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Friday, July 22, 2011

This is why we wear PFDs, ladies and gentlemen...


What follows is a post adapted from a letter I sent to some experienced shipmates and friends. The specific audience is professional, having worked aboard commercial schooners, and although many of  you might be at the beginning of your sailing careers (affliction?),  I think you'll find many consonances with the message I was sending them and the things I've been teaching you. I hope you enjoy it, and that it helps you get a glimpse of what lies ahead. (And by that I do not mean capsizing! I mean, bigger and broader sailing horizons and challenges.)

Update 22 July 2011: Since the original posting, I've received many comments, all save one supportive. One came from a club member that I trust and know to be a safe and able racer and skipper. He said that my essay here implied a lack of responsible action on the part of the crew of Great Republic.

Joe is a model of positive confrontation--he didn't call me names and yell, he just made a very frank and pointed series of notes about the situation, and (fairly) questioned my assessment.
I wrote Joe back and since then we've met--no hard feelings. I'd like to state publicly here, though, in brief what I said to Joe in a private communication as well as in person: my essay's comments about good seamanship should in no way be taken to imply that Republic's crew demonstrated incapacity or neglect. Without being in full command of the facts, such a statement would be irresponsible and inflammatory. I prefer to leave the firestarting to others. The only conclusion one can draw from what I've written is that bald-fact: that Republic was caught with her main up, as the photos show.

Since then, a number of facts, though not the whole picture, have come to my attention. The first (and most important) being that Republic was in the lead and happened to get hit first. Hence, one conclusion I would draw from that would be that indeed, Republic's crew demonstrated remarkable poise in even being able to begin striking sail. We know that the winds clocked upward of 45 knots, and that the squall line moved at over 30 knots/hour. If anything, Republic's response is to be commended, not questioned--which is why, as I noted in the original post, I said that I'd leave the post-game quarterbacking to someone else. (There always is a Someone Else--and, coincidentally, I had drinks with at least one of them last Saturday.)

Finally, a lesson for me: no matter how measured a tone I might have thought I had taken, there's always room for an interpretation I hadn't planned on. I'll take steps to be even more measured in the future. On with the essay...

Original Post: Wednesday evening race night is pretty darn popular at Manhattan Sailing Club. From the comfort of our Secret Island Fortress, a.k.a., The Honorable William Wall, you can two fleets of over 15 boats apiece jamming for the start line at the same time. It's controlled chaos out there, and doing it well like Mark Williams and Danielle Gallo (to name just two very talented sailors) takes training, precision, and a really hard take-no-prisoners brand of mental toughness. Just another reason I love sailing: no matter your sex or age, you can find fleets to be competitive in.
Yesterday evening a squall rolled through the harbor with terrific force. The anemometer aboard Willy Wall, our floating clubhouse, registered a peak of Force 9--that's a "Fresh Gale" on the Beaufort Scale, meaning up to 54 mph of wind.  The Manhattan Sailing Club's Wednesday round of racing was caught squarely in the middle of it, as well as some other sailboats in the middle of what was otherwise supposed to be a splendid sunset sail. Fellow instructors I trust were aboard then to witness it shake down, and have remarked that the humbling experience left them queasy. "I've never seen so many boats in so much trouble so quickly," wrote Tracy.

See that spike? That was it. Courtesy of SoHo Belle.

All photos are courtesy of Scot Surbeck, club member and photographer.

Here's the beginning of the end for Great Republic. Photo Scot Surbeck.
The warning signs after the broadcast warning were clear enough--big, fast drop in surface temperature and building wind, ugly, dark skies above--and you can see that some of the boats were able to strike in time, like our friends in the background aboard Contest (or Comet). 

Republic, hard over. The forward hatch is kept closed during racing and cruising as per club rules, but with this severe a heel, water's going down the hatch and that "heel" has become a list. Photo Scot Surbeck.

Most boats were able to strike sail in time, but a boat dismasted and we lost another, the Great Republic, to the squall, as you can see here.  Great Republic is a great loss to the fleet; she was one of our quicker boats.
The Bowman's already in the water, and it's getting hard to hang on as Republic is getting bashed around. Photo Scot Surbeck.
Remarkably, no-one was killed or hospitalized in any of the chaos, which burned through our section of the race course in about 5 minutes. As some of you might know, there had been a summer squall warning issued earlier. That being said, I'll leave the Monday Morning Quarterbacking to someone else, though it would be wise for most to remain silent on the subject for now.
By now, Greyhound, our course boat, is on-scene playing a role that no-one ever wants to play. Photo Scot Surbeck.
What are you thinking at this moment? This is every sailor's nightmare, and here the odds are as good as they could ever get. Photo Scot Surbeck.
Maybe this is the photo that really tells it all: those sailors couldn't have been more than 15 feet from helping arms, but those must have been the longest 15 feet in the entire world right about then. Photo Scot Surbeck.
To safety, now. You can see the spray in the air that would make it hard to see...and breathe. Just one additional hazard of being in the water. Photo Scot Surbeck.
Some important things to take out of this:

Whether you are planning a long car trip, an aircraft flight, or a sailing trip, risk assessment and risk mitigation are important parts of the go/no-go decision. Weather is one of those risks that applies to all souls on the road, in the air, and on the mane. Apps abound to watch it from afar, but looking up and around is free, and there's always Hal on WX-1.

