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Lessons from the Bounty — Going Around

It’s unclear how much longer Bounty would have lasted had she not sailed straight into Hurricane Sandy.

I’m thinking about our trip from San Diego to Kemah. We left San Diego at the end of March, and arrived in Kemah on July 3, which means we were sailing in hurricane waters, during hurricane season. That’s something your insurance frowns upon, but that’s nothing compared to how badly other sailors frown on you.

The pinnacle of this condemnation came from an Australian couple in Chiapas. They had intended to do the same trip as us, but seeing as how Hurricane Season ™ was upon us, they opted to store their boat in Chiapas, and fly home to Australia to wait it out. They never asked us what we knew about hurricanes, or what preparations we’d made, or anything else. They just assumed that sailing where hurricanes can potentially be is tantamount to suicide. They in fact went so far as to take Angela, our (first time ever sailing) crewmember aside, and suggest that she pack her things, abandon us, and fly home from the Chiapas airport, because we were mad and reckless and we were all going to die.

No, I’m not exaggerating. Their fear of potential hurricanes was that tremendous. Angela, thank goodness, is more intrepid than that, and stuck with us. But if people who have been sailing for years are that afraid, and if Captain Wallbridge was so careless of them that he died in one, surely the lesson to be learned from sailing around hurricanes is somewhere inbetween?

Like Bounty’s captain, I too have made the decision to skirt a storm (although mine was nowhere near a hurricane). When we came down from Emeryville to San Diego, a storm was reported brewing off Point Conception (one of the famous nautical points, even though most Californians don’t realize it; the venturi created by that point generates winds of impressive magnitude). We had the option to either stay in the tsunami-devastated, rolly-as-heck Santa Cruz Harbor until the storm passed, or skitter out as fast as possible, and get to the edge of it. It’d add more miles to our trip, but we really didn’t like the idea of being stuck in Santa Cruz. That storm was bigger than we thought, we didn’t get far enough out, and we spent most of the journey surfing down 20′ waves. That was the storm that generated the wave that we surfed down at 22 knots. (The mariners reading this are going to be thinking about what’s involved with a wave big enough that a catamaran of this size could get going that fast long enough for Jason to grab a camera and photograph the GPS showing that speed… ) We broached on that trip, which is also pretty scary, but is actually more messy than anything. But, other than some broken stuff, our boat is sound and we ended up hale and hearty and healthy and all in one piece down in San Diego. And we learned a lot.

The biggest thing we learned is that we are never, ever going to try to skirt a storm intentionally ever again. Because here’s the thing about storms; they move. They move and grow and change and even people who have been studying weather for their entire lives are taken by surprise, because a storm is a series of variables, any of which could shift the whole thing. And most storms move faster than most boats, so you can’t outrun them. If you choose poorly, or if your luck runs out, you can end up in them instead of outside them. It’s utterly outside your ability to control. The only thing you can control is whether you’re at sea at the time or not. The storm we decided to outflank ended up being twice as big, and lasted twice as long, as anyone had predicted. Our path was fine for what we knew about the storm when we left Santa Cruz, but was wrong by the time we got out by the Channel Islands and the Coast Guard suddenly started calling for mariners to find shelter. At that point, yes, we were safer at sea than we would have been trying to negotiate into the lee of one of the Islands, or into the major shipping channels of coastal California. But really, we’d have been safer in Santa Cruz. Unless, y’know, there was another tsunami…

But here’s the crux of that, from my position here on the other side of my laptop; my boat was never taking on water. Our bilges were dry. We were utterly seaworthy. We had plenty of points in the Black Box, based on a lot of work, and on being utterly clear on the idea that your first responsibility is to keep water out of the boat. Bounty’s crew, apparently, was not clear on that, and they left while taking on water, while unsure of the fuel on board, with a dodgy electrical system. One thing that I haven’t heard about (and I don’t have access to the transcripts, so maybe it’s there?) was how the crew was accessing weather information while underway. But if their electrical system was dodgy enough that they didn’t have communications at all, I’m guessing that meant they didn’t have weather information at all either, and that’s… that’s something I wouldn’t do.

On the Kemah trip, we stopped off in Puerto Aventuras, on the Yucatan, for supplies, and to take a break and rest up before crossing the Gulf. And while we were there, Hurricane Debby materialized. And she moved east….and then west… and then east… she bounced back and forth over our projected course a few times. And we just sat tight and waited, until she’d committed to moving over Florida. We could have pushed it, we could have chanced it, but really, a few days didn’t matter, and none of us felt that, at the end of a long, tired trip, that dodging a hurricane sounded like fun.

Which means that I was in the same position as the Captain; on a deadline, needing to get to my destination as soon as possible, considering whether my tired boat and my tired crew was ready to go play in a hurricane or not. Granted, my boat was nowhere near the hurricane; I wasn’t going to have to endure it at the dock. But it was almost a trivial decision; look at the weather forecast, look at the crew, look at the weather forecast, talk to the harbormaster, look at the boat, picture a hurricane… head back to the bar for another cold one to celebrate not going around.

 

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