The Story of Suomi and the Spooky Life Rings

Clark August 17th, 2018

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With all five aboard perishing, the 1955 sinking of Suomi (pronounced swami) stood as the worst yachting accident on the California coast. In 2012, 57 years later, the Low Speed Chase tragedy on the South Farallon equaled her death toll, and equally devastated the Bay Area sailing community.

Suomi was one of Myron Spaulding’s masterpieces. Completed in 1947 to race in that year’s Honolulu Race, the 50-foot yawl was the largest boat he ever built. At the time of the accident, Myron was building Chrysopyle, another of his masterpieces. Myron had been commissioned to build Chrysopyle by Henry Meiggs, to race her in the 1955 Honolulu Race. Myron wasn’t going to finish in time for the race, so Henry Meiggs bought Suomi, in Newport Beach, and was going to enter her in the race instead.

Henry Meiggs and his crew of four sailed Suomi from Newport Beach to San Francisco, to prepare her for the race, but it was on the trip north, just off Point Arguello, that disaster struck.

From the US Coast Guard Commandant’s Action, dated June 20, 1955:

“1. On a dark night with intermittent light rain, the SUOMI was underway using power and sail, exhibiting a masthead light and side lights.

2. The SUOMI was on a crossing course approaching the PARRAMATTA from the starboard and as the privileged vessel, her operator should have sounded the danger signal permitted by Rule 28 of the International Rules to alert the PARRAMATTA.

3.When it became evident to the operator of the SUOMI that collision could not be averted by the action of the burdened PARRAMATTA, he should have taken such action as necessary to avoid immediate danger.

4. That at the time of collision there were five persons on board the SUOMI, namely:

1. Henry Meiggs
2. William Lawrence Meiggs
3. Colonel William S. Conrow
4. Sandy Wilson
5. Ralph Cooper

four of whom perished in the vessel. The fifth, Ralph H. Cooper, who was the operator at the time of collision, died as a result of amputation of the right leg and pelvis with partial evisceration of the abdomen due to contact with the PARRAMATTA propeller.

5. The SUOMI sank immediately after the impact.”

The report goes on to find the PARRAMATTA at fault for failing to keep a proper lookout and discharge the responsibility of the burdened vessel. The report recommended commendation of the captain, crew, and owners of the SS BENNINGTON, which responded quickly and searched the area for survivors.

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Anyone who has been to sea, especially at night, knows the horror of just contemplating such an accident, much less experiencing one. I was run down by a big ship at night, but my incident had a happy ending.

The Coast Guard report goes on:

“17. In response to an urgent Coast Guard notice, the SS BENNINGTON, which was then bound from Los Angeles, California, to Portland, Oregon, searched the area where the collision occurred from 0525 until 0845. At 0525 some wreckage was observed (transom of SUOMI dory). Later a pillow, section of spar, an identified life raft and other debris were sighted. At or about 0640 a body, which later was identified as that of Ralph Howard Cooper of San Mateo, California, was sighted 2.8 miles 180 degrees true from Point Arguello Light. The body and wreckage, which included one 30-inch approved ring buoy, were recovered by a Coast Guard motor lifeboat from Point Arguello Lifeboat Station. The following day another approved ring buoy was recovered by the CGC MINNETONKA in the same general area. The search was continued until 1530 on 22 April, 1955, with negative results.”

Those life rings certainly have a story to tell, having been right in the middle of the terrible loss of life that night. If I listen carefully from my desk, I can almost hear them breathing:

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When I first started here I thought they were just cool pieces of sailing memorabilia, but now I know they are ghosts of something more sinister. But of course this (the Spaulding Marine Center) is the proper place for them to rest, even though Suomi was built before Myron built the current boatworks.

But one question still remains: How did the life rings get from the site of the 1955 wreck to my wall in 2018? Actually I have a second question: How did they know that Ralph H. Cooper was at the helm at the time of the accident? Was the amputation done later at a hospital, and he was able to talk about the accident before he died? Finding a survivor would have certainly been in the report, yet isn’t mentioned.

