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Most captains have lost control of yacht; it’s still scary

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It happens. As electronic control of mechanical systems becomes more and more common on yachts, occasionally the electronics can fail. A yacht in the Bahamas last month likely faced that very issue when the yacht seemed to have a mind of its own as it bounded around the marina. (See the captain’s explanation of that incident in the accompanying letter.)

Turns out that most of the 90 captains who answered this month’s survey have either had a similar incident or knows someone who has.

Have you ever lost control of a yacht, regardless of the reason, even for just a moment?

Eighty-four percent have — 21 percent have had it happen just once and 63 percent have had it happen more than once.

“Of course,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Over more than 300,000 miles, we have seen it all. Luckily, we have kept just on the good side of impacts.”

“Having run somewhere in the area of 250 different yachts, I have had multiple failures of electronic controls,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Sometimes it was the potentiometer in the controls, battery issues or just an all-out failure of the electronic controls. With hydraulic controls, I have had failures with leaks or low pressure in the system. With pneumatic controls, I have had failures with the air controls, compressors and air lines/fittings. I have had several Detroit diesels run-away on me where I had no choice but to shut off the air or fuel to the engine.

“Never any damage more than a few small scratches, but definitely several moments that scared me,” this captain said. “Ninety-nine percent of the events were on freelance deliveries where I was not in charge of maintaining the yachts. I can definitely contribute some failures to deferred maintenance.”

Many of the captains who had this experience shared their story, several indicating that it was the time they were most afraid at sea.

“About 12 or 13 years ago, I was preparing to Med moor in Cannes, when what I believe was St. Elmo’s Fire surrounded the ship,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years on vessels 120-140 feet. “Previously, I’d thought it only a figment of sailor’s stories.

“The hydraulic 50hp bow thruster started running hard to port, with nobody touching the controls,” this captain said. “The fairly new electronic controls became somewhat unresponsive. I called to the mate to retrieve the anchors and get inside, which he did. We shut the engines down and rebooted engine computers. The controls went back to normal operation, but the thruster continued to function. Shutting off the thruster circuit breaker stopped the thruster.

“We idled out of the harbor, dropped anchor, and shut everything down,” this captain said. “An hour later, we returned to the harbor in Cannes. I had a man look into the bow thruster problem. It turned out that one of the relays had been welded shut. No good explanation. This never happened again in several more years of operation.”

“With no one near either control station, the yacht 40-60 feet went into gear at around 1,500 rpms, heading toward a dock 100 feet away,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I dove on the controls, had to use the kill switches. The only control I had was a weak bow thruster, which helped minimize the damage to a 2-foot hole in the side of the boat. Control rep came, replaced the system for free, but claimed no responsibility. Off the record, the rep said it’s happened before on other boats.”

“At a yard on refit, the gyro compass indicator lamp had failed and the manufacturer’s rep came to fix it,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “He had to go and get a part. Whilst he was away, the yard asked us to move. After we threw the lines off and were moving, the thruster went crazy. We ended up smashing a window on another boat before we realized where the problem was and pulled the breaker on the gyropilot. The technician had left bare wires hanging under the console. These shorted out and sent random signals to the integrated thruster/steering. … We now have a written brief for any technician working on any mission-critical system.”

“Electronic controls can fail,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I was on a new yacht in the 2006 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, and of course it was blowing 20-25 knots when it came time for the show to break. The yacht was side-to a finger pier, and the wind was coming across the bow. It was going to be a tight and difficult maneuver to exit, so extra crew was put on board to release all the lines quickly on command. The engines were warmed, the thruster tested, and then came the gear test with the remote. The starboard engine was bumped into forward and then quickly to neutral, however instead of going to neutral, the engine began to throttle up. Instinctively, I depressed the emergency kill switch on the remote, which did nothing, and at the same time moved the engine control to reverse. The engine switched gear, but then started to throttle up in reverse.

“While walking to the main helm station, I toggled the engine between forward gear and reverse gear, trying to minimize any damage that may be occurring, and upon reaching the helm station, keyed off the motor,” this captain continued. “We inspected the system and could find nothing visibly wrong, so we removed the remote, and resumed start-up procedures without incident. Luckily no damage occurred beyond a slight paint scratch on the aft rubrail.

“Upon reaching open water, I reinstalled the remote to make sure I wasn’t going crazy, and sure enough, the remote produced the same results with both engines,” this captain said. “With the remote, the engines would go to full throttle once placed into gear. I contacted the manufacturer, which ran the serial numbers of the control head in the engine room, and confirmed there was an update that needed to be installed. Diodes were added and the problem was resolved ever since.

