Monday, March 14, 2016

Charting Electrics

Electronics are wonderful as long as the electrons keep flowing, but they are useless once the power ends — and it always does eventually! The trick on a boat, particularly one in a hot saltwater environment, is to keep those electrons flowing from the boat’s batteries through various connectors, wires, switches, fuses, etc., to the right places and to not get sidetracked or blocked.

There are several unique factors to keep in mind with regard to charting electrics. It is not the same as wiring up a new light over the chart table! First, I have found it is important to isolate the electronics circuits from possible major surges caused by things like engine starting or windlass grinding. I have witnessed various electronic devices turning themselves off or on due to power surges, and low voltage is never good for sensitive electronics. Luckily, most modern electronic devices can handle a wide range of input voltages, including low-voltage situations, quite well.

On my boat I have a small fuse panel that resides right in the battery compartment. It is connected directly to the main large battery bank at the opposite end from where alternator and solar charging juice gets brought into the bank. Batteries act as filters for voltage spikes and a large house bank of batteries is fantastic protection. A very short fused lead connects the small electronics fuse panel directly to the battery bank. This panel is “always on,” meaning I only disconnect it for maintenance purposes. An entirely separate battery is used only for engine starting, which is usually the No. 1 routine action that can cause power spikes. Of course, the two battery banks can be combined using switches if required, but in normal operation they are kept separated with only a trickle charger from the main bank keeping the starter battery topped up. Normal starting only uses a tiny bit of capacity from the starting battery and if you are routinely draining that battery for some reason, your engine and/or starting system needs work.

Remain connected
I have learned through hard experience that it is far better to keep your electronics attached to power than to disconnect them. Many devices have small internal batteries that maintain critical memory, and those internal batteries can be difficult or impossible to replace. The job is also expensive and must be done by the factory in many cases. One issue I have right now is that my VHF radio lost its programmed MMSI number one winter when I had it disconnected, and the only way to have it restored is to send it to the factory — the repair charge would be greater than the radio is worth!

Some will argue that a fuse panel should not be in the battery compartment due to corrosion issues from batteries gassing and that the panel can’t be isolated using the main battery switch. All I can say is that I have used this system for decades on several different boats and have never found a serious corrosion issue. Your batteries should not be gassing that much anyway! If they are, it is time to closely examine your charging system.

Safety first
Concerning not being able to isolate this panel using the main battery switch, I don’t consider it a serious safety issue. First, there is an inline fuse in the short wire from the batteries to the panel; second, each individual power line is fused in a position that is very close to the battery. Most of the lines also have fuses close to the electronic device. The wires and fuses are very small, so in the event of a catastrophic short somewhere along the line, either the fuse or the wire will burn out very quickly.

The “always on” electronics fuse panel provides other benefits. When there is an electrical emergency in some other part of the boat, you can safely turn off the main battery switch and know that critical navigation and communication devices will continue to work. Think of the situation in a boat fire. You might quite rightly believe that the electrical system is to blame, so you flip off the main switch as the boat fills with smoke and then you try to call the Coast Guard only to find the VHF radio isn’t working. You then grab a hand-held radio and reach someone who can help, but then you can’t tell them your position because the GPS and chartplotter have been knocked out. You want to keep critical electronics running as long as possible in an emergency situation.

Of course, when it comes to most things on board, it is important to have backup systems that don’t depend at all on the main boat electrical system. I don’t go anywhere without a small, hand-held GPS that runs on regular alkaline flashlight batteries — no rechargeables! I want this GPS to always be available no matter what and, in my experience, small rechargeable batteries are not reliable, have much less capacity than advertised and have relatively short lives. Good old alkaline disposable batteries, on the other hand, last for years on board and it is very easy to carry enough to last years. They are available everywhere in the world too. I have a hand-held VHF radio that can take ordinary alkaline batteries for this very reason, along with a hand-held depthfinder and even an old hand-held RDF! Even in today’s world with few navigational radio beacons, there are almost always commercial radio stations or airport radio beacons that can be homed in on when all else fails. In any case, think through how you would navigate if your main batteries were gone for some reason — it will happen!

