Monday, July 13, 2015

Paper and Plastic

I frequently see long and acrid online forum argument threads about the superiority of digital charting vs. paper charts. However, like with most things there is no single correct answer for every situation. Can you be all-digital and be safe? Yes! Can you go all-paper and be safe? Yes!

But why do you have to go all one way or the other? Just like sailboats equipped with powerful diesel engines, most of us choose to have both. There is nothing finer than a long sail when the wind is right, the sails are trimmed and the boat is gliding silently across the bay. But when it comes time to work my way in or out of a fuel dock or a marina, I prefer to do it under power. Could I instead sail up to the dock? Sure, in an emergency — but why does it have to be one or the other?

I feel the same way about nautical charting. I like to have the chartplotter running when offshore, silently keeping a continuous note of our position, speed, progress and relation to hazards. But at the same time, I like to have a folded paper chart nearby showing me the big picture at a glance so I can think more broadly about the route, where we are headed, possibly how to deal with an upcoming wind shift, etc.

Scale matters
This one small example indicates one of the major downfalls of most digital charting systems: Due to the available screen size, you can either look at a small area in good detail or a large area with insufficient detail. You simply need more real estate than most chartplotters provide in order to get the big picture with decent detail. Are bigger screens and monitors available? Yes, they are, but I have yet to see a pleasure boat equipped with one 3-by-4 feet, which is near the size of a typical chart.

There is nothing quite like spreading out the big paper chart to plan your offshore route to Bermuda and beyond. Without scrolling or zooming you can see everything from the East Coast out to the islands, including the route of the Gulf Stream, which is critical to your planning. I keep some older charts around the house so I can draw up planned passages or even just summer cruises. A little bit of planning can make a cruise so much more enjoyable.

On the other hand, using digital charts on my home PC is a fantastic asset for making those same plans. I can look up any harbor I want to in the USA for free using NOAA's online chart viewer , or I can use one of several charting programs that can utilize the free chart downloads from NOAA ( OpenCPN is one of the free navigation programs, and there are versions for most operating systems (

I find the PC charting program invaluable for picking out waypoints, which I like to do prior to being underway, and together with my big paper chart they make for a great planning tool.

Get the big picture of a small harbor
Another area where I like to have a paper chart handy is when approaching a tricky harbor. Yes, the chartplotter can be great in providing detailed views of every place you might visit, but again that view will be centered around where your boat is located. While winding your way up a narrow channel with side channel offshoots, rocks to dodge and possibly funky buoyage, it is great to once again be able to hold a paper chart that provides a bigger picture of everything coming up. Not only can you see the red nun coming up, but you can spot that water tower shown on the chart that creates a perfect range for homing in on the town wharf hidden behind all the boats.

The same applies in the Intracoastal Waterway. Use the digital charting to keep track of where you are and use the paper charts or a chartbook to plan ahead for the next anchorage or fuel stop. It is far easier to flip back and forth through a paper chartbook than it is to scroll up and down the electronic screen.

The more tools the better
When I am repairing something on board it often saves time and money in the long run to go out and purchase the right tool for the job. The same applies with paper charts and digital charts. Have both available and use the best tool for the job at hand.

This article was originally published by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for lots more great stuff like this!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Getting attached

Have you ever found the perfect waterfront boaters’ bar? I’m still searching, but I know what it looks and smells like. It’s right on the waterfront — you can dinghy right up to it, hop ashore and stumble back to the dink at the end of the evening. The clincher: when you’re in the mood for mischief, you can bring up a story about your favorite anchor and before you know it there will be a near riot!
Strong men and women have fled from many a boating forum in tears after near-death experiences in anchor threads. Why is this? Like one’s religion, or lack thereof, it is part nurture, part experimentation, part preaching, part experience and part blind faith. Most boaters move back and forth through these stages in their voyaging careers, but many settle in one category or another and will defend their positions vehemently, just like their religions.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? The “nurture” folks are the ones who learned to use anchor X and will never even look at another. They probably have their favorite anchor tattooed on their biceps. The experimenters are the ones who are never quite sure they’ve found their true love. The preachers are the ones who have experimented and now KNOW IT ALL! The experienced ones are likely to carry an array of steel and aluminum that makes their decks look like the beaches of Normandy covered with tank traps. The blind-faithers often have a single enormous anchor perched on the bow shackled to oversized chain and backed up with a windlass that could lift the entire boat.

To read the rest of this article go to Ocean Navigator where it was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Anti-anchoring bill is anti-safety

Once again Florida boaters and cruisers from all over are fighting an ill-conceived anti-anchoring bill (SB 1548) that purports to be about “safety,” but in reality would limit the number of safe harbors to a handful in much of the state. The main thrust of the bill prohibits overnight anchoring within 200 feet of most developed parts of Florida. As has been discussed here and in many places online (see the Salty Southeast Cruisers' Net), this measure would essentially outlaw all overnight anchoring in many popular places such as Manatee Pocket, anywhere in Ft. Lauderdale, most of Miami, Marathon, and most of North Lake Worth.

All of these locations, and many more, are where cruisers routinely anchor safely while waiting for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas, or just to ride out a stretch of bad weather. I have done so in all of these places. During the peak winter season it is highly likely that there would be no marina berths available in these same locations, mooring fields would be full, and there would be no alternative but to keep moving night and day despite the weather. Even with the current availability of anchorages it is very difficult to find a marina berth or a mooring in high season.

Sure, there are safety exceptions in the proposed law, for “mechanical breakdown or when imminent or existing extreme weather conditions impose an unreasonable risk of harm.” Who is to judge whether or not the weather is “extreme,” and whether or not it poses an “unreasonable risk of harm?” Am I supposed to move on in a gale because it isn’t “extreme?”

Even in good weather what would an ordinary cruiser do? It is impractical and dangerous to run the ICW 24/7, and sometimes even if the weather isn’t “extreme” it is very difficult and uncomfortable to proceed outside down the coast while fighting the Gulf Stream. In short, this bill makes safe and comfortable cruising all but impossible in south Florida, and makes it very difficult in the entire state.

Cruising boaters are above all else safety conscious. We spend thousands of dollars on safety equipment far in excess of any Coast Guard or other regulations. We do so to protect our lives and property, often valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the same time, we enjoy visiting new places where we can anchor safely, go ashore, enjoy restaurants and shopping, re-provision our vessels, and purchase marine equipment. On various trips to Florida I have spent many thousands of dollars specifically on safety equipment: liferafts, epirbs, radios, safety harnesses, anchoring gear, satellite phones, etc. etc. Most cruisers will not go where they would be forced to operate their boats in an unsafe manner, which is what this law would do.

To anyone who has cruised Florida it is obvious that this bill would “impose an unreasonable risk of harm” to boaters on a regular basis. This is more than an anti-anchoring bill–it is anti-safety and anti-boating.

This guest editorial was first published on the Salty Southeast Cruisers' Net.

A true number two anchor

Want to start an instant argument in a waterfront bar? Just bring up anchors and anchoring and you’ll regret changing the topic from politics. Nothing brings out more heated opinions than the best choice of anchor and how to use it. And don’t try changing the subject by asking how to rig a second anchor, or you might be thrown out of that bar by the bouncer.

