Inspired in part by disparaging critiques made on the relevant forum thread at Sailing Anarchy, Leopard’s skipper Charles Nethersole got back to me earlier than I expected to discuss details of the catamaran’s capsize last week. We had a long conversation this morning, and I also had a long conversation yesterday afternoon with Leopard’s designer Chris White.
The main critique on the SA thread has been that the crew was negligent, given the unsettled weather conditions, in not having someone constantly stationed in the outside cockpit ready to cast off sheets in the event of a sudden squall or something similar. After debriefing Nethersole, as well as studying written statements prepared by him and his two crew, Carolyn Bailey and Bert Jno Lewis, it seems pretty clear to me however that the event was so instantaneous, with so little warning, there was nothing anyone on deck could have done to prevent the capsize. Indeed, it seems the crew was in fact lucky to have all been inside at the time, as I should think anyone outside might easily have been lost.
Chris White has already received a preliminary meteorological assessment from Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University (also a friend and an Atlantic catamaran owner), who reviewed the atmospheric records for the relevant time and place and concluded conditions in the area were in fact conducive to the formation of a tornadic vortex.
Graphic prepared by Jennifer Francis. Her conclusion, transmitted to Chris White: “It all seems to add up to a twisting phenomenon, not a microburst.”
Discussing the event with Charles Nethersole, it really did sound to me like the purest piece of bad luck a bluewater sailor could ever hope to encounter, as though God himself, with no warning, had suddenly decided to poke you with a finger and squash you like a bug.
As Nethersole described it to me: “There was almost no warning, not even enough time for me to hit standby on the autopilot control right next to me. Just an almighty roar, then suddenly the boat was lifted up and went over. It seemed it was the sudden pressure drop more than the wind that did it, as there was no acceleration of the boat. It was bizarre, like nothing that ever happened to me before.”
MV Aloe underway
Saloon of Leopard
Cockpit of Leopard
Galley of Leopard
Leopard was significantly undercanvassed at the time, with a double-reefed main and partially reefed staysail, in variable conditions that saw the crew motorsailing through lulls in the wind. If the boat was indeed struck by a vortex like a tornado or waterspout, it might well be it would have been flipped even if the sails were all down.
In all the crew spent about 10 hours at night on the overturned hull before being rescued by a Coast Guard C-130 search plane and MV Aloe. They were very fortunate in that they had two immersion suits and one survival suit to wear while waiting. Chris White has designed his Atlantic catamarans so that the forward collision compartments in each hull can be used as survival compartments when a boat is inverted, and I asked Nethersole if he considered using one of these.
Design plan showing capsize habitation area in an Atlantic catamaran
He replied he did think of it, but concluded it was safest for the time being to stay on the hull, given the water was warm, it was night, there was a strong smell of diesel fuel, and the interior of the boat seemed potentially dangerous.
Rather than restate more details about what happened, I shall simply reprint two of the three written statements Nethersole shared with me. As you study these I would point your attention in particular to the behavior of Bert Jno Lewis, who jumped back in the water after getting safely aboard MV Aloe so as to help Carolyn Bailey get aboard. I have not included Lewis’s statement, as for some reason I can’t get the text to copy over (and don’t feel like typing it all out). It is the shortest of the three, and adds nothing of substance in any event.
Statement of Charles Nethersole
My name is Charles Nethersole, Captain of Leopard, an Atlantic 57 sailing catamaran designed by Chris White, built by Aquidneck Custom Composites of Bristol, Rhode Island, launched in 2008, registered in the Cayman Islands.
What follows is a brief account of events that led to the capsize of Leopard, approximately 400 nautical miles north of the Dominican Republic, during the evening of November 16 while on passage from Annapolis to St Martin, and our subsequent rescue.
Leopard left Annapolis on Friday November 11 at 1430, sailing briskly south down the Chesapeake in an increasing motherly breeze, arriving in Little Creek, Virginia the following morning at 0430. We remained there for twelve hours to give time for the sea state to have subsided when we reached the Gulf Stream. After crossing the Stream we sailed then motored down the rhumb line towards St Martin in a dying north easterly breeze.
Strengthening wind developed from the southeast, forcing us to tack back and forth across the rhumb line. A large trough developed across the rhumb line with squally conditions. Commander’s Weather projected that the trough would finally pass us during Wednesday night. New wind from the west, veering over the next few days to the northeast would provide good sailing conditions for the latter half of the trip.
During Wednesday afternoon Leopard had been sailing south with one reef in the mainsail, and the staysail. The wind veered enough for us to tack over to the east southeast, still north of rhumbline but improving as the afternoon wore on. The leeward daggerboard was lowered about 3 feet. We were still in squally conditions with peak gusts into higher twenties. A second reef was taken in on the mainsail, forcing us to motorsail during the lulls but not be too pressed during the stronger gusts.
As twilight approached the average breeze had built to around twenty knots, with maximum gusts around 30 knots. A safety strop was attached to the second reef clew, and the staysail was rolled in to the second reef mark.
