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:

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

09 May 2016

Backyard CelNav

Thinking about the Jester Challenge has renewed my interest in celestial navigation. Not only does CelNav (as I will call it) excite my inner math nerd, it somehow seems to fit well with the whole idea of the voyage. Of course I will bring a GPS with me -- I'm not stupid -- but working up a noon position in the traditional way would not only be satisfying, it will keep me busy for part of the day.

For a large part of the day, at my current rate of calculation!

I've been slowly working my way through a new book called "Hawaii by Sextant", by David Burch and Stephen Miller. David is the director of the Starpath School of Navigation, while Stephen is their lead instructor in celestial navigation. As the sub-title of the book says, it's "an in-depth exercise in Celestial Navigation using real sextant sights and logbook entries."

In a nutshell, you use the logbook data to plot your DR (dead reckoning) track, then use the Sun, Moon, planet, and star sights to calculate a fix, and thereby work your way across the Pacific. I personally find it a fascinating and very challenging way to practice CelNav and -- perhaps more important -- dead reckoning. I thought I was reasonably good at both. I'm glad I discovered just how bad I was before leaving for Plymouth!

Anyway, highly recommended if you have any interest in navigation beyond your chart plotter, but after spending a great deal of time this weekend finding out why my latest workbook problem so very wrong -- and learning quite a lot in the process -- I got the hankering to take some backyard sights of my own.

One problem: unless you have a sextant with an artificial horizon attachment (I don't) or are willing to set up a pool of motor oil (a method of creating an artificial horizon... nope, not for me), there's no way to take a sight in your backyard, unless your backyard happens to contain a beach.

Or is there?

This line of thought lead me to whip together a simple astrolabe in the shop last night.

The first step was to print out a suitably nautical looking compass, and glue it to a board. I used a spray-on adhesive and MDF, but anything will do.

Compass glued to board

After letting the glue dry, I cut out the compass. You can use your bandsaw if you have one, or a jigsaw, or a coping saw. I used a coping saw and got a little exercise as a bonus.

Cut out compass
Next I drilled a hole in the center, a bit larger than the #6 machine screw that I found in my junk box. I wanted the disk to be able to rotate freely on the screw, without any wobble. The screw must be long enough to stick out an inch or two from the center of the compass.

I found a stick in my junk wood box, drilled a hole in one end, and mounted the compass to it using the aforementioned screw, a few washers, and a nut. I hand-tightened the nut so the compass turned smoothly.

Compass mounted on stick
Then I drilled a pilot hole for a small wood screw, exactly on the 90 degree mark. I then screwed in the round-head screw, leaving enough of the shaft out of the hole to hang a weight from a string.

The idea is to use gravity to align the astrolabe so 90 degrees is straight down. In effect, this creates your artificial horizon, automatically, even if your house is surrounded by trees, as mine is.

That's it!

This morning I went outside to take my first morning sun sight. Lucky for me, it was a nice bright morning.

First morning sun sight
As you can see, when you line up the astrolabe with the edge pointing towards the sun, the tall center post casts a shadow across the compass, allowing you to read the sun's altitude (Hs, in CelNav lingo) directly from the scale.

If you use your phone's camera to take the shot, you will not only record the angle, you will also record the time. In my case, 31.4 degrees (my estimate) at 8:37 watch time (EDT.)

This afternoon, weather gods permitting, I will take an afternoon sight and thus be able to work out a running 'fix' on my home's position.

Obviously, accuracy is going to be limited, but the calculations required are the same whether the sight is accurate or not, so the practice is the same.

Next time, I'll show the plotting and calculations required to work the sight.

Next Up: First Fix

29 April 2016

Why Did You Buy Taleisin?

This week, I have something really special to share -- a guest post by Eben Bruyns, the new owner of Taleisin -- Lin and Larry Pardy's famous boat.

Eben and I met through my blog and discovered we have many things in common: a background in computer science, a love of wooden boats, and the sheer luck of having amazing partners. 

After hearing a bit of his story of buying Taleisin, I asked him if he'd be willing to tell it the very first guest post on the Unlikely Boatbuilder blog. I'm very happy to say he agreed.

So, without further ado, I will turn it over to Eben who answers the first question most people ask about his new adventure:

Why Did You Buy Taleisin?

A simple question, often asked. The answer is not quite as simple.

Buying a boat like Taleisin seems like a rather strange thing to do. If you read the forums on the Internet, you'll see that people said she's an old wooden boat with no engine, no market for something like that. So why did we buy her?

Good question!

To answer, we need to go back in time a little. When I was younger I used to always look at motor yachts -- they look sleek and are loaded with technology. I'm a computer programmer/hacker so it makes sense that I'm attracted to technology. Sailing is archaic and for old guys with lots of time, not to mention that it takes forever to get anywhere. I got caught up in the rat race, worked some horrible jobs over the years, got taken advantage of by a few companies, and eventually started consulting. This is when I really started to burn the candle at both ends. When you're working for yourself you usually have the worst boss in the world. However, during the early years working as a consultant we took a vacation in Fiji and the resort had a couple of Hobie Cat boats that we could sail. I absolutely loved it! I couldn't get enough of it. But we returned to the real world and that experience faded into a distant memory.

After a few more years I was "successful". We had the huge house, the huge mortgage, and the house was filled with a huge pile of stuff. At this point I started setting my sights on a yacht. I was browsing the Internet and stared lusting after 57 foot production boats. Bigger is always better...

So the researching started. I was fairly committed to a large yacht. I started consuming information on the Internet. I'm a compulsive researcher, some say it's a blessing, others say it's a curse. I spent hours looking into what makes a good yacht. I started looking at building boats. It didn't seem all that complicated and would certainly be a fun project. Annie put a halt to that pretty quickly when I started measuring the garage to see if I could fit it in there and get it out. I looked at small dinghy plans and at something larger that would be nice to spend a weekend on. If your mind works like mine, it won't be long before you're at the extreme end of the scale. If at this point you're thinking, "This guy is all over the place", you're right! My mind will make huge leaps and race off into all sorts of different directions. Most people get exhausted when they have a conversation with me (I'm working on being less intense). If you've done any research on boats, and boats that can cross oceans (I was surprised at how small blue water boats can be), it won't take you long before you come across Lin and Larry Pardey.

It wasn't long before I was reading the Pardey books. Something changed inside me when I saw the simplicity and what's achievable on a small budget. I started to have new found existential questions. Why am I on this treadmill? It wasn't long before I realised that bigger is not better. Doing more research on yachts, now of the Pardey variety, it wasn't long before I realised that Taleisin was for sale. I couldn't believe it. The next question on my mind was, "Where is she?" Kawau Island, New Zealand! Checking Google maps, it's close, very close. I fired off an email to the broker stating that I'm interested and would like to have a look, I have a million questions, but without looking at her we won't know if she's right for us.