Being a safe distance from that bar and that cruising crowd at the moment, I get to now write a few carefully chosen words on the subject of how to choose, rig, and use that second anchor.

Read the rest of this article at Ocean Navigator.

Anchor test in the Chesapeake

In August 2014, Fortress Anchors conducted scientific anchor testing in the Chesapeake, utilizing the 81-foot research vessel Rachel Carson owned by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Testing was observed by Chuck Hawley, the former Vice President of Product Testing at West Marine, and Robert Taylor, a U.S. Navy anchor design and soil mechanics expert for over 45 years, consulted on the project. The bottom condition was soft mud, which is common in the Chesapeake Bay. 
I have long argued that a lot of anchor testing is done in unusual bottom conditions that create odd results, whereas mud is the predominant bottom found in most harbors all around the world. Yes, there are extremely rocky bottoms in Chile, and some people never anchor outside of the sandy Bahamas or the coral-strewn waters of the South Pacific, but still the majority of harbors found up and down the coasts of North America and Europe are mud, which goes for most of the rest of the world, too.

Read the rest of this article at Ocean Navigator.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Florida anchoring survey explores restrictions

Having cruised Florida waters off and on for almost 30 years I have seen many anchoring restrictions come and go. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) is once again on a crusade to come up with some sort of new restrictions, due to the prodding of influential people behind the scenes.  

Sadly, these laws are being pushed by a few well-connected land and business owners who want to chase away anchored boaters, whether legitimate or not. Virtually every problem cited in the survey is adequately covered by existing laws and regulations already on the books. There is very little, if any, documented evidence of widespread problems of the sort listed in the survey. Where is the evidence that anchored boats are causing signficant damage to waterfront property or docks? Where is the evidence that boaters are routinely blocking access to marinas and other waterfront facilities? Where is the evidence that if these things occur law enforcement does not have the tools to deal with them? The answer is there is none, other than hearsay testimony from anonymous sources.

And, all of these isolated issues are covered by existing laws. It is not a lack of laws that is the problem, but lack of commonsense enforcement when needed.

Take the anti-anchoring survey!

The proposed regulations have all sorts of problems with them. Here’s one. The 150-foot setback rule presumes that your entire swinging circle lies 150 feet away from docks or marine infrastructure. That means you could be anchored almost 300 feet from shore to windward of you and still be in violation of the law, because if the wind switched to come from the other direction your stern could swing within 150 feet of shore, no matter how unlikely that wind shift is. But, what if I then dropped a second anchor to avoid swinging anywhere near shore? I bet it would hold up in a maritime court, but try explaining that to a local police patrol boat. And, how would they determine this measurement of your swinging circle? Another option in the above scenario would simply be to pull in a few feet of scope making me 152 feet from the object. That would technically be not a violation. The 150-foot rule sounds good to landlubbers, but in practice it would be a nightmare. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Florida anchoring wars resume

Once again there is a big push in Florida to restrict the anchoring rights of boaters. The latest trial balloon contains the ominous suggestion to outlaw anchoring within 300 feet of waterfront property, which would essentially prevent anchoring along much of the Intracoastal Waterway. You can read more about that crazy idea here and here.

The excuse that this is only to prevent derelict vessels from clogging the waterways is being floated as usual, and as usual it is just a smokescreen. The real reasons these silly laws keep coming back to haunt us are many, but they mostly begin with a few influential and wealthy property owners and business owners complaining. The average Florida citizen doesn't live on the water and believes it is for the public to share, as is written into the Florida Constitution.

Unfortunately, there are some who believe they should be able to control the public water within their view, even though they don't own it. There are also some communities that thought forcing boaters to pay for moorings would be a money maker, though most have been sadly mistaken. The mooring business is not lucrative, particularly when it is run by a municipal government with high overheads in staffing, benefits, and bureaucracy. It is a little known fact that the Marathon mooring field is only kept going by infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funding from other sources. And, that is one of the largest, best run, and most popular fields in Florida. The city has tried to force more boaters onto moorings by charging just as much to dinghy ashore as to rent a mooring. I wonder how many people, like myself, who prefer to anchor now simply go elsewhere?

Other communities are finding that running a mooring field isn't the easy cash cow they envisioned. A boat broke loose from a mooring in St. Augustine recently, and it appears it was due to a failure of some mooring component. This type of problem will grow as mooring gear ages and more boats stress the gear during bad weather.

To compound this problem of failing moorings, cities in Florida require boat owners to sign documents that absolve the city of all liability. You might want to ask your insurance company what they think of you signing such an agreement, while at the same time putting your boat on a mooring you can't inspect. You will have no way of knowing what shape it is in, unlike your own anchor gear that gets inspected every time you haul anchor.

Anchoring has been and always will be an essential part of boating, and for many of us it is a skill and pleasure that makes boating special. Frankly, one of the main things I like to do on a boat is go some place and anchor. What's next? Are they going to outlaw sailing?

Monday, February 24, 2014

See All is Lost

Finally I had a chance to see All is Lost, and I highly recommend it to any sailor. Usually sailing scenes in movies are brief interludes between other action, and often the scene is so faked it is a jarring reminder the filmmakers know nothing about sailing.

This film is different. Yes, there are many technical mistakes and unrealistic moments, but this is one of the few films I have seen that captures the feeling and mood of being offshore while dealing with difficult situations. I applaud Hollywood for taking a chance on making a film that stars one actor, and has very little dialog, no sex, and not a single gun fight!

The premise of the movie and the opening scene is one of the best parts. Spoiler alert--if you haven't seen the movie, stop reading! It all begins with Redford waking up in the V-berth after the boat has come to a grinding halt. Water sluices over the cabin soul as he rushes on deck to see the corner of a floating container piercing the side of the hull. Eventually, in a clever bit of seamanship, Redford ties a small parachute sea anchor to the container, which then pulls the container away from his boat. He starts sailing away, but then thinks better of it, tacks, and sails right back onto the container so he can retrieve his sea anchor.

That scene had me hooked right there--somebody obviously knew something about offshore sailing! A miracle. OK, there were things to quibble about. Most of us wouldn't be sleeping in the V-berth offshore, I would have been out of the hatch like a shot compared to Redford, and I think my first instinct would have been to sheet in the sails hard to heel the boat away from the container and maybe sail her off and then be on the starboard tack to keep the hole above water. Minor stuff, but still I bet every sailor that sees the movie will have their own thoughts throughout about what would have been the best thing to do.

In fact, that's one of the best parts of the movie. It really gets you thinking about how to prepare for, and then overcome the types of emergencies Redford encounters. He and the movie do a good job on some things and a bad job depicting some others. Fixing the hole in the hull with West System epoxy and fiberglass = good. Trying to wash out electronics with freshwater and then dry them = good. Struggling forward in the middle of a blow to rig a storm jib and falling overboard = bad. Getting rolled over and over in what looks like a summer thundersquall = bad. The various nonsense that leads up to the boat sinking, which apparently has little to do with the damage from the container = bad.

