31 May

Easy Lessons in Boat Ownership

We just completed a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island aboard Tim Melville’s Baltic 42. This is something he has done the last couple of years with his wife Donna as crew and cook and a select few, paying passengers/students. It’s a whirlwind trip around the island done in only two weeks. We had booked the trip well before *Never Forever* came into the picture and while I might cringe slightly at the cost now that I have a boat of my own, I learned a tremendous amount that will serve me long into the future.

You can read a day-by-day account in my blog (macblaze.ca) but I thought I would sum up the more boat-ownership type details here for posterity.

The relationship between captain and crew

I’m not really captain material. In fact Leslie has more leadership skills (kind of obvious given her experience). With just the two (or three…sigh) of us it is no big deal, but it gets important when a coordinated effort among new crew is necessary. Things like tacking and gybing can be done half-heartedly in most scenarios but docking at night or in crowded situations, keeping a lookout, reefing etc. all work better and safer if the responsibilities and relationships are clear. And that takes communication. And good communication, much to my chagrin takes a reasonable amount of leadership. You need to clearly and effectively outline goals, tasks, responsibilities and outcomes before you start, not trust that it will all come together. This is a flaw in my leadership style I have always known, but on a boat, the potential outcomes of my laissez faire, come-what-may, we’ll-deal-with-it-later style becomes a bit scary.

But I did score well on the “not getting too excited” side. While my inside voice may have said jesus-muther-f8ckin-christ more than once, I don’t think it slipped out even in my demeanour. Or maybe I am fooling myself.

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Diesel engines

Diesel engines are simple. They say they need only two things: fuel and air. Having said that there seem to be a lot of ways that those two simple things can be a problem.

We ran out of fuel by accident; we had switched to the small tank and forgot to switch back. This meant the old Perkins needed to be reprimed which entailed opening valves all along the fuel system and bleeding the air out of the fuel lines. If that sounds complicated, well it was. At least on a Perkins. The key factor we learned was that once you get to the the other side of the injector pump you are in a high pressure system and you need to crank the engine to force the air out; there was simply no way to do that by hand. And if you have run your battery down by trying to start it before the injectors are bled, well, you should thank your lucky stars you are a sailboat. It didn’t get that far with us and after a lot of consultation we got the system bled and the motor restarted but still…

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The spring that reset the shutoff solenoid also broke at one point. This meant when we went to start the motor the next morning it wouldn’t. Tim traced all the systems until he reached the broken spring. It hadn’t disengaged the shut off solenoid and so no fuel was reaching the engine. a manual reset, a pair of pliers and some wire bending and it was good to go. Simple, if  you can find it.

Tim had also recently replaced his 55 amp alternator with a 100 amp Balmar. It was 100 amps because that is all the single v-belt on his engine could handle. In reality, with 6 people aboard and a lot of power use  it turns out the single belt couldn’t handle it. The alternator’s regulator would demand all the power the alternator could churn out right on start up and the belt was slipping or wearing or something until it finally gave up. As a result we ended up blowing the belt. The big deal there was Tim’s spares were all for the old alternator, which with much effort he was able to make use of until we hit a town with spares.

A later phone called revealed a belt saving setting that controlled the load that the regulator demanded upon start up. Things worked better after that and we eventually switch back to the original spec belt.

Since I also want to add a 100 amp alternator, this is good stuff to know. The other solution is to change out the pulleys and use a serpentine belt that is better able to handle the load. This of course adds big $$ to the project.

Sail repair

Most boats I have sailed on came with a sail repair kit, at a minimum some sail tape but sometimes thread, awls, palms (big leather thimbles for your palm) and glue. The genoa’s leech was rubbing on something — although it simply could have been the horrible way his beginner crew were treating the poor foresail — and the stitching around the leech line had started to go midway up. We dropped the sail and performed a tape job to put it back into shape for the rest of the voyage, but Tim’s said it need the tender ministrations of a sail loft as soon as we got back.

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So I guess all that’s all stuff I will need to add to the list.

Tows

R Shack Island has had an odd issue with her racor (fuel filter) for a couple of seasons and Dave has told me stories of all the times she has needed a tow back to the docks. It never really struck me how terrifying that must be until we also needed a tow after running out of fuel. Luckily we were towed to the fuel dock at Blind Channel which is out in the open. The tow boat just swung around like a ski boat and let us loose. Our speed was a bit high but there were quality people on the dock to catch the stern line and get a few wraps to bring us to a halt before we had to bail or hit something.

Not a skill I want to practice but I am beginning to believe it’s not an uncommon one amongst sailors.

