A fa­tigued sailor makes a ba­sic mis­take that al­most ends in dis­as­ter

SAIL - - March 2018 Vol 49, Issue 3 - By Marc Bo­dian Marc Bo­dian learned to sail dur­ing sum­mers spent in Woods Hole, Mas­sachusetts, and later part-owned a J/24 on Dil­lon Lake in Colorado. He and Ni­cola have been cruis­ing for five years

Sleep de­pri­va­tion leads to poor de­ci­sion-mak­ing and a near dis­as­ter

This is a story of how mis­takes are made and judg­ment is dulled to the point of catas­tro­phe. It is also about how pru­dent plan­ning, good equip­ment and a bit of luck can bring you back from the brink.

We de­parted Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, on De­cem­ber 15 bound for Jack­sonville, Florida, aboard Averi, our Bris­tol 41. I was up at 0530, get­ting pre­pared, and in mak­ing my checks, I missed some­thing—some­thing that would turn out to be crit­i­cal.

After mo­tor­ing out of the Ch­e­sa­peake and past Cape Henry, we raised sail as we turned south. That af­ter­noon the wind be­came southerly, and soon we were again un­der en­gine after only four hours of sail­ing. It was then that my wife, Ni­cola, be­gan to show flu symp­toms—fever and chills that came on rapidly. In ret­ro­spect, I should have turned back at that point.

It was a long day that turned into an even longer, colder night. Twenty hours out, we started round­ing Hat­teras in rough and con­fused seas. Six hours later, when some odd noises from the drive train caused me to shut the en­gine down, I raised sail. At this point the wind was in­con­sis­tent, but re­mained mostly in the south­west, adding to my dif­fi­cul­ties in round­ing Cape Look­out. Ni­cola was now ex­tremely sick and un­able to help much, although she tried.

After a se­ries of tacks in the face of con­trary winds, I fi­nally made it around the cape on the morn­ing of De­cem­ber 17. By then I had been up for 50 cold hours, sin­gle­handed and with a great deal of tack­ing in­volved. I had it in mind that the en­gine could not be used, so I de­cided to head for Beau­fort and call for a tow to as­sist us into port.

For nav­i­ga­tion I was using NOAA chart 11520, with the depth marked in fath­oms, as well as the In­sight chart on my Sim­rad chart­plot­ter, which was marked in feet. At some point—I’m un­sure ex­actly when—I mis­took Bogue In­let for Beau­fort in­let on my chart­plot­ter. With a way­point set for what I be­lieved to be Beau­fort, I then cal­cu­lated my ap­proach using the smaller-scale pa­per chart to take us to the east of the in­let so I could tack and carry a fair breeze into the chan­nel.

This pe­riod is a blur to me, as I had now been awake for nearly 60 hours. Although I was able to con­tact Tow­boat US and ar­range for them to meet us out­side of Beau­fort In­let, when they sug­gested meet­ing at buoy R14, I started to see a prob­lem. The mark I was head­ing for was N4 on the chan­nel to Bogue in­let—not, as I’d thought, Beau­fort in­let. I alerted the tow boat to this and checked my charts again. Un­for­tu­nately, while I’d fi­nally re­al­ized my er­ror in lo­ca­tion, I still had in my mind that the depth was mea­sured in fath­oms—not feet.

We were now ap­proach­ing from the south­east on a beam reach, run­ning west along the beach in what I be­lieved was 5 fath­oms, or 30ft of wa­ter. Then we bumped—not too hard, but enough to get my at­ten­tion. I fi­nally no­ticed the depth on our in­stru­ments—less than 6ft! We draw 5ft with the cen­ter­board up.

I im­me­di­ately at­tempted to tack, but as we started to come about, the genoa hung up on the spreader and we were pushed back. After that, as we crossed the outer bar in the dark, with wind and tide against us, it was clear we

could not es­cape. By now Ni­cola had man­aged to come up to the cock­pit, where she furled the head­sail and raised the par­tially low­ered cen­ter­board while I dropped and se­cured the main.

Fi­nally we grounded in the dark with a stiff southerly wind slam­ming the waves onto the shore. As a Coast Guards­man and others ap­proached us, we could see the wa­ter at the rail was only about 2ft deep. I there­fore helped Ni­cola off be­tween waves; she jumped into the surf and I fol­lowed, after check­ing that Averi’s in­te­rior and the things stowed on deck were se­cure. It was about 2030, and I had now been awake for around 63 hours.

