16 April 2017

Boat Handling Experiments

16 April 2017 — Soper’s Hole, West End of Tortola, BVI

It is Easter Sunday and we are holed up in the appropriately named Soper’s Hole — a very protected harbor on the west end of Tortola. We thought everything might be closed for the holiday, but most of the pastel-painted shops along the quay are open, the restaurants are doing a good business, and a steel band is playing Caribbean style music. We have taken over a deserted balcony above the party scene, enjoying the light breeze and relative peace.

So, what are we doing out here? I haven’t had time to explain exactly what happened to get us out here on the Spanish Main. 

Briefly, our insurance finally came through and the deal to buy Petronella — the steel Joshua 40 that I’ve been blogging about — came together all of a sudden. Helena and I had to pack and jump on an airplane to Martinique without much preparation. That’s probably just as well. Less time to worry!

As part of the deal, the current owners, John and Gill, have agreed to sail with us at least as far as the Bahamas. It’s part of the deal because realistically Helena and I weren’t ready to buy what seems to us a very large boat, jump aboard, and sail her 1300 miles back to the US on our own. There were just too many things that could have gone wrong — probably very wrong. 

So we are now on a delivery cruise, but we are also taking the amazing opportunity to learn how to sail and handle Petronella from people who have cruised her for nearly 10 years, including an Atlantic crossing. In addition, we are learning everything we can about her various ‘systems’ (engine, electronics, plumbing, etc.) 

That’s a lot to learn in three or four weeks, but learning them on our own would be much more difficult. The value of these lessons is incalculable. The most important of these lessons so far involved boat handling.

My biggest fear was that Petronella — with her very long keel — would be too difficult for us to handle, particularly in tight situations like picking up a mooring or coming alongside a dock. I knew it was possible to maneuver such a boat in close quarters, having watched Luke Powell pivot his even less maneuverable pilot cutter 180 degrees in place. However, even though I’d watched him do it, and quizzed him extensively on the maneuver afterwards, such feats of seamanship seemed beyond my reach. Or were they?

Luckily, I’d come across a very good description of the turn-in-place trick in Tom Cunliffe’s ‘Day Skipper’ book. The fact that he’d put it in the first book of the RYA how-to-sail series clearly indicated it was a skill even beginners should and could learn, so I was determined to master it.

Taking advantage of a calm day, we motored Petronella into the middle of an empty bay

First experiment: see how she handled at dead-slow speed. I stopped her with her bow into the wind, then put her into forward gear without giving her any throttle. She began to move forward very slowly, but with steerageway, meaning that she responded to her helm.  Excellent, but what how would she handle with a cross wind? Would her head just blow off at slow speeds? 

Coming to a stop with the wind on the beam I repeated the experiment. Surprisingly, the wind seemed to have no effect. She just motored ahead slowly. I guess that if the wind was harder her head would fall off a bit, but since the wind was light, I didn’t have a chance to try this. Nevertheless, I was much encouraged. At least I didn’t have to worry about losing steerageway at very low speeds. Chalk that up to her long keel and big rudder, I guess.

Second experiment: turn Petronella 360 degrees in place to starboard — the direction favored by her prop walk. 

What is prop walk? It is simply the direction the stern swings when the engine is put into gear, before she gathers way. The direction it swings depends on whether the boat has a right or left-hand propeller. In Petronella’s case, her stern swings to starboard in forward gear, and to port in reverse gear. It must be emphasized that prop walk is noticeable mainly when the boat is stopped. As soon as she gather’s way, the keel gets a powerful grip on the water and cancels the effect out. To use prop walk to pivot the boat, you must keep her from moving ahead or astern. That’s the key trick to turning in place. Or at least that’s what I understood from reading Tom’s description.

Again, I let Petronella come to a stop. Turning the wheel all the way to starboard, I shifted into forward gear and gave her half-throttle, until she began to move forward — just a few seconds. The prop walk effect wanted to kick the stern to starboard, but the wash of her prop slamming into the hard-over rudder was much stronger, and her stern kicked slightly to port. 

I then throttled her down, waited a second or two for the revs to come off, put her into reverse, and again gave her half-throttle. 

In reverse, the wash from the prop was forward, so the tiller (still hard over to starboard) had no effect. This allowed prop walk to push her stern to port, thus continuing the clockwise turn.

When she started moving astern — again, just a few seconds — I reversed the action: killed the revs, put her into forward, and gave her half-throttle. Again, the wash slamming into the hard-over rudder overcame prop walk, and Petronella continued to turn clockwise.

And that was it. Like magic, the large and seemingly ungainly boat turned tamely in place 360 degrees. Wow!

According to Tom’s book, it would be more difficult to turn the boat in the opposite direction because prop walk would be working against the maneuver, but he urged readers to try it for themselves, so I did. 

Surprisingly, she turned nearly as well to port as to starboard. I theorize this is due to Petronella’s large rudder. The effect of the prop wash slamming into the rudder must be that much larger than the effect of prop walk, so she turns just as happily the ‘wrong’ way as the ‘right’ way. 

When I’d completed both maneuvers, John and Gill applauded loudly then declared I was ready to attempt to pick up our mooring. 

It was mid-day, so many boats in the mooring field had cleared out for the day’s sail, but there were still enough boats in the field to make maneuvering amongst them challenging. To keep it simple, I picked out a mooring in the back of the field for my first challenge. 

I approached in my usual way — from down wind with low revs. When we were lined up and perhaps 50 yards off the mooring ball, I throttled down to nothing, but left her in forward gear, slowing the boat to a crawl. When we were maybe 20 yards away, I took her out of gear altogether and let coast up to the mooring. I had steerageway until she came to a stop, so was able to bring the mooring ball right up to the port bow, where John and Helena neatly grabbed the mooring lines with a boat hook. A few seconds later, we were high-fiving each other.

We repeated the experiment several times, but each time Petronella handled beautifully. In five attempts, we missed just one pick up and that was because I came in too hot. Over confidence, I guess!

The next day, I practiced coming along side the fuel dock at the marina, but by that time, I was convinced that Petronella was no more difficult to handle than the Blue Moon, at least in moderate winds. We haven’t had enough wind to try maneuvering in stronger winds (where are the vaunted Trade Winds?!?!) but I suspect Petronella will be less likely to get blown around than the Blue Moon, so am feeling pretty confident at the moment. Not to say cocky!

