Thursday, August 03, 2017

Broken Anchor Snubber!

I've anchored in Cuttyhunk hundreds of times over many different seasons. I like to joke that I just drop my hook in one of my old holes and I know all will be well no matter what. I've ridden out one full hurricane, Bob, and numerous close brushes by other hurricanes, tropical storms, nor'easters, etc.

Though some rate the holding as iffy there, I know that if you can get your anchor well set in a muddy spot there is plenty of holding power for anything. Knowing a lot about this harbor, its bottom characteristics, and what it has meant for various generations of my own anchoring gear this is a nearly ideal testing ground for new (to me) anchoring equipment.

A few years ago I acquired a Mantus 45-pound anchor for my 38-foot motorsailor, and I have been gradually testing it during my cruises in Southeast New England. I have been impressed with its nearly instant setting, and its ability to reset when the wind shifts. It holds well on shorter scope, is reasonably easy to handle on deck due to the hoop that forms a nice handle, and it is easy to break out once you get right over the anchor.

Of course, the ultimate test of an anchor is how it performs in a blow. The test came over the Columbus Day weekend in October 2016. We were the only boat at anchor in the north part of the pond, though there were a few boats on moorings downwind of us. One advantage of Cuttyhunk as an anchor testing ground is that the nearby Buzzards Bay tower provides an accurate report of wind speeds. The Columbus Day gale showed peak speeds reached into the low 40s (knots)--not a survival storm, but a good test of a main anchor.

I like to know my main anchor and typical anchoring setup is easily capable of holding my boat in a real gale of wind, without the need to resort to special storm techniques. Having this capability covers 95% of the nights at anchor an average cruiser will experience, and provides a good base to build upon when you find yourself in a more serious situation. Even in a comfortable anchorage in the summer, with good shelter, there is always the possibility of a thunderstorm popping up, and with the ability to hold into the 40-knot range you will usually be fine.

The setup

Backing up the well dug in Mantus was 100 feet of 5/16" HT chain, then another 200 feet of 5/8" three-strand nylon rode. I have found that 100 feet of chain means that I am nearly always on an all-chain rode in the shallow anchoring typical along the East Coast of the USA. We eventually had out most of the chain in only about 10 feet of water, so scope was not an issue. I have various snubbers available, but for the night we started out with a 3/8" three-strand nylon line, tied to the chain with my own version of the rolling hitch, and leading back to a bow eye just above our waterline. This takes the load off any deck equipment, provides plenty of bounce to prevent snatch loads, and also lowers the angle to the anchor. In this case, we had more than enough scope out for maximum holding.

I have used a similar arrangement for decades with various other anchors, so I know what to expect. Fortress aluminum anchors, genuine CQR plow anchors, Danforth steel anchors, and a Bulwagga have all held us securely in similar conditions, backed up by similar equipment. The 3/8" nylon snubber would be considered undersized by many, but I have found it provides the right combination of elasticity, strength, ease of deployment, and knot security--I have tested one so much I know it will work. A similar rig held firm in winds up to around 100 mph in Hurricane Bob.

In the October gale the Manta did fine. There was no perceptible movement and when we hauled the anchor up it was so deeply embedded in the bottom that something would have had to break for us to move. As it turns out, something did break--the anchor snubber!

Of course, the snubber snapped in the middle of the night (which is often when anchoring snafus happen), alerting me by the sound of the anchor chain working hard on the bow roller and the boat jerking back a bit on the bar-taut chain. Working by flashlight on deck I quickly deployed another snubber using a chain hook, let out a bit more chain, and we were back to riding comfortably. Using a boat hook I fished over the side to pull up the broken end of the snubber that was still attached to the bow eye of our boat, and I discovered that the line had snapped in the middle. I was surprised by that, since I assumed that if the line were ever to break it would do so at the knot on the anchor chain or where it was spliced onto the bow eye. Nope, the line just exploded in the middle!

I can't ever recall that happening before, indicating this was a pretty strong blow. The line was not the best to begin with, having been purchased on clearance at a bargain store. And, it had lived on the bow, in the sun, for several years, but it had also survived numerous lesser blows and even several pretty intense thunderstorms of unknown strength. My guess is that there must have been a tiny nick in the line of some sort that lead to the failure at that point, though if you look at the photo it seems to indicate a pretty general failure.