This excellent video about Chrysopyle mentions the incident:

Awlgrip Topsides with a Brush

Clark July 25th, 2018

For reasons too convoluted and bizarro to explain, we can’t spray paint in our boatyard. We can only brush, but you’d be surprised at the results a talented painter can achieve with a brush. Fernando, who I will refer to often in this post, is our painting contractor, and the results he gets with a brush are astounding. Many around here say his topside jobs are better than most spray jobs, because with spray there is often a bit of orange peel texture to the finish, but with Fernando’s jobs it’s pure glass:
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Fernando is partial to Awlgrip, and he uses just a brush – a $65 ox ear hair brush. He doesn’t roll the paint on with a roller, then tip with a brush (the roll and tip method).

After watching Fernando, I decided I would brush my topsides with Awlgrip.

There are a few preliminaries: My boat was painted with two-part linear polyurethane fifteen years ago, so new two-part linear polyurethane (Awlgrip, Interlux’s Perfection, et al) can be painted over it without priming first. If you’re painting over gelcoat you have to prime first, adding several steps and many hours to the process. And if, God forbid, your boat has been painted with enamel or one-part linear polyurethane, it must all be removed. You can read my post about painting two-part over one-part, but might be riskier with topsides. For my boat I just had to sand it and make sure no wax or gook remained on the surface.

I decided at the outset I was not going for a ten out of ten, in fact I limited myself to two applications of bog in the preparation. That is, in filling various scratches, dings, and gouges, I would fill them with an initial application of epoxy filler, sand them out, and if they needed a second application of filler, so be it, but that was it. You can spend weeks filling and fairing a hull if you’re going for perfection, and I wasn’t going for perfection.

My boat has a hard chine in the bow, which transitions into a design feature farther aft, and this line provided a natural break in the topsides, so I removed hardware and chain plates, and painted above this line at the dock. Below this line I would paint in the yard.

My filling and fairing went quickly, using West System, additives, and a vacuum sander.

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The Awlgrip paint, the catalyst, and the thinner.

I mixed up the Awlgrip, which is a 2:1 formulation. I know from experience that a good paint job is two factors: getting the right quantity on the surface, and smoothing this paint to get out bubbles, stipple, etc. Fernando can do this all in one go with his magic brush. I knew I’d be safer rolling and tipping. Many roller covers, even ones recommended by Awlgrip, disintegrate from the solvent. I used one of these roller covers on a 9-inch roller without incident:
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Awgrip says to roll about 6 square feet at a time, then tip. I started tipping with one of these pads, which I’ve had good luck with in the past, but switched to a brush after about eight feet. The pad didn’t seem to be getting all the bubbles out:
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When my first coat dried it had lots of runs, sags, and curtains, which was disappointing. It’s all about the thinning, and Fernando seems to spend a lot of time futzing with thinner, to get the mixture just right. Awlgrip can be thinned 10-33%, but I was probably close to 10% on my first coat, meaning the paint was too thick, and thus prone to sags, runs, and curtains.

But then came two pleasant surprises: First, Awlgrip sands like a dream. I’d say I sanded the entire topsides and transom of my 40-footer in two hours, using 400 grit on a Festool vacuum sander. 400 grit is quite fine, yet the sags, runs, and curtains melted away with just pass or two of the sander, leaving a perfectly smooth surface for my second coat. Awlgrip takes 14 days for a full cure. I’m guessing it will sand like a rock after 14 days, but the next day after painting it sands with ease, as in, totally painless, which has made me really like Awlgrip.

The second pleasant surprise was that by not thinning enough and painting it on too thick I made a bit of a mess of it, but succeeded in getting a really thick coat of paint on. The coverage was already excellent, so I hoped to get away with just two coats, the minimum per manufacturer’s recommendations.

Indeed this was the case. I didn’t shell out $65 for one of Fernando’s ox ear hair brushes, figuring the difference would be wasted on me, but I did buy the most expensive brush I could find locally, the 3-inch Corona Europa:
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And I rolled and tipped my way into a pretty good paint job. It is virtually impossible to capture the good and the bad of white paint on film, but these photos give a sense of the results. I also painted the bottom with new blue antifoul:

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There are a couple of runs, but nothing too unsightly, and they’ll shrink up a bit as the paint cures over time. There are none of what I’d describe as brush marks, but in the right light you can see some patterning between the 3-inch downward tipping strokes. You’ll never scrutinize a paint job more than when you’re looking up at it in a boatyard. Once it’s in the water and crusted with salt, I’m sure the impression will just be ooh, new Awlgrip.

