I recently made note about a woman delivering a fifty foot sailboat from Tahiti to Southern California. While motor sailing near the equator she came on deck one morning and found the watch stander missing. The boat was on auto pilot and traveling at eight knots. She had told Jim at midnight to rouse her at 0330. It was now 0630. The pelican hook was open and the starboard stanchion gate was down. Jim was probably taking a leak, leaned against the gate, it opened and he fell overboard. He was now treading water somewhere along a fifty two mile course line. Her radio was in operative so she couldn't call for an air search. She searched for three days and then headed for Hawaii dreading the heart wrenching phone call she must make to Jim's parents.
Every year auto pilots get boaters into trouble. Most skippers are lucky and only damage or lose their boats. Bill Kitchens, a good friend of mine departed the Dana Point harbor yacht club one evening at sunset. He cleared the red bell bouy marking the reefs off Dana Point. He put his Hans Christian 36 cutter on course for the Newport Beach break water and engaged the auto pilot. It was a chilly evening and spray was coming aboard. He ducked under the dodger and relaxed a bit. Two hours later he was startled awake as his forty foot mast, boom and rigging came crashing down and landed next to him. His navigation had been spot on. He missed colliding with the Newport jetty by about fifty yards, his boat continued on and went under the Balboa pier about a mile north west of the breakwater.
Captain Ron as the locals called him had raced his boat "Naughty Gal" in a series of races off Long Beach. Ron and his crew had done well in the two day series and partied a bit at the Long Beach Yacht Club before the trophy awards. After picking up his trophy and bidding his crew farewell he headed "Naughty Gal" out of the Long Beach marina, and put his finely tuned thirty six foot race boat on course for Newport and set the auto pilot. It had been an exciting and exhausting weekend. "Naughty Gal" was motoring nicely in the westerly swell and Ron perhaps dozed a bit as his boat ticked off the miles. A horrendous crash brought Ron to reality as his entire rig came crashing down on deck. It was pitch black. There was a strong order of diesel fuel and the sound of powerful diesel engines. "Naughty Gal" was trapped under what seemed like a monster out of a horror movie and was crashing and slamming into some type of pilings and steel beams. Then it dawned on our good captain. He was under oil platform Eva which was about a mile north west of the Huntington Beach pier.
Think these stories over. I've got dozens more and I'm sure you do to. The solutions and preventions are simple and basic but the accidents keep happening. I think often of Jim on his first and last ocean passage treading water in the warm equatorial currents as he watched the bright stern light of the yacht get dimmer and dimmer and finally disappear.
Pictured is a lovely boat we recently purchased salvage from. While a bit south of Bahia de Los Angeles in the Sea of Cortez off the Baja coast the skipper had his boat on auto pilot, thought he was further off shore and took a little nap. The eighty year old skipper was not injured, his boat was a total loss. I've got the mainsail and jib and some nice self tailing winches off it at the store....