At 1830 Carolyn Bailey was relieved from watch by myself, so that she could prepare supper. She requested for a smoother motion as we were punching into head seas at an average of 7 knots. The autopilot was adjusted from 36 degree apparent wind angle to 42 and the sheets were slightly eased on the staysail and mainsail to twist and depower.
Around 1900 the cooking was done, true wind speed was about 18 knots, (apparent 24) and I was about to harden up when a roar from a gust of wind hit the boat. The starboard hull lifted and continued rotating over. Even though I was standing at the helm station I had no time to disengage the autopilot before I was off balance as the boat went over completely.
There was a lot of crashing noise, and water pouring in through the smashed front door. I shouted to Carolyn to see if she was Ok. She said so but had had the stove fall on top of her head during the capsize. Bert grabbed the liferaft and exited the rear door swimming under the aft deck to climb onto the underside( now topside) of the wing deck.
I dropped down into the starboard pontoon to help Carolyn. We recovered her own survival suit and another immersion suit, undid the step to the escape hatch and exited the pontoon onto the wing deck, joining Bert.
I then went over to the other hatch climbed in and retrieved another immersion suit and the ditch bag. The saloon at this stage was fully flooded, while the pontoons were about neck deep.
I then joined Bert and Carolyn on the wing deck. We donned our suits and tried to activate the EPIRB. We were holding onto the handles of the escape hatch and the liferaft valise, but as the boat settled this became untenable.
Bert retrieved the dinghy and tied it as best he could close to the starboard escape hatch. We climbed into the dinghy. It was being pushed around by waves coming in over the aft part of the wing deck, occasionally by some from forward, and would ground on the stringers and conduit on the underside of the wing deck.
We noticed after an hour or more that the EPIRB wasn’t transmitting. It seemed it had to be immersed to transmit, so we left it in the water sloshing around the bottom of the dinghy.
After a few hours of being thrashed around and occasionally being swamped by waves in the dinghy, we saw a USCG C-130 coming towards us. We set off two night sticks and waved them at the plane when it passed close by. A freighter appeared on the horizon heading in our direction. The plane dropped a flare close to us. The freighter approached close to Leopard, and threw lines attached to life rings and beacons.
I grabbed a line with a loop. Carolyn and Bert each had lines with life rings. I jumped in the water and was quickly hauled aboard. Bert was hauled up next, but had a more difficult time having to climb up a Jacob’s ladder.
Carolyn had the worst time. By this time there were many lines all tangled around her. Bert donned a life jacket and jumped back in to help Carolyn. She suffered multiple dunkings while struggling to disentangle her feet, suffering more bruising in the process but eventually was hauled aboard as was Bert.
We were looked after by the crew of the M/V Aloe for two days before being transferred to a USCG cutter off Miami and brought to the base there.
We are now trying to put our lives back together as we left Leopard wearing only shorts and T-shirts. Clothes, shoes, phones, computers, credit cards, passports, visas, driving licenses, mariner’s licenses etc all need to be re-acquired.
But we are all still here. It could easily have had a worse outcome if that microburst or whatever it was had hit when crew were sleeping.
Statement of Carolyn Bailey
We left Little Creek, Va. heading for St. Maarten just after 4pm on Saturday, 12th November. We had a smooth passage across the Gulf Stream and then the weather became overcast and squally. It seemed we were traveling at the same speed and direction as the system and the wind was always from the direction that we wanted to go. We tacked back and forth across our Rhumb line trying to get the best course to our destination.
The weather never felt threatening or dangerous. It was just very frustrating. Windspeed would drop to 6 or 7 knots and we would be motoring against ‘lumpy’ seas, then it would increase to 15/18 knots and we would be sailing again. Within the hour we would be reefing as the apparent wind reached the high twenties, then shaking out the reef or reefs as the wind died to nothing again. Charles, always a conscientious sailor, reacted immediately by reefing or shaking out the reef to meet the wind conditions. It was much work to make little headway towards our destination.
A little after 7pm on Wednesday I was having a hard time preparing dinner, as water was spilling out of the cooking pot repeatedly extinguishing the stove. We were on a starboard tack with double reefed main and staysail making about 6 knots to weather I asked if we could run off a little while I finished cooking, so Charles and Bert went out again, eased the sheets and took in the staysail a few turns.
When they came back in from the cockpit, I heard Charles say something to the effect that, “Of course, now the wind is dying again!”
At that point there was a loud roar coming from the starboard aft quarter. I stopped what I was doing, thinking that it could not possibly be the wind as it was not accompanied by the familiar rushing of water across the hull. It was like a train passing! Then I was thrown back into the fridge door, heard everything crashing around in the galley and inside lockers, and was hit in the face by the galley stove. When the boat settled I was pinned under the stove and in the flickering light saw water rushing in. Confusion, disbelief, the ultimate nightmare. But how could this have happened? On my watches over the past two grey days I had never seen the true wind exceed 28 knots, and the sea state was not close to anything that could flip a 57′ catamaran.