Most importantly, I got very good results for about $400 in materials and about 25 hours of labor. A sprayed Awgrip topside job on a 40-footer can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the amount of prep work. One Bay Area yard comes out of the gate quoting $1000 per foot. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, I saved $5000 or so over a sprayed job.

With my two coats, the only time I was out over a spray job was the one sanding between coats, about two hours. And if I hadn’t been happy with that second coat, I would have just been out two hours of sanding and an hour of painting to get on a third. I had plenty of paint left over. With a spray job you’d do all the same prep work, then spray all the coats of paint in one go, over an hour or two. But with a spray job there’d be lots more masking, and probably pulling the masts to get the boat into an indoor painting facility.

Also, this stuff will kill you, and it’s especially dangerous when spraying, when you’re atomizing the paint and sending it airborne. Spraying should be done with a forced air respirator. When brushing it’s a little less toxic, and if you’re working outdoors – and you don’t do this every day – you’re probably okay with just a good organic solvent respirator:
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Relief: 12-Ton Boat on a 12-Ton Crane

Clark July 16th, 2018

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That moment when your evil plan is finally realized: to infiltrate a boatyard as its General Manager, lay low for 14 months, doing your job diligently, until finally you can spring your trap and yes, get a free haul-out. They never saw it coming.

There was some doubt it was even possible, as my boat is on the fringes of what our crane can lift. Our crane, which is nearly 90 years old, but still passes inspections, can lift 12 tons at our pick spot. Sailboat Data lists my boat as weighing 23,000 pounds, which gives 1000 pounds of leeway, but I assumed this was an unladen weight, that is, unladen with twenty years’ worth of crap I’ve accumulated. I’m out of circumnavigation mode and I’ve purged a lot of junk, but there’s still all the gear and supplies for life aboard. I haven’t the foggiest idea how much the boat actually weighs.

To up my chances I drained the water tanks, drained the fuel tanks, took home five carloads of crap, and dropped all the ground tackle, which is three anchors and about 400 feet of chain.

In the end it was no problem, and the old girl took skyward, but as the moment neared it dawned on me just how expensive and time-consuming it would be if it didn’t work out: I would have had to pay another yard, across town, to haul my boat. The work I need to do will take about a week, only here in my own yard I can do parts of the job after work, and the other yard would be too far away to get to after work, limiting my work to weekends, which would mean three weeks in another yard, so thousands of dollars.
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The only slightly unpleasant surprise was the return of some blisters, about 50 of them, but mostly superficial. I did a major blister job and an epoxy bottom 15 years ago, and these blisters aren’t like the 1000 monsters we repaired in New Zealand. Here I’ve ground them out with a die grinder, and I’ll fill them with thickened epoxy, paint some barrier coat on them, and hope for the best:
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Use It or Lose It: Keep things working well by using them.

Clark May 3rd, 2018

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I’ve compiled a list of all the things on a sailboat that do not benefit from regular use:

1. The sails
2. The beer

Sails wear out from use and sun damage. The beer runs out. Other than that, everything on your boat benefits from regular use, the corollary of which is that everything is damaged by lack of use. In the boatyard this is the tragedy we see every day.

Some examples:

1. Seacocks: Open and close them every few months or they’ll freeze up. Why stop there? Every valve on the whole boat, be it fresh water, sea water, or fuel, will benefit from being worked regularly.

2. The engine: run it hard every few weeks, enough to get it up to operating temperature. Much has been written on this subject, but it’s worse to run it a short time than to not run it at all. If you can’t take the boat out, make sure the dock lines are secure and you’re not going to go motoring away with your dock, then put her in gear and let her strain against the lines…for a good 20 minutes, at least. Running the engine keeps all the innards lubricated and corrosion free, and cooks moisture out of the oil. It also keeps oil seals in good working order. See number 3.

3. Oil seals: this is near and dear to my heart, because I am currently rebuilding my windlass, for the second time in 5 years, because the oil seals are shot. Since I’m a landlubber now, I’ve hardly used the windlass, and it went to pot.

An oil seal:
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Here’s how it works: On any machinery with an oil bath, such as a windlass, an engine crank case, a transmission, a mechanical steering linkage, powered cockpit winches, etc. there are oil seals, usually made out of Nitrile rubber, or some other synthetic material. A thin lip seal encircles a rotating shaft, making secure contact, sometimes with the aid of a circular spring.

