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ATLANTIC 57 CAPSIZE: Crew of Leopard Saved 400 Miles North of the Dominican Republic

After some initial confusion over the vessel’s identity, it has been confirmed that a Chris White-designed Atlantic 57 catamaran named Leopard (as opposed to a production Leopard catamaran built by Robertson & Caine) was capsized last week well north of the DR while on a delivery from Virginia to St. Martin. All three crew onboard, led by skipper Charles Nethersole, were rescued from the overturned hull by MV Aloe, as documented in the video above, taken from a Coast Guard C-130 search plane that monitored the evacuation.

As has been noted on at least two online forums (Cruisers Forum and the multihull forum at Sailing Anarchy), this is the second Atlantic 57 to flip at sea, the first being Anna, which was capsized in the Pacific in July 2010.

Anna flipped

Anna upside down. As the graffiti suggests, she was recovered and salvaged

Chris White, to his great credit, was very upfront about Anna’s misfortune and analyzed it in great detail on his website. He’s been just as upfront about this latest incident and so far the most complete account of what happened appears on his site.

The pertinent part runs as follows:

The circumstances of the capsize are at once very clear and yet somewhat mysterious. There were three experienced, awake and alert sailors onboard who all have vivid impressions of the event.

Leopard’s daily progress south had been similar to a trough ahead of an approaching cold front which meant that the wind was southerly and conditions somewhat unsettled. True wind speeds were running in the 23-28 knot range.

The forecast was for the front to overtake Leopard and the wind to shift to the west, so the crew was intentionally sailing slowly so they could obtain better conditions behind the front. There was no desire to sail fast and further away from the approaching favorable wind. The time was 1900, which means dark in November, and dinner prep was underway in the galley.

Leopard had the second reef in the mainsail and the smaller self tacking jib rolled to a #2 reef position. They were on starboard tack on a heading of about 150 degrees making about 7 knots in the puffs and much less in the lulls.

Professional captain Charles Nethersole has 14 years experience on the Atlantic 55 and 57 cats as well as decades of delivery and racing experience on a variety of offshore yachts. While he knows how to push a boat hard when it's required, he is also very good at throttling back when conditions warrant.

Charles had just altered course a little further off the wind and eased the sheets to near luffing in order to make work in the galley more comfortable in the head sea conditions. A few minutes later, he was back inside the pilothouse standing next to the helm station when he heard a sudden loud roar and immediately the boat started to rotate. He had no time to even hit the autopilot-off button.

Cooking dinner in the galley, Carolyn reported that she heard a loud roar coming from the starboard quarter. She stopped what she was doing to listen - wondering what it could be - before she was thrown against the refrigerator as the boat rotated. Crewman Bert, recounts that the capsize felt like “something supernatural”. Charles says that Leopard never took off forward as a fast cat typically would in the first seconds of a squall. She was immediately slammed into a sideways rotation.

Within a minute of capsize Bert swam out towing the still uninflated life raft and pulled himself onto the partially immersed underwing. He reports that the wind was normal at that point with no rain or indications of unusual weather.

Chris posits, quite reasonably, that Leopard was overwhelmed by a very sudden extreme bit of weather, perhaps a “tornadic waterspout.” These things do happen, unfortunately, and far larger vessels have been felled in similar events; examples off the top of my head being Pride of Baltimore and the school ship Albatross.

Read through the material Chris has provided on Anna’s capsize, and you’ll see she was similarly overwhelmed in a sudden very violent squall. One the big take-aways Chris emphasized in the case of Anna was that she was running on autopilot when she flipped, and his conclusion was that in a dynamic high-wind situation where a boat is suddenly caught out over-canvassed it is always best to have a human hand on the wheel.

It seems Leopard was also on autopilot when she flipped.

Leopard upright

Leopard when she was right side up

There’s been some discussion online that these misfortunes reflect poorly on the design of the Atlantic 57, but based on the facts we have this seems unwarranted. I see nothing in their design that makes these performance cruising cats unusually vulnerable. To me it seems an awful coincidence, with the very good part being that in both cases all the crew were saved.

Some online pundits have noted these sorts of things don’t happen to fat production cruising cats, but in fact they do.

Leopard 44 flipped

Overturned Leopard 44 charter cat that drifted most of the way across the Indian Ocean after her delivery crew presumably lost their lives in a cyclone

I urge you to revisit this post if you have any doubts about that.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a very brief conversation with Leopard’s skipper, Mr. Nethersole, who would prefer to defer a debriefing until after the holiday. So maybe I’ll have more details next week.

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