Lessons From a Tragedy at Sea

Escape as she was found after four days of searching by the crew of the fishing vessel Life Sentence out of Pubnico, Nova Scotia. More about the salvage effort in another article coming soon.

Offshore sailing is pretty safe, but accidents, and sometimes even deaths, do occur.

Most often I read these accounts, learn from them, and move on without writing about them—there’s enough sensationalism, scaremongering, and second-guessing out there in Internet land without me adding to it.

But sometimes I hear of a tragedy that highlights dangerous trends in offshore sailing that could be avoided if they are recognized, and then I do write, but not often—just seven articles over the years.

The tragic deaths of Volker-Karl Frank and Annamarie Auer-Frank on their CNB 66 Escape on passage from Bermuda to Nova Scotia back in June has driven me to write again.

What Happened

First, although I recommend that you read the excellent account over at Blue Water Sailing, here is a brief overview of the acident:

  • The CNB 66 is a big boat with a powerful rig that’s highly automated with winches, in-boom roller furling, and two headsails on roller furlers, all primarily driven by electricity.
  • Karl and Annamarie had prudently taken on two additional crew for what can be a tough passage from Bermuda to Nova Scotia, even in June.
    • Contrary to initial reports, it seems that they were competent crew who performed well in a horrible situation, not passengers.
  • Escape encountered un-forecast gale-force winds.
  • While reefing, the boom got out of control and the mainsheet hit Annamarie.
  • Karl went to help her, and he too was hit by the mainsheet.
  • Both were severely injured.
  • The US Coast Guard pulled off an amazing helicopter evacuation of the two injured sailors—the rescues those men and women perform never ceases to amaze me.
  • Tragically, both Karl and Annamarie died of their injuries.
  • The two surviving crew, who had cared for Karl and Annamarie until their evacuation, while doing an amazing job stabilizing a very nasty situation, were eventually taken off by a US Coast Guard cutter and the boat abandoned.

Rounding Up To Reef

The account makes clear that the skipper, who had sailed the boat for at least a couple of years, felt that reefing could only be safely accomplished head to wind, with the engine running to keep the boat’s bow up during the process.

Was Rounding Up Necessary?

There are endless debates among proponents of in-boom (and in-mast) roller furlers about whether or not rounding up head to wind is required while reefing, furling and/or hoisting.

What the truth is I don’t know, but what I do know is that Hans, a deeply experienced friend of mine with in-boom roller furling, has recently found, over the course of a transit of the Mediterranean followed by an east to west trans-Atlantic, that his in-boom unit, on his Farr 56, is only reliable if the engine is started and the boat held head to wind while hoisting, furling or reefing, the same as on Escape.

This is not the boat the tragedy occurred on, but rather the 93-foot Jongert Vivid that I made a voyage to Greenland on as guide/navigator. Vivid is rigged very similarly to Escape.

And, further, the procedure was the same on the 93-foot Jongert Vivid (photo above), that I was guide and navigator on for a cruise to and from Greenland.

Defining Downwind Reefing

We also need to be clear on what “downwind reefing” really means. For example, what is being demonstrated in this video is not what I would define as downwind reefing. The sail is still being luffed and the true wind is forward of the beam.

What Matters

Anyway, whether or not rounding up is required with a given system is not the point.

All that matters here is that so doing was the standard procedure on Escape and seems to have become so on many boats, both those with mechanized systems, and even those with slab reefing.

Alternative

But there’s a much safer alternative:

On our last boat, a McCurdy and Rhodes 56, for over 30 years and well over 100,000 miles, most of it shorthanded, reefing was a trouble-free, low-stress operation that Phyllis and I could accomplish with zero drama in less than three minutes, and that I could do in a little more time when single-handing.

How? When things got rough, we would reef with the true wind abaft the beam. And in moderate conditions when on the wind, we would crack off a bit to reef. See Further Reading for how.

We never, ever, rounded up head to wind to reef.

Running downwind off the southwest coast of Newfoundland on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56. During the night after I took this shot, the wind coming off the Blow Me Down mountains (aptly named) increased rapidly. I put in a second reef, without changing course, by myself in less than five minutes (Phyllis was sleeping) and carried on. A few hours later the wind dropped and I shook out both reefs the same way.

I have lost count of the times we reefed in rising gales without trouble this way, but one memorable occasion stands out where we had to put in three reefs in quick succession and then claw the main down, as, in the space of a couple of hours, the wind increased from twenty knots to the high forties with gusts into the screaming fifties in the notorious crush zone off Cape Farewell, Greenland. Much the same, or possibly worse, conditions than those Escape was dealing with at the time of the accident.

Sure, our experience was exciting, but there was no drama and little danger.

Well setup slab reefing is way easier to use than most people think. And when reefing is this easy we will do it early and often.

How Downwind Reefing Works

Why is reefing downwind safer and easier than upwind? Let’s compare:

Lower Apparent Wind Speed

According to the account, when the reef was attempted the wind was blowing gale force with higher gusts. To round up a boat into those conditions, with only one reef in, particularly a boat the size and power of Escape, is a terrifying prospect that those who have never experienced a gale at sea will have trouble imagining.

