January 2014 – Salty John : The Blog

To survive in the marine environment the VHF 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. 

That tin can at the bottom of the antenna contains the DC shunted coil which 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. 

Metz antennas are 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 sealed in wax. Such flimsy internal construction leads to distortion of the coil as the antenna heats up when transmitting and this changes the antenna characteristics, leading to poor performance and even damage to the radio. 

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 it carries a lifetime coil warranty.

Gun Cay Lighthouse was silhouetted against the pink wash of dawn and the spicy aroma of exotic plants drifted on the warm breeze. Adriana tugged gently at her anchor chain as she bobbed in the slight swell rolling onto the Great Bahama Bank from the Florida Straits. I sat on deck and sipped my coffee, enjoying the magic of a new landfall.

Our journey from Key Largo across the mighty Gulf Stream had been carefully planned. The distance is only 80 miles or so but I knew it was important to pick the right conditions: The wind in these parts is mainly easterly which means an uncomfortable beat, and when the winter cold fronts march down from Canada they bring the blustery northers, giving wind-over-tide on an oceanic scale and a dangerous sea soon builds. Between the rock and the hard place there is a small window of opportunity – before the onset of a norther the wind goes light and switches to the south and the dash is on!

And so, one Friday evening in early December we hauled anchor and headed up the coast to Rodriguez Key, off Key Largo, to take advantage of a cold front on its way from the frozen north. By the next morning the wind had veered as expected and we set off, motor sailing through a moderate swell, the big mainsail damping the roll and the Yanmar chugging away at half revs, carrying us on the first leg of our Caribbean adventure.

The Gulf Stream pours relentlessly from southwest to northeast, a vast river in the ocean, its warm waters influencing the climate and eco-structure of whole continents.  This Blue God, as writer William MacLeish would have it, squeezes between Florida and the Bahamas, accelerating to over three knots at its axis, bearing flotsam and unwary navigators with it. 

My vector triangle gave a course-to-steer that was fully fifteen degrees south of the rhumb line and my sums were right, it was a spot-on landfall, a very satisfying result akin to holing a long putt on a green with a radical right to left slope.

Now we’d need to get snugged down for the arrival of the norther which was hot on our heels before we could move on across the bank for Chubb Cay and Nassau.

Although VHF range is considerably enhanced by height above sea level and a masthead location is the obvious choice for a sailing boat, there are occasions when a deck or rail mounted antenna is a good option. On small power boats this is your only option.

Even on sailing boats, antennas can be mounted on the stern rail to avoid congestion at the masthead and to provide redundancy should the masthead radio antenna fail or be lost in a dismasting.  Masthead congestion is a real problem when you are aiming to keep your communication antennas 1m apart. 

A standard 1m whip antenna such as the Metz or AlphaOne mounted on an extension pole is a good arrangement for a vhf radio antenna because you get the combination of height above sea level and the broad radiation pattern of this type of antenna. A long fibreglass fishing rod antenna has a much narrower radiation pattern so that it is often ‘looking’ at the sea or sky rather than the horizon as the boat rock and rolls. 

Because AIS signals come from communication towers mounted high up on a ship’s superstructure you’ll get reasonable range to your deck mounted antenna, certainly enough range to allow time to avoid even the fastest moving vessel.

The rail bracket pictured above allows a Metz or AlphaOne antenna to be mounted on the stern rail. Its tool-less operation means you can remove and stow the antenna when you leave the boat. 

The adapter, pictured on the left, is available for mounting an AlphaOne or Metz antenna to a standard 1–14 tpi threaded extension pole or ratchet bracket or deck stub.

To get the full potential out of your radio or AIS engine you need to consider your antenna arrangement seriously – buy the best antenna, cable and connectors and site them as best you can within the limitations of your boat.

The Family Island Regatta takes place every April in George Town, Bahamas. George Town is a delightful place located at the southern end of the Exuma chain. We’ve spent happy times anchored there and in 2000 we were there for the regatta, anchored in the thick of it.

Regatta video, 2000

The regatta was originally set up in 1954 in an attempt to breathe fresh life into the Bahamian workboat fleet when the era of working sail was declining and many boats were falling into disrepair. It also provided an opportunity for local sailors and boat builders to show off their skills to their fellow Bahamians as well as to a growing number of visiting yachtsmen. 

