2014-04-10

The new VHF is a MMSI affair

The boat show special arrived in March. Installation took a little longer.

Sailors, despite all their modern toys, are known for near-medieval levels of superstition. Whistling is somehow related to the attraction of storms to boats at sea, as is the scratching of the backstays to the ending of calms. Clearly, the refusal to leave port on a Friday (which is amusing to me as not only have sailors been historically irreligious, but not even particularly Christian) didn't help the tall ship Bounty.

What is clear is that when Age of Sail sailors weren't passing sewing needles through noses to avoid hauntings, they would assuage their quite-reasonable concerns about drowning or otherwise expiring at sea with a medley of magical wards. They knew, as we still know today, that it is the indifference of the elements and our own inattention that will get us killed offshore, even if the odds are much higher that one will be killed in that most quotidian of ways: on a road...particularly on a motorcycle. Injury, on the other hand, is all too common aboard, which is why we've taken first aid courses.

Sticky buttons and dodgy reception did not endear this unit to me; my equally aged ICOM M-45 on Valiente did and continues to do a better job of basic R/T.


When it came time to replace the elderly Navico VHF that came with Alchemy, I determined to take no half-measures and to appease the gods with the good old belt and suspenders approach. Those who purchase modern boat electronic, particularly in the communications/navigation realm, are aware that there's a lot of "confluence" underway, in which one device can do a number of jobs. So when I heard that a new iteration of the well-regarded Standard Horizon GX-2150 VHF with AIS (the GX-2200) was going to shortly grace the shelves of my local chandlery, I had a "shut up and take my money" moment. Particularly as the boat show price was compelling.

Why have GPS and AIS on one's radio? Well, it's a no-brainer for me: A radio that can tell me, thanks to GPS and AIS, my direction, speed and bearing backs up my plotter, which doesn't necessarily need to be on in open waters. Similarly, having a basic AIS on a simplified, but sufficiently text-supplemented, representation of a circle in space around our boat gives the helmsperson a bearing to other vessels, their CPAs (closest point of approach), their SOG (speed over ground) and, of course, a way to hail them on the VHF through the magic of DSC. DSC, or Digital Selective Calling, is a combination of a sort of paging or hailing system whereby specific boats (ones for whom the caller has an MMSI number) and an emergency alert setup: that's what the "big red button" on handhelds and base unit VHFs is for. So the particulars of one's own vessel, and one's current lat/lon, thanks to the GPS, are sent, depending on the location of the boat's antenna, many nautical miles in all directions. As a bonus, it's estimated that the range of a DSC call exceeds that of a voice call (such as a PAN PAN or the dreaded MAYDAY) by some 15% And let's face it, if you ever do need to push that particular red button, you probably have better things to be doing than shouting into a mic, right?

Hello, sailor: If something like Queen Mary II is in one's vicinity, one wishes to know.
The AIS element I've mentioned before as being what we consider to be one of the more significant advances in yacht gear safety and awareness. While "the oceans are full of things this size" is rather a hyperbolic statement, they are far from empty. Big ships can and should be considered as clueless as a liquored-up elephant herd stampeding a village, or perhaps like a sleeping whale in the path of a sailboat. AIS, the signals of which must be transmitted from all commercial shipping, can give the skipper of a cruising yacht a heads-up and a suggested course of action, which is typically "away". RADAR, which I consider the partner technology to AIS, gives you a chance to avoid rocks, land, (sometimes) debris and those smaller craft, fishers and the like, who are unlikely to have more than an old transistor radio aboard.
The shortest game of "chicken" ever.
So that was the logic of getting the new Standard Horizon product: lots of useful gadgets in one decent radio. I say decent because I have a few SH handhelds with which I am quite pleased, and my initial shipboard tests were very promising. Other equally well-regarded manufacturers, such as ICOM, make similar "combos", but at a higher price, and Not at the Boat Show. So Standard Horizon it was. But first, for those like that sort of thing, I did a "deboxing" to make sure all pieces of the new gear were present:

The SH GX-2200  is relatively compact and could have gone a number of places inside the pilothouse.

All was accounted for, along with the RAM3 remote mic that will be at the outside helm. Many of the functions of the base unit can be replicated from this handheld, which is suitably water-resistant.

The 50-odd feet of cord is handy, too.

Seen below is the provisional mounting. I have an old Signal Mate roll-up "emergency" VHF antenna I used as my mast is still in the rack. Hell, so is the whole boat. Height of antenna was therefore a good four metres. The mounting is provisional in case the VHF affects the Ritchie helm compass, the soft iron ball of which is to the right. So this may be moved. It's very shippy looking where it is, however. The old mount for the deceased "video" depth finder fit quite well.

Out of the box and with a dollop of improvised 12VDC, the GX-2200 rapidly found its bearings without an external GPS antenna.
Job One was inputting the MMSI number I obtained recently (and remarkably quickly and painlessly, he exclaimed in rare gratitude) from Transport Canada. This, for reasons of security, one supposes, is a one-shot deal: you have just one try to get a nine-digit number into the VHF's memory:

While the size of the manual is daunting, the drop-down menus and "soft keys" are logical and easy to suss out.
Checking, checking, squinting, squinting...

Each country has an MMSI "code": I am guessing Canada's is "316". Why, no one may know.

 Then you have to do it a second time. For keepsies, one presumes.

Ar, they be some dirty digits, Skipper...ye'll mar the finish with 'em!
Just a note here that if you have a handheld VHF (the "walkie-talkie") with DSC capability, you tend to load it with the same MMSI as the "mothership". If you, like me, have two boats, however, and shuttle a handheld between them, you can get a number called a Maritime Identity Number. This is a kind of second tier to the MMSI in that it's related to the handheld itself, not the boat, per se. As I have two DSC-capable handhelds, I will likely put the MMSI into the "better" one (it floats!) and get an MI for the other.

