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Nothing if not practical

This is Ken of the good ship Silverheels III, three or four years now out of Toronto. Astute readers may recognize the boat name appended to many comments posted to this blog, most of them helpful and constructive when they aren't hectoring me to hurry up and get sailing.

Ken and his lovely and talented wife Lynn are currently anchored somewhere in the "insurance applies" part of the Southern Caribbean, and have, as this photo illustrates, fully embraced the tropical lifestyle. In fact, their biggest challenge recently is digging out of the dim recesses of their sturdy Niagara 35 enough musty trousers and long-sleeved shirts to make the trip back to Canada for the holidays without freezing to death on the trip from the plane to the parking lot.

Ken and Lynn are, like most cruisers, nothing if not practical. You fix your own gear (Ken was for many years responsible for resusitating busted electronics gear abused by students of Ryerson University's Radio and Television Arts course, and was in fact there doing it when I was there as a student 30 years ago...only I didn't know him then.) You source and prepare your own food. You hump your own laundry into the tender, and, if necessary, beat it on your own rock, although it rarely comes to that, I suspect.

But the not-so-dirty and not-so-secret of life aboard? You don't wear many clothes at all. When the air below is the temperature of blood, it's practical to save on sweating through clothing by not wearing it at all. You'll only have to wash it later. If you postpone donning a T-shirt and shorts until the cooler evening hours, you might get two evenings' wear out of it. This economy of  treating clothing as a special event means far less expense on sometimes extortionate shoreside laundries, along with a reduction in the chances that an errant wave will douse your carefully packed laundry just as you are coming alongside. If you don't wear it, you don't need to wash it.

Offshore, many folk doff trou upon leaving sight of land or in international waters. Sure, you might have boat sandals, a big, floppy hat and strategic applications of sun block, but there lay undiscovered countries of once-hidden flesh that, in time, take on the all-over golden hue of the once-pallid (if in fact Caucasian) cruiser.

Not that photos of this reality ever make the sailing mags. Everyone there seems to be in shirts they rolled Jimmy Buffett to get, and usually a salt and oil-stained Tilley hat. Little do the lubbers know that the brown, it goes all the way down. I have heard of night watches conducted with T-shirt, harness and tether and not much else, and the T-shirt's only on to reduce the chafing of the harness. Barely sailing? Indeed.

Concerns about moles going funny aside, not only is nudity aboard practical from a clean-clothes conservation viewpoint, but it's arguably healthier than bothering to get dressed in many conditions that the active cruiser is likely to encounter. The damp of sea air, even assuming you don't actually catch salt spray on some part of your clothing, can affect skin to the point of peeling. Salt blisters can form in unlikely places. Nothing ever feels quite dry. So allowing sweat to evaporate directly from one's skin...all of one's skin...means ablutions can be performed with a freshwater swipe of the sponge (conserving water and effort). The breeze, if present, cools and comforts the sailor, although if you notice that a body part is doing a reasonable impression of the arrow of the Windex, it may be time to consider donning foulies.

So let's hoist a glass of the finest rum to Ken, Lynn and all other clothing-optional cruisers. It's a rarely discussed aspect of the liveaboard life, and it takes a brave fellow with steady hands to solder in the buff, but it's a healthy and practical response to feeling hot, hot, hot. Boaters with air conditioning don't know what they're missing.

Seeks cruising kitty (Obscure TPB reference).


Saying yes to sailing off into the sunset is saying no to a broken system

Over the years (and it has been years) since this blog and our multi-year plans to sail with a young son began, I have received the occasional opinion that it would be better if we waited until we were closer to retirement age. The logic goes that our finances would be "on a firmer footing", our son would be on his own or in college, and we could "downsize" our downtown home, recoup our investments and get a nicer boat with electric hoo-hahs and all mod cons.

Putting aside some fairly large assumptions inherent in such an opinion, such as a) there's no prospect that our house will actually show a profit in 15 years' time as the general economy may be in the dumps; and b) our son, if at a university, might be ruiniously expensive if scholarships are unobtainable; and c) our health and strength would endure to that stage at such a pitch that we could, as a sailing couple, operate a 40-45 footer safely in all weathers. This isn't even taking into account that we might have living relatives both ill and old and underfunded in our care, or that diesel could be three times its current costs. Lastly, there's d) a large reason to go is to expose our son to the rest of the world while such a fleeting opportunity, historically speaking, for non-rich people, by Western standards, to do so is still open a crack, and so on.

Basically, the "go while you still can" mantra holds for us. Working like dogs until 60 or 65 in order to have a nicer Beneteau holds little appeal if other things we can't control come into play in a deleterious manner. We know more than one cruiser couple who have either commenced cruising or are planning to cruise with largely the same outlook, although many have started from differing assumptions or adequately funded pension plans.

If you wait, the opportunity may never come. The stars may fail to align. 

Consider our boat, Alchemy: It was custom-built in the late '80s by a fellow who took a long time to finish it. I'm not convinced, having spoken only briefly to him on the phone, that he wanted to travel the world, but for whatever reason (age, interests changed), he owned it for 17 years and never took it into salt water, despite the fact it's ludicriously overbuilt for the Great Lakes. See "Why do I have eleven 5/16th inch stays?"

The second owners further fitted out the boat for a couple of years with some top-end amenities, and then received a lucrative job offer unto retirement that convinced them to give up, or at least postpone, their dream of world travel. We're therefore the third owners in 23 years of an ocean-going boat that's not been to the ocean. We might actually push off in said direction, unless the "curse" strikes our enterprise as well. Let's keep fingers crossed, and, if necessary, sacrifice a goat against that possibility.

