I have read about many boats that have been abandoned at sea. The cruising and sailing forums are filled with long discussions by armchair analysts who always have strong opinions about this. Some make sense others just show their ignorance. It has gotten me thinking about why all these boats get left. Their captains and crew leaving them floating and in sometimes fairly good shape. I suppose I do not have a problem with someone leaving their boat because things got bad but it does make one wonder when these same boats are found weeks and sometimes months later, still afloat and basically intact. There are a lot of opinions claiming these people leave because they got scared or just uncomfortable, that may be true in a few  cases but I think there is more than just that at play here. And yes the fact that help is just an EPIRB button away does make things easier, but that alone cannot be the answer. Surely there is more involved.

                I myself have been rescued at sea. My adventure happened long ago before there were EPIRBS. We did have SSB though and that is how help was called so in a sense similar. It was not my decision to call for help or leave the boat, I was just crew and had little say in the end. I have always regretted that we were not able to get back on our own but there was little I could do. I do understand firsthand the fear and the helplessness of being at sea in bad conditions and the failure dominos slowing falling one after another. You do begin to feel like the next one will fall a little too hard and things will go from bad to worse. The captain in that case did the right thing as he had responsibility not only for the vessel and himself but for three young crew members. Truth be told, I would do the same today if I were captain.

Rescue at Sea

                As with most things like this I am sure there is no simple answer but I suspect there may be a thread that most abandonments have in common. I Have listened to the maydays come in over the SSB, I have heard the fear in the voices of those out there wondering just what the hell it is they have gotten themselves into. In almost all cases there seems to be a chain of failures that leads to a feeling of helplessness. Sometimes this chain starts with a catastrophic failure such as losing a rudder or failure of the main engine. This chain continues to lose links as things spiral out of control. The weather gets worse, more and more control is lost, fewer things work the way they should.  Fatigue begins to take hold and it becomes harder to make sound, rational decisions. All this is reasonable but what was the thread that allowed things to start to fall apart, why was it that some boats that had major failures make it back to port on their own while others with less severe failures did not? Was it as simple as weakness on the crew’s part?

                On a couple of occasions I have tried to talk to these captains during their crisis via SSB. I had hoped to try and help with advice. As a boat builder and repairer I thought perhaps I could offer a clear perspective. After all I was here in my boat at the slip; I had plenty of rest and had a clear head. I was somewhat surprised when, although appreciated, my help was declined. The few I talked to did not really want to try to make emergency repairs. I thought this odd. If I were out there I would be doing everything I could to fix what was wrong where these captains did not seem to want to try. If they did try it seemed a half hearted effort. It was not like they did not want to try they seemed a bit defeated before they started. I wondered about this for a long time. Why give up so easy? I know it is hard when bouncing around offshore, being tossed and turned, but it is not impossible.

Cowes Lifeboat Dashes Through Rough Seas to Dismasted Yacht

                The more I thought about this the more I came to the same place in my thinking. It was not that these people did not want to try it was more they did not know how to. They simply did not have the skill set to deal with the failures. I have tried to read every story I could find of a boat being abandoned and always tried to read firsthand accounts when possible. It slowly started to become clear, many of those that found themselves in a bad way did not know how to fix things. I do not mean to say that as insult, far from it. If you do not know how to do something even simple tasks are intimidating, add to that being hundreds of miles from shore and it can become overwhelming.

                I thought about all the old salts I grew up with as my heroes, Sir Francis Chichester, Robin Knox Johnson and the like. These men knew they had to fix things, the only other choice was death. They also grew up in a time when men knew how to fix things, a time when machines were simpler and could be fixed without the aid of a computer. Years ago many grew up on farms and learned the skills needed to make repairs to get things done. In today’s world those skills are not used much, cars are so complicated with computer controls it takes a technician with another computer to repair them. Understanding computer code is more important than understanding the workings of a diesel engine. The skill set needed to get by in life these days is vastly different than it was 50-60 years ago. Yet when out on the ocean those skills of the past are just what is required to get by when crap starts falling apart. Boats can demand a multitude of skills including mechanical, electrical, and structural. Schools do not teach this stuff anymore and few learn from their parents. It is one thing to learn to sail but another to learn all the workings of the craft being sailed.


                I am sure it may be a bit of an over simplification to say that lack of repair skills is the only reason skippers decide to call it quits and call for help. Yes I do think that in some cases there are those that just cannot take it and it is so very easy to just push that button and wait for help. But I am beginning to think that alone is not the full reason so many boats get left at sea only to stay afloat long after the crew is gone. The more I read and the more I talk to those that have been there the more I begin to feel this is a major contributing factor. Fear is a powerful thing, anyone who goes to sea should be afraid, if you do not have at least a little fear you are a fool. Fear is not something that comes on all at once, it builds with time. Not knowing how to handle the dominos of failures will always add to fear. When things begin to break on a boat at sea and the crew does not know how to fix things that only adds to that fear.

                I would love to hear what others may think about this without placing blame on the crew or skipper as just being lazy or not wanting to be “uncomfortable.”  Let’s see if we can look at this from different perspectives and see if there is not a way we can think about how to help others as well as ourselves when we set to sea. Do not be shy about leaving your thoughts in the comment section below.

Capt. Wayne


About the author: Capt. Wayne


Boat builder, Sailor, Surveyor, and freelance writer.