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Keel failures prompt call for oversight

In the push for speed, experts say there must be a means to certify the safety of sailboat designs

In the push for speed, experts say there must be a means to certify the safety of sailboat designs

The moon had gone down, but at 11:30 the Gulf of Mexico was lit by a sky full of stars, and the 38-foot yacht Cynthia Woods was making 6.5 knots close-hauled on a port tack in 4- to 6-foot seas. At the helm, skipper Steve Conway thought it was a nice evening — a little choppy, a little confused, but not bad for the Gulf.


Cynthia Woods on her way out of Galveston Bay for the fateful Regatta de Amigos had suffered keel damage in a hard grounding in 2007. Investigators are focusing on the repairs performed. Her keel was recovered after the June accident for examination.

With a wind of 18 to 21 knots, Conway had put one reef in the main and rolled in a third of the genoa to keep the Cape Fear 38 from heeling too much and losing speed during this June 6 Regatta de Amigos race from Galveston, Texas, to Veracruz, Mexico. Conway, 55, a safety officer for the Texas A&M-Galveston sailing team, looked at his watch and noticed he had 15 minutes before he needed to wake the next watch. But then a light came on in the cabin, and the voice of Roger Stone, 53, the other safety officer on board with the four student sailors, rose urgently.

“We’re taking on water!” Stone said. “Start the engine!”

“I reached up to release the mainsheet,” Conway recalls. “Before I could, the boat went over on her side, and the sail was flat out on the water. About 10 to 15 seconds later, she went turtle. I was hanging from my tether off the jackline.”

In less than 60 seconds, Conway and the two students standing watch with him were in the water; Stone and the two other students were trapped in the cabin. The boat’s keel, with its 5,000 pound bulb, had fallen off, tearing a great hole in the fiberglass. Heroically, Stone managed to shove the two students out the submerged companionway. Trapped, Stone never escaped. When his body was recovered later, an autopsy revealed he had drowned.

The loss of Cynthia Woods was but the latest case of keel failure in an offshore racing yacht, and Stone’s death was added to a growing tally of sailors lost on modern racing yachts in similar accidents. While there are no statistics on the number of keel failures worldwide, two prior incidents in South Africa and the United Kingdom already had caused alarm in international yacht racing circles.

Yachting Australia, reacting in 2007 to concerns raised by sailors, commissioned a study of yacht design practices. Later, that organization petitioned the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), the governing body of international sailracing, to set new, strict standards for keel designs. And in November, the ISAF will vote on new regulations to address the issue.

“The spate of recent keel and hull failures has highlighted the need for yacht designers, boatbuilders and owners to check their yacht structure and take steps to ensure such structural problems stop,” the ISAF states on its Web site. “Careful design, build and maintenance of keels and keel attachments are essential, as to lose a keel can be catastrophic with loss of life.”

This terse statement, along with a move within ISAF to create a system of oversight of yacht designs, was prompted by the loss of the yachts Moquini and Hooligan V, according to Ken Kershaw, head of an ISAF special committee commissioned to study keel failures. “They were, if you like, the catalyst,” Kershaw says.

In September 2005, Moquini, with six sailors aboard, was into the sixth day of a race on the Indian Ocean from the island of Mauritius to Durban, South Africa, when its keel fell off, and the boat capsized. Its EPIRB was triggered, but transmitted only once. The crew was never found, although the yacht was discovered in February 2006 and brought ashore for an investigation by the South African Maritime Safety Authority. The agency never determined the cause of the keel failure.

In February 2007, Hooligan V was being delivered from Plymouth to Southampton, England, by its skipper and four crewmen when, in the early morning darkness, it lost its keel and capsized. One crewmember was lost. The British Marine Accident Investigation Board inspected the salvaged boat and concluded the keel was inadequately designed, manufactured and modified, causing its failure.

‘A problem faced by everybody’

According to experts, both cases resulted in part from the lack of any means to certify the safety of yacht designs. “In the racing world up until a decade ago, everyone had these structures in their racing boats approved by the American Bureau of Shipping,” says Jim Teeters, a yacht designer employed by the Offshore Department at US Sailing, the national governing body of sailracing in the United States. “All boats had plan approval by ABS in order to race. The [ABS] formulas and structural requirements were listed in guides. The designer could use those as a reference for keels and everything else. He would submit his drawings for plan approval.”

But ABS “got out of that business in the 1990s,” Teeters says, in part because it was being sued when boats it had approved experienced problems. “The guide was still out there, and then it was on your own personal responsibility to verify that what you are doing was still in concordance with the guide from ABS. Now we’re at more of a self-policing situation,” he says.