One of the more compelling reasons, however, to sail off that I present to well-meaning interlocutors seems to have an almost universal affect on those suggesting a more protracted run-up to passagemaking.

That reason is that I believe I will never receive a pension, and I will never actually be able to retire. 

Not in the conventional, that is to say, post-1965 and pre-2008 sense. Like most humans throughout history, I will likely die in harness, which could mean a fate as ugly as the world's oldest telemarketer. My only consolation in doing so will be that I am likely to do so at an older age than the historical norm, if we can keep purifying the water and don't bugger up the air or food supply too badly.

I am also hoping that if I have to work until I snuff it, I will have no regrets and plenty of feedstock for pleasant dreams, having sailed around the world for five or so years.

Still, my outlook is not very comforting, is it? A lot of people currently cruising have pension income of some sort, and that may be well-funded, or well-funded enough that such fortunate folk may pass naturally (or simply swallow the anchor) before the piggybank runs out. Congratulations to them; I bear no grudge. But I believe, sincerely, that I will not be among their number. My 12 years' younger wife or 40 years' younger son?

Not a chance. The larder will be bare, and is already understocked.

Everything they have paid or will pay into my country's national pension scheme will be utterly gone (or will be devalued to the point of "gone") by the time they reach retirement age, which, if the entire house o' cards is to kept in a wobbly state of mostly upright, will be between 75 to 80 years old, and for the Greeks, 110 years old.

So I hear this: "Wait, you are sailing off in middle age because you think pension schemes are the devil's songbook?"

Well, yes, I intend to and I do, although there are other reasons. But having invested my own money, such as it is, for many years, and having been self-employed for only a somewhat shorter period, my belief that pensions as currently administered in my country and most, but not all, others, are a mug's game is based on two simple, and contrasting concepts. 1) Governments have treated pension funds as piggybanks at the same time as they have kept contributions artificially low to avoid alarming the peasants. Thus, the commitments far outstrip the ability to pay.

That doesn't make pensions stupid. It means that you have to have them run at total arm's length from idiot governments who can only think in four-year cycles. A pension demands the ability to count to 100 and to stick with what one learns from being able to count to 100 whether people whine and bitch or not. 2) For the same whining and bitching reasons, governments have not directly linked life expectancy to retirement age. The age of 65 was arrived at when meb (and it was mostly men who had pensions for many years) died, on average, at 67. You don't need a lot of planning or even cash to pay out two years of benefits for 40-plus years of planning, particularly as the average age of 67 implied that a lot of men kicked off years before that and got NOTHING, or just a fractional payout to a surviving spouse. My grandfather died two days before his 65th birthday in 1968, for instance. Not a penny did his widow, who lived a further 25 years, get from the pension scheme of the day. My mother died at 68; she got three years, having contributed since the age of 18: 50 years.

Now, some might say "Ah, but that's just a roll of the dice. It doesn't invalidate the pension logic." And I might agree with such a principle. But pensions have long since abandoned any notion, in my view, of "principle". These days, men in Canada live until 81 and women to nearly 84, on average, and therefore collect pensions for 16 to 25 years, as they can "retire" at 60 on a partial or at 65 on a full pension. Trouble is, having built all those universities and discouraged the trades, we aren't STARTING work until 22 or 23 (or 25 if you go for a master's or a PhD) and therefore expect to pay generous pensions (in the context of maximum years of earnings) for 20 years from a working life of 35-40 years.

So the second concept is that in order for this pie-in-the-sky pension scheme to work, we would have had to kick the retirement age to 75 about 20 years ago by upping the age of retirement by one year every two years or so. The biggest bulge in the python, demographically speaking, would have been therefore "encouraged" to put away more, and earlier, themselves, because the bareness of the cupboard marked "pension benefits" would have been more apparent earlier in the process, when we had a hope of applying some fiscal probity...instead of clapping Tinker-fucking-bell back to life.

Anyone else see a problem with this? In all of the Western democracies, save perhaps Germany  (which could be sabotaged by the "Euro project" in this respect even yet) and Scandinavia, the pension-planners' "house" cannot collect enough to pay out all those winners. Those of us who work as self-employed persons actually make a double contribution to a fucking pyramid scheme that will be sucked dry from the enormous generation of "boomers" directly ahead of us in age...and who will NEVER support pension reform...because it is not remotely in their interests to do so.

Looked upon in that light, buggering off with no income (visible to my nation's government at least) in a boat for five years is actually a break from the daily wallet-sized prison rape of living in a society that wishes to print money without doing the requisite math to make said slips representative of actual wealth. While cruising, we may not make any money, but we get a brief absolution from pissing into a bottomless well from which we, as the currently middle-aged income earners and contributors, can never plausibly draw. World cruising is therefore a withdrawal of our services, and a refusenik tactic, as much as it is a nice way to see the world, while there's still a world to see.

I have mentioned before that some of our ambition to make a rather unconventional trip like this was rooted in a pessimistic view of humanity's future (we should go before piracy, adrift containers and Texas-sized patches of plastic are normal in every ocean) and of the continuing degradation of the environment (see the lovely atoll nation before it's a sandbank; sail while there's still fish to catch off the stern). Add to that the compelling rationale that long-term cruising withdraws the family finances to a significant degree from the never-ending shell game of national pension schemes, and it gets harder some days to be cheerful about the prospect of casting off at all. I only thank Neptune or whatever watery deity applies that I figured this out at 40 instead of 60. I have been planning our escape accordingly, and postings such as this are "goon-baits" in the fine old Colditz tradition.

The system will only collapse more quickly if everyone figures it out for themselves. See "Europe: now".

