October 2014 – Salty John : The Blog

One of the greatest gifts to the cruising sailor was the introduction of affordable GPS units. How many wannabe cruisers headed off into the wide blue yonder because they now had a reliable means of fixing their position is anyone’s guess but I’ll bet it’s a large number.

It was President Ronald Reagan who made the decision to open up the Global Positioning System for civilian use after the USSR accidentally shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger plane that had strayed into restricted territory.

The full constellation of GPS satellites wasn’t in place until 1994 but I got my first GPS set in 1991 and from that time on my sextant and Loran receiver were condemned to the scrap heap.

Initially, accuracy was restricted to around 100 metres but with the turning off of Selective Availability (SA) in 2000, accuracy for civilian users improved to 10 metres. To know your position to a boat length was mind-boggling.

The Global Positioning System spawned an industry that has for more than twenty years churned out devices to receive, interpret and extrapolate the data from orbiting satellites.
Palm-sized handheld GPS units with their own batteries free us from the worry of losing our way in the event of catastrophic electrical failure on the boat.

We no longer have to take the written lat/long information from the screen and plot it on a chart; we have chart plotters that draw the pictures for us. Going to sea without paper charts was unthinkable just a few years ago but now it’s, if not commonplace, a growing trend.

We’d be lost without GPS.

Towing an inflatable dinghy is best accomplished with a towing bridle that attaches to the dinghy at two points on either side of the bow. This helps to ensure the dinghy is pulled in a straight line and doesn’t yaw about crazily.

Some inflatable dinghies have towing rings on either side of the bow and, if not, you can buy glue-on rings. If you have any doubts about the integrity of your towing rings, you can run the towing lines from eye-bolts in the transom, along each side, through the bow rings and then connect them to the towing bridle. This puts most of the load on the transom, using the glued-on rings only as guides.

The towline must float or Sod’s law will dictate that it’ll get wrapped round the rudder, propeller or both. So the towing bridle needs to be polypropylene line or it should be buoyed with one or more floats.

In fresh conditions very light inflatable dinghies can become airborne. It’s true that leaving the outboard motor on the dinghy provides useful weight to counteract this tendency, but a better alternative is to partially fill the dinghy with water and keep the outboard safely stored on its pulpit bracket.

I like to use quite a long towline if there’s a following sea, adjusting the length to keep the dinghy one wave behind – I find this minimises jerking on the line and also prevents the dinghy colliding with the stern of the boat. An alternative favoured by some is to pull the dinghy right up to the stern – how successful this is depends to a large extent on the shape of the transom. Another technique, if you have a suitably shaped rear end, is to tow the dinghy backwards by the transom, but the transom must be held up clear of the water or it will try to plough the ocean, unsuccessfully.

In rough conditions there’s no really satisfactory alternative to stowing the dinghy aboard – davits are great if the mothership is big enough to accommodate them, or lashed to the deck, or deflated and stowed in a locker.

In the anchorage the dinghy is prone to nudging the boat annoyingly and is, sad to say, vulnerable to theft. Fastening the dinghy tight to the quarter with bow and stern lines keeps it under control – just make sure you fender it well. As a defence against theft, though, you really need to get the dinghy aboard – or at least hang it, horizontally, clear of the water on a halyard.

Dinghies are an absolutely essential adjunct to the cruising life but they can be a real nuisance – having the right handling system and accessories such as a towing bridle and webbing lifting slings help hugely.

I was 16 years old when I boarded the S.S. Vietnam 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 from my home in Hong Kong to Marseilles. From there I would travel by rail to Manchester, England, to start my engineering apprenticeship.

A bit of research tells me the S.S. 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 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. We had painted steel walls and floors and the mess hall was fitted with bolted down benches and tables.

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 accompanied by his photographer friend. Excellent company.

The ship, operated by Messageries Maritimes, 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 and people having their pictures taken alongside the wreckage of the floating restaurant bombed by Viet Cong guerrillas.

Gazing out over the lush tropical terrain as the ship crept through the muddy Mekong River it appeared at first to be an empty, impenetrable and hostile place but on closer inspection I could see people living and moving around in the mangroves: Little pirogues and sampans darting here and there, emerging into the main river from one channel only to disappear down another a few moments later.

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.

And then on to our final port, Marseille, from where I went by train to Manchester to start the rest of my life.

Remember the Subrella? I don’t know if it’s still available but it was a plastic umbrella that you pushed through a breach in your hull, opened it like a brolly and then pulled it back over the hole – water pressure would hold its canopy against the external surface of the hull and you’d be saved. I wonder how many times such a device was ever used in anger? I doubt it’s any significant number but, I suppose, if you were on the one boat ever to be saved in this way it would be a brilliant innovation, to you.

You can get collision mats which you manoeuvre over a breach in your hull using lines at the corners, or you can use a spare jib in the same manner. Once again, I wonder just how many times a boat has been saved in this way.

We’ve seen keel failures crop up quite often recently but it seems to me that these breaches wreak their deadly havoc through instability leading to capsize rather than by water intrusion and sinking.

I’m guessing that most hull integrity problems arise from a broken seacock or transducer. Most of these, I’m sure, manifest themselves whilst the boat is at the dock, unmanned and neglected.

