Salty John : The Blog

I like an anchor light that hangs just above head height, either in the fore-triangle or over the cockpit. A light lower down like this illuminates some of the boats superstructure and is more likely to be seen by boats moving into the anchorage than is a masthead light. I don’t really care if my anchor light can be seen two nautical miles away, as required by the rules, I’m more concerned with being seen by boats operating in my immediate vicinity.

When we first went full time cruising we used a hurricane lamp as an anchor light. It did the job, it never blew out even in strong winds and we could easily recognize its warm glow amongst other boats in the anchorage. Later, we succumbed to the convenience of an LED anchor light.

The development of LEDs has been hugely beneficial to boats – we get the light without the big power penalty or fragility of incandescent lights – and this applies to anchor lights as much as it does to other navigation lights and interior lighting.

Some will be happy to stick with the masthead all round white light provided by the boat builder, but if you want an independent ‘hang-in-the-rigging’ anchor light there are several LED lights to choose from today, some good, some not quite so good – choose carefully.

The light can have its own battery or be powered from the ships electrical system, it may have a photocell to provide automatic dusk to dawn operation and it can incorporate downlighting to provide illumination in the cockpit.

The two main qualities I’d be looking for are watertight integrity and adequate visible range. To provide the first, when the manufacturers own efforts have proved inadequate, you can use silicone compression tape and sealant – the life of LEDs is such that you won’t need frequent access to change the bulb so seal the lens joint as well as the cable gland. For best visibility to other vessels I prefer a light focused through a Fresnel lens and, of course, an adequate light source – typically an 8 or 9 LED cluster.

A final word of warning that applies to all on-board LEDs – make sure they don’t use a voltage control system that interferes with VHF frequencies. This is particularly important if you fit a masthead LED light next to your vhf antenna. Losing your AIS targets or radio communication every time you switch on the navigation lights is a definite no-no.

There’s etiquette involved in mooring-up to a post or cleat that’s already occupied. It’s called “dipping the eye” and if you don’t think it important let me tell you that it was the subject of a thirty page discussion on a boating forum just recently. I use the term “discussion” somewhat loosely.

Anyway, the procedure is shown in my sketch. The most recent arrival passes his line through the loop of the incumbent’s line, then over the post. Thus, when the incumbent wants to depart, his line isn’t trapped by the new arrivals line.

Simple, really. And hardly worthy of an internet spat of such epic length.

It’s the longest day of the year. Summer. It’s cold, windy and wet. So, my mind turns to hammocks. A hammock on a tropical beach, perhaps, or a hammock on a boat that’s anchored off a tropical beach. Slung between the mast and the forestay. That’s how we did it on Adriana.

I find the rolling hitch useful for two purposes – attaching the snubber to the anchor chain and fastening the hammock to the forestay.

Did you know that hammock is one of the few words we’ve taken from the language of the pre-Columbian West Indian natives, the Caribs? Columbus tells us it’s the word they used for what he describes as “the nets in which they sleep”

A variation on the hammock is the Spanish hamaca, the deck chair. Hammocks are much more useful on small boats than are deck chairs.

I know sailors who sleep in hammocks below decks in preference to bunks but we only use ours on deck. I’ve seen a hammock slung below the boom and the boom pushed out over the water – to keep the occupant cool, I imagine.

Hammocks can be large or small, solid or mesh and with or without stretchers at each end to hold them open. They’re all good.

If you want to sling it on the foredeck you’ll probably need to know how to tie a rolling hitch.

There is a bewildering array of sealants available at your chandlers for jobs requiring a watertight seal or bond between surfaces.

Attaching deck hardware, repairing the inflatable dinghy, making a hull to deck seal, fitting portlights or sealing through-hulls and seacocks all require sealants with special qualities.

Here’s a brief run through of what’s available and what it’s good for:

These are easy-to-use and generally clean products with a variety of uses such as isolating dissimilar metals and for sealing wood, glass and most plastics. Silicone resists most boaty chemicals. Not recommended for underwater tasks such as sealing through hulls or for really tough jobs like hull to deck joints. A bit wimpy on the adhesive front.

For sealing electrical and coax cable connections you can get non-adhesive silicone compression tape that self-amalgamates into a blob of silicone after application – Bandit tape is an example. Also great for temporarily sealing leaks in water pipes, sealing rope ends , covering turnbuckles and other boatly duties. Very handy to have in the boat’s toolbox.