UPDATE Dec. 14, 2011:  

According to this story, my country cannot even fund its pension scheme to its own bureaucrats and other federal government workers.

"One of the figures Ottawa uses to determine its pension liability is a moving average of past “nominal” yields on 20-year federal bonds, while the other is an assumed return on investments of 4.2 per cent based on averages earned since 2000.

The C.D. Howe report says the “made-up” numbers are not realistic in today’s world of low interest rates and low investment returns.

“Both these interest rates are well above anything currently available on any asset that matches the plans’ obligations,” Mr. Robson said in a news release Tuesday."

Pension plans must be formulated on the payout side on the basis of everyone slightly outliving the forecasted draw-down. That is, if the average age of death is, say, 80, and the vast majority work until 65, you provision for 16 or 17 years of payouts, averaged out. This is because the average age of death will tend to move forward in time as people who would have died within that period benefit from medical advances and other life-extension methods, like a more active lifestyle and a better diet.

Pensions were so much easier when people retired and dropped dead three years later from too much smoke and gravy, frankly. Now, all that time at the gym followed by salad means a lot of wiry oldsters are working stacking shelves and greeting at Walmart. It's a glimpse into the future.

Pension plans must be contributed into on the basis of the most conservative outcomes; in a low-interest, low-inflationary period, one cannot "bank" on even a pension fund's considerable buying power to outdo the market, which, as we've learned, is substantially rigged in favour of the already-rich.  So if one's assumptions are too rosy (and "too rosy" is a real problem in this area of management), the pension will inevitably have less money to address an ever-expanding set of entitlements and obligations.

In sum, when the bureaucrats, who are generally assumed to have gold-plated retirement funding, start to question the imperial habit of coin clipping and currency debasement (to cite what in part did in the Roman Empire), it's time to review what we, the better washed but nonetheless vast plebian population can expect, if anything, to keep us out of the garbage bins, food banks and future auditions for "Bum Fights, 2030".


Remember, it's November: a late haulout and a near miss

Don't let the calm water fool you

I like to sail and pay a pretty penny...although not as much as a small econobox car driver on an annual basis...for the privilege of doing so. By sharing costs and balancing off "steel boat restoration" with "plastic boat fun" in my increasingly fume-addled mind, I've been able to justify sailing one boat while I try not to screw up the fitting out of another, beached one.

This is prologue to relating this year's other haulout (I participated in hauling my club three weeks ago), that of Valiente, my 33 foot sloop. Leaving distractedly late from my summer marina berth, I cadged free shelter at my club, although in a rather exposed spot (see above) from the prevailing and gusty mid-fall westerlies, which can swing into NW or even north with rapidity. The previous entry related my last sail of the season, but there was more "fun" in store in the following week.

I haul Valiente in as cheap and "unfacilitied" a location as I can find within reach of bicycle from my home. A glorified series of parking lots in Toronto's "Portlands" called Pier 35 fills the bill nicely...there's not even a washroom on site, no electricity or water can be easily accessed, and the place is overrun with feral cats fed by well-meaning if idiotic white people in nice cars. To top it off, it's downwind from a vast recycling plant. Do not power wash the's pointless unless you seal it in plastic afterwards.

Hauling here means having a tolerance for a little eccentricity on the part of the denizens and the staff. This is a boat boneyard, with several decaying examples of production and/or homebuilt boats that will likely never get as much sea under their hulls as they've had rain on their decks...sooty, sooty rain. One also must do for oneself: I bicycled out at the beginning of the week to erect and rebolt Valiente's somewhat rusty cradle.

Note: My name's not "Smith"
I brought the pads in the boat. I was supposed to be hauled on Wednesday, November 9th, late enough in my view to be courting frosty nights that would trouble my sleep with visions of ice-shattered engine blocks, but the boat yard's boss said that he was behind in hauling due to a crane breakdown, and I would be welcome to haul Thursday afternoon, and to tie up in the channel from which he hauled at any point.

Well, I didn't, because my sailing pal Jeff suggested it was an exposed channel, I thought it looked dodgy and unsafe (and didn't want cat poo on deck) to leave a boat unattended in that channel, and the wind looked strong and potentially very gusty. So I stayed put at my club and doubled my lines. I told Mr. Crane Operator I would be there 10 AM Friday and received permission to stay on our club wall until Friday.

The first thing I noticed, as one does, on a not quite windy but looking like it might get windier Friday morning was frost on the patch of grass the kids fold sails on. The second thing was that two of four fenders were missing. One had gone taking part of a shackle with it. There was slight damage to the rubrail. I was evidently at least partially in the line of fire, if fire was gusting November wind. Fun fact: Colder air is denser than warmer air. 40 knots of near zero will feel worse than 25C precisely because it is.

"Whew," I thought as I chugged off to the grubby, cat-infested place of stowage, "I'm glad I didn't stay tied to that wall. Might have scratched her up, but good".

Truer words...

This is or perhaps was (pending insurance adjuster verdicts) a 1989 Irwin 38 sloop. The colour is because it was in Caribbean charter, where the sun turns gelcoat into chalk. The damage is courtesy of being exactly where I planned to be, plus shredded fenders, plus parted lines and plus torn-out cleats. This boat came loose in only a little gale, bounced off a few concrete walls, hit a booze cruiser and generally got severely slapped about.

It's worse in person, actually. So is standing beside the owner, who was trying to remain stoic.

Anyway, because the poor thing might be so damaged as to collapse on its cradle, an insurance adjuster had to examine it not only for the usual "repair or scrap" verdict, but to determine if it was even safe to move with half its decks torn up and daylight coming out the transom. The yard boss decided in light of approaching high wind to haul me (mostly) out of the water and away from the wall. Suited me fine, even if I was inexplicably listing to port in the slings.
Prior to the 25-30 knot gusts
I may have spilled my drink at this point.

