Tall Ship Safety in Modern Times

Wait, wasn’t the Albatross featured in Tall Ship Down? That’s a pretty comprehensive explanation of why tall ships can’t be operated safely these days.

It sounds like you didn’t read the book at all if that’s what you think.

I read it as pretty uncomplicated accident porn, but my takeaway was that there is no longer sufficient sailing ship culture to permit safe operation in adverse conditions. The total sum of knowledge required to maintain and operate tall ships is absolutely vast, and as they have been reduced from workhorses of intercontinental trade to mere playthings, the pool of knowledge has shrunk beneath safe margins.

Anyhow, it’s been a fair few years since I actually read the book, so it’s not like I can serve you up a solid quote to underpin my position. Maybe I’m wrong?

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I didn’t get that at all. First off, the Albatross started life as a schooner. Mr. Gann had her re-rigged as a brigantine. This was perhaps a “talented amateur” operation and the new version was operating with sails and rigging never contemplated by the original designers. Far from some arcane knowledge lost a century ago, adding weight aloft and sail area to an existing design is well known as potentially dangerous in 2019 or 1719.
A better example would be the original Pride of Baltimore. She was an exact replica of a class considered very dangerous when brand new and only to be operated by the very best sailors. The ships were built for trades like slaves or drugs where speed was everything and safety hardly made the list at all.The 20th century version sailed with less than half the original crew, which left them at a disadvantage when it came time to change or reef sails quickly.
The Pride II eliminated off-center hatches, has more freeboard, and watertight bulkheads. While a bit slower and not an exact replica, she is much safer.

How well was this understood by what proportion of the people involved in the conversion? How well were the signs of instability recognized by the crew? How well did they understand the consequences of knocking down a ship of this type? I maintain that a deeper pool of knowledge would have increased the chance of realizing the danger in time.

How is this any different than putting a few extra stacks of containers full of lead weights on a ship or putting 12 people on a runabout certified to carry 6?
Mr. Gann was actually trained in doing stability calculations for aircraft where mistakes can be instantly fatal, so we can only wonder why he didn’t apply the same rigor to designing his new sail plan???
To repeat - these are standard calculations done by naval architects every day on all kinds of vessels. If I wanted to add 10 feet to my mast, I can think of three people off the top of my head that could do my new stability curves for me.

Because all a pilot cares about is the location of the longitudinal center of gravity. It has to fall within a very narrow range throughout the duration of the flight. Trim tabs and fuel tank levels take care of any other considerations. An aircraft is a far different beast than a sailboat.

If you plan on running with another layer on the stack, you have to get that idea past a vast regulatory machine staffed by an army of highly skilled professionals with an intimate understanding of the subject at hand. If you plan on changing the sail plan of ye olde school ship, the number of people with a working knowledge of the situation gets down to a tiny fraction. This makes for a significant difference.

If I understand what @Klaveness is getting at… a couple things. One is what would be called in sports the lack of a deep bench.

Not just a lack of replacements for injuries but also the knowledge base of the organization, the crew for example. The Bounty comes to mind. Had there been more experience in the crew they might have realized the voyage plan was a bad one.

The other thing is that sailing isn’t just a set of tasks that have to been done competently, there is some intuition involved that can only be gotten by experience .

I recall the John F. Leavitt, there is a scene in the documentary movie Coaster where the schooner is sailing downwind, captain is at the wheel, watching ahead and there is a big black wall cloud astern. The approaching dark cloud is not noticed until the cook comes on deck and, facing aft, sees it and reports it to the captain.

A bit later of course the Leavitt is abandoned, on it’s maiden voyage.

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IIRC It was actually numerous conversions that gradually added up to being major. The book is a giant lesson against complacency.

Like the massive and deep pool of knowledge that got complacent and resulted in the sinking of the Marine Electric, or the sinking of the El Faro, or any of the numerous bulk ships that break in half and sink yearly?

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I did not mean to imply the calculation was exactly the same, but that Mr. Gann should have known what he was doing was possibly dangerous.
I know for a fact if I go adding parts on an airplane, I need someone to sign off that the airplane is still safe.
I also know for a fact that if I add a taller mast and more sail area to my boat, I need someone to run the calculations to see if my boat is still safe. The big difference is there is a legal requirement for the airplane and not for a sailboat.

Sailboats larger than the Albatross are launched every year. Someone must be designing them. Also note that school ships since the 1980s have to meet some sort of stability calculations.
Re the Bounty: I think everyone but their crazy skipper knew they were on a suicide mission. This was more human factors failure than “Who knew taking a beat to hell barely maintained old wooden boat into a hurricane was bad”.

Modern sailboats, even huge ones, are very different animals from traditional tall ships. Sure, there are still low L/D designs being made, a few of them with more or less traditional rigging, some even designed as general cargo vessels. However, they remain a tiny subset of contemporary vessel design, a truly esoteric field, far from being the bread and butter of most naval architects.

Safety culture goes far beyond mere stability calculations. One thing is having a regulatory framework in place, but the enormous experience that goes into making the million go / no-go calls in practice is something entirely different. I mean, everyone on here knows what a slack tank feels like, right? You’d know straight away that something was wrong and have a pretty decent idea of how serious it was. Now how many would feel (as opposed to understand) if a sailing ship is prone to getting knocked down under bare poles? How many would understand the consequences?

Anyhow, I’m starting to sound like a broken record, so I’ll rest my case here.

Only if the aircraft is certificated as a standard or higher category. If it is an experimental aircraft the owner can do whatever he wants, just like the owner of an uninspected, non classed sail boat. Try and keep the comparisons apples to apples.

I will give you full marks for the Pride. They had a tiger by the tail they did not fully appreciate. Among 100 other things, modern no-stretch standing and running rigging plus modern sailcloth made her even less forgiving than the original 1800s version.

I think this thread should be split, but anyhow,

An interesting discussion of Gann and the Albatros (as he named her) is here:

Ernest K. Gann and the Albatros

Here’s a picture of Albatros from that link:


I dunno …


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I worked on “Tall Ships” for @15 years. There was a far better safety culture than on any tug i have ever worked on.

It’s my understanding that the original plan for the Pride was to be a dockside attraction and it was almost completely built when they decided they were actually going to sail her for real.

The original boats had a bad habit of disappearing with no trace fairly frequently…

Exactly correct. They made an actual 100% copy with no modern improvements whatsoever.