News & Views
- Category: News & Views
- Created: Thursday, 17 July 2014 15:57
- Written by Charles Doane
As many of you know, I served as crew on Be Good Too, the Alpha 42 catamaran that was abandoned approximately 300 miles east of Chesapeake Bay in January. I published an account of the episode here on WaveTrain (which was also syndicated on SAILfeed) and also wrote a feature story for SAIL Magazine. In May I also published, without comment, a response from Gregor Tarjan, president of Aeroyacht, builder of the Alpha catamaran. (Gregor's statement was also published on SAILfeed.) Hank Schmitt (see photo up top), the paid skipper aboard Be Good Too, contacted me from Bermuda as soon as he read Gregor's statement and asked if I would publish a response from him. Hank's delivery schedule has now simmered down a bit and he found time this week to draft the following statement:
STATEMENT OF HANK SCHMITT, SKIPPER OF BE GOOD TOO
I have been very quiet over the last few months. Losing a new boat is never easy for anyone involved. Losing Hull # 1 of a promising new line of boats can be devastating to the owner of the boat, but even more so to the builder, whose reputation and livelihood could be at stake. However, the builder's response on your blog, quoting me from an internal report to the insurance company, has eroded my well intentioned resolve to remain quiet, breaking the unspoken code of "Do no harm."
If a delivery skipper ever has to leave a boat he can be thankful if the owner of the boat is aboard, and even more thankful if he has an experienced first mate, a skipper in his own right, who also happens to host a professional blog site. I was thus saved having to explain to the owner why we left his boat out at sea. I also did not have to repeat the story over and over to the many people who wanted to know what happened. The entire episode was chronicled on the Sailfeed.com blog detailing the cascading list of problems that resulted in the final decision to abandon the boat. For posterity there is a Coast Guard YouTube video that shows us being reeled us out of the ocean like dead fish. My post-abandonment week was simple. All I had to do was write up a report for the insurance company. As a final goodwill gesture I did meet with the builders at the factory. Charlie and I also wrote a "punch list" of concerns to address for future boats.
My two employers, the boat owner, and indirectly, the insurance company, were both satisfied and moved on. The owner bought a used catamaran in the Med and has plans to sail her to the Caribbean. I was content to ignore the "armchair sailors" and let them rant if it makes them feel like better sailors. However, when the owner of Aeroyacht decided he needed a scapegoat, he made a foolish move in writing without consulting the person who best knew what went wrong. He either forgets, or does not care to remember, that we had the services of a weather router that gave us the OK to depart. We had a Spot tracker recording our route. The insurance company paid off because of the rogue wave that bent the rudders. The USGC found no fault with the crew's decisions. That should have been enough said, but since the builder felt his entire future hinged on the loss of hull # 1, he had to find someone to blame.
This was not my first delivery south. In fact it was my third trip of this past 2013/2014 season. In November I made my 14th annual passage south in the NARC Rally (North American Rally to the Caribbean), skippering a Swan 46. In December I replaced a skipper with a sick pet who declined to deliver an Outbound 52 to St. Thomas.
This was also not my first delivery south in the winter. Three of the past four years I have departed with a boat after Christmas. It is called making a living. Delivery skippers are hired to move a boat when the owner does not want to. Two years ago I departed December 27th on a Jeanneau 40 from Oyster Bay NY to the Panama Canal. That year we did sail offshore to Norfolk, inside the ICW for three days, then offshore to Miami, and then next stop Panama. The year before, it was another Swan 46 out of the Chesapeake. We had to clear the snow and the ice off the deck to get down the Chesapeake, but after that it was an easy passage. So two of these trips were offshore passages, and one was inside Cape Hatteras, since we were not going to the Leeward Islands, but rather to Panama in the Western Caribbean. It is a fact that many delivery crews find better weather in December and January than in November since things by then have settled down some.