Note that if one's mast is either side of the yellow stripe on the crane frame, one's beverage may develop a leak. 

Also note that attention to detail in the anti-fouling painting area seems to have paid off...that's a pretty clean bottom for a boat in direct sunshine in a murky, weed-choked marina.

You can just make out the chunks missing from the stem of that steel ship off my stern. Done by the wrecked Irwin, alas

After much fuffing about and a somewhat unnervingly slow hoist and lowering occasioned by the newness of the Big Yellow Crane, we settled in for winter. I am leaving the mast in somewhat experimentally as it will greatly increase the speed of commissioning next spring.

Off we go. I always find the sight of either of our boats being moved on wheels a touch nerve-wracking and vaguely amusing. A sort of fish on bicycle image, I suppose.

Winterized the engine rapidly, and will apply selected tarps and charge, then disconnect, the batteries next week. Then, back to the world of steel.

What the world of steel will always feature: 93% zinc coatings


Last sail of 2011: Laying her down in style

I had, with a sailing pal, my last sail of the season today. November 4 in Toronto is quite late as most local boats are hauled for the winter and demasted, winterized, etc., as the night temperatures can go below 0C. I am hauling next Wednesday as freezing isn't expected, so I took the boat out today.

So the last sail of my season was, somewhat unexpectedly due to the honking great high pressure system above Lake Ontario, a bit of a howler. I saw close to 20 knots apparent with nonetheless flat seas because all the wind was coming off the land and was weirdly gusty, probably due to urban heating. The 24 hour Toronto Island record said "8 kilometres of wind, gusting 30".

Well, try and pick a sail for that. We were either crawling under a full main and a No. 2 or we were on our ears at 30 degrees over. Great, technical sailing, however. I was able to luff way up into the wind during the puffs, as the whole "apparent wind" thing was obvious: as we picked up speed, I could steer 20 degrees to windward and thus reduce the number of tacks I had to make the channel to Toronto's inner harbour.

But I insisted, as I rarely do, that we and my pal both wear PFDs. There was NO ONE on the lake except us (not surprising at the air temperature was 8 C despite the full sun). The water's about 9C, I guess, having had a few drops and splashes land on me from the bow. The fact is that even a fit person could be "shocked" into a daze or unconsciousness if they fell in, never mind get hauled out, and the weird, gusty wind meant the boat was getting headed constantly and heeling very rapidly without much warning from the sea state.

I don't always wear a PFD in the summer, but spring and fall I do pretty religiously. I haven't seen a need to wear a tether on Lake Ontario, but I have several aboard, and I sure as hell wouldn't be typing this had I not been wearing on on the Atlantic Ocean in 40 knots of "surprise" wind in the middle of the night.

Now, I think the type of tether, and more importantly, the ease with which one can release from a D-ring, is up for debate, but not the use of a tether at all. That's like saying you don't use a seatbelt because you can never find the damn big red square button on the latch mechanism.

Sailing buddy Jeff says "bah!" to the tether proposition

Anyway, here's some pictures. As mentioned, I was ably accompanied by Jeff Cooper, a man who sailed a great deal many years ago, stopped for a couple of decades, and is rediscovering his love of sailing. So having him aboard is a treat, because all my gear is about 40 years old and therefore he's used to seeing blocks without Torlon bearings or (gasp) winches that merely winch, and do not self-tail!

The start was unpromising, if coolly pleasant. The wind off the land was from due North with a bit of East trying to manifest, but the high pressure and the land station speed of a solid six knots did not promise much in the way of excitement.

Still, north wind in Toronto means "flat sea", and a similarly brisk air and water temperature meant no fog. But because I've been fooled before in the autumn, I opted for a full hoist in the main and the old No. 2 genoa, even though the No. 1 was requested. I had a feeling.

Said feeling might have arisen from watching the incessant turboprop commuter planes that blight the waterfront. They were landing in an obvious cross-wind, jinking and crabbing with intent into the wind.

Judging by the offbeat landing approach (whoops!), there was more than six knots of wind overhead. So we eased off and headed south around the front of Toronto Island to find it.

Of course, you see a lot of nature from a sailboat, particularly when you have the entirety of the water to yourselves. We saw no other boats out on the Lake, not cops, nor fishermen, nor commercial traffic. We both noticed, however, that the leaves were hanging on the branches very late. Some are still in the process of turning red, orange or yellow.

We found a hatful of wind, 15 pushing 20 knots apparent (apparent in the sense that I apparently had a bit too much sail up at points) as we barrelled around the point and "laid her down" heading for the Leslie Street Spit. Too busy sailing in a fairly technical fashion to take shots (this is the part where the nearby weather station was recording "N8, gusting 30", which sums it up for people who know a header as something other than a soccer move), we still saw a flock of what I think were bufflehead ducks fishing in the lake. 

After a brief consideration of how close I should run into the beach on the Spit in order to make the Eastern Gap in one tack (because I hate tacking in channels, even when empty of boats), we transited Toronto Harbour and speculated how many eyes in the towers of finance and condos of glass were on us as we gracefully returned to home base.

Some grace was jeopardized while we removed..and then retied...a debris boom from the entrance to my marina. Obviously, they are going into "pure liveaboard" mode, and it's time I hauled out before something freezes. Ever try to hold a boat still while essentially untying a gate? There's no pictures of that, either. Too busy trying to keep the boat off the wall and the crew out of the water.

It was, nonetheless, one of the best days of sailing both Jeff and I agreed that we've ever had. So long, 2011.


