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The well-grounded anchor well

Between the several dozen other, in-boat jobs I have to accomplish this winter, I also want to have the anchor well modified over the winter.

Some of you probably read that as "well-modified". Well, no. No anchors will be modified in what I have planned. The chain to which the anchors are attached, however, known in this instance as the "rode", will sink to new depths down the anchor well.

Side view with proposed angled plate instead of well floor
The existing well (yes, it's really called that) is three-sided and flat, or rather slightly cambered forward for drainage at the stem). The purpose of having a triangular pit instead of the customary lidded anchor locker plus hawse pipe leading down into a chain locker in the forepeak (or down into the bilges themselves) is twofold. The well allows working on the ground tackle (anchors, swivels, chain and nylon rodes, snubbers, bridles, chain hooks and cleats) and the foresails from a position lower and more protected than that of standing directly on deck. Bluntly, it should be harder to get washed off here, but of course we're all wearing our tethers secured to the jacklines at all times, right?

The other reason is that it is the pit that collects the chain, and not some dank, dark locker forward of the V-berth. This means that the most forward part of the deck doesn't require a hawse pipe in it. The hawse pipe, which routes the deployed or retrieved rode from the chain locker inside the boat to the outside, is a clever way to keep kinks from happening and to keep most of the water out. You can even cap them when not in use. But "most" isn't "all" and the ideal on a steel boat is to keep it as dry as possible.

Another ideal is to always have your anchors and related gear "at the ready", not all down below disassembled so as to keep the weight far back. While this is a real concern on boats lightly built, plumb-bowed or generally of a racing contenance, given the buoyancy of our bow, and its massive construction, there is no compelling reason to cut a hole there just to get the chain lower and/or inside the boat. The second chain, sure. But that's another story.

There is, however, quite a bit of logic in getting more volume into that anchor well, primarily to store flaked chain rode in an orderly fashion, and also to ensure that the chain brought aboard by the windlass pictured above doesn't pile up directly under itself.

Top view: Shall I fab up a fibreglass lid? Some think so.
So I'm going to ask Greg the welder, who did such a nice job on the solar panel arch, to see if he can build a well with multiple angles as seen above that will "slope" the chain forward and lower. I will not change the existing drain hole, but I will include a small hand pump to slurp out the majority of damp I bring aboard, and a small pet cock will be installed so that I can drain water from the bottom, much like a marine fuel filter does. Lastly, I will probably install a fibreglass "lid with a hood" that covers the entire well and protects the windlass from the sea (the windlass will also have the typical fabric cover). Here's a picture of the windlasses accessories and other bits and pieces. In a later entry, I'll describe how I intend to power the thing.

I hope all this will give me the ability to carry more chain on deck (but lower, which is better for stability and pitching) and will allow me to flake it without kinks, and without putting in an intrinsically leaky hawse pipe.

Lastly, here's a very interesting, informative and alas, unhappily ended tale of anchoring in bad conditions that made me think. It's from, so consider yourself warned about the salty language:


Nothing Like the Real Thing: A November Atlantic Yacht Delivery

I wrote about my first saltwater crewing experience in Portugal in 2007. Both my wife and I have been trying to get in, separately for logistic as well as experiential reasons, as much “at sea” time as delivery crew as we can. As we plan to go offshore for a few years, any sea time we accumulate now will go into the fabled “black box” (see previous entry) of seamanship and preparedness.

Longtime readers (if you in fact exist) will know that my wife and I have already done essentially short, coastal runs in Portugal at different times on the same 12-metre race boat, Giulietta. This past June, my wife did a longer crewing trip on an Ontario 32, Veleda IV, between Eleuthera in the Bahamas and New York City. Due to several equipment problems, she had to bail out of that trip in Charleston, S.C., but managed to learn a lot nonetheless.

I received an e-mail in September out of the blue from Bruce Clark ( ... and you can read Bruce and June's take on the trip now) asking if I fancied being crew aboard Ainia, the Bristol 45.5 sloop he and his wife June were taking south to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands after a year of prep in Liberty Marina in Jersey City, across from Manhattan. I knew Bruce via the purchase of his old Portabote for Alchemy a couple of years previously, and he and I had stayed in touch via and he was kind enough to think of me when a crewing opportunity arose. Things came together quickly: the recession had seen June “retired” somewhat earlier than planned, and so they figured they might as well get their cruising started sooner than later. Consequently, Bruce was under pressure to get their boat ready “enough” before pushing off, while postponing a few jobs for the tropics. This seems to be the norm for those embarking on the cruising life: if you get to 90% done, you might as well leave, because you’ll never entirely empty the boat job jar.

We departed Toronto, where the Clarks were wrapping up their affairs and getting some boat bits and clothing, on November 1 and drove to Jersey City to pick up our other crew, Burry Vanderveer . Burry, a major in the Canadian Forces on assignment in the States, has a boat of his own on the same dock as the Clarks, and was a great, experienced hand at sea. As the photo attests, he’s also a productive fisherman…this mahi-mahi was delicious, but was close to the last life we saw until the approach to the USVIs brought the return of flying fish, seabirds and even a curious, and perhaps lovesick, pilot whale.

After Jersey City, we drove south to the somewhat obscure if pretty Mobjack, Virginia, where Ainia waited at a tiny, eight-slip marina. A quick provisioning trip the next morning completed, we headed off into the Chesapeake. The pace was high, as Skipper Clark wanted to get in front of a deepening trough of low pressure. He was right: We rode winds from 20-35 knots all the way from the Bay to Bermuda and beyond, and dodged (or passed through) squalls and big seas for about nine days straight. The consolation (besides a number of days of 150 NM-plus passages) was that we never had dangerous weather, and we were hearing of boats behind us or relatively near to us that were having a rougher time.

We heard of this via the famous Herb Hilgenberg (South Bound II VAX498 - Ship routing and weather forecasting,, the amateur radio operator and weather forecaster who provides custom forecasting in return for reports on local conditions. Needless to say, it would be a good deal even if his accuracy wasn’t so high, which it generally was. Listening to Herb’s late-afternoon roundup of reports (dubbed by the crew as "the Herb Show", possibly because it was our sole form of entertainment aside from paperbacks and each other!) to and from widely scattered boats across most of the Atlantic was a highlight of an otherwise radio and “news” free 12 days at sea.

