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Any system can fail; any yacht can lose control

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I am the full-time captain of the vessel that suffered a control system failure in the Bahamas this fall. Unfortunately, at the time of the failure, I was on vacation, and we had a relief captain on board who was less experienced with this system.

In brief, there is no such thing as a perfect system. Whether it is a mechanical system that can suffer a hydraulic or Morse cable break or malfunction, or a state-of-the-art system that may incur an electronic “glitch”, all systems are fallible.

Many accidents — I would venture to state all accidents — are a result of multiple errors, a combination of control failure, lack of system familiarity, poor judgment and an inability to react in such a way that prevents an inconvenience from becoming an accident. Remove any single aspect of this formula and in all probability, most accidents could be avoided.

The incident in the Bahamas is a perfect example. There was, in all probability, a system failure. Let’s call it a ghost in the machine. There was also unfamiliarity. The relief captain, though a highly competent and experienced captain, had only maneuvered the vessel a couple of times. His ability to counter the effect of losing control of one pod was hampered by this unfamiliarity with the system (she has azipods), the vessel was in a narrow channel, perhaps too far to the leeward and being pushed further to lee by combined current and wind.

All in all, an unfortunate set of circumstances. The controls had been fully serviced by Schottel a few weeks earlier. Just prior to the failure, there was a loss of generator that may have caused an amperage surge on restart. This may have caused a temporary glitch, but the system is well serviced. The rumored culprit of humidity is an unlikely factor.

The lessons to be learned: Do not blame the system; know your system. Learn intimately the physics of the system you use, the reaction delays on controls, and the degree the vessel reacts to inputs. Drive with the head, not with reactive response. Be deliberate. Plan ahead for contingencies; know your sea room.

Also, have an escape and be prepared to use it, such as a crew member on master controls (if you are on the wing station), the engineer in place to reset systems, anchors ready. And if you are unfamiliar with the system, don’t be too proud to have a tender in the water. (The recovery at sea, later, is good practice for the crew, anyway.)

Had all of this been put into play, then there would be at least one owner out there who would not have lost the use of his yacht for Christmas.

For general information, the vessel concerned has amazing sea handling characteristics, having previously circumnavigated the globe without incident. The Schottel azipods make her highly maneuverable. With an experienced hand on the helm, she can be brought to berth where most conventionally propelled vessels would hesitate to venture, and the economy from the duo-prop pods is amazing.

The adverse publicity the vessel has received caused by this incident is unjustified and unwarranted.

Capt. Chris Hezelgrave skippers a yacht 140-160 feet and has been in yachting more than 30 years. He asked that the yacht’s name not be printed.

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One thought on “Any system can fail; any yacht can lose control

  1. Leo Lindstrand

    Here are some related thoughts:

    Murphy’s Law

    “If it can stop working it probably will.”

    To compensate for this, use defensive design by making systems simple and independent of each other. This is especially important for vital functions such as steering, compass, engine controls, fire, bilge and distress equipment. Engines and generators can be independent but are now irretrievably complicated. Electronics are very hard to jury rig. Also see below.

    Mechanical sympathy

    “Being gentle with equipment, by understanding how it works and avoiding abrupt actions that cause unnecessary wear.”

    Gentleness can be applied to the driving of a boat (manoeuvre with slow gear and thruster changes), using davits and windlass, engine starting/stopping and loading, the closing of doors and hatches, etc.

    The umbrella effect

    “If you have it you will not need it, and vice versa.”

    I apply this effect to the carrying of spares aboard, and it seems to work. My only explanation is that someone who plans ahead with spares is also likely to plan ahead in general, including preventative maintenance.

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