“I have had 15 years experience with electronic controls, and 95 percent of the time they are bulletproof, especially if you maintain and monitor them properly,” this captain concluded. “But as with any accident in the maritime industry, it is that 5 percent of the time that we are working to reduce.”

“Once, electronic shift controls failed to work,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Twice, steering arm came off the rudder post.”

“While working on a charter boat, we lost control on the wing stations more than once,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “The first time, small damage was done, and the second time the fenders saved us. When it happens, I find I am thinking: Get the controls back, so notify the engineer. Then, how long do we have before I hit something? Then, take action to suffer as little damage as possible. Then, use the radio to let others know.”

“On a night cruise on the ICW approaching a bridge with the current on the stern, we lost throttle controls and went dead ship,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Thankfully, the engineer got down there in time to reacquaint power and control before it became an extreme situation. The same situation occurred with a stiff north crosswind as we headed out of a channel — and toward one of the concrete pilings.”

“It was a new yacht to me, and the bow thruster would not stop, causing the bow to spin around and the stern to hit the dock,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “When we opened up the wing controls, the terminals were all wet and rusty and had completely failed. Very scary.”

We learned that these sorts of incidents can happen for a variety of reasons.

“Crew flipped the wrong switch in the engine room, overrode helm controls,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“The stainless steel gear cable broke, and the port motor was stuck in forward gear,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I was in very close quarters in a windy marina, left with only one engine and a stern thruster because my port engine is the source of hydraulic power for the bow thruster. I quickly disabled the port engine and was able to maneuver the boat to an open dock with only starboard engine and the stern thruster. No damage was done but I do recommend checking the cables from the transmission to the throttle control regularly.”

“Once I lost control due to low battery voltage and hit a dock,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “The damage, luckily, was minor. In retrospect, I think the system was not set up properly. It was a boat I was just driving for the day and did not look into the system further. Another time, I lost response due to a loose connection in the engine room. I was able to reset the system and complete the docking without a problem. Another time, a watermaker hose broke and sprayed water on a connection in the engine room. It caused the entire system to stop responding. I ended up having to control the throttles with zip ties for 700 miles and get a tow into the dock. I do think the systems I have had have good fail safes, but stuff happens when water and electricity mix. Good installations prevent most issues.”

“Pulling into a slip, the damn pneumatic shifts stuck in forward and we were pulling into the boats ahead, luckily in slow speed,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “I ran down the ladder to the cockpit controls and was able to manually put the transmissions in neutral, then reverse for a bit. Just missed the dock ahead by inches. The air lines had frozen over, causing the shifts to jam. Glad to have manual back ups. My next boat had built-in manual back ups. I’ve lost steering systems a few times but was able to anchor and make repairs.”

“I was running a yacht 50-70 feet and the controls at the lower helm failed,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “I climbed the tower and ran from there from Key West all the way to Ft. Lauderdale and nearly lost my life in a storm. One of my worst days at sea ever.”

Just 16 percent of our respondents have never had this happen to them.

“I check all controls prior to getting under way as well as prior to getting into tight quarters,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If a crucial system is not working properly, I plan accordingly or abort the planned maneuver.”

“There is a big red button on every yacht clearly labelled ‘emergency stop’ for every engine and even hydraulics controls such as davits, cranes, doors, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “There is no excuse for any of that ‘the electronics failed’ BS. That answer lies in the same category as ‘the dog ate my homework’.”

We asked these captains Do you know anyone to whom this sort of event has happened? Nearly two-thirds have. And they, too, wanted to share their stories.

“I didn’t lose control but was the victim,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I was the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet docked in a shipyard. A yacht 160-180 feet was coming in to dock in front of us. The captain had moved out on the wing and told the mate who was on the wheel that he had control. The mate then left the wheelhouse to assume docking duties. Shortly thereafter, the captain yelled that he had no control. The vessel had a fair amount of way on as it slammed into a mooring barge, breaking the barge loose, which then slammed into our bow and scrapped down the side of our yacht, causing extensive damage. Overall cost of this allision was about $600,000. It turned out that this had happened several times before and was one of the reasons the yacht was coming to the yard.”

That leaves just six of the 90 captains who took this month’s survey who have avoided being touched by this event in their careers. What surprised us is that they all have been in yachting longer than 20 years, two of them longer than 35 years.

