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No matter what, don’t give up

Mar 7, 2014

The recent movie All is Lost with Robert Redford is interesting and instructive to all bluewater sailors. The purist’s have found fault with it, however, I am not only a professional sailor who has attended the required Basic Safety Training (BST), but also participated in many military fire fighting and damage control classes. In addition, I have formal training in survival, instructed flight crews in egress, survival and rescue and hold a degree in Survival and Rescue Operations.

This background makes me think offshore sailors could and should learn important lessons from this movie. My advice is for readers to buy or rent this DVD and with pen and pad in hand, watch it while making two lists, one of things he did right and one of things he did wrong. After watching the movie and making your lists, think about what you would have done in a similar situation, if it were you out there instead of Mr. No-Name. We are told very little about this man, not even his name or why he is on a solo voyage, but we do know his location was 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits. We can also deduce from a paucity of dialogue that he was on some kind of a personal quest, perhaps to get a reset in his life and family.

What happened in the movie that launched him from his ordered and comfortable existence to one of chaos and misery is a reasonable possibility and one that could happen to any of us, in any craft, at any time. In fact, there are possibly scores of these 20- and 40-foot containers lost overboard and floating, semi-submerged for up to four months at a time. They are hard to spot and represent a genuine hazard to boats like the one in the movie. Our Mr. No-Name yachtsman did the proper thing when he attempted some damage control and put a fiberglass patch over the hull breech.

Other things he did right were to take as many useful items from his boat as possible before launching and boarding his inflatable life raft. He also did some improvising and used his knife and some plastic to make a solar still out of an empty five-gallon plastic jug and tried to clean the salt residue off of his VHF and portable satellite radios by using fresh water, but to no avail. This part of the story is one of the biggest reasons for carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) on your person. If he had one, his eventual rescue would have taken place much more quickly. I have written about PLBs in the following hyperlinks:

Nov. 11, 2013
Worlds smallest PLB

Jan. 6, 2012
InReach of civilization and rescue

Nov. 3, 2010
The pocket satellite communicator

March 16, 2010
PLBs…Don’t leave dockside without one!

One thing our sailor did wrong was to not read the signaling instructions until he actually tried to use them. He also used the flare during the day instead of smoke or his signal mirror. Speaking of emergency signals, he should have had them more organized for instant use instead of clumsily trying to find the right one when time was of the essence. A good portable VHF marine radio would have been invaluable for hailing ships when he was in the shipping lanes, but he didn’t carry one. Another big mistake he made even before his survival episode began was not to sufficiently tighten the PL-259 antenna connector to the mast antenna and weatherproof it like I wrote about in:

March 14, 2013
The importance of antenna placement
Of all his mistakes, though, the biggest one from a survival point of view was that in the end he simply gave up. In survival situations it is important to never, ever give up.

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Mar 11, 2014 02:40 pm
 Posted by  Chinadoll

I have yet to figure out how he hit the container aft of the center of the boat. I guess it was "scripted" there so that the radios and nav gear would be ruined, but unless he were backing up, or the container was powered somehow, it would have been very unlikely that the boat would have been holed where it was. I also didn't understand why he would have not changed tacks immediately to heel the boat away from the breach. and put a cushion or something to cover the hole. Kind of a hokey and unrealistic movie to me.

Mar 11, 2014 02:41 pm
 Posted by  Passwork

When learning to fly a plane, I learned a few valuable lessons that can applied to sailing.
When an emergency presents itself, the first reaction is usually to investigate what's wrong. See if you can fix it. That's wrong.
The rule in the sky is: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, then Investigate. Get the plane (boat) in the best possible glide, sailing configuration; find out where you are and where you possible landing (harbor) is likely to be; alert the authorities there is a possible problem; now go explore what's wrong.

Another lesson I learned doing touch and go landings with the instructor:
"David," he said. "I can't teach you to fly this thing. You have to learn that by yourself, with practice and experience. I'm just along for the ride and to makes sure you kill us both and trash the plane in the process." Experience is still the best teacher, if you live that long. My instructor did pull a few "emergencies" on me while I was under the hood, flying blind, then watched as I went through the procedures, critiquing my response and actions.

Mar 11, 2014 06:12 pm
 Posted by  JohnMcKeel

I loved the movie, but had to wonder about trying to learn celestial navigation in the life raft with Mary's book with a sextant that has never been out of the box. Of course being in the raft makes it easier to calculate HE (height of the eye) doesn't it?

The movie also pointed out how it isn't just one thing that goes wrong. (See my book "Changing Tacks: Lessons I've Learned from an Old Wooden Boat") I was helping a friend take his NorEaster down the Baja when he lost a set screw that let the prop shaft go (while we were under sail). Then the main blew into ribbons when we tacked back towards land. The radio didn't work because he hadn't installed the antenna ("I meant to do that before we left…") and the bilge pump packed it in after a minute because it was clogged with dog hair.

"Listen, we don't leave until we step up into the life raft."

"About the life raft John. It hasn't been serviced since 1976…"

So it's never just one thing --- and it never happens on a calm day in good weather.

Mar 12, 2014 11:35 am
 Posted by  noah1729

I agree with the Chinadoll. I quit watching after 1) he didn't change tacks, 2) didn't put a cushion in the hole immediately, 3) had to hunt for his safety harness, 3) kept going in and out of the hatch and leaving it open despite taking in water all the time, ..., and, finally, didn't try to sail in some direction. It is ridiculous to try to learn celestial navigation under those conditions. Someone who could afford that boat and started that voyage should have learned long before that electronics fail and that had better be prepared for. I guess it was enjoyable to someone who has never left Kansas but I didn't like it.

Mar 12, 2014 04:37 pm
 Posted by  Ocean Navigator

Thanks for all the great comments! This movie certainly gets sailors talking.

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