In January 2014 I was skipper of the 38ft “Black Cat” when we were capsized by a massive breaking wave about 75 miles offshore from Cape Town. It wasn’t a full capsize although the boat went from upright to nearly upside-down in an instant. In seconds we had a boatload of water and the chaos of crew, food, equipment, cabin soles and even a fridge that had been bolted into the table flying around in the cabin with great force. In our case, the boat remained intact and came back upright very quickly but it gave us insight for an instant into what it is like to be in a boat that has been capsized on the ocean.
Nobody wants to be in or on a capsized boat on the ocean but for anyone who spends appreciable time voyaging it is a possibility that has to be considered. Thinking about that possibility should kick your mind into gear to consider what you would do in that situation to ensure the survival of yourself and everyone else who is on the boat.
Survival is far from a certain fact, it will depend not only on the conditions that nature is throwing at you that initiated the capsize; it will depend also on how well the boat was prepared for this eventuality, both in construction and in added equipment; it will depend on the behaviour of you and the others on the boat, how well you keep yourselves under control and it will depend on decisions taken, both prior to the start of this situation and after the capsize. Together they will all combine to set your chances of getting back safely to shore.
Escaping from a capsized boat brings with it some conflicts that must be handled. The biggest is whether to stay in the boat or to try to get out. Whichever you choose you need to take the decision carefully because it really is a life-or-death decision. If the boat is intact, i.e. it has no holes in the bottom or the sides to allow water in and air out, then it can stay float almost indefinitely and you should be able to survive inside for a few hours to possibly a few days before the oxygen is used up. You will have food available and there should be an emergency supply of fresh water that is in sealed accessible containers. If you are close to land you may be able to stay inside until help arrives. If you are in the middle of the ocean then you may be able to stay inside until the storm passes and the sea settles, after which you will have more chance of exiting the boat safely, with more time for thought about how to do it safely and what to do after you are out of the boat. The number of crew will affect how long you can stay inside the boat before the oxygen has all been used up.
If the boat is a monohull with good stability characteristics and has not lost its keel then it will likely come back upright within a few minutes. In this situation your instinct will be to get out but it may be best to sit tight and wait for the boat to right itself. Try to seal off anywhere that water is coming in, to minimise the amount of water that will be in the boat and have to be pumped out later. Aside from needing to be pumped out, large amounts of water inside the boat after righting itself endangers the boat. That water being washed back and forth and side-to-side inside the boat, due to wave action, endangers the boat and increases the chance of capsize again. This is due to free-surface effect, with the weight of the water moving around helping to throw the boat into another capsize. It can also do serious additional damage by breaking bulkheads, lockers etc. and can injure crew by washing them violently against structure.
If the boat is a monohull and has lost its keel then it is likely that there will be a hole in the bottom of the hull. That hole will almost certainly allow the hull to settle deeper into the water to a level where it is almost submerged. The boat will be totally uninhabitable in that condition, with minimal air space and no chance of survival for more than a few minutes. That is unless it has watertight bulkheads with doors that were closed and sealed at the time of the capsize or it is small enough to have built-in flotation that will keep it floating high enough to allow the crew to survive inside.
If the boat is a multihull then it is likely that it will stay afloat and will float high enough for survival for a few days. It will likely have flotation compartments in the bows that will support that end better than the sterns, so it may float stern-down and force the surviving crew forward in each hull. With buoyancy compartments in the sterns as well it will float level, making the full length of each hull habitable.
OK, we now know that your boat is upside-down and that is how it is going to stay. How are you going to get out of it?
If it is a monohull there is a relatively short route out via the companionway and the cockpit or via a forward escape hatch. But remember how many lines end at the cockpit of most yachts. There are halliards, reefing lines and sheets from mainsail, headsail and spinnaker. Most of them will have been neatly stowed in cave lockers or rope bags, or coiled on the winches. Many of them will have come out of their secure stowage places and be drifting around in the currents flowing through the cockpit, tying themselves in knots and hooking onto anything and everything. When we capsized “Black Cat” the end of the mainsheet went over the side, wrapping on the propeller shaft, stopping the engine and forcing a guardrail stanchion through the deck.
When trying to escape from the boat through the cockpit you will have to find your way out without being snagged and trapped by any of those ropes. Escaping via the foredeck hatch will have less ropes floating around but you will have the headsail as an additional obstacle.
