“Cheeki Rafiki” Tragedy, Time For Changes

Overturned hull of the Cheeki Rafiki

I think most everyone in the offshore sailing community is aware of the tragic loss of the Beneteau First 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki.

What We Know

Much internet ink has been expended speculating about what may, or may not, have happened to the boat and her crew. But two things we know for sure at this point are:

  • The keel is missing from the wreck.
  • The liferaft is in its original stowage position.

That would seem to indicate that disaster struck very quickly and in a way that prevented this experienced crew from taking steps to save themselves.

Beyond that, we can all speculate for months, as I’m sure will happen in the media and on the forums, but none of that will do much, or maybe anything, to prevent a recurrence. This post is my attempt to look at what we can do.

Cheeki Rafiki is Different

I always take a keen interest when a yacht is lost, and often write about it, because I believe that studying casualties at sea is one of the most important things we can do in our quest to sail offshore safely. But the Cheeki Rafiki loss is different. Not just because four sailors are missing but because, unlike with most losses at sea, I think that there is little anyone, including the crew, could have done to avoid this tragedy, given the current state of offshore sailing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a keel failure is acceptable, and I expect that the appropriate authorities will investigate and try to determine what happened, but what I am saying is this accident may have been inevitable, just as I believe that the tragic loss of sailors’ lives in the 1979 Fastnet race was inevitable, given the state of offshore sailing at that time.

I firmly believe that Cheeki Rafiki should be a wake up call for the offshore sailing community, just as the ’79 Fastnet was. And, once again, we should honour the memory of those who lost their lives by making some fundamental changes.

Keels Are Different

What fundamental changes you ask? Before we get into that, let me quote the late Don Jordan, designer of the Jordan Series Drogue and an aircraft engineer:

In the design of aircraft, certain machinery and equipment is in a separate category, “safety of flight”. These items must be absolutely reliable and must be capable of enduring the worst environment that the aircraft may encounter.

I would argue that the ballasted keel of a sailboat is the marine equivalent of a “safety of flight” item—an item that simply must not fall off for the expected service life of the boat. A sudden keel failure, particularly in heavy weather far from land, well, that’s the marine equivalent of the wings falling off an aircraft in flight—there is pretty much nothing that airmanship or seamanship can do to avert a tragedy.

Yes, I know. I have heard the suggestions that the crew of Cheeki Rafiki would have survived if:

  • The liferaft was stowed in a more accessible place.
  • The liferaft had had an automatic release.
  • Ditto the EPIRB.

And on it goes. To me all of that is like saying “don’t worry about the wing structure, let’s just make sure all the crew have parachutes and the escape hatches work”. No, a sudden inversion due to keel loss is such a catastrophic event, particularly in heavy weather far from help, that even with the best gear in the world survival is doubtful.

And yes, I know that several Open 60 sailors have survived sudden keel loss, but at least two have not; besides which, the crew of Cheeki Rafiki didn’t sign up for that kind of risk.

By the way, it is tempting to say that many more parts of a sailboat should be in the “simply must not fail” category but, if we did that, boats would become even more ridiculously expensive than they already are. And anyway, we can deal with potential failure in, say, rigs with frequent inspection and parts that fatigue with use (stays, for example) with regular replacement—not so keels.

And, after all, if the mast falls down the boat still floats. And even if the hull is ruptured, and the water pours in, there is a reasonable chance of getting into the liferaft. Neither are trivial but they are, in most cases, survivable.

What Changed?

First 36.7 keel 1Before we look at what needs to be done, we need to understand why we have a keel problem. After all, up until a couple of decades ago, sudden keel loss on offshore sailing yachts was extremely rare.

What changed? I’m sure there are a lot of factors here, but I think a big cause is the move to keels that concentrate most of their weight at the bottom and couple that with a very small attachment area at the hull.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every boat with a keel like this is dangerous, but there is no question that keels like this are much more difficult to design and build strong enough.

The even more worrying aspect of this is that many boats with these intrinsically difficult to engineer keels are now aging. And while their keel attachments may have been adequately strong when the boats were new, the ravages of fatigue and/or multiple groundings may have made a large number of boats out there at risk for sudden keel loss.

What We Need To Do

In this kind of situation it is always tempting to say “they need to do something”. The faceless “they” comprising boat builders, designers and regulators. But the bottom line is that it’s simply impractical to expect mass production boat builders to increase the price of their products, or cut their profit margins, to fix a problem like this without changing the market conditions that caused the problem in the first place.

