PadrePoint Posted November 15, 2022 Report Share Posted November 15, 2022 Here at the magazine we’ve long been fascinated with seaworthiness and the idea that small boats are more capable than most people expect. As the magazine’s subtitle (Small Boats, Big Adventure) suggests, we actively seek out stories of little boats facing big challenges and we’ve published plenty of dramatic tales of adventure. This sort of thing makes for entertaining reading, but more importantly these stories are nearly always full of lessons we can apply to our own sailing. (Better to learn from someone else’s ordeal than have to learn the same things the hard way.) With that in mind we thought it would be interesting and informative to ask you, our readers, about your own close calls and scariest experiences boating. As some of you will recall, we prepared a detailed 17-question survey and sent it to thousands of you via our Small Craft Newsletter e-mail list. We received some fantastic, thorough responses—thank you. Were there any lessons or takeaways? Were there any consistent themes or common denominators? Any surprises? Yes, yes, and yes. So without further ado, let’s take a look at your close calls and scariest moments on the water. IT’S THE WIND, DUMMY “Went out with a friend to review a boat he wished to purchase. Wind, rain, waves came from nowhere, from 5 mph to 40 mph in less than 10 minutes. Knocked down three times. Water actually flooded into cabin (but none in cockpit strangely enough). I was unable to reef because of the way the owner had rigged the halyard. The entire incident lasted less than 15 minutes. My friend did not buy the boat or set foot on another ever again.” “Failed to consider the potential strength of incoming thunderstorm.” “Sailing in Grays Harbor out of Westport, Washington. The wind picked up and I was overpowered. No way to reef the mainsail. Ran the boat up on a sandbar and took the mainsail down. Pushed the boat back into the water and sailed back to the boat ramp with the jib alone. Promptly sold the C-Lark and purchased a Sea Pearl 21.” “Unexpected downburst, lasted only 15 minutes; winds of 34 to 40 mph.” “Was told later it was a straight-line 15-minute wind burst between 60 and 80 mph. This was on the Ohio River. My boat came out of the water (sails were not up) and flipped end over end repeatedly. Sun came back out as quickly as the storm had appeared.” Maybe it makes sense given we’re mostly talking about small sailboats, but the first major revelation of our little study was that high winds were the most common factor in our respondents’ “worst moments” on the water—far outweighing factors like large seas, fog, cold weather and tidal currents, for example. It was also largely unexpected high winds that created trouble for our sailors. Did they fail to check the weather forecast or did winds simply exceed the forecast? We don’t know, but whatever the case, the sudden appearance of strong winds was a major theme throughout the tales of woe. In fact a full 25% of you specifically cited “failure to check weather” as a key factor in your dangerous situation. Another common corollary was being unable or unwilling to reef. As any small-boat sailor who’s had strong winds arrive suddenly knows, sometimes just letting go of the helm to tie in a reef can be daunting or impractical—especially in situations where maneuverability or course choice is restricted. A number of our respondents might have been able to avoid trouble had their boat been equipped with reefing gear (a surprising number had no provision at all) or if they’d practiced the reefing process thoroughly on boats so equipped. As we’ve seen time and again, most small sailboats can cope with bad weather if they can just reduce sail area enough for conditions. Lessons Learned: 1. Check the weather—particularly the wind forecast. Based on our survey, if a sailor was able to avoid high winds (obviously not always possible), he or she would eliminate a factor that weighed heavily in 80% of our “worst experience” responses. 2. Make sure your boat can be reefed, and practice reefing until you’re comfortable in the operation. A reefing plan is only theoretical and possibly useless until you’ve practiced it—preferably in real wind. As pugilist Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Know exactly how you’ll respond when the wind comes looking to knock you out. 3. Expect bad weather. Even if the forecast says otherwise, plan on encountering strong winds and make appropriate preparations. BUT WHAT ABOUT WAVES? “We ended up in large waves that caused the boat to submarine. It managed to resurface before filling the cockpit but was scary as it limited how we could maneuver and we missed the sheltered back channel, keeping us in these conditions longer than needed. Had one thing gone wrong we would have been in trouble.” “Extremely high waves for a 15-foot boat, guessing 10-12 foot waves with very short duration. The only saving grace was no waves broke while the boat was directly below them.” While waves and breaking seas weren’t as common a factor as wind, they definitely played their part in a number of stories—sometimes breaking in harbor entrances or onto the shores of intended destinations—other times over the stern of respondents’ boats. IT WAS MY FAULT “That particular day we had never seen the lake in such a fury…The wind was more noise than wind and was properly terrifying. We were two of us: My dad and me, 14 years old and a whole 120 pounds. But we were old sea dogs and just had to try the boat in huge waves and hurricane-like winds. If trouble came people were bound to help us. So we furled somewhat and had the storm jib up when we took off—literally. We lasted about a minute and 200 yards. The boat was a wild and crazy mustang. Of course it heeled, but a Flying Scot is really wide and the underside of the boat, leaning over, took the wind and became a sail itself and capsized us instantly…The Scots don’t sink, we just had to get the bow to the wind, climb on the daggerboard and get back in. A motorboat got us back to harbor. The