Wearing a different hat than as a SailNet member, I would also like to touch on the content of this discussion a little. As we sit here thinking about this tragedy it may seem easy to assign fault. Those with experience with Atlantic Inlets understand the full implication of an onshore breeze and an outgoing current. For them it is easy in the abstract to point fingers at the skipper and say he should have known better.
He probably should have, he even may have. But not being aboard, and not knowing the circumstances, and feeling in my heart that terrible self-inflicted sense of loss, pain, and guilt that I can only imagine that the skipper must feel having had one crew lost and several nearly lost, I am not comfortable being pointedly critical of the man in a public forum such as this.
Any of us who have spent a lot of time on boats know that no matter how experienced we each are, we will at some point have a lapse in judgement that will place us, and our vessel in serious harm's way. With experience, we might have the sense to avoid danger and have fewer lapses, and might have the toolset to take a potentially dangerous mistake and make it less dangerous. We might survive by skill or luck and hopefully look back and learn. It is a matter of being human.
As my good friend Jon Eisberg, (a person who has more sea miles than anyone that I personally know) and I have discussed at length, the idea that when we were learning to sail, it was assumed that new sailors would do an apprenticeship of sorts; some mix of perhaps taking classes, doing reading, sailing lots of hours in increasingly more complex sailing conditions, and sailing with more experienced sailors. And out of that, you learned and became increasingly competent.
As I have said here many times, these days there are a lot of people coming into the sport, who are in a headlong rush to go "Out There", and yet eschew the concept of making a remotely diligent effort to become broadly knowledgable sailors before setting forth in harms way. If they are lucky, they will survive long enough to learn to be good sailors, or they will lose interest before harming themselves or other.
This is an important lesson to impart, but it may not be the lesson to be learned here, since I do not think that we know how experienced this skipper was.
There is a tendancy for boats to become increasingly complex, carrying equipment that makes the near-imposible, doable. And we as modern sailors have become increasingly dependent on these tools. I think that it is a valid point that it is easy to develop a kind of electronic-mechanically induced hubris. Growing up sailing before any of these convenmiences, and sailing boats which are still pretty primatively equipped, I have increasingly observed in myself how easy it is to do something daring, perhaps boarding on stupid, out of this sense of over-confidence and over reliance on these gifts of progress. It happens to all of us.
It is a good lesson to bear in mind. And it may be exactly what happened in this case, but again the lesson of not being over dependent on modern equipment may not be the lesson to be learned here, since I do not know whether over-dependence on electronics was a factor in this case.
But then again, this may simply have been a lapse in judgement, a seriously tragic one, but one just the same. As I said before, if you sail long enough, you will make a serious and near life threatening mistake. I apologize to Jon Eisberg who has heard this story that I repeat here.
Many years ago I was asked by a friend to deliver an old wooden boat from Savannah to St. Augustine. This was in the days before electronic navigation as we know it today, and before small boats carried as we called then "ship to shore" radios
, Loran, and VHF radios
did not exist yet, compact radar
units were unavailable. Electronic instruments were still primative and considered exotic. Slab reefing and roller furling
were still pretty rare and exotic. This was before satillite weather, or computer crunched weather predictions, and so weather windows were not something that was seen as being predictable.
But, the weather service was predicting a warm snap and 10- 15 knot northerlies, and so we figured that we would be broad-reaching the whole way and would probably cover the 170 miles or so in something less than two days. We figured wrong.
We had a lovely beam reach out the river but almost immediately the sky clouded over and the wind swung to the west and before we knew it we were beating out into the Atlantic in big seas and high winds. (Being a time before electronic wind instruments, I could only guess that we were in 20 knot winds gusting somewhere around 30 knots at time, but 30 something years later its hard to say.)
And it was cold and it was wet. These were the days when thermal underwear was cotton and foul weather gear leaked and did not breath and pretty soon we were all soaked to the skin, rash covered and borderline hypothermic. There was not a dry spot or dry piece of clothes on the boat. We were all experiencing bouts of seasickness. At one point I spent an absurd number of hours steering trying to control my seasickness. We were all probably dehydrated as well.
But we were out there, and out there for days. In that era, the only forms of navigation were either dead reckoning, celestial, and if you were close to shore, you could use a radio
direction finder. It had been cloudy for three days straight and so sun or star sites were out, and as sick as we all were, I am not sure that the skipper could have crunched the numbers (in the days before electronic calculators). We had our DR, but we had very little confidence in it since we had crossed the Gulf Stream a few times, and were not sure how much of the night was spent in the Gulf Stream.
In any event after over three days at sea we arrived at St. Augustine at dusk. And there the helmsman picked up what he assumed was the seabuoy and started in. As we approached the buoy we were surrounded by breakers. We quickly realized that we were approaching the middle of the chanel where there were spoils but before we could do anything we took to bottom.
That boat had a harsh weather helm and so we used a 'Manila Mike' (a line
lead from the tiller to the windward winch
) to take the stain off the helmsman, and when we took to bottom the rudder hit and the tiller split. Now we had this short sharpiedged tiller whipping back and forth across the cockpit, threatening to amputate anything that got in the way. We lasso'd the end of the tiller stump and lashed a 2x4 to the stub and beat back out to sea.
Of course we were leaking badly, and had taken green water down the companionway and so now we were bailing for all we were worth with an ancient navy pump
and eventually with a bucket. As night fell, we picked up the seabuoy again, and although we believed running the channel in the dark was nuts, we ran it just the same. Running that channel was one of the scariest things I have ever done. Under the conditions, it was dead wrong. It was dangerous and stupid, and we knew it. But we were considered staying at sea more dangerous so in we came. It was a lapse in judgement of grand proportions. We lucked out and made it in. Had we not, and had it been today, I am sure it would have been easy to critique this boneheaded move on a thousand levels. But it made sense at the time. And somehow when all hell breaks loose, you have to make a decision, and hope its the right one. It might mean being tied up in St. Augustine harbor, eating in a nice restaurant, and sleeping like a baby wet clothes and all. Or it might mean perishing in an Atlantic Inlet. Sitting here, I cannpt point my finger at anyone who honestly made their best call and got it worng.