Salty John : The Blog

When the sun has melted into the horizon like a knob of butter on a hotplate you flick on the navigation lights and prepare for a night at sea.

Night sailing is at times magical, at other times intimidating. Deep water with plenty of sea room, no traffic, a gentle breeze and a big moon are the ingredients for a pleasant night passage.

We enjoyed just such an untroubled passage between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on our sloop Adriana. It had been hot and windless during the day but as night fell the breeze came back and the lights of Mayaguez twinkled on the horizon. I set the jib, slacked the mainsheet and cut the engine. Adriana leaned her shoulder into the sea and came alive. The sky grew into deeper shades of night beset with a million jewels as we cut a swathe through the boisterous sea.

Other night passages have been less idyllic: Battling to windward along the north coast of Hispaniola under a grim moonless sky, hugging the rocky coastline to stay within the umbra provided by the land, lightning blooming on the horizon – this wasn’t the most relaxing of night watches.

Dawn creeps up with the promise of delight or of dire warning – radiant sunburst or red tinged clouds. Another day at sea begins. What will it bring?

When I can’t be out sailing I like to hike the tow path of the Lancaster Canal – by the time I’m finished I’ll have walked the whole length of it, albeit in somewhat erratic stages.

For a couple of years I had my day-sailor, Minnie, on the canal. She drew less than 3’ and had a beam of 7’ which made it do-able, so I derigged her and pottered up and down to my heart’s content. Folk on narrowboats and broads cruisers, the more typical craft of the canal, would smile and wave and occasionally call “Ahoy, sailor!” or “You’ve lost yer mast!”.

Cruising the canal system and sailing the high seas are the most distant of cousins – making comparisons is pointless. One is no substitute for the other; they are both a pleasure in their own right.

As I reach, if not the twilight of my sailing career then at least the late afternoon, I look back on all the boats I’ve sailed.

I’ve owned seven of my own and had wonderful adventures with them but I’m saving those for another discussion at another time.

For now I’m thinking about OPB’s, Other Peoples Boat’s. Some sailors spend their whole life sailing OPB’s and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I started sailing as a child in Hong Kong where I was a regular guest on my best friends parent’s boat, a wooden junk of around 30’.

Whilst that was perhaps the most unusual vessel I’ve sailed, the biggest was one of the fleet operated by the Ocean Youth Club, a 72’ cutter-headed ketch. We left from Hamble and went to Honfleur, Cherbourg (battling through a Force 8 to get there) and Alderney. A labour intensive boat, deliberately so, on which team work was an essential requirement. I steered her into the Solent at the end of the channel crossing, an exhilarating high speed reach under full sail which I remember as if it were today and not 30 years ago.

The most splendid OPB has to be a 59’ custom Trintella belonging to a wealthy friend whose pursuit of an even greater fortune means he has little opportunity to sail his splendid vessel. So, I was happy to occupy it for him for ten lovely days in Majorca.
She’s an aluminium boat with a big complex rig, two wheels and a luxuriously appointed interior with a master stateroom aft and two guest cabins forward. A real treat.

I’ve crewed a few times on a 42’ Swan, a Ron Holland design; on one delivery trip from Chesapeake Bay to Newport, Rhode Island we were hove-to for eight hours in a nasty F9/10 and I was thankful for her excellent seakeeping qualities. But that wasn’t the OPB in which I weathered the worst storm of my career to date; that honour goes to Nexus, a 45’ sloop not dissimilar to the Swan in style. She was built in South Africa and it was whilst sailing from Dassen Island to Cape Town that we encountered a black sou’easter gusting to 100 knots that blew us all the way back from a point off Cape Town harbour, a handful of miles from our destination, to Saldahna Bay some 100 miles back up the coast in the direction from which we had come. We’d lost the engine as the storm developed so it was an overnight sleigh ride under bare poles, in mountainous seas. I still have the Cape Times from the following day which tells of the Cape’s worst storm in 20 years and gives Nexus a small mention.

