Thinking the Unsinkable – Part 1

Unsinkable 1
Yves Le Blevec and Jean le Cam capsized their powerful 50ft trimaran, probably after hitting an object in the water an hour after the start of last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre. The crew just waited on top for rescue. Note how high it floats and the escape hatch in the main hull

Congratulations on your wise choice of a boat that cannot sink! Apart from a few very old solid-glass construction boats, multihulls WILL NOT SINK! Although this is stating the obvious, it means that if you open the seacocks or make a hole in your hulls some other way, the boat will simple settle lower in the water. It may be uncomfortable and ruin the carpeting, but the boat will not disappear beneath the waves leaving you in a nasty liferaft, or worse.

There is a chilling tale from Webb Chiles, who was singlehanding his monohull at night and did not notice the water filling his boat until it was too late. He literally stepped off the boat and watched it disappear – some 200 miles from land. The tropical water was warm enough to not cause hypothermia, and although he tried to drown himself he found that the physiological impulse for survival overcame his efforts. So he swam and drifted for over a day and was eventually – lucky man – picked up by a fishing boat.

The good news is that multihull sailors fare much better. Take the case of the Rose-Noelle, a trimaran that set out across the Pacific from Australia. It capsized and the four crewmembers survived inside the boat for 119 days – four MONTHS! The upturned hull eventually crashed onto rocks off New Zealand and the four walked ashore. They were in such good shape that initially no one would believe their story of survival. – See the case study.

The fundamental differences between monos and multis demand a radically different approach to survival preparation. This is something that concerns everyone who ventures out of sight of land, not just the ocean voyagers, and it should be part of every boat’s preparation. Simply because over 90% of boats are ‘sinkers’ we multihullers should not just accept the prevailing approach without question – we need to adapt techniques and equipment for out particular requirements.

The maxi trimaran Groupama 3 suffered structural failure on her starboard beam to hull join the float tore off and she capsized while 90 miles south of New Zealand. The crew sat on the upturned aft beam and waited for rescue.

Let us look at some easy stuff first – the stuff that is life-preserving to monohulls but largely irrelevant to multis. Every monohull needs wooden bungs by each underwater opening, requires manual and electric bilge pumps, and should pay great attention to the state of their seacocks. Some sink at their moorings every year for just this reason. The fact is that even a tiny underwater leak will in time sink a heavier-than-water boat.

Skin Fittings

In the multihull’s case things are much less urgent. Weight-saving has probably already meant that it has corrosion-free plastic (glass-filled nylon) seacocks. The commonly-used plastic skin fittings, so loathed by surveyors because they can break off, pose a far smaller threat to the boat. They are usually employed above the waterline for sink drains etc. A monohull with them above the static waterline will have these drains submerged when heeled. (Incidentally the Forespar Marelon fittings are much superior anyway.) The multihull will keep the openings above the water, so the worst-case is water slopping in or being squirted in by waves, much easier to deal with. I recall a surveyor once taking a very dim view of a plastic drain on my previous cat. He said that if it failed, the boat could sink. I contradicted him by telling him the boat was lighter than water, but he still marked it down!

Bilge Pumps

I am not having any fixed bilge pumps on my new boat. There seems little point. I would need three in each hull. A roving pump mounted on a board with a few metres of tubing will be quite adequate, and in the extreme case of a puncture in the hull, a frightened man with a bucket is by far the most efficient. Try suggesting dispensing with bilge pumps to a monohull sailor!


Next, the liferaft. Most people think it would be madness to go to sea without one. For monohullers less fortunate that Webb Chiles this is true. It is all they will have left if the worst occurs. But the multihuller will still have the boat. It would be insanity to abandon a large stable platform (whichever way up it might be), complete with supplies and tools, for a tiny rubber raft. The only scenario I could envisage when a multihuller might be forced to take to a liferaft is if the boat burnt to the waterline. Otherwise a tethered raft might be useful for shade. Only abandon your boat if you have no option or if you are getting into something better, such as a passing rescue helicopter.

Richard Woods and his partner abandoned their 33ft Eclipse catamaran. Whilst the boat was not damaged or in danger of sinking they were in very heavy seas and their sea anchor was destroyed. They therefore took the offer of rescue from an American warship’s helicopter. Several months later their boat was found by fishermen without her mast but in all other respects intact, having survived the storm and probably several others without capsizing.

