'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch

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Making others plans

There is a saying – often attributed to John Lennon (though I have no idea if that’s accurate) – which goes:

“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

There is another saying, most often heard in country music lyrics, (which, by the way, is what you often hear blairing across the anchorage as young men of a certain age and socio-economic status cruise by – alone – in their rather shiny and expensive fishing boats, not fishing) which goes:

“If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him your plans…”

So today we’re planning and laughing along with God – assuming that’s who’s responsible for the weather we’re having.

Florida is stuck in a weather rut. As weather ruts go, it’s really not a bad one. Mostly clear weather, mostly sunny, mostly pleasantly warm (low 80’s days, upper 60’s nights).  Only thing is the wind. It doesn’t stop. And it’s from a particularly unhelpful direction. Every. Single. Day.

North winds. Where I’m from, North winds are an oddity. Wind from the north means a change, a front’s passing or a large weather system is finding it’s way out. Lyrics from a song by the inestimable bard Gordon Bok come to mind:  

East wind’s rain and North wind’s clearing. Cold old Southwest wind’s a fair wind home.”

Well in the New England that’s generally true, but down here the weather never got the memo. Except for a couple brief periods of near-calm as a warm front came through, we’ve had winds from the north and northeast every day but a handful for weeks.

Wind so consistent, even the white pelicans are sitting it out. Well actually in fairness to the pelicans, they seem to be pretty much oblivious to the wind – north or otherwise. They still huddle in large groups as a social thing, and they fly – loose eschalon formation – whenever they feel like it.  I just wanted an excuse to use this really cool picture I took of a little place we call “Pelican Island” when we’re upwind of it, and  something less complimentary when we’re downwind…

Which sort of brings me – in a rambling, Tuesday-morning-with-nothing-to-do sort of way – to those “other plans” I mentioned earlier.  

Nicki and I had planned a short jaunt “outside” today. Outside meaning into the Gulf of Mexico, rather than in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Outside is real sailing. Outside is exciting. Outside is the “real world”.

But when the wind has been blowing stink for a week from one direction, and the waves have decided to get into the act AND that’s exactly the direction you want to go…  We can plan all we want, but attempting to go north today is going to be a pissing, moaning, slamming exercise in frustration no matter how we slice it.  So we’re not.

Instead, a few random thoughts, in the form of seven nearly unanswerable questions:

  1. Now that so many of the 20ish white men down here are listening to the music which – in my youth – we identified with late-teen black men, what are the late-teen black men listening to? 
  2. Why is it nearly impossible to find an FM radio station down here that isn’t broadcasting either Bro-Country, or a bible-thumping misogynist?
  3. Why is “Bro-country” so popular among the 30-something men who clearly have some means, considering the boat they’re driving, and why are they alone in that boat, slowly cruising it back and forth past the docks and other boats, broken-hearted songs playing at a level meant to be heard a half-mile away, looking sad…
  4. Why do people buy sailboats, and then never sail them, even in near-perfect sailing conditions? (This question was voiced recently by a friend who sailed by several new-looking sailing vessels on a passage along the coast, all of whom had their sails tightly furled and were motoring in great discomfort due to the perfect sailing conditions previously mentioned. We see it all the time.)
  5. Why do pelicans flying in echelon formation always follow the leader precisely, even when the leader is making altitude deviations for no appearent reason? Are there invisible speed bumps in the air that I can’t see?
  6. What is it about watching a Brown Pelican quit flying and fall headlong into the water that makes me smile – Every. Single. Time. They don’t “dive”, they just quit.
  7. We’ve read that Anhingas hunt by spearing small fish on the end of their very pointy beak. Ok, so how do they get that fish off the beak and into the mouth without dropping it?

There’s your bit of randomness for the day.  I hope at least one of those questions causes you to stop in awe of the universe for a moment. Douglas Adams, eat your heart out.


The Art and Science of Anchoring

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(Note: This is what we call a “technical” post. If you think discussions of gear and techniques that are directly applicable to sailing and cruising are “Deadly Boring”, you might want to move on to one of my normal, funny offerings. Really, I won’t be offended.)
In this post, I’m going to outline my patented, never fail system for choosing anchoring gear, selecting a location, and setting your anchor for a secure night or an extended stay. Ready?

