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July/August 2013 Issue 211: White squall

Jun 20, 2013
A microburst is a powerful, localized down draft. A vessel caught in the initial gust front can be knocked down.

A microburst is a powerful, localized down draft. A vessel caught in the initial gust front can be knocked down.


The loss of sail-training ships is, unfortunately, not unprecedented. Some sink due to misjudgment on the part of the captain, while others are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The story of Albatross belongs to this latter group.

Albatross was built as a steel pilot schooner in Amsterdam in 1928. The vessel was sold to the German government in 1937. During World War II the Germans utilized Albatross for communicating with U-boats. After the war Albatross was sold to the Lloyd Shipping Company of Amsterdam as a sail-training vessel for future Dutch merchant marine officers.

In 1954, writer Ernest Gann, an accomplished pilot who also loved sailing, bought the vessel, re-rigging her as a brigantine by added square sails on the foremast. Gann cruised the Pacific for three years. During that time Albatross was used in the 1958 film Twilight of the Gods, starring Rock Hudson.

In 1959, Albatross was sold to the husband and wife team of Christopher Sheldon and Dr. Alice Sheldon. The couple met aboard Irving Johnson’s Yankee when Christopher was first mate and Alice was medical officer.

Sheldon and his wife created Ocean Academy out of Connecticut as the instrument for operating Albatross. Young students were instructed in biology by Dr. Sheldon, taught Spanish by Capt. Sheldon, who had a Ph.D. from the University of Lima, as well as English, math and celestial navigation.

In the fall of 1960, with a crew of four instructors and 13 students, Albatross sailed from the Galápagos Islands to Nassau in the Bahamas. On the morning of May 2, 1961, Albatross was hit with a white squall (a microburst) about 125 miles west of the Dry Tortugas. Heeling over and sinking in a matter of seconds, taking six lives including Dr. Sheldon. The remainder of the crew took to the lifeboats and were rescued. Subsequently, the sinking was attributed to its square sails. When rigged as a schooner, Albatross had withstood 100-mile-an-hour winds in the North Sea.  

Sheldon later said, “It was as if a giant hand took hold of us. In 15 seconds Albatross was on its side. In 60 seconds it filled with water and then it was gone.”

Sheldon was exonerated by the Coast Guard of any wrongdoing, but he was devastated. He gave up the sea and worked for the Peace Corps. He died in 2002 at the age of 76.

The Coast Guard created new stability parameters for sail training vessels. In 1996 a film was made about the sinking called White Squall, starring Jeff Bridges.

Let’s join Albatross on April 30, 1961. We will use the 2013 Nautical Almanac. The DR is 22° 30’ North by 92° 30’ West.

We’ll use a lower limb observation of the sun. Height of eye is 15 feet. Observation time is 14:25:30 GMT. The Hs is 37° 20.2 minutes. We want to find the Ho, reduce the sight for the intercept, then plot an LOP and find the estimated position (EP).

A. What is the Ho?
B. Using HO 249 Vol. 2, find the intercept.
C. What is the EP?


A: Ho is 37° 31.1’
B: Intercept is 5.9 nm Away
C: EP is 22° 29’ N by 92° 13’ W

Edit Module

Jul 18, 2013 05:36 pm
 Posted by  Roger Long

This article is wrong in ascribing a White Squall as being the cause of the loss of the "Albatross". I performed her stability post mortem using a well performed and documented stability test by the architect who converted her. He was evaluating her stability primarily for use as a film prop. I did this as part of a large project to analyze the stability of every sailing vessel for which data could be obtained as part of the process of establishing the USCG regulations for sailing school vessels.

The stability of the “Albatross” was essentially the same as that of the “Marques” which required only a 22% increase in wind speed to capsize her from a normal sailing angle if not smartly handled. This article should be fact checked with the book “Tall Ships Down” by Dan Parrott. She was lost through the crew being unaware of how vulnerable she was to capsize once the deckedge was allowed to go underwater.

Microburst are continuously dragged out as bogy men whenever the subject of large sailing vessel capsizes comes up. Having conducted the largest survey of sailing vessel stability up carried out at the time and followed the subject closely since, I would say that microbursts are statistically no more significant to the losses of large sailing vessel than meteor strikes.

Roger Long

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