The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Your Boat Should Forgive You

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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An observation. Tall training ships capture the romance of the age of sail, but they capture the risks as well. Loss rates in the age of sail if broadly experienced today would lead governments to demand all top masts be sawn off and studding sails turned into awnings. The rates would have been even higher had not the accidents winnowed the field of bad captains and crew. They had their one permanent accident and commerce moved on. Several of the iconic ships were seriously over canvassed in their day because speed — to catch smugglers or deliver tea — was the be-all and often the end-all. Some of those icons have been recreated for sail training and tours.

We benefit from the hard lessons of ships of wood and men of steel. But I wonder if some of the tall ships today are in the hands of crews not as finely tuned to the razor’s edge some of these ships sailed upon.

I have crewed on a barkentine and was in awe of the forces we controlled — sometimes too slowly and a bit late…


David Nutt

I just did a short delivery from Washington DC to Charleston on Spirit of South Carolina, a 90′ on deck schooner. While still on the Potomac River we did man over board, abandon ship, and fire drills. Off Hatteras we had 20-30 knots of wind with 10-12 foot seas. I was incredibly impressed with the competency of the professional crew to manage her and their ability to bring all of the volunteers in line with the workings of the vessel. The complexity and consequences of even a moment’s bad decision compounds much more rapidly on a large vessel. Knowing some of the crews on the schooners sailing the coast of Maine as well I know there are many out there with all the ability to manage tall ships. But stuff still happens.
Having over 100,000 miles at sea on my own boats I still learned, and had reinforced many of the things that make voyages successful.

Jean-François Eeman

Hi John,

It is always hard to compare those kind of accidents. But isn’t it very similar to what happened to Francis Joyon and his trimaran Idec when leaving New-York?
I’m not talking about the boat, the fact he was single handed and in a race…
But about very very experienced people making errors (or not !) and caught in circumstances “out of control”.

Nick Kats

I saw a picture of the sail plan at time of capsizing. A lot of reduced sail.

If the gust was under 50 knots, a ship of this mass simply should not have gone over. I doubt that the heavy displacement vessels of the 19th century would have been troubled by a 50 kn gust given the reduced sail. Perhaps she was built far too lightly. Perhaps the gust was much greater than thought. I think that the region where she sank is known for sudden extremely violent squalls.

The other thing that comes to mind: If excess heel is threatened, let go some sheets. Or cut them. In 10-20 seconds a few crew should be able to release 2 sheets each. Lack of experience, or perhaps lulled by steady conditions?