Just kidding. There’s no such thing.

But if there were, and if I had it, I could make a killing. Wherever two or more cruising boats gather, the talk will – eventually – turn to the subject of anchors and anchoring, and the opinions will sometimes be as diverse and contradictory as the subjects of an election cycle. 

Well, maybe not THAT contradictory, but I promise there will be strongly held yet conflicting opinions and methods. 

Take this boat, for example. These poor guys have been having a hell of a time the last 48 hours, having anchored, dragged, re-anchored and even moved to a marina for the night (see the blown fender hanging at the side? Likely a victim of a dock bash during the night) before returning to the area where we rode out the storm without moving an inch. And at that they had to try to anchor three times before it held…

If it holds…
So what can you do to increase the odds of staying put? There are some basics that I’ve learned from reading and experimenting, but before I do that, let’s look at the picture above more carefully. I see (or saw) three things straight away that could be done better, and those deal with Scope, Shock, and Windage.
Scope: Scope is the length of rode (chain or rope or both) deployed. The more scope out, the more likely your anchor is to catch and hold well. Recommendations for scope are given as a ratio between the depth from bow to the bottom and the amount of rode deployed, with 3:1 is a minimum for chain rode. 5:1 is better, and 7:1 is reasonable for a gale of 40 knot winds. But more than a minimum is better, always.

But in the case of this boat, we watched them let the anchor out the first time they tried this morning. One fellow at the bow was holding the anchor chain with the anchor dragging in the water, probably 5 or 6 feet down. When they’d picked their spot, he released the chain he was holding, and the chain ran out for maybe 20 feet before it stopped. Since we’re here in 12-15 feet of water, and the distance from the surface of the water to their bow is close to 4 feet, that means they have – at the most – a scope ratio of 2:1. Not even enough to stop for lunch, much less for the night.

Shock: Boats move at anchor. Some even sail back and forth, tugging at the anchor at the end of each swing, and the boat pictured above is a sailer. The problem with that is that chain doesn’t stretch – not even a little. As soon as the chain comes taught, there’s an enormous shock as 14000 pounds of boat is suddenly denied its freedom of motion.

The answer to that problem is a snubber (described below) or – as we’re using right now – a combination of chain and nylon line in your anchor rode. For the last two days we’ve been riding to 75 feet of heavy (⅜”) chain plus 35 feet of ⅝” nylon line. Now nylon is wonderfully stretchy, as much as 20%, so on the occasions when Sionna decides to swing, that line acts like a shock absorber, easing the load onto the anchor progressively and spreading the load over time. The anchor is therefore much more likely to stay put.

And what’s a “snubber”? Simply a short (15-20 feet) length of nylon line with a hook on one end. The hook gets attached to the chain, the end of the line is attached to the boat, and enough chain is let out so that the nylon line is taking the load, with the excess of chain loose in the middle. 

Windage: The wind is a powerful force – a force to be reckoned with. And the stronger it blows, the greater the force it can exert. Not only that, but it’s power increases at twice its speed, meaning that if the wind speed doubles, the force it exerts is multiplied by four. In situations where you expect strong winds, therefore, it’s very important to reduce your windage as much as you can. Look at the picture again:

They removed the main sail – that was a good idea, as sails can create a lot of drag, but see the dinghy? It’s hanging from the stern like a glorified wind scoop – the worst possible position from a windage standpoint. Laying flat on deck, yes, or even trailing in the water behind, but this…

So aboard Sionna (I’ll stop picking on our neighbors now) we have a list of things we do to reduce windage, reduce shock loading, and maximize the holding power of our anchor when we’re expecting significant winds at anchor, but it began long before, when we were choosing the anchoring equipment we have aboard. 

You see, when it comes to anchors, heavier is always better, up to the point when the crew is not able to handle the weight. Same for the chain attached to it – so we chose a 35# anchor (slightly over-sized according to the books) and ⅜” chain – one size larger than normal. To that we attached ⅝” nylon line, again slightly over-sized, but also easier to handle than a finer line.  

