A Tale of Two Capsizes
Which Way is Up!
It has been the trend in several sailing magazines for many years to have a section on ‘lessons learned’. The idea is that you honestly tell of a sailing mistake, which usually leads to a downward spiral of subsequent errors. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Well, let me tell you a story. Yes, I know it is minor in scale but the fact that I had preconceived ideas about what happened closed my mind.
The place was Hollowell Sailing Club, a freshwater reservoir, all in the picturesque county of Northamptonshire. The date, 31st Oct 2021, was significant, why? The weather forecast was for high winds and in fact the local papers later called it the ‘Northampton tornado’. Winds were expected to gust to 40 mph plus.
So, do you have a Sunday morning lie in? Of course not! You join three other boats, and you have a race. Now, I am not completely mad. I went out expecting to have a bit of excitement and a free wash.
I took off my very expensive racing sails and replaced them with a heavy-duty cruising sail which was one-quarter reefed. The Genoa was replaced with a GP storm jib, which is about the same size as my handkerchief. I was single crewed as my normal crew (unusually) saw sense and stayed at home. I did make a gesture towards proper clothing and had on my rarely worn dry suit.
So, what was the minor incident I had? – I capsized!
Very quickly, and spectacularly, shortly after leaving the shore. As with all capsizes you later play it over in slow motion and this one was the standard accidental jibe. Wind behind me, sail all the way out. Bang! A gust hits me, the boom is just a blur, I take off at some incredible speed, no sooner am I at ‘warp speed factor ten’ and the boat nose-dives into the murky, cold depths.
I know the time of this exactly, as our local weather station recorded the highest gust of the year (2021) at 50.6 mph at 10.19 at a bearing of 182. The story now gets a bit boring for you but nightmare scenario for me. Despite all efforts I could not right the boat. What did happen with monotonous regularity was the boat kept going upside down – this I could not understand – it was not something I had previous experienced with this 2-year-old GP. Even with the help of a rescue boat, I would on numerous occasions, haul its sorry ass out of the water, but the main would hardly leave the surface. There is only so many times a fit, slim, muscular 70-year-old, (who are you kidding, Elder!) can swim around a dinghy, climb on to the centerboard and fall in and do it all again. Eventually, the howling gale took me to the shallows where I was able to drop the sails (boat still sideways, as it would still not get the right way up).
A sorry state of confusion now reins as I am pitifully towed back to the clubhouse with ‘I told you so’ looks from the usual spectators peering through the rain beaten windows.
What happened and why is there a lesson to be learnt? Simple, really, the smashing of the sail from one side to the other hit the shroud so hard it took out the screw in the mast spreader. This allowed the shroud to lose all tension on the starboard side, the main sail acted like a giant floppy holdall for water. The fact I had a reefed sail did not help as if filled up in the folds as well.
The issue was I did not pause and think about this. If I have spotted it earlier, I would have had the rescue boat hold the top of the mast, I would have used my energy to lower sails from in the water. As it was, my keenness to get it upright and sailing again clouded my judgment.
Also, worryingly, I consider myself more as a GP cruiser than a racer, I doubt I could even have done this if I was on more open water, even with willing crew. Would mast head buoyancy made a difference? Probably not. Bluntly speaking, I would have been well and truly ‘stuffed’. Is it even possible to lower your main while treading water and the boat itching to show its bottom to the world?
I do again apologise to the minor issued illustrated here but if on your next ‘dunking’ and something isn’t ‘right’. Paused for minute, open your mind. Not all capsizes are the same!
A Lesson Learnt?
This is a summary of an excellent article from the DCA Bulletin edition 179 ‘Last Tack at the Needles’ and some follow up comments. I have ‘twisted’ the conclusions to suit my experience with a cruising GP14.
This very honest story relates to a three-man crew in in 16’ Wayfarer. The boat in company of others was returning from a weekend cruise around the Isle of Wight. They were dealing with winds rising to force 5-6, the seas were ‘long and regular’ and big.
Just as they were beginning to think they would soon be home the boat capsized. Despite many efforts by all three they consistently failed to right the boat and one of the crew members who was in the water for some time as not coping well with the strain and was suffering badly from the effects of wave action and near hypothermia.
Other Wayfarer boats came to assist but because of the conditions were unable to actively provide positive assistance. A Mayday call was made but before the lifeboat crew got to them an inflatable with a Services dive team came to the rescue and took them aboard. Shortly after the lifeboat attended the scene and one member of the lifeboat crew came aboard and was concerned about the ill crew member. A helicopter was called in and picked them up. The crew member was unconscious and having convulsions.
The jib was still cleated. The spinnaker and sheets had been stowed loose and were now floating all over the swamped boat. The boat was already rolling over again and we could not find the sheet in the available time.
They all in the water next to the capsized boat. One person managed to get his fingers into the centreboard slot and pull himself onto the top of the upturned hull. They managed to pull the boat up, but it rolled over again and inverted immediately. There was absolutely no time to release sheets or retrieve emergency gear from inside the boat.
