Thursday, April 24, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

How many times have you heard this statement: you should not abandon your boat until you have to step up into the liferaft. Sounds pretty facile, doesn’t it? Easy for you to say, if you’re not the one with a foot of water over the cabin sole in the middle of a black howling night a hundred miles from land.

The thing is, there are more and more instances of people abandoning boats that are then found weeks or months later, having drifted across large expanses of ocean. Only a few weeks ago a 36-foot cruising boat that had been abandoned because of an unspecified rigging problem during the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers back in December was found drifting off Antigua. Considering the crew had been aiming for nearby St Lucia, the boat did an admirable job of getting itself so close.

I could come up with many more examples, but you get the point. In this age of instantaneous communication, it’s only too easy to call for help when things get tough. Long gone are the likes of Blondie Hasler, the progenitor of the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR), who, when asked what would happen if his boat sank under him, replied that he would “drown like a gentleman.” (That, for the record, is not the answer I gave my wife the first time she asked that question).

Anyway, I was intrigued by two incidents that took place recently off the coast of New Zealand, my old stamping ground. In the first, an inexperienced crew helping deliver a 25-foot boat down the west coast of the North island decided they’d had enough of the 25-knot winds and 10-foot seas (fairly typical Kiwi sailing conditions) and pulled the pin on the EPIRB – against the skipper’s wishes.

Now, the skipper was adamant that there was no danger and that his boat was well able to handle the conditions, but even so he was ordered to abandon ship along with the three frightened greenhorns when the rescue helicopter arrived. The uninsured boat, Air Apparent, was left to drift and for all I know may be still sailing in circles in the Pacific; her unfortunate owner thought the mutinous crew should cough up for a replacement, but I doubt he’s had any luck.

This incident stirred up a huge debate among Kiwis, who generally have a low tolerance for wimps and little sympathy for people who get themselves into situations they can’t cope with. The contrite crew impressed by making a large donation towards the cost of the rescue, but so far the luckless owner is no closer to getting a new boat. Remember the Perfect Storm book and movie? The poor skipper whose green crew pulled the same stunt, and who was taken off his boat – which survived the storm on its own, and was later found, still afloat?

Two lessons here are that a boat can often take more punishment than its crew; and you should choose your crew very carefully. Being offshore in a small boat – and in that context anything shorter than a maxi-yacht is a small boat – is not for everyone. Ocean sailing is wonderfully rewarding but it can get uncomfortable and scary out there, and if you don’t have the mindset to deal with that you should stay home. The uncomfortable, scary parts are, of course, just part and parcel of the whole offshore experience that many people find addictive.

Calling for outside help should be a last-resort measure, taken when you are in actual and pressing danger, not just scared, wet, and cold. Putting a helicopter crew at risk just because you’d rather be at home in front of a fireplace than stuck in a small boat in a storm is irresponsible and inexcusable.

Now, here’s a great story that shows how real ocean sailors cope with misfortune. A husband and wife, each sailing their own boats on circumnavigations (it’s a long story), were 700 miles off the New Zealand coast when the husband’s 27-foot plywood boat Galennaia was damaged during a gale and began taking on water. Did Tony Curphy set off his EPIRB? Did he hell. He radioed his wife, Suzanne, who was 150 miles away on her 40-foot ketch, So Long, and started pumping. Two days later, she arrived and the two hooked up a towline to Galennaia. Eight days later, they pulled into Nelson, on the tip of the South Island.

Now that’s an example of the right stuff. And an example of the kind of crew you never need to worry about – no crew at all.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A century of excellence

Olin Stephens turned 100 last weekend, and that’s a birthday worth noting even if you’ve never owned a Sparkman & Stephens design. The old boy’s life spans the history of yachting as we know it – or indeed sailing as we know it. He’s designed some of the loveliest and most enduring yachts ever built, and stamped his influence on cruising, racing and even motorboating. From bulletproof cruisers to America’s Cup winners, graceful yawls to blunt-nosed workboats, Stephens had the kind of magic touch that most boat designers would kill for.

