“Call My Insurance Agent, Then Abandon Ship!”

The North Atlantic in the wintertime is no place for lightly-constructed recreational craft nor their “beam-me-up, Scotty” owners.
Fatty raced as tactician aboard Joe Colpitt’s 56-foot Gold Coast catamaran, Virgin Fire, many times and had the honor of finishing in first place twice in the highly competitive multihull class of the Heineken Regatta of Sint Maarten.

Within the last year, two nearly identical “multihull SAR incidents” have taken place in the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern seaboard of the United States: two brand-new, fully insured, professionally-skippered luxury catamarans were abandoned offshore with dry bilges during winter gales. (One dismasted, the other had damaged rudders.)

Why?

The first thing to note is the season: winter. The Atlantic gets a bit feisty during winter. Even experienced professionals will admit there can be a “bit of breeze” in January. Especially around the Gulf Stream. Especially in the Bermuda Triangle. Especially if you are running months behind schedule and attempting to escape to the warm, benign Caribbean.

The second thing to note is that, on both occasions, the owner was aboard—with family members. It was supposed to be a pleasure cruise. It didn’t turn out that way.

The third thing to note is that both vessels were brand-new designs—literally hull number one.

The decision to abandon ship is, of course, an extremely serious one. I do not feel comfortable second-guessing the skipper. There was no loss of life—and that’s the important thing. Besides, I do not have any firsthand facts. I was not there. Thus, it would be both imprudent and unfair for me to pass judgment on the wisdom of the “abandon ship” call.

However, I do think it fair that we marine journalists comment on the generic situation both these vessels found themselves in—not to assess specific blame (that’s the job of the USCG) but rather to learn from their traumatic, life-threatening experience.

We sailors need to constantly learn from our mistakes as well as the mistakes of others if we are to maximize our chances of survival offshore. And abandoning brand-new million dollar plus vessels in mid-ocean clearly implies a minor mistake or two might have been made somewhere along the line.

First, the backstory. Abandoning your ship has traditionally been considered shameful. Often, the captain was the owner—and thus had every economic reason to stay aboard. If the skipper was a hired gun, the owners purposely chose a skipper who would put his very life astern of the owner’s pocketbook—in essence, to put the absentee owner’s financial self-interest ahead of the professional skipper’s immediate self-interest. Thus, abandoning ship became an accepted no-no.

This is not a decision any sane skipper makes lightly. It is a decision that will define him (in the eyes of others and in his own eyes) forever onward.

Up until relatively recently, of course, abandoning ship was impossible offshore during a gale. Helicopters weren’t invented. Thus, it was a large part of the skipper’s job to not get himself and his vessel in such a situation.

But in the specific cases of these two brand new luxury catamarans, the owners were aboard. The situation was not a traditional one—not at all. It was an entirely new maritime dynamic.

The professional skippers were hired to protect the cargo, and the cargo of a recreational vessel is its owners and family.

Thus, the case could be made that the skippers acted both wisely and prudently. In fact, that is the heart-felt opinion of the owners in both cases.

The owners were not experienced offshore sailors—but they were both highly intelligent men who knew it. Thus, quite sensibly, they hired an “expert” to skipper their vessel southward. Traditionally, part of a skipper’s job is determining exactly when to shove off. But the job market for delivery skippers is a brutal and highly competitive one. And the delivery skipper who pockets his fee and then says, “…too rough!” doesn’t last too long in the business.

Delivery skippers have to deliver—that’s why they’re hired. They can’t say, “You hired me for my professional judgment, and my professional judgment is that a lightly constructed recreational multihull should not sail offshore in the North Atlantic during winter.”

That’s not a realistic option.

Plus, if they refuse the lucrative delivery job offered, their delighted competitor will immediately snap it up—and laugh all the way to Antigua Sailing Week.

In a sense, by saying “yes,” modern delivery skippers have already compromised their ability to say “no.”

One more factor—the newbie owner doesn’t really hire the skipper out-of-the-blue. He consults with his builder. Thus, the skipper really serves two masters—the owner/cargo and the builder. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem but, obviously, a potential for conflict exists.

Builders, understandably, tend not to hire skippers who refer to their vessels as “piles of plastic crap.” It is in the builder’s best interest for the skipper to be respectful of the product.

The builder, of course, believes in his product. I don’t doubt both builders thought that sending their boats into the North Atlantic in the wintertime was a good, sensible, profitable thing to do.

They were wrong.

Once the vessel was abandoned at sea, neither builder had any choice but to shift into PR damage control. They had no option but to spin it as an entirely unpredictable “micro-burst super-storm,” when in reality it was just the North Atlantic being the North Atlantic in wintertime.

