Saturday, October 31, 2009

Not Tuna

Yesterday at 0600 I was heading out Pollock Rip to troll for Bluefin Tuna. There were four of us, on a friend's 24 foot Grady-White.

South from the elbow of Cape Cod all the way to the northern tip of Nantucket stretch a series of constantly shifting shoals and channels. Charts may be inaccurate after one winter storm, and even the channels have eight foot spots. The tides are fast and the combination of current, easterly seas and shoal water makes for breaking seas and even tidal overfalls. Bad reputations are usually deserved, and Pollock Rip and environs have a very bad reputation indeed.

[chart, Nantucket Sound and approaches]
On Friday morning the seas were six to eight feet, without much breeze. It was lumpy heading out the Rip but once in deep water conditions were better.

The tuna season was nearing an end. The folks I was with are novices at the game, with one full season. But they had studied up and had the right equipment (including expensive rods and reels) and in 2009 they boated three Bluefin and lost one at the boat, an excellent 30% success rate.

Techniques for taking Bluefin include harpoon, chumming and bait fishing, and trolling. We trolled "spreader rigs" simulating a school of 12 inch squid. At four to five knots, the rigs splashed at the surface and looked enticing.

But we got no hits. One nearby boat caught a fish, with a 78 inch fork length. Bluefin weigh up to and over 1000 pounds. (The record is 1,496 pounds.)

Our fishfinder kept picking up fish near the bottom, and I finally insisted we stop the boat and jig. We were in 150 feet, and the fourteen ounce Norwegian cod jig quickly reached bottom. In due course I foul hooked, boated and released a small dog shark. Hey, I was on the board.

Heading back in daylight one could see the shoals extending north and south for miles. My personal nightmare (or one of them) involves being lost in shoals, breakers all around showing white in the fog, and not knowing the way out. Stray from the channel in Pollock Rip, and you're living it.

On the south tip of Monomoy Island we passed close to a big colony of Grey Seals, a hundred or more. At the top of the beach was a giant bull, much bigger than any of his harem. Splashing and wrestling at the water's edge were pups, and a few hundred yards away was another giant bull, alone and morose even at a distance. I suppose he had been ousted from his harem.

Grey Seals weigh up to 900 pounds, where Harbor Seals reach 300. Grey Seals were little known on our coast in modern times until about 20 years ago, and they are now prolific in the Gulf of Maine and waters off Cape Cod, with several large rookeries. With the seals have come their ancient enemy, the Great White, and these sharks too have become part of the local ecology.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rubber Docking

The first time I had the conn of a Coast Guard cutter (the 210 foot Steadfast, MEC 623), the captain threw a paperboard box off the bridge, had me steam away, and told me to turn the ship around and stop her alongside the box. (This was to be done with my never taking the helm, but rather by giving helm and engine commands, which is both easier than it sounds - gets trickier when, coming alongside, line commands are thrown in - and really cool.) I did ok, but the real lesson was the value of learning how the ship turned, accelerated and stopped in an open sea, with nothing around to hit. We called it "rubber docking", and it's how we learned to maneuver the ship.

I still use the technique today. If I am making a difficult approach to a pier or even a mooring, say with a strong wind or tide or both, I may make my first approach a dummy run. I'll give it my best shot, but I'll intentionally stay five or ten feet off the pier, and use the dummy run to gauge wind and current. The data I gain makes the real approach a lot smoother.

It's important that the crew understand that the first approach is a dummy run, so no one tries to be a hero by leaping for the dock.

Pictures of Steadfast

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cleat as fairlead

A hollow-base cleat, such as this Swedish design or the famous Herreshoff cleat (pictured below), can be used as a fairlead. In the photo, I had secured Journeyman alongside a pier. Had I secured the stern line directly to this cleat the line would have been only three feet long, a sure formula for a broken line or strained gear if a powerboat went through throwing a wake. (A line too short lacks give if strained.) By taking the line to the opposite quarter I was able to give it a length of seven feet or so. With the pierside cleat acting as a fairlead, the line would lead correctly even if the boat shifted.

The Herreshoff cleat.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Journeyman came with weather cloths, which I have never seen fit to remove. The disadvantage is increased windage. The advantages are increased privacy in a harbor and protection from spray and wind. I also believe they cause the yacht to lie steadier when at anchor in a breeze, by increasing the windage aft.