Breaking strain

The breaking strength of 3/8" quality three-strand nylon is north of 3,000 pounds, but I suspect my crummy rope was much lower. My guess is the strain might have been in the nature of 1,500 pounds or so. A decent pull, but not a survival storm. I do find it interesting to be able to get some idea of the loads involved, even if the measurement is quite crude. I know the max load that line should be able to hold is up around 3,000 pounds, setting the upper boundary, and I suspect the lower limit would be about 50% of the line strength due to the knot holding the line at one end, the splice holding the line at the other end, and the age and condition of the line. Also, a 1,500-pound load is reasonably close to the old ABYC calculations for a 40-foot sailboat in a 42-knot gale (2,400 pounds).

Some have reported that rolling hitches are prone to slippage under high strain. My destructive test proved that to not be the case, though my rolling hitch is not typical. Mine is sort of a cross between the icicle hitch and a rolling hitch. I take multiple wraps around the chain, then multiple half hitches to secure the knot. Using traditional three-strand nylon this type of knot has been slip-proof for me.

Lessons learned

This gale taught me a few things. First, I was very happy with the holding provided by the Mantus anchor--no muss, no fuss, no dragging. Did its job.

Second, my old standby 3/8" nylon snubber proved once again that it is plenty for a 38-foot motorsailor up to gale conditions, but it would be better to use quality line in good condition. I am convinced if the line had been of a better quality nothing would have happened. No-name line purchased at a bargain store, used for many days at anchor in all conditions, and left in the sun for several seasons is not the best!

Third, tieing on a snubber line works well, even in high winds, if you use the right knot. My modified rolling hitch once again performed well. Yes, chain hooks can be more convenient and would probably work well in most conditions--I frequently use one myself--but when things get bad I prefer the proven reliability of a knot that will hold the snubber on the chain no matter what without damaging the chain. Using a knot eliminates several points of failure, and also means it is easy to come up with snubbers of various lengths, strengths, etc. It is easy to tie on another during the worst of the storm, if necessary.

Fourth, loads experienced during a gale can be quite significant, though I believe they are somewhat lower than are predicted by the ABYC guidelines.

Fifth, once again I learned that having multiple backup snubbers is critical, along with the means to deploy them. I now have rigged up a very heavy duty snubber that would have more than twice the breaking strain and should be good for more than gale conditions, but I still like using that lighter line off the bow eye for typical anchoring. If it does break for some reason, it is relatively easy to tie on another from deck level then let out some more chain until the strain comes on the line.

Smartphone Photography Onboard

Like most cruisers today I carry and rely on a smartphone for many things: email, maps, weather radar, even phone calls (Google it)! However, as someone who enjoys photography, and as someone who frequently sells illustrated articles accompanied by photographs, I have learned both the pluses and minuses of smartphone photography onboard.

The biggest plus is of course that "the best camera you own is the one you have with you." When a great photo presents itself you don't want to be regretting you left your DSLR and its heavy bag back on the boat. Since many of us feel naked without a smartphone, we tend to carry one wherever whenever. This means you won't miss that shot of the amazing sunset, or the funny looking dinghy at the dock, or the cute town ashore. You will have both your phone and your camera with you almost all the time.

I have benefited from this availability many times, and can bitterly remember many missed scenes from the past when all I had were big, bulky, expensive cameras that were likely to be buried in a protective case stored in a locker down below when you saw the scene of a lifetime. Those of us old enough to remember film cameras of the past used to remark that a sure way to encounter a Pulitzer Prize-winning scene was to leave your camera behind, or to be changing your film.

With digital cameras we don't have to worry about changing film, or running out of film, which was worse. However, the smartphone in your pocket is not always the ideal instrument to capture the scene. One huge disadvantage is also an advantage in certain situations. Most phones today have big, beautiful screens that allow for great compositions, if you can see something. Unfortunately, bright sun, shadows, glare, and polarized sunglasses mean that we are often taking photos using the crudest point-and-shoot technique--point the phone in the general direction of the scene and hope you've captured what you want. In those situations take lots of photos to make sure that something is usable.

I find that many boating photos on the water suffer from this problem. Even on days without bright, full sun there can be so much light and glare that using a smartphone screen is nearly impossible. You might be able to see something on the screen if you shadow it, or point the phone in a different direction, but then you're facing the wrong way to get the shot. The bright environment means the photographer only has a vague idea of what she is pointing at, and careful composition relies on cropping the scene later. Take lots of extra photos!

