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Collision with a Container
Janine
Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 5:05 PM
Joined: 02/05/2008
Posts: 392


Dockwalk magazine's regular column, What Went Wrong by Kelly Sanford, highlights a different marine accident each month, focusing on the lessons learned. We've received feedback that some readers would like to comment on it. So we're republishing it in the forum so you can have your say.

The May 2010 column recounts a story of a 70-foot sloop that collides with a container.


While relocating a 70-foot sloop from New England to the Caribbean, Capt. Bill Coursen and his crew of three struck a submerged object (believed to be a container) while 60-plus miles offshore of Charleston, South Carolina, in rough conditions. At the time of the collision, it was just starting to get dark and conditions were far from idyllic. Whatever they struck was hovering about five feet below the surface – Coursen says he never saw what it was. They came crashing down a wave when the boat began to fill with water.

 

“The water came pouring in,” recalls Coursen. “Everything happened so fast that we could not figure out where the water was coming from.” The bow of the boat was quickly filling with water. Wires in the forward cabin shorted out, igniting a fire that “became an instant blaze,” Coursen says.

 

The crew was able to extinguish the fire; however, it immediately became clear that they needed help. Coursen issued a Mayday; the Coast Guard indicated that a responding cutter would take several hours to reach them and the nearest helicopter would have to return to take on fuel before attempting to assist the crew. For the time being, the captain and his crew were on their own.

 

A large tug and barge, farther offshore, offered to assist but was limited in maneuverability and could not come about. “A voice in my head said I needed to head closer to shore, not farther offshore,” Coursen says. “I knew I would not have control of the vessel much longer and my instincts said heading for that barge would spell disaster.” So Coursen attempted to make way closer to shore and to the shipping lanes where they would more likely be rescued if the vessel sank. The crew went into muster mode and began preparations in case they needed to abandon ship, including inflating and securing the life raft.

 

“The water was rushing in faster than any of our pumps could handle,” Coursen says. Electrical systems throughout the vessel continued to short out and fail and within 45 minutes of impact, all electronics failed and the vessel lost power. At this point, all they had for communication was a 12-volt VHF with its battery under water and a weakening signal.

 

Before the collision, Coursen had noticed a freighter in the shipping lanes on the radar; however, the freighter had not responded to the Mayday call. As the sloop went dark, Coursen was overwhelmed with the dread of being on a collision course with the freighter. “I kept thinking, I don’t think he can see us,” he says.

 

Coursen instructed his crew to set off safety flares and made several determined attempts to contact the freighter – when they finally replied, he realized that the crew did not speak English.

 

“The freighter came up on us and all we could see was this giant wall of a hull which barely missed us…. I was desperately trying to communicate to them that I needed them to position themselves on our windward side [to act like a floating seawall],”Coursen says. “Seas were ten feet-plus and it was gusting over thirty-five knots; we were taking on water with the bow down and needed protection from the seas. Instead, the freighter’s crew attempted to launch one of their life boats, which broke loose during the launch and was lost.” Once they got a translator in the pilothouse, the freighter finally positioned itself to help alleviate the sea’s impact on the sinking sloop.

With the sheer number of things going wrong all at once, the crew began to succumb to the mounting stress.“I could see the girls starting to show symptoms of shock. I needed to get them off the boat,” Coursen says. To make matters worse, when Coursen checked the life raft, he was horrified to see that it had started losing air.

 

One hour after the Mayday call, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene and evacuated the three crewmembers. The helicopter lowered a supplementary pump to the deck and the captain stayed with the boat, attempting to keep it afloat using the pump. “The problem was that there was so much debris in the water that the pump kept clogging, and where I had to put it for it to pump out water, it filled the boat with exhaust. At one point, while trying to unclog the pump, I blacked out from the fumes,” Coursen says.

 

After nearly three hours of starting and unclogging the pump, four hours after the Mayday, the cutter finally arrived on the scene. The crew immediately came aboard with additional pumps and took over for the exhausted captain. Amazingly, they were able to tow the badly damaged vessel to shore and it eventually was rebuilt by a subsequent owner.

 

“I think we came out as well as we did because we had drilled for everything,” Coursen says. “Everyone knew where the flares were and how they worked; we’d practiced procedures for launching the life raft and we had drilled for a fire.”

