23 November 2013

The Devil in the Chartroom.

I'm sure I've gone on about EPIRBs, SSB and all the other acronyms that people load their boats down with, so that they can bleat for help when things go wrong, they get seasick, or it all just gets too wet and uncomfortable.  You will gather I don't have a lot of time for them.

If you decide to go wandering over the sea in a small boat, it is ridiculous to think you have a right to be baled out when it all goes to custard.  Fair enough when you're pottering around the coast within VHF (or mobile phone!) range: the boys and girls who come to pick you up will probably enjoy the challenge and it won't cost the taxpayer too much money.  But to institute a full Search and Rescue in the middle of the ocean is really making yourself out to be far more important than you actually are.  I'm sure the world will continue to turn and society (more or less) to function without your valuable input; just accept your fate and drown like a gentleman.  All that money spent on picking you up out of the 'oggin could be much better spent on a lot more people who are actively contributing to society.

The latest in the line of devices to help you bale out, are the little trackers that normally-self-sufficient sailors are adding to their boats.  The theory is that friends and relatives will be able to follow them across the ocean, so that everyone can feel 'in touch'.  And, supposedly, said friends and rellies won't be worrying.  Yeah right.  This year, two of my friends fitted these devices and, in my opinion, the results have been from bad to disastrous.

One friend's device stopped transmitting for the simple and sufficient reason that there was no money left in the account.  Those following his track, instantly went into panic mode and only the fact that they first debated the issue prevented them from contacting the Coastguard to 'see if they had heard anything'.  How could they have?  The self-sufficient friend in question does not carry an SSB.  Needless to say, a few days later, he turned up safe and sound explaining why he'd 'gone off the air'.  Now the damn transmitter is playing up again.  He's had enough and it's soon to be on its way to the recycler.  Friends and family will just have to go back to the good old days of hearing nothing of him when he chooses to traverse an ocean, and he can go back to enjoying his peace and quiet.

The incident with the second friend was far worse.  These wretched transmitters allow you to send wee text messages and, of course, your location.  So you can shout for help.  Now my friend had had some truly horrendous weather, he was getting very tired; he'd had a few issues with water ingress and rig malfunction.  All things he has dealt with in the past.  He had a little device on board with a blinking light that said to him 'You don't need to carry on with this, you know.'  They should be fitted with horns and a pitchfork, for they are surely little devils in disguise.  If you can't give up, you won't, but the devil spake and he was tempted.  So he called for help and, in due course, along came a ship and, when the wind had moderated to less than 45 knots (the conditions were appalling) he was picked up.  He was very nearly crushed during the transfer from perfectly seaworthy yacht to the large ship and his brave little boat, that had looked after him loyally for tens of thousands of miles, survived being lifted up and repeatedly flung against the steel hull of the huge vessel alongside, and was last seen drifting disconsolately into the murk.

My friend has physical injuries that will take months to heal.  As for the mental ones: 'I can't believe, now, that I felt things were so bad that I needed to abandon the boat.'

As Bill Tilman once said: 'we were distressed, but we weren't in distress'.

Without that little devil, my friend would probably be happily anchored near waving palm trees, the storms a fading memory and doing some minor repairs to his stout little ship.  Now,because of that devil's insidious influence, he has lost his uninsured home, his joy and his freedom to roam the world.

24 September 2013

Starry nights

Cruising is a life of contrasts.  Many years ago a friend said to me that when you lived on a boat, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.  It was true then: it's true now.

At present it's at a low.  The wind is howling; rain is pelting down and I'm in a tidal anchorage with the ebb flowing strongly, dead against the wind.  We are rocking and rolling and in the lulls, the poor wee boat swings round as the tide catches her and the next thing I know is that she's stern to the wind.  I don't like wind: it's an over-rated commodity.  And today there is far too much of it around.  I have two consolations: we have good holding and sooner or later the wind will die down.  One of the few things that I genuinely have taken on board over the years, is that gales finally blow themselves out  But at times like this it seems much more an act of faith than a reality.  I watch my barometer.  It's an electronic one and it has dropped so far, so quickly that all but the most recent reading are jammed along the top of the scale.  It's not a reassuring sight and I should dearly like it to start rising again.  I suppose there's one more consolation: the tide will soon turn.

How different is this night from one last week when the wind had died away to a glassy calm, and the sky was filled with bright stars.  I was in a different anchorage, sharing it with several other yachts, who were away for the weekend.  Before turning in, I took a glass of wine to the after hatch to enjoy the evening: spring was in the air and in spite of the clear sky, it was surprisingly mild.  Not by the wildest stretch of the imagination could I be described as an astronomer: I've always found it immensely difficult to recognise anything other than the major constellations, but for all that, I know the patterns that stars make, so I was somewhat startled by two bright, completely-unidentifiable planets.  Both so high in the sky and neither in a place I would have expected.  Puzzled, I looked at them for a few moments before it dawned on me that what I was looking at wasn't a planet; nor a star; nor even a satellite: I was looking at a couple of masthead lights, with LED bulbs and absolutely unmoving on the flat water of a calm night.  In case you hadn't noticed, LED white lights are exactly the same colour as a bright star.

Now, for many years I have been bewildered as to the prevalence of masthead lights in anchorages.  I am reliably informed that the people who switch them on regard them and describe them as 'anchor lights', but when and where did the ridiculous habit of placing them at the masthead come about?  When I sail into an anchorage at night, I'm looking ahead of me, not star gazing.  I want the anchor lamp to be at eye height, not 40 or 50 ft in the air.  USAnians, indeed, believe that the masthead is the correct place for the light to be.  Traditionally, an anchor light (also known as a riding light) was hung from the forestay and although the Rules (for Prevention of Collision at Sea) say that the anchor light should shine for a full 360 degrees, boats either at anchor or under way, rarely keep such a steady relation to one another that a light on the forestay would be hidden by the mast.  Yes, a masthead light does comply with the literal meaning of the rules and yes, if you were wanting to be seen by ships rather than other small craft, a masthead light would probably be more efficacious, but shouldn't common sense and courtesy also apply?  Surely, you are not switching on your light only in order to comply with the ColRegs?  You are trying to make it easier for your fellow sailor, groping his way into the anchorage after dark and trying to thread his way among the boats already there.  The fact that LED lights are so bright, only makes matters worse: it's astonishingly difficult to estimate how far off that light up in the sky is, particularly as you haven't a clue whether it's on a 20 ft mast or a 60 ft one.

If you feel you must have a masthead light, then please hang another one further down so that the approaching sailor can get an idea of where your boat actually is.  You can go to any hardware store and buy a $5 lamp, with a tiny solar panel, a re-chargeable battery, one LED bulb and a light-sensitive switch that turns itself on when it goes dark.  It's enough for anyone to see you long before they hit you and you might be happy to have it yourself, on the day when you return to your boat after dark when you only intended to be ashore for a couple of hours.

PS  Make sure the one you buy uses an AA battery and replace it with a high quality, 200+ mAh one, for long nights and overcast days.