The business end of the 35# CQR anchor

Chain and snubber deployed. The snubber takes the load while the chain acts as a backup.
What else? Anything on deck that might come loose, or which presents a significant amount of resistance to the wind. This includes our stays’l (which is stored in a bag on deck when not in use), the sun awning, the sailing rig for the dinghy, fenders, BBQ grill, throwable life ring…

Dinghy sail and mast on the starboard side deck.

Sun awning on the port side deck.
Stays’l (Stay Sail) on the port side deck forward.
BBQ grill (green) and the fenders (blue opposite, usually there are three tied there).
Throwable life ring (“Lifesling”) in it’s bag.

And finally there are the sails themselves. These enormous pieces of cloth can become dangerous should they begin to catch the wind. In a minor blow (say, less than 40 knots) we take lengths of spare line and snugly wrap them, inside their covers.
Wrapped sails in preparation for Tropical Storm Hermine.
We also tie a heavy line around the rolling head sail to be sure it doesn’t decide to unroll – something that has frequently resulted (on other boats) in loss of the whole mast.  
And for stronger winds? Or even a hurricane? The sails come off entirely and are stowed below, along with everything else previously mentioned. Yes, a storm-prepped sailboat is a mite cozy below! But all of these things add to your chances of staying anchored and undamaged in a real storm.
And that, really, is the point. Keep the boat attached to the ground and in safe water, and keep the crew safe aboard or – if it’s a better option – in shelter ashore. Safety first.


Let’s Talk About Forecasting…

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody DOES anything about it!”

Winds 20 gusting 38 – not trifling!
So Mark Twain is claimed to have said. Of course there are lots of things attributed to Mark Twain – and doubtless many famous people – that they never said, but since Twain was known for the pithy one-liner, we’ll let him have that one.

Particularly because it’s true, and will likely stay true – chem-trails and other conspiracies not withstanding. The weather is still out of our control, and seems likely to remain so for my lifetime, at least. 

Yesterday Nicki and I left Breakwater Harbor, off Lewes, Delaware at 8am, and headed out around Cape Henlopen for the open Atlantic and a 35 mile jaunt down the coast to Ocean City, Maryland. The forecast as we departed was for seas of 2-3 feet and winds peaking at around 15 knots before diminishing in the afternoon to 8-10 knots. From there, the forecast also called for a front to move in and pass, bringing rather more wind for the overnight, so we planned to tuck in to Ocean City behind Assateague Island to wait out that bit of weather before continuing south.

But our 8am departure was basically the only part of our day that went completely according to plan. Rather than seas of 2-3 feet, we found 5-6 and occasionally 8 feet, and the wind continued to build slowly throughout the day, gradually being supplemented with rain. We passed through the inlet at Ocean City about an hour after slack water, and we’re very glad it wasn’t any later, as it was still a rough ride. There’s also an unmarked shoal in the inlet, which we only dodged at the last minute. 

And now it’s Thursday, and the 12 hours of expected rough weather has turned into at least 36, as the low pressure system that’s causing it all refuses to move off the coast, and in fact seems to have strengthened as it’s slowed – we’re seeing steady winds of 20 knots, and gusts nearing 40. The anchor is well set, thankfully (we watched our neighbor anchored near by drag about 200 feet toward a set of pilings before they gave up and headed in to try and find a slip at the marina. (Not an option for us, it’s a very shallow marina basin.)
Just a thrill-a-minute, this cruising thing!

Meanwhile we’re getting notes from other cruising friends who are many days ahead of us in this southward migration, and they’re sending lovely sunset pictures and stories of their more pleasant adventures.

We could do with some “more pleasant” any time now, you know?

So that’s the state of weather forecasting – which was the whole point of this post, you may recall. Only a forecaster can go to work day after day, get it right less than 50% of the time, and still be considered to be performing adequately. 

I’m not bitter about that – just saying it’s a funny world.


Escape From New York

I wrote this post the day after we made the transit from Long Island through New York City’s East River, and down to Sandy Hook, NJ. That was nearly two weeks ago, but it seems I never posted it – as pointed out by a friend of ours. Thanks Matt!So here it is.
                                                                                          Escape From New York
Not that I’m suggesting that one should necessarily “escape” from New York City, but I will admit that I am NOT an urban dweller. A big city, to me, is Rockland, Maine – population 8000 in the winter, 28,000 in the summer. That’s as big as I can handle comfortably.

