December 9, 2014

Skippers bear all the blame

WE SHALL PROBABLY NEVER KNOW why some of the world’s best sailors ran aground on a large and well-charted reef near Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, last month. The 65-foot ocean racer Vestas Wind, a Danish entrant in the Volvo Ocean Race, hit the reef in the dark of night while she was doing 19 knots. Luckily, no one was injured and the eight-man crew was rescued by the coast guard from a nearby island.

But how is it possible for a million-dollar boat fitted out with the world’s latest and most expensive equipment, to run into a reef that is believed to have been first charted by Arab trading dhows in about 600 A.D?

Skipper Chris Nicholson has accepted responsibility, as he must, but he added plaintively that although the skipper is in charge of everything, and therefore ultimately to blame for everything that goes wrong, “he can’t be everywhere at once.” What he means, but didn’t say, is that the captain of a boat has to trust his crew to do their jobs properly. And, if they don’t, they should bear a share of the blame.

But he’s only partly correct there. It has always seemed unfair to some that the skipper carries all the blame for the mistakes of his crew, but that is the tradition of the sea for very good reasons. It may well be unfair that you have to assume all the responsibility when you can’t possibly oversee all the crew all of the time, but you, as skipper, are presumably in charge of selecting the crew in the first place, and satisfying yourself that they are diligent and competent.

Furthermore, it’s the skipper’s duty to check everything all the time. He or she must make sure that all tasks are being done correctly and on time. It’s the skipper’s job to anticipate all kinds of problems and discuss navigation in advance.

If you’ve ever been to sea as a responsible crew member, you’ll know how irritating it is to work under a skipper who is forever checking on you. You feel you’re not being trusted, as you should be.

But a good skipper is able to do all the checking up surreptitiously. He or she develops a knack for seeing what is done properly and what isn’t, without raising anyone’s hackles. When you come right down to it, the fact is that he doesn’t trust anybody, not even himself, but he doesn’t create resentment among the crew because he is generous with praise, not only for jobs well done, but also (equally importantly) for the mundane routine jobs that ensure the general well-being of the ship.

It’s no easy job to skipper any ordinary boat sailing across an ocean, let alone a highly-tuned thoroughbred racer with a gung-ho crew drowning in testosterone, but it has many rewards when things go right. And when things go wrong, it carries grave responsibilities.

Today’s Thought

To know the pains of power, we must go to those who have it; to know its pleasures, we must go to those who are seeking it: the pains of power are real, its pleasures imaginary.

—C. C. Colton, Lacon

An old bachelor had been visiting an elderly widow every evening for three years. One day a friend said to him: “Since you two get along so well together, why don’t you marry her?”
“I thought of that,” said the bachelor, “but then where would I spend my evenings?”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Jack said...

Bring on the "armchair admirals" .............. ;)

John Vigor said...

Here's a message for Luis, who wrote me recently about a Morgan 31:
Hi Luis:
Get a copy of my book, Small Boat to Freedom. We always averaged more than 100 miles a day, often 130 to 140, in the trades. She is superbly seaworthy, without any vices, and very seakindly for her size. She doesn't point like a racer but she's no slouch to windward either.The long keel has many advantages for a cruising boat. 20 horsepower is plenty. We had a 12 hp BMW.
Buy her. You won't regret it.
John V.

Unknown said...

It's quite interesting to note, in this particular case, that navigator Wouter Verbraak quickly shared some details of the error that led to this accident:

From this and other reports, it looks like there were major routing changes at the last moment before this leg of the race. The usual detailed pre-race route review with the chartplotter fully zoomed in was missed in the rush to get everything ready, and while en route, they didn't zoom in enough on this particular spot to see the actual reef on the chart - only the soundings of 42 and 80 m beside it.

A nice analysis is here: