What Happened Team Vestas Wind? A Maritime Attorney Wants to Know

By John K. Fulweiler

When I raced weekend club races, we’d sail our keeled machine in tight to the shoreline. You’d see the bottom alright, and occasionally it’d reach up and give us a thump and we’d tack away pleased we’d snuck a little more yardage out of the effort.  A great aunt would thunder us kids across darkened Maine waters and nearly every time, the outboard would clunk to a stop and there’d be cursing and flashlights and flash of fillet knife as the prop was cleared. The thing is though, in those scenarios we’d invited the hazard aboard. The thump or clunk might’ve been a surprise, but the hazard itself wasn’t. I mean it’s not like we were sailing a prestigious global race and smacked into a charted reef. Uh-oh, did I offend? Sorry, folks, but I’m pretty shocked by the Team Vestas Wind grounding.

Now first up, I’m more of a Joshua Slocum as opposed to a Dennis Conner, Ted Turner or Charlie Enright so there’s a certain amount of perspective I’m potentially missing which I concede. For instance, the toll on a nine-member crew punishing themselves to place well on a race that continues day in and day out is worthy of consideration and something I haven’t experienced. Still, that an endeavor of this caliber could ground itself so miserably on the shoals of disaster (all puns intended) is incredible to me. I would give my eye teeth to be involved in the forensic investigation of how Team Vestas Wind’s multimillion dollar racing yacht fetched up at speed on shoals in the middle of the Indian Ocean. My eye teeth, darn it, and I don’t even know what they are! 

From a liability perspective, the general maritime law of this country (which I don’t see applying in this instance) would raise two goalposts (unseaworthiness and negligence) that’d likely drive my investigatory endeavors. First, I’d want to know whether an unseaworthy condition aboard the vessel caused the grounding. An owner’s warranty of seaworthiness covers all parts of a vessel from the hull and machinery to gear and equipment. For instance, I’ve read commentary about how electronic charts may require a zooming action to fully display certain navigational hazards. If that’s the case (and I’m merely proposing the hypothetical), does that requirement rise to the level of making the vessel unseaworthy? Was this hypothetical the crux of what caused the grounding?

On the negligence front, the questions pile up around me like a freshly recovered spinnaker. For instance, with respect to the electronic charts hypothetical, were there warnings accompanying these electronics and did the crew understand the warnings?  Relatedly, what sort of navigational redundancy was employed aboard? That is, was the crew using a paper chart or another navigational aid to double-check their location? I’d also be keen to know whether the weighty burden of plotting one’s way across 28.4 million miles of Indian Ocean is shouldered only by the navigator or is there a “co-pilot” of sorts lending a second set of eyes to calculations and assumptions? 

I could spend a whole morning asking questions about watch standing. How does the crew aboard one of these modded sailing Hoonigans set up for watch? In the midst of all the pressures I’m sure associated with clawing your way into a good finish, is there a crewmember specifically designated to keep watch? On that point, and appreciating how the metronome sounds of wind and water at night can be almost hypnotic, I’d be deeply interested in learning whether any of the crew perceived the hazard before the grounding? If not, why not? Are these sailing steeds equipped with lowly depth sounders? Was there no warning?

Look, I know asking questions from my armchair is rife for criticism, but this grounding could have ended very differently with people hurt and lives lost. Right now, it seems aside from bruised egos it’s just money that’s been lost, which presents the right circumstances for a bullish investigation. Indeed, with as much racing as there is left to do in the Volvo Ocean Race, it’d be nice to share some lessons from this incident with the rest of the fleet. Lessons, no doubt, us Joshua Slocum-like sailors might benefit from as well.    

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies. 

Underway and making way.

