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September 4, 2019

An Unspeakable Tragedy at Sea

Thirty-four people are presumed dead after a fire broke out on the 75-ft diving vessel Conception on Monday off the Channel Islands. “Most of the passengers had come from several towns in the San Francisco Bay Area,” CNN reported. The Conception was on a three-day Labor Day scuba diving trip, and reportedly had several families onboard. Ages of the victims range from people in their teens to their 60s, according to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office. “Of the 39 aboard, 33 passengers and one crew member are presumed dead. Only five people — all crew members — were found alive, and the bodies of 20 people have been recovered off the coast of Santa Cruz Island.”

Yesterday, the Coast Guard suspended their search for victims. “It is never an easy decision to suspend search efforts,” said Captain Monica Rochester of the Coast Guard. “We know this is a very difficult time for family and friends of the victims.”

The diving boat Conception burns off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Monday, September 2.
© 2019 Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office

The cause of the fire is unclear, and is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB. “There are many boats like [Conception] that operate around the California coast, according to experts and longtime divers,” the New York Times reported. The Conception was considered California’s crown jewel liveaboard dive boat, and the NY Times reached out to former guests“Most said they had great experiences, and while some said that the tightly packed bunks unsettled them, many others said they felt fine.”

The Los Angeles Times interviewed Marjorie Murtagh Cooke, the former director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety, who said, “‘Vessels have to have two exits for escape by law for the sleeping quarters. It appears that both exits from the sleeping quarters bring you up inside the vessel.’ Cooke, a marine safety expert at the consulting firm Robson Forensic, said the exits from the sleeping quarters — a staircase and a hatch, based on images made public — lead to the mess and galley, which appear to be one large room. ‘If both escape routes from the sleeping quarters lead to the same area, a fire there could potentially block the only means for passengers to get out,'” Cooke told the Times.

“With 30-plus people dying, the investigation could lead to changes in the way vessels are designed or protected depending on the findings,” Cooke was quoted as saying.

Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy. With the cause of the fire still unknown, it’s only natural to speculate, and, in our grief, to want to blame someone.

This morning, NPR quoted artist Sebastian Orth, who knew several crew members at Truth Aquatics, who ran the Conception. “I feel really bad for the crew members who had to jump off and couldn’t do anything. That’s got to be terrible for them because I’m sure they didn’t want to jump off the boat and do that.”

We will bring you the results of the investigation into the fire aboard Conception as they become available.

A Delta Doo Dah DIY Cruise

Delta Doo Dah sailors Gary and Nancy Ryan took a 10-day cruise to the Delta aboard the Lagoon 450S catamaran ‘iliohale. They departed from Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael at first light on Friday, July 26. “We had a great sail on a flood all the way to Owl Harbor for one night,” reports Gary. “Owl Harbor is wonderful, with great people. Of course we got to pet Captain Jack the cat and got our fill of free, fresh, homegrown veggies.”

‘iliohale at anchor in Potato Slough.
© 2019 'iliohale

“The next day we did the 30-minute trip to Potato Slough Bedroom 2 and dropped the hook for seven full days of R&R in between planned boat projects. It was in the low 100s for the first two days, but then cooled down nicely to the high 80s, very comfortable at night.”

Two couples
Gary and Nancy Ryan and Karen and Wayne Edney.
© 2019 'iliohale

“We had three of our good friends on board with us, Wayne and Karen Edney (from Bristol Channel Cutter Odyssey, vets of previous Doo Dahs) and Terence Kirk. We had Bedroom #2 all to ourselves for five days during the week. The water was wonderful for swimming, and we did a lot of that while clearing all the weed from our anchor rode. We did a lot of otter- and bird watching along with star viewing. It was great to see big fish jumping at sunset after all the bass boats were gone, not to mention the swallows doing their bug-catching thing.”

Sunset with bird
Sunset viewing and birdwatching are important ‘activities’ for Delta cruisers. Bring a camera!
© 2019 'iliohale

“Once our water ran out and holding tanks were full, we headed to Benicia for two nights. We timed the Suisun crossing on the flood, and it was really smooth. San Pablo Bay was a different story.

“We had a blast as always, this being our first Doo Dah since we did #1, 2 and 3. We flew our flag with pride but we didn’t see any other Doo Dah’ers while we were up there. The Delta is truly a unique experience on the West Coast. There is nowhere else like it.”

Crew Overboard! But not by Accident

Seventeen people came out for BAMA’s crew overboard training on Sunday, August 18, distributed across three boats, all of their names starting with “Ra.” Ravenswing (F-36 trimaran), Rainbow (Crowther 10M catamaran) and Raven (F-27 trimaran) took turns having a crewmember jump overboard and then turning around to retrieve them, in a freshening 12-14 knots of wind at the entrance to Richardson Bay, between Sausalito and Belvedere.

We tried several different methods of approaching the crewmember in the water, either by motor or with sails. All three methods were successful, recovering the overboard crew in anywhere from 3.5 to 11 minutes. All boats used a Lifesling to bring the crewmember to the side of the boat and bring them back on board.