So naturally I approached the passage from the Long Island Sound to New York Harbor with some trepidation. I mean, that’s a BIG CITY no matter how you slice it!

And for those that don’t know about such things, yes, you CAN take a boat from the Long Island Sound into the Hudson River and thence, the Atlantic Ocean without going all the way around Long Island. You just have to be ready for some serious currents and some even more serious boat traffic.

In retrospect I think we’d both agree that it was “no big deal”. Yes, you need to time the current correctly. The change in tides between the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound means that a HUGE amount of water is moving either northeast or southwest through Hell Gate, and currents can exceed 5 knots at peak times. Given that 5 knots is Sionna’s maximum practical speed under power, trying to go the “wrong” way is only going to waste a lot of fuel – current is always King.

Or Queen. Anyway, you can’t go if the current isn’t favorable. You just can’t. Doesn’t matter if you have a dentist appointment that it took you a year to get and you simply MUST make it to Manhattan against the current – you are not.
We left our mooring in Manhasset Bay promptly at 7:30am, allowing 2 hours to get to the Throgs Neck Bridge at the forecast slack (zero) current time of 9:30. I’m one of those people who is paranoid about being late, so of course I build in extra time for important arrivals. Which predictably got us to the Throgs Neck 45 minutes early, and gave us a quarter-knot of current against us for the first bridge.

First bridge – Throgs Neck!

No biggie there – by the time we got to Rikers Island, the current had turned, and we were riding with almost 3 knots of fair current, and FLYING along at 7 knots, 8 knots, 8.8 knots! Nicki got the award for fastest speed to date at 8.8 knots. She wouldn’t let me near the helm until we cleared the south end of Manhatten, actually, so I’m not sure the award should stand…

By the way, we weren’t alone. There were at least 5 other sailboats in Manhasset Bay with us, and though we were the first boat off the mooring, those other five – who have more money for diesel fuel than we do – caught up with us shortly before we passed Rikers Island, and we ended up the last in line for the trip south.

Last in line again, as the other boats pass us by.
From Rikers Island, the next feature is Hell Gate. It’s not as bad as it sounds, actually, though in an under-powered or pure sailing vessel it must have been very interesting indeed! For us, it was just “watch the channel markers” and keep her in between the navigational beacons. No big deal. Except the tankers. Did I mention the tankers? They’re very big. VERY big. And they cannot stop, they cannot turn, they cannot do ANYTHING except blow their very pretty and loud horns if they’re not sure what you’re doing. Of the six boats going head-to-head with this particular tanker, we were the ONLY boat to contact him on the radio and agree how we would pass. The only one. Silly me, guess I’m just a stickler for standard procedures. The tanker skipper was most cordial and seemed to appreciate our effort.

The East River is the next thing after Hell Gate, and it’s just cool – no other way to describe it. You see a side of the buildings that nobody on land ever sees, and you’re on this kind of magical mystery tour along the waterway that takes you along at it’s own pace… 

We saw the UN, of course – in fact there were rumors that the whole East River could be closed due to the UN General Assembly going on, but today there were no closures, and we sailed on by in comfort. The only thing identifying the building now is the flag outside, but I remember seeing it from the air, those many years ago when I was a pilot. 
Speaking of “those days” – I stopped flying in February, 2002, having spent much of that career flying into the New York airports, especially LaGuardia. I was supposed to fly to LaGuardia the afternoon of September 11th, 2001…

So I haven’t seen Manhatten since the area around the former World Trade Center was rebuilt. I’d never seen the rebuilt skyline of New York. 

It looks… Different.

So tonight we’re in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, anchored of Sandy Hook Point with two of the boats that made the passage south with us. Tomorrow we’ll probably continue south to the Manasquam Inlet – but that’s another story.  

It’s a lovely beach – or would be, if it weren’t for all the plastic trash that litters every square inch above the high tide line. And if you aren’t already worried and angry about plastic pollution – particularly in the oceans – you need to get that way. You wouldn’t believe how bad it already is.

Really, wonderful trip, do it if you can. 

