The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

When Stuff Goes Wrong At Sea

If anything’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there.

Captain Ron

I don’t like sea stories. My number one and two goals on every passage I embark on is to get the people back in one piece, and get the boat back in one piece. If I can’t do both, I’ll take the former.

But do this long enough, while continuing to push your skills to a higher level, and things are going to happen, no matter how much we practice good preparation and seamanship.

I’m writing from the nav desk on Icebear, our Swan 59, somewhere in the Baltic on a calm night en route towards Stockholm. The inspiration for this piece was born from John’s (appropriate) reply to my recent spinnaker fiasco¹ en route across the Atlantic a few weeks ago that cost us an almost brand-new sail—an expensive loss.

¹You can read the entire account, even watch the video debrief first mate Emma and I recorded immediately after the fact, but you gotta be a Quarterdeck member.

But I don’t regret losing the sail. It’s a tool, and tools are meant to be used. If you can’t afford to lose them now and then, you shouldn’t use them. (I feel the same way about the drones we fly off the back of the boat offshore).

I was deliberately pushing my own comfort zone to carry the sail into the night and with a bit more breeze than usual, partly knowing that in a couple years we’ll be really pushing our comfort zone in the Southern Ocean, racing around the world with the OGR².

²When I wrote this we were still committed to racing OGR…since then, everything has changed. Icebear will still race with new owners, but we’ve since bought a Farr 65 that’s being restored right now in England and which will become the flagship for 59 North. And there will not be an OGR for us, by choice.


I do regret two things:

  1. Not discussing the big-picture plan with my mate Emma before she went off watch.
  2. Not briefing a Plan B with the crew on what to do if things went sideways during the takedown.

We had no Plan B and that was contributing factor #1 in the sail’s demise.

The crux of this article then, is how to identify and learn from the tipping points, both when things go wrong and when they go right.

What Went Wrong

For years we’ve hoisted and doused spinnakers in exactly the same way I’d briefed it to the crew that night on Icebear, never having had an incident, even in much stronger winds, and yes, also at night.

The process had become habit.

Problem is, not having properly debriefed all those good experiences, I realize now my habit was wrong all along. And when things went just a bit sideways that night off Nova Scotia, my bad habit of not securing the downline on the sock was made all too apparent.

Systematic Learning

Since hiring a few new skippers and mates to run our offshore programs, as we grow 59º North to now three boats, we’ve developed a standard passage debrief form that gets completed after each trip by the skipper and mate while it’s still fresh in our minds.

Parts of it are standardized, to allow us to easily compare the relative success of one passage to another. Like how we rate each trip, subjectively, on a scale of 1 to 100, then add in the degree of difficulty that went along with it—factoring in crew dynamics, weather, time of year, external factors, etc.

But the largest section prompts us to debrief the things that went right and wrong and asks us to think critically about them.

The most important part of any debrief is properly identifying the crux of why something went sideways. Even more difficult, and equally important, is identifying why something went right. Was it good decision making? Or was it luck? And how do you tell the difference?

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Matt Marsh

There is a strong tendency, in management circles, to look at an accident and quickly say “OK, here’s the cause of it, let’s fix that and move on.”
The actual underlying root causes, which are usually subtle and numerous, can easily be missed with such a cursory glance.
An interesting recent example is the case of Tim Lachenmeier of Near Space Corp., a subcontractor to Boeing, who lost his leg after falling off a ladder while working on a Boeing Starliner prototype. There was a whole lot of talk of “was the ladder up to spec?” and “why wasn’t the ladder properly braced?” and “why wasn’t the spacecraft tied down securely?” while the real question was glossed over.
That question: “What kind of engineering and management culture made it possible to design an explosive-actuated line cutter such that it could misfire from an ordinary static shock, and then to use that device as the only link preventing the spacecraft from hurtling off on its own during test prep while people were climbing all over it?”
When an incident or near-miss occurs, we really do need to dig a little deeper, beyond just “was person X careless”, and find the true root causes.

Rob Gill

Hi Matt, I love this example thank you. It illustrates beautifully the importance of critical thinking, but such thinking though can often be counter-intuitive. It reminds me of the wartime analysis by mathematician Abraham Wald:

Marc Dacey

These are the “real world” scenarios from which any sailor can learn. You have a very interesting opportunity with your “fleet” clocking so many sea miles annually to have a significant number of chance events presented to you simply due to having boats in play doing long passages.

