October 8, 2015

Disagreement with the experts

TWO VERY EXPERIENCED ocean racers have agreed that it would be wise to criss-cross the cockpit of a yacht with ropes during a storm at sea.

I am a bit puzzled by this.

At first sight, I’m not sure it’s a good idea at all, but I would be foolish to argue with either of these men.The first is Warren Brown, of Bermuda, who owned a 40-foot ocean racer named Force Seven. She was designed by William Tripp, and she was overtaken by a hurricane between Bermuda and Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1964.

Warren is quoted in a famous book on the danger of deep-sea voyages called Heavy Weather Sailing, by K. Adlard Coles. Here are Warren’s own words:

“By 1700, steering had become extremely difficult, and of concern for the deck watch. We criss-crossed the cockpit completely with rope, giving handholds for every movement in this area as a safety measure additional to safety belts.” Force Seven was knocked down many times, and her cockpit was filled with water on several occasions, but she weathered the hurricane and eventually arrived safely in Newport.

The second experienced ocean racer is Adlard Coles himself, of course. In his book, Coles describes the cockpit lash-up as a “useful tip,”and adds: “It is not uncommon for part of the crew to be swept out of the cockpit if a yacht is knocked down in a heavy gale, and several went overboard in the gale of the Bermuda Race of 1960 . . . the criss-cross of ropes seems a practical idea to help prevent accidents of this sort.”

Well, I can see the sense of providing handholds for the cockpit crew, but how would they be able to move around in the cockpit with ropes strung like spider webs at or about waist level? I can’t imagine trying to move fore or aft by high-stepping over line after line. It would be bad enough with the boat at rest in harbor, but how would you do it at sea with the boat bucking and heeled over?  I also wonder about the chances for getting sheets, other sail controls, and even your own tether snagged and tangled up in this web.

Warren doesn’t give any details of how many ropes were used, or where they were attached, but I presume they’d have to be strung from coaming to coaming, which might even be higher than waist level on some boats. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has ever tried this trick, and how it worked out practically. Meanwhile, I’m highly skeptical, despite the authoritative recommendations.

Today’s Thought
They were suffered to have rope enough till they had haltered themselves.
— Fuller, Holy War

I want to know
How fireflies glow.
Do they carry
Little Exides
Slung beneath
Their tiny bexides?

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


popsi kopper said...

How freely do you move around in a heavy storm where the cockpit gets washed over by waves constantly? Are you still upright or is it more a mixture of crawling and ducking to be close to the floor? In the second case, the lines might not be that much of a hindrance but provide welcome additional handholds.

Alden Smith said...

This is a really good question. I think, not just as sailors but as human beings we are always looking for a universal rule that will work in every context. The problem is every context is different - take for example storm tactics - parachute anchor? series drogue? towing warps? cut it all free a la Moitessier? I feel this issue of ropes in cockpits is a similar issue i.e. the answer depends on the context. How deep / wide is the cockpit? (In 100mph + winds I would crawl underneath the ropes if the cockpit was deep enough!) Is the helming position at the stern or close to the companion way hatch? In extreme weather where I presume only a trysail and / or storm jib is up there wouldn't be much need for worrying about jib and mainsheets getting tangled, the next sail making procedure would be to haul everything down.
The answer to this interesting question is probably the same answer to the question: How long is a piece of string? My answer is: I depends on the context in which the piece of string is going to be used.

Roger J. Jones said...

I wonder to what extent the technology has changed. On Reboot we use life jackets with built in harnesses. Anyone on deck in bad weather (or for that matter at night) has the harness of the life jacket attached to a tether that is attached to a jackline than runs from the bow to the stern. This system does have some drawbacks, with all the lines on a boat sometimes one has to duck under or climb over some part of the running rigging to move fore and aft. The helm usually has his/her tether attached to a hard point at the helm. The entire setup is rated for 3,000 lbs before it breaks. I wonder if I would break if subjected to 3,000+ pounds of force.

The biggest concern in using this setup is that the tethers have release catches. This I presume is so that if one falls overboard and is being dragged under water you can release the tether and surface. But it is possible to either catch the release on something or trip it by mistake.

Fair winds and following seas :)

PAR said...

The William Tripp design was a fairly typical CCA rule of the era and her cockpit was deep compared to earlier Universal designs. Her combing (Force Seven) was also pretty tall, though proportionate, given Tripp's fine eye. Lashed at the combing or along the deck line, I suspect you could scoot under on a cockpit seat or the sole or pop out above, slithering along with your butt on the sidedeck or combing itself. Neither seems ideal, but having been in these types of storms, in similar size and configuration yachts (old CCA war horses), it makes more sense then it seems at first blush. The idea is exactly entanglement, which might be counterintuitive to some, but it is what you want in survival situations. Hard knock overs with the spreaders getting real close, means the lanyard isn't what you want to trust, because in spite of what they're rated for (which they weren't in 1960 BTW), they fail, usually in the fabric attachments, not the actual lanyard, so some other means of keeping your butt in the boat is desireable.

I can't imagine thinking using a release on a lanyard (something else they didn't have in 1960) is a sensible idea either. The odds of getting picked up, by the fastest of all time, MOB drill in this kind of weather is next to zilch, so you want to stay attached, even if it's only to have a drowned body to return to shore. I've been dragged backwards on a tether a couple of times and it's not pleasant, but if you're in good shape and not screaming along at foiling speeds, you can usually get squared up and find a way up to the surface. The first time this happened I was young and hit the water hard, face first, which dazed me in both the violence and the pressure from being dragged at 10 knots. My leg was tangled in the lanyard and I untangled myself and popped up. I'd be hard pressed to free myself now, particularly with much more speed on. BTW, no one can hear you yelling (survival storm), so the short existence if you do go over, isn't a good one. I mention this because anyone that's been to sea in these kind of conditions actually thinks about these sort of things. "Do I want to tread water for several hours, waiting on a lucky find by a shark or fatigue, before I die - or would I prefer 30 seconds of all hell, as I try to right myself, before I drown . . ." Eventually, every sailor I've met that's made it through these situations, usually after a few beers, will admit to having "come to terms" with these possible realities and choices. Yeah, I'll take getting snagged in the cockpit web anytime, over getting dragged every time.