Ravenswing with crew overboard
Crew overboard recovery on Ravenswing.
© 2019 Truls Myklebust

The exercise was very useful, and several things were eye-openers. Here are a few observations:

  • Radio communication with the overboard crewmember’s sopping-wet VHF radio was very difficult. All we could hear was muffled and unclear sound. It was very difficult to get a simple “I’m OK” confirmation.
  • Colors help a great deal with visibility. One crew-overboard pole was missing a flag. Paired with an overboard crewmember wearing mostly black, that made it difficult to spot the person in the water. Colors and a nice flag (see picture) made it much easier to spot the person in the water.
Crew overboard pole
The red and yellow Oscar flag on this crew-overboard pole is easy to spot.
© 2019 Truls Myklebust
  • The low freeboard on trimarans like the F-27 made it easy to bring the overboard crewmember back on board, at least when they are able to participate and help themselves getting on board.
  • Lifting an incapacitated overboard crewmember back on board using a halyard works, but even with the winch, that’s heavy!
  • Things get very busy on board during a crew-overboard recovery. Between getting the crew-overboard module in the water, getting sails down, pointing at the crewmember in the water, getting the Lifesling ready, turning the boat around, and getting back to the crew in the water, there’s a lot going on. On Raven, we did our recovery with just three people on board, and we were busy! We completely missed all radio communication while we were turning around. It makes you think about what it would be like with a crew-overboard situation for a doublehanded crew (I usually race shorthanded), which would make for a singlehanded boat trying to return to the other crewmember for recovery.
  • On the F-27, recovery by going into irons worked pretty well. We turned into the wind, furled the jib, sailed a figure-8 with two jibes with just the main to get back to our crewmember in the water, then went into irons after circling around the crew, and that made for a nice and stable platform for recovery.
Rainbow with COB
Rainbow, with crew, pole and Lifesling in the water.
© 2019 Truls Myklebust

After the event had concluded, we all tied up at Clipper Yacht Harbor in Sausalito for lunch, giving everybody a chance to chat about the event and socialize. I think everybody walked away from the event thinking that they learned something new, and that means crews will be better prepared when they encounter a crew-overboard situation for real.

The format of the event worked well, and now we have a sense of timing. We are looking to repeat this exercise next year and open it up for monohulls and the broader Bay Area sailing community. Special thanks to Anton Bertaux, Carliane Johnson and Jeremy Boyette for being our three volunteer jumpers!

Man Swims Through Pacific Garbage Patch to Raise Awareness

On Saturday, a French long-distance swimmer and his support crew swam and sailed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge to mark the conclusion of an 80-day expedition from Hawaii into San Francisco. Benoît Lecomte, or Ben, swam several legs totaling 350 nautical miles as part of The Vortex Swim to raise awareness about plastic pollution. The team was greeted under the Golden Gate Bridge by the Dolphin Swim & Boat Club, the Bay Area Sea Kayakers, and other local supporters as Ben made his way onto land near Crissy Field.

Ben was followed by nine support crew on the Challenge 67 cutter-rigged sloop I Am Ocean, which was originally built for the Global Challenge round the world race, and has since been converted to a science laboratory, floating hospital, and home for 10 people.

Benoît Lecomte swims his final leg of the Vortex Swim off the support vessel I Am Ocean, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into Crissy Field on Saturday. In 1998, Lecomte was the first man to swim across the Atlantic Ocean without a kick board.
© 2019 Monique Selvester

The Vortex Swim — which has also been called The Longest Swim — was originally Ben’s attempt to be the first person to swim across the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii, but was aborted in July due to a series of storms. After spending a few months of maintenance and repairs in Hawaii, the team redirected their mission to swim through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect samples of the ocean plastic pollution. The crew reflected what many have said after laying eyes on the Garbage Patch: It looked less like an island of garbage, but rather, “chunky soup” and “a smog of microplastics. Over 200 samples were taken and 45,000 microplastics collected.

I Am Ocean sails through the Gate on Saturday after a slow crawl across the Pacific.
© 2019 Monique Selvester

The crew said the expedition was different from being on a commercial fishing boat or container ship. Their slow speed allowed them to essentially drift and observe the problem up close. The Vortex team call themselves trash as opposed to treasure hunters. One person stood a debris watch every 30 minutes throughout the expedition to take note of the type and dispersion of plastic.

First Mate Tyral Dalitz said they had to sail at an unusually slow pace to stay with Ben, and in so doing, discovered a new sailing technique specific to following swimmers called the ‘Hove 3’, similar to the more conventional hove-to technique. “We backed the headsail and tacked the staysail so that the waypoint is higher in the wind and we still had a bit more direction, but would go extra-slow to keep pace with the swimmer; this was invented by the swim crew, and must go down in history!” By sailing instead of motoring, the team was able to save tens of thousands of dollars.

A group of supporters waits for the Vortex Swim team at Crissy Field.
© 2019 Monique Selvester

Doctor Adam Hill said I Am Ocean carried all the supplies a hospital would have in case of any emergencies. Hill’s job was to keep Ben alive and healthy, making sure he stayed hydrated and was consuming enough calories when swimming 8-12 hours a day — this meant that that there was a lot more food onboard that was normal for 10 crew members.

While he trimmed his original ambition of swimming from Japan to Hawaii, Ben’s feat is no less impressive.
© 2019 Monique Selvester

Ben said because he gets seasick, he preferred to be in the water swimming rather than on the boat. He described swimming in big waves similar to being like a cork bouncing and floating; by contrast, Ben said that he was violently flung around the boat.

Ben and the Vortexswim crew are part of a growing number of activists raising awareness about marine plastic pollution through adventuring and scientific observation.

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