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Autopilots may have great muscles

Jan 1, 2003

AUTOPILOTS HAVE GREAT MUSCLES but lousy eyes. While effective for getting the most out of a small crew, autopilots and self-steering vanes do seem, however, to be a factor in many accidents. Two of the most recent and noteworthy of such accidents are reported in this issue.

Both accidents took place in California. In one case, a new 67-foot pilot boat belonging to the San Francisco Bar Pilots organization crashed into the Golden Gate Bridge while operating under autopilot in the middle of the night. That story is reported in this issue.

In the other case, a 50-foot fiberglass yawl was lost off the California coast after it crashed into the side of a 630-foot containership while being steered by a windvane in the Santa Barbara Channel.

The sailboat, a 24-year-old yawl, was headed northwest around Point Conception in boisterous sea conditions just before noon on June 18th. The vessel's owner and skipper, an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy, was on watch in the cockpit, and two other shipmates were below, according to Coast Guard reports. The skipper reported that he had been glancing around the horizon periodically but also spent time seeking shelter from wind and spray beneath the vessel's cockpit dodger, keeping an eye on his headsail from the leeward side, and may have occasionally ducked below. He said he never saw the Mexican-flagged container vessel Morelos approaching from an angle ahead as it headed southwest in the traffic separation scheme en route to Long Beach, one of the nation's busiest shipping ports.

The result of this approach was a T-bone type of accident in which the yacht and its unsuspecting crew crashed into the port quarter of the ship, which was traveling at about 18 knots, according to Coast Guard reports. The yacht, with its bow stove in, sank very quickly as its crew scrambled to launch and board their inflatable life raft. The lucky crew was rescued soon after by workers from a nearby Texaco oil platform, Harvest, who had launched a boat after hearing distress calls on VHF radio. One of the sailors suffered a broken collarbone.

Neither members of the ship's crew nor technicians aboard Harvest reported seeing the sailboat on radar. Radar operators aboard the platform played back tapes of radar images numerous times looking for an appropriate target, but saw nothing. Seas were reportedly running at better than 10 feet at the time; visibility was approximately six miles; and it was not rainingaccording to reports.

Coast Guard officials said it appeared that the crews of both vessels had not been keeping an appropriate lookout, even though the Santa Barbara Channel is known for plentiful ship and boat traffic. "The more we look at collisions in Southern California, the failure of a lookout seems to be a recurring theme," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Pete Rennard. The investigator added that it was "probable" that crewmembers of both vessels would be cited for failure to keep a proper lookout.

The sailboat skipper reported that his vessel was being steered by a Fleming windvane. At the time, he had been delivering his vessel north to Monterey, Calif.

Miraculously, his eight-months-pregnant wife had gotten off the boat along with their 14-month-old daughter just a day or so before the collision. "I just didn't feel like going around Point Conception in my condition," she said, noting that she and her husband had previously sailed together on the Transpac race from California to Hawaii, and had considerable offshore sailing experience.

"You know how it is on a yacht in the ocean," she said. "You tend to check the horizon at timed intervals. You can't be facing forward all the time."


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