I would be interested in how your logging procedures work and if you’ve gleaned guidance on how to run your boats based on clues or comments from either a paper or an electronic log review. Sorry to hear about the shredded spinnaker; we narrowly avoided losing ours in a similar event and now do things differently.

Marc Dacey

Very good practice. When we are close to exhausting our stock of preprinted log pages, I will see how MCA does things, and modify accordingly.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Andy,
Thanks for sharing the problems encountered and, especially, your procedures and thinking in both anticipating the inevitable future events and the review after an event: what I indecorously call a post-mortem.
Am I correct in thinking that Maus fire extinguishers would have dealt with the reported fire and not left a mess? They might be a consideration over the foam extinguishers you referred to.
And, if memory serves, alcohol fires can be put out by water, but a solid slug of water will disperse the alcohol and flame in front of the water and potentially spread the fire. A friend had the quick wits to use his galley’s spray nozzle on an alcohol fire which made impressively short work of it.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Christopher Barnes

Andy – great article & thank you! Risk management, near-miss review, and the related decision-making processes are near and dear to my heart. A lot of really interesting work on decision making in low-frequency high consequence environments theory out of the avalanche world (esp. Ian McCammon on common heuristics of failed decisions)

Dick – In addition to post-mortems… I like “Pre-Mortem’s” (I think originally US Army propagated concept) is a great prep and briefing tool… essentially a “before action” review theorizing if it all goes to heck and handbasket what are the most likely causes and what might we do proactively to mitigate them type group discussion. Helps to get the jitters out of the crew/team (surface worries) and is a good tool to emphasize the basics (e.g. as per Andy above the power of good rest and huge risks of decision making by fatigued decision-makers)

Dick Stevenson

Hi Christopher,
You are so right. Most often, if things go pear shaped, a post mortem reveals that preparation was (frequently) to blame. Too often it is assumed that everyone is on the same page and remember previously practiced and familiar procedures the same way. Anticipatory pre-mortems are never a waste of time.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy 

Nikolas Andersen

Definitely my experience from camping alcohol stoves, a flow or slug of water can spread it, especially on a smooth surface (40% alcohol/water mixture still burns).

Andre Langevin

“luck or skill” this is hard to settle even in enterprise were they do regular quality check and insurance. This is a very good topic that invite us to revisit our procedures at sea.

About extinguisher…i had a fire in the kitchen at home 2 years ago. A real one because my teenager decided to do potato chips and put oil to heat WITH THE COVER ON ! The fireball exploded 10 minutes later. Nothing could extinguish it … the fire blanket just melted. By chance i had CO2 extinguisher that i intented to install on the boat, in the garage close. I bring one on and ONE BLAST it was all over. No mess. Apart from the regular small powder (last resort) extinguisher on the boat, i now have 2 CO2 extinguisher ready and one close to galley.

Henrik Johnsen

Hi Andy
MAUS Aerosol Firefighter would have killed that fire instantly, without doing any harm to eighter environment or persons. It contains a non toxic Kaliummix, so does no harms to people, no needs of cleaning of the environment (like with powder), no damage made to electronics nor the engine. Effective on fires class B and C, Gas and burning liquids.

Matt Marsh

Indeed. There are a few other AAC articles where we dig into the specifics of fire suppression and control:

James Gleason

Love the idea of a formal recap process for good outcomes (not only the bad stuff) to confirm best practices working or dumb luck. Thank you.

Christopher Barnes

James – great point – “Confirmation Bias” is a very real issue in the domain of sailing. Essentially because of all the “good” outcomes over time (every time the boat didn’t sink and we didn’t have any crew cranial boom contacts), we inflate our confidence level and willingness to take risks… when actually the relatively low incident rate is actually responsible for a significant portion of our success (rather than it just being our own wisdom & experience). Differentiating luck from skill is really hard. Domains like commercial aviation have a lot of processes, checklists, and systems to do just this for both individuals, equipment, and the system at large.

Mark Wilson

Five days after the publication of this article on a key sailing principle for voyagers I am struck by the paucity of comments in comparison to those for the previous one on a relatively esoteric subject. But perhaps Andy has made his point so well few comments are necessary.

