6 lessons learned from the Northern Marine 85 launch capsize

Yacht launches can go wrong

Yacht launches are usually a cause for celebration, but last year one went horribly wrong when a Northern Marine 85 superyacht capsized during her launch in Ancortes, Washington. Now a recently released official Marine Accident Brief from the National Transportation Safety Board details exactly what went wrong.

On May 18, 2014, Northern Marine 85 yacht Baaden, known as project Blood Baron during build, was launched stern-first down a boat ramp at the Fidalgo Marina when it capsized, as seen in the video below. From transcription errors and instability to unorganised project management, there seem to have been multiple problems that led to the capsize of Baaden, all of which offer important lessons on how similar accidents can be avoided in the future.

The first lesson to be learned is simple: understand that accidents can happen and launches can go wrong, and plan ahead accordingly.

Transcription errors can be fatal to a superyacht launch

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of the capsizing of Baaden during its launch to be the "vessels low margin of stability due to the combined effects of a recording error during the final vessel weigh, which resulted in an incorrect assessment of the vessel’s centre of gravity, and an overestimation of the weight of installed ballast."

In other words, there were ballast and stability issues, caused in large part by a transcription error from the builder New World, which had acquired Northern Marine's assets and was operating under its name.

New World had supplied the stability naval architect with an aft starboard load value of 68,500 – a typo as it was really 60,550. But the naval architect used the incorrect measurement to calculate the vessels total weight, and the aft port load had 68,700 – an 8,000 pound difference caused by a typo that proved fatal for this yacht's launch. On top of this, New World also overstated the ballast weight as 23 LT when it was really 16.61, causing the architect to overestimate the yacht's stability.

Don't assume anything when launching a yacht

As the Marine Accident Brief reports, all was going as planned until 40 seconds after the front dolly transporting Baaden submerged and the team said there was a "sudden loud clank and crunching sound from the stern".

The team paused the launch to find the cause of the problem, but there were no leaks and all launch mechanisms appeared to be behaving normally, so they decided to proceed with the launch 12 minutes later. The team had no way of knowing that there were serious ballast and stability issues going on with the yacht.

Hindsight is 20/20, but this excerpt from the report is telling, "the launch team believed the boat would right itself from the port list once it floated free from its cradles."

But as the yacht moved into the water, it was apparent the port stabiliser fin was dragging on the ramp. The vessel listed further to port, slipped off the front of its cradle, and as the captain accelerated to help the yacht into the water more quickly, her roll rate to port only quickened. The boat "quickly capsized" and began to take on water through its engine air intakes.

Consistent project management is a necessity

Before the fateful day of the launch that went wrong, Baaden had a tumultuous beginning. Her initial builder, Northern Marine went bankrupt in 2012, and New World Yacht Builders acquired its assets, construction techniques and retained the company’s name. Baaden began as an 80-foot hull mould and was expanded to 25.9 metres in her midsection and stern while the bow was given more flair.

Project management of the build seems to have been chaotic with the engineer departing early in the project and the yacht owner's onsite build captain being let go and replaced with a less hands-on management group. While the general manager who had previously served with Northern Marine was on the New World team, he was not specifically involved with Baaden. All of this combined could have led to a less than functional build with errors, such as ballast issues, easily slipping through the cracks.

According to the accident brief, "The company's acting general manager stated that the Baaden project had more discontinuity in technical personnel and a greater amount of subcontracted work compared to past builds."

Stern-first launches are tricky for yachts of any size

While it might be tempting to think this launch capsize was a one-off incident, it's important to note that large yachts will always be vulnerable during stern-first launching. As the report states, "Stern-first launching on an angled ramp or incline presents a stability issue that large vessels face only when first entering the water. The large trim angle causes the vessel’s stern to become buoyant while the bow is supported on a cradle. This can cause a momentary negative righting arm and, without additional supports at the bow constraining the vessel from rolling, necessitates getting the hull into the water quickly to obtain full stability."

There were no bow constraints in use on the Baaden launch, nor any launching calculations performed to evaluate stability at various trims and positions when entering the water when the yacht would be at its most vulnerable position.

Plan for worst case scenarios

The launch capsize of Northern Marine 85 superyacht Baaden reminds us to always have a backup plan for worst case scenarios.

The report states that launch crew trapped in the engine room saw water leaking in through the lazarette and determined that the area was likely flooded and they wouldn’t be able to escape this way. Recalling a watertight window in the starboard-side head forward of the engine room, they made their way there and a shoreside team was able to use a rock to break this window and let out four of the five crew members. Fortunately, there were only three minor injuries. An important lesson here is for crews and owners alike to have a plan in place with escape routes and emergency procedures when everything goes wrong – even during launch – but hope they never will need to be used.

Despite being salvaged, due to damage to the interior woodwork, machinery and electrical systems, the capsized superyacht Baaden was declared a total loss worth an estimated $10 million.

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