Ten lessons learned

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1. No two passages are alike. Don’t think setting sail at what is deemed the most appropriate time is reason for less vigilance. Weather routers are not only for racers. They add a level of security through objective analysis of far broader data than one can access on board within economically reasonable parameters.

2. All security equipment should be grouped together in the most central, least vulnerable and most accessible area inside the vessel. Heavy weather requires as many crewmembers as operationally possible to be secure inside the vessel, where safety equipment can be accessed in anticipation of catastrophic events. The most vulnerable element of a sailboat is the rig. Such was the case for Sean Seamour II, with the exception of cold-water protection suits that were in a rear port deck locker that ended up under the crushed rig. Had these been kept with all other security equipment in a compartment at the base of the companionway, the crew would have been able to don these after the first knockdown and avoid hypothermia.

Read the other stories in this package: Death’s Door   EPIRB problem exposed by the powerful storm

3. Pumps are never redundant. Whale pumps are great. I had three installed on board, [but] only the cockpit pump could have been used. The stern and bow units were not accessible because of debris or water levels. Again, these should be centrally installed on the highest floor level within the vessel; 2000-gph electric Rule pumps should be permanently installed in tandem to avoid debris plugging the pump. Ours had to be constantly monitored against floating paper and other debris.

4. Redundancy saved my crew, but not my vessel. I always considered the second EPIRB a luxury. Eleven years later, it still tested operational, which it ended up being. Had I planned this redundancy with purpose, [the older EPIRB] would also have been sent for recertification, would have been kept with the main unit inside [the cabin] for deployment, would have been [activated] and efforts to save the vessel accomplished. Redundancy is a must, but making sure you are not carrying duds as a feel-good notion of redundancy is almost as important.

5. Reliability of equipment. Both ACR 406 EPIRB units tested operational, yet both performed below specifications. The ACR GlobalFix died within 30 minutes after being sent for verification and recertification two weeks earlier. The second, old ACR self-tested positive, but battery life was only 10 hours. Had we been farther out to sea, its remaining 10 hours of battery power would have been insufficient to help guide our way.

6. Lashing is too often considered and applied [just] to on-deck equipment, openings, doors, etc. Within the vessel, we generally secure for heavy weather thrashing, forgetting what happens during knockdowns and 360s. Start with floorboards. These are the first to pop under such circumstances, either through simple gravitational action [or] the kinetic energy that can be created during a knockdown. Half of my floorboards were not secured. The [item] most forgotten in my case was the saloon table, which detached and was probably the cause for half of my 10 broken ribs. Had it knocked me unconscious or worse, my crew would have likely perished.

7. The Gulf Stream. Staying away from the core is not sufficient when confronting opposing direction weather systems. I left the Stream well before the storm, but did not take into account the size of the eddies in that area. I had used the Stream carefully, avoiding the eddies, in my 1996 crossing. But over the last five years, I had noticed the eddies diminishing in strength in the North Atlantic. Had I tacked further east from the night of the 4th, I would have probably been less punished by Andrea. New data seems to correlate this.

8. Stowing and backup usage of vital electronic equipment must be designed into contingency plans. Sean Seamour II had nearly everything, but contingency plans did not take into account such catastrophic circumstances. A backup VHF antenna was prewired to enable the DSC VHF to function, but the stowed antenna [couldn ’t be found] after the 360-degree roll, which crushed the rig. The SSB antenna used one of the backstays, [which was lost] with the rig. And the tuner was positioned too low and was shorted by water. The Iridium satellite phone should have been kept in a waterproof container; it was soaked in the 360-degree roll.

9. Securing the vessel, at least for the short term, must remain a priority. With the knowledge that the GPIRB [was functioning], securing the vessel [would have been] my first objective — dumping the rig, 100 meters of chain and bow anchors, and plugging the mast passage. These actions would have secured the vessel for at least an extra hour or two. Taking other actions could have put us under way with engine propulsion. Although for years I have prepared myself mentally for this type of situation, given the level of panic, physical trauma and the ensuing disorientation, too much time was lost attempting to get electronic equipment to function. If it doesn’t work, it is not going to. Redundancy yes, dependence no.

10. Substantial time had been dedicated to briefing the crew prior to departure on the safety equipment inventory, whereabouts and deployment. [However] showing them how collision mats, Rule pumps and other equipment should be used, as well as other procedures, such as rerouting Whale pumps, [would have been] far better. Had I been incapacitated during these catastrophic events, I am not sure the crew would have survived.