March 29, 2009

Death by improper anchoring

I WAS MORE THAN a little concerned to learn that “improper anchoring” had caused the death of three men off the coast of Florida. NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, together with former University of Florida player Will Bleakley, lost their lives on a February 28 fishing trip. A fourth man, Nick Schuyler, was the sole survivor.

The TV and newspaper reports left out the important technical details. They were apparently satisfied that “improper anchoring” was a fairly normal cause of death at sea. But, as one who anchors his boat many times during the summer cruising season, I was interested to discover what kind of anchoring is lethal. Luckily, I stumbled upon the official accident-investigation report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Here are the missing facts:

The four men had anchored Cooper’s 21-foot Everglades outboard sport fisher in the Gulf of Mexico about 35 miles west of St. Petersburg. The boat was anchored by the bow in the usual way, but when it came time to leave for home they found the anchor was stuck. Cooper had lost an anchor the previous weekend because it wouldn’t come free from the bottom, so this time he agreed to a suggestion from Bleakley to use the power of the 200-hp outboard to break it free.

Accordingly, they took the anchor line aft, fastened it to the portside transom eye bracket, and Cooper opened the throttle in forward gear. It was rough in the Gulf that afternoon, and the boat immediately swamped over the transom, rolled to port, and capsized.

Unable to send a distress message, the four men struggled to stay on top of the inverted hull, sitting in water up to their chests. One by one they succumbed to hypothermia and drifted away from the boat. Schuyler, the only survivor, managed to stay with the boat until his rescue after 46 hours in the water.

This is the kind of accident that is far more likely to happen to an outboard powerboat with a low transom than to most sailboats, particularly when two or more people congregate in the stern to inspect a recalcitrant outboard motor or bring aboard a large fish. But if you have a small sailboat, it’s a danger to keep in mind.

Bigger sailboats, say from 20 feet upward, mostly are better designed to deal with swamping from aft, and indeed, there are occasions when anchoring from the stern is a useful technique. In the tropics and sub-tropics it ensures a cooling breeze blowing through the boat from aft forward. If, while anchored by the stern, you set the spinnaker, you can send crewmembers flying into the sky for thrilling trips and dips in a bosun’s chair. Anchoring by the stern also solves the “hunting” problem of sloops and cutters, when they “tack” restlessly from side to side. Your boat will lie very quietly to a stern anchor.

And if you sail into an anchorage, you can cruise slowly downwind under jib only until you find a good place to drop the stern anchor that every well-found cruising boat should carry. Just tip it off the stern and let the rode run. Snub gently until the anchor digs in, and you’re all set. You can roll up the jib or let it fly forward to slow you down, and you can let it fill again to set the anchor good and deep in the ground.

If you want, you can later take the anchor line from the stern to the bow chock, so that you’re anchored in the normal way. Then the people on the other boats will stop looking at you as if you’re mad.

Today’s Thought
We are as near to heaven by sea as by land!
—Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Hakluyt’s Voyages.

A secretary noticed her boss standing in front of the shredder, looking puzzled.
“Need help?” she asked.
“Yes,” said her boss, waving a piece of paper. “This is a very important document. How do you work this machine?”
She turned the shredder on and inserted the paper.
“Great,” said the boss. “I only need one copy.”

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