Arguably, the most famous sailboat in the world -- Taleisin
I knew that Lin and Larry wouldn't just sell her to anybody, so I approached it very open and honest. We have hardly any sailing experience, would they sell their baby to a couple of green horns? The broker responded with a reply from Lin, in the email was a phone number and email on which I could reach Lin. Me being a little more old fashioned grabbed the phone and gave Lin a call. I can't recall the exact conversation, but Lin said something along the lines of, "So you're thinking about becoming a sailor?" We talked for a while and she was just fantastic. She gave me a lot of good advice, I stated open and honestly that we don't know if Taleisin is right for us, but we sure would love to come and see her to figure out if she just might be the boat for us.

Lin invited us to Kawau Island for lunch and a tour of the lovely Taleisin. We arranged a date that was well in advance. To put things into perspective, I had managed to get Annie to agree to go to the on-water boat show a few months earlier. When I did this I was only wanting to have a look. I wasn't very serious, but knew I wanted to get more serious about buying a yacht. The boat show was the weekend before we were supposed to go and see Lin and Larry.

At the boat show I dragged poor Annie through all the yachts. She wasn't very happy as she's not very comfortable around water. She was apprehensive getting on the boats and wouldn't even go up on the foredeck as it was too narrow for her liking. After the show we talked about the various boats we'd been on. She honestly couldn't tell them apart. Annie's comment was, "they were all the same." She didn't like them very much. I'm talking about production Jeanneau, Beneteau, Bavaria, and Hanse boats to name a few. We looked at boats starting at 37 foot and moving up to 57 foot. I learnt just how large a 57 foot yacht is (trust me, it's WAY too big for 2 people). The one thing all these boats had in common was their stability, or lack of it. They were bouncing a lot just in the marina.

I patiently waited till we managed to make our way to Kawau. On the way there I said to Annie, "Now remember, this is an older boat and nothing like the boats we've been looking at". I later found out that Annie was secretly thinking that we're about to look at a rotting old boat needing a lot of work.

If you were familiar with our relationship dynamics, you would know that Annie leaves me to do all the homework but retains veto power. This allows me to research to my hearts content, get the decision 99% of the way there, and then let Annie decide if it's is right (I get vetoed a lot). This is very important because if she lets me, I'll make a lot of snap decisions that would probably all be wrong. It's great to be able to make a decision and then have it verified. It's sort of a safety net. In many ways Annie is my sanity check; with a mind like mine it's easy to go down rabbit holes and forget that there's a top side.

Coming into the cove going past Taleisin I pointed her out to Annie, she smiled and said, "now that's a NICE boat". I knew I had a fighting chance here! Getting off the ferry we made our way up to what can only be described as a magnificent little house with magical surroundings. We met Lin and Larry, and they were super friendly. Then Lin said, "Right, lets go play boat".

Off to Taleisin we went! I was quite excited as I had looked at all the photos I could find online. I had even purchased the 5 DVD's that Lin and Larry made (well the digital versions anyway). I had of course not told Annie how much research I had put into this. In fact I had watched the videos twice by then already. So getting on board this little ship was a very exciting prospect, even though I had already spent a lot of virtual time "aboard".

The first thing I noticed was how comfortable Annie was as soon as she got on deck. She was wandering around very naturally. I quietly mentioned to Lin how this is a first: Annie is NOT comfortable on boats. I was probably grinning ear to ear. Lin took us down below.

My first thoughts were, "Holy crap she's small"! Then we sat down in the saloon and Lin started telling us more about her and showing us all the awesome little details they had put into her. The more I looked, the more I saw. It didn't take me long to fall in love with her. I think it went something like this: "Holy crap she's small! Look at the detail, she's awesome. I LOVE this boat, I MUST have her!" It was seconds or less for me to fall in love with Taleisin. This is not the way to buy a boat! I had been warned. Lin even writes about this in her books. However, my fate was sealed. Lin showed us many things, many things I already knew from doing my homework. I asked what I hoped were many good questions. Lin was quite happy to answer them all, and I'm sure they were coming out rapidly. I don't doubt that I asked follow up questions before Lin could even finish answering the first question (remember I'm very exhausting to be around at times - I'm working on this).

After I exhausted Lin we went back on land for lunch and Lin asked us more about ourselves. I explained our current situation and how we're wanting to change it. Life is over complicated, we want to simplify. Taleisin is awesome, she can teach us about cruising and simplicity. I was again very open and honest about everything. Lin then asked Annie how she felt about it, Annie is quite a bit more reserved about things than I am. Lin could tell that Annie was mulling things over and not as quick to fire as I am. At this point Lin said she would take us out for a sail on Taleisin, but we would have to go and learn the basics first.

We bid Lin and Larry farewell and got on the ferry to go home. We talked about it all the way home and even all night. I said to Annie, I really love that boat, I don't know how you feel about her. Annie told me that Taleisin certainly stood out from the crowd. She had character and was something special. Annie could actually remember details from Taleisin, but had no memory of the production boats we'd seen at the boat show. After some to and fro Annie said, well if you love the boat so much, why don't you buy her?

I arranged for sailing lessons as soon as we could fit them in. Annie is a high school teacher and her schedule is very hectic. While all of this was going on, Annie had managed to arrange for me to go on a day sail on Steinlarger 2--an 83 foot off shore racing ketch--as part of a group of teachers. The arrangements were made long before we even knew we were going to buy Taleisin. While out sailing on Steinlarger 2, I remember thinking how glad I was that we didn't buy a bigger boat!

So I started down the path of putting in an offer. I knew the normal procedure for doing this as I'd been reading a lot of information on the Internet. However, this was not a normal situation (things hardly ever seems to be normal when I'm involved). I called Lin up and said "I'd like to buy Taleisin, but we have a few complications we need to sort out first..." I did what could only be described as the world's worst job of negotiating a price. I asked Lin what she'd be willing to accept and that was my offer! To many people, this might seem like a silly strategy, but in my view, buying a boat like Taleisin is something very special. I knew that I wanted to have a good relationship with Lin and Larry, and I certainly did not want them to feel like I had driven a hard bargain. This process took place over a few weeks, I had to get some finances sorted and we decided to put our house on the market so we could pay for Taleisin. Selling your house to buy a boat might seem like a strange thing to do. But it felt right. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that we could not allow to slip away. We had discussed this at length (even though I had already made my mind up within seconds of boarding Taleisin). After explaining the challenge ahead of myself to Lin (again probably not a very good strategy, but I believe in transparency and honesty), we came to an arrangement of a long settlement.

