ATLANTIC 57 CAPSIZE: Crew of Leopard Saved 400 Miles North of the Dominican Republic

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Anna flipped

After some initial confusion over the vessel’s identity, it has been confirmed that a Chris White-designed Atlantic 57 catamaran named Leopard (as opposed to a production Leopard catamaran built by Robertson & Caine) was capsized last week well north of the DR while on a delivery from Virginia to St. Martin. All three crew onboard, led by skipper Charles Nethersole, were rescued from the overturned hull by MV Aloe, as documented in the video above, taken from a Coast Guard C-130 search plane that monitored the evacuation.

As has been noted on at least two online forums (Cruisers Forum and the multihull forum at Sailing Anarchy), this is the second Atlantic 57 to flip at sea, the first being Anna, which was capsized in the Pacific in July 2010.

Anna upside down. As the graffiti suggests, she was recovered and salvaged

Chris White, to his great credit, was very upfront about Anna’s misfortune and analyzed it in great detail on his website. He’s been just as upfront about this latest incident and so far the most complete account of what happened appears on his site.

The pertinent part runs as follows:

The circumstances of the capsize are at once very clear and yet somewhat mysterious. There were three experienced, awake and alert sailors onboard who all have vivid impressions of the event.

Leopard’s daily progress south had been similar to a trough ahead of an approaching cold front which meant that the wind was southerly and conditions somewhat unsettled. True wind speeds were running in the 23-28 knot range.

The forecast was for the front to overtake Leopard and the wind to shift to the west, so the crew was intentionally sailing slowly so they could obtain better conditions behind the front. There was no desire to sail fast and further away from the approaching favorable wind. The time was 1900, which means dark in November, and dinner prep was underway in the galley.

Leopard had the second reef in the mainsail and the smaller self tacking jib rolled to a #2 reef position. They were on starboard tack on a heading of about 150 degrees making about 7 knots in the puffs and much less in the lulls.

Professional captain Charles Nethersole has 14 years experience on the Atlantic 55 and 57 cats as well as decades of delivery and racing experience on a variety of offshore yachts. While he knows how to push a boat hard when it’s required, he is also very good at throttling back when conditions warrant.

Charles had just altered course a little further off the wind and eased the sheets to near luffing in order to make work in the galley more comfortable in the head sea conditions. A few minutes later, he was back inside the pilothouse standing next to the helm station when he heard a sudden loud roar and immediately the boat started to rotate. He had no time to even hit the autopilot-off button.

Cooking dinner in the galley, Carolyn reported that she heard a loud roar coming from the starboard quarter. She stopped what she was doing to listen – wondering what it could be – before she was thrown against the refrigerator as the boat rotated. Crewman Bert, recounts that the capsize felt like “something supernatural”. Charles says that Leopard never took off forward as a fast cat typically would in the first seconds of a squall. She was immediately slammed into a sideways rotation.

Within a minute of capsize Bert swam out towing the still uninflated life raft and pulled himself onto the partially immersed underwing. He reports that the wind was normal at that point with no rain or indications of unusual weather.

Chris posits, quite reasonably, that Leopard was overwhelmed by a very sudden extreme bit of weather, perhaps a “tornadic waterspout.” These things do happen, unfortunately, and far larger vessels have been felled in similar events; examples off the top of my head being Pride of Baltimore and the school ship Albatross.

Read through the material Chris has provided on Anna’s capsize, and you’ll see she was similarly overwhelmed in a sudden very violent squall. One the big take-aways Chris emphasized in the case of Anna was that she was running on autopilot when she flipped, and his conclusion was that in a dynamic high-wind situation where a boat is suddenly caught out over-canvassed it is always best to have a human hand on the wheel.

It seems Leopard was also on autopilot when she flipped.

Leopard upright

Leopard when she was right side up

There’s been some discussion online that these misfortunes reflect poorly on the design of the Atlantic 57, but based on the facts we have this seems unwarranted. I see nothing in their design that makes these performance cruising cats unusually vulnerable. To me it seems an awful coincidence, with the very good part being that in both cases all the crew were saved.

Some online pundits have noted these sorts of things don’t happen to fat production cruising cats, but in fact they do.

Leopard 44 flipped

Overturned Leopard 44 charter cat that drifted most of the way across the Indian Ocean after her delivery crew presumably lost their lives in a cyclone

I urge you to revisit this post if you have any doubts about that.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a very brief conversation with Leopard’s skipper, Mr. Nethersole, who would prefer to defer a debriefing until after the holiday. So maybe I’ll have more details next week.

