Archive for the 'safety at sea' Category

The Story of Suomi and the Spooky Life Rings

Clark August 17th, 2018

With all five aboard perishing, the 1955 sinking of Suomi (pronounced swami) stood as the worst yachting accident on the California coast. In 2012, 57 years later, the Low Speed Chase tragedy on the South Farallon equaled her death toll, and equally devastated the Bay Area sailing community.

Suomi was one of Myron Spaulding’s masterpieces. Completed in 1947 to race in that year’s Honolulu Race, the 50-foot yawl was the largest boat he ever built. At the time of the accident, Myron was building Chrysopyle, another of his masterpieces. Myron had been commissioned to build Chrysopyle by Henry Meiggs, to race her in the 1955 Honolulu Race. Myron wasn’t going to finish in time for the race, so Henry Meiggs bought Suomi, in Newport Beach, and was going to enter her in the race instead.

Henry Meiggs and his crew of four sailed Suomi from Newport Beach to San Francisco, to prepare her for the race, but it was on the trip north, just off Point Arguello, that disaster struck.

From the US Coast Guard Commandant’s Action, dated June 20, 1955:

“1. On a dark night with intermittent light rain, the SUOMI was underway using power and sail, exhibiting a masthead light and side lights.

2. The SUOMI was on a crossing course approaching the PARRAMATTA from the starboard and as the privileged vessel, her operator should have sounded the danger signal permitted by Rule 28 of the International Rules to alert the PARRAMATTA.

3.When it became evident to the operator of the SUOMI that collision could not be averted by the action of the burdened PARRAMATTA, he should have taken such action as necessary to avoid immediate danger.

4. That at the time of collision there were five persons on board the SUOMI, namely:

1. Henry Meiggs
2. William Lawrence Meiggs
3. Colonel William S. Conrow
4. Sandy Wilson
5. Ralph Cooper

four of whom perished in the vessel. The fifth, Ralph H. Cooper, who was the operator at the time of collision, died as a result of amputation of the right leg and pelvis with partial evisceration of the abdomen due to contact with the PARRAMATTA propeller.

5. The SUOMI sank immediately after the impact.”

The report goes on to find the PARRAMATTA at fault for failing to keep a proper lookout and discharge the responsibility of the burdened vessel. The report recommended commendation of the captain, crew, and owners of the SS BENNINGTON, which responded quickly and searched the area for survivors.



Anyone who has been to sea, especially at night, knows the horror of just contemplating such an accident, much less experiencing one. I was run down by a big ship at night, but my incident had a happy ending.

The Coast Guard report goes on:

“17. In response to an urgent Coast Guard notice, the SS BENNINGTON, which was then bound from Los Angeles, California, to Portland, Oregon, searched the area where the collision occurred from 0525 until 0845. At 0525 some wreckage was observed (transom of SUOMI dory). Later a pillow, section of spar, an identified life raft and other debris were sighted. At or about 0640 a body, which later was identified as that of Ralph Howard Cooper of San Mateo, California, was sighted 2.8 miles 180 degrees true from Point Arguello Light. The body and wreckage, which included one 30-inch approved ring buoy, were recovered by a Coast Guard motor lifeboat from Point Arguello Lifeboat Station. The following day another approved ring buoy was recovered by the CGC MINNETONKA in the same general area. The search was continued until 1530 on 22 April, 1955, with negative results.”

Those life rings certainly have a story to tell, having been right in the middle of the terrible loss of life that night. If I listen carefully from my desk, I can almost hear them breathing:


When I first started here I thought they were just cool pieces of sailing memorabilia, but now I know they are ghosts of something more sinister. But of course this (the Spaulding Marine Center) is the proper place for them to rest, even though Suomi was built before Myron built the current boatworks.

But one question still remains: How did the life rings get from the site of the 1955 wreck to my wall in 2018? Actually I have a second question: How did they know that Ralph H. Cooper was at the helm at the time of the accident? Was the amputation done later at a hospital, and he was able to talk about the accident before he died? Finding a survivor would have certainly been in the report, yet isn’t mentioned.

This excellent video about Chrysopyle mentions the incident:

It’s 406 EPIRB Day!

Clark April 6th, 2018

After my post about EPIRB registration I got a very nice note from NOAA announcing that it’s #406DAY18 (that’s the Twitter moniker).

I had no idea, but it turns out false alarms are an epidemic:

“Last year we had over 5,000 false alerts from EPIRBs in the United States. The majority of those were from people conducting self tests of their beacons incorrectly. Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel begin responding immediately to every activation of a 406 MHz SARSAT beacon. That response will only stop when it has been proven that the activation was a false alert. The simplest and quickest way for SAR forces to confirm a false alert and confirm that someone is not in distress is to talk via phone to the person who accidentally set off the EPIRB. They do this using the information provided by the beacon owner in the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database system.”

