February 11, 2016

Sailing into storms

SOME OF MY landlubber friends are wondering why large ships such as El Faro and Anthem of the Seas are allowed to go to sea despite the certain knowledge that they will be sailing into vicious storms. El Faro actually sank, of course, and Anthem of the Seas, a 1,100-foot cruise liner carrying 6,000 passengers, was badly mauled.

Well, to know why they sailed you have to understand the tremendous pressure on ship’s crews to keep running to schedule. In the end, as we all know, it’s the captain alone who bears the responsibility to cast off, even in the face of unfavorable weather forecasts. He’s only human. He makes mistakes like the rest of us. And he wants to keep his job.

But it does make some people wonder how small sailboats survive in storms when they’re manned by amateurs who lack the weather forecasting resources of the big professionals.

Well, the truth is that most amateur sailors don’t die at sea. The majority die of heart attacks when they get their boatyard bills. Seriously, very few sailboaters die in storms at sea; but fear of sinking far away from land is what keeps many prospective ocean cruisers at home.

In fact, sinking, from whatever cause, is our biggest fear. We pack our sailboats with liferafts, dinghies, lifejackets, drysuits, flares, VHF radio,

SSB radios, satellite phones, and Epirbs just in case our boat sinks.

But the plain truth is that our boats are safer than we think. Probably safer than our cars. Very few small yachts sink in deep water even in the worst storms. Some get rolled over and dismasted, but they don’t sink. Almost all make it back to shore under power or a jury rig.

Size, in itself, doesn’t equate with seaworthiness. Small is not necessarily dangerous, and large is not necessarily safer. If a boat is designed so that it will admit little or no water if it’s turned upside down by a big breaking sea, it possesses one of the major components of seaworthiness. And even the smallest boats can be designed that way.  

Small boats are certainly more uncomfortable, but small boats, especially light-displacement ones, have the advantage that they yield to the seas and offer little resistance, whereas bigger boats offer solid surfaces for heavy water to damage. The disadvantage is that deep-sea sailing in a small boat is like living in a busy tumble drier — only it’s a whole lot colder and wetter.   

The last time I looked, the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest sailboat belonged to Hugo Vilen, whose boat Father’s Day, was just was 5 feet 4 inches long, the size of coffee table. Soon the record will go to a boat that is deeper than it is longer, because the occupant will have no choice but to stand the whole way. I imagine it will be almost as uncomfortable as flying coach.

John Guzzwell circumnavigated the world in a boat he built and called Trekka. She was just 20 feet 6 inches long. That was regarded as quite an achievement … until Sege Testa went round the world in Acrohc Australis, which was 11 feet 10 inches long. There’s have even been attempts to organize a race around the world in sailboats just 10 feet long. When will they ever stop?

Anyway, the message is that few sailboats are lost at sea, and there’s no evidence to suggest small boats sink more frequently than big ones. So, if you’ve always wanted to cross an ocean in a small boat of your own, don’t let fear stop you.

Today’s Thought

Rivalry is good for mortals.

—Hesiod, Works and Days


Advice to nubile women:

A man resembles a fine wine: He starts out like the grapes on a vine and it’s your job to crush him underfoot and keep him in the cellar until he matures into something you'd like to have with dinner.

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


biglilwave said...

Nice motivational article, John. It is your book "Small Sailboat to Freedom" that motivates me to cross an ocean (never been more than a 125 miles off shore, now I just need to go the rest of the way).
In regard to Anthem to the Seas, I believe the captain was under an extreme amount of pressure from corporate to go. Although I can't imagine myself making that decision with 4,000 souls on board. Money sure makes people do stupid things.

John Vigor said...

biglilwave, if you're 125 miles offshore you might as well be 1,000 miles offshore. Go for it!
John V.