When working as a crew, we need and benefit from a chain of command that consciously articulates the risks, and what our mitigation plan is. Further, good Crew Resource Management (or BRM--Bridge Resource Management) dictates that those risk mitigation practices must flow up, not just down, from the executive team. Don't we teach everyone to act as lookout, not just the captain? The captain is supposed to Godlike, and is treated legally as if she is, but even she can make mistakes. Four pairs of eyes beat one pair, hands down.

Let's continue with risk assessment and mitigation. As my old pilot friend Robert Grace says, "It's better to be on the ground wishing you were in the sky, than in the sky wishing you were on the ground." I have paraphrased this for years as "It's better to be on the dock wishing you were out sailing, than out sailing wishing you were on the dock."  This takes discipline to enforce on yourself; there's no Houston that can call an abort on you. You are Houston. The hardest decisions I've ever made as captain involved cancelling trips aboard the schooner due to weather. In the speech to the Disappointed Masses I usually said something like, "I want you to see us at our best, and tonight won't be our best." Turn that around on yourself when you're planning a trip with friends: are they going to see your best? If not, why are you going? Getthereitis doesn't just happen to the other guy.

Reports indicate that the USCG small boat team was on the scene immediately, just another reason to love the Coasties, even if they're all from the same cornfield in Iowa. Everybody aboard was wearing a PFD, including some of those hot, sticky, uncomfortable vest-type IIIs. I prefer them to the trig auto-inflatable jobs because I know that foam floats, always. That little immersion auto-trigger? You know it worked when you tested it in the shower, but how about now? Or two months from now? Your mileage can vary, but at any rate, there's no substitute for wearing a PFD.

In many ways it's not practicable to wear one aboard Pioneer, leaving aside the fact that we're not required to. But what about at the dock? Tied up alongside the float, how will Pioneer rescue you if you fall off the headrig? Yes, we've all heard the Hoary Lines: "Wearing a work vest encourages laxity." I suppose we should apply that to seat belts, too, and the safety on guns. At any rate, workers on barges, tugs, oil rigs, supply boats and the like all wear them, so what's so special about us? Besides, the last time I looked, Pioneer is still chained to the dock, a victim of blindsighted stupidity--but I know plenty of you get out on other boats, including small ones like the J we lost. Wear your PFD. Wear your PFD. Remember the NFL player who died on a jetski? True or false: he was wearing a PFD. And to rub it in just a little more: last summer a sailor was killed on the Sound. He had fallen overboard from his boat, possibly after an uncontrolled gybe, and drowned. Again, no PFD.

Navy women are fond of saying that their "rulebooks are written in blood" of the ones who came before them and made mistakes--the terrifying fires aboard the USS Forrestal and USS Oriskany could have killed every soul aboard being two outstanding examples. In the aftermath, sweeping changes from the deck-arming procedures for alert aircraft to the grade of aviation kerosene used were instituted. Sailors, despite their outward appearances, tend to be conservative and changes don't take root quickly until something explodes, sometimes literally. So remember what my Pioneer mentor, Eric Rice, told me: "Routine is the enemy of good seamanship." Sail around lots. Sail with different people. Watch carefully what people do, and ask them why they do it that way. Be a pest. You'll learn lots more that way.  There's generally no one right way to do anything, and develop a respectful but critical eye and ear when someone tells you there is.

So let's look more at that: when the Deck tells you to re-coil a halliard, it's because she doesn't trust it will run. Halliards have to run. Sheets have to run. The mind-numbing minutiae of many of our practices can be developed into a conscious discipline, a ritual (as opposed to a routine), if you have either the experience or the training to recognize it for what it promises in return: preparedness.  We lost one boat last evening, and it would have been more if some frisky, on-the-ball sailors hadn't been able to STRIKE SAIL, NOW! Can't do that if your halliards are thrown down the hatch in a ball instead of figure-eight coiled on your winch. Can't do that if you hung 'em backwards.

Later some of you will graduate to bigger, more complex boats. More complexity means greater likelihood of failure. It's fine to go Sunday Sailing from time to time, but don't forget the requirement to train. How many graduates have the knowledge to bleed the fuel system aboard Gratitude? How many know where the spare Racor element is? You're going to need a wrench to bleed--do you know where the wrench is? Do you know what size you need? And do you have a flashlight so that you can see back there? Because there ain't no light in that little hole they call the 'engine compartment'. How many can clear and prep the anchor and rode single-handed? (Because when you really need it, you aren't going to have any help!) These are just some of the things we need to think about, and think about thinking about.

If there's one ineffable thing that we try to inculcate aboard Pioneer,  it's the development of a "pro attitude". But this isn't just true for sailors on commercial tall ships, it's true for club members as well. Every sail should have a plan, and a clearly defined chain of command. I find the easiest "plan" is to decide that within ten minutes of striking sail, we're going to do two man-overboard drills under sail. I brief the 'victim' and make him go below to simulate the loss of crew.  It should be a common discipline, but as you get out more on the water you'll see just how uncommon it really is. Regardless of what and where you're sailing, I hope that you'll take this attitude elsewhere on the water, and spread the Gospel: semper paratus, keep your eyes on the prize, and hand me the pliers.

1 comment:

  1. HI, is it ok if I copy your text on my blog?