How to get ahead in cruising

True story: When my wife first stepped aboard the custom-built, steel pilothouse cutter of unclassifiable but vaguely Land Rover-ish design that we now own, she peered behind the only door aboard and spotted the Lavac head. She asked "is that the one you can flush a pair of jeans down?"

"Yes, but why would you want to?"

"Just in case. OK, I like the boat".

So we bought it. On such miniscule decisions are vast enterprises founded.

Status: Painting the engine bay interior with multiple coats of "Mascoat db", a ceramic-based sound insulating paint. I'm using a freshly purchased paint sprayer which is doing a fine job, but which requires a lot of cleaning due to the fairly thick nature of the paint. Nonetheless, it is clearly superior to doing it by hand, and, given that I'm recovering from a wrenched back muscle, is well worth the investment.


A plea for segregation over the helm

Wave factor five, Captain. Setting winches to "fabulous!"

I am currently involved in a mostly civil debate on the merits or lack of merits in integration of the autopilot and the GPS/plotter aboard the modern cruiser. I suppose not supporting integration is to implicitly support segregation. Thus are my views on human society and boat operation different.

For the uninitiated, a modern chain or hydraulic-type autopilot (AP) steers the boat using parameters derived from some sort of compass (usually a fluxgate type capable of sending data). One figures out from a chart or a chartplotter or a visual bearing to a landmark one's desired course, say 270 M or due West (magnetic). Assuming the wind is with you (or the motor works if no wind is for you), the boat goes more or less due West. Eventually, and assuming you are keeping a proper watch, you should be where you intended, realizing of course that you can't likely go on AP straight into your dock; at a prudent distance you will have to hand-steer as traffic increases and land draws near. Land kills more boats, generally, than the sea. Watch out for it, kids.

Now, if you dial in 270 and end up where 260 would have put you, Something's Going On. It could be a tidal effect, a current, leftover sloppy waves pushing the boat off, or maybe your gear isn't precisely calibrated or you are reading True instead of Magnetic or vice-versa. Your job is to find out why. The AP working as it should has revealed an anomaly to you, and Your Brain, Eyes and Hands can rectify this unscheduled detour.

By contrast, slaving the GPS to the AP means the AP steers to a waypoint selected by the skipper (I almost wrote "the operator"). The waypoint (WP) is a designated lat/lon often selected because it's proximate to a nav aid like a big shiny buoy, something even the newest sailor might recognize. The current doesn't matter, the waves on the beam are irrelevant...the AP will auto-correct and will steer unerringly to the designated point. Very nice.

And yet...

If the wind shifts, you could gybe as the GPS instructs the AP to turn "more to starboard!" If the wind dies, the GPS could lose "lock" because they do not do well in the lower half of boat speeds (sub 3 knots SOG, in my experience). This could cause radical steering corrections. Also, one wouldn't wish the MFD (multifunction display) to go wonky, or not to have a separate control panel for the AP. But that is the way some of the newer systems are set up: black boxes and leads going to a display unit or the "master black box".

For the insider's view on how getting gadgets to play together nicely can be a chore and then some, I refer you to The Marine Installer's Rant blog. Aspiring boat rebuilders can learn a lot from this guy.

The systems I am envisioning for Alchemy are stand-alone AIS, RADAR, depthfinder and autopilot, all of which can have their displays or their numerical values going to a PC-based solution. I am encouraged testing out cheapish, low-draw "netbooks" running OpenCPN, although I wouldn't object to running something like Rose Compass or others if they were a better choice.

That is key to understand here: it's not a money issue...well, not entirely. I would buy the best solution if I thought it was the best solution, but to me, that solution is about flexibility and redundancy, not necessarily centralized control and monitoring.

As we have a pilothouse, I intend only to have a cheap weatherproof plotter outside as a sort of slave display/backup; the real setup will be, I hope, largely out of the weather. Because I have easy and immediate access to the engines and tankage, the sort of "command center" console displays found on the flybridges of million-dollar fishing boats is of limited interest to me, as is the ability to know at the tap of a finger the exact RPM of the engine or the internal temperature of the alternators. "Integration", where I set the AP to sail to a GPS-determined waypoint, would be possible, and desirable, if I was in an open ocean current, for instance, and wanted to motor with the least amount of leeway made, but generally I would prefer to "steer to wind" or just trim properly to make the AP work the least.

My contention in the online forum I'm on is that integration, while a boon to, say, the single-hander who is presumably an excellent mariner to begin with, puts the unlearned or inexperienced sailor in the position of having several sources of information appearing in a realistic format, but which itself is only a representation of an idealized chart, and not necessarily what's in front of the boat.

Here's a "clip" from today's discussion:

Poster ColemJ said: Again, seamanship and good practices have NOTHING to do with electronics, autopilots or how they are integrated. Nothing.

I am not meaning to be argumentative or personal with you
Alchemy, it is just that I remain confused and confounded why the seamanship argument keeps being made.

To which I replied: Integrated electronics allow stupid people to look smart until they hit something easily avoided, perhaps killing themselves or others in the process.

Integrated electronics are part of the process of turning a skipper into a "passenger".

Integrated electronics also discourage a stupid person, or rather an ignorant person, from educating themselves into competency. A boat with a tiller and a compass and a Windex and maybe a VHF (90% of boats until maybe 15 years ago) is a relatively mute thing. It gives you messages in ways by which you can't help but notice the nuances of wind, waves and weather. The "Star Trek" helm, by contrast, will allow even a near-blind child to steer the boat, but that child will not necessarily learn anything in the process.

