Salty John : The Blog

It’s 1992 and Adriana is anchored in the small port of Luperon on the north coast of Dominican Republic. The choice of provisions was sparse in Luperon so Carol and I decided we’d take the gua-gua to the much larger Puerto Plata in search of more interesting items, perhaps with sell-by dates still in the future:

Early morning, pleasantly cool, the sun still only a splash of lilac on the eastern horizon as we make our way to the bus stop where the gua-gua for Puerto Plata is boarded. We sit on the back seat of the Mitsubishi mini-van watching in growing wonder as a steady flow of passengers file down the bus and take their seats. Carol and I scrunch closer together as we’re joined by four others on the rear bench. As each subsequent row is filled short planks are deployed to span the passageway so extra passengers can be seated and before long the capacity of the bus as contemplated by its manufacturer is impressively exceeded. In fact, fourteen passengers and a driver are aboard the eight-seater as the journey begins.

On the outskirts of Luperon we stop to pick up a policeman and his wife, a youth with a broken arm, a woman towing a small child, and a cock-fight enthusiast with his prize bantam held aloft, presumably to avoid injury.

With a mind-boggling twenty-one souls (not counting the chicken) squashed within, the gua-gua bounced on its way over hill and dale, weaving an erratic course around pot-holes and ruts, toward Puerto Plata. Julio Inglasias at 50 watts per channel tried vainly to drown out the happy chattering of this compressed humanity.

There are few things as annoying as birds pooping on your nice clean boat. It’s particularly distressing when they choose your expensive, dark coloured, Sunbrella canvas work to do it on. Clean up is tedious and there’s a real danger of permanent staining. So, what can you do about it?

Have you noticed how some boats are targeted by birds and others aren’t? I’ve walked around many marinas in my time and I’ve always been struck by how some boats attract birds and others don’t. I’m told that once a group of birds selects your boat as their privy they’ll keep coming back to your boat, to the exclusion of neighbouring boats, until something changes. No-one seems to know precisely why one boat is selected over another but it seems that once one bird has pooped this gives the signal to the others to follow suit. Clearly, if you’re near habitat that supports birds you stand a greater chance of becoming a convenience than if you’re located well away from a bird-friendly environment. So, don’t be a victim. If you’re a chosen one, clean the boat meticulously and move to another berth.

For the most part the birds sit on your spreaders and boom and drop their gifts from on high. Sometimes they’ll stand on the boat rail or spray hood and crap but that seems a less frequent procedure. So, it’s important to make perching on your appendages difficult. One way to do this is to run a length of fishing line – I actually use old fly fishing lines – from mast to topping lift, about a foot above the boom. You don’t need to add pieces of ribbon or, heaven forbid, old CDs, it’s the line that prevents them landing. That saves your boom cover from boom perchers but you still need to tackle the messages from higher up. A line running from mast to shroud a few inches above each spreader works well. On smaller boats it’s a good idea to stow your halyards in clips half way along the spreaders – I guess the smaller area for perching is less desirable. If you don’t give much of a damn for flag etiquette it works to have flags hoisted on port and starboard flag halyards – the flapping puts the little crappers off. At the masthead a burgee is effective. Other masthead deterrents include a VHF whip antenna and a spike on your Windex – standard on the Davis model. One thing that doesn’t deter birds are those bottle brush type lightning dissipaters; I’ve seen a bird nesting in one!

The triatic stay on ketches can be a problem and I can see no easy solution. Perhaps a fishing line running along above it, or flags suspended from it? Or just do away with the triatic stay altogether and stand a better chance of keeping one of your spars in place if you’re dismasted. A bit drastic, perhaps.

On power boats with full length stainless tube safety rails you get unwelcome perching. In a marina in Majorca I saw a large power boat on which cable ties were wrapped around the rails every few inches with the tag ends pointing up. A deck hand told me it worked well but it certainly looked like sh…,err, the thing we’re trying to prevent.

Last, and definitely least, are the rubber snakes, lizards, alligators or what have you intended to scare off birds. In my dock walking research the incidence of guanoed boats with a snake lying in the cockpit suggests that they aren’t an effective deterrent – they may even be attractors.