In normal use this lip seal, with a little of the oil from the oil bath, rubs on the shaft as it rotates, keeping the oil in and outside contaminants out. Since the shaft is metal it corrodes over the years, but the gentle action of the lip seal rubs away the light corrosion as it forms, sending the corrosion into suspension in the oil bath. A self-polishing seal, if you will.

If you don’t use the device, this corrosion will not be polished off or carried away: It will corrode to the point that the seal won’t seat well, and the seal itself might then be damaged by the now rough surface. Then the oil or transmission fluid leaks out. The solution is very simple: Just use the device and rotate the shaft, and thus clean the seal.

Lip seals are amazingly durable if you treat them right: A transmission output seal can last twenty years or more, which isn’t bad for a relatively simple piece of rubber.

On my windlass, the shaft was so badly damaged from corrosion that I (actually my friend Peter, but I learned a lot and can do the other two) had to turn the shaft down on a lathe, then make a bronze sleeve (which is very smooth) to go over it. Now the lip seal mates with the smooth bronze sleeve, instead of the corroded steel shaft underneath:
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4. Macerator pumps: It should come as no surprise that a pump left to soak in sea water and raw sewage for a few months might have some issues. Indeed, a macerator pump will freeze after just a few months sitting idle. Run them for a few seconds from time to time and they’ll last for years.

5. Pressure Fresh Water pump: Same as the macerator pump, with the addition of a pressure switch, which is also prone to freezing in place if it isn’t worked.

6. Switches: Even in a sealed switch some sort of corrosion or gunk can form on the contacts, and this is how most switches end their lives. Sometimes it’s from carbon buildup from overuse, but more often they’re fouled from under-use. Turn things on and off from time to time.

Let’s cut to the chase here: Everything should be used and worked. Blocks, winches, sail tracks, power trains, electrical parts, windlasses, rudders, watermakers, generators, autopilots…everything. Their parts get dirty, corroded, or stuck. O-rings, seals, and impellers get compressed and distorted from sitting in one position for months or years, then don’t bounce back. Working things from time to time keeps them moving freely.

It’s 406 EPIRB Day!

Clark April 6th, 2018

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After my post about EPIRB registration I got a very nice note from NOAA announcing that it’s #406DAY18 (that’s the Twitter moniker).

I had no idea, but it turns out false alarms are an epidemic:

“Last year we had over 5,000 false alerts from EPIRBs in the United States. The majority of those were from people conducting self tests of their beacons incorrectly. Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel begin responding immediately to every activation of a 406 MHz SARSAT beacon. That response will only stop when it has been proven that the activation was a false alert. The simplest and quickest way for SAR forces to confirm a false alert and confirm that someone is not in distress is to talk via phone to the person who accidentally set off the EPIRB. They do this using the information provided by the beacon owner in the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database system.”

Needless to say, if the primary phone number connected to your EPIRB is accurate, false alerts can be resolved quickly. If the number rings to your part time job from last summer at the pork packing plant, confusion and waste of taxpayer money ensues.

This amazing, space age technology provides us with a terrific, efficient, and FREE service that could save our lives. Let’s not screw it up, people!

Read on:

“Beacon registration is free, easy, and is required by law! Federal law requires that all emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), personal locator beacons (PLBs), and emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) be registered in the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database. This system is free to all owners of EPIRBs, PLBs and ELTs. When beacon user/vessel or aircraft owner information changes, it should be updated online at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov or by contacting the NOAA SARSAT Beacon Registration Database at 1-888-212-SAVE (7283). This information is protected and only available to authorized rescue personnel if a distress activation occurs.

Beacon registration is valid for two years; owners are required to validate their beacon information every two years to ensure currency of their contact information. Up-to-date beacon owner information allows for the most efficient use of SAR resources upon beacon activation and can decrease rescue response time during distress situations.

If your EPIRB or PLB is accidentally activated, contact the U.S. Coast Guard at 1-855-406-USCG (8724) and provide them with the beacon’s ID to cancel the false alert. If your ELT or PLB is accidentally activated, contact the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at 1-800-851-3051 and provide them with the beacon’s ID to cancel the false alert. Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel begin responding immediately to every activation of a 406 MHz SARSAT beacon. That response will only stop if it has been proven that the activation was not a distress alert. Every false alert has the potential to put rescuers in harm’s way and waste limited Search and Rescue resources. Cancellation of false alerts helps protect SAR personnel who would be activated during an actual emergency, and ensure valuable resources are available to respond to actual distress cases.”

