Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top 10 Tuesdays: Top 10 Worst Nightmares of Cruising Sailors

A run-in with one of these is definitely something you want to avoid at all costs.
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. - Sun Tzu

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I've read my fair share of "disaster at sea" books.  You name it - I've probably read a book about it: dismasting, sudden sinking, slow sinking, losing power, losing crew members, losing limbs, hurricanes, rogue waves, and more.  More than anything, I think I learn from books like these.  I think they give me that very healthy, very necessary respect for the sea and what it is we are doing.  I think that respect is vital to successful cruising.

These books also made me wonder, "What are the very worst things that could happen at sea?"

This question, coupled with a little help from John Vigor, brought me to today's Top 10 List:

Top 10 Worst Nightmares of Sailors

  1. Dismasting - losing the mast on a sailboat is bad.  Very bad.  It usually occurs in inclement weather and usually due to rigging failure (which is why it is so very important to spot check your  stays, shrouds, turnbuckles and all other connections regularly for any signs of disrepair).  A mast can also be lost during an aggressive 360-degree roll and, depending on your type of mast - can also occur due to rot (in the case of wood) or a weak spot in the aluminum or whatever else your mast might be made of.  Unfortunately, it can also happen seemingly out of nowhere.  Scott and I carry heavy-duty cable cutters for no other reason than to cut free the stays and shrouds that hold the mast to the boat, because if a mast goes in the water in heavy seas, it has potential to punch a hole in the boat and make a very bad situation worse.  Read here on how to be better prepared if faced with dismasting and to read a story about an actual dismasting and what the crew learned, read here.
  2. Dragging anchor into a lee shore - I'll never forget the site of a 35 foot sailboat completely crushed on the rocks in the Berry Islands in our first days in the Bahamas.  Apparently, the gentleman who owned the boat got caught at anchor in a nasty gale coming from the "wrong" direction and ended up dragging into a (very rocky) lee shore.  He scrambled on deck to set another anchor while simultaneously trying to start his engine.   They say the worst disasters are not when one thing goes wrong, but when a series of events go wrong.  My dad always says one problem can be dealt with, two is more difficult but throw in a third?  You're in trouble.  In a horrible twist of fate, this man's new anchor line got wrapped up in his propellor, rendering his engine useless.  Anchor Dragging + Lee shore + Engine Failure = Tragedy. He dragged onto the rocks and within minutes his boat was holed and sunk, a total loss.  It was devastating and haunting to see a boat that had been sailing only a week before, derelict, abandoned and broken on the rocks.  Lee shores are not your friend.
  3. Losing your keel - This is also in the very, very bad category (especially for a monohull).  The keel (the 'fin' underneath the boat) is the part of your boat that keeps it upright - it's what prevents the pressure of the wind on the sails from pushing your boat over into the water.  When newbie guests come on board and ask "are we gonna tip over?"  it's your keel that is making sure you don't.  There are many different types and styles of keels out there, but (in my opinion) the most susceptible are the bolted-on fin keel boats.  Running hard aground, hitting a large submerged object (like a whale or a container - more on these later) electrolysis around the bolts or a poor attachment can cause the keel to fall off and when it does, most boats will immediately capsize.  The keel on Rasmus is a "modified full keel" (meaning it runs nearly the full length of our boat) that is structurally built into the hull of our boat.  It's also 6 inches thick.  While our keel can certainly be damaged, it won't "fall off".  We know, we hit a submerged rock going 6 knots and barely put a ding in it.  To read the tragic account of a boat that did not fare so well, read here.
  4. Hurricane - Scott and I (on this trip) have been in 35 knot winds.  Maybe 40.  Let me tell you, it's not fun.  The seas are usually very big, visibility is compromised, the wind howls through the rigging making the most anxiety producing sounds, the boat becomes very difficult to control and you can feel the power of every gust trying to knock your boat over...I honestly cannot imagine what being in wind that is 80 knots or more must feel like, and I hope that I never have to.  I read a book a while back called "At the Mercy of the Sea" by John Kretschmer which is a heartbreaking true account of three separate boats that got caught in hurricane Lenny in the Anegada passage here in the Caribbean in 1999.  It paints a very vivid picture of what it is like to be in such a storm.  No bueno.
  5. Leak in the water tank - This one applies only to boats who will be offshore for weeks at a time, but it still bears mentioning.  Fresh water on an ocean passage is just as critical for survival as a sound boat.  Run out of food, and you can survive weeks - even months.  Run out of water and, if your lucky, you have a week.  If it's really hot, days.  Water is secondary only to oxygen in terms of survival essentials for the human body and if your water tank springs a leak or gets compromised mid-atlantic, you are in trouble with a capitol T.  If doing an ocean passage - it's best to have an emergency back-up bladder of water enough to give each crew member an adequate amount of drinking water per day and NEVER rely solely on your watermaker!
  6. Lightning strike - few things cause as much unease to an offshore sailor as lightning on the horizon.  When you are a sailboat on the water, you are pretty much the tallest thing around and we all know how opportunistic lighting is - it prefers to travel the shortest distance.  The mast of a sailboat is the perfect conductor and will essentially become a lightning rod.  Depending on how severe the strike, a myriad of things can occur:  your boat's entire electronic suite will (most likely) be completely fried beyond repair (no more chart plotter for you - hope you have a sextant or backup GPS!), it can blast a hole right through the boat, start a fire (more on that later) and/or it can cause death to any unfortunate crew member who came in contact with the voltage.  In other words, it ranges from bad to worse.  Try your very best to avoid it and, if you find yourself at sea in a lightning storm, take the precautions listed in this article.
  7. Life-threatening injury - There is no 911 on the water.  You are, literally, taking your life in your own hands when you venture offshore.  I know that sounds a little dramatic, but it's true.  There are many potential hazards on a boat and I've read and/or heard first hand personal accounts of everything from heart attacks to lost limbs, massive head injuries to severe burns.  All are very bad.  Back in the old days, around-the-world sailors used to get their appendixes removed before the journey just in case it was a ticking time bomb waiting to burst at sea.  Pete Goss had to operate on his own arm during the 1996 Vendee Globe race (his book, Close to the Wind, is excellent).  Getting to medical help while sailing can be days or even weeks away and even then, it will probably not be the kind of care you are accustomed to.  Extreme caution must be taken for your health and your well being.  Scott and I carry an Offshore Marine Medical 3000 kit and Scott is trained in basic first aid and CPR, but a more comprehensive medical course would be best.
  8. Fire - I've written a little about fire in an earlier post - but it is still worth mentioning.  Unfortunately, boat fires are not uncommon at all.  In fact, Scott and I saw a boat burn right down to the waterline due to a citronella candle back at our home marina in Chicago.  But candles aren't the only thing causing fires.  Over half of the fires on boats begin because of faulty electrical wiring and/or poor installation.  Considering most boaters totally mystified by their electric systems this is no surprise.  While it certainly doesn't make us immune, we are very grateful to have had a certified Marine Electrical Engineer help us throughout our refit process to make sure we did everything the "right" way.  Rasmus is completely up to code and if we keep a close eye on her, she should remain so.  For more on what causes fire on boats, check out this article.
  9. Collision/Hole in the boat/Sinking -  This is the trifecta of 'bad' on a boat and I've combined them all because they seem to occur together (but not always) and collisions at sea, particularly with submerged animals and/or containers that you cannot see play on the imaginations of most cruising sailors I know. I recently read an account of a boat sinking after a run-in with a pod of whales.  Luckily, everyone on board survived.  The boat?  It sank in about seven minutes.  I also read 10 Degrees of Reckoning by Hester Rumberg which is the devastating story of a women who lost her husband and two young children when their boat collided with a tanker during a storm.  Her boat sank in under five minutes.  Ever read Steve Callahan's Adrift?  He has no idea what his boat hit when he was in the North Atlantic, but he knows he hit something and he barely had time to get up on deck before his boat went down.  Bottom line:  Boats that meet objects below the waterline can sink scary fast.  Be vigilant with your watch schedule and have emergency plans in place.  We have a life-raft as well as an Epirb ready to deploy in a moments notice in our cockpit.  Hopefully, we'll never need them - but they are better than nothing in our opinion.
  10. Falling off the boat - My very worst nightmare is to come up on watch and have Scott not be there.  Even typing that is difficult and I can't think about it without getting choked up.  In fact, this very thing recently happened to a couple sailing in NARC rally from Newport to Bermuda.  Absolutely horrific.  The first (and most important) rule on our boat is: Don't fall off.  It's that simple.  Whatever you do - stay on the boat.  If you do fall off, you can probably assume you are dead.  When underway, Scott and I never leave the cockpit without waking the other and we have jack-lines and tethers that we can use to attach ourselves to the boat if necessary.  If you fall off the boat it could be hours before your sleeping partner realizes it and by then finding you is near impossible.  And falling overboard during a storm?  Even if your partner knows you have gone over - finding a person in six foot waves in the dark is like finding a needle in a haystack, trust me.  Stay. on. the. boat.
Well, that was depressing.