But stop buying plastic crap, ok? It always becomes a problem for somebody.


The Jersey Shore

September 15, 2016

Atlantic side of Sandy Hook, NJ
Beautiful. Over-built. Flat. Vulnerable.

Those are some of the descriptives that come to mind from our last four days, as we’ve made our way down the coast of New Jersey toward Delaware Bay. Beautiful bays, marshes and dunes – and there’s a large, often garish, “what were they thinking” house built on most of them. Or being re-built, as the reconstruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is ongoing.

It must be my country childhood/Maine-based eye that sees it all as just “too much” Too many buildings too close together, too many boats (my God there are a lot of boats!) going way too fast. Faster than any reasonable human should want to go.

And flat. If you grew up here, you probably don’t notice, but the only thing higher than the houses is cell towers and water towers. And probably that’s what makes it feel vulnerable. There’s no shelter from anything meteorological that might happen, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. 

As we’re finding out this morning. Our Monday morning wake-up routine of coffee or tea, an English muffin and talk was rather rudely inturupted by the arrival of a squall from basically out of nowhere. I saw a little rain coming, went back on deck to let out a little more anchor rode “just in case”, and just made it back to the cockpit (almost) when a wall of wind hit us like a brick: 40-45 knots, the anchor chain stretched out straight and the GPS and visual reference points showing Sionna very slowly dragging back from the force of it, plowing a trench in the sand below, but slowing… slowing…

And stopping after 80 feet or so. Meanwhile we’ve started the engine in case it’s needed, and stripped down to minimal clothing in case an “all hands on deck” becomes necessary. Comes a quick break in the rain, I go back to the bow and let out a proper storm-scope of anchor rode.  Then the wind begins to easy, and we begin to breathe…

We had intended to move farther south today, but this isn’t what the forecast was calling for, and now we’re glad we were a little slow getting started today – being out in these narrow canals in that wind would have been a mite tricky. 

Sometimes being lazy is a good thing.


The thing about Inlets…

There are many aspects of our travels along the northeast coast which are memorable in a good way: Incredible sunsets, new bird species to identify and marvel at, great holding for our anchor. 

But perhaps the most memorable thing for us, and the thing we’ve had to learn about by experience, is the currents: The flow of water into and out of this land which is, basically, one big estuary.

On Friday the 16th we sailed from Sandy Hook – at the state’s north-eastern tip – south along the coast to the inlet where the Manasquam River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Now, the Manasquam isn’t very big, as rivers go, and while we’ve read lots of advice about “running an inlet” (as they call going to or from the ocean), and knew in theory to time our transit of the inlet for a slack current, we got there early.  

That’s what sometimes happens when you make pessimistic estimates as a matter of course – sometimes things go much smoother than you expect, and you actually get somewhere – say the Manasquam inlet – 2 hours earlier than expected, and instead of slack water, there’s a current flowing out against you.

But how bad can it be, right?

Bad. Worse than bad. Really awful.

The books are right – don’t arrive early. The ride through the inlet was horrible, with 6-8’ standing waves that made it feel like we were pointing first straight up, then straight down, and slowed our forward progress from 5 knots to less than 2. It felt like it took forever to clear the ¼-mile long inlet, and being passed by powerboats going 15 knots and leaving a churning, tossing wake behind did NOT make it easier. Really? Passing in an inlet? Please!

And no, I’m sorry to say that there are no pictures of the process. I had all three hands and my front teeth on the wheel trying to control a boat, and Nicki was hanging on for dear life and warning me when boats were about to pass us because I didn’t dare try to look behind us myself.

But we made it through safely – if not wisely – and we won’t be putting ourselves in that situation again, even if we are early. 

Inlets, it turns out, really are not to be trifled with. They are memorable in a bad way.

 But then, I’ve heard swans can be pretty nasty too, pretty as they are.


“Emergency Equipment” – the A to Z Challenge


A2Z-BADGE 2016-smaller_zpslstazvib

“But what about storms?”

Non-sailors are like children, sometimes.  They always want to focus on the worst-case scenario, the one-in-a-million chance, the bad stuff.