The monohull’s liferaft needs to have a quick-deployment action and automatic inflation when submerged, as they may have less than a minute to abandon ship. Some of them have a system for breaking the raft free from its line so it is not pulled under by the sinking vessel. The multihull’s raft does not need all this. It might be better to have manually-activated inflation only, so that in the immediate aftermath of a capsize the raft does not add to the difficulties by inflating underneath the boat or puncture itself on sharp objects. The multihull’s raft should be accessible both from above and below, so it can be released from any angle. And it should be firmly tethered so it does not drift away. The good news is that basic model liferafts should be adequate.

Moving on to more specific issues for multihulls:

Personal risks

As a species we are very good at fooling ourselves into exaggerating some risks while ignoring others. The American Coastguard report that a significant number of dead bodies recovered have their flies open, in other words they fell off their boats while taking a leak over the side. This alone should be enough for people to consider investing in pee bottles as a safety measure! (An old fabric conditioner bottle also works well!)

Man overboard

Consider the situation on a multihull: the width of the boat means that a person can be much further away when they fall in, and therefore might not be noticed immediately. The lack of shrouds means they have less to hold onto, and the speed of the boat means that you are further from the MOB much quicker.

It is worth establishing safe zones and dangerous zones around the boat. These do not need to be marked as such; it just needs to be pointed out to everyone that certain areas, such as the side decks, require harnesses. Adopting this way of thinking about the boat might prompt some small modifications to ensure for example that the cockpit really is a safe zone – putting a guardwire along the back of it perhaps, or adding an extra handle or two. We came upon this idea when our daughter was small but wanted to roam around the boat. Knowing where she was safe and where not helped with supervision.

Precautionary measures

We should all be prepared in case we fall in. It does happen! A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) carried by each crewmember will act as an alert system should anyone go overboard, and comes into its own at night, giving an alarm and a position for the MOB. But this is an expensive item not carried by many, and it should not be the only measure relied upon.

A survivor of a monohull capsize wrote some years ago of his experience. He said the two things that saved his life, while some fellow crewmembers drowned, were a knife (on a lanyard) and a light. He was able to open the knife underwater to cut himself free, and on surfacing rescuers could locate him. These are simple things that save lives. Having done a sea survival course I would add crutch straps for the lifejacket as well. It is worth asking whether automatic lifejacket inflation might make things harder if trapped underneath an upturned multi.


Those on board who have to go back to find the MOB should of course have practised the manoeuvre (how many of us – honestly – do?) so that everyone is familiar with it. But while on a monohull the helmsman might just need to reach across and grab the danbuoy and lifering to throw them in, on a multihull they might be positioned several metres away. Seconds are valuable because the multi is so much quicker and the ring will be dropped further from the MOB the longer it takes to release. There is a strong case here for having a remote release system. As soon as someone shouts ‘Man Overboard’ the nearest person to a cord in the cockpit pulls it and the danbuoy, light and lifering drop straight into the water. See the sketches for ideas on release brackets.

If the lifering is to be dropped immediately it should not have a rope attaching it to the boat, as all that would then happen is that the MOB would be looking at a ring and danbuoy waterskiing after the boat as it does its manoeuvres. Better for the MOB to be able to swim a short distance to the static danbuoy, which can be easily seen from the mother ship. By all means tow a line and ring (slowly) around the MOB to get him attached to a rope, but to my way of thinking these are separate actions. The line-and-ring can be deployed at more leisure and are part of the recovery; the danbuoy-and-ring are essential for location. Whatever method you adopt, practise it!

Assuming all has gone well and the MOB is now alongside, s/he needs to be brought back onto the boat. The swim ladders on many multis might provide a good place for this, if the sterns are not pitching too much. A ramp that can be lowered might work even better. If the dinghy is mounted on davits, lowering it into the water might also make it possible for the MOB to scramble in. But it should be remembered that they may be in shock or injured and require a lot of assistance, and in the last resort may need to be winched aboard using a proprietary safety net or a sail lowered over the side.


