Techniques & Tactics

MARINE LIGHTNING PROTECTION: Getting Z-Z-Z-Zapped on a Sailboat

Lightning strike

I have to admit I don't normally think about this too much. As is true of many sailors I suspect, I have subscribed to the philosophy that lightning and its effects are so random and poorly understood that you can get royally screwed no matter what you try to do about it. Which is a great predicate, of course, to going into denial and doing nothing at all. But the death in Florida last summer of Noah Cullen, a most promising young man who presumably was killed in a lightning strike while out singlehanding on his pocket cruiser, got me pondering this in a more deliberate manner. On doing some research, I found there are some hard facts out there that are well worth knowing.

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KNOT OF THE YEAR AWARD: The Obscure But Ultimately Very Useful Halyard Knot

Halyard knot

That's right, sports fans: it's awards season! In the always hard-fought Cordage Utility category the ballots have been counted and the surprise winner this year is the mysterious halyard knot. Unknown to many sailors, the halyard knot is nonetheless an elegant compact knot that is particularly handy to know about if you need to bend a line on to some sort of shackle or clip (a halyard shackle being the eponymous example) on a more-or-less permanent basis, but are too lazy (or ignorant) to be bothered with actually splicing the line on to said bit of hardware.

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GALERIDER DROGUE: For Steering and Heaving To

Drogue test

You probably won't be too surprised to learn that I've been thinking about jury-steering systems ever since my little adventure back in January aboard the catamaran Be Good Too. One thing I've wondered is whether we might have managed to save the boat if we'd had a proper drogue onboard to try steering with. If we'd been able to neutralize the effect of the bent port rudder, which was constantly steering the boat to starboard, by either losing the rudder entirely (not really feasible) or by letting it swing freely (which would have been easy if we'd known the rudder was bent before we "fixed" it), I'm quite certain the boat could have been steered with a properly sized drogue. The more pertinent question is whether or not a drogue could have overcome the steering bias created by the damaged port rudder to allow us to control the boat in spite of it.

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DOUSING THE MAINSAIL: Do It After You Park The Boat

Unfurled mainsail

I do a fair amount of singlehanded coastal cruising during the summer, usually just going out for a quick overnight whenever an opportunity presents itself. When departing my mooring at Portland Yacht Services (or any mooring for that matter), it has long been my practice to raise the mainsail before dropping the mooring pennant. That way I can get sailing ASAP, usually immediately. When anchoring or picking up a mooring, however, my habit for many years has been to douse and stow the mainsail first, then secure the boat.

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RETRIEVING LOST HALYARDS: A Cheap Trick That Works

Lost halyard drawing

I wrote about this once in a print magazine, and some people were skeptical. But I'm telling you--it really does work. I've done it twice at sea successfully; no fuss, no muss. If you lose a halyard up your mast, this is how to get it back from deck level without having to climb the mast.

There is one prerequisite. You need a spare halyard with a shackle on it that is in reasonably close proximity to the one you were stupid enough to let fly up the mast. Given this, retrieving the lost halyard should be easy.

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RUNNING INLETS: How Not to Fall Down and Get Hurt

Inlet 1

I'm thinking about this (again) after watching an exciting video (see below) of a sailboat wiping out trying to enter an inlet at Zumaia in northern Spain. The photo above shows a different boat entering the same inlet successfully, which should give you an idea at a glance of how hairy this can be when conditions are uncooperative.

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HEAVY WEATHER HELMING: Sculling Waves

Steering downwind

Back in the early days of singlehanded ocean racing, the winners of races like the Vendee Globe and the BOC Challenge were often the guys who slept the least and steered the most. Autopilots were useful in calm to moderate conditions, but once the waves were up you needed a live body on the wheel or tiller to achieve the fastest, smoothest ride. These days, however, the most sophisticated autopilots have "fuzzy logic" software and three-dimensional motion sensors and can steer in strong conditions just as well as, if not better than, most humans.

This sounds like a great excuse to spend less time on the wheel, assuming your boat has such an autopilot, but in the hairiest situations it's still best to have a person in control. Modern autopilots can learn a boat's handling characteristics and can sense a boat's bow or stern rising to a wave, but they can't perceive what's going on around a boat. Once you're in a big seaway where waves are routinely breaking, it's best to have a helmsperson who can see and hear the rough stuff and steer around it. Also, of course, an autopilot needs electricity to function. If you've lost power, or have little to spare, you need a human on the wheel.

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COLLISION AVOIDANCE: How To Get Run Down By A Ship

You may have seen this video a couple of years ago back when the collision, during Cowes race week, took place. They're having a trial about it now, as the skipper of the yacht, a Corby 33 named Atalanta of Chester, insists that he was not negligent. Watching what happened per the viddy, I'd say what it was, in law-school lingo, was negligence per se. As in: you should never try to cross in front of another vessel, particularly one that is much, much larger than yours, unless you are about 1,000 percent sure you're going to make it.

But the skipper on trial, Royal Navy lieutenant Roland Wilson, presumably is not a total punter when it comes to boathandling. His defense seems to be that the ship, the Hanne Knutsen, a 120,000-ton tanker, gave confusing sound signals as it was turning while trying to avoid another disabled boat.

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COCKPIT CONTROL LINES: Fight the Spaghetti Madness

Cockpit lines

Just as all roads once led to Rome, many cruising sailors now believe that all working lines should lead to the cockpit. The result, unfortunately, is often a pile of multi-colored spaghetti that is hard to manage and actually makes it more difficult to sail your boat.

On aft-cockpit boats the most common scenario now is that almost every line coming off the mast or deck forward of the cockpit is led back through blocks and organizers to a battery of rope clutches arrayed around two winches on either side of the companionway under the cockpit dodger. The more active lines are usually the mainsheet, two control lines for a main traveler situated just forward of the dodger, the main halyard, and one or more mainsail reefing lines (for either a slab-reefed main or an in-mast furling main). Less active lines led to this same location may include one or more headsail halyards, perhaps a dedicated spinnaker halyard and a spinnaker pole downhaul, perhaps one or more topping lifts (one for the main boom, plus one for the spinnaker pole), plus maybe a mainsail outhaul.

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