Monday, March 28, 2011

San Diego Sailing Tragedy

Sailboat Tragedy in San Diego Leaves Death and Unanswered Questions in its Wake

The news is in from San Diego Bay, and it's not good. Although the facts are still unclear, what appears to have happened is that ten people went sailing on a small cabin sailboat on Sunday, March 27, 2011. Two of them died.

Part of the problem is assessing the accident and what might have gone wrong is that the news reports seem sketchy, contradictory, and inaccurate.

Rescuers and the media had difficulty in confirming the number of persons aboard, the size of the sailboat, and what happened to it.

Initially ten people were reported as being on board, with two dead and seven rescued. Do you have the same trouble with your "adding"? Then it was thought that a child had been double-counted. Then rescuers realized that one of the people who had been on board had driven her or himself to the hospital to check on the others.

This is said to be a pre-accident picture (from the day before the accident) of the boat which capsized and turned turtle on Sunday in San Diego Bay. The boat is most likely a MacGregor 25 that may have been affiliated with an Orange County branch or chapter of a charitable group, "Heart of Sailing", that takes developmentally disabled people sailing. Photo attributed to Diana Roberts and Stanley Pendleton.

The boat had been reported as a 35 or 36 foot sailboat in some quarters, but pictures are much more consistent with a 25-footer, which seems to be agreeable to informed opinion.

One headline described the boat as "sunk" -- illustrated with a photo of the boat floating upside down!

Some initial speculation was that the boat might have been a rental, but it appears unlikely that the probably type of boat involved would have been a rental, and there now has been speculation that the boat may have been involved in a charitable "Wish" program.

It is possible, based on the shape of the boat, the shape and size of its portlights (windows), and reports about a "missing" or undeployed "keel", though not at all certain, that the boat was a make known as a MacGregor 25 or, less likely, MacGregor 26. If the boat was a MacGregor 25, it would be a lightweight (~2100 lb. empty) 25-foot sailboat relying upon a ~625-lb. crank-down centerboard for stability and to keep it from heeling (tipping) too much in the wind. (A Mac 26 would be about 2200-2400 lbs. empty and rely on something like a 1200-lb. water ballast tank for stability.)

If a Mac 25 centerboard were not cranked down and locked in position the boat would be especially vulnerable to capsize (turning over). (The same vulnerability would hold true for a Mac 26 whose water ballast tank had not been filled and then sealed shut.)

Although a Mac 25 or 26 with 10 persons on board might not be illegally overloaded, the boats are light enough (2100-2400 lbs.) that poor weight distribution (say of 1500 lbs. of POBs moving around), could endanger their stability, particularly if many of the POBs were not experienced sailors, did not know how to position their weight for safety, were uncomfortable with the environment, or perhaps had a language barrier between them and the boat's skipper.

If any of these crew- and load-related issues were to be combined with a problem with the ballasting (crank down iron centerboard or water ballast tank), the result could be catastrophic. Such may have been the case.

One good thing about the MacGregors is that they are typically built with flotation material and hence unlikely to completely sink. However, the continued flotation of a boat might be of limited help if a non-swimmer were to become separated from the boat, or if a person were to be flung suddenly into chilly water and experience cold shock immersion, which can result in hyperventilation, breathing water into the lungs, confusion and disorientation, the possibility of triggering a cardiac event in some people, and failure of swimming even in good swimmers. Additionally, even when boats remain afloat but upside down, there may be few or no good handholds for the survivors and many survivors might not know to stay with a boat. It appears that in San Diego's tragedy, some POBs were wearing PFDs (life vests), but others were not. Despite other boats and rescuers being nearby and responding rapidly, two persons died and others were severely hypothermic and required hospital treatment.

Our family has owned a boat that might be somewhat similar to the boat involved in Sunday's tragedy in San Diego Bay. Ours was a 1994 MacGregor 26(s) swing-centerboard boat that relied on a water-ballast tank for stability. We once performed an experiment in relatively controlled conditions, on a calm lake, wind about 2-3 mph, in protected water in a harbor with other boats close at hand and all POBs in US Coast Guard approved life vests. We loaded the boat with nine people, which was less than maximum capacity.

(Capacity can generally be found on a capacity/load plate on small to moderate size boats. For boats lacking a capacity plate, a rough maximum can be found by multiplying the length and width of the boat, dividing by 15, and rounding down; hence a 25' boat with 8' beam would be allowed no more than 25 x 8 / 15 = 13.2 = 13 people. This is only valid for protected waters appropriate to the type of boat and a lower limit may apply if the boat has a capacity plate, for specialized boat types, and certainly a much lower limit would apply for ocean or rough-weather use, sailboat racing, traveling with heavy gear, etc. Common sense and the layout and ergonomics of the boat would dictate a practical limit of something more like four to six people.)