So after agreeing the whole deal with Lin, I put in an offer through the broker (remember how I said nothing is normal when I get involved). The whole process was rather straight forward since we'd already agreed on the terms. It was also very pleasant! The next step was to arrange the survey. I called around and asked many people who would be a good surveyor. Eventually someone told me Ray Beale is the best there is for this kind of boat. I called Ray up and arranged for him to come and survey Taleisin. I went out to Kawau to witness the survey. I arrived early so I could help Lin put Taleisin on the tidal grid (we had many phone conversations leading up to this).

Look at those lines... beautiful
After we put Taleisin on the tidal grid, I had to wait for Ray to arrive. Lin was kind enough to leave me to my own devices (maybe she was smart enough to know that I'd be firing a million questions her way if she was within earshot.) I was in and out of Taleisin, inspecting and investigating as much as I could. There's a LOT to investigate on Taleisin (I'm still learning about new things I didn't know about almost 18 months after I first set foot on her). From time to time Lin would come and check on us and I'd fire off a few questions, listening carefully to the answers so I can remember them.

I was super excited and it took the entire day. I asked a million questions, listening to everything Ray had to say, taking on board as much as I could and trying to short circuit the learning process by taking advantage of the decades of experience I was surrounded with. I'm very fortunate that my most important asset is my natural ability to learn, learn quickly and on the fly (it helps tremendously with the day job). I'm usually pretty good at applying things after that too. I talked to Ray after it was all done and we were back on the main land. The comment he made was something along the lines of, "You couldn't have picked a better boat of that construction if you tried".

So, pretty much knowing the survey would come back good, I was getting ready for the next step, the sea trial. I can't recall exactly when we had our sailing lessons, as with anything I'm learning I had already studied so much about sailing online and in books that by the time we had lessons I was well ahead of the class. I had a blast, the boat we learnt on was a 47 foot sloop. Again I recall thinking I'm glad we bought a smaller boat.

Eventually we went out for the sea trial. It was awesome. Everything on Taleisin is people-sized. Everything is simple and easy to handle. It took a while for us to get all our ducks in a row, but we were not backing out of the deal. Taleisin was ours; we just had to get all the pieces in the right place. I was reading internet forums well before I even saw Taleisin, I read all the things people posted on the forums but decided to make up my own mind. I have no doubt that there are a lot of people out there thinking that we paid too much for an old wooden boat with no engine, and those people are right - to them she is just an old wooden boat with no engine. To us, even though we were not sailors at the time, she was a magnificent creation. Built like nothing else, safe, simple, and pure joy to be aboard. Making things simple is not easy; Taleisin is simple, and that is very valuable.

Lin invited us to stay aboard Taleisin to see what it would be like to spend the night on her. I can't recall the exact order of events, but I do know we spent quite a bit of time staying on Taleisin on the mooring. It just felt right!

Taleisin contains 40+ years of real hardcore cruising experience. These are things we don't have to figure out for ourselves. Being able to pick up the phone and call Lin with questions is also very valuable. The price we paid for Taleisin was not just for an old wooden boat, we gained so much more out of the deal. In all honesty, Taleisin is worth a lot more than we paid for her in materials alone; the labour to build her is not even factored in.

There's a lot more space in Taleisin than I realised at first. This is a very big little boat. The photos and the videos of Taleisin does not do her justice. She's so much more in the flesh. Something else that's very nice about Taleisin is that she's alive. She has character. Her planks are infused with Lin and Larry's soul. When I look around her and touch her you can see and feel Lin and Larry everywhere. There's so much history, so many adventures. Being on board Taleisin is magical, I know it's still early days but I hope we can do her justice and add to her legacy. Taleisin will no doubt outlive both Annie and myself (she's that well constructed). All we have to do is look after her. We don't do anything lightly, we know the world has eyes on us. We want to do what's right for Taleisin, the thought of making holes in her pains both of us. We have not made any alterations to her. When we had her on the hard there were many tense moments (more about that in a future post). I know that Lin told me that she's our boat and we can do as we please with her, but when you own something that's got a soul it's difficult to do something that goes against her very being. We enjoy looking after her, being forced to think about things before we do them is a good thing.

Taleisin might not be perfect, but she's perfect for us!

Taleisin's new caretaker
And co-caretaker

Check out Eben and Annie's  new blog!

So that's it folks. I'm sure you'll agree its an amazing story, and join with me in thanking Eben for sharing it, and wishing Eben and Annie good luck and fair winds. 

You can follow their journey on their new blog: Taleisin -- Adventure Machine! Check them out and say hi!

Next Up: Backyard CelNav

26 April 2016

Staying Onboard (Part 3)

<< Part 2

Next to locking yourself in the cabin, you would think being in the cockpit would be your next safest bet. But as I've mentioned before, Robert Manry was washed overboard several times during his voyage across the Atlantic. Looking at Tinkerbell's cockpit, it's easy to see why.

Reporter swims over to Tinkerbell to conduct interview
By comparison, the Blue Moon's cockpit is a cocoon of safety. It has nice high bulwarks all around, and there are so many lines to grab onto -- including the strongly rigged running backstays on either side -- that I've usually felt very safe.

Ten miles off the west coast of Florida
In fact, Tom Gilmer designed the Blue Moon's cockpit for ocean sailing. It's actually not a cockpit at all. You sit on the deck with your feet in a small footwell. Those really are bulwarks around the deck. If pooped -- that is, if a wave broke over the stern and filled the cockpit with water -- two very large scuppers at deck level, plus two 2-inch drains in the footwell, would rapidly drain it, while the high bridge deck would keep the water out of the cabin.

Many blue water cruisers adopt this approach of sitting on deck. For example, the Westsail 32, has exactly the same layout: you sit on the deck with a small footwell for comfort, surrounded by high bulwarks.

Westsail 32 with sit-on-deck cockpit
These cockpits are not designed for comfort. There are no seat backs or coamings to lean your back against.  Other than the deckhouse, they provide no protection from wind or spray or rain. And it bears repeating: you are not sitting down in a cockpit; you are literally sitting on the deck.

It's easy to add comfort to the Blue Moon's cockpit. As you can see from the photo above, there is plenty of room for a nice fat, comfy chair -- self-steering lines not withstanding! In fact, lack of room is not the problem. Too much room is the problem.

