One of the reasons we go to sea is that it isn’t as predictable and safe as life ashore. While a sailing holiday on Greek waters is safer than driving to work every day, there are times the sea could kill you.

The writer of this blog knew three people personally who died at sea in two years – Neptune doesn’t care if he kills someone who is stupid.

While what you will read here may leave you uncomfortable at times, the message is clear:

if you take care you will 99.999% of the time come home intact.

 

Bounty sinks in Hurricane Sandy

In 2012, the tall ship Bounty went to sea despite warnings that Hurricane Sandy was on its way. The ship was over 50 years old and had no doubt weathered some horrific weather conditions. If you are far out to sea in most boats you will survive even 80mph winds and 10 metre seas. The problem is largely how close you are to shore.

The forecast was for a hurricane coming from the southern US to collide with a winter storm heading south from Canada and a massive storm to smash the daylights out of the US Northeast. Captain Robin Walbridge set sail anyway. The ship sank and they never found his body. They did the other crewmember’s body his poor decision making led to drown. The US National Transportation Safety Board found, “the probable cause of the sinking of tall ship Bounty was the captain's reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover.”

I knew Walbridge in the 1990’s when he was Second Mate on the tall ship we worked on together. Sadly for him my biggest memory was when we were sailing the 186ft sailing ship off Cape Cod. The winds were brisk and the conditions were prone to white squalls, where the winds would pick up by 20 knots or so for 15 minutes and die back again without warning. My watch officer was sailing conservatively with just enough sail for when a squall came through. We were below when the squall hit, and the ship leaned hard over. There wasn’t the need to have All Hands called as we forgot our lunch and ran on deck to find a foremast forestay had snapped after Walbridge had set too much sail.

I took a team of three people 100 feet up the foremast to take in all sail and reduce the risk of the mast going over the side. It was a dangerous job. On our return to deck the crew had jury repaired the forestay and a pod of Minke whales dived under the ship, blowing a fish smelling salute to us as they came up for air. It seems that that, as well as several other incidents my old shipmates and I have discussed since, didn’t teach Walbridge the simple lesson: it is better to sail conservatively than to risk killing yourself and others.

Rimini Harbour – 2017

If you’re reading this blog with a certain detachment and saying to yourself that the Bounty was a tall ship and that was a hurricane so it doesn’t matter to you, then the incident that occurred this April may come closer to home.

Six people went to sea on a Bavaria 50 cruiser, heading from Marino di Ravenna in Italy to Trapani in Sicily. The skipper had a vast amount of sailing experience and had recently completed a circumnavigation so should have known how to handle a boat in nasty weather.

A Bora storm was forecast in the area and amidst the building the boat headed for Rimini Harbour for shelter. Close into shore, the engine failed and a wave smashed the boat onto the harbour wall. Four people were killed including the skipper and two were recovered alive.

Better to be late than to risk it all?

Speaking of the fatal accident in Italy, a leading Italian sailor Cino Ricci said to local media, “A double mistake was made yesterday: First, you don’t leave harbour under those conditions and forecast. The passage to Sicily was a long one; waiting a day to depart doesn’t make an impact. Second, one you are out in a boat of that size, get offshore a few miles where the waves usually aren’t breaking. Nothing will happen there…” Essentially, their decision to come inshore was the fatal decision, but they shouldn’t have gone to sea in the first place.

The lesson applies to every sailor looking at a weather forecast that makes them feel uneasy – caution is the better option. Very few people reading this blog will ever need to sail in more than a Force 7, and that in quite extreme circumstances. I have sailed in a Force 9 gusting 12 and one of those gusts nearly killed me. Does that mean I would take my family out in a Force 9? No. If I had a day left before the boat had to be back at the Kavas Yachting base and there was a Force 9 Meltemi forecast? I would call Kavas Yachting, and tell them I will be delayed by 24 hours due to the forecast weather. Kavas Yachting would prefer to receive their boat and you back a day or so late than have to deal with the paperwork and negative press coverage that comes with a wrecked boat and dead bodies.

As a skipper you need to make a number of judgements when considering leaving port into big weather:

    • Is the boat up to it? The answer in most cases will be yes as we keep our vessels in excellent condition.
    • Are the crew up to it? If you are a group of well built men who have tens of thousands of miles experience then that will lead to a different judgement to one where you had your two kids and wife aboard, none of whom had sailed much before the week you have chartered our yacht.
    • What are the local conditions in such weather? If you don’t know, look at the charts – if your destination harbour has a narrow entrance facing the direction the wind is coming from, then that might not be a good idea. If it is a wider entrance or you have to go upwind to get in, it may be more comfortable.
    • What about the depth of the water? If it is very deep right close to the harbour the seas will be smaller than in shallower seas.
    • What about you? Can you handle the stress? Are you confident in such weather? Don’t ask yourself that late at night after six whiskies. Ask yourself that in the cold light of the morning after you have had your coffee. If you can’t do it, then don’t risk your family or friends.

If you are at sea when the weather builds, then take in sail.

That goes without saying. If you are the last into the marina and have to berth by the loudest bar there then you can sleep that night knowing that you got into port intact and with no one injured.

You’ve come sailing for a laugh and fun – not to win the Volvo Ocean Race. Leave the racing boys and girls to take risks with life and limb – don’t take the risks they would do.

See also ↠ The weather – basic principles, Before departure briefing (Sailor's Guide)