But, again the movie makers manage to capture interesting little vignettes of what it is like offshore that make this more than an action flick. A sudden rain squall has Redford climbing out on deck in order to rinse some of the salt off his skin. The sequence of dragging the liferaft on deck, salvaging what he can from the sinking sailboat, then casting himself adrift as his boat dives under the surface is all very well done. The passing of brilliantly lit ships in the night so close they look enormous was just as I remember it. The difficulty of being seen by a huge ship, even as they pass so close is accurate. The feeling of peering and straining to see a vague shape on the horizon is brilliant. Also, once in the raft, the various techniques used and equipment he does and doesn't have is all quite realistic.

The ending is harder for me. Frankly, it is unclear exactly what is happening. Is he saved at the last moment in a miraculous way that is too Hollywood to believe, or are we seeing the last flickerings of his thoughts as he drowns? I'm curious as to how the script describes the scene and if Redford has weighed in on what is happening. Can't wait to find out.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

You still have to respect Mother Nature

I just read a great blog post by John Harries at his Attainable Adventure Cruising website (one of the best, and a must read), and it succinctly sums up my exact feelings about the dangers of relying totally on modern weather forecasting and weather routers. In addition, John clearly sets out the dangers of participating in offshore cruising rallies that have in recent years lead some sailors into situations they weren't prepared for.

My one caveat on what he wrote, and I believe he would agree with, is that in the end it is the individual skipper's judgment that must determine when or if a vessel heads offshore, regardless of any professional weather routing assistance or information received. In addition, despite the pressure of a rally environment, in the end it is the individual sailor's responsibility to assess the weather, the boat's and crew's capabilities, and the schedule.

The bottom line is that the weather is still unpredictable, boats and people have their limits as to what they are prepared for and what they can endure, and what circumstances we end up in are the responsibility of the skipper and crew. It has always been thus, since before recorded history, and it will always be so.

And, here's an interesting follow-up by Ken McKinley, a professional weather router.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Claiborne Young wins Skipper Bob Award

NOTE: Sadly, Claiborne Young passed on to a better cruising ground in June of 2014. He will be missed as a friend, a mentor, a colleague, and someone who made boating better for many thousands of people.

This article also appears on Claiborne Young's website. Check it out for the latest information on the ICW.

Claiborne Young first met the late Bob Reib,who most of us knew as Skipper Bob, at one of the first Trawler Fest events held on Solomon's Island, Maryland back in the '90s. Claiborne drove up there from North Carolina expecting to see 40 or 50 participants, but instead found himself speaking to a ballroom packed with more than 300 devoted cruisers. After his talk, Claiborne joined a roundtable discussion with other notable and knowledgeable cruising gurus, including Skipper Bob, the author of a series of guidebooks to America's inland waterways.

Now, some speculate there must be fierce competition between Waterway writers, but in reality most of us get along just great, and we often recommend each other's books and other products--after a customer has purchased ours! Claiborne told me that he and Bob got to share a booth at the fest, and it worked out great for both of them. Bob would sell one of his own books, and then when the customer wanted even greater detail on a particular area, he would recommend Claiborne's guides, conveniently being sold right next to each other. Needless to say, there was some friendly back and forth between those two sharing a booth. It's a wonder the customers could get a word in edgewise!

The reason they got along is that both shared what Claiborne describes as "a passion for getting accurate, on-site verified information for cruisers." They both believed in creating a quality product, based on professional research, on-location surveys, and careful writing and editing. And, these high-quality guides would sell well because they truly helped the recreational boating community.

The Skipper Bob Award is given annually to "ordinary people who make extraordinary efforts to assist the recreational boating community and who give selflessly of themselves for the good of others." Anyone who has used one of Claiborne's books in the past, or who now logs on to The SaltySoutheast Cruisers' Net, with its motto of "Cruisers Helping Cruisers," knows why Claiborne received this award. The amount of information available, all for free to anyone, is incredible: marina details, up-to-date charts, the latest shoaling information, bridge schedules, fuel prices (updated every week), and now detailed and recent soundings from the Argus system. Much of this information was simply unavailable at any price just a few years ago, and now it is available to all in order to make your Waterway journey safer, more enjoyable, and less expensive.

Most of you are not aware of the work that goes on behind the scenes in order to provide all of this accurate and up-to-date information. I, myself, have been involved in helping Claiborne to vet tips and new warnings provided by cruisers, and before any of this appears on the website every effort is made to research, confirm, and then properly describe the situation. The community often provides the lead, but then Claiborne applies the professional writer's touch to verify, clarify, and present it in a easy-to-understand format.

As many of you know, Claiborne's "first-rate, first-mate," Karen Ann, recently departed this world, and we must acknowledge her part in helping to create this amazing cruising resource. She not only helped create the Cruiser's Net, but she also made Claiborne promise to carry on with it, so we will all continue to benefit from her inspiration. Unfortunately, we must take the bad with the good, and my waistline will continue to expand as Claiborne updates his restaurant recommendations! But, hopefully I'll burn off a few of those calories pulling up the hook while exploring the new, secret anchorages he directs me to. I can't think of a more deserving winner of the 2013 Skipper Bob Award.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Some thoughts on mobile phones for cruising

Most cruisers have one or more mobile phones onboard. They are very useful tools for everything from checking your email, to getting the weather forecast, to staying in touch with loved ones. But, you probably already know that. Here are a few things you should consider before setting sail with your current phone.

The first and most important point is coverage. By all means take a look at the coverage maps supplied by the phone companies, but the bottom line at this writing is that there are really only two choices within the United States: AT&T or Verizon. Other services, like Sprint and T-Mobile, may be fine in your home area or if you travel along major highways, but once you start to cruise further afield you will find that only Verizon and AT&T offer the type of coverage you need. Even with one of these carriers, I suspect you will still encounter some dead spots if you are traveling south down the coast to Florida.

This doesn't mean you have to have a long-term contract with AT&T or Verizon. I personally have been using various MVNOs operating on the AT&T network for many years, and I have found coverage excellent from the Florida Keys to coastal Maine. MVNOs use the same towers, the same frequencies, and generally the same signal that you would get if you were a contract customer with AT&T or Verizon, but until very recently you were not able to utilize the latest and speediest LTE data services. Within the past week or so that changed with MVNOs Net10 and Straight Talk (both run by America Movil) beginning to provide access to LTE data for appropriately equipped phones. The speed gains reported by users have been dramatic.

Keep in mind that while cruising coastal waters far from major population centers you might very well be out of LTE range, or even 3G data range. Don't count on getting the same data speeds, or even any data. In other words, it is not a wise idea to run programs or apps that require a constant data connection, even if you can afford to pay for it. Most charting programs, for example, allow you to download and store charts on your phone or other device, rather than accessing charts directly from the Internet.