So I am not impugning the skilled and seamanlike sailor for whom integration is a convenience only and is merely an extension to the existing and familiar boat operation aids, but I will and do impugn the growing number of boaters who rely on such gadgets because they know very little seamanship.

Those people are trouble for the sport/lifestyle, trouble for the SAR and a bonanza for those who know how to fix boats. We get reports here and elsewhere about sailboats calling MAYDAYs because they've run out of fuel, or going out without doing a weather check, or running into nav aids because waypoints weren't understood, or being unable to dock because the bow thruster's busted and they have a boat with grotesque windage.

Like the stories of people dying in the wilderness because "the GPS told them to go this way", individuals, to paraphrase Franklin, who give up their autonomy in order to secure a little convenience deserve neither.

See, told you I'd gotten ornery! Half the guys who taught me how to break down engines and do CN are already dead of old age, and the number of bozos at the helm continues to be high where I live. These days, it's bozos texting on smart phones as they enter basins. I use the ship's horn more than I used to, just to pry their eyeballs up from the glowing screens.

Sailing should be learned in electronics-free boats, in my view. Once you understand on a visceral and seamanlike level which aspect of boat operation the electronics
mimic ...and the limitations of that mimicry...fine, go nuts, turn the helm into Mission Control. If you know how to sail safely, it's no matter to me. But I find that is not always the case, and guys in driveways seen fixing their own cars have just about vanished from North America. As has in some respects the experiential method of acquiring seamanship via, you know, actually sailing by hand and eye.

Colemj said: Yes! In fact, that's how we use ours 80% of the time (non-integrated - simply steer to compass). I am just having problems with the conflation of lack of seamanship and integrated systems.

I replied : I think we are essentially discussing the same thing from two ends. You are advocating the use of integration as just another tool available to the already skilled seaman, and I am saying that integration aids and abets the presence of underskilled skippers and crew and unseamanlike behaviour in conditions that can turn unpleasant rapidly.

The fact is that I've used integration of the "patch it in as needed" type myself...and liked it. But I have also seen it break, as I've seen windvanes and AP break offshore. Stuff happens:
Seamen know how to get back to basics because they've experienced such basics. It seems of late, however, that people are dying or requiring rescue because their electronics-laden boats break in the real ocean, and they have no knowledge base from which to extract themselves from danger or distress.

I can see everything except the argument for slaving the AP to the GPS.
Now, I could be wrong on all this, and I could be persuaded otherwise, but when you see people, as I do in my car-free lifestyle, literally stepping off curbs into traffic or literally walking into planters and utility poles because they have their noses in their iPhones, it makes me think that it would take a sort of discipline to avoid staring at the screens and instead to stare at the sea, as one should. That's one of the reasons why I would have something quite minimal at the helm, plus a's distracting me from the sensory inputs fuelled by soup. Going below to the pilothouse is fine for bad weather and consultation with the LCD oracles, but really, even when the boat's on auto-pilot, the prudent watch stander should be scanning the horizon, listening for changes in the wind or waves, and sniffing for better sailing weather.
Not seen: Mark I eyeball

I'm not convinced further automation of the sailing experience will encourage that tendency. One might as well take the bus...or become a jet pilot. I'm no Luddite, but if stuff breaks at sea...and it does, without exception...why make life harder by putting all one's nav aid/boat operation eggs in one basket? If I had a little boat going distances, I would probably for reasons of space and power opt for the all-in-one MFD, all-singing and dancing solutions...and it would probably be Furuno with Maretron black boxes...but for the moment, I would rather have stuff I can use when needed and "integrate" on an ad hoc basis.

Of course, even older electronics with life (and the benefits of long familiarity) still left in them exist and are capable of a form of integration.. While I will be getting new instruments before we depart, I have resisted the urge to buy "integrated packages", slick as many seem. I still prefer to have stand-alone instrumentation (particularly radar and depth) that can work alone, OR can "report" to a PC or tablet to exhibit integration when desired and as described. I find the idea of a multi-function display (which, if it "goes down", leaves one staring at a bunch of mute black boxes) a little absurd: I find it akin to telling an orchestra member they have to wear several headphone sets from each section of the pit in order to figure out where they are in the score. Better (from my point of view) to maintain more discrete displays and to integrate them wirelessly or via multiplexed connectors. But realistically, except for the very useful "radar over plotter" display (charting errors immediately manifest!), how often does a skipper do more than glance at depth, course and RADAR indicators before going back to Eyeball Mk. 1? If I had all the bells and whistles going, I might be tempted to stare overlong at some of the "overly comprehensive" displays available at reasonable costs these days...which I find not very seamanlike. I will take "a watch augmented", but disdain "a watch once removed".


The great levelling, or six degrees of remediation

"A certain sinking feeling" is something no sailor wants to experience, and yet during Alchemy's extended stay on land, that has been a increasingly common perception. Perhaps it was the rainwater pooling in the self-draining cockpit, or flowing past the scuppers to leave grubby puddles by the gunwhales, but it was clear that the good ship's attitude was getting low, specifically down by the bow.

I attributed this to a combination of soft ground (it's just backfill, really, as the whole club property is entirely artifical and not particularly well-draining) and to a slight, but critical, misplacement of the boat when laid to rest, making it a tad heavier than needed on the forepart of the cradle.

