Who should foot the bill for poor decisions?

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The only thing more uncompromising than the sea may be the judgments heaped upon skippers and crew who call the Coast Guard to rescue them from trouble that seems of their own making. Did skipper or crew mess up? Were they unprepared? Was their vessel up to the voyage’s rigors? Worse yet, were they simply clueless? 

The Coast Guard had to rescue Sedona's crew during a blizzard after the owner embarked despite being warned that his boat wasn't ready.

These are worthwhile questions if your objective is lessons learned. In extreme cases of bad decision-making, other questions may be raised, as well:

Why didn’t the Coast Guard stop the boat from leaving the dock? Why should taxpayers foot the bill for the rescue? These, too, are legitimate questions, often asked in the heat of angry public comment about holding accountable hapless mariners saved from their own foolishness.

They’re particularly appropriate in the case of the 43-foot sailboat Sedona, which ignited a firestorm of anger and incredulity. To recap: Aussie Jason McGlashan bought the 20-year-old semicustom raceboat sight unseen from an eBay listing last October for $10,000. On Jan. 7, he arrived at the Clark Boat Yard and Marine Works in Jamestown, Rhode Island, where the boat — a 1994 Nelson/Marek racer/cruiser built by Carroll Marine — had been sitting on the hard for three years with no maintenance. The brokerage ad for Sedona cautioned: “This is a project boat … not a turnkey vessel.” She was structurally sound, the ad said, her hull below the waterline solid fiberglass and epoxy, but the gelcoat from the sheerline to the waterline was a mess. A 2014 survey reported that the gelcoat was falling off in large sheets.

McGlashan, 37 and a mine worker, said he had sailed since he was a child and had done a lot of short-handed sailing but no ocean crossings. He said he planned to spend six weeks fixing the boat, then set off in February with his father, Reg, a non-sailor, for an 8,600-mile passage home to Port Macquarie, Australia, via Bermuda and the Cape of Good Hope. McGlashan says Sedona was the right boat at the right price — the fixer-upper he had been looking for to break the single-handed record for circumnavigating Australia.

He bought Sedona from a charity to which her previous owner, Dr. Leonard Hubbard, had donated her. The Nelson/Marek 43 was well-regarded — a Sailing World “Boat of the Year” in 1995, the year Hubbard launched the semicustom build. Hubbard raced her offshore for seven years, including in the Newport-Bermuda Race, and had begun a restoration after her gelcoat failed. In an interview, he said the boat was capable of going the distance to Port Macquarie but needed work and preparation. “The boat will do it, but it will not do it by just pushing it in the water and heading to Australia,” Hubbard says.

He says the charity he gave the boat to had contracted to fix Sedona before selling it. That did not happen, and he says McGlashan’s work on it was perfunctory. “It was a hastily assembled boat,” he says. “They took a lot of shortcuts. No survey. No bedding compound for the deck hardware. [Hubbard had removed the hardware as part of his unfinished restoration.] No service on the engine. No sea trial.”

“There were a lot of red flags right from the get-go,” agrees Gary Clark, whose family owns Clark Boat Yard and Marine Works. Sedona was a fixer-upper, and McGlashan had given himself just six weeks to repair her and prepare for the voyage. Clark was particularly concerned about the condition of the rigging.

The skipper had done no trans-Atlantics. His only crewmember was not a sailor. He was determined to leave Jamestown at the height of one of New England’s worst winters in years. And — the clincher — he decided to leave as a blizzard, Neptune, bore down on New England with heavy snow, 60-mph winds and 25-foot seas. “Most of the guys here were very concerned,” Clark says. “They’d go down to the boat and tell him, ‘You know, I really don’t think you ought to leave now.’ He’d just laugh and say, ‘Yeah. A lot of people think that.’ … He just seemed kind of nonchalant for the voyage he was making.”

McGlashan had his plan, and it was not a flexible one. He was overdrawn on his bank accounts, faced a backlog of bills and couldn’t afford to leave Sedona at a yard in Rhode Island for the season. He couldn’t take any more time off from work to get the boat up to snuff. And he had decided he had to set off as quickly as possible so he could reach Australia before the onset of the Southern Ocean winter.

“The storms that can come through [the Southern Ocean] in the winter can be extremely brutal,” he wrote Soundings in a Facebook message from Australia. “The winds in a winter storm can be over 80 knots. The waves have an extremely long fetch that can let them build extremely high. That isn’t always a problem unless they are close together, making them steeper and [more likely to break], which can be disastrous.” He decided he’d rather face winter in the North Atlantic than in the Roaring Forties.

Clark thought McGlashan would come around and think better of attempting a February departure after getting a taste of a New England winter, so he was flabbergasted when his sister, Sarah, told him the Aussie wanted to launch the boat with the mercury at 15 F. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he told her. She wasn’t.

“I told him I don’t do launches this time of year, but he said he already had brought his crew in from Australia,” Clark says. Before letting Sedona leave the yard, Clark required her skipper to sign a liability release. “That’s how concerned I was,” he says.