If you are already under contract with AT&T or Verizon it might be time to start thinking about the most economical way to end the arrangement, especially if you are planning on leaving the United States. It wouldn't make any sense to keep paying hundreds of dollars a month for phones and service you can't use. In some cases, particularly if you have GSM phones that utilize SIM cards, you might be able to purchase a local SIM card and phone service when in another country. However, my own two cents is that it is usually cheap and easy to purchase a local phone and service anyplace you are staying long enough to need a phone. I personally don't like to carry around flashy and expensive phones or anything else when in many places, but a simple and tiny flip phone or candy bar phone can slip right into your pocket and won't make you cry if it is lost, stolen, or broken.

I'll have more thoughts on mobile phones for cruising later, but for more up-to-date information on mobile phones and carriers check out Howard Forums and prepaidphonenews.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lightning can ruin your day

Though hurricanes and tropical storms rarely threaten the tropical Caribbean south of 10 degrees latitude, you do get a "rainy season" there. It is aptly named. While anchored near Linton, Panama, we experienced a deluge that lasted over 24 hours. I'm talking the kind of rain that overwhelms the deck scuppers, meaning inches of water on deck, fills the dinghy every hour or so, and is often accompanied by a tremendous lightning show--if you could only enjoy it! With bolts of lightning pounding down all around, your mind wanders to that little, tiny lightning brush you installed at the top of the mast, or the grounding cable you think might be too small. It is too small!

When some of these bolts hit nearby you hear sizzles and pops like somebody is grilling steaks, only you might be too near the grill. I've experienced some near misses that lit up the turned-off electronics, but with no apparent damage. The thunderous crash was nearly instantaneous--in fact, it seemed to come almost before the flash. From a little more distance you sometimes see what I call "lightning columns." These are huge bolts that go straight down into the sea from the clouds--none of that sissy jagged stuff. The surface of the sea seems to be vaporized where these columns hit. Frankly, I don't think a boat located there would have much of a chance no matter what fru-fru lightning protection equipment you've installed.

Seeing this stuff down in the southwest Caribbean, and talking to numerous boats that were hit and damaged despite having protection, makes me a fatalist when it comes to lightning. It is a matter of luck, and maybe some unknown factors, whether or not you get hit. The best preparation is to put a handheld VHF radio and a handheld GPS unit inside a metal pot inside the oven, and hope this Faraday Cage approach protects them. It might, but I hope to never find out.

Otherwise, I follow my usual keep-it-simple and redundant approach. If you normally use electronic charts and plotters, have paper back ups. Set up your boat so that you can operate it without any electronics or electrical systems. Most of us will still need to rely on an electric starter to get the engine going, but that is something that can be repaired or replaced almost anywhere in the world. In the meantime, we can still sail to where we need to go. That is the mindset I have when in lightning country--make sure you don't rely on something that can be taken out in a big flash and bang.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Blast from the past

In a shameless ripoff of my own work I will point you back to a post I wrote last year concerning storm surge. With the emergence of Tropical Storm Chantal down in the Caribbean it is a good time to review this important topic. Check out the full post here.

Think storm surge

Hurricane Sandy reminded mariners once again that it is very often the rise in water, called the "storm surge," that causes the worst destruction, especially to boats. We have all seen the photos of piles of boats washed out of marinas, boats sitting in places where they were never meant to go, and entire marinas just gone. And, most of that destruction was due to the tremendous surge of water brought ashore by the storm. At New York's Battery (the southern tip of Manhattan), the record-setting storm surge was more than 14 feet above mean high water. Boats hauled out of the water on nearby City Island were no longer safe as waves rolled ashore.

For the rest of this post published last year, click here.

Monday, June 03, 2013

It's back!

Hurricane season, that is. Officially, the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, with the most active time usually in August and September. Though, with global warming we are seeing all sorts of unusual weather patterns and events, so it is worthwhile to stay aware throughout the season, and even beyond.

I do a couple of things at this time of year. First, bookmark the National Hurricane Center's home page, and put it on your web browser's bookmark bar where you can quickly get to it. Second, I double check my insurance policy--seriously, make sure you are paid up and you've updated any information with your insurance company: change of address, new equipment onboard, change of marina, change of operators, etc. After you need to make a claim is not the time to notify your insurance  company of some change that may have altered your coverage.

Other great sources of tropical weather information abound on the Internet. One of my favorite's is Dr. Jeff Master's WunderBlog. Be sure to read the comments from weather nuts too. The blog is one of the best sources of detailed predictions/guesses on what might happen a few days down the road. Fun stuff to read, but I find the Hurricane Center's predictions remain the best.

Another fun site to check out when we do get a storm is the National Data Buoy Center, where you can  click on your favorite buoy or light tower to get up-to-the-minute on-site wind readings and often wave heights. I have Buzzard's Bay Tower bookmarked for fast access, and I also check out Borden Light, which is closer to where I keep my boat.

And, finally, it's not too early to begin preparing for the possible arrival of a hurricane. Keep your eyes out for sales on new dock and anchor lines. That spare hurricane anchor found in a yard sale now will be a bargain if you need it in August! Maybe figure out how you are going to rig extra-heavy mooring painters or dock lines, and don't forget to arrange for heavy chafing gear to protect those lines. I like to store and keep all this stuff organized and handy so that I'm not having to rush out to stores to find things at the last minute, which might be too late.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Think safe

UPDATE: The U.S. Coast Guard just released a report that the boating fatality rate was down almost 13% in 2012 compared to 2011. Seven out of ten people who drowned were on boats less than 21 feet long, and in 17% of the boating deaths alcohol was listed as an important factor.

A lot of words have been written about boating safety, and a lot of safety equipment is marketed and purchased. But, the most important piece of safety equipment is free. It is located between your ears.

Safety begins first thing in the morning when you hopefully wake up well rested and thinking clearly. Sounds simple, but how many times have you forced yourself to get up early, skipping breakfast and that eye-opening cup of coffee, in order to catch the tide or make a lot of miles? Sure, we all do that, but when you are rushing things go wrong. You can't find your boat shoes, so you put on a pair of flip-flops and slip on the deck, turning an ankle. Or, you pull away from the dock in a rush and leave a line trailing over the side that eventually gets wound up in your prop. You head out of the harbor without checking the weather forecast, and you miss the threat of thunderstorms. You get the idea--being in a rush and not following your normal routines are the enemies of safety.

Probably the single most important thing you can do each and every time you go out is to check the weather report and plan your trip around it. My routine involves always checking the marine weather on the VHF radio prior to firing up the engine, and checking it multiple times throughout the day--weather can change quickly. I keep a small notepad and pen or pencil next to the radio so I can note down important things in the forecast.

Simple, inexpensive things like that notepad and pen can be important safety equipment too. I use it to note down the times when I pass buoys or important turning points, just in case the GPS goes out. I use it to record Coast Guard warnings, or to note a latitude/longitude position if I hear a MayDay call. One really important piece of equipment to keep near the helm is a water bottle--stay hydrated properly and that piece of equipment between your ears works better.

