Expecting the Unexpected

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Freezing and alone, three-hundred miles at sea in the dark, rescue swimmer Mike Odom lashes his arms to his life raft. He knows he’ll be dead soon and wants us to find his body – If he gets thrown out again we’ll never find him. The three sailors that he put in the back of the helicopter with me don’t know that we don’t have enough gas to get back. Not into this headwind. Pilot Jay Balda is thinking that his crew might be dead soon and its all his fault. Mark, our flight mechanic, is silently staring at the broken hoist cable thinking it’s his. I’m crying now, afraid for my friend and terrified for myself. I just want to live. But the two with the best chance to make it are on the forty foot sailing vessel Mirage, the one we flew out to “rescue.” They’re on their way to St. Thomas, making six knots under sail in a watertight boat. I’m blaming someone else.

I had been a Coast Guard rescue swimmer less than a year that night in January of 1995. For a long time I was angry and thought it was about fault. It wasn’t. The Mirage crew did the best they could with the information they had. Their experience led them to believe that being offshore was easy and fun and nothing really goes wrong. Their experience with heavy weather was purely conversational. When a late winter storm churned up an angry sea and they took a hard knock down they weren’t emotionally or physically ready for it.

My friends and I and the three men who jumped from their seaworthy boat got lucky nineteen years ago. A miraculous 180 degree shift in wind direction just when we needed it most allowed us to land in Wilmington, North Carolina instead of in the ocean. Thanks to the heroics of our C-130 crew – who shut down two engines so they could stay on-scene – Mike wasn’t lost. He was recovered, albeit unconscious from hypothermia, five and a half hours later by a second helicopter. He was back in the water on another rescue just a few days later.

Even with a favorable forecast, heavy weather can come up suddenly. To understand how to be ready for it I interviewed the experts and found out success in foul weather is about spending some time playing and practicing in it – on purpose.

“Heavy weather is a relative term. 35 knots – a gale – can seem like a survival storm if you have no experience. So, given the ease of summoning help now, you get people frightened of moderate conditions, then stop working the boat, and just want to get off.”, says Steve Dashew, a veteran cruiser, yacht designer, and co-author (with his wife Linda) of Surviving the Storm: Coastal & Offshore Tactics. “If the goal is successful offshore voyaging, then the most important thing any potential cruiser can do is learn how to handle his boat in general and in adverse weather. By going out in increasingly unpleasant situations – however that is defined – you gain experience and equally important, increase your anxiety threshold.”

Dashew’s suggestions are mirrored by another husband and wife team. Lin and Larry Pardey are not likely to install a wine cooler, theater system, or even air conditioning on their boats – Items many consider essential to comfort afloat. But they are experts at staying comfortable in extremely heavy weather. Their acclaimed Storm Tactics Handbook is on my list of must-read books for all recreational boaters. The idea of gradually increasing your comfort in increasingly harsher conditions is exactly the thing Lin Pardey advises before attempting an offshore crossing.

“You need to get your sea legs first”, Lin said. “What Larry and I suggest to people is that they find 15 knots of sustained wind, run hard on the wind and carry something heavy – a bucket of water perhaps – from stern to bow and back again. Then do the same thing in 25 knots of wind, then 35. Then you’ll have an idea how to move around in heavy weather.” The marble floor in the dining area is beautiful, but you’ll want to find a different place walk with your wet deck shoes in ten foot seas. Hand rails inside and 6,000 lb test jack lines on deck don’t often blend well with a yachts décor, but they are essential safety items which if absent can cost you everything.

Pardey believes that the number one problem in offshore cruising is that when the bad weather comes, people simply don’t (or cant) rest enough. “Fatigue is the killer,” she says. “When things get rough out there, the rule is half the crew, head down, half the time. Not just off the helm,” she insists, “but truly resting.”

That advice was impossible to take for one owner who had called the Coast Guard for rescue from the Marine Flower II – a 64 foot sloop – 380 miles off the coast of Virginia. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his vessel. But the “crew” for his crossing from Virginia to Bermuda was his 13-year-old daughter, his wife, and his infant son. Once the wind picked up and the moderately heavy seas started rolling in he was by himself. His wife could only hold her baby. After a valiant forty hour effort to single handle his boat against the 60 knot winds and 25 foot seas, he relented to better judgment and called for rescue. After several high risk helicopter hoists to retrieve his family – including his 4-month old – he patted me on the knee and passed out, never to see his dream boat again.