I have over 200,000 miles at sea. I have sailed a 39-foot catamaran from South Africa to Grenada and did a solo-Transat to Europe in 1992. I have also spent many months working offshore in the North Atlantic. I saw my first 50-foot winter wave in 1979 when I was working aboard one of five oil rigs drilling south of Long Island, NY. I also commercial fished out of Montauk, NY between October and April each winter for three years from 1990 to 1994. We would go out three-handed on an 81-foot longliner for 10 days. In November and early December we would wait for a winter gale to go by, steam out to the sea-mounts South or East of Montauk, and fish for three days before the next gale. When winds got over 30 knots with 12- to 15-foot seas, we would lay ahull and catch up on sleep and watch videos or read until it calmed down enough to fish for three more days. Then we would try and get into port before the next gale and last call at the Liar's Saloon. So when the builder and armchair sailors say we did not know what we were doing at this time of year, I can only reply that I have spent many more months at sea in the North Atlantic than most sailors.
Track of Be Good Too
When one departs from Chesapeake Bay in winter heading to the Caribbean, there is a well-known phrase that says "go East until the butter melts and then head South." With my previous delivery in December and with the Swan 46 fours years ago out of the Chesapeake, I did just that and sailed East for three or four days to a waypoint just Southwest of Bermuda. Then one heads south to look for the Easterly tradewinds that take you to the Caribbean on a beam reach. I take the time to explain this, because it was suggested that we should not have turned East once we were abeam of Chesapeake Bay. We had made decent progress down the Jersey Coast and were pretty far offshore, with a Southerly breeze forecast to hold. It was a good time to scoot across the Gulf Steam quickly on a reach. We would continue East for two or three days until the butter at least thawed. Anyone suggesting a course down the coast in winter and then trying to get to the Caribbean from points south of Cape Hatteras has never made the trip at this time of year.
Now is also a good time to explain a little about the boat delivery business. In this business it is normal to step aboard a new boat to deliver her as the builder is stepping off. Twice I have moved aboard a boat the same day the factory crew moved off.
Many people get a captain's license, which is easy to do in the United States, and make some extra money doing deliveries. Anyone can deliver a boat when the weather is right and the boat is in good working order. Where we earn our money is by moving boats at the wrong time of year and when the boat has issues. There is a short migration window when boats get moved, followed by long periods when it is either hurricane season or when no one wants the boat moved because it is the middle of the winter or the middle of the summer when boats stay put.
In our case, the builder in his statement kept mentioning that the crew was on a tight schedule. The only deadline I had to cope with was a self-imposed deadline to meet a flight I booked for 12 days after we departed. I often buy my return plane ticket before I depart because I have found that you can save the owner some money by buying a ticket in advance rather than buying a ticket a day or two before your flight and that owners appreciate when you treat their money like your own. Neither Charlie nor the owner had a deadline. Losing a $250 plane ticket does not dictate a tight schedule.
The boat was months past its original delivery date. The owner had flown out twice to take possession of the boat and had to stay in a hotel and then fly back home to reschedule again. The builder may like to remember that he took the boat out on many sea trials, but every time I saw the boat in December she was covered in snow and was still being built. This is normal with new boats and especially new designs. The three times I have flown to Europe or South Africa to pick up new boats they were always at least a week late. There is not much one can do.
While it is easier to stay "casual" while still at home (which was the case for me here, since I live in Long Island), the owner was not near his home. I have found even when you are in another country and the boat is not ready, it is best to stay "casual," not get upset, and stay out of the way so the builder can complete the boat. Jumping up and down and getting "non-casual" does not work and only delays the workers since they want to show you who is boss.
The builder's description of his big sea trial makes it sound like they went all the way around Long Island, but they in fact went around less than half the island, from Moriches Inlet to Port Jefferson around Montauk. A three-day sea trial. Here is what Gregor said about the test sail:
"Alpha Yachts tested the boat for weeks before handover. On the final test I, personally, sailed the boat under very harsh conditions by sailing it shorthanded, counterclockwise around Long Island in blizzard conditions. Outside temp's averaged -20 Fahrenheit (-28 Celsius) winds were up to 40 knots and (short) seas about 10′ high. My plan was to test to the breaking point. A constant sheet of inch-thick ice covered the deck and at one point the boat was buried under 30″ of snow. The generator, engines and all the systems ran, non-stop, for 14 days to avoid freezing and becoming inoperable. Every system worked flawlessly."