Once the (correct and triple-checked) MMSI numbers are input, the results are fairly dramatic. Within seconds of hitting the AIS button, I located several nearby workboats, probably dredging out a runway or something.

"Lubie"? Lubberly.
A quick scan of the manual revealed ways to learn more:

This is the "2NM" setting. Three boats were transmitting AIS data.
Now, it's important to note that this VHF's AIS is simply a receiver. They don't know that I'm around or where. Even if I hit the "call" button, their VHF would simply "ring" at their end and I might not show on their RADAR. For that, I'd need an AIS transponder. A later post will delve into the desirable and undesirable aspects of having one on a cruising yacht.

Given the location, these boats might have been servicing nav aids, such as the suite of local buoyage. The ice is, after all, mostly gone.

You don't lose the VHF part of the radio while you are checking out the AIS signals of surrounding boats. You can have a sort of "screen in screen" setup whereby you can show AIS, GPS, GPS compass with SOG and other data at the touch of a button.
Add caption
And there's the usual bunch of NMEA data wires at the back so all this can be fed to a plotter or even a PC for navigational goodness.  I did a radio check with "Prescott", the closest Coast Guard station, and was told that even with my dubious antenna, I was "loud and clear". I set up the DSC function to do a test call, and that worked in only two seconds, signalling "DSC ACK" (which doesn't mean the radio requires a Heimlich Maneuver, but rather that the DSC call has been ack-nowledged). So functionality has been achieved.
Wonky light in the pilothouse can throw off my camera, it seems.
The power was a different story. Bare wires twisted together is fine for test purposes, but even if the current (pun intended) VHF location is temporary, I prefer to conduct myself (pun intended, again) with a little more professionalism. So I installed Anderson Powerpoles on my DC leads. These "crimp and snap together" doohickeys are superior to ring or Molex connectors that preceded them, and have become very popular among the amateur radio fraternity (I use the term "fraternity" based on the visual evidence of prevailing beardiness), and are considered the right choice for low-resistance and firm connecting.
Conduct yourself accordingly in the wide world of radio.

While it took me some blood and sweat and seamanlike language to figure out how to assemble the things...they require a bit of force to get them to engage properly and I don't have the ideal crimping die...I did get them to work and will use them around the boat going forward any place where solder or other more permanent crimping isn't called for...and quick removal may be.

For the intrigued, here's a helpful instructional video:
And now, with launch approaching, it's back to the boat for me. At least I can listen to WX again.

2014-03-31

All is unseamanlike


It's like there hasn't been a clearance sale at West Marine since 1980.

Darwin denied his due. That's what I thought, probably with characteristic harshness, while watching the survival film All is Lost, which has been widely admired as both a technical tour-de-force and a heartwarming triumph of acting for Robert Redford, nameless aside from a credit calling him "Our Man". R.R., all craggy and sun-aged, at least has a boat of his own vintage: a typically worn, late '70s Cal 39 that looks as if it was last updated in '81, right down to the brown plaid cushions. It looks fitted out for Lake Ontario on a 15-knot day. It does not appear to be adequate for solo sailing in the Indian Ocean. The two are different activities.

My wife and I watched this film with some trepidation; we suspected it would, like almost every sailing narrative film we know of, be a little slack on the seamanship details, and in this we were not disappointed, except that we were. Again.

When one is a person who is trying to live his or her passion, and, intending to continue to live, has internalized those habits of mind and of safety best suited to keeping them alive, it's clear that when one is watching a movie that takes unnecessary shortcuts with reality, the effect can be jarring and can take you out of the narrative flow of the movie.

The experience of watching the dramatic and admittedly well-shot (and good sounding; we thought the sound effects were well-composed and mostly "realistic") visuals was therefore akin for these sailors to telling a martial artist to "fall awkwardly" after years of doing breakfalls: it's incredibly difficult to remember how to do things wrong when doing them right is internalized!

Warning, loads of spoilers ahead: Some clangers that killed the narrative thrust of All is Lost include a scene, for instance, where Our Man's fallen mast is freed by a couple of swipes of a blade through a halyard; both my wife and I said simultaneously "where's the bolt cutters?" Why did he not lift up his flaming half-jerrycan of burning paper, or have it held over the water? Where was his pump handle? Where was his bucket? Where were his ditch bag and EPIRB? Where was his PFD or his jacklines? Why did he sail on port, bringing in yet more water that overtopped his batteries (I assume) to get back to his sea anchor? He could have "chicken-gybed" on starboard to get to the same place! I'm not even sure that a Cal 39 would stay inverted given its ballast ratio.

I could go on. And on. You get the drift.

Foulie play: Our Man must have superheroic upper-body strength...and lifelines don't work that way.


Sure, it's easy to be critical, and it's easy to acknowledge that stressed people screw up things that should be ingrained, but the overall impression is that whatever other qualities "Our Man" had that (ultimately) led to his survival, preparedness and basic seamanship were not uppermost. At sea, you make your own luck (John Vigor's black box theory). Active prep is superior to reactive MacGyvering.

And that is what took us  crash-gybing right out of a film that could have been better if it didn't star a non-sailor, and hadn't been written by a weekend sailor. There were things shown that wouldn't have made sense to a general audience (how a sea anchor works, for instance), and other things not shown that made a sailing audience cringe. I would say it's the recent immersion in all things RYA that might have made me more touchy, but I think I would have been about 80% bugged by this film even 10 years ago, when I had fewer sea hours and much, much more to learn about safety and seamanship.

Now, where did I leave my ditch bag? Never mind, I look fabulous for 77!


Coincidentally, we saw Gravity last week, which one Web wag dubbed All is Lost in Space, and while that film was even more impressive than All is Lost (or at least, less familiar) in terms of visuals. But the problems for us were the same: the idea that three space stations and the Hubble orbit at the same altitude (also the same altitude and vector as satellite debris, apparently) and *within sight of each other* wrecked that film for me, as well. Space doesn't work that way, and neither does single-handed sailing, as depicted in All Is Lost. The fudging or the actual wrongness of the details treat the suspension of disbelief like the cratering of the bridge over Tacoma Narrows. Sailors can't bear the goofs, and non-sailors won't realize they are watching How Not to Do It.