John Harries

Hi Mark,

That same thought came to me as well. I do worry about this trend to put gadgetry ahead of fundamentals. In fact I have written about it several times. This one is about marine electronics:

Jeffrey Werner

I wouldn’t conflate number of comments with priority. Lots of comments in the last articles because the topic was “convergent” meaning a specific, tangible, solvable issue where lots of people had specific questions and perspectives on a position taken by the author (other than the “divergent” component of where one places the bar of “good seamanship”)
On the other hand, this topic above is rather “divergent”. It has anecdotal samples of a rather broad concept with no specific assertion by the author and no solvable problem.
Is the intent to see comments philosophizing about risk recognition and management? Criticize processes and decisions in Andy’s examples?
Unless someone documents a holistic offshore risk management process and provides a complete manual and checklist then I’m not sure these article and threads ever get past generic concepts: prepare mentally, prepare physically, decision making suffers with exhaustion, crew will generally be less capable and prepared than you, moving the boundaries of your past experiences might expose unknown vulnerabilities, luck matters, etc.
These 30,000 foot articles always leave me frustrated, they never can answer; what is the right level of preparedness? what is the right level of risk tolerance? How does that tie to peoples’ concept of seamanship? What is the right rate of experience accrual (faster means greater risk tolerance)?
Unanswerable topics, leads to pontification and non-actionable endings.
Much like political and religious topics, not very productive if generalized.

John Harries

Hi Jeffrey,

You are certainly right that the number of comments does not necessarily equate to popularity, and therefore, I think, priority.

However in this case it did in that the lithium posts got more eyeballs than this one, although not a lot. It’s also interesting to note that my first lithium post about the seamanship aspects of lithium batteries got way less eyeballs than the second where I delved into the technology.

On its own, the above proves little, however I do know for sure that over time our articles that get the most interest are pretty much all those dealing with high tech stuff.

So, having watched the traffic numbers on this site for coming up 20 years I do think there is a worrying trend in the cruising community to focus on cool tech like lithium batteries and marine electronics ahead of seamanship. This is lot of why, when I do write about tech I always circle back to how that tech relates to fundamental seamanship principles.

(If I were just interested in making money, all my articles would be breathless fan-boy articles about the latest high tech gadget with no reference to seamanship.)

As to action items in an article. I do try and do that it my writing, but I would say that a more open ended article like Andy’s, while perhaps not as satisfying, tends, in many ways, to teach me a lot because it forces me to think about the issues and come to my own conclusions about what is right for me. This, for me anyway, applies to any subject, not just offshore sailing.

Anyway, all that said, your point about specifics is valid too, and most of our articles, and online books, make very specific recommendations, and the first check list drops today.

Matt Marsh

You can get into the tech stuff by being active on forums, reading a lot, and throwing tons of money at products. The more you spend, and the more you have, the more successful you are perceived to be.

Seamanship requires real experience, lifelong learning, and sober analysis of difficult things we’d prefer to gloss over. It’s not flashy or showy. Your status has nothing to do with how much money you spent or how much stuff you have.

I think that’s why you see a difference in response.

John Harries

Hi Matt,

Is that like “he who dies with the most toys wins”?

Seriously, well put.

An extension of what you wrote is that it’s all too easy to dive into the easy fun high tech stuff when we know in our heart of hearts that there is something way more important, and way more difficult, we should be doing. I know I have done that plenty of times, and after all these years, I should know better.

Jeffrey Werner

thanks for the considerate reply, as usual. Yeah I can’t see the view data so I had no idea of real readership. It is hard to comment on open-ended thought-provoking article like Andy’s. I hope people think as much about actually sailing and seamanship as much as they do systems and gadgets. I think they do…which may be wishful…

Mark Wilson

Well, to be more specific my tuppence worth takeaway from this article is that, however many handholds you have in the saloon, wide is bad. I was thrown across and down two levels on a wide boat last year. I wasn’t badly hurt but it ruined my cricket season – and made winching with my dominant right hand painful for the next nine months. My memory is that I was holding on with my right hand at the time but still went flying. 

When a boat hits a wave in a certain way in heavy weather one would need to be handcuffed to a handhold not to lose one’s footing. In the same way a horse can nearly always lose it’s rider by unexpectedly stopping from a full canter.