From this paragraph one would believe that the builder sailed the boat for a couple of weeks rather than two or three days on this first passage for the boat outside of Great South Bay. I have no doubt it felt like 20 degrees below zero as they sailed around Montauk between Christmas and New Year. But to then add the boat performed flawlessly, coupled with this description of the temperatures and the seas, is, to put it mildly, incredulous. No hull number one, five to nine months behind on delivery, on her first winter passage, performs flawlessly. In fact, he then states:
"There were issues: minor leaks (not dribbles) appeared through the seals of the saloon windows, emergency hatch seals, forward deck hatch seals and forward starboard to crossbeam attachment."
Flawless, to him, does not mean she was not leaking in a number of places, by his own admission. How he thinks these leaks were dealt with in Port Jefferson in freezing conditions with a few tubes of caulk is questionable.
And if the boat was flawless why would he add:
"Subsequently boats to be delivered this year by the builder have been altered to eliminate these shortcomings. When I short-stopped in Port Jefferson, NY, all these issues were attended to so that I felt secure to continue the test and hand over the boat to the new owners in New Jersey".
Since we know that caulk does not set in freezing temperatures, we must conclude that the boat still had leaks from all the above mentioned by the builder. The last thing that was installed by the builder was a manual bilge pump in the center of the boat with a 30-foot hose to reach any compartment in the boat. This pump got a lot of use on our trip south after the bilge pumps did not work correctly and would not shut off. Instead we had to use the manual pump for all four holds, the two engine compartments and the two main hulls.
The builder ends his post by stating that he thinks the boat will become a home to a Portuguese fisherman on the other side of the Atlantic. Charlie and I were sure that there was no need to scuttle the boat as a hazard to navigation since she would sink on her own if we were not there to bail. I am sure she would be home for fish well before she would have a chance of making it across the Atlantic to be a home for a fisherman. The insurance company did fly a plane out to look for the boat shortly after we left it. Even though they had our Spot tracking positions, which were less than 24 hours old, they were not able to find the boat. In addition to the leaks, there was ingress from bilge-pump outlets that had no vented loop or rise in the hose to stop water from coming in. Many multihulls drain water above the waterline without a shut-off valve. Water splashes in and once the hull sits down even a few inches the water comes in faster with each wave. Sink a little lower and water will flood right in.
While on the subject of EPIRBs and Spot trackers, the builder looks to some sort of conspiracy as to why we did not leave the EBIRB or Spot tracker onboard. Before we left the boat we asked the Coast Guard about leaving the EPIRB in the on position, but they told us to take it with us. When you have a captain's license and the Coast Guard tells you to not leave the EBIRB on the boat, that is an order and you do as you are told. As for the Spot tracker, Gregor is not familiar with how they work. If you are not there to punch a button once every 24 hours they stop working, so leaving the Spot on board would not have done any good. If Gregor had simply asked us about the EBIRB and Spot tracker, we could have told him why they were not left aboard instead of him thinking there was some sinister plot to sink his boat. Also, we were not sure what the insurance company would have to say if we had scuttled the boat and they wanted to try and retrieve it. As it turned out, they did try.
I have already talked about Scheduling. We had a weather window from a well-known weather router. No one was disputing this as we left the builder and team at the dock in New Jersey. Too often people wait for the perfect weather window, which means that you are motoring for the first two or three days and then are low on fuel.
Catamarans do not have two things: gimbaled stoves and big fuel tanks. Although we did carry 4 extra fuel jugs, we did not have enough fuel to run both engines for more than two days at full throttle. Since the boat only had 30 HP engines, we had to run the engines at a full 3000 rpms to get us near cruising speed. Of course, when making long ocean passages on a cat it is customary to run one engine at slower rpms to try and extend your range and to have charging capability for your batteries for the entire passage. This was the main reason we were a little behind the weather router's projected plot, since we were doing closer to 5 knots under power than the assumed 7 knots.
Gregor states that he knew the inventory of the boat, and this was true. The owner had been to the boat more than once to take possession of it. Since she was so far behind schedule they could not load the boat, since it was still being built and the owner's gear would be in the way. So when they were finally getting near delivery, Gregor decided to make the test run on the trip to deliver the boat to the owner outside of NY waters. This meant that Gregor had no choice but to load the owner's gear from his sheds and office onto the boat.
Many new boats are delivered from factories to charter companies and new owners many miles from where they are built. Often the delivery skipper will only have the tools that he brings and little else, as the boat manufacturer does not sell boats with spares and tools. If the skipper is flying to the boat, he will have even fewer tools, unless the owner has authorized him to buy tools, which in many cases is not practical or affordable. Unless you are going to be doing major engine repair, there are not a lot of tools you need.