Apart from a rather general weather fax out of Boston and a couple of other U.S. stations (which ceased to apply after we reached the lower latitudes), Herb was our sole link to the “outside world”…an odd situation for someone with as many subscriptions and internet bookmarks as myself! Herb’s sound counsel kept us going at a bumpy but swift pace while less fortunate boats either had full gales or had to pull into Bermuda, the only evidence of which we saw was a faint loom on the NE horizon one night. Herb encouraged us to press on or face harsher conditions, and by the sound of other crews, he was right.

Helming goes better with Coke
Avoiding worse weather (like the remnants of Hurricane Ida) meant pushing the boat: we were determined to stay ahead of the rather conflicted and (even for Herb) hard to predict weather if we could. While I don’t want to give the impression we had uninterrupted wind, we had more than we needed to move close to hull speed most of the time until about 275 NM north of St. Thomas, when the wind clocked right out of the south (what Trades?) and we alternated between long tacks and motorsailing into the lighter breeze. Even with that breeze, however, the foredeck never really dried off. Opening portlights and hatches for air was only possible on the last couple of days, and not always for long.

Bruce and June's Bristol 45.5, a stout Ted Hood design, features a centreboard we generally kept up until the wind was forward of the beam, and an in-mast furling mainsail that allowed quick reefing from the cockpit. While it’s true I’ve seen better shape on a main, the battenless sail certainly seemed robust enough (I estimate our greatest gusts during squalls was around the 45 knot mark), as did its uncomplaining furling gear. The safety and rapidity of changing the sail area was of great utility in the often fast-changing conditions when we were overpressed. One thing that didn’t change was our tack: thanks to the wind wheeling around with our course, we were on more or less the same point of sail and tack for many days. This goes a long way toward explaining why my right leg…and only my right leg…ached after a few days: I was constantly bracing it against the starboard heel.

Big air much of the way, to be sure, but it did provide generally fast passages, which made the skipper pleased and were gratifying to all even as we nursed our bruises from the “lively” boat motion. Well, I nursed mine. Lake Ontario, even in squalls, is scant preparation for sliding down ten to 15 foot waves at 30 degrees of heel. My most abrading incidents seemed to feature the donning of pants or foulies…hard in such situations to have “one hand for the boat”, particularly with one leg off the cabin sole.

Concerning clothing, I didn’t overestimate the need for it very much at all. While it was never cold, even leaving Virginia, the strong breeze sucked warmth from the body on the many night watches I stood, and having a few layers kept me comfortable. Purely by chance before I left Toronto, I found a pair of discounted Musto bib foulie pants for $69 at a local place. They fit generously, which is what you want to crouch and creep about if conditions argue against a manly stride up the salt-slicked side decks. Despite a center cockpit enclosed on three sides, I wore them right down to the “real” tropics, not because of the cold, but because we got spray over the topsides often and green water occasionally back to the cockpit in the squally, half-gale conditions that were a feature of many night watches. This meant I was at the helm sitting on soaking cockpit cushions as often as not.

I ended up wearing them with long johns, then shorts and underpants and then underpants. Over that I had a Goretex rainsuit jacket I use for cycling in Toronto (Banff Wear), with a fleece sweater and T-shirt below, with of course a PFD with D-rings and tether above. The fleece went off near Bermuda and then the coat, meaning I wore the bib pants with a T-shirt most night watches. Yes, I sweated a bit, but it was better than sitting in salty shorts and the foulies meant I didn't hesitate to kneel on deck or on wet lines due to the reinforced knees and seat on the pants. I almost always wore a canvas Tilley-style hat, even at night, because of the erratic spray, and I sometimes wore bicycle gloves for grip rather than warmth.

In the true tropics, I wore no shoes, but just shorts and a T-shirt with a plastic "crossing-guard" type of raincoat during squalls, just to keep the spray off. So I went for layers of mixed marine and non-marine gear over a "dedicated" set of foulies. This made sense to me given the latitudes and time of year, or had I been in an aft cockpit of a more open boat, but if I had had to do more foredeck work, I would've preferred the real deal.

While there were long stretches of crew idleness, or just “less blowy” times in which we could chat or read or contemplate fishing, there were also moments when we were all active, like during squalls or sail changes. After an initial bout of seasickness (I likely did not apply my Scopolamine patch early enough), I was fine and disposed of the patch after two days (I was told I couldn't drink beer if I was wearing it...imagine), although I rarely felt like eating much…so passagemaking might be the ultimate diet plan. June did prepare some nice meals, though: her Chinese beef and noodles was a treat. I ate a sliced meat sandwich at one point that tasted as good as I can recall, so maybe you eat less aboard and appreciate it more.

This trip was a real opportunity for me, and one for which I’m very grateful. I certainly learned a great deal that is difficult to experience on the Great Lakes. In fact, I recommend that any local sailor who wishes to improve his or her skill set consider a long (this was approximately 1,500 NM/12 days at sea) passage on a well-found boat. It’s the definition of a “working holiday”, but it’s external confirmation that one is either on the right track of seamanship, or that one might have some habits or notions worthy of review.

Among the things I’ve either learned, had reinforced or now need to discard:

1) Boats on the sea are in motion. Always. Just because it’s 18 tonnes doesn’t mean it can’t lurch sharply in random directions. Plan all movement ahead accordingly. This includes all necessary movements in the head.

2) Motion makes things break. We had four mounting bolts on the autopilot break, occasioning a night of hand-steering, and the Spectra lines controlling the wind vane chafed through and had to be end-for-ended more than once. We also made a habit of eyeballing the decks for pins, bolts and other evidence of chafe or wear. We found it, but nothing critical.

3) Even with adequate crew, one’s boat needs self-steering, preferably more than one type. Both can and did “break”, but both were restored with relative ease, thanks to plentiful spares, basic seamanship and sweat equity. My plan to have oversized and separate means of self-steering installed on Alchemy looks not only prudent, but essential. The “opportunity” to helm at sea will come during squalls, trust me.

