Aotea Pitchpoles in the Double Handed Farallones Race

First Hand Account by Jim Antrim, 4/12/95 *

The Double Handed Farallones Race has a history of rough weather and unfortunate accidents.  In 1982, four** people died when monohulls sank or went up on the rocks.  In 1984, a Stiletto capsized and one crew died of hypothermia.  Again in 1995 bad weather took its toll - a fishing boat capsized at Ocean Beach with the loss of a life, another boat capsized in Santa Cruz, a charter fishing boat suffered major structural damage in the ocean and had to be escorted in, and there were dismastings and other carnage in the race fleet.  Waves were breaking on both north and south bars outside the Golden Gate, and were big all day.

Opening my seabag on the way to the start line I realized I had, for the first time in my recollection, forgotten my warm clothes - polypropylene and the float coat I had intended to grab in the morning.  I was stuck with two tee shirts and one of Peter's sweatshirts under my foul weather gear.

Aotea Conditions for the start of the last three classes were goofy - no wind except small puffs, flood along the shore where it shouldn't have been.  But we picked our way through the mass of stalled boats and got out into the better winds and ebb tide towards the middle of the Bay.  With a lot of good calls and one or two dumb ones, Aotea led the multihull fleet under the bridge and out into the ocean.  I heard one contestant call in on the radio saying, "I'm heading in.  These waves are too big for me."  Out past Pt. Bonita winds were about 20 knots, perhaps up to 25 at times.  Nothing slows Aotea more than big waves, so we were doing upwind speeds of 10-13 knots, about 2-3 knots off the speeds we would expect in smoother water.  We tacked up center channel to avoid breaking waves on the bars, then started working our way off to the north, anticipating the usual right hand shift.  The shift never materialized.  Instead, about 2/3 of the way out we saw a rain squall pass over the islands and proceed off to the SE.  It had the look of a typical trade winds squall - big black cloud travelling solo with rain underneath; and though we were some distance away, we felt the effects of wind circulation around the little storm.

Having passed the lead monohull, Aotea was first around the Farallones; and as such, was the only boat flying a spinnaker.  Always nice to be around the unfriendly rocks and headed downwind for home, especially when you're a little chilly.  The wind had moderated to 17-18 knots, so we set the chute and were on a comfortable spinnaker reach straight toward  Point Bonita with full main, jib, and spinnaker.  At this time a line squall appeared off to port, of the type one sees on the east coast, with a very sharply defined wind line.  It was a patch of dark water about half a mile wide, and seemingly only 50 yards deep, with an ominous black cloud overhead.  The front was pushing up a long cresting wave in front of it.  As the dark patch of water approached, I said to Peter, "Oh, boy!  Maybe we can ride this all the way to the Gate."

Just before the squall hit we passed an Express 37 heading upwind and exchanged a friendly wave.  Peter was steering and moved off the tiller extension to get a two hand grip on the tiller.  He was on a short tether hooked at the side of the cockpit.  I was to sitting to leeward on the aft crossbeam holding the spinnaker sheet.  I was hooked to a long tether which fastens to a padeye just forward of the house.  This tether allows one to reach anywhere on the deck, and the only place you can get to the edge is at the corner of the bow nets.

The puff hit with unexpected violence just as we were on top of the cresting wave.  Boats going upwind have reported 40-50 knots true wind. We shot down the face of the wave into a very deep trough and buried the bows.  One second I'm starting to dump the spinnaker sheet, the next I'm hanging from it, face down to the tramp with arms stretched overhead.  I'm not sure of the angle of the boat at this point.  Somewhere between 50 and 80 degrees.  There is more rope between my hands and the winch than before.  Did it slip through my hands?  Did my weight actually sheet the sail in?  I was on the solid part of the trampoline, where there is nothing to grab onto at that angle.  The release for the main sheet and jib sheet are uphill, and here am I without my crampons and ice axe.  The sailor's voice in my head yelled, Dump the sheet you stupid jerk!!; but unfortunately the self preservation instinct won out at the expense of the boat.  I was thrown forward hard enough to have lost bits of flesh and have bluing fingers from my grip on the sheet.  Peter was thrown forward so hard he broke the shoulder straps on his safety harness.  I heard the mast hit the water behind my head, inspiring the following sequence of thoughts:  Oh, my God, we're actually going over.  This can't be happening.... How am I going to explain this to the Transpac committee?

