By Michael Tougias
Special to the Times
---- — Spring is here and boating season has started. While May 18 to 25 is Safe Boating Week, every mariner always should be prepared for problems asea.
In the course of writing five books about accidents and survival at sea, the survivors shared things they would have done differently to avoid the accident as well as steps that helped them survive. One reasons they did so was to prevent accidents and help those who find themselves in trouble. Here are some of their tips:
Before your trip
Do not project past outcomes to a current situation.
In “Ten Hours Until Dawn,” my book about the Gloucester pilot boat the Can Do in the Blizzard of 1978, both the Coast Guard and the Can Do had done a rescue one year earlier in a remarkably similar situation. The oil tanker Chester Poling was sinking in a blizzard, and six out of seven men were saved by the Coast Guard and the Can Do in a daytime rescue. It’s easy to understand how when the Blizzard of ’78 struck and another oil tanker was in trouble, mariners sprang into action expecting similar conditions and similar results. But there was one big difference: the rescue in the Blizzard of ’78 was at night, which makes everything twice as difficult.
The lesson learned here? Pause before you make a decision when the weather is bad, and ask yourself what is different about this scenario than in the past.
Double check your gear. With all the gear we stow on the boat it’s easy to overlook the one item to pack that might mean the difference between life and death. While researching “Overboard!” I learned that Capt. Tom Tighe forgot to bring the boat’s drogue. Tom had sailed from Connecticut to Bermuda and back again 24 times. He encountered rough weather on some trips, but never had to use a drogue to slow the boat down when riding out a storm. For whatever reason he didn’t have this crucial piece of equipment when it was needed most.
Have a checklist of safety gear and actions to take when a storm approaches; these might have saved Tighe’s life. When you are in the middle of a storm, it’s easy to forget steps necessary to prepare the boat for bad weather. First mate Loch Reidy, who was swept off the boat during the storm, told me that when the bad weather first hit, exhaustion was the enemy. “We had storm shutters on the vessel,” Loch told me, “ but in our exhausted state we forgot to secure them. Then when we finally remembered, it was too late.” A wave blew out a window over the settee, and that one incident started a slew of problems, eventually resulting in Tom’s death.
Loch surprised me by saying despite his ordeal of being alone in a storm-tossed ocean for 28 hours before rescue he would make the trip again — with one exception. “Thank God I had a strobe light fastened to my life vest. That was the only way a Coast Guard plane spotted me at night. So when I go on a future trip I’ll be sure to have a strobe, but I will also have a personal EPIRB.”
Loch is referring to the fact that when he was swept off the boat, the EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) stayed with the vessel, and the waves and wind pushed him miles from where the boat drifted. Coast Guard aircraft searched for 24 straight hours before they finally found Loch and alerted an oil tanker to steam toward the castaway for rescue.
Practice boarding the life raft. Although you may not be able to simulate storm conditions, becoming familiar with the life raft and the difficulty boarding it will help prepare you should a real emergency arise. Survivors have asked me to tell other sailors that once the life raft inflates, the wind takes it like a kite. The tether going to the life raft is thin by design — it’s meant to break if the boat sinks — but is extremely difficult to get a good grip on. Reidy and Tighe had difficulty pulling the life raft back to the boat just after it inflated and the wind took it. The tether cut into their hands, and Reidy was forced to dive from the boat and swim to the raft to get a heavier line on it so it could be brought to the boat.
Color matters. In a May 2007 capsizing in a freak storm off the Carolinas, chronicled in “A Storm Too Soon,” three men had to abandon ship as it slipped under the sea. Luckily, Capt. Jean Pierre “JP” deLutz had freed the life raft from where it lay impaled by a spreader mast when the boat capsized. To do so, deLutz had to rip the orange-colored canopy from the raft. The remaining part of the raft was black — not easy to see from the air. I interviewed the seven-member Coast Guard aircrew team that flew on the C-130 that searched for the men. They flew directly over the life raft twice and never saw it. Finally, what caught their eye was the yellow foul weather gear two of the men were wearing. On the radio transcript from the C-130, the commander says “We just located a makeshift life raft, with two men on board!” In actuality, three men were on that raft. One man had on red foul weather gear and that color is not nearly as distinguishing in the ocean as yellow. The color of the life raft, the color of the foul weather gear; little things can save your life.