Cockpit of Gilmer-designed Southern Cross 31
Because you are sitting on the Blue Moon's deck, instead of down in the deep cockpit of a Southern Cross 31, for example, its easy to get knocked around. The deck feels a bit too wide. You slide around. There's not enough to hold onto. When heeled over, if you are sitting to windward (as you should), when you look down at the water rushing by to leeward, you can't help noticing that there is nothing between your feet and the water but that 10-inch bulwark. No lifelines, no running backstay to grab onto, no nothing. I'm used to that view, but I must say that Helena and even some of my sailing friends, like Tony, find the openness a bit disconcerting.

So, there's that.

Also, there is the fact that the closest I've ever come to dying on a boat was in the safety of a deep center cockpit on a very large boat. So safe did that cockpit seem, and so experienced the captain, that it never occurred to me that I could be decapitated by an accidental gybe. But I nearly was.

So lets list the risks of being in the cockpit and see how they can be addressed.

Minimize the risk of being washed overboard
  • Add some strong padeyes to the deck and on the back of the cabin, and clip on before even leaving the companion way. Two harness lines -- one on either side, would be even better.
  • Add lifelines, just in case
  • Add pushpit (stern pulpit)
  • Add hand-holds 
  • Add foot-straps in the footwell
Minimize the risk of being knocked around like a pea in a can

This is actually the biggest problem with the Blue Moon's cockpit. It's just easy to get thrown around a bit, when the motion is violent and you are just sitting on deck.
  • Reduce the width of the cockpit somehow
  • Add some sort of coaming so you can brace yourself between the coaming and the footwell
  • Add more hand-holds
Minimize the risk of exhastion by being exposed to wind, rain, and spray
  • Add a small doghouse or dodger
Minimize the risk of being decapitated or knocked overboard by the boom
  • Pay attention to your steering
  • Bear off a bit so you are not steering so close to the gybe point
  • Keep your head down
  • Use preventer
  • Add a gallows frame
A gallows frame will not only prevent injury if the topping lift lets go and drops the boom into the cockpit in heavy weather, it is excellent to hold onto. 

Reducing the width of the cockpit, adding high combings, a doghouse, and a gallows frame would require a significant rebuild, but would dramatically improve the safety and comfort of the cockpit. 

I'm sorely tempted...

Any other cockpit risks I'm forgetting? I'm sure there are. Please leave your suggestions in the comment section below.

Next Up: Guest Post -- Buying Taleisin

12 April 2016

Staying Onboard (Part 2)

<< Part 1

What draws sailors out of their safe, warm cabins, onto their exposed decks, where they can be so easily thrown or washed overboard? Here's a list of routine activities that -- on most sailboats -- demand boat shoes on deck:

  • keeping watch
  • steering
  • adjusting course
  • trimming sails
  • rigging preventer to avoid accidental gybes
  • raising or lowering/reefing sails
  • changing sails
  • fixing things that break or are threatening to break
  • deploying and retrieving sea anchor
  • fresh air and sunshine

It's hard to imagine a more aggressive minimizer of these risks than Roger Taylor. His approach: build an unsinkable boat; operate her mainly from the safety of the cabin. This philosophy works for Roger because he has gone to extraordinary lengths to engineer his little Mingming II to make it work. There's no accident or luck at work here. Roger has custom built his boat so he can keep watch, steer, adjust course, trim his sail, reef and raise his sail, fix most things (he has multiple hatches, so can reach most gear on deck), and even take in some fresh air and sunshine, all without venturing on deck.

But how many of these risks could be minimized on the Blue Moon? Let's think about it...

Keeping watch - The original Jester had a small hatch with an adjustable spray hood that allowed her designer/builder Blondie Hasler to keep a good 360 degree look out and get some fresh air at the same time. Roger Taylor has built a kind of mini-pilothouse for Mingming. This is probably the simplest requirement to fulfill -- it just requires a bit of reengineering of the cabin top.

The original Jester with three innovations: self-steering gear, watch hatch, and junk rig.
Steering - Another innovation pioneered on Jester was the self-steering windvane, greatly innovated by Blondie Hasler himself. A windvane or electronic helmsman eliminates 98% of the need to spend time on deck, simply by removing the need to steer. I will definitely have one or more self-steering systems on board.

Adjusting Course - This basically means adjusting the self-steering mechanism. Electronic systems can be adjusted by turning a knob at the nav station. Windvanes are typically adjusted with lines run to the cockpit. They could just as easily be run within reach of the hatch.

Trimming Sails - Again, main and jib sheets are typically available in the cockpit. It would be a relatively simple matter to make them adjustable from a hatch.

Rigging Preventer(s)-- A preventer is typically a line run from the cockpit, through a block in the bow, to the end of the main boom. When the boat is sailing with the wind abaft the mast, the line is taken up to prevent the main from accidentally gybing. Preventers can also be rigged when a headsail is boomed out on a pole, again to prevent the headsail from gybing. Having seen them at work on Fiona in high winds, I can attest to their importance at sea.

Jester and Mingming eliminate the need for preventers by adopting the junk rig sail, which doesn't need them.

I don't see why two permanent preventers couldn't be rigged on the Blue Moon (one on each side) to allow a preventer to be set on either tack simply by tightening up the correct line. The unused line would be an extra line to handle, but would eliminate the need to go on deck to move the preventer from one side of the boat to the other, which was a real chore on Fiona. Might take some thinking to work out the right arrangement.

Reefing or furling sails -- using a junk rig makes this easy to do from a hatch. With a gaff cutter... not so much.

It would be possible to rig the Blue Moon's jib on a roller furler, but its hard to see how the main could be adjusted up or down without a trip to the mast. More thought required...

Changing sails -- Again, a very large junk rig eliminates the need for sail changes. Light winds? Hoist up all panels. Wind picks up? Lower away. All from the hatch.

Want to rig a big light air drifter on the Blue Moon? Probably going to require a trip on deck.

Fixing things that break or are threatening to break - Roger Taylor made this easier by building multiple hatches into Mingming's deck, so he can reach most everything on deck from a hatch. The junk rig also eliminates a vast amount of stuff on deck. Are we starting to see a pattern, here?

The Blue Moon has a forward hatch, but it's poorly situated for working on fore-deck gear at the moment. It needs to be beefed up and modified to make it strong enough for blue water work anyway, so it might be possible to make it more usable, perhaps even in a seaway. Perhaps.

Deploying and retrieving sea anchor - Jordan series drogues are relatively easy to deploy over the stern, but even Roger has to do that from the cockpit. Having re-read the Pardy's "Storm Tactics" recently, I am leaning more towards a parachute sea anchor, which requires a fair bit of rigging. Hard to see how you could deploy one off the bow without a trip on deck.

