The National Transportation Marine Accident investigation division released its report on the sinking of the Tall Ship, Bounty, Oct. 29, 2012, during hurricane Sandy. The report says that the probable cause of the sinking "was the captain's reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover. Contributing to the sinking was the lack of effective safety oversight by the vessel organization." For the very interesting complete report in PDF form (16 pages), see https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/reports_marine.html. The report date is 2/6/2014.
From time to time, the U.S. Coast Guard issues helpful advice about safety issues. In a document dated Jan. 9, 2014, the CG writes “In a recent offshore regatta, numerous sailboats experienced steering system and other failures which required assistance and/or rescue by the U. S. Coast Guard when a weather system stalled offshore creating higher than expected sea states and winds. The Coast Guard responded using an array of assets to render assistance.” This one-page PDF has a handy checklist of reminders about preparing your boat for an offshore trip; download it at http://tiny.cc/gn4o9w
If you have a digital selective calling (DSC) radio aboard (it has a red “distress” button on the front), have you read the radio’s manual for this important piece of safety gear? Does the radio have an integral GPS or must it be connected to an existing GPS or a GPS chart plotter on the boat? The Coast Guard reports that 80% of the VHF-DSC Mayday calls have no vessel location because the radio is not connected to an operating GPS. Without a precise location, rescuers cannot respond quickly to the emergency. If the instructions in the radio and GPS manuals about hooking the radio up to a GPS look too complicated, contact a marine electronics installer and get it done. The cost is worth it. If the radio has a built-in GPS, then you only need an MMSI number.
Any DSC radio must have an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number programmed into it so the emergency feature works. This number identifies the vessel; you will fill out an application form with the boat information. If the boat will operate only in U.S. waters, you can get a number for free from BoatUS (www.BoatUS.com/MMSI).
If a U.S.-registered boat travels to foreign waters (Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean or abroad) you will need to get the MMSI number, for a small fee, from the FCC at
After you’ve hooked up the DSC radio to a GPS, read the radio manual and see what else a DSC radio can do for you. There is a very nice tutorial about DSC radio on the BoatUS website at http://www.boatus.com/foundation/dsc/player.html.
With the recent rescues of disabled Carnival cruise ships by the Coast Guard, it has been suggested by some legislators and some of the public that the cruise line should reimburse the government for the cost of the services. From time to time, someone suggests that anyone who uses Coast Guard services should be required to pay for the rescue.
Mario Vittone has written an interesting perspective on this issue on gCaptain.com: http://tinyurl.com/c8yk9m7. Mr. Vittone has twenty-one years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, and he writes and lectures extensively on maritime safety topics. His website has important and interesting information for the general boating public: www.mariovittone.com.
As Hurricane Sandy drove northward along the U.S. east coast, the 52-year old wooden replica tall ship, Bounty, departed New London, CT on October 25, sailing southward. Five days later, the two met off Cape Hatteras, and Sandy won. Bounty sank and two lives were lost; a crewmember and the captain. Heroic efforts by Coast Guard helicopter crews rescued the other 14 crewmembers who had abandoned ship during the storm.
What does the loss of a 120 ft. wooden tall ship and movie prop (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962) have to do with you if you operate or crew on a recreational sail or power vessel?
This tragedy is a story about human action, inaction, decision-making, and choices. These are part of our daily lives, too, at home and when we venture out on the water.
Mario Vittone, retired U.S. Coast Guard and Navy veteran, and a maritime safety authority, wrote an excellent series of articles summarizing each of the eight days of testimony at the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board Bounty hearings, Feb. 12 – 25, 2013.
These articles are available at http://gcaptain.com. They are not overly-technical, and they are gripping, fascinating reading. You don’t even have to know what a tall ship is to understand what happened, and to take away valuable lessons that apply to all boaters.
While it will be months before the official conclusions are drawn about the accident, Mr. Vittone’s reports reveal the record of action, inaction, decision-making and choices aboard Bounty.
1. The captain disregarded weather forecasts before and during the voyage. Sandy was very well tracked and reported by official government weather sources. There were 50 other tall ships situated on the U.S. east coast at this time and not one went to sea in the face of Sandy.
2. The captain ignored three opportunities during the voyage to divert to a safe harbor as the storm forecasts worsened. Available to Bounty in the prevailing wind and sea conditions were New York Harbor/ Hudson River, Delaware Bay and the C&D Canal, Chesapeake Bay at the southern entrance.
