March 2014 – Salty John : The Blog

Sheet winches provide mechanical advantage to allow us to multiply our puny muscle power to handle the very high sheet loads required on our cruising and racing boats. These loads are in the range of 500 to 3,000 lbs (220 kg to 1400 kg) on the typical cruising boat. Most sailors can apply around 55lbs (25kg) of tension without doing themselves a mischief so clearly some help is required.   Although small boats can make do with simple ungeared winches, for most of us our boats are likely to be fitted with winches with power ratios from around 16:1 up to 50:1 or so. And if you’ve ever wondered what the winch model number refers to – No 16, No 44 and so on – it’s the power ratio. You multiply this power ratioby the force you apply at the winch handle to get the force that is applied to the sheet or halyard. So, if you have a No 16 winch and you put in your full 55 lbs at the winch handle you’ll be able to haul in a sheet with 880 lbs of load on it. With a power ratio of 40:1 you can handle 2,200 lbs and with 55:1 winches you’ll handle a massive 3,000 lbs of sheet load.

Of course, friction takes its toll so you you’ll want to keep your winches well maintained and your sheets and halyards leading fair.

If you stow your main the old fashioned way, rather than use a combined lazy jack and stowage bag system, you’ll either stuff it or flake it or both. I‘ve always found the most efficient way to get the main down and under control is to stuff it. You apply the topping lift, release the halyard, form a ‘bag’ with the first yard of sail and into this stuff the remaining sail as it tumbles down the mast track. You punch the cloth into the bag and as each batten arrives you align it fore and aft. Pull the sail aft so it doesn’t all pile up near the gooseneck. You then roll the ‘bag’ onto the top of the boom and secure it with sail ties. Job done. This gives you a secured mainsail in quick time, but I have to admit that the result looks a bit like a boa constrictor that’s swallowed a family of warthogs. Not pretty, and for some boat owners, unacceptable. Flaking the sail as you drop it really requires two people; one stands at the mast and encourages slabs of sail cloth to fall to alternate sides like a concertina’s bellows whilst the other stands at the other end of the sail and hauls the flakes aft, aligns the battens and pushes the reefing lines into the folds to stop them dropping untidily onto the deck. You then secure with sail ties. After a few years the sail learns where the flakes come and the operation becomes more efficient. The result can be such a satisfying work of art that you delay the fitting of the sail cover so that others can admire your handiwork.

Many sailors, me included, use a combination of the two methods – stuff it until you’re at the dock or have your anchor down, and then go back and flake it, so it looks pretty.

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. 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.

Spreaders come in lots of shapes and configurations: Racier boats have spreaders with aerofoil sections, like little aircraft wings, to reduce wind resistance. 

Cruising boats tend to have longer spreaders to give a broader based rig, sacrificing sheeting angle for better mast support.

Old fashioned cruising boats under about 45’ tend to have single spreader rigs, for the sake of simplicity whilst more modern boats with relatively taller masts might adopt multiple spreaders at quite short boat lengths. 

The spreader tip should be firmly attached to the shroud – Selden Masts, who give good rigging advice on their website, state quite emphatically that you should be able to stand on the spreader without it sliding down the shroud.

The spreader should bisect the angle at which it meets the shroud which means it will point slightly upwards. Under no circumstances should it droop. Drooping spreaders are a symptom of a rig in distress, a rig on the road to catastrophic failure.

As I wander through marinas my eye is instinctively drawn aloft to the rigs, searching for drooping spreaders. I stub my toes a lot and occasionally come close to an unintentional bath, but I’m always rewarded by the sight of a variety of culprits from a single dipping spreader to an entire triple spreader rig going south. 

Check those spreaders!

The Mona Passage separates Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico and has a reputation for unpredictable currents and, when the wind gets up, nasty seas.

I discussed the passage with the captain of a local whale watching boat and he told me not to try it in anything over 15 knots of wind – better still, he advised, wait for a dead calm. 

The forecast was for light winds for the next couple of days so we upped anchor and laid a course towards Puerto Rico.

It was early evening as we made our way out of Samaná Bay and the windows of the buildings clinging to the cliffs above us turned to molten gold in the setting sun. 

As night fell, Carol and I sipped coffee in the cockpit while Adriana cut a phosphorescent wake through the slight swell, exhaust gurgling gently and the mainsail sheeted flat. 

In the morning Cabo Engano, the most easterly point on Hispaniola, was off to starboard and we were entering the Mona Passage.

Each hour I marked our position on the chart – the course was straight as an arrow toward Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and our distance-made-good never varied. There was no current and there was no wind. We moved across a vast, gently undulating sea of quicksilver and to the north a freighter was eerily suspended on the shimmering horizon.