It's a Big Wide World

There's good news and bad news with regard to composition. Smartphones have wideangle lenses, often equivalent to around a 28mm lens for those of you who used 35mm film equipment. Wideangle is great for some things--not so great for others. Typically, a wideangle lens is great for onboard shots illustrating what it is like on deck or down below. But, try to capture that lighthouse you are sailing close to and it will look like you were miles offshore. In general, smartphones are not good for photographing other boats from your boat, or even most scenics, unless there is something really big and really close to your boat.

I have made some interesting shots underway, but most include my own boat in the scene. For example, a wideangle lens can work for sunsets over the deck, or when passing through a big opening bridge that looms over the boat, or when shooting the wide expanse of a crowded mooring field full of boats.

Wideangle lenses are of greater use ashore when looking for telling details: flowers, brickwork, door knockers, etc. But, you have to get really close to fill the frame. They are great for wide streetscapes with lots of buildings and people. You have to be careful with closeups of people because the wideangle will distort faces, making for big noses and goggly eyes. Typically, portrait photographers utilize slightly longish lenses in order to be able to stand a bit further away from a subject and to flatten features, which in most cases is more flattering. Watch out with wideangle lenses not to shoot up at people from close range, which can make for some silly looks. Try keeping the smartphone camera on the same plan as the other person's eyes, or be slightly above them looking down. Again, if you are a lot taller than the other person, or are shooting down at them, you get more distorted looks.

One huge bonus with many phones is that they are easy to hold still and don't create any vibration to mar the shot, while also utilizing digital and other stabilization technology. This means you can take photos in dim light without the use of a tripod, and the best smartphones do a pretty good job of it. Cheaper phones tend to boost ISO (a measure of sensitivity to light) in low light, which results in the equivalent of "grain" that we used to see using fast film. This digital "noise" is not liked by most people, though I have seen some photos that use it to good effect. However, in general, with a top-level smartphone camera, you will find many night scenes come out very nicely. For extra stability try leaning against a light pole, or physically hold your camera still against a wall or table. With some cameras the stabilization technology is so good you can take handheld shots onboard in very dark situations. Try out photography at night with your phone and find out what it can do.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Anchor Links

I've written a lot about anchors and anchoring over the years, and here is a compendium of some links to take you to some of that stuff along with other great articles on the subject.

Email Two-Step

You’re anchored securely in a tropical lagoon you used to dream about...Then the “real world” drags you back. No matter how magical the anchorage there comes the time when you have to dinghy ashore to seek out Wifi and an Internet cafe so you can pay the bills, find parts, check in with family and friends, and if you are really courageous, read the news.

Today, voyagers enjoy a multitude of Internet benefits that make managing your real-world life much easier, but there are also new concerns to be aware of. Your boating online life will center around email. Almost every bill can be received via email. Many things that formerly were very difficult for voyagers to receive come via email. In addition, an email address is the necessary identifier you are using for everything from online banking to getting access to your online photos and calendar.

Like many of you, I have had a Gmail address since they were only available by invitation. Many years of my online life are referenced in gigabytes of email stored there--along with tons of sensitive information. The dilemma of online and cloud life is that it can be both tremendously useful and tremendously dangerous at the same time. All of that convenience comes with the danger that not only can you access your digital life anywhere, but so can the mythical 400-pound hacker lying in bed in New Jersey.

The 2FA Two-Step

“Ah, Ha!,” you say. “But, I have a password that is so strong even I can’t type it accurately, and I have turned on two-factor authentication!” The idea behind 2FA is great: you not only need something you know (your password) to log in, but you also need something you have (your smartphone) as a second step. A lot of us do this all the time: generate a code via an authenticator app or wait for an SMS text message to arrive, and then away we go looking up last year’s tax returns, grandma’s social security number, or transferring money between bank accounts. Google (and others) highly recommends we all use 2FA wherever possible, and so do I.

Back to the tropical lagoon. You zip ashore in the dink, find a cool Internet cafe with Wifi, fire up the computer, maybe connect via a VPN for extra security, then you try to log into Gmail. The GMaster recognizes you are not logging in from Podunk, Iowa, then promptly prompts you to use your authenticator app. But wait, you lost your phone four weeks ago when you dropped it in the harbor as you were hauling the anchor in the Galapagos. OK, that means no SMS messages either. OK, how about those backup codes you printed out and stored safely someplace on the boat? The question is where did I put those dang (substitute appropriate language here) things!

Luckily, your wife, smart person she is, remembers exactly where those codes are--in the safe deposit box in Podunk. Great, now what? You’ve got backup email addresses and phone numbers set up, right? Well, one is grandma’s and she never checks her email and has forgotten her password. You discover this by making an expensive call home, waking her in the middle of the night, and then waiting ten minutes for her to find and put in her hearing aid. The other backup is your wife’s phone number and she cancelled that when you set sail. You get the picture.

