Lessons to be learned from BYI groundings

From Ocean Navigator #82
May/June 1997
It was almost midnight, just a few more minutes to Christmas Eve, and I was aboard my 42-foot sloop at anchor just under Saba Rock at the east end of North Sound, Virgin Gorda. As I settled comfortably into one of John MacDonald’s delightful Travis McGee novels, Dress Her in Indigo, a calm male voice broke into my peripheral consciousness. “Bitter EndYachtClub, BitterEndYacht Club, this is Zulu Charlie Alpha Delta 2.” I’d forgotten to turnofftheVHF.

The voice returned. “Bitter End Yacht Club, this is Zulu Charlie Alpha Delta2.” Odd, I mused, most radiocallsaround here use the boat name, not the boat’s official call letters. This one was a British call sign. I thought it might be one of the several boats at anchor or on The Bitter End’s moorings nearby, so decided to leave the VHF on in case they were in some sort of difficulty, while I went back to Indigo.

The third call was to Necker Island Resort. “Necker Island, Necker Island, this is Zulu Charlie Alpha Delta 2.” No reply. Necker Island is located about a mile north of my anchorage and is home to a beautiful and exclusive resort. Necker is surrounded by coral reefs and shoals . . . a lovely place to visit, but carefully.

When the fourth call came (again to Necker Island) and broke into my concentration, I gave up on Travis McGee and pressed the microphone button. “Zulu Charlie Alpha Delta 2, this is the sailing vessel Born Free on channel 16.” He came right back to me, saying that he was unable to raise either Necker Island or the Bitter End. He’d run aground on the shoals southeast of Necker Island. Conditions at the time were light, winds about 10 to 12 knots easterly, seas less than two feet, with a slight swell. A grounding southeast of Necker Island put him on the windward side ( i.e., with winds, waves, and swells tending to push him farther aground).

It turned out I was speaking to the captain, one of five delivery crew aboard the 70-foot custom sloop Katama. She was just completing a round-the-world trip, coming directly from the Canary Islands. The captain reported slight seas and said he needed a tow to pull his bow around to get him off the shoal. He was aground in hard sand, though there were coral heads nearby. He was quite calm, and neither of us then suspected the disastrous events soon to follow.

The Bitter End Yacht Club came back to my first VHF call. For some reason, they couldn’t communicate directly with Katama, so I relayed both ways. The Bitter End promised to send out its ferry to help, and did so within a half-hour or so. Necker Island came up a bit later, and sent out an inflatable, as Katama was in very shallow water.

The USCG station in San Juan was monitoring the situation continuously. A great deal of time was spent by Katama, with my help, in answering the Coast Guard’s standard list of questions: how many persons aboard? do they have life jackets on? names and addresses of nearest relatives? names and nationalities of crew, registry of vessel? is there any immediate danger? is there need to get crew members off the boat? etc., etc.

Things seemed to be under control for a while. The Necker Island inflatable passed a line from Katama to the Bitter End ferry to try to pull her bow around toward deeper water. The line broke, and it was evident that that wouldn’t work. More powerful resources were required, so the salvage tug Husky was contacted in Tortola. Husky would require about two hours to reach Necker Island from her mooring in Sea Cow Bay. After some discussion,Husky got underway toward the rescue. The Necker Island Ferry, being unable toapproach Katama herself, anchored in deep water nearby to stand watch until Husky arrived on the scene. As Katama was unable to talk directly with Husky I again performed the radio relay duties. At about 0130 on Christmas Eve, Katama reported she was taking on a little water, but her pumps were keeping up with the inflow. At about 0200 she reported an increased flow and asked if Husky had large pumps aboard (affirmative) and if they could possibly get a pump aboard quickly (maybe, using their chase boat, after they reached a lee under The Dogs). Husky arrived on scene about 0300 to take charge of the situation. The Bitter End ferry, Necker Island inflatable, and I turned in for the night, confident that Husky could handle any further assistance required.

I awoke just after dawn, feeling rather bleary eyed and curious as to how things were going with Katama. Over morning coffee, I learned that during the night Katama’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. The gentle but constant pounding for several hours on Necker Island shoal had loosened Katama’s keel bolts (where the ingress of water occurred) and, when Husky attempted to pull her off the shoal, her keel detached. The stricken vessel immediately capsized and filled with water. Husky pulled her off the reef and towed the hull into a little bay on the north shore of Prickly Pear Island, at the west end of Eustatia Sound, where the accompanying pictures were taken and the salvage of gear took place.

Katama was a well-found, well-sailed vessel with an experienced crew who had taken her around the world without incident. She was sailing that fateful night in light conditions (wind ENE 10 to 12 knots) and with very good visibility and a full moon. That she made a navigational error is indisputable — she ran aground on Necker Island shoal. The circumstances under which this happened, however, bear further examination as there is the strong possibility that her navigational error could have arisen from too heavy a reliance on GPS. While aground, Katama reported her GPS position as 18° 31.29′ N, 64° 21.17′ W. Plotted on a large-scale chart of the area (NOAA Chart No. 25610), this position lies midway in Virgin Sound, the 0.25-nm-wide channel running east-west between Necker Island shoals and the shoals to the north of Prickly Pear and Eustatia islands. Yet Katama was hard aground, not in the middle of the channel.

