Missing Matador: Lessons from a tangled spinnaker
Spinnaker Twilight Race, 13 December 2017.
Murray McCutcheon Skipper
This chat is about what happened solely from the crew’s perspective. There were other participant in the events of that night and their important stories may be retold on another occasion. The sailing committee has undertaken a number of changes since the incident and they can be explained in a later article.
Purpose and nature of “the Chat”
The purpose is to explain some of the lessons learned and in particular what other RMYS members could expect in the event that they issue an emergency call. The chat included some video footage clips but not the whole event. The chat was not an investigation on how or who did what to cause the spinnaker wrap or lay blame on anyone or any organization. It is the skipper who has the ultimate primary responsibility for what occurs on board.
On that evening, Matador left the dock with 5 crew on board. The crew that evening was Murray McCutcheon, Michael Morse, Paul Chivers, Graham Teece and Cassie Stephens. This crew has about 80 years combined bay keelboat between them plus some off-the-beach experience. Five crew were adequate for the condition and the crew’s experience was certainly adequate.
All of the crew had sailed Matador many times, and in more testing conditions.
Matador had started well, second across the start line at 6:42pm in northerly winds of about 10 knots, but with the wind subsequently rising at times to average about 22 knots. A weak change was forecast for later that night. Matador was first around E mark, second around C mark and then set a spinnaker towards R2. If all had gone to plan, we would have been the second boat to round R2.
However, on the second gybe at 7:15pm, the spinnaker wrapped tightly onto itself into a tight plait of spinnaker, forestay, and the top and lower part of the jib with a garnish of jib and spinnaker sheets. The central part of the spinnaker filled, forming a semi sphere and propelling the boat southwards.
The crew and I had faced spinnaker tangles on Matador before, but this one was tighter and more persistent then any we had ever previously encountered.
Our initial efforts to free the spinnaker failed. As we sped further and further from the club we saw the setting sun and were aware that a change was forecast. It was time to call the race tower.
Radio Call to the Race Tower
Wanting to remain on deck and with the rest of the crew fully engaged, I used the hand-held VHF radio on channel 72, the designated one for the race. I called the tower at least twice, the first call at 8:10pm, but we heard no response. As far as we knew no-one knew at that point that Matador was missing, and we had no way of knowing if we had been seen sailing off the course sailing south past R2.
I decided to put in a pan-pan call on channel 16. Marine Radio Victoria responded loudly and clearly, requesting latitude and longitude coordinates. This task proved difficult and took a crew member away from managing the situation on board. They also asked for a mobile phone number so that the Volunteer Coastguard could call us. When they did, we were informed that the water police would attend.
The crew remained fully occupied and were able to pull the jib down and lower the mainsail while still running with the wind. Cutting one of the spinnaker clews added to the noise but did not bring the spinnaker down. We had a heart stopping moment when we temporarily lost sight of one of our crew members. He emerged from the jumble of sails when he eventually heard our calls. The noise from the sails made all communication difficult.
Climbing the mast
The water police arrived but did not offer any further advice and did not board the boat. However, their presence was reassuring in case a rescue was needed.
The wind had abated and we took the only option of hoisting Cassie, our lightest crew member, up the mast to cut the spinnaker down. At last, it slowly unwrapped itself and dropped to the deck.
At around 9:00pm, when the situation was under control, the police launch departed and we started motoring back to the club.
We estimated that our location was offshore from Aspendale.
Telephone contact with RMYS
Michael Morse then went below and discovered a number of missed calls from the club. He called the commodore and part owner of Matador, Marcus Coppens. We then learned of the concern at the club for our safety and Michael called the RMYS sailing administrator, Allicia, to update her on our status.
We advised Allicia of our safe arrival at the mooring pen at 11:00pm and were greeting by much relieved family and club members.
Some Lessons for Matador
- Be aware of the limitations of hand held VHF radios. The hand held radio is not as powerful as a main radio with a mast head antennae. Some club members heard us, but we could not hear them. We had clearly heard RMYS tower and another RMYS boat discussing their injured crew member before we passed R2 but our reception cut out on the handheld somewhere a bit south of R2, except for Marine Radio Victoria signal.
- Mobile phones
Your mobile phone is your go-to backup communications device. It can communicate from anywhere on Port Phillip to anyone and anywhere in the world when your radio cannot. It can have really useful apps such as Share My GPS Co-ordinates, and ship tracker apps for when you cross the channel.
- Know who to call at RMYS if the tower does not respond.
The RMYS Sailing Committee has designated the following numbers:
- the squadron office 9534 0227 (if a f&d person answers the phone, instruct them to put the call through to someone in the office)
- the sailing co-ordinator, Allicia Rae 0415 111 261
- the general manager, Matt Solly, 0419 531 745
- Manage the communication with emergency services. Marine Radio Victoria will refer the call to the relevant authority. Marine Radio Victoria and each other emergency service are likely to ask you at least the follow questions:
- What are your GPS co-ordinates?
- The number of persons on board?
- Are any of them injured, disabled or children?
- Which of them are wearing a lifejacket? This is a question which is always asked by every emergency service and the press whenever there is any marine incident. The Matador crew always wear lifejackets. You need to ensure that you never have an incident unless all the crew are each wearing one. Unfortunately, you cannot leave it until the incident to start looking for where the lifejackets may be.
- What is the registration number of the boat? It is on the registration sticker on the boat. However, a sail number will do so long as the boat is registered.
- Why cannot the boat just be anchored?
- Be prepared with latitude and longitude coordinates as well as mobile phone numbers aboard.
“Three nautical miles west of the red bluffs at Black Rock” may not help as the radio operator may not be familiar with the area or even be in the State.
- Clearly identify the boat and its home port to the authority that responds. The water police did not identify where Matador was based from its registration and sail numbers and wrote in their report that it was from St Kilda Marina.
- Be aware that the water police provide rescue for people, but do not necessarily assist in solving boat problems.
- Call the club.
Emergency services will probably not contact the club. Use a mobile if necessary.
- Call your loved ones
They may have heard that you are missing and will want news that you are safe but you may need to prioritise between essential rescue work and a social chat. Emergency services generally will not contact the club or family that you are missing or found, unless they have previously been in contact for information.
The crew on Matador remained focused throughout the incident. We believed we were able to handle the conditions and would eventually get the spinnaker down. We did not feel that our lives were in imminent danger but were grateful that the water police attended and were on standby until the situation was under control just before dusk with a change forecast.
We were touched by the concern of all at the club and thank them all for their efforts in trying to locate the boat and communicate with us.
RMYS General Committee