February 2014 – Salty John : The Blog

I once encountered a cow standing in the Lancaster Canal. 

This was during my short canal boating period, which followed my lake sailing period, which followed my power boating period, which came after my blue water cruising period, a natural follow-on from my weekend sailing period. But I digress.

The amphibious cow got me thinking about other strange and interesting encounters. On the Gulf ICW in Texas we met an oil rig. It was being towed, presumably to be deployed out in the Gulf of Mexico. It was quite a surprise, though not as intimidating as the massive barge tows we encountered all along this commercial waterway.

We once encountered a MacGregor 26 sail boat powered by a 50HP outboard motor blasting along at warp speed. Rooster tails of spray, mast raked back at a crazy angle, madly grinning helmsman. 

In the Florida Keys a light aircraft crashed into the sea ahead of us. Fortunately for the pilot, a local dive boat had divers down and they pulled him from the plane, got him aboard their boat and administered CPR whilst speeding toward port and a waiting ambulance.  He lived to tell the tale.

Anchored in a small, secluded bay in Culebra we were approached by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a rowing boat. They were dressed as if for church and waved The Watchtower at us. I stepped up to the bow and waved them away. I should probably have put my clothes on first. Perhaps a more memorable encounter for them than me.

We’ve encountered submarines in Scotland and on Chesapeake Bay and we were passed by a paddle steamer on the Mississippi. A giant pig swam out to meet us as we rowed ashore in Big Major’s Spot, Bahamas.

We’ve had some interesting encounters, indeed.

Mounting the inflatable tender on davits is an ideal solution to the stowage challenge presented by these indispensables of the cruising life. 

A balanced connection between the davit falls and the dinghy is best achieved by davit slings – usually one at the dinghy’s bow, one at the transom. Each davit sling has a lifting ring and two webbing legs terminating in carbine hooks which attach to the lifting points in the dinghy. 

The lifting points are usually inside the bow tubes and on the transom board. Glue-on lifting rings are available from many inflatable dinghy outlets.

On most cruising sail boats it’s desirable to have the dinghy hoisted as high as possible. But how do you know what length of davit sling you need? And are they different for bow and stern? Well, the solution is a pair of adjustable davit slings like these from Salty John. Simple.

No, I’m not referring to activities in the book 50 Shades of Grey and nor do I mean forming meaningful relationships; I’m referring to the connecting together of your boat’s non-current carrying metal components to form a common ground for your DC electrical system. Bonding, that’s the word. 

The bits we’re talking about are the engine, gear box, fuel tanks, water tanks, the external casings of pumps and motors and so on. Typically in a bonded boat these items would be connected together with copper conductors to a common bonding conductor which usually runs fore and aft down the boat. Not bonding your boat means leaving all those big chunks of metal isolated from each other.

The idea is that bonding everything together with appropriate copper conductors provides a large common ground for the electrical system, it provides lightning protection and it controls corrosion.

There are some who prefer not to bond. These isolationists aren’t necessarily anti-social; they just think that bonding leaves the boat vulnerable to stray-current corrosion outside the hull even though it is protected from stray current corrosion within the boat. 

An important issue is the question of whether or not to connect your metal through hulls and sea cocks into this common grid. The predominant view is that you should leave them isolated to fend for themselves and I agree. Actually, I prefer Marelon sea cocks so the issue doesn’t arise anyway.

So, research the subject and make your choice – to bond or not to bond, that is the question. 

Bondage, that’s something else.

This time of year a post on how to check the integrity of a coaxial cable run is appropriate – masts are down, pre-launch checks are underway.

When you use a multimeter to check that you have no short circuited connectors in your cable run you should be aware that the cable must be disconnected at the antenna as well as at the radio.

Most vhf antennas show a short circuit to a multimeter – see the first picture – so the cable, when connected to the antenna, will also show a short circuit whether it is or is not actually short circuited. This short circuit reading at the Metz, and other quality antennas, does not mean the antenna is faulty. This is the correct reading. 

So, if you’ve just come down from connecting your antenna at the masthead and you haven’t checked the cable run yet, you’ll need to shinny back up the mast and disconnect it. 

Only then can you proceed to check that you don’t have a short circuited connector or a corroded section of cable. In fact, it’s a good idea to check each connector at the time you fit it, before you solder it, to avoid much frustration later on.