The roll call of famous S&S boats would take too long a time to get through, so I’ll restrict myself to one of my favorites. I was living in Australia during the early 1980s when two remarkable voyages took place. A likely lad called Serge Testa built himself a 12-foot aluminum boat and sailed it round the world. But I digress – this was no S&S design, it was all Serge’s own handiwork, and a finer example of never letting a lack of cash stand in the way of a great adventure has seldom been seen. More on that some other time.

The voyage I really mean was that of Jon Sanders, a sheep shearer from the dusty hinterland of Western Australia. I was a long-haired, bewhiskered editor of a motorcycle magazine in Melbourne in ’81 and ’82, the years in which Sanders circumnavigated Antarctica – twice, alone – in Perie Banou, his Aussie-built S&S34.
I wasn’t interested in sailing per se in those days but I was interested in adventure, and since I knew people who knew Sanders I followed his exploits keenly. He had already made a name for himself by placing second in the 1979 Parmelia Race, from England to Fremantle, on the same boat (another S&S 34). Back in the mid-70s, he’d circumnavigated with stops, and with crew. In between, he’d criss-crossed the Pacific and Indian oceans numerous times and made a dozen or more transits of the southern Australian coastline, and raced a few Sydney-Hobarts.

Later in the 1980s, Sanders traded up to a bigger boat and circumnavigated another three times without stopping – twice west-east, once east-west, covering 71,023 miles in 657 consecutive days at sea. I have a feeling that’s a record that’ll stand forever; Sanders later said: “Normal people would say ‘you’ve got to be mad,’ and I’d think, yup, and if I’m not, I’m sure it would be helpful.”

Mad or not, Sanders trusted his little 34-footer enough to dodge icebergs alone for nearly a year. The S&S 34 was conceived in the dying days of Britain’s RORC rule, and its design was influenced by both that and the new International Offshore Rule (IOR). Olin said at the time: “We hope and believe that the S&S 34 will make a good all-round boat, so as to demonstrate in a fairly small package that a good boat for offshore racing will also be a good boat for cruising.”

The 34 had all the characteristics of what we now identify with those early IOR days – a hull that was diamond-shaped when seen from above, with fine bows and a pinched stern, a short waterline, long overhangs and a generous dollop of tumblehome that meant the person sleeping in the windward pilot berth was further outboard than the rail monkeys sitting above. The skinny-main, big-foretriangle rig set the tone for the decade that followed.

This is the style of boat that leads people who have never sailed one to pontificate about downwind death rolls, lack of stability, poor build quality, bad seakeeping and lord knows what else. Some later IOR boats did for sure give the whole generation a bad name, but many early examples were and remain excellent, solidly built sailing boats that are still rewarding to sail today. Note to people looking for cheap, tough, well-mannered cruising boats – you could do a lot worse than an early IOR racer.

The 34 made its bones when British prime minister Ted Heath won the 1969 Sydney-Hobart in Morning Cloud, and for the next five years S&S 34s won or placed highly in that tough ocean classic. It gained a rep as an excellent heavy weather boat, and even now, beating into a stiff breeze, it would give nothing away to many modern designs. Sailing conditions around the Australian coast are as tricky as you’ll find anywhere, so it wasn’t surprising that the boat proved so popular there. The Aussies soon began building S&S 34s, and believe it or not you can still order a brand new one, built the modern way with resin infusion by the Swarbrick yard.

Following in Sanders’s wake, Aussie youngsters David Dicks and Jesse Martin also circumnavigated alone on S&S 34s, and these little boats have carried many other sailors safely through adventures on the world’s oceans. A few years back I tried hard to find one to buy, but the only example I could track down was a tired old warhorse in California that had way too high an asking price.

They don’t design boats like the S&S 34 any more, because people don’t buy them. Like the Contessa 32 – another ‘70s cult classic - a 34 was a big boat back in the ‘60s, but compared to a modern 34-footer it feels like you’re in a closet. At sea the lack of interior volume is a blessing rather than a handicap, but in port you need to set your sights a bit low in terms of cruising comfort. This isn’t a boat for big crews, which may be one reason it’s so popular with singlehanders.

