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Securing the main hatch boards during heavy weather sailing

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What is the issue?
Very few enclosed cockpits drain fast enough to rid themselves of water if swamped before successive waves arrive. If the companionway is open, water will pour below and although much of it will be rolled out by the boat's motion, the vessel may then remain sluggish and slow to lift her stern to other oncoming waves exacerbating the situation. Hence it is critical that the main hatch is secured during heavy weather sailing.

But most yacht's hatch securing arrangements are washboards that are externally dropped into place and secured. This classical arrangement leads to crews feeling being sealed in below decks during heavy weather sailing. The resultant anxiety and claustrophobia lead to some of the boards being removed which results in the boat's single largest opening being unsecured.

Why address this?
A single breaching wave could flood the yacht through the main companionway hatch placing the vessel in a survival situation. If the vessel is knocked down or rolled, for example in Fastnet 79 at least 18 boats were rolled a full 360 degrees, the boards will be lost and the hatch is then effectively wide open from that point onward. It is essential for the welfare of the vessel and crew that the hatch can be secured and the crew down below made to feel safe.

How to address this?
Put in place a securing system for the main hatch where the boards can be secured and released both externally and internally. It costs the price of two jammer cleats, a short length of line, and an hour's work at the most. With this the companionway boards can be kept securely shipped but released from either side.

Main hatch securing lanyard arrangment
Image: Tony Gibson

This recommendation comes directly from the 'Fastnet 79' (link to download as zipped PDF of the special incident report External link) disaster that cost the lives of 15 sailors. One of the earliest inquiries into the disaster was published jointly by the RYA and the Royal Ocean Racing Club (available as a PDF External link) noted...
The largest category of response refers to companionways. Some crews were reluctant to keep all
the wash-boards in place because they felt that communication between companionway and cockpit
was essential. Others discovered that the only way of positively securing the wash-boards was to lock the hatch over them from the outside and some were reluctant to do so because of effectively trapping those off watch In the accommodation. Some of those with angled sides to companionway entrances commented that this was bad design, as each washboard had only a few inches before it fell out completely. In general, crews felt that the sides of the companionway entrance should be vertical or nearly vertical and that it must be possible to secure and open the hatch from both inside and outside. A number commented on the lack of strength of both hatches and companionways and a minority felt that it was necessary to carry spare wash-boards. Some of those who lost or broke washboards plugged the aperture reasonably effectively with a bagged sail.

It went on to make a specific regulation on the subject of 'Watertight Integrity': The most serious defect affecting watertight integrity was the design and construction of main companionways. It is recommended that the Special Regulation relating to the blocking arrangements for main companionways should be extended to introduce specific requirements for the blocking arrangements to be totally secure but openable from above and below decks. It has since become standard in most seagoing racing yachts that have hatch-boards and should be implemented as a standard on all seagoing vessels.

Main hatch secured
Photo: Tony Gibson

This may be accomplished by placing a jammed cleat internally and externally to the main hatch. Drill the main hatch to allow a length of line to pass through the front edge. Provide enough length on the line to allow the hatch to slide fully open when it is secured at midpoint both internally and externally. This is a simple, practical solution that is permanently in place and ready to deploy when needed. It should also be noted that the below deck area was the safest place to be during Fastnet 79 as there were no instances of yachts, sinking upside down and all those temporarily trapped in cabins had time to abandon the yacht after she righted.

See also preventing the loss of washboards during heavy weather sailing Experience.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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