I should tell you that I’ve searched for boats far more often than I’ve sailed them. Though I’ve spent a lot of time in nasty weather hundreds of miles offshore – even hurricanes – more times than I care to count, my purpose was to get on and then off a boat as quickly as possible, and always with a very expensive helicopter and extremely well-trained crew hovering nearby. So I am in no position to argue about if it’s better to run before the storm or work your way to windward. I’ve read a lot about it, but I’ve never had to decide weather to heave-to or lay a-hull. There are just too many variables on the big water to call any one storm tactic “the best.” What I can tell you from experience is that I have never had to rescue someone that was hove-to with a Para-anchor, or pulling a drogue. Like my state trooper friend who often quips, “I’ve never unbuckled a dead man” I’m a big fan of what (apparently) works.

The comfort and peace of mind necessary to keep you on your boat can be dramatically increased for a comparatively moderate investment in training and equipment. Sea drogues and Para-anchors have been successfully used by sailors, power-boaters, and commercial fisherman to ride out otherwise unmanageable heavy weather. The Pardeys have set hove-to with a Para-anchor off of South Africa in 85-knot winds and 65 foot seas. “The boat road beautifully”, Lin told me; “it was just beautiful out there.” In seas and winds like I have only heard about, the Pardeys managed to be relaxed enough to enjoy the view – while getting much needed rest and a hot meal.

“The personal skill sets are far more important than the hardware on the boat.” warns Dashew. Along with offshore practice with different storm tactics, boaters should learn more about the cause of their anxiety. “The other main point is to spend some time learning about weather, and how to make your own onboard forecasts.” said Dashew. Not being there when the weather turns hostile is always a safer plan.

In his must-read book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales wrote, “The word “experienced” often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.” Getting on a boat and taking it to sea without being physically and emotionally ready for heavy weather is definitely a wrong thing that people frequently get away with, but not always.

The men who leapt into the ocean from the deck of the Mirage learned the hard way that they weren’t ready to be out there at all. They got away with their lives, but so did the two who remained aboard. Though one of them chose to abandon Mirage the following day, the captain landing safely in St. Thomas seventeen days later*. The point isn’t whether to abandon ship or not. Again, there are too many variables for absolutes. I’d rather someone send a Mayday too early than too late so if you believe you need to get off your boat, then you should. Just don’t let it be because you yourself aren’t ready for what your boat can handle.

With a moderate investment in equipment and practice in less than perfect weather, you’ll be much better prepared when the heavy stuff rolls in, and you will make landfall the way you intended; in the cockpit of your yacht – nowhere near the one in a helicopter.

(* Thanks to Captain Brugger for the clarification in his comment below. The original article stated that both sailors made it to St. Thomas. This was incorrect. )

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By | 2017-05-18T15:29:49+00:00 September 4th, 2014|Boating Safety, Coast Guard, Risk, Water Safety|23 Comments

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  • Ken

    I was active duty CG flying Falcons when that happened. I remember that case well. Great perspective as always Mario. I have seen way too many times the crew was not up to the task while the boat was. (also flew on the Satori, same thing, crew, not captain, was not up to the task but the boat made it thru unscathed)

  • Brad Goodman

    So I assume the helicopter made it back alright? Did it have enough fuel?

  • Rhys S/V Alchemy

    Once again, a great, well-written piece from someone with a singular point-of-view (the rescue helicopter!). The boat, if well-found, can take it. The crew often cannot and make decisions that can cascade into danger. Drogues,para-anchors and heaving-to buy precious time and reduce exhausting movement, allowing rest and, if needed, reconsideration of tactics and safety concerns. Why is is so difficult to factor in “slowing down” or “stopping”? If these methods are known and used, the weather will keep going! Clearly there is more to it than that rather gross oversimplification, but if you ask yourself “are we going to sail out of this or ride it out?” you are already in the realm of improved seamanship.

  • Bill McNutt

    The more I read, the closer I get to becoming convinced that cruising is NOT for me.

