Jimmy Cornell explains how he dealt with grounding, prop entanglement, collision, lightning strike, a carbon monoxide scare... and more!
Perhaps it is inevitable in my long and eventful sailing life that I’ve faced a number of emergency situations. In every case I was able to deal with them successfully.
People ask how I managed to complete all these thousands of miles and end up without any serious problems. The easiest answer would be to say that I have been lucky, but I must admit that I have been well prepared and also cautious.
Fitting out the 36ft van de Stadt-designed Aventura myself taught me the importance of being self-sufficient, and ever since then I have attempted to do all that is necessary to be prepared for the worst.
One golden rule I have learned is not to panic. It is indeed crucial in an emergency situation to keep calm, take time to properly assess the situation, draw up a plan of action and then act.
The importance of having such an attitude in an emergency situation was confirmed by Mike Johnson, a former fighter jet pilot and mountaineer, who took part in one of my world cruising surveys on voyage planning. He said: “In the final analysis, it all depends on knowledge, preparation and constant review.
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The challenge of finding solutions to practical problems is something I have enjoyed as far back as I can remember.…
Whether you go to sea under power or sail, you'll almost certainly find yourself aground at some point in your…
“We use a simple acronym for most of our decision-making – DODAR: diagnose the problem; options available; decide on the most appropriate; act upon it; review how it is working. If necessary, return to step one.
“This may sound simplistic but we have seen so many minor situations develop into disasters because people didn’t even begin at the first step.”
I have chosen some incidents that highlight the most essential points: the ability to deal with an emergency when it happens, and to put right what is broken, or at least find a temporary solution.
I’ll start with my first serious emergency – running aground on a coral reef – because it taught me some valuable lessons which, I am convinced, helped me overcome similar situations in the future.
While sailing from Puerto Rico to the Bahamas on Aventura I, we stopped at Grand Turk Island and decided to explore the nearby Ambergris Cays on the edge of the Caicos Bank.
As we moved from the deep channel into the shallow waters of the bank, I could see a clear unobstructed way ahead, leading to darker blue water. Suddenly a passing cloud obscured the sun and the transparent water ahead of us turned to quicksilver.
I slowed down and continued on what I believed was the same course, but came to a crunching halt on top of a massive coral head. Even with the engine on full power ahead, and then astern, we didn’t budge.
I donned my mask and saw that Aventura’s keel was jammed in a deep coral cleft. What I still remember, however, was that instead of being concerned by our predicament, I was absolutely fascinated by the stunning underwater scenery.
I had dived before in many attractive places, but what confronted me was beautiful beyond imagination. Fish of all colours, shapes and sizes darted among large swaying coral fans, spiny lobsters were sweeping their antennae from their hidey-holes, while a large Napoleon wrasse glanced with a bored look at this intruder into its territory.
I had to grip the edge of the coral head to avoid being swept away by the strong current that I realised had pushed us off course.
Back on board, I got a spare anchor, tied it to a halyard and swam it some distance away in the hope of heeling Aventura over, and thus reduce its draught to get out of its trap. It was to no avail. The keel was firmly gripped in the coral vice.
After pounding on top of the reef for a couple of hours, a rising tide and a fortuitous swell lifted Aventura up and deposited her in the sheltered waters behind the reef.
In spite of the battering, the strong fibreglass hull had only suffered a few scratches, but my self-confidence was severely dented and it took us all a long time to recover from that frightening experience.
An incident on the 40ft Aventura II occurred near the end of a passage from the Azores to Gibraltar, as we passed Cape St Vincent. With the weather settled and the situation looking clear ahead, I decided to have a short rest. It’s something I always try to do before landfall after a long passage, when even a short sleep helps clear the mind.
Before going below, I told my two crew to call me if they saw anything of concern. I was woken abruptly by a loud knock followed by a grinding noise. I jumped into the cockpit and alongside, within reach, was a flashing light on a perch.
I knew immediately that we’d run into one of those gigantic tuna nets that Spanish fishermen set in that area. My guess was confirmed when I looked over the side and saw in my torchlight a thick cable and a heavy net hanging from it.
I quickly raised the retractable keel to stop it being entangled and prepared my powerful cable cutters, which I always kept in an easily accessible place. I then called Tarifa Radio, as it was the nearest shore station, explained our predicament and said that if help was not forthcoming I would cut the cable.
“Don’t do that, please don’t do that,” a voice screamed in Spanish. “Wait. We are coming immediately.”
