BE GOOD TOO: Answering Critics

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Internet dogs

Silly me. I thought publishing my account of abandoning Be Good Too would decrease rather than increase speculative and critical commentary among the baying dogs of the Internet. I suppose I should have known better. Unlike some folks out there, I don’t have the free time to write multiple screeds on all the sailing forums, so I thought I’d address some issues that have been raised here.

1. The most substantive point that has been raised is that it was not wise of us to attempt a non-stop passage from New York to St. John in January in an untried prototype boat. This certainly bears discussing. Gunther and Doris had been waiting for the boat for some time and were eager to get south ASAP. I am sure they are now second-guessing their decision in retrospect. They did hire Hank to help them do the passage, and that at least was a smart move.

As for Hank’s perspective, he’s a professional delivery skipper. Taking brand new lightly equipped boats into shitty weather is a big part of that job, at least if you really want to make a living at it. Some have suggested he should have tried to persuade Gunther and Doris to hop down the coast to the Bahamas instead, but in doing that he would effectively be talking them out of hiring him. I would guess that he now might be a bit more careful about accepting hull no. 1 prototype jobs.

As for me, I have some experience crewing off-season deliveries, including in brand new boats, and I knew what to expect. I knew we’d be in a gale or two and expected some things might break. I would never have done this trip with a skipper I didn’t know and trust. In retrospect I can certainly say I will be more careful in the future about doing off-season passages in prototype boats.

One interesting question to be asked is whether a mid-winter passage south is in fact more difficult than a fall passage. Winter weather is harsh, but it is more predictable. In the fall you are dancing between late-season hurricanes and early-season winter storms. In the winter, at least, you won’t have some squirrely tropical system doing something entirely unexpected (like Mitch in 1998).

There is an argument to be made that experienced sailors taking a boat south in winter are behaving more responsibly than inexperienced sailors who try to go south in the fall without professional help.

2. Many people have suggested we should have tried to do more to get the boat to shore. Most of the discussion has been about dropping the bent rudder and steering the boat without it. In this case, however, the rudders had positive buoyancy and only a couple of inches of clearance over the tops of their stocks. We did not have a 10-ton hydraulic jack (thanks for that tip, Evans), and I doubt it would have been useful if we had. We had no long levers. It never occurred to us to cut a hole in the deck over the rudder stock or to destroy the bearing tube–this, I submit, would have been a bad idea given the high likelihood of encountering another gale.

We also never discussed getting in the water to saw off the rudder. I would hope most people would understand that this idea is simply idiotic. We had no tool capable of doing it, and even if we had it would be impossible to accomplish working in the water under the hull in the open ocean.

The one interesting suggestion that has been made is that we might have removed the starboard engine’s starter when the engine was running and put it on the port engine to start it, too. Gunther actually suggested this, and Hank and I thought it sounded crazy. None of us are really diesel mechanics.

I now seriously would like to know: is this really possible? Has anyone done it? If so, please contact me. If it is possible, I’d like publish a story in the magazine on what’s involved and how to do it.

3. I have been most surprised by the comments made by Jon Eisberg, an experienced bluewater sailor I previously had some respect for. He has stated that the “deal-breaker” for him was the loss of electrical power, and that he would have aborted and headed for shore at that point. But, as I stated clearly in my account, we first became aware we were losing power after 0700 hrs on Saturday. We got hit by the wave and lost steering at about 1130 hrs the same day.

We weren’t that concerned about the loss of power in any event and spent little or no time trying to solve that problem. It may surprise Jon to learn this, but it is possible to sail long distances without any engines or electrical power. Some people even go out in boats that don’t have engines or electrical systems in the first place. All we needed to get to shore were sails and an operable steering system, so we focussed our attention on solving the rudder problem.

Jon has also criticized me personally and has suggested that our abandoning Be Good Too is very analogous to the abandonment last year of Wolfhound, about which I wrote at some length. But the two situations are obviously quite different. Wolfhound had sails and a working rudder and was getting close to Bermuda. Her immediate problem was that she had no electrical power, and her crew couldn’t navigate without it. All they had was an iPad with a low battery. We had a handheld GPS and plenty of double-A batteries and navigation wasn’t an issue. Our only serious problem, as I thought I made clear, was that we had no working rudders.