By both routes you will also have guardrails in your way. If you cannot fit between the deck and the lower wire then you must dive down deeper to clear the guardrails before you can swim up to the surface.
Which brings up the subject of life jackets. Do you put one on before exiting the boat or not? That is a difficult decision because you will need it when you reach the surface but the life jacket may prevent you from reaching the surface. The flotation of the jacket will force you up against the cockpit or deck as soon as you exit the boat. You will have little chance of diving deeper to get below the guardrails so you will have to pull yourself through the gap between the deck and the lower guardrail wire. But the bulky nature of the life jacket will likely prevent you from getting through that 300mm gap. Even if you think that you will fit through, there are projections and bulges from life jacket, clothing etc. that can hang up on the wire and trap you part-way through.
So, how about inflatable life jackets, aren’t they the answer? Maybe but not necessarily so. Most of the coastal inflatable life jackets have the option of either manual or automatic inflation but the ocean versions with built-in harness generally don’t have the manual option. That means that they will inflate as soon as you hit the water. Personally, I feel that this is a serious shortcoming that needs to be addressed in their design, to allow the wearer to choose manual inflation if the situation needs it. In this situation you need to be wearing an inflatable life jacket and get out from under the boat in the fastest and least risky way that you can, then inflate the jacket once you know that you are clear and able to surface without coming up against the deck or something else that may stop you. An uninflated inflatable PDF is slim and is strapped in tight against the body, possibly allowing you to slide through between the deck and the lower guardrail wire, you simply cannot do that wearing a conventional life jacket or an inflated PDF. People have been drowned due to not being able to dive deeper to clear guard rails because the flotation that is supposed to save them has instead trapped them.
If you have capsized in a catamaran then the situation is somewhat different. From the saloon or bridgedeck accommodation there is a fairly clear route for escape by heading aft into and through the cockpit. There will be fewer ropes to get in your way than is the case with a monohull and they will be spread further apart, so they form less of an obstruction. If the boat has a forward working cockpit, that is likely to not be a good choice for escape route. The forward cockpit is usually small and fairly well protected on three sides, so you can only go forward. It has lots of ropes coming into that small space to trap you. If you can get past the ropes you will have a wide expanse of deck to get past before you reach the guardrails, which will present the same problems that they do with a monohull. Going forward you will have to get past the trampoline and forebeam before you can surface. Your chances are not good in any direction from that forward cockpit.
If you are in one of the hulls then you are in the part of the boat that will be able to sustain you the longest, with a large amount of trapped air to keep you alive for a few days. That is reasonable if help should get to you quickly. Don’t count on staying there if you are in the middle of the ocean, you will need to get out long before the oxygen runs out, while you are still able to think clearly and have the energy and endurance needed to get out. So, how do you get out of there? You are unlikely to manage the long route through the submerged saloon, then through the cockpit before surfacing for your next breath of air.
Most modern catamarans have an escape hatch in each hull. These hatches are normally below the bridgedeck, on the inner face of the hull, giving access directly onto the bridgedeck of the upturned boat. This seems at face value to give everything that is needed to keep the crew alive until help arrives because the hulls are available for shelter and for access to food, water, clothing etc. But there are some caveats attached to it.
Bear in mind that air pressure inside the hull is holding the water out. The airlock is preventing water from entering the hulls from the saloon. As soon as you open that escape hatch the airlock is broken, the air pressure inside the hull will equalise with that on the outside. That will allow water to flow into the hull via the saloon, even if the hatch is above the water, so that hull will settle deeper into the water. How much deeper will depend on the buoyancy value of everything inside the boat, as well as the structure. If you are in an aluminium cat or a heavily-built GRP boat you will find that it settles a lot deeper or may even sink. A wooden or a relatively light sandwich GRP boat will have enough buoyant material to support it, so it won’t sink as far but it will certainly float deeper and likely be uninhabitable inside that hull. On the outside, the bridgedeck is likely to be awash or submerged.
Once you are outside the boat, whether mono- or multihull, and have managed to get to the surface, what do you do? If you don’t have a life jacket on but have managed to bring one out of the boat with you, now is a good time to put it on or to inflate your inflatable PFD.
You must also do what you can to release the liferaft from its stowage. If it is in an external frame with an automatic release then you will still have to release it if the boat is still afloat. The automatic release will only trigger at 4m below the surface, which means that the boat must sink a considerable distance before the raft will be released. Even then it may not float to the surface because, with an inverted sinking boat, it may be held in the cradle by buoyancy or trapped by the guardrails. Mount the cradle against the transom or on the outside of the stern pulpit to have more chance of it floating free in an accident such as this.