The result was, that with everyone in the cockpit in the stern (rear half) of the boat, the boat's bow (front) popped up about eight inches out of the water and could be bounced up and down. It felt like that if we'd added a couple more people on the aft rail that we'd then have been able to "pop wheelies". That's not safe! Further, while using sails, it was also almost impossible to tack (turn) the boat. And, with so many people on board, it was extremely difficult for sailors to handle the control lines or avoiding having passengers sitting or standing on control lines and equipment needed for the boat's operation.

Now imagine what this could have been like in an uncontrolled environment, with a medium amount of wind blowing, and all sorts of boat traffic and boat wakes (waves) in the area. Imagine what this might be like if this were a first-time sail for some of the people on board, and if perhaps several of the people on board did not speak the same language as the skipper or the rescuers. Imagine what it might have been like if the skipper and/or crew were unable to handle the control lines and equipment in an emergency because of non-sailors getting in the way during a critical situation.

Now imagine how much worse this would be if, unknown to the passengers and crew, a defect in the way the ballasting system or its operation made the boat inherently susceptible to capsize.

That is a recipe for disaster -- and perhaps what happened yesterday on San Diego Bay.

We may know more within the next few days, but we know enough to suspect that this tragedy was entirely preventable and unnecessary.

We also know to express our very deepest sympathy for the survivors in mourning the loss their loved ones.

And we should know to thank the rescuers, who saved eight victims but who no doubt carry their own load of trauma and disappointment.

Perhaps if you can tell one more person to wear the appropriate, approved, properly-fitting life vest, someday a life can be saved. And perhaps also a life can be saved if you can educate someone about the under-appreciated and understood dangers of cold shock immersion. Will you do that?

Excerpt from San Diego Union Tribune:

...Roger MacGregor, founder of the MacGregor Yacht Corp., which made the Nessie, said there’s no question the boat was overloaded Sunday.

“Ten on that boat is just too many,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “If I saw that boat in the bay with 10 people on it, I would be concerned.”

According to the MacGregor Yacht website, the boat is virtually unsinkable if it has a full ballast tank and lowered keel.

Newer models of the boat can be used without water in the ballast but the Nessie, manufactured in 1988, requires its ballast tanks to be filled with about 1,200 pounds of water to be self righting.

Shean [President of Heart of Sailing discussing the boat sailed by organization founder George Saidah] said Nessie’s model does not have set capacity guidelines.

MacGregor said it is up to the boat operator to determine how many people can safely fit on the boat but noted that during testing of the vessel, when the deck was loaded with 800 to 900 pounds, the boat was able to right itself.

A quote from an interview with George Saidah described his background as an initially impoverished immigrant to the US:
"Nous operons sans filet de sécurité," he says, lapsing into
French. "We didn’t operate with a safety net," he quickly
(from, iparenting interview)


At 5:04 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger bonnie said...

TQ and I are off to Norwalk to help out with another cold-water workshop this weekend, this one run by the Norwalk Coast Guard Auxiliary.

I doubt we'll ever stop hearing about paddlecraft tragedies or near-misses in the Spring but any chance we get to tell people about this, we take.

At 5:48 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

Thanks, Bonnie & TQ,

One recent report is that the boat that capsized and turned turtle was a MacGregor 25 named "Nessie". A hungry monster, she, yesterday.

One possibility almost too horrible to consider would have been if the iron-ballasted centerboard had become completely separated from and dropped out of the boat. With a novice crew, that could have meant almost instant doom.

At 6:05 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

Rest in peace, Chao Chen and his adult son, Jun Chen and condolences to their family, survivors, and rescuers.

At 7:30 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

An excerpt from a MacGregor 25 manual:

Self-Righting Characteristics and Foam Flotation:

With sails rigged to the mast and boom, the keel locked in the down position, and the masthead pulled to the level of the water, the boat, when released, will return to an upright position. With virtually any sailboat, it is possible for the belly of the sails to trap enough water to hold the boat down on its side if the mainsheet, jib sheet, genoa sheet, or spinnaker sheets are secured. In the event of a knockdown, release all sheets to prevent this possibility. In relatively calm sea conditions, water will not enter the cabin hatch in the event of a knock-down. In rough seas, however, it is possible ofr waves to enter the cabin through open hatches if the boat is held on its side. While sailing in rough weather, it is advisable to keep the hatches closed.