I think I'd have them on my next yacht.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dinghy part two

Dinghies have the annoying habit of going bump in the night, requiring someone to get up and deal. Grand yachts once had long boat booms, equipped with an outhaul. When not in use and not taken aboard, the yacht's tender would be run out to the end of the boom. In fact, these booms have made a reappearance as part of the equipment of huge power yachts and their coterie of tenders and "toys". Although some of these yachts seem almost totally divorced from their tradition, it is somehow comforting to see their boat booms, which would not have been out of place on Mr. Morgan's Corsair.

If your LOA is shy of one hundred feet, a boat boom may be difficult to stow. Alternatives are many: a very short painter (ineffective), a bucket tied off the dinghy's stern so it trails better (sounds ridiculous), using a spinnaker pole as a boat boom (not long enough). On Journeyman we tie the tender alongside, amidships, using the painter and the little stern line. I bring the painter through the bow chock and back to the cockpit, so I can adjust both bow and stern lines from one location. Although the tender has permanent fenders, they aren't quite enough if a boat speeds by in the night, so I usually hang a couple of regular fenders too.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Last of the Season

After two very long weeks of work, despite an atrocious forecast I was determined to make one more overnight. We left the mooring at 5 and motored just a mile to a big cove with a view of the sea over a strand low enough to be gone at highest water. My wife likes to anchor close to shore, and I do too when the forecast is settled, but ours called for 35 knots south backing to east. So we dropped anchor in good mud 500 feet from shore, depth 39 feet at high tide. I put out 160 feet of rode, waited for the boat to straighten out, and backed down hard for 30 seconds.  The anchor was deep in the mud and even if it came due north and we were fully  exposed we weren't going anywhere. And I was happy I didn't have to worry that my stern was forty feet from a ledge.

The temperature was in the forties and I started a bright fire. The supply of briquettes was low, so I rowed ashore in the dark and gathered driftwood. I was afraid the spruce driftwood would produce little heat but it did the job very nicely. A couple of scotches, and discussion about what changes to make to the boat this winter.

Dinner was red wine, local lamb chops (with rib pieces attached . . . ), parsnips and brussels sprouts from our garden, and hot indian pudding for dessert. You tell me.

The breeze was rising the whole time and after midnight the rigging began to howl, the rain to rattle, and the sloop to lift and yaw and snub the rode. I got up, once, to freshen the nip (let a few inches of line out, and so avoid chafing one spot all night). I guess it was blowing 30 or so. It wasn't the most restful anchorage, but it was a safe one.

If we were sleepless in the wee hours we made up for it by rising at 8:30. Cold and nasty and no fire, but we had a good breakfast of coffee, bacon and eggs and fried English muffins. The breeze had come down a lot, now due east with a cold rain. I got the anchor rode up and down, secured it, and busted out the anchor with a full throttle. She were dug in.

We motorsailed past our mooring and kept going, for we were bound up the river to the yard for hauling.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dinghy part one

Our dinghy is an 11 foot fiberglass peapod type. It rows and tows well and it can hold a lot of people. It would be a pretty good lifeboat if called upon.

I strung some small diameter fenders along the side. They can be flipped in when not in use. There is also some canvas and rubber fendering at the bow and stern.
When I bought the boat it had decaying foam flotation under the seats. I replaced this (in the fore and middle seats) with fenders, black so the dirt and mildew doesn't show. These fenders are very securely fastened, because if the boat were swamped and the fenders were called upon to hold the boat up the fenders would come under a fair amount of strain, trying to get out from under the seats.  The fenders are fastened with doubled nylon webbing through the eyes at the ends and a strap of webbing across the fender. The webbing is screwed to the underside of the seat with short fat stainless wood screws, with finish washers. Finish washers grip fabric really well.

Under the middle seat you can just see a white PVC pipe with a piece of webbing across it. The pipe holds a really good waterproof flashlight (Pelican brand). The required lights for a row boat under 20 feet is [sic] a flashlight. And if, like me, you have ever rowed in the dark and had a powerboat bearing down and you without a light, you'll never be without one again.  I keep a good whistle on the outside of the pipe, with a little piece of velcro.

Under the forward seat I keep another of those sharp, inexpensive stainless sheath knives they sell at commercial fishing supply stores. The idea is that if the boat were suddenly to sink, I'd have a knife to cut the dinghy painter. Maybe it's unnecessary, but I put it there years ago.