Even though it doesn’t have the cachet of Dorade, the beauty of Finisterre, or the high profile of many bigger S&S designs, the S&S 34 epitomizes that sweet blend of form and function that made Olin Stephens such a great designer. It looked right, it was right, it still is right, and it’ll always be right. There aren’t that many boats you can say that of, and a good many of those took shape on Olin Stephens’s drawing board.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

State of Charge

Up here in Massachusetts, the boating season seems a long way off. There’s been a layer of ice on the car windshield the last couple of mornings and the weekends have been write-offs. Daytime temperatures were consistently below freezing from November until the first weekend in March. I hadn’t been on board the boat between mid-December and then; partly because it was too cold to do anything anyway, and partly because I’d done a lousy job of setting up the cover. I arrived in mid-January to find it had sagged over the cockpit coamings and in front of the hatchway, forming twin pools that collected enough snow and rain to turn into a pair of 150-pound blocks of ice that effectively blocked access to the main hatch. The forehatch was locked from belowdecks. It was too cold to do anything about it, so I went home, after stabbing a few holes in the tarp for drainage when the inevitable thaw arrived.

In February I went back, and found the pools had grown to the point where a small boy could have ice-skated on them. Fearing their immense weight would damage something, I arranged for the boatyard to attack the ice floes with hammers and cold chisels.

When I did eventually get on board a couple of weeks ago, after ripping the collapsed framework and tarp off the boat, I found some good things and some not so good things.

The good – I’d dreamt that the bilge had filled with rainwater until it lapped at the cabin sole and then frozen solid. Irrational, I know, but there you are. It was actually dry as a bone, bar an inch at the bottom of the sump that the pickup tube hadn’t reached. Knowing that a keel-stepped mast is an invitation for water to enter a boat, I’d emptied a gallon of RV antifreeze into the sump back in November, and left the bilge pump switched on. The antifreeze kept ice from fouling the float switch and everything did its job. What I should have done at layup time was pull the depth transducer so trapped water could find a way out before it rose above the sole.

Also good – the interior smelled dry and sweet, with not a hint of mold or mildew or rust anywhere. Obviously, enough light had penetrated the white tarps to keep the two Nicro solar vents whirring away all winter.

The not so good: Friends who borrowed the boat last year had left a full winecask on board, and I’d forgotten to take it home. The contents had frozen and expanded enough to burst the bladder. When it thawed… you can guess the rest. Thankfully, it was white wine. Sauterne in the bilge leaves a much less distinctive odour than a pinot noir or merlot.

The bad: I thought I had switched the forward electric bilge pump off back in December, but it turns out I hadn’t. It sits in the forward bilge, ahead of the mast, and is one of those that turns itself on momentarily every few minutes to sense the water level, and then pumps the offending H20 into the main bilge. Over the space of two and a half months this, combined with the occasional draw from the main bilge pump, had sucked the house battery dry. It was stone cold dead. Battery electrolyte won’t freeze unless the battery is more than 25 per cent discharged, which my battery obviously was; it scarcely registered on the multimeter, and wouldn’t even take a charge. Inspection revealed that the electrolyte (which I’d topped off last fall) in three of the chambers was below the top of the plates.

Not being as dumb as this makes me sound, I did have an automotive, supposedly automatic float charger hooked up to the house battery. I suspect this was my downfall. The charger had, I think, failed to switch itself off, and had overcharged the battery, leading to electrolyte loss and something horrible called plate sulfation. The battery discharged and froze solid. In short, a combination of carelessness and bad luck had ruined an expensive battery. On the other hand the starter battery, which I’d left disconnected from everything, still showed a relatively healthy 12.5 volts.

So, I’m down $120 for a new Group 27 deep cycle battery. Two, actually, because this spring’s main project was going to be expanding the size of the house battery bank. Maybe I’ll just switch over to LED lights instead. ..