4) Some say the day of the marine single-sideband radio is over and that satellite phones or expensive Immarsat setups are the way to go. I say that I was persuaded otherwise by my passage aboard this SSB-equipped (it was an ICOM M-710) vessel: The combination of weatherfaxes and the reports of other boats around us in a generally wind-filled Atlantic allowed the skipper to make informed decisions with the benefit of other crews to consider. Staring at a GRIB file or a downloaded synoptic chart in isolation provides less solace than hearing a human voice relating the look of the waves and the feel of the wind 100 miles downrange.

5) If you think you’ve brought enough beverages, think again. Sailing over warm water is thirst-making, and I ran out of pop four days early. Lemon water and the occasional beer filled the gap, but I liked the watermaker water better than the Virginia well water. This made me think that even a small watermaker of the 12 VDC type was good as a backup or as a way to keep useful ballast. It’s also insurance: one water tank sprang a leak and we made a few gallons with the genset to cover the loss.

6) Wind…we had plenty. The wind generator was small but in the generally 20-40 knot conditions, it churned frequently (it had an auto-brake function that kicked in when the batteries were full, a feature I fancied). While our skipper had solar panels, they were stowed at sea and deployed at anchor. This convinced me that having both would in fact allow us to avoid using the diesel to generate power at anchor in all but protracted windless, cloudy conditions…at which point I might motor to someplace cooler, anyway. We had no problems keeping food cool. Keeping the boat cool was another issue, but that’s why they call it the tropics.

7) I need a better tether with the Wichard shackle that has a two-part release. The boat can lurch unpredictably and the need to release securely is as important as the need to avoid releasing unexpectedly. The same goes for the galley…you use different muscles to cook, clean and even stand at steep angles of heel, and a “galley belt” and plenty of handholds are absolutely necessary. So is ready access to tools and spares in drawers and boxes that won't take flight when you access them. I saw a very labour-intensive foam inlay in a typical sort of mechanic's tray type toolbox: every item was snugly nestled in its custom-cut place. I used to think that was a little precious, but now it looks smart to either do that or to bungee or lash every tool to a board, and to slip the board in a drawer.

8) Speaking of handholds, I have a lot of work aboard our boat installing them for our crew, which are separated by nearly two feet in height (although this will, I hope, diminish as my son ages!). “Getting my sea legs” was a big challenge, and I have the (now fading) contusions to prove it. Trial and error will show where to put handholds…either that or stage a drunken stagger through the boat while wielding a loaded powder puff.

I look forward to further deliveries of this type before we embark in the next few years, and I recommend them heartily to any Great Lakes sailor looking to broaden his or her horizons.

The last shot is Charlotte Amalie, the "capital" of St. Thomas. My only regret is that a hurriedly booked plane connection met we spent only a couple of hours ashore before I had to throw my salt-stained carcass into the somewhat dysfunctional U.S. air transport system...but more on that later.

The black box theory (maritime version)

The black box theory is where maintenance and superstition meet and decide to tighten every hose clamp a quarter-turn. It's why I sniff the bilges and why I haul on the stays to check tension. Yes, even in Lake Ontario. Basically, the theory, which the marine writer John Vigor seems to have first codified, states that there is a "black box" of preventive maintenance to which the prudent mariner can contribute by vigilance and by keeping track of when certain parts of the boat were last observed critically. Withdrawals from the black box are made when the shackle works loose...but you moused it so it doesn't come completely apart, or when you have to run the engine at redline RPM for hours...but you changed the oil and checked the belts and shaft alignment early and often.

This is like 50 lawyers at the bottom of the sea.

The theory posits that the sea is an inherently destructive place to the works of man, but that the destruction can be anticipated, forestalled and ultimately managed away from the realm of catastrophe and into the realm of "well, I'd better fix that before it becomes a nuisance." Anyone in what my fellow metal boat owner Cap'n. Matt calls "the sailing game" knows that there are people whose boats experience one damn thing after another, including potentially dangerous and usually expensive failures. Also known are the skippers who putter around, keep logs, have enough mechanical ability to fix (or at least not destroy through ignorance) most parts of their boat, and whose bilges are generally clean and whose boats are dry, comfortable and not prone to mysterious drips, noises or faint whiffs of burning.

They aren't "lucky". They are regular contributors to their black boxes.

It's one thing to be a survivor, but quite another to be a survivor who was put into the survival situation because of lack of foresight, lack of maintenance or lack of knowledge. While it's stupid and neurotic to think you can anticipate every problem, or avoid every bad situation, the simple fact that one does a reasonable job of checking pilots, forecasts and the state of repair of the boat means that when the crises come, you aren't thinking "did I forget to tighten Bolt 12754? Did I dog down Hatch G?" Instead, you're focusing on dealing with the events or processes that you can't control, like unforecasted weather or some random event.

Example of a random event:

Back in late September of this year (2009), I brought my old 33-foot sloop back to my club in order to get it ready for winter and, regretfully, to probably sell it in the spring (long, other story). After shutting it down, tidying up and securing the lines, I decided, not atypically, that I merited a pint of Guinness. While sipping, the bar phone rang and some words were exchanged. I asked what was up, and was told that it was our club's race committee boat who had failed to raise the dockmaster (the young man who takes lines and drives the water taxi, actually). The committee boat, a 38-foot trawler design, was adrift and heading for the States. The last Wednesday night club race had to be abandoned.

I got involved when the dockmaster (whose VHF channel, 68, the committee boat perhaps had not been hailing) said that he was not qualified to run either the club's crash boat or our 1940s-era work boat. So my plans to get home in time for dinner were put on hold, as I have driven both boats as part of our volunteer hours scheme. We hopped into the crash boat and zoomed through a horde of sailboats, some still obviously racing. We got to our committee boat to find that a 37-foot Peterson sailboat had her under tow already, but we hung around to "shepherd" the pair back in case the sailboat's engine got overworked, as the committee boat isn't light, and sailboats, particularly racers, make poor tugboats. I hung around nearby in the crash boat in case the committee boat needed nudging under the crane.

Once safely back, I learned that the committee boat had anchored at the start line as per usual, and had started the race. They then hauled anchor and were preparing to move to establish a finish line when their prop was fouled...badly. It turns out that they had snagged an entire, mussel-encrusted, bottom-dwelling spinnaker trailing shackles and line with their anchor, and that the current had sent this surprise package streaming back into the prop, gumming it up properly. Result: dead in the water and drifting rapidly south-east.

