The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.
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We watched as our neighbor's mast slipped out of view from our cabin's skylight at precisely midnight--just like he told us it would. I turned to my husband and said, "There he goes, care to lay odds on when the helicopters will drop rescue swimmers to save im?" We had a chuckle and rolled back toward our pillows to go to sleep.
That was almost a week and a half ago. Since then we've learned that, as we jokingly predicted, the Coast Guard did indeed pluck him (and two other passengers) from the sea, 53 miles off California's coastline. And since then both Jeff and I, and several of our dockside neighbors have been reflecting on what our obligations were in the year and especially the months leading up to his departure.
As we speak with several of our sailing and cruising neighbors; people who have also attempted to pass on advice or drop subtle hints, our conversation always comes back to, "Did we make ourselves clear? Could we have done anything more?" The consensus is no, we could not, at least not in this situation.
Our first hint that things might have been amiss was when he showed up in the marina, late summer of 2013. We all learned that he'd purchased the 55' sailboat boat sight unseen--online in fact--planning to leave with his wife that fall for cruising offshore to points south. With smaller craft experience on the great lakes under his belt, we didn't give it much thought. Turns out, the cruising dream was not entirely mutual and soon enough our neighbor was a bachelor on the new boat.
Shortly thereafter, one of our long-term neighbors was asked to help him get the big sailboat off the dock. Trouble with lines and line-handling ensued and several other experienced, well meaning neighbors offered advice on separate occasions. Over the course of the fall and into the spring, advice was offered and ignored. It became pretty obvious that the vessel was just "too much boat" for his experience. Over the course of the first year, he took the vessel out a half dozen times for over-nighters or weekends in the bay or nearby islands. Always in calm weather and usually to a dock. Always needing help upon returning to the dock. Always ignoring subtleties and warnings from those around him.
Last summer I suggested that he would benefit from a two-day seminar called "Basic Off-shore Safety and Survival" taught by a retired rescue swimmer and inspector. To his credit, he signed up and participated in the class. After the course, he was given the advise to go out and get more experience--to practice what he'd learned and to increase his "sphincter factor" with increasingly bigger wind and waves before heading offshore. Since taking that course, he went out once or twice for an over-nighter in a little bay about eight miles from the marina. No rough weather, no big waves, no sphincter-factor action.
Last winter, with a powerful windstorm beating down on the marina, the headsail on his boat began to tear and unfurl from the top down in 70-80 knot gusts. Jeff and I helped him try to secure it and were rather alarmed at his lack of knowledge about the location of his lines, his body-mechanics when on-deck in high winds and the condition of his dock lines. It was at that point I lost all confidence in his ability to handle a boat of that size.
As the weeks drew nearer to his departure, those of us on the dock who knew and were concerned, started to watch for signs of preparedness. Rig checks? No. System checks? No. Provisioning? No. Finally a six-person life raft arrived and was stowed onboard. As the weeks turned to days, our neighbor's wife arrived back on the dock. We had heard that he'd talked her into going on the voyage... Nope, not to be. She knew about his experience--or lack of--and refused, and in fact, tried to talk him out of going. Unsuccessful in her attempt to dissuade him, she left for good and the inhabitants of our dock worried yet again about the soundness of his plan. Two days later his passengers arrived; A buddy from his home state in the mid-west and a woman who, up until she stepped aboard his vessel, had never been on a boat before.
Still, we shook our collective heads and muttered to ourselves what a stubborn, bull-headed guy he was and let it be. His boat left at midnight the following day. After my off-hand quip to Jeff, we didn't think anymore about it--that is until one of our other neighbors came by the next morning to relay a phone call he'd received. Apparently, after running all night in the islands with no relief-watch (as nobody else had experience at the helm), they passed Port Angeles to discover thick fog all around. The phone conversation went like this: (Sailboat): "Boy, this fog sorta' follows the boat around huh? I kind of thought there'd be more ships out here, but I don't see a one."...
(Our friend at dock): "You do have your radar on, right?"
(Sailboat): Well, yeah, but it's only showing these big green blobs, I thought that was land or islands." (Friend at dock): "Those are ships!"
(Sailboat): Oh wow! Yeah, I can see em now--there's a bunch of boats out here!"
At that point, we realized that A): He'd never been in PNW fog nor had he any experience sailing at night and, B): He had not used radar prior to setting out on this trip, C.) Against advice, he intended to head 60 miles offshore to "get some experience." At that point, the jokes and sarcastic remarks gave way to real concern for the safety of his passengers.
"Maybe we should have done an intervention, y'know, like before?" I asked. Our friend, a retired Vietnam helicopter pilot and an experienced cruiser, replied, "Wouldn't done a damn bit a good in his case. Trust me, I've tried."
