Mega-yacht disaster lessons learnt

Responsible seamen – that means all of us boaters – continue to reflect on the recent mass tragedies of the sunken Korean ferryboat Sewol and the Costa Concordia beached on the island of Giglio not far from the Riviera.

Reports of maritime disasters and lessons learnt are published in Britain’s quarterly Safety Digest issued free by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch in Southampton (www.maib.gov.uk), which investigates all types of recent accident to or on-board UK-flagged vessels worldwide, and other vessels in UK waters. Thus far there is no section for mega-yachts (few of which visit Britain!) perhaps because of their exemplary safety record. But even these splendid creations or their boats and helicopters can suffer from collision, grounding, foundering, fire, and lightning striking. Here are a few victims with a Riviera connection; some readers will have vivid memories of one or two incidents: Attessa IV, Brave Goose, Fantastique, Galaxy, Hemilea, Honey Money, Ilona IV, John John, Lady Candida, Lady Christine, Lands End, Maltese Falcon, Midsummer, Mirabella V, Mohammedia, Nadine, Obsession, Ontario, Pari, Princess Tanya, Saharet, Tigre d’Or, Welsh Falcon, Welsh Liberty and Yogi.

Pari Superyacht on the rocks at Cap FerratSuperyacht Pari on the rocks at Cap Ferrat in 2009

Good captains are trained and experienced in heavy weather, for which they could apply some of the following seamanlike measures: reduce speed, shorten sail, reef down, seek shelter, close watertight openings, furl awnings, stow furniture, rig lifelines, batten down the hatches, turn downwind, stream sea anchors, muster the passengers, jettison top-weight, double the watches, man the pumps, issue life jackets and EPIRBs, and in extremis transmit Mayday messages and abandon ship. At anchor they could veer more cable, increase anchor watches, start engines, clear a potential lee shore and maintain a good offing. And they frequently exercise their crews in fire fighting, life rafts and other emergency drills.

But what of totally unexpected disasters, which strike brutally, like a frontal collision in a car? These tend to happen to tenders, which are getting more numerous, more powerful, and bigger – some now longer than my yacht! One ran into an anchored yacht off Monaco on a calm but dark evening as the 2010 Monaco Yacht Show closed; the driver was catapulted into the hull and sank without trace. A similar night accident injured a captain and wife in a crowded anchorage in Antigua; while in Villefranche Bay more were injured as their speedboat ran into one of the two very solid mooring buoys. In Monaco waters one fine day two young honeymooners in a small sailboat were run down by a French flagged motor-yacht on autopilot with no lookout, and the bride was killed by the propellers. The husband was taken in charge by the British Association, lived on my boat for five days and flew home to Britain with his wife in a coffin. All because of too much speed without due care and attention.

Constant vigilance this season please.

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