The painter is 33 feet of 1/2 inch yellow polypropylene. Poly floats, making it somewhat less likely that I'll wrap the prop when I mindlessly back over the line. Polypropylene is also nearly as strong as nylon, and inexpensive. When you're putting in an eye splice you need to make some extra tucks, say 6 or 7, to accommodate the very slippery new rope. At 33 feet, I can secure the painter to the mooring pennant and the dinghy will hang astern of the sloop.

In the stern of the dinghy you can see a 1/4 inch nylon line. I use this to tie the dinghy alongside, about which more in the next post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Runaway Halyard

In my opinion all halyards should be tied off. Too frequently it is necessary (or just handy) to let a halyard run with no one to tend it, and going aloft to retrieve a lost halyard is inconvenient, dangerous, and perhaps impossible at sea.

However, if the halyard has a tail that's simply tied off to the cleat, the halyard will twist each time it's made up and from time to time the tail has to be untied and the halyard straightened out.

A better way is to incorporate a swivel in the tail. Fishermen's supply stores sell heavy, rustless swivels for longlining, with a breaking strength north of 300 pounds. Rigged with a swivel the halyard never twists. It's a neat, seamanlike and inexpensive rig.

Monday, October 12, 2009

How do I Get out of the Water?

An occupational hazard of bar pilots is falling into the water while transferring from the pilot boat to the boarding ladder. For that reason pilot boats always have a permanent boarding ladder built in at the transom.

When I read an account of a man overboard, it seems that one of the moments of crisis comes when the man is alongside the boat. At that point, if the man is conscious and has strength, an effort is typically made to ship a boarding ladder, which means not only getting it out of some locker but trying to make what is essentially a swim ladder function in the open sea. Not so easy, and sometimes the man is lost at that point.

Maybe all boats should have a permanently installed means of getting out of the water and into the boat. We have one on Journeyman, a simple chromed bronze step that snaps down for use.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Under Toad

 The death of a doctor in our area a few days ago got me thinking. He was a very experienced boater, about sixty years old. He sailed his 23 foot sloop to the yard for hauling, a five mile trip. He had towed a twelve foot skiff with a 4 horse outboard, and when he'd delivered the sloop he set off for home in the skiff. The weather was good and winds moderate, but he became overdue and first the overturned skiff and then his body were discovered. His life jacket was on.

As in most casualties the second guessing comes easy. Should've had a handheld VHF. Should've had a survival suit. Shouldn't have gone.

Maybe he fell out of the boat and couldn't catch it. Maybe he had engine trouble and the boat swamped over the transom while he fiddled with the motor. Or maybe the Under Toad got him.

Remember John Irving's Under Toad, from The World According to Garp? Garp's boy Walt is warned summer after summer to "watch out for the undertow" while swimming. He hears "Under Toad" and for years "Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad." The Under Toad becomes his parents' metaphor for unknowable and terrible danger, rarely apprehended but never far off.

Seems to me the more water under your keel the more you understand that the Under Toad is out there. You can't anticipate every contingency and you can't prevent every mistake, no matter how good and how smart and how careful you are. One day something lets go and you're in the water or you're tired and run onto a bar or ledge or maybe lightening strikes and then the Under Toad has you.

My wife says after decades of my always coming home she has confidence that I always will. She may worry a little, and then she hears my car in the driveway. But I know, better than she perhaps, that the Under Toad lurks.  

Friday, October 9, 2009


This photo shows the caddy that is just inside the companionway to port. The white dome above is the back of the compass. The caddy is handy for pen, pencil, dividers, Weems plotter etc., and it's a good place to toss your wallet or cell phone. On the right side of the caddy (as seen) you can just see the orange handle of a small screwdriver, switchable between phillips and flat by pulling out the shaft and reinserting it in the handle. I wouldn't be without it in this convenient spot. I'd also like to keep pliers here, maybe on the left side, but I don't want such a mass of steel so close to the compass. I'm hoping one day to find bronze pliers.
Under the caddy you can see a very sharp serrated stainless steel knife in its sheath. The sheath is screwed to the caddy and the knife snaps in, very secure. The knife is ostensibly for emergencies but I mostly use it for limes. These knives are available very inexpensively in fishermen's supply stores.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flying Batteries

Journeyman has two batteries, a big "house" battery (pictured here) and a smaller starting battery, located under the sole just aft of the house battery, in the same space. The main switch allows me to choose between batteries, or to run them in parallel, or to turn the electrical system off, in which case only the bilge pump circuit remains energized.

