That Sinking Feeling off the Baja Coast

Clark February 3rd, 2016

3 on deck
It was 1991, and we were three fools fresh out of San Diego State. Brian had bought an old Catalina 30, and we spent six months fitting her out. Against my protests, Brian changed her name to Break‘n Wind, a boat name I’ve encountered several times over the years, and never liked any better.

Brian’s artist buddy painted the new name and hailing port on the transom, along with some sorry-ass blue palm trees. I asked the artist, “Isn’t break spelled B-R-E-A-K?” He’d spelled it Brake’n Wind. The paint had already semi-dried, so we ended up with one E wedged in there somehow, and another E rubbed out with acetone, and it never looked quite right.
The overfilled cockpit, with fresh flowers from our bon voyage party.

We finally set sail and ran down the Baja coast at night, the boat laden with windsurfers, surfboards, a guitar, scuba gear, and enough food to transit the Northwest Passage. Tim, the third crewmember, was on watch in the cockpit while Brian and I tried to sleep on opposite sides of the main salon.

I was drifting in and out of sleep when the automatic bilge pump light caught my eye. It went out and I closed my eyes again, but ten seconds later the light came on a second time. When it lit the third time I nudged Brian, “Hey, the bilge pump has gone off three times.”

Brian flipped out of his bunk, turned on the lights, and ripped up the little floorboard in the middle of the main salon. Water poured into the bilge from somewhere aft. We opened the engine compartment, where a stream of sea water flowed past the engine mounts.

“She’s taking on water!” Brian yelled.
“What!” Tim peered down the companionway, wide-eyed.

We cleared out the quarter berth to get access to the packing gland, and Brian squirmed in with a flashlight.

“It’s coming from farther aft, and it’s a lot of water now! It must be the rudder!”

We were a good fifty miles off shore, following Captain John Rains’s advice to sail well outside the shipping lanes. Panic.

We tore open the cockpit lazarettes and scattered ridiculous piles of junk on deck: scuba tanks, fins, masks, wetsuits, spears, beach chairs, a barbeque, windsurfer sails, oars, and awnings. It was the adventure of a lifetime and, well, we’d overpacked. Occasionally the beam of the flashlight met the spooked eyes of a shipmate, and around us were only blackness and a cold winter westerly. We avoided eye contact as we moved the life preservers, the ditch bag, and the EPIRB.

The automatic bilge pump ran nonstop.

We emptied the aft lazarette, which gave us access to the rudder stock. In the aft lazarette we could also see the bilge pump’s thru-hull. Next to the thru-hull, unattached, lay the bilge pump hose, with water spewing out of it, into the lazarette.

“We’re saved!”

We slid the hose back on the fitting with a new hose clamp, and the bilge pump pumped the same load of bilge water for the last time.

Bug-eyed with the adrenaline of our first mid-ocean crisis, the voyage began in earnest, and our little ship seemed more plucky and devious. At our bon voyage party a friend had given us a bottle of single malt scotch that was much too good for a couple of twenty-one year olds. We took slugs out of the bottle and talked about near misses, what ifs, what-to-dos, and all the adventures we were about to have in Mexico.

Brian and Tim drifted off as I started the 3 a.m. watch, with my first sunrise of the voyage to follow.
Break’n Wind under sail

Knowing Your Boat: The thing nobody ever talks about

Clark January 21st, 2016

“Uh, how is the boat going to behave when that thing hits us?”

Contrary to all the focus on new boats, their features, and their performance, the captain’s knowledge and intimacy with said boat is probably more important. In fact, when it comes to heavy weather sailing, what resides in the captain’s head is probably the most important piece of safety gear aboard. What some might call “getting to know your boat” may accurately be called the most intimate relationship a human being can have with an inanimate object.

The Cliff Notes version of getting to know a boat is a shakedown cruise. You’ll learn more in a few days knocking around out there than in months at the dock, and usually come back for a whole round of repairs and improvements you never knew you needed before the shakedown. Long distance racers cram and rush this process, in as many types of weather as possible, usually with a very expensive RIB full of cameras and coaches chasing them around.

