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Owner Operated
Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013 2:36 PM
Joined: 02/05/2008
Posts: 392

Dockwalk magazine’s Worst Case Scenario column highlights a hypothetical situation that captains may experience and offers advice from experts on how to handle it. The May 2013 column recounts the story of an yacht put in jeopardy due an owner’s dangerous demands and a captain who stood down.

The winter winders were screaming over the dunes and rocky outcroppings along the northwest coast of the United States. Low pressures were lined up three deep as the typical winter jet stream pattern brought storm systems across the coast. Most opted to stay inside, and the swell that had built up across the Pacific, topped by wind waves, was enough to keep the heartiest of fishermen tied to the dock. 

Sixty-seven miles up the Columbia River, which borders the states of Washington and Oregon, M/Y Shellfish was still in a sea trial phase with additional interior work to be completed. Fresh from the yard, the 92-foot new build had completed a few runs with the principals to get a feel for how she handled at her 18-knot cruising speed. Elated over his first big yacht, the owner was more than anxious to show her off to friends in San much so that he couldn’t wait and instructed the captain to have the boat ready as soon as possible. He decided that any remaining work could be done when the boat was back at the yard in a few months.

Despite the yard’s rumblings and unable to persuade the owner about the risk of making the voyage at that time, the captain, who had managed the two-year build while struggling to accommodate the difficult owner, pulled the weather reports and had the chef prepare for the trip.

In freezing conditions, the crew of three, along with the operations manager and the owner, set off down the river toward the Pacific. At the mouth awaited the Columbia bar, a giant sandbar created where the river’s four- to seven-knot current dissipates into the ocean, usually resulting in large, standing waves when running into the prevailing west to southwesterly winds and swell. The conditions can be unpredictable and treacherous, and the area is part of a rugged coastline often battered with a combination of fog, wind, currents, storms and waves known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

When the crew stopped just south of the bar in Astoria, Oregon, for rest and fuel, the wind was so forceful that two anchors needed to be set. After a fitful night’s sleep, the morning saw icy decks and a bent anchor, but the winds had settled enough to allow the vessel to get into the fuel dock. This was the only weather window the captain felt comfortable enough to take.

The crew could see the breaking surf as they cleared Clatsop Spit and soon felt the rolling swell as they turned west to head out the channel. As they approached the bar, the winter winds coming from the southwest were tossing the boat from side to side while the swell heaved them bow to stern, lifting them more than 10 feet above the backside of the cresting wave. The owner found himself on the floor more than once, banging his body and cutting his head open at one point.

“Crossing the bar should be done during slack water or on a flood tide,” advises Capt. Peter Whitney, who managed a new build in the same area and has sailed the West Coast from Canada to Central America. “Tidal currents grow in velocity during an ebb current when mixed with the outgoing flow of the river. Add wind and a building storm swell and conditions can change drastically for the worse.”

Shellfish made it through into manageable seas and headed south. It appeared the captain had found his weather window, but would

it be open long enough to steer clear before the next system arrived?

As night fell, the realization hit that the weather window was not quite big enough. Winds progressively built to 60 knots and seas reached 25 to 30 feet. There was no turning back, for if they did, the seas would surely poop the aft deck, and the Columbia bar would be devastating. Crawling between one and two knots, everyone aboard, including the owner, expressed their concern to the captain as the yacht pitched and rolled severely in the heavy seas. As the captain tried to reassure the chef that the yacht wasn’t about to fall apart, a crashing thud make them reconsider. The captain entered the galley to see the owner on all fours, splattered in milk and surrounded by the contents of the Sub-Zero refrigerator, which had jarred loose and crashed to the floor. It was obvious there was going to be no rest for the weary.

The incessant wind and waves continued their barrage on the yacht. Nearing midnight, the captain scanned the screens when the GPS/chart plotter suddenly went black. Although there was still engine power and radio communication, the captain had to revert to manual navigation — charts and dead reckoning.

Dark hadn’t quite turned to light as morning broke, heavy fog shrouding the yacht and leaving them with zero visibility. The captain issued a Pan-Pan with an approximate position, but because there was no GPS, the U.S. Coast Guard had to use a triangulation method from points relayed via the VHF to locate the yacht. After what seemed like hours, an escort vessel arrived to guide the yacht into Coos Bay, Oregon, approximately 175 nautical miles south of the Columbia River.

Like the Columbia bar, Coos Bay had one of their own and the Coast Guard vessel had to power up to avoid the breaking seas near the entrance. “I’ve entered Coos Bay on a bad day,” says Whitney. “If it wasn’t for my surfing skills, it would have been easy to founder, go beam to and roll over.”

After Shellfish was literally tossed into the bay and finally tied up, the Coast Guard issued the captain a citation for not having a “No oil spill” sign in the proper place. To add insult to injury in this true scenario, as the captain walked back on board, the owner appeared, his bags in hand, and said in no uncertain terms that the captain’s services were no longer required.

“Owners have an obvious influence, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years,” says 
Whitney, “it’s to never, ever go against
 your best thoughts and intuition.”

Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013 5:11 PM
Joined: 25/04/2013
Posts: 7

Very good anecdote! My experience too - if your ''insides'' are screaming NO - then you should say no. 

