March 2012 – Salty John : The Blog

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.

Sunday was a glorious spring day up here in the northwest so we went for a little tootle down the Lancaster Canal on Minnie, the yacht that thinks it’s a narrowboat. There were few other boats about which is typical of this waterway at any time of the year – we enjoy the relative solitude but it baffles me when the marinas are packed with boats. In my experience it’s like this in most boating centres – 80 percent of boats never leave the dock. I suppose we should be grateful they don’t or the adjacent waters would be heaving with activity.

Last August I reported the sighting of a terrapin sunning itself on a log on a nearby stretch of the canal. Here’s a picture I snapped at the same place on Sunday – it looks like this terrapin has taken up permanent residence in this spot. Terrapins are not indigenous to Britain, we don’t have any native turtles, but many terrapins and tortoises set loose when the Ninja Turtle craze abated have taken well to the British way of life.

I apologise for the inferior quality of the picture: I was steering with my foot, negotiating a bend and passing a parked narrowboat whilst snapping away.

Actually, it’s the Misere wiggles, a section of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in the southern USA that passes alongside Little Lake Misere. The ICW carries considerable commercial traffic through this section and the huge triple-wide tows have to negotiate this series of bends, day and night. Normally they do this without incident, warning each other of their location and intentions on channel 13 in a laconic shorthand unique to these long distance truck drivers of the waterway.

Then we come along in our little yacht, desperately searching for somewhere safe to anchor for the night. Such places are like hen’s teeth on this stretch but we think we’ve struck it lucky: A small cut runs off the main ICW and into Little Lake Misere – it looks an ideal spot until we realize how shallow it is – we nose in as far as we can, drop the hook and then realise that our rear end is sticking out an uncomfortable distance.

The big tows – three barges wide and a thousand feet long – have to take up almost the entire width of the channel to get around the bends and this brings the tug’s sterns perilously close to the bank at the entrance to our little anchorage. Guess why it’s so shallow? Right, each tow pushes tons of mud into the cut as it powers around the corner. It’s a losing battle for the relative trickle of water washing through to Little Lake Misere.

I’m on the radio the whole night, making our position known to each tow as its lights heave into view. Their hugely powerful searchlights seek and find us and I catch glimpses of faces in the cabs high above us as they storm by, powerful diesels thudding.

They’re mainly amused. They tell me not to worry. Ha! That’s easy for them to say. They’ll try to miss us, if they don’t the paperwork will be hell, they joke. They promise they’ll try not to bury us as they swing wide to line up for the next section of the misery wiggles, mighty propellers churning up the mud.

Then the mosquitoes arrive. Millions of them. All hungry. I’m their special treat this hot and sultry night in Louisiana. They seem to relish the mosquito repellent dressing – perhaps it goes well with my succulent Anglo-Saxon blood. My only defence is the fly swat which I wield even as I talk earnestly to the next tow captain in a seemingly never ending procession.

By morning I’m exhausted but I’ve saved the ship and her crew and I can wear my battle scars proudly – hundreds of itching welts over every bit of exposed skin.

The misery wiggles, just another one of the joys of small boat cruising.

Sometimes danger comes from unexpected places. When you’re snug in a Bahamian anchorage you don’t expect to encounter a ship sliding by a few feet away. 

This is a clip from a video I made in the Bahamas ten or more years ago. The inter-island ships were getting annoyed at what they saw as encroachment by yachts into the deep water channel through Elizabeth Harbour; I guess this guy was making his point quite dramatically!

When you fit a PL259 connector to marine quality coaxial cable the most common problem is inadvertently shorting the centre conductor to the PL259 body. This is because the centre core on marine quality cable is stranded; when you feed the stripped cable into the PL259 it’s difficult to see if the stranded centre core has gone cleanly into the centre pin or if a few strands have been bent back into contact with the connector body. It’s like trying to pick the oats out of horse manure wearing boxing gloves – frustrating.

You can solve the problem by soldering the strands of the centre core together, but many people find that task daunting.

So, here is a tip that may save hours of frustration! No matter what the fitting instructions tell you, when you strip the cable in preparation for fitting into the connector, leave a long section of bared centre core –  at least 30mm, a bit more than an inch in old money. Then, when you feed the cable into the PL259 body you will be able to see that the centre core has cleanly entered the centre pin before the remaining cable obscures your view. If you’ve tried it the old way you’ll know what I’m talking about.

It will also be obvious by the condition of the centre core protruding through the centre pin that it has come through undamaged. You’ll now need to trim off the centre core flush with the end of the pin.

With this method you’ll also need to trim off some of the exposed braid before folding it back on itself because in stripping off so much insulation you’ll end up with too much of it; it’ll stick out untidily from the end of the connector unless you give it a haircut.

When correctly fitted there should be no continuity between the centre core and the body of the connector. But if a strand of centre core has been snagged you’ll see a short circuit between centre pin and body, in which case start again.

Only when you’re happy that there is no short circuit across the PL259 should you solder the joint. Trust me, there are few things as aggravating as seeing that meter dial flick over to zero – no resistance – when you hold the probes across the pin and body of your neatly soldered PL259. Unsoldering is up there with getting toothpaste back in the tube.

Note that the cable must be disconnected from both the radio and the antenna when checking the connectors. The antenna is internally grounded and will look like a dead short to a multimeter.

Hope this helps.

There’s a marathon thread on the YBW forum which started out as a discussion of the relative merits of long (full) keels versus other configurations for a cruising boat. Here’s my two cents worth.