I pushed the stove off me and heard Charles and Bert calling, asking if I was OK. They said to come through to them in the main saloon. I felt a huge bump the size of an egg forming on my forehead but so many other things were happening, it wasn’t my primary concern. In the main saloon water was waste deep and Bert was opening the back door and pulling the life raft with him. Before I could say that I thought it was a bad idea, he was through and I gave the life raft a push to free it from the closing door.
I heard Bert shouting for us to follow, but the water quickly rose to chest deep and the door closed. There was an eerie bluish light coming from below the surface of the water (Chart plotter?). Charles mentioned there would be more air and dry space in the bow but we decided to find the escape hatch and went back to the galley. We heard Bert banging on the outside and were relieved and elated to find each other safe.
Charles climbed out and he and Bert crossed the wing deck and opened up the other escape hatch on the port hull. They retrieved an immersion suit and the ditch bag, in which he had instructed Bert to put the EPIRB before leaving. He then returned to the starboard hatch and we both went back inside to locate the other immersion suits. There was one in each cabin. By this time it was dark inside and one could only sift through the floating debris. I found Bert’s immersion suit and Charles found my personal Mustang survival suit floating, so now we had three.
The main saloon was now underwater.
Being on the wing deck between the two hulls was something akin to one of those artificial ‘surf maker’ pools; we were washed fore and aft across the slick Awlgrip surface with each wave while trying to get into our survival suits and hold fast onto the life raft and ditch bag.
We huddled around the hatch with the EPIRB turned on, discussing options, access to food and water etc. and decided it would be safer to wait until daylight before attempting anything. By now there was a strong smell of diesel inside the boat and an oily film on the floating items.
The situation on the wing deck deteriorated as the boat settled deeper and some waves were crashing over our heads. It was getting harder to hold on and we thought it would be better to bring the dinghy on to the wing deck and climb inside. Bert made his way to the stern and did an amazing feat of climbing into the bucking dinghy and releasing the lashings while being violently tossed around. He managed to pay out the painter until the dinghy washed down onto the wing deck and then secure it with a line to the steering cables.
We climbed into the dinghy taking the life raft, ditch bag and EPIRB. It was an improvement, being above the breaking waves, but the deep vee-shaped RIB bottom would strike violently against the stringers on the wing deck as it moved sideways, so we had to find a way of lashing its port side down. This we did by securing a line to the ladder inside the starboard escape hatch. The dinghy filled with water due to wave action and although the bung was out, the water could not drain.
We had no idea of time or how long we were there, but when the clouds parted a little, the moon was almost directly overhead. Bert spotted the lights of a low flying plane approaching. It flew right over us and then circled around for what seemed like an hour or two. We guessed that it was diverting a ship towards us and pretty soon we saw lights in the distance.
The captain did an excellent job of positioning the ship within 20 feet of Leopard enabling the crew to throw lines to us. Despite several catastrophic mishaps during the transfer, eventually everyone was pulled safely on board at 5am Thursday thanks to Bert’s foolhardy, heroic action of getting back into the water from the safety of the freighter to help me out. The crew of the Aloe gave us every assistance and provided overwhelming hospitality and kindness. Exactly two days later we were transferred to a US Coastguard vessel 16 miles off Florida and brought into Miami. The Coastguard were extremely efficient and professional, fed us breakfast and dressed my wounds. The captain kindly provided us all with a copy of a memorandum explaining our circumstances to assist us in applying for identification documents, and gave his personal phone number in case further information was needed.
The loss of Leopard is a tragedy. The owners are conscientious sailors and no expense was ever spared in maintenance and safety. They have always been very proactive in the update of safety features. She was in excellent condition, to my mind the best, safest and most comfortable passage maker I ever sailed on; I always felt it a privilege to sail on her. In my 42 years of off- shore sailing, I have seen weird weather and tidal phenomena, water spouts at a distance, unexplained, roaring mid-ocean ‘tidal rips’ etc. and am convinced that this was one of those events. I regret it had to happen on our watch.
I believe that if the crew were less experienced, the skipper less professional, the boat not so well equipped, it could have had a very different outcome.
No one panicked and all stayed positive the whole time. I wish it had not happened but I couldn’t have shared this disaster with a better team!
Nethersole did note in transmitting these to me by e-mail:
Carolyn tells me my memory is less than 100%! Apparently she came up into the saloon from the galley after the boat went over, then we both went back down into the pontoon after Bert had gone out of the back door.
I opened the escape hatch and went over to the other side to the other hatch, climbed in got in grabbed the ditch bag and an immersion suit, then went back to Carolyn’s side (starboard), went in and I found Carolyn’s survival suit and Carolyn found another immersion suit. We then joined Bert on the wing deck, getting into our suits while still holding onto the ditch bag and life raft.
He concluded our phone conversation with the following statement: “As for those people on the forums, they weren’t there, they don’t know. I can assure them they wouldn’t have done any better than we did.”