A fishing boat soon headed towards us at speed and the helmsman signalled us to follow him. First he positioned his own keel over the cable to lower it and, with Aventura’s keel retracted, we managed to get across both the cable and net.
The boat guided us to a gate in the huge net a couple of miles away… and we were free. What had saved us was the best tool in my kit: my Spanish.
My crew had broken one of my most important rules: to inform the skipper immediately if they saw anything suspicious. They told me later that they’d seen a faint flashing light, but had estimated it to be much further away.
While on passage on Ovni 43 Aventura III from Réunion to South Africa, with a Finnish friend, we encountered bad weather off the southern tip of Madagascar. During my night watch, with the wind steady at 35 knots and our speed never going below 9 knots, the pattern of the waves changed and the swell started to look menacing.
I’d seen higher waves in the Southern Ocean while returning from Antarctica to Cape Horn, but was not expecting to see anything as bad in what I believed were more benign waters.
Earlier that evening there had been a warning on Inmarsat C that a ship had seen several large logs afloat in that area. The threat of collision was at the back of my mind as I was savouring the thrill of seeing 12.5 knots on the speedometer.
While surfing down a big wave, above the hiss and rumble, I heard a loud noise. The boat pulled out of its slide and I heard a louder noise coming from the direction of the steering.
The movement of the boat almost instantly changed, and I suspected that the autopilot had gone off. I disengaged it, grabbed the wheel and it felt heavy and unresponsive. I lifted the cockpit grating and saw that the 12mm bolt joining the hydraulic autopilot ram to the rudder quadrant had sheared.
As the steering also appeared to be faulty, I decided to heave to. I lowered the centreboard, as it had been raised while we were broadreaching. As we were sailing under reefed mainsail and staysail, I hauled in both sheets and turned into the wind.
Hove-to with the wheel lashed to windward, Aventura was close-reaching slowly into the large swell. I found a replacement bolt and replaced the broken one, brought the boat back on course, still wondering why it was so hard to steer, and re-engaged the pilot.
Only then did it occur to me to check the rudder hydraulics. I tried to pump down the rudder but it felt dead, thus confirming my suspicion that this was probably the cause of our troubles.
If the valve controlling the rudder or centreboard was not left in the open position, and one or the other hit something, the resulting pressure blew a sacrificial copper disk that opened the hydraulic circuit.
As I had spare disks taped to the hydraulic pump in a plastic bag for this eventuality, it only took me a couple of minutes to replace the sacrificial disk. Only then did it occur to me that we might have hit one of those logs that had been reported adrift off Madagascar.
Whatever it was, the boat had ridden over it and, as the centreboard was raised, it ended up hitting the rudder. The rudder had two parts. The upper part was fixed and the lower part could swing up, as when the boat was beached.
Thanks to its design, the rudder had absorbed the shock without suffering any apparent damage. One year later, when the boat was hauled out, I noticed a suspicious crack in the main rudder body. It could have only been a consequence of that collision, which must have been very violent to crack the huge aluminium plate.
Later, I heard on the radio that the upturned keel-less hull of the South African yacht Moquini had been discovered soon afterwards south of that same area. Of its crew of six there was no sign.
The 42ft yacht had been taking part in the Mauritius to Durban race when it disappeared. I am sure that they must have hit something similar, as violent thunderstorms that had devastated parts of Madagascar around that time had washed a lot of debris into the ocean.
Carbon monoxide scare
Another breakdown on Aventura III, that also deserves to be mentioned, happened in Croatia. My wife, Gwenda, and I had been joined by our daughter Doina and her children Nera and Dan for a summer cruise.
We were motoring down the Krka River after having visited the spectacular Krka waterfalls when the engine temperature alarm sounded. I switched off the engine and found that it had overheated.
Being on a river, I suspected that we’d picked up some weed or debris, but when I checked the seawater trap I noticed a lot of water in the engine bilge. I realised that we might have a more serious problem. I dropped the anchor where we were, which unfortunately was right in the middle of the river, and in the way of the numerous excursion boats.
When I lifted the floorboards in the aft cabin to look at the back of the engine, I was met by a strong smell of exhaust fumes. The plastic manifold heat exchanger had a large hole in its side through which both exhaust and cooling water had been able to escape.
While Gwenda was trying to make clear to passing excursion boats that we had not anchored there for afternoon tea, but because we had a problem, I got a tube of underwater epoxy, rolled and mixed the two components and managed to cover the hole. We waited an hour for it to set, turned the key and the engine ran happily.
