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On Sailboats - The safety of knowing what’s ahead

A cruising couple develops a collision-avoidance device that can be mounted in the cockpit

A cruising couple develops a collision-avoidance device that can be mounted in the cockpit

Judith Sleavin had just finished the routine log entries of her watch and was about to return to the cockpit of Melinda Lee. The stout Compass 47 cutter was part of a flotilla of cruisers en route from Nuku’alofa, Tonga, to New Zealand, a 1,000-mile passage. It was about 2 a.m. on a stormy night with restricted visibility and intermittent rain.

Sleavin got up to don her harness and PFD when she was knocked down by a blow from a giant’s fist. All went dark, but she realized the cold, violent ocean was rushing in, mixed with diesel fuel from a ruptured tank. When she surfaced, she took a deep breath and was confronted with an apocalyptic scenario: The companionway hatch, the rig and the life raft had all been sheared off during impact, and the boat’s port side was smashed. Mike, her husband, and Annie Rose, the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, both asleep at the time of the accident, somehow had managed to escape and get up on deck, but their son, Benjamin, 9, had not.

There was no time to comprehend what exactly had happened because the cutter was mortally wounded and going down fast with Ben trapped below. A small inflatable that was stored on deck popped to the surface as the waves closed over Melinda Lee, so the three survivors got in. But 50 miles from the nearest land, without provisions or emergency supplies, their chances of survival were slim. After several capsizes and hours of battling the cold, Mike and Annie Rose, who weren’t wearing foulies because they were resting in their bunks at the time of the collision, perished too. Only Judith, injured and exhausted, was rescued more than 60 hours later.

It made no difference that the Sleavins were sticklers for safety — responsible sailors who kept a regular watch and an accurate plot of their course. It was of no consequence that their yacht was equipped with a collision avoidance radar detector and a separate radar reflector. They still were rammed by the 540-foot bulk carrier Pan Grace, en route from Tauranga, New Zealand, to Inchon, South Korea, loaded with a cargo of logs.

During a Senate hearing before the Commerce Committee April 22, 1998, John Sleavin, the deceased skipper’s brother, testified that the watch officer on the Pan Grace did not activate the Automatic Radar Plotting Aid, which calculates the speed and bearing of other vessels and necessary course changes to avoid collision. The ship’s helmsman, according to Sleavin’s testimony, saw Melinda Lee’s red running light off the Pan Grace’s starboard bow and reported it to the second mate, who ordered a 10-degree turn in that direction to pass astern of the yacht. Although the mate could not see the port position light emerge on the port side of the Pan Grace’s bow, he assumed the sailboat had safely crossed. Subsequently, the Pan Grace continued on her way without trying to locate Melinda Lee or the crew in the water, and without sending out a radio call to alert other vessels.

Searching for answers

The date of this tragedy, Nov. 24, 1994, remains etched in many cruisers’ minds because it represents their worst nightmare: being run down by a ship on a stormy night on the open ocean. The COLREGS called for the Pan Grace to give way, but that won’t bring back Mike, Ben and Annie Rose. It was a shocking reminder that diligence and technology weren’t enough in a worst-case scenario that combined bad weather and reduced visibility with a commercial ship on a collision course.

Of course, GPS, radar, electronic charts and the like have become much more sophisticated, integrated and networked in the intervening 14 years, putting all kinds of information at a small-boat operator’s fingertips. The devices are more compact and energy efficient, so they can be run continuously, even with limited electric power. Yes, one would think, the pieces are all there. But many cruisers still desire an electronic watch buddy that’s on all the time, keeping tabs on commercial traffic and sounding off if a potentially dangerous situation develops.

Enter Jeff Robbins, a software developer, and Deirdre Schleigh, who spent years researching and developing computer components. After moving from Colorado to Seattle in the early 1990s, the couple took a sailing class and became hooked. They learned as much and as fast as they could, and chartered locally. Soon they noticed that returning to work after a glorious sailing vacation was a drag. In Schleigh’s words, “It became clear that we also wanted to explore distances beyond what a charterboat would allow.”

