The Short, Brutish Life of a Luxury Cat

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 01:40AM - Comments: (12)

(Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
(Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

Crew is rescued from the 42-foot Alpha catamaran Be Good Too.

Last week, Charlie Doane, executive editor of Sail magazine, and delivery skipper Hank Schmitt, founder of the North American Rally for Cruisers, got caught in a very bad situation on a new-boat delivery in the Atlantic. The boat's new owners, a couple from Germany, were also on board. The boat was a brand new Aeroyacht Alpha 42 catamaran with wave-piercing hulls. It was abandoned and left to drift; the captain and crew were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. Even those of us who are not in the market for a luxury catamaran can draw something from the incident.

I’ve worked with Doane and Schmitt before, and their sailing resumes speak for themselves. Doane, much to his credit, provides a detailed account of what happened, even though it doesn’t cast the boat or the captain and crew in the most positive light. Schmitt issued a short statement on the builder’s website. In short, the new, $700,000 U.S.-built catamaran took a serious beating in a Gulf Stream gale. Thankfully, everyone got out alive.

I suggest every reader take a look at the history of this boat and what happened on the water. It reiterates what Practical Sailor has said before about carrying out due diligence with the help of independent professionals before purchasing any boat, new or used. In the case of a new build and design such as this one, having a qualified naval architect and a surveyor with a background in catamarans and boat systems take a look at the boat may help prevent a tragic outcome. However, as we've also pointed out, the sea—particularly the North Atlantic in winter—has swallowed more formidable boats than the Alpha 42.

What still gnaws at me are two things:

  • Timing. North Atlantic in January calls for a special kind of boat. A lightly sea-trialed, wave-piercing cruising catamaran that was apparently rushed to meet its production schedule would not be my first (or second, or third) choice for this voyage.
  • The litany of equipment failures: The jib sheet, both engines, the generator, glazing seals, and most conspicuously, the rudders all failed. Doane understandably says he expected some gear failures on an unproven boat, but when rudder stocks are the first or second thing to go in a gale (no one describes the weather as anything more), it seems obvious that some engineering calculations were off. According to Doane's account, a simple set screw was used to secure the rudder stock to the tiller arm—a shocking revelation, if true.

However, what I find most interesting is the stark contrast between the images and text in  brochures and magazines prior to the boat's maiden voyage and the actual life-threatening experience of the crew. In the former, the sky is blue, the water is clear, and the wind is light. In the latter, the wind is howling at speeds over 30 knots, and the Gulf Stream is boiling over—crashing against cabin windows, ripping up steps, and slamming the boat backward on its rudders.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last, new boat to meet a premature end on the ocean. I’m sure there are boats I’ve written lovingly about that have gone down in a gale. (The Alpha 42 is still apparently drifting about.) However, it’s certainly the most vivid reminder I’ve seen in years of what can happen when a cruising fantasy sets out in the North Atlantic in winter.

Comments (9)

The Alpha 42 rudder shafts were only 1.5" in 316 stainless solid stock. Both Derek Kelsall and Kurt Hughes have pronounced them woefully inadequate in diameter. The whole steering system looks like it came in a box of Cracker Jacks. Be afraid of this company - be very afraid. (I sailed my own boat across the Pacific, in a very meandering journey that took years, in the

Posted by: BigCat | January 24, 2014 7:38 PM    Report this comment

I'm not an inexpereinced sailor or a "give-up" person; I've had rudders fail and engines fail. However, given the number of failures, a common sense person could only wonder what would break next--perhaps something worse--and would I be able to get off then? And perhaps even more vital, from a SAR perspective, would the Coast Guard rather get the call in moderate weather or when things are much worse? The first is a job, the later could be life threatening.

No easy answers. The purpose of a short editorial is to begin a longer conversation, not to provide engineering annalysis.

