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From the Editor: Gambling with Nature

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We at SAIL don’t tend to dwell on the darker side of the sailing life—boats lost, sailors drowned. The monthly “Voice of Experience” column has its share of drama, but it’s the kind in which, to channel the radio cliché, “luckily, no one was hurt.” Quite honestly we’d rather focus on reasons to go sailing rather give anyone a reason not to. At the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme to gloss over the very real hazards attendant to spending time on the water, whether you’re in a kayak or a cruise ship.

Sailboats and people are lost at sea for a variety of reasons, most of which fall into three broad camps.

One is bad luck: scientific types will deny its existence, but we sailors know better.  Imagine doing everything right—good boat, well-prepared, experienced crew—and thunk, you sail smack into a container floating, invisibly, just awash. That’s bad luck.

Another is stupidity, examples of which are legion. An overwhelming number of deaths at sea (and I’m not just talking sailors here) are directly attributable to acts that would not qualify the victim for MENSA membership. Let’s face it; a lot of people just should not be out there.   

Although there are some common denominators, stupidity should not be confused with the third camp, hubris, aka recklessness—taking the calculated risks that are an intrinsic part of all sailing to an extreme. This is when you bet your own skills as a seaman against nature itself, which always has the stronger hand. It’s only a matter of whether or not it’s played. Making an off-season crossing of a notoriously fickle body of water is the kind of risk taken either by stupid people who have no real idea of the consequences should things go wrong, or smart ones who gamble on the strength of their boat and the stamina of their crew and think the odds are in their favor. Most times it works out; sometimes it does not.

I was brought to this train of thought by the sad loss of the schooner Niña with all seven hands in a winter storm in the Tasman Sea last June. That is one nasty piece of water even on a good day; vicious low-pressure systems barrel up from the Southern Ocean with monotonous regularity, battering the New Zealand coast and whipping up huge seas offshore. So were skipper David Dyche and his family and friends stupid to depart at that time of year? Well, cyclone season was officially over, and given a generous weather window, there was no reason Niña could not have made the crossing safely. On the other hand, as a Kiwi friend says, “it’s never a good idea to cross the ‘Ditch’ at that time of year.” Dyche just made the wrong judgment call. Reckless, perhaps; unlucky, definitely.

Then I read about the Pearson 365 that washed up on a Martha’s Vineyard beach, 54 (!) days after being abandoned somewhere off Florida. Its owner, a “novice sailor” according to news reports, ran into some weather not to his liking and hitched a ride on a passing freighter, leaving his boat afloat as a danger to other vessels. As so often happens in these “get-me-outta-here” situations, the boat looked after itself very well and looked scarcely damaged when it beached itself.

There’s no doubt where I feel the blame lies for that episode. Fortune really does favor the foolish.

For the full investigative report into this tragedy, visit www.sailmagazine.com/nina


Photo courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum 

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