It goes without saying that alcohol is the enemy of proper functioning of that safety gear between your ears. On my boats there is no alcohol consumption allowed while underway, or during a lunchtime stop. We enjoy our evening cocktails only after safely in harbor with the anchor down or tied up to the dock, but even then it is important to imbibe in moderation--you never know when you will need your wits about you during an after-dark anchor drill when a thunderstorm rolls through. The tricky part is controlling any guests you have onboard, particularly ones who may not be used to boats and being around the water. I will never forget the grim news one morning that a body had been found floating in a marina near where I keep my boat. It was someone I knew vaguely. Apparently he got up in the middle of the night after a lot of partying and just fell overboard, and nobody noticed him missing until the next morning.

The point being that your mindset is the most important safety tool you can bring onboard. Don't assume that you and your crew are safe because you have purchased all the latest safety gear. I was reminded of this when my son was about five years old. We were on a wharf getting ready to board our dinghy to return to the boat. I was putting my son's lifejacket on him when somehow he wriggled free, popped out of the lifejacket and flipped over the side of the wharf into the harbor. Needless to say, there was a moment of panic as I dropped my camera and other gear and jumped over the side after him. But, my son had already had swimming lessons and was used to being in the water. By the time I hit the surface he had already grabbed ahold of a dinghy and was pulling himself out of the water. Lesson of the story--put your lifejackets on before you need them, and that means before you head out onto the docks. Second lesson of the story--our mindset had always been that we wanted our children to be "waterproofed" before we went boating, so we had spent a lot of time teaching them in the water to minimize dependence on safety equipment that might or might not be there when needed.

So, yes, get the best safety gear and use it, but it won't do you any good if you don't turn on the gear between your ears.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Free charts!

One of the odd things about the digital information age is that some things have gotten much more expensive while others have become free. Both things have happened to nautical charts. A single printed, paper version of an official NOAA nautical chart of Mount Hope Bay, 13226, now costs $27. Those of us of a certain age can remember when they were less than $2 each. However, today's charts are more up to date than in the past because they are Print-on-Demand (POD) and include all Notices to Mariners up to the date of printing. Every nautical chart can be ordered here, in your choice of water-resistant paper, or printed on fully waterproof synthetic material for $37.

Check out my boat for sale.

Maybe I'm an old fart, but I still like to have copies of these big, beautiful paper charts onboard, especially for areas that I frequent, like Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River. I like to be able to make notes on the charts using an ordinary pen, and I can fold one up to provide much greater detail over a larger area, and in much greater resolution than you see on any electronic chart plotting device. Even if you love your chart plotter, it is nice to have an instant back up for when the electronics fail.

For those that are anxiously reading this to see where they can get the "free" charts, you only need to go direct to NOAA. Their online website lets you download every chart for free in either raster (RNC) or vector (ENC) formats. RNC electronic charts look just like paper charts, while ENC charts use a different graphic interface that allows you to turn off and on different layers to customize what you are seeing on your screen. To use either type of electronic chart you need a computer and a charting program. I really like the free OpenCPN charting and GPS navigation program. To use all of its functions you need to purchase a small GPS receiver that plugs into your computer like this one you can get for less than $35 on

In case you're wondering, I found that it takes about three hours to download every available free chart from NOAA, depending on the speed of your Internet connection. If you already have a computer, this set up provides almost cost-free charting and GPS navigation that is far superior to even the highest-end systems available just a few years ago. Frankly, I find the OpenCPN software to be much better than many other expensive and more complicated programs.

If you don't want to go through all that fuss, or you just want to look at charts at home, NOAA even has a free online chart viewing website. I love going to the online chart viewer when thinking about a new cruising area, or just to view a chart to help me decide if I want to purchase a printed copy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

FOR SALE: Finnsailer 38

$59,000 (USD), will consider trades

Manufacturer: OY FISKARS AB, Turku, Finland
Year: 1978
U.S. Coast Guard documented: 605765
LOA: 37' 7" (11.5 m)
LWL: 32' 6" (9.9 m)
Beam: 11' 7" (3.54 m)
Draft: 5' 2" (1.58 m)
Displacement: about 9 tons
Sail area: 100% fore triangle sloop = 500 sq. ft. (46 sq. m)
(Minke is ketch rigged, with a very small mizzen for additional area and better balance.)
Engine: Perkins 4.236 with approx. 4200 hours
Fuel tankage: 115 gallons
Water tankage: 150 gallons

Current location: Hauled out at a boatyard in Massachusetts. To view this great vessel contact the owner by leaving a comment on this post that includes your email address. All comments are moderated so your email address won't be visible to the public.

Minke is a very large and comfortable, center-cockpit, 38-foot motorsailor that really sails. She was constructed to Lloyds specs., and is in great shape for her age. She shows really well. In 2005-2007 our family of four sailed from New England to Panama and Colombia and back, and we never had a moment's concern about our safety. She has large tanks, a powerful and reliable diesel engine, a very comfortable three-cabin layout, a sea-kindly motion offshore, and is easy to handle. It is not unusual to hit seven or more knots in a good wind, and she is surprisingly weatherly.

With her large spade rudder, steering control is excellent with two helm positions. The forward helm, protected under the hard top, has a lower gear ratio creating the feeling of power steering. This is the position most often used when underway. The aft and larger wheel provides less turns lock-to-lock and much better "feel" when under sail. Either steering position has excellent visibility. Both wheels are hydraulic, and there is an emergency manual tiller that can be attached. The main steering cylinder was replaced in 2006.

The ketch rig creates smaller sails that are easy to handle. The main has deep reefs, and the jib is roller furling. The furling gear was replaced in 2005.

There is a built-in hydraulic autopilot that is currently not working. When cruising we installed an Auto-Helm auxiliary rudder windvane steering gear, which is currently dismounted but available.

The interior is very comfortable. Forward is a large V-berth cabin, with extensive storage underneath and on shelving. Next aft to starboard is a head, equipped with an AirHead composting toiled (works great!). There is pressure hot and cold water, and a pressure shower, though we usually use a shower head on a hose in the protected cockpit. Opposite the head is a large hanging locker.

The main salon has a U-shaped settee to starboard and a straight settee to port, with a folding table in between. The berths are rigged with lee cloths if needed for offshore work. There is extensive storage underneath the settees, in overhead cabinets, and on shelves.

Next aft is the L-shaped galley to starboard, with a propane stove and oven. Propane tanks are stowed forward in the anchor locker, which drains overboard. There is a remote propane shut off switch in the galley. There are double stainless steel sinks with pressure water, and there is a manual water pump as a back up. A 12 volt/120 fridge is between the galley and navigation station. To port of the galley is a large navigation table with fold-out stool. A smaller hanging locker is near the companionway, and below the steps is the battery compartment.

Electrical charging is via three systems. The engine drives a 94 amp alternator, there are solar panels mounted on the pilot house roof (about 140 watts), and there is a shore power charger. There is also a small diesel generator mounted below the cockpit, though it is not currently hooked up or working.

Aft of the galley is an inside passageway with stooping headroom to the aft cabin. Doors can close off this passage for privacy, and there is a comfortable single bunk in the passage with lee cloths. There is an overhead hatch that opens into the cockpit for ventilation and an opening port. The engine room may be accessed through a large door in this passage, providing easy access for routine maintenance like oil changes, and belt checks. The entire cockpit sole may be raised for even better access to the engine room.

