The Last Voyage of the Varuna

It is rare that anybody publicises a catastrophic navigational failure, or their own failures in basic seamanship. What makes the Varuna incident unique is that there was somebody else, not the skipper in question, who had reasons of her own for publicising the incident — which incidentally happened to make public the deficiencies of the skipper.

Given that sailboat navigation stations are often positioned at the foot of the companionway stairs, it is not uncommon that — if you do not have a dodger rigged — a wave over the bow will wash down into the cabin and take out the electronics. This happened to Brian Hehn, of Edmonton, as he was crewing on a multi-million dollar sloop sailing for Gibraltar.

However, on Brian's boat — while this destroyed $50K of electronics — it certainly did not hinder them from sailing on in to Gibraltar.

Brian was, by the way, convinced that it was only prudent that they should rig a dodger. The skipper and owner of the boat, for reasons of his own, was adamant that they should not.

The owner had opportunity to reflect on the wisdom of his choices as his yacht was laid up for repairs in Gibraltar.

An electrical failure should not have hindered the skipper of the Varuna either. He should have had paper charts, a proper steering compass with a deviation card, and a sextant. And of course, he still had sails. With these, a bit of salt water in the cabin would have been no more of a distraction for him than it was for Brian's vessel.

People who go to sea in small boats with the idea of 100% dependence on electronic navigation, and no manual backup systems, run the risk of being described in this image.

It is conventional thinking among Sail Canada instructors that 50 or 60 yachts go missing each year, worldwide. Some are presumably run down by large commercial vessels (who never realize they have hit anyone). Others probably sink after collisions with containers that have washed off ships, or with whales.

But some may well be lost — particularly in the Pacific, which is a pretty doggoned big piece of water — after a catastrophic navigational failure. If you miss Tahiti because it is just over the horizon, you may run out of food or water before your next landfall.