So, a very big tick in the boat handling box. There is still lots to learn, but I am no longer worried that I will not be able to learn to handle Petronella in close quarters. A big boost to my self-confidence. Thanks to Tom Cunliffe and his excellent book, we are off to a good start.


Next Up:  

14 April 2017

Out of our Comfort Zones

12 April -- In Blunder Bay, BVI

After crossing the gap between Martinique and Dominica, we decided to anchor for the night in a little cove at the north end of Dominica. Since we were only spending the night — not going ashore — we didn’t check in with Immigration. Just hoisted the yellow quarantine flag, laid out the anchor, tidied up, and sank thankfully into our bunks. 

The next morning, we headed north again. Again the seas in the gap between islands was rough, but as the day progressed, Helena and I both felt better than the day before, but were still off our food. John and Gill were sympathetic, but seemingly unaffected by the motion. 

As the day progressed, islands slid by in succession: first the several islands of the Iles des Saintes, then Guadeloupe, and then when we were half-way to Montserrat, the setting sun lit the trade wind clouds in shades of gold. Absolutely gorgeous, and best of all, I was hungry. Famished, in fact, but I thought it wise to eat moderately.

Once past Montserrat, our course turned further to the west towards the BVIs. This put the wind right behind us. Wanda the wind vane steering system managed quite well, but as we passed into Montserrat’s wind shadow, the wind fell below 10 knots, which wasn’t enough to keep Wanda working. We then switched to George the electronic autopilot, and that is when the trouble began. 

The problem was that with the fairly high waves and light wind, George could not hold a completely steady course. The best he could do was to steer within 10 degrees to either side our our intended course. Since we were on starboard tack, it didn’t matter when he wandered off 10 degrees to starboard, but when he steered 10 degrees to port, the main tried to gybe. We had a preventer rigged, of course, but no one on board liked the main to be back-winded, least of all poor George who struggled to put the boat back on course. 

We tried adjusting George to make him react faster and more vigorously, tried balancing the sails better, but of course, nothing helped. George just wasn’t sophisticated or powerful enough to steer the boat perfectly straight. On average, he did great, but asking him to steer without every going 10 degrees or so off to port occasionally was too much to ask. The only solution was to tack downwind — first steer say 10 degrees off our course to starboard, and then 10 degrees off our course to port. This would have kept demands made on George within his capabilities, would have kept the boat moving fast, and probably resulted in less rolling. However, this is the one trick we didn’t try.

Instead, we tried hand steering, which worked because humans can steer accurately enough to sail down wind without accidentally gybing, but only for so long. I found I could handle about a half-hour before getting very tired of the job. We traded off every half-hour as we cruised past St. Kitts.

Off the coast of Saba Island, night fell again and the wind died away almost completely. After trying a few adjustments, and talking about breaking out the light wind sails, we gave up and started the engine. With the sails down, George was again able to steer the boat downwind without gybing — because there were no sails to gybe. 

We motored the rest of the night, with no wind and the seas gradually moderating. What had happened to the infallible Trade Winds? They were gone, but luckily Petronella’s hearty Mercedes truck diesel engine was up to the task of running for 24 hours straight, and this morning, we reached Virgin Gorda, checked in at immigration, and picked up a mooring in Blunder Bay. 

We’d covered 350 miles in three days in not-perfect conditions. We both had our sea legs, and a challenging passage behind us. 

The GRIB forecast is for very light winds for the next few days. Time to get some rest, do some blogging, and work on the list of 43 chores that John has drawn up, including checking the engine for a faint ticking noise that developed during the night.

Ah, the cruising life…

Next Up:  Boat Handling Experiments

11 April 2017

Getting Our Sea Legs

9 April 2017 - Aboard Petronella, anchored off Dominica

In Arthur Ransom's "Peter Duck", Captain Nancy -- Chief of the Amazon Pirates and Scourge of the Seas -- suddenly get sea sick when the weather turns bad and the seas rise. What shame! Not Captain Nancy!

I've never actually been seasick, but today I came close. It was in the gap between Martinique and Dominica. The seas in the wind shadow of Martinique had been calm and the sailing great. But now, in the middle of the gap, with no island between us and the coast of Africa, the wind whipped up a confused sea that tossed us -- or at least the contents of my stomach -- like fruit in a blender.

I found myself staring at the waves, trying to keep my eyes on the horizon, breathing deeply.

"No!" I thought in horror. "Not me. Not on our first day out!"

I tried to pretend I wasn't feeling sick, but I was. I was sitting to windward. Captain Gill was between me and the lee rail. What to do? The boat was heeling away from the wind, the deck slanting towards the ocean blue. Could I even get to the lee rail?

After a moments indecision, my head getting woozier by the second, I made a decision.

"I need to get horizontal. Immediately," I announced to the surprising crew. Not waiting for a response, I scrambled down the companionway, kicked off my shoes, and hurried onto the port side settee.

After a few gulps and several deep breaths, I wasn't in imminent danger of being sick, but didn't trust myself to sit up again.

"Just lie still," I told myself. "You'll be fine in a minute..."

Four hour later, I climbed back into the cockpit. I'd missed a watch, dinner, and what Helena described as one of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen ( but I will let her tell that story.)

The seas were calmer, and I felt better, if humbled. No, I hadn't been sea sick, but only just. How long would it take to get my sea legs?

"Three days," I predicted confidently.

I hope I was right.

Next Up:  Out Of Our Comfort Zones

08 April 2017

The Shakedown Cruise Begins!

8 April 2017

Aboard Petronella -- a META built Joshua 40 -- in Fort de France harbor in Martinique.

That would be our Joshua 40. Or at least half ours. The whole boat will be ours once we reach the Bahamas.

So, yes, we've done it. Despite the 143 obstacles thrown in our path by a half dozen bureaucracies in at least four countries, we've made it at last.

We flew down from chilly Miami this morning, met John and Gill at the dinghy dock, enjoyed the humid tropical heat while ferrying 150 lbs. of charts, cruising guides, sight reduction tables, my old fashioned sextant and Walker trailing log, foul weather gear, heavy duty offshore harnesses and tethers, and lots of other gear. Enough stuff for a 1200 nm. voyage up the leeward side of the island chain to the BVIs, then onwards to the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, to Lake Worth, FL.

Exciting. A bit terrifying. Just a bit.

