Efficient rescues mean more yachts are being abandoned only to be found floating later. Should people pull the plug before they get off?
Funny enough, I was joking with the crew of one of the non-ARC yachts in the anchorage in Las Palmas that if they tagged along at the back of the fleet they might be able to pick themselves up an abandoned yacht sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Then, a day after the start, a 53-footer lost her rudder and her crew abandoned the boat after an attempt at a tow failed.
At least one yacht has been abandoned in most ARCs of recent years and several of these have arrived intact in the Caribbean and been salvaged there. One surprisingly drifted about until it ended in the Azores – read about it here.
I know this comment was a bit facetious but the point is that most of the boats abandoned have basically been seaworthy and well worth salvaging.
I should add that my observation wasn’t specifically a criticism of the ARC. The rally is merely a high profile reflection of the way things are going. When something major goes wrong, anxious crews often take the first opportunity to get off.
When they do get rescued, nine times out of ten they leave their boats floating; people very, very rarely scuttle their yachts.
In the last year I can think of an eco-expedition yacht left floating in the North Atlantic (I blogged about it – click here) and a solo yacht was abandoned floating earlier in the week – read about it here.
The response after making an Iridium call or setting off an EPIRB is often so quick that skippers who in years gone by would have had time or no choice but to invent some solution are presented with a terrible dilemma instead.
Can they in all conscience turn away rescue from a ship that’s diverted to save them and their crew in the hope of preserving a possession?
I hope I never, ever find myself in that position.
The decision to leave a boat to float, however, is trickier and I’ve written about this before.
Should you, if possible, sink your boat if you’ve decided to get off and remove it as a hazard to navigation?
Insurers I’ve talked to argue that if you’ve been able to use a phone to call for help you should be able to make a quick call to the broker to check if the boat can be salvaged or if it’s OK to pull the plug.
That’s not as impractical as it sounds. In the case of one ARC yacht a few years ago whose crew was evacuated after the rudder blade and stock fell out mid-Atlantic, the insurers did indeed agree that scuttling was the right thing to do. The skipper told me the insurance company paid out the claim in full within weeks.
If it’s nearer land, as was the ARC yacht that lost its rudder this week, salvage is clearly practical and the question doesn’t arise.
But the consequences of leaving a boat far out at sea with no hope of recovery can be serious. It is a danger to other yachts and can later trigger other costly rescue missions.
Simon Rabett, rescue centre manager for Falmouth Coastguard, tells me that sightings of a derelict vessel set in motion rescue missions “two or three times a year” from this rescue centre alone.
One such rescue was launched this summer over a month after an OSTAR yacht had been rolled and dismasted, and the skipper abandoned her for the safety of a ship that had diverted. The boat continued to float and was later spotted by another ship’s crew.
They reported the derelict yacht but were unable to identify it. A second rescue swung into action and a Hercules C-130 flew from Newfoundland to try to make contact and drop a liferaft.
Scuttling a yacht presents its own dangers, for sure, but it’s something that could usefully be discussed on sea survival courses and at ocean preparation seminars.
Better, quicker communications have improved the chances of rescue and that’s a fantastic advance. But it’s also increasingly presenting sailors with a practical and ethical quandary that we don’t seem so well prepared for.
What do you think?