Your Boat Should Forgive You

It was incorrectly charted…really!

Many of you will be aware of the sinking of the sail training vessel Concordia off the Brazilian Coast last year. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) have now completed their report. I see lessons in it for all of us that go to sea, albeit rather different ones than those trumpeted in the media.

Briefly, what happened was that  Concordia was hit by a tropical squall, knocked down with her masts in the water, did not right herself, and filled through ports and doors that were open at the time.

As I read it, the TSB report faults the crew for having too much sail up, not having all watertight doors closed, and not bearing away from the wind quickly enough as the angle of heel increased. (It is important to note that crew is not personally held responsible, but their training is.)

Now I’m certainly not arguing with the experts at TSB, but having read much of the report, what jumped out at me was:

  • The master had shortened sail substantially prior to handing over the watch.
  • This was a squall in otherwise comparatively benign conditions.
  • It is impossible to determine exactly what the wind speed was in the squall, but it seems unlikely that it exceeded 50 knots.
  • The limit of positive stability of the vessel was just 90 degrees without taking into account the buoyancy of the deck houses and still less than 100 degrees with them.
  • To me at least, the most horrifying sentence in the report read “Research indicates that some large sailing vessels may have a combination of sail plan and stability characteristics that make them vulnerable to wind speeds below 30 knots”.

The report highlights the crew’s mistakes, but who among us with some serious miles at sea can claim not to have made any errors?

I know I have pulled some real doozies in my time that include getting caught with a lot of sail up in a 50 knot squall as well as, on another occasion and boat, giving the spreaders a good dunking in a broach! But the sailboats I was on didn’t sink under me. They survived none the worse for wear with nothing damaged but my dignity.

I’ve run aground as well…several times. But the boats I was on could take that abuse too.

What all this says to me is that I’m very glad that our Morgan’s Cloud and the boats I ocean raced on are strong forgiving vessels. And I suggest that when you buy a boat for offshore sailing you put forgiveness at the top of your list of required characteristics.

Further, when Phyllis and I specify gear, we apply the forgiveness test too: It’s not enough that gear be strong enough to withstand normal use, it must also be able to withstand a stupid blunder, like the ones I have made in the past and will make again in the future.

Has the forgiveness of your boat saved you from the consequences of a mistake? Please leave a comment with your story.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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