They acquired Vesper, a bluewater-capable Nordic 40 that they found large enough for comfort, but small enough for single-handing. After getting her ocean-ready and handing in the badge at their respective jobs, they left FridayHarbor in May 2001, first for Alaska and then for points south, like Panama and the Galapagos. Then they jumped over to French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, where they picked up the Sleavins’ tracks for the crossing to New Zealand, their cruising base for the following years.

As the miles piled up, Robbins and Schleigh refined their safety equipment but never established trust in their radar detector. “During the shakedown, we encountered many cruise ships and fishing vessels running their radar, and were surprised when no alarm sounded,” says Schleigh. “We started experiments with cruising friends who would run their radar at different power levels and ranges. Never could we get our alarm to trigger. We eventually started calling the bridge of ships to confirm they were in transmission mode.” They insist that the detector was properly installed, but its spotty performance coupled with poor technical support made it expendable.

Filling the gap

They picked up an AIS, or Automatic Identification System, receiver that transmits speed, course, ship name and other data. (For more on AIS, see ) It was a step forward, but it wasn’t the solution they had in mind because it required a laptop and was cumbersome to operate.

“When you’re tired you don’t always make the best decisions, and having something that doesn’t require you to figure out relative courses or click and scan all over the screen seemed like an advantage,” says Schleigh. Besides, the software developer in Robbins thought relying on a computer that can crash when you most need it would be a serious problem for a safety device. All they wanted was a dedicated box that does few things but does them well, something that runs all the time and doesn’t require an engineering degree to operate.

“We felt it would be best if we could find a device that would predict collision risk and only warn us if we were in danger,” Schleigh says.

Since nobody sold such a magic box, they decided to pool their know-how and build their own. The prototype was tested on a trans-Pacific cruise and proved its value outside the Panama Canal, where commercial traffic is always thick. They say their gadget managed to track 124 ships, but identified only five that were potential threats. It was proof, Schleigh says, “that a prioritized list of targets beats clicking and scrolling on a computer screen full of icons.”

Cruising friends took note and spread the word, and soon Robbins and Schleigh found themselves in business as Vesper Marine ( ), selling what they call the AISWatchMate through retailers in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A better mousetrap

Although the $499 AISWatchMate doesn’t include an external AIS receiver (so customers can select a receiver they like) or a GPS (because that’s likely to be on board already), Schleigh and Robbins believe their box offers several features that distinguish it from other products on the market and make practical sense from a cruiser’s point of view. It doesn’t require a computer or separate software to do its job; it is waterproof and daylight readable; can be mounted on a steering pedestal, so it lives in the cockpit, where it is most needed; filters and prioritizes targets and sounds alarms based on closest point of approach and the time to closest point of approach; displays Class B targets, safety messages and aids to navigation and updates the screen continuously; and the device connects to others through three data interfaces.

The manufacturer says the AISWatchMate shouldn’t be considered a replacement for radar, but it can help where radar is challenged. It can pick up the VHF signal of the AIS transmission from a ship that’s hidden by an island or by conditions that produce sea clutter on a small boat’s radar to communicate the target’s position, course, range, name and whether or not it is becoming a collision threat. It also allows a crew to call the ship by name or its Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, which is more likely to get attention of the watch on a commercial vessel.

While Soundings hasn’t tested the device, we’ve received feedback from users such as Bob Armstrong, an accountant from Bradenton, Fla., who raced his J/92, Mischief, from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, last spring with a full crew and delivered it back double-handed. It was the first time he used the AISWatchMate, which he had installed on a swing arm near the companionway so it was viewable from the cockpit and the cabin.

“It uses very little power, and it takes the stress out of guessing how fast and which way a ship is going,” he says, recalling several instances when the closest point of approach was less than a half-mile and one with a tanker that indicated “zero,” meaning a collision. “The WatchMate alerted us to these situations well in advance and allowed us to contact the ships’ captains to discuss the situation.”

Laura Wright, who cruises the South Pacific with her husband, Bob, calls it “our most important piece of safety equipment … an additional watch-standing crew.”

Could it have saved the Sleavins? It’s bold speculation, but Wright thinks so. “We think of them on every passage, and their deaths remind us to keep proper watches. But even in the best conditions it is nearly impossible to be diligent all the time. If the WatchMate had been available to them, they would probably be alive today.”

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.