Ocean Passaging—Turning Back Is Hard To Do

 

A better place to be than Denmark Strait when it's angry.

Some 20 years ago we were exploring the remote and largely uninhabited southeast coast of Greenland. Due to violent sunspot activity that year, we were not able to receive weatherfax charts to plan our passage across Denmark Strait, bound for Iceland, or even make a radio patch call to Commander's Weather, our preferred weather router.

Rather, I was reduced to observing the sky and barometer to pick a time to leave, neither of which are terribly useful on that coast since the ice cap creates a permanent stationary high pressure area, resulting in generally different weather than what's out in the Strait.

We were about 18 hours out when the sunspots finally relented enough for me to get a very blurry 48-hour prognosis chart that just showed the faintest hint of a low off Cape Farewell (the southern tip of Greenland).

This concerned me since lows in that position can often turn hard north around the ice cap high and rapidly intensify as they accelerate.

Thankfully, I was also able to make a radio patch call to Commander's Weather to ask them to take a look. And 30 minutes later to call them back for a prognosis.

The first words from the meteorologist on duty George Caras were:

John, do you have an alternative?

Not exactly what you want to hear at any time from a weather router, never mind when out in Denmark Strait.

George, often interrupted by bursts of static and with many requests from me to repeat—I don't miss those days before satellite phones when we were totally reliant on SSB—went on to share that the low would rapidly intensify (bomb) and track just ahead of our course, subjecting us to storm force winds for at least two days and, worse still, push us back toward the pack-ice-encumbered Greenland coast—lee shores are scary, pack ice as a lee shore is downright terrifying.

So what did we do?

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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Nice examples.
I have an article on Key Attitudes for successful & satisfying offshore passage-making in the pipeline where I discuss how quite common ways of dealing with challenges: an “aggressive, go for it, leave everything on the field” approach is unwise for offshore passage-making. Far better, from my perspective, to think of an offshore passage challenge as having Mother Nature as a dance partner, and a partner where she is in the lead. Your job is to accommodate to what she gives you to work with. Ending a passage where you feel like you were largely in synch with Mother Nature throughout is a wonderful experience.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Ernest

Heartwarming comment, Dick. Isn’t this the core of what sailing is all about?
When it comes to nature, you’re either in synch or not in synch, but never in command…

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Beautiful picture. BTW, what fjord were you in?
I have thought that the SE coast of Greenland would make for great cruising grounds if you intended to return to Iceland. Too often that area, if going W is staging for going through Prins Christian Sund, or if going E, one waits in PCS for a good wx window and takes off. So, this part of Greenland gets little play. We were “stuck” for almost a week in a fjord about 40mi N of PCS waiting for its entrance to clear of ice. We had a great time “stuck” as we were in paradise, but always looking over our shoulder at when we could move on. A leisurely visit in the many SE fjords followed by a four-day sail back to Iceland and its facilities on a good wx window could make for a really nice cruise where you would be unlikely to see another boat.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Ken McCallum

We turned our Oyster 62 around just six hours out from Halifax on our way to the Azores due to our battery bank Alternator acting up, and knowing that one crew member would certainly jump ship because of this. Our boat now sits on the hard in Maine waiting for May 2019 when we’ll try again. Nearly a 1000 mile costly trip to nowhere because one of the four man crew changed his mind and jumped ship due to a minor problem.

JAMES PETO

On our first trip to Norway at the beginning of may some 10 years ago we waited in Lerwick in Shetlands for a good weather window with the intention of making Alesund our first port of call.
Some two days out we heard a warning of “strong winds” on the radio which with in 12 hours had been elevated to a Gale Force and a recommendation by the Norwegian Authorities that all ships leave the area, being half way there we had a discussion…to continue or turn back, we decided to stay off shore and ride it out eventually arriving in Bodo some few hundred miles further North in a Snowstorm such that visibility was to the end of the deck…..we will never know if we made the right decision.

Dick Stevenson

Hi James,
The boat was safe, all hands were safe: you definitely encountered more worry and work than you anticipated, but, whereas it is always wise to review past decisions, there is no reason to second guess your decision when boat and crew arrive safely.
Sometimes the choice is either/or, but sometimes there can be options. One habit aboard Alchemy, is to consider plan B and even plan C when doing anything more than short coastal hops. Before a coastal passage of most any length, we sketch out, the night before departure, a few easy-entrance bail-outs along the way.
We also left Lerwick in May with a good forecast to go to the Lofoton’s. Two days out after winds that were lighter than forecast, the winds went on the nose with drizzle and fog. Kristiansund was on our starboard side and was one of our bail-outs and, in good order, we slipped in and were happily ensconced in a lovely interesting town for a few days of yucky weather. That said, it did make the trip up to Bodo a lot longer.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