Joshua Slocum’s relationship with Spray is legendary, of course: the way he got her to sail herself and hold a course, most of the way around the world. On the flip side was Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth IV, which was actually a very tender and squirrelly boat, as Charlie Doane pointed out. But at least Sir Francis figured it out, and knew not to push her too hard.

True familiarity with a vessel is a long process, necessitated by the time it takes to encounter all kinds of weather and all kinds of situations.

For me and my boat, this has been an eighteen year process, and it’s still a work in progress. A year or two into my circumnavigation I had occasion to sail under jib and jigger: My boat is a ketch, and dropping the mainsail completely and sailing under just a jib and the mizzen creates a reduced, balanced sail plan in high winds.

It wasn’t until many years into my circumnavigation that I confirmed what the old owner told me, that she ran beautifully under bare poles, with the windvane set a few degrees off of dead downwind.

And it wasn’t until we were caught in relentless Pomperos off the Patagonian coast that we confirmed that she heaves to perfectly under her mizzen alone. “Parking the car,” we came to call it, with a trail of slick water left to windward, killing the breaking seas. Here is a video, doing just that, with Commerson’s dolphins enjoying the ride. Note how calm it is right next to the boat, and it’s probably blowing thirty:

I have yet to deploy the sea anchor. I bought a very sturdy custom-made sea anchor in New Zealand, and I’ve got it fitted out with various rope, chain, a trip line, float, and chafe protection. I’ve gone as far as connecting it to the bow and running the tackle down the windward side of the boat with zipties, for easy deployment. The one time I was on the verge of deploying it, in the Arabian Sea in a tropical storm, I was worried about the current, which might have put us crossways with the wind, and made matters worse. Instead we ran under bare poles, which ended up putting us a couple hundred miles downwind and down current, but at least we didn’t get knocked down.

Someday I might have occasion to deploy the sea anchor, and I may discover she lies to it beautifully, or I may learn that she tries to sail off at oblique angles like a roped calf.

After all this time getting to know my boat I know she is “seakindly.” This is why I wouldn’t think of replacing my fifty-year-old boat that I’ve owned for eighteen: If I got a new boat I’d have to figure all that stuff out all over again, and when bad weather came I wouldn’t have that same warm fuzzy feeling I have with Condesa, knowing she’ll bob over it like a duck. I guess if I hadn’t come to know her as seakindly, I might be more open to getting another boat. Plus my familiarity with all of her machinery and systems is another well of knowledge I’d have to learn anew with a new boat.

Yes, delivery skippers, racers, and new owners often put to sea in new and untested boats…and a lot of bad things happen under these circumstances. A well known and well understood boat is a safe boat.

Save Your Boat!: Remote Boat Monitoring and Killer Apps

Clark January 7th, 2016

For Christmas our house got the Nest thermostat and smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector, smart devices that connect to a smartphone app via Wi-Fi. Such devices are part of the Internet of Things, in which the electronic things in our lives communicate with us and control themselves by learning our patterns and schedules.

Upon installing the Nest smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector, I thought hey, I could put one if these things on my boat, and as long as it’s in Wi-Fi range it would send me a warning if my boat caught fire. At $100, with a free, slick app, this could be pretty cheap insurance. Then I wondered if there might be a way for it to also send a warning if my boat was taking on water, but there was no easy way to do this. It dawned on me that being a marine electrician I could easily rig a high water float switch to trigger a small electrical fire, which would then activate the smoke alarm and let me know my boat was sinking. I knew I was onto my next multi-million dollar idea, so I popped into one of the venture capital firms down in Menlo Park. They said, “Clark, you had us at electrical fire,” but a quick competitive analysis revealed that greater minds have been on the case for years: There are several remote boat monitoring platforms.

