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Old 31-10-2008, 07:14   #1
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Common causes of cruising boats being lost at sea?

I'm in the early stages of planning a low-budget transatlantic trip and feel the need to plan for the main risks in proportion, as well as avoiding overlooking something important. I've been looking for any articles or statistics on the most common causes for boats or crew being lost. I can only find information that applies to recreational boats, that tend to sink in harbour or for reasons that don't apply on extended crossings.

http://www.oceanmarineservices.com/why_do_boats_sink.htm

http://www.yachtsurvey.com/sinking.htm

Does anyone know of similar reference/article for the most common causes of boats or crew being lost at sea crossing oceans?

If I made a list based on what I've found so far, it would go something like this:

1) Bad weather related: going overboard, swamping, structural failure
2) Human error: often caused by fatigue, including things like going overboard, grounding and being hit by the boom, inattention to maintainance and improper choice of components.
3) Collision with submerged object/ hit by ship
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Old 31-10-2008, 07:21   #2
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Evans Starzinger and Beth Leonard have posted on their website an article that looks at some of the statistics around the safety of offshore sailing: http://www.bethandevans.com/pdf/SafetySea.pdf
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Old 31-10-2008, 07:29   #3
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Thanks for the link Tim.
The Leonard /Starzinger “Safety Essentials” article should be required reading for every new cruiser.

More excellent (free) Beth & Evans articles here:
Articles
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Old 31-10-2008, 15:06   #4
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Philaw, your question has been lingering in the back of my mind, as I'm not sure that Beth and Evans' article really addresses what you were asking for.

Let me suggest an alternative approach to listing the risks; rather than listing by "cause" (bad weather, fatigue, etc...), consider listing by consequence, for example:

(1) A member of the crew has suffered a severe injury
(2) A member of the crew has gone overboard
(3) The boat is taking on water
(4) The boat has caught on fire
(5) The mast has broken or is swept away (so can't sail, no propulsion)
(6) The rudder has broken or fallen off (so no steerage)
(7) The keel has fallen off (so the boat becomes unstable)
(8) All the sails have blown to tatters (so no propulsion)
(9) engine or electrical system failure (so no power)
etc...

Then for each of these consequences, consider (A) what actions you can take in advance to prevent them from happening in the first place (which will require considering possible causes of each consequence); (B) what actions you can take to recover from the situation in the event that it does happen; and finally (C) what you would do if you cannot recover from the situation -- what's the backup plan for your backup plan?

For example, the boat is taking on water, as a consequence of colliding with a hard object: (A) avoid collisions in the first place by maintaining a proper watch using all available and appropriate means, run at a safe speed, etc... (B) implement damage control measures to limit the influx of water, such as using a collision mat, and start pumping, etc... (C) deploy liferaft or run the boat into shallow water (if near to land).

Another thing to consider is that some of the consequences could become causes of other consequences (e.g. the mast going over could cause a hole in the boat that leads to the boat sinking).

Yes it would be nice to know something about the probabilities for occurrence of any of these events, but I'm just not sure that good statistics really exist. I know that Evans has tried to gather some of this kind of data -- for example, see THIS and THIS (especially the footnote at the end) -- but I think he would agree that good data about these things is hard to come by.

(By the way, in addition to the articles available on Beth and Evan's site, the FAQ's are a goldmine of additional information and things to think about. And if you haven't read any of Beth's books, you really should!)

Besides probabilities of occurrence, risk assessment also considers the severity of the consequences, and assigns a value to the risk by multiplying these two factors together.

So you just have to try to anticipate all the possible things that could go wrong, based on your own experience and anecdotal experience gathered from other sailors (through discussion forums, articles, books, etc...), and develop your contingency plans accordingly.

The above list is ordered by MY personal assessment of the risks...

Hope this helps,

Tim
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Old 01-11-2008, 11:06   #5
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Thanks for the replies, everyone!

Catamount, I think you're right about the best way to plan for dangers being to identify everything that could wrong, minimise the risks, and then plan for what you would do if it happened. It makes sense that good stats would be unavailable, as the incidents happen all over the world and deaths would mean boats being found empty or not found at all, which is not very informative. It was worth asking, though, as soem interesting things have turned up. The attitude that Evans has to liferafts and PFDs is very interesting. The arguments against liferafts make sense to me, but a quick read of the statistics she quotes...

p://www.bethandevans.com/pdf/Boating_Statistics_2006.pdf

...says to me that only 51/474 drowning victims having been found wearing life jackets is not an indictment of them.