UPDATE: Since this was first published both the builder of Be Good Too and her skipper have offered their versions of the story:

The Builder Responds

The Skipper Responds to the Builder’s Response

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28 Responses
  1. Thank you, Charles, for sharing so many details about this incident in a cool, calm, analytical manner.

    You folks recognized there were problems, tried to work those problems, and when that failed, you admitted defeat, requested help, and got everyone to safety. That, I think, is a good response to a crisis.

    With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, of course, we can start to look at what might have been done differently by all the parties involved. Sticking to less risky (if slower) routes at that time of year, for example. Better QA at the shops that designed and made the rudders (there is no way to break a properly built rudder with hydrodynamic forces alone at sane boat speeds). A better spare parts inventory. Stronger windows. A more thorough shakedown cruise that might have caught some of the flaws. Testing the boat’s behaviour hove-to or under drogue before those things were really needed.

  2. Don’t let the nattering nabobs of negativity get under your skin, Charlie! (As if I could take that advice 😉

    I think that there are lots of sailors who don’t fully realize what delivery crews fairly commonly do. My first offshore experiences happened to be working for Patrick Ellam Delivery Service over the winter of 1971-2.

    Our first gig was taking a literally just-launched Pearson 34 from Tiverton, RI, to the BVI in very late November. We did go coastal until Cape Fear, but we had no storm sails, no life raft, no tender, no offshore communications, no EPIRB, no refrigeration, and no boom until North Carolina. And we were part of a fleet being moved that way, though we hardly ever saw each other.

    But I did earn $10 a day as deckhand and I learned a lot.

  3. Jesse

    Charlie,

    People seem to be reacting to this event as if it were a tragedy that they, in their superior wisdom and seamanship, would obviously have avoided. What bunk. The fact is that it was indeed the opposite of a tragedy, exactly because of the professionalism under fire displayed by those onboard. How can they who were not there fault your decision making when all of you made it off a very compromised vessel, whose myriad deficiencies of construction would not have possibly been revealed by a near shore shakedown as so many are whining they would surely have insisted on doing?

    Kudos for detailing the problems and attempts to fix them so clearly and well. Your writing, intelligence, seamanship, and decision making at sea should be way beyond reproach by any and all armchair sailors, all too eager to find fault with those who have been found, through no fault of their own, in a potentially life threatening predicament at sea.

  4. Charlie

    @Ben: Thanks, mate. I’m digging that Spiro Agnew quote! What a wordsmith he was.

    @Jesse: Thanks to you, too. But I think they do have the right tree. Can’t you see me up there, peering down at them?

  5. Jesse

    Ru sure you didn’t mean peeing down at ’em, those ever nattering nabobs of negativity, if they keep up the nattering you’re gonna have to relieve yerself ‘ventually.

  6. Erik Engstrom

    Mr. Doane,

    Thank you for having the presence of mind under this level of scrutiny to be clear and gracious to continue sharing.

    I openly admit that I am sitting comfortably in my home and struggling to understand as this may well happen to me. For each detail you share, I receive value and learn. I do hope that all of us can keep our respective roles and involvement in check.

    I am so glad you are all well.

    Yours,

    Erik
    Richmond, CA

  7. Bill Gaughan

    Charlie, at the end of the day all souls on board are safe, with a story to tell, which is the best outcome one could hope for!

  8. I just stumbled on this blog, because a friend had liked it on facebook.

    Having no previous knowledge of your adventures, I found it an interesting read. It demonstrates very clearly why I no longer haunt sailing and cruising forums.

    The endless critical (and harshly so) analysis of every sailing event by arm chair know-it-alls is paled only by their insistence that you feel and act the same way they do in every way, shape and form.

    My daddy used to say, “Son, life is too short to spend it with assholes.”

    Stand tall and ignore the peanut gallery.

    Cheers.