lesson I learned is that when something looks worse than bad, stay away. Common sense should override the adrenaline rush. Never be arrogant with nature…” A number of respondents mentioned being young, foolish, inexperienced—or some combination of those things, when they had their scariest moment on the water. “Youthful ignorance,” one respondent called it. While these situations can end up being great learning experiences, that’s only if we survive them. Nearly 40% of our respondents mentioned “Inexperience” and/or “Overconfidence” being a factor in their circumstance. An additional factor in a couple of the incidents was that they took place during sanctioned sailing events where a schedule, racing competition, peer pressure, or a false sense of security from sailing with other boats played a role. Lessons Learned: 1. If it looks bad, it’s probably worse. As surfers know, waves look a lot smaller from shore than they do when you’re ducking under them. Same goes for wind and sea conditions—it’s probably rougher than it looks. How many times have you taken a photo in ugly weather only to be disappointed with how boring it looks as a static image? There’s nothing quite like being right out in the elements. 2. Know your limits. Don’t intentionally tempt fate. If you insist on pushing your limits, gear-up with the right safety equipment and have a series of bailouts or contingency plans. 3. Accept that younger sailors might make poor decisions and look to prepare them and the boat for that reality. ANCHORS AWEIGH “Sunk at mooring after being holed by abandoned mushroom anchor that was in upright position.” “Anchored in a cove exposed to the north. Cold front came through overnight and brought north winds. Motored out at first light into heavy seas, 3-4 feet. No anchor well, anchor and rode piled on foredeck. Anchor fell off and rode wrapped around outboard prop. Ended up grounded on nearby island. Dinghy was our ‘lifeboat’ that got us to mainland. All took place on Lake Huron south of Alpena, MI. Happy ending: I asked my girlfriend to marry me that day and we’ve been together 33 years.” “Pushed onto shoals in heavy wind/sea during the 2017 Everglades Challenge. Two anchors failed to hold on silt bottom, ultimately requiring rescue by Boat U.S. Towing to avoid being pounded into surrounding mangroves.” “Severe thunderstorm—65-knot winds (verified). Poor holding. Anchor dragged. Blew ashore. A fishing boat pulled us off next morning.” “Left Kingston returning to Brownsville. Wind 25 knots. Heavy, steep chop. Pounding damaged ice box platform. Anchor mount came loose and anchor was swinging freely off the bow. Singlehanding. Ran downwind under jib and went on foredeck to secure anchor. Was able to secure things and resume. However, there was potential for serious damage or injury. Swinging anchor could have holed the boat. I could have gone over the side. Could have stayed in port. Should have stayed in port. Lucked out.” As we learned in our recent anchoring survey and resulting article (issue #104), many of us have easily-stowable but relatively ineffective ground tackle and, consequently, plenty of stories about dragging—and this survey was no different. Where it became someone’s scariest moment, however, was dragging onto rocky shores or into breaking waves. To our surprise, anchors also featured prominently in our survey in other ways. In addition to the one boat holed by an abandoned anchor, a few respondents had their anchor and rode get away from them, with anchors bashing against the hulls or anchor rodes fouling engine props. Lessons Learned: 1. Take another look at your anchor type and entire ground tackle system. Do you have one of the better modern anchor designs? Do you have some chain and enough rode to pay out 7- or even 10-to-1 scope if needed in storm conditions? Do you have a second anchor aboard? Can you access your anchor and set it from the cockpit if going forward isn’t practical or safe? And just like with reefing gear—have you practiced anchoring? 2. Anchors are big, heavy, and sharp. Don’t leave them lying around loose. As author John Vigor says, “Think inverted!” Where will your anchor go if your boat bounces wildly or gets upside down? WHAT FAILED? “A furling jib would have allowed more time to prepare before the storm hit.” “This is the second time I have experienced issues with the centerboard becoming jammed. I have no idea how to resolve this issue.” “I was sailing, doing 5 knots downwind in great weather. There was a loud snap and my mast broke at the deck line. She’s a gaff-rigged catboat with 280-square feet of sail. Mast, gaff, boom, and sail all in the water.” “Mast took on water, lack of flotation in mast.” “Starboard chainplate parted. Mast went over.” “Outboard failure.” Although the old maxim “the boat can take more than I can” proved true and most of you said the boat did fine, we asked what, if anything, about your boats failed to meet expectations or match conditions. Wishing for a better (or any) reefing system topped the list, at 22.6 percent. Almost 15 percent of you said your secondary propulsion system (mostly outboards) failed, and nearly 13 percent of your boats didn’t have any or enough flotation (one owner capsized and watched his 23-footer disappear completely in less than three minutes.) Another 13 percent of you (probably those having trouble reefing) said you could have done with some additional ballast. About 10% of you said your cockpit drainage or bilge pump was less than effective, and another 10% said your boat didn’t point as well as conditions demanded. As for the boats you got in trouble on, there was a wide variety of type. Roughly equal numbers were aboard boats in the following categories: small open dinghies or racers, 13-19-foot trailerables, larger trailerables, and larger keelboats. Fewer than 30 percent of you considered your boat’s small size and weight a factor in your troubles. (For comparison, 50% said operator error was a factor.) LESS COMMON, BUT STILL SERIOUS PROBLEMS “I did not see low-hanging high-voltage line.” “I was due to pass under a low