2014-03-14

Ninety percent of interesting


Ironically, this book arrived by truck and then by foot.
Note to regular readers: This blog post/book review has been cross-posted to my "nautical books blog" Volumes of Salt.  I feel the subject matter, particularly in light of the effect of world shipping on little affluent yachties crossing shipping lanes because it's fun to be on a boat, may be of interest to sailors...and, or course, those readers who are also sailors.

To the average, non-mariner citizen, how the shelves at their local Walmart (or slightly less proletarian vendors) are stocked is of little interest. There's underpaid people in the front and presumably tractor-trailer docks at the back, the denizens of which labour in obscurity to bring consumers their discount-priced crap.

Rose George begs to differ: In "Ninety Percent of Everything", she gives (to me, anyway) a compelling recap of the "invisible" industry of global shipping, which has been revolutionized both by the internationalization of shipboard labour and ownership, and the related decline of national merchant navies, and the near-total acceptance of the container as the "base unit" of world shipping.

It's getting crowded out there.
In her engaging book, George, a British journalist with a number of non-fiction books to her credit, takes passage on M.V. Mærsk Kendal, a fairly representative sort of modern container ship, 300 metres long and 40 metres across, and capable of carrying 6,200 TEUs or about 3,100 of the more commonly seen (when noticed at all) 40-foot standard shipping containers.

Rose recounts how world commerce got here, and how the shipping container, after much industry resistence and vast investment to alter the world's harbours, became the de facto standard for the transshipment of manufactured goods. While raw materials, grains and liquids are shipped in different types of ships, and while container ships are not, in terms of the world's shipping fleet, particularly numerous, they are often the most noticeable, and, unlike tankers or bulk carriers, those containers can and do fall off. George relates that while only 6,000 out of 100,000 vessels of the world's merchant fleet are container ships, there's no point in building them small as their economies of scale dictate that the price of moving a container's contents (already ridiculously tiny) is reflected directly in how much of it can be hauled in one go.

The diesel engine of M/V Emma Mærsk:You know that when your engine requires sets of stairs, it's pretty big.

Speaking of economy, shipping is the greenest way per capita to get goods halfway around the planet. Having said that, however, the capita of shipping is so large, and the typical low-grade fuel they burn so dirty, that it's estimated that just 15 of the largest ships emit soot to rival all the world's cars.

And it's prettier, too, even if its cylinders aren't the size of bachelor apartments

Eager to concretize George's data in terms I could appreciate, I ran some figures for M.V. Emma Maersk's monster house-sized Wartsila Sulzer RTA96-C diesel engine when compared to my own wee diesel. Now, to be fair, I run standard diesel of the rather clarified, low-sulphur type used in cars and trucks, whereas most ships, including most cruise shipsburn a tarry substance known as bunker fuel.

Guess which one is more polluting?


Emma Maersk's most economical fuel consumption is 1,660 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour. Let's say "Imperial" or "U.S." gallons don't really matter here. That's 0.260 lbs/hp/hour, according to the manufacturer. My Beta 60, by contrast, burns 4 litres/hr at 2,000 rpm. So pushing Maersk around combusts roughly 0.5 gal or  1.86 L of fuel per second, whereas Alchemy is more like 1 mL/sec.

Oh, buoy, that's a lot of soot.

What bollocks, of course: Alchemy is a 16 tonne, 12 metre sailboat fit to carry perhaps four souls and two tonnes of fuel, water and provisions. Not to mention that Alchemy's diesel is an auxiliary, and, unlike that of a container ship, is not required to run for weeks at a stretch. All of which is true, but the reason that ships use low-grade fuel of high polluting potential is the same reason they hire (when they hire) crew out of the developing world: it's cheaper to do things that way. And price, like most human commerce, is the break point of doing shipping at all.

Speaking of the developing world, George spends a lot of time discussing the blend of opportunity and plight facing the most numerous members of world shipping crews, the Filipinos. She notes it's a blend, because, just as the women of the Philipinnes seem to have self-exported themselves to the Wests in the form of nannies, nurses and caregivers, that country's men are found as the lower ranks of shipping crews virtually everywhere. The lower ranks only, for the most part, due to the relatively low grade of what George calls "marine academies" in their homeland, and in the fact that shipping seems to be somewhat socially stratified, with white Westerners at the captain level, and Indians in the engine rooms, with a smattering of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans in the middle ranks. George doesn't question this much, except to note that there isn't much mixing among the crew.

Whether this is due to hierarchy or culture isn't clear, although if you are going to be ripped off, it's usually the lower crew who get, unsurprisingly, the dirty end of the stick. That's why there are still missions to seafarers: instead of shore leave, there are merely 24-hour turnarounds in semi-automated container-handling ports; the old sailorly lifestyle of going a-whoring and a-boozing in port for a week is largely history, according to George: the life of today's seaman is too tiring and rushed to go on shoreside toots, and never mind the cost of even getting out of vast ports miles from the fun of a city. So the missions fill the gap and provide small necessities and a respite from the ripoff artists that still plague the seaman's world once off the gangway.

"Nearly everything is transported by sea. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. The game is to reckon how many clothes and possessions and how much food has been transported by ship. The beads around the woman’s neck; the man's iPhone. Her Sri Lankan-made skirt and blouse; his printed-in-China book. I can always go wider, deeper and in any direction. The fabric of the seats. The rolling stock. The fuel powering the train. The conductor’s uniform; the coffee in my cup; the fruit in my bag. Definitely this fruit, so frequently shipped in refrigerated containers that it has been given its own temperature. Two degrees Celsius is 'chill’, but 13 degrees is 'banana’." -Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything.