This article first appeared at Ocean Navigator. Check them out!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cool stuff for a cool season

OK — I just dated myself with that title, but "cool" is the only appropriate word, in my opinion, for this potpourri of charting goodness.

Dock-to-dock Autorouting
You've no doubt read about the wonders of Google's self-driving cars that will take you from point A to point B safely while you do important things like drinking coffee and using Snapchat. I hope boating never gets to that point, but Navionics has taken a step in that direction with a new component in Navionics+, an optional pay-to-subscribe feature available in their free Boating app, or included with their paid Boating app. Check it out here. It is available for iPhone and iPad at this time.

We all have used chartplotters that let us create straight-line routes between various selected waypoints, but what if your trip is down the Hudson River or the Intracoastal Waterway? Plotting a course mark-to-mark would be totally impractical in many areas due to the tight curvature of the waterway, the lack of navigation aids within sight of one another and the need to travel in non-straight lines. Dock-to-dock Autorouting to the rescue!

This app feature does just what it says — it plots a course for you, based on navigation aids and chart information, down a narrow twisting channel. Having traveled the Intracoastal Waterway more than 25 times, I can appreciate the need for this. I picture myself rising early to catch the sun in a desolate stretch of the Carolina or Georgia waterway, where the channel resembles a series of wriggling snakes. Yes, there are lots of markers to watch for, and you should be using your Mark 1 Eyeballs too, but it would be really cool on that chilly morning to have my day pre-plotted for me.

There are many places in such a snake den where intersecting channels or waterways can take you from instant calm to panicked confusion, often followed by your keel making the determination that your morning coffee-starved brain made the wrong snap decision. Having a plotted route would avoid all that fun of rowing out an anchor to kedge your boat back into deep water.

Not only that, but this app feature also provides you with fuel consumption, distance and ETA estimates, hazard warnings and points of interest. Needless to say, Navionics provides the obvious disclaimer that "a route automatically calculated by Autorouting does not replace safe navigation practices and should never be your only reference." In other words, boating with your mind in gear is still the safe way to get from point A to B, especially when the straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.

Cuba, here we come!
Now that sailing to Cuba seems to be possible for many North Americans, everyone is looking for charts and guides — and NV Charts has delivered. They've recently released four charting regions covering the north coast of Cuba, and they have matching chart apps. If you purchase the paper chartbooks, you can also download digital charts that work with a free charting program for OSX and Windows, and you will receive a free charting app for use on iOS and Android. Learn more here.

I like this approach of encouraging cruisers to have paper and digital products; it means you are not entirely dependent on the flow of electrons in a marine environment. At the same time, how cool is it to have your big chartbook safely below on the chart table, while your hand-held phone or tablet provides the cockpit view you need? Or vice versa, depending on your boat.

NV Charts utilize both government hydrographic information and the company's own surveys conducted in small boats. They utilize symbols and colors somewhat different than those used by U.S. government charting agencies, but I have found them to generally be clear and easy to read. As always, boaters must use caution and those Mark 1 Eyeballs when navigating in less-traveled waters, particularly coral areas.

Office of Coast Survey Chart Catalog
OK, how cool can a chart catalog be? Pretty cool if you are the Coast Survey folks that bring us NOAA paper and electronic charts. Check out their online catalog hereto see what I mean. Choose a tab to see outlines of paper or electronic charts available and, using Google maps, you can zoom right in smoothly and quickly to the area you are interested in and you can highlight chart areas to get more information.

The view includes quick links to navigational products covering the selected area, and lists other charts in the vicinity. This is a fantastic planning tool, and it also helps to give you a big picture of the area.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for more cool stuff!

