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The opposite of right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Another murder in Paradise: some preventative thoughts

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

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

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

Frequently seen in groups.

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

Be aware that you are guests and are intrinsically privileged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An idea of dubious merit?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bumps in the nightwatch

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cigarettes: now in seafood flavour!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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