In 1973 the regatta was held in Nassau as part of the Bahamian Independence celebrations and a new National Regatta Committee was set up to run it and all subsequent events back in George Town.

The boats are now designed and built to win races but they have to stay largely true to their Bahamian sailing smack heritage; they must be built, owned and sailed by Bahamians (although the odd foreign crew member is allowed), they must have wooden hulls and masts, no spreaders, no alloy spars, no synthetic sails, no winches.

Stability is provided by the crew sitting out on sliding planks or hiking boards, scuttling in and out to balance the pressure of the wind in the enormous mainsails; I’ve seen this system on the ‘log’ canoes that race on Chesapeake Bay and it’s not surprising to find that the Bahamian smacks share common ancestry with the Chesapeake Bay oyster boats.

Spectator boats are allowed to chase the fleet around the course. While we were there the conditions were such that the course took the boats tacking through the small boat anchorage, a thrilling experience intensified by some close encounters with our bowsprit! 

Of the hundreds of bends, hitches and splices available to the sailor to accomplish his myriad of ropy tasks he actually needs relatively few. 

I started out learning every knot in the book but over time I came to the realization that I actually used the same knots over and over again. 

The first knot I and probably most sailors learn is the bowline. This is a useful loop knot – I use it for many things including attaching sheets to jib, tying up to rings, making a loop to drop over a bollard and for joining two lines together.

There are many variations on the bowline – bowline on a bight, spilled-hitch bowline, running bowline and so on – but the basic version is all I ever use.

Hitches are used to attach rope to something – another rope, a rail, a ring or even back to itself. I use the rolling hitch a lot. Most often I use it to attach my anchor snubber to the anchor chain – I started out using a chain hook but after the first year or so switched to the rolling hitch for its reliability and simplicity. It’s also useful for attaching the hammock to the forestay. 

When I was first shown the rolling hitch I was told it was very useful for clapping a line onto a jib sheet to take the strain whilst undoing a riding turn on a winch; in all my sailing I have never encountered this circumstance but, should it ever arise, I’m ready.

I use a clove hitch for temporarily attaching fenders to the rail during docking. I use the round turn and two half hitches to secure to mooring posts and rings if I want them snugged up tight

I use a sheet bend to bend sheets together. To non-nautical types I suppose that sounds bizarre! It just means to join two lines together. You can achieve the same thing with two bowlines but this knot is more compact and simple when you know how. The double sheet bend is even better.

We all use the reef knot to tie in reefs, of course, and that’s a bend too.

That’s about it for knots – you really don’t need to be proficient at any others. But, for some, knot tying is great fun and a rewarding pastime – have at it.

Last November I blogged about Dylan Winter’s short video on using tea candles and flower pots to heat a small room. We used a similar system on Adriana to survive the occasional cold snap on our three year cruise.

With the bitter temperatures brought to the USA by the much-reported Polar Vortex there has been a revival in interest in this heating method. Dylan’s video has now reached an astonishing 5 million hits.

Here’s the link: Flower pot heater video

World governments are rushing to embrace this technology as a substitute for wind farms, solar power and fracking – as you can see from the artisits impression of the first three-flower-pot size power plant under construction. It will provide enough energy to heat a small shed.

Dominican Republic, 1991

Samaná is a pleasant place to while away the days but hurricane season was approaching and we would soon want to hoist the sails and be underway for the Mona Passage and Puerto Rico. Before leaving Samaná we wanted to visit the waterfalls about which other cruisers had spoken, so we boarded a moto-concho and told the driver to head for the hills. 

The Samaná moto-concho is a luxurious mode of transport compared to the hazardous multi-person pillion ride of its namesake in Puerto Plata. Here, a motor cycle tows a trailer with upholstered seats and a fabric sun awning – bliss. 

The views were breath taking as we wound our way uphill, the little Japanese engine buzzing like a demented wasp. From up here the ocean looked vast and empty and the brisk trade wind whipped the tops off the waves, sending white horses galloping to the horizon. 
The driver left us where a path led off the roadside into the jungle and mimed that he would return for us in two hours. 