3. The crew failed to test essential systems before departure: engines, generators, bilge pumps, long-distance HF radio and Inmarsat-C communication equipment, and electrical systems. Apparently, the captain did not insist that tests be conducted.
4. No one kept maintenance records for engines, generators or bilge pumping systems. The engineer did not know the basics about diesel engines and could not describe the bilge pumping systems.
5. The captain decided to delay recommended repairs discovered in boatyard inspections prior to departure “until the next yard period.”
6. Critical hull maintenance was done by inexperienced crew who used methods and products for maintenance and repair recommended by the captain, some of which were not standard practice or recommended for marine use on wooden ships.
7. New crew was taught by inexperienced existing crew. For example, “Bosun A” had been aboard 16 months before he taught new person (“Bosun B”) the job of hull maintenance. Bosun B took over after 16 months of experience on Bounty’s hull.
8. Survey recommendations from one surveyor were not carried out, while another surveyor appears to have provided inadequate or incomplete vessel surveys.
9. The crew operated under “the illusion of experience.” Only two individuals (the captain and chief mate) had prior tall ship experience. The captain, with his 17 years of experience aboard Bounty, was revered as the expert, and no one else aboard (except, perhaps, the chief mate) had the knowledge or experience to question his decisions about the management, maintenance, or operation of the vessel. For six of the 14 survivors, Bounty was their first tall ship. One crewmember had five seasons aboard Bounty. The cook had 45 hours aboard Bounty before she abandoned ship with the others.
10. The hiring of inexperienced crew by the captain and the chief mate created a “system of incompetence” aboard the vessel. Mario Vittone says: “[Incompetence] was the unaccounted for 17th passenger that ended the life of the ship, of her captain, and of [crewmember] Claudene Christian.”
11. The crew was not trained in the use of the bilge pumps or the backup emergency pumps.
12. Design changes were made to Bounty in prior years that may have affected her stability.
13. The captain delayed the decision to abandon ship until the situation was grave. This delay forced the crew to abandon at night, with no time to prepare for an orderly evacuation of the vessel. Crewmembers were injured, and it is remarkable that more lives were not lost.
14. No Pan Pan radio call was made to the Coast Guard early in the crisis before the situation became a Mayday emergency. Bounty was taking on water fast when the weather worsened on Oct. 27, and early in the morning of the 28th the pumps couldn’t keep up. They abandoned ship on the 29th. Only the timely response and skill of the Coast Guard prevented more loss of life.
15. When the time for a Mayday came, the untested HF radio and the Inmarsat-C communication equipment was inoperable.
The lessons should be obvious:
1. Pay attention to the weather. You don’t need a storm forecast to tell you it’s better to stay in port. A forecast may turn out to be wrong, but sometimes it’s even worse out there.
2. When you plan a trip on the water, make notes about alternate harbors and routes, in case bad weather makes it uncomfortable or unsafe to proceed to your destination. Don’t hesitate to turn back or go to an alternate safe harbor.
3. Regularly maintain and test all critical systems aboard your boat: engine, bilge pumps, electrical system, communication equipment, emergency and safety equipment. This is basic seamanship.
4. Keep maintenance records for all boat systems.
5. Practice safety drills aboard your vessel and make sure everyone knows what to do and how to operate necessary equipment in an emergency.
6. Don’t hesitate to make a Pan Pan radio call in a difficult situation. The Coast Guard would like to be notified that you may need help BEFORE it turns into a Mayday. They can prepare to assist you if needed, and they may be able to assist on the radio to stabilize the situation.
7. Don’t assume that someone who has more experience than you knows everything. If you lack experience you are not in a position to judge. Yes, you have to rely on professionals and persons with experience, but sometimes it may be important to seek a second or third opinion about a person’s competence or decision-making, particularly where matters of vessel or personal safety are involved. Also, if something doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t. Use your intuition to question and seek answers.
Being a responsible skipper or crewmember involves educating yourself and learning as much as possible about the operation and maintenance of boats that you own or use. You don’t have to know how to do everything, but you need to understand what should be done, and then check that it is done properly to accepted standards of marine practice. When you are the person in charge of a vessel, you make decisions and choices that can affect the lives of other people.
