Cruising

Voice of Experience: Communication Breakdown

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“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” This famous line from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke is also a phrase that neatly summarizes a bareboat charter my wife, Nancy, and I recently enjoyed with friends in Corsica.

We picked up our boat, a Beneteau Oceanis 523, in Propriano, a small town on Corsica’s southwest coast. Our party consisted of four couples: Jim and Lina, Kit and Francie, Peter and Lorrie, and Nancy and me. The eight of us had sailed together many times and were confident we’d have another good trip together. 

Our second day out we anchored in a small cove that was well-protected, except to the south and southwest. That night a storm arose over Sardinia, 15 miles to the south, but I wasn’t overly worried, as it wasn’t moving in our direction. The next morning, though, we woke to an overcast sky and a slight swell from the southwest, so we decided to eat breakfast quickly, and get going. As soon as we finished, a southwest wind arose, and waves started marching into our cove. 

We weighed anchor, and by the time we had raised sail, it was blowing 35-40 knots and the rain was pouring down in sheets. We scooted along on a broad reach under jib alone toward Bonifacio, a medieval town on Corsica’s southern coast, and at times hit 14 knots while surfing. 

Needless to say, we were happy to sight Bonifacio in the distance, atop a 200-foot cliff. Although the 100-yard break in the cliffs can be difficult to see, especially in a heavy downpour, we made it in without incident. The harbor itself is fjord-like and secure in all weather.

Once in Bonifacio, we had to Med-moor the boat, putting it stern-to between two other boats in the strong crosswind. As we approached our berth, Peter manned the windlass while Kit stood by with some extra fenders, and Jim handled the stern lines as I manned the helm. The others also stood by prepared to fend off and act as verbal relays between Peter and me. Everyone had their assignment and knew their job, or so I thought.

As I backed the boat down, people on the quay and the other boats around us started yelling at us in French at the same time I found myself having trouble keeping the bow from blowing off. I kept hoping the anchor and its chain rode would do their job and help hold the bow up and prevent us from going into the hole sideways, but they never really did. After struggling to keep the boat straight, I finally heaved a sigh of relief as we made it in without damage.

It was then I discovered what all the yelling was about. Our anchor windlass had failed to work, and the anchor hadn’t deployed. I couldn’t hear or see Peter on the bow, and no one else had thought to tell me what was going on. Now we had to pull out for a do-over, in the ever-increasing crosswind. 

Everything would have been much easier if the bow-thruster had worked, or if I spoke French. As it was, the people on the boat next to us were very patient and helped us leave without damaging either boat. I then showed Peter how to deploy the anchor manually. It was much easier backing down with the chain and anchor deployed. Instead of yelling, people now helped us position our boat properly.

The next day we discovered why our bow-thruster and windlass didn’t work. The batteries had overturned (fortunately they were AGM batteries), and the connections for both the windlass and bow-thruster had come loose. We cleaned and tightened all the connections, and set the batteries upright in their boxes. All worked well after that.

A day later, we were ready to go again. The forecast was for a Force 3 wind from the east, and the morning was clear with a Carolina blue sky from horizon to horizon. After a great breakfast of coffee, croissants and baguettes, we motored 10 miles over a glassy calm sea toward a cove we’d heard of in a national park for a relaxing lunch. When we arrived, we had only one boat as company, and it soon left, so that we were alone. We enjoyed lounging and swimming in the warm water and made plans to go ashore to hike to some ancient ruins nearby. 

After a while some other boats began straggling into the cove, including a 32-foot sailboat that anchored between us and the beach. I thought it was a little close, but said nothing, because the weather was so calm. As the day wore on, some tour boats arrived and began anchoring quite close as well. These included a large tour boat that anchored especially close to shore, between the beach and the 32-footer next to us, where it put out a stern anchor to keep from swinging.

Suddenly, shortly before lunch, all hell broke loose, as the wind abruptly shifted from east to southwest and started blowing 25 knots. All the boats, except the stern-anchored tour boat, swung around as three-foot seas started rolling in through the southwest-facing channel to the anchorage. Unfortunately, before we could leave, a boat swung around in front of us and dragged over our anchor, dislodging it, so that we began to drag. Worse yet, the sailboat next to us was now pinned against the stern-anchored tour boat, with the long trailing painter of our dinghy entwined in its anchor rode.

As Peter rushed to the bow, ready to raise the anchor, I started the engine and then began motoring forward while Peter worked the windlass. Nancy tried to pull the dinghy loose, but was unable to do so, so she let the painter go. Our dinghy was now a fender for the 32-foot sailboat. 

The tour boat was also trying to leave, but couldn’t retrieve its stern anchor, and found itself stuck with the sailboat and our dinghy pinned against it. About 25 or 30 people from the tour boat were still in the water swimming, and the crew told them they should just swim for shore. 

Finally, we raised our anchor, only to have Jim suddenly jump into the water and try unsuccessfully to retrieve our dinghy. Fortunately, he managed to climb aboard the neighboring sailboat, which now had its anchor rode under the tour boat.

Eventually, we managed to start maneuvering through the chaos. But we still needed to retrieve both Jim and our dinghy. My first thought was to lay alongside the 32-footer, but I quickly realized that was a bad idea. Then I spotted the skipper of that same boat towing our dinghy out toward us behind his own dinghy, with Jim safely aboard. He was making little progress against the waves, so I pointed to a spot where we could rendezvous more easily. 

Later, when Jim and our dinghy were both safely back where they belonged, we thanked Jim’s Italians rescuer in Italian and in every other language we could muster for having left his own boat, which was still in harm’s way, to assist us. There’s no way we could repay such a good deed, except to remember always to help other mariners when they are in trouble. 

Fortunately, the anchor rode on our Italian friend’s boat hadn’t gotten too badly tangled with the tour boat, and when the latter finally managed to raise its anchor he was able to break free as well. I was very relieved to see that our friend would be able to leave safely.

Thankfully, the rest of our cruise unfolded without incident. We felt very lucky: nobody was hurt, no damage had been done to our boat or any other boat, and we didn’t even lose or break any equipment. For our part, all was well that ended well. 

What We Did Right
Docking in Bonifacio, we had fenders and docklines properly deployed and a couple of large fenders in reserve. During both docking attempts everyone made sure to keep their hands and feet inboard.

Before entering the cove at the national park, I had studied the chart and knew where the hazards were so we could exit quickly if necessary.

We successfully communicated with the Italian skipper when organizing a pick-up of Jim and the dinghy.

What We Did Wrong
In Bonifacio we assumed the windlass and other equipment worked properly and had set up a casual communications system on deck. A more formal call-and-response system would have worked much better.

I was concerned about boats anchoring too close in the cove, but never communicated my concern to anyone. After the cove became overcrowded, we should have prepared for a quick departure.

Jim should never have jumped overboard without first consulting me. You should not put someone in the water to secure property unless the situation is otherwise under control.


Carl Hunt, a retired economist, has sailed his
Bristol 35.5 from British Columbia to Mexico.
He has also sailed on the East Coast, in the
Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean

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