Polysulphide (polysulfide). Fantastically versatile and strong, stays flexible, bonds well to most surfaces and can be used above or below the waterline. Not suitable for bonding plastics – melts acrylics and some plastics such as ABS and polycarbonates such as Lexan. (Yikes!)

Takes ages to cure.

Polyurethane. The Incredible Hulk of the sealant world! Powerfully adhesive, it cures to form a flexible seal that’s all but impossible to break. There are several brands available with different cure rates, elongation characteristics, and tensile strength. Sika offers a large range of polyurethane hybrids for different specific purposes, Sikaflex 291 being the all-rounder. I reckon the universe could be held together with 3M 5200. I sealed a large gash in my Zodiac with this product and it was still going strong years later. Hull to deck joints, sealing through hulls and any other permanent bonding job cry out for polyurethane but don’t use it on acrylics.

And don’t use it on anything you might contemplate taking apart again. Ever.

Polyurethane’s better looking, smarter but slightly wimpier brother. Looks good for a long time, cures very quickly, UV resistant, ultra flexible, shrugs off teak oils so can be used as a deck caulk, doesn’t stink and doesn’t shrink. What’s not to like? Oh, and you can use it on plastics, even ABS and polycarbonates. 3M 4000UV is an example.

There are other specialised bedding compounds available but the forgoing should give you a little more confidence when faced with the vast array of gunk at your local chandlers.

Summer may have finally arrived 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.

I had this to say on the subject after a wearisome beat along the south coast of Puerto Rico:

“By the time we reached Culebra, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, I was ready to give it all up and go sheep farming in the Great Karoo. Life had become one long, head-banging, salt encrusted bash into the teeth of a perpetual gale, off a rocky lee-shore, at night”.

“We had made our way from Boquerón in a series of night time hops taking in Guánica, Ponce, Salinas, Puerto Patillas and Isla Pineros. The wind was on the nose all the way and we often took two, three or more attempts at departure only to be driven back by the steep chop. We would “go for it” on an imagined lull and then endure a night of hell to reach the next harbour, an hour or two’s car ride along the coast. Such are the joys of sailing to weather, that thing which, very sensibly, gentlemen don’t do”.

So, it isn’t all rosy on the thorny path to windward. But, as my favourite philosopher, Anonymous, once said: What is hard to endure is sweet to recall.

If you have a top class radio and a top class antenna you’ll want the right type of cable in between or you won’t get the maximum performance from them – simple as that. For a cruising boat, selecting the right coax is as important as selecting the right anchor chain, so let us begin:

Coaxial cable for VHF radio and AIS is 50 ohm – your TV cable is 75 ohm so you can’t just use some coax left over from your satellite dish installation.

Marine coax needs to work in a hostile and constantly moving environment so both outer braid and centre conductor should be tinned copper to resist corrosion and the centre conductor must be stranded so it can bend without breaking. A good PVC jacket will protect the working bits and keep sunlight degradation at bay.

Transmission loss in the cable between antenna and radio (or AIS engine) is a significant factor, and if the cable is undersized and of inferior quality this loss will be unacceptably high. I think a leisure boat should aim to lose no more than 50% of the transmission strength between radio and antenna. In fact, the ISAAF, who manage offshore racing events, specify that there should be no more than 40% loss in the radio antenna cable.

A loss of 3 decibels (dB) halves the signal so you’ll want to restrict the line loss to no more than that. Signal loss in the cable, known as attenuation and measured in dB loss per unit of length, is determined by the size and construction of the conductor, the quality of the shielding and the operating frequency.

Good quality RG213 will lose about 33% of the signal strength in a 20m run, about 45% in a 30m run, so for very big boats it’s the way to go. However, RG213 (and its slightly lower spec but similarly stiff cousin, RG8U) is around 9.5 mm diameter so it’s heavy and doesn’t like to go around tight corners. It’s difficult to work with.

RG8X is nominally 6.5mm diameter, although actually about 6.0mm diameter unless it has a particularly thick outer jacket. This cable is much lighter and easier to work with than 9.5mm cable. Good quality RG8X will lose a little less than 50% of the signal in a 20m run.

You may also encounter RG58 cable; it sometimes comes with cheap aerials. It’s a 5mm cable and it’s OK for runs up to 6m but certainly not for masthead installations. It loses a whopping 65% of the signal in a 20m run. That means 15 watts of your 25 watts maximum power is lost just in the cable run.