Hurricane Chartwork

During and before hurricane season you will read and hear lots of information on what to do when a storm approaches, and how to escape and remain safe. However, the most important thing is to pay attention, so that whatever happens you have days of warning. With a longer warning period you might very well be able to move your boat to a more sheltered harbor, or possibly even far enough from the storm to avoid the worst of it. 

The primary early warning tool is the National Hurricane Center's (NHC) website ( Keep the site bookmarked on your cellphone, your home computer or wherever you'll be able to check it every day. The NHC is previewing a new website ( with responsive design that will work better on phones and tablets. 

The NHC provides a downloadable and printable PDF Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart that I find very handy. The paper chartlet is gridded so it is easy to plot latitude/longitude coordinates. I print out several blank ones and keep them on board so that I can plot out the course of a storm and have a ready reference to its progress, without having to fire up a computer or a phone. 

I have found that cellphones and the Internet are generally reliable and faster to get back up and running during a hurricane event. In many areas trees quickly take down power lines, along with phone service and cable TV, but cell towers have backup power and by the nature of the system there is a lot of redundancy. Even if you lose a signal from one tower, you may be able to move around a bit and pick up another tower. 

In recent years the NHC has become less useful to mariners when a hurricane makes a close approach. Critical information on storm location, progress, potential tracks, etc., is replaced by endless repetitions of warnings to "complete preparations" and "seek shelter." Strangely, this is when local television weather becomes a mariner's best friend. Local weather announcers are struggling to fill endless airtime so they microreport every detail and nuance of the approaching storm just about when the NHC becomes useless. Unfortunately, you do have to be patient during the inevitable reports from reporters trying to stand in the wind and rain to show everyone how terrible the weather is. 

I'm not a fan of TV on board a boat, but if you have one, use it! As an alternative, I have found many stations offer a live stream on the Internet, or it makes a good excuse to hang out in the marina lounge or a local bar! Unfortunately, in most places broadcast radio is much less useful — it is hard to find a station broadcasting detailed, accurate weather. 

When prepping for a storm your chartplotter, paper charts and cruising guides become critical. If I don't have paper charts of the area, I print out a very detailed chart of my surroundings and I keep it in a plastic zipper bag. You never know when the electronics or your power supply will fail, and things are likely to get very wet — even down below!

Many boaters have their main plotter at the steering station, which is not where you want to be located during a hurricane or a close approach. Make sure you have some sort of plotting device that can be used down below. As a storm's track relative to your location becomes defined, there is often time to readjust lines, move anchors to better locations or even move the boat a short distance to get better shelter. A chartplotter down below will tell you if there is enough water to get in behind that protective point, or whether you are now going to be downwind of that large marina with boats and docks breaking loose! 

Assuming you've got your boat well secured and in good shelter, often the biggest problem is debris or other boats floating down on you. I spent a good portion of Hurricane Bob lying on the bow of my boat fending off floating junk including an upside-down ATV, a large old Christmas tree and numerous 100-pound propane tanks. Often the biggest danger is other boats breaking loose and taking you with them, so use those charts to not only determine what will be immediately upwind of you but what might be floating down the river, bay or harbor from an unseen marina around the bend or an abandoned wharf falling apart. 

Needless to say, with that early warning you have had (you've been monitoring the NHC, right!?), you've explored the territory around your boat in the dinghy and have plotted out all possible hazards. I have a portable depth sounder that I use in the dinghy to give me an accurate idea of depths and hazards all around the boat for some distance — in case I drag, or in case I have to move the boat deliberately for some reason. In Maine I once found that the mooring the harbormaster had put me on allowed my boat to swing over a large boulder that would have been very close to my keel depth at an extreme low tide. I moved. Take those depth readings and write them down on that big-scale, small area paper chart you have printed out. This chart can be useful later if you find your boat has dragged into a shoaler area. 

Think ahead, use your charts to plot out every detail of your sheltered spot, and be prepared with backups for the backups when everything is soaked and broken! Stay safe this hurricane season.

This article was first published online by Ocean Navigator. Check them out for other great content!

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.