Floating yachts abandoned - the scene in 2011

Abandoned yacht, found, still floating, four months after being abandoned
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Bird of Paradise 3
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Every year there are tragedies at sea, yachts missing and never found, crew washed overboard and lost, or yachts sunk and their crew rescued. Sometimes these incident are caused by the overpowering force of nature, sometimes by crew carelessness, sometimes by the failure of gear or equipment.

There is yet another category, where the crew is rescued but the yacht abandoned. What makes a boat owner/skipper abandon a yacht to the sea? The old adage is that you should 'step upwards when abandoning your yacht,' meaning that while the yacht is sound and not sinking, there is no reason to abandon it. There may be heavy weather and high seas, but they will pass and you will still have the opportunity to take your boat home.

Sail-World took a look at the stories in 2011 about the cases of yacht abandoning. We ignored all the rescues which involved Crew Overboard, where crew were lost, yachts were missing and never found, or yachts were towed into port.

We found that that there were 21 such incidents reported during the year (almost two a month) where the crew was rescued but the yacht abandoned, and in only ten of these was the yacht taking on water which could not be controlled. In one more case a catamaran had been capsized unexpectedly in the Southern Ocean, and the crew were found and rescued clinging to the yacht.

Abandoned sailboat by Jack Orton
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In those where the yacht was sinking, three of them had been dismasted resulting in damage to the hull, and the ingress of water could not be satisfactorily controlled by the yachts pumps. Two had hit a 'submerged hard object' and been holed. On another the ingress of water was caused by the failure of a skin fitting which was not noticed by the crew until too late, sheer carelessness the unkind might say.

In four rescues, the yachts had gone aground, either through faulty navigation or through the loss of way while passing too close to rocks or a shoreline. In none of these cases were the yachts able to be refloated, and the crew needed rescue as they could not reach safety on their own.

But what of the other ten? And what of the broader question? When is it the right thing to do to abandon a yacht that is still floating? Is it ever the right thing? Are we even right to analyse these incidents to try to come to any kind of judgement? After all, who knows how one will respond when faced with what appears to be a life-threatening situation?

Plunging on and looking at these fourteen cases in spite of some ethical uncertainty, this is what we at Sail-World found:

Engine: three cases
In one case, a sailor sailing in the South Indian Ocean found that, owing to bad weather his engine had broken free of the mounting blocks, and he was worried that it would penetrate the hull. He set off his out-of-date EPIRB, and was rescued, abandoning his yacht.

In two other cases, where the yachts were within ten miles of shore in each case, but experiencing bad weather, an engine break-down caused the skipper to send a distress signal. Both yachts were abandoned and the crews rescued by the local Coast Guard.

Rescue of the crew of Sara
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Electrical: two cases
In one case the yacht had lost all power on the yacht, and fearing that they would be unable to call for help once their batteries wore out, summoned help on their satphone. The yacht was in good order when they abandoned it in the Atlantic Ocean

In the other case, a yacht was sailing in the Indian Ocean and had an electrical breakdown. They continued on their way, hoping to reach port under their own steam but then were becalmed for two days. Finally they called for assistance by satphone and were taken on board by a merchant ship. The yacht, naturally, was left behind.

Weather: five cases
In three cases, the crew reported that they had been experiencing extremely heavy weather for several days, had multiple minor problems and could not make way. None of the yachts was dismasted, but two had blown sails. Seasickness was mentioned on one yacht.

In another case, the yacht was disabled with a broken boom by high seas and stormy weather in inland waters, and was airlifted from the yacht by helicopter, the yacht abandoned. As in the other cases, the yacht was still floating when abandoned.

Finally the last case is difficult to categorise, but we have chosen to classify it as a weather incident. This yacht suffered a steering failure while caught in a storm and the crew reported that there was water ingress, but it was under control. The yacht was still floating and still sailing until the crew were rescued by a merchant ship and the yacht abandoned.

So that was 2011.

Appropriate boating terms
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I once knew a sailor and his four crew who lost total steering in the middle of the Atlantic. They sailed 1400 nautical miles without steerage, first trying all the sailing school methods, none of which worked for them, then steering by the sails alone to reach their destination in less than two weeks.

I knew another cruising couple who had keel and rudder damage in an incident in an anchorage in the Galapagos Islands. After jury-rigging a rudder of sorts, they sailed 1000 nautical miles back to Ecuador for repairs. Intrepid adventure sailor Donna Lange made a navigational mistake and beached her boat accidentally. Most sailors would have walked away, sobbing at the loss of their boat. Not Donna. She rallied local youths into a frenzy of activity, and they rescued that boat from the beach with some good muscle and her ingenuity.

Yes, sailing lore is littered with these inspiring stories of survival from tricky situations.

After sailing oceans for many years, and hearing these tales of the many brave cruising sailors who suffer all sorts of privations and still take their boats home, one can't help wondering whether some of the sailors in these incidents weren't calling distress because they were merely frightened and far from home.

What do you think?