The day crawled by and I treated myself to a cold beer, holding the icy bottle against my neck between sips. Carol read a novel, naked under a broad-brimmed straw hat. Bucket showers of wonderfully cool seawater briefly broke the lethargy in which we happily wallowed.

It was late afternoon as we approached Isla Desecheo, which we would leave to starboard and be safely past by nightfall. Of immediate concern was a container ship on collision course and I hailed her on VHF. The captain told me to hold my course and he would miss me and, true to his word, he swept past a mile or so astern. 

Night fell and the lights of Mayaguez twinkled on the horizon. The wind was back and I set the jib, slacked the mainsheet and cut the engine. Adriana leaned her shoulder into the sea and came alive, the sea swishing down her lee side and tumbling into her wake. 

The Mona Passage – a pussy cat, really.

Wherever sailors gather together for a beer and a gam you’ll hear this discussion: Deck stepped or keel stepped mast for cruising?

One of the benefits of a keel stepped mast for a long distance cruiser is that, in the event of a shroud or stay failing, the deck aperture will probably hold the mast up long enough for you to reduce the load on it. With a deck stepped mast it’s more likely to topple straight over. 

But, on the other hand, the deck stepped mast is more likely to remain in one piece and could be recovered to set sail again. The keel stepped mast could break above deck leaving a stub, which may or may not be useful to jury rig a sail. Also, there is the possibility of the collapsing keel stepped mast structurally damaging the coach roof at the aperture.

The keel stepped mast is more likely to leak – mast boots are a pain in the neck. On my ketch I found that the most effective mast aperture sealer was duct tape. Once the deck chocks were set up I’d wrap the whole thing with duct tape and then cover that with the painted canvas decorative boot to improve the aesthetics. 

Any leakage into the keel stepped mast through halyard and cable entries will end up in the bilge, but the mast does provide a convenient conduit to get cables below. In the case of a deck stepped mast there is no way to get cabling below without making holes through the coach roof or deck and these can be a source of leaks if not properly protected by a Cableport, swan neck tube or deck glands.


You might think that the deck stepped mast would have the significant advantage of saving space in the cabin but this isn’t necessarily so; a compression post is often needed to take the rig load from the deck stepped mast down to the keel. If the layout of the boat is such that a bulkhead can be advantageously placed directly under the mast step then there probably is a space saving. If that bulkhead has a door in it you’ll need to be careful that rig tension doesn’t distort the coach roof enough to jam the door.

I’ve happily cruised with both arrangements – keel and deck stepped – and can’t say I’d pick one over the other if I were planning a new boat. However, in the case of trailer sailors, or when you cruise in an area that requires you to sail under bridges, a deck stepped, tabernacle mounted mast wins hands down.

I’ve spent many a happy hour on docks, engaged in dock talk – the exchanging of views on a wide range of subjects. The opinions and advice handed out are based on the personal experiences of the participants in the discussion. Or on something they’d once heard.

Dock talk is always interesting and entertaining even if you wouldn’t bet the farm on the veracity of the opinions expressed. Sometimes it’s astonishingly insightful, sometimes hysterically funny or, at times, poignant. 

Sometimes dock talk is fueled by a beer or two, supped against a backdrop of the sun dipping into a tropical ocean. That’s the best kind of dock talk. 

We are constantly bombarded by exhortations to wear our life jackets. This message is aimed at participants in all forms of water sport including rowing, dinghy sailing, canoeing, kayaking and jet skiing as well as those cruising and racing larger keel boats. This broad based message tends to overshadow and undermine the most important piece of advice you can give to an offshore sailor – stay on the boat!  More important by far than a life jacket is a clipped-on harness. If you fall off a moving boat out at sea the first problem you have is attracting the attention of, and being located by, those remaining on the boat. Even in calm conditions a person in the water is difficult to see, in even moderately choppy conditions it becomes infinitely more so. If your absence is noticed immediately and the MOB drill is slickly accomplished you have a reasonable chance of the boat returning to your location. At night in rough weather you have vastly reduced chances of being found. If you are single handed your chances are practically none existent. And then you have to get back aboard. If it’s warm, you’re fit and the seas are calm you can climb back up a boarding ladder. If you are cold, exhausted and waterlogged it will be difficult or impossible to climb aboard without assistance. If that assistance is a slightly-built partner you’ll need to have a well thought out system of tackles and winches to stand any chance of being recovered. The most important life saver on a boat is a single-minded determination to stay on board. That means knowing how to work the boat safely, having handholds in the right places, having well designed and solidly attached safety lines and wearing a harness when conditions warrant it. On my boat we wear harnesses underway:

  • In heavy weather
  • At night
  • When alone on deck

By all means wear a life jacket, but not instead of a harness.