(quotes are from Mr. Vittone’s articles. The interpretation of the information contained in his articles is mine.)
Some people have carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in their homes, and it’s a very important safety item aboard a boat that has an inboard engine or generator, and/or a non-electric heating device (kerosene, propane or other gas, or a solid fuel heater). Carbon monoxide is deadly. Choose a marine CO detector/alarm; it is designed for the marine environment and it’s less prone to false alarms than home detectors used on a boat. Install the detectors (larger boats need more than one) according to the manufacturer’s directions. Do some research before buying and installing a CO detector/alarm.
If you take your boat offshore or to areas where medical assistance beyond first aid is not readily available it’s a good idea to take an emergency medicine seminar/course that teaches you more than basic and advanced first aid. All boaters should take a basic first aid course (basic first aid may be combined with a CPR course), and advanced first aid as well, depending on where their boating takes them. An offshore medicine seminar/course will give you advanced techniques for dealing with medical emergencies and severe injuries, and perhaps enable you to save a life while you wait for professional assistance. Look for a course that covers medical emergencies occurring at sea; wilderness medicine usually deals mainly with emergencies on land, and being on the water has some hazards which may require different procedures. Find offshore medicine seminars/courses from an Internet search, advertisements in the boating press, and the websites of various boating organizations. See also “Crew and Health” in the Mariner’s Guide Topic Index, p. 517, for entries related to crew health and emergencies.
Do you know where all the through-hulls, transducers (depth sounder and speed log, for example), and the other holes in the hull near and below the waterline are located on your boat or a boat you are using? Are there tapered soft wood plugs tied near each through-hull in case something breaks or is damaged? Create (or find) the diagram that indicates where these holes are, and make sure you can get to the areas quickly in an emergency. If you have to move lots of gear to reach a damaged through-hull you may be working in the water. It’s amazing how fast water comes in through a one or two-inch/25-50mm hole in the bottom of a boat!
With the approach of Hurricane Sandy (Oct. 25, 2012) toward the U.S. east coast, it's time to immediately begin protecting your boat, if it is in the path of strong winds, waves and storm surge. Read the Boat/US hurricane preparation information at www.boatus.com/hurricanes/brochure.asp. 48 hours is almost too late to take action. If you read this after the storm passes, save the information for future use.
Lifejackets are among the most important items of safety gear on any boat. In the U.S. there are a number of types of Coast Guard-approved lifejackets. No one type of lifejacket is suitable for every kind of boating. Contrary to what you may read or hear, all lifejackets are not created equal.
Statistics show that “nine out of 10 drownings occur in inland waters, most within a few feet of safety. Most of the victims owned PFDs [lifejackets], but they died without them. A wearable PFD can save your life, if you wear it. If you haven't been wearing your PFD because of the way it makes you look or feel, there's good news. Today's PFDs fit better, look better and are easy to move around in.”
U.S. Coast Guard information about lifejackets calls them PFDs (personal flotation devices), a term which is used in a “strictly regulatory sense” i.e. for writing regulations. Some CG literature and websites are being modified to say “wearable lifejacket” and “throwable device” to avoid confusion. In the U.S. “each PFD sold for use on a recreational boat is required to be provided with a guide to selection entitled ‘Think Safe – Choose the Right PFD’. These pamphlets are tailored to the kind of PFD to which they are attached.” Read the guides carefully when you are selecting a lifejacket, and make sure it is suitable for the kind of boating you do and for the person (adult or child) who will wear it.
“The Coast Guard is working with the PFD community to revise the classification and labeling of PFDs. When completed, this information will be updated and hopefully be somewhat easier to understand. Meanwhile, spending a few minutes to understand the many options available to find a PFD that you’re willing to wear could mean the difference between life and death for you or a loved one.” See this Coast Guard website for detailed information on PFD selection, use, wear, and care. www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg5214/pfdselection.asp#recreational
Although this website talks about U.S. types of lifejackets, the general theory about what kind of lifejackets are suitable for offshore, near shore, for children, etc. applies to lifejackets sold in other countries. Check with the boating authorities in your country for specific requirements and guidance to find a lifejacket that you will wear.
[The quotes above come from the Coast Guard website.]
Priscilla Travis spends more than 110 days each year on the water, takes photos, and writes about nautical topics.