Posted by: Unknown | January 24, 2014 10:06 AM    Report this comment

As unpredictable as the sea can be, I think it is fair to say that a more thorough shakedown, a more thorough inspection of systems and construction, more thoughtful and conservative engineering, and a more sensible departure time would have changed the outcome. In some respects, it was fortunate that this happened with an experienced delivery crew on board, rather than when the owner and wife were on their own. I would be very surprised if hull number two features an identical rudder design. We will be looking further into the details of rudder construction and common problems with rudders in a future issue. (We've already reported extensively on common failures in many late-model boats, including our Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo's Ericson 41 during his circumnavigation.) What's the takeaway? Offshore sailing is one sphere where the consequences of being a Beta tester can be fatal. If you are going to commit to a new design, you should be fully aware of these risks. I encourage everyone to also read all the pre-launch boat reviews and forum chatter surrounding this boat before it was launched and to put yourself in the mindset of the new owners. Did they have any idea of the significant risks of taking this boat out into the North Atlantic in January? Consider also how the reality of that first ocean sail compared to the reality portrayed in pre-launch literature. Thank you again for your support, which allows us to look into such incidents from a more critical perspective.

Posted by: DARRELL N | January 22, 2014 2:47 PM    Report this comment

having read both of Charlie's postings on this subject, I'm going to hazard a guess as to the root cause. Shoddy construction of the vessel.

First the windows frames start leaking shortly after they start taking "occasional waves".
The generator doesn't charge the batteries.
One engine then fails to start, and the other fails to charge the batteries.
The jib sheet fails and notably Charlie states "We knew the sheet lead for this sail was not ideal.."
The boat was leaking, with a regular if not alarming degree of water ingress, though they were unable to determine where the leak was.
There's a full paragraph delicately questioning the ruder system design. On the builder's site they make excuses for the
rudder failure, but conveniently omit the numerous other failures of the vessel.
Lets recap:
Water tight integrity failed.
Generator and 1 engine charging system failed.
Other engine's starter motor burnt/shorted out.
Jib sheet failed.
The rudder system failed.

Lets hope hull No 2 has better build quality.

Posted by: Gregory K | January 22, 2014 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Please see Charles Doane's two excellent summaries on the Sail Magazine blog Most questions/options are addressed quite well in Doane's second post, the one with the image of baying dogs around a tree trunk. A common thread seems to run through the comments that follow his posts: the more experienced offshore sailors with heavy weather experience are generally quite understanding of the reality of the situation, and appreciate the efforts of the two experienced people (Schmitt and Doane) on board. The less experienced -- well, it's easy to sort out their out-of-context fault-finding. Especially, comments about cutting rudder stock at sea (the critical failure appears to be the bent rudder-- not charging or engines) should be disregarded as foolhardy, dangerous, suicidal. And no matter what one does to restore charging or engine function, the vessel will still only go in circles 300 miles from consider nixing those comments, too.

Doane does a superb job of presenting the facts in the first post (Jan 17) with the photos, and reflecting on the experience in the second post a few days later.

Posted by: Unknown | January 22, 2014 11:08 AM    Report this comment

Kinda typical PS article, 'eh? Where's the beef?

Posted by: KEN K | January 22, 2014 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Did the owners hire a survey of the boat before taking delivery ? Did the delivery crew make a careful survey ?
Had the crew delivered similar boats in similar conditions/seasons ? Was it the boat capable of sailing or did the owners/crew just want to be back on land ? Was the boat just damaged or in danger of sinking ? Crew unable to execute any repairs ? Sans more info hard to take much away here.

Posted by: Piberman | January 22, 2014 8:55 AM    Report this comment

What I do not understand about this story (especially reading Doane's blog) is that since they didn't sound like they were concerned for their immediate safety there were a good number of things that were could have been tried, nor did it seem like the manufacturer provided any solutions which could be done at sea. I'm certain something could have been done such as: a drogue off one hull, dropping the rudder completely (or hacking it off) while rigging up lines to control the remaining rudder etc.. It seemed they had time which was not taken to figure things out. Now if a storm was about to bear down on then when the decision was made this is a different story...

Posted by: geoffr | January 21, 2014 7:58 PM    Report this comment

What's the point of this article,; bad stuff happens? How about an educated guess at why?

Posted by: jim h | January 21, 2014 6:21 PM    Report this comment

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