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Reader deounces single-handed exploits

Jan 1, 2003

Your story in the March/April issue entitled "Transatlantic Test" is a great sea story about a resourceful sailor overcoming great difficulties to finish well in a single-handed race.

In reading the story, though, I couldn't forget the fact that Mr. van Breems, like all single-handed sailors, willfully chooses to disregard the requirement to maintain a proper lookout at all times, and thus created a good deal of his own misfortune.

I almost laughed aloud upon reading Mr. van Breems characterization of the boat he hit as being strangely indifferent. How indifferent must one be to flagrantly disregard one of the most basic of maritime rules?

Not only did he fail to maintain a proper lookout, the vessel he hit was apparently engaged in fishing and thus had the right of way. What if the collision had caused injury or death on the vessel he hit? Fishing boats are dangerous places to work, and being rammed by a 44-foot sailboat could have serious consequences.

If I were to go belowdeck while underway, fall asleep, and end up ramming another vessel, I would expect to be vilified, violated, and sued. I would certainly not expect to write about it and be lauded as, "In a feat of seamanship, the author overcomes a collision at sea," etc.

Martin van Breems responds:

Mr. Nolden is correct that I was at fault given that the boat I hit was fishing. It's nothing I'm proud of, and it certainly cost me the chance I had of winning my division against several faster boats (I believe I was leading before the collision), and about 40 hours of being covered with fiberglass (I fixed Monhegan myself).

A few comments. I was not the one who was indifferent to the collision. The two fisherman I saw on board walked forward, looked at my boat, looked at their boat, and went back to fishing within a minute. I was scared, even panicked, due to both the extensive damage to my boat and my concerns regarding the fishermen. I had no idea what they would want. I dropped my sails immediately after the collision, in part to stabilize the rig but also to stay close to the fishing boat. Leaving the scene of an accident is always bad form. I had expected they would come visit in time, at least to take some information. Instead, after they got their nets up, they took off.

I see two possible reasons. They may not have been legally fishing there. The accident occurred more than 200 miles from England, but only about 100 miles from Ireland. The fisherman were not English or Irish. Also, there was no damage at all to their boat. They might have seen no need, and I'm sure they had better things to do than give me a tow, not that I was asking for help. In any case, I was prepared to take whatever steps were required or asked of me, and I had insurance coverage for such liability. In addition, they also had a responsibility to keep a look-out, and did not, so they shared some fault.

Probably my biggest mistake was in not wiring a loud, external alarm to the radar, and possibly the CARD system. The existing alarms would not wake me up when sleeping in my 15- to 30-minute nap schedule, an unfortunate lapse in my strategy. Such devices can provide a lookout for other ships at all times. Whether this is a proper lookout is debatable, but radar is heavily relied upon by shipping for keeping a watch.

The core issue is the safety of single-handed sailing. Nothing is risk free. But is the risk acceptable? Driving a car guarantees a certain amount of accidents, yet few would argue with doing away with all cars. The benefits outweigh the risks. It's interesting that single-handed sailing is far more popular in Europe, which is certainly more rule conscious than the U.S. in most areas.

Regarding damage to others, there are few oceangoing vessels that would be affected by a collision with a modern, lightweight, ocean-racing boat. Ocean racers represent virtually no risk to other shipping or fishing vessels. Rescues are another story, bwt in most cases ocean racers take care of each other. Insurance is required of race entrants, if we do cause damages.

On the benefits side, single-handed racing has led to many improvements, like roller-furling headsails, that help all sailors, and racing helps me refine our products like the Dutchman Sail Flaking System and Boom Brake.

Also, for many ocean races, there is no other option but racing single-handed. As I lacked the time and resources to set up my own race, and because Phil Weld (the only American winner of the Ostar) was a bit of a childhood hero, I entered the race. Single-handed racing also helps to increase one's skills, and provides a real challenge, which is good for the spirit.

Finally, by writing up my experiences and sharing them with others, hopefully others may learn something from what I did. This all contributes to the benefit side of the equation and, in my mind, clearly outweighs the risk. I expected some negative comments, but not to be "vilified and violated."

However, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I am thankful for the many comments of support I have had from Ocean Navigator readers I have met at boat shows or talked with by phone