February 2012 – Salty John : The Blog

What is 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 good seamanship to me.

An aerial is an aerial is an aerial. No it isn’t. Not by a long chalk.

A marine VHF whip antenna depends for its performance on proper design and build-quality. That tin can at the bottom of the antenna contains the DC shunted coil that must be precisely tuned to the proper resonance. Getting this bit of the design and build right is the difference between an antenna that performs well and one that doesn’t.

The Metz range is based on a heavy gauge stainless steel shell which encloses the 16 AWG coil wound around a substantial form. The coil assembly is sealed in a solid epoxy compound. This build method allows prolonged transmission without danger of coil distortion as the antenna heats up.

Lower quality antennas have fibreglass bodies enclosing light gauge coils and inadequate forms all sealed in a waxy substance. This flimsy internal construction leads to distortion of the coil as the antenna heats up when transmitting, which changes the antenna characteristics, leading to poor performance and even damage to the radio.

To survive in the marine environment the antenna needs to be strongly built of appropriate materials – look for stainless steel components, including both the body and the whip. How the antenna is built internally isn’t so obvious – you’ll need to rely on reputation and a good warranty.

You don’t need to pay through the nose for top quality construction: the Metz Manta is similar in price to ordinary fibreglass bodied antennas and substantially lower in price than some other stainless bodied antennas. And it carries a lifetime coil warranty. Check it out at the Salty John on-line shop.

I’ve been raiding Mrs Salty’s recipe book which she built up over six years of full time cruising. It’s a veritable goldmine of galley cuisine ideas.

Maddie bread is one of my favourites; a great treat for breakfast or as an anytime snack. We liked it in place of toast, which was a pain to make using those stupid wire racks over a cooker burner.

Maddie bread is short for Madeleine’s German Graham Bread: Our friend Madeleine introduced us to it, she claims it’s German in origin, Graham is a type of wholemeal flour and it’s a kind of bread. So, it’s an accurate if not succinct title.

By the way, don’t confuse Graham flour with gram flour; the latter is made from chickpeas, not wheat. 

Anyway, on with the recipe:

1 cup of all purpose flour

2 cups of Graham flour. (Substitute wholemeal outside North America)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup brown sugar
2 cups of buttermilk. (A substitute for buttermilk is ordinary milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar added per cup).
Cinnamon or raisins, optional.

Blend all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add buttermilk – mix with spoon. Add cinnamon or raisins if desired. Turn into greased bread pan and bake for 1 hour at 180ºC (350ºF).

Delicious with butter and jam. Enjoy.

Oh, and here’s a tip for keeping your flour, rice, pasta and other dry staples weevil free – put a few bay leaves in the storage container. Put unopened bags or boxes of these products in large plastic bags with a few bay leaves. I don’t know why this works, but it does.

I’ve just happened upon this painting of the S.S. Vietnam, the French liner on which I fled the family home in Hong Kong in search of fame and fortune (both of which continue to elude me, incidentally).

A bit of research tells me the Vietnam was one of three sister ships built in 1952 and she was destroyed by fire in the mid 1970’s. There was accommodation for 117 in first class, 110 in tourist class and 120 in steerage class. She could cruise at 21 knots.

I was16 years old when I boarded the ship on which I was to share an eight berth cabin in steerage class, right up front near the anchor lockers, for the 31 day journey to Marseilles.

I managed on several occasions to sneak into the tourist section to watch films in their cinema and wander through the first class accommodations, despite the formidable defences designed to keep the unwashed hippies of steerage class from doing so. The ship was luxuriously appointed in first class and tourist class; I remember gorgeous pale wood panelling and colourful tapestries, elaborate chandeliers. Not so in steerage, however. We had painted steel walls and floors and the mess hall was fitted with Formica benches and tables. Perhaps strangely for a French ship the food wasn’t memorable although we did have loads of bread and French red plonk on the table at mealtimes.

My companions were a mixed gang; a group of Japanese ‘transistor girls’ heading to Europe, various back-packers from Britain, France, Canada and Australia, a professional surfer from Hawaii on his way to a competition in Australia accompanied by his photographer friend. Excellent company.

My 8-berth cabin was never fully occupied and between Colombo and Bombay the only other resident was an insane man who took to his bunk with a bottle of Fanta and refused all food, convinced he was being poisoned. They took him away in Bombay strapped to a stretcher.

The ship had set off from Yokohama, picked me up in Hong Kong, and continued to Saigon, Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, Djibouti, Port Said and, finally, Marseilles.

The Vietnam War was in full swing so my three days in Saigon were particularly interesting – a night time curfew, firing squad in the market place, lunch at an American Forces canteen, (courtesy of the Hawaiian surfer dudes) and seeing people having their pictures taken alongside the wreckage of the floating restaurant recently bombed by Viet Cong guerrillas. Fascinating stuff.

