Earlier this year, I touched upon the accident investigation surrounding the tragic loss and sinking of the HMS Bounty. The ship sailed from New London, Conn., as Hurricane Sandy was coming up the Eastern seaboard in late October 2012. Two people were killed in that accident, including the ship’s master.
Since that column was published, I received a lot of positive feedback into the coverage. However, what I disturbingly discovered from many of the commenters was a general feeling that “this could never happen to yachts.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When I moved from the merchant fleet to yachting many years ago, I distinctly remember being surprised at the level of success that everyone experienced. I am not talking about personal successes or the one-off accomplishments. I am talking about the consistent and ever-increasing triumphs that people in yachting experience. Everyone is always doing excellent all of the time. Not to be a pessimist, but that is impossible.
I am not sure if it is a cultural response, especially since everything in yachting must be at its best all of the time. Alternatively, is it simply a “teenager’s response” when one feels invincible to the world? In either case, we need to pull our collective heads out of the sand. Here are some examples of reality that are very much affecting yachts.
Port state control officers in Vancouver, Canada, discovered multiple safety deficiencies during a routine inspection aboard a 130-foot (40m) yacht. Most of the deficiencies were safety-related for fire danger. Excessive oil and oily mixture in the bilges, excessive oil in the engine room, and oil-saturated insulation were noted.
The emergency fire pump was found leaking water. The generators had active lube oil leaks. A fire door in the lazarette could only be opened from one direction, thus causing a severe egress issue.
When the captain was asked why this condition existed, he explained that a major shipyard period was scheduled in three months time. The whole engine room would be fixed then. Canadian authorities disagreed. The yacht was ordered to a repair dock for immediate corrective action.
In the United Kingdom, the captain of a 65-foot (20m) yacht was fined about $5,700 when he fired rocket distress flares when not in need of immediate assistance. While at a harbor festival, the captain fired a rocket that landed on shore and continued to burn. Thankfully, spectators on shore were able to extinguish the subsequent fire. Some time later, two more flares were fired further out amongst moored boats. This action dispatched lifeboat crews to the scene. The captain was found, questioned, and arrested.
Continuing with our European location, the captain of a 100-foot (30m) yacht was found guilty of failing to keep a lookout, impeding a vessel constrained by her draft, and incorrectly crossing a narrow channel thereby impeding a vessel constrained by her draft. While maneuvering a sailing yacht, this captain determined that he had right of way with an approaching 120,000 gross ton oil tanker. Continuing on his course, even after the tanker sounded the danger signal and multiple warnings on VHF, the yacht collided with the tanker. The sailing yacht’s rigging became entangled in the ship’s anchor. This caused the mast to collapse and trap a member of the crew. A second crew member had jumped overboard moments before the collision. Both were rescued and taken to the hospital without life-threatening injuries.
The captain was subsequently arrested and tried in court. In addition to the three guilty charges, he was ordered to pay about $155,000 in fines and costs of damage. Having spent a considerable amount of my sea time on tankers, this scenario definitely falls within the unwritten “law of gross tonnage.”
Back to this side of the Atlantic, the ingenious engineer of a 145-foot (44m) yacht found himself on the wrong side of the U.S. Coast Guard. While taking on bunkers at a fuel dock, he discovered a small leak at the deck connection. Fuel oil had begun to accumulate. Rather than stop the fueling and fix the leak, he threw down a few absorbent pads. When the fueling was completed, he cleaned up the area by washing down the decks.
Noting that there was a nice sheen in the water next to the yacht, the resourceful engineer decided to use some dish soap to disperse the fuel. Just when all appeared to be done, there was a commanding voice on the swim platform. The boys in blue from the USCG were there. They received a phone call of an oil spill at the marina and were there to investigate.
Upon further questioning, the engineer explained his actions during bunkering, his wash down of the fuel, and use of a “dispersant” in the water. Needless to say, these were not the correct actions to take. Surprising to the engineer, he was arrested for violation of the Clean Water Act.
Final disposition of the case is pending, but the engineer is facing civil penalties of about $30,000 and potential criminal charges, as deliberate oil pollution is a felony.
It happens. Be it a big accident or a little accident, it happens. It is nothing new to our industry. The history of accidents at sea transgresses to the first vessel that took to the water. However, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that safety is practiced at all times. Unfortunately, where one assumes that common sense will prevail, it is not always the case.
Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.