By William Mills
Everybody was dreadfully saddened at the news of the loss of four lives when the sailing yacht Cheeki Rafiki capsized in the Atlantic.
June’s edition of Yachting World covers a report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch concluding the accident was caused by the keel falling off.
Whilst any accident involving the loss of life is to be deeply regretted, we also need to consider the lives of others upon the seas now that a period of mourning has elapsed and we must start to ask those difficult questions which nonetheless demand answers.
Why was a 22 year old in charge of a yacht for a transatlantic crossing?
Why had a charter owned 40 foot Beneteau been allowed to attempt the crossing without a prior lift out and survey?
Why didn’t the yacht radio the Coastguard?
Years ago in the far off 1990’s I was relaxing on my family’s yacht in the Solent when the skipper of another boat started to hurl abuse at a sailing school boat being reversed onto the pontoon by pupils under instruction.
I thought this was a bit ripe and told him so. He replied that the sailing school/charter boats were doing tremendous damage to the recreational yachting industry.
Years later my own experiences are leading me to wonder whether he was right in those far off barmy days?
I started keel boat sailing in the 1980’s on a UFO 31 off the Sussex coast. My mentor and skipper, Barry, had actually built the yacht from a kit which was in vogue in those days. Barry was always worried about just how secure the keel was.
Before every outing he insisted on the crew arriving early in order that the floor boards could be lifted and any water sponged out until the top of the keel bolts were bone dry. They would then be carefully examined for the slightest sign of weeping.
We too kept this routine up every morning when we were holidaying away from home.
Once when leaving the travel hoist slings after a refit we were motoring down the River Adur back to our moorings when water suddenly started to pour in. Barry screamed at us to turn around and get the yacht tied off against a larger moored yacht and get ready to get off. Then he tore the engine cover off and discovered the leak was the stern gland which hadn’t been sufficiently tightened. Only when he was sure the problem was fixed did we continue.
I learnt two things that day. If water starts coming in through the bottom immediately seek the support of a larger vessel and stop the vessel’s forward motion to get the pressure off the leak.
HMS Ark Royal
Indeed a useful reading point is the sinking of aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 1941. After being hit by a torpedo near Gibraltar she was still afloat until a civilian tug tried to tow her when she immediately rolled over and sunk. The post war investigation concluded she was lost due to the inexperience and negligence of the damage control party. The Admiralty Court concluded the ship should have stayed where it was, even though in enemy waters, until a similar sized vessel could have been tied alongside.
With any damaged vessel it is better to keep it afloat although stationery rather than risk sinking by moving it, unless the shore is very near.
Another more recent example was a Volvo 60 yacht discovered their keel working loose in the South Atlantic. They stopped and sent their diver over to cut a hole in the keel with an underwater torch. Next some spare rigging wire was used to literally tie the keel to the hull. Then it gently motored towards the nearest land with all the crew on deck at all times.
Convoy PQ 17
This was further illustrated in the tragic tale of wartime convoy PQ 17. Sailing in the Arctic towards Russia the escort vessels received a signal that a large German surface raider was in the vicinity and the convoy was to scatter. The Merchantmen were left to fend for themselves.
After being torpedoed and rescued several times a crew refused to leave their lifeboat thinking it pointless to clamber on deck of another ship, get torpedoed again, only to get back into the lifeboat. Why not stay where they were?
Even though they were in the Arctic the crews were sleeping on deck in lifejackets ready to go over the side at a moment’s notice.
A problem with yacht charter companies is many double up as travel agents catering for whole family groups some of whom may be reluctant sailors so they tend to downplay any safety risks.
One such travel operator was supervising their local yacht club’s bi-annual sail training programme. Here, participants were encouraged to pretend that sea going yachts were really mobile sunbathing platforms and if anything breaks the customer simply rings the tour operator who rushes over with a replacement yacht and apologies.
Rather like on a fairground ride when your bumper car breaks down you simply wait where you are until another is brought over.
One session was particularly relevant. On an inclement, non sunbathing day a skipper expressed fear he had a leak in his boat. A group of us walked down to have a look. After pulling up the floorboards we observed a large pool of water over the keel bolts.
I encouraged our group to taste the water with a finger touch of the tongue. It tasted salty! Of course it did. When rainwater runs down the mast it collects salt. Salt blows in through the hatch and ends up in the bilge. So we needed to compare the salinity with the water over the side. In rough weather it can be quite difficult to get a bucket over the side to fetch seawater.
So I asked a girl if she would mind sticking her finger in the toilet bowl whilst pumping the seawater flush. She complied and quickly confirmed it tasted far more salty than the bilge water did. In the event a shower tray was leaking.
My pupil exclaimed she had finally learnt something useful on the course when I pointed out that if it had been 1.024 specific gravity water(the outside water) we would have immediately got off the boat and sought the nearest professional yachts person, ideally the boatyard manager.
I further explained that if we were at sea we would prepare to get off by getting everyone into lifejackets who wasn’t already in one, and ready the grab bag with the flares and other safety equipment. But first we would radio the Coastguard.
‘Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking. Immediate help required.’
It takes time for rescue craft to get alongside so alerting them should always comes first.
It was in this area that Cheeki Rafiki skipper’s lack of knowledge is apparent. Emailing the charter operator was a big mistake. Radioing the Coastguard, or mid ocean the nearest commercial vessel, and getting help was crucial.
Charter operators tend to be motivated by profit and bad operating procedures tend to become the norm. One example of this was during a winter’s weekend racing when a crew person fell overboard.
A fellow crew member was audible panicking over the radio calling for help from another yacht and keeping the transmit button firmly pressed down. Fortunately the race officer on the harbour wall possessed a VHF radio operator’s licence and made the correct call to the Coastguard who in turn diverted an inshore craft to rescue the casualty.
The charter market trained yachtsmen abandoned their race and followed one and another back to the harbour entrance. The Coastguard later complained that they couldn’t speak to the casualty boat because of incorrect radio procedure yet a decision was made not to prosecute the skipper.
Had there been more prosecutions by the authorities of the years, then resulting publicity might have encouraged charter companies to tighten up their act.
The accident report states 22 year old skipper Andrew Bridge knew how to send emails, texts and use a satellite phone. But did he know how to contact the nearest help with either the SSB or VHF marine radios which should have been on board?
With his satellite phone why didn’t he ring Falmouth Coastguard, which provides emergency cover out into the Atlantic? If he didn’t know how why was he allowed to be in charge in the first place?
Who issued his Yachting skipper’s certificate? Who permitted him to take that yacht on that trip with that crew? All of whom are now dead as a result.
Maritime & Coastguard Agency
The MCA’s softly, softly approach to regulation enforcement clearly isn’t working. The minister ultimately in charge should resign and those responsible should be held to account.
Then perhaps rogue sailing schools and yacht charter companies will take their responsibilities for the care of the crews as seriously as their do for their profits.
Andrew Bridge knew he needed help and started to ask for it the day before they sank. If he had told the Coastguard he had 1.024 salinity in the cabin one can only wonder if help would have reached them in time.