George, partially due to the language barriers of the multi-ethnic crew, spends a lot of time with M.V. Kendal's Captain Glenn, a man, in the book's setting of 2012, at the end of a 40-plus-year career as a professional mariner. He's proud of his ship and his service, but his perceptions of what the old world of "break bulk/general cargo" shipping was like before the advent of container ports would have been recognizable to my father, a merchant seaman in the 1940s and early 1950s, whereas today's strictly run (the captain is told from head office to increase or reduce speed to meet distant schedules, for instance) operation is more like an assembly line in a giant's Lego factory. The contrast of a man on the verge of retirement demonstrating to the uncomprehending author his mastery of the sextant, while at the same time acknowledging that his fellow sailors are treated "like the scum of the earth" is perhaps a telling marker of the degree and rapidity of how the shipping industry has changed.

George also discusses the shell game of merchant vessel ownership and the dubious practice of "foreign flagging" in ship registration. The practice of, say, "flagging" a ship owned by Greeks through various offshore shell companies, and yet flagged to various countries such as Panama and Liberia (or Mongolia!) avoids pesky safety rules and inspections of, shall we say, more developed countries. So much of the world's fleet is undersupervised and underregulated, or so George indicates, and this is because these torturous paper games are designed to save shipowners money. But it has real-life consequences when ships in bad repair wreck and spill toxic contents, or when (as George notes in another chapter), ships are hijacked for ransoms that may never get paid, and their cheap labour crews are left to rot and sometimes die.

The absurdity of the practice of flags of convenience in the modern world is unlikely to be altered, however: there's simply too much money in the scam. It does, however, lead to paradoxically odd situations, such as last month where the U.S.'s ancient Jones Act of 1920 meant that there aren't really enough American-flagged ships left in American waters to transport road salt from Maine to Boston.

The "E-class" containship M/V Emma Mærsk: There are seven others just like her plying the oceans, and bigger ones on the drawing boards of global shipping. Photo (c) Mike Cunningham
Despite these ongoing industry issues, there's no sign that the world's shipping fleet is slowing down: the next largest container ships in the world, bigger than the E-Class, are already being built in Korea. The world has a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for slightly cheaper crap from somewhere else, and that hunger will make the ships that carry them bigger. Cleaner, safer and more humanely crewed may have to wait.

Venus envy: Not big enough!
Ninety Percent of Everything was a good and informative read, and provides a start contrast to another classic on merchant shipping I read a few years ago, John McPhee's Looking for a Ship. While written a mere 23 years ago, McPhee's story of one of the last American-crewed and registered general cargo ships reads like Conrad penned it. George's book isn't nearly as well-written...McPhee remains a master of making difficult subjects a pleasure to delve into...and has some digressive passages some readers may find a touch disjointed, but it is still an excellent introduction to a vast and global enterprise without which we would soon starve in rags.

And I for one, can't wait for containers to have AIS beacons.

Bonus link: the Elly Maersk set to a hypnotic beat.

2014-03-04

A prayer for the amateur diesel maintainer

This is a Vivian three-cylinder diesel. No, I've never heard of it, either, but it needs some service.

O mighty Neptune/Poseidon/Aquaman:

 

Give unto me, your faithful servant, correctly sourced spares aplenty should thy diesel prove to have been built on a Monday or Friday, and give unto me credit aplenty in diverse realms to purchase such spares in harbours of dubious repute; lo, even though they be made by unionized Europeans!

 


Give also unto me the courage to attempt, heeding those applicable scriptural passages from Sts. Gerr, Calder and Compton, a host of minor repairs when thy diesel knocketh, overheateth or emitteth the black, white or grey smokes of the inferno, and through such brazen signs and portents let me diagnose thereby thy auxiliary's ailments. Leadeth me to measurements Imperial or metric, but provideth me with tools for both, for my vessel is Canadian-registered, and I bear the doubled yoke thereby.

Let me lay down with stainless hose clamps aplenty; let my spares locker runneth over with fasteners of all kinds, even those parts of surpassing obscurity and dubious utility. May I always have a flashlight to hand, and picker-uppers with which to pick up that which falleth, and a song of praise that thy bilges bringeth forth the lost sheep of my greasy fingers.

Let me suffereth not the wayward courier; keep from me the services of incompetent "experts", sent by the Arch-Lubber himself, who render upon thy auxiliary more harm than good and chargeth me sorely, and greatly oppresseth the rum budget. And let me swear less, but not yet, not yet!

May my Racors runneth ever clearly with clean fuel; may I understand more fully what is a "banjo washer", and, having such understanding, may I replace thy auxiliary's injectors, should this come to pass, in sincere hopes of the restoration of serene function and full shaft output, and in the rock-like confidence that thy vessel may once again churn the seas in both calms and cats' paws.

May thy exhaust be sufficiently cooled and riseth from the waterlift without falling back, for 'tis said the oils and the waters maketh a poor milkshake.

May thy pumps always lift,  may thy lines need no bleeding, and may thy starter cables remain uncorroded, to thine greater glory and in hopes of reaching the alloted anchorage before sunset. 

Amen.

Oh, look...it's Canadian.

 

2014-03-01

The opposite of right

I don't expect the basis of this post to persist, so "enjoy" it while it lasts.

This little gem was found on the Canadian Yachting Facebook page. Scroll down to the "Feb. 26" entry. Props to fellow Ontario sailor Scott B. and anything-sailing.com for spotting it.

Spot the problem: It's not the missing sea boots, nor the suspicious-looking angle of heel.
Now, in most of life's challenges, there's not only a right and a wrong answer, but a range of right and wrong. Putting out a fire with your hands is only right in the sense that it is arguably better to have burnt hands than to die in an explosion made inevitable if you don't put the fire out with your hands, for instance. This is clearly a hard choice. Might be better to just head for the lift raft. But is there time?

In the context of the sea, recreational sailors face the same challenges as professional mariners who receive mandatory education on how to deal with dangerous situations aboard ships. We learn the same techniques and attempt to master similar methods of evaluation through education, and through the development of the awareness necessary to stay safe at sea.