  9. Stephen Olson

    Experience: engineer of tugs, research vessels, and utility vessels. Unlimited AB, bosun on tankers, limited master, 200 ton, 500 ton mate, 100 ton aux sail, master of towing.
    It is quite simple to swap the generator off a running engine, as long as you’re careful with electrical shorts. First remove the starter off the dead engine, so you can figure out the process, and get your tools laid out. Then remove the starter off the running engine (with it in neutral). A critical question is how the engine shuts down. If solenoid shut down, disconnecting the battery cable might shut down the engine. Remove the solenoid first, or jump it to the + side of the battery. I’ve done this on an LCM6 with 6-71’s, and a boat with Volvo TAMD 70’s, and more colorfully once came across a stranded boat in the ICW with a dead starter. Dead boat and mine both had Perkins 107s, so I started my engine, put it on his, started his, then switched the starter back to mine. Took less than an hour

  10. Stephen Olson

    As far as steering goes, those rudders probably didn’t have foot bearings, so were held in place by collars on the rudder shafts. Remove the tiller and the collar, and the rudder “should” drop out without a lot of persuasion. The resulting hole in the hull to be stuffed with rags or ideally plugged with tapered wood plug.
    I’ve sailed small cats and medium tri’s, and have experimented with an ancient emergency steering gear called a “Danube rudder,” which consists of a drogue attached by bridle lines to cleats on the “quarters” of the vessel. In the case of a multi-hull the lines would lead the sterns of the two hulls. Slack one bridle line, and the drogue’s resistance swings behind the other hull, and exerts a powerful steering impulse. With the drogue in the middle, it tends to stabilize the hull going straight. A drogue can be made out of a coil of line, a jerry can full of water, an unpopular crew member-anything that resists being dragged behind.

  11. Gee whiz,
    Given the circumstances I think the right decisions were made. I’ve done winter deliveries to the Eastern Caribbean, and predicted weather is in general reliable as Charlie states. Crew experience is reasonable, and passes muster. Finally, although a longer more extensive shakedown cruise would have uncovered the usual issues associated with first builds/one-offs, I doubt there would have been discoveries that would have averted the catastrophic failures of both rudders, nor would a shake-down have suggested better ways to react when stuff happens. For me the questions are:
    1) was everything as well engineered and built as the apparently solid hull suggests. 2) is there anything inherent in the design of the boat that increased the likelihood of such damage.
    Anyway, be happy. Its a great day to be alive

    Don

  12. Tom Young

    Thanks for this first hand account, Charles. It’s rare to get a sense of what it’s like to be living one of these unfortunate episodes at sea.

    In all the armchair criticism I’ve read on forums about the incident, there’s not a thing that would have helped predict that this boat would be 300 miles out at sea, with both rudders stove in.

    Very sad for the new owners but thanks to all the cool heads(CG especially), it’s great that everyone is fine.

  13. Piotr Romanus

    I definitely agree with most of the comments here: Most of the criticism is thoroughly misplaced and quite a lot of it looks like written by armchair sailors. Especially the one about cutting of the rudder. I can’t believe that anybody would actually suggested this in the middle of Atlantic in January.

    Having said that though I would like your opinion on behavior of Alpha’s piercing bows. Do you think that having low buoyancy in the front of the hulls contributed to the fact that the boat did not ride over the “rouge wave”?

    I have never sailed a boat with piercing bows so I have no idea if this is a silly question but I have a feeling that I am not the only one asking it.

  14. Charlie

    @Stephen: Many thanks for the tips re swapping starters. I’ll be e-mailing you. As for the rudder: again, flotation was positive and it would have to be pushed out. Also getting the Allen wrench out again would have been very hard, maybe impossible. We whaled on it getting it in.

    @Helen: Yes, I still stand behind my proposal. If an independent body determined we needn’t have called for help, we should have to cover costs.

  15. Charlie

    @Piotr: I think the Alpha has a great hull form. Very comfortable motion and very stable lying ahull in big waves. It’s hard to say what role the bows play without more experience with the hull, but I guess they have something to do with it. I really don’t think they had anything to do with the wave hit.

  16. Laurence Woodward

    Charlie, any chance the wave piercing bows allowed the wave to have more impact on the bluff bridgedeck. If you want them, the hulls may need to be longer to prevent this happening. Reserve buoyancy in a conventional hull would have kicked in and started to lift the bridge deck clear. Not saying the result would have been different but interested in your thoughts.

  17. Charlie

    @Laurence: No, I don’t think the bows made any difference. I don’t think a “conventional” plumb bow would have decreased the wave’s impact, nor would it have enough additional buoyancy to lift the boat over the wave. More waterline length would make a difference, but then you’re talking an entirely different boat.

