It's not often in the 21st Century you hear of mutiny on the high seas, and still more rarely on a yacht. However, a recent mutiny aboard a yacht in New Zealand waters raises a number of interesting questions. When is a mutiny justified? If a crew mutinies because they are afraid for their lives, is that justified? Maybe yes. But if they are very inexperienced, maybe they are just landlubbers panicking because they don't understand the situation?
When are they justified?
Here's the story, with my comments along the way. Read the story and tell me what YOU think....
New Zealand accountant Bill Heritage was forced to abandon his 7.9m sloop Air Apparent about 90 nautical miles west of the Kaipara Harbour in New Zealand a few weeks ago when his inexperienced crew ignored his orders and set off the yacht's emergency locator beacon.
However, one of Mr Heritage's crew said the boat was inadequately prepared for the journey.
If the crew were inexperienced, as one of the crew acknowledged later in this story, how were they able to judge that the boat was inadequately prepared?
All four were air-lifted off the yacht by the Northland Emergency Services Trust helicopter and flown back to Auckland. Mr Heritage could not stay on board alone because it was too dangerous.
Who decided that it was 'too dangerous' for Mr Heritage to stay on board? Was it that the yacht was not set up for single handed sailing?
Mr Heritage said later his insurance would not cover his loss and it was too costly for him to salvage the yacht he had owned for 15 years.
'It is not economic,' he said, adding that he was not keen on talking publicly. 'I have lost my yacht which is very emotional and I would rather deal with it privately than in the public domain.'
He therefore would not comment on the decision by his crew Carl Horn, John Lammin and Sharan Foga, to set off the yacht's emergency beacon when he had ordered them not to.
'The whole circumstances surrounding the setting off the beacon and rescue are something that has been a lot harder to cope with than I would have thought,' Mr Heritage said. 'It was a good design, small cruising yacht and I enjoyed it immensely.'
Mr Heritage would not talk further.
Mutiny on the Bounty
Mr Horn said he was happy with the decision to set off the beacon and be rescued and said they probably would not have survived the night.
That is a pretty damning thing to say – how bad were the conditions? (Answer comes later)
He said the yacht was not well prepared for a trip from Auckland to Nelson, along the west coast.
The motor would not start because the battery had not been charged and the crank failed to work.
Right, it's not good not to have an engine, but, unless you are in close quarters, this is not dangerous, as it is, after all, a sailing boat. People sail thousands of miles without an engine.
He said as the seas continued to rise, the navigation lights failed, there was no light on the compass to steer by and they were out of radio contact with anyone because of the loss of power.
It's certainly not good to have your electrics go at the same time as your engine has malfunctioned. This would be no threat to life, however, unless there were a ship that could not see you, and you could not avoid it.
When they opened the sea anchor to keep the bow into the waves, by then about three or five metres high, there was no shackle and no rope.
The waves: Unless there was a leftover from some other disturbance, it is hard to imagine, probably impossible, for a 25 knot wind to cause 5 metre seas. (According to the Beaufort Scale, 25 knots produces about three metres)
The Sea anchor: It had probably never been used, and it would have been intended to use line from elsewhere on the boat to attach the sea anchor – at least that is a pretty normal way to handle a sea anchor..
They triggered the emergency beacon but it lasted less than three hours and died as a rescue helicopter arrived.
This is the only indictment which stands alone so far. It may mean that the emergency beacon had not been serviced, or it could simply mean a faulty battery.
Mr Horn said things had been going wrong for most of the day before they hit the storm.
Inexplicit, hard to comment without further information
He said the boat was adequately prepared for a harbour cruise but 'seriously inadequately prepared for an off shore, deep water passage from Cape Reinga to Nelson.'
'The three of us put our trust in him. He was the sailor. We were crew, we were workers, we trusted implicitly in his skill.'
Not enough apparently
Mr Horn said the decision to go down the often unpredictable west coast and not the less rough east coast was made by Mr Heritage.
He denied the inexperienced crew panicked when the seas got rough and the wind reached 25 knots.
25 knots? Little more than an afternoon breeze – in fact afternoon breezes often reach and exceed 25 knots.
He said the crew had not slept for two days by Tuesday morning and he was becoming extremely uncomfortable with their situation as the northeasterly gale increased.
Northeasterly gale: 25 knots is not any kind of gale.
Lack of sleep: WHY had the crew not slept? With four people on board, there was plenty of off-watch time for people to sleep. If they were overtired, it also gives strength to the argument that, through inexperience, they panicked.
'I concluded that Bill had not prepared as well as he might have and that he was an optimist.' He conceded Mr Heritage might have known the capabilities of his yacht better than the crew.
It is not known if the yacht is still afloat.
Whether they were in danger or just thought they were in danger may never be known for sure. If the boat was still sound, and not taking on water, in 25-30 knots of wind and 3 metre seas, it is easy to understand that no experienced skipper would want to abandon ship.
But even if the crew were not in danger and just panicking (it can get pretty scary in the dark in a storm on a boat), was the Skipper right to refuse to set off an emergency beacon when the crew wanted him to?
Now the mutinious crew have stumped up with $20,000 towards their rescue costs, but the skipper has lost his boat.
There may yet be legal action over this incident.
What do YOU think about it?
Sender: Gordon Caley
Message: Hi Nancy
I have done many deliveries of yachts to Dunedin, mostly from Auckland and the last only last year from Tauranga. It seems to me that Mr Heratige had made quite a good call in choosing the western passage as the NE wind would put him in the lee off the North Island and the 90 miles off shore would be about the maximum fetch he would have. Twenty five knots of wind off the shore is what most skippers would think is perfect. Unless there had been a disturbance to the SW. a 5 metre swell would be rare and by then would be quite a distance between crests and not have much effect on a yacht that size. I am also surprised at the claim that there had been no sleep for two days. On a trip like that I would be encouraging at least two of the crew to go to bed as soon as we left port.
Sender: Avon Hansford
Message: Hi Nancy,
In my opinion they were all at fault. He had owned the yacht for fifteen years in New Zealand and must have developed some basic sailing skills and knowledge of the notorious West coast. The owner should have vetted his crew for such a trip in a small vessel, to take 3 inexperienced people on a voyage down that coast was madness from the outset. He failed to nip their fear in the bud and reassure them all was ok. The wind being northeast was abaft of beam (for his heading) and offshore. If