So, make sure your cable is of marine quality with good shielding. For a cable run of up to about 20m or so use RG8X, for much longer runs you’ll need to wrestle with RG213/ RG8U. Don’t use RG58 for runs over 6m.

A penny in the antenna system is worth a pound in the radio, so don’t skimp on your antenna, cable and connectors if you want to unlock the full potential of your radio or AIS unit.

What do you do all day? When we were cruising full time this was a common question from land lubbers. The simple answer is “Whatever I like”; a more truthful answer would be “Whatever needs doing, and then whatever I like”.

As a cruiser I was always aware of the two modes in which we operated – on passage and in harbour. On passage you’re working full time to get the vessel from point A to point B efficiently and safely – you’ll be navigating, watch keeping, trimming.

In harbour it’s, if not necessarily party time, then at least a more relaxed atmosphere.

So, what do we do all day? Well, I don’t know what they get up to in the Med or the South Pacific but speaking for Florida, The Bahamas and the Caribbean it would go something like this:

I’d get up quite early, make a cup of tea and go for a stroll around deck, drinking in the beauty of my surroundings. I’d check that my neighbours and I were all anchored where we were the night before, wave to any other deck strollers and then pop below for a spot of breakfast. Over breakfast we’d decide on the day’s activity. There would usually be a maintenance list to work through and that would be tackled in the morning. We might head for shore and do some shopping if the need and the opportunity were both present. We’d have a spot of lunch around midday, catch up with a bit of admin – updating the log, writing or, these days, blogging – and then off to shore for a walk or beach activity or maybe some sightseeing.

Then back to the boat for shower time, sundowners and dinner. Or, perhaps, off to the local jump-up or socializing on another boat. In the busier anchorages there might even be an organized beach party.

And, always, there was the call of adventure. Where to next? When should we go? Check the weather, the charts, and the cruising guides. We’d be off again soon and that meant getting back into passage making mode, getting shipshape again.

It’s a tough life but someone has to do it.

If you regularly anchor you need to handle chain and if you handle chain you need an efficient anchor winch. You can choose to crank it by hand or have it driven by an electric motor, it can be capable of handling just chain or both rope and chain and it can be a capstan or a windlass.

Technically, on a windlass the axis of the shaft around which the drum or gypsy turns is horizontal; on a capstan it’s vertical. This distinction is rarely recognised these days and the terms are used interchangeably, so anchor winches are simply referred to as ‘vertical’ or ‘horizontal’ – just remember that it’s the axle on which the gypsy turns that is horizontal or vertical.

Whether you drive your winch manually or by an electric motor is a matter of personal choice influenced by the availability on board of sufficient electrical power or willing muscle.

On Adriana I had a magnificent bronze vertical winch from the Ideal Windlass Company. It was powered by an electric motor and had both rope drum and chain gypsy. On other boats I’ve had a horizontal manual Goiot winch and a horizontal powered Muir – they all did their job well.

A vertical winch with its motor mounted under the deck takes up a little less space on the foredeck where space may be at a premium. On horizontal windlasses the motor and gearbox are usually mounted on deck, integral with the winch.

Another feature of a vertical winch is that the chain exits the gypsy horizontally and travels a short distance before entering the naval pipe. The naval pipe has its opening oriented horizontally and pointing away from the bow so it is an inherently more water resistant arrangement than the vertical opening into which the chain from a horizontal windlass must drop. But these are fine differences and I’ve used both configurations successfully.

Whatever the configuration of the winch you choose, it is vital that the chain gypsy is correctly mated to the chain. Calibrated short link chain is what’s used on an anchor winch but there are several sub-types, each with a slight difference in chain link dimensions, so make sure you have the right chain for your gypsy. Mismatched chain and gypsy is a formula for frustration, and possibly worse.

Happy anchoring!

There’s a new generation of fixed DSC/VHF radios incorporating an AIS receiver that are seriously worth considering.

The clever bit is that they combine excellent radio performance and AIS receiver functions in the same compact unit. An internal splitter shares the radio and AIS reception from a single VHF antenna.

The not quite so clever bit is that the display for the AIS information is really too small to be practical in areas of high ship traffic, which is when you want it. However, what you can do is connect the AIS output to an external plotter or dedicated AIS display.

Remember that you’re depending on a single antenna system, so it better be a good one – obviously that’s going to be a Metz Manta with top quality coaxial cable. And it’s always a good idea to carry a spare antenna with a means of deploying it in case you lose the main antenna through a dismasting or other emergency.