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  • Chris S/V JAZ

    Excellent recap. I recently attempted an off shore run from Southport to Charleston as the forecast was ideal. We (2 aboard) sailed our 40 foot tri down the coast in glorious conditions so agreed to do an overnighter all the way to Charleston SC. Well as is often the case when night fell the weather and sea state deteriorated and shifted onto the nose. We were making little progress and the other crew aboard was unable to sail in the dark so I had to take over 100%. Fatigue set in and an unplanned tack and gybe helped me realize that I was no longer up to the task of safely sailing “solo” so I did the prudent thing, headed off shore far enough to safely heave-to and not risk drifting into the coast shallows. With the sails down and JAZ lying very comfortable, she’s 30 feet wide so doesn’t roll in the swells, we got some desperately needed rest and were able to begin sailing again at first light and we ducked into an inlet. I would never duck into an unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Making the right choices, which may not seem like easiest way out, can end up with out mishap and a good ending as ours did. Had we panicked and tried to navigate an unfamiliar inlet in our fatigued state of mind the chances of making a very bad mistake were too high. All ended well and experience gained as I had not hove-to before, ever. It was far more comfortable than I had imagined it would be.

  • “A miraculous 180 degree shift in wind direction just when we needed it most allowed us to land in Wilmington, North Carolina instead of in the ocean.”

  • Labatt s/v/ Pelican

    First, thanks for posting this, and thanks for your service. When we lived aboard, we’d always see the Coast Guard heading out whenever every other boat was heading in. You guys are amazing.

    I totally agree with the Pardey’s on experience (although I appreciate having some creature comforts aboard – like a real head instead of a bucket). We didn’t have a ton of experience in heavy weather when we first moved aboard, and were lambasted because of it, but I used to tell everyone – “How do you get experience unless you get, well, experience?”

    Getting lots of time running our boat in-shore in 10-20kts of breeze didn’t help us when we got hit with 45kt winds just off of Royal Island in the Bahamas, surrounded by 8 feet or less of water and coral heads (we draw 6 feet). It didn’t help us when we ducked into Ponce de Leon Inlet in FL on our way from Grand Bahamas to Charleston, 50kt winds chasing us into the tricky waters (when we should have stayed offshore). It also didn’t help us when we rounded Cape Fear in 45kt winds with 12-14ft seas. And it certainly didn’t help us make appropriate preparations and decisions when we were hit by a 70kt blow off of the New Jersey coast – a storm that made the news because of the number of lightning strikes per second, and the number of trees knocked down in Central Park.

    What did help us? Exactly what the Pardey’s said. Gradually increasing our heavy weather experience over time by purposely putting ourselves in ever increasing winds and waves. Instead of fearing the weather, we embraced it and learned how our boat handled, how we needed to prep it, what safety gear we should have, what we should be stowing below, etc. By the time we hit that 70kt breeze, we had talked about tactics (running, heaving to, ditching, who was responsible for what, etc.), we had cleared off our decks, we had stowed all loose items below, we had our ditch bag out and ready and we talked about numerous what-if situations, and I had taken a 4 hour nap. When the wind hit, and we were running in front of it doing 9.5kts (our normal speed is 6-6.5kts) with a double reefed main, I was actually letting out little whoops of excitement (my father-in-law, who was on board, later accused me of trying to purposely kill him).

    There’s no reason to be afraid of cruising or living on board. In 2 years, we only hit 4 or 5 storms of significance. But, by the 5th, we were good. We were nervous and had a lot of adrenaline running through our veins, but we knew what our boat would do, what we could do, and we had the right equipment to survive until rescued if the worst happened.

    (sorry for the really long comment)

  • bill bligh

    Excellent article, as usual. The word “experienced” can describe at least two acclaimed offshore sailors who shall remain nameless.

  • datripp

    Thank you for your service. People who put their families – their babies! – at risk for some loony ego trip ought to have to swim back.

  • David E Baird

    Mirage was a good fast offshore race boat. In this case she had rolled off a sea, completely inverted during the 360 roll. The boat was flooded about 50%. The owner panicked, and called a Mayday. The skipper wanted no part in it. The boat was floating, but just needed bailing out. The rescue happened much as described, while the skipper later told me, he knew the chopper was low on fuel, and felt his chances were far better on the the boat. Water tanks had empties, since the inspection ports on top failed during the inversion. Between rain and canned foods, they survived the trip to St Thomas. Mirage home ported in Cruz Bay for a number of years. I was part of the crew during a couple of very successful racing seasons, including winning the CORT series in 1999. Mirage was eventually returned to the owner (who by rights should have given up that title when he abandoned ship) in Florida around 2003. Mirage was a great boat to sail. I must mention another delivery trip, where we encountered a significant force 10 situation about 250 miles south of Bermuda in a Hughes 40, that had just come out of the charter trade in the BVI. 5 years of poor maintenance saw many problems, however the one thing the owner did before the trip was replace the standing rigging. That is what allows me to sit here and write this. At that location, no one was going to “rescue” us. We were on our own. Four on, six off was the 5 man rotation, 2 hours on the helm every 10. Storm lasted three days. Now we talk about it.

