Lessons From a YouTube Casualty

By Rich

YouTube channels can be credited with generating excitement about sailing and bringing people into the sport, but those of us who have lived aboard cruising boats for extended spells know that they also paint an unrealistically rosy picture of what the cruising lifestyle is really about. We also know that in many cases YouTubers set bad examples – for example by choosing to cross the Atlantic in a cruising catamaran dangerously late in the season as a publicity stunt, or filming themselves offshore prancing around on deck on the ocean with no jacklines, let along tethers or PFDs.

Recently one of the leading YouTubers, Bobby from Sailing Doodles, had a serious casualty while making a passage and I believe the sailing community can learn a lot from watching his film of the incident at sailingdoodles.com. The clip is behind a pay wall but you can choose the donation and help Bobby fund his continuing adventures by pitching in a few bucks. Following are the lessons I believe we can all glean from the incident.

First, I had an instant reaction when the video started before the casualty occurs: the deck has just way, way, way too much stuff all over it for offshore work. Look at all the fenders, etc all over the decks  and  pillows in the cockpit. Watch him make his way back to try to save the dinghy. Every item on deck in serious offshore conditions wants to break loose and lure crew out of the cockpit to go deal with it, plus introduce its own tripping hazard in the process. And every pillow in the cockpit invites a twisted ankle. On passage yachts need clean decks and a clean cockpit. Whenever the weather is up , on our boats we get the cushions down below – all of them. To say nothing of loose pillows.  This is eally important, basic seamanship.
And then of course there’s keeping ground tackle secure. Having been offshore in ugly conditions off Cape Hatteras (and off of Cuba) on both Hylas-es we learned the pounding ground tackle can take in ugly weather.
Ground tackle coming loose under way will create a VERY serious incident and will lure crew into dangerous on-deck rescue missions trying to wrangle heavy gear that is dragging in the water or swinging wildly. Such a situation is super dangerous!
Just hearing the noise anchors make on the Hylas bow rollers has caused us to over-compensate to stop the motion with a second line – first because the noise really puts the crew on edge, but also because motion  causes chafe and safety lines keep anchors aboard, so they cannot be allowed to chafe.  Look closely in the photo below and you’ll see two lines – one is led to bow cleat and holds the anchor fore-and aft, the second pulls up on the shank and stops up and down motion causing the anchor to pound up into the roller. (The single line going through the block is unrelated – it is a spinnaker tack line).
Both lines are rigged on Rover whenever we are under way with the slightest chance of large waves. Every time. The forces must be amazing up there and motion amplifies forces. Crews should not tolerate motion in ground tackle in pounding conditions.
I think the next thing for me – and this may be the inner engineer in my little brain – is that whenever we have engine hiccups I make a beeline down below to put eyes on the engine itself – instantly. This has even become something of an inside joke on Rover. At the first sign of an engine malfunction I am immediately focused on  identifying and isolating any fuel, oil or coolant leaks becasuse I don’t want a small casualty to turn into a bigger one. in Bobby’s video,  there is tons of smoke in the cockpit while he’s filming for the blog up in the cockpit instead of checking down below. Oh, HELL no. I don’t think more needs to be said on this point.
Next, the handling of flooding. He doesn’t identify the source of the flooding but rather monitors the rate of ingress. Personally, if it had been me, I would have hove-to and focused 100% on isolating and controlling the flooding. By tolerating that much water in the bilge he was inviting an electrical fire and had no way of knowing if a breach in the hull could worsen in the pounding waves. Since the transmission was involved I’d worry about stuffing box or prop strut and would go literally to any length to access these areas of the hull at that stage – up to and including destroying floorboards or other furnishings to get to gain access. On the Hylas stuffing box is behind some furnishing aft of the aft bunk. Out would come the hammer if it were me at that stage – I can replace a panel of wood if I can save the boat. There is  time to carefully remove 10 screws on pain of losing the whole boat to save a panel or two of teak veneer.
Given the flooding I would have isolated the batteries immediately and shut off all electrical consumers except for the VHF if and when needed to reach the coasties. Assuming the electric bilge pumps were thereby disabled (they probably didn’t work at that stage in Bobby’s incident anyway) you counter the flooding with the manual bilge pump. Better to get behind on flooding than risk a fire. And you don’t need an auto pilot when hove to –  you can navigate with the iPads (you’re going 2.5 knots hove to in the open ocean so not much to do here anyway). In this situation, use the handheld VHF for Coast Guard comms or (better yet) the cell phone if in range. Only turn batteries on to use the on board VHF if necessary for Comms and then only with all other breakers OFF.
I give credit to Bobby for sharing that film because it can’t be easy to put so serious of a casualty on the web. I can’t imagine the amount of Monday morning quarterbacking or outright ridicule he is getting. That’s not my intent here at all. Those of us who sail can benefit by honestly evaluating the actions surrounding real-world casualties even if it hurs the feelings of the individuals involved. It would be well worth hurt feelings if the resulting learning could save a life or two down the road. Fortunately Bobby was uninjured but given the risk of a larger fire he is VERY lucky.
One last note – I didn’t see jacklines run on Salty Dogs and at one point Bobby films facing aft from the end of the bowsprit, while single handed.  YouTubers really need to set a better example tfor their viewers, because that is wildly irresponsible behavior. This sport needs to be taken seriously – it’s not all sundowners of white beaches and we can get seriously hurt out there even in perfect weather.

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