Hi John
when you’re sailing a boat commercially, turning back is a very difficult decision indeed, especially if there’s a new crew waiting you at the other end. It’s one of the downsides of the job.
Obviously, we never went out in anything positively dangerous, and I only ever failed to turn up on time on one occasion. But sailing privately, I’ve turned back a few times when things just weren’t working. It has never sat well with me, though, but sat at a bar still contemplating a cold beer while we sat it out, my crew and I always managed to remember the old adage that ‘it’s better to be in here wishing we were out there, than out there wishing we were in here’!
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi All,
Changing plans and destinations should always be an option.
Another decision point where one can initially feel like a wuss arises when deciding, in the face of a marginal weather forecast, whether to up anchor and move on, as you had planned, or to stay put. For a long time, I needed to be on my home mooring on Sunday night and some of those return sails I still remember the misery. Nowadays, more often than not, I have the true luxury of deciding that the weather forecast is more conducive to staying at anchor: doing a few chores, taking naps, reading and listening to the wind howl and rain fall while warm and cozy inside. It is then that I embrace my inner wuss-ness.
My best, Dick

Marc Dacey

I think there’s a distinction between taking a “Plan B or C” (a diversion, perhaps a large one, due to a change of conditions on the boat or in the forecast on passage) and a straight 180 degree return to the originating port due to the same.

Perhaps that’s a false distinction. Yes, we want to complete the leg, but does it matter from which part of the leg? At a certain stage, you run out of easy “outs”. Going backward looks good then.

Wilson

Hi John,

A few years ago I turned back on a singlehanded westbound voyage from Scotland to Nova Scotia. I was a little over a week out, the wind was blowing relentlessly from the west and forecast to continue for the foreseeable future (it did) , I had damaged the staysail, and I was exhausted and discouraged. Best thing I ever did. The relief and joy of running down wind after a week of punishing the boat and myself by bashing to weather was indescribable, and a full Irish breakfast and pint of Guinness in Dingle a few days later seemed a just reward.

Reed Erskine

Ocean rallies and races can create unnecessary hazards by putting scheduling requirements ahead of safety. The 2009 Marion Bermuda Race was one of those occasions when race organizers realized that delaying the start would effectively cancel a long planned event, even as a dangerous confluence of two low pressure systems threatened to create a weather “bomb” with predicted pressures near 960 mb.

My wife was skippering a boat with an untested all-woman crew, and, after being becalmed the first night out of Marion, she calculated that that the storm would catch them a hundred miles north of Bermuda and retired the boat early. Her crew, bitterly disappointed, flew down to Bermuda for the parties, where they complained to all and sundry that the skipper’s decision was a betrayal of their courage and skills. The situation they had avoided was a 36 hour gale from the SSW, winds 35-45 kts. and waves in the 6-8 m. range. Of the original 48 entries, 3 didn’t start and 15 retired, some having gotten more than halfway to Bermuda. Fortunately the damage was limited to torn sails and broken spars. One observer pointed out that the early retirement by the all-female crew might have been a good example of “female intuition”. I call it “prudent seamanship”.

Marc Dacey

I delivered a boat during the November 2009 Caribbean 1500 race and was inside a 75-mile circle south south of Bermuda with three Swan 53s in race mode. We got the conservative forecast from Herb and they were racing “to the isobars”. Two of the three Swans retired with parted forestays. My skipper said he’d never racked up so many 200 NM days on his big old Bristol, but it wasn’t what I’d call relaxing sailing. 2009 was a year of big air!

RDE

Hi Reed
Owner’s demands for “scheduling” are the main reason I don’t do deliveries anymore.

So we left from Newport on Nov. 3 on the back of a 3 day blow. My first gulf stream crossing. Seemed pretty normal to me– waves 8-12′ but never more than 27knots of wind. A lot of blue water over the deck. One of the crew suffered a non-sailing medical emergency on day 2, so I was pushing as hard as possible to get him into port. Once you go through the Stream the gate closes and you have little choice but to charge ahead. About 125 miles out of Bermuda the seas laid down a bit but the rhumb line was only about 15% off the wind. I had the boat reefed down for stability and the throttle pushed to the wall to maintain constant hull speed. One of the crew asked “are we close enough to be rescued?” I made some smart Alec comment and then looked him in the eye. He wanted me to call for a helio right now and take him off the boat regardless of the cost! Took a bit of fast talking to convince him that we were out of range and he had no choice but to take a few courage pills and curl up in his bunk.

Yannick Piart

In aviation CRM (Crew Ressource Managment) or « Human factor » is part of our training. There’s a list of known human behaviors that can be dangerous in the constant decision making that is flying. One of those known behavior is, in the best way I will try to sum up, « mental resistance to change ». In other words, once someone is set to go north, even if several parameters in the environment tells that person to go south, initial plan is hard to flip. That has been identified s a key factor in several aviation mishaps.
I found that knowing this human weakness is useful and I believe it can totally translate to the offshore sailing world.
Cheers,
Yannick

RDE

Hi Yannick
My business partner (a senior United pilot) went to flight school with the pilot famous years ago for bring his DC10 successfully down into an Iowa corn field after all the flight controls had been disabled for an hour or so. Fascinating story. The one take away I most remember was: In an emergency fly the plane and then THINK before you do anything!

