As the strap tightened and the rowboat started to roll, the sound of muffled thuds and laughter erupted from both fore and aft cabins.
Slowly, slowly, the boat continued to roll until it lay completely inverted in the water, its blue antifouled bottom pointing at the equally blue Californian sky. The laughter evolved into hoots and guffaws.
As the boat completed the turn, its deck awash, the extra weight making it sit low in the water, the hatches of the cabins swung open to reveal a tangle of suntanned limbs, and it took a minute or two for the four young men to disentangle themselves and emerge clumsily into the sunshine.
Uniting Nations were the first crew to complete their capsize test, the capsize induced by a strap on a hoist in the calm waters of Monterey Bay rather than by 30-foot waves on the open ocean.
The ability of a boat to self-right is vital to a safe ocean crossing. Big waves do inevitably happen, so the boats are designed to roll with the punches, with the two cabins working as buoyancy chambers. The air trapped in the cabins causes the boat to be unstable in the inverted position, so after a few seconds it pops back up to upright.
But not always. Generally, the factors that might interfere with the boat’s self-righting capability are:
1. If the cabin hatches are not closed. No matter how hot and stuffy it may be in the cabin, the hatches must stay closed. But sometimes a crew can be just plain unlucky and a wave strikes just as they are switching shifts, some rowers emerging from the cabin as others go back in – as happened to OAR Northwest on the Atlantic last year.
2. Or if the boat has not been correctly ballasted, i.e. all the heavy gear and reserve water supplies must be stowed securely below decks.
So the capsize test is designed to test the latter point and make sure there are no leaks in the cabins, but it also serves a useful psychological purpose – to prepare the crews for the experience of capsizing. To simulate the experience in benign conditions may take them outside their comfort zone, but serves as useful preparation so that if and when it happens for real, they know that the boat – and they themselves – can handle it.
Team Uniting Nations Gallery
Team Pacific Warriors Gallery
Author’s note: From personal experience I can say that capsizing is not fun – imagine being tossed around in a washing machine, except that the water is on the outside, not the inside. But on the upside, the cabin is so small that, if all hard and sharp objects have been properly stowed, it’s quite difficult to hurt yourself because you don’t have far to fall. In about 10 capsizes, I’ve suffered nothing worse than a small cut to the head and a miserable night.
– Roz Savage