Open boat minded.

The Backyard Boatbuilder here :

Part 2 of my new open boat series ‘An open boat for open water’.

In my first post in this series i briefly covered the idea that many people have when they think about boats and the sea – that it’s all about heavy weather, gales and storms and that from that idea many sailors even think extremely defensively about their boats and their interaction with the sea. In this post i’m actually going to talk about that dread subject – risk management , with regard to small boats, small open boats and the sea… please feel free to leave now if you are of a sensitive disposition. First though i’m going to return to an old blog habit of mine and recount a couple of sea stories so :

It was a dark and stormy night !, in fact it wasn’t ; it was however a cold and grey overcast early morning some time around Easter in 2019 and i was in the river Exe at anchor down near the Bull sand and getting ready to make passage across Torbay, around Berry head and into Dartmouth. This was Easter, thus early in the season and the reason that i was on the water in the Exe estuary is that i’d over-wintered at the excellent little Trouts yard at Topsham and my agreement with them was that i should vacate my mud berth before boats went back into the water. The weather forecast and shipping forecasts that i heard both suggested a brisk wind out of the north east and possibly a force 5-ish sea state which would be ok with the little Liberty because she would run fast in those conditions and i would be under the lee of the land at the start and then again once i’d cleared Berry head – my ‘open water’ section really only being the chord of Torbay. Even then i would have 2 ‘get out of jail cards’ in the event of a problem ; firstly that i could reach up into Torbay itself or run into Brixham.

To cross the Exe bar meant being up and ready by 0 Dark-thirty, in fact i upped anchor before first light , got sail hove-to in a slack tide and ran down the entrance channel in easy conditions but very cold ; i hove-to again near the fairway bouy and pulled the first reef down mainly because of the ominous grey ‘heavy’ look of the sky to windward and reefing in shelter would be far easier than out in Lyme bay.

As i sailed away from the land and out into the eastern side of Lyme bay conditions rapidly changed – of course i was coming out from under the lee of high ground but the sea state and swell coming in from the east was much greater than a force 5 – easy to overestimate but i reckon on a 3 meter plus swell that was short and beginning to ‘heap’ with grey breaking tops……obviously the swell beginning to pile up in the shallower Torbay. Within the space of 15 minutes i was having to concentrate hard on my steering – i remember thinking something like “wow…..full Southern ocean conditions” with the boat sliding down some big waves and that heavy grey sky. Conditions were really deteriorating now though – looking aft the land was disappearing under clouds that were going from grey to black with a hint of snow, Torbay was somewhere up in the murk to my beam and my only landmark was Berry head but even that was starting to disappear as the grey sky closed in.

I made a rapid decision – put the tiller over and heaved in on the mizzen sheet to make the Liberty heave-to and i simply dropped the mainsail completely, started the engine and put it in forward just to help me move over the increasingly large waves and then i dived below to have a think and a look at the chart. My instinct was to run for shelter and get off the water as fast as i could ; as i said before it’s easy to overestimate a sea state and wind strength but this not only had a hard edge to it in a rising sea but it was now starting to snow and what visibility there had been was now vanishing , in fact i looked like a full blizzard out there. The best thing to do, i thought, was to take the risk of fast broad reaching into Torbay and then reach up under the lee of the cliffs there to make my way into smoother water and basically make for Torbay harbour itself.

Getting ahead of myself a bit, and in case anyone comments on my decision then i did consider the hard beat back up the Exe bar – but it would have been running at full ebb by the time i got back, Teignmouth maybe which was the nearest but the entrance would have been severely exposed in the ENE wind. My only other option was to run down towards Brixham but iv’e never been in there or rounding Berry head and making for Dartmouth. I think that Berry head would have been a huge acceleration zone and potentially a rough sea off there…..and just to add that that’s where we were dismasted in the same boat in much easier conditions just 2 years later so…….

Back to the story then.

Ideally i would have used just the mainsail under it’s second reef only but there was something wrong forward – i couldn’t sort the lines out and i certainly wasn’t going forward over the coachroof in those conditions. What i did was wait for a lull in the waves, dumped the mizzen out and ran the engine hard to start running fast downwind ; the sail balance was all wrong of course but i had enough sail and power combined to run at hull speed and just some wild steering to do as the swell heaped up more and more. In about half an hour i was near enough land to be able to pick up Hopes nose and Thatcher rock so i adjusted my course onto more of a reach and in another half an hour i was coming up under Thatcher point itself and some degree of a lee. My first ‘get out of jail card’ then appeared because i could have motored further into the lee caused by the high cliffs backing Meadfoot beach where i could have anchored if i’d absolutely had to but even then i thought there would be much better shelter up under Torbay itself or it’s harbor which should have been an easy sheltered entrance in the now stronger nor-easterly wind.

Another half an hour and i was off the entrance to Torbay harbour in much smoother water and heavy snow coming down…..bitterly cold as well because i hadn’t had the time to layer up before i made my run.

Torbay harbor – different day.