I’ve written before about troubleshooting your vhf antenna system and about the ease with which a PL259 connector can be inadvertently short circuited during fitting but I felt the need to emphasise the point about disconnecting the antenna before checking the cable run after a couple of people thought they had a ‘short circuited’ antenna. No, it’s supposed to be that way. A faulty Metz! Heavens forefend!

Everyone loves a sunset. Sailors are particularly privileged because we get to see the sun setting over the ocean even on eastern facing coasts, as long as we’re a few miles offshore. 

Ocean sunsets bring with them the extra tingle of excitement that comes from anticipating the green flash – the fabled emerald green glint on the horizon just as the sun disappears below it.

I have hundreds of pictures and miles of film of sunsets; in none of them is the green flash present. But I have seen the green flash several times. Maybe it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Some people will go to considerable trouble to see the sun go down – the chap standing on the spreaders has a grandstand view. The picture was taken at Boot Key, Florida.

Turnbuckles, or rigging screws, are used to tension the stays and shrouds on your boat’s rigging. They comprise a body into each end of which is screwed a threaded rod. One rod has a right hand thread, the other a left hand thread – when you rotate the body both rods move towards or away from the body at the same time, tightening or loosening the stay. 

The lower rod connects to the chainplate and the upper rod connects to the rigging wire. They do this via various fittings including T-ends, jaws, clevis pins and machine swages. Whatever is used on your particular boat the critical point is articulation: If your joints don’t articulate they can break.

The body of the turnbuckle can be open or closed. A closed turnbuckle body looks smooth and tubular but it can trap water and dirt in the lower end and this can lead to corrosion; it is also difficult to tell how much ‘bury’ there is left on the rod ends – always comforting to know your turnbuckles aren’t hanging on by a single thread. Closed body turnbuckles have a check nut on the threaded rod to lock it against the turnbuckle body – this avoids the need for cotter pins or ring pins to stop the turnbuckle unscrewing itself. For extra security you can run a piece of monel wire from one fork, through the hole in the turnbuckle body, to the other fork, to prevent turning.

Open body turnbuckles bare all – you can see the rods and how much of their thread is engaged. You need to pin them to stop the turnbuckle unscrewing and you then need to tape over the pin to prevent it snagging on a sail. Bandit™ tape is ideal for this because it is non-adhesive and doesn’t leave a sticky mess when you remove it to adjust the rig.

To adjust an open body turnbuckle you can turn it by hand or with a screwdriver inserted through the body opening, or you can use a spanner. With a tubular closed body turnbuckle that is too stiff to turn by hand you can use a special tool that fits into the hole in the centre of the body. Use a Loos tension gauge to measure the tension in your shrouds and stays and adjust the turnbuckles as required.

Whether you have open or closed body turnbuckles you need to think carefully about the material from which they are made. On the face of it stainless steel would appear to be most fit for purpose but you’d be wrong. Stainless threads suffer from a condition called galling, and it is pretty galling I can tell you, in which the threads jam when heavy load is applied. A much more satisfactory arrangement is a combination of a silicone bronze body and stainless threaded rods. This is a non-galling combination.

That’s probably as much as anyone needs to know about turnbuckles.

The floor of the George Town self-service laundry was awash and I was acutely aware of the crudity of the electrical connections to the washers and dryers. Several fellow sailors, apparently oblivious to the danger, sloshed about loading machines, folding sheets and stuffing fluffy clean laundry into their backpacks for the dinghy ride back to their boats.

I suppose the mass electrocution of a group of patrons in the local Laundromat is a little improbable, but it did occur to me that if we were to come to any harm on our sailing adventures it was more likely to be from the bite of a rabid dog, or by being hit by a gua-gua with defective brakes, or by being zapped with 240 volts from an improperly wired washing machine, than by the coral reef or hurricane against which we are on constant alert. 

So, what non-nautical hazards are we likely to face on an extended cruise?

We were invited to dine on a fellow cruiser’s boat in Luperon, DR, and felt very ill the next day. It turned out our host’s refrigeration had died some weeks previously (along with his engine) and the corn beef had gone off.  Fortunately we lived to tell the tale but, as with all traveling, food security is an issue. 