Needless to say, if the primary phone number connected to your EPIRB is accurate, false alerts can be resolved quickly. If the number rings to your part time job from last summer at the pork packing plant, confusion and waste of taxpayer money ensues.

This amazing, space age technology provides us with a terrific, efficient, and FREE service that could save our lives. Let’s not screw it up, people!

Read on:

“Beacon registration is free, easy, and is required by law! Federal law requires that all emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), personal locator beacons (PLBs), and emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) be registered in the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database. This system is free to all owners of EPIRBs, PLBs and ELTs. When beacon user/vessel or aircraft owner information changes, it should be updated online at or by contacting the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database at 1-888-212-SAVE (7283). This information is protected and only available to authorized rescue personnel if a distress activation occurs.

Beacon registration is valid for two years; owners are required to validate their beacon information every two years to ensure currency of their contact information. Up-to-date beacon owner information allows for the most efficient use of SAR resources upon beacon activation and can decrease rescue response time during distress situations.

If your EPIRB or PLB is accidentally activated, contact the U.S. Coast Guard at 1-855-406-USCG (8724) and provide them with the beacon’s ID to cancel the false alert. If your ELT or PLB is accidentally activated, contact the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at 1-800-851-3051 and provide them with the beacon’s ID to cancel the false alert. Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel begin responding immediately to every activation of a 406 MHz SARSAT beacon. That response will only stop if it has been proven that the activation was not a distress alert. Every false alert has the potential to put rescuers in harm’s way and waste limited Search and Rescue resources. Cancellation of false alerts helps protect SAR personnel who would be activated during an actual emergency, and ensure valuable resources are available to respond to actual distress cases.”

Good Government in Action: EPIRB Registration

Clark March 29th, 2018


I recently received an email from NOAA, asking me to update my EPIRB registration, as it was expiring after two years. I clicked a link, where I was quickly taken to a website ( to review all my personal data and emergency contacts. It hadn’t changed, so I clicked approval, and a week later received an updated sticker in the mail. For Luddites, the process could all be done on paper, on the back of the form that came in the mail.

There are many stories about EPIRBs being linked to inaccurate or outdated information, causing massive confusion and expense in rescue operations, so it serves everybody’s interests to keep this information up to date.

People are lazy – I know I am – so it helps when a process like this is quick, easy, and FREE. Kudos to NOAA for making it this way!

Tough French Cruiser Shot, Stabbed, Bashed, and Robbed off St. Croix

Clark February 22nd, 2016

Arc en Ciel 2(1)-240x171

The whole story is here. Either local law enforcement completely bungled this case, or the victim’s story doesn’t add up. What is a matter of fact, because there were witnesses, is that this guy, at age 70, limped his boat back into port with his femur shattered by a gunshot wound, came alongside a tugboat, then proceeded to throw winch handles and sundry objects at the side of said tugboat for 45 minutes before somebody took notice. Shiver me timbers.

That Sinking Feeling off the Baja Coast

Clark February 3rd, 2016

3 on deck
It was 1991, and we were three fools fresh out of San Diego State. Brian had bought an old Catalina 30, and we spent six months fitting her out. Against my protests, Brian changed her name to Break‘n Wind, a boat name I’ve encountered several times over the years, and never liked any better.

Brian’s artist buddy painted the new name and hailing port on the transom, along with some sorry-ass blue palm trees. I asked the artist, “Isn’t break spelled B-R-E-A-K?” He’d spelled it Brake’n Wind. The paint had already semi-dried, so we ended up with one E wedged in there somehow, and another E rubbed out with acetone, and it never looked quite right.
The overfilled cockpit, with fresh flowers from our bon voyage party.

We finally set sail and ran down the Baja coast at night, the boat laden with windsurfers, surfboards, a guitar, scuba gear, and enough food to transit the Northwest Passage. Tim, the third crewmember, was on watch in the cockpit while Brian and I tried to sleep on opposite sides of the main salon.

I was drifting in and out of sleep when the automatic bilge pump light caught my eye. It went out and I closed my eyes again, but ten seconds later the light came on a second time. When it lit the third time I nudged Brian, “Hey, the bilge pump has gone off three times.”

Brian flipped out of his bunk, turned on the lights, and ripped up the little floorboard in the middle of the main salon. Water poured into the bilge from somewhere aft. We opened the engine compartment, where a stream of sea water flowed past the engine mounts.