The stress, emo­tion and ex­er­tions hit me like a ham­mer. I was ex­hausted, ut­terly spent. After ar­riv­ing ashore we were checked by paramedics and re­leased to some new­found friends who lived close by. I fell asleep to the sound of the At­lantic pound­ing our home.

The next morn­ing we dis­cov­ered Averi had dug a trench in the sand thanks to the force of the waves and mostly righted her­self. The tow­boat was off­shore and at the morn­ing high tide, on De­cem­ber 18, it was able to bring Averi’s bow to­ward the sea, although the tide was not yet high enough to dis­lodge her. Later, I was able to get on board at low tide and make sure all was se­cure. The lights were on, the freezer was run­ning, and she was dry. Ev­ery­thing on deck was se­cure as well.

That evening Tow­boat US did not be­gin try­ing to tow Averi off again un­til well after the tide had be­gun to ebb. Un­for­tu­nately, the crew was still un­able to move her more than a few feet, so we spent yet an­other night lis­ten­ing to the waves pound our boat. Fi­nally, at high tide that fol­low­ing evening, Averi jumped up on a few waves as the Tow­boat US crew tried yet again, surged for­ward, jumped again with the surf and was free. Oh, how lovely it was to see her float­ing!

Af­ter­ward, I spent a lot of time think­ing about what had just hap­pened to us. Ul­ti­mately, I be­lieve my at­ti­tude was the ma­jor fac­tor, set­ting off a cas­cade of events. I am for­tu­nate I can re­view what hap­pened. Many don’t get that same op­por­tu­nity.

Bot­tom line: what I had missed on my pre­de­par­ture check was my own mind­set. I had a sched­ule. I had ar­ranged to meet my daugh­ter in Jack­sonville to take her sail­ing with us. She was fly­ing in, so it was a tight sched­ule. The re­sult is I left when I shouldn’t have. As it hap­pens, I know some­thing about sched­ules. I was once a con­struc­tion man­ager. I was driven to make my dead­lines, push­ing to meet sched­ul­ing goals—good in that world, not so much when go­ing off­shore.

The other mis­takes I made all nat­u­rally fol­lowed from that first one. I also al­lowed my in­stincts to rule me. When Ni­cola be­came ill, for ex­am­ple, we should have re­turned to Nor­folk. Rather than push on, I should have taken breaks. We had all the tools we needed. I could have hove-to. I could have an­chored.

More than any­thing I needed sleep, and the far­ther I pushed on, the more ir­ra­tional I be­came. I can now see where I stopped mak­ing log en­tries, where I made poor choices in sail­ing and, most of all, where I be­came con­fused while chart­ing a sim­ple course. You may think the dif­fer­ence be­tween two in­lets is too big an er­ror to make, but after 50 or so hours of no sleep, you may as well have drunk a fifth of rum. My stub­born­ness nearly cost me my wife, my home, my life. I there­fore now op­er­ate with a very dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties. 1. Cap­tain — am I fo­cused on the voy­age and not some­thing else? 2. Crew — are they ready, healthy, rested and able to per­form?

3. Boat — 4. Weather and sea state —

is she ready, is she safe? will it be good enough, for long enough? 5. Route — have we fa­mil­iar­ized our­selves with the whole route, pos­si­ble di­ver­sions, cur­rents and haz­ards? Where are emer­gency an­chor­ages? 6. Re­treat — where is the point of no re­turn? 7. Avoid­ing sched­ules — sched­ules should al­ways be a last pri­or­ity: go long on days and short on dis­tance.

These days we don’t move un­less we can an­swer all these ques­tions with rea­son­able an­swers. Some may say, “It won’t hap­pen to me,” and they could be right. But de­nial is a bad ap­proach to risky en­deav­ors. Others will think me fool­hardy, and I ac­cept that: I was. Since then, how­ever, I have been far more crit­i­cal of my­self than they might imag­ine. I only hope others can wisely learn from my mis­takes. It’s so much eas­ier than mak­ing your own. s

The au­thor’s tough Bris­tol 41 sus­tained sur­pris­ingly lit­tle dam­age dur­ing its or­deal ashore

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