Rambler capsize - conclusions

We look at the lessons that can be learned from the maxi boat capsize incident

Wednesday August 31st 2011, Author: James Boyd, Location: Ireland

This article follows on from part 1 and part 2....


It cannot be stressed enough how fortunate the Rambler crew was that no one was lost. This was certainly down to the calibre of her crew, including several of the most experienced offshore sailors in our sport, the professionalism of the Irish rescue services and the crew of the Wave Chieftain. But it was also due to a large measure of good luck: Had Rambler not capsized within 8 miles of the Irish coast (12 miles from Baltimore); had the incident not happened during daylight hours; had there not been a lifeboat conveniently out in the vicinity in the middle of an exercise/photo shoot; had the dive boat/Phaedo media boat not braved it out to the Fastnet Rock at the time of the incident, skippered by a member of the Baltimore lifeboat... It is a scary thought that if any one of these occurrences had not happened, it would have almost certainly resulted in a loss of life.

As Andrew Taylor put it: “We were just about caught out. Had it happened at night the result could have been quite different. We were lucky in many, many ways to get out of this with everyone alive. There are 20 lucky things that potentially helped us get through it. It could have been a lot worse for sure.”

Taylor admitted that Rambler 100 had just done the Transatlantic Race with the same crew as they were sailing with in the Rolex Fastnet Race. Prior to the transat they had been very thorough with their safety checks in ensuring that all the crew knew exactly where everything was, although he was aware that in comparison the 608 mile long Fastnet race was a sprint and perhaps they could have been more diligent with clipping on and having personal EPIRBs on them.

While the rescue was a success and there was no loss of life, the rescue process could have gone a lot smoother.

For example Peter Isler issued a MayDay over VHF that was not heard (although the antenna may have already been in the water at the time) and of the two 406MHz personal EPIRBs that were set off, just one worked, although admittedly this probed to be enough.

Due to the slow way in which the COSPAS/SARSAT system operates (remember the system is almost 30 years old now) - the distress message was only received by the MRSC in Valentia at 1729 GMT, some 45 minutes after the capsize. This is not unusual - up to around one hour is typical. As Hugh Agnew pointed out: “I think a lot us don’t realise how much latency there is. We all think that if you set off a personal EPRIB a helicopter will be overhead in 10 minutes...”

It was then the job of the MRSC to determine the boat to which the locator was registered and, significantly, whether the distress signal was a real or false alarm.

“A lot of these EPIRB or PLBes are false alarms,” points out John Falvey, Division Controller with the Irish Coastguard, based in Valentia MRSC, which co-ordinated the rescue. “Because you have to make a judgment call on what to do, a certain amount of time is spent trying to establish contact with the vessel to see if indeed there is a problem. Obviously after a period, if you can’t establish contact with them, then you must assume at that point there might be a problem and then you have to treat it like it was real and in this case it was.”

This process took longer than it should have. Identifying the owner of the beacon was problematic. Initially the Coastguard put out a call for information regarding a boat called ‘GG Bernard competing in the Rolex Fastnet Race’. From on board ICAP Leopard, Hugh Agnew responded to the Coastguard to the effect that there was no such boat in the Rolex Fastnet Race. Being a French-sounding name, it seemed likely at that point that an EPIRB may have fallen off one of the French multihulls that had rounded the Rock several hours beforehand. It was only when the coastguard mentioned the name ‘George David’ that the connection to Rambler was made. It later transpired that GG Bernard is George David’s PA, who’s name was registered alongside the EPIRB’s unique ID number as a point of contact in the event of an emergency.

At 1751 GMT the Baltimore lifeboat was dispatched to the co-ordinates of the beacon (51 20.45°N 9 37.97°W) and later reported finding nothing. Only at around 1830 GMT - one and three quarter hours after her capsize - when the Rambler crew failed to be raised on the boat’s satphone was the level of emergency elevated to a MayDay.

So this is clearly something to be born in mind when registering a PLB, but also something for boat crews and race organisers to consider. Should a PLB be registered to a boat or an individual? Professional crew tend to move between boats a lot, so perhaps it should be down to boat owners to provide PLBs registered to their boat, rather than individual crew bringing their own? Although a heinous task, a register of these PLBs should be kept by the race organisers and provided to all the MRCCs/MRSCs operating in the race area.

