What Went Wrong
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 August 2010 column recounts a story of vessel that ended up in a residential backyard after the captain had to avoid hitting a small boat that shot across the yacht’s path on the Intracoastal.
“Capt. Altercourse” and his crew were hosting a birthday party on board a steel-hulled 137-foot motor yacht in Florida. “It was an all-out party,” explains Altercourse, “a big buffet spread, a magician and one of those guys who twist balloons into things, and there were a lot of guests on board who were all excited to be taking an evening Intracoastal cruise.”
It was dark by the time the boat had made its way south along the ICW, passing the mouth of Hillsboro Inlet. Capt. Altercourse noticed a few small outboard boats anchored off to his port side on a sandbar on the channel’s east side near the inlet. “It was a flood tide, and they were out there gigging for shrimp without any running lights, just a spotlight.”
Suddenly, one of the boats got caught up in the current and, in an instant, came shooting across Altercourse’s bow. “If I went to port, I’d take out the other boats,” he says. “If I held course, I’d probably kill the guy swept up in the current. I had no other choice. I turned the boat hard to starboard and ended up putting the boat up on a sandbar on the west side of the channel.”
Between the boat’s forward momentum, the current and the boat’s weight, the boat went so far up on the sandbar that the bow was hanging over a residential backyard. “You could probably [have] jumped off the bow and landed in the swimming pool,” Altercourse says.
Everything inside went crashing over, guests were knocked off their feet, dishes were broken, but miraculously, the birthday cake slid right to the edge of its table but didn’t fall. “The funny thing is the guests thought it was the greatest thing. They were loving it! Here we were, sitting in some guy’s backyard in a 137-foot boat and you’d think it was a ride at Disneyland,” Altercourse says.
“The flood tide was actually working against me, pinning the boat in place, but I knew we were on soft bottom, so using the thrusters and reverse, I managed to walk the boat back off. I could feel the props grinding up the sand and coral stone, and at times I had the RPMs north of three thousand, but after filling the channel with diesel smoke and taking some life off the cutlass bearings, we eventually came free and everyone – including the boat – was unscathed except for a couple scratches and broken dishes.”
This story had a happy ending because no one was injured and no insurance claims were filed. However, situations like this one play out all the time and the consequences are not always as benign.
Sooner or later, all captains are asked to navigate a challenging anchorage or waterway with more guests milling about than they’d like, but a story like this one reinforces the importance of always staying focused on the conditions around you.
Spencer Lloyd, a veteran captain now with Brown & Brown Marine Insurance, says, “You can have all the experience in the world and be a great captain, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are out there with every other knucklehead with a boat. You have to watch out for the lowest common denominator: the guy who does not know how to anchor his boat, Joe Shmoe who’s pulling some kid on an inner tube across a busy waterway or the weekend warrior who’s not monitoring 16 squeezing you out of a narrow channel like he’s running the Queen Mary. Sometimes it’s not even the weekend warriors, but working guys who are out there earning a living and not paying much attention to the big-hot-s**t-white-boat while he’s pulling fishing gear like he does every other day.”
When you’re forced to make a radical maneuver, “Priority number one is to avoid any bodily injury and your next priority is to minimize property damage,” Lloyd says. “When someone or something ‘jumps out in front of you,’ there is little that you can do,” says Capt. Michael French, president of International Yacht Training.
“Hindsight doesn’t usually give credit for the element of surprise and its contribution to any sort of event.” French explains that there are some common key factors that result in damage or injury in limited navigability situations, the most notable of which are distractions and fatigue.
“Distractions of all sorts can and do cause problems in close-quarters operations. Someone turning on a light in the bridge at night, loud music or even guests trying to ask you your life story while you listen to one radio and talk on another. All of these normal, seemingly innocuous occurrences can contribute to a lack of focus, even for a very short time. And anyone who has had an unfortunate ‘incident’ will tell you a very short time is all it takes,” French says.
“Fatigue is another factor that is a regular cause of loss of concentration or focus. It’s not unusual to travel all day, arrive at a destination, pick up the boss’s guests only to be asked to leave the dock and cruise whilst they eat dinner under the stars. It’s perfectly normal, but very easy to spend way too many hours glued to the helm in the course of a day,” French continues.
The answer to avoiding a close-quarters situation may seem obvious. “Awareness is the key…and the normal dos and don’ts usually apply. Conditions, environmental factors such as current and light, should be considered before a trip is undertaken,” French says. “Think about the basics, like will the setting sun be in my eyes as I make my way back through the reef? Finally, sometimes [when the situation calls for it] one has to face the toughest decision of all – the decision to say NO!”