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2013-03-30

Standing watch is not texting Dave

The U.S.S Guardian has been cut into manageable chunks and taken off that inconvenient reef in the Philippines:


What would one assume had been learned from this incident? The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior made the same navigational error fairly famously in 2005, so it's not as if the dodgy accuracy of the charting was unknown.

No, I said "get the big sabre saw".
Presumably, if the accuracy was in question, of all the organizations worldwide who go a-sailing, the U.S. Navy would have the resources to amend, correct and revise nautical charts.

Of course, charts can be accurate or inaccurate. The situational awareness aspect of watch-keeping should still be maintained. Was it here? We may never know, nor may the people who have to live with the consequences.

Bad navigation/poor choices: They can happen anywhere.



2013-03-28

The ship's orderly will see you now

Come for the course, stay for the gruesome anecdotes
My wife has a science degree in biology and is qualified to be a high school science teacher. More to the point, she spent about a dozen years as a wildlife rehabitator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. This centre, as are most similar organization, is a charity that cares for wild animals where they are on the losing side of interactions with humanity.
This scene has been enacted at our home. Less likely to happen aboard.
This can include treating all sorts of injuries, from concussed birds who've run into tall buildings, to turtles with guts full of fishhooks, to motherless mammals due to cars, cats or disease. The missus's job was frequently concerned with triage, deciding which animals would survive both the initial injury and the frequently long period of care required until they could be released as close as could be known to their original location.
Green is "I'm feeling much better!"

Imagine something between an emergency room nurse and about 75% of a vet's skills, only with animals from field mice up to deer and large birds of prey. Most of whom, upon first encountering my wife, were in considerable pain and probably mortal terror.

Designating her as "the ship's doctor" aboard Alchemy was therefore logical. Her medical skills, while somewhat unorthodoxically acquired, are largely transferable from the critter to the jumped-up, seafaring primates with whom she will be travelling.

Mine, however, were pretty well non-existent. Short of obtaining a few "fix my owie" merits in various children's organization, I had very little formal knowledge. And my wife, who will happily douse a No. 1 several times her size on a pitching foredeck in a part-gale, finds the engine makes her nervous. So, following the fairly successful model of our separate delivery crew trips, this winter, she has taken a diesel maintenance course and I have taken Transport Canada's Marine Basic First Aid Course. While it took some bureacratic running around to arrange, I found it a worthwhile expansion of my quasi-medical knowledge, as much for dispelling some medical myths or abandoning old-school ideas of first aid that probably got retired after World War II. (Hint: Tracheotomies are right out. Something you saw on M*A*S*H* when you were a kid has likely gone the way of the buggy whip these days.). The certification arrives in the form of a card and is good for three years. Even if taught by Vinnie Jones.


The goal of myself and my wife, of course, is to create a sort of Venn diagram of each other's skill set. If I break an arm on deck, she can service the diesel to get us to shore safely; if she does the same, I can render first aid in the marine setting, which has some special considerations, particularly in rough conditions. And of course, we can both educate our son in the basic basics, such as wound compression, splinting and treating things like jellyfish stings, which we aren't likely to avoid, and, contrary to what you might have heard, don't require someone to pee on you.
Our course instructor, Craig Hamilton, looking both nautical and uninjured.

The course, which was held last weekend at our boat club, was run by a former television producer turned charter skipper turned marine safety instructor, Craig Hamilton. He runs with his associations an outfit called Boaterskills.ca. He possesses a thick wad of certifications and teaches boat handling, docking, boater safety and the training needed to get the various marine licences required to operate a boat in Canada. Teaching the "terrestrial" Red Cross Basic First Aid course with added information pertinent to boats (like "how do you get an unconscious large person tied to a back board up the companionway stairs?" Answer: Maybe you don't, or maybe you rig the mainsheet...it depends.) There was a focus, driven in part by participants' questions, on the sort of injuries more likely to occur about a boat, like drownings, burns, and blunt force trauma from being thrown into things.

It's a shocking business, I know.

A large proportion of the course time is spent learning CPR and the use of Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs). These are the portable, rechargeable, automated versions of the "clear! ZAP!" devices that have been a staple of medical dramas since the '70s. As they are now sold for about $1,500, they are falling into the same class of safety devices as EPIRBs, satphones, SOLAS-grade flares and liferafts: expensive, but very hard to justify ignoring.

