Yacht sinks, liferaft fails, flares run out

As I watched solo skipper Robert Redford’s Cal 39 turn turtle and shower him with every object not stowed away, I had a strange feeling of deja vu. I had seen this before in Technical Editor Chris Beeson’s excellent Crash Test Boat series. I wondered if the production team of All Is Lost had too.

Certainly the film is authentic and grippingly realistic. The open porthole of the coachroof during a typhoon, and Redford’s slow reaction to getting the storm jib bent-on, notwithstanding, All Is Lost is a chastening experience for anyone who has ever sailed offshore.

Even the fact that two container ships virtually ran him down in his liferaft without seeing him is plausible. Keeping a lookout upon the broad ocean is notoriously haphazard with electronic systems which will steer and navigate giant ships. Although when I interviewed Captain Henrik Solmer, skipper of the then world’s largest ship, the 340m long Emma Maersk, I had no doubt of his integrity as a seaman in this regard, but then he was a yachtsman, too – the proud owner of a Sparkman & Stephens 46ft ketch.

Had I been in Mr Redford’s liferaft, I would have pulled in my drogue once I entered the shipping lanes and not allowed it to drag me clear, but then eight days in a liferaft with little food and less fresh water can do funny things to your mind.

Having twice investigated container loss for Yachting Monthly (June 2001 & April 2007) I know that the shipping industry is keen to keep the numbers of boxes lost a secret. There are up to 120 million container movements around the world each year and many go overboard as a result of storm, poor stowage and racking-system hatchways designed to avoid VAT.

There have been several case histories of yachts lost at sea which are thought to have been sunk by containers. Certainly more needs to be done to protect mariners from these uncharted rocks. Fitting them with GPS would be effective but expensive. So too would be putting extra ships in the export schedules enabling them to slow down in heavy weather.