“She’s taking on water!” Brian yelled.
“What!” Tim peered down the companionway, wide-eyed.

We cleared out the quarter berth to get access to the packing gland, and Brian squirmed in with a flashlight.

“It’s coming from farther aft, and it’s a lot of water now! It must be the rudder!”

We were a good fifty miles off shore, following Captain John Rains’s advice to sail well outside the shipping lanes. Panic.

We tore open the cockpit lazarettes and scattered ridiculous piles of junk on deck: scuba tanks, fins, masks, wetsuits, spears, beach chairs, a barbeque, windsurfer sails, oars, and awnings. It was the adventure of a lifetime and, well, we’d overpacked. Occasionally the beam of the flashlight met the spooked eyes of a shipmate, and around us were only blackness and a cold winter westerly. We avoided eye contact as we moved the life preservers, the ditch bag, and the EPIRB.

The automatic bilge pump ran nonstop.

We emptied the aft lazarette, which gave us access to the rudder stock. In the aft lazarette we could also see the bilge pump’s thru-hull. Next to the thru-hull, unattached, lay the bilge pump hose, with water spewing out of it, into the lazarette.

“We’re saved!”

We slid the hose back on the fitting with a new hose clamp, and the bilge pump pumped the same load of bilge water for the last time.

Bug-eyed with the adrenaline of our first mid-ocean crisis, the voyage began in earnest, and our little ship seemed more plucky and devious. At our bon voyage party a friend had given us a bottle of single malt scotch that was much too good for a couple of twenty-one year olds. We took slugs out of the bottle and talked about near misses, what ifs, what-to-dos, and all the adventures we were about to have in Mexico.

Brian and Tim drifted off as I started the 3 a.m. watch, with my first sunrise of the voyage to follow.
Break’n Wind under sail

Knowing Your Boat: The thing nobody ever talks about

Clark January 21st, 2016

“Uh, how is the boat going to behave when that thing hits us?”

Contrary to all the focus on new boats, their features, and their performance, the captain’s knowledge and intimacy with said boat is probably more important. In fact, when it comes to heavy weather sailing, what resides in the captain’s head is probably the most important piece of safety gear aboard. What some might call “getting to know your boat” may accurately be called the most intimate relationship a human being can have with an inanimate object.

The Cliff Notes version of getting to know a boat is a shakedown cruise. You’ll learn more in a few days knocking around out there than in months at the dock, and usually come back for a whole round of repairs and improvements you never knew you needed before the shakedown. Long distance racers cram and rush this process, in as many types of weather as possible, usually with a very expensive RIB full of cameras and coaches chasing them around.

Joshua Slocum’s relationship with Spray is legendary, of course: the way he got her to sail herself and hold a course, most of the way around the world. On the flip side was Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth IV, which was actually a very tender and squirrelly boat, as Charlie Doane pointed out. But at least Sir Francis figured it out, and knew not to push her too hard.

True familiarity with a vessel is a long process, necessitated by the time it takes to encounter all kinds of weather and all kinds of situations.

For me and my boat, this has been an eighteen year process, and it’s still a work in progress. A year or two into my circumnavigation I had occasion to sail under jib and jigger: My boat is a ketch, and dropping the mainsail completely and sailing under just a jib and the mizzen creates a reduced, balanced sail plan in high winds.

It wasn’t until many years into my circumnavigation that I confirmed what the old owner told me, that she ran beautifully under bare poles, with the windvane set a few degrees off of dead downwind.

And it wasn’t until we were caught in relentless Pomperos off the Patagonian coast that we confirmed that she heaves to perfectly under her mizzen alone. “Parking the car,” we came to call it, with a trail of slick water left to windward, killing the breaking seas. Here is a video, doing just that, with Commerson’s dolphins enjoying the ride. Note how calm it is right next to the boat, and it’s probably blowing thirty:

I have yet to deploy the sea anchor. I bought a very sturdy custom-made sea anchor in New Zealand, and I’ve got it fitted out with various rope, chain, a trip line, float, and chafe protection. I’ve gone as far as connecting it to the bow and running the tackle down the windward side of the boat with zipties, for easy deployment. The one time I was on the verge of deploying it, in the Arabian Sea in a tropical storm, I was worried about the current, which might have put us crossways with the wind, and made matters worse. Instead we ran under bare poles, which ended up putting us a couple hundred miles downwind and down current, but at least we didn’t get knocked down.

Someday I might have occasion to deploy the sea anchor, and I may discover she lies to it beautifully, or I may learn that she tries to sail off at oblique angles like a roped calf.