One hand for yourself one for the ship, by all means. But if you assume that you are sometimes going to fall make sure its not far enough to seriously hurt yourself or your crew.

John Harries

Hi Mark,

I agree on the importance of an interior layout with no wide spaces and have written about that extensively. Here’s one example (#4):

Jeffrey Werner

Hah, my wife was loving the huge production boats at the shows. We bought a Valiant 42. She thought it felt tight inside. Then one 11 day nasty weather passage she had a revelation 🙂 There is no where to fall in that boat. If no hand for the boat it’s OK because there is a hip for the boat.

John Harries

Hi Jeffrey,

Yes, designers having strived for years to come up with a better interior arrangement than that used by Perry on the V40-42 but without a lot of success. As you say, no where to fall far, and you just can’t beat a U shaped galley. And the salon layout is the only one that really works on a boat this size.

About the only thing I would change on the boat for long term cruising would be scrapping the aft cabin in favour of a utility area and then move the head aft. That would also give room for a separate shower.

Point being that every live aboard V40-42 I have ever been on has the aft cabin stuffed with boat gear, so might as well just get rid of it, at least for cruising as a couple.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you make those changes, way too much trouble and expense, it’s just fun to speculate.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Jeffrey and John,
Having lived on a Valiant (V42-128) for most of the last 20 years and with a fair number of miles under her keel, I will confirm, Jeffrey, that your wife’s comment is well observed. There is something quite secure, when the boat is throwing you about, coming into the boat from the cockpit into a “corridor” with walls on both sides and proceeding with both solid objects to place one’s hips and with ample handholds.
Being a rare animal nowadays, a true cutter with the mast almost amidships, Bob Perry was presented with interior challenges, some of which look awkward to the eyes used to a sloop, but has worked quite well for us.
For a cruising couple with few guests, I would go along with John’s suggestion of a utility area rather than an aft cabin. That said, the aft cabin might be nice for a child (or two small ones) for a family out cruising. I have liked the aft cabin for occasional guests: it is cozy enough to welcome a guest, but not so comfortable that they will stay long and supports an observation that Alchemy drinks 6, feeds 4 and sleeps 2. It also collects and contains the daily stuff (coats, gloves hats etc.) that can clutter a cockpit and keep it handy to be put away later.
And we found (with some discipline) that a V42 has ample storage space and have never resorted to using the aft cabin as a “garage” or “attic”. This is a temptation for any skipper on any boat with an aft cabin or quarter-berth, not in any way particular to Valiants, and reflects more on the wishes of the crew than the design of the boat.
And, I am not sure when Valiant started (mine is ~~25 yo), but, in addition to an aft cabin, I also have an aft head (bottom of the companionway steps) and there is a very usable dedicated shower. In a frivolous moment when you, John, were in the early stages of designing the A40, I wrote an “Homage” to my shower for the AAC site: Aft head is a passage making delight while a dedicated shower pushes cruising away from “camping out” mode into civilized full-time living.
And, Jeffrey, in addition to here on AAC’s site, you can contact me on the Valiant site ( where there are also many other experienced cruisers with lots of good ideas.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Alastair Currie

When upgrading my saloon table, I had it built as a solid box base. The leaves fold down into the box so that it retains this shape. It makes a strong mid cabin structure to brace against and a good shape to include storage drawers. The previous table had two end supports hence a gap at the bottom which was a risk area. Not quite the corridor effect but from galley bulkhead to forward head bulkhead, it is a corridor of sorts, with a strong and stable table structure to brace against. The most vulnerable area, with widest fall distance, on my Rival 41C is the galley / chart table space. I have somewhat addressed that by turning my chart table longitudinally, so that the seat area is now filled in by chart table. It presents a more uniform area to collide with as it has been raised for standing at, not sitting. Turning the chart table round, from conventional athwartship arrangement was to improve useful desk top space and remove a useless gap where the navigators seat was, as the turn of the hull prevented it being a working seat. I have strong “bum” straps at the chart table and galley but this article is making me think about a taught net for rough weather safety – not sure.

