Storms and Black swans ...
“The Black Swan: The Power of the Unexpected” is a book written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, exploring the concept of the extreme impact of certain types of rare events. The author refers to them as “black swans,” referring to the historical discovery of black swans in Australia at a time when all Europeans believed that all swans were white.
During the summer, violent storms, gusts of wind, and even storms like the one experienced in the Mediterranean during the summer of 2022 are ‘Black Swans’ that must be prepared for due to their potentially devastating impact. To do so, one must first be aware of the main cognitive biases we all experience, which hinder us from preparing effectively.
Why are we often caught off guard by weather changes?
Cognitive biases are inherent tendencies in human thinking that can lead to errors in perception, reasoning, and decision-making. Among the most notable biases are confirmation bias, which leads us to seek and value information that confirms our beliefs while ignoring contradictory information. There’s also the anchoring effect, which makes us overly reliant on initial information when making decisions, while recency bias makes us give more weight to the most recent information.
For example, when the weather is favorable in the early part of the day, we tend to think it will remain that way all day. However, local winds and even large-scale weather phenomena can arise within minutes.
The Dunning-Kruger effect causes less competent individuals to overestimate their competence, while competent individuals tend to underestimate themselves. Similarly, the self-serving bias leads us to attribute our successes to our own abilities and failures to external factors, while the hindsight bias makes us view past events as more predictable than they actually were.
Therefore, overconfidence and lack of preparation for the consequences of a gust of wind or storm remain the main causes of poor decisions at sea and a significant source of danger. Humility should remain an absolute value. As airplane pilots say, “There are no good pilots, only old pilots
Lastly, the survivorship bias makes us focus our attention on those who succeeded due to their exceptional qualities, ignoring those who failed.
For instance, people tend to think they can face the same conditions as professional sailors they see in major offshore races. However, these sailors operate on thoroughly prepared boats and use checklists like the Sailor’s Checklist to anticipate all scenarios.
How to prepare your boat for a "Black Swan" such as a violent storm or gust of wind?
Whether at anchor or in port, your boat should always be ready to face a gust of wind or storm because meteorological models cannot predict everything. Frequently, local winds related to the terrain can arise during the night, or larger weather phenomena can deceive even the best forecasting models. Thus, in all cases, even in good weather, it’s necessary to moor or anchor your boat for the night as if the wind were to suddenly pick up. When that occasion arises, you will be grateful for your foresight.
When forecasts are available, meticulous preparation is crucial when a storm or gust of wind is imminent (see p. 39 of the Sailor’s Checklist):
- Start by monitoring marine weather bulletins to anticipate changes in conditions. If the situation allows and you have the time, seek shelter in a port or a wide bay downwind from the coast – for example, east of Corsica if the gust of wind is forecasted from the west – to benefit from the protection of the terrain and minimize the danger of your boat being pushed onto rocks.
- If you are at sea, try to change your course to dodge the storm or to be far enough offshore to drift without touching land throughout the duration of the gust of wind. Ensure that every member of the crew is properly equipped, including wearing a life jacket and securing themselves with a lifeline when moving on deck. Check that your bilge pumps are functioning well to remove any water on board. Onboard and on deck, secure all objects susceptible to movement, including the dinghy, anchor, anchor locker, floorboards, and all drawers. Close portholes, lockers, and hatches to prevent any water ingress. Prepare meals in advance, take note of your GPS position, and put your VHF on standby on channel 16.
Before the wind intensifies, it is crucial to have reduced the sail area to avoid overloading the boat, by hoisting, if possible, a smaller and more robust storm sail.
In any case, be prepared to “heave to” or “run off” in the case of breaking waves if you are sailing, use a floating anchor to limit your drift, and trigger emergency procedures (PAN PAN) or distress signals (MAYDAY) if necessary (p. 36 and 44 of the Sailor’s Checklist). Also, have an emergency plan communicated to all, including a survival bag and the location of the ready-to-use life raft.
3. What additional precautions to take when at anchor during a gust of wind?
First and foremost, it is essential to know how to anchor your boat properly (p. 24 of the Sailor’s Checklist). Do not hesitate to prepare a secondary anchor ready to be released in case the primary anchor slips on the seabed, or even use double anchoring techniques. Additionally, it is advisable to put out a maximum length of chain and use a “tight grip” to minimize the chances of dragging, especially for wide boats that tend to lie broadside to the wind. It is crucial to be well-equipped, have the engine ready to start, and maintain a watch outside to ensure that the anchor holds.
With these precautions taken, here is a list of apps that can help you monitor your boat’s position and receive alerts in case of anchor dragging:
1. Anchor Watch / Alarm: This app is available for Android and iOS devices and is designed to monitor your anchor. You can set a safe zone around your boat, and the app will alert you if your boat leaves that zone.
2. DragQueen Anchor Alarm: This is a free app for iOS that offers similar features to Anchor Watch. It monitors your boat’s position and alerts you if the anchor slips.
4. MarineTraffic : More than just an anchor alarm app, it offers a comprehensive overview of the global maritime situation with AIS tracking. You can add your boat for specific monitoring and receive alert notifications in case of movement. It’s a paid app available on Android and iOS.
It is important to note that these apps rely on your phone’s GPS, which can quickly drain the battery. Moreover, they do not replace human vigilance and should be used as an additional safety measure. Be sure to regularly check your boat’s actual situation, especially in bad weather or changing maritime conditions.
4. What additional precautions to take while in port?
Before the storm, check your mooring lines and fenders. Make sure to remove all items that are not securely attached to your boat, such as sails, biminis, and furniture, to prevent them from being carried away by the wind and causing damage. Also, check that neighboring boats are properly moored since, even if your boat is well secured, it can be damaged by poorly secured neighboring boats.
Finally, if you can do so safely, regularly check your boat during the storm to ensure that the moorings are secure and no other issues have arisen. Nevertheless, it is imperative not to compromise your personal safety. If the conditions become too dangerous, it is best to seek shelter and not risk your life to save your boat.
5. How to avoid damage from lightning?
Lightning on a boat is a potentially dangerous phenomenon, especially for sailboats. Here are some tips to avoid any damage during a thunderstorm:
- Avoid contact with metal: Steer clear of metal objects as much as possible. Metal conducts electricity and can electrocute you if lightning strikes.
- Avoid using electronics: If possible, disconnect and stow away electronic equipment to protect it from electrical surges, including VHF radios and mobile phones.
- Stay indoors: If you are at sea and cannot reach a safe shelter, stay inside the cabin as much as possible to avoid exposure.
- For sailboats of the dinghy type (absence of metal keel), attach a metal chain to one of your stays or your mast and let it trail in the water to allow it to conduct electricity if lightning strikes the mast.
It is always preferable to closely monitor weather forecasts and avoid sailing if thunderstorms are expected. No measure guarantees complete protection against lightning.
Anticipating all situations to minimize their consequences is the role of the skipper and their second. It requires imagination and often thinking against the natural tendencies of one’s brain to prepare properly and avoid being caught off guard. The sense of freedom and the safety of the entire crew, regardless of the conditions, come at this price. Fortunately, these phenomena are only occasional and localized during the fair season, so happy sailing!
To learn more about safety onboard, check out our other article with Safetics on the art of anticipation while boating!
Guillaume de Corbiac
et l’équipe Safetics