A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Wolfgang Köberer
Date: 2012 Nov 19, 11:19 -0800
„De mortuis nil nisi bene“ is a nice motto, but the real question is: what can we learn from it. Please endure some remarks from my experience as a recreational sailor and a lawyer (Geoffrey has reflected on that lately).
There are 2 facts that cannot be disputed:
1. Bounty sailed into a severe storm
2. Bounty sank because she was not seaworthy.
Now you can doubt fact 2, but you should be aware of the fact that seaworthiness is always related to the conditions that you will encounter: Bounty was certainly seaworthy sailing in a force 2 breeze but not in a severe storm. As I have read she leaked in any seaway therefore she would be expected to leak badly in such conditions. And that could play havoc with her electrical gear (including the pumps).
The crucial factor here is not the wind, but the waves. I’ve sailed in a constant force 9 in the Baltic and we did not make any headway but it was no problem because there were no waves as there was no fetch for the wind in the Sound. Anybody sailing in small boats will tell you that it is not the wind that makes you seasick and puts strain on the rigging but the waves. We’ve even sailed in force 10 winds (Mistral) in the Golfe du Lion – gusting to 11 – and everything was o.K. as there were no waves due to the fact that the fetch wasn’t more than 5 miles. But on the other hand masts have been rolled out in flat calms with a huge swell. So again: it’s not the wind but the waves and these obviously were huge.
I assume that the skipper of Bounty knew the limited seaworthiness of his ship. The question then is: why did he not run for a safe harbour? Here is what I was reminded of: Quite some time ago we defended an airline pilot who had run out of fuel while flying from the Med to central Europe. His engines stopped when decending into a major airport and he succeeded in gliding in without power. It was a scary thing although only some people got hurt spraining their ankles while evacuating the plane. But he could have landed easily with power an hour or so earlier in a different airport. During the investigation I talked several times to the person that was conducting the investigation for the air safety institution and he was always telling me that he didn’t understand one thing: why had the pilot gone on in spite of the fact that there were safer alternatives? In the end he pointed me to a study by the Australian Air safety board (the name could be wrong). This study concluded that persons tend to cling to decisions that they have made even when confronted with contrasting evidence.
So in my view the skipper clung to his prior decision to go south (to be able to meet his schedule) and just disregarded the facts that told him to seek shelter. And there were plenty of safe harbours after he left his port.
Now my second observation: although I earn my living by disputing whether somebody must be blamed, I am certain that there are areas where it is counterproductive to primarily look for who’s to blame: My senior partner once defended a flight engineer who was involved in a horrible plane crash. He was charged with manslaughter because he presumably had forgotten to open (or close) the bleed air valves that move the flaps during take off. As there was no solid evidence to the exact state of the bleed air valves after the crash the court flew to London to hear the person that had conducted the investigation. This man then told the court that he could not understand the use of the trial. He said that if you are blaming/charging someone he will try to defend himself and most probably not tell you what really happened. And then you will not know what was the real cause of the accident and cannot prevent the next similar accident.
So let’s look at the mistakes the skipper of the „Baunty“ made without blaming him in order to learn not to make the same mistakes.
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