The result can be clearly seen even from the spring: The whole operation is trying to make like a lawn quoit and sink into the gravel. I had to lash things, including the new engine, to the rails and bollards to keep them from rolling or shifting forward. While this was annoying from the view of painting and walking near open hatches, it wasn't likely critical or dangerous...until the time approached for putting in the engine. "Zeroing" an engine on its stringers and mounts so that it is very, very close to having its rear coupling mating firmly and evenly with a similar coupler on the non-propped end of the shaft is the key to avoiding wear on the transmission, shaft, prop and important, moving and expensive bits of the diesel...and it makes the boat considerably quieter. The tolerances involved are near those found in getting a new crown for a tooth...hundredths of a inch. Now, the use of a CV coupler joint mitigates this need for exactitude somewhat...but you still have to be close. Having measured the pitch angle of Alchemy at sixdegrees and likely advancing, I thought that trying to line up a seven-hundred pound engine and a five-foot steel shaft would be I thought I'd move the boat by hand.

Don't giggle now: this actually worked for a bit. It's a 20-tonne hydraulic bottle jack (due to the shape), and it moves a sturdy piston up by tiny amounts with each manly crank of its inadequate handle. The problem was that the boat's at least 15 tonnes, and wants to get closer to the core of the Earth when out of the water. Cranking on the handle basically drove the jack into the yielding ground and especially into the various planks and boards I shoved under it to spread the load. I was able to get in a few steel shims, but even after I started to have better results after lobbing a sack of marble-sized gravel under the boards, I didn't like the alarming noises everything made, nor the extreme leisure with which things actually happened due to the ratio of arm-pumping to real-world lifting. Note that the theory was sound but the execution lacking, and let that be a lesson to all sailors.

Eventually, this past weekend, I prevailed upon my club's "Haulout" committee to fix the problem properly by hoisting Alchemy upwards a few feet and pulling the whole cradle out of the hole it had dug for itself, forward a couple of feet to improve the balance of the boat over its pads, and onto some strategically placed lengths of lumber.

The difference was immediate and gratifying. Water long trapped on deck gushed profusely out the stern scuppers and off the side decks. The "lifts" on the front of the cradle did not immediately sink into the ground, probably because the cradle move rolled a lot of my gravel forward in a helpful fashion.

While the whole operation took a crew of volunteers and plenty of semi-learned discussion before and during the cradle repositioning (which took place on a cold and damp day at dawn as the first hoist of a busy day for the club), it was executed perfectly. Nothing inside the boat budged, although I had made attempts to brace toolboxes and paint drums adequately.

This shows how far forward the cradle moved. The boat went up and down largely in the same position.

Evidence of success. The boat is now about one degree high at the bow...but I fully expect it to sink a few millimeters, which will put me where I want to be.

The new attitude: Up, up and aweigh anchors.

So here again is another learning opportunity. What I know about levers stopped at the see-saw I last rode as a tyke. But basic principles properly understood gave me a workable, if tedious, answer (the bottle jack, which I will use in the engine installation and elsewhere to lift really heavy things small distances), but also showed that the lift was a safer and much, much faster option, once I had worked out, in consultation with other amateur engineers among my club friends, the best way to shift 15 tonnes of beached boat.

A process of recovery

One of the things I've noticed about the boating game is that the prospective voyager has to possess, if not expertise, then a passing familiarity with various trades. This is not only so that one may perform the endless and varied tasks to keep the vessel afloat and in good repair and reasonable comfort, but so that one can recognize when outside help is doing a decent job fixing what is beyond one's own abilities.

So I've had to become handy in ways I've never had to be handy before. I may have mentioned in older posts that I never took "shop", as "Industrial Arts" was once known (is there still Industrial Arts? Given the dire prevalence of TV fix-it shows and the cultish admiration of hammer-wielding tradesmen, I suspect not.). Instead of lathing a newel post (would be nice for a binoculars bin), or dovetailing a lovely map chest (for a map chest), I was in theatre class, trying to impress high-breasted, long-legged and usually disinterested-in-me females.

Well, at least I learned blocking, which sounds vaguely woody.

After school, I continued in the arts field with a series of wordy or word-friendly jobs involving fast typing and smart-assery, but very little call for wielding of hand tools. Problems in the rental units in which I lived much beyond changing a light bulb were referred to the landlord, as was good and proper. My hands were soft and my head empty of all things mechanical, electrical, motorized or fabricated. I didn't even own a car. I had a moped when I was 16, but that mostly involved a level of engineering only slightly above servicing a bicycle.

Then in short order, I bought a creaky old house and a creaky old sailboat. Fear of Having to Call Someone This Time caused my wallet to seize shut. I had to get skills, and I had to get them quickly. Particularly, it must be said, when I blew up my first Atomic 4 by neglecting to open the cooling water intake.

It hasn't been easy, and the process is continuing. Thirteen years after buying an 1890-built house and 12 years after acquiring a 1973 sailboat, I no longer consider myself absolutely feeble. My screw-ups and ignorance have been (and in some fields continue to be) the foundation on which I've built a Temple of Near Competency. I even seem to have a knack for small motor maintenance and minor fabrication, and can glass, shape aluminum, make a crude but functional cabinet and can grind, router, wire, hoist, chisel, sand, mount, drill, unseize, hammer, wedge, bolt, saw and buff without threat to maintaining an even number of fingers. Yes, I now sport some minor, if lurid, scars and my fingernails are rarely entirely free of some industrial-strength goo, but it appears at an embarrasingly advanced age that I have become Officially Handy.

Just as well, because I couldn't bloody well afford to pay people. I will, however, recognize when I can't do the job properly (like welding...yet) and will hire when needed.

More often, however, I will simply try out the task myself on something innocuous...a practice run, so to speak, in order to see if I can combine a (usually) economically-oriented idea with non-idiotic execution. Such was the case with the breakfast nook chairs.

Dire, isn't it? I bought these shave-above-IKEA chairs about 25 years ago in a quest to uplift my station in life by not eating off furniture salvaged from either my parents' basement and/or the 1960s. That tatty blue rag is covering the original shredded seat cover and its crumbling foam filling.