Such education iss mandatory in such countries as Portugal, where the Portuguese Navy is the coast guard and the entire coast is more or less a rough and potentially dangerous lee shore. In North America, we have either "nothing" or feeble, low-bar certifications like the Canadian PCOC, which exposes the new boater to about enough instructional rigour to manage a figure-8 on a mill pond in a Torqeedo-powered Zodiac.

The conscientious recreational boater, perhaps being informed by circumstance of his or her knowledge deficits by the indifferent elements, or possessing insufficient comprehension about how a boat actually works, has a few options. In Canada, there is Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons, a longstanding and largely volunteer-run organization that has a noble mission statement:

To increase awareness and knowledge of safe boating by educating and training members and the general public, by fostering fellowship among members, and by establishing partnerships and alliances with organizations and agencies interested in boating.-CPS mission statement.

And good on them for that. I took with veteran cruisers Ken and Lynn (it's where we all actually met) the 12-week Boating Course in 1999, about four months after I bought Valiente and after an episode of pure and expensive ignorance persuaded me that I had a serious shortfall in knowing how to work my new-to-me boat. The course was not particularly easy, and all of us felt, after a longish exam at the end, that we had earned our then-freshly introduced PCOC certifications, and that we now had some sort of theoretical foundation to our actions and decisions on the water. I have found their standards have declined in this regard in the intervening years, along with the ease with which a PCOC can be obtained.

Nonetheless, I went on, as did my wife, to take other CPS courses, such as Radio Operation, Coastal Pilotage, Basic Marine First Aid and a few others, like Celestial Navigation. There haven't been many long and cold Toronto haulout seasons during which I haven't taken some sort of education that has been intended into increasing my seamanship and general on-board competence. I leave it to Neptune and other sailors to judge how that's panned out.

I've often spoken here about recognizing risks at sea. We learn to evaluate risk through experience, but in many situations, the acquisition of "risky experience" can damage the boat, or injure or even kill the crew. So we take courses to explore risks and safety at sea in a methodical and cosseted fashion, in the hopes that "the right or at least the best answer" will occur to us should the worst case or the riskiest choice manifest on a boat on which we are crewing or which is under our command.

The way individual minds are put together, and the level of one's susceptability to panic or fear will, of course, play a role in whether the training one takes in a warm classroom on shore will serve a frozen crew in a damaging gale. There's clearly limits to education. But (and we are now returning to the gloriously bad bit of advertising above), one of those limits should not be, in my view, promoting an organization's boater education courses with the opposite of what is the correct use of a safety device and technique.
None of whom are now alive, but hey.

The contemplative cabin boy pictured above on what may be a Nonsuch would find just about enough deflection in that lifeline to drown were the improperly deployed tether he's sporting to be used for real. Not only is that the wrong way to rig a tether, it's a way to rig a tether that would most likely kill the user. Were you to lash a baby seat with jute twine to the outside of a car windshield in order to demonstrate the efficacy of your in-dash airbags during a head-on collision, a similar level of utility would be on show.

TETHERS DON'T WORK THAT WAY. THEY WORK THIS WAY.


And that's why I now take RYA courses, despite my current inability to actually pass the things, instead of CPS. There's simply a higher grade of care and professionalism at work. All the good intentions in the world (and CPS is full of people with good intentions) can't make me forgive or forget that this educational organization approved and presumably paid for that advertisement to go live. If they are careless about this, which must have passed in front of many sailorly eyes, how much confidence can one have in the quality of their educational courses?

As an aside, I could let the Christopher Columbus quote pass, even though I and some others consider him a bloodthirsty slaver, but not a tether used in exactly the wrong way, even in a clearly faked-up, fair-weather photo shoot.

Wonder where I learned that? Probably when the ocean tried to kill me and only a properly rigged tether stopped it so I could live to rant another day.

2014-02-28

Another murder in Paradise: some preventative thoughts

Roger Pratt, whose cruising ended abruptly in St. Lucia.
I hesitated to complete this post, although it's been six weeks since I started it. But it would be Pollyannaish of us to fail to acknowledge that, in addition to the hazards of nature, there's the potential for trouble when one anchors in Paradise. The fact is that many tropical locales are not safe for foreigners and that in some cases the more active sort of resistance to unwelcome boarders can get you killed. I'm not talking about pirates off Somalia, however: I'm talking about being boarded underway or at anchor in some of the most cruiser-dense waters of the world. And, for the record, I won't get into a gun debate here: that's rarely an option for non-Americans out of their own waters. Nor will I specify whether I use Captain Slocum's alarm.

Pictured above is Roger Pratt, murdered by vicious thieves in January off the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The more I read about him and his wife, the more typical a cruising couple they seemed: retired professionals in their early 60s, mucking about at no great rate in the Caribbean.  Before the blog of their boat Magnetic Attraction was removed, the Pratts' entries were benign, the record of an engaged couple enjoying the various islands and people they'd visited, and exhibiting a capable degree of seamanship.

Could've been anyone. It's not common to get killed on one's boat, but it's hard to determine if it's getting more common to have that boat robbed. Data is incomplete, or hard to collate, or is stale or anecdotal. I sense that many cruisers are fatalistic on this score, however. Others seem to feel that the onus is on the cruiser to keep alert and to appear, if not poor, than not visibly rich. Don't venture too far. Don't carry money. Dress down, et cetera. And, most importantly,  stay informed and keep current about "bad areas" and avoid them. Of course, this doesn't help if a previously good area turns bad because some locals decide to rob your boat, with a little machete work if the owners are aboard and raise objections.

Frequently seen in groups.

