The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Anatomy Of An Accident


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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