The aft cabin has a hanging locker, a large double berth, two opening ports, and access to the cockpit via an aft companionway and overhead hatch. Ventilation is excellent, and this is a very comfortable place to sleep. There is a large amount of stowage in lockers and under the berth. There is a small sink, not currently used, to starboard.


Minke comes with all equipment needed to get underway and go cruising tomorrow. There is a large bronze manual windlass to pull up the 100 feet of 5/16" HT chain, followed by 200 feet of 5/8" nylon rope. She currently sports either a 45 lb. Bulwagga or Mantus anchor (new owner's choice) on a nice bow roller. There is a bow eye near the waterline that makes a perfect place to attach a nylon anchor snubber.

She has all the usual safety gear: lifejackets, docklines, fenders, horn, running lights, fire extinguishers (3), man overboard pole, Lifesling and life ring, etc. In addition, she has a masthead tri-color and anchor LED light that saves a lot of energy. Her anchor light is visible from a great distance.

Sails include an older main and mizzen, both with partial full-length battens and lazy jacks for easy handling. The roller genny was new in 2005. There is a small storm jib too.

Electronics include two depthsounders: one providing just depth readings, and one is a small graphic fish finder, which is very handy in shallow waters and in the Intracoastal Waterway. She has a Furuno GPS32. She has an ICOM fixed mount VHF radio with a masthead antenna on the main mast. There is a full dashboard at the forward steering station with engine gauges and various switches and controls.

The electrical system includes a solar charge controller so the batteries are always maintained properly, currently three older GP31 deep-cycle Interstate batteries, and one GP29 marine starting battery. All charging sources go to the main house deep-cycle bank, and the starting battery is just used to start the engine. Selector switches allow the engine to be started by any combination of the banks. Circuits are properly fused, including large fuses on the alternator and start circuits. It is set up so that with all main switches off the bilge pump circuit, electronics (for memories), and the solar power circuits remain on.

There is a system of valves that allows the port deck drain to be diverted into the water tanks, so that the entire deck (when clean) can be used for water catchment. This system works very well.

Minke is a great cruising sailboat with a lot more space than most boats of her length, plus she is in great shape for her age.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Don't choose the wrong boat

Let's face it, buying a big boat doesn't make any sense in the first place. It is much cheaper to get from point A to point B via car, train, bus, or airplane, and then at the other end, if we didn't waste all our money on boats, we could afford to stay in a comfortable hotel and eat gourmet meals in restaurants. Instead, many of us spend a lot of money so we get to scrape bottom paint off, repair engines while hanging upside down as the boat gets tossed about, and struggle to make five miles per hour in a zig-zag course toward a destination where the officials treat you like a piggy bank. Well, hopefully it isn't all that bad most of the time, but still, it really doesn't make any sense.

If you insist on banging your keel against the bottom like this, at least choose a boat that isn't ridiculous, which all too many people do. I would be rich if I had a nickel for all the times I've asked someone at a boat show what the draft and mast height is of a boat they are considering. It is incredible to me that people intending on keeping their boats on the East Coast don't make this a primary consideration. Basically, you really won't have much fun if you buy a boat that draws more than six feet and can't clear the many 65-foot fixed bridges over the ICW. Sure, I hear people say they never intend to do the ICW, but that means writing off more than 1000 miles of fascinating coastline, and one of the unique boating experiences in the world. And, even if you keep your boat in relatively deep New England, much more than six feet starts to really limit the number of small harbors you can get into. Move to the Chesapeake and it gets worse. Worse still in the Carolinas and Florida. In the Bahamas you cut your options in half if you need more than six feet. Five or four feet doubles the number of places you can go.

Then there are those who insist they want a bluewater capable boat, which most are with a modicum of care in choosing your weather. However, these bluewater wannabees think that if you don't have to crawl down a narrow companionway into the deep bowels of a full-keeled boat where you've got narrow sea berths you can wedge into, the boat is no good. This is despite the fact that for the next ten years they will be sailing it on the sheltered waters of the Chesapeake, sweltering through hot summers as the varnish peels off their eight-foot bowsprit. The qualities that might really make a boat great on the Chesapeake might include light air ability, shallow draft, great ventilation, good visibility from down below, low maintenance, etc.

When I go to buy a boat I write down a list of desirable characteristics and then I compare two or three or more different boats. When a boat wins a category it gets a check mark. I'll often have 20 or more characteristics. They include things like price, draft, height, layout, construction quality, condition, engine, tankage, sails, rigging, etc. etc. At the end of this culling process I am frequently quite surprised at the result. There before me is the winner of the factual comparison, and sometimes it is not the boat I have fallen in love with. It is a useful exercise.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Five pieces of red tape

I spend some time cruising various boating forums, and it is interesting how many long threads start with a seemingly simple question about red tape. Someone is buying a boat somewhere and wants to register it, or someone wants to avoid having to pay taxes on it (legally), or someone else is cruising and doesn't want to run afoul of state regulations.

You would think answers to these questions would be so apparent that there would be little need for discussion, but often the hive mind of the Internet turns up problems and permutations that most wouldn't dream existed. Here are five red tape oddities I have turned up:

1. When an out-of-state vessel visits Florida it gets 90 days of reciprocity before having to register in Florida, but only if the vessel already has a state registration from another state. In other words, boats that are only Coast Guard documented don't get the 90-day reciprocity and must state register in Florida. A lot of folks don't believe this, so I went to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, asked, and got the answer. You can read more about it in an upcoming article in Ocean Navigator magazine.

2. Unlike most states that give visiting boaters 90 days of reciprocity, New Hampshire only gives you 30 days before you have to re-register!

3. Visitors to New Jersey must have a Boating Safety Certificate when operating a boat, even if their home states do not require one.

4. In New York State all mechanically propelled vessels (except PWCs), including your dink, must carry an anchor.

5. Massachusetts excise tax is based only on how long the boat is and how old it is. Any boat that is at least 35 feet but less than 40 feet and 7 years or more old is valued at $12,000, and the tax is $10 per thousand. In other words, $120 per year for said vessel is paid to the town where it is kept on July 1 of each year, or where "habitually moored."

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Other anchor considerations

One thing rarely talked about with regard to anchor selection is whether or not that big hunk of steel will fit conveniently on your boat, and whether or not you will be able to deploy it easily.

The photo shows a typical mooring pickup struggle in Cuttyhunk Pond. These folks are now hooked up, but a lot of people have problems getting a line through the little eye on the top of the mooring pole and then securing the line before the wind blows the boat away. There's not a lot of room to maneuver, and you can imagine the language used when the wind is howling.

In order to lead the mooring line fair many boats require the removal of the anchor from the roller, which can be easier said than done when you are dealing with something pointy, weighing anywhere from 35 to 75 pounds (or more), and you are leaning over the bow pulpit or bowsprit trying to do it. Even if you can get the thing off the roller, which frequently requires letting out some chain and then pulling it in upside down, you still have to be able to manhandle it aft and out of the way. That is when I regret not having steel-toed boat shoes and shin guards.

