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Avoiding disaster on a forbidding coast - Soundings Online

Avoiding disaster on a forbidding coast

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Jim O’Sullivan of ProCAPTAINS in Seattle knows well the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Heading a delivery business for commercial, military and recreational vessels, he also knows about schedules — so he can relate to the Cat Shot drama that unfolded along the central Oregon coast in December.

Avoiding disaster on a forbidding coast

Jim O’Sullivan of ProCAPTAINS in Seattle knows well the waters of the Pacific Northwest. Heading a delivery business for commercial, military and recreational vessels, he also knows about schedules — so he can relate to the Cat Shot drama that unfolded along the central Oregon coast in December.

“These are some of the toughest waters in the world,” he says. “Local knowledge is a big factor. If you don’t have it, you must acquire it.”

Read the other story in this package: Catamaran capsize raises questions 

O’Sullivan cautions that the coast between San Francisco and Washington’s Puget Sound has very few protected harbors or coves, and most of them are near the mouth of a river. “This means that you’ll have to cross a breaking bar to get in or out,” he says. His statement was punctuated by another accident, which occurred near the mouth of the Rogue River Dec. 16 when the 43-foot fishing vessel Ash capsized and sank while crossing the bar outbound. None of the four-man crew survived.

O’Sullivan, who also has a pilot’s license, says he adopted aviation procedures and a specific safety mindset to minimize the risk of heavy-weather deliveries. “Running a boat or a plane, you must be willing to do a 180 and go back before you get in trouble,” he says. To help other mariners steer clear of disaster along any difficult section of coast, especially the northern portion of the West Coast, he shared some tips with Soundings.

• Plan ahead and consult as many sources as you can if you are unfamiliar with the area and its conditions.

• Check off all items on equipment lists and keep a precise and detailed log with regular and frequent updates to inform the next watch about progress and changes.

• Keep an eye on the sky and an ear to the forecast. Being realistic is safer than being optimistic.

• Take your time. Storms often stack up, so you might be pinned down for several days until a suitable weather window opens. To deliver a sailboat that motors at 5 or 6 knots on average from San Francisco to Seattle, O’Sullivan calculates a trip time of about six days in fair weather and without stops. He won’t, however, put any timeframe on a winter delivery.

• Before casting off, obtain all pertinent information for places to seek refuge. O’Sullivan says he carries a dedicated GPS with the coordinates of potential anchorages or harbors entered as waypoints, so at the push of a button the crew knows where to go if they have to seek shelter. He also has developed a rating of all bar crossings for specific vessel sizes and drafts, and lists the Coast Guard’s office telephone numbers for each location.

• South of Seattle, survival suits are mandatory safety equipment during the cold months of the year; on trips to Alaska they are brought along year-round. “Survival suits protect against hypothermia and can give you up to a day in 50-degree water versus less than an hour in normal foulies,” explains O’Sullivan. “They drastically improve the chances of being rescued.”

• Get rest. “Fatigue and exhaustion often lead to irrational behavior and poor decision-making,” he says. O’Sullivan suggests doing as much as possible before leaving port, including identifying places to seek refuge, so that if fatigue does set in you will be better prepared to handle critical situations.

For more information on ProCAPTAINS, visit www.procaptains.com.