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15 Responses
  1. John S

    Glad the crew is safe. I am familiar with the Pride of Baltimore sinking. I have a copy of Thomas Gilmore’s book Pride of Baltimore which describes the daytime sinking and includes excerpts from the Coast Guard and NTSB investigation. They concluded the probable cause of the sinking was due to sudden and violent wind attributed most likely to a micro-burst. There is no mention of a tronadic waterspout. Also, interestingly, like the crew of the Lepard, the Pride survivors described a noise “that sounded like a freight train.”

    Regardless the cause, a pretty scary ordeal indeed.

  2. Charlie

    @John S: I didn’t mean to imply that Pride was taken out by a waterspout. By “similar events” I meant sudden dynamic bursts of very turbulent weather, to include micro-bursts, so-called white squalls (which is supposedly what took out Albatross), very severe squalls generally, water-spouts, etc.

  3. Pieter D Brown

    Re: the phenom. of a (possibility) of a micro-burst – thought to also be the knockdown of the UK-barque “Marques” – north of Bermuda – knocked over & drove under in seconds, (Bermuda-Halifax Tall Ships Race)with great loss of life while other vessels nearby had no untoward weather at all…I think there have been analysis of these events, (?) – Adlard Coles book and others –

  4. Jordan

    The book Tall Ship Down by Daniel Parrot covered the loss of the Pride of Baltimore and Albatross (and Marques and others).

    Both Albatross and Pride had serious stability problems. Albatross began life as a schooner and was reasonably stable in that configuration, but then was ‘upgraded’ to a square rig along with a multitude of other upgrades and improvements on deck that served to raise her center of gravity.

    Pride of Baltimore was designed to be a faithful replica of a Baltimore Clipper privateer—vessels designed to forfeit seaworthiness for speed which were essentially the AC72s of their day. Pride’s stability was further degraded by the inclusion of modern cruising amenities and gear.

    In both cases (in all cases in the book in fact) Captain Parrot could not completely rule out the possibility that the vessels had fallen victim to exceptionally bad weather but in all cases he demonstrated a long chain of poor seaworthiness, poor seamanship or both leading to tragedy.

    If truly exceptional and truly unforeseeable weather was to blame in the loss of Albatross, Pride, Marques etc, then it seems to have a habit of seeking vessels that are already severely deficient.

    Obviously we know what the stability curve looks like for any catamaran (very steep initially, nothing at 90 degrees, then even steeper fully inverted) but there are plenty of factors that goes into a seaworthy catamaran and with two out of a dozen examples of a type have met the same fate it points to either exceptionally poor luck or a design that’s not fit for the purpose of offshore voyaging.

  5. Kelly Wright

    I was the skipper of Anna, the other Atlantic 57 that capsized in 2010. I take full responsibility for our capsize because I did not react with enough caution when the squall hit us. It was definitely not the fault of the design of the boat.
    You can read my description of the event at http://www.syanna-kellywright.com.

    Kelly Wright

  6. John S

    Jordon,
    The Skipper of the Pride was exonerated of any mistakes in seasmanship by the Coast Guard/NTSB. The investigation determined the ship was handled well and sailing under reasonable canvas at the time of the incident. Also, the investigation conducted a thorough analysis of the Pride’s design and construction regarding her stability and found no fault with either. As I understand she essentially down flooded through the main companionway hatch when she was knocked down during the microburst. I think it is wrong to suggest other than that determined by the NTSB/Coast Guard since it would disparage a highly regarded Captian and designer unless you have firsthand knowledge to the contrary. Eight members of the crew survived and I have never read anything from them contrary to the findings of the investigation. The Pride performed so well in fact the city hired the same designer to design the Pride II (though she has water tight bulkheads, which are required for carrying paying passengers which the original Pride did not do).

  7. Spud

    In theory. Had the A57 been ketch rigged, with a shorter main mast and mizzen, same amount of canvas, at the time of the incident only the jib and mizzen sails would have been aloft and therefore would this have served Leopard better. Are there any real sailors out there who can answer this question.

  8. Jordan

    John S:

    If you read my post carefully you’ll see that I cite the book Tall Ships Down by Daniel S Parrott. Captain Parrott served as a crew on Pride and as captain of Pride II. He has more experience on the vessel than any of the other ships featured in the book, although he draws extensively from primary sources including investigatory reports and interviews of survivors along with his own personal experience as a tall ship crew and captain.

    Captain Parrott does not fault the captain or the designer of Pride. Instead he faults the evolving mission of the vessel. The ship was built as a “dockside attraction” with authenticity being the most important design goal for the owners. The owners asked for an absolutely authentic replica of a Baltimore Clipper privateer. Once the vessel was launched its mission evolved to being a “goodwill ambassador” with long oceangoing voyages that were not originally envisioned.