In this case, if I had foresight, I would have thanked Gregor for recommending that we take a battery-operated saws-all with spare batteries and a 12-pound sledge hammer. That is what we needed to cut away and jettison the bent and useless rudders so we might be able to get some control over the boat. Criticizing the crew for not have enough tools on a new boat is like blaming smokejumpers for arriving on scene with just a shovel and an axe. I did buy a bosun's chair and a few other items for the owner before we left, unknown to Gregor, but then again he did not ask before writing his rebuttal.
3) JIB LEAD
Two things should look very funny here. The builder admits the boat was already five months late. On his test sail, two days before delivery, he discovered that the single Jib Sheet Block had a bad lead and would not last in a blow. So picture this: we are at Liberty Landing Marina in January and the owner has flown in for a third time. Gregor now says we should wait another week for a single Jib Sheet Lead from Selden. The owner can A) Fly back home for a week or more and wait for the block while paying transient dock fees. Or B) Stay in a hotel while they finish the boat and pay transient dock fees.
I am a rigger by trade and any sailor with any idea of Jib sheets and leads and how they control a boat can rig a new set when a single block fails. As seen in the picture on the Sailfeed Blog, we rigged a system superior to what was provided. What we needed was a set of barber haulers to have full control of the jib clew position to help us steer the boat. We needed to be able to backwind the jib well beyond the allowance of the short self-tacking track. So not only was this block not needed, but we had a better jury rig to try and get steerage.
The jury-rigged jib-sheet system with barber-haulers
The second thing that should jump out at you is that the builder contends that we were sailing too slow and should have been sailing faster, as he writes:
"Theoretically, because of the jury rig of the jib, the boat could not sail efficiently under the main alone. Had the boat been sailed with a proper jib lead and double reefed main, she could have been sailed with more speed up the wave face. Since she was slow (the skipper estimates 4-6 KNOTS) although I guess much slower, the boat was easily shoved backwards by the large rogue wave that hit them squarely. The disastrous effect was purely a matter of seamanship"
Here Gregor is making the mistake of believing his own marketing ideas. He suggests that if we were sailing faster into the waves then his "wave piercing" bows would have pushed us through the wave and we would not have been pushed backwards. If you ask me, a boxer stepping into a left hook is much worse off than one stepping away from that same left hook. Why he disparages the seamanship of the crew and suggests we should have had more sail up and been going faster is something I do not understand. Most experienced sailors would want to slow the boat down in bad weather, not sail faster upwind into the waves. It is his belief we should have been going faster so we would have walked into that left hook of a rogue wave.
We have all experienced rogue waves. You might have been sailing along on a near beam reach and suddenly get slapped square by a wave two feet higher than the rest. The wave slaps the hull at a different angle, and a small deluge of water wets the crew sitting in the cockpit. Everyone looks at each other and says: "Where did that come from?" Well imagine a wave also bigger than the rest and just out of sync enough in direction to lift up the bows of this 42-foot cat, exposing the bottom square-footage to the wave as the bow climbs and the wave washes over the boat and punches her backwards. A hit big enough to blow out a thick teak seat at deck level having climbed up the steps of the transom. This was not a teak step down at the bottom of the steps, but a strong thick teak seat at deck level.
Missing teak seat/step after the wave hit
In Charlie's article in SAIL magazine Charlie says:
"There was a horrendous explosion and water fired-hosed into the cabin all around the edges of the window frames. A large piece of trim was blown right off a central vertical frame, but the windows, thankfully, held up. The enormous impact stopped the boat, which had been moving forward at 4 or 5 knots, dead in its tracks and even seemed to back us up a bit. A counter-wave surged up our stern and (as we later noticed) blew a large teak step right off its mounting posts."
Why Gregor wanted us to have more jib up and to be moving faster into this wave is something I cannot answer. Past experience would dictate to most sailors to slow down. Some armchair sailors suggested deploying a drogue or sea anchor to help slow us down or stop the boat. Proper seamanship would be to slow down in bigger seas and not go faster as Gregor admonished us to do. (The use of drogues and sea anchors are a whole other chapter into themselves. Most new boats do not carry them and most delivery skippers never deploy them as they want to be more proactive and do not want to stop.)