“The helm gave the preparatory command to tack, and I ducked down towards the centreline of the boat, waiting for what seemed a minute or more. From this position it was difficult to tell what was going on with the boat, but I had the impression that we had slowed down, and then we started to heel. Instinctively I threw myself up to the high side. As I did this, I realised that we were going past the point of no return, and I dropped into the water so that my weight would not pull the boat upside down.
But the boat inverted immediately. There was no in-between, will she, won't she; just one continuous roll from upright to inverted. The time was about 09.15.”
Cause & Effect
Passage Planning. The weather forecast and the tides forced a 4 am start for this crew to get back to Calshot before the tide changed. Not perfect planning but difficult to see what else they could do here. As with all these things it combined to make into the critical incident it became.
Equipment failure (minor). A fitting pulled out of the boom while at sea. This was fixed while riding the seas using a jib. This had the effect of making them last in the fleet and getting close to ‘rough’ tidal waters.
Tacking. The helm’s tacking was slow and not very positive. The two adult male crew were having difficulty in getting cleanly from one side of the boat to the other. Problems in co-ordinating our movement from one side of the boat to the other initially. This was because there was so little space to pass between the cascade kicker and the centre mainsheet. They had to go through one after the other.
Crew, strength, weaknesses. Out of the three, the helm at the time was probably the weakest, yet he had been at the helm for four hours. There was not clear 'ready about' and 'lee-oh' orders. This would have helped. There were long delays between preparing to go about and going about.
The state of the sea and wind. They were well reefed down under genoa and main with two reefs. The waves were such that it meant they were big enough that the mast of the capsized boat in a trough would be well below the boat on the face of the wave. If the boat is then moved forward by the wave, the mast and sail are driven under into the inverted position very quickly. This caused the boat to act in a way that caused to be effectively sailing upside down.
Factors that led to hypothermia. The kit that was worn was not adequate but would been just about good enough if they had not capsized. Two were wearing buoyancy aids. These supported the wearers as they tried to right the boat and probably gave some insulation. One was wearing a life jacket which he did not inflate. The ill crew member was wearing heavy Wellington boots and his legs were getting caught up in ropes. This made him panicky which burned energy. When the dive team arrived, he was not seen as ‘urgent’ and remained in the water the longest.
Weight Distribution. The worst possible place to put any weight in a boat (any boat) is in the bow and/or stern. Weight in the bow has a twofold disadvantage: it reduces freeboard where it is most needed and prevents the bow being buoyant (light) enough to lift to oncoming seas. Weight in the stern is quite literally a drag, as it will immerse the transom below its designed level and prevent it lifting to a following sea.
Other factors. The usefulness of life jackets for open boat cruising is questionable. With a buoyancy aid on you will burn less energy and stand more chance of self-rescue. It will also insulate you.
No emergency equipment. Because the VHF radio and flares were in the boat, they were inaccessible.
The centreboard did not have a properly adjusted tensioner and the board would not stay in its down position when the boat was inverted i.e. it fell back into the slot.
No masthead buoyancy.
No clear plan, discussion was ‘on the hoof’. You need a Passage/tides/dive-in harbours/ what if’s plan.
Probably too much gear on boards which may have influenced buoyancy.
In attempting to right the boat, the crew used the 'scoop method'. Would they have been more likely to succeed if they had used the 'head-to-wind' method described below? Nearby sailboats tried to help in several ways. Would they have been more successful if they had used the 'two boats head-to-wind' method?
Self-Rescue (not a ‘racing’ recovery).
A racing recovery ‘scoop’ method would be my first choice however if there is equipment failure or the waters too rough then it’s sails down before ‘righting’.
Priorities – 1. The stay with the boat. It may be drifting downwind faster than you think, and if at sea you may lose sight of it very quickly.
2. Do all you can stop the boat turning turtle. (That bit may require some pre-consideration.)
- After the boat goes over, drop into the water (clambering up on the gunwale risks inverting the boat). If you have a crew, get them to swim around and hold onto the centerboard. (They'll prevent the boat from rolling over on top of you).
- Lower the main and un-sheet the jib. Pull in the mainsheet tight and cleat it to prevent the boom falling off the deck.
- Swim around; the crew hands off the centerboard to you, and swims to the bow.
- Now, pull gently on the centerboard to bring the boat upright. It will immediately swing head-to-wind due to the drogue action of your crew holding onto the stem.
- Then climb in over the transom (so as to avoid capsizing her again as you get in) and start bailing the water out.
- Tell your crew to remain at the bow. When fully buoyant again, help your crew in over the stern, but do this quickly; otherwise, the drogue effect of the crew in the water will allow the boat to pay off from the wind and start sailing while your crew is struggling to get aboard.
- Mast buoyancy is a must for cruising GP sailors.
- Scoop type bailers made not be as good as a bucket but one or the other (or both) are a cruising necessity ...‘the best bilge pump is a scared man with a bucket on a sinking ship’.
- Fit a stern step if you can.