Aground! Vestas Wind's Volvo Race Oops

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 11:31AM - Comments: (3)

I’ve put enough boats on rocks and shoals and had enough near misses to sympathize with the skipper and crew of Vestas Wind, who piled up the multi-million-dollar Volvo Ocean 65 on Cargados Carajos Shoal in the Indian Ocean on November 29. The accident occurred during leg two (Cape Town to Abu Dhabi) of the Volvo Ocean Race, the most widely followed around-the-world racing event on the planet. Thankfully, all the sailors on board were rescued safely. At the time of this writing, the fate of the boat is still undetermined, but the longer it pounds on the reef, the less likely it seems that the boat will be able to continue racing.

As one can imagine, when professional sailors competing under the glare of the media make what appears to be a basic navigational error, the blogosphere erupts with a barrage of strong opinions and second-guessing. No one on the boat has yet addressed the causes of the accident [Update Dec. 5, see notes below of router's mea culpa], but as any student of maritime disasters will tell you, it was not surely one fateful error, but rather a chain of small mistakes that undoubtedly led to the boat’s grounding.

As a report on from the U.S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center points out, human error is chiefly to blame in almost every grounding or collisions. However, as the studies' author also points out, the common definition of human error is often too limited. The phrase is frequently applied narrowly to negligence or mistakes of the captain or crew, when in fact the source is more deeply rooted in the maritime system itself—these “human” factors can include everything from the onboard technology to economics (a factor is surely at play during high-stakes, sponsor-funded races like the Volvo.) Here’s a short list of the common human factors leading to marine accidents:

  • Fatigue
  • Inadequate communication
  • Inadequate general technical knowledge
  • Inadequate knowledge of ship systems
  • Poorly designed automation
  • Decisions based on inadequate information
  • Faulty standards, policies, or practices
  • Poor maintenance
  • Hazardous natural environment

Hopefully, a full investigation into the Vestas Wind accident will draw out all the details, and they will be well-publicized—however humiliating they might be. While the investigation might not put the likable Australian skipper Chris Nicholson (no relation to me), his crew, or the Volvo race in the most favorable light, this is vital information that will prevent other sailors from making similar, potential fatal mistakes. (Some of us, sadly, will be bound to repeat others’ mistakes no matter how many post-mortems are published.)

This much we know about what happened on the night of November 29:

  1. The boat was travelling at about 18 knots at the time of the accident.
  2. Weather does not seem to have been a critical factor, although the accident did occur shortly after nightfall.
  3. The shoal that the boat ran aground on was well charted, although some print charts of the area are not yet up to date with WGS-84 datum (the most common datum used for GPS navigation).

Cargados Carajos Shoal (also known as St. Brandon, shown as it appears on Google Earth) lies northeast of Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean.

One possible factor in the accident is the over-reliance on—or just the opposite, the mistrust or misuse of—onboard electronic navigation equipment, something we addressed in great detail in our January 2008 issue. Charles Caudrelier, the navigator for Dongfeng race team described how such an error might occur, pointing out that the shoal and surrounding islets are so small that they do not appear on an electronic chart until it is zoomed in for a detailed view. Dongfeng, along with several other boats in the race, safely passed the shoals without incident.

[Ed. note: Since this post was first written, Team Vestas' router Wouter Verbraak issued a mea culpa on his Facebook page, stating that in fact, the initial routing he planned for the boat was using a digital chart (presumably at a large scale zoom setting) in which the reef did not appear. That in fact the charts they were using at the time of the accident "didn't see the reef on their electronic charts."  Here is a good discussion of the challenges of Cargados Carajos, highlight the problems that small remote reefs pose to digital chart makers and those who use them.]

The accident is reminiscent of an incident in 2010 during the Clipper Around the World Race, when the 68-foot Cork Clipper grounded on a remote island in Indonesia and was subsequently lost. A post race inquiry revealed that the digital chart being used on board Cork Clipper, although up to date, lacked the warnings found on the paper charts for the region. These warnings indicated that directly transferring latitude-longitude positions derived from GPS to the charts might result in significant error because the chart was not consistent with the WGS84 datum. Because the digital chart was inconsistent with a GPS-based lat-lon, the boat’s electronically plotted position showed the boat safely clear of any hazards when in fact trouble loomed.