Or to put it another way, we won’t get strong keels until we-the-market start insisting on strong keels. Just as we-the-market started insisting on more stable boats after the ‘79 Fastnet. And yes, I know that regulators and race organizers have a part to play here, but it is still up to us to support them.

New Boats

So what do we need to demand of the industry that supplies the boats we go to sea in, as it relates to keels?

Grounding Proofing

We must insist that the keels are engineered to withstand a grounding at hull speed without structural damage.

Fatigue Proofing

Materials fatigue, in which a structure that was plenty strong enough when it was built weakens over time due to cycle loading and then fails, has, over the years, caused many disasters, most notably in the aviation industry. But it does not have to be that way.

You see, engineers know, to a high degree of accuracy, how much strength common construction materials lose over millions of load cycles. And so it is perfectly possible to design keel to hull joints so that, even after decades of hard sailing, there is more than enough strength remaining to do the job. We must insist that we will only buy boats that are engineered this way.

By the way, fatigue explains a lot about why we have the failures we do on sailboats, so I strongly suggest you read Matt’s excellent article on the subject, and my follow up on how you can use that knowledge to make your boat more reliable and safer.

Practical?

If enough of us question enough boat sales people about these criteria and insist on a well-reasoned answer, instead of fixating on the latest whiz-bang electronic or electric gadget, these improvements can and will happen, just as more stable boats (both static and dynamic) have resulted from the market’s insistence on them.

So what about the cost of all this? I’m no engineer, but I understand, from those that are, that incorporating the two criteria above would not be expensive in relation to the cost of the typical offshore boat, probably less than 1%—surely it’s worth it. And if every builder is pressured to improve keels, there are no competitive pressures to prevent any builder from doing so.

I also think that regulatory bodies should add the above requirements the offshore classification.

Survey

But what about the existing fleet? Well that’s a hard one, probably harder than solving the problem in new boats. But if we do indeed, as I believe, have a ticking time bomb in the form of thousands of boats with keels that, while probably adequate when new, are not adequate after a couple of groundings and a few million load cycles, we must grasp the nettle.

We must demand that those we hire to survey second hand boats being sold and boats that have suffered a grounding, carefully look for evidence of grounding in the former case and render an opinion in writing on the damage in both cases.

No, they won’t get it right every time, and nor should we expect them to, but they must be duly diligent in searching. Yes, this is not easy, but it’s not impossible either. There are tell-tale signs of keel problems to come—dings on the keel filled with putty and carefully painted over, evidence of patching around the hull to keel joint, furnishing and fittings that no longer fit properly—and surveyors should be looking for them, particularly on deep keel boats with small keel attachment areas.

My thinking is that every survey should include a section on examination of keel attachment with special attention to possible grounding damage and any evidence of flexing. In cases where there is any doubt, I would suggest this process should include suspending the boat off the ground and subjecting the keel to a known sideways force and then measuring deflection. And if there is still doubt the surveyor should withhold his or her report until the keel has been removed for full inspection.

Yes, these are big and expensive changes, but no more than the introduction and use of moisture meters and insistence that hulls be peeled and recoated was when customers realized that there was a major problem with water invading fibreglass laminates.

An Halls Spars engineer inspects a carbon fibre mast using an ultrasound machine.Further, just as most of us started to insist that we would only patronize surveyors with moisture meters, we should be rewarding surveyors with more business who look for and adopt new and innovative ways to detect keel to hull joint problems.

The carbon fibre mast industry already uses relatively inexpensive hand held ultrasound machines to look for laminate damage in carbon masts that have been hit by lightning and I’m informed that it is likely that the same machines, in skilled hands, could detect laminate damage in keel to hull joints. We must insist on the adoption of this technology, or something like it.

Conclusion

This is my best attempt at learning something from the Cheeki Rafiki tragedy. I’m sure it’s not perfect, but one thing I do know, we in the offshore sailing community must not just return to business as usual or just shrug and say “they should do something”.  It is up to us to make something happen by changing the market forces that drive boat design and construction, and start looking at existing boats with a much more critical eye.

I would like to close by offering our sincere condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of the crew of Cheeki Rafiki.

Comments

I would be the first to admit that I’m not an expert in yacht construction and may have things wrong in this post. If so, I would be grateful to the engineers and naval architects in the audience for corrections, and particularly for alternative solutions. Please leave a comment.

If you are a lay person with suggestions relating to this post, I’m all ears, but please keep it positive. Just saying my ideas won’t work, without suggesting something better, does not help.

One other point on the comments. I will delete comments that contain wild accusations about blame or cause.

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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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