The official report into the Team Vestas Wind crash on a remote reef has some fascinating lessons, comments Elaine Bunting

“We’re on a reef, we’re not getting off. We’re f****ed.”

After broadcasting a Mayday on VHF radio, those were the first words of skipper Chris Nicholson to his shore manager when the Volvo 65 Team Vestas Wind hit a reef in the Indian Ocean in November.

This is according to the official report into the catastrophic wreck, which nearly resulted in the loss of the yacht and put the crew in considerable peril that night, as the boat pounded into the reef on 2m seas.

This is the long-awaited official report into the incident, prepared independently by a team led by Christopher Oxenbould, retired deputy chief of the Royal Australian Navy and chair of Yachting Australia.

Read Matthew Sheahan’s comments on the recommendations here.

The conclusion I come to from reading the report is that the grounding on the Cargados Carajos Shoals comes down to a basic failure in overall passage planning, and an over-reliance on electronic navigation.

Even the massive scale UK Hydrographic Chart 4071 Indian Ocean Northern Part, a paper planning chart that covers the entire coast of East Africa, the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf and all of India and Indonesia, shows this shoal clearly.

The report puts it baldly: ‘The land and reef are apparent on all scales of official paper charts reviewed by the report team. This is no minor omission. It is not a small isolated danger. The north to south extent of the dangers and off-lying islands, between Albatross Island in the north and Coco Island in the south is about 36nm.

‘The east to west spread is about 15nm creating a total area of over 500nm2. The length of the eastern side of the reef edge is more than 35nm. The Cargados Carajos Shoals have been well known to mariners for many years and appear on charts dating back to the 17th Century.’

But it would seem neither skipper Chris Nicholson nor navigator Wouter Verbraak had any idea that the Cargados Carajos Shoals visible at all scales on paper were there. They knew only there were seamounts in the area, looking at the electronic C-Map charts they were using, and never examined more closely because they didn’t realise there was anything more to examine.

‘The most significant mistake in the navigation of the boat was the failure to be alerted to the hazards at the Cargados Carajos Shoals. The triggers were available in Vestas Wind but were overlooked in planning the boat’s track and monitoring its safe navigation,’ the report says.

Indeed, as the report makes clear, the navigator had gone to rest and was asleep at the time of the grounding.

‘The true position and charting of the reef did not contribute to the grounding of Vestas Wind,’ the report states. ‘Although the Cargados Carajos Shoals are well surveyed, the general area and caution on the C-Map product should have required referral to the paper charts and Sailing Directions.

‘The paper charts would not have to be used for plotting and laying out tracks in order to have helped the crew avoid the grounding. They would simply need to have been viewed to identify dangers in the vicinity of prospective tracks. On paper charts of every scale that cover the area the hazard was clear.’

The report goes on to state: ‘The navigator did not use the paper charts carried onboard to check for any dangers that were not apparent on the electronic chart systems. He did not have access to the US Sailing Directions or Pilots other than the extracts in the roadbook prepared by Roger Badham that did not cover the Cargados Carajos Shoals. From the navigator’s several investigations, the Shoals were assumed to be a sea mount with a minimum charted depth of “40m or 42m” and another charted depth of “80m”.’

The report makes clear that although electronic charts did not carry the same detail at all zoom levels, it was perfectly feasible for navigators to remind themselves of passage planning notes by adding race notes, danger circles or other marks on those charts and incorporating information from other sources.

The C-Map charts being used also allow a ‘chart bounds’ feature to be enabled. This is a small tick mark that shows if more detailed data is available.

The report says ‘Chart bounds are well known among practising navigators as an indication of a danger or at least something that is worthy of further investigation. It is not known why the navigator and skipper did not increase the magnification of the region that was indicated by chart bounds to have larger scale data.’

Complicating factors

It would not really be true to say that there other major reasons for the mistake, but there certainly were actions that might have helped avoid it. One of these is that the B&G multifunction display could have been set up to display the chartplotter and ‘could have provided 45 minutes to an hour’s warning of the reef being on the track ahead.’

Another was that the alarm feature of the Adrena routing software, based on charted depths within a defined arc along the yacht’s current course was not set. It could have been, and if it had it might have provided ‘a useful safety net’, the report says.

But neither of these precautions was taken because of the first fundamental mistake, ‘the incorrect determination that the minimum depth was 40m and not a danger to the boat.’

The report says a depth sounder alarm would not have been a reasonable precautionary aid given the navigator’s presumptions, providing only a couple of minutes’ notice at 20 knots, if continually monitored, and it notes:

‘The sounders suffer from aeration when the boat is sailing fast; typically speeds above 14 knots cause the depth readings to be lost. Also, in deep oceanic waters there can be false soundings occasioned by thermoclines.

