It is always exciting to encounter marine animals in their natural habitat- the vast diversity of creatures in the ocean both pull at our heartstrings and inspires a sense of wonder. We’ve all seen heartwarming videos of sailors, divers, and surfers having amicable run-ins with favorite marine animals like dolphins, turtles, seals… even sharks!
The new trend in viral animal videos is much different: more and more we are encountering marine life entangled in fishing nets or plastic debris, choking on plastic pieces, or stranded onshore from a variety of illnesses and environmental causes. These videos often end with a person coming to the rescue and sending the animal on its way… but was this just a matter of luck? Was the rescuer in any danger? Was the animal placed in even greater danger by this interaction? Continue reading →
This week (May 16 – 22) is National Safe Boating Week and the ASA encourages active sailors to take it to heart. As the season enters prime time it’s good to be reminded that there is a major safety component in the context of this sport. In all the fun, it’s possible to overlook safe practices.
Of course the big one is to wear a life jacket. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, where the cause of death was known, 78 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned; of those drowning victims, 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket. That is an incredible stat. Sounds like it’s a great idea to wear life jacket – don’t even think about sailing solo without one..
On May 16th in the Bay of Florida, 80 miles out of Key West and the finish line of the 2013 Bone Island Regatta, Captain Roy Rogers saw something unusual – a boat on the horizon drifting with its sails down. A few other vessels could be seen in the distance, but this one stood aimlessly alone, a strange sight in the middle of a racecourse. Up in the cockpit, with the sound of the wind and the boat’s stereo playing, it was difficult to know what to make of it, but below in the cabin was a different story: two short, garbled mayday calls came through on the VHF radio, and then silence.
It was day two of the annual race, which starts from Tampa Bay and follows the southwest edge of Florida’s gulf coast to the Keys. Captain Roy, a career sailor who spent decades as a charter and delivery captain in the Caribbean before becoming an ASA sailing instructor, was in the race for the first time, skippering a 50-foot Jenneau with three of his former students, whom he had trained in ASA 101, 103, and 104 at Sailing Florida in St. Petersburg. They were not expecting to win, only to have fun, gain experience, and post a strong finishing time. It was so far, so good with 80 miles to go, but that’s when everything changed.
Captain Roy, having heard the mayday hails and seen the boat on the horizon, put two and two together and made a decision. “The race was over us,” he says, as they fired up the auxiliary power, disqualifying themselves, and set off to investigate.
They tried several times to establish contact over the radio, with no luck. But sure enough, as they approached they saw that the vessel was low in the water, and with the binoculars, something even more alarming: 5 men in a hopelessly overburdened 10-foot dinghy that was, itself, sinking.
Captain Roy gathered his ASA-trained sailors and instructed them that they were going to get hold of the dinghy’s painter. They then snapped into action, closing the distance and bringing the dinghy alongside. “I’m not letting anybody up,” he advised his crew, “until I’ve had a conversation with them.”
Even, or perhaps especially, in an emergency situation, prudence is necessary. In these waters it is not unheard of to encounter refugees from the Caribbean, and even criminals up to what Captain Roy calls “shenanigans.” He explains that they would have rescued them no matter who they were, as long as they weren’t dangerous, but the procedure for taking on board U.S. citizens and foreign nationals is dramatically different. It also occurred to him that there were “five of them, and four of us.”
“This was not the reception they were expecting,” he says, “but I felt obliged to do due diligence.” After a brief conversation, it was established that the men were Americans, not carrying any weapons, and also racing in the Bone Island Regatta. Within a few minutes of making contact, all 5 were safely on board.
Then it was time to watch the other boat sink. She was a 42-foot Tartan called Liela B, and her crew were an experienced, seasoned lot who had won their class in previous years. Once the foredeck was awash it took less than two minutes for the entire boat to go down.
Around that time a Coast Guard C130 aircraft swooped by low and fast, having responded to Liela B’s EPIRB distress beacon. The pilot made radio contact with Captain Roy, who confirmed that they had taken all crew onboard, there were no injuries, and that they would proceed to Key West. With that, the C130, diverted from another mission and low on fuel, was gone.
In Key West word of the sinking and rescue had already filtered from the race offices into the docks and bars. As far as anyone knew it was the first time a vessel had been lost in the race, and the first time anyone had conducted an emergency rescue. Captain Roy motored in and that evening they were met with equal parts admiration and curiosity from their fellow sailors. “Every bar that me and my crew went to, we could not buy a drink.”
What caused the boat to go down has been the subject of much speculation. The night before had seen strong winds, and Liela B had blown out her spinnaker and genoa. They had given up on the race and were motoring in to Key West when they became aware that something was wrapped around the propeller. Crab traps are numerous in the gulf, but this turned out to be something heavier that they could never identify. Someone went overboard and cleared the prop, and the engine started fine. However, when they put it into gear they heard a loud thunk in the hull. Presently they realized that water was rushing into the bilge from a leak whose source they never found, but in retrospect was most likely the prop shaft. Now, with the boat in 90 feet of water, 80 miles from shore, the mystery will probably never be solved.