In the absence of certification by ABS or any other international agency, yacht designers have pursued new materials and technologies to make their sailboats faster. “You end up with a pretty toxic brew,” says Bill Langan, former chief designer for Sparkman & Stephens, who now has his own design firm in Newport, R.I.

“You’ve seen the design trend has been to narrower and narrower keel roots,” says Langan, who is technical director for the Newport Bermuda Race. “A lot of that is driven by the rating rules, and a lot is driven partially by technology.”

Some rating rules for sailboats, which determine their handicaps in races, do not measure the keel, nor do they measure stability of the boat, Langan says. “So what happens is because those aren’t measured, the designers have figured out [that] the minimum keel [dimension] fore and aft on America’s Cup boats and light displacement boats is best.”

Also, Langan says, “they’re figuring out the more ballast they can move down into the bulb and take it out of the hull structure and out of the vertical fin, the faster they can go. This isn’t rocket science. It has been going on since the 1800s.”

Langan, who designs megayachts, says there is another “general trend toward lighter and lighter boats. When you get lighter boats, the bilges get shallower” to reduce displacement.

“As you raise the bottom of the boat up, the headroom requirement doesn’t change,” he continues. Rather than raising the cabin sole and, thus, the cabintop, designers tend to keep the floorboards in place, he says. “There is very little room for structure between the hull and the undersides of the floorboards, so you get quite complicated grids,” the supporting structure under the floorboards.

These grids have to accommodate several opposing forces — mast compression, chain plate tension and keel loads — that have to absorb the loads of groundings, Langan says. “The end result is there is a drive toward shorter and shorter keel attachment lengths. The keels are getting narrower [for less drag], so that’s on the speed side,” says Langan. “And you have the desire for more ballast, so therefore any gain you can make moving weight down into the bulb is a plus on the speed side, but a big negative on the structure side” — another ingredient in that toxic brew .

“You’re ending up with structures that are not very tolerant of any damage,” Langan says. “A slight grounding, and all of a sudden the entire structure is called into question. Keel grids popping loose from the hull. Keel bolts overstressed.” But, Langan says, “there is a demand on the part of the populace for … faster and faster.”

“I don’t think any of the manufacturers of modern boats have not had issues, he says, naming some big names in boatbuilding. “Some are just better at making the corrections. The point being, it’s a problem faced by everybody.”

In search of causes

The builders of Moquini and Hooligan V are not big names in the States. Moquini was a Fast 42 built by Fast Yachts in Durban. Hooligan V was a Max Fun 35 built in the Netherlands. According to investigators, Moquini was about 60 miles off Madagascar when it last made shore contact. At that point, a satellite tracking device stopped issuing position reports and a couple hours later the solitary EPIRB signal was transmitted.

Sailing to the island of Mauritius for the start of the race, the crew had experienced flooding from around the keel, and the boat had been inspected before the start but no damage was found.

After inspecting a section of the salvaged hull, the Durban Institute of Technology reported that “generally, in the area of the keel, this yacht does not conform to the design specifications, and furthermore, the workmanship is appallingly substandard.”

As the Moquini investigation continued, authorities heard stories of other Fast 42s on which keel bolts had loosened, and hulls were found to be built to half the design thickness. Yet authorities could not place the blame for the loss of Moquini’s keel on any one factor.

“It has not been possible to definitely conclude that any one of the findings contributed in any specific way to the detachment and loss of the keel and the subsequent tragic assumed loss of the crew,” the final report says.

Quite a different result was produced by the Marine Accident Investigation Board investigating the loss of Hooligan V. While the yacht’s designer “apparently designed following the American Bureau of Shipping standards,” the British agency reported, “unbeknown to the designer, the builder subcontracted construction of the hollow keel to a steel fabricator who had no marine experience. The fabricator changed the design of the keel to ease manufacture and to reduce costs but without adequately assessing the stresses to which the keel would be subjected in service.

“In 2005, the owner of Hooligan V contracted a U.K. yacht designer to optimise the yacht for IRM and IRC1 racing,” the MAIB report continues. “This involved adding a further 160 kg to the keel bulb.”

At the end of the 2006 racing season, when Hooligan V was hauled, workers discovered a “considerable amount of detachment of the keel’s epoxy filler and anti-fouling,” although they missed evidence of “fine cracking” in some of the keel steel.

“I was personally involved in [the MAIB] investigation,” says Kershaw, who now is working on changes to ISAF regulations. In the Hooligan V case, there was “an error on the part of the designer, a very significant error at the builder’s yard, which changed the design, then there was in-service changes to the keel,” all of which were to blame for the keel failure, he says.