Good Government in Action: EPIRB Registration

Clark March 29th, 2018

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I recently received an email from NOAA, asking me to update my EPIRB registration, as it was expiring after two years. I clicked a link, where I was quickly taken to a website (www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov) to review all my personal data and emergency contacts. It hadn’t changed, so I clicked approval, and a week later received an updated sticker in the mail. For Luddites, the process could all be done on paper, on the back of the form that came in the mail.

There are many stories about EPIRBs being linked to inaccurate or outdated information, causing massive confusion and expense in rescue operations, so it serves everybody’s interests to keep this information up to date.

People are lazy – I know I am – so it helps when a process like this is quick, easy, and FREE. Kudos to NOAA for making it this way!

How to Throw Away a Boat

Clark March 14th, 2018

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Now that I’ve been overseeing a boatyard for ten months, I’ve run into the problematic issue of throwing boats away. Boats sink, catch fire, are abandoned, get too far behind on maintenance and repairs, and boats just get old. In these situations, the economically sensible thing to do is dispose of the boat.

Unlike the old days, intentionally scuttling a boat offshore now comes with heavy fines and maybe some jail time.

The cost of throwing away a boat varies widely. Some municipalities have programs for disposing of a boat for free (to the owner, not the taxpayer), but it generally costs $5,000-$10,000 to throw away a fiberglass 40-footer.

It costs this much because all hazardous materials must be removed before disposal. This means every last drop of fuel must be cleaned from the tanks (or tanks removed), every drop of oil from the crankcase (or engine removed), every drop of sewage from the holding tank, batteries removed and disposed of elsewhere, hydraulic fluid drained from steering systems, oil drained from windlass and gear works with oil baths, refrigerant removed and contained, etc.

If you can do all this yourself, then you’re just looking at transportation and disposal fees. Paying someone else to remove all the hazardous stuff and transport it gets expensive. You’d think there would be plenty of value in salvaging parts, but usually the only thing worth salvaging is a lead keel, as lead can fetch up to 75 cents a pound.

Once the boat is free of hazardous substances there are several avenues to disposal: Large men with chainsaws and demolition saws can reduce the boat to manageable chunks that can be thrown in a dumpster, then hauled away to the landfill. Or, the boat can be trailered whole to the landfill, where they will run it over with a landfill compactor. After a few passes it’s unrecognizable as a boat:
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This is sad to watch, because even if it was a piece of crap before demolition, it was somebody’s baby once.

There are several promising technologies for recycling fiberglass, but none ready for the mainstream. At $35 to $50 per ton, disposal in a landfill is almost always the cheapest option.

All that composite material will then sit in a landfill forever, or at least, shall we say, hundreds of years. Wooden boats will eventually return to the earth. It seems to take about 100 years for a wooden boat to rot away to nothing in a temperate climate; much less time in the tropics. Steel boats will rust away in about the same amount of time. I don’t know the disintegration time for an aluminum boat, but for a composite (fiberglass) boat, it’s going to be taking up space and being ugly long after we are all forgotten.

With this in mind, owning a fiberglass boat isn’t just this year’s maintenance or next year’s haul-out. It’s the eternal plan for several hundred gallons of polyester resin. And, not to mention any names, but there are certain manufacturers turning out thousands of fiberglass boats every year, and these boats will have a lifespan of 20-30 years, after which they’re not worth maintaining.

It sort of like getting a puppy: If you’re the kind of person who is going to tire of it after the puppy stage, then you shouldn’t get a dog. If you’re going to buy a boat that needs work, not do the work, and then hope to sell or dispose of said boat in worse condition than you bought it, then you, or the sucker you sell the boat to for $1, will be headed for the landfill.

The Epoxy Allergy and How to Avoid It

Clark March 6th, 2018

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The Epoxy Allergy, more specifically allergic dermatitis, is the curse of the marine industry: The few who develop it are marked for life, never to come near epoxy again. The rest of us can go on working with these wonderful products with impunity. The key concept is that the allergy is developed over time. One is not born with it, as with many other allergies.

