Free to Founder

Lead Line — August 2005
By Richard Thiel

Free to Founder
Freedom includes the opportunity to make mistakes—sometimes stupid mistakes.
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One of the best things about boats is the freedom they impart. On the water you’re largely free of the constraints involved in terrestrial locomotion and can pretty much go where you please, as fast as you are able. But such freedom also includes the opportunity to make mistakes—sometimes stupid mistakes, sometimes serious ones—a fact brought home to me last May as I perused The New York Times over my morning coffee.

The first story was about the USS San Francisco, a 6,900-ton nuclear submarine that was reportedly cruising at around 33 knots in 550 feet of water some 360 miles off Guam in January when she rammed an undersea mountain that wasn’t on her chart. The collision killed one seaman and injured 98 others, but things would have been much worse had it not been for a lot of heroism and quick thinking.

A Navy investigation placed full responsibility on the San Francisco’s captain for going too fast, relying on just one chart (apparently the only one on which the mountain did not appear), and not taking enough soundings. But two sentences struck me. One was a statement by the ship’s XO: “I look at it as just a lot of really bad luck.” How many times have you heard a boater explain a mishap in just those words? The other was the paper’s conclusion that the accident has stirred concerns that “Navy training places more emphasis on engineering than on skills like navigation.” I couldn’t help but think of those who worry about boaters relying too much on navigational electronics and not enough on basic paper-chart skills.

The other story was a decidedly more upbeat adventure saga that “began innocently with three friends, an assortment of guitars, a full bottle of Myers’s Rum, a hookah, and a dream of the open water.” It seems a young man named Roman owned an nameless 26-foot sailboat on which he and two friends, both named Alex, decided to go for a springtime voyage, departing a Brooklyn marina at around 7 p.m. Almost immediately, Roman fell into the water and lost his cellphone. Fortunately the water was barely knee-deep, but perhaps out of a sense of loss, Roman drank the entire bottle of Myers.

The Times made no mention of the hookah, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that the boat went hard aground at around 11 p.m. Her onboard VHF was inoperable, and the trio had already shot off the boat’s flares in an impromptu fireworks display, so they simply went to sleep. On awakening the next day, one of the Alexes decided to swim for what he thought was shore but was actually an island. Meanwhile his companions were spotted and rescued by a NYPD helicopter. Unfortunately, they neglected to mention the marooned Alex, and it wasn’t until seven hours later that he was spotted, in soggy underwear, by a fishing boat, which he tried to swim to. Before he could drown, the same NYPD chopper spotted and rescued him.

Obviously, although we all strive for it, freedom can be a dangerous thing.

This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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