After distress calls, rally’s decision-making questioned

9 Nov


This is another guest post from Mike Hixenbaugh, a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot  Newspaper in Portsmouth, VA. The article discusses the distress calls from Thursday night during the Salty Dawg Rally, and I’m quoted in here a couple of times. To see the original article, click here. I will personally have much more to say on this topic in due time…

After distress calls, rally’s decision-making questioned

By Mike Hixenbaugh

The Virginian-Pilot

© November 9, 2013

Two rival sailing organizations, each planning to travel from Hampton Roads to the Caribbean: One group shipped out ahead of schedule last weekend in a single pack to get out ahead of bad weather. The other group waited.

Most of the boats in the second group, sailing in the Salty Dawg Rally out of Hampton, left Tuesday and Wednesday after the first of two forecasted cold fronts had passed. They hoped to cross through the volatile Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras before the second cold front moved into the area Thursday.

Many of the Salty Dawgs, though, didn’t make it across the strong ocean current before conditions got rough, resulting in an unusually busy night for Coast Guard rescue teams in North Carolina – and prompting some in the sailing community to question the safety of the event.

Roughly 115 boats participated in the third-annual Salty Dawg Rally. Several experienced serious problems late Thursday as they sailed into strong crosswinds and choppy seas some 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Two boats lost their masts; four others had serious rudder problems. One sailor lost his footing and broke an arm. Crew members from other boats reported intense seasickness.

In all, the Coast Guard responded to five distress calls from Salty Dawg participants.

By Thursday evening, the 41-foot sailboat Ahimsa was taking on water faster than the crew could bail. Around 1:30 a.m. Friday, an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Elizabeth City arrived overhead after stopping to refuel aboard the Vella Gulf, a Navy cruiser. One by one, the Ahimsa’s four crew members jumped into the choppy sea and into the arms of a rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Watson.

“They were pretty shaken up,” Watson said, hours after completing the rescue at sea. “It was a rough night out there.”

The four sailors were hoisted, one by one, into the chopper and flown to Elizabeth City; all declined medical treatment once on the ground.

Not far away from where the Ahimsa foundered, the crew of the 38-foot sailboat Nyapa sent a satellite signal indicating they had lost their mast and were taking on water. A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane that had been circling above the Ahimsa was diverted toward the distress signal. The boat’s crew later reported that the vessel was fine – minus the mast – and that they were continuing the journey by motor.

The crew of the sailboat Aurora also sent out a distress signal when conditions turned ugly, but they later contacted another sailboat, which passed word to the Coast Guard that the crew had decided to head for Bermuda.

The fourth vessel in distress, the Braveheart, was about 50 miles southeast of Ocracoke Inlet when the crew reported that a 67-year-old man had a serious arm injury. The Coast Guard Cutter Block Island arrived, intending to accompany the Braveheart back to shore. Instead, it was diverted to help yet another disabled sailboat, so Braveheart sailed to Morehead City, N.C. on its own.

The Block Island moved on to the 54-foot sailboat Zulu, which was adrift about 100 miles east of Oregon Inlet. The cutter crew towed the boat to shore Friday morning.

The rash of distress calls stretched the on-duty Coast Guard crews and required additional personnel to be called in, but it was nothing the service couldn’t handle, said Coast Guard spokesman Chief Nyx Cangemi.

Word of the harrowing night at sea spread quickly among the East Coast sailing community, prompting some to question in social media posts and online forums the wisdom of setting sail with such a narrow window to beat rough weather.

Andy Schell fears the episode could be a black eye for ocean sailing. Schell, an event organizer for World Cruising Club, is in charge of planning the Caribbean 1500, an annual cruise, or rally, from Hampton Roads to the Virgin Islands.

The rally was scheduled to begin last Sunday, but the threat of back-to-back cold fronts prompted event organizers to set sail a day early from Portsmouth. Each of the 30 boats participating in that event crossed through the Gulf Stream without issue, Schell said.

“Nobody wants to see this happen,” Schell said. “It’s really a shame. That’s why we use the sailing model that we use – to minimize the risk as much as possible and keep everyone safe.”

The Caribbean 1500, which charges a participation fee and adheres to International Sailing Federation safety standards, has long required each boat to submit to pre-event safety checks and strongly suggests that its participants set sail within a certain window. If the boats hadn’t left a day early, Schell said, forecasts suggested it would be at least a week before conditions improved enough to begin the event.

“We wouldn’t have sailed Wednesday or Thursday,” he said.

The Salty Dawg Rally started three years ago after a core group of mariners from the Caribbean 1500 broke away. Linda Knowles and her husband founded the rally for seasoned mariners who desired a less rigid experience. The group doesn’t charge a participation fee, and the responsibility for deciding when to set sail is entrusted to each skipper.

“It’s not as if we’re just a bunch of wayward sailors who leave when we want and do what we want and don’t pay attention to forecasts,” Knowles said, noting that her group provides training opportunities and daily sailing forecasts. “We give them advice, but the decision as to when they go is totally up to them, and they’re responsible for that decision. They knew those seas were going to be bad.”

The weather conditions were a bit worse than forecasted, Knowles said, and the front lingered longer than expected. Still, the majority of the Salty Dawg participants made it through the Gulf Stream without trouble, she said.

Knowles said she’s thankful nobody was seriously injured or killed. In her mind, Thursday night was a learning experience for a young and fast-growing sailing organization.