Be diplomatic, tactful, calm - but stick to your guns. The pressure from owners can be huge but most of the time it comes from pure ignorance of the risks. They are not the professional - you are!

joe feder
Posted: Friday, May 3, 2013 8:39 PM
Joined: 27/02/2013
Posts: 7

you are the professsional.... the owners today are in no ways inclined to recognise your professionalism as this strory shows. threats and subdued menaces are comon in our industry since "new money" made its appearence... showing a weather forecast and a weather fax to an owner is taken by some, as tricky blackmail and they take ombrage that unlike in "their world" some one like a kaki short clad young man can have such arogance to refuse to sail when the weather is sooo clear... there is no such thing as being diplomatic. we need bodies like the FAA in the aircraft industry that gives us the authority and the power and backing of such institutions to counter erratic owners with massive legal contermeasure should the firing be unjustified as in this story...
Capt. Craig
Posted: Saturday, May 4, 2013 9:23 AM
Joined: 16/02/2010
Posts: 4

There are really good, high paying jobs out there. Often we take jobs that are too good to quit. We then become slaves to them. When this happens we are inclined to make hugely terrible mistakes that we can't afford 'not to make'.  This is why we must consistently review the rules and know them "impeccably". When the chips are down - or when things go wrong, or worse; - in the event you have been elected to command ? -- Command.

As Captains, if we don't do this ... no amount of rules (even those that apply to professions so dangerous as aviation) can help us keep our jobs for the simple reason - we wouldn't be doing our jobs in the first place! Stand your ground (nicely) -- Always; this is what our jobs are about ! Stay safe out there mates !

Posted: Sunday, May 5, 2013 2:13 PM
Joined: 15/02/2009
Posts: 13

I am very happy that nobody got hurt seriously during this incredible and stupid trip but I am also amused reading that the owner went “on all fours” probably scared to death, because at the end of the day he made this happen. He will hopefully listen more carefully to his new captain, do what owners do and let the captain do his job. (I doubt it …. if you are born square you cannot become round)

Yes, the skip did nearly all wrong and therefore fired (I still believe he is a capable sailor) but if somebody would have the power …

also the owner should be sentenced in order to give future captains and crew the possibility to understand if they can or should handle this owners attitude regarding listening and accepting captains concerns and safety decisions. (What a funny idea to ask owners for a maritime CV and references of his previous crew - hahahah)

Should we not make a point here ???

 The relatively young yachting community has shown drastic changes over the past 30 years. There is a very long list of changes we could discuss about but let's just stay on this particular case, the captains authority.

Yachting is not commercial shipping and yachts are not cruise liners! Yacht captains unfortunately have become more and morebus drivers” with no or little rights. Agencies, brokers, yards and managers with mostly very poor practical knowledge out at sea have taken over the decision making about handling of boats and their crew management in accordance with the owners and guided by flag state agencies with purely commercial shipping background.

Even though crew training on yachts became more professional and standardized compliant to commercial shipping than it was at our times, “bloody yachties” are and cannot be accepted as professionals as they should be. Again, yachting is not commercial shipping and yachts are not cruise liners.

Their only aim (not referring to the flag state agencies!) and what they are paid for, is to understand owners wishes and to please them by all means, undermining (unintentionally ?) the captains necessary authority and decisional power to safely conduct his vessel and the crew in accordance with the owner. All other parts should only have an advising function.

Many times to keep or get a job today, you have to keep your head down as low as you can, but when things go wrong, fingers will be pointed in your direction.

Where is this delicate line when you have to impose your decisions for safety reasons?

How many times have I taken “a weather window”! How many times I've just been lucky doing so! Owners usually overestimate their boats and underestimate possible conditions.

The captains capacity to take rational and crucial decisions overruling the owner, could be easily obscured by the simple thought that “if you don't do it, you're gone and some agency will not hesitate to replace you within a sec”.

In my 35 years career I've come across a good number of owners and vessel types. I had very nice owners but also some “less nice ones”.

There is NO WAY of bending the most important rule – safety first. You are on your own, you are the captain and YOU HAVE TO take decisions and make your calls, even if they go against all others and some times this will make you loose a job .

I prefer and I would be proud to loose, having taken the right decision and not running into a dangerous situation or loosing control.

Posted: Sunday, May 5, 2013 6:48 PM
Joined: 01/06/2008
Posts: 1064

If you don't think it's safe, don't go, if that means walking off the job, so be it. Remember that when someone gets hurt, it's you that will be called to the carpet. The owner's insurance will cover his financial liability, but not your criminal liability or future insurability.
Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 4:10 AM
Joined: 14/05/2008
Posts: 11

Why would you risk your life and everyone else's life for a paycheck?  What was the total bill in man hours for the USCG, I wonder.  If we lived in a fair world, the owner of this vessel and possible the master should have been fined or imprisoned by the USCG for making such an egregious and negligent error of judgement.  How much money is enough to die for?
Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2017 4:14 AM
Joined: 23/09/2014
Posts: 2

As the owner of 2: M/Y 92' and 115 tri-deck, I love my boats and would never contradict the Captain. My crews will all tell you my motto is SAFETY FIRST.
 Average 5 out of 5