‘There is a tendency with depth sounders like the one used on the VOR boats to often read shallow depths when they are “off-soundings”, when operating in depths too deep to read. At other times there are even false returns from the bulb in spite of the transducer’s forward mounting location. This makes setting up a depth alarm impractical because the many false alarms generally result in crews turning off the alarms, when no dangers are expected, so as not to be a nuisance.’

It also dismisses the contribution a radar could have made in such circumstances. It was not being used, which the report considers ‘reasonable’, and would only have shown a hazard at 3-4 miles’ distance.

Improving for the future

There are some things in this report for the Volvo Race organisers to chew over. First is that the route on this leg was changed at very short notice, opening up the area west of 60°E only on 19 November, a day before the start. It was only on this date that navigators and crews could have sailed a route taking them close to these shoals.

And four days before the race, the fleet had to perform an in-port race, in which the navigators were  required to sail. The report says that in future navigators should be allowed to miss this to prepare for the leg ahead.

The report also obverses that the small crews of these boats are very hard pressed and  that the skipper and navigator of the boat suffered cumulative sleep deprivation.

What is quite clear is navigators have a high workload concentrating on performance factors, even in their pre-race preparations, when they are busy with ‘developing sail crossover charts, routing polars, sea state sensitivity matrices, start acceleration tables, start rate of turn tables, up wash corrections for various headsails etc.’

The report carries criticisms of the VOR’s Notice of Race, which seems to have grown organically over several races and, according to the report, should be rewritten.

Likewise, the race director’s office, which it recommends should have more resources and modern experience – indeed, the report included a comment from crews (ouch!) that ‘it would be helpful to have somebody in the Race Director’s office that had experience of the “modern era” race and current course.’

The report also recommends that the VOR uses its leverage with marine suppliers and the industry to encourage improved electronic charting products. This is something that could really be of benefit to yachting in general; despite the value of paper charts it is crazy in 2015 that these should still be the gold standard source of data.

And maybe the simplest recommendation is among the best: that navigators develop checklists, as are standard in the aviation industry.

The report says the ‘religious use of checklists’ are standard even among pilots who have accrued tens of thousands of flying hours to make sure nothing is overlooked or on the wrong setting.

The report says ‘Just as a pilot cannot afford the aircraft to malfunction in the air, the VOR navigator has little margin for error and a simple mistake or omission can have disastrous consequences.’

What can we learn?

So what can most amateur or cruising sailors learn from the Team Vestas Wind incident?

We are not under the same pressures, nor asked to cut close to corners for performance gains, so the lessons are easier to apply. The greatest is a good measure of caution. Careful walking of the course with old-fashioned planning charts is quick and invaluable for a mental overview.

A second system of navigation is needed to verify GPS positions. Look for any inconsistencies and suspect the reasons why. Something as low-tech as a depth alarm, perhaps not so useful for a very fast canting keel yacht such as a VOR65, can be valuable on a slower, heavy displacement cruising yacht.

Even today, making landfall or entering a new anchorage can be the most imperilled part of a passage. When we were in Fiji in July researching and filming our current Bluewater Sailing Techniques series, specifically setting out to show the difficulties of navigating in coral and how to go about it – including entering a coral pass and lagoon that was not even shown on our electronic charts, even at the largest scale – we learned that some dozen yachts a year are wrecked on reefs here, even though most of these reefs are reasonably well marked.

Navigation in these areas requires a mixture of modern and traditional methods. Many cruisers today use georeferenced Google Earth images in conjunction with electronic charts (we show how to do it in this feature) as well as old fashioned techniques used in times gone by: the sun overhead and behind you and someone high up in a conning position assessing visually what is really beneath and ahead.

You need to keep in mind that things change: coral grows, wrecks occur, channel markers fall down or are swept away in storms, new mooring buoys are laid, lights change. The pilotage information you had may already be out of date, so before entering a new harbour, try to get local confirmation that the information you have is still accurate and, if possible, don’t enter at night.

Something else we learned in Fiji was to use every sense, including sound, and turn back if unsure, before you are fully committed. Electronic charts cultivate a sense of certainty. That, as this report so starkly makes clear, can be the biggest danger.

Read the official report here.

To see some tips on navigating in coral, see our Bluewater Sailing Techniques series and videos.

Watch the video of Team Vestas Wind hitting the reef here.

Find out how to use Google Earth images to georeference electronic chart data and sail off charts with more confidence in this article.