If the liferaft is in a locker accessible through the transom then you should be able to release it. If it is in a cockpit locker you will have a problem because you must dive under the boat to get to it and you will be fighting the buoyancy of the canister to pull it downward out of the locker, then below the guardrails. That will be tough in smooth water and even more so in storm-tossed water. Once again, mounted against the transom or aft face of the stern pulpit are good locations for the raft, with the best chance of release by crew in the water.
These principles apply to both mono- and multihulls but with a catamaran it may be good to have it stowed in a compartment of the aft beam, with doors through both the transom and the bottom of the bridgedeck. For a large catamaran it would also be good to have a small liferaft stowed inside each hull close to the escape hatch. This could be what saves crew who find themselves having to climb out through the escape hatch onto a bucking and very slippery bridgedeck, with problems reaching the transom or elsewhere that the liferaft may be stowed.
Wherever the liferaft is stowed, the end of the lanyard must be tied to a strongpoint of the hull when the raft is placed there, not when it is about to be launched. Make sure that the tying was not forgotten, before launching it.
If you need to be on the bottom of your capsized boat for more than a few minutes then the slippery (slimy and wet) surfaces will be a big problem. You have to do whatever you can to get the crew out of the water and to keep them safely on top of the hull. The keel of a fin keel yacht is a convenient place of attachment but you are unlikely to be able to cling there for long. Pull whatever ropes you can from under the boat and tie them loosely around the keel to serve as handholds and footholds all around the keel. The same can be done with the rudder and the propeller shaft of a powerboat or sailboat. If you can get to enough rope, tie one length over the hull forward of the keel and another aft of the keel, with the ends tied to stanchion bases. These will help the crew to get up/down and to stay there. Similar ropes can also be tied to the bridgedeck of a capsized catamaran, running fore/aft. Whatever ropes you can secure there to help the crew with handholds and footing will increase the chances of staying with the boat and improve the chance of rescue.
All of this is likely to be happening in rough water if a storm was the cause of the capsize. That rough water will make it extremely difficult to stay with the boat, with currents and eddies pulling in all directions. You need to stay in touch with the boat but you must be careful not to be injured by violent contact with it, especially being swept under it. If you have the liferaft then you may be safest in the raft but keep it tethered to the boat. First, if there are other crew who didn’t surface with you but may still be alive inside the boat, you have to be close by to assist them to get out safely. Second, the boat is a bigger target to be found by searchers than is a small liferaft drifting by itself.
If there are others from the crew still inside the boat then you may be their only hope for getting out and having that hope will be very important to their state of mind. Let them know by knocking on the hull that you are out there and available to help. If there are fixed ports in the hull sides you may be able to communicate through them. Whatever you do, don’t try to break into the hull to free your mates, you are more likely to sink the boat with them in it. You have little chance of breaking a hole big enough for a person to get through before the boat sinks due to breaking the airlock. That air will come out very fast and the boat, if a monohull, will go to the bottom with them still inside. If it is a catamaran with escape hatches they will be able to get out through those hatches but I recommend that you close the hatches again after they are out, to maintain air pressure inside the boat and keep it afloat.
In the interests of not making this article excessively long, I won’t go into grab bags, EPIRBs, satellite phones etc. except to say that they must be ready to hand during evacuation of the boat. Things are thrown around in a capsize, so these important items must be secured or you may not find them in the chaos after going over. To get an idea of what happens in a boat during a capsize, watch the video at the internet address below. But bear in mind that this is a simulated capsize on flat water in a harbour; on the ocean in a storm it will be much more violent.
We don’t want to capsize a big boat on the ocean. In a situation like this instinct will be a strong factor in how we react but an instinctive reaction may not be the right one and the best course of action will depend on many factors. Whether or not we and our crew survive will depend to large extent on the groundwork that we did in our personal knowledge and our boats, in preparation for that unlikely eventuality. Better to prepare and not need it than to not prepare but need it.
South African born yacht designer Dudley Dix is a graduate of Westlawn School of Yacht Design. He has a wide range of designs, built by professional and amateur builders in 90 countries. The Dudley Dix Yacht Design office is in Virginia Beach, USA, with website at http://dixdesign.com.