Two boats I’ve cruised on were of the same length but with very different underwater profiles and vital statistics: Adriana was a Phil Rhodes designed 32’ heavy displacement sloop with a full keel and cut-away forefoot; she was easy on the eye, gentle of motion, sailed surprisingly well in light air and looked after her crew in heavy weather.

Shiwara was a 32’ Jeanneau cruiser-racer designed by Phillipe Briand and based on an IOR three-quarter tonner. Built in 1980 she wasn’t extreme by today’s standards but she was relatively light, very fast and had that impatient, skittish, feel about her.

We cruised full time on Adriana for three years – US eastern seaboard, Bahamas, Caribbean – and we loved her. Accommodation was a bit tight as you’d expect from her narrow beam and short waterline length, and those pretty overhangs could lead to hobby-horsing if we let too much weight creep into her ends. But she was solid as a rock, cruised through crab pot minefields with impunity and crashed bravely to windward when required to.

Much later we bought Shiwara as a weekender and she suited that role well enough. She was a fast boat and although we didn’t formally race her every other boat on the water was seen as opposition and, of course, she always won! She was comfortable below decks, more roomy than Adriana.

We moved aboard Shiwara for a trip from Texas to the Caribbean; we grounded in Galveston Bay before the trip was properly underway and subsequently discovered that the impact on the deep fin keel had caused a stress crack in the hull. As the cruise progressed the water influx increased and we finally had to stop for repairs. Even without the keel problem I was beginning to realise that she wasn’t suitable as a full time cruiser – too light, too frail, too twitchy. We sold her in Florida.

But if you think I would only go cruising in a full keel boat you’d be wrong.

Whilst I do like full keels with encapsulated lead ballast for their relative indestructibility I’ve sailed quite long distances, and in seriously heavy weather, in boats with more performance oriented underbodies. A Ron Holland designed Swan 42, heavily IOR influenced, kept me safe through a vicious gale on the US east coast, heaving-to comfortably for eight hours in howling wind and big seas. And a fin-and-skeg forty footer of South African design ran for over a hundred miles downwind in relative comfort before a shrieking black southeaster  – the worst storm the ‘Cape of Storms’ had seen for twenty years.

If a spade rudder is built to withstand impact and not just water pressure there’s no need to eschew it for cruising; a properly designed and attached fin keel isn’t a liability, either. Of course a hull with appendages is always going to be more inclined to catch pot lines and to take the ground less comfortably than a full keel but this doesn’t exclude them from selection as good cruising boats. What does exclude a boat from the task, for me, is frailty and skittishness.

Deciding on a cruising boat purely on the basis of underwater configuration is just way too simple.

For more thoughts on cruising boat selection look at the Articles and Links section on the Salty John website: Defining the Cruising Boat.

There is a link to the North Sails tuning guide archive on the Salty John website. These guides are incredibly useful if you’re lucky enough to own one of the many types of boats covered. If your boat isn’t in the North Sail archive, try the website of other sailmakers and see if you strike it lucky there.

If there is no tuning guide for your specific boat model, don’t despair, each Loos & Co. tension gauge comes with full instructions including suggested preliminary settings for different wire sizes and rig types.

Loos makes two different classes of gauge for wire rigging – Standard and Pro. They also make two sizes of gauge for rod rigging. We carry the metric version of all sizes in stock.

The standard range comprises two models, type A(91M) covering wire sizes 2.5mm, 3mm and 4mm and type B(90M) for wire sizes 5mm, 6mm and 7mm. These gauges are simple to use and accurate to 5% at mid range.

For more accuracy and convenience choose the Pro models: PT1M for 2.5mm, 3mm and 4mm, the PT2M for 5mm, 6mm and the lower tension end of 7mm and the PT3m for 7mm, 8mm, 9mm and 10mm wire. These gauges are a little more accurate, 3% at mid-range.

The Pro range is more convenient to use because the gauge is left on the wire whilst the turnbuckle adjustment is made whereas the Standard range gauges must be removed whilst the wire is adjusted.

Rod rigging can be accurately tuned with the RT10 and RT11 gauges.

Having the correct rig tension is important because a loose rig can impart shock loads to shrouds and chain plates as the mast flops from side to side; a too tight rig can cause structural damage.

A well tuned rig will have equally tensioned shrouds so that the boat will perform well on both tacks, the leeward shrouds won’t dangle flaccidly and the forestay won’t sag. She’ll feel right on all points of sail.

A tuned rig is a happy rig. Fair winds for the coming season!

I often bang on about the use of a Metz Manta VHF antenna mounted on the pushpit rail to send and receive AIS data whilst also providing back-up for the radio antenna.

Metz also makes an AIS optimised VHF antenna – it’s available on the Salty John website.

The marine VHF band runs from 156 MHz to 163 MHz. Most, but not all, VHF antennas send and receive over this entire band – they have sufficient bandwidth to perform at both ends of the range. But the performance, the quality of the signal, drops off towards the extremities of the range. This effect is less with top quality antennas and worryingly obvious on those of lower quality.

AIS optimised antennas were introduced to provide better performance at the higher end of the marine VHF band where the AIS signals reside – 162 MHz. But, if you want to use your AIS antenna as back up for your radio antenna you’re going to want to be sure that by optimising the performance at one end of the band you’re not going to jeopardise performance at the other end, where Channel 16 resides.

Well, you can rest assured that the new AIS optimised version of our VHF antenna has the quality of bandwidth to ensure it will perform well as a back-up radio antenna.

However, I continue to recommend that if you are ever going to use your AIS antenna to replace your radio antenna, go for the Metz Manta. If your AIS antenna is never to be used to back up your radio antenna, go for the Metz AIS optimised version. Simple as that.