Moving from the Clark yard to nearby Conanicut Marine Services to stage his departure, McGlashan sailed out of Jamestown Feb. 13, planning to outrun the gathering storm — and he likely could have, had nothing gone wrong. But as is often the case when you give yourself a tight window, all kinds of things went wrong.

On the second night, 150 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the engine alternator began to fail, and the wind generator broke down, so he couldn’t recharge his batteries, McGlashan says. The mainsail caught on the cabin top winches and ripped as he was lowering it, so the main was virtually unusable. Both sheets unclipped from the headsail. How or why he’s not sure. That left just the engine for power, and it died, as well. “We then had the choice of try and get the motor going without any effective charging units or try to call for help while we still had battery power,” he says. “I called for help.”

Raising no one on the VHF, he activated his EPIRB and communicated with the Coast Guard over satellite phone. At 8:48 a.m. on Feb. 15, a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter reached Sedona. The chopper crew lowered a rescue swimmer into the water as the near-hurricane-force storm intensified, with winds reaching 60 mph and seas of 25 feet. The swimmer helped McGlashan’s father into the rescue basket first, then the skipper came up in the basket.

Notable incidents

Sedona’s short-lived voyage was a foolhardy venture, Clark says, but not an isolated one. There have been other cases in recent months involving vessels that were unseaworthy or appeared to be so, or that were undertaken even though their skippers knew well that dangerous weather was imminent. In each case, the crews had to call the Coast Guard to pull their fat out of the fire.

Rainmaker, the first of the Nigel Irens-designed 55-foot Gunboat catamarans, was dismasted while sailing with a triple-reefed mainsail and a storm jib on Jan. 30, 200 miles south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The $2 million oceangoing cat was on a voyage from Gunboat’s Wanchese, North Carolina, yard to St. Martin and sailing in 30- to 35-knot winds with 40-knot squalls when it encountered a 70-knot microburst — a “white squall” — that caught the helmsman by surprise, according to Gunboat CEO Peter Johnstone. Again, a Coast Guard Jayhawk — this one operating near the limit of its range — rescued the five crewmembers: owner Brian Cohen, his son Max and three professional sailors, including the very experienced skipper, Chris Bailet. A cargo ship’s effort to rescue them had failed. The cat was abandoned — and never recovered — with a line wrapped around the port prop, a balky starboard engine, the helm electronics and navigation systems knocked out, the forward window broken and waves pouring into the saloon through a damaged companionway hatch — with worse weather predicted.

Rainmaker, a new 55-foot Gunboat catamaran, tried to outrun a storm but was dismasted in a 70-knot microburst. The Coast Guard rescued the crew.

In an exhaustive interview with the Sailing Anarchy website, skipper Bailet said he and his crew departed Wanchese knowing Rainmaker likely would encounter 40-knot squalls, but the boat had previously weathered 65-knot squalls. The interviewer opined that he could understand Bailet deciding to “haul ass” ahead of the oncoming storm if time was of the essence, but it wasn’t. “There was no reason for them to leave with that forecast,” he says.

Flyin’ Hawaiian, a 65-foot, 32-foot-wide home-built catamaran made of plywood and 2-by-4s, started taking on water Jan. 31, 120 miles off Monterey, California. James “Hot Rod” Lane and his 28-year-old son, Michael Johnson, built it in a marina parking lot in San Rafael, the elder Long saying his dream was to use it to enjoy “the freedom and the lifestyle” and cruise to Mexico, Hawaii, Samoa and New Zealand. Started in 2010 and launched in 2013, the 3,200-square-foot cat had nine cabins, three heads and two galleys. The vessel and its builders drew a lot of catcalls, but also grudging admiration from many who saw the project come together as one man’s dream boat.

Flyin’ Hawaiian was carrying five people when one of them activated a personal locator beacon. Two Coast Guard helicopters removed the crew from the sinking vessel while a cargo ship stood by to block the wind and waves. Flyin’ Hawaiian was abandoned and left to go to the bottom.

More along the lines of a contraption, Reza Baluchi’s hydro-pod bubble came to the Coast Guard’s attention last Oct. 1 off Miami when it received reports that Baluchi, the hydro pod’s skipper, appeared disoriented. He had been asking other mariners, “Which way to Bermuda?” The hydro pod — a big ball made of 0.11-inch-thick plastic — rotates inside an aluminum frame as Baluchi runs inside, pushing the ball with his arms and propelling it forward. Baluchi later insisted he was just joking when he asked for directions, even though he was, in fact, planning to roll from Miami to Bermuda.

A Coast Guard cutter, finding Baluchi, advised him of the voyage’s dangers and requested he terminate the trip because he seemed short on supplies, but Baluchi — who had protein bars, bottled water, a GPS and a satellite phone — declined to comply. Three days later, 70 miles off St. Augustine, Florida, Baluchi’s personal locator beacon activated — he says it was accidental. The Coast Guard says Baluchi was exhausted and needed a medical evacuation. A helicopter dropped a swimmer to the hydro pod, and the chopper crew lifted Baluchi to safety. The pod sank as a fishing boat tried to tow it to port.

