Ocean Incompetence Inc. - an opinion piece

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As a passionate sailor who believes in good seamanship above all, and as a journalist writing about sailing every day, I am often struck by the way in which stories of poor seamanship and needless rescues are reported in the mainstream press as stories of brave survivors, battling the elements against all odds.

Mostly I try to ignore these tales of woe, not wanting to heap glory or even infamy on the incompetent.

But while we can all make costly mistakes, sometimes the degree of proud incompetence from sailors is too extreme to dismiss. Recently I read a story in a South African publication which shall remain nameless to protect those who in our opinion are the guilty:

Appropriate boating terms
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It told how a yacht crew sailing from Madagascar to a port in South Africa had to rely on drinking battery water to survive. While it was not made clear, I hope it was the battery water meant for topping up the battery, not the water already in the battery, or the result of the voyage may have been even worse.

The sailing boat, coincidentally called Quest, a sad reminder of the yacht by the same name sailed by four Americans who were recently murdered by Somali pirates, first 'lost' its mainsail. Was it jammed? Torn? boom broken? What 'lost' means is anyone's guess, but bad luck can happen, and the boat would surely have had headsails to carry on.

Then its 'fresh water became contaminated'. What - ALL its fresh water? How did that happen? Strange - most people can sail for years and years without all the freshwater in the tanks becoming contaminated. Weren't they filtering it? All good long-range sailors filter their water as it goes into the tanks. Still, bad luck can happen.

Hang on, what about the yacht's desalinator? No, that, according to the story, 'packed up'. Really? They are very reliable little beasts if you look after them properly. So that's even more bad luck.

We didn't know it would be like this
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Okay, so what about the small hand-held desalinator from the grab bag, which all competent sailors should carry. Obviously, they had no hand-held desalinator. And what about the jerry jugs of fresh water that all competent crews who cross oceans carry on the deck? Obviously they had none of these either. So now the 'bad luck' conclusion is starting to sound weak, possibly more lack of forethought...

The skipper, who said they only had battery water and 1.5 litres of fresh water left, did have, however, another solution. 'Thankfully while near Xia Xia [in Mozambique] we let off a flare and a ski-boat came to our aid, giving us 25 litres of fresh water.' So there's some good luck in this story too.

Water was not their only problem though. They had engine troubles too - the gear box overheated, and the clutch burnt out. Well, isn't that strange? Now credibility is being lost, just like the mainsail was 'lost'. When this much bad luck happens one must start to suspect that the neither the water maker nor the engine had been serviced properly, nor had the boat been carrying what sea-going yachts should be carrying for survival.

Rescuing at night - the hero's job
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So maybe it's not surprising that by the time they were 'battered by heavy seas' last Sunday night, and were about 80 nautical miles from Richards Bay, they just couldn't take it any more.

Just a short daysail from their destination, with a working jib, working steering and a yacht that was not sinking, it seems they might have decided to call out the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in Richards Bay, getting them out of their cosy beds and into heavy seas, rather than wait until morning.

The NSRI went to collect them, so by 17:00 on Monday the yacht was towed into Richards Bay harbour.

'Everything went wrong at night, but it was a great trip,' said the skipper, a retired poultry farmer after the voyage, without any seeming embarrassment. 'We have been sailing for four months and we stopped along a stretch of the west coast of Madagascar and saw large schools of spinner dolphins and viewed Bassas da India [a coral atoll], which was truly remarkable.'

He said the NSRI Richards Bay is a slick organisation. 'They are an efficient, friendly and professional organisation. They are a credit to Richards Bay,' said the skipper, unfazed by his night call-out to a seaworthy boat.

No comments were made by the NSRI. Maybe they are used to such incidents.
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Letter from ong-standing Contributor:

Sender: Captain John Jamieson

Message: What many folks might not realize is that rescue at sea places the rescuer in peril too. As a 23 year Coast Guard vet, I saw time and again carelessness based on the 'if anything happens, we can always call the Coast Guard' mentality.

And what about these youngsters making their way around the world single handed? Adults that make the decision to single-hand are one thing But why are adults applauding younger and younger children trying to win a spot in the 'sailing alone around the world' records?

Go back a few years and I believe you would find a different mindset among well known single-handers like Roth or Chichester. Those veterans understood and accepted the risks. We need to draw the line somewhere. A healthy dose of common sense and a look to the past would be a good place to start.

Captain John Jamieson
www.skippertips.com