I hope we can handle it. I think we can. We will soon find out...

We set sail tomorrow.

Next Up:  Getting Our Sea Legs

19 March 2017

A Sailing Romance

If buying a sailboat is like falling in love, then having an insurance agent in the middle of the courtship is like bringing a lawyer along on each date. It's the opposite of romance.

Insurance woes also make for pretty dull reading, so I won't spend too much time on it, other than to discuss a few issues I've never seen mentioned anywhere else.

First, no American company seemed interested in insuring an older steel boat. I'm not sure whether it was the age or the material that bothered them, but certainly the combination was toxic. I never got past first base with the Americans.

On the other hand, a famous British marine insurance company had no problem with an older steel boat, but they didn't like me at all. Specifically, they didn't like that the largest boat I'd owned previously was a 28-foot Southern Cross. They didn't think I could handle a 40-foot boat.

"But I know loads of people who own boats they can't handle," I protested to my insurance agent.

"I know, I know," she said. "And I have many clients who would not qualify for insurance -- if they were applying today. The rules have gotten much stricter in the last few years, and you are trying to break the 10-foot rule."

"What's that?"

"The rule against buying a boat that's more than 10 feet longer than what you've owned before," she said.

"That's a rule? So if I was looking at a 36-foot boat?"

"No problem. I could write the insurance this afternoon."

"But we have spent the last few years getting experience on bigger boats -- sailing a thousand miles down the coast of Brazil, sailing the Caribbean, crossing the English Channel..."

"Sorry, that doesn't count. They weren't your boats."

"What if we got ASA certified?" I asked.

"Wouldn't make any difference."

So Romeo could marry Juliet today, but break the 10-foot rule? Taboo!

Even worse, we were trying to buy a boat in Martinique -- there was no way even a famous British marine insurance company would give us coverage outside the US and Bahamas.

Nevertheless, I persisted. There must be some way through this thicket of senseless rules, I thought. And I was right. Eventually my (genuinely helpful) insurance agent and I found the way. At least I think we have. I still don't have final approval, but we are close. Very close.

Briefly, for the benefit of others who might try to break the 10-foot rule, here is the compromise we worked out:

First, we had to have the Joshua delivered to the US or Bahamas by an 'approved operator'. That's insurance lingo for an experienced delivery crew. If we were buying a super yacht, that would have been a small detail, but hiring a delivery crew would have raised the cost of the more reasonable Joshua by at least 50%. Talk about romance killer.

That's why the current owner's offer to deliver the boat to the Bahamas was so important. Our insurance company was fine with giving us coverage for a one-time passage from Martinique to the Bahamas, as long as Captain Gill was in command.

And the experience we would gain by sailing with Gill and John on the 1200 mile passage would help us get over the experience hurdle. We would use the long passage to learn how to handle the Joshua, and then prove our new-found competence to an independent 'checkout' captain in the Bahamas. Once he or she signed us off as 'competent', we'd be over the 10-foot gap and free to sail the boat ourselves.

So that's the plan: buy the Joshua in Martinique, sail her to the Bahamas with the current owners, learn as much as we can along the way, and get signed off. It seems a bit absurd, but that's 2017 for you. Romance may be eternal, but rules and regulations are ever changing, and we must, it seems, change with them.

Helena and I are just back yesterday from St. Lucia, surveying the sturdy Joshua. More on that adventure, next time...

Next Up:  The Shakedown Cruise Begins!

11 March 2017


After 'discovering' Bernard Moitessier's Joshua 40 (see previous post), I quickly found that the famous boat had become as popular in France as the Westsail 32 had become in the States.

Meta, the shipyard that built the original Joshua, went on to launch over 70 of them -- not up to Westsail standards, but a respectable run for any production sailboat.

Back in October, when I began my search, there were three on the market: one in Europe, one in Martinique, and one in Rhode Island. Since Helena and I were in Florida by then, none were close enough for a casual look. Besides, we were still hoping to find an Ingrid we liked.

Ironically, it was the owner of one of the Alajuela Ingrids who kicked my interest to the next level. He had actually been aboard a Joshua and — though he laughed at some of its features ("It was built like a submarine, with round deck hatches and watertight bulkhead doors!") — the enthusiasm in his voice only fanned my interest.

From the original Joshua plans

The Martinique Joshua seemed especially well equipped for long range cruising. Her British owners, John and Gill, had crossed the Atlantic in her. I wanted to see her, but I was reluctant to spend a thousand dollars on a plane ticket just to look at a boat that, realistically, was probably too big for Helena and me to handle. Then, unexpectedly, we had to return to the New York area, and we grabbed the chance to see the Rhode Island Joshua.

We arrived dockside after dark, just as the first snowflakes of the year began to fall. Floating on the black, oily water, she did indeed look enormous, but I could see right away that she had most of the features I was looking for: a split rig to keep the mainsail under 400 square feet, a main mast stepped at deck level, and moderate freeboard.

But mainly, it was a feeling. Here was a ship that could take us literally anywhere. Greenland? Gladly. Patagonia? No problem.

"How about someplace warm, like Tahiti?" said Helena, shivering beside me.

"Ha! Bernard took his Joshua on her shakedown cruise to French Polynesia!"

Helena's teeth were chattering, so I wisely bundled her off the frozen dock, down the road to a warm pub, to thaw her out with a glass of mulled wine.

The next morning we returned for a closer inspection. I'd forgotten to plug in my phone, so couldn't take many photos, but the short video below captures the moment.

We climbed aboard, unlocked her round hatch ("It is like a submarine!"), and climbed down the ladder to check out her accommodations. When we emerged an hour later, the snow had turned to an icy drizzle. Helena held an umbrella over us as I closed and locked the hatch.

"So, what do you think?" she asked.

I looked longingly at that long, slush-covered deck, seeing not a grey, northern harbor beyond the lifelines, but an azure bay with waving palm trees along the shore.

An icy rain drop in my eye brought me back to reality.

"She's too big," I said. "Probably."

Back in Florida, I sent an email to John and Gill.

"She's too big for us," I told them. "We could never sail her home from Martinique."

Well, maybe we could have, but my insurance agent thought otherwise. I'd checked, just to make sure.

"She's too big a jump from the boats you've owned before. Maybe if she was in the Bahamas," she said. "But Martinique? No way."