Personally, while I've heard of fouled props and fouled anchors, I have never heard of this: dragging up an entire spinnaker straight into the blades. That's the sort of stuff the sea (or in this case, a Great Lake) can throw at a sailor (or in this case, a race committee). That's the reason you do maintenance, keep logs and listen to forecasts: one less thing to worry about!


Conspiracy plotting

Advances in chartplotting technology in particular and navigation electronics in general are coming thick and fast in the recreational boating world. AIS that IDs distant ships and shows vectors; broadband RADAR that makes fewer amps see farther and better; 3D chartplotting displays that resemble flight simulators; FLIR displays that allow night vision that would shame a's all available in a bewildering array of standards, and an evolving array of hook-ups. The much-touted NMEA 2000 looks good, but there's still proprietary networking. All require the addition of large amounts of money, and all vie for the attention of the person at the helm.

To me, it seems a bit of a conspiracy to fulfill on the deck of a sailboat the childhood dreams of middle-aged men to fly spaceships. There's certainly an element of this in the ads: "bigger display", "faster refresh", "multi-function overlay" and "depth like you've never seen before". I mean you don't have to page Cap'n Freud: he's rafted up alongside contemplating your massive upgrades.

Now, if you are a voyager or just an aspiring one, you are probably aware that time spent at the wheel or tiller actually steering the boat is relatively low. I would say that on passage,
95% of helming is in fact autopilot or windvane, and that the 5% of active steering is in waters where you either have nav aids, bearings or other information. This is why I contend that a chartplotter at the helm is equivocal at best and a distraction at worst. The new ones are crowded with information, but with no guarantee that the information is particularly current or even accurate, as the chart datums from which the chartplotters derive their information can be stale or, if the area hasn't been surveyed for some time, "off". Many a glance at a radar display confirms that some plotters show land where it isn't, and vice-versa.

It's more prudent, perhaps, in such cases where one is approaching a tricky pass or a complex entrance to a rocky harbour, to advance slowly and in daylight to confirm the waypoints, visually identify the nav aids (if even present) and to manually confirm the daymarks or the bearings to certain features that are most likely not to have moved since the map was made. Oh, yes...have a map. You need it to plan a lot of this stuff ahead of time in order to approach Terra Nova. Who wants to discover "hey, the plotter says there are coral heads 200 metres ahead...CLUNK...SCRAPE..." Better to plan an approach, maybe plot a couple of bearings on a scrap of paper, and then send a crew forward or up the mast to look for stuff Captain Cook missed, or which has grown or sunk in place since Darwin's shipmates heaved a tallow-tipped lead line.

Overreliance on chartplotting
is like mobile phone use in a car: you really should be paying attention to the outer world more than on generally irrelevant and possibly incorrect information. Now, many chartplotting programs allow amendments and can be offset to reflect reality as found. Others allow a radar display to be superimposed...these can be great helps to the crew, particularly in fog or adverse conditions when you are forced to make a run for shelter. But I still think they are problematic if you are watching a little screen more than the big water, because the little screen is a symbolic idealization of reality, and, unlike the crew, is pretty indifferent to whether it's working at the helm or not working thirty feet below the surface.

Before you picture our boat rigged with chip logs at the taffrail and the young lad swinging the lead at the chains, I do feel that a 12VDC outlet or two at the helm is very useful. You can rig a light to illuminate the sails or see awash objects in the water, and you can put in a handheld GPS for lat/lon, XTE and heading, which is quite helpful to determine set and drift, currents and ETA to waypoints (set, of course, sensibly away from one's visual target, like a nav aid). The information given is essentially text and minimal graphics (like a grayscale compass), and "the lack of shiny" means that one's attention stays on the environment and the boat instruments, with the GPS being purely supplemental. You keep a watch, not a watch of the GPS itself.

A chartplotter's best use is to help you integrate the sometimes partial clues from the environment and can provide a context. This plus a paper chart can fairly accurately help you to find yourself even in poor visibility, when the object isn't blasting in a straight line directly to the mark or to the port, but by giving obstacles you can't actually see a wide and safe berth.

People driving straight into jetties, breakwaters and buoys (or driving right onto the beach or rocks in some cases) is a function of taking the technology as gospel when really it's just crib notes for a paper chart, and maybe not even an updated one. Lessening the likelihood of getting truly lost is only part of prudent seamanship.

Recently, I read a discussion about the need "these days" to have a magnetic compass at the helm. What's the point, some were saying. GPS is more accurate and I don't have to deal with variation, deviation and keeping metal away from it.

We were lucky enough to have bought, along with the boat, a large Ritchie Globemaster with compensator balls (go on, get the jokes out of the way early) at the pilothouse helm of our steel cutter. I also have a rudimentary plotter there (a Raymarine 420 with no cards, so I use it like a big GPS), and a KVH AC103 fluxgate compass.

At the outside helm, I use a handheld GPS. Eventually, I will probably have a small plotter out there so I don't have to squint...but that will be mainly for GPS-type functions. Most "inshore" helming will be done from inside the pilothouse, just as most mooring/anchoring/docking helming will be done from the outside, so signals can be given and surrounding traffic better seen.

While I currently sail in Lake Ontario, where the need for advanced navigation is seldom, I do use all of my little array of gadgets about equally in conjunction with paper charts. I usually have a bearing in mind and a glance at the helm compass (the accuracy of which I know and the deviation of which is small due to those pair of manly shotputs) is a quicker, more intuitive confirmation of general heading than the GPS, or so I find.

Just as with my sextant practice, sometimes I will shut down all the electronics and work from DR plots, magnetic compass bearings and, particularly, soundings in order to verify my position at night or in fog. The point of having these pre-electronic devices and techniques is not that they are
critically necessary, but that you still know how to use them if they become so, for instance during a complete electrical failure. I have yet to install an autopilot, and when I do, I will likely update the fluxgate compass to provide it with heading data.

My experience with GPS has included two episodes when what I was reading was obviously, even blatantly wrong: One time was when I was at a known, charted physical waypoint that I had recorded before (and which was correct on the chart) and the GPS reported that we were just over a mile off (it corrected some ten minutes later), The other was when I was using the GPS for COG and speed, not lat/lon, and my six-knot speed jumped for a few seconds to 60 knots and my lat/lon magically ended up 3/4 NM WSW of my assumed location.