You are a Product, not a Customer

Now comes the fun part. Remember all that great free stuff Google gives you? It isn’t free. In exchange for letting you enjoy the Internet good life Google mines that life for everything you are worth. Many of us put up with this in exchange for Free, Free, Free! Since all of this free stuff costs billions of dollars to create, maintain, and secure Google has cut expensive support to the bone. Good luck trying to reach a human being to explain your problems to: “I’m on a sailboat in the South Pacific in this beautiful tropical lagoon sipping Pina Coladas in a waterfront bar and I need help getting into Gmail.” Luckily, there is no way to reach anyone to tell your embarrassing sob story to. Instead, start filling out online forms that ask you for all those things we just identified as being unavailable to you: your phone number (sunk), your alternate email address (grandma can’t access), your wife’s phone number (cancelled), your codes (in the safety deposit box), etc.

Sound far fetched? Do some Googling around and you will find many horror stories, including some from people who were never able to regain access to their Google accounts. In my own experience you can easily get locked out of your Google account when traveling overseas for even short periods of time. I flew to Australia and was staying in a nice hotel with Internet access, but Google, in its wisdom, determined I was logging in from an unusual location and blocked me. At the time I was using SMS for 2FA and my phone number wouldn’t work in Australia. My backup email and phone were my wife’s and I couldn’t reach her easily because of the time (and day) difference, my printed codes were safely stored at home, and the phone and service I purchased locally was requiring me to click on some activation link they had sent to my Gmail address that I couldn’t access! I eventually sorted out the problem, but was never able to get into my work email account because their security settings were such that all access was blocked from foreign locations.

Searching for Holy Grails

There is no (metaphor alert!) Holy Grail full of magic bullets to solve the security vs. availability paradox, but there are some options that can help. First, it is important to turn on and use 2FA on whatever important accounts you have: email, banking, investments, taxes, Amazon, PayPal, etc. Personally, I’m not so worried about many other logins: forums, clubs, memberships, etc. Social media accounts can be very dangerous, especially if you’ve used that convenient option to login to other accounts using your Facebook or other profile. Just the life details that can be mined from social media can make you very vulnerable to online attacks. For example, your Facebook account may very well contain the answers to some of those annoying security questions you have answered: the name of your first pet, your mother’s maiden name, etc.

Hopefully you agree that strong passwords and 2FA are important. Use a password manager too, so you don’t have to remember those strong passwords and also so you can use unique ones on every site. Those steps are just basic Internet hygiene.

There are ways to mitigate the Gmail problem. First, consider using an alternate email address that you control, not one that might be out of your control (like grandma’s). Keep in mind the possibility that it might also be very hard to get into this alternate email address due to the same factors that are blocking your access to the main account. For example, your alternate address for Gmail should not be another similarly secured Gmail account! You may want to consider using a relatively insecure email address with no 2FA turned on for that alternate address. Just be careful to never use that insecure email address for anything important. Make sure you keep the password to the alternate somewhere you will always have with you, or make it one you can never forget. Have all messages from the insecure account forwarded to your secure account too, just in case someone is trying to reach you that way and to alert you if for some reason the insecure account is hacked.

The insecure account can be very useful for general communication purposes if you have the discipline to never use it for anything that would be of interest to the 400-lb hacker. Most of us aren’t that careful and don’t have the spy’s ability to maintain two online personalities. At home I have an old phone plugged in and logged into an old email address I stopped using year’s ago. I am frequently surprised, not in a good way, at the important emails that show up from the old address. For example, one utility company still sends my bills to that address in addition to my current email address. I have tried to get the old address removed numerous times and it never works. Which brings up an important point--any email address you use must be secured to a level appropriate to what vulnerable information might be collected there. Consider closing old accounts that you no longer use--they create chinks in your online armor.

Think really carefully about backup phone numbers. For example, in the past I have caught myself using a work number that unfortunately couldn’t receive text messages--whoops! Similarly, don’t forget to check the numbers securing your account periodically. People move, change numbers, die and then you’re sunk. Another problem that should be obvious is the difficulty in reaching someone back home, in a different time zone, who is possibly not able to access the phone or email you have provided. Many cell phones are unable to receive calls from areas outside the home country, or sometimes calls from certain countries are blocked. Other times you can’t get call backs from someone using only a mobile phone because they don’t have the ability to call out of the country. Anyone who has voyaged knows the situation well. I tell loved ones and friends, “Don’t worry unless you hear from me.”

