By Mario Vittone

A former USCG rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone is a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea.

As I write this, the Coast Guard is still searching for two sailors missing from the the tall ship Bounty; the ship itself lies on the bottom of the Atlantic; and speculations have begun about what exactly happened out there. (Hurricane Sandy didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone.)  If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that speculation rarely lines up with facts. Those of us back on the beach are always missing some critical piece of information and all we can really do of value is hope. Guessing about what was done or should have been done is useless – and sometimes even dangerous.

Hands down the worst advice I have ever heard spouted from otherwise smart people – and I’ve heard it twice in conversations about the Bounty – is this: “You never step off until you have to step up!”

  • It’s a wildly stupid speculation about how things might go during abandoning ship.
  • It is bad advice that takes nothing outside the hull into account.
  • I never sail with anyone who believes it.

No one takes the decision to abandon ship lightly, but I have seen it made too soon, and too late, both with tragic results. The sea isn’t a place for absolutes and a hurricane-tossed sea even less so.

You have to consider all the variables.

Losing power 10 miles from shore is not the same problem as losing it 180 miles from shore, with a line of storms approaching. You may be able to keep up with flooding in calm seas, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to with green water shipping over the bow.

Big weather creates problems not just for those on the water, but for those you might call on for rescue.  (Consider what the Coast Guard is flying in right now to find the lost crewmembers.)  The H-60 is an all-weather aircraft, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have limitations. Leaving when things are manageable for both you and the rescuers may be a better plan than waiting to see how it goes. The number of times I’ve heard “We’re going to wait until the morning,” as the last call a captain ever made would chill your soul.  That wait sometimes makes a rescue impossible.

With an out-of-control fire or progressive flooding, you are going to end up off the boat one way or the other, but that doesn’t mean those are the only times to leave the boat. Big wide hurricanes are unforgiving things, and no matter why you find yourself faced with one, consider everything when deciding how best to survive it.  When faced with approaching storms, I’ve seen sailors leave perfectly sound and watertight vessels and it was exactly the right thing to do.

The owner of Marine Flower II abandoned his perfectly good sailboat in November of 1994. It is exactly what he should have done. His boat wasn’t sinking, but after two days fighting seasickness and fatigue, his wife and daughter could only lay below with his infant son. In a matter of hours, he would have to single-hand his 64-foot ketch through a hurricane.  I don’t think he would have made it.  If he hadn’t called for rescue when he did, the search and rescue would have likely been just a search. Stepping down into the ocean was a very good idea. If you’re thinking you would have done differently, then you are exactly the kind of boater the Coast Guard often looks for, but never finds.

The water is cold out there and time is running out for the two left in the water from the Bounty – in survival suits I hope – and I know that rescue crews are doing all they can to find them while there is still light out there to look with. (on infra-red – an immersion suit is an invisibility suit)  For the rest of us safe at home, let’s keep the speculation to a minimum.  We’re almost never right about it anyway and sometimes, speculation is a very dangerous thing.

The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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  • Keating Willcox

    I agree with your point. I never went to sea without a survival suit, life-rafts, personal epirb and personal strobe. never. If we had to do pickups, or fill life-rafts there would be drills.

    I also have activity meters on all three bilge pumps, so I could see if there was unusual activity, and logged daily. My friend used to check the bilge every half hour. That is gettin it done right.

    Could the Bounty have used inflatable bladders as a last resort. We used them on a smaller vessel to prevent sinking.

    Is there a resource(s) for how much torque or roll can a wooden ship take before her fastenings start to go.

    • Mario

      “Is there a resource(s) for how much torque or roll can a wooden ship take before her fastenings start to go.”

      If there is, I haven’t seen it. There are too many variables in wood hull construction for a reliable model in any case. There will be an investigation and a report and it will take a long time. All we know is that the vessel experienced progressive flooding and foundered. Rule #1 in maritime safety? Keep the water on the outside of the boat. Once you lose control of that (foam-cored Whalers and Edgewater types to one side) – your ship is going down sooner or later.

      Thanks for feedback and stay safe out there.

      ~ from the safety of my desk… Mario

  • Capt S.Ravichandran

    Very succinctly put Mr Mario Vittone n I particularly liked that bit on Hurricanes not sneaking anybody.Timing the decisions o’ Abandon ship/port of refuge/avoiding dangerous semicircle is always tricky….

    • Mario

      Tricky business, Indeed. Thanks Captain.

  • Steven Horrobin

    A very well written article, with wise, careful, and experienced words. One thing only I would add. You state that “losing power 10 miles from shore is not the same thing as losing it 180 miles from shore”. This is true. But it is also not the same thing as losing it more than 500 miles from shore or nearest rescue. The adage about stepping UP into a liferaft makes rather more sense than you suggest if there is no possibility of imminent rescue. Once outwith helicopter cover, and more than a day from any form of rescue, it may well make sense to stay put in the larger, more robust, better equipped craft than to abandon to a liferaft which is, with the best will in the world, often not much more than a glorified paddling pool. The Fastnet ’79 clearly demonstrated that, unless rescue is imminent and search has at least a fairly high degree of likelihood of success- remaining with the main vessel and defending it is often the best option. In the circumstances in question, however, and the ones you mention, I agree with you, but not necessarily in all. As you rightly say: you have to consider all the variables.

  • Steven Horrobin

    A nicely written and wise article from an experienced voice. I would like only to add one observation. You say: “Losing power 10 miles from shore is not the same problem as losing power 180 miles from shore”. Certainly. But losing it 180 from shore is not the same as losing it 500 or more from either shore or nearest rescue. Whereas it is correct to argue that the adage of “stepping up” into the liferaft is not true as a rule, it is not correct to argue that abandonment to liferaft or at all is the correct thing in all dire situations. This was aptly demonstrated by the casualty tally of the ’79 Fastnet race, where many died who had taken to liferafts whose vessels were later found intact and largely seaworthy. A liferaft is a cramped, very difficult place to be, akin in some ways to a more robust version of a paddling pool. Abandoning a strong, well equipped vessel which could be defended to such a flimsy object is unwise if rescue is not imminent or likely. Your examples all assume a vessel is within short helicopter or cutter range. In those cases, I agree with you, but not in all. As you say: you have to consider all the variables.

  • Steven Horrobin

    Forgive me. I appear to have posted two versions of the same thing twice. This is because I thought the first had not been posted, but rather accidentally deleted.

  • Pam

    Mario, I’m a swimmer, not a boater, so please allow me a question. Do I understand the “step off/step up” expression to refer to stepping off one boat onto a larger or at least another one available for rescue? thanks.

    • Mario

      Hello Pam – Sorry for the delay. The inference in that particular maxim is that you never step off of your boat of your boat until it is on its way down and sinking out from under you. Then you should step “up” into your liferaft. (I clearly disagree) – The Mr. Horrobin’s comments have real merit. Sometimes that may be true (Fastnet for one – almost all the boats abandoned were found floating after horrific and dangerous rescues.) My point is that “never” and “always” have no place in risk decisions at sea.

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