How to Balance Vessel Safety and Owners’ Demands

29 April 2021By Kate Lardy
Vision immediately prior to collision with Minx
Courtesy of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Several captains weigh in after the MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) releases its findings on the collision between motor yachts Minx and Vision. 

Two motor yachts — Vision, a Pershing 92, and Minx, a Princess Y88 — were rafted up off Île Sainte-Marguerite in France. Guests from both yachts had spent the afternoon dining together in Villefranche-sur-Mer and they wanted to continue the party on the yachts. Following a couple hours of socializing at anchor, Vision prepared to depart for Monaco. 

But instead of taking the direct path there, away from the anchorage on a northeasterly route, the Pershing maneuvered in the opposite direction, heading about 750 meters west before turning around. The owner had asked the captain if they could pass by their friends on Minx one last time to wave goodbye. This wasn’t to be a leisurely putter past the other boat at the island’s prescribed five-knot speed limit — no, it would be a display of the Pershing’s full power, kicking up an eye-catching rooster tail as tall as the yacht itself.

Bearing down on the Princess, Vision’s skipper increased the speed to 33 knots, planning to pass closely by Minx’s port side. On the final approach, he turned to starboard, putting Vision on a collision course with the anchored yacht, intending to immediately turn back to port. But when he turned the wheel to port, the boat did not respond and hit Minx’s bow at high speed, killing the Minx crewman who had been on the foredeck preparing to lift the anchor. 

Capt. Mike French acknowledges that while the vast majority of owners and guests are respectful of the captain’s responsibility to operate safely, some can put undue pressure on crew to do something unsafe — something he says is easier for long-time skippers to handle.

Sadly, this is a true event, not a fictitious scenario. On May 25, 2019, a typical day of Mediterranean yachting frivolity turned into a tragedy. 

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch released its findings in late January 2021. It concluded that the momentary loss of steering the captain experienced when he attempted to turn to port “would have been difficult to predict or counter.” It stemmed from a combination of hydrodynamic effects while the yacht was planing and heeling slightly to port with surface drives trimmed up. “Although Vision’s skipper had experience with surface-drive propulsion craft…it is almost certain that the skipper underestimated the difficulty he would experience trying to keep Vision under control in very close proximity to another vessel,” the report reads.

Investigators also noted that the captain had a quantity of THC and THC-acid in his blood 17 hours later that indicated he had been under the influence of cannabis during the time of the accident. A toxicologist concluded that it would have been enough to likely impair his judgment.  

In addition to these factors, the accident analysis places a lot of emphasis on the influence the owner had over the skipper’s intended safe navigational plan. He had planned to depart the anchorage directly for Monaco, but changed the route based on what he believed the owner wanted, prioritizing his wishes over the vessel’s safe navigation.

“In the motor yacht industry, owners and charterers are on vacation; they will want to relax, be pampered, and party, but they might also want to be entertained, perhaps even thrilled, by the experience of being at sea for their leisure,” says the report. “In this environment, motor yacht skippers and crew must stay in control of the yacht and not allow themselves to get caught up in the party atmosphere. However challenging it may be, the presence of powerful owners or demanding charterers must not have any influence on safe operations and the professional conduct of the crew.”

Capt. Mike French acknowledges that while the vast majority of owners and guests are respectful of the captain’s responsibility to operate safely, some can put undue pressure on crew to do something unsafe — something he says is easier for long-time skippers to handle. “For less experienced captains or tender drivers, it can be quite intimidating to look a wealthy owner in the eye and say no.”

He’s had firsthand experience with this when one of his own crew grounded a large tender, “owing to the owner’s insistence that he undertake a trip across shallow water into the sun, where there was no way of seeing the bottom. The boat was damaged but there were no injuries, which was incredibly fortunate,” French says. “Such pressure is everywhere but it comes down to the individual captains to set boundaries and limits.”

In addition to “Don’t get high and drive a boat” and “Just say no — no to stupid requests,” veteran captain Sean Meagher offers some specific advice for how to handle dubious requests. 

“Many times in my career, I have been asked to do things that are questionable,” he says. “Mostly, the asks are good-natured and stem out of ignorance. There are the occasional belligerent requests, but those have been few and far between. Unless it’s completely insane, in both cases my strategy is the same. I say, ‘Yes, of course, we can do that once I figure out how to do it safely.’ If after some thought and planning, I see there is a way to comply with their request, I execute the plan. If it’s a no go, I tell the principal that and stick to my guns. I have never been questioned or maligned for saying no as long as I present a clear reason why.” 

Meagher has some final words to the wise: “Bud Conroy, a mentor of mine and one of the best captains I have ever had the privilege of working under, gave me a piece of advice I have never forgotten: ‘Anything you do on board, imagine explaining it in court.’”   

This column originally ran in the April 2021 issue of Dockwalk.

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