May 9, 2010

Please call it quits

IF YOU’VE BEEN FOLLOWING the blog of Abby Sunderland, you’ll have noticed her wariness about approaching land. Abby is the 16-year-old Californian who is sailing alone around the world. She apparently stayed 50 miles or more off Cape Horn. She was obviously scared of being caught on a lee shore with a boat that does not sail well to windward in rough water. Similarly, her approach to Cape Town was fraught with dread about collisions with ships and running into land.

You’ll have noticed, too, her nervousness about running in heavy weather: the way she sails dead downwind under staysail only, when this boat was designed to reach at 15 knots or more, tacking downwind under full sail for the sake of stability.

You may get the feeling, as I have, that she is too often at the mercy of a collection of machines and electronics that she can’t repair if anything goes wrong, a situation that makes for a chronically tense voyage. She’s constantly waiting for the next thing to go wrong. She jumped to the conclusion that her auxiliary engine was ruined when she started it to enter the inner harbor in Cape Town. But the black smoke pouring out of her exhaust apparently was caused by nothing more than overloading from a bunch of weed around her prop.

In addition to all this, she is no doubt disappointed that she no longer qualifies for a non-stop voyage around the world. The only title she’s chasing now is that of the youngest person to circumnavigate, a record that is no longer recognized by any world authority because it encourages ever younger kids to enter a competition that must eventually end in calamity.

Team Abby’s decision to have her make a stop at Cape Town for repairs has been described as a failure, but in my view the failure lies not with Abby but with the boat; and the blame belongs to whoever chose it. It is the wrong boat for the purpose. My earnest wish is that she should call it quits right now, the whole thing. She has already earned the glorious title of the youngest person to double Cape Horn. Let it stay there.

To continue this voyage from Cape Town with that boat is the greatest folly. Her parents know full well the dangers that face her in the Southern Ocean as she falls more and more behind schedule. What kind of parent sends a child down there, with winter fast approaching, in a boat as vulnerable as an Open 40, a boat built for nothing but speed, a boat whose extreme design gives it little chance of righting itself in case of a capsize?

Let’s not pretend this attempted voyage was all of Abby’s doing. Since when can a 16-year-old schoolgirl indulge her fantasy and afford to buy a million-dollar boat to sail around the world?

I fear for her autopilots. I fear she won’t be able to generate enough electricity. I fear for her safety. I wish the adults behind her record attempt (all safely on dry land, thank you very much) would step up to their responsibility and call it quits right now in Cape Town.

Abby is a brave and resourceful sailor. But she is also a kid. She deserves better guidance.


Today’s Thought
I give the fight up: let there be an end,
A privacy, an obscure nook for me.
I want to be forgotten even by God.
— Robert Browning, Paracelsus

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #49
Scrubbing bare teak. Whatever you use to clean your bare teak, don’t scrub up afterward along the grain with a stiff-bristled brush. Always rub in a circular motion or across the grain with the rough side of a plastic scouring pad or something similar. In that way, you’ll avoid digging out the softer summer grain and leaving unsightly ridges of harder grain.

“Does your husband drink much?”
“Well, last time we went to Mexico we had to pay excise duty to get him back through Customs.”


zerf said...

A few minor points of contention:
No offshore cursing sailor wants to be anywhere near land if they can avoid it. The water gets shallow, the waves get steep, and traffic is heavier.
Sailing under staysail, given the boat she has is the smart move. She's been handed the keys to a formula one racing car, and she's smart not trying to go 200 MPH in her 1st outing.

I have to agree, the choice of boat was pure folly. What where they thinking? An ocean boat that can't use a wind vane, at least as backup, to the notoriously problematic auto pilots? A boat that can't sail hard on the wind? Madness. This is a boat designed for speed and sailed by experienced racing sailors. What she should be sailing is a tank, like Jessie Watson has, not a fragile speedster.
Granted, with all the shore support both have, avoiding heavy weather and seas is possible to some extent, but even Watson has been knocked down several times. Watson sustained only very minor damage where I doubt Abby's boat would have survived as well.
My major contention from the start was what I perceived to be a total lack of preparation. The whole operation seems to have been cobbled together, in haste, with a lot of crossed fingers hoping it all works out.
Should she be allowed to continue? I say maybe. Now that it's no longer a non-stop trip, she can stop wherever she wants, for as long as she wants, and enjoy the adventure. On the other hand there is the matter of winter closing in and there is still Tasmania to get around. If it were my kid, and I had the means as the Suderlands seem to have, I put the boat up for the winter and start again late next spring. Better still, ditch the boat and buy Watson's boat!