Of course, nowhere is truly safe and everything is relative. I've been burgled here in Toronto. I've also got into some fairly serious physical altercations, although those are now far in the past. I consider myself reasonably prepared to throw a punch or worse, particularly if my family is also threatened. But I'm no spring chicken anymore, and on passage we would not be, despite bringing our "home" with us, really on home turf.
You can see the cruise ships from here. Photo (c) Giles Ashford

Be aware that you are guests and are intrinsically privileged


A sometimes unconsidered fact of life is that when a Westerner affluent enough to have the time and gear necessary to cruise a sailboat shows up in a place where poverty is general; or even a place where the employees of luxury hotels on the beachfront live in shantytowns out of sight behind the property line, it's a sort of taunting. Sometimes, when I am experiencing frustrations with the pace of renovation aboard our yacht, I have to think "if your biggest worry is a unco-operative yacht, you may be approaching one per center territory, Chuckles". Upon such sober reflection, my day tends to improve and the clean drinking water becomes extra-tasty.

Nonetheless, I can never excuse the violence, or the sheer opportunism of seeing a boat as a floating target of looting, but I can sometimes understand how knocking off a cruiser would seem like a good career move to a person with no prospects. And just as clearly, a lot of cash-flush tourists from the rich part of the planet don't appear to comprehend the nature of poverty, to the point where they don't grasp how staying in a fake slum is grossly insulting. Such folk probably see the planet as one big service industry and there's little else to say except they'd better hope that Soylent Green isn't a documentary.

The net effect, however, among the cruising community is to simply cross entire countries or even regions off their "need to visit" lists. In the Caribbean, for instance, cruisers in the planning stages or even actively on passage have nearly instantaneous means of notifying each other, and of keeping a close eye (perhaps a closer eye than the usually lax or underfunded local police) on where the crime is happening.


The effect of crimes against cruisers on local commerce in these places can be immediate and devastating. It can have a big impact on the local politics, as well. Frequently, there is little industry or agricultural production on some islands: tourism, for good or ill, is the lifeblood of the place.

Stock image of a Trinidad boat yard, a favourite place to haul for its economy and (mostly) hurricane-free climate.

Yacht tourism, which can involve things like chandleries, provisioners and repair shops, or even full-service boatyards, can provide decent jobs to locals that don't involve wearing little white jackets and handling trays. So there is a dichotomy: on islands where the relationship is understood, thieves can be swiftly caught and (by our First World standards) harshly punished. Other places seem unmotivated to either prevent or to solve crimes, maybe because the poverty is so entrenched.

Take the same precautions as you would at home, because you are at home


We can only make our own choices based on recent information: it's clear that in some cases there's often a spate of robberies done in a semi-organized fashion; other times, a fisherman sees a hatch carelessly left open and decides to improve his material circumstances. In still other cases, boats are robbed while the crew sleeps, and if you've ever slept on a sailboat, that is a pretty amazing level of stealthiness!

We can make our own precautions by sturdy locks, lights and radios left on to suggest occupancy, the retrieving of tenders/dinghies on deck so they can't just be cut free of the boat, and the lifting up and locking of all boarding ladders. This is pretty basic stuff, I think, but you have to go to the people actually living aboard, in this case seasoned co-skippers Ken and Lynn of Silverheels III, to get the real scoop. Others have said much the same thing, but perhaps more holistically: it's been a long time since 'a party line' described a telephone installation, but what is a non-DSC VHF call except an all-points broadcast that is easily overheard? The low acceptance of MMSIs and digital selective calling among cruisers is a mystery to me: if you know you are going to hear from a fellow boater, the VHF will, in effect, "ring" and you can move to a working channel without announcing it on Channel 16. Sure, you can still be heard, but you are harder to find right away...and you're not supposed to babble on VHF anyway. Keep it brief and keep your plans to leave the boat unattended to yourself.

Possessing a certain charm, but she'll never be mistaken for a new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey DS...thank Poseidon



Being a less compliant or obvious target is part of the safety regime; another is being less attractive. I subscribe to the theory that "magpie mind" is an actual attribute of the average thief's thought processes. By this, I mean a compulsion toward shiny objects. I may have mentioned in the past an old bike courier's trick I called "courier grime": cover the expensive frame in filthy band decals or leftie sentiments, and pat baby oil on whatever's still visible. Grind a little brown chalk and blow it randomly on the frame: voila: fake rust! Getting drunk and wielding house paint works, too.

At the recent Toronto boat show, I tried to explain to a marine paint salesdrone how any hull paint I wanted to purchase and apply must be 100% about durability...not only did I not care whether it looked particularly good in a strong light, I actively did not want the typical high-gloss look of the typical fibreglass yacht. In fact, I want Alchemy to appear to be coated in flat and industrial paints, suggesting, we hope, that there is nothing of shiny value is or could possibly be aboard. Protective colouration, so to speak.

An idea of dubious merit?


It may become necessary in certain popular cruiser locales to go old-school and to keep an anchor watch. Now, I've only overnighted one night in the Caribbean, and that as crew, so no expert, I. But I would certainly consider it for reasons of both security and for the more usual reasons of sheer unfamiliarity with holding of the ground, oncoming weather, shifting winds and so on.

The night has eyes! Photo (c) S/V Andante

But it seems logical to me, even in the context of dealing with perhaps young, drunk and/or desperate boat thieves, that approaching a boat with a clearly awake watchstander would be not a first choice.

Let's make it even simpler: An anchor watch in a fairly full anchorage could be organized via a cruisers' net to cover only every fourth or fifth boat, assuming the boats anchored are in some sort of rough array. One boat with one alert pair of eyes and ears and a handheld VHF on a pre-arranged channel  can realistically "patrol" a number of surrounding vessel. You see a panga coming in at 2 AM and slowingdown? Hit them with the spotlight. You see a boarding? Light up your boat, hit the PA and key the hailer and radio.

Every night, the "watch boat" switches based on a schedule not broadcast over the cruiser net. If the cost of avoiding a possibly violent break-in was having to stay up four hours a night once a week, I would be happy to be of service.

A few nights (there's no sense that these crimes happen often in broad daylight) of that would really discourage all but the most desperate of thieves, I would think. Others may consider it impractical or insufficient a discouragement. I think if it is insufficient, I wouldn't want to be in that portion of Paradise. Too many serpents.