This has to be about the worst thing that can happen at sea, but it is mercifully rare. Mostly one hears of boats that have been closed up for some time with an undetected gas leak exploding when the owner comes aboard and strikes a light. Plenty has been written about taking precautionary measures to avoid fire, such as properly fitted and maintained gas installations, gas alarms etc. And fire extinguishers and blankets are obviously important. Hopefully most fires will be small and easily extinguished. On a multihull there may be several exits through hatches. It is a good idea to have an extinguisher near to every exit. On boats with petrol outboards, fuel storage should be properly vented and the fuel should be in approved containers. A standard battery smoke alarm is worthwhile, because the crew might be sleeping some distance away from the source of the fire and may not otherwise be alerted to it at an early stage. A good precaution is to ban smoking onboard!

If the fire can be contained and fought, then abandoning ship should not be necessary. Try to starve the fire of oxygen, close vents etc, but be careful not to get overcome – hence fighting the fire from close to an exit route. If the worst happens and the fire gets out of control, abandoning ship may be the only option. The EPIRB should be activated and the lanyard from the raft cut only when necessary – the fire might burn itself out without consuming the entire boat. Beware burning embers landing on the rubber!

The upside is that unless the fire has already taken serious hold before anyone realises, there is a little time to get the necessary emergency things together. One hull may not be affected, so things can still be got from there. A catamaran is perhaps in a slightly better position than a monohull or trimaran because the accommodation is not contained within a single area. But these disasters are thankfully so rare that beyond taking sensible precautions we should not get too anxious.


This is the big one for multihulls. A battened-down monohull should be able to roll over and bob back up again upright, but a cat or tri that has flipped will stay that way. The next article will look at capsize in detail, what to do to prepare and how to survive if it happens.

There are many good lessons to be learned from cases like the Rose-Noelle:


The story of Rose-Noëlle is a remarkable tale of survival. Four adult men team up for what was supposed to be a leisurely cruise to Tonga from New Zealand on a 40ft home-built trimaran. When they leave Picton, at the top of South Island New Zealand the forecast is for light northeasterlies that help them clear the South Island but the forecast southerly that would be ideal to take them to Tonga turns nasty.

The crew have one experienced sailor, John Glennie who owns Rose-Noëlle and three who are new to the boat, James Nalepka, Rick Hellriegel and Phil Hofman, who owns a monohull. As they reach open waters they sail quickly in exciting condition taking them rapidly away from New Zealand and safety.

The wind builds until they feel it necessary to deploy their parachute sea anchor. However the following morning the sea anchor collapses as the tripping line, used to retrieve the chute, has instead wound around the anchor. This leaves the boat tied to the sea anchor but also vulnerable to the waves and they end up side on to breaking waves. On 4 June just as the weather seemed to be relenting and at first light they are hit by a much larger wave that capsizes them.

They soon realise that the upside-down trimaran is a stable platform. It floats with about four feet of water in the main cabin but only knee deep water in the aft cabin.

The aft cabin berth provides a 2m x 1.5m dry area in which they can all live – provided they all lay in the same direction! Fortunately they also have a stock of food as John had equipped the boat for a year’s cruise. This supply of food, supplemented by fishing, a lot of ingenuity, teamwork (which comes eventually) and determination enables them to survive. They rig up raincatching devices and even manage to salvage the gas cooker to provide hot meals and drinks.


Inside the aft cabin

They drift across miles and miles of open ocean, occasionally seeing a ship, hoping that their EPIRB will bring rescue. When its little battery dies they resign themselves to being alone, and assume they will drift for many months towards South America. But they start to see the vapour trails from jets, then shipping and eventually land. Instead of drifting slowly eastward, they have been swept round in a circular current, nearly back to their starting point. They drift onto Great Barrier Island (NZ) where their home for 119 days loses its soul on a reef but enables them to reach safety. They find grapefruits and break into a holiday home and enjoy their first night ashore alone. The following day they find the local policeman and they return to the mayhem of the media and the history books.

‘Capsized’ by James Nalepka and Steven Callahan published by Harper Collins ISBN 000 224 065 3 Written by one of the crew, the least-experienced sailor.

‘The Spirit of Rose-Noelle’ by John Glennie, published by Mass Market Paperbacks. This gives an account of the experience from the skipper’s point of view.

The differences highlight the personal tensions that inevitably arise in a survival situation.

Both titles currently available secondhand from Amazon.