When I think about what I’d like to know about my boat when I’m away, it boils down to these three things:
1. Is it sinking?
2. Is it on fire?
3. Is it going somewhere without my knowledge? (IE Has it been stolen, have the dock lines parted, is it dragging anchor, or has its mooring parted?)

But apparently I’m thinking small. These systems can send all manner of information to your smartphone, from your battery charge level, to fluid levels, to ambient temperature, or even if someone has undone one of the snaps on your boat cover. You can control various pumps, lights, and switches remotely, or even have a look around the main cabin via remote camera. Still, I maintain that the Nest smoke alarm/carbon monoxide detector is a cheap and cheerful remote fire alarm for a boats that have Wi-Fi at the dock or at their marina.

These systems all use proprietary electronic base stations, which reside on your boat somewhere, and this base station connects to the various sensors. Most systems come with the basic sensors (high water or bilge pump activity, high temperatur/fire, GPS location and “geofencing”), or terminals to connect to existing devices (like a bilge pump), and then have open slots for additional sensors and controls. Prices are reasonable, at $300 to $800 for the hardware with no frills.

The platform of choice seems to be cellular, which is touted as the most reliable, but of course will only work while your boat is in cellular range, and not far offshore. Cellular monitoring costs $9-$15 per month.

The GOST system, based in Ft. Lauderdale, is satellite-based (Inmarsat) with worldwide tracking. GOST seems to be more focused on the megayacht market, and I assume it’s more expensive, but they also sell basic tracking devices.

Of the cellular-based systems, Siren Marine and Boat Command are based in the US. Siren Marine offers a seasonal subscription, which brings the price down for snowbirds.

One of Siren Marine’s base stations:

Boat Warden is based in Ireland, C-Pod in Sweden, and Boat Guard in the UK.

The C-Pod base station:

I think these systems will become as commonplace as security systems on cars. At less than a thousand dollars for a sophisticated hardware platform that monitors all manner of things aboard, and under $200 per year in subscription fees (and I’m rounding the prices up) it’s a relatively small price to pay for peace of mind, security, and convenience.

Yes, some spectacular boating disasters have come from relying too much on electronic gadgets, and I’m sure blind trust in these systems will cause some spectacular disasters too, but sinking, fire, and theft are among the top causes of boat loss, and one of these systems could reduce the instances of all three substantially.

Several of the systems offer a “buddy alert” feature, so people other than the owner can get the alerts too. If one of those people were the marina manager or boat neighbor, it would up the chances of getting someone on the scene quickly. If insurance companies get onboard with discounts for boaters who have such systems (who will have a lower risk of loss from sinking, fire, or theft) these systems might pay for themselves.

New Nomenclature for Lifejackets

Clark December 16th, 2015

After Brian Hancock’s post on life jackets, To Wear Or Not To Wear, and his subsequent Mea Culpa, it may be very dangerous to approach this subject, so I will do so carefully.

In 1973, when I was a small child, the US Coast Guard changed the nomenclature for lifejackets and created the Special Purpose Categories, categorizing them from Grade I to Grade V.

We’ve all been confused ever since.

One thing seems to be here to stay from the 1973 standard, the term Personal Flotation Device, or PFD. Before that they were lifejackets, life vests, or life preservers.

The Coast Guard has now accepted that everyone has been confused for 40 years, and they’re changing the nomenclature once again:

“The purpose of this final rule, which removes references to type codes in our regulations on the carriage and labeling of Coast Guard-approved PFDs, is to facilitate future adoption of new industry consensus standards for PFD labeling that more effectively convey safety information, and to help harmonize our regulations with PFD requirements in Canada and in other countries.”

Once again they will be lifejackets, life vests, life preservers, or PFDs, if you prefer. None of this will take affect until 2017, so the life jackets hanging in your local chandlery still have the type codes on them, and life jackets with the type codes will be grandfathered into the new policy, and will go on being legal. The whole federal code reportage is here.

The labeling, instead of the type codes, will move to pictographs and simple explanations, which boaters will find easier to understand: Offshore, Near Shore, Floatation Aids, Throwable Floatation Aids, and Special Use Devices.