I can hardly imagine the calamity that could allow my batteries to fall out of their space, but good practice requires that batteries be secured, so I put a piece of maple across the opening, held by a screw at each end. Does the job.

The Coast Guard requires fishing boats to have batteries in two locations. Typically the main bank is low in the boat and the other, which may be a single battery, is in the wheelhouse. The idea, of course, is to allow the radio to function even if the boat has taken on water. I don't have that set up on Journeyman, but I do carry a handheld, waterproof VHF.

If I were crossing the Atlantic I might set up a separate bank, but perhaps I would instead change over to Absorbed Glass Mat  (AGM) batteries, which it is claimed will provide power even if submerged.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


On Journeyman we use a short piece of line to steady the boom when we are motoring as well as when the boat is on the mooring. We needed a name for this valuable item, so I borrowed the term "snotter" from the spritsail rig. The true snotter is the very short line that connects the sprit to the mast.

The true snotter.

Journeyman's snotter, with the boom locked in.

Journeyman's snotter accomplishes the following:   It makes the boom rock-steady when motoring or on the mooring. This reduces wear and tear on the gooseneck from the otherwise constant motion of the boom when the boat is in the water. It makes the boom an effective grab for anyone who might need steadying, especially when lubbers are coming aboard and the main is not yet up. Reefing the main is safer with the snotter on, although the boat must be right in the wind to use the snotter. Finally, with the snotter locking the boom in position the main is a far more effective steadying sail, and the boom won't clock someone on the head if the boat comes head to wind. The main may flog, but the boom itself won't budge.

Our snotter is nothing more than a six foot piece of 5/8 inch three-strand dacron (but almost any rope would do) with an eye splice in one end. We place the splice over a cleat near the end of the boom and take the snotter to a cleat on the coaming and snug it. The mainsheet is also snug, and of course the topping lift holds the boom up. That's all there is to it, but it is a really valuable little item.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Handy place to stow horn

It's not always easy to predict when you might need the horn so it should be stowed at hand. I keep mine beneath the lazarette hatch, just aft of the tiller:

The holder is made from a notched section of PVC, screwed to the hatch. I sanded the PVC flat where it lies against the hatch, so it is a little more secure. The strap is nylon and it has velcro on it, and of course there is velcro on the PVC as well. The velcro has adhesive but the adhesive will not hold, so I sewed it to the strap, and I sewed it to the PVC as well, through little holes I drilled. The set up has lasted for years.

Whistle signals are one of those salty practices that recreational boaters have let go, it appears to me, and that is unfortunate. One year I was running out the river under power and big, expensive J boat, 50 feet or so, was coming up river going pretty fast and also under power. We were both in the dredged channel and there was no room for error or uncertainty, so I grabbbed the horn and gave him one short bast, for a port to port passage. There was no response from him, which didn't surprise me, but that I had properly signaled my intentions made me feel better and we passed without incident. Maybe the short blast at least prompted him to review the whistle signals he had probably learned in some boating course; I hope it did.

I get the horn out when I am in a narrow channel, or in some channel, such as the Cape Cod Canal or tide-swept Woods Hole, where boats have a hard time maneuvering and you might need to make your intentions clear on very short notice.

Here are the whistle signals. I use only the first two, and very occasionaly the "danger signal."

One short blast: I am turning to starboard (or "will pass port to port"). Two short blasts: I am turning to port (or "will pass starboard to starboard"). Three short blasts: "I am backing down." Five or more short blasts: Danger signal, or "I do not understand your intentions." One long blast: The "bend signal", for a vessel coming around a pier where it may surprise another ship, or sometimes used by a larger vessel leaving a berth.

I use whistle signals rarely, maybe two or three times a season, but it's useful and necessary to know them.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Checking the Engine"

In "checking the engine" a surprising number of cruisers do nothing more than check the oil level from time to time, maybe eyeballing the stopped engine too. This may occur with a certain amount of ceremony: It is announced that before the day's sail commences the skipper is going to Check The Engine, all hands are warned to stay clear, the engine cover is hauled back, and the skipper checks the engine oil level and whatever else, almost as though he knows what he's doing.

