Sailing Race: Sailboat Sinks: Interview with Owner

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Below is an interview I conducted via email with Brian Nagle, the owner of the J24 sailboat "Magic Hat" that sank during the J24 Nationals held in Seattle. I would like to thank Brian for taking time to share his experience with the sailing community. There is some good stuff here.


Note: Some of the questions below are from members of the Sailing Anarchy forum.

XS: There is a fairly high level of interest there in hearing about your experience with the hope that others may learn from it. Also, several members of the SA forum asked me to pass along their condolences and thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.

XS: Tell us a little about yourself and your boat.

BN: I began sailing 11 years ago crewing on PHRF boats and sailing a Prindle 18. I'd classify myself as a good club sailor who continues to work and improve to become excellent. For me, the J24 was the perfect keel boat venue to develop skills. We've sailed the boat in three geographies, Lake Michigan, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, and in each locale, we learned against the some of the best sailors in the country. When we got a top of the fleet finish we knew we had earned it.

I've been preparing for a J24 Class world qualifying event for the last couple of years. Piece by piece, the boat was coming together nicely. We had the keel done last year. My team and I stripped the old Teflon paint off the bottom and wetsanded the gel coat. We had a new rudder and a full set of brand new sails. We had just received the class association measurement certificate to compete at that level only a week before the event. New sheets, good halyards, great hardware - As I've begun to look at other boats on the market, I realize how well she was optimized. I should have increased the insured value as I continued investment of time, effort and money. I will pay much more to get back to the same level.

It's important to add a couple of comments about the team that was aboard that day: Chris Roberts, Doug Gordon, Jakob Lichtenberg and Tony Williams. We had put together a pretty good team in the late winter to try to make a run at a top 10 finish in the competition. With 3 collegian sailors and a former sailmaker aboard we knew what we were doing and sailed the boat well in challenging conditions through the weekend. Sailing is a complicated game that provides technical, strategic, physical and social challenges. My sense of loss is not over the article, it's over the interruption of the experience. Our team was finally beginning to perform, after a great deal of hard work storming and norming. I was breaking through a performance plateau that I had been stuck in for a couple of years. We're going to have put all that on hold for a while until we get new hardware and get back in the game.

XS: What were the conditions like on the day of the race?

BN: There was a low pressure system moving through with storm clouds blowing over throughout the day. The wind was coming out of the south, ranging from the upper teens to upper twenties, in correlation to the passage of the storm lines. The gusts were heaviest on the leading and trailing edge of the cloud lines and tended to back to SSEish, but not all the time. The wind layed down a bit in the second race and then built back up through the last.

The speculation is that at the time of the crash a line of micro-bursts moved down the course at the backend of the most recent cloud line, with vertical gusts from the 30s to 50s (based on anecdotal reports around the area of the race course.)

XS: We've heard a lot about how a huge gust blew through, and folks assessment of the wind strength of the gust. But what was the wave size that day? (question from SA member "bjmoose").

We were in an ebb current most of the day, yet still waves ranged from 1 to maybe 4 feet. The bigger waves came in triplets, which made driving up-wind a bit of a challenge. In spite of terrible starts (my bad), we passed a lot of boats upwind and down.

XS: Can you describe the sequence of events that lead up to the initial broach.

BN: Here is what happened:

The conditions were brisk, but manageable. The adrenaline was flowing and all five of us were performing at max, doing a great job and going fast. We were flying on the run in 18+ wind doing a great job planing out the boat on with each puff/wave pair. We were holding the boat pretty deep, keeping the boat balanced and the rudder planted. We had the weight all the way back to keep the nose of the boat from crashing into the wave in front of us. I had just settled the boat down after a really big puff where we planed out really nice and surged forward, when a monster header hit us over starboard.

The rudder was out of the water and in an instant we fell off the edge. We slammed down so hard that the mast tip was in the water, pointing downwind, before the bow could turn head to wind. Sheet-man, main/guy-man were thrown in the water, clear and unhurt, while foredeck and helm tried frantically to get over the top to step on the keel. Vang-man made it to the high side but didn't have enough mass to lift her up. With the waves pushing on the hull and sails, she turtled within seconds after the knockdown and four of us were the water, huddled by the stern, while Jakob walked over her as she rolled.