But a good metaphor is that the mad flapping of the sail(s) with the accompanying noise is akin to being in the middle of a thunderstorm, but with no gaps between the detonations—total sensory overload.

And on a boat the size of Escape, the sheets can, if slack even for a moment, become blurs of wildly pulsing, potentially death-dealing energy.

Contrast that to reefing downwind in heavy weather when the sails never flog and the sheets are always under tension.

Motion

A well-designed sailboat has an amazingly benign motion when running off or broad reaching, even when a bit over-canvassed in heavy weather. Turn up into the wind and that same boat changes in an instant to a wildly pitching monster where moving about can only be accomplished on all fours and from handhold to handhold.

The account mentions 6-meter seas. My guess is that’s probably high given the short duration of the blow, but no matter, even turning upwind into seas of 4-meters significant wave height would make it impossible to stand safely on deck, and very difficult to operate the complex gear required to reef on Escape, particularily with the high level of precision required to reef without a jam with an in-boom system.

Boom Control

Before reefing, Escape had a boom preventer rigged, as is seamanlike.

So if they had been able to do as Phyllis and I did on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 and just ease the preventer a foot or so, while bringing in the mainsheet to move the sail a little off the shrouds, and then snug the preventer back up tight, prior to reefing, the mainsheet would have remained in tension throughout the manoeuvre.

This is just simple geometry: With a properly rigged preventer opposing the mainsheet, there is no way for the boom to get out of control. See the diagram above.

But when the crew trim the mainsheet in as the boat is turned into the wind, that equilibrium drops off quickly as the angle between the preventer and boom decreases, to the point where the boom potentially becomes a free-swinging demon well before the mainsheet can be tightened enough to bring it back under control.

And even with the mainsheet all the way in, with the boat head into the wind, the boom will continue to oscillate wildly back and forth because the pull of the sheet is now vertical, rather than horizontal and opposing the preventer as it was with the boom further out.

This is further exacerbated as soon as the reefing starts on a boat with no topping lift like Escape, since once the tension is off the leach of the mainsail as the halyard is eased, the only force opposing the mainsheet is upward pressure from the compressed gas in the rigid vang. The result is that the boom thrashes back and forth even more than before as the boat rolls and the gas pressure changes, alternately tightening and slacking the mainsheet—we had the same type of vang and no topping lift and so I’m writing from firsthand experience.

Potential Disaster

With wildly flapping sails, flailing sheets, violent motion, and the boom in a position where control can be lost, we have an intrinsically high-risk situation. One mistake or gear failure and that risk can turn into tragedy.

Conclusion

My thinking on the accident causes in descending order of contribution to the tragedy:

#1 Going Head To Wind To Reef

We don’t know for sure what happened in the moments before the mainsheet hit Annamarie—jammed preventer, failed mainsheet winch, override on the drum and/or steering error, are just some possibilities—but the fact is that the mainsheet went slack as the boat was rounded up.

And the specific cause doesn’t matter for our purposes here, since none of those problems can ever happen when reefing off the wind because the mainsheet is always in tension against the preventer.

Therefore I believe that if the crew of Escape had not been either forced by the limitations of the in-boom furler to turn head to wind, or by the assumption that so doing was required, these two fatalities would never have happened.

Phyllis reefing downwind. The boom is safely controlled by mainsheet and preventer and the sail does not flog. We used this same procedure for nearly 30 years without problems in winds as high as Force 9 (41-47 knots).

Blame In-Boom Roller Furlers?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of in-boom or in-mast roller furlers.

That said, many competent sailors I respect have them and there is no question they have some advantages. For example, Hans and his spouse, the friends I mentioned above, daysail their boat way more often than we ever did our McCurdy and Rhodes 56.

That said, in my opinion, any system that does not allow true downwind reefing is a trade off. In the case of in-boom furlers, that translates to added convenience for added risk.

#2 Deck Layout

I have long had concerns about modern trends in deck layout, but that’s an article in itself.

For now, suffice to say that, as far as I can see on Escape, the danger area from the mainsheet encompasses a lot of areas that the crew must cross repeatedly and operate other winches controlling the headsails and preventer in.

#3 Boat Size

There is no question in my mind that boat size and power played a role in this tragedy. If the boat had been say 40-feet long, would the mainsheet have killed? Less likely, for sure.

That said, the only accident-caused fatality in the history of the Marion/Bermuda race was boom related on a boat just 44-feet long.

So out-of-control booms and mainsheets are dangerous regardless of boat size.

But this tragedy certainly raises the question, how big is too big, particularly for shorthanded amateur crews? I’m thinking about tackling this in another article.

#4 Too Much Sail

From the account, it seems that Escape was caught with just one reef in by the rapidly rising wind and sea state, exacerbating the danger of going head to wind to further shorten sail.

