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Yachting is Safe...Until You Forget it's Dangerous


I love working with yachties; I really do. It’s their infectious joie de vivre, their directed energy; their 'oomph' that fuels me as a tutor to many. If they want to learn, I want to help; that’s my mantra – as a mentor and teacher (yes OK, ‘silly old git’ - hasn’t been to sea for yonks). But from my end of the didactic telescope, you just can’t beat a willing student, eager to learn. Mustard.

Aspiring captains who share their experiences at sea, especially the scary ones (the dits, not the captains), from which I too always learn. Always. A willing student, you see, makes my job a pleasure and, frankly, easy. Trust me, dear salt, I’ve taught many a student wannabee from the wider maritime profession who could hardly contain their indifference to proper bridgemanship – their only interest being advance notice of the rigid answers to known rigid questions. Disappointing, but such is my occasional experience.

As a ship’s master accrues wisdom and experience from relentless responsibility at sea, sliding down the proverbial banister of life, there are few rigid questions and even fewer rigid answers. It’s arguably more art than science, for captaincy is surely as much judgement as it is knowledge; maybe more. And let’s not forget the ever present possibility that there might just be a splinter or two to stab you in the ass. What am I on about, you ask? Stick with me...

There are occasions when a tutor’s most positive motives realise some negative risk. When being so brutally honest occasionally results in some students’ perspectives leading them to recoil at the suggestion – the very bloody cheek – that they might have anything at all to learn except, of course, how to pass that rather inconvenient exam that’s ‘not really relevant to me in yachting.’ I weep. I do. Relax, don’t get a twat on just yet; this phenomenon is rare and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to YOU. But I do come across some resistance to actually do at sea what is taught in the classroom ashore.

It’s not what I reckon should be done; it’s because it’s a SOLAS/STCW/MCA mandated requirement; it’s the law FFS! A few, just a few (but enough to cause me occasional sleepless nights), seem blind not because their visual acuity is impaired; it’s because their eyes (and minds) are shut. A couple of recent real classroom quotes from Master 3000 candidates, slightly modified to protect the guilty, by way of examples:

‘You clearly have no experience in yachts. Don’t you realise that there’s a lot going on in a yacht going from Antibes to anchor off Club 55; I haven’t got time to go onto the bridge wing to take a bearing...’, and...

‘We don’t need to take a fix - ECDIS does it for you’.

Before I get into the meat of this ditty and for the explicit avoidance of doubt, both quotes above were the students’ seemingly challenging, strident (almost bolshy) responses to the notion that two methods of establishing the vessel’s position are routine (in fact, a legal requirement).

fishin gboat in sunset knut troim 620207 unsplash 600When in sight/radar range of land, the established ‘ordinary practice of seamen’ is to establish the vessel’s position yourself with bearings/ranges of conspicuous/charted terrestrial objects; this is the primary means of navigation. To know the ship’s (recent historical) position with the intersection of three or more position lines; not blind hope that relies totally on a lat & long generated by a fallible machine, albeit a very clever and usually reliable one.

I refer, of course, to Navstar GPS (and its like-minded young cousins), a true wonder of the space and digital age that is more than reliable enough to be a good secondary and confirmatory means of establishing that the vessel is safe.

Let’s now consider the tragically true (but slightly camouflaged) story of father and son fishermen, Alf and Ben…

‘Bye babe, sandwiches are in your bag – see you later’, was the last thing Demelza ever said to her husband, lover and best mate since school over 30 years before. Sometimes ‘Alfred’ (when she was playing the household matriarch to the two men in her life), but more usually Alfie or Alf, or just plain ‘babe’, such as that last, tragically final cheerio.

‘See ya chick’, Alf replied, blowing her a kiss as he and son Ben left as usual at 5am. They always went early so they could return with their precious haul of lobster and crab in time to catch the fish quay merchants who were, in their turn, keen to make the Santander and Roscoff ferries from Plymouth. Their long day’s work was usually done by 1600, then home for a nice cuppa…

Alf was glad to be working with Ben, his beloved son, heir, deckhand and general dogsbody who always laughed at his jokes. A good lad, who at 18 had baulked at the idea of studying for a ‘degree’ with no apparent purpose; a life at sea was in his veins, his genes. And, as a bonus, the money he earned was directly related to how hard he worked; an idea he’d liked since learning about Stakhanov at school, the celebrated and immortalised Soviet miner who worked like a trojan; like a man possessed. Ben was convinced that three years at ‘uni’ was a waste of time; he could drink beer just as well anywhere.