As anyone who has strayed into poorly surveyed or charted waters knows, relying solely on electronic devices to precisely fix your position in these areas is courting disaster. Ideally, a sailor is able to give any hazards in these areas a wide berth (as in miles), or approach only with confirmed visual or radar targets allow you to plot a relative position.

Although heaving to is not an option in the Volvo Ocean Race, waiting until daylight or until conditions improve before closing land is a time-tested strategy among cruising sailors. One of the longest nights I spent was hove-to in a gale off Aitutaki the Cook Islands in the Pacific where our print chart cautioned of position errors of more than a mile. As much as my wife and I would have liked to tuck closer into the lee of the atoll, given the uncertainty of the position of the surrounding reefs, it wasn’t worth the risk.

One need not stray too far off the beaten path to run into the same sort of navigational challenges as Vestas Wind or Cork Clipper. In the upcoming issue of Practical Sailor, we evaluate a number of guides and charts for the Bahamas Islands, which, despite their historic popularity among cruising sailors are still poorly charted in some areas. No cruiser in his right mind would explore these areas with his eyes glued only to a digital chart. Even well-charted hazards can become dangers in certain conditions, as was the case in the tragic fate of Low Speed Chase, a Sydney 38 sloop that was tossed up on the Farallon Islands (outside San Francisco Bay) by breaking seas during a race.

As simple as it may seem, the act of using navigational charts is extremely nuanced. Navigational routines established centuries ago still carry weight today. Even in this day and age of pinpoint satellite positioning, there is something to be said about logging one’s position in pencil and recording it on a paper chart. (For those who have a serious interest in mastering the use of both print and digital charts, Nigel Calder’s excellent book How to Read a Nautical Chart brings the topic to life.)

Comments (3)

Even when paper charts were the only charts available, I usually would plan a route, look ahead on it, and considering the way that "flyspecks" and small rocks can be overlooked under night lighting, or fatigue, or rough weather, I got into the habit of either highlighting them or marking "keep away" zones. Which almost all digital nav software provide for these days.

Digital charts? I still do the same thing, I look ahead, check the route, and if there's something that is likely to go unseen? Flag it ahead of time!

Perhaps a good option for digital chart systems would be "enlarge all flyspecks!", i.e. place a red bounding box around anything that IS on the chart, but is smaller than a certain size (in millimeters or pixels) so that all the invisible hazards could be popped up to a more prominent size, toggled on and off.

Posted by: Some Guy | December 8, 2014 3:39 PM    Report this comment

The navigator has bravely issued a mea culpa. He chose his route using large scale digital chart that did not show the islands and never adjusted. Friends have happily anchored in these reefs (leeward side, of course) where Vestas Wind struck. Chart datum on most digital charts for that area are based on imprecise surveys from age of sail . . . in other words, not a good place to be poking around in the dark. The islands do show up on most digital charts when zoomed in to a range of about 250 miles, so you don't have to zoom-in very far, and there was plenty of time during the passage to toggle the zoom, to see if maybe something did pop up on that sea-ridge up ahead. The reef and islets are of course, plainly marked (if imprecisely) on even very large scale printed charts.
Bottom line: Print is far from dead.

Posted by: Darrell | December 5, 2014 9:19 PM    Report this comment

Electronic navigation is not perfect in well charted areas either. I was using a Garmin GPS with Blue Chart Chip - or whatever it's called - in Casco Bay in Maine a couple years ago. Right at sunset I checked to see if there was enough depth to pass between two islands. The GPS showed that I was safely beyond both islands, my eyes said that was not at all true. Never happened again, but that convinced me to be careful and doubting for safeties sake. I decided to sail around both islands and arrive a bit later, I was spooked!

Posted by: Jeremiah G | December 3, 2014 6:10 PM    Report this comment

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