At the awards banquet on Saturday night, Captain Roy and his crew were given a special commendation, even though they didn’t qualify as finishers. The award was for Seamanship and Good Sportsmanship, as well as free entry into next year’s race, which they plan to use. While they say they wouldn’t trade the experience and adventure of this year for anything, they are hoping to finish next time. (Unsurprisingly, Captain Roy is no stranger to awards. He was named an ASA Outstanding Instructor in 2012.)
Another skipper, who had listened to the entire thing on his radio, expressed wonder that Captain Roy had “sounded so professional, like [he] knew exactly what to ask for.” This captain admitted that he had heard the mayday call, but didn’t know how to respond.
Luckily for the crew of Liela B, Captain Roy and his students did know how to respond, and while other boats passed by, it was the ASA sailors who answered the call.
Captain Roy’s tips on how to be prepared for an emergency at sea:
1. Make sure your VHF radio is on at all times.
2. Know your radio protocol, how to make a call and how to respond to one. It could save your life, or someone else’s.
3. The best education is to have the VHF on and listen to the Coast Guard. They know what they’re doing, so copying them is a good idea!
4. Four pieces of information to ask for whenever you’re in contact with a ship in distress:
If only these people had taken the American Sailing Association’s Docking Endorsement. We’ll teach you everything from the physics of docking to how to step on and off the boat without falling in the water. (Hint #1: Don’t try to jump over the lifelines.)
Most of all, we’ll give you a lot of practice and make sure you feel SAFE and CONFIDENT when leaving the dock and coming back.
Ask your local sailing school about the ASA Docking Endorsement (118). It sure beats the alternative. A few years ago I was on a boat setting sail on a major ocean passage. Our journey had an inauspicious start, however, because as we left the dock we pulled a huge chunk of it off with us! Of course, that was partly the dock’s fault, being old and crumbly, but still… (Oh, and this was way before I ever worked for ASA!)
As you may have already heard, on Monday the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the death of two sailors competing in the Chicago-Mackinac Race. A late night storm had hit the racing fleet with winds in excess of 50 knots, and the boat WingNuts capsized. By all accounts, the crew handled the boat properly and made full use of their safety equipment, but the storm simply overwhelmed their 35-foot craft. Six sailors were rescued by a nearby boat, Sociable, but two were lost, one of whom was the skipper.
ASA sends our condolences to the families and friends of those who passed away, and we wish them the best in this difficult period. At the same time, we applaud the heroic efforts by the crew of Sociable to save the other six sailors in ferocious weather conditions.
In this blog, ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary answers a question from a reader. Meghan is on a 9-month cruise in the tropics aboard S/V Velella. Got a question you’d like Meghan to answer? Post a comment or email us.
Reader Louis asked for Meghan’s advice on open-ocean mooring and sailing at night. “Do you simply heave to, use a sea anchor, or are basic mooring lights sufficient?”
The winter solstice receives much-deserved celebration from cruising sailors. Finally, our chilly night watches start shrinking as the warm sunny hours push them out minute by minute over the coming weeks. The long-awaited sunrise will now begin to surprise us every morning by a minute or two. Even though we are now well used to sailing overnight (and sometimes even make a habit of it so as to have more daylight hours at our destination), the sight of the sun sinking below the horizon still quickens my pulse every time.
Before we had ever sailed Velella on an overnight passage, night watches were like a legend shrouded in mystery to me. We rarely had use for our navigation lights, because we made sure we were tucked in safely in a harbor before sunset. But in preparation for a trip such as this, where there are often stretches of coast too long to transit during just one day, we had to learn how to make way through the night.
Our first overnight passage was during our ASA 106 certification course in the Puget Sound, with an instructor from San Juan Sailing on board. I was happy to have Chris with us, as I knew that he would be dozing close at hand should we have questions or need help in the middle of the night. I envisioned my night watch in advance, preparing myself by understanding the tools I’d need to navigate with–a radar, chart plotter, the compass, and the knowledge of ship’s lights–rather than my eyes, which did most of the navigating in the daytime.
Perhaps it’s my imagination (and I don’t have meteorologic knowledge to support this), but when the big orange wavering sun sets below the cold ocean, I always notice the wind freshening a bit. We’ve learned now to reef the main before a windy sunset, to avoid scrambling around in the dark. If the reef slows us down a bit, it’s worth the peace of mind that we won’t have any occasion to go on deck at night. We clip our harnesses in to the cockpit so the other can sleep easily knowing their mate won’t fall overboard. We have a comfortable sea berth made up with clean sheets and a lee cloth, which makes for snug sleep in a seaway. We have an iPod and books on tape and snacks and hot drinks for the on-watch. We’ve learned how to make night watches safe, comfortable, and not scary in the least.
