Poor planning leads to loss


On a bleak, windswept October morning, a 12 metre long sloop with the master and his crew of 5 males set out to sail from Pittwater, NSW non-stop to Newport, Queensland aiming to arrive three or four days later. The master checked the Bureau of Meteorology weather for the forecast the day before departure. The forecast read winds of 20-30 knots from a favorable south to south easterly direction, easing in the afternoon and no gale force winds. The forecast unfortunately had changed overnight to gale force conditions, but this was not checked by the master prior to departure the next day.

The master informed the Coast Guard Sydney of their departure, set the rig for the prevailing (believed) forecast winds and departed their safe haven at Pittwater. They set a north easterly direction and about an hour after they departed, the jib tore. It was secured to stop the flapping. There was no spare jib sails aboard. The vessel’s motor started to turn the vessel into the wind and placed slow ahead to maintain the course.

A member of the crew checked the vessel’s status and noticed a small amount of water in the cabin area. The master was not concerned at this stage as he believed that the water was coming from a hatch due to the sea conditions. After some time the interior was checked again and the water level had risen considerably. The master was now concerned and made arrangements to abandon ship to the vessel’s life raft if the situation got worse. He collected food and water and signal flares and called mayday on the vessels VHF radio with no response only static noise.

A crew member had a hand held portable VHF radio so he called mayday on it which was received. Broken Bay Water Police were deployed. The master also activated his Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB); this was used by Water Police to locate the vessel’s position.

The master checked the interior of the yacht and sighted the vessel’s motor fully submerged. He engaged the vessel’s electric bilge pump, which failed to operate. Water Police arrived and noticed the crew of the yacht all seated calmly in the cockpit with lifejackets donned, and the yacht sitting low in the bow. A towline was passed to the crew and secured and tow commenced. A crew member called the Water Police on VHF and informed them that the water level onboard was increasing and the police decided for safety reasons that it was unsafe to tow any further and deemed it safer that the crew abandon ship. They placed the police launch close to the yacht and the crew entered the water to be picked up by the Police.

Police observed the yacht to be severely down by the bow as they departed for Broken Bay, and appeared to be rapidly sinking. The police observed that at the time of the rescue the weather was poor, raining heavily and visibility was down to 50 metres, seas were between 4-5 metres and winds were 30-40 knots gusting up to 50 knots.

Lessons learned

  1. Do not rely on a single weather forecast report the night before setting off on a voyage. You must have a means to receive updates as the voyage progresses.
  2. Masters should have a working knowledge of the ‘Beaufort Wind Scale’ and have a passage plan which includes safe havens if the weather conditions deteriorate.
  3. Masters should consider having a vessel inspected by an accredited marine surveyor to ensure that it is capable of undertaking the voyage intended.
  4. Masters should be fully conversant with their vessel’s mechanical and bilge pump arrangements. The master of this vessel was not aware that his electric bilge pump would not work once the batteries had become submerged.
  5. Any leaks should be inspected thoroughly at the first sighting and the source of ingress ascertained.
  6. Early radio communications should be made to make rescue authorities aware of any safety risk to a vessel. In this case, radio communications were left too late and the radio battery had become submerged. It was luck that another crew member was carrying a portable VHF radio.
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