Monday, January 12, 2009

Weather, relatively speaking

My post on the sailors who where towed by the USCG after departing into some lousy weather received a number of comments, and I was surprised that most of the comments were to scold me for "being to harsh" in my criticism of the MOONSHINE's crew. (No one challenged the idea that the USCG might charge for services in cases like this.)

Too harsh?!? I should have gone on more about how astounding (arrogant? ignorant?) it was for a sailboat crew with plans to cross from Rhode Island to Puerto Rico to claim that some misfortune of bad weather had abruptly ended their voyage. The weather they encountered was a winter gale, with winds 35-40kts and seas 8-12'. Those conditions are certainly not enough to end the voyage of anyone who's planning includes even the most basic understanding of what one might be expected when, you know, you are planning to cross the ATLANTIC FREAKIN' OCEAN!

To put some perspective on the weather encountered by those sailors, I present the following video, taken by Steve and Linda Dashew [CLICK HERE TO WATCH]. As you listen to Linda's narration, you will hear her say that they have been waiting for gale force conditions, so they could shoot some video and test their boat. Their weather? Steady 35kts, gusting 50, seas averaging 15'-20' with larger swells. Watching this video, you might imagine that a nice hot lunch was about to come up the companionway ; knowing the Dashews, I'll bet it did.

Please don't bother to point out the differences between the WINDHORSE at 83' and the MOONSHINE, at 45' -- both boats are ocean capable -- the difference that separates the two stories is the crew. I don't think the crew of the MOONSHINE would even have been able to get the WINDHORSE to Puerto Rico. Had video of a Nor'east snow storm been their objective, I dare say the Dashews would have no problem sailing the MOONSHINE south on the very same day that caused the MOONSHINE's actual crew to call the USCG.

In some respects, bad weather is relative. Once you've sailed in 45kts of wind, 25kts is just another day sail; once you've been in 60kts, 45kts is just another gale. Weather that caused one crew to activate their EPIRB is an just an opportunity to shoot some good footage to a different crew. It is their experience that allows the Dashews to confidently wait for a good gale before heading into the Tasman Sea to take some video of gale force conditions. The MOONSHINE crew were completely out of their league and had to call for rescue just 25 miles into their 1600 miles voyage. It wasn't a "bad storm" that caused the problems for MOONSHINE, it was that relative to their experience, the conditions seemed like a bad storm to them.

The apologists point out that the MOONSHINE's engine failed and the sails were ripped. I believe that those issues are a matter of poor maintenance and lack of seamanship rather than a direct result of a fresh gale. A photo of the boat after she was towed clearly shows the mainsail furled on the boom, and it doesn't appear to be damaged.

Look, we all know what happened: this skipper's bad weather strategy was to lower the sails and motor. We see this all the time from inexperienced coastal cruisers. They either don't understand how to or are not equipped to reef, and can't control the boat under full sail, so they motor. Well, with 10' seas, its likely that the fuel was stirred up, fouled the filters with sludge and that was all she wrote. Remember, this boat was heading south with NE winds. You are telling me that he couldn't make way with a reefed main?

Here is where my ire surfaces: the fact that the captain of the MOONSHINE didn't have enough experience to understand what he was in for does not give him a pass. To say "Aw, shucks Doug, give the guy a break" implies that what happened was somehow beyond the control of the captain. To cut this guy any slack is to ignore the facts; that captain chose to leave a safe port, so he placed himself in circumstances that were completely within his control. He flagrantly ignored or disobeyed every tenet of prudent seamanship and to excuse his behavior as a landlubber is to insult the truly lubberly.

My brother has done a fair bit of ocean sailing, and when the subject of getting caught in bad weather comes up, he says "You can only pick your weather on the first day of any crossing."