Among those captains who have experienced a loss of control of a yacht, we asked Did you ever figure out the reason for the loss of control?

Nearly all had, with most — 77 percent — attributing it to an electronic malfunction.

“Once, electronic throttles had a bad control box,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Second time, charger and alternator issues failed to provide enough power to electronic engine controls.”

“Three separate electronic control failures,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“I have had the link that engages the engines in and out of gear break during a docking maneuver, had bow thruster systems fail, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“Controls shorted out and a single 3-amp fuse blew, rendering the throttles inoperable,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

“We recently had our electric shift change the gearbox from forward to reverse while motoring along at speed,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “That nearly destroyed the gearbox, but in the end all the parts survived.”

About 15 percent had mechanical issues, and about 5 percent admitted to human error.

“Once, someone on the bridge bumped into throttles,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Once, we ran out of fuel approaching the dock.”

“Running a jet boat is a little like trying to ice skate in tennis shoes,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “When you lose reverse in one engine (bucket failure), it’s like trying on one leg.”

Did the yacht suffer any damage because of it?

While these loss-of-control situations may be common, nearly 60 percent of captains said they did not result in damage.

“Lucky to have been at sea one time, and in a large bay with no wind another,” one captain said.

“Just one broken window on the other vessel,” another said. “Good fender work by our crew saved us from worse.”

“Fortunate to realize the issue and compensate before any disaster,” said a third captain. “It could have gone the other way easily.”

“Just to my dignity,” a captain said.

Among those captains who did have damage to the yacht after a loss of control, about 27 percent said the yacht was damaged just once, and often it was minor.

“Light keel damage after a rudder cable broke in bad weather on a lee shore,” said a captain.

What was the situation or circumstances surrounding your loss of control?

The most common situation was a manufacturer defect.

“Computer circuitry and age,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years, who checked this box as a reason but was cautious to blame. “That it might be a manufacturer’s defect is debatable.”

The next most common answer was “other”, the bulk of which was attributed to either the age of the equipment or part, or the fact that it broke.

“Corroded part that took three techs to find,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Otherwise, old throttle and possible short in unit.”

“Failure of 12-year-old electronic control unit,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“Electrical short due to corrosion at the drive-by wire exterior station,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

Another chunk of these “other” answers referred to faulty installation or service by vendors.

“Maintenance does not guarantee confidence; technicians have human error, too,” a captain said.

About 22 percent of respondents listed human error as contributing to their loss of control, and about 18 percent said it was lack of maintenance.

“Either sabotage by an outgoing crew member or human error,” a captain said. “I’m not sure which and will never know.”

“Another layer of skill and sophistication is called for with modern yachts,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

Bad weather and humidity were the least likely reasons.

When these events occur, especially if there is damage, we were curious to know Did the owner understand?

Captains overwhelmingly said that the owners did understand.

“We are lucky that our owner feels such disasters are great fun and part of yachting,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Another time, our captured mainsail winch went into payout mode. The 3-ton boom went out of control, swinging wild. We managed to get control with just the loss of a solar panel. That was caused by a bad electric over-pressure valve. The manufacturer said, ‘Well, it is seven years old. You should change everything at that age.’ And so it goes.”

Among the 16 percent of captains who have never experienced a loss of control, we asked Do you think it could ever happen to you?

Three-quarters said yes.

“Although it’s unlikely if proper maintenance and precautions are taken,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “However, it is always possible due to the automated nature of modern components.”

“I hope not, but I realize it can happen, and I must continue to be extra prudent,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“We are so dependent on complex systems aboard today that it is our primary responsibility to anticipate failure,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

That left about four captains who said they didn’t think this sort of thing would ever happen to them.

“I avoid ridiculous control items such as remote operation boxes, wireless vessel operation systems, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If you can’t run a boat with basic controls, go back to school.”

“There are many steps to help prevent a loss-of-control event,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “We all get a bit complacent at times, and the instant you do, the s— hits the fan.”

If it did happen to them, the majority of captains who have never had a loss-of-control event suggest they would initiate an emergency shut down, drop anchors and deploy fenders.

“Gain control via manual control steering or throttle control,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “We as captains drill, but this is one area that gets overlooked. What happens if you lose steering or a throttle sticks? If it’s drilled and the crew knows how to react, it could save you from an accident.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. We conduct monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t received an e-mail to take our surveys, e-mail lucy@the-triton.com to be included.

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