A group of five of us left the ship at Port Suez and took a taxi (yes, a taxi!) to Cairo to see the museum and then on to Giza to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx before catching up with the ship again at Port Said, perilously close to its sailing time. It cost us £3 each – a journey of 200 miles during which the Canadian had to take over the driving because the taxi driver had become inebriated over lunch! Looking back, it was a highly hazardous journey but it seemed like fun at the time.

From Marseilles I took the boat train to London and then north to take up my engineering apprenticeship. Great memories, amazing what a chance encounter with a bit of ones past can conjure up!

Wandering the oceans on a small boat has always seemed to me to be remarkable safe, given a modicum of seafaring competence. I don’t know how it compares statistically to, say, back-packing but I don’t believe it’s in any way a dangerous pursuit. And then something comes along to shake you out of your complacency:

On New Years Day 2000, the first day of the new millennium, Don Fairweather, a Canadian single-hander, left Nassau, Bahamas. He stopped off at Normans Cay, about 30 miles southeast of Nassau, where he helped a couple of snorklers who were having trouble with their dinghy motor. He told them he couldn’t stop to chat because he wanted to get to his next anchorage before nightfall.

He hasn’t been seen since.

We spent that New Year’s Day, and the two days after it, anchored at Hawksbill Cay, a couple of miles south of Normans Cay. Then we headed slowly south to Georgetown via Staniel Cay and several other anchorages. We didn’t encounter Don and Intrigue, his 32’ sloop, anywhere along our route.

The boat has never been found, no wreckage has turned up and Don’s EPIRB was never activated.

Laura Fairweather, the younger of Don’s two daughters, flew down to the Bahamas to search for him after all the local efforts to find him failed. She’s convinced he took the cay-hopping inside passage down the Exuma Cays, intending to anchor each night, but I can’t believe that; no-one saw him and it’s a fairly well traveled road at that time of the year. My guess is that he cut through the chain of cays south of Normans Cay to Little San Salvador and then went offshore towards his ultimate destination which, I believe, was the British Virgin Islands.

The weather was pretty benign until 14 January when a strong ‘norther’ came through with winds gusting to 40 knots or so. He would have been long gone by then so it seems unlikely that he succumbed to a weather event. Piracy was unheard of in the Bahamas at that time so that leaves a run-down or other catastrophic event leading to sinking, or he fell over the side. If he was offshore when such a tragedy occurred it wouldn’t be certain that the boat would be found, if left to drift on its own, or that any debris would wash up on an inhabited shore. That’s why I think he went offshore – you couldn’t hide a boat wreck on the inside passage even if he had managed to travel it unnoticed. He was a highly experienced mariner for whom the offshore option would not have been daunting, perhaps even preferred.

It was suggested that he may have wanted to drop out and start a new life but that’s a non-starter – he was by all accounts a contented, fit and healthy 70 year old, long divorced, financially well-off and devoted to his two daughters.

I guess we’ll never know what became of Don Fairweather and Intrigue. And maybe ocean cruising is just that little bit more hazardous than I like to believe.

Boats use coaxial cable for their radio and AIS systems – here’s a look at the connectors you might encounter when installing or repairing the necessary cable runs:

The PL259 and its female partner the SO239. This connector pair was developed in the late 1930’s by a designer with the fantastic name of E. Clark Quackenbush. He worked for Amphenol at the time and I wouldn’t have mentioned him at all were it not for that magnificent name. Anyway, he designed what was to become the most widely used connector in the amateur radio field.

PL stands for plug and the number, 259, is the inventory number assigned to it by the US military. The socket into which it plugs is given another inventory number, 239, and the prefix SO for socket.

The connector was originally called a UHF connector, and still is in some circles, which is odd because it was designed for use at frequencies up to 300 MHz, the VHF band, and not the UHF band which only starts at 300 MHz. Mr Quackenbush probably had nothing to do with the misnaming of his creation.

All marine VHF radios have a built-in SO239 antenna socket to accept a PL259. Top quality marine antennas use the same connector, so the antenna cable will have a PL259 at each end, whatever other connectors it has for intermediate joins.

The PL259 is simple, mechanically rugged and relatively easy to fit. That’s why it’s popular on boats. Purist radio techies will tell you all about its non-constant impedance but at marine frequencies, around 150 MHz, this doesn’t matter a jot.

You can find fitting instructions on the Salty John website, under ‘articles and links’.

The PL259 needs to fit cable diameters from 5mm up to 10.4mm. (The various cable types are discussed elsewhere on the blog). Although you can buy 5mm PL259s it’s more usual to use a standard connector with an adapter insert to suit the appropriate size cable. I like using an adapter because it grips the coaxial braid firmly and that means you don’t need to solder the braid to the connector body. You still need to solder the centre conductor to the centre pin, of course, but that’s easy.

The PL259 is not fully waterproof and the join should be protected with silicone self fusing tape when used outside.

When the cable run on a boat encounters a bulkhead or deck you have make a choice – do you drill a hole and pass the cable through it, continuing the unbroken run, or do you use a bulkhead connector of some sort? I’ll save the debate over the relative merits of deck plugs, deck glands and the various joining methods for another time, but no discussion of the PL259 would be complete without a mention of the barrel connector.