The cost of rescue

Rescues at sea in heavy weather can be daunting, dangerous and costly. The Coast Guard estimates that in 2013 and ’14 it cost the agency $12,000 an hour to send an H-65 Dolphin helicopter to respond to a distress call, about $14,000 an hour for an H-60 Jayhawk helicopter, $18,000 an hour for an HC-130 Hercules, $6,500 an hour for a 45-foot medium-response boat and about $1,000 an hour for a 25-foot boat.

The Coast Guard can ask for restitution for search costs in cases of hoax distress calls. In April 2014, a U.S. appeals court upheld a lower-court decision dunning an airplane pilot $489,000 for a search bill the Coast Guard and Canadian Air Force incurred after he called in a fake distress alert on Lake Erie. However, the Coast Guard never asks mariners to reimburse the cost of rescues in response to legitimate distress calls, says Petty Officer LaNola K. Stone of the First Coast Guard District in Boston.

 Americans pay for the Coast Guard’s rescue service in their federal taxes, she says, and that’s the way the Coast Guard prefers it. “We want people to call us in a timely manner when they know they’re over their head,” she says. “We don’t want them to wait until it’s too late,” which could happen if a father out on a boat with his family knows the Coast Guard might charge him for a rescue and worries that he can’t afford to pay the bill.

“We’re always ready to respond as needed,” Stone says. And there will be no bill.

How about declaring a voyage “manifestly unsafe” and stopping it before it gets started? Stone says only the district commander can make the decision to stop a voyage in its tracks by declaring it manifestly unsafe — and then only because the vessel is unseaworthy, not because the skipper is inept. “It’s not about the mariner per se,” she says. “It’s about whether the boat is properly designed and constructed, and about having the right safety equipment aboard.” It also can be declared manifestly unsafe if its condition renders it so.

Coast Guard boarding officers also may terminate a voyage if they see a boat being operated in an “unsafe condition, specifically defined by law or regulation,” or see that an “especially hazardous” condition exists. For instance, the father with his family — four children and his wife, let’s say — loaded to the gunwales of an 18-foot powerboat in choppy seas with only three life jackets aboard. Or a boat helmed by a drunken skipper. The boarding officer can terminate the voyage and escort the boat back to port if it is clearly an accident waiting to happen.

The Coast Guard was concerned about the McGlashans’ plans, Stone says. It had issued an advisory about the severity of the approaching blizzard that eventually enveloped Sedona. It had flown storm tracks for part of two days, broadcasting the advisory to mariners over the VHF. When Guardsmen read in a local newspaper that the McGlashans were preparing to head out, anyway, Coast Guard Sector Boston dispatched a team to do a safety boarding of Sedona before it got underway.

“They had all the required safety gear,” plus a VHF radio and EPIRB to communicate with the Coast Guard if they got into trouble, Stone says. That was important. The boat wasn’t unseaworthy, she says, and the boarding team cautioned the pair that if they left as planned they would be just a step ahead of a very powerful winter storm.

“We did everything we could do except hold their hand,” she says. “We don’t have the right to tell people what they can and can’t do, and when they can and can’t go. Mariners have rights, and we have to balance that against safety at sea.”

Would other mariners have felt comfortable with the Coast Guard putting the kibosh on this voyage, as ill-advised as it was, or charging the McGlashans for their rescue? “This doesn’t happen every day,” says William Munger, owner of Conanicut Marine Services, from which Sedona departed. “I know it’s frustrating to taxpayers. There’s a lot of stupidity going on here, but I’m not so far to the right that I don’t have some sympathy for the guy who screws up. … I could go either way in this conversation.

“It’s one thing not to use good judgment,” he says. “It’s another thing to have somebody say, ‘This is not a good idea,’ and do it, anyway. Maybe he does need to get his Visa card out and contribute. But where do you draw the line where a guy has to pay?”

He says ocean racers leave from his marina several times a year to cross the Atlantic or sail around the world — sometimes solo in fast, light boats. It’s risky business.

Mike Plant, an adventurous and talented solo sailor who had circumnavigated three times, was lost at sea in November 1992 in the North Atlantic when his Open 60, Coyote, lost its ballast bulb and capsized in a powerful fall storm en route from New York to Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. A July 1995 Coast Guard report about the loss said Coyote had run aground in the mud in Chesapeake Bay twice during sea trials before the voyage, likely weakening the joint that fastened the bulb to the keel and causing the bulb to snap off in the storm as he raced against a deadline for the start of the BOC (now the Vendée Globe), a solo, non-stop race around the world. “Things like that happen,” Munger says. Plant had just weeks to prepare Coyote for an around-the-world race. He hadn’t the time (or maybe the money) to haul the racer and check for damage. He gave himself just 15 days to cross the Atlantic in Coyote’s first shakedown voyage. He took a risk, but it was his risk to take and his decision to make.

“We don’t make that judgment call,” the Coast Guard’s Stone says.

See related article:

- Notice to Mariners

June 2015 issue