I’ve sailed on many other boats – Pearsons, Westerlys, AWBs of all kinds, a very impressive Amel Maramu and a delightful Claymore – but I’ve never sailed on a multihull. No catamaran, no trimaran and no proa. I don’t avoid multihulls, I’ve nothing against them, it’s just that the opportunity has never arisen which is really quite remarkable given my long history as an OPB sailor.

A little while ago Samantha Pudney from Australia, a fan of the blog and a diesel engine fanatic, asked if she could write a guest post. How could I refuse?

Here it is:

Maintenance is important in ensuring your engine lasts longer and performs at its best. A diesel engine may need more frequent maintenance than other engines, but it is worthwhile to make the time because if not maintained properly, can result in expensive repairs. Most diesel engines are designed so that the owner can perform the maintenance themselves, quickly and at a low cost. Here are some tips on how to maintain your small marine diesel engine:

Fuel system

It is important to ensure that the fuel your engine uses is clean because any dirt or water that gets into the fuel can result in the clogging of the engine’s fuel injection system. Most engines will have a primary filter as its first line of defence, and then a secondary filter to follow. The secondary filter aims to trap any dirt or water missed by the primary filter. If there is a lot of dirt or water that makes it way past the primary filter onto the secondary filter, this is not a good sign as the dirt or water could have made its way into the engine. If this is the case, the filter should be primed with fuel and the system bled.

 Lubrication system

A diesel engine’s lubrication system is its oil. The purpose of the oil is to reduce friction in the engine’s moving parts and to keep the pistons and cylinders cool. It acts as a seal, keeping contaminants away from the cylinder walls, valve stems and turbochargers and prevents corrosion.

To maintain the lubrication system, you need to do change the oil regularly in accordance with the manual. Many make the mistake of only making their oil changes based on the oil’s colour but it should be based on engine hours. It is recommended that the oil is changed as frequently as every 100 hours, or at least every winter. If oil is left unchanged for too long, it will become acidic over time and your engine will suffer from corrosion.  It also allows carbon to build up which will affect the oil’s lubricating ability.

Cooling system

Diesel engines can be severely damaged due to even the most minor of overheating conditions.Diesel engines are susceptible to rapid overheating, and therefore its internal parts are prone to more damage.

A diesel engine’s cooling system is usually comprised of a raw water system and a fresh water system. The raw water system pumps in sea water, which goes through the lubricating oil coolers into the heat exchanger, where the sea water acts to cool the engine’s fresh water system. With the raw water system, you should inspect its sea strainer often and clean out any debris. A clogged sea strainer prevents raw water from cooling the fresh water system, and can cause the engine to fail.

The freshwater system pumps water in a closed a loop. With the fresh water system, ensure that its pressure cap is properly sealed because if not, the engine will overheat. If the cap is bent or faulty it will need to be replaced. It is also a good idea to regularly test the thermostat.

About the author

Samantha Pudney loves all things engine! Her position at Power Equipment means that she has a front of the line view of industrial engines every day. She aims to ensure that her customers leave knowing that they have the best products in their hands.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a proponent of the KISS principal when it comes to cruising boats – keeping it simple. A few years ago I wrote about the benefits of this policy when it comes to heavy weather sailing:

On a small boat in really heavy weather the only thing most of us want to do is lie in our bunk wishing it would all go away. Going on deck to take action to secure the survival of the boat is a frightening proposition. It’s easy at this point to convince yourself that you should wait until it’s a bit calmer before putting in that reef, or dropping the main, or securing the dinghy which is beginning to come loose in its chocks. Of course you can’t succumb to that inner voice; you have to put on the harness and lifejacket, get yourself out into the maelstrom and get the job done.

If you’ve never been there you can’t imagine just how hard it is to operate under the conditions you’re likely to find on deck: The banshee wail in the rigging, the constant deluge of spray and solid water, the violent motion threatening to hurl you overboard.

One hand for the boat and one for yourself is the rule, although for much of the time it’s two hands for you and that leaves none for the boat which is why it’s so terribly hard to perform tasks that seemed so simple when it was calm.