It is of course essential to check the engine oil level, and, at the same time, to look at the oil for signs of coolant getting into the oil (resulting in a greyish emulsion in the oil). And maybe a shredding belt will be obvious. But most engine problems start as leaks: coolant leaks, raw water leaks, exhaust leaks, fuel leaks, oil leaks. Coolant, raw water (sea water), exhaust, fuel and oil are all under more or less pressure in an operating engine, and that's why one checks for leaks when the engine is running, not when it's stopped. This is fundamental, but as I said a lot of folks don't do it.

An inspection mirror, a flashlight and ear protection are the tools. The hearing protection is not just a matter of preserving hearing, but so you are comfortable taking your time. Look around the oil filter and each fuel filter, checking behind these parts with the inspection mirror as necessary. Check around the fuel injectors and at each connection - diesel fuel is injected at a high pressure, and a leak can result in a fine spray that has caused many fires. Inspect the raw water pump. Same with the heat exchanger. It is all very loud, and please stay clear of rotating parts, but such an inspection will often give you warning of severe failure.

Here's a boring story: A few years ago I saw that the raw water pump was leaking a little at the shaft. I ordered a new one and when I decommissioned I replaced the pump.

That's the end of the story. I know this story would be more exciting had my raw water pump failed on a cruise, maybe at a crucial moment, but as I said, it's a boring story. May your engine stories be boring too.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Late Season Overnight

On Friday my wife and I sailed to Jewell Island for an overnight. The forecast was for a moderate easterly blow with rain, but beginning the next day.

We got underway about 5:00 pm. It is about eight miles to Jewell and we didn't want to anchor in the dark, so we motorsailed a lot of the time, on a close fetch. For the last leg, about two miles, we shut down and had a fine reach to Jewell Cove.

Well before we got to the entrance I handed the jib and the main. It is so important to get those things out of the way before entering an anchorage - you really don't want to be messing around with sails when the rocks are 100 feet away and the light is failing. If we hadn't had time to furl the main I'd just have dropped it, and come in all sloppy and sails over the side but focused on the task at hand - keeping the boat off the bricks. As it was, when we entered I was up on the bow keeping a good lookout.

Another boat entered as we did and we were the only boats in the anchorage.  The other boat went to the head of the cove and secured to an old dolphin there. It is shallow in that spot. We picked a wide spot, lowered the anchor to the water, backed down to give her a little sternway, and lowered the hook in 12 feet (low water). I let out 60 feet (30 feet of chain and 30 of rope rode). We waited until the boat straightened out and we backed down pretty hard for about 30 seconds. We usually do that when anchoring for the night, especially if there is wind in the forecast. A lot of folks just back down enough to set the anchor but they don't really test it, and I don't see why not. If you wake in the night and the wind is whistling you can go back to sleep if you know you have already really tested the set of the anchor.

Got a nice fire going with briquettes and beech chunks, very cheery. It was a little breezy now. Nice Friday night music on the radio. Drinks, and dinner of red beans and rice. The forward bunk was cozy and we slept great.

The rain threatened and the wind was rising when we woke up. After breakfast, we got underway as usual. The anchor was dug deep (that's the idea) and when we had the rode about up and down I took a turn around the cleat and, gunning the engine, we broke out the anchor. Then it was easy to get the anchor up and into the roller.

We loitered around the anchorage while I stowed the anchor rode down the naval pipe - I could see there was wind outside and I didn't want to be doing that on a bouncy foredeck, nor did I want to do it while we navigated out the entrance, which has nasty rocks close aboard on both sides. Instead, I stayed on the bow keeping watch and we made sail outside. (The night before, after I dropped the jib I left it hanked on but I folded it up pretty well and tied the folded sail to the pulpit with a sail tie. The sheets were left run aft. The sail was thus mostly off the deck and clear of the anchor but ready to go the next day.)

Then a close reach and a great broad reach, maybe 20 knots of wind. The tide was fair and we were back on the mooring in an hour and a half. By then the rain was in earnest and wet we got! But it was a great late season overnight.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Oil Lamp

On Journeyman we have a really good oil lamp, the gift of a friend. I don't know who makes it but it is modelled after a miner's lamp and I have seen it in the sailing catalogues. The chimney is protected so you don't have to worry about it. When we are sailing at night I often keep it burning, low.
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