Re: Warning about "UFOs"

Bill Kinney

Just a word of reassurance.  This topic is one that comes up all the time, and is passed around the sailing world and it seems to grow larger and more panicked with each telling. It's is a great boogy-man story because it has the evil, greedy shipping companies as the villains and the poor smallboat sailor as the helpless victim.

All I can do is give my personnel take on the topic as someone who has been intimately connected with the sailing world for several decades. Ignoring press stories, and scuttlebutt that starts with "I heard about a guy...", and staying with things I know first hand.  Your experience might be different, so, here goes: I HAVE seen many things floating on the ocean that I would NOT want to hit, most of them large trees, or pieces of lumber. But...

  • In 10's of thousands of ocean miles sailing I have NEVER seen a container in the ocean.  
  • NEVER have I seen one wash up on a beach. If there were a significant number of them floating in the ocean surely this would happen?
  • NEVER have I talked to anyone who has actually, first hand, seen a container floating in the ocean or washed up on a beach.
  • NEVER have I heard from someone who actually can confirm they hit a floating container.  
  • I know of just one boat that hit an unidentified floating object, at night in the middle of the ocean but what it hit was just that, unidentified.  
  • Never have I hit a container at sea.
On the other hand, I know personally of two boats that sunk after hitting whales, and two others that were disabled after whale strikes. I have been on a boat that hit a whale, thankfully without consequences.  By my reckoning, whales are at least 50 times more dangerous to small boats than shipping containers, and the risk of boats hitting reefs are at least 50 times higher again.

It is human nature to feel that risks we have no control over are much higher than those things were we think we can control. This is why many people have a fear of flying, but not of driving a car, even though the risk presented in an automobile is many times higher. We, quite rightly, feel that there is very little or nothing we can do ourselves to mitigate the risk of a collision with a container at sea.  This lack of control of the risk causes us to greatly inflate the relative risk of the event.

I am not saying that hitting a container is impossible, but the risks are WAY WAY down on the list of things we deal with at sea.  The risk does not deserve the number of words written about it over the years. (Even though I just added to them!)

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