 

He continues, “What I hope crew will take away from hearing my story is a new respect for the fact that working on a yacht is dangerous. I see lots of captains who seem to have forgotten that fact. You can’t expect that nothing bad will ever happen. You can have all the technology in the world, but you’ve still got to have respect for the sea.”

 

As a final word of advice, he says, “Most of us drill, but I tell you what, next time, have that drill in bad conditions. You have to get into that frame of mind that you’ll be ready when it all hits the fan. You better know how to keep your cool and be prepared for the worst.”


Henning
Posted: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 6:50 PM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1053


My only question is why he didn't leave with the helicopter and let it sink. It's a freakin boat, not something worth getting killed over.

Anonymous
Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 1:05 AM
It surprises me to hear you say that Henning. There was another boat already on scene and the boat was obviously salvagable. Why would you suggest he abandon ship and in a shipping lane? Sounds to me like the captain played his cards just right and things turned out pretty well considering the circumstances.
Henning
Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 6:41 AM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1053


Read the story again, he made it out by the "Grace of God". He was down below and lost consciousness due to asphyxiation unclogging the pump. If he had not regained consciousness below decks, he would have died. There is nothing the container ship would have done to rescue him from the sinking vessel or from the gasses even if the vessel had remained afloat. He risked his life, and for that risk, he saved the insurance company a couple thousand dollars they made on the sale of the salvage. They still had to pay out the claim for a totaled boat. That is not appropriate action. Safety of Life is First and Foremost. YOU DO NOT RISK YOUR OR ANYONE ELSES LIFE FOR INANIMATE OBJECTS, especially not insured ones. This is bad decision making and the insurance company would think so as well, as had he died, it would have cost them considerably more than the return they got on the salvage. In this situation, the risk reward evaluation comes out solidly on the side of risk being predominant over reward. As long as the safety of the souls onboard relies on the fight to keep the vessel afloat, you fight to keep the vessel afloat. When safe rescue of all life on board is assured, the vessel is allowed to sink The safety of all life onboard was assured when the helo showed up. Let the cutter come and do some gunnery exercise and eliminate it from being a hazard to navigation.

Anonymous
Posted: Friday, April 30, 2010 9:10 AM
Henning is absolutely right. Playing the hero nearly cost this captain his life. I could understand taking such risks to keep the boat afloat when far from help, but not when help, i.e. evacuation is right at hand.
Bo
Posted: Saturday, May 1, 2010 2:22 PM
Joined: 04/10/2008
Posts: 4


oh those containers are a bugger, hit one just outside of P.Everglades, shaved off half of the Stbd stabilizer, geez


junior
Posted: Saturday, May 1, 2010 4:33 PM
Joined: 14/01/2009
Posts: 1026


Hmm..... . "The May 2010 column recounts the story of a 70-foot sloop that collides with a "container vessel. " " .......... I put my reading glasses on and started to read...What went Wrong.... Perhaps an illegal crossing ??? with a mystery submerged Container Vessel Box Ship ?????? . I looked thru Janes Merchant Ships , but found no reference for submerged container vessels.. Perhaps it was a freak encouter with one of those mythical Submersible Container Vessels that Canadian bootleggers use for smuggling live lobster down from Nova Scotia ?? Shiver me Timbers !! Ive never seen a submersible container vessel myself, but I have no doubt that those crafty, double crossing, Canadians would build a stealth submersible container vessel to outwit Homeland Security and bring the Maine lobster boys to their knees. Did the bottom of the damaged yacht have any Red Canadian Maple leaf paint skid marks on her ??????????? Also its difficult to form an opinion with so little info supplied. Obviously the captain judged the holeing as superficial and the situation as salvageable. He correctly supervised the evacuation of unnecessary crew to safety and carried on with the Coast Guard standing by . Sooner or later all of you will be required to carry on with a wounded , swamped yacht. Captains are hired by an owner to protect the investment , guests and crew. Id say this captain did both. . Too many modern yachts are abandoned due to slipped exhaust hoses, dirty fuel, broken rudders, lost masts etc only to be towed ashore by competent seaman and salvaged. No mention of the yacht type, fit out , forward forecast nor accident survey was made . The yacht I sail has three watertight bulkheads , two sill bulkheads and 5 meters of beam to beam waterline welded internal tanks.. I would also hesitate to abandon unless the situation went critical.
Henning
Posted: Saturday, May 1, 2010 11:46 PM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1053