The man wearing the red foul weather gear made a mistake choosing red, but he saved his mates by carrying a knife on his belt. When the men first abandoned ship, the life raft became entangled in some lines, and the captain thought they’d be dragged down with the sailboat. Luckily, the red-coated man had bought a knife a week earlier, and had it strapped to his belt. He was able to cut the lines; that knife saved their lives.
After his rescue, deLutz spent many hours reviewing the disaster and what he learned:
Redundancy can make a big difference in the outcome. “Pumps are never redundant,” says deLutz, referring to the fact that they can clog or fail, or you might only be able to reach one. But he also pointed out that backups of other equipment saved his life. “Our new GPIRB (an EPIRB with GPS) failed to transmit after 20 minutes. Luckily I had an 11-year-old EPIRB on board, and that was the signal the Coast Guard picked up.” DeLutz also recommends having all security equipment grouped together in the most accessible area of the cabin. On his vessel, the survival suits were in a rear port deck locker which could not be opened because the mast had fallen on it.
On your voyage
Most of the storms I’ve written about were sudden and unexpected, and far beyond anything most people on the planet will ever see. But even a relatively small storm can jeopardize your safety.
Monitor weather forecasts around the clock. That, however, is not enough. Peter Brown, whose father owned the ill-fated Andrea Gail of Perfect Storm fame, encountered a storm of unbelievable proportions on Georges Bank which I chronicled in “Fatal Forecast.” The storm happened long ago, but Peter has not forgotten one simple lesson: be your own weatherman and be conservative.
“I scrutinize the weather from a number of sources,” Brown once told me. “I’ve become my own weatherman. I watch patterns, and if I think safety will be an issue, I’ll change my plans. I never want to be in conditions like that again, never want to see another crew member on my boat lost because of a bad forecast.”
In almost every one of the accidents I investigated, the storm did not behave as predicted. Err on the side of caution.
Move out of the Gulf Stream if you are off the Eastern Seaboard and bad weather is approaching. In both “Overboard!” and “A Storm Too Soon,” the waves in the Gulf Stream were almost twice the size of the waves out of it. Wind-driven waves colliding with current flowing in the opposite direction means steep waves, and steep often means breaking seas.
When disaster strikes
Survivors have told me the urge to leave a foundering boat is so strong it’s almost overwhelming.
“I didn’t want to be entombed in the cabin,” said Ben Tye, who was with deLutz during the capsizing, “ I just wanted to see the sky.” In a storm it’s human nature to guess that with the pounding the boat is taking, that it might just go down at any minute.
Loch Reidy told me that he was 100 percent certain the boat was going to go down quickly. “Water was coming in through the broken window and the broken companionway hatch. About a foot was sloshing around the vessel, and more was coming in. We wanted to have the life raft ready.” And it was during the preparation of the life raft for boarding that Reidy was swept off the vessel. Incredibly, the boat stayed afloat for at least another 8 eight hours.
Stay with the boat as long as you can — it is your very best life raft, with the most survival supplies. This is easy to say, but survivors tell me tough to do once the vessel has capsized.
“What can I do now to help myself just get through the next hour?” Keep this phrase in mind should you find yourself in the water, or for that matter in any emergency situation.
Reidy told me that one of his mantras while in the water was “Be ready, the Coast Guard will come.” And to that end Reidy fixed a broken strobe that was on Tighe’s body, and it was that strobe that the men in the C-130 saw, and was ultimately his salvation.
About the author Michael Tougias is the author of several books featuring true sea survival stories, including "Ten Hours Until Dawn," "The Finest Hours" (soon to be a Disney movie), and his 2013 book "A Storm Too Soon." He gives slide presentations about these survival stories throughout the Northeast. To learn more visit www.michaeltougias.com