While we are used to seeing Volvo 70s and IMOCA 60s with hydrostatic release 406MHz EPIRBs strapped to their pushpits, Rambler’s EPIRB was stowed below, as were her grab bags. “Not much of the normal bringing up of grab bags and activating EPIRBs happened,” states Peter Isler. “Because those people who were down there were scrambled for their lives and I was calling MayDay. I was hoping a grab bag had been taken, but no.”

There were also a few boat issues, not least being why the keel broke off.

Rambler 100 is fitted with a canting keel and twin asymmetric daggerboard set-up. Not being built to class rules, unlike IMOCA 60s or Volvo Ocean 70s, she is not subject to any stability or AVS rules and therefore in addition to her canting keel she also carries a substantial amount of water ballast (up to 8 tonnes) to create lateral stability (as well as affecting fore and aft trim) - read more about the boat when she was launched here. As a result she can have a low displacement configuration when sailing in light winds, but when it gets windy, with keel fully canted and all the water ballast in, the power of the hull can be seriously pumped up.

Canting keels have their detractors based on their having a disproportionate number of problems – from foil breakage to flutter and keel head breakage - across supermaxis (Skandia), Volvo Open 70s (movistar in the 2005-6 round the world race) and in IMOCA 60 classes (Mike Plant’s Coyote pre-1992 Vendee Globe, Exide Challenge in the 1996 Vendee, Skandia in the 2004 Vendee and in the last Vendee’ Jean le Cam’s VM Materiaux).

Driven by twin hydraulic rams, the foil for Rambler 100’s canting keel was built in steel, and according to designer Juan K “the material, method, builder and criteria used for this keel is exactly the same as all of the VOR70s that we've done.” That presumably means the keel was forged (rather than fabricated) engineered to a x3 safety factor, while the VO70 rule states that ‘for design purposes the tensile yield strength or proof stress is not to be taken as greater than 390MPa for steel and steel alloys’.

Mike Sanderson, who was deeply involved with the concept and development of the boat, as it was designed by Juan K and built by Mick Cookson in New Zealand, originally as Alex Jackson’s Speedboat, confirms: “The keel was one of the areas where we were conservative with the boat with the idea that later in her life we’d put in a carbon keel [foil] in.”

No mention has come from the Rambler crew about having hit anything or the keel having touched the bottom at any point. While she has this year been down to the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, Rambler’s mileage is substantial but small compared to that of the round the world Volvo Open 70s and IMOCA 60s. The remnants of her keel are currently being analysed.

An issue with using hi-tech steels is that they require very specialised skills to work them so it is more possible for tiny imperfections to appear in the manufacturing process - this is believed to have been the problem with some of the IMOCA 60 fabricated steel keel foil breakages. They also require constant maintenance, as if, for example, their paintwork gets damaged or the smallest area of corrosion takes hold, then this can create a weak spot.

Despite the statistics, a lot of canting keels of all constructions (fabricated and forged steel and carbon fibre) have made it around the world and we don’t believe that canting keels are inherently dangerous providing they are engineered with a high enough safety factor and are regularly maintained. It will be interesting to see what the Rambler team choose as their replacement foil.

There are other issues to come to light from the incident, for which several solutions can be found in the IMOCA 60 rules (download these here), a class of offshore canting keelers which, as mentioned, have suffered more than their fair share of keel failures. Clearly the way the liferafts were mounted on Rambler was a significant issue and here they should probably take a leaf out of the IMOCA 60 rule which requires that rafts be mounted into a recess in the transom. They also demand an escape hatch be fitted in the transom and this would also make sense as inside here a grab bag and other vital safety equipment could be stowed.

Rambler was clearly hard to spot upside down and it seems reasonable enough that part of her underside should have been painted in a high visibility colour for this eventuality – just in the same way as similar paint should be used in an area of her deck to ensure she could be seen from the air or a ship in the event of a dismasting.

