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Talk’n ‘Em In on the SSB

Statistically, the passage my wife Carolyn and I just did on our modest 38 foot sloop Wild Card—— New Zealand to Fiji——is the most dangerous of a circumnavigation. True, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn are more dangerous… but most around-the-world sailors wisely don’t venture there.

This is where the famous 1994 ‘Queen’s birthday’ storm took place, with 21 people abandoning ship and being air-evaced off.

Sixteen EPIRBS were activated.

Seven boats sunk.

The good news is that only three people died, an amazingly small number considering the ‘squall zone’ weather conditions.

Last year wasn’t so bad——only seven boats dismasted on this run.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that it can get rough between New Zealand and Fiji.

Our friends Ted and Alice on the 44 foot steel ketch Sea Slug (names changed to protect the innocent) were a little late leaving Kiwiville since they’d had a major refit done——which included the installation of a new anchor windlass and radar.

Unbeknownst to them, the large electrical cables didn’t get a proper water seal mounted on them or even ‘gooped’ with silicone. They were just led through a large hole and then cut into the electrical conduit. (So much for ‘expert’ craftsmanship, eh?)

About 200 miles north of New Zealand, the wind turned against them and they started pounding into it. Now, Ted and Alice have a lot of sea miles on the Slug… but all of it down wind and in benign trade wind conditions.

So, as far as they were concerned, they were in a storm. They weren’t. They were just in a pesky little two-bit blow which are as common as seagulls off New Zealand. But they were getting increasingly freaked out… and it was, at one point, a near-gale——and they felt they were fighting for their very lives in their increasingly panicky minds.

But they didn’t slow down, heave-to or set a sea anchor… in fact, they sailed as fast as they could to ‘get into safe harbor and have a G&T!”

Because they were going to windward, a lot of water leaked into that hole… and, alas, shorted out all their electronics. First, the auto pilot packed up and they were forced to hand steer. Since Alice isn’t… well, Alice isn’t exactly a man-against-the-sea type… so Ted ended up staying on deck for, at one point, 72 hours!

Ted, who is a fairly bright guy, became (in my humble opinion) a complete numbskull from exhaustion.

One by one, all the electrics failed except for the SSB which was wired on a different trunk line. ( Alice spoke hourly with three different vessels on 24/7 ‘radio watch’ with her… our Wild Card was one of those vessels).

Most of the advice they received over the SSB radio (I heard most of it and gave a lot of it) was good. It was certainly all well-intentioned. But it was often conflicting, confusing and difficult to implement… by one crew who wouldn’t leave the radio and the other crew who couldn’t leave the helm.

Their main GPS went out, and they fired up their spare… which worked for five hours and quit.

They didn’t know where they were.

Their chart plotter went down too.

Ditto the depth sounder.

They were repeatedly instructed to dig out a paper chart and ‘dead-reckon’ their position at least every hour… but when I specifically (and sternly) questioned them 48 hours later they admitted they couldn’t find a chart… hadn’t made one… and, well, had completely lost track of where they were.

They asked a number of boats where they were… to please ‘guestimate’ their position. Most of the radio advisers replied, of course, that they’d didn’t know… how could they know?.. but, when desperately & pleadingly pressed by Alice… they reluctantly did their best to give the crew of the Slug a magnetic compass course to steer.

They took the advice… everyone’s!

I told them to steer one way… and they did… until another guy told them to steer 60 degrees different… and they did… and didn’t note the time they’d changed.

The crew of Sea Slug were, in my humble opinion, well & truly lost.

Things were getting scary… for all concerned.

I was worried they were going to pile her up on the reef in the dark and drown immediately in the large southerly swells.

But they didn’t seem concerned. They repeatedly stated they wanted to shoot through the narrow reef pass at night… and yet didn’t know where they were within 50 miles. (Strong currents in the pass, fairly tricky even in daylight!)

“We’re tired,” they keep saying.

Basically, they kept their engine running the whole time. To refuel from jerry jugs, they’d run off dead-down. During one of these refueling adventures, a wave broke over them and swept away one of their liferafts and some stantions.

At one point Ted steered for 4 hours——and realized that he was neither awake or asleep… he was steering… in the wave-swept cockpit… but he wasn’t conscious… not really… he was, well, awake AND asleep!

They were heading for the western end of Viti Levu, Fiji, and could easily miss it. (At the end of this passage they had five liters of diesel fuel in one tank and nine in the other!)

Luckily, Viti Levu is a very high island which is visible for a long way. They spotted it, closed with the coast and frantically hailed five different vessels before a kindly local sportfisherman came out and led them into safe harbor.

The reason I relate the above is so we all can learn from it. They did a number of things wrong.

#1 They kept sailing instead of simply heaving-to or setting a sea anchor to wait for better conditions. (Many sailors die from… well, impatience as much as ignorance).

#2 They didn’t have the proper equipment: not only didn’t they have a third GPS… they didn’t even have (or dig out) a proper paper chart. (No sextant, RDF, hand-bearing compass, etc).

#3 It appeared during the incident (things, ahem, changed and history shifted a bit in face-saving hindsight) that they did not plot nor keep a DR position. This is, in my humble opinion, inexcusable. (Just record SOMETHING, for gosh sakes!)

#4 Ted got immediately fatigued and never recovered.

#5 They were not, nor was their vessel, ready for the wind and sea conditions they encountered… even though these conditions were to be expected. (“We had an easy trip down so we thought we’d have an easy trip back up,” was the dangerous logic).

#6 They had work done on their boat which they didn’t understand nor visually inspect. This is not right. Parachutists re-pack their own chutes. Sailors can’t blame others for going to sea with holes in their boat.

#7 They completely abdicated the responsibility of making their own decisions and, instead, relied on the decisions of others… some by people a thousand miles away… fellow sailors who were well-meaning, perhaps, but simply not in a position to be able to correctly navigate said vessel with the skimpy input they had.

Luckily, nobody died. In fact, they tracked us down and took us ashore for a wild night on the town. But the fact remains: they nearly lost their lives… not because of the weather conditions or their vessel’s construction… but because of their own incompetence and inexperience.

Don’t let it happen to you.

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