Fresh air and sunshine - As Roger and Blondie have proved, it's possible to get both without leaving the cabin, but it's easy to imagine being tempted into the cockpit by a moderate breeze on the quarter, and a warm sun in the sky. All the more reason to remember Hiscock's warning: "the risk of going overboard is therefore greater in moderate weather"... 
The list above is by no means exhaustive. Can you think of other activities that will demand my presence on deck? If so, please list them below in the comments section. I'm looking for all the ideas I can get here, folks!

Next Up: Minimize risk of being in cockpit

11 April 2016

Staying Onboard

Falling or being washed overboard is the greatest danger to which the sailing man is exposed. In heavy weather, the sense of self-preservation makes most people act on the sailor's old maxim 'one hand for yourself and one for the ship'; the risk of going overboard is therefore greater in moderate weather when a moment's carelessness or a sudden unexpected lurch may send one headlong over the side. -- Eric Hiscock in "Cruising Under Sail"

This is such a big topic that I think its useful to break the one big risk into a number of smaller risks, and to then tackle them one at a time.

  • Minimize the need to leave the cabin
  • Minimize the risk of going into cockpit
  • Minimize need to go on deck
  • Minimize the risk of going on deck
  • Minimize the risk of being overboard, i.e., the risk of being in the water

I find it fascinating that Robert Manry and Roger Taylor handle the problem from opposite ends of the spectrum:

Roger minimizes the overall risk by minimizing the need to leave his cabin. He can steer, trim his sails, and even reef, all from the safety of the cabin hatch. He rarely ventures out on deck in good weather, and almost never in bad, unless necessity demands (and it almost never does!)

Manry and Tinkerbell waving to passing plane
Robert, on the other hand, minimized the risk of being in the water itself, and he did it simply by choosing the right boat. Whether he was pitched out of the cockpit by a breaking wave, or simply tripped over his own two feet, being in the water was no big deal. Since Tinkerbell had no self-steering, she'd round up into the wind, stop, and wait for Robert to climb back aboard, which was fairly easy to do because of her low freeboard. No stress. Easy out, easy in.

So it's clear that this risk can be attacked in many directions, not just one, depending on the sailor and the boat. I'm going to look at each risk as it applies to the Blue Moon and myself, and see how I can minimize the risk in each category.

Next Up: Staying Onboard - Part 2

15 March 2016

Getting Run Down

Eternal vigilance is the price of safety -- U.S. Navy (among others)

I've been making a list of things I can do to to mitigate the risks of participating in the transatlantic Jester Challenge.

If you review the top-level list, you'll notice I have added a new risk category which I will drill down into today: Minimize the risk of getting run down.

The risk of getting run down by a bigger boat or ship is undeniable. Practically every sailing narrative includes one or more harrowing tales of near misses. Sailors who are actually run down, of course, don't get to write about it. They just disappear, since the ships that run them down either don't notice they've done so, or don't want to fill out the paperwork.

However, I've always assumed the risk of getting T-boned by a freighter has gone down since the 1960s and 70s, simply because the world is less dependent upon old-fashioned merchant shipping and thus there are fewer ships roaming the ocean waves. Right?

Wrong. When I went looking for actual facts, I discovered there are more merchant ships than ever!

The blue line in this graph is number of ships. In 1966, the number of merchant ships was roughly 40,000. In the fifty years since (what!? that must be a mistake... I remember 1966 like it was yesterday), the number of ships has more than doubled to over 100,000.

Not only are there more ships, they are bigger. Not that it really matters whether you are run over by a big ship or a little one.

More details on the number of ships at sea at this link, and this.

Beyond mere data, Helena and I have first-hand experience with crowded seas. On our sail down the coast of a commercially booming Brazil, keeping watch was no formality. We encountered a half-dozen ships a day, at minimum, and several nights seemed filled with huge ships lit up like Christmas trees, small fishing boats showing a single white light, and oil platforms that looked like small cities.

So much for the motivational part of this post. What can be done to mitigate the risks? After thinking about this for a week or so, I've boiled it down to three elements, prioritized in the order below:
  1. Seeing Other Ships
  2. Avoiding Collision
  3. Being Seen By Other Ships
My fundamental strategy is to take responsibility for detecting other ships, and to stay out of their way. If other ships happen see me and take evasive action, that's a bonus, but I won't ever depend on it.

Money, time, and electricity always being in short supply, it makes sense to apply it where it will do the most good. Therefore, I will prioritize acquiring tools, techniques, and technology that will help me detect other ships or to avoid collision, over being seen by other ships.

As always, if you have though think of something else to add to the list, please comment below or email me directly.

* * *

When the weather is clear and the water relatively calm, there is no problem seeing other ships and boats, providing someone is keeping watch. Especially at night, it is possible to see the lights of even a small boat miles away, and even during the day its relatively easy to spot them, as long as you are vigilant and your view isn't obstructed by a deck-sweeping genoa. The Blue Moon has a high-cut jib, so the view ahead is unobscured.

Complications arise in fog, or rain, or when small boats are hidden in the trough of large seas -- or when the solo sailor is sleeping and thus not keeping watch. 

In the old days single-handers avoided shipping lanes, crossed them at right-angles when they had to, set alarms to wake them up frequently enough to take peeks around, or simply consigned their lives to Fate or Luck when they simply had to get some sleep. 

Interestingly, Robert Manry didn't even try to sail when he wasn't on watch. He took down his sail, threw out his sea anchor, and tucked himself into bed, trusting that the chance of getting run down while asleep was small (which it is.)

As technology has provided automated helmsmen (autopilots & windvanes) and navigators (GPS), so it has provided reasonably adequate watchmen in the form of AIS and Radar-based collision alarms. Neither are perfect. 

AIS only helps you see other boats if they are transmitting. Yachts, small commercial craft, and fishing boats might not be equipped, and even large commercial or navy ships may not want to broadcast their location, for various reasons.

Radar doesn't depend on the other guy for detection. Newer units allow you to set up a 360 degree 'guard zone'. If it detects anything entering that zone, it rings an alarm. I've always assumed a radar would consume more electricity than we could generate on the Blue Moon, but new models can operate in a low-power standby mode, periodically waking up for a quick look around. This might be the ideal automated watch-stander, if it's not fantastically expensive. Need to do more research.

Despite the small risk that a ship encountered at sea will have it's AIS transmitter turned off, an AIS receiver is probably the single most effective automated watch-keeper available today, particularly for a small boat with limited electricity. It's #1 on my list of electronics to install.

* * *

Once you've detected another vessel, the next step is to determine if the risk of collision exists. This is easy to do if you have a hand-bearing compass. The trick is to take a bearing on the other ship as soon as you spot it. Then periodically take additional bearings. As long as the bearing keeps changing, there is no risk of collision. If the bearing is constant, then the risk exists.