It was quite a minor problem that could be dealt with easily, but it could have had very serious consequences. Doina, Nera and Dan slept in the aft cabin and if this problem had happened at night, when they were asleep, they could have been overcome by the highly poisonous carbon monoxide in the exhaust fumes.
The fumes would have leaked out of the heat exchanger long before the engine had overheated to trigger off the alarm. Just the thought of what could have happened still makes me shudder.
After the decision to abandon the attempt of a transit of the Northwest Passage because of unfavourable ice conditions, we turned around to sail back to Greenland. With gale-force winds forecast for the following day, we were motoring fast through Lancaster Sound towards the open sea.
During Doina’s watch I was woken by a loud noise from the engine. I rushed into the cockpit and stopped it as it was making a rattling metallic sound.
It sounded like we had picked up something on the propeller. With the engine out of action and a gale imminent, I needed to find out if the propeller was indeed fouled. I strapped the GoPro camera with its underwater housing to the end of an ice pole, lowered it over the side and managed to get a good view.
A thick rope was wound around the propeller, with its end trailing behind. I realised that something more serious might have happened and found that the bolts between the propeller shaft and transmission had sheared.
The rope had been strong enough to immobilise the propeller shaft and rip it off its mounts. With much drifting ice, and large icebergs still about, not being able to use the engine for the remaining 1,000 miles to Nuuk would have been a serious handicap.
My mind was soon focused on the imminent gale, so we reefed down and continued sailing until we had consistent winds of over 35 knots. We hove-to with three reefs in the mainsail and most of the staysail rolled in and easily rode out the gale.
After a dozen hours, the wind started going down and I could work on the engine. As I had no spare bolts on board, I found some longer bolts and cut them down to size with the electric angle grinder. I retrieved the sheared-off bolts from the bilge, and recuperated their nuts.
Hanging upside down over the back of the engine, I managed to pull back the propeller shaft sufficiently to reconnect it to the transmission.
It was time to deal with the rope itself. Although I could turn the propeller shaft by hand and it felt as it were free, I dared not start the engine and put it in gear. I donned my dry diving suit and kitted myself out for a dive in the ice cold water. I decided not to use a diving tank for a job that could only take a few minutes.
Attached to the boat with a safety line, I dived under the boat, cut off some of the rope and freed the propeller. Getting out of the water weighed down by 12kg of lead weights, with the boat bouncing violently in the rough swell, required a superhuman effort. Although I was wearing a dry suit, the hood was not dry and I could feel the cold getting to my head.
I knew that I was in a critical situation and that I had to get out of the water quickly. I had only about one minute before serious hypothermia would set in and I may no longer be able to act rationally.
The sight of Doina standing helplessly above me gave me the strength to lie on my back and lift my feet one by one out of the water so that she could reach down and pull off my large fins.
I then managed to put my foot on the lowest rung of the boarding ladder and she helped me onto the stern platform. I dropped exhausted into the cockpit, and Doina later told me that I could hardly speak and sounded incoherent.
When I’d recovered, I started the engine and put in forward gear, but kept it at slow revs. I checked the propeller with the underwater camera and could see it turning freely, the end of the rope trailing harmlessly behind.
After half an hour of motoring, I checked the bolts and they were tight. Eight days later we were in Nuuk, where once again I donned my dry suit, but this time also a diving tank. In the calm water I reached the propeller, where some of the line was waving idly in the current.
I cut it off with a serrated knife, but could not cut the rest, which had fused to the propeller-shaft. That was a job that had to wait until Aventura IV could be hauled out at a US boatyard, 3,500 miles from where the incident had happened.
Although we did have a serious emergency in Seville when we were struck by lightning, all repair jobs were carried out by Outremer and Oceanvolt, with no contribution from my side. We had no other problems with Aventura Zero, but I must make a confession.
Having been a monohull owner for more than 40 years I still had doubts about the vulnerability of a catamaran in heavy weather. I did take that factor into account when I ordered the Outremer 45, as I needed a performance catamaran for my project of achieving an entirely autonomous electric boat capable of both propulsion and electricity generation.
To put my mind at rest I was sincerely hoping that we would encounter some bad weather on our maiden voyage. My weird wish came true not with one but three instances when we had strong winds of 40 knots, and on one occasion with gusts of 50 knots. It happened on the return passage from Tenerife to France while passing Ibiza.