Jeffrey Werner

Indeed. My V42 has an aft dry head with a shower stall. I like sleeping in the salon or, at anchor, in the V with 2 hatches and 2 portals so lots of air flow. Since it is only my wife and I mostly, I expect the rather large aft cabin will end up with the spinnaker and tools and such, and double as a workspace. I’ll not be cutting it apart though for extra storage or a bench as it houses my battery bank, inverter/charger, water heater, and so much more.

Alastair Currie

The pre job analysis is now becoming embedded in many organisations. One system is Step 7:-

  1. Plan – job by design, roles, failing safely, previous incidents and after action reviews.
  2. Communicate with those involved in the job and obtain understanding.
  3. Check equipment is fit for purpose and designed for the job.
  4. Prepare Area for the job, sort out obstructions, review if the job can be done, has the area changed, exclusion and safe zones.
  5. Control energy, protective equipment, isolation, tools and methods.
  6. Final check that all is still okay, no changes, understanding is in place.
  7. Start work, pause if work flow changes and reassess.

It reads a bit cumbersome, but in reality it can be quite quick for a simple task or longer for a more complex task.
The biggest issue I find is lack of supervision and planning in nearly all causal investigations. Job by Design is a method where each job is known about and can be planned before it is executed. Again, it is a simple concept but does require a disciplined way of thinking. If I hear phrases such as the “the usual way”, “or get the tools for the job” then I wonder if the team really knows what they are talking about.
There is a hierarchy of control in risk management, when we think about Hazards (a very misunderstood concept). There are 5 recognised methods of controlling hazards: –

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering controls
  4. Administrative controls
  5. Personal protective equipment

The order is ranked from most effective at 1. to least effective at 5.
Are accidents preventable, industry now says they are not, it is simply impossible, hence the concept of failing safely is now common. Which takes us to Hazard Identification and Hazardous Operations (HAZID and HAZOP). Get this right and you can now plan to fail safe. Let’s take Andy’s falling galley crew member.
The Hazard is falling, the cause is gravity or momentum. We can use bumper bars and galley straps to help the crew member from falling, ant-slip flooring, grip deck shoes etcetera. Yet, the crew member can still fall. So how can a fail safe environment or situation be provided so that when the crew member does fall, they are not injured – eliminate the book case, ban cooking above 25 degrees of inclination, prepare the area in line of fire with padded edges? That is the challenge that industry is wading into today, there are easy solutions and more complex solutions and cost does come into it. Risk reduction to ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practical) takes this into account, the “Practical” bit is about how much risk you are willing to accept, which includes both financial and subjective restraints, not necessarily prescriptive boundaries.

This safety stuff is not hard, after all its not rocket science, indeed it is not, it is far harder than rocket science. Psychological safety is the newest kid in mainstream industry (although it’s been about a while)

Stay safe, but don’t freak out about safety, most of us realise that we are only a few mm of hull away from catastrophe and act accordingly.
Regarding the man who fell in the galley. It reminds me of experimenting with Formula Ford racing cars. `I was allowed a maximum of 3 laps, because by lap 4, the organisers said, you think you know what you are doing …

John Harries

Hi Alastair,

Interesting comment. I particularly liked the point that the phrase “the usual way” indicates an accident looking for a place. This is something that offshore sailing is particularly bad at. For example using side deck jack lines and building boats with inadequate keel attachments, both of which have been the “usual way” for decades, but are fundamentally dangerous and relatively easy to fix (the latter in-build).

I also liked your last paragraph a lot.

Eric Klem

Hi Andy,

All good points. If it makes you feel any better, I too had to learn the hard way on filling an alcohol wick stove although with not quite the same amount of flames.

I agree that debriefs are very useful but I have also found many of the debriefs I have been a part of to be pretty cringe-worthy, especially if things went well. A large part of this is that it takes skill and emotional intelligence to lead a debrief and the other participants need to be bought in and not think it is too corny. It seems that many people think a good debrief is about length of the exercise rather than the input solicited by it. I think your point on bringing up things that went well is actually a big part of making them go well, if they only focus on what could have gone better and things went generally well, everyone will stand around with their hands in their pockets waiting for it to be over. I am sure someone who is better at these sorts of things would be able to speak better to how to make these go well reliably. I do like Christopher’s phrase of “pre-mortem”, when this has been done, I have generally found it to be very successful.

