Lit picks, and venturing out

The first trip to the Isles of Shoals in the new year was a combination supply run for the Star Island caretakers and a reconnaissance mission for upcoming building projects. We loaded a dozen small bags of groceries and a few bottles of wine – enough to get through the rest of January. With temperatures around the freezing point the cold diesel cranked over with some hesitation, spewing black smoke and sounding as though it were about to come apart. After a half-hour warm-up at high idle the smoke disappeared and the temperature gauge came up to the operating range. I checked the fuel supply and the safety gear. I checked the transmission to confirm positive forward and reverse. I observed water flowing from the exhaust port. I’m always just a little apprehensive before a winter trip. Out of the routine for a while, it’s easy to forget something.

I’m always reminded of the time a few Januarys back when I forgot to open the raw water intake, causing the boat to overheat a half-mile or so beyond the lighthouse. The absence of cooling seawater damaged the water pump impeller, severely reducing its capacity. I shut down and bobbed around for a while in the cold rain and fading light, letting things cool down.

After a while I re-started the engine and idled cautiously back toward the river mouth. But the temperature soon shot back above the acceptable range. I shut down again and radioed the Coast Guard. They told me that as long as I could still run the boat, the best they could provide was an escort in case I lost power completely. I started her up again and crept slowly back in, hoping to make way against the outgoing tide while keeping the engine temperature as low as possible. A Coast Guard 47-footer soon fell in behind me, following along reassuringly. When I picked up a mooring off Kittery Point they declared the mission accomplished and informed me that they were headed back to the station. With no way to get ashore, and facing a cold hungry night in a wet bunk, I asked them for a lift. With some reluctance they finally agreed to break protocol and take me in – even though I was now out of danger – provided I would don a life vest before boarding their vessel.

I called a cab to pick me up and drive me back to our home dock. The driver pulled up just as an automatic security gate slammed to a close behind me. I hopped into the back seat in my foul-weather gear, wet to the bone and still wearing my life vest. “I can’t wait to hear this one,” said the driver.

As with so many seagoing mishaps, this one was entirely my fault and utterly avoidable. Chalk it up to experience, I would later tell myself.

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Experience is merely the name men give to their mistakes.” Benjamin Franklin observed that, “Experience keeps a dear school, yet fools will learn in no other.” I’ve been to that school. An Otto von Bismarck quote reads: “Fools learn from experience, but I prefer to learn from the mistakes of others.” I find myself with a foot in both camps; to that end I spend a lot of time reading about maritime tragedies to see what can be learned. Here are two recommendations for winter reading from which there is much vicarious experience to glean.

The “Sinking of the Bounty,” by Matthew Shaer, chronicles the loss of a square-rigged near-replica of the HMS Bounty off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The Bounty, built as a movie prop and never intended for serious ocean sailing, had visited at Star Island just a few months before. We had all been impressed by the way the crew handled her, and especially by her captain – one of the few remaining square rig commanders. But it was later revealed that the Bounty was in a serious state of decay when the decision was made to leave port with the intent of riding the favorable winds on the outer bands of the storm in order to arrive in Florida in time for a scheduled event. The big ship needed a lot of wind, and the captain was quoted to say that Bounty loved a hurricane. It was later disclosed that the ship owners were actively seeking a buyer, and had disregarded recommendations for necessary repairs when she set sail in October with a hurricane spiraling just offshore. When the storm track shifted, and faced with conditions no one had expected, Bounty began to take on water faster than her pumps could return it. The captain continued to insist that the ship could be saved. In the absence of a clear signal from him to abandon ship until it was too late, the crew were forced into the water as the ship capsized, making rescue by the Coast Guard infinitely more difficult. Thirteen were ultimately saved. One crewmember was drowned, and the captain was never found.

“Into the Raging Sea,” by Rachel Slade, likewise tells a tale of overconfidence, scheduling pressures and deferred maintenance that led to great and unnecessary loss. Under pressure from management to meet a schedule, and relying on a single delayed source of weather data, the container ship El Faro left Jacksonville for Puerto Rico in late September, 2015. Critical lube-oil levels were known to be low, but replenishment was deferred. Hurricane Joaquin lay just offshore of the Bahamas, along the ship’s route to San Juan. The captain insisted until just before her demise that El Faro would pass well away from the hurricane, when in fact she was heading directly into its eye. Heavy cargo came loose and containers went over the side as the storm conditions worsened causing a pronounced list that allowed water to flood the holds through unsecured deck hatches and open ventilation (known by the owners to be a vulnerability). El Faro lost power when the increasing list reduced the supply of critical engine lube oil forcing the power plant to shut down. The ship wallowed abeam to the swells in gusts over 185 knots, and was soon after lost with all 33 of her crew.

On a recent morning four of us aboard Utopia headed down the empty river under a lowering sky. The NOAA forecast predicted two- to three-foot waves, but outside they were closer to six. On our return it began to snow, sharply reducing visibility as we made our way back to the snow-covered dock.

I think that the risk and uncertainty of these boat trips are a big part of what makes them so rewarding. Why else would we be so often and easily persuaded to leave the safety of home to face the potential of cold, hunger, discomfort and sometimes worse? Why else would we spend these long winter nights reading about boats and ships and the sea? Many of us seem to have a need to venture out there, and we would be unhappy and unfulfilled if we didn’t go from time to time. The trick, I think, is to gain sufficient experience to successfully manage enough risk to meet this need while also avoiding catastrophe – and to accept the inevitable multitude of mistakes along the way as necessary markers of progress. As Truman Capote once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.