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Turning accident experience into valuable lessons

During a sailing regatta in the Oslo fjord, Sigmund Andrè Hertzberg was knocked unconscious and fell into the sea. Under slightly altered circumstances, the accident could have cost him his life. Now he is using the experience he gained from the accident to sharpen the focus on safety, both in his own sailing activity, and with his employer.

Sigmund is a trained sea captain. In his day job, he is responsible for marine operations in Lundin Norway, while much of his free time is spent sailing.

Earlier this autumn he took part in the Asker Rundt regatta, which is a solo regatta. That means sailing single-handed, without any additional crew. It’s a brisk day in the Oslo fjord with winds up to 30-40 knots during parts of the voyage. The boats can reach speeds of well over 10-15 knots, but the conditions are deemed safe for the regatta.

The regatta itself does go well. Sigmund’s problems start after passing the finish line at Holmsbu. His plan for how and where he will take down the sails is not good enough. The autopilot is now set to follow a straight compass course, which means that it does not take account of potential changes in wind direction. This can lead to a situation where the sails whip back and forth.

Sigmund has to make his way forward on the port side of the deck to take the headsail down. He has to lean around the mast to see the opposite/starboard side to get to where the headsail is fastened. At the same time, the wind turns, just enough for the headsail to switch direction. The sail hits Sigmund on his left temple, smashing his head into the mast and striking his right temple. In a few short seconds, he loses consciousness and falls into the sea.

Luck and pure chance
Now the situation has reached dramatic levels. Under slightly altered circumstances, the accident could easily have been fatal. Using a safety line on board the boat is not an uncommon practice, but Sigmund decided not to use a line during the regatta. He believes that this decision saved his life. A line fastened to his body would have meant being pulled along behind the boat, which is still sailing at speed, and ultimately he would have been dragged under and drowned. Now he is left lying in the water while the boat continues on its steady course.

When he regains consciousness, he is quite some distance from the boat. As luck would have it, his lifejacket inflated right on cue, keeping him at the water’s surface. Pure chance led to him using a brand new lifejacket on this particular day. Lifejackets that have been in use for awhile may not have been maintained properly, and there is no guarantee that they will inflate and function as intended in an emergency situation.

One of the other sailors sees Sigmund’s boat heading straight for land, and calls him on the radio. When he gets no answer, he assumes that something may have happened, and turns his own boat around to help. Meanwhile, a different sailor on another boat has seen Sigmund come up to the surface after his lifejacket inflated. But his own sails are up and he has to take them down before he can assist in the rescue.

Although he was observed in the water almost immediately after falling overboard, it would take around 40 minutes before he is rescued and lifted into his friend’s boat. Because of the crashing waves and wind, Sigmund was not able to lie on his back in the water without being drenched by the waves washing over him. He was forced to spend most of his time in the water in a vertical position, which nearly drained him of all energy. So it was a cold and exhausted Sigmund who was finally pulled into the boat. His sailing suit was filled with water, and it took several attempts before he could help haul himself into the boat. By this time, his friend’s boat is dangerously near running aground, until he made one last-ditch effort to help Sigmund to safety.

Meanwhile, Sigmund’s boat has headed straight for shore, where it ran aground.

Learning from mistakes
In the time since, Sigmund has reflected on several factors around the accident. One obvious experience gained is just how quickly things can go wrong, and that you must have a good plan for everything, until you are “back home again”. He planned carefully for the regatta, but lacked a plan for what he needed to do after finishing the race. Another lesson is how seemingly small errors of judgement can quickly lead to very serious consequences.

Now his focus is on sharing his own experiences to improve safety culture, both within the sailing community and, not least, within the oil and gas industry where he works.

That’s something Lundin Norway’s head of HSEQ, Jan Vidar Markmanrud, appreciates.

“Good planning, understanding of risk and safety at every step, that is at the foundation of everything we do. When, despite our best efforts, undesirable events still happen, we must use the information and experience we gain from such events to improve even more,” says Markmanrud.

“In that sense, Sigmund must be commended for how he has focused on learning from the accident. Many people may find it tempting to talk as little as possible about their own mistakes. Fortunately, Sigmund takes a different view. This is exactly the type of openness and honesty we promote in the company, and which contributes to making our safety work even better. We use this and other similar incidents and experience to reinforce our safety culture through a program we call ‘Lundin calling’. This is a vehicle for good discussions and reflections around important safety messages in the company, with the primary goal that attitudes and actions should be automatic reflexes,” says Markmanrud.

Several of the lessons learned from Sigmund’s accident have transfer value to other areas where risk is managed. This can particularly apply to offshore activities. Therefore, Lundin Norway will actively use the incident to improve both safety focus and implementation of risky operations in their own activities.

Sigmund’s sailboat “Kraftkar”.