  18. @Laurence: No, I don’t think the bows made any difference. I don’t think a “conventional” plumb bow would have decreased the wave’s impact, nor would it have enough additional buoyancy to lift the boat over the wave. More waterline length would make a difference, but then you’re talking an entirely different boat.

    I agree that the Alpha 42 reversed bow isn’t that different than plumb bow. What has concerned me, especially with fine entries such as on our cat, is the trend toward what I would call slab sides which do not provide as much reserve buoyancy as sides having more flare forward. Our Derek Kelsall design is effectively also wave piercing albeit with the extreme opposing of a reversed bow. It does however provide substantial reserve buoyancy in comparison to a reversed bow.

  19. Stephen Olson

    RE: removing the rudder: It’s often surprising how hard you have to whack on something to drive it into a hole, and then how easy it is to withdraw it. In any event, if you had one allen wrench to use as a pin, you probably had the next smaller size too, which would work as a drift to push the bigger one out of its hole. Rudder’s generally are barely buoyant. The structure is heavy, and there’s not much volume. Probably the rudders were neutral or negative. For pushing out the rudders, that would have been the “silver lining” moment, when you’d have been glad that the builder did such a negligent job of fastening the tillers, so you didn’t need a puller to get them off the shaft… But once the tillers were off, you’d have a couple of very strong levers, the ideal thing for pushing the rudders out by contriving what’s sometimes called a “jackass lever,” which isn’t as dumb as the name suggests. And as somebody once said, “give me a jackass lever and I’ll move the world.”

  20. Stephen Olson

    In response to “Charlie’s” comment in #18 that the Alpha is good at lying a-hull, I wonder if lying a-hull isn’t what caused the rudder damage… SOMETHING leaned really hard on those rudder, busting the blade loose from the shaft on one, and bending over the shaft on the other, and I don’t see a logical cause other than that. If the rudders had been damaged when underway, the person at the helm would have immediately noticed the loss of control. If it happened when the boat was left to its own devices, it’s easy to see how nobody would notice until trying to get underway.
    I have laid beam-to in tris and cats, and really disliked the slamming and jerking that ensued. Seems to me that in bad conditions that they should run off under reduced rig, or lay-to with a parachute sea anchor.

  21. Hans Hutzler

    [quote name=”Stephen Olson”] Remove the tiller and the collar, and the rudder “should” drop out without a lot of persuasion.

    This stupid piece of advise from a very smart and experienced Mr. Olson is the proof that he is a complete idiot armchair sailor.

    I have a 43′ cat and had to remove one rudder. It took a lot of effort with the boat tied at the YC quiet basin. They are very buoyant in a cat nowadays. We needed a strong guy down pulling and something to push from up. We had perfect access to the top of the shaft. Water was completely calm. And every small angle sideways the stock would stop. I can’t imagine it going down with such waves.

    Mr. Douane: congratulations for the brave account of the incident. And don’t give a damm to those stupid critics who never went further than their tube.

    Fair winds and quieter seas!

    SV Aventureiro 2 – Brazil

  22. Charlie

    @Stephen: The damage definitely occurred before we lay ahull. Pls. reread the original account carefully. In retrospect, my sense is we would not have suffered our big wave hit if we hadn’t been sailing the boat. If we had laid down once the wind and seas were up, then resumed sailing after the gale passed, we probably would have been fine. Also, the rudders were very buoyant, per Hans’ comment. When we removed the tiller arm and crossbar, the one we were working on popped right up.

    @Helen: There were rudder stops.

  23. Carl

    Hello:

    Thanks so much for describing your account of the episode. I appreciate your great blog and really enjoy your work.

    I happen to currently be reading James Wharram’s Two Girs Two Catamarans… and on page 161 he writes

    “A catamaran, because it is a raft shape, cannot heel, so any projecting fin or rudder takes the full twisting strain, as the craft gets knocked sideways by large storm waves.”

    He wrote that to summarize the cause of damage to his rudder. His fix was to haul the rudder on-deck and cut off the bottom and bolt a sheet of ply to each side of the remaining rudder increasing the surface area in such a manor that the ply was no deeper than the bottom of the hull.

    Wow. How telling and apparently how true.

    Again – so glad that your adventure had a safe outcome.

    Carl

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