It was a proper Mediterranean winter storm with winds in the high 30s and a swell to match. Everything was going well although we were sailing too fast for my taste. We put the third reef in the mainsail and rolled in the Solent to one third of its surface, but when the winds started hitting the 40s, we dropped the mainsail completely.
We continued broad reaching and, to my amazement but also relief, Aventura Zero was as “stable as a dining table”, as I wrote in my logbook, taking the high swell in her stride, surfing at 12 to 14 knots, peaking once at 18.4 knots. There was no sign of instability; on the contrary, it was an exhilarating experience to see the enormous wake streaking out behind us and my doubts were put to rest.
I’m often asked about encountering bad weather and I have to admit I have only experienced winds over 50 knots on half a dozen occasions. The explanation is simple: I always left the tropics to avoid the hurricane or cyclone seasons, but took a calculated risk when sailing in high latitudes, where we did indeed encounter real heavy weather, and were prepared for that.
Even in these days of climate change, extreme weather conditions are still very rare during the safe seasons on the commonly travelled cruising routes.
How to deal with emergencies at sea
Carbon monoxide safety
Many people don’t realise the dangers of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. It only takes one faulty appliance, blocked flue or a build-up of engine exhaust gas to potentially harm you and your family. You can download a free guide from the Boat Safety Scheme website.
- All the crew should know the symptoms of CO poisoning and how to react.
- Install fuel burning appliances properly, in line with manufacturer’ directions.
- Follow servicing guidelines; maintenance should be routine and competent – don’t allow bodged repairs or adaptations.
- Always use appliances as per the instructions and never use cookers for space heating.
- Don’t block ventilation – appliance fuels like gas, coal, wood, oil, paraffin, etc need sufficient air to burn safely.
- Don’t bring charcoal barbecues on board, or have them near a cabin during or after use – only stone-cold charcoal is safe.
- Keep engine fumes out of the cabin space, never use a portable generator in or near a cabin.
- Learn about the danger signs, spot potential hazards before CO occurs.
- Deal with problems immediately, never use equipment you suspect has problems.
- Install at least one certified CO alarm (BS EN 50291-2), test it routinely and never remove the batteries.
Most cruising sailors on going aground will drop the sails and put the engine hard astern. And it’s nearly always the right decision – unless you can quickly spin the boat off the mud by tacking, the engine is likely to offer the fastest way out of trouble. Adding in other techniques such as weight on the bow or heeling the boat can help make it more effective:
- Moving weight forwards is particularly effective on long-keeled yachts. It also tends to lift the rudder clear of the mud, regaining steerage. Additionally, get your crew to bounce in unison to break the suction a sticky bottom can have on a grounded keel.
- A similar effect can often be obtained from the wash of a passing powerboat or a friendly jet-skier.
- Hanging a weight from the boom can induce heel, which might get you off the bottom.
- Backing the mainsail, dinghy-style, can work well in light to medium airs.
- If the bottom is firm, you may be able to push off with the boathook or spinnaker pole, or get a keen member of crew to go over the side and push.
- Lighten ship – try offloading the liferaft, jerry cans, outboards and spare crew into the dinghy to reduce the draught or break the suction in mud.
- Rowing a kedge out is one of the most powerful weapons in the sailor’s armoury when aground. A neat alternative solution is to use a convenient mooring buoy or even a line ashore if appropriate.
- Taking a tow from another boat in deep water, which has room to manoeuvre
- If all else fails – put the kettle on.
- If your boat will completely dry out, climb overboard and stuff all your fenders and any other padding under the side as she takes the ground.
- Heavy seas or uneven ground can make the situation dangerous. Try to strap some padding into place before the lifeboat takes you to safety. Anything will do: cushions, sail bags, even a half-inflated dinghy.
- Alert the coastguard of your position. They always prefer to know about a problem before it becomes an emergency.
Read more about how to recover from a grounding.
Before you jump over the side to clear a fouled propeller, consider how you might get back on board. It’s easy to forget, but on some boats without sugar-scoops or boarding ladders, it could prove fatal. Do you need to pump up the dinghy?
Fishing gear that poses a hazard to navigation because it cannot be readily seen has been a concern to boaters for many years and on the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) agenda for just as long. Legislation focuses on the marking of fishing gear for identification purposes and not for collision avoidance, which is of course the RYA’s main concern.
Data on entanglements is poor and lacks detail. You can report an incident on the RYA website.
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This feature appeared in the June 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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