But there was a point in time when we didn’t know what it would be like at all, and the thought of sailing through the night was quite daunting. We learned that there’s no need to stop sailing at night–you just flip on your running lights (red/green at the bow, white at the stern), and keep moving right along, just as if it were daylight. If large seas or strong winds are making the motion uncomfortable, you can heave to, which effectively lets the boat drift in a surprisingly comfortable position so the crew can make a decent meal or get some rest. A sea anchor would be reserved for the most dire of storm situations; we have never had occasion to use one, and only rarely even heave to. The boat sails just as beautifully at night as during the day–you just need to keep a good lookout for ships (and study up so you know what their lights mean when you see them).
Sailing at night is a new dimension, to be sure. So doing your first watch with an ASA instructor, like we did, will give you much peace of mind, and teach you the ropes in the dark. Though it’s a challenge to swallow your fear and sail through the night for the first time, it’s a challenge well worth taking. Billions of stars in the dark night sky become a blanket over the cradle of your cockpit, and the glittering, phosphorescent wake your boat leaves will make you wonder whether it’s all a dream. And there is nothing, nothing, on earth as beautiful and welcome as the warm dawn rising after a thrilling night at sea.
Here’s where Meghan, Prescott and Nessie will be cruising under the stars tonight:
Ever find yourself fiddling interminably with straps and velcro, or tottering around feeling like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters 2? These may be signs that your life jacket is bulky, uncomfortable, inefficient, and irritating. The Boat U.S. Foundation is offering a $5,000 prize to the person who can make a significant improvement in life jacket design – and we think it would be cool if an ASA member or instructor was the winner.
According to BoatUS, “drownings account for 70% or more of all boating fatalities. Of the people who drown, over 80% were not wearing a life jacket.” They’re interested in changing this statistic by making a life jacket that people actually want to wear, and they’ve identified 4 areas in which they hope to see improvement: Wearability, Reliability, Cost, and Innovation.
Now, ASA members and instructors are people who know a thing or two about safety. A very large part of the sailing lifestyle we all enjoy is avoiding accidents. That’s why we learn the rules of the road, practice man-overboard drills, and wear our life jackets when appropriate (even if we don’t like it). So if this is the kind of project you’d like to sink your teeth into, visit the official competition page to find out more.
Many of you have been lucky enough to learn to sail, cruise or charter in the British Virgin Islands. Here is an update from Pat Nolan who owns and operates Sistership Sailing School on Tortola after recently weathering hurricane Earl:
Location, location, location. That real estate mantra also applies to hurricane survival (followed closely by preparation, preparation, preparation). Having just come through the very large, very powerful category 4 hurricane Earl in the BVI, I can say that both location and preparation are key to minimizing damage. Lucky for us the eye of the storm passed about 30 miles north of Anegada so we on Tortola, roughly 27 miles southeast of Anegada were spared the worst. We still experienced sustained winds of 100+ mph; winds strong enough to sink boats, blow boats ashore, smash boats into docks and. Those who took the time to move boats to a well protected hurricane anchorage, secure the deck and all gear topside, in addition to properly anchor riding out the storm, sustained minimal damage if any.
One must remember that the wind often comes from every direction during a hurricane, so your choice of anchorage must be protected 360 degrees. For those of you familiar with the harbors in the BVI, Road Town, Soper’s Hole and Anegada proved places NOT to be. In those harbors numerous boats were sunk, piled on top of one another or beached. In Trellis Bay, Nanny Cay, Paraquita Bay and inner Sea Cow’s Bay boats did fine. Boats in virtually landlocked Paraquita Bay are packed in like sardines, lying to hurricane gear installed by the government. Trellis Bay hosts a large community of live-aboards lying to their own private moorings. Those folks are old hands at hurricane preparation and it showed – no damage reported there. Nanny Cay, the marina we operate from, is completely land locked save for the very small entrance. All the boats are moored to floating docks. Even though well protected, the high winds and tidal surge still put a huge strain on the docks. Several times during the beginning of the storm we needed to jury rig finger piers that sheared off from the main dock. Struggling in 80 knot gusts to secure a bucking bronco of a finger pier with two big boats attached to it is not my idea of a good time. It took a team of us to do it, but it worked.
Luckily that work was done in the daylight. When the worst of the storm hit after dark, the dock was not the place to be. Safely shuttered in our concrete block of a house we crossed our fingers that the docks would hold through the night. They did.
Many snowbirds keep their boats in the BVI. Unless you have hired a good management company to oversee your boat in your absence you would not want to leave it in the water; rather on the hard, in the yard is the place to be. Boatyards here are experienced at storing and securing boats to minimize storm damage. It is imperative that owners take the time to make their boats are ‘hurricane ready’ after their last cruise just prior to hauling out. Not sure exactly what that entails? Many great articles have been written on this subject. Just Google “How to prepare my boat for a hurricane” and take your pick. And don’t wait till the last minute – it all takes time.