Rob Gill

John, Phylis and fellow members,
I have only once experienced an about turn, on a large cargo ship when we seized the single prop shaft coming out of Baltimore on Christmas eve. We had to be towed back to our berth and had a white Christmas and new year in port. The crew were very happy, if the shippers were not.

Mountaineering is often compared with offshore sailing on this site, and perhaps not just from the equipment side of things, but also the similar challenges and panoramic seascapes / peaks that are so magical. I was once privileged to hear a talk by a Brazilian colleague who collected mountain climbs as a hobby, all over the world in his holidays, lightly equipped and with no outside support. His key message was that mountain climbers often get into trouble when the summit is their goal. And this is so often a fatal error according to my friend, when the safe decent should always be the primary goal and the focus of all the elements of the climbing plan. I clearly recall his stark point that most climbers die on their way down, not up. This seems to me to be entirely analogous to offshore sailing and the point you are making.
We set off for our summer cruise tomorrow with the North Cape of NZ as our cruise final destination, but with our safe passage as the goal and now first line of the passage plan.
Merry Christmas!
Rob

Chuck B

“Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing is an incredibly gripping read. And if you like that one, “In the Kingdom of Ice” by Hampton Sides is also excellent (covering De Long’s attempt at the north pole).

Jonny

Yes, I think the climbing similarities are appropriate. I saw the film ‘Free Solo’ yesterday evening and it is tremendous. I’d recommend anyone to watch, whether interested in rock climbing or not.

Alex Honnold also made a brave decision to back away once underway on the El Capitan face, it probably saved his life when you see what he achieved the next year…

Jonny
s/v Infinite Blue

Dave Meindl

John,
Once again, thanks for a great article. There are many takeaways from aviation that align very closely with the way we should think about operating vessels at sea. After flying my entire life (for a long time now as an airline Captain), safety rules; that’s’ the bottom line. I know it sounds a little cliché and obvious but often, when we are in the moment of decision making, it is this very concept that can be unwittingly compromised. This goes hand in hand with the concept of thinking before you act.

There are a multitude of tools that feed into good leadership and decision-making skills but, ironically, it is during stressful times when we need to use these tools the most (and maybe quickly), that they can hide from us. The skills I am referring to: getting as much information from your crew as possible (of course weighing their experience), getting as much information from resources outside your crew as possible (ex. hard weather information or your intuition and experience), being open to the idea that you might be missing something, and most importantly, placing the safety of the crew and vessel above all else including your ego or what anyone else may think.

As I read the experiences in this article, I can’t help but feel that in certain instances part of the difficulty of decision making takes into account what other people might think. Who cares what they think? Our primary responsibility as skippers is the safety of the vessel and crew onboard. EVERYTHING ELSE is secondary.

We have a phrase in aviation called get-home-itis. It’s the desire after a long trip to get the final flight completed because that’s the last flight home. Over the years it has been the cause of a multitude of accidents/incidents because it has an insidious way of warping the decision-making process. It’s very real and, if anything unusual is going on during our last leg home, I make a point of verbally briefing the danger of get-home-itis with my First Officer. As soon as I use that phrase it’s like a breath of fresh air that causes us to honestly evaluate our decision making priorities.

As humans we don’t like to admit that we are wrong, or made a wrong decision. Because of this we can sometimes look at a change in plans (i.e. turning back or diverting somewhere other than the original destination) as a failure. However, that’s entirely wrong. We should view a diversion or return as a success. It validates that we are in fact using the decision process that is safest and most effective; that is – take all of your information, make a decision and start your plan, and more importantly, continue to evaluate the outcomes of your plan, reevaluate as you go, and alter your plan when necessary – that’s a success.

We all have different levels of experience also. What’s safe for other skippers is not safe for me because of my inexperience. So maybe that’s the question to ask when decision time comes; what’s the safest thing for me to do now, for the vessel and the crew, based on my boat and my experience regardless of what anyone else thinks? If we focus on that maybe the answer will come a little easier?

Craig Balsillie

I just want to point out that Amundsen arrived on the ice in the same summer he got to the pole. His only reason for being there was to make it to the pole. Scott and his men had already spent more than a year on the ice and reaching the pole was secondary to their scientific goals.

It’s also worth noting that Scott was on his way back from the pole when he perished, so turning back at that stage would have been to head back to the pole which makes no sense.
Newbie to the site and don’t even own a boat yet but felt this was a good post to jump in on.
Loving your work so far. Keep up the good work.

Craig Balsillie

Hey John, I stand corrected. I could have sworn I read that the Norwegian arrived late to the party. Royal Navy propoganda machine at work I guess. Thanks again.