The Code

Google’s backup codes could be a good answer, and storing them in printed form somewhere onboard is probably a good idea if you will never forget and the location is reasonably secure. I wouldn’t put them anywhere near anything with my email address on it--just in case you happen to be pickpocketed or your boat is ransacked. Here’s what Google says about backup code use from here:

Basics of backup codes
If you lose your phones or otherwise can't receive codes via SMS, voice call, or Google Authenticator, you can use backup codes to sign in. Follow the instructions below to generate backup codes. You can also use these codes to sign in if you don’t have your Security Key.
The codes come in sets of 10, and you can generate a new set at any point, automatically making the old set inactive. In addition, after you’ve used a backup code to sign in, it will become inactive.
We recommend you store your codes wherever you keep your other valuable items. Like the codes on your phone, backup codes are only valuable to someone if they manage to also steal your password.
Despite what Google recommends, I don’t think backup codes should be stored where “you keep your other valuable items.” Imagine what life would be like if your boat was ransacked. You would need to quickly go online to change passwords, secure bank accounts, possibly transfer money to replenish stolen funds, etc. With your backup codes stolen life might become even more difficult. Instead, consider the “plain sight” method of security. There are many great ideas out there such as storing codes on a card in the middle of a deck of cards. With this type of trick you have to be careful not to accidentally give away the pack of cards, or forget where you put it. I bought a boat once that had foreign currency (not much) stored behind some ceiling panels. I found it when I was rebedding some deck fittings. Obviously, the previous owner had forgotten about the hiding place--don’t let that happen to your codes! For some things like this I put them in a location that I know I periodically access, reminding me at intervals where the secrets are hidden. Your secret location is worthless if it is so obscure that even you forget about it--just like a password that is so strong even you can’t type it in accurately!

One Size Fits Nobody

Like most things in life, Internet security is not a one-size-fits-all situation. You need to explore your own security vulnerabilities to find a solution that works for you, but you do need to think carefully about these things before you leave the real world behind with its ubiquitous connectivity that can be both convenient and a trap.

This article first appeared in Ocean Navigator magazine. Check it out.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

No, You Don't Get What You Pay For

I have resisted publishing this post for purely selfish reasons--I get paid for writing articles for boating magazines. Unfortunately, the dominate theme in almost every current publication, whether paper or digital, is how you can throw money at a problem (or a perceived problem) in order to make it go away. You know the shtick: 10 Ways to Make Some Simple Problem Go Away (each one costing $1000-$10,000); The Boat of the Year (how to spend $250K and up); or my favorite, The Latest Styles to Make You Look Like a Catalog Model!

I understand the problem. The Internet destroyed the advertising model that supported magazines for years, meaning all of them are chasing a vastly smaller pool of revenue that is determined solely by clicks. Plus, the boating industry was simply destroyed in the economic crash of 2007-2008 and has not recovered, meaning that advertising revenue has declined by 50-100% for most publications. However, I would argue that does not mean that the only route to survival is to suck up to your advertisers while insulting your readers.

OK, I am old and old school. I come from when people started small, learned how to fix up old boats, gradually worked their way up to coastal sailing and maybe local cruising, and then maybe purchased a bigger (but usually older) boat to sail off over the horizon. However, we all read books by the Pardeys ("go small, go now"), the Hiscock's (sail around the world on $5000), Bernard Moitessier (just do it), or the Roths (fix your small boat yourself on the beach in Patagonia). That stuff isn't even mentioned today and most of those books are out of print.

Today, you read about how to purchase your first 45-foot yacht for "only" $500k, but be sure not to leave harbor until you have installed $50K in electronics and $50K in safety equipment and $50K in gew gaws to make life afloat just like living in Trump Tower. Gold plated seacocks are the best!

I am reminded of a super catamaran I got to inspect at the dock--brand new, from a top designer, with nothing but the best equipment with no expense spared. I marveled at the quality of everything, but the boat wasn't going anywhere until the networked systems were fixed. I spoke to the technician who was totally baffled by why nothing was working properly. Yes, he had all the wiring diagrams. Yes, all the equipment was installed per spec. Yes, the owner was spending $1000 or so per day to have technicians crawl all over the boat.

I instead went off sailing on my old boat, cruising the coast of Maine, only to read later about this boat's ongoing problems that prevented its departure on the planned world cruise. Sure, my boat didn't have wind instruments networked with the depthsounder and the holding tank monitor, but I was enjoying the boat and off Downeast instead of tied to a dock with invoice writers crawling all around.