If I ever sail off shore on someone else's boat again, I will pack my own hand-bearing compass. There wasn't one aboard Fiona when we sailed down the coast of Brazil and across the Caribbean with Eric Forsyth, and this caused me much unnecessary nail biting. 

According to the rules of the nautical road, you might be the stand-on vessel in a potential collision. Strictly speaking, you should then hold your course and allow the other vessel to maneuver out of your way. This assumes the other vessel sees you and cares whether you live or die. It's safer to stay out of the way in all cases.

There are two simple ways to avoid collision: 
  1. Stop
  2. Make a huge circle away from the other vessel, then come back on course
I'm assuming open water here. The problem is more difficult in restricted waters like harbors, but I'm only concerned here with mitigating risks on the high seas.

Besides the bearing, its nice to know which direction the ship is moving, as early as possible. To see this, you need a decent pair of binoculars. This is another piece of equipment I will pack on all future voyages. Eric's were old and misaligned from being banged around for 20 years. It's very difficult to make out the running lights on a big ship at night. Big ships are generally lit up like Christmas trees, with hundreds of bright white lights obscuring the running lights. With a good pair of binoculars, you might be able to pick them out. This is impossible with foggy or mis-aligned binoculars, believe you me. During the day, you can use the various masts and structures on a big ship as range markers. If the range markers move relative to each other, then you are not on a collision course. If the ranges are steady... watch out!

Another piece of equipment I'd carry on the Blue Moon, if I had radar on board (or some other means of determining distance), would be a maneuvering board. This low tech navigation tool enables you to plot the relative course of the other ship, and thus determine how close she will pass. 

In fog, without radar, you must fall back on listening for the low-tech fog horn. Do big ships reliably blow their fog horns at sea? I don't know. Must do more digging on that.

* * *

It seems suicidal to depend on other ships seeing and avoiding me, but it can't hurt to do everything possible to be seen. You never know. It might help.

Again, AIS is the biggest technological advance in this area, recently. A Class B transmitter (used by small ships and yachts) will tell other ships in the area that you are there, how fast you are moving, what your speed is, etc. Sounds great, except big ships aren't obliged to monitor AIS screens. Furthermore, big Class A ships can filter out Class B traffic, so even if the bridge crew is looking at their screen, you might be filtered out. Bummer if you are sleeping.

Likewise, a yacht-size radar reflector might make a blip so small that you won't be noticed. Or the ship's radar might be adjusted to filter out 'background' noise -- including your tiny reflection. And in big seas, the reflector could be obscured by waves.

Newer technology is an active radar reflector, which picks up and returns amplified radar pings. These are more effective than passive radar reflectors, but pricy.

The brightest possible LED running lights are not only required by law, but the simplest technology for being seen. Masthead running lights are the best at sea, because they are not as easily obscured by waves. Some sailors use a mast-head strobe light, though strictly speaking a flashing light indicates distress, I believe.

Along the same lines, some sailors use a bright 360 degree white light at the masthead. This is not strictly legal, but it is the most visible kind of light to display. 

In fog, the pathetic bleat of your fog horn probably won't be heard on the deck of an oil tanker 3 miles away. Or even 300 yards away. Or 30. In such conditions, I might regret not paying for the active radar reflector!

Probably the best tool for being seen is one of those multi-million candlepower spotlights now available from your friendly chandlery. Forget about shining it on your sails like the old-timers did. Point one of those babies at the bridge of an on-coming ship and give them a split-second flash, and you probably will be seen. I say split-second, because you don't want to blind the crew on the other vessel. You just want to be seen at a goodly distance. Emergency use only!

Bottom line, it's better to see them first, and get out of their way, than to depend on being seen. 

Any other ideas on minimizing the risk of getting run down? Please note them below or send me an email

Next Up: Staying Onboard

08 March 2016

Vikings Were Sailors!

I don't know about you, but when I think of Viking ships, I think of old Hagar the Horrible cartoons, with the bumbling marauders rowing their clumsy craft slowly across the North Sea. How they ever reached Iceland, no less the coast of America, was a mystery to me.

Hagar the Horrible

A mystery, that is, until I learned what sailing on a real Viking ship was like. Watch this amazing video to find out for yourself:

In case you were wondering (I was!), they were hitting speeds up to 14 knots.

We tend to underestimate the technology and skills of the ancients... they didn't have iPhones or Google... what could they possibly have known that's worth remembering? Primitives!

Historical re-creations like this hemp-rigged Norwegian Viking ship remind us we wouldn't be reading magic screens in every last corner of the world without the 'primitive' technologies and brave -- very brave -- men and women who came before us.


Next Up:

03 March 2016

Keeping The Water Out

The best safeguards against calamity are foresight, the intelligent anticipation of trouble and the imagination to see where a particular decision may lead. -- D.A. Rayner "Safety in Small Craft"

Now that my book, An Unlikely Voyage, is finally launched, its a bit of relief to have some time to get back to blogging. Last time, I made a top-level list of ways to minimize the risk of taking the Blue Moon across the Atlantic, twice, to participate in the Jester Challenge.

This time, I will drill down into the most critical risk: minimizing the risk of sinking.

Minimizing the risk of sinking is, of course, the one necessary thing to do. King Neptune can exploit every weakness in your boat and test every skill in your seamanship toolkit, but as long as your boat is still floating, you won't drown.

Photo from rescue ship HMS Clyde off the Falklands

1. Minimize the risk from holes drilled below the waterline.

What's the point of building a seaworthy boat if you are going to drill a bunch of holes in her bottom? As soon as you do, you have to start worrying that your through-hulls are of the highest quality, that they close when you need them to close, and that all the pipes and hoses connected to them are equally sound. And if you have an inboard engine, you have to drill a bunch more holes for the prop shaft, coolant water, etc.

Eric Forsyth nearly had Fiona sink under him off Cape Horn shortly after we left them in Brazil a couple years ago. The reason? A hose blew off a through-hull in a storm and the boat nearly foundered before Eric could find and stop the leak.

The Blue Moon has no through-hulls, and no engine so no stuffing box, etc. However, momist -- one of my readers -- cleverly pointed out that she does indeed have holes drilled for her keel bolts.

One of my hobbies is taking pictures of the Blue Moon's bilge in mid-winter. I take great pleasure in seeing how dry it is. I really need to get a vacuum in there!

Anyway, you can see the nuts on some of the keel bolts. I haven't run out to count them yet, but I believe there are 5 or 6 heavy bronze bolts. It's hard for me to imagine the keel falling off, but if it did, presumably water would come in through the holes drilled for these bolts, at least until the boat flipped over from the weight of the mast.