The boat was totaled by the insurance, how was he protecting the owners investment? You protect the owners investment by keeping the vessel in good nick and operating it in such a fashion that you keep it , the passengers and crew out of harms way. Once everyone is safe in a casualty, the insurance takes over. He did nothing but unduly risk his life for an inanimate object. If you feel burdened to do so, feel free, me, I'm last man out riding the helo.

junior
Posted: Sunday, May 2, 2010 6:58 AM
Joined: 14/01/2009
Posts: 1026


No need to be a Hero, but we have no information as to the actual damage or the general condition of the yacht. We do know that the water inflow was slow enough to allow the crew to function for one or two hours before the Coast Guard SAR crew arrived. I suspect that the captain understood that he was not facing catastrophic hull damage. The last time I hit floating debris and flooded it was caused by a Bronze shoe style Depth finder transducer that had its head snapped off in the collision. Plenty of water pours thru an empty thru hull hole. Much more than the total capacity of the bilge pump. Once we figured it out, we plugged it and pumped out the yacht. It would be embarrassing to have that yacht re floated after abandonment only find out it sank because of a simple missing transducer. Additionally we have no information concerning what the Coast Guard SAR group was communicating to the captain. The professionals in a distress incident are the SAR crews. If SAR told me to abandon, I would. If SAR encouraged me to hang tight and battle on in order to assist them in preventing an environmental incident or further complicating their mission, I would. One fact that I did pick up from the truncated account of the incident was that the yacht was not carrying waterproof handheld VHF radios. I dont know the different class safety requirements but on all the offshore yachts Ive sailed were required to have ship to ship communication independent of the yachts electrical system and aerials .
Henning
Posted: Sunday, May 2, 2010 10:32 AM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1053


LOL! What makes you think that the rescue swimmer is a salvage expert or knows much about boats at all? What makes you think he even did an evaluation? What makes you think they advised him to stay with the vessel? In my experience they always advise you to abandon it, I've never even heard of them suggesting to "battle it out" on a small boat, the liability incurred would be out of hand. This was a helo crew, they are not salvage guys. The long and the short of it is that there was no way to determine the extent of the damage until the vessel was hauled out. Hell, how would he know if the keel had taken damage? Next swell it could have parted from the boat and he could have been trapped inside when it turned over. As it was he lost consciousness down below once and he was by himself with no safety guy backing him up. Rule one of confined spaces operations is always be tethered to a guy on the outside who can drag you out when it goes wrong. He lucked out, plain and simple.

junior
Posted: Sunday, May 2, 2010 1:49 PM
Joined: 14/01/2009
Posts: 1026


Hmmm......MRCC may order you to carry on. Remember the PRESTIGE ?http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prestige_oil_spill Mayday issued on November 13, Spanish Authorities, fearing an environmental disaster refused to respond, evacuate and ordered the captain to battle on, November 19 the ship split in half. Ive monitored many small craft maydays over the years and they are typically initiated by frightened yacht owners who have gotten themselves in over their heads. Many times I listen to MRCC calmly stabilize the frightened skipper and suggest one option after another, like close the thru hulls, or.. is the water sweet or salt ? until the skipper regains confidence and control. The only time you abandon ship is when the consequence of your battle will endanger yours and the SAR crews lives. I suspect the yachts captain and the SAR crew had confidence that the situation could be brought under control. Its a shame that Dockwalk didn't look deeper into the accident. It would be educational to understand what kind of underwater hull damage is typical when a 70ft sailing yacht slams into a ruthless gang of NovaScotian lobstermen piloting their submerged container vessel. Always be on the lookout for those treacherous Canadian lobster bootleggers when you notice empty bottles of Newfoundland Screech Rum washed ashore or ALL YOU CAN EAT 9.95 , lobster dinners advertised at the local clam shack.. BEWARE
Capt. Coursen
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 3:12 AM
Joined: 10/05/2010
Posts: 1


