This article was originally published on SailNet in December of 1998.
Possibly the most wonderful thing about sailing is that you can make your own choices and steer your vessel wherever you'd like to go. For example, if the wind's on the nose and you don't feel like tacking all day, you might decide to wait till the wind's more in your favor. On the other hand, you might just say, 'What the heck, let's go upwind! This is what sailing's about.'
Sailing encourages you to make your own decisions and develop self-determination. That's part of the beautiful challenge of the sport and also part of its allure. As a skipper, you're the master and mistress of your own ship.
But decision-making on sailboats is rarely so whimsical. And when there's a gathering storm, even one on a distant horizon, the challenge of making the right move can strain the very fiber of the decision-maker, the skipper. In the case of Guyan March, the captain of the ill-fated 282-foot steel schooner Fantome that went down in the wrath of Hurricane Mitch in the fall of 1998, we'll never know why March acted as he did. We'll never know just what led him to have that deadly encounter with Hurricane Mitch off the coast of Honduras. The skipper and all 30 hands went down with the four-master when the third most fierce storm of all time brutally mowed the ship off the roiled waters of the Western Caribbean. All we do know is that March was doing what all sailors do—making a decision based on his or her best judgment relative to the best information available at the time. He was trying to find sea room.
March knew that Fantome would be mercilessly blown onto shore if she stayed off Roatan, so he determined the next best course of action was east. Fantome continued 10 miles easterly, slipping between the island of Guanaja and the mainland, a shoally, reef-infested patch of water. Then to March's disbelief, Hurricane Mitch made another out-of-character move and headed west, destination—Guanaja. At that point, there were no more doors of escape for Fantome and her crew.
In the after-ripples of hindsight, an old question has arisen among seamen: Do you stay put and wait for the storm to hit, or do you flee, find sea room, and get out of its expected path. One seaman, G. Andy Chase, Maine sailor and author of Auxiliary Sail Vessel Operations for the Aspiring Professional Sailor, a seamanship manual, remarked, "I could not have gotten under way in any direction except to the airport and the hell out of there."
But let's reset the stage the way Captain Guyan March had it when Hurricane Mitch loomed on Fantome's horizon. The weather predictions were for a direct hit to Belize City. Since the 282-footer drew so much water, seeking refuge there didn't seem a viable option. Fantome's owner, Windjammer Cruises, advised March to get to sea, and even though ignoring the order may have meant his job, March figured the only option, in his best judgment, was to head out to sea.
March was a veteran captain with years at sea and an intimate knowledge of the Fantome. He knew that the area around Belize is a notorious, reef-strewn lee shore. The long shoal banks just offshore, rimming much of this coast, exacerbated the danger. Passaging across the banks to ditch the ship would have been "pure folly," says John Kretschmer, a SailNet contributor and experienced delivery captain who has sailed extensively in those Central American waters. "They would have never made it over the bar," he says, "It would have been instant destruction and probable endangerment of the crew."
March figured that the odds were against them getting close to the eye of the hurricane. Hurricane centers are extremely small, and being just 75 miles away from the eye of a hurricane can make the difference between Force 12 and Force Five winds. "The fact that the high wind centers of these storm systems are so tight makes them easier to deal with in most cases than large, well organized depressions in the higher latitudes," says Steve Dashew in his book Mariner's Weather Handbook.
As fate had it, Mitch pummeled Nicaragua and Guatemala, killing some 11,000 people. But before that, the storm played a deadly game of duck-me-if-you-can in the Western Caribbean with Fantome and her brave crew.
Sometimes, despite their best efforts and extensive experience, even the best seamen don't have a chance.
Defining Sea RoomDefining Sea Room The simple explanation given in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for the term "sea room" is "room to maneuver at sea." SailNet's authority on seamanship, John Rousmaniere, says that this is effectively the nautical equivalent of "elbow room." In his useful tome The Annapolis Book of Seamanship he defines sea room as: "Enough distance from shore and shoals for safe sailing."
What's important to remember about sea room in the context of storms is that you need to be able to run before a storm. If you find yourself off a lee shore with a storm approaching from seaward, you don't have much in the way of sea room.
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