John K. FulweilerAdmiralty attorney John K. Fulweiler, Esq. practices maritime law on the East and Gulf Coasts. As a former partner of a Manhattan maritime firm, John now helms his own practice located in Newport, Rhode Island where he helps individuals and businesses navigate the choppy waters of the maritime law. John can be reached anytime at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or via e-mail at     

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  • commented 2015-02-04 18:12:41 -0500
    From Cruising Log of the Murrelet

    The saying that there are two kinds of sailors, those who have run aground and those who will run aground, is comforting to those recently grounded. But grounding rarely involves shipwreck and, with modern electronics and reporting, the chances of being unintentionally grounded, let alone shipwrecked, are minuscule. This means that investigators must diligently research the possibility that shipwrecking is a purposeful or negligent act. There is also need to look holistically at the system under which the team operated.

    If the vessel is fully insured, then financial gain becomes a motive. It was very common around the 1900s for owners to cash in on shipwrecks. Typically the wreck involved a sailing vessel in commercial service and the wrecking benefitted owners in converting from sail to steam power.

    Sailboat sailors could not trust owners with their lives during these times. Rumors spread from crew to crew (scuttlebutt) regarding possible purposeful shipwrecking, served to alert all to the risks. The risks typically were not compensated for. One way of assessing the risk was the presence of the owner. If the owner was on board, the risk was reduced.

    The owner of Vestas Wind was the Volvo Ocean Race organization and, at least in the US, it is hard to see how the wreck brought enough promotional (buzz) or other value to compensate for the disaster. A study of tweets and other communication world-wide might reduce insurance company pay out. Likely this is being done as there is promotional value in the increased attention given the race owing to the shipwreck. The Captain, or his sponsor, leased the vessel. The team was organized to win a race. It is useful to provide the perspective of US sailors such as myself.

    we are all vulnerable from the rear.US Sailors who cruise are different than those who just race. A US pure racing sailor views sailing as a competition between human athletes with the vessel being equipment. A US cruising sailor views the crew as components of the vessel required to make it seaworthy. These views have implications in crew selection and training.

    The former allows for selection of athletes who have no sailing experience (but are otherwise fit for a triathlon). These follow without knowledge necessary to form questions. Those who do not venture to ask questions are valued over those who do. Knowledge is shared on a need to know basis because there is concern that selected athletes may take knowledge to competitors. Knowledge of the racing rules isn’t desired because loyalty is valued above the competency gained from study of the rule books. The athletes are replaceable – meaning they can be flicked off crews with no damage to the overall goal-which is to win.

    The later US Sailors, the ones who cruise, are different animals. They must seek knowledge, not just from rule books but from libraries and from scuttlebutt. They must question everything in order to gain competency and make the vessel seaworthy. This is because, on any given day, the least experienced among the crew may need to make a decision necessary for safe operation of the vessel. There may not be time to consult and if there is the captain may not have all the facts in which to make a good decision and those facts come from the knowledgeable. If a crew member is flicked off, there is damage to the overall goal which is seaworthiness.

    IMG_3586The U.S. Perspective above appears to explain the Vestas Wind shipwreck. Briefly, the boat was crewed with “yes” men organized in a way where transparency was difficult. Imagine the curios team member, checking the work of the navigator. Would the member question the navigator or captain? Or would this result in the member being flicked from the team on the next leg. It is likely that the team member would not even seek to satisfy the curiosity.

    What Can Be Learned

    There are at least a few things to be done moving forward. The first is for Captains of race boats to apply the standard applied in the US which is to gather information from multiple sources. This could take the form of having others check the work, others including onboard crew, shore crew and race management. Next, flicking team members off of crews between legs must be discouraged, because this promotes a gang yes man mentality and lack of transparency. But that will not fully make the race boat seaworthy. Many do not know that the U.S. navy allows 19 year olds to operate huge war boats that must race across seas to perform their duties on a need to know basis. The U.S. Navy way of decision making is the way it should be in racing.
  • commented 2015-02-03 14:56:25 -0500
    It is a case of situational awareness, and all of the questions you asked about paper charts, a co-pilot, a depth sounder, or perception of changing sea state are all part of maintaining situational awareness. The 5 crews who passed the shoal ahead of Team Vestas Wind were wary, and knew that it did not show up on vector charts without a big zoom. The causes of the TVW loss of situational awareness are a great place to start on lessons learned.