Techniques & Tactics

SUICIDE OCEAN TOW: Drake Roberts on YouTube

Many moons ago I blogged about a fellow I met in Bermuda, Rich Littauer, who was aboard a derelict 52-foot steel boat, Cha Cha, that had been towed into St. Georges after losing her engine and sails during a rough passage from Newport, Rhode Island. More recently I've been in touch with Drake Roberts, the singlehander who found Rich and his crew, Gail Alexander, adrift and towed them most of the way to Bermuda with his Westsail 42, Paragon. Drake has launched a YouTube channel and has posted a complete video account of his own voyage to Bermuda that year (2009), in which Rich and Cha Cha (not surprisingly) are prominently featured. The viddy you see up top is Episode 4, where Drake first makes contact with Cha Cha.

If you remember my previous post (or have clicked through to it), you'll know the tow ended in disaster. The situation became untenable after the weather deteriorated, and the two boats twice collided and suffered serious damage. Drake was forced to cast Rich adrift again, but he did stick around until a superyacht showed up and (somewhat reluctantly) towed Cha Cha the last 30 miles or so to Bermuda.

Watch the viddy and you'll see it was clear to Drake from the outset that he was taking on a Sisyphean task--towing a much heavier boat over the open ocean for a distance of about 150 miles, with no other crew aboard to help him stand watch. It is also clear, however, that Drake was very pleased at the thought of being able to provide such crucial assistance.

His experience provides an important lesson for Good Samaritans everywhere... sometimes not helping is the right thing to do. Not that Drake should have abandoned Rich entirely, but as a general rule you should not take another vessel in tow unless you can do so without jeopardizing your own.

One thing Drake does not really discuss in the videos (the drama with Rich continues through Episodes 5 and 6) is how exactly the two boats collided. In Rich's version of events, the problem was that Drake's autopilot freaked out, but I was never convinced this was the true cause of the accident.

Drake's version is a bit different. This is from an e-mail he sent me:

Our boats collided because Rich fell asleep in the cockpit while he was supposed to be monitoring the tow as the weather got worse. Our agreement was that they would keep a constant watch on the tow and alert me on VHF if anything went wrong. I would catnap in the cockpit, clipped in, for 10 minutes at a time. I do feel at fault because at one point I got up and saw that our boats had drifted way too close. We came within 50 feet of each other and I just sat in the cockpit, waited, and watched as we wavered for a while before slowly drifting further apart. I kept an eye on them for a while longer, set the alarm, and fell back into a 10-minute catnap. This was my biggest mistake! I should have called Cha Cha and screamed at him for letting our boats get so close without calling me. He was on watch. If it was a test of his watch-keeping then he failed. I should have threatened to discontinue the tow if he ever let that happen again, but I was so sleep-deprived that I wasn't thinking clearly enough to realize how dangerous the situation had become in those last hours before the collision.

The worsening weather was making it impossible to continue towing. Winds were 20 knots on the nose, the seas had picked up, and we were being pushed towards the reefs to the west of Bermuda. With my 85-hp engine at max rpm, I was barely able to make any progress towards the east of Bermuda. Maybe half a knot sometimes, but more often nothing but thrashing with little to no progress towards our waypoint. This all occurred in the last hours of darkness before dawn. I should had disconnected the tow line, stayed within visual range of Cha Cha, and waited for conditions to improve before continuing the tow.

My autopilot was overpowered by 20 knots of steady wind on the nose, big seas throwing us around, and by towing a much larger and heavier boat which was always steering hard to port and veering all over the place. I feel that the autopilot performed admirably, but under these worsening conditions the collision would have eventually become unavoidable with any type of autopilot or human at the helm. I should have disconnected the tow...

I remember talking with Cha Cha about the deteriorating weather. I said that it was becoming impossible to make any progress towards the waypoint. No matter what I said he always replied that everything was fine, arguing that we were making progress, and that I shouldn't worry about it since they were keeping a good watch. His crew Gail told me later that at the time he was panicking because he thought I might stop the tow.  He told her to convince me to keep going, but she refused.

I should have disconnected the tow and waited...

(Note: A very key fact to keep in mind here is that Cha Cha's rudder was jammed up off centerline, so it wasn't possible for the boat to steer straight.)

Drake has posted several other videos on YouTube, so I urge you to take a wander through what he has on offer at the DrakeParagon channel.

This is another one that caught my eye, in which delivery skipper A.J. Smith describes his grueling experience aboard the Swan 48 Bella Luna during last fall's ill-fated NARC rally, during which Jan Anderson was lost overboard off the Island Packet 38 Triple Stars. (I've known A.J. for years and blogged about Triple Stars at the time of the tragedy.)

Last but not least: what the heck ever happened to Rich and Cha Cha???

S/V Cha Cha

Have no fear. I saw them in the anchorage in Newport last summer while I was test-sailing the Swan 66 Lionessa and gave them a big shout and a wave as we slipped by. So I guess Rich did get the boat sorted somehow (though you can still see collision damage on the top edge of the topsides, just below the deck house) and is still out there living the cruising life.

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