And that was that, I thought. We'd just have to look for another 'interesting ' boat.

And then, the next day, we got another email from John and Gill.

"What if we sailed with you?" they asked. "To the Bahamas?"

There was only one way to find out. I dialed my insurance agent...

Next Up: A Sailing Romance

05 March 2017

Catching Up

First off, sorry for the long absence. My dear old mom fell ill last spring and Helena and I spent the majority of last year in Florida, taking care of her and making sure her last days were as easy and comfortable as possible. She passed away peacefully on the 13th of February, still in her own home, surrounded by friends and family. She was 84 good years old. 

In the meantime, Helena and I sold our house back in Huntington, and sold our beloved Blue Moon. Yes, the Blue Moon sold to a gentleman named Oren from New England. He will be sailing her up to New Hampshire in the spring, so she will make it a bit further up the coast. Hopefully Oren will eventually sail her up to Maine and fulfill my dream of sailing her up the whole northeast coast of the US. But she's Oren's dream now. Fair winds, Blue Moon!

Helena and I have also been searching far and wide for our next boat. We've been looking for the perfect blue water boat. Perfect for us, of course, not perfect for everyone, which is not possible. 

So what were we looking for?

Well, if you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know I have a soft spot for Atkin boats. We were originally looking for a wooden 38-foot Ingrid - a classic Atkin double ender, based on the seaworthy and sea kindly Colin Archer designs. 

I actually looked at several real Colin Archers, but they were designed to survive North Sea gales, and thus are very conservatively rigged gaff ketches.

Typical Colin Archer
The Atkins updated the Colin Archer designs to make them faster and handier, and the Ingrid is, in my eyes, a fabulous boat.

Alas, there are few wooden Ingrids left in the world, and we couldn't find one that suited us. No matter, Ingrids were built in fiberglass by several builders, including Blue Water and Alajuela. We looked at a half-dozen Alajuelas and for a while I thought we had found out boat, but in the end, I couldn't pull the trigger on a plastic boat. It just didn't stir my heart sufficiently. It just wasn't interesting enough.

So where to look for an interesting boat? And what about the old Chinese curse: "May you buy an interesting boat." We had to be careful.

Around this time, I happened to stumble across an old book in a used bookstore. It was called The Long Way, and was written by a famous French sailor named Bernard Moitessier. It was the story of the first around the world solo sailboat race. Probably the most famous race of all time. The one that Robin Knox-Johnston won in his wooden, 32-foot Atkin Eric. A boat made so famous by the race that someone in California decided to build them in fiberglass. The builder called them Westsail 32s. You might have heard of them. There were hundreds built and they launched the modern long-range cruising era.

Knox-Johnston's Suhaili
I'd read Knox-Johnston's book long ago. It was a story of seamanship, survival, and endurance. His boat was strong enough, and seaworthy enough to survive months in the Southern Ocean, but barely. It was a hard, tough sail that made both the boat and the man famous. Suhaili was the only boat to cross the finish line in England. Knox-Johnston 'won' the race.

Moitessier's race was very different. His 40-foot Joshua ketch was built from steel and designed for long distance sailing. She was at the same time more faithful to the Colin Archer hull design, and yet somehow more modern than Eric, which was, after all, designed in the 20's.

With her longer waterline, Joshua was of course faster than Suhaili. She was also vastly more comfortable. While Knox-Johnston battled nature in the Southern Ocean to keep his boat afloat and moving forward, Moitessier practiced yoga on deck. Unlike Suhaili, Joshua had almost no gear failures. She did suffer a collision with a freighter that would have sank most wooden boats, but Moitessier repaired the damage at sea and carried on.

Moitessier's Joshua
Most famously, when Moitessier had rounded Cape Horn, and was headed north towards the finish line and and almost certain victory, he lost interest in the race, and turned south again, towards the Cape of Good Hope which he rounded for the second time. Instead of limping back to England, he sailed robustly on to Tahiti, sailing not once around the world, but one and a half times.

By the time I finished the book, I had one thought on my mind: surely here was an interesting boat. 

Moitessier's own Joshua was now in a museum in France. Had others been built? Were any still afloat? 

I started looking...

Next Up: Joshua

02 January 2017

A New Year

Well, here we are in a new year. New opportunities and new challenges. 2016 was a year of changes for Helena and me. We sold our beloved house, moved to Florida to care for my ailing mom, switched our main entrepreneurial focus from pianos and computers to writing, put the Blue Moon up for sale, and started looking for The Next Boat, in earnest.

Phew! Exhausting. How did we do all that? No idea.

But speaking of writing, Bob Bitchin and his team at Cruising Outpost magazine were nice enough to print a terrific review of "An Unlikely Voyage" in their Winter 2016-2017 Issue #17. CO, as people call it, is a cool magazine, and one I've enjoyed reading the last few years. It's all about real cruisers, cruising real boats, and keeping it real along the way. The articles are written by down-to-earth (or is it down-to-water?) folk who are actually out there having fun. With an emphasis on fun. I can't wait to get out there with them.

In the meantime, you now have a good reason to check out the magazine. The Winter issue is on your local newsstand today. Please pick up a copy, and let me know what you think of the review and the magazine!

'Cruising Outpost' Review

Well, I hope you had a good holiday and Santa brought you all the boating gadgets you wanted for the spring. I got a new stove-top espresso maker for my future boat, and have been practicing how to make a Starbucks Cappuccino. Not as easy as it sounds, but I'm addicted to them and need to be able to feed this addiction, even when far offshore. I'll divulge the recipe soon as I've mastered it.

The best cup of coffee in the world (IMHO) -- the Starbucks Cappuccino. Yum.
(No one is paying me to say this, BTW)

Speaking of Santa, all I really want for Christmas is your book review. If you've read "An Unlikely Voyage" and haven't left a review on Amazon.com yet, please do so. It would really help me out. Thanks!

And thanks for sticking around all these years. Hard to believe I've been noodling on this blog for so long. But I'm not done yet.

And wait until you see the boat we are looking at! Dang! But I need to keep that a secret until the deal is done.

Have a great, healthy, and prosperous New Year.

Next Up: Catching Up

07 December 2016

Strength vs. Strength

Here is a paradox I have been struggling with:

Bigger boats tend to have a slower, easier motion, which means they are less tiring to sail, and you collect fewer banged shins.