Whatever you do, don't allow a mooring line to chafe on your anchor. Experiment with what angles the mooring line will be pulled to if the boat yaws from side to side or pitches in bad waves. I have seen a lot of boats on permanent moorings that leave the main anchor on the roller, even though the line chafes on the anchor under certain conditions. No matter how great your chafing gear, this is not a good situation. One of the most common causes of mooring failure is chafe on the painter.

Another situation where you may want to remove the anchor is when sailing offshore. Bigger boats rarely dip their bows under, but I have done so in heavy weather and I didn't want any possibility the anchor would come loose. Usually, some extra lashings will do the trick, but some folks have anchors way out on bow sprits that add a lot of resistance when you dip that thing into green water.

It may sound silly, but this little bow dance to remove your anchor is worth practicing a few times when you are securely tied up somewhere calm. When the wind is screaming, your mate is shouting something at you from the cockpit, and you have just pinched your finger, it can be difficult. I have added a short length of line attached to my anchor, which goes over the side with the anchor when I set it. The line gives me something to hold onto during the awkward removal process, and helps me to tie it down quickly once on deck.

Other considerations begin earlier in anchor selection. Yes, holding power and setting ability are important, but if the anchor doesn't fit on your bow roller in the first place, can you even use it? Some people are discovering that the newer roll bar anchors conflict with bow pulpits, anchor rollers, and bow sprit arrangements. In some cases, modifications can be made to your existing hardware, but in other cases major changes would be required.

I have encountered certain anchor and roller set ups that when pulled hard home on the roller the anchor jams in place, which is usually only noticed when you are trying to release the darn thing and the wind is roaring. I have had to pry the anchor forward in order to get it free. Other anchors sometimes are too long and the shank interferes with other deck hardware when the anchor is pulled all the way in. Sometimes, there is no good way to secure the anchor when in the roller, so it wobbles and bangs around, creating noise and wear. Whatever you do, don't drill any holes in your anchor shank to allow you to secure it to the roller--an anchor is the last thing onboard you want to weaken. If you anchor is just too loose up there while sailing, try using some bungy cords and/or line to secure the thing.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Think storm surge

Hurricane Sandy reminded mariners once again that it is very often the rise in water, called the "storm surge," that causes the worst destruction, especially to boats. We have all seen the photos of piles of boats washed out of marinas, boats sitting in places where they were never meant to go, and entire marinas just gone. And, most of that destruction was due to the tremendous surge of water brought ashore by the storm. At New York's Battery (the southern tip of Manhattan), the record-setting storm surge was more than 14 feet above mean high water. Boats hauled out of the water on nearby City Island were no longer safe as waves rolled ashore.

My boat was hauled about a week before Sandy, by pure luck, and the surge was only three or four feet  above high water at the boatyard well up Narragansett Bay. If it had been 14 feet of extra water I have no doubt I would probably still be trying to figure out how to retrieve my boat from well inland.

In retrospect, I think being on a mooring is probably the best place for a boat during a hurricane, as long as the boats are spaced widely enough to allow for extra scope. In the past, I have added extra long lines to my mooring, doubled them up, and then also put out anchors on very long scope. My theory being that in the worst case scenario the mooring would act like a giant kellet, or anchor weight, which is what some boaters use to increase holding power when at anchor. This scheme worked well for me during Hurricane Bob and Tropical Storm Irene. Despite being on a mooring, the pull on the anchors was so great that it took the better part of a day to retrieve the anchors, indicating they had done their work.

I use some big Fortress anchors for this purpose as they have enormous holding power for their weight and are relatively easy to handle in the dinghy. I use long lengths of nylon rode--the more the better--with only a six-foot or so length of chain near the anchor. Scopes of 10- or 20-to-one allow for plenty of storm tide rise.

Is there a huge tangle of anchor lines and mooring painters after the storm? Yes! But, I prefer the tangle at the mooring to the problem of untangling my boat from powerlines and trees ashore.

If you don't keep your boat on a mooring, I highly suggest searching for a spot where you can anchor her before a hurricane. Keep around and handy some big Fortress and/or Danforth anchors for this purpose. I know that not everyone can do this, but as Sandy demonstrated many marinas are not designed for hurricane storm surges. I can remember being in the downtown Waterside marina in Norfolk, Virginia, during one fall gale with the fixed docks completely under water and the tops of the pilings only a few feet above that waterline. That would not be a place to stay during a direct hit by a hurricane.

Assuming your boat and marina was not destroyed by Sandy, now might be a good time to go down and measure how much piling is showing at the next moon tide, and then compare that to historic storm surges that have hit your area. I see and visit way too many marinas that would fail this test. In the future I'm also going to pay more attention to how far above high tide my boat is hauled and stored.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New chartbook available for your trip south

The new sixth edition of my ICW chartbook is now available and you can purchase it at Amazon, or ask at your local marine store.

The new edition includes all the latest charts, still in our unique "flip-chart" format. Just start at page one and proceed down the entire ICW, flipping from page to page all in order. This is still the handiest way to follow along as you proceed down the Waterway, but if you also use an electronic chart plotter this book is a perfect companion to it. Let the electronics keep track of exactly where you are, while you use the chartbook to look ahead and plan for what is coming up.

Or use the chartbook to look for a marina, fuel dock, or anchorage for the night. New in this edition, we've identified the locations of marinas right on the charts, and then in a listing we provide GPS coordinates and the marina phone numbers. Of course we also locate hundreds of great anchorages on the charts, and provide brief descriptions in the back.

And, as before we include all the major alternate routes, like the Dismal Swamp Canal and Umbrella Cut, as well as charts to get you in and out of all the major inlets.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A folding anchor

I received a new 45-pound Mantus anchor in a surprisingly flat and compact box. A single page of instructions, some nuts and bolts, some lock washers, a container of waterproof grease, and the parts of the anchor were all neatly inside. It was quite obvious how everything fits together, so I really didn't need the instructions, but I skimmed them anyway. Obviously, being able to store a very large storm anchor disassembled would be a nice safety feature on a cruising boat.

About the only non-obvious thing was which way the bolts should pass through the anchor. Should the nuts be on the top or the bottom? I opted for the nuts on the top, though I doubt it would make any difference in use once the anchor hits the bottom. Having the nuts on top means a little bit smoother bottomside, making moving it about the boat a bit less likely to ding things up.

Unfortunately, my box had been busted open and some of the nuts, washers, and the grease were missing. The bolts were standard galvanized one-half inch and my neighborhood hardware store had everything I needed. I substituted marine trailer wheel bearing grease.

Assembly took maybe five minutes once all the parts and tools had been gathered on my foredeck. My first impression was that the anchor seems well made and solid, with a heavy galvanized finish. The hoop is held on by just two bolts, but I suppose it wouldn't normally be treated to great strains. The hoop on these so-called "new generation" anchors make them much easier to move around the boat, in comparison to something like a CQR with its hinged plow, or a Danforth or Fortress with flukes that want to snap back on your fingers if you turn the anchor over. The hoop is a perfect handle for carrying the anchor, and it would also be a good spot to tie on an anchor float, if one was needed (I very rarely use one).