With the normal gear and crew, MacGregor boats have sufficient foam flotation to keep the boats afloat in the event the cabin fills. When completely filled with water, the boat will be relatively unstable. Do not remove the foam flotation blocks in the interior of your boat under any circumstances.
[last sentence is underlined]

At 7:32 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

And a segment of a Mac 25 manual under “Maintenance”
On the MacGregor 21, the keel cable passes behind …. On the other boats, the cable passes through a stainless tube containing a wear surface. If the cable, the wear bolt, or stainless tube show any noticeable wear or abrasion, replace the worn part. Be sure to re-assemble the new part or parts exactly as they were before being disassembled.
If the boat is kept in the water, it is recommended that the keel pivot bolt be removed every 12 months (while the boat is on a trailer) and inspected for signs of wear. The holes in the keel and inside of the keel trunk should be given a similar inspection. To gain access to the pivot hole, remove the keel pin and lower the head of the keel until the hole is exposed. Keep the retraction cable snug to prevent the keel from falling sideways on the trailer. The rubber washers on the keel pin bolt should also be inspected. Cover all washers with a liberal coat of a good quality bedding compound. Re-assembly of the keel pivot bolt should be as follows:
Be very careful when working with the keel - - it is very [underlined] heavy and can cause injury if it falls.

(diagram showing bolt head at left, bolt tip, aluminum washer, rubber washer, air gap, hole in keel, air gap, rubber washer, aluminum washer, nut)

When the pivot bolt is re-installed, make sure that it passes through the hole in the keel. [underlined from "make sure" to end of sentence]

At 7:42 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

Another important quote from a MacGregor 25 manual:

"The boat is self-righting only with the keel locked down. The lock bolt will assure that the keel angle is proper, and that the keel stays down in the event of a severe knockdown."

At 10:22 PM, March 28, 2011, Blogger Pat said...

‎-- From what I've heard and sifted through, it wasn't anything like a regular public livery rental but instead the boat belonged to a nonprofit that did specialized excursions, perhaps focusing on special needs. I believe the San Diego Harbor Police Chief was quoted as saying the boat's operator was from Laguna Beach (OC).

-- Mac 25s were built from around 1973 to 1987; quite a wide range of ages and conditions remain afloat. The Power Sailers were not introduced until around the late 1990s.

-- Very small boats may carry more cargo than their own weight; a 130 lb. Laser or Sunfish can carry a 200 lbs or more. Possibly even the Mac 25 was not illegally overloaded beyond its capacity plate rating, but I agree that it was foolish to put ten people on board, especially under the circumstances.

-- The mast is deck-stepped and the rigging is perhaps somewhat light; capsizing and catching water in the sails might have been sufficient to break the rig and perhaps a broken mast could have gouged the hull.

-- There has been no indication or mention of the skipper having any professional licensing or training or the boat or business being inspected. If the boat had been used routinely for taking special needs people sailing as part of a nonprofit business I would have expected their insurance company to have insisted on use of a licensed captain and adherence to safety standards. But, maybe this was a more informal "business" or a very small-scale personal charity? Perhaps we should wait for more information here before trying to judge whether operator experience had anything to do with the tragedy.

-- Update; the somewhat similar Mac 26 is said to have a capacity plate limit of six passengers/990 lbs., according to a discussion on the MacGregor owner group website. If the Mac 25 capacity is similar, then indeed the boat was illegally overloaded as well as overloaded from a common sense standpoint.

At 6:29 PM, March 29, 2011, Blogger O Docker said...

Pat, if you'll e-mail me at odocker at gmail dot com, I can send you some AP photos of the boat taken after the boat was retrieved from the water and stored in a SD boatyard.

At 11:52 PM, March 29, 2011, Blogger Baydog said...

Sounds like alot of shoulda, coulda, woulda worst case scenarios that often lead to tragic outcomes such as this one.
That one image of everyone in the cockpit and the bow coming out of the water was an eery foreshadowing of the impending tragedy. It's a shame someone on board was not more aware of the potential for disaster.

At 4:21 AM, March 30, 2011, Blogger Bursledon Blogger said...

A salutary lesson.

Your own testing show the sort of common sense approach all of us should have with our boats. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the emergence of "external" assessment such as STIX and offshore ratings give some people a false sense of security.

That is no substitute for getting to know you're boat and the conditions you are going to sail in.

I recall 5 us us including (a 20 stoner) stood on the fore deck of a 25 footer so that the 6th person in the dinghy could untangle the prop which was well clear of the water.

None of us would have been likely to overload that boat.

At 12:32 AM, March 31, 2011, Blogger Carol Anne said...

Interesting thought ... if the Harbor Police had spotted that overloaded boat and intervened before it capsized, would people be yelling "government interference"?

At 2:01 AM, March 31, 2011, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

My first read was quite lengthy, but never mentioned the class of boat, just the numbers aboard. To me, the class of boat was not significant: no sail boat, capable of capsizing in moderate conditions should ever have that many people aboard. End of story.


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