I know this from personal experience: Eric Forsyth's 42-foot Fiona has a much easier motion that my 23-foot Blue Moon, though they are both heavy displacement full keel boats. Being a passenger on Fiona is much less tiring than being a passenger on the Blue Moon.

Being a crew member, on the other hand, is a different story. Particularly when the wind begins to blow, and the waves begin to roll.

It's much easier/safer to move about on Fiona's deck, for example, simply because she's not being tossed about quite so much as the Blue Moon would in the same sea conditions.

But it is much more difficult to wrestle with Fiona's massive sails, compared to the Blue Moon's smaller ones. Tradition says a man can handle up to a 400 square foot sail. Fiona's main is 440 square feet, while the Blue Moon's is 170 square feet.

In a fresh breeze, that can mean the difference between 340 vs. 880 lbs of pressure on the sail. I can easily manage the Blue Moon's mainsail with a two-part purchase on the halyard, a three-part purchase on the sheet, and a bit of muscle power. Fiona on the other hand requires a heavy duty winch on the halyard, a multi-part purchase on the sheet, and she still tested my limits of strength and endurance when it came time to reef her in a blow.

And while the Blue Moon's mainsail can be worked at deck level, reefing Fiona requires climbing on top of a tall cabin top (from a deck that is already much higher above sea level), and often standing on tip-toe to pull down a stuck slide. That difference in height means a lot when the boat is trying to pitch you into the sea. More scary/fatiguing, not less.

There's still time to order an autographed copy (or two!) of An Unlikely Voyage as a Christmas gift for you or your best friend.
Order your copy today!

And of course Fiona's sails were made of much stiffer stuff than the Blue Moon's. Short fingernails are recommended in either case, but there were times I just couldn't get a decent grip on Fiona's main. It seemed as flexible as carbon steel.

And that's not even mentioning Fiona's massive, polled-out genoa, which I called the Monster. Any adjustment of that sail meant many minutes of nearly impossible work on a pitching, rolling deck.

All in all, I would say it is much more tiring to be a member of Fiona's crew, than the Blue Moon's.

So where is the balance point? Where does the fatigue caused by the more tiring motion of a small boat balance with the more exhausting labor required by a big boat?

And how do other factors affect the balance?

For example, a ketch typically has smaller sails, which make it easier to handle them individually, but there are more of them. Where do they balance?

A flush deck makes it possible to work the sails at deck level, but would that advantage be counter-balanced by reduced ventilation? Does ventilation really matter at sea? Eric would never let us open the ports or hatches anyway!

So if Fiona is too big (and she is, at least for me) and the Blue Moon is too small, then where is the balance?

It's a paradox...

Next Up: A New Year

02 December 2016

Let's Go Exploring

“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” — Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes

So, what's next? What's next?

That is the question our friends and family ask us. What's next?

Helena and I have different approaches to this decision. She is very much the sailor at heart: "Let's see where the wind blows... Don't worry too much about it."

I've always thought of myself as goal-oriented. I want to plan everything. Choose the perfect destination. Choose the perfect boat to get us to the perfect destination.

Helena has another word for it: control freak.

I suspect the correct answer is somewhere in the middle. In sailing, we get to pick our wind. To wait for the right slant that will carry us where we want to go. Or to trick the wind -- judo-like -- to take us there. But where is 'there'?

At the moment, because of my mom's recent illness, we are self-marooned on Florida's Gold Coast. Not a bad place to be stuck in winter, but...

We will probably stick to the east coast of the US for at least a year. That will give us time to tend to my mom, to find a boat, to make any needed repairs or changes, and -- with any luck -- to take a long shake-down cruise in the spring.

After that, we shall see which way the wind is blowing.

With that loose, hopefully sailor-like goal in mind, we are currently looking for a ship that will allow us to follow the wind wherever it blows. Or I should say, I am looking. Obsessively.

"Don't worry too much about it," says Helena. "We'll know her when we find her."

Some things never change.

Next Up: Strength vs. Strength

25 November 2016

Blue Moon Yawl for Sale

Tom Gilmer designed Blue Moon Yawl
Image by Pauline Chiarelli

The Tom Gilmer-designed Blue Moon Yawl is a comfortable, round-bottom, full keel ocean cruiser with accommodations for two. It was the boat Tom designed and built for himself after WWII. The original model was built in Norway and is still sailing strong in the Pacific Nortwest. This particular Blue Moon is featured in the book: "An Unlikely Voyage -- 2000 miles alone in a small wooden boat". Priced for quick sale at $5,000 firm.

Sorry, but the Blue Moon has SOLD.

LOD: 23.00' / 7.01m
LWL: 20.00' / 6.10m
Beam: 8.50' / 2.59m
SA: 410 ft2 / 38.09 m2
Draft: 4.00' / 1.22m
Displacement: 8050 lbs./ 3651 kgs.
Ballast: 2300 lbs. / 1043 kgs.
SA/Disp: 16.38
BA/Disp:  28.57%
Disp/Len: 449.22

Available for viewing in Huntington, NY. Please call (631) 327-4373 or email me for details.

Construction: Strip planked with Douglas Fir planking on laminated frames.

- Gaff main (3 seasons)
- Topsail (lightly used)
- Foresail on boom (used)
- Yankee Jib (3 seasons)
- Lug mizzen (lightly used)

Also included are several used sails, including a mainsail.

Engine: Yamaha T9.9 long shaft outboard with winter stand and Yamaha shop manual. Excellent condition.

Accommodations: Starting from bow,
- Forecastle with portapotty and storage for lines, etc.
- Fixed bunk to starboard, storage under
- Bench for two with sitting headroom
- Pipe berth over bench
- Galley with shelves for dishes (set of 4 included with boat.)
- Storage under bridgedeck

- Tiller pilot
- Origio alcohol stove
- Folding seat cushions (West Marine)
- Spare rope for rigging
- Canvas winter covers
- Full set of plans
- 33 lb Lewmar claw anchor with rode/chain main
- 22 lb Lewmar claw anchor with rode/chain kedge

Cockpit with two large scuppers and two large drains

Profile - rigged as cutter
Full keel with attached, aft-hung rudder
Bottom and topsides painted Fall 2016
Wide bunk to starboard with 4" mattress
Very comfortable pipe berth to port. Best sea berth.