That said, there is no one with a lot of offshore miles under their belts, including me, who has not made the same mistake, which is why this is at the bottom of the cause list—our boats should forgive our mistakes.

Recommendations

So what can we learn from this horrible tragedy? Here are some recommendations that I think will reduce the chances of a repeat.

These are not ordered, because I believe they are all of equal importance.

Safe Reefing System Purchase Criteria

I don’t like that on three boats I know of with these systems (Escape, my experienced friends’, and Vivid) it is standard practice to start the engine to keep steerageway while reefing or furling. What if the engine is down?

So, if it were me buying a mechanized system, being able to reef without the engine and at least while cracked off on a reach, and better still off the wind, would be my number one selection criteria.

Offshore is Different

When considering reefing systems we must not kid ourselves that a system that requires going head to wind, or even close, that’s easy to use in sheltered water inshore, will be the same offshore in big waves. That’s a different world and it won’t be.

Reef Early

If we decide to install a system that requires going head to wind to reef, it’s even more vital than normal to reef early and deep before the conditions get gnarly.

Topping Lift

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool topping lift hater, but I make an exception for boats with in-boom furling that must be turned head to wind to reef, hoist, and strike the mainsail.

In this case, for the reasons I detail earlier, I agree with George Day (Blue Water Sailing) and strongly recommend a topping lift to supplement the rigid vang.

Mainsheet Safety

It is one thing for smaller boats, and even bigger racing boats with full-on race crews, to have a mainsheet positioned so it can potentially hit crew members going about the normal tasks of sailing the boat.

However, my recommendation is that on boats of say 40-feet and up, particularly those intended to be sailed by shorthanded amateur crews offshore, the mainsheet should be placed so that there’s no way for it to hit a crew member in a normal working position. Once again, George Day and I are in agreement.

Experts Only

It’s important to realize that, counterintuitively, a boat fitted with these mechanized systems requires more skill to sail safely than one fitted with a good slab-reefing system.

I totally agree with George Day in his comment to the account:

in-boom systems can be finicky, and riggers will often note that the systems are best used by experienced sailors who understand all of the forces at work when handling big mainsails.

As an example of how finicky, the week before I joined the 93-foot Jongert Vivid, the experienced professional skipper, who was new to the boat, had destroyed the main halyard by making a slight mistake while hoisting. And for our entire voyage to Greenland and back the skipper banned anyone else from operating the system, and even he was clearly still learning throughout the passage.

That said, after I left the boat he did complete a circumnavigation, so clearly he got the system figured out.

But the scary thing is that mechanized mainsail reefing systems are sold to those new to offshore sailing as making things safer as well as easier, or at least that is implied by much of the marketing material.

But, in my view, these systems are only for use by deeply offshore-experienced sailors.

I recommend learning to sail offshore with slab reefing before you take one of these things on. That way you will have an appreciation of the loads and be in a position to make an informed decision about which system best meets your needs.

Learn To Reef Off The Wind

Talking of slab reefing, if your boat is so equipped, I recommend learning to use it on all points of sail, including running off the wind—see Further Reading.

Two More Things:

Not Their Fault

Nothing I have written above should be taken as a criticism of Karl and Annamarie or to in any way imply that they were the architects of their own misfortune.

The Horror

While writing this article I read the account of the accident at least five times, and each time I experienced a visceral flood of horror, partly because I too have experienced a bad injury and waited for rescue, and therefore can graphically picture the terrible hours after the accident, both for Annamarie and Karl and the two crew who cared for them—Phyllis, who cared for me, suffered from the resulting trauma for years afterward.

I strongly encourage all of us to really think about this accident, and look at our own boats and procedures with a critical eye and an open mind.

As I said at the beginning of the article, offshore sailing is pretty safe. But it’s not risk free, and being dogmatic about the way we do things ups those risks. Something I need to remember as much as anyone.

Free Articles

We published this article outside the AAC paywall, where it will stay as a tiny memorial to Karl and Annamarie, fellow voyagers on the sea.

We have also moved the how-to-reef-downwind article outside the paywall. See Further Reading.

Please share these links with others (buttons below each article). That said, copying the articles or republishing is a violation of our copyright. Reasonable length quotes are fine, as is republishing the boom danger graphic, as long as you link to this article.

A big thank you to AAC members who fund this site, and particularly those who have voluntarily increased your support, thereby making this sort of pro-bono work possible.

Further Reading

Free to read:

Membership is required ($36/year) to read the following chapters in our Online Book on safe and easy sail handling, but the introductions can be read for free:

Coming Soon

While researching this article:

  • I video interviewed Hans, our friend with in-boom furling, who has also had in-mast and slab reefing. He shared his analysis of both automated systems and invaluable tips for safer offshore use. Hans has also offered to take me out sailing this week and demo his system—I’m going to learn a huge amount.
  • I phone interviewed both the salvage master who brought Escape into Halifax, also a friend of ours, and the captain of the fishing boat who took the salvage team out and found her. An interesting story.

We will publish both soon.

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