2014-02-23

Bumps in the nightwatch


Nobody said global trade was going to be painless
Under the list of "problems facing the cruiser that are unlikely to go away soon" are paperwork and visa issues, the question of when it is worth it to bribe officials, and how to protect oneself, one's crew and one's boat from the debris floating in the sea. To date, I've run aground inside a buoyed channel with supposedly sufficient depth, I've run aground on a sand bar where I should've known better, and I've hit large branches and sucked plastic into the motor. I've also reported, several times now, the position and surmised course of floating picnic tables, shipping pallets, tree limbs and trunks to the Coast Guard. If there's garbage in the water big enough to sink a boat locally, there's likely worse at sea, if (one hopes) far more dispersed.

I've covered off in a largish post last fall the topic of strainers and the sealife and smaller debris that can hamper them. But this is more about steel and timber and tsunami debris that can do more than go bump in the nightwatch. Sure, most of it either sinks to the bottom or washes (and is plundered in the time-honoured traditon) ashore, but thanks to the sheer volume of world shipping, it's a non-trivial amount of junk afloat. While it's been said that if you worried about everything that could kill you at sea, you'd never cast off, it's part of seamanlike prudence, I think, to consider whether an unlikely event is worthy of planning for or of instituting a Plan B (beyond a life raft, which would be Plan A, I suppose).

Self-containered?

Apart from some practical steps to keep the water out (would you bother to fother?), what would be a reasonable game plan for dealing with a sea with roaming, hard to spot nautical hazards? Questions like this aren't theoretical for us: it's part of the reason we chose steel over fibreglass, and we've already had some useful, if unwelcome, confirmation that steel can take blunt-force impacts more successfully than can many other boat hull materials. Dunno about super-duper Kevlar or carbon-fibre boats, but that's not us nor likely to be us.


By the way, I encourage all sailors planning on going out of sight of land to watch the above two videos. The comments section, unusually in my experience of YouTube's offerings, has interesting and lively suggestions on keeping afloat after a hull breach.

This topic arises because the seas aren't getting any emptier of the now-universal containerized cargo vessel. Numbering around 10,000, this vast fleet of slab-sided sea trucks plies the oceans in calculated courses designed to minimize diesel usage and therefore cost. The crews, whatever their seamanship, are generally not well-paid nor numerous. As we read in Ninety Percent of Everything, an intriguing treatise (and a book I will be reviewing shortly) by Rose George on the "invisible" shipping industry, we often don't even know how much or of what nature is inside those containers, each of which is about the size  of Alchemy, and potentially much heavier. 
“When MSC Napoli grounded off a Devon beach in January 2007, its burst boxes of motorbikes, shampoo, and diapers attracted looters and treasure hunters. It was also a rare opportunity to compare what was declared on container manifests with actual contents. In 20 percent of the containers, the contents and weights were wrong.”--Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything
Mate Johnny C. and myself share a awestruck fascination for bad weather as expressed in isobars squeezed tighter than a chilled gymnast's backside. You can argue whether the terrible oceanic weather of late is the fault of humankind all you want, but don't let it interrupt your bailing.

And this was before the last six.
Regardless of the human toll on property and infrastructure, those who can read these sort of synoptic charts can imagine (or recall in some cases) what these weather systems can do in the open ocean.
An imperfect storm.

One known and anticipated effect of bad weather in the more high-traffic parts of the sea is damage to those contain ships, which tend to lose, predictably, containers.  At over five hundred containers in the sea, it can be assumed that many sank more or less immediately, but nonetheless some continue to float for significant periods of time, to the point where they become known hazards to shipping.

Cigarettes: now in seafood flavour!

Of course, some are more or less safely beached, but considering their sometimes-hazardous cargo, safety is relative. It's clear that more bad weather has the potential, and maybe the probability, of increasing the number of containers in the sea, or conversely, the amout of debris that's supposed to be affixed to the shore cut loose into the open ocean.

This is better than hitting something awash below the WL, but it would be a different story in a 0300 h gale. Photo (c) Ocean Navigator

And while the loss of multiple containers doesn't happen every day, it happens frequently enough to make one wonder about what sort of watchstanding would protect against hitting voyage-wrecking debris, or if there are technological solutions worth the bother. Radar, forward-looking sonar or some sort of electronic beacon or tag on the containers themselves hold promise of varying degrees. It's not so much a matter of whether the tech exists; it does, but given that criminals are already exploiting the technology of container tracking, would a conscientious, budget-minded shipper not prefer to stick with the old paper manifests or their proprietary, closed cargo accounting?

While the ability to get some sort of lat/lon data or other directional signal from an awash, overboard container at sea would be very handy on the nightwatch, I don't know how that would help you if you ran into a fleet of large logs. "Keep a good watch" has its limits! But the Russian timber ship video, which for some reason will not embed here, got me thinking of an interesting possibility that is already in play in Russia.

My understanding is that in Russia, the cops can be corrupt and the insurance companies can be very weaselly in order to avoid paying out on claims. So the habit of continuously recording via a small camera every second of driving from the viewpoint through the windscreen has become common. I believe you can record several hours of driving on a tiny device; afterwards, the old files are "re-recorded" with more current ones. As I understand it, the process stops and starts with the car. Or with the douchebag powerboater.



I can easily see this rather simple technology adapted for the cruising sailboat. In fact, my friend Alex in Portugal gets a plug here for his extensive and innovative use of Go Pro cameras to record his racing crew's performances.



One can easily imagine a "watch cam" that records the last 24 hours of sailing automatically. It could be mounted three metres up the mast, for instance. Or even at the spreaders or the mast top for such useful functions as "spot the poorly charted and greatly expanded since Captain Cook" reef. It needn't be expensive or technically complex.