The loss of a through-hull fitting at sea would be very serious, a massive amount of water pours in through a 2” hole a foot below the waterline, but some simple preparation before setting off should mitigate the consequences. Knowing where the seacocks and transducers are located and being sure they are accessible is a good start. Securing soft wooden bungs at each through hull is widely recommended, although I prefer to keep a few different sizes in a bag in a handy locker along with a hammer and other basic tools.

I like the idea of the TruPlug emergency bung, a soft rubber plug that conforms to the shape of the breach more readily than a wooden bung. Then there’s always those traditional standby’s, the potato and the carrot.

To my mind a more difficult breach to deal with is when the stuffing box collapses and water pours in around the propeller shaft. I’ve seen this happen in real life and only the prompt attention of the Coastguard with a massive pump saved the boat. Could you quickly lay your hands on something suitable to plug such an awkward shaped orifice?

Then there’s the Seabung which works on the same principle as the Subrella but on a smaller scale. The Seaplug is pushed through the seacock and the flexible rubber umbrella-like flange on the end opens up and seals the hole as water pressure forces it back against the hull. You can then unscrew the seacock and replace it while the Seabung keeps the water out. Check out the video: www.seabung.com

It’s a useful device if you want to replace a seacock when it’s too expensive or inconvenient to get the boat hauled but it could also be deployed to block a hole where a seacock or transducer has broken off. My only concern would be the effectiveness of the seal against a barnacle encrusted hull or where there is some irregularity in the hull shape that falls within the seating area of the flange.

Who said the most useless device on a boat was an umbrella?

I always thought that “the whole nine yards” was an American expression related somehow to American football but it’s actually a nautical term: A typical square rigger would have three masts each with three yards. When all sail was set it would be maximising its full potential – to use an American expression – flying sail on all nine yards.

Ships and the sea have brought us many handy expressions:
Hand over fist: Thought to have started out as “hand over hand”, this expression came from the practice of hoisting sail or climbing a rope as quickly as possible – a source of competition and pride to sailors.

Chock a block: We use it to mean fully loaded – it comes from the situation on board ship where two blocks in a rigging tackle are hard up against each other and can’t be tightened further.

Slush fund: Slush was the residue scraped from the salted meat storage barrels on board ship and sold by the cook to provide cash for himself and his cohorts.

Windfall is an interesting one. When a ship, trying to weather a headland or work off a lee shore, was assisted by a katabatic wind ‘falling’ of a high coastline it was said to have received a windfall.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea: To work this one out you have to know that the last seam on the deck before the scuppers is the devil seam, so if you slip on deck and end up in the scuppers you’re between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Pipe down: This last toot on the boson’s pipe each day meant lights out and keep quiet.

And there are many more nautical expressions that have swallowed the anchor, moving from a life at sea to one on land.

Salty John Boat Products will be unmanned for the month of November because we’ll be taking our annual holiday in the USA. Yippee!

This means that you can make purchases but nothing will be shipped between 29 October and 1 December. There will be notices on the site to this effect. We will be monitoring emails daily so if you make a purchase during this period in the belief that the item will enjoy our usual next-day shipping, let us know and we’ll give you your money back immediately.

I’ll be blogging throughout the holiday as usual.

I share a birthday with Thor Heyerdahl who, in 1947, sailed a primitive log raft across the Pacific from Peru to the Polynesian islands to demonstrate that South Americans could have settled those islands in pre-Colombian times. The raft was called Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god.

Thor Heyerdahl, who would have been 100 today, constructed the raft in Peru of balsa logs and other materials that would have been available at the time. He and five others sailed Kon-Tiki over 4,000 miles in 101 days to a crash-landing on a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands. They all survived and made it ashore much to my, and no doubt their, immense relief.

Anyway, it was Heyerdahl’s book recounting the Kon-Tiki expedition that planted in my young brain the seed of my own adventurous seafaring inclinations.

I wasn’t particularly bothered whether or not South Americans did or didn’t settle Polynesia, and genetic evidence has subsequently shown that they probably didn’t, but I was absolutely fascinated that such a journey was possible on so small and simple a craft. I searched out other books recounting ocean travels in small boats and this nurtured my love of boats and the sea, and led eventually to my own modest odysseys.

So, Happy Birthday Thor!

A very good sailor once told me that racing was the best way to hone my sailing skills. I have to agree with him. The racer’s attention to detail in setting up and trimming the boat and the tactical aspects of navigation really do help you get from A to B faster and more efficiently.

Some will claim that, as cruisers, they really don’t care how long it takes to reach their destination but I think the majority of sailors prefer to think of themselves as skilled in harnessing the winds and currents and that’s exactly what racers are.

There are obvious differences between the priorities of the racer and those of the cruiser – racers have big crews and can handle complex sails such as spinnakers more readily and they will persist in pursuing the fastest course to the line when the cruiser may be taking a longer but less arduous route. The short-handed cruiser may reef down before the racing crew even considers it and the cruiser may choose to heave-to whilst the racing crew battles on.

The lessons to be learnt from the racing circuit about making the boat go faster benefit the cruising sailor. In particular, proper sail trim and rig tuning are as relevant to one as the other.

Knowing that your rig is tuned and your sails are set to make the most of the available breeze gives a sense of contentment and satisfaction. Racing teaches you to achieve this because the focus is always on speed, on efficiency. Hitch a ride on a racing boat and you’ll see what I mean.