The table top I had sanded and coated with unused Cetol, a marine-style wood varnish-type liquid that goes on exterior teak bits. The chairs remained nasty and increasingly brutish. Cabin Boy is seen applying small but keen arms to the task of removing the nasty and likely Swedish buttock buffer.

I replaced this with 3/4 inch thick closed-cell insulation I purchased for about ten dollars. Cut into sized rectangles, it provided a firm, if somewhat Calvinist, bedrock for bums, and would logically wear better than the dusty, nasty stuff it replaced. Covering that and carefully using little galvanized tacks gave a pleasing, if neutrally coloured, result.

The bonus is that the insulation will go nicely in the pilothouse roof. The second bonus is that I learned a little bit about recovering furniture, which will come in handy when I redo the aft cabin sleeping arrangements. The third bonus is that the fabric covering was free to me as it is burlap carefully cut from large sacks for roasted coffee, kindly rendered for the asking from the nearby cafe where I buy my beans.

I think it's cute and "urban", but then I would, wouldn't I? Worn-out chairs are suddenly "found design". Would that boat stuff was so cheap to fix.

Anyway, that's another minor skill of which I can claim I'm not completely ignorant...and I didn't cut myself this time.


Fun advertisement

I don't drink Chivas, but I like the "spirit" of their sailing-themed TV ad.

Quite a number of posts in the pipeline, but it's a busy few weeks to come. More soon!


Frigate (insert own rude pun here)

While it's logical and indeed expected to note that the majority of my readers are American, some of them might not instantly recognize that I, my family and our boat are not. After all, we appear to speak a common language, and over large parts of the land mass that we share, after stealing it from the natives, it's often difficult to distinguish in a physical or geologic sense where one country ends and the other begins. Indeed, a bone of contention among some of the previously mentioned aborginals of North America is that they don't much care to flash passports at the Canada-U.S. border as in many cases their traditional tribal lands are on both sides of the imaginary line, much of which remains unfenced, and despite various security initiatives, unwatched.

Living in Canada and writing in English on the internet means a lot of contact with Americans, who, when they think of Canada at all, do not see us as a particularly belligerent bunch, as a sort of self-deprecating politeness seems to be our collective sociological trait, where we can be distinguished from Minnesotans or Vermonters at all (save for les Quebecoises, I suppose, whom Americans sometimes think are found everywhere in Canada in large numbers).

And yet like many other Commonwealth countries like Australian, New Zealand and even the Gurkhas of Nepal, we have been and continue to be quite a feisty bunch. The current debate about fighting in hockey in Canada would be unlikely to happen elsewhere, as apart from MMA and boxing, there are very few sports in which out-and-out brawling is considered part of the game. Even rugby is arguably less violent.

Which brings us to Canada's often-derided armed forces. We possess a vast country and a diffuse population, which, while wealthy on the scale of nations, is not really numerous or threatened enough to justify the sort of army, navy and air force that would impress a middle-rank dictator. Indeed, more than one American has alleged that Canada gets a "free ride" in terms of our own military defence, although one might say "a free ride from the enemies of America, perhaps", but that wouldn't be true, either.

The truth is that our compact military has been at it for years at the a large human and financial cost since the Second World War, during which Canada fielded disproportionately large navies and armies. We once had an aircraft carrier, for instance, but it has since made more sense to have frigates. Recently, as a "last day of summer holidays treat", we saw one of our own, HMCS Montreal. (The other treat was a honking fast sail in Valiente.)

Montreal and two smaller minesweepers are currently patrolling the Great Lakes...for what is not precisely clear, but I'm sure the crews appreciate not being in their usual Atlantic patrol areas in September.

Our son, Mr. Cabin Boy, appreciated the opportunity to see large red buttons reading "ARMED" and "FIRE" and to field-test the rigidity of the deck gun. For a non-taxpayer, he has some firmly held ideas on what constitutes value.

Dad, meanwhile, appreciated those aspects of a 480 foot frigate that have application in his own steel hulk of approximately 1/12 the length...and it's more than one might think. Their liferafts look bigger, but are still recognizably liferafts.

The ground tackle, while impressively sized, was also not radically different in design, although the forces involved in holding something this massive and lofty exceed my imagination.

The "devil's claw", used to secure the chain and relieve strain on the windlass (I guess "capstan" is more appropriate).

It's adjusted with this hulking turnbuckle thingie.

Which is in turn "adjusted" with a Navy-issue sledgehammer.

And the chain goes out via this suspiciously well-polished hawse pipe. Modern warships seem to favour a centerline chain deployment and anchor stowage.

Possibly the only compass I've seen that's nicer than our Ritchie Globemaster, but mine still has the hilariously named "compensator balls". The balls on this one must reside below decks, one assumes.

And clearly, one would prefer to "operate" this part of the ship. Alas, no.

As for navigation, I was gratified to see that they are no better equipped than ourselves in the paper chart department:

...although their RADAR is a bit more elaborate.

...and so is their plotter...

My favourite bit was spotted as we were leaving...HMCS Montreal has an interesting approach to deploying fenders:

No doubt effective!

While not personally particularly militaristic, I come from a family in which active military service has played a role, and I respect the work of our armed forces who are frequently given tasks at home and overseas for which our federal government seem unwilling to finance. The sailors aboard were courteous and well-informed, and seemed to welcome the opportunity to mingle with the public that pays for the ships. Given a world in which future conflict is likely to persist, I hope "big city visits" like that of the Montreal and her sister ships inculcates a willingness to maintain an effective armed force for Canada.