In New Zealand, during a 100-day blister and bottom job, my friend Ian developed the allergy as we went. We worked away, day after day, filling ground-out blisters with epoxy and fiberglass mat, rolling out the bubbles with ridged metal rollers. The boat being above us, much epoxy dripped down on us. One day Ian felt sick and had some swelling. We wrote it off to a cold or flu. Then a week later a big gob of thickened epoxy fell on his cheek. We cleaned it off (I think with acetone…eh gads) and within a few hours he looked like the Elephant Man, with one eye completely swollen shut for a week. Ian had to stand 100 yards away for the rest of the project if we were working with epoxy, and can’t go anywhere near the stuff for the rest of his life.

It turns out that cleaning it off with acetone was the worst thing we could have done. This puts the epoxy mixture in suspension in a solvent that is easily absorbed into the skin. If you get epoxy on your bare skin, just wash it with soap and water. Vinegar is also supposed to be good. Letting it dry and peeling it off later is preferable to using solvent.

Some people can develop the allergy after just a few contacts, but for most it takes months or years of exposure.

A few tips for working with epoxy:

1. Wear vinyl gloves (not latex)…always!
2. Wear a protective suit, or at least long sleeves, and tuck your sleeves into your gloves. No matter how careful you plan to be, you’ll somehow get it on your wrists or arms, even if you’re wearing gloves.
3. Never clean epoxy from your skin with solvent.
4. The thinner the epoxy, the worse it is for causing the allergy. Just as cleaning it with acetone puts it into an easily-absorbed suspension, epoxy-based paints, thinned epoxy, and penetrating epoxy are more easily-absorbed into the skin.
5. It’s the hardener, not the epoxy. The allergens for most people are in the hardeners (part B), not the epoxy base (part A). You’ll seldom have one without the other, but something to keep in mind.
6. Epoxy is generally considered safe to use without a respirator in a well-ventilated area. If you’re going to be in an enclosed area, wear a respirator, as the concentrated vapors can cause irritation to the respiratory tract and eyelids (and hasten your road to developing the allergy).
7. Epoxy dust, from sanding, can be especially insidious. We often refer to epoxy being “green,” as in dried, but not completely cured. Full curing can take as long as a week, and during this time the epoxy dust still contains some of the same volatile compounds as wet epoxy. If you must sand green epoxy, wear a respirator and eye protection.

Epoxy products are ubiquitous in the boating world, and they should be. They’re strong, versatile, easy to work with, resistant to chemicals, and create a barrier to moisture. Take a few very basic precautions, don’t ever clean it off with solvent, and you’ll have a lifetime of ahead of you in the wonderful world of epoxy. Blow it, develop the allergy, and you are forever banished!

Trailer Out for Donald Crowhurst Biopic, The Mercy

Clark November 29th, 2017

I’m still in.

I’ve been long awaiting this film’s release, here and here, and now it looks like it is being rolled out:

“THE MERCY has a running time of c2 hours. It will be released in Portugal on November 23rd, in the Netherlands on December 14th, in Australia on February 8th, in the UK on February 9th, in Poland on March 2nd, in France on March 7th, in New Zealand on March 8th and in Germany on March 29th.”

United States? Hello? What are we, chopped liver? It says elsewhere it’s coming out in 2017, but there ain’t much of 2017 left.

One critic has reviewed it here and gives it a mostly positive review, especially Colin Firth’s performance.

Still, will it appeal to sailors, or will the sailing bits make us shake our heads in disgust, as with just about every other movie about sailing? The trailer does indulge a bit in the dreaded man clinging to top of mast in middle of storm for no good reason trope. And some way too big waves, probably a model filmed in a tank.

But I’m still in…if it’s ever released in the US.

Lightning and Sailboats

Clark November 22nd, 2017

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You can read many authoritative treatises about boats and lightning, and they’re all full of crap. There is only one thing we know for sure about lightning: It is unpredictable.

An acquaintance recently introduced me to a fellow sailor, saying, “You got run over by a container ship. He got struck by lightning.”

I reflexively asked, “Did it zap all your electronics?”

“No, it blew a 2 x 3 foot hole out the side of the boat and she sank in twenty seconds.”

He was sailing solo in the vicinity of Drakes Bay, Costa Rica, also very close to Isla del Caño, one of the most lightning-struck places on earth. His boat was a cold molded 60-footer, with a nearly 100-foot aluminum mast. Being a conscientious guy, he did what the books say and connected the base of his aluminum mast to his external lead keel with some large gauge cable.

