Salty John : The Blog

I’ve only ever had a fire on board once, when the alternator controller burst into flames as a result of a lightning strike. A dry powder extinguisher did the business, putting out the fire efficiently even though the resultant snow storm of white dust took a long time to clean up.

Fire on board needs to be taken seriously – three people die each year in Britain alone as a result of fire on recreational craft. The picture shows what can happen if attempts to control a fire fail. This incident was caused by a propane tank leak but it could as easily have been a result of several other scenarios.

As long as we carry combustible materials on board – for cooking, heating and to propel the boat – we need to manage fire safety properly. There are various sources of excellent advice on preventing and dealing with fires on boats including the UK Boat Safety Scheme booklet. Check on line for this information and apply it to your boat.

Fire on board a boat is a very scary prospect; make sure you have a plan to tackle it.

During our stay in south Florida we took the opportunity to visit Lovers Key. It comprises four barrier islands and was at one time only accessible by boat, attracting lovers to its secluded beach to do what lovers do. Now it’s a state park and you can drive to it – there’s a small entrance fee.

A haven for wildlife, the key is home to manatees, dolphins, roseate spoonbills, marsh rabbits and bald eagles. Kestrels hover, vultures glide on the thermals. There are cormorants, herons and egrets fishing side by side in the shallow bayous.

A beach runs down the ocean side of the key – we watched the sun melt into the horizon like a scoop of ice cream on a sun-baked sidewalk.  Lovely.

Yesterday I went to the Fort Myers Boat Show. Apart from one Island Packet sail boat it was devoted entirely to new and used power boats of all descriptions. There were powered kayaks, pontoon boats, trawlers, sports boats, super yachts and general stinkpots of every stripe. There was also a full range of accessory and service vendors. An impressively large show in a lovely location.

I spotted several Yamaha 350 HP outboard motors, three attached to one boat in fact, which I found extraordinary – the biggest outboard motor I’ve ever owned was 6HP. I wondered if this was the most powerful production outboard available and was astonished to learn from the Yamaha representative that it isn’t. The biggest, unless you know better, is the Seven Marine 557. Yes, 557 horsepower! It’s based on a V8 engine normally found in cars such as the Cadillac CTS-V and weighs in at 500kg. As you can imagine it’s quite pricey, an eye-watering US$ 70,000.

So, if you’ve ever wondered how to get your 45’ heavy displacement sailboat up on the plane, this may be the solution.

The mizzen mast on a ketch is often the place to hang ‘stuff’. On my ketch I had the wind generator, radar and a back-up vhf antenna on the mizzen.

But I think this one I snapped recently takes the prize for busiest mizzen.

It’s carrying a lightning dissipater, vhf antenna, wind generator, tv antenna, loud hailer and radar antenna. Presumably there’s a sail up there once in a while, too.

I see a triatic stay, as well, which means that if the main mast is lost the mizzen is likely to be lost too, along with all that stuff.

A mizzen to hang things off is the only real advantage I’ve ever found for a ketch versus a sloop – but that’s an argument for another day.

Being ‘barbed’ by a stingray’s tail weaponry is a painful experience. There’s the trauma from the cut and then there’s the pain, swelling and muscle cramps caused by the venom – you’ll need to get treatment but you’re unlikely to die.

In Florida there are half a dozen different types of stingray but the most likely to be of concern to humans are the Southern stingray and the Atlantic stingray. The Atlantic stingray is smaller, with a wing span of up to 2’, whilst the Southern can reach 5’. The Roughtail, also seen in these waters, get up to a healthy 7’ or more.

Whilst the stingrays you’re likely to meet off the sandy beaches of the USA, Bahamas and the Caribbean present little danger of fatality, remember that Steve Irwin, an Australian wildlife and crocodile botherer, was killed by a stingray which barbed him in the chest causing massive trauma.

The danger to humans comes from the fact that stingrays seek their prey by burying themselves under a thin layer of sand and, when the stingray’s receptors detect the movement of prey, they dart out and grab the small fish, mollusks and crustaceans on which they feed. They often hunt in shallow water where they will interface with paddling and frolicking humans.

The barbs on the stingray’s long tail are intended only as a defensive weapon and it is the defensive response that the unwitting human triggers when he steps on a stingray. To avoid this you should adopt the shuffle – shuffle your feet to disturb the sand and create vibrations which scare the stingray off before you can step on it. I’ve spooked many a stingray and watched them glide harmlessly away. Better the shuffle than the hop.

The shuffle works fine if you are walking along at the waters edge but for we small boat cruisers the most dangerous time is when you first step from the dinghy into shallow water at the beach, giving a camouflaged stingray no prior notice of your arrival. Take care.

I’ve sailed up and down the USA east coast quite a few times and I’ve also explored the west coast of Florida and a large piece of the Gulf ICW. Every year snowbirds from the north head down the east coast Intracoastal Waterway, sometimes venturing off shore if the weather suits, to anchorages and marinas in the warm southern states, mainly Florida, and then head back again in the late spring. Many of these boats choose to anchor out rather than incur the cost and inconvenience of taking a marina berth every night.

Visiting a favourite haunt from my cruising days, Fort Myers Beach, I notice that one problem that rumbles on is the conflicting rights of boaters and homeowners when it comes to anchoring. Homeowners resent having boats anchored off their properties, invading their privacy and spoiling their view. On the other hand cruising sailors say their right to anchor on publicly owned waterways must not be jeopardised.

In my time here, if a homeowner were offended by the presence of a boat anchored off his land the homeowner would call the police and the police would go and order the boat to move. I experienced this myself a couple of times. I understand that in 2009 a state law was introduced which protected the boater’s right to anchor freely and at the same time proposed mooring fields in the most popular harbours. In this way it was expected that the rights of the boaters to have a safe place to stop temporarily would be preserved and, due to careful location I assume, anchored boats wouldn’t annoy the homeowners. And the problem of derelict, abandoned, boats would be alleviated.

And so, returning to Fort Myers Beach and checking out the anchorage has been interesting. When I anchored here in the 90’s the place to go ashore was Bob Wallace’s dock. Bob allowed cruising sailors to use his dock and fill their water jugs from his tap. All he asked is that you signed his visitor’s book, which I’ve gladly done twice, eight years apart. A man with a wonderful attitude towards cruising sailors was Bob Wallace.

Now Bob is no more and, in fact, anchoring is no more. There is a mooring field where the anchorage was and a dinghy dock and showers at adjacent Matanzas Inn who administer the mooring field on behalf of the local authorities. Many will welcome the introduction of moorings because the angst of anchoring will be relieved, nervous skippers will sleep more soundly. But there’s a price, of course – a mooring fee of around $15 a day. And you can’t help feeling that the freedom to cruise is somehow being further eroded, more control being introduced. Oh well.

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:

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?