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(from heartofsailing.org, iparenting interview)
French. "We didn’t operate with a safety net," he quickly