Several trenchant facts emerged during the training: if you are not breathing and your heart has stopped, you are dead; chest compressions will only keep you from being really dead by literally pushing minimally oxygenated blood to your brain. The current thinking is that the CPR rhythm should be 30 compressions, followed by two breaths with the airway kept clear. It's real work; the CPR manikins have "sternum-strength" spring pads inside them to simulate the average chest, and you must compress a fairly small target area to have any hope of actually pushing the blood through a stopped heart. Think "unprimed Whale Gusher foot pump in the galley" and those of you familiar with those devices will sense the type of physicality involved.
You bet I can now do this. Your sternum won't thank me, but you might live to curse me.

We learned that the AED is for when you still have a heartbeat, but it is dodgy, racing or otherwise compromised. This could be from shock, fever, poisoning of some description, blood loss, a head injury...whatever. The point is to restore the normal rhythm until help can arrive. And help needs to arrive; at the level of Basic First Aid, you are merely trying to keep the person alive, and if not in immediate danger of death, to keep them from going into shock, to keep them safe, warm and confortable. It's Better Than Nothing, not Pretend Doctor. The limitations of the first aid renderer are considerable, but there is still scope to preserve life itself, to keep people hydrated and nourished (unless internal bleeding is suspected!), and to rig splints and dressings for the smaller, but probably quite distressing, injuries and maladies that can befall sailors.

We're going to need a bigger head.

At this point, I ruefully stare at my hands, which have been blistered, scorched, stapled, cut with tools blunt and scapel-like, and which sport a number of interesting cosmetic modifications. Boating for me has not been without incident or injury, but it's really part of the game to endure a few examples of the sea's rough embrace.

I like this one, as the doctor-authors are themselves sailors.

Should I wish to take further instruction, there's an advanced course in Marine First Aid. I'm thinking it may make sense. Thanks to an alert reader who sent along a link to a free (and very comprehensive) PDF from the World Health Organization entitled International Medical Guide for Ships. Good to know and better to read.

In a later post, and in consultation with the Ship's Doctor (Not a Real Doctor But Pretty Damned Good), we shall discuss the ship's medicine chest and its mysterious contents. Which, thanks to the expert instruction of Mr. Hamilton, who was not shy of offering a usually vivid anecdote in order to illustrate a course point, is slightly less mysterious now. Go ahead: Injure yourself in front of me. Odds are I won't just stare at you waiting for someone to do something, or perhaps smother your screams with a nearby pillow or callously suggest you rub rum into it.

Instead, I will render aid.


2013-03-25

Clash of the weather titans

Best to be wearing brown foulies if you can read this. (Image courtesy of NOAA via John C.)

I have exactly one experience with weather routing at sea. In 2009, while I was part of the delivery crew for Bruce and June on Ainia. a Bristol 45.5, Bruce consulted with the very experienced and highly regarded amateur radio enthusiast and hobbyist marine weather forecaster Herb Hilgenberg. As I related here, my skipper would check in with Herb on a pre-arranged schedule and would provide our local weather conditions, a "micro" take on the "macro" high seas forecasts given by the various governmental and for-hire weather routers, from which Bruce also obtained and pored over data in the form of downloaded GRIB files.

That was the deal: You gave Herb the data points as he requested them, and not before. Think of a queued-up list of widely separated yachts listening to particular frequencies at particular times, and only speaking when requested to do so. I suspect it was the only way for Herb to keep things straight. Herb treated each boat as if it was a mobile weather station, and thereby collected sea state, wind speed and direction readings available only to a small yacht which would often be sailing perhaps hundreds of miles out to sea. In return, he gave back his interpretation of weather trends for each vessel's stated area and intended route, plus his considered suggestions as to the least stormy directions in which you could sail.

All this effort was made for free, since 1987, and with very few days in the year away from the microphone.

Some hobby. Some value. I understand he has taken contributions to offset the cost of his extensive array of equipment and the no-doubt non-trivial amounts of electricity it takes to be a southern Ontario, bungalow-based oceanic radio network.

Not actually Herb's radio shack, but likely a reasonable fascimile.

