Thursday, April 24, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

How many times have you heard this statement: you should not abandon your boat until you have to step up into the liferaft. Sounds pretty facile, doesn’t it? Easy for you to say, if you’re not the one with a foot of water over the cabin sole in the middle of a black howling night a hundred miles from land.

The thing is, there are more and more instances of people abandoning boats that are then found weeks or months later, having drifted across large expanses of ocean. Only a few weeks ago a 36-foot cruising boat that had been abandoned because of an unspecified rigging problem during the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers back in December was found drifting off Antigua. Considering the crew had been aiming for nearby St Lucia, the boat did an admirable job of getting itself so close.

I could come up with many more examples, but you get the point. In this age of instantaneous communication, it’s only too easy to call for help when things get tough. Long gone are the likes of Blondie Hasler, the progenitor of the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR), who, when asked what would happen if his boat sank under him, replied that he would “drown like a gentleman.” (That, for the record, is not the answer I gave my wife the first time she asked that question).

Anyway, I was intrigued by two incidents that took place recently off the coast of New Zealand, my old stamping ground. In the first, an inexperienced crew helping deliver a 25-foot boat down the west coast of the North island decided they’d had enough of the 25-knot winds and 10-foot seas (fairly typical Kiwi sailing conditions) and pulled the pin on the EPIRB – against the skipper’s wishes.

Now, the skipper was adamant that there was no danger and that his boat was well able to handle the conditions, but even so he was ordered to abandon ship along with the three frightened greenhorns when the rescue helicopter arrived. The uninsured boat, Air Apparent, was left to drift and for all I know may be still sailing in circles in the Pacific; her unfortunate owner thought the mutinous crew should cough up for a replacement, but I doubt he’s had any luck.

This incident stirred up a huge debate among Kiwis, who generally have a low tolerance for wimps and little sympathy for people who get themselves into situations they can’t cope with. The contrite crew impressed by making a large donation towards the cost of the rescue, but so far the luckless owner is no closer to getting a new boat. Remember the Perfect Storm book and movie? The poor skipper whose green crew pulled the same stunt, and who was taken off his boat – which survived the storm on its own, and was later found, still afloat?

Two lessons here are that a boat can often take more punishment than its crew; and you should choose your crew very carefully. Being offshore in a small boat – and in that context anything shorter than a maxi-yacht is a small boat – is not for everyone. Ocean sailing is wonderfully rewarding but it can get uncomfortable and scary out there, and if you don’t have the mindset to deal with that you should stay home. The uncomfortable, scary parts are, of course, just part and parcel of the whole offshore experience that many people find addictive.

Calling for outside help should be a last-resort measure, taken when you are in actual and pressing danger, not just scared, wet, and cold. Putting a helicopter crew at risk just because you’d rather be at home in front of a fireplace than stuck in a small boat in a storm is irresponsible and inexcusable.

Now, here’s a great story that shows how real ocean sailors cope with misfortune. A husband and wife, each sailing their own boats on circumnavigations (it’s a long story), were 700 miles off the New Zealand coast when the husband’s 27-foot plywood boat Galennaia was damaged during a gale and began taking on water. Did Tony Curphy set off his EPIRB? Did he hell. He radioed his wife, Suzanne, who was 150 miles away on her 40-foot ketch, So Long, and started pumping. Two days later, she arrived and the two hooked up a towline to Galennaia. Eight days later, they pulled into Nelson, on the tip of the South Island.

Now that’s an example of the right stuff. And an example of the kind of crew you never need to worry about – no crew at all.


greenhorn said...
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greenhorn said...
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