Lessons from “The Ouzo”

Posted by HC in Boats on 10 September 2008

I am such a cowardly and careless yachtsman – and so prone to panic – that I am a little nervous about seeming to criticise the crew of The Ouzo, a small sailing yacht which vanished with all hands on a night passage off the Isle of Wight in August 2006. It was an intensely dramatic story. I have been revved-up by a very good piece in the FT Saturday magazine. It seems a tad timid.

When the bodies of her crew were found floating off the island, it was never seemed likely that The Ouzo just sank of her own accord. It turned out that the regular run of a P&O ferry, the Pride of Bilbao, took it to the very near vicinity at the probable time of the accident, whatever it was.There is much speculation as to whether it was involved. In the ensuing inquiries and court cases, the bridge officers of the ferry were accused of being less than thorough and thoughtful in their response to what they admit was a close encounter with a yacht (which they claimed to believe had probably passed safely by). One officer was tried for manslaughter and aquitted.

Oddly perhaps, I find my sympathies going to the crew of the ferry. Of course the families of the yacht’s crew have suffered a terrible loss. And the ferry’s officers may not have behaved brilliantly. I am emboldenedin my view partly because I have often been on the Pride of Bilbao and anyway feel a quite undeserved connection with people who make their living on the sea.

By default, not liking to criticise the Ouzo‘s crew leaves the blame to drift inexorably to the larger ship. This seems a little unfair.

I am also drawn to the wide range of technological solutions available to yachtsmen as they take their cockleshells out into commercial waters. Here are some of the devices and tricks which would have diminished the chances of such an accident happening being fatal (in no particular order):

(a) Stay out of shipping lanes at night;
(b) When a ship is near, shine a beam alternately at the sails and the ship’s bridge;
(c) Have an AIS ship-ID and course-plotting radio (£500);
(d) Have a watertight radio receiver and transmitter to hand;
(e) Have a watertight mobile phone to hand (£16 sachet);
(f) Wear a crotch-strap on one’s life jacket;
(g) Have a strong watertight cockpit door and shut it;
(h) Have an emergency position transmitter on one’s lifejacket;
(i) Fit an active radar signal enhancer (£500). 

So far as I can see, a small selection of these items (culled from sailing blogs) would have been very helpful.

I shall now go and do some of my very timid Mediterranean sailing, and probably cock it up.

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