Cascading events: preventing crisis at sea

Fears of disaster at sea can loom large; even for adrenaline junkies, misadventure is not the desired companion to adventure. Jamie shares one facet of thinking around avoiding crises at sea here; for more, join Cruisers U and attend seminar at the Annapolis Boat Show next month.

Some boaters will experience a crisis situation. All come close, repeatedly… You know, like that time during the headsail change when the halyard slipped away, and then… Oh wait, that one became a crisis. How could a loose halyard go so wrong, right? Let’s let the halyard dangle, for now, while we talk crisis.

What is a crisis? Multiple concurrent problems for which there are no procedural solutions.

An emergency may be terribly bad, but it’s not a crisis. The difference matters. It’s a little like when you were a freshman and procrastinated writing a paper. You pulled an all-nighter and finished it just in time – stressful. Then as a self-assured sophomore, the same thing happened except you had three papers due and a kegger all demanding attention on the same night – stressful with very mixed outcomes. Multiples are much harder to manage.

We sailed into Port Villa, Vanuatu in October 2010 and while figuring out the fairly crowded anchorage, a sailboat was towed past us and put on a mooring.

sailboats in a mooring field off Port Vila, Vanuatu
Lonely boat in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Engine failure came to mind, but we learned otherwise. A guy was out sailing with his girlfriend. It was a nice day that got a little lumpy which caused an issue with the dinghy. He went aft to sort it out – and fell overboard. Like the sinking catamaran, this is a serious emergency. The girlfriend was not a sailor and had no idea what to do. Single problem cascaded into multiple problems:

3) crew member overboard

4) crew onboard could not maneuver the boat being steered by autopilot

5) visual of victim was lost

6) boat was sailing without control towards an island

The number sequence is not wrong. The boyfriend going overboard was an emergency, but problems began earlier as elevated risk: 

1) towing the dinghy in the ocean in unsettled sea state.

2) not taking precautions before leaving the cockpit, especially knowing the crew was not a skilled boater

Girlfriend had a lucky break when fishermen saw the boat sailing towards a reef. They were able to get on board and alter course. She lived. Boyfriend was never seen again. Even if girlfriend was a skilled boater, managing a situation with crew overboard AND lumpy conditions AND towed dinghy problem would’ve been very difficult. This was a crisis ending in tragedy.

tropical island paradise: blue sky, white clouds, sandy beach, turquoise water
Reason #73 to go cruising: perfect, remote atolls. Just because.

The cause was not a single dramatic event. Instead, seemingly inconsequential choices cascaded into crisis and terrible consequences. It’s easy to cast judgement of the man’s choices, but doing so is hollow. Who hasn’t left the cockpit in haste or taken a tiny shortcut in preparations? The take-away here is two main points.

First, multiple problems (crisis situation) divide focus and response efforts. No one problem can be resolved as well as if it were the ONLY problem.

Second, most often crisis is born from a single problem, be it serious or insignificant, that grows exponentially more complex IF more problems pile on. Meaning, when that first “thing” happens, don’t let a second thing happen! I call this “boxing the problem”. Key is understanding when risk in a situation is elevated. Sometimes it’s obvious and instantly dealing with an emergency. Often, it’s subtle and still represents elevated risk. The towed dinghy became tragedy while a sinking catamaran was a textbook rescue. 

This brings us back to the dangling halyard. It’s a typical day along the Malay Peninsula, light winds with a chance of volatility. Husband, in this real event, decides on a course of action after the halyard got away, all the way to the masthead. He chose to go up the mast to retrieve the halyard. Going aloft always brings elevated risk! Doing so at sea is rocketed risk. It was clear from the storyteller, his wife, that retrieving it was unnecessary – just a macho guy thing. Worse still, a squall was approaching but he was only going up for a minute. At the masthead, it took long enough for the squall to hit. Now a single, benign problem (halyard) became a very risky situation (going aloft) and then two problems (dude up the mast and managing the boat in a squall). Bad, right? Get this! While pitching around, mast and man came crashing down.

To recap, there is a concurrent man overboard and dismasting during a squall. Husband had to get untangled from halyard and rigging before it pulled him under while also not loosing sight of the boat in torrential conditions. At this moment we were no longer sure that the guy next to the storyteller was in fact the same macho mast climbing in the story. Confirmation, and relief, came over a stunned group of cruisers when the storyteller wife looked at the guy with a big laugh, saying – you were so stupid! Husband heartily agreed.

A simple, single problem devolved into a full crisis situation. The outcome was lucky, sans rig, but lucky nonetheless. Even if the first domino to fall is a big one, do what you can to prevent it from tumbling others. Box the problem. This takes assessed, reasoned response. I suspect the guy in Vanuatu never imagined that he could be one of those clumsy people that falls overboard. 