I dropped off the sheet, and as the boat slowly settled upside down I look back under the tramp and see Peter dangling from his safety harness like a fish on a hook with the tramp lowering down over his head.  Adrenaline rush.  I duck my head around the edge of the bow net, unhook my tether and run aft alongside the upturned hull shouting, "Peter!"  Happily, he responded immediately from the other side of the hull, having unhooked himself under water and pulled himself out from under the tramp.  This three seconds is the only time in the whole episode where I remember any sensation of fear.

I grabbed the daggerboard and slithered over the hull to Peter's side.  How did the escape hatch get on the starboard side?  How did I get to the port side?  (I didn't solve this initial disorientation until the next day, when I realized that starboard and port reverse when you are upside down.)  Peter is opening the escape hatch and asks,  "Did they see us go over?"  I look back and see the Express, maybe 150 yards away and still going.  "No."  (Reconstructing the event and estimating speed, I figure maybe only 25 seconds had elapsed since we passed them, and 15 since the puff first hit.)

Aotea is designed for survival when inverted, and all safety systems worked fine.  The boat was floating level and quite high,  with crossbeams and nets at water level and only a few inches of water above the side decks in the cabin.  Clearly an extended survival inside would have been possible.  I climbed inside to retrieve the 406 EPIRB, the flare pack, and the survival suits,  then busied myself grabbing loose gear and closing the companionway to stop the surge through the opening.  The water did not feel particularly cold; but I was cognizant of the need to preserve body heat with my inadequate attire.  Peter never got cold in his wet polypro gear.  One of the items I grabbed was Peter's seabag, which unfortunately had already dumped out his pants containing his wallet and the winning lottery tickets.  I searched unsuccessfully for the hand held VHF in its sealed bag.  It had apparently floated out; and it occurred to me later that it must have still been trapped floating in the cockpit.  I did find that the blankets and pillows were nice and dry.  That would have been handy, had we been planning an extended stay.  The electric panel and electronics were mostly dry and apparently still working - the fixed VHF crackled away.  Unfortunately, I don't speak porpoise, so I turned the electrics off after awhile.

Peter stayed outside turning on the EPIRB, lighting a parachute flare, and then communicating with the boats that stood by.  When outside, we stayed harnessed to the underneath jacklines; but with the amas and crossbeams breaking the waves, the platform was quite stable and protected.  Mike Lynch was on the scene quickly with the appropriately named Alert.  He radioed in to the Coast Guard, and stood by until we were gone.    Mike Reppy and Bob Dixon on Naia also stood by.  Mike and Bob had both survived capsizes recently; and the look of empathy in their eyes was plain to see across the expanse of water.  There were other good Samaritans who I didn't see, since I spent most of the time seeking warmth in the interior.  Neither of us felt cold enough to don a survival suit, since they limit mobility and we knew help was nearby.  After all preparations were done, I settled down on the new double berth, which used to be the underside of the cockpit, with a jar of peanuts.

A Coast Guard helicopter arrived seemingly about half an hour after our accident.  (The time actually works out to be about 1-1/4 hours.)  They lowered a diver into the water, who swam over and explained the procedure.  Then they lowered a basket gently into the center of the net; and I rolled myself in.  (This is sort of a perverse design endorsement; but multihulls do make excellent platforms to be rescued from.)  Let me tell you though, the downwash is intense.  With spray blasting from every direction, it is difficult to shield your eyes.  Once in the basket, you rocket upwards like Dorothy out of Kansas and a moment later are hanging at the door of the helicopter admiring the view.  Peter was pulled up next, then the diver.  One last swoop back to drop a marker in the nets, and we were on our way.  The Potato Patch (north bar outside the Gate) was solid white from the air.  Unable to meet Peter's request for a drop off at Sam's Anchor Cafe, we opted for the helicopter pad at Crissy field.  Our new buddies apologized for the quick drop off, and took off for the next rescue of the day before we had a chance to get their names.

