There were three fatal sailboat accidents on the US West coast in the last year that I know about. All were racing accidents, maybe that’s why I know about them. Low Speed Chase and Uncontrollable Urge were 28′ and 30′ full-on raceboats with open transoms, narrow deep keels, and thru-deck rudders. They were crewed by mostly experienced racers and stuffed with high-tech equipment.
Based on USSailing investigations, the primary cause of the Uncontrollable Urge wreck was a loss of rudder, but this boat, as well as the other two, were lost and people died because of poor decisions by the skipper and crew. Equipment and support system failures exacerbated the poor decisions. In all three wrecks, people died in seas crushing them against a rocky lee shore after their boats ran or washed aground. So, lesson one: stay away from lee shores. We end up close to lee shores all the time – cutting corners, mostly. We’ll try to give ourselves a little more room.
Poor voice communication over the VHF radio contributed directly to problems with two wrecks. Fellow racing boats were not keeping proper radio watch, radios failed when the boats were damaged, and, frankly, voice communication is tough. VHF radio is stone-age technology and USCG equipment is probably older than anything installed in a modern yacht. VHF radio is important, we carry two built-in radios (with independent power and antennas) and three hand-helds, but they all suck and probably won’t be useful in a crisis.
Advanced communication failed or was not used at almost every instance. The Low Speed Chase EPIRB self-deployed automatically after the wreck but took forty minutes to obtain a GPS fix and report their position to the Coast Guard. It was the only communication the USCG received they could act on. UU carried an EPIRB, but it was neither registered or deployed. Aegean did not carry an EPIRB.
No boats triggered a VHF-based DSC “Mayday,” even though every modern radio has the capability if the radio is linked to a GPS. This digital automated signal would have created an alarm-with-location on every fleet boat and at the USCG. Aegean carried a SPOT navigator, a small electronic device that leaves a “bread-crumb” trail on their website. This feature worked fine. However, when the Aegean‘s skipper pushed the device’s panic button in the middle of the night, SPOT notified the skipper’s wife by phone. When she didn’t pick up, they left a voice mail. Then they quit trying. Despite the fact that the device’s trail lead straight through the ocean to a pile of rocks, they never notified the USCG or other authority. We’re glad we didn’t buy a SPOT.
Flares failed or were practically worthless in several cases.
IRIDIUM satellite phones and Cell phones were not used in any instance, even though they were carried by several boats.
The Aegean wrecked by driving in a straight line, under power, directly onto rocks in the middle of the night. Obviously, the boat was on autopilot and the crew was asleep or incapacitated. Nancy and I often discuss this problem, and we usually set up our GPS courses so we stay clear if we overshoot. Falling asleep in the middle of the night is hardly unusual, even for the best of crew. We view it as a likely event and try to provide several layers of protection beyond paying constant attention. Then we try to pay constant attention. There is a feature on autopilots where the boat will follow a GPS course, making turns automatically to follow a pre-set path. We don’t even have this feature connected on our boat. Occasional GPS glitches and the subsequent quick turns in open ocean can make sailing way too exciting. Our autopilot maintains a straight compass course. It’s up to the skipper to adjust that course to follow a path.
In the UU wreck, five of the six crewmen wore a Spinlock Deckvest PFD.
This sophisticated piece of gear is an integrated harness with an inflatable life jacket. It’s expensive and super sexy. I bought one for Nancy for her birthday before we left last year. When Uncontrollable Urge washed up on a rocky lee shore and the crew had to abandon ship, four out of five Spinlok vests failed in the surf, with one side of the collar washing over the wearer’s head and ending up next to the other side of the collar. If you’ve ever tried to swim in surf, or swim with a life jacket on, you know how dangerous this can be. The crewman that died in this incident simply drowned, without evidence of trauma, and with both flotation tubes on the left side of his head. Luckily for us, Nancy unwrapped her cool new vest, found it uncomfortable, and we quickly exchanged it for a more conventional design.
As Uncontrollable Urge slowly washed ashore with a missing rudder, they deployed two anchors off the bow to bring the bow into the wind and to hopefully hook bottom before the boat drifted into the surf line. Both anchors were small Fortress aluminum anchors on short rodes. The anchors were chosen and sized for light weight while racing, not for performance and function during an emergency. The anchors drifted and kited in deep water, loaded with kelp in the shallows, and barely slowed the boat down until it rolled in the surf.
Messing around with the life raft probably caused more problems than it helped when Uncontrollable Urge got into the surf. The other boats never deployed their rafts.
Uncontrollable Urge had many chances for rescue from other boats and the USCG, but poor communication, poor preparation, and poor decision-making caused them to wait until it was too late before they called MAYDAY. It’s tough to learn from things like this. We go to sea because we’re self-reliant and like to solve problems. Sea-stories are stories of overcoming adversity. I can’t honestly say, based on the information we have, that we would have done differently.
USSailing incident reports:
Low Speed Chase: media.ussailing.org/AssetFactory.aspx?vid=18674
Uncontrollable Urge: http://www.ussailing.org/wp-content/uploads/DARoot/Offshore/SAS/PDF/2013%20Islands%20Race%20Report.pdf