Basically, the H.H. story is of a man who, having sailed and found the forecasting wanting, turned his retirement hobbies of weather forecasting and ham/SSB radio operation into a public service, even if that public, outside of the offshore sailing community, is largely unaware of his existence near the shores of Lake Ontario. H.H. has been directly involved on the comm side in many rescues and has received praise and citations in equal measure. I have heard that some people will not consider departing on deliveries of yachts from the U.S. coast down into the Caribbean without what they consider to be Herb's sage advice. I met Herb at a Safety at Sea seminar in 2010 in Toronto, and it was slightly surreal to see a rather ordinary looking man of senior years very nearly adored by a small crowd of people wearing clothing usually seen at regattas. Herb's the sort of rock star you become in the cruising community when his is the only voice you can hear over the wind screaming in the rigging and the smell of the crew heaving down the sidedecks.

Yes, you need all these buttons.


Recently, I checked out Herb's very 1994-style webpage to see if there was anything new. He's not a young man, and I wondered if he would still be offering his service when we finally push off for our own adventure. Weather reporting/forecasting, GRIB files and ship-to-shore communication via SailMail or an equivalent service are the reasons I purchased a single-sideband radio (SSB). That particular item will be installed when I restore Alchemy's mast and will no doubt produce some blogging as SSB installation and tuning is a somewhat information-dense and variable process that rarely goes ideally on the first try.


Books have not only been written about SSB/amateur radio installation and operation on seagoing sailboats, they've been written about just this model.

TL Sparks as a name is an inside joke to radioheads.



Now, there has been a move toward the use of satellite phones in the cruising community, particularly the Iridium type, which is considered to have the "largest constellation", i.e. most worldwide coverage. Picture the analogous GPS "constellation": the more satellites in view, the better the confidence in the reported position. Satellite phones work a little differently, and perhaps one day I can get into that. The point here is that they are getting, if not cheap, cheap enough, cheaper than SSB rigs, are familiar in the slightly bulky manner of a circa 1993 cellphone, are portable, and you can speak privately on them AND hook them into a netbook to download weather maps, e-mails and all sorts of data, limited only by your credit limit. There's a whole other level of satellite communications above these phones called IMMARSAT, but that's beyond the scope and budgets of most cruisers. It is a method, however, of keeping up with American Idol 1,000 NM from land. It's more or less the standard on commercial ships these days.

So is SSB on cruising sailboats done, antiquated, superannuated? Is it the "landline" or "dumb phone" of small boat communications? Are there apps for it?

Why, yes, there are, and I doubt SSB is done for those who like a variety of tools to solve, in this case, the problem of distance communication on a boat at sea or on the hook in Random Lagoon, population you.

While it can cost three to four grand to get transceiving, apart from a yearly SSB-to-email service fee, it's pretty well free to yak, network and receive weather faxes. For people cruising with a kid, such as we propose to do, it's a great way to send and receive lessons by email in distant locales (pictures are generally too big and best sent from Internet cafes ashore). Various "cruiser nets" exist and it's a standard method of finding out which seaside facilities are open, which port officials are on the take, and which panga has sunk right at the reef entrance...stuff you won't find in cruiser guides or marked on charts. Yes, it's semi-public, although it can be made pretty private, and yes, propagation and other technical factors can limit its range and function. And let's not forget that offshore, when you yell MAYDAY on an SSB emergency frequency, every SAR/Coastie in range hears you; with a satellite phone, a single phone rings on a single desk, because you are, after all, just capable of calling one phone number at a time.

Still, many fans of SSB consider it indispensable and the sat phone something good for the ditch bag. People who like SSB on boats like weather nets and these familiar voices, who provide important information, after all, for people living on little boats, are generally trusted.

Trusted too much? The marine writer Charles Doane would seem to think so. In an article that seems to be critical of Herb Hilgenberg's forecasting skills,  he cites a few cases suggesting  that Herb's forecasting leans toward the conservative side, pinning his "correspondents" to shore instead of profitably being at sea on passage. The comments on Doane's article range from fairly blunt disagreement and suggestions that Doane is ungrateful, to broad agreement from experienced cruisers that Herb is indeed sometimes wrong or too pessimistic. Herb's reply to Doane on hisown website seems to indicate that this criticism has discouraged him to the point of retirement.