I also find that your point about getting away with something not being the same as it going well is a very important one. I used to be a serious whitewater kayaker and it seemed many paddlers felt that as long as you didn’t swim (end up out of the boat), you had done well. They would say this even if the person had been upside down over half the rapid and had not had any control over where in the river they were. To me, that person showed they had a good eskimo roll but that their boat handling and water reading were not good enough for that river. The people who didn’t realize they needed to go back a level and improve their skills were invariably people who got hurt and whitewater kayaking is definitely a dangerous sport.


John Harries

Hi Eric,

Your point about whitewater kayaking and the people who just manage to get away with a run rather than developing true mastery over time really resonated with me since I have seen so much of that with yachties going to the high latitudes once and getting back OK and then thinking they are high latitude exerts, whereas, in reality, they just don’t have the skills to go back repeatedly without an accident happening eventually. You can always identify these people because they are full of stories of near disaster.

The base reason for this problem is always the same: they didn’t work up to a high latitude cruise over time and so never really got the base skills and experience, or perfected their boat for that usage. Yachties transiting The Passage as their first high latitude cruise are the ultimate manifestation of this problem.

I also agree that actually pulling off the kinds of meetings that Andy advocates without it turning into just another boring task no one cares about is really hard to do. The phrase that always triggers cringe in me is “a culture of safety”.

As skipper of a small crew it has always worked better for me to be a bit more informal, perhaps even over a cocktail, and start conversations off with the mistakes I felt I made (there are always plenty) which in turn makes people more comfortable discussing how we can do better. This works well for Phyllis and me, which is perhaps useful since the dynamics between couples can, if not sensitively dealt with, end up making all this more difficult, or even impossible.

Christopher Barnes


From the outdoor ed world, we brought aboard the idea of daily check-ins – “Crew Meeting” – once a day after dinner when offshore sailing for us. A mini debrief and the very best place to bring up lax head cleaning from that day (don’t wait, timely feedback is best), give feedback on a particularly tasty meal (lots of affirmative feedback empowers the occasional critical bit), process any errors or near-misses, and just have one moment each day when we are all together. Then we’d bang out the “boat to bed” checklist (ritual of prep before darkness) together and off to our stations or bunk. Most days it was just a few minutes and set a tradition of speaking up or… letting it go with regards to feedback (another vital skill)

John Harries

Hi Christoper,

That’s pretty much what we do, although not quite as formally. Seems to work well. The other difference is that on our boat its most likely me being reminded of a poor head cleaning attempt, rather than the other way around.

Anyway, all kidding aside, talking stuff through before it festers is important, as is knowing what to let go.

John Harries

Hi All,

Just so you know, the reason Andy has not been up in the comments over the last few days is that he is at sea on a passage from Bermuda to the Azores.

Rob Gill

Thanks for sharing Andy,

In the spirit of the sailing confessional:

A few years ago a friend told us about passage making’s “five-fingers of death”. He explained each finger represents a risk factor to count on one hand. The idea being to stop the vessel or turn back until you fix, eliminate or mitigate at least one risk factor before reaching five fingers, or proceeding further.

Returning southwards from the Bay of Islands to Kawau this NZ summer, our first-mate and I anticipated two nice daysails ahead of the arrival of a front with rain and 30 knots plus.

Day one, the forecast E 10 to 15 knot winds evaporated and we ended up motor-sailing down the coast to Whangarei.

Leaving just after dawn on day two, the Met forecast was for E 10 knots, increasing to 20 knots (gusting 25). And a beam 1 to 1.5 m easterly swell. What greeted us was a short 2 m “left-over” sea, on the nose. I had missed a GRIB showing an area of compression between Coromandel and Great Barrier Island, where it was blowing 30->35 knots from the SE. Low cloud was scudding through, reducing our visibility to < 1/2 nautical mile.

Finger 1. Coming out of the Whangarei Heads, we were motoring into a light SE’ly with main-halyard ready to hoist our roller-furling mainsail. But the halyard clutch was open and in the wave action, the halyard loosened and the top-part flicked itself over the top spreader and around our radar dome. There was no way to retrieve it without climbing the mast. After a brief discussion, the first mate recommended turning back to retrieve the main-halyard. The skipper (me) persuaded us that we could turn back if we didn’t like the conditions, or visibility worsened, or the mainsail couldn’t be set properly and we continued on.