    Regarding downflooding, yes, this contributed greatly to the loss. But the downflooding was a product of the design of the vessel as well as it had a very shallow downflood angle, due to its low freeboard and the arrangement of the deck openings. In addition it had poor belowdecks ventilation which encouraged the crew to leave hatchways open. These flaws as well as others (Pride had loose rock ballast, for instance) were all avoided when building Pride II because the vessel was explicitly built as an oceangoing vessel with modern safety standards.

  9. John S

    Jordan,
    I read it carefully enough. You quoted that the “Pride” had “stability problems” and “suffered poor seamanship.” The USCG and NTSB reports disagree with that view. Their report goes on to say, other than the main companionway hatch, “all other hatches were closed and did not contribute to her sinking.” Also that “there was no evidence of any structural failing or shifting of ballast.”

    I don’t know what Daniel Parot’s motivation was for writing a book about the event as I have not read it. Like anyone, he is intitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. At some point I will see if I can find a copy of it so I have a better idea of his position and how he supports it. I have been interested in the original Pride for many years.

    But my point is this. It is not inherently unsafe to sail a boat offshore that does not have all possible safety features. Down flooding can happen to almost any vessel. Low freeboard does not make a boat unsafe. Nor does movable ballast. Nor relying on celestial navigation vice GPS. Nor does sailing a gaff rig. Or sailing without an engine. Or single handing. Yet, you can find people, experienced people, that will make those very claims.

    And I have yet to sail on any boat that had anything approaching adequate ventilation under sail, especially in the tropics.

    The fact of the matter is that well built, well designed, well sailed boats can get overwhelmed. There are no guarantees out there. The sea can be unpredictable. There is risk when anyone sails offshore whether a ship has every design feature or not. And while most times we can point to a seamanship error, maintenance issue, or a design flaw when tragedy strikes, sometimes we can’t. Plenty of well built, well skippered ships, with every conceivable safety device, have vanished at sea. Sounds like the Atlantic 57 may well have been hit by a tornado in the dark. What are you going to do to mitigate that? What design feature was going to help prevent that outcome. What exactly was the skipper supposed to be doing? They were lucky they lived. Other crews were not. You pays your money and you takes your chances. If offshore sailing were 100 percent safe, most of us would not find it very interesting.

    By all accounts, while the Pride may have been a reasonably faithful reproduction of a Baltimore Clipper (she did have an engine, radio, EPIRB I think, pumps, life rafts, etc) She had safely sailed over 150,000 nautical miles in nine years. She was in fact well sailed by her crew, well skippered, well designed, sound, and in proper sailing trim for the conditions in which she was sailing. She had no need to have water tight bulkheads or outside ballast. It was not required. She was a reasonably authentic ship. That was what she was intended to be. I understand her crew took great pride in that very thing. I believe it is what made her so special. She was, by all accounts, a magical boat–the likes of which we may never see again.

    She was not inherently unsafe. She was not poorly sailed.

    So, if we must, we can agree to disagree.

  10. Jordan

    You quoted that the “Pride” had “stability problems” and “suffered poor seamanship.”

    You misquote me. I said that of the casualties profiled in the book “[in] all cases he demonstrated a long chain of poor seaworthiness, poor seamanship or both leading to tragedy.”

    Note the conjunction. In Pride’s case she was deficient in seaworthiness for an ocean going vessel but was sailed well by her crew. Maria Asumpta, in contrast, was sailed onto the rocks by her crew in good weather.

    That Pride had stability problems is tautological given that she was a stability casualty. The characteristics of the hull itself was reasonably sound, for instance her angle of vanishing stability was calculated to be a decent, but not great, 87.7 degrees at the time of her loss. But her rig was absolutely enormous creating an altogether unwholesome system. While the vessel was not carrying an inordinate amount of sail at the time of the loss the pressure of the wind against all those spars and rigging so far from the CG of the vessel creates plenty of danger.

    On the other hand, cutting down the rig would have destroyed her authenticity as a Baltimore Clipper. Pride II solved the problem while retaining the Baltimore Clipper rig by dramatically increasing displacement. Pride II had 50% more displacement than Pride but only 2% more sail area. She also has 20 tons of lead bolted externally to her keel. This creates a more wholesome balance between rig and hull.

    other than the main companionway hatch, “all other hatches were closed and did not contribute to her sinking.”

    USCG calculates the downflood angle through this hatch at 61.4 degrees. This is quite a shallow angle and being dramatically less than the vessel’s angle of vanishing stability, is not a desirable characteristic of offshore vessels because it can cause the vessel to founder without being fully knocked down.

