The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Six Things We Can Learn From A Night Approach That Ended on a Lee Shore

Back in the day when I first started sailing offshore, before the advent of electronic navigation as we know it today (yeah, I’m that old), it was pretty much standard practice, at least for prudent mariners, to heave-to well offshore rather than do a night approach, and that went double if there was any chance of being to windward of an exposed shore during the approach—the dreaded lee shore.

And if the weather was nasty that standard practice became a near-law, at least for sailors who hoped to get old.

But in these days of relatively inexpensive plotters and radar I regularly see and hear about boats doing night approaches, even into intricate harbours, and with onshore winds. And the marvels of electrickery (thank you Colin for teaching me that term) mean that most of these approaches go fine.

But every so often we are reminded that the best navigation electronics in the world do not alter the fact that being near a lee shore is intrinsically hazardous and, if we add in high winds, downright dangerous.

The latest example is a sail training Volvo 60 that went ashore on Cross Island, just a few miles from our home. As I understand it from my friend and neighbour, Chris Stanmore Major, who has talked to the skipper at length, they were making an approach to Lunenburg in the early hours of the morning in a gale, with two professional and six paying crew aboard.

As they started striking sail to motor in, the staysail roller furler jammed. The crew responded by dropping the sail on deck. In the process, the head of the sail went over the side and fouled the propeller. Cross Island was under their lee, and they drifted downwind onto the rocks. Luckily no one was killed, or even, as far as I know, hurt.

There’s a lot we can all learn from this wreck:

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James Greenwald

Hi John,
Thank you for the informative article.
As Chris and yourself have mentioned, approach mistakes to a lee shore are as old as sailing itself. The sea is littered with examples.
I was with Chris on Challenger; Antigua to Bermuda. On an approach into St. George; (gale winds which was weird for the area and time of year) we lost our prop shaft. Chris displayed exemplary seamanship, bore offshore out of danger got vessel situated with storm jib, cup of tea, discussed options then proceeded back to cut to be taken under tow. Oh yes; Whitbread 60 does indeed heave to very nicely.
As an aviation professional I have seen far to many accidents on approach if the pilot had only chosen to do a simple go around an incident or accident could have been adverted.
To add insult to injury, as I am sure you have heard Esprit De Corps was ransacked by looters the first night while sitting on the rocks of Cross Island.

Your fan,


Rob Gill

Good read John, but grim with the “Rule of 3” sounding in my head. As you told the story of events, I counted up the adversities: 1st) night time, 2nd) gales force winds, unfamiliar entrance? – probably the experienced skipper knew it well, so benefit of the doubt there. Heavy rain around? – again doesn’t say, but this would have been a third strike for me had rain been present. Then suddenly their 3rd adversity – furler problems, foresail won’t stow, sail out of control. Three strikes!
The “Rule of 3”, as told to me by a buddy and RTW sailor is: “get to three adversities, no matter what, you stop and fix/mitigate at least one, before proceeding on”. The reason being that adversities don’t always add up, they can compound as we all know. But often we don’t heed it – you can mostly cope with two, three gets you into dangerous territory. Our first mate is good at pointing this out to the skipper, by the way.
Question – do you know the brand of furler involved? I ask because we were out on a blustery day having watched the last Volvo Race fleet depart Auckland and returning to harbour, we came to roll our jib away with our (at the time) 2003 Facnor roller furler:
It jammed up in a 30 knot gust and simply refused to roll our jib away. Stupidly I applied more force to the furling line and eventually the furler did release its grip on the forestay and stowed the sail. But the jam and my brute force had opened all the strands permanently in the forestay and we were fortunate not to lose the mast. Our rigger claims ours is not the first he has seen do this and he personally advises replacing them before going offshore – which I didn’t do. I too was lucky I think. Not least that the rigging was due for replacement anyway. We now have a new Furlex unit which runs WAY more easily than the previous one. Thinking back, we had experienced previously the unit being stiff, despite silicon based lube and grease in the right places. Should have heeded this warning too.
By the way, I later heard a “hack” – how to roll a headsail with a furler jam, short-handed. Sail round and round in the same direction, until the sail is stowed. Not great for the sail, but get’s the job done, if it is too difficult / dangerous on the bow.
Br. Rob

Laurence Holden

Thanks so much for your rule of three! Never thought of that. ,makes incredible good sense. It now goes at the top of my leaving the dock drill.

Drew Frye

The only time I have used a sea anchor cruising was to wait for daylight. The boat did not heave to well, so that was more dependable. In fair weather, it’s an easy thing to do on a multihull, and you can get some rest. That was pre-GPS, so position was estimated by dead reckoning, in this case.

