April 30, 2012, by Kris Samuels, SV Fantasea
You could call yourself a pretty lucky captain if your keel has eluded the sea floor. For a lot of us, that’s just not the case. Even the most careful captains make mistakes. A handful of my friends have kissed bottom this year already – some with expensive consequences and difficult lessons learned. The fact is, most of these incidents are easily avoided but of course, that’s often obvious when it’s too late.
As a liveaboard my boat is my home and losing that, means losing everything. So disrupting the delicate balance between water and home is extra scary for me. That’s how I felt when I hit bottom in some back corner of Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island. I was securing the anchor while my crew (who is fairly new to boating) slowly followed another boat in our group out of the cove when Fantasea came to a crunching stop. I looked down in horror at the small rocky bluff we’d run on to. With luck and the rising tide we were able to power off within 5 minutes and when I later dove to inspect the damage, only a few small scuffs were found. What could have happened differently? I was new to Squirrel Cove, I knew it had some funny reefs and it was an exceptionally low tide. It would have been better to instruct my crew to hold position while I secured the anchor. I could then pilot the boat out with extreme caution reviewing the charts, watching my depth and plotter. It would have also helped to have better communication between the boat ahead of us, because they hit the same rock a few minutes before. Fortunately there was no damage to either boat. Full keels tend to be pretty forgiving.
I know a captain who recently went to Sidney from Victoria to haul out and have some work done. The easiest route is through Banes Channel then between James and Sidney Island. Setting up a course out of Banes can align you perfectly with a few nasty rocks: Johnstone Reef, Zero Rock and Little Zero Rock. It was a nice calm day and the captain had invited some friends including his father who also had a boat of his own. The captain was watching the boat but also being a host to his guests and on some level assumed that the father would navigate in his absence. With the captain below, the hit came swiftly and slowed the boat from 6 knots dragging the fin keel over the rock. It was Little Zero. What could have happened differently? The captain realized that he couldn’t be a host and a captain at the same time. It would have been better to either remain at the helm and have his crew help themselves OR verbally transfer the helm to his father (or capable crew member) so that he would be more alert/clear to the helm responsibility. The boat made it to Sidney for the haul out and the last time I talked to the captain, the repairs were running into the thousands.
Another captain took some friends out for a short day sail. The weather was calm and he had sailed the area before. He didn’t bother turning on the chart plotter (it is below decks anyways) and his depth sounder was on. He was just out from Race Rocks and thought that he was well off the danger zone when his keel struck bottom. What could have happened differently? The captain admitted to being a bit casual and confident with what he felt were familiar waters. He speculates the rock was a sharp pinnacle and that’s why he didn’t notice it on the depth sounder. Race Rocks is a notorious area for groundings and it would have been a good idea to double check his position and increase attention to his depth sounder. A few cracks have been found and the insurance company has been notified. It is likely the boat will be hauled for a full inspection of the damage.
Sometimes our electronics don’t work the way we expect them to. Depth sounders malfunction or chart plotters read inaccurate. This was the case in a recent ‘Lectronic Latitude (Lattitude 38 ) article “Cutting the Corner to Complete the Loop” where a couple sailing in Mexico showed their plot line crossing land for a good few miles before returning to water. Mexico is known for inaccurate charts, but it can happen here too. A fellow captain and I were in the Broughton Archipelago a few years ago when we made to anchor in the Burdwood Group. As we were rounding one of the islands he contacted me and said that the island we were rounding wasn’t on his chart plotter. I checked mine, and it was there. Later he showed me his plot line rounding nothing but blue water.
With the 2012 sailing season upon us I encourage you to think about the following:
1. The captain is responsible for the vessel and crew. Use the tools and people available to you – don’t take this position lightly.
2. Resist being over confident or complacent. Double check things, even in familiar waters.
3. Ensure clear communication between captain, crew and other boats.
4. Study new places before you arrive. Get to know where the dangers are.
5. Use multiple methods to gain information about the sea floor below you – Visual, charts, chart plotter, depth sounder. Don’t just rely on one.
6. Set an alarm on your depth sounder for anything less than 20 feet.
7. Update your paper and electronic maps when possible.
A lot of these things are common sense, but sometimes we captains need a reminder. Any chain of events could happen and almost all of them are preventable.
Kris Samuels of SV Fantasea