The design of the anchor is reminiscent of the Rocna and the Manson Supreme. Many cruisers sing the praises of this type and I am looking forward to seeing if the reality meets the hype.

The shank is pretty long on these things--a lot longer than on my Bulwagga anchor that immediately preceded the Mantus on my bow roller. For now I have to assume the dimensions are such to improve holding, but it is something to keep in mind if you have a tight foredeck, like I do.

Real world anchoring tests will be coming up.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Born to Run

One recurrent theme on many boating forums is which outboard to choose for the dinghy. These threads frequently begin with someone's sob story about the miserable *#??*$ outboard they already own. And, then someone else will almost always chime in and tell a tale of how they love the exact same motor and have had wonderful service out of it. Frankly, I think most contemporary outboards from the major manufacturers are probably excellent motors to begin with, but they do suffer from the neglect that eventually wrecks so many boating systems.
      With the demise of the 2-stroke motor modern outboards have changed, mostly for the better, though I am still a great fan of the simple and sturdy 2-stroke. Putting aside the significant environmental advantages, 4-strokes provide two additional pluses: increased fuel economy and no need to mix oil with the gas. However, these two advantages bring with them a couple of possible pitfalls.
     First, that tremendous fuel economy we love in a 4-stroke--often burning half as much as a comparable 2-stroke--means that very little gasoline is being burned at idle. Sounds great, right? The problem here is that to meter that tiny bit of gas the slow-speed jet inside the carburetor is really, really, teensy. The inside of this jet, critical for a proper fuel/air mixture, is very easily plugged or fouled by the weensiest bit of crud. And, the typical outboard on a dinghy does not have much of, if any, fuel filter between the tank and the motor.
      This inevitably means that if you aren't meticulous in filtering the gas as it goes into your tank, and then meticulous in keeping any crud out of the tank, including water, eventually that low-speed jet will get plugged and/or some other critical passage in the carb. In my experience, this will happen--it is only a matter of how long before it happens. I can almost guarantee that if your newish 4-stroke outboard has become harder and harder to start, and maybe doesn't idle all too well either, it is time to take that carb off and clean it, and it is time to seriously think about putting in a quality inline or fixed mount filter. It is not a crazy idea to consider putting a large, spin-on type of engine filtration set up on your dinghy transom.
     However, even with this level of care, we sometimes must leave the boat longer than we would like. Today's gasoline is often laced with 10% ethanol and this gasoline is just not very durable. In my experience you only have about 30 days before it starts to deteriorate. And that's where the second pitfall emerges. The addition of 2-stroke oil in the past actually provided some stabilization of the gasoline mix as well as providing needed lubrication. The way around this is to add some fuel stabilizer to every tank of gas, whether 2- or 4-stroke. I have been using red StaBil for years with good success, but I now use the blue marine-grade StaBil that also claims to be better with ethanol gas. Adding this to your outboard tank will also help prevent phase separation--a condition where you get a layer of ethanol/water mixture with a layer of gasoline over. Once this happens you have to get rid of the whole mess and start over with fresh fuel. It goes without saying that you should be extra careful to keep water and moisture out of your gas, especially when it contains ethanol.
      Do these two things and you will find your new 4-stroke outboard will keep running better and longer, but you still must be prepared for the inevitable carburetor cleaning periodically. This should become a routine maintenance item if you have a 4-stroke, and I highly recommend you learn how to do it yourself and that you keep the needed tools and parts onboard.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Get out of the box

I frequent some online cruising forums and there are often long discussions about how and where to leave one's boat during hurricane season, or how to cruise hurricane-prone waters during the season. The real answer is simple--don't! I was involved in one such online discussion the other day and someone linked to NOAA's online historical database of hurricane tracks. Fascinating stuff! Go over there and play with it a bit to see how your area has made out, but please don't use it to determine whether or not it is "safe" to be in a particular harbor during hurricane season.
     Insurers study this stuff for a living, and you can tell what they think about the idea by the dramatically different insurance rates they charge above and below Cape Hatteras during hurricane season. There are slight variations in policies, but generally you can count on your deductible doubling when a named storm is coming, and/or your premium going up for that period. That should tell you all you need to know about the dangers of being in what some folks call "the box."
     The box is the region that insurers use to determine what constitutes a special hurricane rate area. Inside the box you pay more. Outside the box you pay less. Stay outside the box and you and your boat are safer during hurricane season.
     It doesn't matter how few or how many hurricanes have hit a particular harbor or area. They are inherently unpredictable, even with today's excellent weather services. This unpredictability means that even if the storm is hundreds of miles away you have to make preparations and/or run to your hurricane hole. You don't know if this next one will follow the historical tracks, or be the exception that proves the rule. Sure, you can roll the dice and take your chances, but it is gambling.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Think for Yourself

If you have read some of my previous posts you know that I have been involved in battling anti-anchoring ordinances, mostly in Florida, for many years. It is an ongoing fight, with new regulations now in effect in St. Augustine, and proposed ordinances being considered in Stuart and Martin County, the Florida Keys, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg.
     However, don't be discouraged! It is still possible to anchor out in wonderful places all over the world, and even within or near many of the most popular harbors in the world. Even in Florida. Despite the apparent magnetic attraction of other boats, all it takes is a little imagination and research to find thousands of anchorages that nobody is using, or almost nobody.
     A few summers ago my wife and I discovered a new and wonderful anchorage in Narragansett Bay, close to Newport, with a beautiful beach, perfect protection for the weather, and we were the only boat there after dark.
     How did we do it? There are a few techniques we use. First, we carry onboard just about every chart and cruising guide there is for the area we are in. I don't use one guide over the other--I tend to buy them all, and I keep old guides forever. For example, one of my favorites is Julius Wilensky's cruising guide to Cape Cod (covering the islands too) published in 1976. He reproduces in black & white detailed charts that are long out of print, yet they are much better than anything currently available from the government. Sure, the information on marinas and services is totally out of date, but I'm not interested in that stuff. Instead he talks about all sorts of interesting little anchorages in places like the Elizabeth Islands where you can still be the only boat after nightfall even in July.
     Second, we scour the charts for places that few, if any, writers have ever mentioned. There is no reason you can't anchor someplace new, is there? You will notice lots of coves and shallow areas that aren't mentioned in guides, yet some of them can be perfect if the weather cooperates. That's a big caveat in a lot of these unknown anchorages, but in the right season with the right forecast it can be very nice in New England to anchor in some bight where the wind whips across some spit of sand and behind you is nothing but open bay or ocean for miles. We have found places like this in the Caribbean, in Florida, and all up and down the East Coast. Monitor your weather and anchor someplace that maybe wouldn't be a good storm hole, but if there is no bad weather coming, who cares?
     Third, you have to develop a mindset of thinking for yourself when cruising. There are some interesting interactive online cruising guides out there, and some of them are touting following the actual routes of folks who uploaded their's. Frankly, that would bore me--who wants to just follow in somebody else's wake? Blaze your own course to someplace new!