Rapids & tides

Take them seriously. But not too seriously. If you are going with the tide, tidal rapids of up to 5 or 6 knots are not actually as scary as all that. Or at least some of them aren’t. Up until this trip I have been meticulous about avoiding current except the few times Tim has been with us. But now his respectfully cavalier attitude is beginning to rub off; a current isn’t always your enemy if you give it the right amount of respect.

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 Check the tables, know your currents, access the risks and then enjoy the ride.

Keel depth and scope

Northwest Passage had an eight-foot keel. Eight feet plus four feet to the bowroller added twelve feet right off the top to any scope we were allowing for when anchoring. With a 5:1 scope in 20 feet of water that meant we needed 160 feet of rode out. But since a lot of the anchorages were small and the rode was all chain we often left it at 40 meters (130 feet) or less. Chain counts for a lot.

Charts vs chart plotters

It’s official: I like charts. I like north-up. And I like to know where I am. At one point Tim turned off the chart plotter for the rest of a leg and I was 100% more comfortable with the whole process. A chartplotter has too many toys and lulls you into relying solely on it. In fact I think it makes using a chart harder. I am much more comfortable relating the chart to what I see around me than trying to interpret the pixels on a small 6-inch screen. And when sailing around in a fog, tacking back and forth, using course-up gives you no sense of heading or any deviation; the chart plotter is continually spinning. At least (to me) north-up relates to the psuedo-reality of the familar map/chart system.

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No one else on the trip agreed with me, although Tim was a big advocate of using the charts for practice. The chartplotter is great, essential even, for negotiating narrow or rock-filled channels in low visibility, but I continually felt without having studied the route on paper, I was still flying blind. Personal preference I guess, but I will stick with the old technology and use the new as a back-up.

Swell and Fog and Night

Ocean swell is a thing. Even with no wind and no waves we were often rising and falling 10 feet in sets of 2 or 3 with smaller swells in between. Depending on what the orientation of the boat to the swell was, this could range from being hardly noticeable to downright uncomfortable. Following seas were definitely the most enjoyable. It also affected visibility in some interesting ways.

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Fog is both no big deal and a huge big deal. Going slow, using the light and sound signals and a constant eye on the chart plotter, AIS and radar makes fog a snap. Of course that’s if there are no other small boats out there. They are the wild card because they won’t have AIS, might not make a big blip on the radar and might or might not be sounding their signal. Exciting stuff that keeps you on your toes.

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The other thing about fog and about sailing at night is that it is four bazillion times as hard to keep a steady course and so very easy to go off it slightly without noticing. One day in the fog I was sailing according to a shifting wind and ended up pointing a completely other direction than I thought I was. If the chartplotter is zoomed in too much or zoomed out to much it is easy to miss the long slow curve. Maintaining a course was easier at night because we were more paranoid and there was the occasional light showing to orient yourself to; just be careful it it isn’t a ship that is also moving.

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And docking at night in a strange harbour is a whole ‘nother thing that must be experienced. A powerful light used sparingly so as not to destroy night vision and an attentive crew are musts.

Keeping a watch

In the Gulf Islands it is really important to keep a good watch as there are logs and crab traps everywhere. Keeping a watch at night is more of a crap shoot and I guess you just pray you miss things. Going back to my first point, you would think a crew of six would be able to miss everything, but with all the distractions involved, if there are no clear instructions to keep watch or sing out when you spot something, the risk of hitting something goes up a lot.

Luckily for us, when I did finally run over a crab pot, the engine wasn’t running and the line only tangled around the rudder which we were able to eventually discern and thus confidently cut the line, freeing ourselves. But in retrospect that incident and some of the other near misses are borderline unforgivable. Still, if you listen to the stories, it happens to everyone eventually.

And so…

I realize two things now that perhaps weren’t as clear before our trip. First, I have a lot to learn about the details. There is minutiae that can make the difference between a confident decision and wild-ass guess work and not knowing a crucial fact can turn an oops into a disaster pretty damn quickly. The second is that I know a lot. The trick, it seems to me, to learning the minutiae is to already know the broad strokes and then refine and repeat over a lifetime of experiencing. Every time I go sailing I cut a wider swath through my ignorance and the small things then come as they may. I will never know everything — Tim certainly didn’t and he has decades on me — but eventually I  might get to his level where I might be able to figure out just about anything the boat throws at me.

I am sure there will be times in the next year I will be absolutely terrified and lost, but this trip has filled out my tool kit a bit and hopefully I will be able to work through whatever the fates (or my own stupidity) has in store.

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