Fuel checked, berthing ropes inboard and a bold sternboard off the unusually high berth (this being the vernal equinox), they passed the breakwater – and both sucked in the crisp, cool Atlantic still air. The refreshing breeze across the deck generated only by the boat’s speed, the just risen sun casting a wonderful light across the unbroken glassy sea, shadows created in the troughs of a typically long Atlantic swell. True to form, as the bow passed the fairway buoy, Alf and Ben glanced at each other and in perfect harmony cried, ‘My God, it’s good to be alive!’ Got the picture?

boat on horizon nick karvounis 43956 unsplash 600Alf had been doing the 28 mile passage for over 30 years, day in, day out. He’d learned it from his own Dad: straight south 4 cables from the breakwater, then bring MFV SKULLDUGGERY round to starboard about 80 degrees and maintain that distance offshore, heading west to Molgogger Point. Then swing round to NNE, then easterly, heading for the north side of the peninsula where his precious strings of pots were laid.

His old seadog trick to maintaining the same safe radial distance four to five cables offshore was 5 degrees of wheel to keep ‘MG’ lighthouse pretty much in the centre of the wheelhouse starboard beam window; it couldn’t be simpler - if the lighthouse moved for’d, ease the wheel; if it drifted aft, tighten the turn with a wee bit more. Worked every time; nothing needed except his best navigation aid – the ‘mark 1’ eyeball, although he did habitually glance occasionally at his GPS chart plotter just ‘for belt and braces’.

For sure, he had a chart, an uncorrected old edition but at least he had one (just in case the ‘spetznaz’ clowns from the Ministry office turned up unannounced, as they occasionally did). He also had a local tide table that he got every year as a freebie from the harbour office when he paid his annual dues; he didn’t use that either - he knew the state of the tide from the height of the fish quay jetty, and the eddy tails on the buoys told him if it was flooding or ebbing. Local knowledge, see...

… Later that day, at about 1630, Demelza started to feel consciously uneasy that her boys weren’t home. Such was their routine that the teapot was always hot when they walked through the door. If he was running late Alf would always call, but not today. By 1700 Demelza was more than slightly anxious: a fisherman’s woman is necessarily tough, but soft as a brush; maybe with a sixth sense too and always aware that her boys had a special job – ‘perfectly safe until you forget it’s dangerous’, as Alf’s wise old dad used to say. ‘Alf’s not back yet’, Neville, the harbour master told her on the phone, and he too thought it odd; not like Alf to miss the ever impatient dockside merchants. Most odd.

I’ll cut the Jaws suspense thriller here. Alf and Ben did not return that day, nor the next, nor that week. At 1800 the Coastguard mounted an SAR operation; an RAF Maritime Patrol Aircraft taking on-scene charge of the many local boatmen and women who rallied to the call. Other passing vessels also made their contribution trying to find ‘SKULLDUGGERY’. The local telly news reported the anxiety, the unfolding nightmare, showing pictures of the vessel. And as time passed, hope faded. What on earth could have happened?

woman standing by body of water vidar nordli mathisen 1326372 unsplash 600By the following morning, there was general agreement that something was seriously wrong. Alf was a seasoned pro, not a boozer, a family man and smart. It simply made no sense; not a trace ... until, on the third day of searching, a bit of flotsam washed ashore into the rocks at MG Point. Nothing more than a battered old fishing float marked with a faded ‘SD’. Many a grockle gazed out to sea from MG Point and to the ocean beyond. Coastguard auxiliary Jack felt more than a sense of foreboding; he had a tight knot in his belly as he reported the grim discovery.

There comes a point in any Search and Rescue operation when someone, somewhere has to say, ‘Sorry, but we can’t do any more.’ Cue angst, tears ... then bewilderment and anger; rage, in fact. Not unusually, in this case the Navy got fingered first; it had happened before, hadn’t it? A nuclear submarine, based just up the coast in Plymouth, that’s it. No, it wasn’t; the naval staff were ready with an immediate rebuttal to the inevitable suggestion they knew was bound to arise. No submarines at sea, dived or ‘on the roof’, within a hundred miles.

The unhappy irony is it was the Navy the authorities called upon to unravel the mystery. With its high-frequency sonar, a minehunter found a new, uncharted wreck just eight cables off Molgogger Point, in 55 metres of water. Its remotely operated vehicle (ROV), double checked by a diver, confirmed the wreck as SKULLDUGGERY, lying on her port side, revealing a long, deep gash fully along her starboard hull. Instant flooding of both the engine room and fish hold would have resulted in an almost immediate total loss of stability; she would have gone down with shocking speed, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) later concluded.

I wonder how many of you have already started to unravel the clues? To be continued soon, my dear yachties, when the reasons for this tragic loss will be revealed. In short, why Alf and Ben did not return home that day.

Read the concluding part here.

*All photos from Unsplash

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