Sitting headroom on port side bench
Porta-potty and storage forward of the mast 
Galley with lots of stowage and dish rack with dishes for four.
Dish rack under construction - now installed in galley
Fuse panel, battery monitor, and 12V utility socket
Mast inspected and painted Fall 2016

New bowsprit 2015, new boomkin 2013
Featured in 2016 book by the owner
An Unlikely Voyage

Next Up: Let's go exploring

24 November 2016

The Itch

And now a word from Helena...

No-see-ums, sand flies, biting midges, punkies.

AKA the black plague of Florida.

Florida. You arrive in paradise. Take a deep breath. Relax. Take a long sip of that tropical drink or even better, a chilled Pinot Grigio (I always, always think of that rhyming with Topo Gigio). Lay down a beach towel, and let the sun wash away your worries. (What worries? You’re on vacation!)

You almost reach a state of blissful unconsciousness, when you notice a little red bump on your ankle (it’s always the ankle.) It starts itching — just a bit. So slightly that you just niggle it with your fingernail, scratching oh so gently.

Before you notice, that one bump becomes red, raised, yellowish and it itches like hell. You scratch some more. Too late. You jump in the pool to see if it will go away. Too late, too late. It’s started.

The next red dot is close to the first one, the third one somewhere around the other two. It seems that there is a parallel, mirrored disaster happening on the other ankle. Your nails tear at your skin. Now blood is running down the sides of your feet. It doesn’t matter, the scratching consumes all your energy, all your thoughts. It is exhausting, orgasmic and painful.

You run to the medicine cabinet, grab some cortisone ointment, dab some on, heck no, squeeze half a tube on it. No good. Just a moment of relief that expires before the cap is back on the tube.

You try antihistamine. No good. How about some alcohol? Nope. Maybe you should drink some. You run to the fridge, get a cold bottle of vodka. Some for the wound, some for you. You feel a moment of relief, then, nope, it’s back.

Whilst trying to cure the first crop of bumps, you notice that they are propagating,  popping up on your arms, that inaccessible part of your back (and you thought they couldn’t bite through your linen shirt! Ha!), even your forehead. Your forehead???

The Internet is full of good advice to stop the itch, the madness.

Compresses of baking soda, lemons, salt, aloe vera, minced onions or garlic, tooth paste. You try them all. Nothing works.

You try a thick paste of Aveeno and water on your red and swollen ankles, then add half a bottle of Avon’s SkinSoSoft to make it more of a mess.

Mmmm, the first sign of relief. You smile, not sure if you should move, afraid your skin will move under the mixture and break the spell.

Time is ticking…

Wow, five minutes and you haven’t scratched yet. Ten minutes, twenty. Could this be the answer?

Damn! You feel the itch returning — creeping to the surface of the skin from deep inside, exploding on the surface with a new paroxysm of orgasmic, stinging, crawling itch.

You give up. Get drunk. Pass out.

Relief at last...

Happy Thanksgiving!

-- Helena

Next Up: Blue Moon for Sale

18 November 2016

What's Next?

“What have I gotten myself into this time?” 

We were fifteen miles offshore. It was dark--really dark. The west coast of Florida was off to the left, far over the horizon, so I couldn’t even see shore lights. All I could see was the black night all round us, and the occasional ghostly-white crest of a wave. 

And stars--a million stars. 

I was wedged into a corner of the cockpit. I was comfortable, but not too comfortable. It had been a long time since I’d slept properly, but now wasn’t the time to nod off, tempted though I was. 

The wind was still blowing hard enough to need a reef in the main and, with fifteen miles between us and the coast, there was plenty of room for the wind to blow up four-foot seas. They rolled in from the port quarter (left rear corner of the boat), but the Blue Moon didn’t seem bothered by them. She rose lightly and let them slip under her keel without fuss. The sheet-to-tiller steering gear held us on a steady course. I was as relaxed as I’d been so far on the voyage. My little boat was taking care of me for now--perhaps just paying me back for all the loving care Helena and I had lavished on her. 

I cast a wary glance towards our only company: a large container ship several miles off the starboard beam, also heading south. I wasn’t worried about her. We were roughly following the three fathom line on the chart. The big ship and her sisters stayed in the shipping lanes and wouldn’t venture into shallow water just to run us down. As long as we stayed out of their way, we’d be fine. 

Someone once said that there are only two wildernesses left on earth: the tops of mountains, and the sea. That night, as we rolled along under reefed main and staysail, watching the tip of the mast draw figure eight’s in the star-filled sky, I understood what he meant. The sea hadn’t changed since the pirate Jean Laffitte roamed these waters in his schooner La Diligent in the early 1800s, and the Blue Moon wasn’t all that different from Laffitte’s ship. We had the same amount of electrical power, for instance. That is to say, none, except for the small amount I managed to generate by solar power. Just like Laffitte, most of the lights we had on board were oil lamps. And like the furtive pirate, we weren’t showing any running lights, except for a kerosene light hanging from the mizzen mast. 

The Coast Guard, I knew, would take a very dim view of this arrangement. I hadn’t seen a Coast Guard boat since arriving in Florida, but I wouldn’t let us get caught offshore at night again until I had a full set of running lights installed. 

Wind, waves, stars, the gentle rolling of a good sea boat... what more could one ask for? 

A cup of tea, of course. Must drink something to stay awake. 

I soon had my gimbaled stove roaring. It was a delight to be out of the wind, down below, in my snug little cabin, while the Blue Moon steered us towards Tarpon Springs. Why were we the only boat out here on this beautiful spring night? Why didn’t everyone want to do this? At that moment, I couldn’t imagine...

-- From "An Unlikely Voyage"

The Blue Moon with five sails set.
Image by Pauline Chiarelli
Why doesn't everyone want to do this? I still can't imagine. And ever since I sailed the Blue Moon into Huntington Harbor -- with Cabin Boy trailing behind -- I've been thinking, "What's next? What's next?"

For awhile, I thought I had my answer: beef up the Blue Moon, sail her across the Atlantic to England, and race in the 2018 Jester Challenge back to Newport. Helena was initially all for it, but when she saw me start the long preparation for what would be -- let's face it -- a BIG adventure, she got jealous.

"You're going to spend another summer sailing without me?" she asked. "Why can't we do something together?"

Not having the word 'stupid' written across my forehead, I immediately agreed. We weren't sure what we would do, but we'd do it together. 