We used the topping lift as the reserve main-halyard (we have a substantial solid-vang) to hoist the mainsail 3/4 of the way up the track, until the head reached the cleated off main-halyard. Plenty of sail in the conditions with the jib set. We cut the engine and headed across Bream Bay on a close reach. The sometimes violent boom motion meant (unbeknown to us) that four of the six bolts holding the boom mandrel were working loose.

Finger 2. The wind began heading us (SE). Soon we couldn’t make Cape Rodney. Nearing the coast, the odd big wave was breaking over our clipper bows, perhaps 2.5 m? Not big, but short (around 6 – 7 seconds) and steep. Our close reach had become hard on the wind. After discussing this “second finger” we secured hatch-boards and tacked east towards deeper water.

Finger 3. The engine would have helped us make to windward, but with the fuel we had used the previous day and the gauge showing under 1/4 tank, I was mindful of sucking air into the fuel line. And so our fuel situation became the “third finger”. We discussed the daylight remaining and the visibility (improved to about 1 nm). The wind was up to 25 knots, heading further from the SSE. Neither of us get seasick, but the first mate was anxious. The boat felt balanced and heck, we were 2/3 of the way home! We discussed turning around soon to reach Whangarei in daylight to navigate the inevitable seas through the heads. Also we discussed a plan C, fore-reaching on to the shelter offered by Great Barrier Is.

Finger 4. The mainsail suddenly went slack and baggy like an old sack and wouldn’t respond to the downhaul. We couldn’t raise or lower the mainsail at that point. With jib only, there was no way to get to windward in those seas without the engine. As we figured out what had gone wrong, a large sea broke over the boat, rudely crashing into the cockpit. There was no discussion needed. In the next comparative flat patch, we spun the boat and headed with a now helpful breeze back and deep mainsail to Whangarei, arriving many hours later. There, we discovered the mandrel had come off the boom at the aft end, so we hauled the mainsail down conventionally and flaked it over the boom.

In our postmortem, we agreed that it had been stressful (don’t tell our first mate, but the skipper actually enjoyed himself), but we had been safe. The boom for instance couldn’t have come off the mast. And we could have enacted our Plan C.

However, we should have listened to the first mate and returned to retrieve the main-halyard. It was un-seamanlike resuming even our short coastal passage with a critical system compromised and a low fuel level.

Counting “fingers” proved a really good way of tracking the issues as they arose and we particularly liked the way it focussed our thinking (and mitigations) on the cumulative-situation, rather than considering each risk factor independently.

John Harries

Hi Rob,

Great story and good on you for sharing it. I have been to four fingers on several occasions and always by being more stubborn than was seamanlike.

Love the five fingers analogy.

A good friend who is a ski mountaineer and used to crew for Phyllis and me in the Arctic uses a different metaphor:

We are walking down a corridor with doors on each side and a blank wall at the end, the summit. As we pass doors we hear some of them slamming and locking. A safe mountaineer who hears too many doors locking behind him or her ducks out one of them before getting to the blank wall. Takes a lot of discipline with the summit in reach to duck out.

Same thing said a different way.

Rob Gill

Hi John,

Haha, nice analogy with one subtle difference – sailors sometimes have to turn back. Mountaineers who reach the summit always have to return back down that corridor of closed doors.

I like the FIVE finger metaphor because it gives us a definitive number that seems to work at sea. I wonder if there is an equivalent number of doors in a mountaineering context, or would this be too climb / mountain specific?

John Harries

Hi Rob,

I guess I like both since we too often have to return down the mountain, although for us that is getting back to safe harbour.

John Harries

Hi Rob,

By the way, I wrote four fingers intentionally because I kind of feel that five is too many before we should really think about what’s happening and make adjustments to our plan. Four just feels better to me and I have been in situations where ignoring even two could have ended badly. Still, it’s a great metaphor and I’m probably being too pedantic. The key thing, as you say, is that we think about these things as being cumulative and both metaphors teach that.

George L

Hi Andy,

thanks for that report.

do you have a link to this course?

Prior to the start of the season Emma had attended a two-week course to become, officially, the Medical Person in Charge onboard the ship, a course intense enough that a full day was spent observing doctors triage in the emergency room of the hospital in Fort Lauderdale.