Finding sell-by dates that are still in the future is a challenge in some places so you’ll need to apply common sense when assessing the risk. Tinned food can last 5 years or more, ten with some products, but if the tin is dented or bloated don’t use it. Foods that require refrigeration and clearly aren’t getting it should be avoided.

Even apparently fresh food can be a hazard: When we were in the Bahamas, a guest on one of the other boats in the anchorage was taken ill after eating freshly caught fish – she suffered from ciguatera poisoning and had to be airlifted to hospital.

Ciguatera normally occurs in larger fish found in tropical waters, including sea bass, grouper, and red snapper, that feed on smaller fish that have fed on algae containing ciguatoxin.  It’s a nasty illness; the symptoms include, along with the usual abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting, a rather frightening inability to tell hot from cold and a feeling that your teeth are loose and about to fall out.

Other fish related hazards include scrombroid poisoning and shellfish poisoning but I don’t want to put you off eating seafood for life so I’ll leave it there.

We hear stories of murder and serious harm being inflicted on tourists during robberies. These cases are, thankfully, sufficiently rare to generate banner headlines. In six years of cruising the USA, Bahamas and the Caribbean we never felt threatened in this way, but it’s clearly wise to take precautions. Don’t flash the cash or flaunt the jewellery – don’t make yourself a target.

Shark and barracuda attacks are extremely rare – just don’t bleed into the water or wear shiny rings or bracelets – but a dog bite is a more likely hazard. You’ll be unfamiliar to the local dogs which tend to run loose in small packs in many places we visited and even a friendly nip could fester or, heaven forbid, give you rabies.  I once had a close encounter with a pig – but that’s another story.

Finally, there’s the common or garden road traffic accident. The rules of the road may be less rigidly applied in many of the places you’re likely to visit on a Caribbean jaunt, for instance. Apart from the fact that cars may be on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and you’ll forever be looking the wrong way before crossing, the local concept of who has right of way may not coincide with your own – make sure you know the rules of engagement. 

And if you rent a car or scooter, be aware it may not be maintained to the high level of safety you’re used to, and this also applies to the vehicles with which you’ll be sharing the road – bald tyres, defective brakes and non-functioning lights are more the rule than the exception in many poorer countries. 

Blue water sailing is pretty safe – it’s what’s on land that can be hazardous to your health!

We’re getting one gale after another at the moment so I thought it an appropriate time to revisit a subject I addressed a few years ago – sailing in very light breezes – just to remind ourselves that it isn’t always stormy out there:

A tiny breeze, a mere zephyr, is more frustrating than a dead calm. In a dead calm you give up, drop the sails, secure the boom and settle down with a good book. Or you crank up the engine and off you go.

But where there’s a whiff there’s a way. The temptation to try is irresistible.

The main and the lightest jib are hoisted; the topping lift takes some of the weight of the boom; easy on the halyard tension. You know that attempting to move downwind in this tiny breeze is hopeless so you work her onto the wind, a tad below close hauled. Everyone tippy-toes around, avoids shifting weight. You whisper so as not to scare the wind.

Is she moving? You watch the wake, toss bits of lint into the water, and stare up at the sails, willing the jib to be caressed into shape by this hint of a breath of wind. 

Eventually, with a bit of luck and canny trimming, the tell-tails flutter into life, the boat begins to make way. This movement conspires with the true wind to create an apparent wind and that brings more movement. Yes! We’re sailing. Now let’s just keep her going – a tweak here, a tweak there. 

Damn, but this sailing lark can be hard work.


I don’t suppose anyone would argue with the proposition that the wheel is the most important invention in the history of mankind. However, I would suggest that the compass is up there with the wheel as a significant invention because if it’s impact on exploration. 

The compass was discovered in 10th or 11th century China when someone realised that a lodestone suspended from a thread always pointed the same way. What a ‘Eureka’ moment that must have been! 

Unfortunately the Chinese marketing organisation of the day didn’t immediately see the navigation application as worthy of pursuit, seeing more potential in the Feng Shui application. So property developers concerned with the spiritual well being of their building’s occupants, rather than explorers, were the first beneficiaries of this new technology.

Eventually, however, word spread of the lodestone phenomenon and the compass was put to proper use and the rest is history. 

Then came GPS, but that’s another story.