Lessons learned – don’t leave port without them

August 6, 2007 in Lessons learned – don’t leave port without them

To those who may have read my final log leading to the sinking of s/v Sean Seamour II or the numerous blogs and press articles on the event such as Doug Campbell’s article Death’s Door (if your preference is for French I urge you to read the August issue of Voiles et Voiliers and their four page report), the ten “lessons learned” points below correspond to numerous requests from both sides of the Atlantic. To those new to the subject a quick summary of events you can expand upon by going to my earlier posting:

On May 6th engaged in an Atlantic crossing we were caught is a sub-tropical depression subsequently named Andrea that neared hurricane force unannounced. After successfully managing the storm for ten hours, in the early hours of May 7th the s/v Sean Seamour II was struck by a what is believed to be a “rogue wave” estimated through recent data at a minimum of 82 to 120 feet (25 to 36 meters) The sailboat was knocked down and with the ensuing loss of control went 360°an hour and seven minutes later in seas of  70 feet (22 meters) and sustained winds in excess of 72 kts.

A backup EPIRB saved the crew from becoming yet another set of “lost at sea” statistics with an extraordinary and daring rescue by the US Coast Guard helicopter dispatched to the area. I add daring as beyond our ordeal tribute must be given to the USCG crew and notably the rescue swimmer who injured his back when a wave dropped from beneath him and he dropped some 50 to 70 feet towards the trough. All of this done in 70 foot seas, with winds estimated at 80 knots. The rest is confined to my log.

Lessons learned from the attempted May crossing of the Atlantic

1. No two passages are alike, do not consider that setting sail at what is deemed the most appropriate time is reason for less vigilance. Weather routers are not only for racers, they add a level of security through objective analysis of far broader data than one can access on board within economically reasonable parameters.

2. All security equipment should all be grouped together in the most central, least vulnerable and most accessible area inside the vessel.  Heavy weather requires as much crew as operationally possible to be secure inside the vessel where security equipment can be accessed in anticipation of catastrophic events. The most vulnerable element of a sailboat is the rig. Such was the case for Sean Seamour II with the exception of cold water protection suits that were in a rear port deck locker that ended up under the crushed rig. Had these been kept with all other security equipment in a compartment at the base of the companionway the crew would have been able to don these after the first knockdown and avoid hypothermia.

3. Pumps are never redundant: whale pumps are great, I had three installed on board, only the cockpit pump could have been used, the stern and bow units were not accessible due to debris or water levels. Again these should be centrally installed on the highest floor level within the vessel. 2000gph electric Rule pumps should be permanently installed in tandem to avoid debris plugging the pump. Ours had to be constantly monitored against floating paper and other debris.

4. Redundancy saved my crew but not my vessel. The second EPIRB I always considered a luxury, eleven years later it still tested operational, which it ended up being. Had I planned this redundancy with purpose it would also have been sent for recertification, would have been kept with the main unit inside for deployment, would have been initiated and efforts to save the vessel accomplished. Redundancy is a must, but making sure you are not carrying duds as a feel good notion of redundancy is almost as important.

5. Reliability of equipment, considering the above, both ACR 406 EPIRB units tested operational yet both performed below specifications. The ACR Globalifix died within thirty minutes after being sent for verification and recertification two weeks prior, the second old ACR self tested positive but battery life was only ten hours, had we been further out to sea its remaining ten hours of battery would have been insufficient to guide help our way.

6. Lashing is too often considered and applied to on deck equipment, openings, doors, etc. Within the vessel we generally secure for heavy weather thrashing forgetting what happens during knockdowns and 360’s. Start with floorboards – these are the first to pop under such circumstances either through simple gravitational action, let alone kinetic energy that can be created during a knockdown. Besides half of my floorboards that were not secured, the one most forgotten in my case was the salon table which detached and was probably the cause for half of my ten broken ribs. Had it knocked me unconscious or worse my crewwould have likely perished.

7. Gulf Stream : staying away from the core is not sufficient when confronting opposing direction weather systems. I left the stream well before the storm but did not take into account the size of the eddies in that area. I had used the stream carefully avoiding the eddies in my 1996 crossing, but over the past five years I had noticed the eddies diminishing in strength in the North Atlantic. Had I tacked further east from the night of the 4th I would have probably been less punished by Andrea. New data seems to correlate this.