My immediate concern was that the boats coming down the course would slam into us but when I looked up all I could see were shredded kites and boats over everywhere. Four of us had PFDs and I buddied up with the fifth to get him on top of the boat. She was slipping slowly with each wave, so we spun the keel as quickly as we could but she came up bow down. "Bye Bye Boat." She was under in less than a minute.

Two chase boats were on us and the crew was out of the water as the stern slipped from view. Thanks to the CYC Seattle Race Committee for their prompt response and professionalism in the situation. Thanks to the Seattle Sailing Center for the warm passage back to the dock.

XS: This was not a case of cockpit lazarette latches opening, right? Did the boat turn turtle and then sink on being righted? Or did it flood via the companionway while it was on its side? (questions from SA member "bjmoose").

Once the boat was knocked down, is there anything you think you could have done differently so that the boat would have come back up without flooding or sinking? (question from SA member "bjmoose").

If it turtled, was there any obvious cause of the boat turtling? (question from SA member "bjmoose").

What would you do differently next time out? (question from SA member "bjmoose").

BN: The lazarettes were closed with carabiners. The companionway hatch was slid back. In the rapid series of events after the broach, I cannot say if there was water coming in through the companionway or not. It may have been - I made no direct bservation.

I am participating with the J24 Class Association technical committee in an evaluation of the sinking of Magic Hat and other J24s over the years. I look forward to the publication of those recommendations.

XS: Are you going to buy another J/24? (question from SA member "bjmoose").

BN: Most likely. It's still the best one design keel-boat game going right now. You can bet that for the next boat, I will install some form of positive buoyancy system and make modifications to the campanionway hatch system.

XS: Which PFD manufacturer, hard or inflatable, do you and your crew now swear by? (question from SA member "Foredeck Shuffle").

BN: There are a lot of good ones out there. I like low profile models that I can wear over my farmer-johns and under my offshore jacket. Some guys like fashion colors that match their shoes. It's a personal choice. If you ever have seen the look on the face of a person who has just realized that in their foul weather gear and no PFD they are negatively buoyant, you'll wear one the next time you go out in big air.

XS: What are you doing in the picture on this page?

BN: I'm not in that picture. At the time, I had just helped one of the crew onto one of the chase boats and was getting hauled out of the water myself.

XS: For readers who are not from the Pacific Northwest, exactly how cold is the water in the Puget Sound? :-)

BN: About 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

XS: Also for readers who are not from the Pacific Northwest. How deep was the water where you sank. Any chance of refloating your boat? Don't laugh. someone will ask about this...

BN: She's lying in 600 to 700 feet of water at that location. She won't be seen again.

XS: I heard that the whole fleet got banged up pretty badly. Any instructive stories from other boats that you can share?

BN: There were some comments made on a couple of the sailing forums regarding the actions of the fleet during the event and the fact that no boat stopped racing to assist us. Looking back and seeing the carnage on the course at those moments, I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues to keep their crews, themselves and other competitors safe by getting their own boats under control. And I repeat my appreciation of the CYC Race Committee, Scott Wirs of Rumbline Photo,
and Jay and the crew from the Seattle Sailing Center. There were three power boats and a 33 foot sailboat around us within moments.

While several minor injuries were reported, no one was seriously hurt or killed. There were numerous broken and cracked spars reported and a number of blown spinakkers.

Two other boats, Lola and Tundra Rose, came close to flipping. Both were able to right the boat before it turned over.

XS: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your experience with us.

Pictures from the J24 that

Pictures from the J24 that sank Oct, 2004 in the same spot - off Shilshole marina in Seattle are here.


I hope people find this useful. Let me know what you think.

Sailboat Sinks: Interview with Owner

I'm owner of "Lola," which was knocked down at the same time and location as Magic Hat. Our mast was severally bent at, and just above, deck level in that incident.

First off, I enjoyed Paul's interview with Brian and appreciate the perspective and insight conveyed. Having been in the same place at the same time, it’s easy to evaluate the situation limited by ones own perspective. Each new telling of the story I hear helps paint a better picture of what happened.

There are lots of different ways to look at something like this.
One is from the competitive angle: You're out there racing and want to do well. The adrenaline is flowing and it’s easy to get a narrowed focus – win. Wanting to win tends to increases the willingness to take risks to gain advantage. But the potential gains have to be weighed against the risks. The risk / reward analysis is a grey area with no “right” answers.

