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:



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.

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.

Sails:
- 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

Equipment:
- 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. 

Onwards!



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



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
MINIMIZE THE RISK OF BEING IN THE COCKPIT

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
MINIMIZE THE NEED TO LEAVE THE CABIN

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.

* * *
SEEING OTHER SHIPS

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.

* * *
AVOIDING COLLISION

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.

* * *
BEING SEEN BY OTHER SHIPS

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