The sticky part with the type codes was Type V, which was the unclassifiable/provisional/weirdo type, where they would stick a life jacket that didn’t fit any of the other categories. I know for a long time they had trouble with automatically-inflating life vests, which have become de rigueur for their comfort and compactness:

Since these automatically inflated, and the automatic inflation device had to be replaced/serviced at intervals, the Coast Guard had trouble classifying them and approving them. Even now they’re listed as being “Class V, with Class III performance.”

I think the end result of the new rule will be good for boaters, not just for the clarification, but for the increase in variety: If we harmonize our system with the rest of the world, then the rest of the world’s lifejackets will be legal here. We’ll have more options in front of us, and maybe better prices.

For me the future of lifejackets all comes down to this type of device, the automatically-inflating life vest combined with a harness:

I’m one of those jerks who has never worn a lifejacket in his entire life, never fallen overboard, and never known anyone who has fallen overboard, but I’ve always been a big fan of clipping in. The rule on my boat is that anyone outside of the cockpit, which I deem deep and safe in most conditions, must have a harness on and be clipped into the jacklines when on deck. In other words, I want to be dragged to death rather than drown.

Wearing a harness isn’t particularly stifling or intrusive, while wearing a lifejacket can be. One of these inflatable jobs isn’t much more claptrap than a harness, and then if you combine it with a harness, voila. But I wonder how it will be classified?

Detailed Account of Man Who Survived 438 Days Adrift

Clark November 12th, 2015

When this story first came out there was some skepticism in the press because the guy looked too healthy. Now his story has been corroborated and confirmed, and he indeed survived 438 days in a panga, drifting from Mexico to an atoll in the Marshall Islands. A professional fisherman, adrift in a fishing boat, might have found some way to survive at sea, but his crew didn’t fare so well. The story is both sad and inspiring.

Writer Jonathan Franklin has turned José Salvador Alvarenga’s account into a book, an excerpt of which is printed here, in The Guardian.

Problems Solved: Diaphragm Bilge Pump Installation

Clark November 9th, 2015

I practiced what I preached, and finally installed a diaphragm bilge pump to improve the situation in my deep and creepy bilge. I wrote about this in my bilge pump opus, All About Bilge Pumps.

The principle at play here is that the bilge pump that keeps your bilge dry may not be the same bilge pump that keeps you from sinking: Centrifugal bilge pumps, the workhorses of the bilge pump world, can’t pump all the water out and always leave an inch or more behind. To really get the water level down you need a diaphragm pump attached to a strum box (intake strainer), and with this arrangement you can get it down to a quarter inch deep. Add a check valve and you can keep the water from flooding back down the hose after pumping. Aside from getting down there with a sponge, this is about the best you can do at keeping your bilges dry.

My bilge has the added complication of being deep and narrow, so narrow that a centrifugal can’t sit on the bottom. The centrifugal pump sat about 8 inches off the bottom, and this 8 inches usually contained a deadly emulsion of sea water, diesel, dead ship’s rat, and some substance that resembled dirty margarine when I sucked it into the shop vac. I also found all manner of hardware and tools that had been lurking down there. It’s hard to capture deep dark places in a photo, but here it is:
On the left is my new intake. On the right is my Aqualarm Smart Switch. The bilge is too deep to reach the bottom. If I lie on the floor of the engine room, with an engine mount stabbing me in the ribs, I can only reach to about a foot above the bottom, so it’s about 4 feet deep.

I installed the Johnson Viking Power 16, which I liked even more once I got it home and started futzing with it.
It turns out the pump and motor can be reoriented any which way, so I was able to make it fit in the best place with the hose connections on the most convenient side, and still keep the electric motor above the wet end of the pump. The plumbing connections were straightforward, with the outflow going overboard through my existing thru-hull, and about a 5-foot run straight down to the bottom of the bilge for the intake. Because of the odd, narrowing shape of my bilge, a standard strum box wouldn’t even fit, so I made this custom intake out of a bronze cap and an NPT to hose barb fitting:

I know this homemade intake strainer will be prone to clogging, but this is just the pump to keep my bilge dry, not the pump to keep my boat from sinking. For that purpose I’ve got a 3700 GPH centrifugal pump, which sits outside this sump.