Whilst we are on the subject, I thought I'd make modified list for me on a solo trip abourd a 21' catamaran:

(1) I go overboard.
Never let this happen, as I'd be stuffed. Tie myself to the boat! Consider towing long line behind boat as last resort.
(2) I suffer severe injury when alone at sea.
Get first aid trained to a higher standard and be well equipped. Be monumentally careful. Safety helmet on deck in bad weather.
(3) Fatigue/ inexperience makes me do something stupid.
Self steering, proper food, clothing and rest. Bad weather strategy that relies on riding out bad weather, not sailing through it. As much training as I can get.
(4) Collision with submerged object/ hit by ship.
Stay out of shipping lanes, masthead light, keep watch when needed, hope positive buoyancy does the trick.
(5) Structual failure. eg. 21' catamaran gets pounded in bad weather and bits drop off or the hulls/ beams seperate.
(3) The boat takes on water
Add excessive positive buoyancy so boat stays far enough out of water for repair materials. Automatic and manual pumps.

General precautionary measures:
Minimalism, so there's less to go wrong. Few electrical systems with manual backups, no engine to break or cause fires, enough positive buoyancy to keep boat afloat and fixable if holed and make it a liferaft if capsized. Boat small enough to power under oars for a limited time.
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Old 01-11-2008, 12:46   #6
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General precautionary measures:
Minimalism, so there's less to go wrong. Few electrical systems with manual backups, no engine to break or cause fires, enough positive buoyancy to keep boat afloat and fixable if holed and make it a liferaft if capsized. Boat small enough to power under oars for a limited time.
For what it's worth, an engine is also a useful bit of safety equipment. For example, if you are being swept onto the rocks (or whatever) by the current, and the wind is unfavorable, an engine can be a huge help.

One item to add to the list of calamaties is rudder failure. I don't know the statistics, but you certainly hear about damaged or lost rudders fairly regularly. The steps to take are having a well-designed rudder, good maintenance, and carrying (and practicing with) an emergency rudder. An emergency tiller is also good to have, for the case where the steering gear/cables/etc break, but the rudder and shaft remain functional.
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Old 01-11-2008, 20:06   #7
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Old 01-11-2008, 20:40   #8
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Catamount, I think you're right about the best way to plan for dangers being to identify everything that could wrong, minimize the risks, and then plan for what you would do if it happened.
That is a pretty good approach for someone on land. I'm not so sure it works at sea. It's sort of easy to imagine all the scenarios, but the real life bad things don't happen by scenario. You plan it all out but then it does not happen that way.

I think many things happen and there may be signs that they are about to happen. It is not an uncommon reaction to do the exact wrong thing in a situation that unfolds and actions makes it worse. There usually isn't time to research your notes about what to do.

There needs to be an element of thinking that can get you unglued from a wrong idea. You can convince yourself of one thing, get attached to it, and then find out you were 180 degrees wrong in an instant. The shock of a wrong decision can occur and I fear it to be the worst scenario of all. You need to be prepared for being wrong and be willing to accept it sooner rather than later. To do that there needs to be a questioning of decisions that happens as a background to making a decision with the idea that no decision is worse than a wrong one. The paradox is deciding wrong vs being paralyzed about becoming wrong and not doing anything.

These are the cases where the things you think about on land are actually too simple to actually work under way. Bad things tend to be compounded with multiple issues and it is those moments where these quick and easy land based exercises fail you. It's not that the exercise fails to prepare you but you become static in thinking you can prevent problems through these simple scenarios.

The ability to plan for everything that can go wrong is not the same as reacting to several things going wrong at the same time. If you face a very difficult situation it will more likely be the case where multiple factors are driving you into different directions. This is where the planning usually breaks down almost totally. Add crew to the mix and you are suddenly unprepared.

Time is often the most serious concern. Either you don't have enough of it or you have too much of it. If you can understand the basics of repair and jury rigging you can probably deal with all those issues in some way. What about in the dark or with an injured crew member or you just ran out of water or you also have too much sea water in the boat. Just in case this isn't bad enough the weather is deteriorating. The ability to prioritize, separate, and act timely become more important than what you actually do or do not have on board.

If you can control the panic, set priorities, and start action early you have about all the advantage as is possible for everything. You can never be sure you have enough of anything but you can maximize what you have if you can think it through in time. The perfect plan that fails because you get hypothermia suddenly becomes the surprise when it happens and of course fails totally. Thinking in terms of multiple dimensions quickly is not as easy as thinking through everything possible.

The world is not always made of single mode failures and the ability to manage all you can at the same time becomes more important than the exercise of everything that can go wrong.
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Old 01-11-2008, 22:13   #9
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Paul...that was a great read....I was going to say Panic and now wish I would have.