Did the lightning do what the books say and politely conduct itself down the mast, through the cable, and out the keel? Nay, it jumped from the base of the mast to a monel water tank that was 2 x 3 feet in cross-section.

He heard a kerblong, the noise the water tank makes when it’s full, as the lightning struck. When he went down the companionway to investigate the water was already four feet deep, and his bilge was four feet deep, meaning the water was actually eight feet deep. He grabbed his ditch bag, then went for the life raft, which was in the forepeak, but the water was already so high that it triggered the hydrostatic release on the life raft, inflating it, and wedging it hopelessly in the forepeak. If there is a lesson to be learned from his story, it is to keep life rafts with hydrostatic releases on deck.

In the end he escaped with his ditch bag, some water, the clothes on his back, and his surfboard, which he paddled through the night, and into the next day, before reaching shore. Among the wreckage was a piece of 2 x 3 foot cold molded wood, confirming the whole lightning blew the monel water tank out the side of the boat hypothesis. (I might hypothesize a bit more, that the lightning violently boiled the water in the tank, and the resulting steam blew the tank apart?) A day or two of walking and paddling down the shoreline, a remote vacation house, a chicken bus to the nearest town, a few phone calls, and he was soon on a plane back to the US. The boat wasn’t insured.

His is the worst sailboat-lightning story I’ve ever heard, but I’m sure there are some that are never told.

While I was in Costa Rica I knew eleven boats that got struck, ranging from minor damage to total destruction of all things electrical and electronic.

Once I watched as lightning struck the boat anchored right next to me. It vaporized the tri-color light on the top of the mast, traveled down one of the outer stays, and jumped from the stay to the lifeline. Where it jumped from the stay it left a puddle, as they say in welding parlance, a puddle just big enough to take out two of the wires in the 1 x 19 wire rope. My dad flew down a week or two later, and brought them their new tricolor and enough wire rope to replace the stay. They were lucky, but I was even luckier, because I was just a hundred feet away and didn’t get hit.

It looked something like this:

On another boat the strike found its way to the anchor chain and didn’t do any apparent damage, but the lightning strike electropolished the anchor chain and anchor to a mirror finish. I could see my reflection in the fluke of the anchor, which was galvanized but looked like shiny stainless.

On the boat that had a total loss of all things electronic and electrical they just did a quick and dirty replacement of the engine battery, starter, and alternator, then bought a handheld GPS and VHF to get them across the Pacific. Total electrical replacement took place later in New Zealand.

At that point I’d had the bejesus scared out of me by lightning, read the books, connected my aluminum mast to my external lead keel with some large gauge cable, and got one of the bottle brush static dissipators for the top of the mast. The so-called lightning experts often scoff at these dissipators (”You can’t dissipate all the ions in the whole ocean off the top of your mast!”) but none of the eleven boats struck had dissipators, and none of the boats with dissipators were ever struck. Coincidence? Maybe-probably.
dissipator

After my mad scramble to “lightning-proof” my boat, I never saw lightning like in Central America again. I was in the break of the monsoon in Southeast Asia, spent months in Southern India, a whole circumnavigation with lots of lighning, but nothing ever compared to Central America where, well, eleven boats got struck that I knew. There were probably many more I never heard about, meaning it’s a significant danger down there.

So what shall we do? Everyone agrees that connecting the mast to the keel is a good idea, or somehow otherwise providing a low resistance path for lightning to get from your mast to the sea. And this lightning ground should be connected to the bonding system, so that the charge can be conducted, rather than jump, to various thru-hulls, and hull appurtenances.

A common misconception is that lightning, and electricity in general, will take the path of least resistance. Wrong. Electricity will TAKE ALL AVAILABLE PATHS. This is a good thing to keep in mind with grounding systems and all manner of wiring aboard. So even if we provide lightning with a low resistance path to ground, will it take it? Maybe. Will it take it, and also take other routes? Probably, and we’re talking about lightning here, a phenomenon not generally described in harmless or insignificant quantities.

I was going to close with a flippant remark about the “cone of protection,” the 45-degree zone below your mast, which you always read about in discussions about boats and lightning. I was going to suggest that during an electrical storm you stand in the cone with a golf club over your head while I cower in the quarter berth, but the National Lightning Safety Institute beats me to the punch with their dispelling of the Cone of Protection Myth.
Cone-of-Protection2

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