These were using
different GPSes. Obviously, "the system" is prone to technical hiccups or tweaking from the ground stations. A little investigation of the subject revealed that the "constellation" of GPS satellites is both aging and subject to failures from such natural events such as solar flares or even atmospheric drag (the atmosphere can expand due to heating and can "drag" at the satellites, requiring recalibrations). Also, some of the damn things are decades old and can't have uninterrupted up-time, or so it seems. Fair enough...I didn't pay for the things.

So while GPS is indeed a blessing, I keep the compass handy, visible and in good working order. Intrinsically, unless I go into the Southern Hemisphere or sail over a unknown magnetic anomaly (many are charted and it's fun to sail over some giant chunk of iron just to watch the compass spin), the compass is less failure prone than either the GPS reliant on ship's power or batteries, or the GPS system which needs periodic adjustment. I say this advisedly because reading the compass requires training and practice and knowledge of when it might not be accurate and why this might be. Grasp those aspects, however, and you too can be like Captain Bligh (not the best people person, perhaps, but a hell of a navigator) and steer with confidence to a reliable bearing.

Also, despite political statements to the contrary, don't think that the military of the U.S. will not turn the GPS system off (at least to civilian use) or make it less accurate if needed. It isn't actually for we sailor types: it's to aid one particular military establishment and their goals are always going to be concerned with finding the mooring before sunset so drinking may commence. Its use in several thousand civilian applications would very likely be deemed trivial in some kind of military crisis. Other GPS sources will eventually exists, as will devices able to read them, but today it's still the Pentagon's plaything, and assuming it will always be working as expected is perhaps a limiting strategy.

As a third party can't "turn off" the stars and the magnetic poles of the Earth (yet), I choose to keep my CN and pilotage skills in order, and that means a lot of peering compasses and plots on paper. I find the electronics make a nice back-up and a nice way of "looking down the road" to plan one's next steps, but I hesitate to place my self-interest and safety in something so easily crippled from either bad crimping on my end or unseen machinations at the other.


Hey, I found the recession!

Instead of continuing to pull apart the rudder and its hydraulic arm, preparatory to removing it so I can pull the prop and shaft, etc. etc....

I was at home today with a nasty head cold I caught from the missus, and in an attempt to amuse and edify myself, I came upon this article:

It goes on, from a British perspective, of how the semi-stealthy mothballing of much of the world's cargo fleet off Malaysia is a real measure of the depth and persistence of world economic conditions than any "I'm feeling much better!" declarations from bank heads or world leaders.

Describing the anchorage as "the biggest and most secretive gathering of ships in maritime history" and "bigger than the U.S. and British navies combined", the writer does sensationalize the slowdown of world trade and its knock-on effects in ship building, credit issuance and so on...but it's a real, as opposed to a conjectured or a wishful, piece of economic data when a vast armada of tankers and container ships sits idle for months for want of work.

Why should we care? Well, we aren't going to be making liquid our house and retirement funds to do this voyage (I certainly hope that's true!), and the state of prices and our post-voyaging investments will require at least occasional attention. But more to the point, I think the vast overcapacity in the world shipping fleet (new ships already ordered are still being built in South Korea for reasons that have more to do with, I suspect, keeping the workforce happy), is, like the oil-based economy, another flawed and possibly terminal aspect of The Way We Do Things.

I just finished an interesting book that, while it didn't tell me much that was new or surprising, consolidated many of my vague impressions with hard numbers and the shock of seeing so many inter-related predictions in one place. The book was Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin, the former chief economist and long-time oil-industry guru at the bank where I pay my mortgage. Rubin's a proponent of the "peak oil" theory; that we are effectively out of the easily obtained hydrocarbons, and that while we are some distance from "running out of oil", we are quite close to "running out of oil cheap enough to in any way continue with our current habits". Cheap flights to Cancun? Ain't going to happen.

A review is here:

It's sobering stuff to think that the severely eroded North American manufacturing sector, largely ceded in the last 25 years to cheap Chinese labour and vast Asian factories, could rebound when the cost of getting those cheap products to our local markets exceeds the cost of paying North American wages for labour and locally sourced materials.

Now, imagine the price of your kiwi fruit when oil hits $200 a barrel. Our plan to use the diesel hard, but seldom and to have the wind and weather supply most of our amps is looking less pie-in-the-sky and more prudent with every day.


Ten years since taking the plunge

I just passed a sort of milestone (can you have milestones in sailing? Ballast-stone, maybe?). This is Valiente, the Viking 33 I purchased in 1999 with the "shut up and go away" money from working in the internet business. A merger produced the usual synergies, and I was made redundant, as the British say, with a reasonable sum to lessen the sting.

I could have bought most of a sensible van, or knocked several months off the then-new mortgage, but I chose instead to buy an old fibreglass sailboat. If I've looked back, it's only to see the second-place finishers.

Her name, Valiente, comes from he last name of an author my wife and I admired who died on the day I closed the deal to purchase the boat. Valiente, which is also providentially the Spanish word for "brave", has provided many magical hours since, particularly when the grind (both literal and figurative) of getting Alchemy kitted out for long-term cruising has necessitated a sanity break.

My good friend and expert photographer Captain Matt took this shot in August, 2009, while I was down below fetching some beverage, probably. I have hopes of retaining this boat while we are away in some fashion, because of the work I've put into keeping her a good sailer, and because she's the perfect size and combination of "good old boat" attributes for the Great Lakes.

Happy anniversary, first boat.


We interrupt this mainly technical blog for a brief moment of pride

While finishing "White Sail 1" is a pretty average accomplishment for most sailing families, our son was the youngest (at seven years old) and the smallest (about 21 kilos) kid. He passed with flying colours and gets to sail our nesting dinghy, "Optinest Pram", going forward, along with White Sail 2 and 3 classes next year.

Wait until I let him play with the 33-footer. He needs to stand on a box to see over the coach house.


These fuelish things

Another seemingly pointlessly complex drawing from my fevered brow, this is the proposed fuel system. For those not completely daunted by the graphics's "London Underground as conceived by a schizophrenic" qualities, this is, I hope, the way to fuel's paradise.

