Maltese Falcon vs Nordic 40, the tonnage rule

Starboard courtesy Yachting Monthly

AIS is great, but it’s just a tool to help a skipper mind the rules of the road, including the “tonnage rule” being violated above in San Francisco Bay last week. I came across the “Starboard!” story at Yachting Monthly, Peter Lyons’s photo sequence is here, YachtPals has more info on the collision, and this Kiwi site claims that the mighty Maltese Falcon has had to issue the 5 blast danger signal “on far too many occasions” around SF. Oh, and my Sail mate Kimball Livingston was aboard. also has the first Maltese Falcon bridge shot I’ve seen, and a description of owner Tom Perkins workin his “Wurlitzer.”

We were underway for about four hours, with Perkins driving and controlling the sail plan almost the entire time. The yacht is steered with a small knob, and the freestanding masts and 15 sails are controlled with the push of a few buttons. Indeed, Perkins looked as though he was playing a nautical version of a mighty Wurlitzer. (caption: Looking down on the console that controls the sails and masts. The grey knob is the ‘wheel’. When under power, Falcon is controlled at the forward console.)

Maltese Falcon's bridge

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Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now excited to have Ben Stein as very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Panbo is going to the next level in 2019 and beyond.

10 Responses

  1. Larry Brandt says:

    Doubtless this sad affair will wind up in the courts. We lack the complete story, of course, yet the photos seem to accuse (a) Maltese of failing to respect a starboard-tack vessel’s rights, and (b) both vessel’s failing their responsibility to avoid the collision.
    The “Wurlitzer Effect” is a good turn of phrase, though…as applicable in an airplane cockpit as in the cockpit of a boat. In aviation we tend to equate “head down” with “head up and locked”, which I suspect is the case here.

  2. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    True, we don’t know the whole story. But a couple of those links suggest that the starboard tack vessel tacked just moments before the collision. Also, Falcon’s maneuverability may have been quite “constrained”; sometimes the rules of the road confirm the tonnage rule.

  3. Russ says:

    I think the one thing we can be sure of this that this will never see a courtroom. A few considerations:
    1) IF Maltese Falcon was in the wrong, it would be settled out of court.
    2) Maltese Falcon displaces over 300 tons and thus always has a pilot on board in the bay. Don’t bet against the pilot (Cosco Buscan not withstanding).
    3) Maltese Falcon draws 36 feet with her centerboard down and in much of the bay that gives her limited maneuverability.
    4) Irrespective of right of way, we are all burdened with avoiding a collision. It’s easy to explain how the 300 ton, 300′ vessel could not spin on a dime, how will the skipper of the other boat explain his failure to avoid a collision?
    Collisions aside, she’s an incredible piece of engineering. Those rotating masts mock all the tacking, gyping, spinnaker poles, bow sprits, assorted spars and furling gear that make up the typical sail boat. She is profoundly simple on one level, and a marvel of complexity on another.
    Tom Perkins is not known for modesty, but in this case he has no reason to be. This is a remarkable vessel.

  4. Larry Brandt says:

    If the Nordic tacked moments before the collision, then that may have been a cause of the mishap: a stand-on vessel must permit the give-way vessel to compute an avoidance strategy.
    Still, if I imagine myself as skipper of a 40-footer (assuming having maintained an established course in deep waters where maneuverability and traffic separation lanes are not an issue) with a port-tack behemoth approaching, I would believe in my heart that I were the stand-on vessel. It has ever been thus. How would I know otherwise?
    But when it became clear that the behemoth were not giving way, I would, of course, attempt to avoid the collision.
    The photo of the initial impact is interesting for several reasons, including: 1)The bow of the 40-footer appears to be at about a 90-degree angle, which seems to indicate no last-second attempt of the Nordic to avoid. [Did they even know the Maltese was there?] 2)If the 40-footer had been on an established course, why wouldn’t the Maltese have adjusted course very slightly starboard to clear the Nordic astern? [Did they know the Nordic was there?]
    I don’t want to seem like a Monday-morning quarterback on this, but I am hoping to learn something from it.

