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The Domino Effect: A Series Of Unfortunate Events

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Through the ages the responsibility to keep vessel and crew safe has fallen squarely on the captain’s shoulders. Keeping the dominos standing is my burdensome obligation aboard Pegasus, our 44-foot power catamaran. Most of my decisions are benign, such as turn the wheel this or that way, stop for lunch here, and don’t run over that sailboat. Most of the time I do a good job, but there was an exception; a day when one bad decision lead to another, escalating into a situation that put our boat and lives in jeopardy.

My wife, Liz, is a destination boater, happy staying put to the extent that the hulls become part of the topography. That fateful day, she was very happily anchored in Holbrook Bay, one of Maine’s many picturesque harbors. An opposite bookend, I long to be under way, a feeling that was gnawing at me that day. After returning from exploring the magnificent trails of Cape Rosier, I listened to the weather report, which was favorable for traveling with only a mention of a low-pressure system moving through the area “late.”
I dismissed this warning and beseeched Liz to get moving, citing that from our vantage point it appeared perfect for the run down Penobscot Bay to Rockland, Maine. To my wife’s detriment, she cares more for my happiness than her comfort, so despite her better judgment, agreed to get going.
Upon reaching open water I ignored ominous clouds lurking behind the nearby mountains while we enjoyed the bay’s beauty. With 10 miles to our destination, a squall line roared in. We pushed through nature’s onslaught of shredding winds and pummeling waves. As we rounded Mark Island, we turned southeast, moving the chop to our quarter to make the ride more comfortable. I promised Liz that relief would be found behind Rockland’s massive breakwater, but to our astonishment, we arrived to waves cresting it in torrents of mayhem and destruction.
Traveling into the huge harbor we arrived at our reserved slip only to see boats bashing against docks and each other, quashing all expectations of tying up. We fruitlessly searched the mooring field, seething with breaking waves, but could not find an open ball. We attempted to anchor but were unsuccessful in the poor holding of the scoured bottom. I deemed it too dangerous to anchor or dock and rationalized that the only alternative was to leave Rockland. Liz suggested Pulpit Harbor, which was 9 miles northeast, but it was always crowded and we would have to battle head seas the entire way. I chose Port Clyde, a familiar haven 19 miles southeast. The passage was mostly protected, raising my hopes that the conditions would be manageable, but I also worried that the waves of the final exposed stretch may have grown in size and power driven by this building low-pressure cell.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I realized I had made my most egregious mistake by leaving Rockland. Clearing the breakwater we encountered mountainous head seas hobbling us to a crawl. We endured 30 minutes of pounding to cover 1.5 miles to Owls Head and our turn into Muscle Ridge Channel. Seas settled between these shorelines of scattered islands protecting the mainland that rises steeply out of the depths, but rain and fog formed by the plummeting temperature spread a veil over this gauntlet of submerged boulders and shoal water. We squeezed past the last stands of protection of Whitehead Island and South Breaker, the final group of submerged rocks to stand naked before the open ocean stretching ominously into the maw of the storm.
Savage waves sent from the angry seas roiled our quarter, making our lives miserable. Each swell pushed and pulled the boat to the point where my arms burned from muscling the wheel. I turned control over to the autopilot, its hydraulic pump near failure, feverishly running the rudders to the stops again and again. Looking upon my wife’s grim face, wanting to ease her pain, I proclaimed that these were not the worst conditions we had seen and assured her we were perfectly safe—a lie told mostly to make myself feel better. My loving and supportive wife, who suffered a mix of emotions from anger about leaving our beautiful and protected anchorage to being terrified that we might die dashed and torn apart on the jagged shoreline, gave me a look that I recognized as “nearing her breaking point.” In a voice barely audible, she insisted she didn’t want to hear it and broke into tears.
Fast approaching Port Clyde the swells compressed in the confines of the inlet. The unforgiving bottom clawed against the green flood, slowing its rush and forcing the waves into vertical columns that reached toward the heavens. Unable to defy gravity, each crest broke forming ragged lines of frothy anxiety. Pegasus raced at alarming speeds down the face of each monster wave, headlong we plummeted into the inky reaches of their bowels. Reaching the trough, our forward momentum stabbed the starboard bow into the wall of water rising in front of us, sending a rush of spume down the deck and mauling at the wheelhouse door on its escape over the transom.
In full panic Pegasus powered up the monster’s backbone, and while an angry sky filled the windshield, we smashed through the beast’s churning whitewater mane only to be punished once again, falling headlong into the next trough. Thoughts of disaster wormed into my mind. Snagging any of the trap floats as they rushed past our laboring wheels or engine failure could have lead to a fatal pitchpole and capsize. The next wave came and the look of terror in my wife’s eyes was real.
In survival mode I worked the throttles to keep from plunging into the trough while avoiding being pooped by the breaking crest nipping at our stern. We did a controlled crash, insanely slip-sliding sideways all the way to the outer marker off Marshall Point’s lighthouse, guiding us to Port Clyde’s entrance. As though waking from a nightmare, we mercifully arrived in calm waters.
Liz and I had a long talk after this incident. She had lost some confidence in my judgment. This hit me hard because her assessment was right. Lessons learned over a lifetime of boating were forgotten. If I had heeded her objections and waited one more day, the conditions would have been settled for our trip. Shamefully, I lost respect for the unpredictable power of weather and forgot how swiftly conditions can deteriorate. I ignored my most valuable asset by not listening to my crew. Worst of all, I did what captains fear most by compounding one mistake with another—something that can happen to anyone.


Captains would never purposely put their boat or crew in jeopardy but time and again a series of unfortunate circumstances, unforeseen events, hubris, apathy, decision fatigue, and possibly pure stupidity, result in decisions that lend substance to a succession of events building to disaster. It is up to the master of the ship to arrest the falling dominos once they are put in motion through decisions put to action. Right or wrong, decisions must be made because a boat without direction is already lost. Unfortunately, the sea is unforgiving and suffers no fools.]]>