Long ago, on a dark, lumpy night I had to leave the cockpit to put a deeper reef in the main. I was wearing a PFD with integrated harness, tethered to Totem. Still, being a little uncomfortable with the elevated risk, I asked myself “is this the last time I leave the cockpit?” It was a question. There is a lot to crisis management at sea. A good place to start is questioning your actions before you take them. I still ask myself that question when leaving the cockpit. Some boaters will experience a crisis situation. All come close, repeatedly…

blacktip reef shark swims next to sailboat hull in clear water
Sharks swim under Totem in Chagos: still feel at greater risk in a vehicle on the highway.

11 Responses

  1. Crises and emergencies have their start long before they become evident crises and emergencies; ask any aviation accident investigator. Practically all, from their conception, are failings of the human(s) involved. Yes, equipment fails but at bottom it is human failure. Experienced sailors have the gift of fear… not a paralyzing fear but the instinctive recognition of the possibility of something untoward happening. Those sailors continually play out scenarios in their heads exactly like your self-question before heading out of the cockpit during that lumpy night watch. Totem’s successful travels through widely varying situations prove the point.

  2. Great post. Reminds me of the “Swiss Cheese Model”, talked about often in aviation. The holes in each slice represent a weakness, risk, or potential failure. The more holes, and the larger they are, the more likely for a stack of slices to have the holes align and a catastrophic problem get through.

    Great examples in your post.

  3. I’ve the post and how you put it. I call it “The Cycle of Errors” and how they spiral, unless the first small issue is resolved.

    One theory on the Titanic sinking is substandard steel used for the rivots, which caused the heads to sheer which caused a larger hole … saving 1/10 of a cent on each rivot sank the entire ship.

    On boats, there are no short cuts, only delayed very long routes.

  4. Excellent story on the loss of El Faro.

    Behan – I have been thinking about running a seminar at Annapolis to be called “Think or Swim”. I have background in simulation-based technical training (in medicine) and know how effective it can be to give people experience in dealing with real-time disasters in simulated situations. But I have never really gotten any traction on the project. Suggestions for how to proceed? Any interest in collaborating?

  5. Wow. So, the first time my father ever went sailing was in college with a friend on a pretty little boat. Neither was wearing life jackets and they were just on a lake in Michigan, so normally no big deal, but while my dad was in the front he heard the friend say “oh s—!” and turned to see him go overboard as the boom hit him and friend fell in the water. Basically leaving my dad in the same position as the girlfriend, with the same results: my dad did manage to turn the boat around, but the friend died despite being a good swimmer. They think the friend got a cramp.

    So with that, I knew where this story was going from the first sentence. It happens more than people think. 🙁

  6. Nice write-up.

    Boat accidents are scary, especially if there is loss of life.

    Hope that never happens to any of us.

    I haven’t gone sailing, but looking to go yatch-ing sometime soon.

  7. I remember when I walked up the deck of my Pearson Ariel to put a reef in on my maiden voyage, (solo, without much knowledge of what the hell I was doing) I would say, “Mom told me to come home.” I was 23 years young and off on an “adventure.” Sometimes it made me double check stuff, go a little slower, or just wait and see how I felt about things. The compromise was well worth it. I shudder at the thought of going over, and almost did. Here’s my close encounter:

    I was almost taken overboard by a fish I never saw. I was 25 miles off of Cabo and thought to go fishing. My rod and reel were in its holder on the pushpit railing. The lure had worked its way off of the rod eye, and was swaying over the water for a while. I am guessing this must have enticed a wahoo or dorado to follow for some time. I stood up with my legs braced against the pushpin and backstay. The water was flat calm and deep cobalt. Glass as far as the eye could see. Blue skies with frigate birds circling. Stripping the line out to grab the lure, I tossed it onto the surface of the water, never guessing I’d have instant contact.

    I was motoring at 4.5 knots straight at Cabo Falso. Then Bam! A flash of silvery-blue, an eruption of foam, a heavy duty rod furiously bent, all overshadowed by the fact that weight was leaving my feet. I wrapped my leg around the backstay (back of my knee) as my body crept a little further up and out, praying for the line to snap. If you’ve been in an accident, you know time slows down, and in some way, there’s a moment to process possible outcomes. Mine was picturing my tiny little boat faithfully chugging along until it calmly imploded into the rocks while tourists mouths’ gaped, wondering where the captain may be?

    Lucky for me the line did snap. I fell in a lump in the cockpit trying to reconcile what had happened. Went down below and had some Raicilla. There wasn’t much else to do but carry on, and try to process the fact that I almost went overboard on a windlass day in paradise with a fish on the line. Never in a million years would I have considered that any of this a possibility, yet it was almost my fate. I consider myself a lucky man. Even though I didn’t catch the fish, it’s still my best fishing story.

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