While I was at it I figured I’d replace the hoses, both to this new diaphragm pump and to the manual pump, whose plumbing runs alongside it. There was some old fiberglass heat shield stuff wrapped around the two hoses, which I removed, to reveal this:

Both hoses had been badly melted, though not ruptured, by the heat. But wait, they weren’t near anything hot anymore, because I replaced the standpipe exhaust with a wet exhaust….in 1997. This means I sailed around the world for ten years with most of my bilge pumping happening through those pathetic, nearly completely occluded, melted hoses. Lucky I didn’t sink, and here I am giving other people advice about bilge pump systems. Ahem.

I also practiced what I preached with wiring, and ran the bilge wiring to a terminal strip inside a waterproof plastic box. Actually, I’d done this a few months ago as part of my engine room re-wiring job, so to add the diaphragm pump I just had to screw and unscrew well-labeled wires from the terminal strip, where everything will stay dry and electrically sound.

These Cantex plastic electrical boxes are about $5 at Home Depot, and I use them all over the place with appropriate watertight fittings. For marine use you’ll want to replace the screws that come with them with stainless, and a step drill bit is the right tool for drilling clean holes through plastic.

All this wiring leads to my Aqualarm bilge pump monitor console (on left side of panel), which, combined with the Aqualarm Smart Switch will get you to Bilge Pump Nirvana.

The Real Deal: Tom and KARAKA, and you can go too.

Clark October 20th, 2015

For anyone who whines about the cost of cruising, Tom’s story is inspirational, and perhaps instructional.

First expense, a 52-foot steel ketch, $1.

What was that? Yes, Tom saved this ketch from a trip to the scrapyard, which was just days away. He found her in Hong Kong in 2004, looking neglected, with a notice on her side for removal. He tracked down the owners and they agreed to let him have her for a symbolic dollar.

I know several people who have bought $1 boats, before I could tell them “Noooo! Don’t do it!” Tom was the former First Mate and later Captain of the 100-foot schooner RANGER, and knew he’d spotted a diamond in the rough. Many months, many thousands of dollars, much lost skin, and some severe burns later, Tom renamed her KARAKA, after the town in New Zealand where she was built, and she was ready to sail again. Since 2004 Tom has sailed her everywhere, with a revolving cast of characters, musical instruments, and a cat.

You can peruse Tom’s website (, but will soon be moving to or his Facebook page to see how the alternative lifestyle is meant to be lived.

I met Tom when we were both hired guns on the Clipperton Project, a quasi-scientific expedition to Clipperton Island, 700 miles off the Mexican coast. We sailed back from Clipperton to Cabo San Lucas on Island Seeker, a Downeast 32:
Frank, Island Seeker’s owner, on left; Tom in the middle; David on right; I’m taking photo

Over eight days Tom proved a very agreeable shipmate, and a good sailor. I’d sail anywhere with him. I woke up for my sunrise watch on the second or third day to find Tom grinning in the cockpit, and not touching the wheel. The boat had no self steering, and during the night Tom had figured out how to balance the rig just so, and she sailed herself. The banter between Frank, a Texan, and Tom, a Frenchman, was never dull.

So how does Tom do it financially, after over ten years without a real job? That revolving cast of characters? He charges them, but not much. His going rate is about $125 Euros per week, not including food and booze, but from the photos it looks like they catch lots of fish. And of course it’s expected that everyone work hard to keep Karaka running smoothly, which may mean chipping rust, grinding steel, cleaning fish, or stitching sails.

Did I mention that he plays the accordion?