This I would consider a loss to the greater cause of cruising safely.

Frankly, I don't get the criticism of Herb's service. Isn't this akin to saying you don't like the colour of the bookmobile lady's dress and therefore feel disinclined to borrow books? The crossing guard's stupid hat is the reason for your six-block detour? Herb is not a professional, nor does he claim to be. His forecasting is based on careful observation, but he lives down the road from me, near Toronto, some distance from much more than road salt. When he is predicting conditions in Greenland or south of Bermuda, he has the same governmental "macro" charts and forecasts available to him as is available to anyone else through many means. The quality of his "micro" forecasts (the reason sailors have found him useful) is the same for any of his counterparts around the globe: the accuracy and the density of reporting boats is critical. During a race situation such as the ARC or the Caribbean 1500, he would have perhaps a dozen boats reporting in to him: a dozen well-staffed and experienced weather stations in effect who understand his needs and can give him current and accurate conditions from which he can build a plausible forecast.

Damned useful it has been, too. But it is only a forecast. Doane suggests later in his article...and were I the writer, I might have led with this..."Herb probably is more conservative than most other weather-routers, but all weather-routers are--and should be--inherently conservative {italics mine}. Whether they're getting paid or not, they can't help but feel responsible for their clients, and a big part of their job, as they see it, is making sure those clients understand just how bad things might get on any given passage."

A small point: In Herb's case, they aren't clients as Herb is not being paid by them. They are helping a guy with his radio and forecasting hobby. Really, no more. You hear Herb and take his advice or do not. Doane continues: "Routers do provide a useful service, but it is not good when sailors become too dependent on them...Too many sailors these days believe that hiring a weather-router or joining a rally or bringing some professional crew aboard provides some kind of insurance, as though the risk they are taking can be hedged or transferred to others."

Well, now we are getting somewhere. Don't blame the guy who is better at guessing than (perhaps) you. See "don't shout at the GPS for your crappy navigation". Also, "don't blame the cross-wind for your crappy docking." None of those elements, the forecast, the GPS, the wind, for Neptune's sake, has a stake in your successful boating. You, the skipper, do. You, the crew, do. Indifferent of objects and nature in general is something in which I personally take comfort. The sea, if approached unwisely, will kill me without a second thought.

Without a first thought, actually. Ocean water is not sentient and is not capable of malevolence. Attributing motives to "evil black boxes" or "menacing greybeards" or "vanishing tethers" is very poetic, but it's poor seamanship. So is taking your helm instructions uncritically from a guy at a radio ashore as if they arrived on properly buoyed stone tablets or a burning bush on a burning liferaft.

Ultimately, whatever forecaster is being consulted is still only capable of offering an opinion or guess at local sea level about what conditions you will be experiencing in the future. The guesses are based or at least formulated in both science and experience, but they are representations of possibility. This is quite different from the view from the helm. You, the skipper, have that viewpoint. It is the important viewpoint. Listen to other viewpoints, always, but the skipper's judgement must trump all others, and not just in a legally binding sense. Unless one is impaired, disabled or otherwise required to stand down, the skipper has a moral duty to ensure the safety of vessel and crew. You can't blame others or transfer or cede that authority, in my view, nor should you be tempted to do so.

I suspect that what people see as the "conservatism" of Herb or indeed any weather router (including the paid ones, who may be thereby even more dangerously plausible) is simply the process of maturation at work. The weather titan's proclamation become, with the maturation of the crew as experienced mariners, just one more element in the mix.  If Herb learned how to forecast, most skippers eventually can, as well. And they should, because it is them, on the boat at sea, who have to decide the best direction and the soundest methods for staying safe at sea and arriving alive. 


I hope Herb is still working the airwaves when we are out there, and I hope we can consult him as a valued source and in turn, contribute the readings he requires to forecast. But even though I can recognize his voice, I would never assume he was on our boat, nor would I ever assume he had any role or responsibility in either our misfortune or our success. That's on the crew, not the weather guy.

UPDATE, June 14, 2013:  Looks like our wish is denied. Noonsite.com reports that Herb H. has put down the mike.

Thank you, sir, for a valuable and selfless service to the cruising community. Enjoy the absence of static in your ears.