Our dock-mates had successfully pulled off one intervention just a couple of years back. A novice sailing family on the dock had also purchased a sailboat with intentions of sailing offshore to Mexico. Similar situation and even less experience--but with a toddler onboard. The entire dock--in fact, the entire gate--had so many reservations about their well-being that they appointed Jeffery (always the diplomat), to pay a visit to the family a few weeks before departure and suggest a delivery captain accompany them. They followed the advise and made it safely to their destination port, albeit with severe sea-sickness the entire route.
On this past Saturday morning, our friend stopped by to give us the new update: They had abandoned ship and been lifted out by helicopter. At the time of rescue, the sea state was 1.5 meters 11 seconds apart. We were incredulous. Suddenly, the jokes and laying odds on how soon they'd need a Coast Guard assist weren't so outrageously funny any longer. "Wow," Jeff said, "Just, wow."
The dock was buzzing with stories from all who'd offered advice or given warnings over the last two years. We kept asking "Could we have made a difference?" "Might there have been a more forthright way to tell him he did not have the experience to go offshore?"
Later in the day, more information came out; news from local media stations and reports from the Coast Guard's website. The boat had been hit pretty hard the night before with 60 knot gusts and high seas that tore some sails, his engine stopped working and sea-sickness had taken down the crew, they chose to abandon the boat the next morning. We then learned that by Sunday, the USCG located the boat adrift miles away and towed it back into shore. We saw a photograph of our former neighbor posing with the Coast Guard swimmer and the pilots, he was grinning from ear to ear. Secretly, I was sort of disappointed that they'd brought his boat back
to him at no cost. I sort of wanted him to have had to work to get it
back--maybe as some sort of a teaching moment. But then our friend
reminded me that he'd put his soon-to-be-ex-wife's retirement into the
purchase of the boat and I was glad, for her sake, that it had been
"I hope he learned a lesson from this at least. Maybe he'll think twice before going offshore with passengers," I remarked.
"I doubt it," was Jeff's reply.
Sure enough, we read a copy of his recent email to our friend yesterday. An account full of smiley face emoticons that ended with "What have I learned: I learned to batten down the appliances and put seatbelts with shoulder straps on the sofas! Oh and maybe to not let out even a small sail in 60 mph wind without a knot in the drum to stop it a foot or two."
I confess, I'm still a little angry at the cavalier way he's handled this. No mention of the lives he put in danger, the realization of how unprepared he was to face open ocean conditions and how little he'd done to his vessel to make sure it could handle rough conditions. My fear is that he will go out again, put more lives at risk onboard as well as those who will doubtlessly go out to save him, and he will just continue to look at it as the way things are done.
In recent years, there's been talk of having people pay for the USCG rescues. Perhaps it would serve as a deterrent to those who blithely go to sea; unprepared and ready to use the helicopters and rescue swimmers as a taxi ride to shore when things get inconvenient or dicey on the seas. However, I agree with those in the know, like my friend Mario Vittone, who warn that adding a price tag to a rescue would in fact make it more dangerous--people would wait too long before calling for help or not at all rather than pay. It's a pity there isn't an in-between option.
Regardless of whether this particular individual will learn anything from his near-loss or not, we have learned a valuable lesson: There is a time when intervening is a good thing, and if done in good spirit and diplomatically, it can be completely appropriate. I am glad (for the sake of his passengers and particularly for the woman who'd never been on a boat), that they made it through the ordeal. It would be tragic to be certain, if I was now reflecting on what we might have done to prevent loss of life. I will no longer shake my head and make jokes as the boat leaves the dock. If there is a serious doubt in my mind about someone's physical or emotional readiness, I'm going to share my concern with them. I would hope that those who have more experience than I would do the same for me.
As I write this post, our dockmates nearby on Jessica E have just returned from sailing around Vancouver island on their 55-foot sailboat. "How'd it go?" We asked them as they tied up.
"Fabulous!" He said, "but going on the outside is completely different than sailing in the inside passage. We had some real days!"
I'm looking forward to sitting down over a few bottles of wine with our newly returned neighbors and hearing their stories about sailing to windward of Vancouver island. Especially since Jeff and I are gearing up for our own circumnavigation. His last trips up to Alaska put him outside more than a few times and he remembers them very well. My memories of seasickness in rough seas have stayed with me for years. Nevertheless, it is all part of the process.
There is something very admirable in having the kind of adventuresome spirit that urges you to go to sea... To toss the lines and simply disappear. However, there is prudence in preparation and training.
As Mario is wont to say, "Never confuse a lack of failure for success."
~ Chris and Jeff
*For those who are considering cruising offshore, there are abundant courses available to participate in--everything from hands on "two-weeks-before-the-mast" type programs like Amanda and John Neal's Mahina Expeditions to seminars like VLinc's "BOSS" class. There are fantastic resources like Larry and Lynn Pardey's book Storm Tactics, Handling Storms at Sea by Hal Roth and Adlard Cole's book on Heavy Weather Sailing, heck, you could build a library with books about cruising offshore and troubleshooting systems while underway!
Also, here is my favorite article from Mario about an early rescue: Expect the Unexpected