    The fact of the matter is that well built, well designed, well sailed boats can get overwhelmed. There are no guarantees out there. The sea can be unpredictable.

    The squall that sunk the Pride was between 70-80 knots and lasted 10-20 minutes according to the USCG. This is a fierce wind for sure but not not one that couldn’t be predicted. Any ocean going vessel can expect to eventually to experience such winds if it sails long and far enough. Captian Parrott includes this quote in his book:

    There was talk that no vessel could survive such a severe microburst. Had I believed that, I never would have thought about going to sea, because such blows are not uncommon.

    Sounds like the Atlantic 57 may well have been hit by a tornado in the dark.

    I’m not sold on the tornado theory. I grew up in tornado alley. The town’s warning sirens would go off whenever there was a supercell. But even when conditions are right for tornadogenesis the probability that one will strike a particular place and time is still very low, while such conditions do produce severe squalls with a much higher probability. Given that two Atlantic yachts have been lost to perfectly ordinary squalls I don’t think it’s warranted to reach for such an exotic explanation.

    As an aside, oceangoing yachts (perhaps not multihulls) can and do survive encounters with waterspouts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5vA4QvaH1Q&feature=youtu.be

  11. John S

    Jordan
    Your views on stability required for an offshore boat and what constitutes a safe size rig reflect your opinions–not facts. And that’s fine. My views are my opinion–but in this case supported by the official investigation conducted by the USCG and the NTSB. Both these organizations almost always find fault with either design, maintenance, or skill. In this case they found none of them to be the cause of the sinking. She was not unsafe nor was she poorly sailed. Thomas Gilmore designed both boats and commented about how their designs evolved and were changed to meet the needs and desires of the city of Baltimore. If you don’t have his book, I commend it to you. I bet you would enjoy it even if you don’t agree with the designer’s views. It’s filled with the history of the Baltimore Clippers. A wonderful book.

    After the loss of Pride I, the mission evolved to carrying paying passengers so the new Pride had to meet different standards. And so, she was designed to meet those requirements. Different mission. Different design. And I think the City of Baltimore wanted to reduce the likelihood of losing another boat so they laid additional requirements on the designer. Gilmore describes them at length.

    Having said that, a buyer is free to have a boat designed and built however he or she may wish–provided a designer and builder will meet their parameters.

    Downflooding is scary stuff. Having sailed my own (low freeboard by modern standards) boat on long offshore passages both double and singlehanded it is something one thinks about. Low freeboard (it’s relative of course) can be safer (depending on a number of factors) as it reduces windage on the hull. I gave her a bigger rig as well. She is reasonably fast for a full keel boat. Last May I singled handed my boat back from St Marrtan to NC passing close to the spot where the Pride went down. Thunderstorms on the distant horizon. Wondering about the possibility of suddenly micro burst downdraft. Not a lot you can do. 20 knots running down wind. Jib poled out on one side, main on the otherside but held in place by a preventer. Windvane steering. A big knock down could be a real problem. I didn’t close all the hatches. It was hot. Every skipper makes his own decision. I could have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, I pressed on. The odds were in my favor. I arrived home safely. Had my boat gone down it would not have made her unsafe. The bigger rig does not make her unsafe. I don’t think I was unsafe on that passage.

    I agree with your view on a water-spout. But there are water spouts and then there are tornadic waterspouts. Big difference. The former are not normally dangerous. But the later are full scale hurricane-alley style tornados. Imagine getting swhacked by a 200+ mph tornado at night offshore.

    Regarding the chance of encountering a tornado on the ocean. Sure. Pretty slim. But, certainly possible. I don’t know what your background is. Mine is Marine Corps infantry. It’s a big battlefield. You can do everything right. But sometimes you can just be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, I would not dismiss it just because it is unlikely. I am not a fan of cats–I like boats that can right themselves. I won’t comment on the other cat–I know nothing about it except what I read on Wavetrain.

    Here is how I intend to leave it. You feel strongly about how you view the Pride’s design based on what you think is relevant information. I respect your view. But I disagree with you based on the info that is important to me–the designers view, the findings of the investigation conducted by the USCG/NTSB, the comments I have read by the survivors, and my own personal experince.

    See ya out there. Happy Sailing.

  12. John S

    Jordan
    There is one more thing I wanted to add to my response below. Perhaps you are already aware–a micro burst is not a common squall. Micro-bursts, unlike the common line squall, provides little to no warning. They can be hard to detect until they are on you. The thunderheads that produce them can be 5-10 miles away. Very dangerous, but not all that common. Allan Watts, in his very handy Instant Weather Forecasting book series, provides a great description of how they are formed and why they are so dangerous.

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