Yacht Warriors

⛵ Lessons learned from the Hillbilly grounding

Published 5 months ago • 5 min read

Hi Reader,

If you've been following my newsletters for some time, you know that a recurring theme I write about is safety on the water.

Just last week, I highlighted critical weather features to keep an eye on. Sometimes I get my timing right, as we just witnessed a hefty swell coupled with the Christmas winds making their presence felt in the Virgin Islands.

In recent issues, I've shared the safety brief I deliver to my crew – a resource worth bookmarking. And, I've recounted personal anecdotes where I've learned the hard way. I’m sure I’ve made many more errors, and by sheer luck, more serious outcomes were averted. Through these shared narratives, we continue to grow and learn as a sailing community.

With this backdrop, I want to weigh in on the recent grounding of the Wandering Hillbilly in the BVI, a topic that has been widely discussed on social media.

As I take my turn at 'armchair skippering', let's approach this with clarity – this isn't about casting stones from a place of hindsight. Having been at the helm myself, I'm aware of the complexities and pressures of decision-making in unpredictable conditions.

There's immense value in dissecting these real-world incidents, not for the sake of judgment but for the lessons they impart. Thankfully, and most crucially, no one was injured in this incident. I extend my best wishes to Alan for a swift return to the sea.

Now, let’s delve into what transpired, not just recounting the sequence of events but also unearthing the valuable lessons they hold – about understanding north swells, navigating the complexities of private mooring balls, and the broader implications of decision-making at sea.

So what happened to the Hillbilly?

Let's unpack the events that unfolded with the Hillbilly, though I recommend watching the video he shared for a firsthand account. You can find his detailed narrative here.

The Hillbilly was moored on a private ball off Trunk Bay, the crews's plan being a shoreside lunch at Sugarcane. While it’s been reported that he had prior permission to use one of the other three moorings in the area on a different occasion, it remains unclear if such permission extended to this instance.

A north swell was making its presence felt. This swell created breaking waves such that they decided to swim ashore rather than try to land the dinghy. However, while still in the water, they noticed that the power cat had broken loose from the mooring.

Despite their best efforts, they couldn't prevent it from drifting about 400 feet and grounding, just missing the rocks on the beach.

Later that day, a salvage boat was able to pull it off the beach and bring it to a marina where it was put on the hard. Alan's walk-through was hard to watch, and it revealed extensive damage, including several hull breaches. At this point, it's uncertain whether the boat is a total loss, but he admitted the outlook appears grim.

Teaching point 1: understanding north swells

Never underestimate the impact of north swells when planning a charter in the Virgin Islands. These swells are well-forecasted and can transform typically safe anchorages, like the west side of Virgin Gorda or Cane Garden Bay, into perilous spots. The scenario at Trunk Bay exemplifies this. Normally shielded from the easterly tradewinds, the bay was vulnerable to the rollers coming down Sir Francis Drake Channel, turning it into a dangerous lee shore.

Remember, mooring balls near the Baths are restricted during red flag conditions for a reason. North swells, often born from distant storms in the North Atlantic, carry immense energy. As they near the shore, their rising and breaking pattern can create hazardous conditions.

In the case of the Hillbilly, the north swell undoubtedly stressed the mooring, likely causing its failure. Being on a lee shore left little room for error, and the power cat was quickly on the beach before the crew could rescue it.

The Virgin Islands offer numerous areas that provide shelter and protection from swells. There's no need to expose yourself to unnecessary risk.

Teaching point 2: mooring ball safety

It's generally pretty well understood that BoatyBall, NPS, and other public moorings throughout the BVI are fairly well maintained, although that is certainly not always the case. It is most definitely not the case elsewhere in the Caribbean.

With a private ball? Who knows. If you plan to take one, and have permission, find out what type of boat it's rated for. When was the last time it was maintained?

Mooring balls require regular maintenance and they do fail.

Let me recount a story I've shared previously of an incident that occurred in 2020 in Cane Garden Bay:

  • The crew of a Helia 44 arrived after dark, tied off to a mooring ball, and then went ashore for dinner or drinks
  • The mooring ball they tied off to? A private, ill-maintained ball not designed for a 44-foot catamaran. If they had arrived with more daylight and inspected the ball, they likely would have realized it was not a regular ball for charter boats
  • When they returned on their dinghy, the boat was missing. The yacht had broken loose and went adrift. Somehow, no one noticed, and it drifted over the reef
  • Luckily, it was later recovered off the north shore of St. Thomas, USVI
  • The crew learned an important lesson and were lucky only to have a hefty recovery fee in the aftermath

My advice if you plan to use a mooring ball

Treat any mooring ball, public or otherwise, with the same scrutiny as you would when anchoring.

Inspect it as best you can – check for frayed lines or other warning signs. Apply a moderate test load, akin to setting an anchor, and set an anchor alarm.

If you're going ashore, using a GPS tracker like an inReach, coupled with cell phone service, is a wise precaution for peace of mind. However, that would not have helped in the case of the Hillbilly.

The grounding of the Hillbilly serves as a stark reminder of the unpredictability and power of the sea, and the importance of being prepared for all eventualities. This incident is a practical lesson for all of us who sail or charter.

Let's use this experience as a catalyst to review our own practices, to question, and to learn.

Happening now!

Three quick current events before we wrap up:

  • The Soggy Dollar Bar announced Spice, a new dining option at White Bay
  • Navigare formally announced the opening of their St. Martin base later this year - there are 8 catamarans available now for bookings beginning in December
  • I've had a few fun conversations with charter yacht owners about how the Yacht Warriors can help with direct bookings - if that's an option available to you, let's talk!

That's it for today. Have a great week.

- Matt Weidert

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