If you’re wondering what the connection is between this story and my opening account of the open boat fishing tragedy it is the multiple combination of small open boats, rapidly worsening conditions and making a fast downwind run into shelving water with a big swell running……i thought that there would be a lee and there was and i had a good idea that i could make the entrance into Torbay harbor in those conditions…..but….

In this post what i want to cover is the idea that we should prepare for the conditions that we are most likely to meet most of the time – so we should know a little about what those conditions actually are…….and secondly that we should prepare for the things that actually go wrong at sea and not perhaps the things that we like to imagine or fantasize about going wrong. To give a hint or two about ‘stuff that actually happens’ then, blizzards at sea in Lyme bay are extremely rare and a force 6 sea state happens at a fairly well known frequency. Of the things that go wrong, have gone wrong or are an actual problem then i’ll highlight the most important and personally frequent one and that is simply getting very cold….for some strange reason i’m unusually susceptible to hypothermia and that’s a big problem that, coupled with sea-sickness and extreme tiredness is a high risk problem for me.

Wind and weather….what actually happens.

In his excellent book ‘Sailing Just For Fun’ the late Charles Stock made the following observation about wind strength in his sailing area and i quote

Figures to hand suggest that if we concentrate the sailing season into one hour there would be two or three minutes of flat calm, thirty minutes with winds force one to three, twenty minutes force four or five and one and a half minutes force six to seven with a little force eight. The predominance of light winds becomes even greater when we allow the yachtsman the option of staying at home when strong winds are present. Thus we need plenty of sail in this area , particularly when running downwind in a fair tide.”

The way i interpret that is that for 50 minutes out of every ‘hour’ we should expect, most of the time winds from force one to force 5 and outside of that is a lot more unusual…..that force 1 – 5 is then what we should have ourselves and our boats well set up to sail in…..and actually sail in those conditions. What that means to me also comes from watching modern large cruising yachts at sea – and that is that most of them don’t have enough sail area for a large part of the sailing ‘hour’ and in downwind conditions certainly just become motor boats. Now …… it’s my intention to either sail or row (or scull) my open boat and my intention is to be able to do that well in force 1 to 5 and then be able to cope with a bit more for the rare times that the wind is a 6 and above…. as in my story. What that means for me is that my current build needs lots of sail area for the force one to three and enough of a practical and easy reduction in sail area to deal with the five and six. I don’t, as a matter of fact normally intend to put to sea in anything around or above a force 6 but i do intend to have the boat set up to sail upwind and down and/or heave-to in those conditions.

Introduction and post-script…….odd, i know !

For the end point of today’s post i want to put across the over-arching theme of this series of posts which is to be all about the risk management of going to sea in small open boats , and for this post i want to briefly explain the core principle of this which can be summed up in one word……evidence.

In my last career job i was a specialist nurse working in a small team of similar nurses who had enhanced skills and roles in a large acute hospital – one of my later roles within that team as an example was the management of acute pain. When we created that team the hospital was very twitchy about clinical risk and wanted us as a team to be well up on our risk management and of our team i was the only one who had the slightest idea how to go about doing even a basic risk assessment so of course i got the job……that and because everyone else on the team made sure that their attention was solidly on something else when the boss asked for ‘volunteers’.

At first i did what i’d done before which was to go away, think about the various things we did and come up with a speculative risk structure because what we would be doing would be all new and really we were in the dark as to what could and would go wrong. I did the initial work and the hospital management were happy with that but a couple of years in i revisited the subject with a completely different mindset ; what i started to do was ask the question ‘what goes wrong’ or ‘what is the actual evidence for clinical incidents in the hospital’ ? and usefully the hospital already had a data base of adverse incidents to refer to and data-mine.

When i started that job the data base had some 9,000 recorded incidents all logged on a form called a ‘Datex’ incident form all stored in a data base – and over a short period i read every single old one and every new one ; new incidents being reported at around 120 a month. A lot of them i could just ignore because included in the data base were personal spats and things that we had no responsibility for – like slips and falls in the hospital social club and gym. Everything that happened as an adverse incident in the adult sector i read though. What i found was that the actual adverse incidents that really happened bore little resemblance to my earlier speculation but i did discover a whole world of adverse incidents that we weren’t taking any interest in ; one example being the high rate of falls among patients and the relatively high rate of injuries from those falls.

I’ll cut that avenue off right now because it’s obviously not what i’m talking about today but it has heavily modified my attitude to incidents and risk – now, instead of imagining what might go wrong at sea i ask ‘what goes wrong at sea’ and to answer that i go and find the evidence.

As a TV series once said ” The truth is out there”

Until next time.

1 Comment

  1. I remember your Torbay Easter escape story. Reminds me of my own far less dramatic but hard-learned lesson about the cold at sea. I was doing my incompetent crew in the Solent at Easter many years ago, not in an open boat of course but some 30-odd foot Bendytoy. It was mild and seemed fairly clam onshore but once out the wind soon got up to force 5 and continued in the same vein. Having insufficient layers on or with me I shivered in the cockpit for the rest of the day, too proud to admit I was cold and ask if anyone had a spare fleece. I even put on all my spare socks 😉

    Looking forward to next time — thanks Steve.


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