“We’ll take a look at what happened and will want to talk to each boat to understand what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent it,” Knowles said. “We’ll get together as a board to discuss what we can do better, but our model will not change. We firmly believe in what we’re doing.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949,


This article was syndicated from sailing blog - 59 North, Ltd.


  1. Andy Schell

    Appreciate the comments everyone, this is a good topic for discussion. Thanks for keeping it mostly on the up and up.

    SailingWithKids, thank you for the comments, though I want to disagree on a few points.

    It’s not, and never was about the weather. It was indeed a factor, but it wasn’t the core of the problem. The Carib1500 departed on a tight window, and our fleet had winds gusting to 30 knots for 3 days, with 12-foot seas – but it was from the ‘right’ direction (ie: behind them) – we took a calculated call on that window, knowing full well we’d have strong winds and heavy seas (WRI, our forecasters, acknowledged conditions were “far from ideal”). But we took the ‘devil we knew’ with the long-term forecast of high-pressure ridging and northerly sector winds (and importantly, no frontal passages in the Gulf Stream), and people were ready for it – no surprises.

    Indeed the 1500 fleet got through without any major mishaps. While the SDR fleet experienced worse weather for sure, it was far from survival conditions (with USCG rescuers reporting winds in the 30s and 8-12′ seas), and boats going offshore ought to be prepared for and able to handle conditions even 50% worse than that. SDR organizers admitted as much themselves:

    “In this case, things changed and the frontal system stalled and intensified, however, experienced sailors should be able to handle these situations.”

    The main difference between the SDR and the 1500 is that we have a series of failsafes in place to mitigate the worst-case scenarios when going offshore – boats must meet a certain standard of seaworthiness (and are advised to these standards in the months leading up to the event), skippers are expected to comply with the highest in offshore safety protocols (namely ISAF’s Special Regulations, which are used as a basis for all WCC rallies regarding safety equipment), and crew and boats are expected to have undertaken a passage of at least 250-miles to shakedown the boat and the crew, and learn how best to sail with one another.

    I don’t doubt that the majority of the SDR fleet were experienced and had no trouble. I have nothing against going it alone – in fact, I did so myself with my wife, sailing to Sweden from Annapolis in summer 2011 via Newfoundland and Ireland. We enjoyed a 23-day crossing to Ireland with no issues at all.

    But, as Andy Chase, Master Mariner and instructor at Maine Maritime Academy so eloquently put it in an article about the sinking of the tallship Bounty, “Every voyage carries a degree of uncertainty,” Chase continues. “In everything we do, and even when we do nothing, we assume a level of risk. So we manage risk everyday. But when we are in a position where we are managing other peoples’ risk” – ie in the case of any organized offshore event like the SDR and 1500 (regardless of how ‘unorganized’ the SDR strives to appear) – “especially when we are engaging in activities that carry significantly elevated levels of risk, it pays to get more organized about it.”

    Furthermore, as Chase puts it, “Experience in a vacuum doesn’t make us smarter. Experience has to be processed. It has to be considered with full disclosure.” He goes on to say that un-distilled experience often simply leads people to become “bolder.”

    So how is it then that the Salty Dawgs claim to be such ‘experienced’ sailors, and yet so many seemed so vastly unprepared for undertaking such a voyage? I don’t doubt the core of that group is indeed very experienced and very knowledgeable – in fact I know some of them personally, and regard them very highly. But somehow, that knowledge isn’t getting properly disseminated to the group.

    Read the full Bounty article online in Woodenboat Magazine here:

  2. Sailing With Kids

    I have read several articles like this, that I feel are painting a very bias narrative against the Salty Dawg Rally. For example:
    “The Caribbean 1500, which charges a participation fee and adheres to International Sailing Federation safety standards, has long required each boat to submit to pre-event safety checks and strongly suggests that its participants set sail within a certain window”

    I would think that a reader would immediately assume that in Salty Dawg Rally these things would not happen. Of course this is completely false. They are all experienced passage makers and would of course be outfitting to appropriate safety standards, and of course are going to to pre-check their boat, AND advise participants about weather windows.

    Let’s face it, the Carib 1500 and the Salty Dawg basically use very very similar weather services. Fall passage making is always rolling dice. One rally came up 7’s and the other didn’t. Simple as that.

  3. Don Bruce

    Thanks to the USCG for being there and acting like it was a normal day. The people that do it best make it look easy.

  4. Rod

    “Knowles said she’s thankful nobody was seriously injured or killed. In her mind, Thursday night was a learning experience for a young and fast-growing sailing organization.”

    Poor judgement by people like the Salty Dogs results in USCG personnel putting their lives at risk to save those with poor judgement. Clearly the weather was going to be bad if not ugly – I’m southbound on the ICW and stayed put for 2 days during that front, even in a protected, in-shore area. That’s prudence, someting every sailor should exercise.

    If these people want to do less-than-intelligent stuff, then they should be responsible for their own actions and for each other. Calling the Coast Guard to come get them from bad weather that was readily foreseen is wrong.

    But of course if you call, the Coasties will come….that’s what they do!

    My 2 cents.

  5. Dancing Bear

    Sounds like Salty Dawg Rally should have left early, like the ARC 1500 did; or not left at all. Luckily and thankfully, nobody lost their lives. Five calls in one night to USCG is an epic fail and no recreational rally should be that dependent upon the USCG.

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