As recently noted, the engine is out and off to the clinic for "augmentations" of a sort. Beneath its sooty mass is a tank, allegedly a stainless steel former holding tank, that I propose to convert to a diesel day tank. What grim, ancient horrors await me when I unbolt that inspection hatch I leave to the reader's imagination, but something Lovecraftian wouldn't surprise me.

After that anticipated nastiness, and after a hospital-grade clean-up, I hope to plumb this tank to receive clean, nay sparkling, diesel fuel from the existing keel tanks via the "FilterBOSS" dual Racor filter/pump combo bought some time ago. The engine had to come out to get to the tank, and the water tanks have to come out to install the new, lower, longer tanks, and this will give me the room to bolt the FilterBOSS unit and several dozen feet of fuel and vent lines hither and, I dare say, yon.

Isn't boating fun?

Oh, and in the period between gutting the engine bay, rerouting most of the DC system, yanking out the exhaust system, hot water tank and painting the entire bay with soundproofing paint, I have to

1) fabricate a thrust bearing (My good friend Captain Matt has an excellent and reasonable lead on this job).
2) remove the rudder and pull the shaft out.
3) inspect and true the shaft and the stern gland, and replace or modify as necessary.
4) install the Aqua-Drive coupling and replace the existing motor mounts

And so on.

I am finding that boat modification and fitting out is like the notion of "punctuated evolution"...many pieces are assembled and yet nothing happens for what seems like geologic time...and then there is a sustained burst of change and one by one, things happen.

I have to get the outside stuff involving the holes in the boat done by the end of April, because engine back in or not, I'm launching. I suspect a second year "on the hard" would tax the patience of the club executive more than even my own.

Although I must say one has lots of chit-chat standing 15 feet in the air on a stationary deck. "So when ya leavin'?" has passed the five-hundred's all I'm ever asked, and my answers are by the nature of the beast provisional and surrounded by occult juju and taboo.


Capsizing the Better Way

A severe knockdown or capsize is the worst-case scenario a lot of cruisers don't want to think about. Advances in boat design and hull testing since sport-changing events like the 1979 Fastnet disaster, plus vastly improved onboard access to heavy weather information, have allowed most boats to avoid the really bad conditions that can chuck a boat on her beam-ends. It's not a situation many will predictably face.

And yet the seas aren't predictable, and climate change promises more storm activity, as warmer oceans have more energy to release into the atmosphere. Tropical storms may be bigger, last longer and go farther than we've accepted as customary into higher latitudes. Unseasonable gales may gradually alter pilot charts refined over 200 years of observation.

The prudent sailor recalls the old phrase "battening down", and starts to plan on modifying his own boat.

I think that if one focusess on surviving a roll or a bad (90 degrees or greater) knocking without severe damage, rather than attempting at all costs to avoid it, one will have a happier and longer life in some of the more challenging seas on the ocean. Keep in mind that a capsize need not be a complete inversion or a 360 degree roll, to my knowledge, but includes a 90 degree or greater knockdown. Anything that makes the galley the floor is going to shift things and probably bring water, perhaps a fair amount, aboard.

This means attention to details like thoroughly secured stowage, positive tie-downs and locks, keeping the decks clear and clean, and installing gasketed, doggable companionway hatches and storm shutters for the more vulnerable parts of the boat.

I had an idea for routing all the water and fuel tank vents into two common pipes, leading to goosenecks mounted on either the pilothouse sides or the roof of our boat (it's not an original idea, but it's utterly out of favour on modern yachts). This is to avoid downflooding of sea water should the boat get knocked down or rolled. As part of securing for heavy weather, you manually shut off valves or cocks on the fuel and water vent lines, and on the engine exhaust. You seal all dorades and things like Nicro vents.

You dog the hatches shut and if possible, cover them and batten them. You slide in storm shutters. And so on. This is on top of securing all stowage and provisions, all floorboards, etc. Pump the toilet dry. Close ALL intake and outlet're not going to be running the engine or pissing anywhere but your foulies. Make sure you have drag devices of your preferred type and a means to both deploy and recover them. Set aside prepared foods and drink if you're in for a long blow; you can get cold and hungry without realizing it even in the tropics if you are standing in cool downpours and high winds long enough.

All this takes a lot of planning and, ideally, practice. If we practise crew-overboard drills, we should practise "storm drills" before the storm actually hits, like on a 20-knot run in the trades. Water ingress is what scares people, but it seems minor when compared to turning the saloon into a batting cage of jars and tins and tools in a knockdown. To me, a fairly avid reader of cruising narratives, bailing out the bilge is made a lot worse (not to mention hard on the pumps) when a sack of unsecured flour and a gallon of olive oil have exploded due to a violent, storm-fuelled lurch. I've read about "I was cleaning for days and still find evidences in crevices and corners years later" several times, and I can't stress too highly the idea that a boat underway in the ocean must be kept almost obsessively free of clutter and untidiness...because on a boat, most things can become projectiles if inverted.

If you can keep the sea out of the tanks and the boat, and keep things like giant wrenches or Honda 2000 generators from braining you or sacks of flour from exploding on the bulkheads, you can survive and recover from some pretty horrendous abuse (assuming you are tethered and haven't broken limbs falling the entire beam of the boat). But it demands the sort of contingency planning that a lot of people are unhappy to do, because it involves a fairly unemotional evaluation of a disastrous scenario in which the entire contents of the boat are rapidly rotated, along with the crew.

And yet as so many accounts of capsize and knockdown at sea indicate, these events are survivable and can even seem, if never trivial, unremarkable and not a voyage-ending event.

Here's the next fabrication project: a doggable companionway door.

The current Lexan dropboard doesn't even keep rain out from some directions, so I'm going for "bulletproof".

Due to the difficulty of making the top door section hinged (the pilothouse roof cambers down and I couldn’t open it 180 degrees without leaving a gap), I thought of making the top “door” a flap that hinges downward to allow air and communication in rough weather. The 10 inch gap should do this, and isn’t hard to screen, either.

The doors are to be 1/2 inch aluminum (although I'm beginning to think either a frame-backed 1/4" will suffice, or even a laminate sandwich of plastic and metal), and will be isolated from the frame by bushings and nylon gasketing. They will have four doggable handles and locks top and bottom. The top flap will have a rubber “shock strip” so that it doesn’t mar the bottom door, and the bottom door will open to the right and will positively latch open to the aft wall of the pilothouse. Gasketing all around. The sliding hatch will drop into place with a “lip” of gasketing to mate with the door flap. Dog it down and it should be pretty impervious to pooping waves.

