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Beware of Unfamiliar Moorings

As we’ve written many times before, trusting your boat to an unfamiliar mooring buoy can be risky. During the 40 years we’ve published Latitude, we can recall many boats being lost because of problems with moorings.

The most recent mooring incident, and the one involving the biggest boat we can remember, happened on the night of March 23 at Saba in the Eastern Caribbean. The vessel involved is the 155-ft classically styled Elsa, which had been built in the Netherlands as Grace in 2004 by Scheepswerf Peter Sijperda.

Saba, about 15 miles from St. Martin, is a cone-shaped volcanic island with very steep sides. It’s home to some of the best diving in the Caribbean. Because it’s so difficult to anchor, island authorities put in a series of mooring buoys at Ladder Bay. By necessity, the buoys are quite close to the rocky shore.

How could such a very expensive vessel with nine crew, and guests, end up on the beach? In addition to surely having somebody on watch at all times, they must have an app like Drag On, which alerts boatowners if their vessels drag.

According to a group of Dutch guys who were at the scene, and even took a souvenir of the wreck (and who days later gave Doña de Mallora a dinghy ride back to our cat, ‘ti Profligate, in St. Barth), Elsa went on the beach because the skipper took a break from being on watch to take a shower. According to their unconfirmed version, the mooring broke while he was in the shower, and since the mooring ball was so close to the shore, the boat was on the rocks before anybody realized it or could do anything about it.

While the moorings at Ladder Bay are suspect — just a week before a failed mooring allowed a 60-ft French boat to go onto the rocks — it’s not certain that the buoy Elsa was on failed. There have been eyewitness reports that at least part of Elsa’s bowsprit is still attached to the mooring ball, suggesting that perhaps something failed on Elsa.

There has also been back and forth about whether the buoy, supposedly rated for 150 tons, was adequate for the 350-ton Elsa. It’s been reported that authorities on Saba told the skipper that the buoy was adequate for Elsa, but we have no idea if that’s true.

No matter what the case, we find it hard to believe that the skipper in charge of such an expensive yacht, with so many crew, elected to use a mooring buoy so close to shore — at least without somebody carefully on watch at all times. Other options would have been to spend the night anchored off St. Martin, an hour away, or making lazy circles in the lee of Saba for the night. But who knows?Maybe the owner was aboard and issued the instructions.

Fortunately, none of the guests or the crew were injured. However, there has been a tremendous amount of fuel spilled.

As if to prove what a small world it is, about a month ago the Wanderer reported on meeting, in the line for the kick-off party for the Caribbean 600, a relatively young Dutch couple who would be racing Tulip, their 88-ft sloop. We became friends because their boat’s hailing port was Sneek, a small town next to the village where the Wanderer bought his second canal boat. We were later told that the father of the wife of the couple was "the richest guy in the Netherlands."

According to the Dutch guys who gave Doña a dinghy ride a month later, while Elsa is registered out of Bermuda, she is owned by the father of the woman who owns Tulip.

So we’ve learned two things today: 1) Be wary of strange moorings close to shore, and 2) the boating world really is small.

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