My point is that you can be anchored in a gorgeous spot in Maine, the Bahamas, Tonga, or the Mediterranean, enjoying the sunset after a fascinating day ashore, or you can be tied up in a marina paying bills for technicians to try and figure out why the chartplotter thinks your boat is in Kansas. Don't be that boater anchored in Kansas!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Charting Electrics

Electronics are wonderful as long as the electrons keep flowing, but they are useless once the power ends — and it always does eventually! The trick on a boat, particularly one in a hot saltwater environment, is to keep those electrons flowing from the boat’s batteries through various connectors, wires, switches, fuses, etc., to the right places and to not get sidetracked or blocked.

There are several unique factors to keep in mind with regard to charting electrics. It is not the same as wiring up a new light over the chart table! First, I have found it is important to isolate the electronics circuits from possible major surges caused by things like engine starting or windlass grinding. I have witnessed various electronic devices turning themselves off or on due to power surges, and low voltage is never good for sensitive electronics. Luckily, most modern electronic devices can handle a wide range of input voltages, including low-voltage situations, quite well.

On my boat I have a small fuse panel that resides right in the battery compartment. It is connected directly to the main large battery bank at the opposite end from where alternator and solar charging juice gets brought into the bank. Batteries act as filters for voltage spikes and a large house bank of batteries is fantastic protection. A very short fused lead connects the small electronics fuse panel directly to the battery bank. This panel is “always on,” meaning I only disconnect it for maintenance purposes. An entirely separate battery is used only for engine starting, which is usually the No. 1 routine action that can cause power spikes. Of course, the two battery banks can be combined using switches if required, but in normal operation they are kept separated with only a trickle charger from the main bank keeping the starter battery topped up. Normal starting only uses a tiny bit of capacity from the starting battery and if you are routinely draining that battery for some reason, your engine and/or starting system needs work.

Remain connected
I have learned through hard experience that it is far better to keep your electronics attached to power than to disconnect them. Many devices have small internal batteries that maintain critical memory, and those internal batteries can be difficult or impossible to replace. The job is also expensive and must be done by the factory in many cases. One issue I have right now is that my VHF radio lost its programmed MMSI number one winter when I had it disconnected, and the only way to have it restored is to send it to the factory — the repair charge would be greater than the radio is worth!

Some will argue that a fuse panel should not be in the battery compartment due to corrosion issues from batteries gassing and that the panel can’t be isolated using the main battery switch. All I can say is that I have used this system for decades on several different boats and have never found a serious corrosion issue. Your batteries should not be gassing that much anyway! If they are, it is time to closely examine your charging system.

Safety first
Concerning not being able to isolate this panel using the main battery switch, I don’t consider it a serious safety issue. First, there is an inline fuse in the short wire from the batteries to the panel; second, each individual power line is fused in a position that is very close to the battery. Most of the lines also have fuses close to the electronic device. The wires and fuses are very small, so in the event of a catastrophic short somewhere along the line, either the fuse or the wire will burn out very quickly.

The “always on” electronics fuse panel provides other benefits. When there is an electrical emergency in some other part of the boat, you can safely turn off the main battery switch and know that critical navigation and communication devices will continue to work. Think of the situation in a boat fire. You might quite rightly believe that the electrical system is to blame, so you flip off the main switch as the boat fills with smoke and then you try to call the Coast Guard only to find the VHF radio isn’t working. You then grab a hand-held radio and reach someone who can help, but then you can’t tell them your position because the GPS and chartplotter have been knocked out. You want to keep critical electronics running as long as possible in an emergency situation.

Of course, when it comes to most things on board, it is important to have backup systems that don’t depend at all on the main boat electrical system. I don’t go anywhere without a small, hand-held GPS that runs on regular alkaline flashlight batteries — no rechargeables! I want this GPS to always be available no matter what and, in my experience, small rechargeable batteries are not reliable, have much less capacity than advertised and have relatively short lives. Good old alkaline disposable batteries, on the other hand, last for years on board and it is very easy to carry enough to last years. They are available everywhere in the world too. I have a hand-held VHF radio that can take ordinary alkaline batteries for this very reason, along with a hand-held depthfinder and even an old hand-held RDF! Even in today’s world with few navigational radio beacons, there are almost always commercial radio stations or airport radio beacons that can be homed in on when all else fails. In any case, think through how you would navigate if your main batteries were gone for some reason — it will happen!

This article first appeared at Ocean Navigator. Check them out!