bridge under engine. The tide was exceptionally high. Two height gauges gave conflicting clearances. Due to hypothermia I made an over-optimistic conclusion that ‘there must be enough headroom.’” “Hot Florida day, and we were sailing close (and parallel) to shore when wind suddenly died, therefore we were rowing. Adjacent boat wake caused water to be shipped over the gunwales. We were swamped but still afloat. Was able to (very carefully) catch enough wind to sail to shore. Had automatically-inflatable life vests stored safely in the aft lazarette where they promptly deployed on exposure to water, and therefore were jammed and could not be extracted or used.” Lightning was only cited by about 12% of you, but they were some of the more harrowing accounts. One sailor rode out a series of lightning storms at anchor watching his electronics fry, another watched in horror as lightning struck his own mast. One sailor concluded, “I learned if you hear thunder, no matter how distant, get off the water.” Two respondents had masts hit power lines, with plenty of sparks and broken shrouds. One occurred while the boat was on the trailer at a launch ramp, the other in the middle of the night motoring into a marina steering by flashlight. Groundings (30%) occurred in a surprisingly high percentage of incidents, but we don’t know how many were the cause of troubles versus those that were simply a result of other problems like dragged anchors. Jammed centerboards were also indicted on a surprising number of occasions. Do you have a way to access and free your board if it becomes jammed? PFDs “Solo sailing into dock. Stalled the boat into the wind and was stepping to dock when wind shifted and pulled boat away from dock. I went into the water but hung onto boat. Was wearing sweats, jeans and wind pants and could not climb back in boat. Steered through a tack and a gybe before bringing her back to shore and walking out. Water temp was 52º. I got stripped down and changed clothes, warmed back up and recovered the boat…. I have raced offshore and sail weekly, but never have I had as close a call as at the lake five minutes from my house. No one was there to help.” “It was December and a beautiful, sunny, 70º day, which is very unusual for Northern Illinois, so we hurriedly put the boat in the water for our last sail of the year. After sailing up the creek a bit, we turned 180º and raised the centerboard about 80% for a downwind run to an area where the lake narrows and the winds are blocked by the surrounding hills. At the end of our run, we found the winds not blocked as usual, but swirling. I went to lower the centerboard, not knowing it had gathered a black sticky mud and was now stuck in the trunk. Upon tacking, the boat began to heel more than expected. When I tried to release the mainsheet, I found it was caught in the mainsheet block. The boat heeled onto her rail and in an instant she turtled. The water was in the 40s and in our haste we hadn’t put on our flotation devices. I tried righting the boat, but my wife was panicking and wouldn’t let go of the mainsheet, making it impossible to right the boat. Two canoeists came out and brought my wife to shore, while I tried unsuccessfully to right the boat as now the mast was stuck in the lake bottom.” “A guy in a 19-foot center console powerboat was running full speed down the river and daydreaming. I was sailing a catamaran. He ran over me and the catamaran...cut both hulls in half and cut the mast in half...ran over my back. The compression of the powerboat pressed it and me underwater. The life jacket took the compression blow and also prevented me from drowning.” The good news is that only 20% of your incidents involved someone going into the water and, when it happened, 67% of you were wearing a personal flotation device. The bad news is that 33% of you hit the water without a PFD. WHAT WASN’T A PROBLEM A number of potential factors came up less than expected. Extreme heat and cold weather were rarely mentioned, although a few of you did say your decision-making was negatively affected by being cold, and several of you said your foul-weather gear failed. Fog was barely a blip on our survey’s radar, and trouble caused by rogue powerboaters or other marine traffic came up in less than 10 percent of responses (although when it did happen, it was potentially deadly). Fire didn’t come up at all. And none of our respondents said alcohol consumption was a factor in their situation. About 10% of you were towing a dinghy at the time of the incident—a few said it was helpful, a few said it was a non-factor, and one said it contributed to the problem. THE GOOD NEWS While each of these events was stressful or worse for those involved, there were also, arguably, a few encouraging numbers. For starters, while knockdowns (41%) were fairly common, actual capsizes (28%) we’re pretty rare considering these were “worst-ever” scenarios. Collisions (10%) and actual sinkings (3%) were rarer still. Nothing about the survey has changed our opinion that small boats, properly-managed, are plenty safe. Even as the worst was happening, only 20% of the situations involved a person ending up in the water, and in the end, only 4% of all events involved injuries. CONCLUSION It occurs to us that the most significant lasting damage from these scenarios is the psychological trauma to the sailors involved. Many of you were rightly shaken by what took place. One sailor wrote: “It put me back onto smoking for awhile.” Another said that after the incident he “took a short walk and a long beer.” But in every case, lessons were learned and those involved are unlikely to repeat the experience. And only a few of you appears to have been scared off the water entirely. Ultimately it would seem that sailors who do just three things: Check and respect the weather forecast, know how to reef sails on their boat effectively, and who wear their PFD, will greatly reduce their chances of adding to their own scary stories. •SCA• Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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