It’s Not How You Get into Trouble

Mariners love sea stories and writers love inspiration. We experienced two events in the recent past, only days apart, that provided both and they provided reminders and tips for boating safety.
The first occurred in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, during a pre-purchase survey for a relatively young couple, new to this type of boat. Aboard the 40 foot sailing catamaran for most of the day were two experienced brokers, the undersigned (marine surveyor), the two clients and one of the current owners. The event occurred while attempting to pull into the travel lift ways. We docked in the main channel and needed to make a 90 degree turn around the corner of the dock and into the ways. The wind was blowing briskly and pushing the vessel off the dock once it was oriented towards the travel lift. After the obligatory delay, we initiated the movement into travel lift ways, with neither of the brokers aboard. The yard crew attached the port stern line to a cleat on the corner of the dock, providing a “fool proof” way to bring the boat alongside. We simply needed to pivot on the line, super easy right?
The owner was unfamiliar with this maneuver and continued to try to operate the vessel as if it was untethered. He would look over at the stern line attached to the dock cleat and growl, as it prevented the vessel from operating normally. It was as if he had a pesky dog clamped to the bottom of his pant leg and he couldn’t shake it.
These situations are familiar and I simply offer to help if needed. He did not accept help and as he was unable to bring the vessel to the dock his anxiety level rose, quickly. Within a few moments it was decided to let the stern line go but he was rightfully concerned with wrapping the long line around a propeller. I assured him we could bring it aboard without a problem, but he would have to immediately assume control of the vessel and drive it quickly to the dock, as there was little room for error and no room for delay. He authorized the procedure.
The yard crew disconnected the stern line, it was brought aboard and the wind blew. The owner was unable to operate the vessel against the wind and the vessel was moments away from becoming pinned diagonally against the concrete travel lift ways. Thankfully the two buyers had been provided with loose fenders to insert between the vessel and any hard objects, the boat yard crew was experienced and properly positioned and the owner accepted a more assertive (and last moment) suggestion to stop using the engines.
The vessel landed softly against the concrete ways and was manually pulled out of its predicament, the owner was able to collect himself and the vessel was hauled with no further anxiety, and with only one small scrape.
On the return trip to the marina the owner allowed the broker to operate the vessel and the docking was so smooth that the undersigned, busy crawling the port hull, did not realize we were docked.
Lessons learned: know your limits, make plans and communicate them to the crew, be willing to accept help when necessary, learn how to use spring lines to your benefit (there are many tricks) and provide the deck crew with detached fenders (much more appropriate than body parts) in advance of any potential need for them. Know that eventually there will come a time when we all need to turn over the helm, so get your time in while you are still able.
A few days later while returning into Mission Bay, a second event occurred. The vessel was an 85 foot twin engine power vessel capable of speeds over 20 knots. During the haul out we noticed that the rudders were positioned outboard of the propellers, an extremely unusual position. This time a paid professional captain was in control. The waves were significant, approximately 6 to 8 feet and the vessel caught one as we attempted to enter Mission Bay. In a moment the vessel had turned 30 degrees, picked up speed and was headed towards the rock jetty on the port side of the entrance. I surf and was familiar with the take off, but had never surfed on a boat this close to a jetty.
The jetty was approximately 150 yards away when we first caught the wave but there was no doubt that we would need to turn out of the wave or we would hit the rocks. The captain tried to turn, but the vessel did not comply. Neither the captain nor I panicked but shortly after we dropped in on this “juicy left” I suggested that he use the transmissions in addition to the rudders. A mechanic aboard turned to see the jetties approaching quickly, and now only 70 yards away.
The mechanic screamed loudly, “Captain put this vessel into reverse now!”
The captain had already begun the process and was able to shift into reverse and throttle up the engines in time to avoid the collision, but perhaps only by 25 yards.
The captain calmly and professionally explained that screaming was not helpful and that he had chosen not to quickly shift into reverse to prevent killing the engines and losing all ability to maneuver.
One operational test on classed vessels is a “crash stop”, or a sudden change in direction of rotation of the propellers. This test is done to assure the machine systems are able to do handle this procedure without stalling. While this is an unusual and abnormal procedure, this event showed why it might be necessary and why some classification societies prescribe the test. A crash stop would be more common when encountering a mostly submerged object, but the stopping procedure is similar.
Lessons learned: act early to avoid any potential collision. Prevent the necessity of a perfect avoidance procedure by not getting into a close call situation. In this case as soon as it became apparent that we were not going to be able to steer out of the wave, initiating the use of the engines should have begun. Different angles to waves present different challenges. Following seas can present steering problems. Entry into a channel with a following sea can be tricky and unpredictable. Conditional awareness is always important and entering after the last wave of a set is a good way to reduce the potential problems. Handling stress appropriately will eventually be a useful trait to all mariners, calm is good. Making sound decisions in a calm and decisive manner is great. Avoiding a collision is of utmost importance. Screaming, well I’ll let you decide.