John Vigor said...

Well said, Zerf. Them's my sentiments entirely, and better expressed.

The only reason I mentioned her nervousness about landfalls is that it indicates a lack of confidence in the way her boat handles. That's a grave handicap and a hard thing to live with.

And sailing under staysail only, in that boat, means giving up the form stability that comes with planing speeds. It makes her more vulnerable to capsize.

I wish her well and I hope she comes through unscathed, despite the choice of boat.

John V.

Mike K-H said...

Zerf sums it up pretty well. I know the 40 is a smaller and less extreme boat than the 60s used in the Vendee Globe, but the concept is the same. However, I'd hardly say the 40 doesn't go to windward well - I'm sure it could beat an
S&S 34 - but it will be hard work, very uncomfortable, and utterly dependent on the autopilot being in perfect working order.

Now look back at Dee Caffari's communications as the race developed.

She had already been round the world the wrong way in a traditional boat, and she's a big, strong girl in her 30s - yet she admitted to being nervous of her boat until she was nearly half way.

The silliest thing is that Abby doesn't appear to have even been given a chance to have a ride in a similar boat in heavy weather to get a feel for whether it was really suitable. It sounds as if her parents and support team were too naive to even realise what gets traded for the performance potential of a modern ocean racer.

Did they even race at all?

John Vigor said...

Mike, the Open 40's windward ability (or lack of it) was demonstrated in the 2005 Ostar.
I quote from a race report:

"Nico Budel was the only Open 40 to survive the course of the OSTAR 2005. In the first week of the race all the other Open 40's suffered damage of one kind or another in the harsh upwind conditions and were forced out of the race, leaving him as the only remaining competitor in the class. BUDEL had his own adventures in the race and towards the end of the first week had to climb the mast to replace his broken genoa halliard. If he had not done so, he too would have been forced out of the race. He reports that climbing the mast was terrible and he was relieved not to break any bones whilst being bashed against the mast. His win is a just reward for his determination."

Looking at the underwater sections of the Open 40, I can only imagine it develops hellish weather helm as it heels because of the unequal submerged areas fore and aft This would place great strains on the autopilot and steering mechanisms.

This is a very specialized downwind design. Upwind performance is correspondingly sacrificed.

John V.

Anonymous said...

Couple points of clarification.

1, The boat cost 90,000 dollars US. With a total budget of only 130,000 dollars when she left, if all of that sunk into the boat, it's cheaper than Jessica's after her refit.

2. The boat has better self-righting capabilities. It's an IMOCA regulation that it do so. That lead bulb at the end of a 10 ft keel port and starboard water ballast tanks are part of this necessity (do a google vid. search for 180 rollover test, pretty cool seeing it in action).

Otherwise good article. Boat does seem like a lemon though. It's original race usage was port to port basis. Not even sure if an Open 40 has ever completed a non stop circumnavigation - race or otherwise.

One thing I am interested in is if indeed her somewhat timid sailing of it is due to being intimidated or if in fact due to wonky auto pilots from the get go. If I recall she started having problems with the primary after coming down past the equator. If so one could see her keeping stress off the functioning secondary down and around Cape Horn and all the way to Cape Town which would then make it appear that she hasn't exactly pushed the vessel to its true capabilities.

Be interesting to see how fast she goes once everything hopefully fixed. Can't imagine she (or anyone) sailing it after 3 months wouldn't want to let it fly with the wind.

oztayls said...

This is excellent commentary here from all, and very good points have been made. Jessica Watson is a couple of days from Sydney, and is battling testing high winds and 8 metre swells so close to home. I saw a newscast video of her today, and despite the conditions, she is calm and chirpy, so it's obvious she has absolute faith in her boat.

Abby has the Southern Ocean to cross in wintery conditions, which will be severe, and will be relying on an untested boat. Many experienced seafarers before her have come to grief there, some more than once. Tony Bullimore for example, who had to be cut from his upturned hull in freezing conditions, and Thierry Dubois, who also had to rescued by a navy chopper. The Australian Navy will once again be ready, but there can never be any guarantees in such severe washing machine conditions.

God speed Abby...

Unknown said...

FYI - My attempt to post an link to YOUR May 9th blog on Abby's blog was blocked by the administrator.

I wish her well, but my thoughts run closer to concerns for her continued trip in winter in the Southern Ocean.

Steve in California

oztayls said...

Well, we're all praying that Abby is OK and that she will be found soon.

Enough has been written about the wisdom of the venture in the boat she was given. What's done is done, so now we just hope and pray for a happy ending...