We had a fairly bad knockdown two days earlier that reminded us of what can happen when things go south. So, on the day of the sinking, in an earlier race, some of the crew were not comfortable with flying the spinnaker, so we didn’t. Watching us loose boats on that run hurt, and I voiced that I thought we could handle it in those condition (most everyone else had a spinnaker up), but I knew it had to be a unanimous decision, so we stayed with no spinnaker (and in reality, lost only a few boats). After that one non-spinnaker run, we used the spinnaker on all the other runs.

In the race when the sinking happened, we were towards the back of the fleet, and so became an early warning system for boats further ahead. Chris Snow commented in an interview that they saw boats behind having problems and got their spinnaker down before the blast hit. I talked to crew on a couple of other boats that were ahead of us (but behind Chris) and they commented that they saw the boats behind having problems, thought about taking down the spinnaker, but didn’t have time before the blast hit.

On that run, we were cranking right along and, as driver, I was having a great time getting good surfs and sailing fast. The thing is, when it’s blowing that hard, you are generally sailing pretty deep. On all other points of sail, the force of the wind is holding the boat healed over to leeward in a dynamically stable position. But this is not the case when sailing deep. The boat is upright, has very little form stability or stability from the keel. The boat is beyond hull speed, doesn’t want to go any faster and any little bit of heel one way or the other will make it carve off in the direction opposite to the direction of heal.

So we’re cranking along, in control at that moment, and then the wind force increases by at least 50% immediately. I could feel the entire boat load up. Everything just pressed forward, the boat got squirrelly for about 3 seconds, and then we wipeout violently.

As I remember it, and from looking at Scott’s pictures (Rhumbline Photo, great guy, has crewed on Lola, and helped with major refit on Lola), we started to roll to windward. This is normally were the boat would start to carve down and crash jibe. But instead of that, it seems like we just keep rolling to windward and knocked down with the mast pointing more upwind. About the first conscious thought I had was “I MUST GET THE SPINNAKER DOWN BEFORE WE COME UP” (most of the crew was behind me, on the stern, just before the wipeout). I crawled forward, up to the mast and looked at the mast, trying to figure out where the spinnaker halyard was (at least for me, it was hard to do because, with the boat sideways, everything looked different). Just as I reached for the halyard, the wind got under the main (which was pointed upwind) and started to roll the boat up. At some point, I release the halyard. I think right here is where the mast was bent. As the boat rolled up (very fast), it lifted the spinnaker full of water up so fast that a huge compressive load was put on the mast. This, plus the very tight vang, which pushed the mast out of column at the gooseneck, is what I think bent our mast (other damage was three broken strands in the forestay, and the starboard twing fairlead ripped out of the deck). Anyway, in about two or three seconds we were rolled 180 degrees, with the mast now pointed downwind and in the water again. I think that if our spinnaker was still up at this point, the wind would have filled it and dragged us sideways, forcing water down the companionway and possibly sinking Lola. (During the major refit two years ago, I glassed in the lazarette hatches, just like the new boats from Waterline.)

Then the boat rolled up, we gathered in the spinnaker, got the main down, cleaned things up, and looked at each other. I asked the guys what they wanted to do, thinking that after that, it would not be unreasonable for everyone to want to just head in, and call it a day. But they all said “Let’s finish the f***ing race,” and so we did. Second to last boat to cross the line, and we still got a 34th in that race.

With 20/20 hindsight, I would offer that if Magic Hat had stayed upside down, she would have floated for a long time and possibly plans could have been made to save her. But I doubt I would have had that thought at the time.

And just a follow-up on Brian’s comment regarding insurance. For those that do not know, there are two kinds of insurance. In the case of a total loss, “Agreed Value” insurance will get you a check for the amount you and the insurance company agreed to insure the boat for. The other is your standard insurance policy, which will get you a check for the amount your insurance company thinks your boat was worth (like blue book). If it was a piece of junk, you probably come out ahead. If it was a totally tricked out boat, you will come out thousands of dollars behind. Make sure you know what you are buying, and like Brian said, if you put significant improvements into the boat, think seriously about increasing the value of your policy.

We just got the new mast from Sparcaft and tonight is the first race for us since that incident. Fortunately, they had one in stock and also already had a shipment to Seattle scheduled.

Nice to hear from another boat

Thanks for taking the time to type it up. It's amazing how fast the wind can come up during unsettled weather like that. The Puget Sound sometimes gets knocked for light air, but people don't realize that we can get 50+ knot gusts during our "windstorms".