With Helena involved, my simple plan to sail across an ocean began to grow. Perhaps we would buy a boat in the Pacific Northwest, take her on a shake-down cruise to San Diego, and then onto the Galapagos, Easter Island, and southern Chile. Or perhaps we'd try for our bucket-list goal of sailing to Madeira (the only way to visit that famous isle.) 

Whatever the plan, it was clear we were looking at an adventure on a new scale. A long-term cruise. Two, maybe three years. It was time to make changes.

First we had to part with the love of our life, our amazing home in Huntington, NY. We quickly found a delightful couple from South Africa who promised to be her new caretakers, put our most precious belongings into storage -- to be reclaimed when we return to shore life -- and moved temporarily to FL. First step, done.

Second step is to find the perfect boat. But in the meantime, it is time for another parting -- to sell the loyal and gentle Blue Moon. Yes, she is the perfect small boat. But for our next adventure, we are going to need something bigger. So the Blue Moon is for sale. She of course needs no introduction to the readers of this blog, but I will be providing particulars in my next post. 

After fall 2016 haul out -- freshly painted topsides and bottom
She still needs a bit of painting -- I haven't had a chance to finish painting her deck -- but she has new topside and bottom paint, as well as all the work I've put into her in the last 6 years. I like to think she's in much better condition than when I bought her, and that's the most we wooden boat lovers can hope for. I will let her go for the same price I bought her: $5,000 (with a much better engine than she came with!) Her winter storage is paid through April.

If you are interested in more details, please email me or call me at (631) 327-4373. 


Next Up: The Itch

31 August 2016

Toying with Teardrops

No, I'm not crying, though it has been a hell of a summer. No, I'm toying with the idea of building a teardrop trailer. What is a teardrop trailer? It's a tiny camper with the slippery shape of a teardrop: small enough to be towed by a car, but big enough to hold a comfy mattress and a galley bigger than I've seen in many sailboats.

Teardrop trailer camping
I've been thinking how cool it would be to build one for several years, but never had the time. Then Helena casually mentioned that she'd always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, and I saw Chesapeake Light Craft's kit version at this year's WoodenBoat Show.

CLC's take on the teardrop
That got me thinking about must-have design elements. This is what I've come up with so far:
  1. Simple enough to build myself with the tools I currently own (and maybe one or two more ;-)
  2. Big enough for a queen-size mattress. That means a 5'x8' bed trailer, rather than the more common 4'x8' version.
  3. Doors on each side, rather than a door on one side and a window on the other.
  4. A waterproof, overhead ventilation fan
  5. The rear shaped so as to make the galley counter reachable without banging shins constantly!
You'd think all teardrops would be designed to make the galley easy to use, but from looking at many photos, its clear that the builder and cook are different people in most teardrop camping families! Not so in mine. Think ahead!

If you've built a teadrop, please drop me a line or leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about your experiences and see some photos too!

Next Up: What's Next?

21 June 2016

Wooden Boat Show

I'll be heading off to the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic this weekend (Fri-Sat), to look at boats, to learn a few new things, and most importantly to meet new people.

Because Helena and I are trying to choose our next Big Adventure, I'm especially interested in meeting people who have gone adventuring on a wooden boat, whether it was a 50-foot schooner, or a 13-foot dinghy.

The ultimate adventuring boat
We have lots of questions. Big adventure, or small? Big boat, or small? Where to go? On the well-beaten trade wind path, or to the far corners of the Earth, where few boats travel? Go simple, or with every modern gadget known to man? Is a wooden boat still practical for voyaging (there are very few out there, from all accounts) or is plastic (yuck) the only viable alternative?

Actually, we have a list of 247 questions, but I won't bore you with them here. My point is, if you've been out there yourself, are going to the show, and would like to chat for a bit, shoot me an email at john@unlikelyboatbuilder.com, or text me at (631) 327-4373, and let's get together.

I promise I won't ask all 247 questions.

By the way, the Wooden Boat Store is now carrying my book, "An Unlikely Voyage". They should have a limited number of copies in their booth at the show. If you'd like me to autograph your copy at the show, just shoot me an email or text. I'd be happy to meet up with you.

Hope to see you there!

What I look like, in case you see me at the show.
Next Up: Toying with Teardrops

19 May 2016

Good As It Gets?

My original motivation for building an astrolabe was to brush up on my celestial navigation. This is a skill that quickly fades if you don't practice, and I was definitely out of practice. But after a week or two of doing the calculations, I'm back to speed. Yesterday it took me about 15 minutes to 'clear' the three sights, and plot the 'cocked hat' on a plotting sheet.

So as a form of practice, building an astrolabe is both fun and useful. Highly recommended.

Now, I started off knowing that I could only expect so much accuracy from such a crude instrument, but naturally I wanted to get the most precision possible. Partly, that involved learning what corrections I should and shouldn't apply to the sights -- the corrections are different from those needed for sights taken with a sextant. But it also involved learning how to use the astrolabe itself in the most effective way possible. I think I've now done that, and yesterday's sights are probably about as good as it's going to get.

As discussed previously, to get the most accurate sights with an astrolabe, you need to keep the face of the instrument as parallel to the rays of the sun as possible. If they are directly parallel, then the gnomon will not cast a shadow on the face, so you must turn the face ever so slightly towards the sun. This allows the gnomon to cast a shadow, but also increases the reading slightly.

I say slightly, but even a quarter of a degree will throw your readings off by 15 miles.

Anyway, I did my best with yesterday's sights. Here are the raw data, and the plotted LOPs:

11:40:17     21° 30'
15:15:47     61° 30'
20:44:50     35° 30'

The date was 18 May 2016. All times in GMT.

Best you can do with a homemade Astrolabe?

This time, the cocked hat was to the north of my actual position, and the 'fix' was roughly 50 nm away.

Reminding ourselves that an error of 1 degree will throw the fix off by 60 miles, and that the resolution of the instrument is about 1 degree, I believe this is about the best you can hope for with such a simple device.

I think Magellan would have been thrilled with such precision, and it is certainly good enough for practicing your CelNav calculations, which are the hard part of doing celestial navigation.

It's also ideal, I think, for someone who wants to learn CelNav, without the expense of buying a sextant.

However, I actually own a sextant, so the next time the Sun cooperates, I am going to try the 'pan of dark liquid' trick of taking a sextant sight in your backyard, just to compare the results.