After all this time getting to know my boat I know she is “seakindly.” This is why I wouldn’t think of replacing my fifty-year-old boat that I’ve owned for eighteen: If I got a new boat I’d have to figure all that stuff out all over again, and when bad weather came I wouldn’t have that same warm fuzzy feeling I have with Condesa, knowing she’ll bob over it like a duck. I guess if I hadn’t come to know her as seakindly, I might be more open to getting another boat. Plus my familiarity with all of her machinery and systems is another well of knowledge I’d have to learn anew with a new boat.

Yes, delivery skippers, racers, and new owners often put to sea in new and untested boats…and a lot of bad things happen under these circumstances. A well known and well understood boat is a safe boat.

New Nomenclature for Lifejackets

Clark December 16th, 2015

After Brian Hancock’s post on life jackets, To Wear Or Not To Wear, and his subsequent Mea Culpa, it may be very dangerous to approach this subject, so I will do so carefully.

In 1973, when I was a small child, the US Coast Guard changed the nomenclature for lifejackets and created the Special Purpose Categories, categorizing them from Grade I to Grade V.

We’ve all been confused ever since.

One thing seems to be here to stay from the 1973 standard, the term Personal Flotation Device, or PFD. Before that they were lifejackets, life vests, or life preservers.

The Coast Guard has now accepted that everyone has been confused for 40 years, and they’re changing the nomenclature once again:

“The purpose of this final rule, which removes references to type codes in our regulations on the carriage and labeling of Coast Guard-approved PFDs, is to facilitate future adoption of new industry consensus standards for PFD labeling that more effectively convey safety information, and to help harmonize our regulations with PFD requirements in Canada and in other countries.”

Once again they will be lifejackets, life vests, life preservers, or PFDs, if you prefer. None of this will take affect until 2017, so the life jackets hanging in your local chandlery still have the type codes on them, and life jackets with the type codes will be grandfathered into the new policy, and will go on being legal. The whole federal code reportage is here.

The labeling, instead of the type codes, will move to pictographs and simple explanations, which boaters will find easier to understand: Offshore, Near Shore, Floatation Aids, Throwable Floatation Aids, and Special Use Devices.

The sticky part with the type codes was Type V, which was the unclassifiable/provisional/weirdo type, where they would stick a life jacket that didn’t fit any of the other categories. I know for a long time they had trouble with automatically-inflating life vests, which have become de rigueur for their comfort and compactness:

Since these automatically inflated, and the automatic inflation device had to be replaced/serviced at intervals, the Coast Guard had trouble classifying them and approving them. Even now they’re listed as being “Class V, with Class III performance.”

I think the end result of the new rule will be good for boaters, not just for the clarification, but for the increase in variety: If we harmonize our system with the rest of the world, then the rest of the world’s lifejackets will be legal here. We’ll have more options in front of us, and maybe better prices.

For me the future of lifejackets all comes down to this type of device, the automatically-inflating life vest combined with a harness:

I’m one of those jerks who has never worn a lifejacket in his entire life, never fallen overboard, and never known anyone who has fallen overboard, but I’ve always been a big fan of clipping in. The rule on my boat is that anyone outside of the cockpit, which I deem deep and safe in most conditions, must have a harness on and be clipped into the jacklines when on deck. In other words, I want to be dragged to death rather than drown.

Wearing a harness isn’t particularly stifling or intrusive, while wearing a lifejacket can be. One of these inflatable jobs isn’t much more claptrap than a harness, and then if you combine it with a harness, voila. But I wonder how it will be classified?

Tragedy At Alabama’s Dauphin Island Race

Clark April 27th, 2015

Apparently a nasty front blew through toward the end of the 57th Dauphin Island Race, while boats were still finishing. Reports say an initial blast of 60 knots was followed by an hour of 30-50 knots. Several boats capsized, leaving several sailors in the water, and several dead and unaccounted for. The Coast Guard has been searching for missing mariners all weekend, and the search continues.

This video, taken in the harbor, gives an idea of what conditions were like:

A firsthand account is here

Full story here and here.

Man Rescued in Bahamas After 5-Days Adrift in Dinghy

Clark December 17th, 2014

Looks like Larry Sutterfield drifted from Marathon, Florida to Cay Sal Bank, Bahamas, on a fishing/camping trip gone wrong.

Engine trouble and an offshore wind? I’ve bloviated about the dangers of such escapades and my close call here.

Full story here.

Sailor Rescued Off Hawaii After Seach Abandoned

Clark December 11th, 2014

…and he was reunited with his long lost son. Story here as well.

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