Being able to get and anchor down FAST has saved my bacon a few times. It should be easy. Strangely, in the midst of a struggle, people often forget this basic option. It can be that simple.

Taras Kalapun

Why did not they use a mainsail to get out of that area after motor jammed?
I had a motor issue when my fuel filter clogged. Being able to hoist mainsail fast saved me.

About anchor – John, what would be your ideal setup to secure it while at sea? I am lashing it and having a knife near by to cut lashings.

James Peto

I remember well picking up a May Day call whilst sailing off the Coast of Portugal, which is notorious for swell and dangerous harbour entrances in any strong on shore wind.
The yacht sending the Mayday said that it had picked up a Lobster Pot line or similar and that they were being driven onto the rocks.
Having established their position I looked at our chart and could see that it was relatively shallow and advised that they should deploy their anchor until we could get to to them.
About an hour later we heard that the Maritime Police had come to their rescue and towed them to the harbour.
The following day we visited them to see if they needed any help with disentangling themselves from the rope to find that as the Maritime Police had come to their aid their Yacht had been inspected and was now subject to Portuguese Maritime Regulations and it could not leave the Harbour until a very long list of repair / maintenance work had been completed.
All they had ever needed to do was put the Anchor down.
An expensive lesson.

Garryck Osborne

Why, in this day and age, do so few yachts have line-cutters fitted to their propshafts? It makes no sense to me.

Marc Dacey

I helped to deliver a deep keel race boat in Portugal in 2007 and those fish nets/lobster pots are everywhere and are not to be ignored. Also, the Portuguese marine personnel were *very* serious and we had to produce passports at every port. Given that the whole coast of Portugal is more or less a lee shore with some of the highest surf anywhere, they are correct to be stringent.

Scott Dufour

“Don’t you worry about it overmuch. When a thing’s done, it’s done, and if it’s not done right, do it differently next time. Worrying never made a sailor.”
“It isn’t worrying,” said John. “It’s just that I hate myself for being such a duffer.”
“Um,” said Captain Flint, “I wouldn’t mind betting you’ve been just as much of a duffer lots of times before when nothing’s happened. We’re all duffers sometimes, but it’s only now an then that we get found out.”
-Swallowdale, Arthur Ransome

Thanks for sharing the dufferdumb in us all. I just had a great day sail on someone else’s boat from Westbrook, Connecticut to Block Island, Force 5, running straight to a lee shore. Lovely time. But no anchor on the bow, and the skipper said he’d never tried to use it on this boat anyway. It’s such a common practice on coastal cruisers, and it makes me cringe.

Christopher Ambroiso

I was with Chris on Challenger coming into Lunenburg a few days after Esprit De Corps went aground. We discussed your point #2 at length. Who knows what the exact conditions were, but the results would have been much different if they waiting until the boat was a few hundred yards further up the channel. Looking at my photos of the boat laying at the extreme end of the island on low rocks gives me chills.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

All good points. Also, thanks for filling in some of the details of this incident.

I like to always think about what my bailout is and have been known to quiz crews on it quite regularly. For example, I would often ask crew, what should we do if we lose steering now, basically a single fault analysis of all the possible faults. Of course, there are often multiple correct answers but if there are no correct answers at all, then it might be time to rethink the whole thing. Probably the most common correct response that comes up is dropping the anchor even more than starting the engine I would guess. It is also a technique that I have actually used and it has saved me a few times. To me, the hardest part is actually knowing when to go to the bailout plan. For example, you are coming into a narrow spot and you see a boat approaching that is hogging the channel, do you turn around or keep going, in a lot of places you will never get anywhere if you don’t accept some risk. I don’t have a great answer for how to make this call other than experience and knowing whether you tend to allow yourself to drift into dangerous situations. The rule of 3 mentioned above is good too but it applies slightly differently, they are more adversities whereas a single failure can do you in if bad enough.

Night approaches are definitely a tricky subject. I remember someone telling me when I was a kid that nighttime navigation was easier as you could tell exactly what was going on by navigation lights and it seemed logical. Then I started actually sailing at night and boy were they wrong, the lights were overpowered by other lights, you had no depth perception, angles were hard to determine, shore lights seemed like nav lights, fog often comes in at night, etc (okay, there are some exceptions like I would choose the Cape Cod Canal or East River at night rather than an August Saturday afternoon). I used to do a bunch of night approaches and we still do them occasionally but the conditions and the entrance must be right. Around here, the biggest issue is fishing gear, probably even worse than the combination of night and fog for a boat like ours that doesn’t have a ton of power driving a big set of line cutters.