The preceding is fact. What follows is pure speculation, based on the circumstances of the grounding. Could it be that Katama was trying to thread this narrow channel near midnight, perhaps lulled by the clear and brightly moonlit conditions? I don’t know for sure, as I had no subsequent opportunity to discuss this with her crew. However, the remarkable thing here is that there is a 0.24-nautical-mile north/south and 0.15-nautical-mile east/west correction that must be accounted for when using this chart (and others as well, such as the BBA’s Virgin Islands Chartbook). This is due to differences between the datum used in these charts and the WGS-84 datum in general use by GPS units. If one takes the above-noted position on the chart (in the middle of the 0.25-mile-wide channel) and applies the corrections, the actual position is on the shoal just southeast of Necker Island, precisely where Katama ran aground (i.e., near 18° 31.53′ N, 64° 21.32′ W). In other words, one must take the GPS position, add 0.24 nm of latitude and subtract 0.15 nm of longitude in order to agree with latitude-longitude positions as shown on the charts. Additional to this correction is the GPS system error itself — 330 feet or more. Thus the total “error” could well be 600 yards, quite enough to put you aground in a hurry!

In this case, I believe that the Coast Guard involvement by radio was more of a hindrance than a help. I thought so at the time and now, six weeks after the event, still believe this to be true. While hindsight is 20/20, I believe Katama’s crew might have spent time more profitably by analyzing their situation and considering means of self-help rather than patiently and politely answering a never-ending string of questions, most relayed through a third party. It would have been very different had this been a life-and-death situation where the USCG was deploying assets to the rescue, but this was not the case.

Katama had a winged keel. When she ran aground in hard sand on a falling tide, surrounded by coral heads but apparently not on them directly, her keel could well have dug in not unlike a Danforth or Bruce anchor. The constant though gentle pounding loosened her keel bolts and, when Husky attempted to pull her free, the keel came right off the boat.

Finally, and this is most painful for me, I may have inadvertently contributed to the loss of Katama by not speaking up. When I first learned of Katama’s grounding, the thought immediately occurred of getting an anchor or anchors astern and using her winches to drag her backwards off the shoal. Having run aground many times myself in shallow home waters (Chesapeake Bay) and having helped others who’d done the same in the Caribbean, this was intuitive and automatic. At the very least, the anchor(s) would have prevented her from going farther up on the shoal. I just assumed that the crew would attempt to get anchors out fast, no matter what the conditions at the time. The water depth behind Katama was sufficiently shallow (two to three fathoms) to set anchors effectively.

As the situation developed and more and more players got involved (the Bitter End ferry, Necker Island inflatable, Husky, the USCG, shore personnel at Necker and the Bitter End, Virgin Islands Search and Rescue, etc.) I became increasingly reluctant to second-guess the crew and contribute gratuitous advice to an already complicated situation when there were a number of very experienced people trying their best to solve the problem. Now I know that getting anchors out astern immediately could have been critical to saving Katama. When I visited the wreck next day by dingy and saw her big cockpit winches, I wanted to cry.

Two other vessels have come to grief within the past two years in the same vicinity. Wildflower, a beautiful 65-foot ketch, was put ashore on Colquhoun Reef inside Mosquito Rock on a dark night as her owner reportedly attempted to enter North Sound to seek better shelter from an approaching hurricane. It was a pretty wild night, with winds building in the 40- to 55-knot range. The narrow entrance is well buoyed (though unlighted) and Wildflower carried radar, which, in theory, could have been used to navigate the entrance safely. What about GPS? Don’t even think about it! Although I have sailed through this entrance dozens of times during the past 25 years, on no account would I attempt to navigate by GPS alone, even though I have the actual recorded GPS positions for midchannel entered into two GPS units aboard Born Free. The potential GPS error is just too great, to my mind, in a situation where a couple hundred feet this way or that could put you either on Colquhoun Reef or Cactus Reef.

The second vessela local lighterwent aground on Oyster Rock near the southeast end of North Sound. Everyone knows that the rock is there, and the charts clearly show it,but…

To me these navigational faux pas drive home the following general rules:

1. Don’t be lulled into sloppy navigation practices by good weather, local knowledge, heroic accomplishments, or a sense of “precise” electronic positioning.

2. Don’t forget that a grounding, however minor it might seem at the time, is potentially disastrous. Treat every grounding very seriously, and take immediate action to either refloat the vessel or to limit further damage.

3. Don’t depend on others to help you, even when potential rescuers are within close range. Rather, think first of absolutely everything you and your crew can do to reverse or alleviate the current situation.

4. Don’t waste time on the radio. Put in the minimum required by the circumstances, then turn the microphone over to the crewmember you can best spare.

Bill Trayfors is a licensed merchant marine officer who has sailed eastern Caribbean waters extensively since 1969. He has taught sailing and celestial navigation, is a licensed amateur radio operator, and now enjoys semiretirement aboard his 42-foot sloop, Born Free. He can be reached via e-mail at: btrayfors@wdsg.com.

By Ocean Navigator