Of course, the best deterrent of all is to keep moving – birds can’t hit a moving target – so, if you needed another excuse to go full time cruising, this is it.
I’m not even going to mention a shotgun.

You know that stench you get below decks when you return to your boat after a few days away? It is, more often than not, down to the sea toilet.

Most marine toilets are flushed with raw water from sea, lake or river. This flushing water contains living organisms and it’s the demise of these little devils in the pipe work that begins the downward spiral; the resultant bacteria generate that awful sulphurous gas smell which you suck into the bog when you pump. The pipe work itself can become contaminated so that no amount of flushing will get rid of the smell.

At one time I handled maintenance for a fleet of charter boats and keeping the heads sweet was a big headache. I was persuaded that a major contributor to the odour was the fact that the translucent sanitation hoses let in sunlight which hastened the demise of the bugs and, thereby, the creation of the bacteria which caused the smell. I wrapped all my pipes in silver foil as a defence but found no real improvement and ended up changing all the pipes at the beginning of each season, and still had to deploy an array of disinfectants on a regular basis.

When I moved onto my boat full time and set off on my three year modest odyssey the problem was greatly alleviated by frequent and regular flushing. Unless you live aboard you simply can’t keep up the necessary flow.

The only boat of the seven I’ve owned not to suffer the odours was my GB32 trawler which had a fresh water flushing system and in-line deodorizer. But on a long distance cruising boat you simply can’t afford to flush freshwater down the bog, it’s way too precious for that.

This is a recollection from our first southbound journey between Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys, over 25 years ago. We’d sold up, refitted Adriana and were setting off on what would become a three year adventure…

The seas had been building as the wind strength had increased over the past day and night. I’d reduced sail and Adriana was handling the conditions well but it was clear we were approaching the edge of our comfort zone – things below rattled and banged, the odd green wave broke onto the deck. The strengthening breeze had come round ahead of us and we were close-hauled, the sails pulled in tight so we could make our southerly course. We got too close to the wind at times and the sails rattled and cracked to remind us to pay attention at the helm. I’d ordered harnesses when on deck because of the conditions; we would hook our tethers to strong points before stepping out of the companionway onto deck. The sky remained a startling blue but cloud was beginning to build from the eastern horizon and I knew the wind would continue to build. Carol had gone quiet. I recognised this precursor to seasickness and clicked on the autohelm and went below to check the chart. I decided to head for Little River Inlet in South Carolina once we cleared Frying Pan Shoals. The shoals jutted out like a finger into the Atlantic for thirty miles and I needed to plot our course around them carefully.

Night fell, the wind stayed steady, strong, we made good progress. Once clear of the shoals we turned towards the shore, the wind behind us now and we barreled along under a storm jib and fully reefed mainsail, rolling from side to side as the following seas pushed the stern this way then that. The most seaward of the entrance markers dashed by and I could just make out the next, flashing its welcome through the darkness. The waves were breaking on the sandbanks on either side of the channel, throwing white spume into the air. Melinda was at the wheel, I was standing at her shoulder and Carol was in the quarter berth below, dry-heaving into a bucket wedged beside her.

At last we were in the river and I started the engine and went forward to drop the jib. Within an hour we’d put the hook down in an anchorage off the main river and Adriana settled head to wind, rocking gently. I gave Melinda a hug and told her she’d done well and sent her below to get warm while I tidied up on deck, furling the main on the boom and bagging the jib. I stepped below and found Carol up now, once the motion goes the seasickness goes with it, and she’d got the kettle on for a cup of tea. Henry had appeared from his hiding place in the forward berth, wagging his tail and no doubt expecting to be taken ashore but he’d got another think coming – I put him out in the cockpit and he peed on the wheel pedestal.

Spring has sprung which means it’s time to remind you all of the dangers of drowning.

Drowning is not a noisy, dramatic event. Our body’s response to suffocation by water is quite different to the commonly held view that it involves waving arms and shouting for help. That comes before you are drowning. At that point you are in a state known as “aquatic distress” and can still assist in your own rescue by grabbing at floatation devices. If you aren’t saved at this point you quickly pass to drowning. Then, instinct takes over.

In an article in the US Coastguards ‘On Scene’ magazine Dr Francesco Pia, Phd, describes what he terms ‘the instinctive drowning response’ as follows:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs. 2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water. 3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. 4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.

Drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water for from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

So, if someone dives, jumps or falls overboard and appears to be calm, don’t assume they are not in trouble. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. Talk to them. Ask them: Are you OK? If they reply immediately, they’re probably fine. If they just look blank there’s a chance that they are drowning and you must act quickly to assist them.

Keep a watch on people playing in the water, look for these other signs of drowning:

Head tilted back with mouth open. Head low in the water, mouth at water level Eyes closed, or glassy and empty, unfocussed. Vertical in the water, not using legs Hyperventilating or gasping Attempting to swim but not making headway

Attempting to roll over on the back

So, if the kids are screaming and splashing, be thankful, they’re not drowning. If they go unnaturally quite, that’s the time to worry. One day this knowledge may save someone’s life.

What is the art of 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 a good definition of seamanship to me.

Back at the dawn of time, when I started sailing, I was taught to never leave the winch handle in the winch after tacking or trimming. The reason, I was told, was to avoid injury should the winch pawls fail and the sheet tension spin the handle with great force, catching an arm or other body part.

I’ve always been sceptical of this advice because I’ve never met anyone who’s been injured by a whizzing winch handle released by a failing pawl, or even anyone who knows of someone who’s been injured this way. However, I continued to remove my winch handle and stow it in a winch holder when not in use because I wanted the winch top to be unencumbered should I need to release the sheet quickly. Besides, my favourite winch handle was non-locking and you know how the sea loves to eat winch handles.

I’ve never had a boat where the winch handle being in the winch was a trip hazard to people stepping in and out of the cockpit but if I needed additional motivation for my ‘stow the handle after use’ policy that would be it.

Then one day I was discussing winch handle habits with another sailor and he said he always moves the handle over to the lazy winch after the tack, basically using the lazy winch as a winch handle holder and at the same time having it ready for the next tack. I can’t think of an objection to this practice as long as you have locking winch handles and the handle doesn’t trip you when you leave the cockpit. And the practice does avoid the risk of injury should one of those nasty winch pawls give way. But then again, some habits die hard.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the IT front. We’ve built a new website for the sale of general chandlery items at discount prices,, and we’re working on revamping the Salty John site and taking the opportunity to concentrate on marine antenna systems and rig tension gauges.

I must say I’ll miss the old Salty John site, it’s become as comfortable as a well worn pair of deck shoes. But it wouldn’t do any longer; it was too grumpy when visited by the new smart phones and tablets.

We’ve been Metz Communication’s sole agents in Europe for over ten years and that’s the most important part of our business – marine antenna systems. We’ve also offered Loos & Co rig tension gauges for that long, too, and they’re another big chunk of the business. So those two products share their own website,

We’ve never wanted to be a general boat chandlery, we simply can’t carry the huge inventory needed to fill that role. What we can do is concentrate on finding bargains to bring to our customers, buying direct from manufacturers and using our low overhead to keep prices ultra-keen. For that we needed a separate site, hence the birth of

With rigs being checked over and re-stepped ready for the new season it might be timely to revisit one of my pet subjects, drooping spreaders:

Drooping is not usually a good thing. You don’t want drooping bits. You especially don’t want drooping spreaders. Drooping spreaders are a symptom of a rig in distress, a rig on the road to catastrophic failure.

Perky upward pointing spreaders are what you want. Perky spreaders have tips that bisect the angle of the shrouds that pass over them. In this way the load on the spreader is even and the spreader is disinclined to be pushed up or down, slackening the shroud and threatening the integrity of the whole rig.

Spreaders come in lots of shapes and configurations: The 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 adopt multiple spreaders at shorter boat lengths. Spreaders can be fixed at the mast or fully articulating and they come with a variety of methods of attaching the shroud to the spreader tip so it doesn’t jump out. But whatever the spreaders design, droopiness must be avoided at all costs – check your spreaders now!

A word of caution: Once you become an aficionado of the perky spreader your marina dock strolls will take on new meaning, your eye will be inexorably drawn aloft in search of droopers with the attendant risk of an early bath or a broken toe.

So, there you have it. Get your tension gauge working to set your rig just right, re-pin and wrap your turnbuckles, check your spreaders and have a great season.