8. Stowing and backup usage of vital electronic equipment must be designed into contingency plans. Sean Seamour II had most everything but contingency plans did not take into account such catastrophic circumstances. VHF, a backup antennae was pre-wired to enable th e DSC VHF to function, but the stowed antennae was unfindable after the 360 which crushed the rig. The SSB antennae used one of the backstays, gone with the rig, also the tuner was positioned too low and was shorted by water. The Iridium satfone should have been kept in a waterproof skin, it was soaked in the 360.

9. Securing the vessel at least for the short term must remain a priority. With the knowledge that the GPIRB had been initiated securing the vessel was to be my first objective by dumping the rig, 100 meters of chain and bow anchors and plugging the mast passage. These actions would have secured the vessel for at least extra hour or two, taking other actions could have put us under way with engine propulsion. Although for years I have prepared myself mentally for this type of situation, given the level of panic, physical trauma and the ensuing disorientation too much time was lost attempting to get electronic equipment to function — if it doesn’t work it is not going to, redundancy yes dependence no.

10. Although substantial time had been dedicated to briefing the crew prior to departure on the security equipment inventory, whereabouts and deployment, showing them how collision mats, rule pumps and other equipment should be sued, as well as other procedures such as rerouting whale pumps, effective drills are far better. Had I been incapacitated during these catastrophic events I am not sure the crew would have survived.

Other reading reference

There has been extraordinary interest generated by the sinking of San Seamour II and the unfortunate loss of s:V Flying Colors with its crew http://www.4sailors.com/index.html . Our thoughts are still with them. For further reference on what may have happened I can provide you with a number of links which I believe can be of particular value.

I referenced earlier new data that has emerged post Andrea relative to the Golf Stream, as a complement to weather routers Jennifer Clarks’ Gulfstream http://users.erols.com/gulfstrm/ , her 26 years experience as NOAA’s Gulf Stream expert is invaluable before attempting to cross his amazon of the ocean.Every mariner sailing the Gulf Stream should consult her website.

Mariners, professional or recreational are becoming increasingly aware of atypical wave structures invariably called rogue, freak but more recently MaxWaves. One such wave was the leading cause to the misfortunes of Sean Seamour and Flying Colors. Work is being done in both Europe where they have actually followed real-time with satellite data such a wave travel across the Indian ocean and crash on the island of La Reunion http://robinstorm.blogspot.com/2007/07/reunion-island-man-yi.html, other efforts are being deployed to understand their genesis as a means of predicting their threat, notably at the GLERL.

Robin Storm has written an interesting piece on forecasting using knowledge and data from both Dr. Liu of the GLERL and Jennifer Clark’ Gulf Stream http://robinstorm.blogspot.com/2007/07/forecasting-dangerous-waves.html

On the issue of Sub Tropical Storm Andrea, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) finally did come out with a report published on Robin Storm’ blog http://robinstorm.blogspot.com/2007/07/nhc-report-on-subtropical-storm-andrea.html it leaves many open questions, the most blaring is the lack of reporting at the height of the phenomena on the 6th and 7th of May, and the focus on the down graded phenomena from the 9th onwards.

On the issue of EPIRB I will report hopefully within the next few weeks on why my ACR GPIRB 406GlobalFix failed : as my case is not unique I consider there are too many lives at stake for this to be
swept under the rug. There are three issues at stake:
(i) why did the unit miss function,
(ii) if there was a technical flaw why was this not detected at recertification, finally,
(iii) how could the hexadecimal number be attributed to another vessel. My decal from NOAA says Sean Seamour II with the ID code, but the ID code is to another vessel. Any one
, let alone the three of the above faults could have cost the lives of the crew.

Lessons learned – don’t leave port without them


    1. lee says:

      i find these to be of the most interesting words i ave ever read.I hate to say that in some ways i am envious of what you encountered!!! you are the chosen ones. the ones that saw and lived to tell about it.

    2. Dan Valoppi says:

      i was out in this storm and sailed by Flying Colors last know postion. call you call me. i have some questions. 843.327.0368
      Thank you

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Lessons learned – don’t leave port without them

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