“I’m sure the next Rambler or the existing boat will have coloured fins when you see it next,” confirms Peter Isler. “I’d like to think that not only Leopard, who was closest, but also the Volvo boats, would have seen us.”

As to the safety equipment, the five in the water clearly did a remarkable job to keep themselves alive for the best part of three hours. Had they not all been wearing lifejackets then the outcome would certainly have been different. From Joe Fanelli’s comments, the incident once again highlights how essential it is to wear crutch straps, to keep the wearer in the lifejacket.

So would they have been easier to find in the dark with their lights and strobes? “I have thought about that,” says Peter Isler. “I would like to think we on the boat would have been rescued or spotted sooner, but the swimmers would have had a less of a chance of being spotted.”

So what would have been most useful safety equipment for those in the water or those on top of Rambler’s up turned hull in the circumstances? A waterproof VHF? Hugh Agnew makes the point that race boat crews perhaps don’t monitor Channel 16 as rigorously as they should and normally the radio is on only below deck. He cites their case on board ICAP Leopard as they rounded the mark and headed for the Pantaenius offset mark, when the radio was on down below, but at the time they were upwind into 30 knots and on deck it couldn’t be heard above the already considerable racket. However presumably the range of a handheld VHF would be adequate to get a distress call heard by the crew on a quieter vessel nearby that was listening on 16 and could relay a distress call.

Peter Isler comments: “Race rules, either require or suggest that Channel 16 be monitored. Ever since I was part of that Blue Yankee tragedy when we lost a guy, I have always made sure every boat I’m on monitors Channel 16. I would like to think someone would have picked it up.”

Given there was a helicopter at the Rock and the number of boats seen both by the crew on the upturned hull and those in the water, but which didn’t see them, a pack of flares would have been the most useful item to have had with them. Peter Isler agrees with this “or a satellite phone...” However on Rambler 100 the flares were in the liferafts and the grab bags, still inside the boat and would have required a dangerous dive beneath the upturned hull to retrieve them. “It’s a tricky thing. With safety gear – your wishes vary depending upon the situation,” concludes Isler.

Another option that could have attracted the attention of other vessels in the area would have been if any of the crew had had the new Kannad Marine R10 SRS personal AIS beacon (below), a compact device that fits into a lifejacket and is mandatory for crew competing in the forthcoming Volvo Ocean Race. Then, in theory, both the crew on Rambler's upturned hull and the five in the water would have appears of the AIS displays aboard the boats passing them.

It is believed an enquiry into the Rambler incident is being carried out by the Irish Coastguard. We look forward to seeing their findings.

Our thanks to Leon Sefton and the TV team from IMG for their help with this series of articles


Latest Comments

  • waylandsailor 28/09/2011 - 14:45

    Excellent article. There is so much noise on Ch 16 that it is hard to monitor in the best of conditions and a distraction while racing. A Mayday call might not cut through the clutter. The personal AIS seems like an excellent solution- we have had AIS receiving for three years and added AIS out this year. Nearby boats standout easily on the chart plotter and, especially if an emergency signal were differentiated, would be crystal clear to nearby boats and lead rescuers to the exact location. Don Mitchell
  • James Robinson ... 01/09/2011 - 15:48

    More kudo's for James, excellent articles. Hope IMOCA 60 stability etc. rules will go across the board now...
  • jhstacey 01/09/2011 - 13:02

    Quality articles James. Plenty for all of us to think about and discuss.
  • brittep 01/09/2011 - 12:25

    Great to hear that everyone is safe, also a very interesting post incident review for us all to follow. A key area that is interesting is that people didnt hear the may day being put out. The reality is that people do not have Ch16 on all the time where it can be heard. Perhaps manufactutrers of instruments can integrate the intruments to flash visual alerts on deck when a May day is issued by anyone, (not good for RTI maybe!) but this would alert surrounding boats to listem in to ch16
  • rmb 01/09/2011 - 07:21

    perhaps all ocean racing boats ought to have a look at the IMOCA safety rules, and take them into consideration. especially canting keel boats, where IMOCA has by far the most experience.
  • 370111 31/08/2011 - 17:02

    Many thanks for the three articles. Outstanding work. Nice one, James

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