  5. Dan (b393capt) says:

    Reading the articles, it sounds like there is a belief the Nordic-40 had tried to assert its rights as a starboard boat, and that this is unlikely to be a winning argument for her captain because:
    i) She needed to complete her tack with ample time to allow Maltese Falcon to stay clear. (I agree)
    ii) Maltese Falcon was constrained, overriding regulation 12a (maybe, don’t know enough yet)
    iii) Even if Maltese Falcon was not constrained (by depth or otherwise), there was a responsibility of both ships to avoid collision and expectation the Nordic had time to do that … time the video seems to demonstrate the Nordic-40 instead choose to run straight.
    But, as damning as the video may appear … I wouldn’t make the assumption that the helmsperson of the Nordic 40 was stubbornly clinging to the belief he was the stand-on vessel as he careened into the Falcon.
    There certainly was a better time to have that belief … as he was already the right of way boat on his prior tack, as the leeward boat of two boats on the same tack (reg 12 a). All he needed to do was hold his original course if he wanted to be stubborn (some would say suicidal) about it.
    Rather … I think the cause of the collision is pure loss of control on the Nordic-40.
    Consider the possibility:
    1. The Nordic-40 was on a collision course on her old tack, and she was tacking rather than bearing off to avoid being caught just ahead of the speedy Maltese Falcon.
    2. As massive as the Maltese is … 40 foot sailboats (like mine) don’t turn on a dime either, and are especially slow to respond to the wheel after having just completed a tack. Add to that, in moderate winds and 2+ foot waves as seen here, turning the wheel can have rather limited effect when a sailboat has lost speed and is close to the wind (e.g. the wheel may only provide +/- 20 degrees, limited by the waves hitting her port side and a tendency of sailboats to round up into the wind), and would absolutely require altering mainsail or jib trim to turn away from Maltese Falcon.
    3. The difficulty of coordinating the sail trim to enable wheel/rudder to be effective, can increase dramatically if:
    – In the last tack, a genoa or mainsheet line fouled on another part of the boat. Genoa lines often get caught on cleats, for example, where the sail trim might still look decent.
    – The wind shadow of the Maltese Falcon confused the helmsperson before or after the prior tack, delaying him from commanding the crew to take the necessary action.
    – He panicked and forget which sail to command his crew to over or under trim to enable another course change.
    – The crew was arguing with the helmsperson rather than following commands (e.g. “what the #$&*! are you doing Mr. Helmsperson” )
    In any of these situations, it could give the appearance the Nordic-40 stubbornly held her course to the bitter end when the reality was the helmsperson had the wheel to the stops with the sail controls either jammed or cleated out of his reach, and unable to coordinate his crew to respond to the needed sail trim changes quick enough.
    Don’t expect to see this in court. Many a sailboat collision is settled over a beer, and if this were me … I would go out of my way to get aboard the Maltese Falcon to deliver my apology in person.

  6. Aaron Lynch says:

    Yeahbutt… how many beers will it take to cover the expense of fixing the awlgrip on that beast.
    I think Perkins or his insurance will likely eat most of the expense, just because they other guy’s 500k or million dollar liability probably won’t cover the costs involved.

  7. norse says:

    Nothing like having a collision while a pro photographer is at the scene. If you look at his photos in the X3 size, you can tell that the two guys on the NY40 weren’t paying any attention to where they were going and took no action until after they hit, and then made it a hit and run. Scary, but what is even more scary is all the internet armchair lawyer argument on several sites about who is at fault. Are the rules too difficult to understand? One real accident and lots more just waiting to happen.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “you can tell the two guys on the NY40 weren’t paying attention” … Huh? I went back to the pictures, and don’t see that.
    I do see the N40 heading straight without a course change, but there are other factors at play. I nearly t-boned another sailboat weeks ago that broke the rules and crossed my bow during a race … a photographer taking pictures might have also determined my crew and I were not paying attention … as the photo would not likely have the resolution to show the wheel being hard over a full 10 seconds before we missed by inches. You wouldn’t see my boat chance course either … as in the conditions we were in, I needed a sheet released before my boat would turn to port and duck the other boat. Had we hit I wouldn’t be guilty of inattention … just guilty of having forgotten to ask my crew to prepare to release the genoa so I had the option when my responsibility to hold my course became a responsiblity to forget those rules and respond to the rule about avoiding collisions. Asking anyone on a sailboat to do anything, requires at least five seconds to bark out the request, and another five for them to begin to respond.
    Just like these pictures, you would have seen my crew in the identical position looking right at me as in the picture here with the crew in yellow. I think in both cases they are fully aware of the other boat, but are looking to the helmsperson to get some verification that they were taking action.
    According to the MF, both the MF and the N40 had both tacked shortly before this collision … it’s difficult to believe the two guys on the N40 are, if ineffective in dealing with the problem (let the line out guys !), are not anything less than 100% aware of the MF at this point. At a minimum the guy in yellow is communicating with the helmsperson, and the helmsperson has the helm over hard.

  9. norse says:

    Each of the photos, #356 to #371, has a time-stamp. They were taken two per second. Too bad the sequence doesn’t start earlier, but it looks like the two were busy discussing the previous tack or the football game or something, because you don’t see blue’s hands move on the wheel, or yellow start to turn around, until a split second before the collision. You can see lots of people on MF watching the NY40 though. Blue and Yellow change roles after the collision, so who knows the guy on the wheel might have been a beginner. The internet comments imply neither owned the boat.
    Anyway, my point is that safety at sea means avoiding collisions. The rules are supposed to help that, but you should be able to avoid a collision with or without rules.

  10. Anonymous says:

    even when i have the right away…and if i see a large boat such as falcon heading my way….i just adjust course out of the way well in advance…it’s just that simple…we are not racing boats here. i would think the crew of the nordic just did not see the falcon and..believe me…if you sailed in congested san francisco bay long enough…take your eyes off the watch for a moment or two…it’s happened to the best of us..minus the collison thankfully.

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