The top flap would open outwards. It’s the only way to get an unbroken gasket along the perimeter (two sides and bottom sill). The sliding hatch would have a semi-rigid gasket that squeezed against the top flap when dogged down. This wouldn’t stop green water actually hitting the pilot house from behind full on, but I figure it’s as good as I can get and still have a gap for talking to the deck and for ventilation. Besides, if I have green water hitting the aft deck to that degree, a squirting gasket in the pilothouse won’t be my first concern, will it?

The top flap would have a rubber stopper of some sort to keep it from slamming, plus a positive latch. You would lower it until it clicked to the door, then the door would swing open until it latched to a stand-off latch on the stb. aft pilothouse bulkhead. At sea, it would be open most of the time, of course, as the very height of the aft deck keeps it dry. We’ve had some wash back from the sides, however, and in wet conditions, we’d have the lower door dogged shut and the flap down. Only in an extreme or during a storm run would we shut it entirely tight.

As for having four dogs, I can’t see doing it safely or securely with fewer.. You have to factor it that no lines pass that way, and that the thing will be latched open much of the time under an otherwise empty overhang. Picture a foredeck hatch either fully down or fully open...a fully open hatch has exposed doggable handles, but lying flat, they can’t catch sheets that are usually off the deck with the clew, aft of the hatch.

Feel free to comment or to propose alternatives.


Throttling up....and out

Ye olde Westerbeke W-52, a.k.a. the Perkins 4-135, a.k.a. the Mazda R2 block found powering a range of B2200s and Ford Rangers in the '80s, travelled farther yesterday than it has in some time, going as it did for a ride on the end of a truck crane's hook. Much sweat and swearing went into releasing the engine from a corroded engine mount bolt, and I learned that it's best that it goes back at as close to its eventual "resting angle" as is possible.

I finally got the pilothouse roof freed, after many hours of fruitless sabre-sawing through steel-aluminum galling and excessive amounts of "5200" glue, which Galactus uses to keep his helmet on, as far as I can tell. I did this not only to prime and paint the pilothouse's inward turning flange (and to naturally insert some sort of gasket between the steel and the aluminum), but to get a straight drop into the engine bay in order to get the engine out for the "prophylactic rebuild" I mentioned in a previous post.

The engine is getting picked up in a week by a recommended mechanic on a trailer. In order for this to happen, it has to be within range of a stationary boat crane at my club, so it's sitting on a shipping flat swaddled in a plastic tarp. What a lovely couple. Needs some TLC, however.

Alchemy's "engine room" seems strangely empty and predictably filthy, as plenty of sump oil chose the airborne moment to escape.

That tank dimly visible was a stainless steel holding tank. It is (I hope) empty save for a thorough swab-out and drying, because I am going to convert it to a diesel day tank. This will increase my fuel capacity from 100 to 140 gallons, and will allow me to "polish" the keel tanks' contents via my soon to be installed Filter BOSS Racor filter set-up so that I can with confidence always have 40 gallons of relatively pristine fuel for my refreshed diesel.

What that pipe is I have yet to learn.

The bilge will get attention, namely a big cleanout and a white paint-job, not to mention the removal of that "stock pot" water muffler in favour of a Vetus-type waterlock muffler.

After that, out comes the busbars, the batteries and lastly, the massive water tanks. Then, all gets painted with sound-deadening paint, and then I have fabbed up four 50 gallon tanks and a load of piping. The idea is to get the water tanks low, just off the hull and between the frames, for better weight distribution and because I want two "city water" tanks, a rainwater tank and a watermaker tank, with circumstances and a bypass manifold determining what water is used at what tap.

Well, it's a start...

My son, who is seven, has begun White Sail 1 classes in Optimists and 420 dinghies.

This pleases me.

I'll try to get pictures of him actually handling his own boat next week. He's the little fella in the yellow cap.


Two wheels good: To bring or borrow a boat bike

The question of shore-side transport on passagemakers comes up surprisingly frequently on various sailing forums.

Getting to the shore is something we've already addressed: We have two tenders: a motor-ready, rowable, folding Portabote, and a motor-ready, sail-capable, rowable and "nesting" fibreglass dinghy. A light, air-cooled Honda 2 outboard motor is shared as needed, and four knots, no problem is the result.

What to do when you reach land is another question. Humping supplies at the end of stretched arms or inside backpacks is an option, but this leaves the ship's provisioners at the mercy of local taxi services (when existing) or simply the willingness to walk on often indifferent local roads in usually constant tropical heat.

Some folk, of course, get their International Driver's Licences and rent vehicles. This is not always possible, particularly in smaller places where private cars may be non-existent or in constant use by the locals. Public transit may also be spotty.

Many cruisers, therefore, choose to bring bicycles aboard. A popular choice is a small-wheeled folding bike, for compactness and ease of transport to and from shore.

A problem, of course, is corrosion. Keeping the ferrous bits of a bike rust-free without getting oil on the deck is a challenge, as it keeping them out of the sea itself if stowed, as is typical, on the rail and not down below. As long as the bike is made entirely of aluminum, it's good. This is rare, however, and can be very expensive, as welds in this metal are tricky.

The folding aspect is one thing (particularly on a small boat...that bike could lash to the mast easily). But the main objection remains corrosion. Our current, if subject to revision, opinion on shoreside bikes is NOT to bring them with us, despite having the space and even the inclination to do so.

Instead, we will bring bike tools, bike racks and a waterproof pannier "system" that can double as "cargo bags" in the tenders:
Waterproof and therefore appropriate for the bottom of the tenders.

Ortliebs come recommended. They are pricy, but evidently superior.

Our working assumption is that crappy bikes are available everywhere, and the words for "bicycle" aren't so different around the world that finding one would be a challenge. So our plan is to hit the shore and buy a "beater" for $20, put on our racks and our good locks, and use them as shoreside transport. When we are leaving a given area, we remove the racks and the panniers and the locks and sell the bikes for $10, probably with bonus bike grease and tuned up. Cost to us: ten bucks and no bikes to store. If we are cruising inshore around an entire country or between islands, we can opt to carry the bikes aboard on a temporary basis.