Keel bolts in the Blue Moon's (dry!) bilge
Michael, another reader, mentioned the bolts holding on the rudder gudgeons. At least one of these is below the waterline. I don't know if the bolts go all the way through the hull, though. Must check.

2. Minimize the risk from the hull-deck joint and other joints/holes above the waterline.

Apparently some boats leak so badly at the hull-deck joint that they can take on serious amounts of water when forced to sail with the rail in the water in bad conditions. I think this is mainly a problem with fiberglass boats, but it's something I need to look into a bit more with the Blue Moon.

My keel-stepped mast does go straight through the deck. The mast partner (the reinforcement around the deck hole) looks very strong, but I will need to double-check that.

Before pulling the boat for the winter, I was making do with a mast boot made from duct tape. Not pretty but effective. I will want to upgrade this to something really strong and watertight when I re-step the mast.

The Blue Moon has the best kind of chainplates: those that are through-bolted with substantial backing plates to the side of the boat, rather than the usual type which penetrate the deck, which is an all too common cause of leaks.  My chainplates have probably never been re-bedded since the BM was launched, so I will do that, just to make sure they don't leak.

Cockpit lockers can turn into huge holes in the boat when boarding seas find a way to wrench them open. Roger Taylor hates cockpit lockers so much that he sealed them all up in his little Mingming. In the past, I've occasionally wished for cockpit lockers, but since I don't have any, there are none to seal.

Deck hatches also need to be strong enough to resist the prying fingers of King Neptune. The Blue Moon has a single, rather small deck hatch on the foredeck. It's stoutly built, but the latch is flimsy. Definitely need to replace the current latch with something I can trust in any kind of weather.

Another reader, jerry, made me think about the through-hulls for my cockpit drains. There are two of them, both above the waterline, so I initially discounted them as risks, but then I realized that they are only above the waterline when the boat is sailing straight up. As soon as she heels over, one of them is underwater.

3. Minimize the risk from holes in the cabin

The strongest boats have flush decks and no cabin at all. The Blue Moon does have a cabin, but it's small, low, and strongly built.  The main risk is that the cabin can be ripped off the deck entirely by bad weather. It's hard to imagine how I could make the cabin stronger stronger than it already is, but I will at least think about it.

I guess the ideal boat would have no hole in the deck at all, but one is usually required to go below decks. In most boats, this hole is called the companionway. Its a significant risk because it's usually the biggest hole in the boat.

The Blue Moon's companionway is about as safe as you can make it: it's quite small and is safeguarded by a high bridge deck, well above the level of the rails. Even if the cockpit was full of water, not a drop would enter the companionway.

Companionway drop-boards can quickly become liabilities when a boat is knocked down. My new drop-boards are solid hardwood and fairly small, so I don't think they could be bashed in, but they could easily fall out if the boat was inverted, letting in huge amounts of water. It would also be hard to replace them at sea if they suddenly went missing, so if I keep my companionway (see below) I will want to:
  • attach the drop-boards to the boat with lanyards, so they can never go overboard
  • provide some sort of locking mechanism, so I can latch the boards and companionway hatch from the inside
It's already possible to lock the companionway and drop-boards from the outside to secure the boat while in the cockpit, but rather than using a padlock as usual, I'd prefer something just as secure but easier to open, such as a locking carabiner attached to the boat with a lanyard, so it's always ready for use. 

Developing good habits, such as closing the companionway when its not in use, are equally important. Its no good having locking drop boards if they are not in place when the rogue wave comes aboard.

Roger Taylor has eliminated the companionway, drop-boards, etc., on Mingming, replacing them with a very strong aluminum hatch, like on a submarine. Other Jester boats have taken the same approach, signaling that companionways are a significant risk. Eliminating the companionway means making major alterations to the cabin, so it's something I will have to think about.

The Blue Moon's cabin has eight -- count them... eight! -- opening portlights. Great for letting in summer breezes; bad for keeping out water. However, they are all small and high quality bronze ports, so I'm not too worried about them.  I will re-bed them as I paint the cabin this spring, to make sure they are watertight. I will also look into replacing the gaskets that compress and seal the opening when the covers are dogged down. I might also look into building plywood crash covers for them, in case of really bad weather.

Obviously, remembering to install the covers before the storm hits will be important.

4. Minimize the risk of new holes forming in the boat

Besides the holes that are already there, I must consider the possibility of new holes forming.

New holes can be created in the hull when the boat is subjected to unusual wrenching forces, such as those exerted on the hull by the rig in a storm. There are many stories of wooden boats opening up their seams as the rig places twisting forces on the hull. The Blue Moon is strip-planked, meaning that each of her planks is nailed and epoxied to the next one, creating an inch-and-a-half thick monocoque (French for "single shell") structure which should be less likely to open up than a traditionally planked boat. The main risk is glue failure in one of the joints. I'm not sure if it is possible to predict this sort of failure in advance, but it might be worth while having the boat surveyed by an experienced strip-plank builder, just to make sure.

The Blue Moon is heavily framed, which help her resist King Neptune's attempts to bash her ribs in. She also has a raised deck, and heavy deck beams. One thing she doesn't have is bulkheads. This gives her a great open feeling down below, but a forward bulkhead, near the mast, would undoubtably make her stronger and more able to resist wrenching forces. The is the one major structural change to the boat that I'm seriously considering.

Her low gaff rig also helps minimize the twisting force exerted on the boat by the rig. Reefing early and often will also help.

Several readers mentioned the risk of an anchor breaking lose, and banging holes in the deck or hull; likewise the risk of the mast going overboard and doing similar damage while it's alongside. I think we can lump all these risks into one sub-category: the risk of things breaking loose and banging new holes in the boat.

Most obviously, new holes can be created when the boat runs into a heavy, solid object, such as the proverbial log or submerged container. But this is a big subject and I'm already running long, so I will leave this topic for next time!

Meanwhile, if you can think of additional horrifying ways for water to get into a boat, please leave them in the comments section below. Forewarned is forearmed.

Next Up: Minimizing the Risk of Getting Run Down

27 February 2016

Woodworking is Simple

I was looking for some inspiration this morning and remembered a video I saw a few months ago, which made a big impression on me. It took awhile to find it, but I've embedded it below.

It's the story of a Japanese woodworker--craftsman would be a better word--named Chosuke Miyahira and his son. In just a few minutes, they share some valuable words to live by:

"Every day we go to work and try to make something beautiful." 

How's that for a business model?

"Why I create?" Chosuke asks. "Fun. Fun. Should be fun, not serious."

And best of all, he shares the secret to making something amazing: "With nature, it's easy... Just find a nice old wood. Slice it. Beautiful? You use it. If not beautiful, you don't use it. It's very simple."

