute physical danger. And a boat is a boat. Not an heirloom, just a boat.
How does this end? Our helmsman and skipper spotted a red light to our right, and he suspected we had drifted towards land – maybe an entry to a marina. We all had our hands full and there was no opportunity to dig out the phone to check our location. He presented us with two options: Either we had to tack to get away from the shore, or we could abandon the race, get a line in place between the safety boat and the catamaran, and then aim to keep the catamaran head to wind for the remainder of the storm. An easy decision. A tack would mean the briefest of moments with less control, but we all felt that we were completely on edge and that we didn’t have any margin for the slightest error, mishap, or increase in wind and waves. We waved our safety boat closer and managed to get a line between the safety boat and the catamaran. Our plan worked. Within twenty minutes we felt the storm recede a bit. We now had all the sails down and were simply trying to keep it all safe being pulled into wind and waves as slow as possible by the safety boat. We had time to look around and saw capsized boats, boats with no masts, and rescue boats everywhere. We were happy with our decision.
We got back to our base in one of the small lake-side marinas with no further incident. Did the storm really happen? The lake was back to its usual state of little or no wind. A beautiful evening with sun and clear skies. Once back in the marina, we skipped our usual careful clean-up of the boat. Only the basics, and then off. A very long and testing day was over, now some food and sleep. We sent messages to the boats in our class that we were safe and sound, but had retired from the race. We learnt that three other boats in our class had capsized violently, and now were working on recovering boats and masts. All crew were safe. With a sense of anticlimax, we soon after sat down to Italian comfort food in a local restaurant with more chat about the day as we all tried to process the unforgettable events.
The atmosphere in the marina the next morning was intense. We met a couple of the teams from our class. Two teams had survived the storm and finished the race in the early hours of Sunday. They were tired, but happy to have pulled through the storm. One team seemed shaken. They had experienced a violent capsize, and had had trouble getting everybody clear from around and under the boat immediately. These guys are the most experienced catamaran sailors in our class, yet the impact of the apocalyptic moments in their faces was obvious. I think we all had our share of regret that we had not pulled out of the race earlier, or that we had started in the first place. With three out of six boats in our class capsized and damaged, this storm was clearly too much. There were lessons to be learned.
As much as I felt our team had done well overall – preparing for the risk of a severe storm, managing the boat during the storm, and reaching the decision to abandon the race and focus on our own and the boat’s safety – there was still a lot to process. We had ended up in a situation that proved a lot more risky than any of us had anticipated, and I felt I had taken more risk than I wanted to take again. And the risk felt different.
Why was that? I distinguish between dealing with the risk of the storm, and the experience of risk during the storm itself. Generally, when I get up in the morning, I expect the day ahead to be normal in a risk sense. Not that I expect nothing to happen, but I base my expectations on recent experience, and I have some sense of what a likely – normal – range of expectations looks like and what could happen on this new day in my life. As the day unfolds, I adjust the parameters shaping my expectations based on what I experience. Is there a lot going on in the world around me? Am I in a different, more or less risky environment? Most importantly, as much as I allow for a range of outcomes of the day and it’s events, I make adjustment to my risk taking and risk appetite as those expectations evolve. I am not in perfect control, but I have an opportunity to manage the risks ahead.
The risk I experienced sitting on a catamaran in 55 knot winds with no visibility was not of this “normal” kind. We were dealing with the here and now as best we could. And in terms of risk and risk management, all we could do was prepare for two distinct outcomes – muddling through or a violent capsize. My former colleagues in the option trading world would call this “gap risk” – moving from one risk environment to an entirely different world without any real transition, just an instant movement from one state to another.
That is not pleasant, probably because it is hard to prepare for. While you are still upright on the catamaran doing your best to keep the beast upright, you know that it is a distinct possibility that you will be sent flying into the water with no notice – hopefully not hitting too many hard things on the way. From muddling through to full-on crisis management in a second. You can think about what you would do in the water and go through the playbook of a capsize, but you can’t really manage gap risk with an incremental mind set. Be ready if it happens. Unlike the “normal” risk I mentioned earlier, this is a binary, uncontrollable type of risk where mindset matters more than efforts to change the risk ahead.
My wife told me after this race that I am doing an extreme sport. This particular regatta surely felt extreme, and I think binary or gap risk is part of the definition of extreme sports. One moment you are coping with an environment however extreme, the next you are out of control and dealing with the fall-out of a change in external conditions that tips you from a state of manageable risk to a state of all-out crisis management.
The experience on Lake Geneva was front of my mind for a few days. I asked myself why I would put myself in such challenging conditions. Foiling catamarans are not exactly mainstream sailing. There are other ways to be on the water – like kayaking or messing about in a dinghy. The experience made me think about my risk appetite generally. Not just in terms of physical risk, but also more generally – taking on new projects, learning new things, meeting new people, talking to friends or family about concerns, opening up. Many of those actions can feel risky and outside my comfort zone. How much is too much? Should I take less risk in my life? Should I throttle back?
I’d like to stay clear of gap risk. I don’t think I am very good at dealing with being on knife edge. Even high levels of risk is acceptable to me if I have a chance of adjusting my risk profile as the risk environment changes. I don’t like points of no return. That doesn’t mean avoiding gap risk at all cost, but I will be more aware of when it is likely to bite. Starting a boat race with a distinct risk of 40-50+ knot winds is off the table.
But I am not done taking risk. And I am not just talking about sailing on my high octane foiling catamaran which on any day can include a capsize of the more gentle, almost predictable kind. I am also referring to those broader versions of risk that constitute life starting by getting out of bed in the morning, taking on life. I may not always enjoy taking those risks, and I may not always tackle them successfully, but life is wonderfully uncertain and risky. If I don’t take risk, I will not be buffeted by life, I will make no mistakes, my face will be smooth, and my body and soul without scars. A safe, quiet life of little interest.
Taking risk, however, is daring, hoping; it is fearing, it is preparing; it is failing and succeeding; it is living.