I deal with the Coast Guard some times in my job.  A likeable and competent group for the most part; but like most large organizations and all military outfits, the bureaucracy does occasionally get frustrating.  But when push comes to shove, these guys on the front line were absolutely professional, competent, and efficient.  The four of them put themselves at risk for a couple of dumb sailors; and we extend our deepest gratitude.

The next human we saw had a four inch glass eye.  "Hi, I'm from channel 4 news.  Can I ask you a few questions?" Sure.  I'm feeling real chatty, as I stand here shivering in my foul weather gear, life jacket, and harness.

This was a freak weather condition.  I figure the wind speed at least doubled in a second or two, which means sail forces quadrupled.  In 40 years of sailing, I can remember only one puff that intense, and that was when I was hit by a half formed waterspout.  Aside from bad luck, I chalk the accident up to overconfidence and underestimating the conditions.  We were accustomed to the boat getting us out of trouble, confidant in one another, surprised by the ferocity of the gust and the depth of the hole we dropped into.  Moreover, we were  pushing hard with all the confidence that comes with sailing short races in home waters.

After an accident like this, there are the inevitable hindsights.  Why didn't I ___?  How could I be so stupid?  But I suppose if we could anticipate everything in life, there would be no accidents.  You make a lot of good calls, and one or two dumb ones.  We were well prepared.  I never felt in danger.  Aotea is a good boat right side up, and proved to be a good boat upside down.  In hindsight, I'm about half sorry we didn't stay there, fit a jury rig, and sail the raft home.

The second best news of my day (after the sound of Peter's voice right after the accident), was the sight of the Antrim 30+ Erin roaring under the Gate.  Blithely unaware of our misfortune, she was first to finish and also first in class corrected time.

I still consider Aotea one of the least likely multihulls to pitchpole.  She had high buoyancy amas, round (water shedding) foredecks, and a short rig.  The principal lesson to be learned is that multihulls can capsize.  This is unlikely, and need not be a disaster.  Here's how to make your capsize an enjoyable experience, one that you will have the opportunity to remember.....


Buoyancy when capsized
How will your boat float upside-down?  Is it designed with watertight compartments at deck level?  The inverted waterline must be such that you can live inside the hull.  If not, it's liferaft time, and you are not much better off than a monohull.  Visualize the amount of volume below the waterline when you are upright.  The same amount of flotation will be submerged when you flip.  If in doubt, ask your designer how the boat will float.

Bridge deck catamarans are of special concern, particularly the charter cats which cram accommodation from bow to stern.  When capsized, water will flood the entire length of the hull.  This is not to condemn all bridge deck cats - they can be designed to be safe; but we need diligent naval architects and educated owners.  Do you really need that extra stowage compartment, or did your designer intend that compartment to be watertight?  Are the deck hatches good quality?  Watertight compartments do you no good if your hatches leak, or if vents are left open in bad weather.

Escape hatch
In my mind, any offshore multihull without a hatch that can be opened from inside and out has a foolish owner and an unconscionable designer.  Some boats have a hatch that is to be removed with screws, or a planned spot to cut an opening.  Well, OK.  Are tools fixed nearby both in and out?  I believe if you can't get through that hatch in less than a minute, a life could be lost.  Suppose a crew is drifting away, drowning, or trapped under the nets.  The rope, life jacket, or knife you need will not be nearby when you are inverted.  Without an escape hatch, all that safety equipment on the inside would have done us no good.  Peter and I might be dead now rather than just depressed and embarrassed.

