This almost happened to me once. I was sailing singlehanded between Bermuda and St. Martin one fall, and one night happened to be on deck looking around at just the right time. The moon was out, the sky was clear and visibility was good. Still, when I thought I saw a large object, mostly submerged, in the water directly in front of my boat, I had no time to react. All I could do was gasp as a dark mass whooshed past within a foot of my starboard side.
I remembered that night recently while reading about the Maersk cargo ship that lost 76 containers overboard off the coast of North Carolina during a gale in March. I don’t know whether my Unidentified Floating Object was a container or an abandoned boat or a random piece of debris. I also know that my aluminum boat would likely have survived a collision, even with a container. Nonetheless, there have been few times in my life when my heart rate shot up so high so quickly.
Many bluewater sailors seem to take it personally when they hear about lost containers and such as if each piece of flotsam out there were a bullet-pointed down a barrel directly at them. “Did you scuttle the boat?” these people will demand accusingly when confronted with fellow sailors who have abandoned their craft at sea. Similarly, they are full of proposals that shipping containers should by law all be equipped with transponders, flashing lights and self-scuttling explosive charges, just in case they ever fall overboard.
The real odds of hitting anything while on passage are, however, vanishingly small. We do often hear of Vendée Globe boats breaking off daggerboards and rudders when they hit things, but most of the UFOs in these instances are, I am sure, sleeping whales that have been unpleasantly surprised by the largely silent, super-fast Open 60s. These whales, I submit, have far more to complain about than the sailors who run them down.
It is true there have been a handful of documented container collisions, including the preposterous fictional accident in the 2013 film All Is Lost, where Robert Redford’s Cal 39 is holed in a flat calm by a seemingly self-propelled floating container. However, I’ve never heard of any instance where a yacht on passage was damaged in a collision with another abandoned yacht.
During any given summer, so I’ve been told by SAR authorities, there are on average about a dozen abandoned boats drifting about the North Atlantic. Recent surveys by the World Shipping Council meanwhile suggest that somewhere between 300-700 containers are also lost overboard worldwide each year, excluding unusual catastrophic events. These numbers may seem large, but you must also consider the incredibly vast area over which these potential threats are deployed.
The fact is that most people abandoning yachts do not, for whatever reason, choose to scuttle them. (Curiously, it seems that British SAR authorities do urge sailors to scuttle abandoned boats, while American authorities do not.) Many modern yachts—multihulls with foam-cored hulls and no ballast—won’t sink even if they are scuttled. It also makes no economic sense for the shipping industry to equip the many millions of containers in service with special safety gear to protect a very small number of sailors against a tiny threat of harm.
The good news is that it seems most lost containers spend little time on the surface. In the case of the recent accident off North Carolina, for example, only nine of the 76 lost containers could be located after many overflights of the area. Of those, only two were still afloat a week later. The exception, of course, would be lost refrigerated containers, which are both tightly sealed and heavily insulated, and thus can potentially stay afloat for long periods of time. But these fortunately only make up about 7 percent of the world’s total container inventory.
The bottom line is simple. This is a risk you take when you sail offshore, and you cannot reasonably expect anyone to obviate it for you. You can obviate the risk yourself by keeping a good watch (and by sailing in a metal boat!), but as I learned that night on my way to St. Martin even this may do little good. Far better to compare it to the more mundane risks you run living ashore and consider yourself lucky.