Dick Stevenson

Hi George and all,
In looking for medical courses for voyaging boats, I am a firm advocate for the courses that come out of wilderness training. I have casually reviewed some of the medical courses that have come up over the years. Too many have as their goal stabilization in the expectation that professional medical support will be forthcoming (EMS, ambulances and the like). This is fine for coastal cruising by has limitations for voyaging boats.
The downside of the professional mariner’s courses I have reviewed is that they have expectations in equipment and facilities that we will not have on a small sailboat. Much in their curriculum is often not pertinent to a voyaging boat. For example, a ship can usually provide a sterile theater for stitching up a wound: pretty much impossible on a voyaging sailboat. Experts I value suggest that it is better, without a sterile environment, to just bandage a wound that would clearly demand stitching if in a hospital. In this way the scarring might be worse ensuing, but you have far less likelihood of complications such as serious infection. There are other reasons not to sew.
Wilderness medical training comes closest to the conditions on a voyaging boat: days or longer from help, limited supplies, an often challenging environment, and the decision of whether to call in (if you can) evacuation (if life is threatened): which has its own perils.
A very good instructor in this area is Jeffrey Isaac (US based). I try to read a medical book every year or two to keep my hand in and his book, “The Outward Bound Wilderness First-Aid Handbook still stands out to me as the best for voyaging boats.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy  

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Thanks Dick for the book pointer. Just ordered.

John Harries

Hi George,

Andy is at sea, and will be for weeks to come, so it’s unlikely he will answer.

In the mean time, I agree with Dick on wilderness first aid courses. We have an entire section of articles here:

Brian Russell

When I built my boat and fitted out the interior, the deck and the cockpit my mantra was “…handholds, handholds, handholds…”. I am constantly amazed when visiting other presumably offshore boats at their lack of handholds and clip in points. My other comment is that routine is what produces dependable results and the only way to develop a routine is by practice. I feel much safer on deck at the mast now than when I first started out 14,000 miles ago just because I have been there now so many times in so many different conditions and have developed a muscle memory. One still must Think about what one is doing! Having read all the books and articles I can get my hands on over the years, my knowledge base is deep, BUT-there is simply no substitute for experience, which makes those first few years offshore sailing a bit more fraught.
Brian on Helacious currently at 65N heading to Lofotens, Norway.

John Harries

Hi Brian,

I totally agree with both points and also that the early years of going offshore are far more challenging than many people realize. I’m eternally grateful to the fine skippers I went offshore with as crew before skippering my own boat on a passage. That about 7,000 miles with others really helped when I was the one making the decisions for the first time.

Dean Surette

I will be interested in learning more concerning the events that led up to this unfortunate outcome. Not sure if this was a equipment failure or delayed reef decision in building weather.

John Harries

Hi Dean,

Me too. The salvage master, Phil Wash, is a friend of mine, so I plan to have a chat with him to see what I can learn about the tragedy. Seeing the photo of the two cruisers is truly heart wrenching, but figuring out what happened can help all of us. To that end, I’m hoping there will be an inquiry.

Michiel Lampe

Hi Andy, thank you for your insights. One suggestion I would like to make (without trying to be patronizing) is that in the first picture in your article, you are hoisting (or lowering) the snuffer on your spinnaker from your foredeck whilst pulling the line down. I do quite a lot of solo-sailing on my own 37-footer and I find balancing on my foredeck with nothing to hang on to – whilst pulling the line down – quite difficult and sometimes a bit risky. So what I always do is loop the snuffer/retriever-line through a small snatch-block and attach the snatch-block to a pad-eye on my foredeck. Rather than pulling the line down from above, you are now pulling the line upwards from your deck (much more in balance) and you can also do this sitting on deck at night or in heavy weather (probably more safer). A friend of mine also uses the snatch-block/pad-eye and has his snuffer/retriever-line extended so he can hoist and drop the snuffer from his cockpit.
Best regards, Michiel

John Harries

Hi Michiel,

I agree, and so does Andy (now), in fact it was this article that inspired Andy’s article above:

Michiel Lampe

Hi John,

Perfect! Many thanks, this only shows that there is a pile of great articles on Morgans’ Cloud that I still have to read…

Best regards,