Here is another place to take a mental trip.  Imagine your boat upside-down.  The house is under water and water surges back and forth through the companionway, sucking clothing, safety gear, tools, food and water containers out the door.  Even if you are not losing gear the surge is hard on the boat and worse on the emotions.  Miscellaneous ropes are snaking through the opening, preventing you from closing the lid.  How are you going to close the door?  Are your hatch boards on a tether?  If not, they may have been the first things to be lost.

Hatch boards must have latches and handles on the inside.  Aotea's hatch is closed by two boards, top and bottom.  Bottom goes in first.  When flipped, that one was easy since it was out of the water.  The top one had only one handle, near the locator pins.  It was an effort to get the pins in the holes - sort of like holding a piece of plywood steady in the surf at the beach.  The final deadbolt was almost impossible, since there was no handle on that edge.  I lost a good hunk of skin off the back of my hand, before I finally got the idea of snaking a small line through the dead bolt fitting to use as a handle.

Mast height
The simplest measure of capsize potential is mast height/boat length.  Using the height from water to mast head divided by length overall, a ratio of 1.5 is a good upper limit, unless you are a professional racer.  Aotea's ratio was 1.4, conservative for a race boat.  Enza and Commodore Explorer  were about 1.3 in their Jules Verne record configurations. The French 60 footers like Primagaz are 1.67, a typical Formula 40 is 1.8.  Piver's Nimble was 1.25, a typical ratio for earlier designs, and part of the reason "the skipper" said his boats were "apparently non-capsizable".  The trend is clear.  This is what Dick Newick calls "the greed for speed".

Odd ideas
I'm always thinking of safety in my designs.  (But I never expected to put the principles to the test.)  Self righting schemes are difficult, and often rely on the mast to survive the capsize (our's didn't); or on flooding a hull, which is an abhorrent one chance only, it better work kind of idea.  Here are a few ideas I'm giving serious consideration in the aftermath:


Get a 406 style EPIRB.  These are the kind where you register and the signal is identifiable as your boat.  The signal goes to SARSAT satellites, gives a position accurate to 2-3 miles (better near the north and south pole).  Because you are registered, the Coast Guard can call your home and confirm this is a real emergency.  It is my understanding that there are so many misfirings of class B EPIRBs, that they will not act until 24 hours after the first reported signal. This type also requires an aircraft or ship to be in the vicinity to pick up the signal.

A final note - the EPIRB signal will not broadcast through a carbon hull.  We stuck our EPIRB inside the boat when the Coast Guard picked us up, turning what should have been a simple and quick boat recovery into an almost impossible ordeal.

Even cruisers should get a copy of the "RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OFFSHORE SAILING" from U.S.Sailing.  It has a very good list of required equipment and design features, with a special addendum for multihulls.  To this I would add the following:

All the equipment and emergency food stores won't do you a bit of good if the lockers dump open and the stuff floats out the companionway.  Tie it down.  Latch the compartments.

What about a typed emergency plan and equipment map, like the card on the airplanes that no one reads.  Does your crew know where the emergency gear is and how to use it?  If you, the owner, are out of commission, can they find the first aid and the flare bin?


Here is where Peter and I failed miserably.  We were close to home, so it seemed to make sense to leave the boat.  We lined up a tow for the following day, and flew out the next morning in a small plane to get a new position.  We could not find the boat! Aotea has been sighted four times in the seven weeks since the accident, still floating high and fine, each time with an accurate fix.  Yet in spite of numerous air searches and one extended boat search we have not been able to locate her.  It is very, very difficult to locate a boat at sea; and finding a liferaft or a person in the water must take a miracle of good fortune.  Upright boats are easily visible because of their wake or their sails.  Here are some thoughts:

P.S. 13 months later Aotea drifted into the lagoon of Nomwin atoll in Micronesia, where it has been righted and is in use as a fishing boat.

*This article was first printed in:

**  Corrected 2012

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