  • Captain Alan E. Brugger

    I was the experienced, C.G. licensed Captain on board Mirage. When we left St. Augustine, Fl. the weatherman at the airport and I had discussed at length the weather scenario to expect in the Atlantic. The storm that hit us at sea three days later was a result of a perfect storm type scenario that was not evident at the time we left port. One issue that became one less option at sea was due to the fact that the owner had fooled around with the fuel deck fitting prior to going to sea, he had left the fuel cap loose, during the stormy weather, water flowing over the deck went into the diesel tank and in time replaced all of the fuel with water. As the storm approached I made fast all halyards acting as additional backup standing rigging, main storm sail set and two-200 ft. warps set with three large fenders attached each. This action was to slow the vessel from surfing, yet maintain steerage. After getting rolled the crew became hysterical, without my knowledge down below deck they had deployed the EPIRB and called a mayday on the SSB. When I was told of the action due to the fact that the Coast Guard was issuing orders that all onboard would need to abandon ship, I replied that I would not leave the vessel that there was no emergency, and that if I was to speak with the coast guard on the radio I would tell them that in fact the distress was more of a mutiny than an emergency! Prior to this point the water had been pumped out of the boat and there were no signs of leakage, the only damages were a broken check stay, and the life raft had been washed away. I found out months later the Coast Guard had offered to drop us a replacement raft, which was refused.
    By the time the helo was on site the seas had diminished considerably, the rescue team directed that we hold course and at their count down one man at a time was directed to jump into the sea to be picked up by the C.G. rescue swimmer. When we heard on the radio a man was in distress, I often wondered why we were not asked to try and turn and work our way back to him. To close I will correct the story by saying in the morning the fourth crew was “rescued”, I refused to abandon ship, thanked the C.G. for their help and continued on to St. Thomas arriving approx. 17 days later, due to some time be becalmed with no engine to motor with. I sailed in with a “bone in her teeth” I had lost 15 lbs. and had one hell of an adventure, all I can say is too bad the others had not chosen to tough it out, they too could boast of surviving the storm. This is the first time I have told just some of the story.

  • Bad Bob

    The irony of being in serious trouble because you are out of water because of a storm and can’t get to shore because you are becalmed is noted.

  • Captain Brugger – to clarify. When we – the helicopter crew – heard you did not want to abandon the vessel, we were hovering there discussing the situation and saying to ourselves “if all of them don’t need off then none of them need off” – Without our direction, one of the crew abandon the vessel. None of them were told to jump by us – they just kept jumping.

    To clarify further – the weather you can “expect in the Atlantic” in January is “unpredictable.” You know that, of course.

    “If you were to speak with the Coast Guard”? Didn’t you? Someone talked to us on the radio that night. If it wasn’t you then I don’t know why not. You were the captain.

    Primarily, what I think went wrong was you allowed yourself to be talked into sailing with four very green sailors. That is always risky. And yes – I agree. It’s too bad they didn’t all tough it out.

    As to why you weren’t directed to return for our swimmer…without an engine…in a storm…well… That’s obvious I think.

  • Now I am curious all over again. If you lost 15 lbs in 17 days, what were 5 grown men going to eat for 17 days? Don’t get me wrong, I think you could have made it. I also know the USCG would have dropped you food if you had asked and that would have been better than the abandonment.

  • David E Baird

    In normal situation that trip on that boat would be about 7 days. The trip in total ended up at 20 days. Anything that was not in waterproof containers (canned goods basically) was ruined when the boat turtled, so your comment on food supply is unfair. As demonstrated, the Captain was fully capable of single handedly sailing this boat. The green crew were just that, rail meat, and as it turned out, a liability, since they basically mutinied. So, a Captain at the mercy of an owner who mutinies? That is a really tough call to second guess. The fact the CG personnel put them selves at great risk is very unfortunate in this situation. A good sailor does not rely on having an engine that works. We sailed Mirage for a week at the Heineken Regatta in St Maartin with a seized starter. The engine was not essential for a skilled sailor, so the assumption on your part that he would be unable to assist in the rescue of your swimmer, was unfounded. That said, in the heat of the moment, things get done, that hindsight sees differently. Cudos to your rescue team for the hard work done day in and day out.

