March 2017 – Salty John : The Blog

This is a recollection from our first southbound journey between Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys, over 25 years ago. We’d sold up, refitted Adriana and were setting off on what would become a three year adventure…

The seas had been building as the wind strength had increased over the past day and night. I’d reduced sail and Adriana was handling the conditions well but it was clear we were approaching the edge of our comfort zone – things below rattled and banged, the odd green wave broke onto the deck. The strengthening breeze had come round ahead of us and we were close-hauled, the sails pulled in tight so we could make our southerly course. We got too close to the wind at times and the sails rattled and cracked to remind us to pay attention at the helm. I’d ordered harnesses when on deck because of the conditions; we would hook our tethers to strong points before stepping out of the companionway onto deck. The sky remained a startling blue but cloud was beginning to build from the eastern horizon and I knew the wind would continue to build. Carol had gone quiet. I recognised this precursor to seasickness and clicked on the autohelm and went below to check the chart. I decided to head for Little River Inlet in South Carolina once we cleared Frying Pan Shoals. The shoals jutted out like a finger into the Atlantic for thirty miles and I needed to plot our course around them carefully.

Night fell, the wind stayed steady, strong, we made good progress. Once clear of the shoals we turned towards the shore, the wind behind us now and we barreled along under a storm jib and fully reefed mainsail, rolling from side to side as the following seas pushed the stern this way then that. The most seaward of the entrance markers dashed by and I could just make out the next, flashing its welcome through the darkness. The waves were breaking on the sandbanks on either side of the channel, throwing white spume into the air. Melinda was at the wheel, I was standing at her shoulder and Carol was in the quarter berth below, dry-heaving into a bucket wedged beside her.

At last we were in the river and I started the engine and went forward to drop the jib. Within an hour we’d put the hook down in an anchorage off the main river and Adriana settled head to wind, rocking gently. I gave Melinda a hug and told her she’d done well and sent her below to get warm while I tidied up on deck, furling the main on the boom and bagging the jib. I stepped below and found Carol up now, once the motion goes the seasickness goes with it, and she’d got the kettle on for a cup of tea. Henry had appeared from his hiding place in the forward berth, wagging his tail and no doubt expecting to be taken ashore but he’d got another think coming – I put him out in the cockpit and he peed on the wheel pedestal.

Spring has sprung which means it’s time to remind you all of the dangers of drowning.

Drowning is not a noisy, dramatic event. Our body’s response to suffocation by water is quite different to the commonly held view that it involves waving arms and shouting for help. That comes before you are drowning. At that point you are in a state known as “aquatic distress” and can still assist in your own rescue by grabbing at floatation devices. If you aren’t saved at this point you quickly pass to drowning. Then, instinct takes over.

In an article in the US Coastguards ‘On Scene’ magazine Dr Francesco Pia, Phd, describes what he terms ‘the instinctive drowning response’ as follows:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs. 2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water. 3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. 4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.

Drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water for from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

So, if someone dives, jumps or falls overboard and appears to be calm, don’t assume they are not in trouble. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. Talk to them. Ask them: Are you OK? If they reply immediately, they’re probably fine. If they just look blank there’s a chance that they are drowning and you must act quickly to assist them.

Keep a watch on people playing in the water, look for these other signs of drowning:

Head tilted back with mouth open. Head low in the water, mouth at water level Eyes closed, or glassy and empty, unfocussed. Vertical in the water, not using legs Hyperventilating or gasping Attempting to swim but not making headway

Attempting to roll over on the back

So, if the kids are screaming and splashing, be thankful, they’re not drowning. If they go unnaturally quite, that’s the time to worry. One day this knowledge may save someone’s life.

What is the art of seamanship? The dictionaries define it as the skill or technique or art of handling a boat or ship at sea. It surely is that, but I think it’s a bit more.

Seamanship is certainly about having the sailor’s basic skills, but it must also be about judgement. Good seamanship isn’t just being able to steer a steady course or make a tidy splice. It’s knowing how and when to apply ones skills to keep the boat and her crew safe and sound.

It’s been said that the superior boater uses his superior judgement to stay out of situations that require his superior skills. That sounds like a good definition of seamanship to me.

Back at the dawn of time, when I started sailing, I was taught to never leave the winch handle in the winch after tacking or trimming. The reason, I was told, was to avoid injury should the winch pawls fail and the sheet tension spin the handle with great force, catching an arm or other body part.

I’ve always been sceptical of this advice because I’ve never met anyone who’s been injured by a whizzing winch handle released by a failing pawl, or even anyone who knows of someone who’s been injured this way. However, I continued to remove my winch handle and stow it in a winch holder when not in use because I wanted the winch top to be unencumbered should I need to release the sheet quickly. Besides, my favourite winch handle was non-locking and you know how the sea loves to eat winch handles.

I’ve never had a boat where the winch handle being in the winch was a trip hazard to people stepping in and out of the cockpit but if I needed additional motivation for my ‘stow the handle after use’ policy that would be it.

Then one day I was discussing winch handle habits with another sailor and he said he always moves the handle over to the lazy winch after the tack, basically using the lazy winch as a winch handle holder and at the same time having it ready for the next tack. I can’t think of an objection to this practice as long as you have locking winch handles and the handle doesn’t trip you when you leave the cockpit. And the practice does avoid the risk of injury should one of those nasty winch pawls give way. But then again, some habits die hard.

Sailors fall into two categories – those that have run aground and those that will run aground.

I have run aground countless times – seven transits of the US ICW and gunkholing in the skinny waters of the Bahamas and Chesapeake Bay will do that to you – and it’s usually a pretty harmless event. More often than not, running aground hurts you’re pride more than the boat.

Here are some running aground basics:

1. Recognize that you are aground as soon as possible and stop forward motion. A slight feeling of sluggishness or the entire crew lying in a heap at the front end of the cockpit are clues that you have run aground.

2. If motoring, go into reverse immediately. If sailing, get the sails down, check for lines in the water and start the engine, then go into reverse. Be aware that your rudder is vulnerable when backing up in shallow water. If you’re towing the dinghy this is where the painter gets wrapped around the propeller.

3. If reversing fails, limit the damage by getting an anchor out to windward. If possible orient the boat to provide the most protection from wind or waves.

4. Reduce draught (draft if you’re from across the pond) by heeling the boat. A very effective method is by pulling on a masthead halyard from the dinghy. Another method is putting weight onto the end of the swung-out boom – a crewmember or a flooded dinghy being the main candidates. Motor or tow the boat off into deeper water. If you have twin keels or a winged keel this method is unlikely to work because your draught will increase as you heel – you’ll need to get weight onto the fore deck to try to reduce draught.

5. Seek assistance from the professionals, or hail a passing Good Samaritan. It’s time to swallow your pride. If you contemplate an ICW journey a Tow Boat US insurance policy is fantastic value.

6. Running your engine in shallow water and when aground churns up the bottom: Check your raw water intake strainer – if it’s filled with sand and mud check your raw water pump impellor for damage.

With a boat that can safely take the ground and some experience of getting afloat again you’ll be able to explore with impunity the very fringes of the watery world.