Which isn’t to suggest that emergencies never happen aboard – they certainly do, and could, and only a fool leaves the dock thinking “It won’t happen to me.”  (IWHTM)

The important thing to keep in mind is that emergencies and accidents happen. Life is a risky business.  What matters is how you manage risks and prepare for emergencies, giving fate a fighting chance for a happy outcome. Which brings me to today’s topic – “Emergency equipment” – and also to my favorite pet peeve – the over-selling of technology as a “guarantee” of safety.

No matter where you look in the world of cruising writing, you’ll be bombarded with stories of potential disaster, descriptions of equipment that “would have prevented…”, and lists of all the gear each trusting cruiser has decided they must have on their boat before they can cast off the lines and go.
Now in one way I think that’s good. At least these folks aren’t in the ICHTM camp with their heads in the proverbial sand, counting on the Coast Guard to come bail them out if the poop hits the sails.  On the other hand, unless you have an unlimited budget there’s a very real risk that you’ll discover you never feel “ready”.
Boats are expensive even in their simplest form. Not to buy, necessarily (though that can be very expensive too if you insist on new and improved), but certainly maintaining a boat takes a great deal of time and energy and – even for a simple boat – a fair amount of money. Add complexity and size (which the industry and fear-mongers would have you believe equates to “safety”) and the expense factor goes up logarithmically. Really – that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve seen data showing that going from a 30′ boat to a 40′ vessel can easily double both the acquisition and upkeep costs.

So how do you keep things under control?  I believe you re-think your definition of what safety means, and change your relationship to “Emergency Equipment”.

Here’s a quick pop quiz to get you thinking:
Question: What is the single most important item of safety equipment on any boat?
   Answer: A fit, well-trained crew.

Bear with me for a moment while I tangent.

I was an airline pilot in my former life, flying passengers around the north eastern US. The airlines really, really want to run a safe operation, because the result of any incident is a firestorm of media attention, even if the actual risk to the safety of operation was nil. So how do the airlines spend most of their safety budgets?

They spend it on training. Thousands and thousands of hours a year and many millions of dollars are spent on crew training; drilling and practicing procedures and techniques that – chances are – will NEVER be applied in the real world. Why? Because if that one-in-a-million event happens, the chances are high that it’s  something the crew has already seen and practiced.  They pull out the checklist, run the procedure, and land the plane. No drama, no story. Just a few disappointed reporters.
And in fact, even if the issue they face isn’t something that was foreseen and trained for ahead of time, good training also improves a crew’s ability to improvise, to think on their feet.

For example: On January 15th, 2009, USAirways Flight 1549 departed LaGuardia airport in New York City, and lost power  in both engines due to ingesting birds shortly after takeoff. For the record, pilots practice (in a simulator) the sudden loss of power on ONE engine so much that we could pretty much do the procedure in our sleep. The airplane flies fine and the incident is routine.  What we DON’T practice is the sudden and unrecoverable loss of ALL engines, because the odds of that happening are miniscule. Yet it happened.  The crew in that situation has just seconds to make the determination that they can’t recover power, that they must land the airplane somewhere in the next minute or two, then pick that spot and configure the aircraft for that landing,taking into account everything that could possibly affect the outcome of the landing/crash.
Here’s how the article on Wikipedia (link above) summed up the event:
“The incident came to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson“, and Captain Sullenberger and the crew were hailed as heroes.

Folks, it wasn’t a miracle. “Miracle” suggests that something outside the aircraft – some element of luck or good Karma or an other-worldly force – was responsible for the safe (there were injuries, but only a handful serious, and no deaths) outcome of an unforeseeable, untrainable set of failures.

No, I believe what saved that flight was an exceptionally able, well trained crew who used their skill, experience and knowledge to shape events in a favorable way. Heros, yes, but let’s leave the credit where it belongs – with the crew.

So back to boats.  All the fancy emergency gizmos, electronic signaling devices, emergency rafts and all won’t matter a bunch of fetid dingo’s kidneys* if the crew doesn’t have the skills and attitude to thrive and survive, and the ability to improvise and make the most of their resources. Maintain a strong boat and a well trained crew, and you can leave most of the expensive toys on the dock.


Which leaves you a lot more money to enjoy the other 99.997% of what cruising has to offer.

*with apologies to Douglas Adams