Oh, look, a situation ahead demanding caution. Glad it was spotted it from a 15 metre height-of-eye. Photo (c) Brian Steiler


If the boat hits (or is hit) by debris or derelict cargo/containers, the incident would be captured. That's handy for insurance claims, if not exactly peace of mind. "Yes, Maersk (or other major shipping line) representatives, it was one of your poorly secured 20-tonne boxes of dollar-store crap that stove in our bow...here's the video and please note the logo on the side!" Or even the side of the ship.

This is the container ship MOL Comfort just prior to splitting fully in half. I find the name a little ironic.


Now, I already have a "rear-view bumper cam" so that I can safely dock portside from my pilothouse's starboard helm: it's a simple way to make sure I'm close enough for the crew to jump off with a line. This is simply that sort of deal with waterproofing and a MP3-grade recorder, a 12 VDC supply and some sort of a switch or timer.

And it's probably not beyond possibility to envision a time when a drone aircraft can be launched from a boat to view (in visible or infrared or perhaps even a limited form of radar) the seas ahead for possible debris intersections.
Of course, by "probably not beyond possibility", I mean "is already being done on a regular basis". Whether one considers it necessary or prudent to use such technologies aboard, and whether such technologies will work in heavy weather at night at sea, remain probably as much a matter of opinion as of investment. The odds are low, of course, because the oceans are very big and empty.

Not as much, however, as they used to be.

2014-02-14

Breaking the ice

That cockpit scupper icicle may date from 2013.
Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York...oh, if only the "sun of York" (the original name of Toronto) was up to the job of thawing, there might be less wintry discontent on the boat maintenance front.

While it's become common knowledge that this winter in North America has been severe, it's even more common to make jokes about the shortness of human memory concerning weather. It's been only moderately snowy, if my own memory serves, but a feature of our "now with added climate change" weather of the last quarter-century has been prolonged periods of thaws or at least a day or two of 10C weather every two weeks, enough to cut well into the accumulated snowpack (a term usually reserved for ski country).


The snow is a good 30-40 cm. deep all over the boat. The wind has eroded the snowbank over the coaming only a bit. On the port side, it's well over the tops of the primaries. At least the "boom brake" seems to have stayed put.
Not so this year. We are 45 days into 2014 without, I believe, a single moment of thaw. Even the Great Lakes are showing the effects in near-record-breaking levels of ice cover. The results in terms of getting up ladders and into boats are extra layers of clothing and difficulty. The day before yesterday (not pictured), I spent time shovelling off Alchemy and admiring the layer-cake effect of ice, packed snow, loose snow, powdery snow, and some sort of very sticky snow from the decks and the pilothouse roof.  I couldn't find the wooden brace I use to secure the foot of the ladder as it was beneath a drift. The interior in full daylight had a dim blue, igloo-like glow from the thick layers of snow above every hatch. I cleaned out all the portlights as I don't want the inevitable, if tardy, thawing process to seep meltwater into the interior.

My impression that we've had a lot of easterly weather this winter seems to be correct.
Yesterday's labours involved hauling the Honda 2000 genset on a bike trailer to Valiente's winter yard, some 4 NM (yes, I am starved of boaty thoughts) east of our house. For reasons obscure to me as a taxpayer, there seems to be slightly more road work being done over the winter than in the summer, when it is presumably more fuel-efficient to melt tar. So the roads are dirty, broken-up and car-stuffed. The irate drivers and I, so rarely in common cause, can agree that the roads in Toronto are getting worse, not better. I look forward to not travelling them for a few years.


That was not either loose snow or a conveniently dislodged big chunk of ice. It was a frosty amalgam of nasty.
So after a few miles of lightly salted mist and pothole massage, plus pushing the bike between unshovelled inter-boat pathways, I got the power cord out, the Honda purring (it is a most reliable and eager beast if maintained) and a blazing 10 amps of current charging my neglected house bank. It was time for a look around. The decks were deep with snow over ice and were unpleasant to navigate; nonetheless, I went forward to retrieve a ridiculously long strip of Someone Else's Failed Tarp from the lashings of my Portabote. There was evidence of damage like that as far as I could see, but my calculated risk of leaving the mast up and not tarping this year seems to have worked out. We've had several episodes of 40 to 50 knot gales this winter, and sometimes it's best just to not tarp rather than to risk getting a hole or rip from chafing, at which point the whole frame and tarp can tear up pretty quickly.

That's been my experience, anyway.

Not pink lemonade, but a chunk of water from the mast atop a substrate of antifreeze. Very Canadian.
The bilges were, despite the sloshing of much full-strength antifreeze, somewhat crusty with ice. But there was no sign of water aside from the usual one expects with a keel-stepped mast. I cleared away the 30 cm of snow from the Nicrovent fan in the head, which immediately began to flutter and spin under the cloud-occluded afternoon sun of York. With some luck, when this ice does begin to melt, some of the moisture will be sucked out of the boat.

It only looks like the boat of a clumsy cocaine smuggler.
Snowy ingress was more evident at the companionway. There's a teak vent in the upper dropboard, and the whole setup is not exactly weather-tight. Clearly. Had I not been in a rush to haul out in order to meet both work obligations and my preparations for my Brittany sailing school trip, I perhaps would have rigged up some sort of tarp for this area. I've done it before, and it's reduced the drifting.

Well, the charger's still working.
I was able to get about 2.5 hours of charging on the batteries, and they are still well short of fully charged, but it was better than the previous regime of "Nothing". It's a bit late now to take them off the boat even if I can do so in a friend's car, so I'll return again in the next spell of less-atrocious weather to lay on a few more hours of charge. Frankly, it was -7C aboard and I was getting seriously chilly reading about boat electrical systems in the dim recesses of Valiente's rimed saloon.

I realize now that we've had a historically typical winter, and that most of the winters during which I've got a lot of work done have been unusually warm (or rather, warm enough in which to do outside work or unheated inside work) and sufficiently dry in that the snow that happened went away for days at a time. Not this year. A dropboard makes a lousy shovel. May your fair winds be frost-free.