This is why my mantra is simplicity in all things. That huge sea anchor with a complex bridle of rope and chain which you bought for just this occasion is going to defeat your attempts to deploy it, unless you have a large, strong and un-seasick crew. Even putting in the third or fourth reef with your single line reefing system with miles and miles of line is going to be a challenge if you’ve left it a bit late. Securing the boom or tying down those spare fuel and water jugs is infinitely easier to accomplish before the heavy stuff arrives.

So, analyse your systems again and ask yourself how easy it’s going to be to get the boat snugged down and safe when the whatsit hits the fan. Can you get the sail plan sorted quickly and efficiently? Can you heave-to? Can you secure the helm? Is there any chance of items lashed on deck coming loose?

If you plan ahead and prepare the boat for bad weather before it arrives you probably can lay snuggly, and smugly, in your bunk until the storm passes. Assuming your lee cloths are properly designed and tested, of course, and your lockers have good catches and the floorboards are screwed down.

Simple, seamanlike, functional systems make it so much easier to stay in control when all around you hell is breaking loose.

Climbing the mast is not for the faint hearted but sometimes there is just no alternative. I don’t like heights but have become reasonably comfortable with being hoisted up the stick and I’ve done it at the dock, in the anchorage and under way.

Here’s a check list for going aloft in a bosun’s chair assisted by at least one crewmember.

1. Use a comfortable chair or harness. Some old salts prefer a plank but I like a hard bottomed, soft sided chair with back enclosure and tool pockets. Racy types like harnesses and you may, too – try both before buying. 2. Get familiar with the chair at deck level. Hook up to a halyard and bounce around like a baby in a baby-bouncer. 3. Load up the tools you’ll need in the pockets where you can best reach them. Attach heavy tools to the chair with lanyards – dropped tools can cause a lot of damage to decks and to anyone in the near vicinity. The salts with the plank chairs haul their tools up separately, usually in a canvas bucket. 4. Select the most appropriate halyard, check it for wear. Tie it to the chair using a bowline – check the knot yourself if someone else tied it. No offence will be taken, I’m sure. You don’t want to rely on the halyard shackle but once the bowline is secure clip it to the chair as an emergency back-up. Take a sharp knife with you because a bowline is difficult to undo under load and, should the halyard become jammed and you need to switch to another, you may have to cut it. 5. Some recommend that you have a second halyard connected as a safety line but I prefer not to have this complication. If it makes you feel more comfortable, go ahead but make sure the lazy halyard can’t get tangled with the working halyard. 6. Some climbers attach a downhaul to the base of their chair. I haven’t found this to be of any use but if you’ve forgotten to take a vital tool or part up with you it might come in handy as a hoisting line. 7. If you have an electric windlass to which the halyard tail can be led properly, this is your best choice for being lifted, particularly if you have only one crewmember available. To hoist someone aloft using a halyard winch or sheet winch is hard work and particularly difficult if that crewmember has to crank and tail at the same time. It is so much better to have a separate tailer – preferable big, strong and tied to the halyard tail so that you’d need to extrude him through the winch and the turning block before you could drop very far. 8. Before the hoist begins you’ll have discussed how you’re going to communicate if required – a set of simple hand signals is best, manic screaming is worst. You might consider prearranged stops at the spreaders to give the hauler a break. 9. Wear shoes or boots. Motion is exaggerated as you get higher and the ability to hook your feet around mast or shrouds to stabilise things is essential – not much fun with bare feet. 10. The climber can ease the burden on the hoisting crew by, well, climbing. 11. When the climber has reached the summit the hoister will cleat off the halyard. I don’t trust clutches, I insist on being cleated to a horn cleat. 12. When returning the climber to earth the hoister should try for a smooth continuous drop (controlled, obviously) rather than intermittent drops and halts.

13. Well done! Have a celebratory drink.

As with many things in life, once you’ve done it the first time you’ll never be as fearful again.

So, that’s how to get up the mast with a bosun’s chair. There are other ways. When I first acquired Adriana she had mast steps. I hated them but some people love them. Before fitting them to your own mast I’d suggest trying them out on someone else’s boat if possible.

Then there are a host of climbing devices for single-handers; I’m sure with practice and a degree of fitness they all work but I can’t comment because I’ve never tried them and don’t intend to. I’m a bosun’s chair man, preferably assisted by at least two crew.

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.