If I could just keep that in mind, I'd get a lot more worthwhile things done.

Play the video below:

Next Up: Keeping The Water Out

25 February 2016

An Unlikely Voyage (Part 3)

← Part 2 of An Unlikely Voyage

Here is the third and final part of Chapter 1, in which I unexpectedly learn the secret to woodworking, boatbuilding, and life itself.

Well, maybe not. But it was a good start.

The book continues with the building of Cabin Boy, the little John Atkin skiff that served as taxi, delivery truck, and saved my bacon more than a few times. Cabin Boy is the real hero of this story. And then the bulk of the book, which is all about the long, long voyage from Florida's Nature Coast, to Long Island Sound—2000 miles through open ocean, steamy Everglades, trackless marshes on the Intracoastal Waterway, more bridges and locks than you can count, and finally through New York's infamous Hell Gate. All proving, it's never too late for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

* * *

A few people have asked if the book will be available for Kindle. The answer is yes, but since one of my pet peeves is poorly formatted Kindle books, I am formatting the book myself, to make sure it's perfect. I'm working on it, but it will probably take me a few more weeks to get it done. I will post an announcement here and on my Facebook page when it's ready. If you are a Facebooker, you might want to Like that page.

Thank you for all your support!

Chapter 1

Part 3

The next weekend, I confronted that balky bedroom door.

Since I’m an unhandy guy, my usual approach to hated, home-handyman jobs is to rush through them as quickly as possible, with lots of huffing, puffing, and “Where’s my dang screw driver!?” type dramatics. I inherited this approach from my father, the Huffer-and-Puffer-in-Chief of our whole family.

But for some reason—and I can’t say what it was—I took a different tack with this job. Maybe, with four kids still in the house, I was just motivated to have a bedroom door that closed; maybe I started off so stumped on this project (why didn’t it close???) that rushing through it wasn’t an option; or maybe I was just ready for it.

Whatever the reason, I let out a deep breath and decided to give the job as much time as it needed. Little did I know what a turning point this decision would be.

At first, the problem with the door didn’t seem complicated. Our house had been built in 1929 by an Italian immigrant who’d made some money in New York City as a master mason, working on the 8th Avenue Madison Square Garden. This man had been an artist in concrete: the house was a minor Art Deco masterpiece, and I have no doubt that the door fit perfectly when he first carried his young bride into the bedroom.

Nevertheless, in the eighty years since, either the door or the door frame had changed shape. They no longer matched. The peg no longer fit the hole.

Since the shape of the door frame was literally fixed in concrete, I swiftly reasoned that I’d have to reshape the door to fit the frame. Slightly dazzled by this unexpectedly brilliant insight, I pushed the door against the frame to see where it stuck. At the top, I saw. It was a quarter inch too tall at the top. If I could take a bit off, maybe with some sort of file.

I actually had a rusty old file in my pitiful collection of hand-me-down tools. I fetched it from the basement and stood on a chair to get a better view of the problem.

The top of the door looked as if it had been chewed by a chipmunk: shallow, grooved tooth marks gnawed into eighty year old oak. The chipmunk hadn’t gotten far. I compared the toothed file in my hand with the tooth marks on the door. Apparently, at least one previous owner had had similar tools. And skills.

I climbed off the chair, sat on it, and had a think. Perhaps a saw was a better tool for the job. Yes, I was sure it would be. I climbed back on the chair, measured the amount to be cut three times, then took the door off its hinges and lugged the absurdly heavy monster down to my ‘workshop’ in the basement.

At that point, my workshop consisted of a rickety table and a handful of rusty tools. Luckily, one of the tools was an ancient handsaw I’d inherited from my grandfather. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a Disston—a saw of noble lineage. This was luck akin to Bilbo finding Sting in a troll’s cave. Fate? I don’t know, but by some magic, the saw’s teeth were still sharp.

I laid the door on the table, picked up the saw, eyed the line I’d marked, and then had a moment familiar to every newbie woodworker. Was the line drawn correctly? Could I follow the line? Or, with one cut, would I ruin a beautiful—and lets face it, valuable—piece of wood? Would I end up the hero who fixed something? Or the damn fool who destroyed it? Helena loved that door, even if it didn’t close.

It took a long time to work up the courage, but eventually I consigned my fate to the gods, and started making sawdust. Amazingly, when I rehung the door on its hinges, it closed with a satisfying snick. Helena applauded.

“Wow,” I said, opening and closing the door, wondering if it really had been fifty years since it last closed properly.

As that door closed, another one opened. Time. It was all about time. My grandfather—a blacksmith, raconteur, and perennial seeker of rainbows—had a stock of proverbs he loved to repeat. One of them was, “You can climb any mountain, as long as you climb it slowly enough.” He’s said it a million times, but I’d never really listened. Maybe, with enough time, I could fix or build anything.

Such is the delusional power that comes from fixing a door.

“I might even be able to fix a wooden boat,” I said, not realizing I’d spoken aloud.

“Of course you can,” said Helena, giving me a congratulatory kiss before moving on to the eighty-two other chores she accomplished that day. Such is the power of women.

“I might even be able to build a wooden boat,” I said, the idea taking hold. “A small boat,” I corrected myself, some remnant of common sense still clinging on. “A dinghy. We’ll need a dinghy, anyway. If I can build a small wooden boat, I might be able to maintain a larger one.”

Palm trees waving against a blue sky. A pink beach. A gleaming white schooner floating in a turquoise lagoon. A stout dinghy pulled up on the sand. Helena and I picnicking on the beach…

And that was how all the trouble started.

* * *

Next Up:

How To Get Your Copy

If you live in the US

You can order a copy directly by clicking on this link: Amazon.com, or by searching Amazon for "Unlikely Voyage".

If you live in the US, you can order an autographed copy of An Unlikely Voyage through PayPal, using either your PayPal account or a credit card. Just click the button below and follow the instructions.

Or you can get out your quill pen and order a copy through the post. Send a check for $19.95 to John Almberg, 249 Lenox Rd., Huntington Station, NY 1176. Please include your name, shipping address, and a custom inscription, if you'd like.

If you live outside the US

You should be able to order a copy directly from Amazon.com by searching your local Amazon for "Unlikely Voyage".

If the book is not available through Amazon in your part of the world, you can order direct from the publisher: Publisher Direct

Unfortunately, the cost to mail a book outside the US is so high (> $20), that I can't offer free shipping. It makes more sense to order a copy direct from Amazon or the publisher. However, if you really want an autographed copy, please email me at john@unlikelyboatbuilder.com and I will see what we can do to minimize the cost.

Thank you very much, and please don't forget to write a review on Amazon!

Next Up: