Monday, September 25, 2017

Wisdom of the Snowbirds

After the recent disasters of Irma and Maria in the Caribbean and in Florida many are wondering what can be done to protect their boats during Hurricane Season. Well, #1 is to not be in hurricane prone areas in the first place! We have been spoiled by relatively quiet hurricane seasons for several decades, and many boaters have forgotten the wisdom of the not-so-ancients who would never venture south of Cape Hatteras/Norfolk before November 1.

Today we are seeing harbors like Marathon in the Florida Keys packed with boats in August and September when they used to be nearly empty. It was inevitable that a big storm would come along and demonstrate why the old wisdom was to stay north until after November. This is the wisdom of the snowbirds.

When I first started heading south from New England in the 1980s this snowbird wisdom was ingrained in the boating public. We all headed to the Chesapeake for the big Annapolis boat shows around Columbus Day, then meandered south down the Chesapeake to Norfolk around Halloween time.

Yes, we did occasionally encounter the late-season hurricane in those years, but we weren't trapped in a place like Marathon with few alternatives but to ride it out and hope for the best. Between Virginia and Florida there are literally thousands of "hurricane holes" up winding creeks, and with modern forecasting and the usual week or so of warning most boaters can move several hundred miles up or down the ICW to get into a better position.

I understand that many boaters in places like Marathon consider it "home," and if you have a job or kids in school it is very hard to leave when a hurricane is headed your way. But, I can't beat around the bush--that is a bad plan for your life on a boat!

Some estimates are that 75% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon were either sunk or blown ashore. I'm not sure accurate numbers will ever come out, but the general scale of the problem was dramatically illustrated during Irma. Marathon is not a good place to spend Hurricane Season!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Get off the dock in a hurricane

Your boat is almost always better on a mooring and/or on anchors than at the dock in a hurricane. Docks feel solid and reassuring in normal conditions, or even in pretty severe storms, but the difference in a hurricane can be storm surge. The photo was taken during Hurricane Bob with our boat at the time, Echo, on a mooring with anchors out in Cuttyhunk. Only three boats in the harbor broke loose, and they were all due to either inadequate mooring lines or too little scope. One boat picked up its mooring and dragged it ashore. If they had put out 50 feet of line the boat would have been fine.

Why were we there? Simple, the storm was predicted to go right over us, or very close, and the storm surge was predicted to be 10 feet or more. I think we had close to 10 feet. The fishing dock and the ferry dock were under water in Cuttyhunk. Four-wheelers and large propane tanks floated off of land and drifted by us. A small shack floated by, roof upside down, like a boat.

If we had been tied to the fixed docks everything would have been under water. Lines would have to be either impossibly tight, or terribly loose. Even if our boat didn't break loose or float off other boats would have, and they would be right next to us. Watch the videos from Irma of boats sinking in slips, tied securely to pilings and docks, due to collisions with the marina infrastructure or other boats.

Yes, if your are on a mooring or anchor your lines could break, and your anchors can drag. But, at least your boat is pointed into the wind and seas and it can have a chance. When tied up to a dock you are at the mercy of the wind direction and how well your neighbor has prepared, and how well the marina has maintained everything. But, get a 10-20 foot storm surge, and nobody is prepared. At anchor or on a mooring your boat has a chance. Add extra lines and extra scope and the boat can rise with the rising water.

Give your boat a chance in a hurricane.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Hurricane! Secure your car.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Leeward Islands and a landfall in the USA looking very possible as of today, I thought of doing a blog post on hurricane preparation. It is an important topic, but today I will review an equally important subject for boaters: what to do with your car during a tropical storm.

Seriously, your car is often extremely important both before, during, and after a storm. It is likely to be how you get to your boat in the first place, assuming you aren't living aboard. It may be your escape hatch if the storm proves to be too threatening or if the worst occurs and your boat is damaged, aground, or possibly sunk. Third, once the storm has passed your car may be the only means to escape the damaged area, and it will likely be your lifeline to obtain food, water, and repair materials.

Keep the car filled with gasoline, if possible, and consider storing some spare water and supplies there. My trunk always has things like jumper cables and even a small starter battery that doubles as a cell phone charger. Being able to escape a wet, damaged boat and possibly even spend a night in a dry car with a charged cell phone might look pretty good after a storm. You may even consider storing some important valuables in the car, if you can find a great spot to leave it.

The other day I heard a great tip while watching a weatherman talking about the flooding during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. He said check out your height above sea level by using the compass app on your iPhone. My Android phone doesn't come with a native compass app, but there are many in the Play Store and quite a few do include height above sea level. I'm still researching which ones are good and which ones prove to be accurate, but this can be an extremely valuable piece of information to have when thinking about where to put your car. Protection from wind and debris will mean nothing if the car is flooded--seek higher ground!

This often means abandoning the marina parking lot, which is frequently located strategically right next to the docks and the harbor--not the place to avoid damaging storm surges that come with hurricanes. In New England, one can often walk inland a couple of blocks and you'll notice that you are going uphill. Florida, not so much. In fact, it may not be possible to find a place immune to tropical storm flooding within a reasonable distance from the marina. If that is the case, consider parking garages that allow you to go up a floor or two. These tend to be strongly built structures which may also provide shelter from the wind, and more importantly flying debris.

Until you have experienced a hurricane or two it is hard to appreciate the dangers of debris flying through the air. Maybe you have noticed that people cover large building windows with plywood sheets. Think of your car windows enduring the same pummeling. However, don't even think about trying to cover your car with any sort of normal cover. It will either shred in the storm, and/or flap so much the car's paint will be ruined--probably both.

I actually search for parking opportunities that allow me to either point the car into the wind or go stern (rear bumper) to, and downwind of a large, sturdy structure made of concrete. If you park close to such a structure, with the nose of the car up towards a wall, it can prevent rain from driving into the engine compartment under the force of 100 mph winds, and anything that is blowing through the air will be blocked.

Believe it or not, these types of parking opportunities are something I note during the boating season. Where can I park the car, nearish my boat, with protection from likely storm force winds, high enough above sea level to be safe from flooding, and also a place that the car can be left without fear of being towed or broken into? It can be tough to find such a place, so start making mental notes as you explore the area near a new marina or mooring.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Further thoughts on going Aground!

I was reading a great Panbo post on a grounding in Camden harbor, and it reminded me of some things to think of when dealing with groundings. Panbo, by the way, written by Ben Ellison, is the best boating blog about marine electronics there is, and a must read about everything boating too.

Why do we go aground in the first place? I believe #1 on the list is loss of "situational awareness." What exactly does this mean? Think of the U.S. Navy ships getting run down by commercial vessels in Asian waters, which unfortunately has happened a bit too frequently lately. Here are ships presumably equipped with not only the latest in navigational equipment, but also crewed by extremely well trained and disciplined teams of people who should know exactly what is going on all around them. Yet, two large ships collide with good visibility and no apparent reasons why. What happens?

#1, I am convinced, is the great demand put on everyone to monitor all the amazing navigation equipment we have nowadays. Think of all that gear, people staring at screens, punching in coordinates, noting courses and bearings, monitoring radios, listening to commands, etc., etc. No matter how well trained, how well equipped, or how well disciplined there is only so much information the mind can process and at a limited speed too. Couple that with night vision being ruined by staring at brightly lit screens, while also being constantly distracted by people coming and going, coffee being delivered, and all the whatnot that goes on with many people around and it is a recipe for disaster.

How does this relate to us ordinary Joe Blows sailing the coast in small boats? The same exact problem can rear its ugly head. I was sailing offshore behind a large catamaran that was equipped with all the mod cons, including radar, chart plotters, etc. Offshore the watch stayed below watching videos while assuming that various alarms would alert them that something needed actual attention. However, even if the alarm worked, it takes a few minutes to scramble out of the cabin, and then your eyes aren't adjusted to the dark, and it is very easy to turn the wrong way, let go of the wrong line, or trip over something lurking in the dark. I had to call this boat on the VHF repeatedly to warn them they were sailing directly into the path of an enormous cruise ship, lit up like a city, miles from land, traveling at high speed and likely on autopilot. The alarms didn't work, the crew wasn't watching, disaster was close at hand.

Entering some crowded gunkhole you may have to deal with the same issues. The depth sounder alarm starts blaring painfully, your wife is shouting something from the galley, the chart plotter is glared out in the sun, the harbormaster is yakking about something on the radio, boats are jammed all around on moorings, people are board sailing and paddle boarding across the channel, your dinghy painter is too long, the engine is overheating, and your hoping to get anchored in time to catch the water taxi. Your boat comes to a sudden stop and your brain is crashing due to sensory overload. Where exactly am I? Why have I come to a crashing stop? Is that the bilge alarm going off? What is that cruiser shouting at me?

In other words, too much information, too quickly. Just like on those Navy bridges. But, what is the answer? You don't want to abandon the chart plotters, radar, VHF radio, depth sounders, etc. I often find that the simplest answer is often the best. Reduce clutter. Turn off depth alarms. Use a printed chart that you can see in bright light and won't be at the wrong scale. Turn the VHF radio way down or maybe even off if it is a distraction. Reduce your speed--create more time for your brain to process all the information. The other day I was sitting on the beach next to a popular channel when a big boat approached at high speed, then suddenly throttled way down, actually went into reverse, did a 360, then entered the channel at dead slow and under control. I admire that skipper for suddenly realizing that life was coming at him way too swiftly and a little bit of patience would probably make the day go much better. I have gone so far as to tell guests to stop talking to me and/or realize that I may or may not answer. If they ignore my suggestion, I just ignore them. Better to be a social outcast and afloat than the life of the party and aground!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aground!

OK, you've gone aground. I always say if you haven't gone aground you haven't gone anywhere. Typically, there is no need to panic (is there ever?). The first step is to check the state of the tide, if you don't already have it in your mind. If it is falling, you have to work quickly. On the other hand, maybe the tide is on the rise, where patience becomes a virtue.

Hopefully, you've chosen your cruising boat so that it has a hull shape and underbody that can take the ground with reasonable safety and without any major damage. I have been on a full-keel sailboat that piled up on solid rock--boulders actually--and managed to nestle down amongst them with no major damage. A sharp fin keel with exposed rudder and prop might not do so well. A catamaran can usually rest upright with little fuss.

Many feel an urgent need to call for a tow, with the likely prospect of a $1000 bill or more, and the potential for greater damage. I have witnessed many a boat get pulled off a grounding by powerful engines and lots of skill, but with inevitable damage, when simply waiting for the tide would have done nothing more than scrape off some bottom paint.

Yes, there are situations where the tide is falling, possibly the wind is driving you ashore, and maybe large waves are pounding your vessel. Maybe, that is the time to call for a tow, but keep in mind the inevitable cost and potential for disaster. Most of us try to avoid with extra care any close calls with the bottom when there is any hint of a dangerous wind or sea, so hopefully your grounding will be like most: in a sheltered spot where waiting for tidal help will suffice.

Of course, I would always make sure to put out an anchor in the direction of deep water to both help pull the boat off when the tide rises, and also as insurance in case the prop is fouled or damaged. You may be surprised how much power you can generate with a well dug in anchor leading back to a powerful windlass and/or cockpit winches. I have literally dragged my boat back into deep water when the engine wouldn't budge her. Sometimes, all it takes is a little steering with the anchor line to get the boat pointed in the right direction. And, other times, the best route out is backwards, with the anchor line leading off the stern.

Having a dinghy handy with a portable depth sounder can be a great help. My dinghy has long oars that allow me to poke around and find deep water quickly. A boat hook or even a mop handle can do the same. You don't need lots of extra water--just enough to float your boat.

A tow should be your last resort, whether by your own dinghy or someone else's boat. Chances are that most of us don't have cleats strong enough for the strains of a serious tow, and rigging extra lines and such is time consuming if you are in a rush. Heed the first paragraph--a falling tide means you need to work fast. Sometimes all you need is a lightweight anchor that can be taken out quickly in a dinghy, and you can be back afloat in five minutes. I have performed this maneuver many times when my own engine wasn't enough.

Some people recommend hauling a sailboat over using a halyard as a way to reduce draft. In my experience this is both very difficult to achieve and also likely to break something, and often fails too--a trifecta of hopelessness! First, you need a big powerful tow boat to heel your boat over, and it has to be shallow draft and on scene. All of those things are unlikely to be present. And then you need a very strong halyard and mast, and hope it doesn't jump the masthead sheeve and jam permanently, if it doesn't break first. This all assumes that you can arrange everything quickly enough to avoid the falling tide--if the tide is rising, why bother? Of course, this idea doesn't work at all if you have a catamaran or powerboat.

A grounding is a situation where your first actions need to be swift, deliberate, and appropriate to the particular set of circumstances. Calling for a tow is usually not the first, second, or third option that should be tried. Good luck!

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Broken Anchor Snubber!

UPDATE September 29, 2017: Upon doing further research on causes for mooring pendant failure I learned some interesting things about failure in nylon line. The Coast Guard has conducted extensive experiments with regard to the longevity, strength, and failure modes of line in order to evaluate its use for mooring buoys. The bottom line on the testing was that there is degradation in strength with time (duh!), and that failure can be sudden and catastrophic when the load on nylon increases rapidly from zero to more than 30% of the line's rated breaking strain. Translating that to my broken 3/8" snubber line. If the ABYC guidelines are close by a factor of two for the strain on a boat like mine in a 42-knot gale (2400 lbs), it is not surprising that a line rated for 3,000 pounds might suddenly snap, especially considering its vintage. Loads well above 30% of rated capacity may have been experienced.

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.