This past week, an independent review committee that included VOR veteran and Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Stan Honey, former West Marine advisor author Chuck Hawely, and Rear Adm. Chris Oxenbould, a former deputy chief of the Australian Navy, determined there were “deficiencies” both in the use of charts aboard Vestas Wind and in “the cartography presenting the navigation dangers on the small and medium scales” of the electronic charts themselves when the boat ran aground last November.
Specifically, according to the report when viewed at small and medium scales, the charts showed only shoal water, not a reef breaking the surface, so that the boat’s Dutch navigator Wouter Verbraak had no idea they were running out of water, right up to moment they hit the bricks.
“The team was unaware of any navigational danger in its vicinity, incorrectly assessed the minimum charted depth at Cargados Carajos Shoals to be 40 meters and understood that it was safe to sail across the shoals,” the report says.
The report goes on to say that, “the poor presentation of available data clearly contributed to the grounding of Vestas Wind. There were a number of deficiencies in the presentation of data and accessing it with the supplied navigation systems and limited access to detailed charts. The most significant problem was missing vital data on the majority of scales in the chart presentation of the Cargados Carajos Shoals that created a false impression that they were safe to sail across.”
Although the panel declined to apportion any blame for the accident (other than to note that skipper Chris Nicholson was awake at the time and Verbraak was asleep) it did make a number of recommendations, aimed at improving both the VOR and offshore racing in general.
Among these were the suggestion that the “Volvo Ocean Race uses its leverage and influence in the yachting industry to encourage the development of an improved navigation system, including charts and software” that rectify what it called “perceived deficiencies.”
The report also suggested that lack of sleep and lack of communication between Nicholson and Verbraak likely contributed to the accident:
“Once the boats were racing, the routine of both the skipper and navigator were very demanding, with typical estimates of only five to six broken hours of sleep for each of them each day…. The navigator was tied to a strict routine of weather data with position reports and forecast data available every six hours. The weather and its impact on the race strategy had to be analyzed and monitored. The navigator and the skipper needed to consult and discuss the options. Sleep deprivation was cumulative and they got progressively tireder throughout the leg…. The skipper had a tendency to [be] on deck when fulfilling his role opposite the navigator. Similarly the navigator probably had a tendency to migrate to the nav station when he was in the counter position. This means that it is likely that there was a reduced amount of attention to the boat’s navigation in the three-hour period leading up to the grounding when the navigator was asleep. During this period Vestas Wind would have covered about 50nm. This was a long sleep for the navigator who normally gained his rest through power naps of about 45 minutes.”
Beyond that, the report says that while the crew on watch did become aware something strange might be going on shortly before the grounding, by the time they discovered the danger they were in it was too late.
“A visual lookout provided the last line of defense, but was reduced in effectiveness at night.… Reportedly only streaks of moonlight came through the clouds and these confused what was being observed on the sea surface. Those on deck did sight a disturbance in the water at quite close range. [But] it was considered to be associated with the expected seamount and thought to be a possible tideline that the more experienced crew had encountered many times before…. The mistaken briefing of the crew to expect to sail over a 40m seamount and to expect disturbed seas compounded the problem. The crew was not alarmed by what they saw and took no last minute avoiding action. The only option available to the helmsman would have been to crash gybe and steer away from the reef. Even this would have been difficult with no idea of the extent of the danger and the direction in which it lay. The decision threshold for an emergency maneuver such as a crash gybe is high. A planned gybe needs about 5 minutes of preparation to get additional crewmen on deck, and 30 minutes to final completion with the need to rearrange the stacked stores. A crash gybe risks…breaking the battens in the main and in some circumstances, with high winds, breaking the rig. Also if the keel is left on the wrong side, the boat can end up on its beam’s end and out of control. The maneuver has the possibility of being very messy. Unless the helmsman is extremely certain of an imminent danger, such as sighting a ship at very close range, he is unlikely to risk the potential damage. In the circumstances that evening the decision threshold was not reached and the reactions of the crew are considered reasonable.”
On the bright side, the report found that the emergency response on the part of VOR organizers Team Vestas Wind and Team Alvimedica was exemplary and played a major role in ensuring the entire crew was successfully rescued. Of course, how the charting industry responds to the report and the VOR’s “leverage” remains an open question.
To see the complete report, click here.