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A notice to mariners

Jan 1, 2003

AN IMPORTANT ADDITION to Notice to Mariners might read as follows: "Mariners be advised. Approximately 25 fast-moving sailing vessels are presently scattered around the mid-Atlantic. These vessels are being steered by powerful autopilots and the single crew-member on board may not be keeping a lookout. Any contact with these vessels could be dangerous as they may not be complying with International Rules of the Road or with normal dictates of proper seamanship regarding watch-keeping, lookouts, or navigation lights."

These boats represent the fleet of competitors in BOC Singlehanded Around the World Race, which started September 18 from Charleston, S.C.

The reality is that one of these BOC race boats, while on a shakedown voyage, has already been in a collision that endangered the lives of seven Canadian fishermen. That collision is just one of many recently reported in these pages involving yachts being steered by autopilots that were keeping little or no lookout.

The ill-fated BOC racer Coyote, presently being sailed by 40-year-old David Scully from Illinois, was twice observed in embarrassing situations off the New England coast in August, one of which was the full-blown collision.

The collision took place at about 0330 on August 24th about 170 miles east of Nantucket, Mass., as Scully was singlehanding the rebuilt 60-foot racing boat from the Azores to Newport, R.I.

As Scully slept below, his vessel crashed head-on into the port bow of the 62-foot Canadian longliner Lady Olive Marie which was hove to for the night with one of its seven-man crew on watch. It is not known if Scully was showing navigation lights. (Three days before he had been observed sailing at night without any lightsmore on that below.)

Scully was reportedly doing five to six knots through six- to eight-foot seas while heading generally west. The collision resulted in a six-inch square hole in the side of the wooden fishing vessel, presumably made by Coyote's bowsprit, which was broken off in the collision.

Coast Guard investigators said they were concerned that Scully made no radio contact after the collision with either the fishing vessel or anyone else. His vessel was located several hours later by Coast Guard aircraft about 15 miles away from the accident scene. The crew of the fishing vessel, meanwhile, said they began to search for the vessel which had hit them, believing it to have sunk since it had disappeared. At the same time Coast Guard aircraft dropped two dewatering pumps to the fishing vessel as its crew worked to keep its fish hold free of sea water being shipped through the hole.

All in all, the incident was an embarrassment for the world of singlehanded sailing and for yachting in general. Lest you think this was just an isolated incident in the world of Coyote, however, we offer the following report from the captain of RV Knorr, which encountered the racing boat several days earlier and further to the east at approximately 42° N, 51° W.

"Last night," he reported, "I got a call at 0130 from the bridge that we had a small radar target six miles away that was showing no lights. I went to the bridge immediately and finally, even in the darkness, we spotted a sail at about two miles distant. We changed course and closed on the target and then we put the searchlight on after trying to reach him by radio. No response and no lights!

"I closed on him and slowed down and overtook him from his stern. I got within one quarter mile and covered boat with our searchlight while giving a blast of our whistle. There was still no response or any sign of life. Then I got in really close (about 300 feet) and gave two more blasts of the whistle. We were getting ready to board the sailboat when a figure came up from the companionway and took the wheel and steered away from us. No contact, no gesture, and no radio or visual response of any kind.

"The interesting thing is how good a course his boat was steering and it was making almost six knots. The sails consisted of a reefed main and a storm jib which balanced him well as far as steering a steady course. But there were no lights at all -- he did put on a masthead light after I scared the s- - - out of him. There was a line trailing in the water from his bow and some loose halyard which initially made me think the guy had been lost overboard. The reef in the main was sloppy and the topping lift was loose. The name of the boat was Coyote, written in small red letters on the stern with a number 44 on the sail. It was a white sloop of modern design with raked stern."

Coyote's collision with the fishing boat puts the U.S. Coast Guard as well as singlehanded race organizers in a difficult situation. Operating a vessel without a proper lookout and without lights is certainly against all elements of the Rules of the Road. The concept of single-handed sailing with the sailor sleeping while underway is inherently against the Colregs, not to mention just plain foolish. Many a professional mariner has had his licensed yanked for similar activity. Yet the Coast Guard finds itself in the position of turning a blind eye to it and even, in some ways, approving. As the 25 BOC entries sailed out of Charleston in September, for example, their path was cleared by a small flotilla of well-meaning Coast Guard vessels working in support of the race and the port of Charleston.