Anatomy Of An Accident

JHH5-13045

It was 4:00 am on a black early morning anchored at Cape Lookout Harbour when Phyllis and I were awoken by a crash from up forward followed by a sickening scraping sound. A quick look out the companionway showed the outline of another sailboat reversing away from our bow.

The outline looked a lot like a boat that had been anchored a good 400-feet away (measured by radar) the evening before. The GPS confirmed that we had not dragged and the other boat had been anchored abeam and slightly behind us, so nor had they.

George, the skipper of the boat that hit us, told us in a VHF conversation—together with his insurance details and a profuse apology—that he had been getting his anchor up and underway for an early start when he had hit us. But how could that happen: inexperience, an engine failure…what?

Yes, the conditions were a little tricky: 20 knot breeze, with some higher gusts and a strong tide running against the wind that was causing the five or so anchored boats to surge around, but there had to be more to it than that.

Two days later George and I had a long conversation in which he clearly and frankly told me how this very experienced and skilled sailor had come to have his first accident in over 30 years of owning this particular boat. And George’s experience in which two relatively small problems built on each other to cause an accident contains lessons for us all:

Keep The Rode Simple

George had been anchored on a hybrid chain/rope rode. As the join between the rope and chain came in over the windlass drum it wrapped and jammed. It took George several minutes to free the jam by driving it out with a big screwdriver and a hammer.

Lesson 1: Hybrid rope/chain rodes may have some advantages over all chain or all rope with a small length of chain, at least in theory, but the transition between the two materials always has the potential to cause a problem and/or take the crew’s attention away from handling the boat. Bottom line, we prefer to keep things simple with an all chain rode.

Plotters Don’t Show the Real World

After struggling with and finally clearing the rode and getting the anchor aboard, George returned to the cockpit where his first action was to look at the plotter to see where he was. A few moments later he looked up from the plotter to see our bow looming right in front of him. The by then inevitable crash took place seconds later.

Lesson 2: If George had not been equipped with a plotter he would have oriented himself by looking at his surroundings first, or possibly, if so equipped, glancing at his radar. Either way, he would almost certainly have seen us in plenty of time to avert a collision, particularly since we were showing a bright anchor light.

George is not alone in making this mistake, I have made it several times myself since getting electronic navigation two years ago—the damned things are just so seductive. I have just been luckier than George. In fact Phyllis and I now have a standard reminder that we use when we see the other looking down at the screen at the wrong time or for too long: “Look up…that’s not reality”.

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{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Jay December 3, 2010, 12:45 pm

    Very interesting post. We see a lot of folks cruising along with their heads down watching the screen.
    We’ve also had experience with some close calls with boats that have lots (too much?) equipment on deck that makes it hard to see forward, and with boats that have fully enclosed cockpits that restrict vision forward.

    Just one more good lesson you are passing on to us; thanks.

    Reply
    • John December 3, 2010, 9:59 pm

      Hi Jay,

      A really good point about the dangers of having too much stuff on deck. And some of the fully enclosed cockpits we see have very poor sight lines.

      Reply
  • Matt Marsh December 3, 2010, 5:31 pm

    Very interesting, John. Events like this are a painful reminder that we can never let ourselves lose awareness of what’s around us. Even the best sailors make a mistake now and then- it’s times like this when you’re glad you have a sturdy boat!

    Like Jay, I’ve had a few close calls with larger boats where someone’s not watching where they’re going. Sunset Chaser is fast enough that we don’t have to worry about anything with sails, but large planing powerboats are another story. A great many of them are operated at speeds around 12-18 knots; a heavy planing hull designed for 20+ will have its bow high in the air (creating enormous blind spots and a lethal wake) at these speeds. Combine complex computers, high cruise speeds, tight channels and huge blind spots, and “close calls” become common- and not at all accidental.

    Reply
    • John December 3, 2010, 10:00 pm

      Hi Matt,

      Another good point about the effect of bow up trim on sight lines. And if you get hit by one of those motor boats there is the real potential for loss of life.