Some very valid points, gentlemen. (especially about the grace of God being instumental to our survival) Clearly my job was the safety of the crew first and then the potential salvaging of the yacht. The helo ultimately had no time to refuel before takeoff and as a result nearly ran out of fuel trying to get back to Charleston in the storm. One more airlift taking approximatley 20-25 minutes in the high winds could have been catastrophic to my crew and the helo pilots. I believed the yacht could be saved with the pumps the helicopter lowered me and if it couldn't I was more than willing to abandon the ship to save myself. Hopefully getting picked up within a few hours by the Coast Guard Cutter in route to the scene. I didn't take into consideration the pumps clogging or the heavy fumes they were emitting at the point I momentarily blacked out in chest deep water from exaustion/carbon monoxide poison. I've always known it's best to stay with the vessel until the last possible moment before abandoning ship. Getting in the ocean in such a storm was not an appealing prospect by any means, and I found the EPIRB to be my best friend while I was alone. For the record's sake, a salvage insurance claim is a much quicker process if the boat is brought back to land for the assesment rather than brought up from the bottow of the ocean. PS-In the future I would be glad to disclose many left out details of this miraculous story of rescue/survival where upon myself nor none of my crew (Mike McLaughlin, mate; Dana Green, chef; Susan Storms, second mate) received not so much as a scratch from the whole ordeal.
junior
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 7:25 AM
Joined: 14/01/2009
Posts: 1026


I think you played your cards correctly. Interesting to learn that the insurance salvage claim will be easier to process if the yacht is delivered back to the coast as opposed to lost at sea..It would also be interesting to review the radio log of the SAR craft communicating to you...what they told you
Anonymous
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 9:17 AM

Wasn`t it a graceful Gawd that got you into this pickle in the first place?  You should thank Him for losing a boat as an end  result, and the scare He gave you all. Nut!!!!


Anonymous
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 7:33 PM
I would hazard a guess that ultimately " saving a yacht from sinking that has hit a submerged object" would look better on your resume than "Hitting a submerged object and the sinking the yacht". Could you imagine having that to deal with? Coincidentally I just returned from a delivery through there, and never once lost sight of the fact that many boats have been lost in the area. With 30knots out of the southwest and the Gulfstream to deal with it's no piece of cake. I think you did a great job in this situation and don't let anyone convince you otherwise. You saved your crew and even the yacht, your life is yours to put in jeapordy.
Erling
Posted: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 7:13 AM
Joined: 12/05/2010
Posts: 1


I been sinking 2 times one with a shrimpboat and one with a crew boat in the Gulf, both times like with Capt Coarsen (that by the way narrated my ocean career video that will be soon on Utube) everything goes wrong, it is just like in a movie, everything in the book hits you and all on the same time, all training helps you a little but one cannot think about rules and regulations then, one become in a survival mode and it become like a warzone, both sinkings I saved the boat but lost my job LOL anyhow I did not care I had a good story to tell that most people dont belive happen Thanks for sharing Bill
Rick Adams
Posted: Saturday, May 15, 2010 11:40 AM
Joined: 15/05/2010
Posts: 1


After reading these comments, i had to make one of my own. I have been @ sea numerous of times with Captian bill. In any bad situation.. not that there has been alot of them Capt Bill would be the guy i'll stand behaind the wheel anytime, in good and bad, mostly good ones because there has been many good times sailing the high sea's from novascotia to the caribbean. In all our voyages one come to mind, we where offshore about 300 miles off the coast of Jaxsonville fl, headed to northfolk va, to be in the tall ship event as the flag ship boat to lead the parade.We left out of the Abaco islands, on our 2nd day offshore we ran into some bad weather like 15 to 20' seas in an all wooden pine hull boat Called the "HAWIIAN TROPIC CYRANO". "AN 80' STAYSAIL SCHOONER" We had a half ass radar only sat-nab to navigate with..and by the way no auto pilot neither,and all of our electronics eventially failed because of water damage. After hereing the ballest bars in the hull bouncing around like ball's, the bow in the wind, sails down and i was strap to the helm chair .. tied off, on to the winches.After being pounded like this for 3 days the mast had broke..now being with Capt Bill i new all would be fine. The water was flowing like a sift in the hull due to the ballest bars banging around in the hull, as well as our 13' boston whaler tied to the davit's on 1/4'' cable's we had no choice but to release it. In a strong NORTHERN we where facing big trouble, with a totally green crew, of 5 which 3 were weman besides bill and i, "most were our friends" so Capt bill and I where pumping the water out as fast as the pumps could work. The next day we where on our way back, sudenly out of no where we seen off to a distant that there were several boats following us...i ask Capt Bill why are they surounding us? he repled! i hope there not modern day "PIRATES" which are known to be in these waters from time to time.So we fired off a couple of flares, soon after that the boats left the area. Needless to say our journy had came to an end...And looking forward to many more.


 
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