If you think you’ve got what it takes to go gallivanting across the high seas with an accordion-playing Frenchman, Tom is currently accepting applications for his next leg across the South Pacific, from French Polynesia to Kiribati, Micronesia, and the Philippines, approximately six months. There is more information on his website about costs, expectations, and paperwork. Tom’s email address is


Party Boat Mishap

Clark September 22nd, 2015

This video has been bouncing around Facebook, and the more times I watch it the more bizarre it gets. For example:

1. It appears that many of the people falling off the foredeck are naked, or at least the first guy is.
2. A man jumps from the bridge just after the people fall in, apparently to help people in the water. He appears to be wearing swim fins? Did he just happen to be wearing fins at the time?
3. There are screams and there is laughter and the footage is kind of grainy. It might be a “Funny party boat crash” or some of those people could have been really hurt.
4. Obviously the boat was dangerously overloaded, but it didn’t look that bad for a cruise on flat water: maybe 6-8 people on the foredeck and a few extra on the bridge? Why did it roll like that?
5. The deep roll either killed the engine or knocked the helmsman out, because the boat sort of coasts off into a gentle crash with the dock. If someone had still been at the helm I’d think they would have put it in reverse.

I think…

Tesla’s Powerwall on a boat?

Clark September 17th, 2015

This summer Tesla unveiled its Powerwall, a battery large enough to power an average home with a solar system, and give this home independence from the grid. Elon Musk’s announcement was met with giddy excitement, and the batteries are already sold out for the foreseeable future.

I wonder how long before a Powerwall finds its way onto a boat? Tick, tick, tick.

Crunching the numbers, it may not make economic sense yet, but the price may come down in a few years. The Powerwall, the 7 kWh version, sells for $3000. The slightly larger 10 kWh Powerpack sells for $3500. If we compare these to a size 8D battery (generally the largest size, and common on boats), here’s how it stacks up.

8D battery:

An 8D holds about 3 kWh (kilowatt hours). You can buy an 8D battery for as little as $230, but for our purposes we’ll compare a top quality AGM 8D battery, say from Lifeline or Trojan, which sells for $650-$700. So in pure kilowatt hour terms, the Tesla battery costs about 40% more. You’d need three 8D batteries (a common arrangement, and what I’ve got on my boat) at about $2100 to supply to same number of kilowatt hours as the Tesla Powerpack at $3500.

But wait! With the lead-acid batteries we normally follow the 50% rule, meaning we only use 50% of the battery’s capacity. Tesla doesn’t expressly say this, but since the Powerwall/Powerpack is a lithium-ion battery I’m guessing it can cycle through it’s entire capacity without damage. This alone might make up for the difference in price. Also, lithium-ion batteries can take a charge must faster than lead-acid batteries. The Tesla also comes with a 10-year warranty, and I don’t know of too many marine batteries that see ten years.

The Tesla is WAY cheaper than other quality lithium-ion batteries of similar capacities.

The voltage on the Tesla batteries is stated as 350-450 Volts DC (huh?) so there would have to be some kind of DC to DC step-down converter. I can’t find much information on these, and they don’t seem to be common, but we can assume this will get expensive…and be one more device aboard that can fail.

Another advantage of the Tesla is that it’s lighter at 220 pounds. A single 8D weighs about 160 pounds, so the Tesla would be about half the weight for the same capacity. The Tesla is a big, flat battery at 51″H x 34″W x 7″ deep, so it might lend itself well to fitting under a bunk or mounting in the back of a locker. It’s meant to mount on a wall (duh) and it’s all sexy-looking, so maybe it could just mount in plain sight on a bulkhead.

It’s a deep cycle battery, so I have no idea how it would do for starting loads. Might have to have a starting battery too, which would provide some redundancy.

At the moment I’m going to say it’s a bit premature, especially with regard to stepping down the voltage, but the Tesla batteries are a VERY interesting prospect for powering a boat.

Sailing Was More Than Respite for Roosevelt and Kennedy, from NY Times

Clark September 14th, 2015


Full article here.

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