The barrel connector is a double female – you can plug a PL259 into each end and make a mechanically strong connection between two sections of cable. The barrel connector comes in a variety of lengths starting with the small, discontinuously threaded version about 1” long, up to a 12 inch long monster.

The short barrel connector is called a PL258. This shows that the bloke in the spares department in the US military wasn’t on his toes when it came to designating inventory numbers because this is clearly a double socket (SO) and not a plug (PL).

The longer versions are all called PL363 barrel connectors and you have to specify the length.

The PL363 comes with a pair of nuts to secure it through the bulkhead – be that a wall or the deck or a radar arch base. The standard nuts are a bit wimpy but you can buy more substantial ones – the thread is 5/8” 24 tpi.

The BNC connector is a bayonet connector designed for applications where frequent connecting and disconnecting occurs, such as on laboratory oscilloscopes. Despite this it has found its way into applications such as connecting the antenna to an AIS unit, or even for cable to cable connections. BNC stands for Bayonet Neill Concelman, after its two designers.

Aware that the bayonet design allowed noise to intrude when the cable was subjected to vibration the Neill Concelman partnership came up with a more secure variation, the TNC, for Threaded Neill Concelman.

Both connectors have male and female halves – typically the male bit is attached to the AIS unit and the antenna cable is fitted with the mating female connector. Barrel connectors are also available for cable to cable joins. BNC and TNC connector sets are often chosen as cable to cable connectors when the reliable but chunky PL259/barrel connector/PL259 connection is unworkable.

BNC and TNC connectors are fiddlier to fit to the cable than the good old PL259 but they are high performance connectors, used for frequencies as high as 11 GHz. That’s a gazillion times more critical than the simple 150 MHz of VHF.

You could consider fitting a PL259 to your AIS antenna lead and then use an SO239/BNC adapter to connect to the AIS unit – this makes sense because the PL259 is easier to fit than the BNC female connector and, should you lose your masthead VHF antenna, you can simply stick the AIS antenna lead, sans adapter, into the back of your VHF radio and you’re back in business radio-wise.

Another connector you might encounter on boats is the N connector – named for that serial connector designer Mr Paul Neill of Bell Labs who designed it in the 1940s. This is another connector set that has high performance, being suitable for frequencies up to 11 GHz. Commercial VHF antennas often come with an N connector and RG213 cable.

If you have satellite communications on your boat you may encounter the F connector to attach to a remote antenna system and if you want to connect your handheld VHF radio to a fixed antenna you might use an SMA connector, although some manufacturers have their own proprietary antenna connector.

I think I’ve rambled on quite enough for one day – I hope some will have found the foregoing illuminating, and I know that many will have slipped into a coma after the first paragraph or two.

There is a bewildering array of sealants available at your chandlers for jobs requiring a watertight seal or bond between surfaces.Attaching deck hardware, repairing the inflatable dinghy, making a hull to deck seal, fitting portlights or sealing through-hulls and seacocks all require sealants with special qualities. Here’s a brief run through of what’s available and what it’s good for:

Silicone.
These are easy-to-use and generally clean products with a variety of uses such as isolating dissimilar metals and for sealing wood, glass and most plastics. They resist most boaty chemicals. Not recommended for underwater tasks such as sealing through hulls or for really tough jobs like hull to deck joints. A bit wimpy on the adhesive front.

Polysulphide (polysulfide).Fantastically versatile and strong, stay flexible, bond well to most surfaces and can be used above or below the waterline. Not suitable for bonding plastics – melt acrylics and some plastics such as ABS and polycarbonates such as Lexan. Yikes. Take ages to cure.

Polyurethane.
The Incredible Hulk of the sealant world! Powerfully adhesive, they cure to form a flexible seal that’s all but impossible to break. There are several brands available with different cure rates, elongation characteristics, and tensile strength. Sika offers a large range of polyurethane hybrids for different specific purposes, Sikaflex 291 being the all-rounder. The universe could be held together with 3M 5200. I sealed a large gash in my Zodiac with this product and it was still going strong years later. Hull to deck joints, sealing through hulls and any other permanent bonding job cry out for polyurethane but don’t use it on acrylics. And don’t use it on anything you might contemplate taking apart again. Ever.

Polyether.

Polyurethane’s better looking, smarter but slightly wimpier brother. Looks good for a long time, cures very quickly, UV resistant, ultra flexible, shrugs off teak oils so can be used as a deck caulk, doesn’t stink and doesn’t shrink. What’s not to like? Oh, and you can use it on plastics, even ABS and polycarbonates. 3M 4000UV is an example.
 
Then we have a bunch of specialised sealants: Butyls, acrylics and bedding compounds. I’ve never found a use for these, given the availability of the above, but there may be special, obscure applications for which they are more suitable than the mainstream sealant types.