Many years and kilos ago, I used to be a bike courier and can fix all but the most modern of bikes (like Hayes hydraulic brakes...I don't want to know...) But we are unlikely to be acquiring anything above some Chinese steel mountain bike with caliper brakes (and I can bring better pads easily), and this will save space and the monumental hassle of having a bike that stays folded in the hold or lashed under Sunbrella to the rail 95% of the time, never mind the trouble of bringing a bike from boat to shore in one piece.

I'd be willing to be persuaded that my "no bike left aboard" idea is silly.

An esteemed reader of this proposal on a sailing forum asked "but how much time do you have to spend fixing the bikes before they're usable? Personally I love the idea of the fold-up one. I think I might be persuaded to actually take them somewhere and actually ride it if it's that easy to transport. Beats breaking out with the big ass bike rack and hooking it up to the trailer hitch."

Well, I agree. If you are coastal cruising or cruising from the same club or even doing a "there-and-back" trip of under a month's duration, yes, I would get a bike to keep and figure out a stowage solution.

But I am discussing this from a passagemaker's point of view: We will go from place to place and probably anchor for a few weeks at a time. It is easier to spend one hour altering and adjusting a cheapo "land" bike in a given month, say, than to make space and spend money on a personal bike with amazing folding capacities that would inevitably (unless made entirely from aluminum with a rubber belt drive instead of a steel chain) corrode on deck, even if wrapped up, and get in the way below (and corrode not quite so fast!).

The assumption here as well is that bringing a fancy folder made from space-age materials immediately marks you and your bike when locked as "rich foreigner with expensive bike I can fence". You might as well wear a "ROB ME" sign. While our size, complexions and language will underline our foreignness in most places, I wish to keep the "flashiness" of our relative wealth to a minimum. We want to be seen, if at all, as travellers, not tourists waving Western affluence, such as that is these days, in the local faces. Some space bike would probably do that. A four-times recycled 1992 mountain bike with cracked tires? Not so much..

If we get the local equivalent of a rustbucket CCM 15-speed (think "Schwinn", Americans, or "Raleigh", Brits), clean it up, lube the moving parts and put on the racks and panniers, the result is that your bike looks like a local bike when you take off the panniers to go shopping. It attracts little or no interest from the locals, or the local "bad element".

This is why, among other reasons, we will rust-proof our steel boat, but won't bother with waxing it or otherwise making it visibly "pristine from a distance": This is protective colouration. Why make yourself a target? I learned this the hard way years ago when I was a bike courier with a new, fancy bike. It got stolen, rather embarrassingly quickly. I bought a non-descript beater and swapped in some decent parts like very good brakes and shifters. I then applied "courier grime", which consisted of affixing various counter-culture or rock band logo stickers on the bike, and daubing grease on selected parts of the frame, followed by powdered brown chalk and Vaseline paste artistically applied. It made the bike look like a complete rolling piece of garbage, even though functionally, it was kept in top gear, so to speak.

I follow this today: My $1,300 mountain bike is equipped with narrow, high pressure slicks, Presta valves, Hayes disc brakes, 27 gears and carbon fibre this and that. But it is coloured a dour slate grey and is a very boring object at which to look. The mind of a thief is the mind of a magpie: shiny attracts attention. My bike runs like a dream, but sucks the life (visually speaking) out of its immediate surroundings. And what's that obscuring the maker's decals?

"Courier grime".


Fiat lux, baby

From this entirely speculative, not to mention crude bit of Photoshoppery, this highly functional and strong solar panel arch. Only took 14 months of planning!

It's funny for those of us not architects or builders or carpenters to actually see a product of the mind come to material fruition... to actualize, as it were. While I've been an on-and-off professional writer for many years now (a paid one, at that), seeing my deathless prose-for-hire has rarely given me the satisfaction I felt today.

And the damn thing's not even done yet.

The "thing" is an arch, a welded set of tubes carefully bent by a clever welder (the hereby heartily endorsed Greg Misko) with a very good eye and a very good understanding of what I wanted.

The arch holds the four solar panels I mentioned lo, those many months ago. The idea was to use the solar panels not just as a means to make power, but as a large shade-casting object in its own right.

As the idea developed, I indicated to Greg that I wanted each panel slightly cambered or tilted to compensate for the fact that boats are frequently heeled. In addition, a panel slightly angled off dead flat will get more photons in the early morning and the later afternoon in some boat positions, and will shed water more easily. The wiring will see Panels 1 and 2 wired together into a device known as an MPPT (which alters the voltage and current to the optimal preset point for charging batteries), and Panels 3 and 4 likewise generating juice on a separate circuit.

High noon, of course, will see them at maximum output. Fire up the water heater, Skipper needs a bath.

The clever bit, to which I must credit Greg the Welder, was to weld larger galvanized pipes to the rails of the aft deck, and them to slip the precisely bent stainless steel arch assembly into those supports, which feature three Allen key-style bolts to fix them strongly. This means that I can actually take the thing off (if not down, as such) if needed, without sawing or torching it to bits.

Once the arch "legs" were in (and they went in smoothly thanks to Greg's construction of a tack-welded jig),

we used a sort of insert-thingie that was like a threaded rivet, if that makes any sense. Drill a hole in the frame, pop-rivet this fastener and you can bolt it onto the arch support plates without trying to hold onto a nut in a tight spot. These things could be very handy on a mast or mounting eyestraps, say.

When it was up, it proved as strong as expected, but the question arose "where do we run the wires?" It was decided that once I tear apart the aft cabin to determine where best to put my power cable runs and my SSB coax cable runs, we will drill two holes in the deck and weld a truncated "H" in galvanized pipe (see drawing on picture of crew enjoying the aft deck shade).
Yes, he was too young to helm here, and let's face it, we were in a parking lot.

Then we will put two angled pieces of SS in there, welded at the top. This will increase the support aspect of the whole assembly, will give me a mounting bar for any helm instruments I care to install, will conduit the panel wiring straight into the boat and out of the weather, will give us a place to snap on tethers for safety, and will not get in the way of the main.

Wow. Long sentence. Long day. Good job.