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William Byford on the perils of the sea

The depressing news that the US and Canadian coastguards’ search for the four experienced British sailors on board the 40 foot yacht Cheeki Rafiki, which got into difficulties returning to Britain from the Caribbean, was called off on Sunday evening continues to feature in the media.

I have a small and, in the wider scheme of things, insignificant personal perspective on the crisis because my son is also a professional sailor.

Sailing is a highly-rewarding and satisfying pastime, but it is also a dangerous one.

Weather, currents, the scale of distances and unforeseen circumstances can affect any voyage, whether it be simply a three-hour jolly down some benign harbour in order to anchor up and do a spot of fishing, or some pre-planned ocean crossing, still less one of either the Atlantic or Pacific.

Professional sailors are acutely aware of risk factors. Inherently, and by training, they do everything they can to avoid them. Every time my son comes home, he shames my extended family by his methodical checking of our cars – the tyre treads and air pressure, the oil filters, other bits of the engine and chassis that I cannot even name, let alone point to – before he will ride in any of them. It’s not that he’s inherently disrespectful or distrustful of us, it’s just that he’s acutely risk-aware and risk-averse.

More even than their ‘amateur’ counterparts, professional sailors are constantly wary of the sea. Not afraid of it, of course – if that were the case, they’d never go to work – but deeply respectful of both what it can do and how its conditions can suddenly change.

Without exception, each professional sailor will have his or her tales of extreme weather, accidents, yacht damage, serious injuries and crises on board vessels that they have worked upon. It comes with the territory.

AreaMy only points on this Cheeki Rafiki business are as follows.

Firstly, all four men on board would have been mindful of the dangers involved in crossing the Atlantic before they set off. They would have checked everything on board, especially the safety equipment, and taken full account of the likely weather conditions. Even if some of them had crossed the Atlantic twenty times previously, they would have approached this voyage as diligently as if it had been their first.

They would have been aware that – if the ‘wrong’ circumstances should arise – they could well lose their lives.

From what I’ve read, they appear to have done everything in text-book fashion once the Cheeki Rafiki began taking on water.

In Britain there is now a growing campaign that the US and Canadian coastguard search was ‘called off’ too early and should be resumed – this fed by a conviction that (what is it now?) three or four days after abandoning the yacht, that the men might still be alive.

Understandably, the men’s families remain hopeful against hope that this might be the case.

On the other hand, the US and Canadian coastguard services are probably the most experienced and technically proficient in the world. Once made aware of the crisis, they conducted a massive sweeping search of the area where the Cheeki Rafiki was believed to have foundered, expanding that to allow for calculations for wind, tide and swell. I have read a report describing those conditions as ‘treacherous’.

They have stated overnight that – statistically, taking into account the prevailing ocean weather conditions – it is unlikely that the British sailors on board the Cheeki Rafiki would have survived more than 20 hours, even if they had abandoned ship and taken to a top-of-the-range inflatable rescue raft.

Overnight on the radio, I have heard of a petition originated in the UK, urging the US coastguard service to resume their search, which has now attracted over 100,000 signatures.

I may be criticised for saying this but, whilst the motives behind it are laudable and well-meaning, I am not convinced that the petition is going to achieve anything. Unless, perhaps, someone takes the view that – for PR reasons – the search should be renewed.

Sadly – and I’d be overjoyed to be proved totally wrong, but – the greatest percentage likelihood is that the four British sailors are lost and their bodies will probably never be found.

You can argue about the nobility of the human spirit and that hope must/should never be given up but – if that were the rule – we’d still have coastguards out there looking for survivors of the Titantic, Lusitania and Marie Celeste.

Sometimes you have to accept the inevitable. I’m content to take the considered US coastguard view as being the soundest opinion on the subject.

The sea is an unforgiving element. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do. No human being can stop or prevent that.




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About William Byford

A partner in an international firm of loss adjusters, William is a keen blogger and member of the internet community. More Posts