Should have went with my first gut decition...OH NO!! does this mean I just failed and am now lost at sea...
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Old 01-11-2008, 22:37   #10
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OK, Scenario:
You are in rough weather, a few miles off shore. You are at least 8 hours motoring or sailing away from a place to jump in. You go below, and the bilge hatches are floating. What do you do?
When this happened to me:
1) I started the bilge pump.
2) I searched for the leak
3) I considered a way to stop the leak.
Results:
1) The water level did not go down with the bilge pump.
2) I found the leak. The packing gland was leaking. Badly.
3) I tried to tighten the packing. This had no effect.
Plan B:
1) I hooked up a spare bilge pump
2) Already know where the leak is
3) I tried wrapping the shaft with rags at the packing to slow the leak.
Oh crap, this still isn't working:
1) I tried the manual bilge pump
2) Knowing ain't helping
3) That didn't work, but it is keeping the water from spraying the engine
Now what?:
1) The pick up for the maual bilge was too high, so it was worthless. Get the bucket.
2) We are gaining on it with the bucket, so we didn't look for another source.
3) I should mention that due to circumstances beyond our control, the rig was in no condition to sail, so we were forced to motor. As a result, we could not do anything else to stop the leak.
What really happened?:
Before we launched, we were on the hard for 10 months rebuilding this wood boat. The last step was to replace the packing. As I had not done this before, I contracted the boat yard to do it. They inspected it, and gave it a clean bill of health. In fact, there was almost nothing left (bastards). while were were motoring out of the bay, it was calm, no stress on anything, and the leak stayed very minor. When we got into the rough seas, things got stressed. The leak increased. As it turned out, we had missed some sawdust in the bilge when we cleaned things up. It had clogged the sea cock for the bilge pump, so the pump was fine, but it could not push the water out. That is also why the spare pump would not work.
What we learned:
I inspect all critical systems myself. If I do not know how to fix them, I learn.
When a system fails, check it from beginning to end before making a decision on what the problem is.
Always have back ups for your back ups, because, as Paul said, failures are often of multiple systems at the same time.
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Old 02-11-2008, 11:46   #11
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Catamount, I think you're right about the best way to plan for dangers being to identify everything that could wrong, minimize the risks, and then plan for what you would do if it happened.
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Originally Posted by Pblais View Post
That is a pretty good approach for someone on land. I'm not so sure it works at sea.
Very good. I only have the tiniest of quibbles with that. In the end I basically agree. But it's not really that there is an approach that works on land but not on sea. It's that, for most of us, having grown up on land, we are much better acquainted with what might go wrong, so we have a better chance of thinking of all of them.

The same reasons you warn about this approach at sea also applies to that approach on land.

It IS a good approach, but leaves room for missing something. So it should not be the only approach.

-dan
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Old 02-11-2008, 15:54   #12
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It IS a good approach, but leaves room for missing something. So it should not be the only approach.
I agree. It was not my intention to suggest that one can boil all risks down to a set of simplistic scenarios, each with a pre-determined recipe for solution. Really, I was just trying to suggest to the opening poster that he might consider organizing his thinking in terms of the consequences (first) rather than causes first.

And I agree, this should be just a starting point for thinking about how to prepare yourself and your boat, but not the ending point. For one thing, you really need to trial your ideas and put them to real tests BEFORE you find yourself in real trouble.

But you have to start somewhere -- I don't think one should head to sea without having giving any thought to what could possibly happen, without having equipped oneself with some tools, supplies, and strategies to deal with what might happen.
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Old 03-11-2008, 14:30   #13
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It's a fair point that when things go wrong, it's unlikely there will be a simple solution. For example, planning for patching holes in the hull is a necessity, but I bet that they tend to be fiddly places around corners and through-hulls that you can't get a piece of plywood to.

Books about survival (at sea or otherwise) agree with the emphasis on the will to survive and the need for judgement at tricky times, but you can't really plan for these.You just have to build experience and hope you don't crack at the wrong time.
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Old 05-11-2008, 16:38   #14
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I would say that the combination of not knowing your boat systems and panic become the number 1 cause. Knowing your boat well goes a long way to preventing panic during the emergency. In my Navy days we probably had an emergency at least once a week (fire etc) and it was really the systems knowledge that allow you combat the problem (you KNOW you need to put out the fire, so where are all the extinguishers). This of course excludes all the things that were just unsafe to start with as you can not plan for stupidity.

PS - I found that after the emergency was over the panic would hit me a little as I thought about how bad it could have become.
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