  • David E Baird

    only one…

  • Alan Brugger

    There are several facts in the story that are incorrect. Before contradicting the story I must say that my respect for the truly brave men that serve in the CG is without question.
    The majority of food was ruined/spoiled from the roll and loss of engine driven refrigeration, loss of fresh water was not discovered until a week later when I switched water tanks, discovering inspection port torn open. I did catch a fine dolphin fish when I was becalmed, I chose not to ask for help from two separate ships that passed during the voyage, I was perhaps was a bit stubborn and very self reliant. Something I tried to inspire when I was a sea scout adult leader.
    The weather window discussed with the meteorologist, was favorable and that we would easily be far south of the system. Now days I own a 55 ft. trawler and only go out when there is no weather!
    I told the crew that I would not lie to the CG, the only time I spoke on the radio was with a hand held the second day when the helo was hovering expecting me to jump off. The previous night before and just before the rescue attempt the crew refused to relieve me from the helm, and during the rescue I moved to the mast area in fear that they were going to throw me off the boat. I clearly remember our radio operator calling out 10,9,8 and so on directed by the CG for the first crew to jump into the water. The scenario the CG has fabricated about crew jumping in without warning is absolutely false. After the first crew was hoisted into the helo, it returned to Mirage and the 10 count was repeated for the second crew. This took place one more time before the cable jammed leaving Mike Odom in the sea. The crewman left on board was my long time friend and sailor we listened on the SSB and heard that there was a ship alongside Odom, the conversation was about not getting a response from him that they had a light on him and so on. That was the reason we were not asked to turn around and work our way back to him the C130 could have shown us the way simply by flying in a line towards the life raft. The seas as I mentioned had abated considerably and I was capable to working the boat to weather. It has been my belief that the CG fabricated some of the details to enhance the story for their benefit. In previous published accounts of the incident, I was never interviewed, the Mirage crew feared being charged for the expense incurred and it was convenient for all parties to let the story be told in that version. When I watched the taped national news interview with the CG crew, the question was asked how come Mirage was not asked to return to the scene, no one responded to the question! The original story placed more emphasis on the boat being ill equipped the Captain irresponsible and at fault in several respects. My skills and experience obviously have improved considerably over a professional sailing career of 30 years, I sailed daily for almost 20 years in all sorts of weather and situations, I might add that there are very few people I would go off shore with and my long time friend and crewman David Baird would be my first choice.
    You know I always wanted to personally meet you and Mike Odom and explain the situation that night and shake your hand for being the ones that will risk all to save others. Respectfully Capt. Alan Brugger

  • Thanks for the reply, Captain. I can’t speak to what happened on the boat, but I was on the helicopter. Your guys may have counted to ten, but counting to ten isn’t something we do or ask others to do. Your points about the food and sailing abilities are all understood. What I can assure you is that while memories aren’t always accurate – I don’t remember ever thinking “The Coast Guard” was making up stories to change the appearance of the rescue. It was dramatic enough without making stuff up.

    The larger point of the article was not the details of the lead in (the Mirage story as I remembered it) – but that sailors need to be prepared for heavy weather before they get in it. I know you agree with that.

    You learned (the hard way) that you don’t go offshore with four novices as crew. If you made a mistake, that was the only one. I know you agree with me because you have never done it again, have you? You know why? Because it was a mistake. It seems it almost got you thrown overboard.

    Believe me, I do not blame you. Again – the point of my article was that it wasn’t about fault, it is about understanding the environment and being ready for it. You may have been ready, but your crew was not. And who said what when and why is all faded memory and not useful in any case.

    The Mirage was a good boat, you are likely a very good sailor, but the fact remains – what happened in January of 1995 is a very good example of what can happen when the boat’s abilities far outrun the crews. That gap can be closed – and Steve Dashew and the Pardey’s had some useful advice how to do it.

    Stay safe out there, Captain.

    Mario

  • bill bligh

    We’re referring to different people here. One is from Massachusetts, the other, California. It’s surprising that neither has caused serious injury or death…..yet.