Now it is almost impossible to blame the owner in this situation—any more than an airline company can blame a passenger. From the owner’s viewpoint, if the voyage wasn’t safe, the delivery skipper and the builder would tell him so. Besides, the boats were brand-spanking new. Both cost a fortune; one cost $2.5 million!

Surely, since no expense had been spared during its construction, it had to be one of the safest vessels afloat—right?

Wrong.

These newbie owners had no idea that both brand new, custom-built, unproven vessels were exactly that—unproven. And the best place to “prove” a new vessel’s seaworthiness might not be the North Atlantic in the wintertime with newbies aboard.

Also, tossing all the fancy, expensive electro doo-dads in the world into a building doesn’t necessarily make its foundation stronger.

Enter the concept of insurance. Both vessels were, it is assumed by widely circulated media reports, insured. Why did the insurance companies insure them?

To make money.

Fine.

And, in both these cases, dead wrong.

Would these vessels have been out there if uninsured?

I will let you, dear reader, come to your own conclusions.

One thing is for certain—as long as insurance companies insure brand-new lightly-constructed recreational vessels for mid-winter North Atlantic passages—they will have to regularly pay out huge sums of money.

Let’s put it another way: it would be one thing for an owner to say, “This passage is no longer fun. I want off. I’m willing to pay the $2.5 million bucks plus reimburse the Search And Rescue (SAR) fee to cease my current discomfort.”

But is that what happens? Or is the $2.5 million someone else’s money? And is the SAR fee footed by the U.S. taxpayer?

Let’s return to the skipper-and-owner relationship for a moment. Normally (or traditionally) it is the skipper who makes the “abandon ship” call. However, in both these cases, the owner was present.

Do you believe it likely that the hired skipper demanded the owner get off his brand new $2.5 million vessel?

Or, conversely, that a professional skipper would refuse to allow the owner and his family to get off his vessel—that the skipper would physically restrain him?

I do not.

I believe these skippers allowed their owners to do exactly what they wanted. And that’s why, in part, they were popular, sought-after professional captains—because they knew about the golden rule of yacht delivery. (The guy with the gold makes the rules.)

In essence, the skipper is hired to protect the cargo. And in these cases, the cargo was the owner and his family.

Do I think that either of these vessels (dry bilges, cold fridge, running engines, a working blender, and an MP3 player full of Jimmy Buffett tunes) would have been abandoned if the owners were not onboard? Or if they were not insured?

I do not.

Here’s what may have happened: the owner believed, incorrectly and very very stupidly, that his brand-new lightly-constructed, unproven recreational vessel was built to survive anything the wintertime North Atlantic would throw at it. This simply wasn’t true—demonstrably wasn’t true. Once the “recreation” became not fun, and perhaps even dangerous, the owner wanted off. Since the economic penalty wasn’t believed to be too severe and the USCG was standing by with warmed-up helos and hot tea, he elected to turn his future attention towards, say, gardening.

This is understandable—if not admirable.

The professional people he hired helped him do so.

As far as the vessels go—you, dear reader, can be the judge.

I believe that if they were up to the task, they wouldn’t have had to be abandoned.

Modern catamarans are, in some ways, vastly superior to old-fashioned “lead-mine” monohulls. The one exception, in this writer’s humble opinion, is offshore during a sustained blow. Last season 100 proven offshore sailboats made the heavy-air passage down to New Zealand from the South Pacific. Three of them dismasted. All were relatively new “family cruising catamarans” worth mega bucks.

I’ve sailed many ocean miles, circumnavigated twice, and sat out many a gale aboard my $3,000 Hughes 38 sloop. Not once, as the wind speed climbed over 50 knots, did I pray a cattlemaran with a large glass sliding door would appear so I could scurry aboard it for safety.

I know of hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of boats in the $10,000 to $50,000 price range that might have (or would probably have) survived those blows without any major damage.

But it is easy for an inexperienced owner to believe that because a vessel cost $2.5 million, it is safe—when we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is not (and was not) the case.

Seaworthiness and seamanship can’t be purchased—it must be earned the old fashioned way.

I only know of one delivery skipper who arranged to have his owner plucked off in middle Atlantic—and then refused to abandon ship (the little IOR racer Mirage) himself. Hats off to a real sailing and offshore delivery hero—Captain Alan Brugger of Cruz Bay, St. John.

Here’s the real common sense truth of it—The North Atlantic in the wintertime is no place for lightly-constructed recreational craft nor their “beam-me-up, Scotty” owners.

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com