      Reply
  • Victor Raymond December 3, 2010, 7:05 pm

    John, thanks for sharing. Hopefully we can all learn from theses “boo boos” without loss of life or limb. I also hope that you can get your boat repaired with no cost or hassle. It sounds like the other captain was a gentleman about it anyhow.

    Reply
    • John December 3, 2010, 10:02 pm

      Hi Victor,

      Thanks for the thought. The damage is mainly cosmetic, except for a couple of bent stanchions. As you say, George took full responsibility, so hopefully repair will not be too much of a hassle.

      Reply
  • David Nutt December 4, 2010, 1:10 pm

    I have always said that the two most important navigational aids are 1- the right eyeball, 2- the left eyeball and not necessarily in that order. I wiped out a fancy fishing boat’s outriggers with my mast because neither of my eyeballs were looking up as I came into the pier.

    Reply
  • Westbrook December 5, 2010, 11:45 am

    John– About a decade ago, a large cruise ship bound for Boston out of the Caribbean ran aground on Nantucket shoal. The captain blamed the electronic positioning system which, indeed, was off by about 20 miles. The commander of the Boston U.S. Coast Guard district was quoted as saying that–while electronic instruments are fine–you’re still supposed to look out the window of the bridge from time to time.

    My own sailing often consists of taking out guests on a day sail in the Chesapeake Bay. A guest trying his hand at steering often seems to think its a video game, trying to steer by focusing on the magnetic compass and the wind direction gauge–which are at the helm. The result is frequent deviations from the course or proper apparent wind. Like you and Phyllis, I’m watching eyeballs and saying: “Look up,” “Look at the sails,” “Look at your next navigation mark,” “Feel the wind or the way the boat is responding.” (I’m always myself watching the traffic.) To minimize the electronic distraction, I chose deliberately to place the chart plotter and radar screens below–out of sight of the helmsman. (And yes, that is a disadvantage the few times that I’m single handing in unfamiliar waters.) Perhaps I have an advantage from having learned to sail before electricity was invented.

    Reply
    • John December 6, 2010, 10:14 am

      Hi Westbrook,

      You make an interesting point. We like having all of our navigation equipment in the cockpit, but your way certainly reduces the distractions. Another point is that the glare from a lot of electronics in the cockpit has a big negative effect on the crew’s night vision. We are very careful to turn the back lighting way down at dusk, but even so it’s an issue.

      Reply
  • Chris December 8, 2010, 12:15 pm

    There is also no substitute for extra eyes and chatter. As much as I sometimes want to say “Yes, Dear, ^&^&@” to my wife’s situation updates, she has seen things I haven’t, and I have vice versa. We encourage guests to speak up as well. This is one case where it is hard to have too much information.

    Reply
    • John December 9, 2010, 10:44 am

      Hi Chris,

      A really good point, although I think that such input to the person “conning” the boat, skipper or not, should be carefully filtered to make sure it is useful and relevant and does not cross the line into a distraction.

      Reply
      • Chris December 9, 2010, 11:23 am

        John, you are right, and if this kind of information sharing is part of conscientious teamwork consciously developed in sailing (flying, you name the “ing”). Usually some level of filtration becomes part of the operational “ethic.” However, some noise is good. I have been part of several fatal aviation event investigations where the sender or receiver filtered out distractions that were, in fact the critical data.

        Reply
        • John December 9, 2010, 1:59 pm

          Hi Chris,
          Another really good point. I think you are right: when in doubt, more, rather than less, information is better and safer. A far cry from the old sea captain who said to his #1 “What I want from you Mr. Mate is silence and not too much of that”.

          Reply
  • Nick Kats December 10, 2010, 8:06 am

    One accident caused by distraction by a chart plotter does not condemn this piece of equipment.

    But here is my take.

    I have no chart plotter on board.

    A chart plotter will be expected to fail sooner or later. There must be backups – paper charts, perhaps another chart plotter.

    This means the chart plotter is an option, not an essential piece of equipment.

    The potential for distraction from reality has always seemed to outweigh its usefulness.

    They cost money, add complexity, & displace space.

    I use comprehensive paper charts, dead reckoning & hand held GPSes.

    But I must say that I have never used them. If running a commercial enterprise I would have this. But not on my small private boat.