I hope this series of blog posts has inspired at least a few readers to try it themselves. Let me know if you have any questions about building your own astrolabe, or doing the calculations!

Next Up: Wooden Boat Show

18 May 2016

First Mark II Results

Over the weekend, I built a second astrolabe -- the Mark II -- to make it possible to take more accurate sightings. The Sun cooperated on Monday and I was able to take morning, midday, and afternoon sights. If you are interested in working the sights yourself, here is the raw data. Times are in GMT:

11:40:17       21° 30'
15:15:47       61° 30'
21:01:50       33°  0'

Actually, these are the average of sightings taken from both sides, to minimize any lopsidedness in the device.

You can use my actual location for the DR location: 40° 51' N, 73° 24' W.

If you plot the resulting Lines of Position (LOPs), you will get this interesting picture:

Test of Mark II Astrolabe
Like the test of the Mark I astrolabe, the plotted position is south and west of my actual position. In this test, the location was 90 miles off. 'Not bad for such a crude instrument', some might say, but annoyingly, it is much worse than the result obtained with the Mark I instrument.

Test of Mark I Astrolabe
What gives?

I'm not sure, but I have one theory to test. Both plots have similar shapes, and both results are skewed mainly to the south. I suspect that, in a misguided attempt to position the point of the gnomon on the scale, I am turning the astrolabe too far away from the Sun. As the video in my previous post demonstrated, turning the astrolabe away increases the altitude reading, which pushes the result to the south (the sun is higher in the sky as you move south in northern latitudes.)

The next time the Sun cooperates, I will turn the astrolabe away from the Sun just enough to see the gnomon's shadow. This will yield the most accurate result possible with this type of astrolabe, I believe.

I have an idea for the Mark III astrolabe which could completely eliminate this source of error. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to build it! More on that idea next time.

Next Up: As Good As It Gets

16 May 2016

Astrolabe Mark II

I had some exciting news last week: the WoodenBoat Store will soon be carrying my book, "An Unlikely Voyage". The store is run by WoodenBoat Publications -- the same company that brings us WoodenBoat Magazine, the WoodenBoat School, and the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic, CT. I'm really proud they are carrying it. The book is not in stock yet, but will be soon... probably in a few weeks.

Next, I spent a lot of time last week experimenting with the Astrolabe Mark I -- enough to discover some serious flaws that I wanted to fix before moving on. The biggest problem being the shape, diameter and length of the center post.

The most obvious flaw was the post's diameter. It was too wide. Wide enough so its shadow was two degrees wide on the scale. I took my first set of sights by taking readings from where I thought the center of the shadow was, but clearly that was just a guess. I then tried to improve the center post by grinding the end into a point. But that had its own problems, illustrated in the video below...

Note to self: always take videos in landscape mode!

Anyway, after grasping the fundamental flaw in the center post, I decided to build a better astrolabe: the Astrolabe Mark II!

The main feature of the Mark II is a short, thin center post, made from a 3-penny nail. The short post means the astrolabe is pointed closer to the sun when the post's sharp point is positioned on the scale.

Mark II Astrolabe with short, thin center post
The thin nail wasn't strong enough to mount the disk on, so I moved the mounting post to the top of the astrolabe, drilling a hole right on the 90 degree mark.

The weight, again, was mounted on the bottom. The top-mount gives the weight more leverage, so it doesn't have to be as heavy.

Astrolabe is now mounted at the top, rather than the center
The other improvement I mean to try this week was suggested by Philip Sadler: to "measure the sun's shadow by turning your instrument around to face the other direction and take another reading, averaging the two. This should remove some of the systematic error due to placement of the pivots."

To facilitate this double reading, I found a scale that goes from 0 to 90 degrees on both the right and left sides. That way I can take direct readings on both sides, without having to do any math. With a better astrolabe and Philip's improved technique, I expect much better results this week. If only the sun will cooperate!

Next Up: Mark II Astrolabe Results

12 May 2016

First 'Fix'

Last time, I built a very simple astrolabe to take some sun sights I could use to practice my celestial navigation (CelNav) calculations. So how did it perform?

I took four sights at 08:37, 13:25, 15:32, and 16:42 EDST. Since it was a partly cloudy day, I had to run out whenever I noticed the sun beaming brightly. Pretty much the same way you'd have to grab your sights onboard a small boat.

On a small boat, you could use these readings -- taken at different times of the day -- to generate a running fix. Since my backyard was seriously becalmed, I was saved the labor of 'advancing' the fixes from one time to the next, so the plotting was fairly simple.

To calculate the lines of position from the sights, I used the StarPath forms. All CelNav calculation forms are more or less the same; they differ in how they are organized. The StarPath forms are well organized, which helps when you aren't doing the calculations every day.

Here are the calculations for the first sight:

calculations for 08:37 sight
And here are the Lines of Positions (LOP) plotted for all four sights:

Plotted lines of position
As always, you can click on the images to get a closer look.

So, what are we looking at? First, the LOPs are labeled with their times, like 'LP 0837'. To make them easier to pick out, I've colored them red.

You can see that LPs 0837, 1325, and 1642 create a rather large 'cocked hat'. If you look closely inside the triangle, you will also see a dot surrounded by a circle. That is the plotted location of my backyard. I used geometry to locate the center of the cocked hat, and discovered it was a mere 8 nautical miles from my home.

Wow, right? From a crude, home-made astrolabe? Amazing!

Not so fast.

The good news: Yes, all the lines of position were in fact in the general vicinity of my actual position. That is, they were not in Kansas or Kyoto. Two of them (0837 and 1642) passed within five miles. But the 1325 line was almost 30 nm away. Not great.

Also, not surprising. If you look closely at the astrolabe, you will note that the shadow cast by the gnomon (the technical name for the center post) is 2 degrees wide. There are 120 minutes in 2 degrees, and each minute represents a potential error of 1 nautical mile. The only surprise is that the cocked hat is as small as it actually is!

Shadow cast by gnomon is 2 degrees wide!
Adding to the potential error was the fact that I only recorded the time to the nearest minute. If I remember correctly, the sun moves something like 16 miles in a minute.

However, I wasn't going for accuracy with this first set of readings. I was just hoping to see an observed position somewhere in my general neighborhood. I've definitely got that. Now it's time to refine my technique, and maybe even my astrolabe.

Next Up: Astrolabe Mark II