4) RUDDER CONSTRUCTION
The builder spends a lot of time on the rudders. After all, they are the reason that we could only sail (or motor) in circles. The loss of the rudders was the problem. Everything else we could deal with. We spent two days after "the wave" making progress when the conditions were optimum to move. We could make progress when the wind was blowing over 25 knots sailing on a close reach only. At any other time we could not make progress. Since we could not steer an accurate course towards Bermuda, a very small target in the Atlantic with no ocean-towing services, we ruled that out. The next option was to recross the Gulf Steam, heading north to Long Island at 280 miles away, or heading West 300 miles to Cape Hatteras. Since we could only sail at less than two knots on a close reach, we would not have been able to make enough speed to get across the Gulf Steam. We also knew we could not count on the perfect wind direction for any length of time to get us across the Stream and to land. With no steerage and a southerly breeze blowing us north, we only had another day before we would be blown back into the Gulf Stream, which would then take us on a quick ride towards Europe.
Gregor writes in his statement:
"Edson suggested two types: one with two locking bolts which affixed the rudder stock to the tiller arm, the other with a single smaller bolt and a key as is traditionally seen. The builder opted for the twin bolt set-up."
"The rudder post is locked to the tiller arm by the use of two 3/8″ threaded bolts (not set screws, as they were identified in the article) with a 3/4″ bury that act as a lock, but also serve as a safety mechanism in case the boat is pushed backwards, so they could theoretically shear and leave the rudder undamaged."
I got pretty intimate with the separated tiller arm and rudder post spending several hours in the steering flat wrestling with an allen wrench, rubber mallet and spinning rudderpost articulating to scissor off fingers or worse. Be Good Too did have one 3/8" bolt on the back of the tiller arm to tighten and compress the tiller arm to the rudder post, but this does not go through the rudder post. The ¾" bury that he is talking about was a small set screw sunk two threads into a hole drilled into the rudder stock. It was neither a ¾ set screw, nor buried ¾ of an inch. There are two pictures on Charlie's blog that show the starboard rudderpost connection that has the one 3/8" bolt on the back of the tiller arm. The repaired allen wrench photo shows that we had a good fixed solid ferrous piece through the hole connecting the tiller arm to the rudder post, but not before.
Damaged port-side rudderstock/tiller-arm connection before repairs
And after repairs
When we finally got the tiller arm and rudder post to line up, we thought we were good to go. After one last circle under sail, we realized that the rudder must be permanently bent and we were out of options. The missing picture that Charlie chose not to print shows the small set screw broken off at two threads that was all that was holding the tiller arm to the post other than the 3/8 bolt on the back of the arm, which pinches the metal around the rudder stock, but does not go through the rudder stock. A picture is worth a thousand words, so if Charlie wishes to print the picture he has showing me holding the broken set screw, we can say case closed on this issue. If Charlie wished to save builder further embarrassment by not printing the picture I can also understand that.
5) SAIL TRIM AND STEERING A BOAT
Almost anyone who sailed as a child spent time steering a boat without a rudder. In 1977 in the SORC when the boat I was on broke its steering cables rounding the mark north of Bimini in the dark and was drifting towards the reefs, I advised against taking the sails down. As the rest of the crew worked to get the emergency steering arm in place with the binnacle in the way, I was able to turn the boat back on course using the sails until we got sorted out. In 28 years of delivering boats I have had steering failures 7 times and on one delivery spent 5 days under emergency steering. Another time it was 8 days on emergency steering, on a center cockpit boat no less. Boat owners much prefer if you can get the boat home rather than leave her in a foreign port to get expensive repairs while paying dockage fees. It also saves the owner paying travel time for another crew.
I have also been dismasted twice (never on a client's boat, both times on my own) more than 400 miles from land. In all cases, with seven steering problems and two dismastings, I got the boat to shore without assistance. I have been delivering boats long before there was GPS, long before autopilots were ubiquitous, long before charterplotters, long before SeaTow. There is not a lot you can tell me about getting a boat to its destination on her own that I don't know. However, having severely bent rudders that will not let a boat steer under power or sail, when cutting the rudders away is the only option, is another story. To deliver a boat you need to keep the water out, keep the sails up and working, and have steerage. You do not need a motor, you only need enough water and food to survive, but if you cannot stay afloat, move or steer, the jig is up.
