Uncharted UI Hazards

On the night of November 29th, the 65-foot sailboat Team Vestas Wind slammed into a reef at 19 knots (a significant speed in a boat) in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

They were on their way from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, along with 6 other boats, in the second leg of the Volvo Ocean Race — a round-the-world sailboat race and one of the toughest sporting events in the world.

How did this happen? These were professionals — some of the best sailors in the world. The obvious answers are that either the charts were inaccurate or the boat’s crew committed “human error”. The consensus in the sailing world attributes the accident to human error. A recent New Yorker article sums it up:

“At a press conference on Monday, Team Vestas admitted that the crash appears to have been caused by ‘a simple human error’: the navigator, Wouter Verbraak, did not zoom in enough on his charts. Race organizers have pointed out that it was a high-stress situation caused by approaching bad weather.”

At the risk of reviving an age-old discussion, the navigator’s (in)action may have failed the crew, but the charting software’s user interface clearly contributed to the wreck.

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