    Less is more. Something I keep reminding myself.

    Nick Kats
    Ireland

    Reply
    • John December 11, 2010, 11:58 am

      Hi Nick,

      All really good points. There is even an argument that a mariner using paper charts, as you do, and we did up until two years ago, is safer than one with a plotter. (There was a study done in Norway that found that groundings had gone up since the wide spread adoption of plotters.)

      Having said that, I think that a plotter in the hands of someone who can navigate and clearly understand the need to stay oriented and not over-rely on the plotter make that mariner safer since it relieves him or her of the need to plot and thereby frees up more time for keeping a good lookout. This is particularly true for short-handed crews.

      In summary, even though there are drawbacks to plotters, we would not go back to being without one on “Morgan’s Cloud”.

      Reply
  • Westbrook December 12, 2010, 4:33 pm

    While agreeing with Nick Kats about having paper charts on board, he may be overlooking the convenience and, sometimes, even safety of also using a chart plotter.

    But first, some personal back ground: (a) I learned to sail in the 1950s, before GPS and chart plotters were available. So I do view chart plotters as a supplement to other means of navigation. (b) Unlike many AAC readers, I am neither living aboard nor voyaging (to use Phyllis’ preferred term) the 7 seas. My sailing is limited to inland cruising with an occasional coastal foray or shorter ocean passage. Boats intended for more extended use (both in time and distance) would be equipped far more elaborately than my “Sea Devil”–which has a SiTex Colormax 6 chart plotter (now costing about USD 500) and uses a C-Map chip from Jeppsen Marine (covering Nova Scotia, the U.S. East Coast, and the Bahamas and updated annually for USD 100).

    With that background: As John suggested, the chart plotter is particularly useful when sailing short handed. When single handing–as I often do–the link to the chart plotter lets the autopilot steer the boat toward a distant way point. With shorthanded crew and a fair wind off the stern quarter, the chart plotter and auto pilot steered us from the Cape Cod Canal across the Gulf of Maine to Booth Bay with no one touching the wheel for 24 hours. All we had to do was stay awake and watch for traffic.

    The chart plotter also can be extremely using in confirming that the boat is (or, perhaps, is not) where you think it is. That feature is particularly useful when fog or heavy rain restricts visibility while navigating in restrictive waters. For example, it was watching the cross track error displayed at the helm that kept me on a twisting, previously plotted course when the fog closed in while single handing between Maine harbors.

    In short: I could voyage without a GPS/chart plotter, but I’d rather not.

    Reply
    • John December 13, 2010, 6:17 pm

      Hi Westbrook,

      Thanks for the great comment. Loved the last line, just exactly how we feel.

      We do differ with you on linking the plotter and auto-pilot. More on that in a future post.

      Reply
  • Bob Deal May 25, 2012, 10:48 pm

    I am a firm believer in the idea of using less technology while leaving anchorage, or any change in position. It was basic to me during my 20 years with “Dorothy Mae” to just get oriented before making any change. I had two Autohelm wheel pilots during those years and the first one brought us safely across the Gulf from Texas to Florida. Two days after arriving in Sarasota we were going down the ICW to fuel up and the autopilot did a 360! The channel was narrow and about one foot deep at the edges so we did some fast and lucky maneuvers. After that I was extremely careful where I let the electronics rule. That is until I bought the second pilot with a wired remote. I was sitting forward of the mast with a bunch of my neighbors enjoying a motoring ride on the St. Johns river when I decided to turn around and go upriver. I asked the device to turn left 180 degrees – it turned right and I managed to get to the cockpit in time to reverse the engine and slow at full throttle so we only split one 4X4 on the sea wall. After that I became fully convinced that my decisions beat the electronics 100 to 1.
    I would never give full control to the devices by linking chart plotter and autopilot though. It is too risky and you could just get lazy and really get in trouble. But it sure sounds good. It would only be useful for returning to a good fishing hole, but you could still do that with manual control easy enough.

    Reply
    • John May 30, 2012, 10:11 am

      Hi Bob,

      All good points. We agree entirely about not linking the chart plotter and autopilot.

      Reply

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