In the SAIL magazine article Charlie states: "I had sailed with Hank many times, but this was the first time I'd ever seen him rattled." And yes, I was rattled, because I was the one at the wheel of the boat as we tried to regain control after the wave hit. After the first crash jibe I had her hard over to port, yet we turned around once more to starboard. Remember, this is a catamaran with two hulls. Common sense would dictate if you put full throttle on the starboard engine and turn to port then you will turn to port. I was rattled because we had lost control of the boat even with the starboard engine fully engaged and the wheel turned to help stay on course. When logic defies reason, you think voodoo, mysticism, and are rattled as in: "This does not compute." I thus ran forward to get the main down before another crash jibe. We were to spend the next two days trying to find a solution to our steering issues
Also, this was a delivery in January. Not the perfect time of year, but it's done a lot more than people realize. Do you think boats come off the assembly lines in South Africa or France or South Carolina and sit and wait for seasons to change before moving to the charter fleets? No, boats get finished every month of the year. Like new boats, trade-ins or recently sold boats have very little gear aboard, the old owner having taken it for their next boat or because they simply don't want to give everything away. The new owner wants to work on the boat and outfit it in his own harbor and have his own team of workers. Often delivery skippers move newly purchased boats with little gear and used boats with long work lists that will be completed after the delivery to the new owner.
There are many reasons why a delivery skipper gets paid to move a boat, and most of the sailing public would not understand that we do not work in a perfect world and don't have the luxury of charging an owner hundreds of dollars a day while waiting for a missing part and then waiting a week for another weather window. Armchair sailors are allowed their opinions and do their forensic work after the fact. Remarks should be tempered until facts are in from all sources, not just from a builder who is trying to protect his reputation. Also when something you read does not make sense, think about it and apply your own sailing knowledge and experience to a situation and follow your gut to not believe what does not seem right.
After we made landfall, courtesy of the USCG Helicopter ride, they asked permission to do a taped interview. We all agreed but were so boring that none of it even made the US Coast Guards video of the incident. In fact I was very surprised that the USCG sent a helicopter to get us. We had been told and were expecting a ship to be diverted to pick us up. Charlie and the owner were amused when I asked the Coast Guard for a ship heading West to the United States rather than take a long ride to Europe, and the Coast Guard was accommodating. However, at some point during the night they decided they wanted to send a helicopter and rescue swimmer to get us. Some people questioned why taxpayers should spend money to get sailors who went to sea in January. My response is that we were ready and willing to get off on a ship and not cost the US taxpayer anything.
Hank after getting pulled up into the helicopter
However, the Coast Guard likes to practice in real situations and the crew of the helicopter and the rescue swimmer were game on and very happy to be doing something. The PR guy at the base in North Carolina stated that their commander is very PR savvy and that is why they had footage of the rescue that many saw online. Like all Government agencies, the more they do the more funding they get the next year. So we can only surmise that they came by helicopter for the practice and for the PR. They did a great job and I respect the high skill level of everyone involved. One fact also missing in any media is that the owner and his wife had a party back in Germany after their rescue and they and their friends raised $10.000 and donated it to the Coast Guard Fund in NC. How often have you heard of that?
In closing, I wish Gregor and his company well. I live on Long Island and was proud to hear that we had boat building back on Long Island. I got involved because a surveyor friend was hired to oversee the building of the boat. I made several trips to see the boat and meet Gunther and tried to work with Gregor to do our usual professional job for his customer. Part of that is being there to answer questions and to help, but also to stay out of the way when you see they are still struggling to get the boat ready. The Alpha catamaran is a very strongly built boat. We were never in any danger at any time before or after the steering failure. I feel confident that Gregor will take the pages of recommendations that we gave him to heart. In my visit and debrief afterwards you could tell that Gregor was anxious to make the necessary changes to make sure their next boat and all boats afterwards are good boats. I wish them well.
Editor's Note: As Hank notes, at the time of the incident I was sure Be Good Too would sink after we left her. Subsequently, I reviewed the boat's construction specs and on seeing how much foam core is in the hull I thought she might well stay swamped on the surface. If so, I expected there was a good chance we'd hear of a sighting once yachts started moving from the Caribbean to Europe, but so far there have been no such reports.