I don't know about you but I am spent from this energy-sucking morbidness, but like I said, I think it's important to know these things, we can learn from them and hopefully benefit from those lessons.  

I promise to post a more lively and funny blog tomorrow to make up for this. 

Brittany & Scott


Paul said...

Sometimes these sorts of things have to be said. You defiantly gave me food for thought and I am off to do some research. Although not easy to write about, most certainly worth reading about. Good stuff. Oddly, nothing about the dreaded pirate but of course that issues was put to bed with the bear spray!

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

While this wasn't a "fun" post, it's a great one! As you said, you need to know your enemy and be prepared! Thanks for some great info!

SailFarLiveFree said...

11. Powerboats! (Just kidding...sort of).

Adam said...

And a very merry Christmas to you too!

But seriously, yep, all stuff that crosses our minds now and then but thankfully it's tempered by the knowledge that most of these things are quite rare, with the possible exception of fires. And maybe running out of water; I don't know about that one.

On the awesome side of the equation may I point you to the story of Marc Guillemot, who took third in the 2008-2009 Vendee Globe, a solo nonstop round-the-world race. When he was just off the Azores, his keel basically fell off (after suffering a collision many thousands of miles previous). He sailed another 1000 miles over 7 days to the finish line in France with no keel. Slept with the mainsheet in his hand, apparently.

Of course, those people are not human beings and their boats are made of recycled unicorns; losing a keel would certainly be a problem for mere mortals like us :)

Unknown said...

All the things that freak me out. Great post!

Anonymous said...

For cruising sailors, nightmares come in waves, from torn sails to sudden storms. Yet, amidst the vast expanse of sea, certain fears loom larger. Engine failure in treacherous waters, navigating through dense fog, or encountering hostile pirates all send shivers down a sailor's spine. However, one of the most dreaded nightmares is a malfunctioning AC system in the scorching heat of the tropics, amplifying discomfort and testing endurance. Amidst the tranquility of the ocean, the anxiety of facing an AC repair in Austin can turn any voyage into a sweltering ordeal.

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