In the case of Texas A&M’s Cynthia Woods, Coast Guard investigators would not comment on the progress of their work except to say it is ongoing. A Texas state agency and the Texas A&M University System also are investigating the keel failure and the death of Roger Stone.

Cynthia Woods and sister ship George Phydias were donated to the university by a benefactor, George Mitchell. University officials confirm Mitchell is the father of Kent Mitchell, owner of Cape Fear Yacht Works, which built the boats in Wilmington, N.C. The second Cape Fear 38 has been removed from the fleet for examination.

Kent Mitchell did not respond to a message left at his company. However, the designer of the Cape Fear 38, Bruce Marek, while he was unwilling to discuss the details of his design, did give its history in a telephone interview.

“It started as a performance-oriented boat for a guy who used to have one of my older designs, and he wanted a little more headroom,” says Marek, half of the former Nelson-Marek design team. “He was a tall customer, so you start getting any headroom on the boat, the longer the boat, the better it looks.

Marek says he created the design in 1999, intending it to be a custom boat. Then Mitchell started his boatbuilding company to put the design into production. Marek, who also works out of Wilmington, says he has provided information for the Coast Guard investigation. He says the agency and his lawyer have asked him not to discuss the case.

Frank Griffis, a spokesman for the Texas A&M University System, an umbrella agency over a statewide network of universities, says his office has its own four-pronged investigation into the accident. “The first thing we did was to go out and find the ship’s keel,” Griffis says. A salvage company and two university graduate students used side-scan sonar to locate the fin nearly buried in mud in 113 feet of water, he says.

The second stage was gathering 1,300 pages of maintenance records, training records, policies, procedures and e-mails concerning the two Cape Fear 38s, Griffis says. Those records include details of a hard grounding suffered by Cynthia Woods in 2007, he says. After the grounding, the boat “was pulled out of the water, and the keel was repaired,” says Griffis. “There was a crack at the top of the keel where it connects to the hull. We are looking at the repair of that.”

Officials at the repair facility — Galveston Yacht Service — would not comment for this article.

Griffis says the current phase of his investigation involves hiring “outside experts — boat architects, engineers, surveyors, etc. — to conduct the examination. Our attorneys and auditors are conducting interviews and reviewing documents.”

Conway and the four younger sailors — students Steven Guy, Joseph Savana and Ross James Busby and recent graduate Travis Wright — were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew after spending 26 hours in the 84-degree seawater. When Cynthia Woods capsized, Guy was in the cabin with Stone. He grabbed an inflatable PFD, but when the inverted cabin flooded, the PFD inflated, and Guy had to leave it behind, Conway says.

Stone shoved Guy and Wright out of the cabin before the water rushing in forced all of the air out of the hole in the hull where the keel had been. Savana and Busby already were in the water with Conway.

Conway, who spent 21 years in the Coast Guard, retiring as a commander with many assignments in search and rescue, calls the loss of Cynthia Woods the “most challenging situation I’ve ever been in.” He says the four students did remarkably well, given the circumstances. “This event was, in my experience, amazingly quick,” says Conway. “At one point I yelled out, ‘Get the EPIRB.’ It was too late.”

Conway says the life raft was stowed in the cabin amidships. “Travis [Wright] said when the boat started to take on water he grabbed a plug to see if he could plug it,” Conway says. When Wright realized that wouldn’t work, “he tried to get the raft, but had no time. We had extra lights, extra strobes, all the stuff you want to take … with you. It was just still on the boat.”

They were saved, Conway says, by a small flashlight he managed to bring with him. When a helicopter came near them 26 hours after the capsize, he flashed an SOS, and they were rescued.

“There’s a couple of takeaway messages,” says Conway. “One is Roger truly gave his life to save those young men. The second thing is the young men were just outstanding.”

Stone’s Widow, Linda, filed suit in Galveston County Court after the defendants — Cape Fear Yacht Works, Bruce Marek and Galveston Yacht Service — refused to give her lawyer documents concerning Cynthia Woods, she says. CapeFear says on its Web site that “as the Stone family's attorneys communicated their intent to file suit prior to asking for this information, it was the appropriate and reasonable action to decide to wait for the lawsuit to be filed, so that all Texas procedural rules are followed in responding to their request.”

Stone says her goal is to find out “who did what wrong.” She says the defendants also refused to give the documents to the university, which owns the boat.

In the end, she says, the suit aims to “make sure that keels don’t fall off of boats and families aren’t left with big holes in their hearts.”