On the face of it the findings of the independent report into the grounding of Team Vestas Wind on the Cargados Carajos Shoals in the Indian Ocean were straightforward, the crew had no idea that there was a reef blocking their path and as they barreled along at 16-21knots in the dark they slammed into it.

Once on the reef there was no way off. Miraculously no one was hurt.

Running into a reef that is marked on both paper and electronic charts and for which there are further published details in a variety of pilots and guides for the area, may seem difficult to understand at first. Surely the crew should have been aware of the reef?

But as far as the crew were concerned their route took them over an area of shallows, a sea mount, where the depth of the water would reduce to 40m. Their navigator had checked the information on several occasions and was satisfied that there was no danger.

Shortly after the incident the navigator Wouter Verbraak was relieved of his duties. And while the report doesn’t seek to apportion blame, it is clear that the root cause of the accident was indeed a navigational error.

But there is more to this story than simply an expensive and embarrassing mistake. Many of the contributory factors that we reported in the Feb 15 issue of YW have been borne out in the findings of this independent report where more specific information has now been published. Among them, the problems of seeing small but significant features at certain scales, along with last minute changes to the exclusion zones that altered the routes that the fleet could take, provide additional and contributory factors.

But there are some areas that remain less clear. In particular, how the reef could have been missed if the area was investigated at various zoom levels and which of the two computers on board was used to make the assessments. This latter point is important as the computer used for weather and routing had charts that lacked the detail required to illustrate the reef. When it comes to the recommendations in the report, the review panel states that the poor level of detail on the charts contributed to the accident.

The report was commissioned and paid for by the race organisers and was produced by an independent panel of three experts including Rear Admiral (Rtd) Chris Oxenbould (chair), Stan Honey and chairman of the U.S. Sailing Safety at Sea Committee Chuck Hawley.

The key recommendations in the report are:

1) Improved presentation of digital chart data.

The report states:

‘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.’

Team Vestas Wind’s skipper and navigator had discussed the Cargados Carajos Shoals and how the area might affect the boat’s track. They had investigated the area on the yacht’s electronic chart but had incorrectly determined that the shoals were a 40m seamount.

According to the report, even when the navigator zoomed in on the chart he had come to the same incorrect conclusion.

There was also confusion as to which of the two computers carried in the navigation station had been used to make the assessments. Of the two, one computer was for navigation and had detailed C-Map charts complete with a dongle, the other was used for weather and routing and had no dongle and therefore less detailed charts.

The report points out that several other boats had dongles for both machines allowing them to see full detail on either computer.

The report goes on to recommend that VOR:

‘informs C-Map and Expedition of the perceived deficiencies with their products and seeks that they be rectified’

and that VOR:

‘uses its leverage and influence within the yachting industry to encourage the development of one or more navigation systems – charts and software – to meet the demanding needs of professional ocean racing. Ideally such systems would provide a choice of quality products such as chart data, and not be dependent on a single supplier for any component of the system. These systems may be enhancements of the current race navigation systems, building on what is already provided.’

The report makes several suggestions as to how things could be improved. One such suggestion highlights the electronic chart display for an ECDIS system as found on a professional bridge in which the dangerous part of the Cargados Carajos Shoals are highlighted at all zoom levels. Clearly the technology is there for navigational systems to reveal obstructions.


2) That VOR organisers undertake some re-organisation in several areas relating to the conduct of the race such as; the wording of the Notice of Race and internal staffing issues.

There is also a recommendation to provide, ‘any amendments to race documentation as early as is practicable, especially any amendments that involve a change of the course or of the permitted racing area.’

This recommendation was made following the findings that two changes to the permitted sailing areas on the leg were made shortly before the start.

The first change that was confirmed with teams on the 15 November, (four days before the leg start from Cape Town), took into account the reduced risk of piracy. The second change to the exclusion zone was made on 18 Nov, (a day before the start), in order to allow the fleet enough space to avoid a cyclone that was forecast to develop and that risked moving into their path. Both changes were discussed with the teams beforehand.

Moving the exclusion zone further to the west meant that teams were able to pass to the west of Mauritius rather than having to sail around the eastern side of the island. But this meant that there were more islands to negotiate in the newly opened up area, among them the Cargados Carajos Shoals.

Although the details were all agreed with the teams, the changes meant that there was a great deal more to consider from a navigational and tactical point of view in a small time frame before the start.

Overall, the findings of the report are that the crew of Team Vestas Wind were not aware of the reef and ran straight into it but the circumstances that led to the accident should ring alarm bells for a wider audience.

Indeed, perhaps the most useful part of the report for sailors outside the Volvo Ocean Race comes towards the end of the 81 page document in Annexure F, Recommended Guidelines for Passage Planning and Racing Using Electronic Charts. Here the report suggests that the marine world could learn from aviation styled checklists and gives suggestions for; pre-race preparation, detailed planning and racing checks. It is well worth a read.

The full report can be downloaded here