We set off into the bush and found that the path followed a small stream, and here and there were signs of human habitation: a chicken-wire fence, some planted vegetables and, standing right in our way, an enormous pink pig. It was tethered to a tree but had enough rope to allow it to wallow in the stream to the left of the path and to nose hopefully at the mesh fence protecting the vegetables to the right of the path. There was no way we could skirt the pig and I didn’t like the way it was looking at me. Carol was all for strolling by but, having suffered a pig scare earlier in life, I was a little reluctant.

The stalemate was broken when a young man dressed only in khaki trousers stepped out of the jungle and announced he was Arturo, a guide. I couldn’t see why we needed a guide to walk along a clearly defined path but he did seem to know the pig and that alone was enough to justify his modest fee. The pig’s eyes never left me as we passed and I had a feeling it was in cahoots with Arturo.  

On we went at a brisk pace and soon the steep path petered out to nothing and we took to the rock-strewn river course, criss-crossing the fast flowing stream on boulders and fallen logs. We stopped at a small spring to drink clear icy water and to sample a tamarind picked from a nearby tree. 

We eventually emerged from the jungle onto a meadow where horses were grazing and a few rustic shacks had been erected. A spectacular waterfall plummeted down a tall escarpment. Arturo apologised, with elaborate hand signals, for the fact that a recent lack of rainfall had diminished the splendour of the scene but it looked pretty impressive to me. We were soon frolicking in the cool, clear pond at the foot of the falls, being pummelled by the thundering cascade. We couldn’t complain about the pressure in this shower, and I bet we hadn’t been this salt-free for months.

The return hike went quickly and we found the pig standing in the stream surrounded by a group of apparently amphibious chickens. This time the pig ignored me because, of course, Arturo had collected his fee.

We ate wonderfully sweet bananas bought for a few pesos by the roadside while we waited for the return of the moto-concho. Then we were on our way, the landscape a blur as we hurtled back down the hill to Samaná, the fringe of the sun awning crackling like machine-gun fire, the whole contraption swaying alarmingly as the driver skilfully avoided the potholes and obstructions in the road. Chickens, goats and children scattered before us as we rocketed into town. A little shaken by the unaccustomed velocity we repaired to Samaná Sam’s for a much-needed reviver. 

We’d soon be on our way down-island taking happy memories of Samaná with us.

Electric level switches that are located in the bilge to operate an alarm or activate a bilge pump seem to be the least reliable piece of equipment on a boat, judging by the number of times they are condemned in sailing forums.

In my obsessive, continuing, search for the ultimate bilge pump switch, I came across the report of a test completed by the UK fishing industry’s own standards organisation, a company set up to improve safety and efficiency in the fishing industry.

Deep sea fishing boats have to carry a high water alarm to warn of flooding and the reliability of these systems, based as they are on a bilge switch operating a siren, is a problem.

This company did comprehensive testing on six or seven systems ranging in cost from nearly £1000 down to under £100. Within this group were resistive switches, optical switches, and an air pressure switch.

These systems were each installed and operated on a North Sea fishing boat for a minimum of six months. One system was removed during the test because it was clearly unreliable. Of the rest, it was noted that the Water Witch based system (the cheapest, incidentally) and the Jabsco air pressure switch were very reliable. 

Of the resistive type switches it was noted that only the Water Witch sensor didn’t need to be periodically wiped clean whereas the other resistive types and the optical sensor gave false alarms, or wouldn’t switch off after the water level was reduced, if they weren’t periodically wiped clean. 

The report contained pictures of the conditions in which all the systems had to operate and they make the typical yacht bilge look as sanitised as an operating theatre!

I think bilge switches, whether they are expected to activate a pump or simply an alarm, have a most onerous task simply because of the hostile environment in which they perform. Salt water, oil, chemicals, debris, irregular and sometimes violent motion all contribute to nightmarish operating conditions. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that all bilge switches work some of the time and no switch works all of the time. It isn’t so much that bilge switches are unreliable – it’s that they are inconsistently reliable. 

I think the Water Witch would be my choice – until something better comes along.

Beware of the three-legged hippo!