Archive for the ‘seaworthiness’ Category

How to spend your money

7 November 2009

You would think that parting with money is one subject that few of us need any help with. Fitting out a cruising yacht can be a very expensive undertaking. In the bright lights of the chandlery, many shiny things can seem very attractive. You need some ways to classify your needs to help you separate the vital from the important, the essential from the necessary.

I wrote some time ago that, “A boat is not like a car, which comes from the manufacturer ready to use and fairly well complete. While a yacht may be sailed out of her manufacturers slip, she needs an lot of other fittings and work to be done before she becomes a long-distance cruiser and a home for her crew.”[1]

Safety of life

The highest priority purchases are those concerned with maintaining and possibly saving the lives of yourself, your loved ones and crew and possibly other people you may come across in your travels. No expense should be spared in this area and no compromises made.

Keeping the boat afloat is top priority, and involved in this is every single fitting that could fail and by so doing sink the boat. This includes the hatches, the lockers, the windows, the seacocks, the exhaust fittings, the prop shaft and its glands, the toilet etc. You may separate the ‘safety of life’ aspects of these things (like the doubled hose clamps on every toilet pipe) from the mundane (like the finish on the toilet seat), but safety of life items should be perfect in every way with no room for improvement. For me this included through-bolting the cabin window fittings rather than relying on self-tapping screws. Are the catches and hinges on the cockpit lockers up to ‘safety of life’ engineering standards? They need to be, as nothing will sink a boat much quicker than an open cockpit locker in a full gale while everybody is below decks feeling ill and perhaps injured, with the hatchboards bolted in place obscuring the view.

Then comes the question, if the boat is sinking, what next? I have a French kit that includes rubber gloves and some two-part underwater expanding foam that you’re meant to stuff into a major hull rupture. I have no idea if that would do any good, but there are some more sensible things to have. At least two manual bilge pumps, one operated from below decks and one from above is a wise suggestion. I added a large, high power electric pump too, but it would only fit alongside the engine so has never been wet for testing yet. Being able to re-use below-decks locker covers as nail-on replacements for broken windows probably only applies to wooden boats, but is worth a thought. Another on the same lines is having some long pieces of wood on board that can be used to brace back outwards a section of caved-in GRP below the waterline: Dinghy oars? Boat hook? etc. Of course, you know about rigging a sail under water against the hull from the outside to reduce leakage from such a dosh, don’t you?

So far, expenditure on keeping the boat afloat has been minimal, but I want to stress the importance of looking again at everyday things like hinges, toilets and exhaust pipes and maintaining, or ‘engineering’ them to the highest possible safety standards before spending money on nice-to-haves.

Clearly there are some things to buy for safety’s sake. A liferaft with excellent, accessible mountings is right up there, alongside a large and interesting first aid kit. We had three of those attache-case sized plastic boxes stuffed full by the time we left, with every advice taken from doctors, medical friends, books and magazines. Apart from normal everyday usage, we brought most of it back unused, thank goodness. One case-full remains on board for shorter local trips and still remains mostly pristine. On the back of the boat are the ‘yellow goods’: one or two horseshoe buoys with attached drogue, whistle, light and possible dan-buoy. We had a towable life-ring with floating rope and a weighted, throwable bag of floating line too. All of these things should be marked with the boat name; the horseshoe buoy is a good place to display the name where marina officials can actually see it to help them spell it correctly. The thought has sometimes crossed my mind as to the use of these things to a singlehanded sailor. It is true that once I am overboard, there will be no one left to throw anything to me. On the other hand, a singlehander is as likely as anyone else to be first on the scene when someone else is in the water, whether this is as a result of answering a mayday call or of following another boat into harbour.

Electronics saves lives too, especially VHF radios on channel 16 (carry a spare handheld and take it with you on dinghy trips ashore) and the satellite EPIRB. Make sure the EPIRB is properly registered, in-date and tested. Mount is sensibly in the cockpit and consider the extra expense of a mount that deploys automatically after the boat has sunk in case you forget it. Never put to sea, further than across the bay without it assembled, in its mount, and ready to deploy.

Jackstays, harness points, lifejackets with harness and crotch straps and tethers are all part of an essential system to keep everybody safely attached if they do go over the side. These, like the liferails around the boat, must all be full-strength, no-nonsense fittings, preferably bolted through backing plates behind the fixing points.

Apart from the things that could save your life, what about the things that might try to kill you? Rusalka Mist has oversized standing rigging on a short mast that we know has survived hitting the water in at least one knock down. You must decide what makes you believe that your mast won’t come down in a Force 8 – 10, as you cannot tell what may hit if you put to sea for days or weeks on end. If it does come down, you will need some wire cutters designed for stainless steel rigging to cut it free before it knocks a hole in the side of the boat. Remember, none of this will happen in a calm sea when you feel your best.

Fire on board is a very serious issue. What can catch fire? The cooker, the gas locker, the engine, the fuel tank. If you’re going to smoke in bed or light candles or oil lamps, the list just got longer. Over-equip yourself with fire extinguishers at all ends of the boat, including at least one automatic one in the engine space. Fit a gas alarm. Maybe a carbon monoxide alarm too. Oh, and a smoke alarm.

Electrics cause fires and also drive everyone nuts when they stop working at the crucial moment. There are two cures to these two problems: first do not connect anything to the electrics without a proper circuit breaker and the correct gauge wire, properly installed where it won’t chafe. Second, apply silicone grease to each wire in every electrical connection you make, from the masthead light to the chart light, from the anchor windlass to the starter motor. Grease is an electrical insulator, but you will tighten the connection hard enough that all the grease will be squeezed out from the metal-to-metal contact points, but then those points will be encapsulated in pure grease to keep the moisture, salt and humidity away from them for decades afloat.


When I was buying equipment for our long-distance travels, the process at times became like an interlocking 3-D jigsaw. First, everything important should have a backup, so the windvane steering does the same job as the electronic self steering and the old tiller pilot can replace the new one if needs be. But also, if possible, things should be dual purpose if it can be arranged, so the covers for the cave lockers behind the two main bunks double as bed-boards for the ‘centre bunk’ that makes those two into a double.[2] Extra safety-rails around the cockpit become mounting points for the solar panels.[3] The spare anchor rode with 60 m of nylon line also doubles as a potential towrope for the storm drogue. The rollers on the stern will reduce chafe when towing a drogue as well as when lying to dock ropes in a marina berth.

Very often, the backup option also involves more input from you, the human. If the electronic chart plotter fails, you will have to plot the positions on the paper chart. If the horn fails, you will have to blow into the manual fog-horn. Just make sure you also have the pencils, rulers, fog-horns, matches, sextant or whatever it takes to take over if important equipment fails.

There is one last class of equipment that stands outside of this – gear that does something you could not do if you didn’t have it. Nothing can see through fog like radar, for example. It used to be that nothing could pick up weather forecasts or allow you to speak half way across an ocean like HF radios (aka shortwave, SSB or worldband), but now there is satellite communication too. With these things you have to decide, if you need that, buy one, if you don’t then live without it. You can’t improvise one, or make something else double for one in an emergency. If you didn’t buy one, do without.

Life as we know it

Finally we get down to living aboard. This, don’t forget, is the whole point of cruising, but there is no point in having every comfort laid on for when you reach harbour, if you don’t get there in one piece. That said, we had all kinds of nice things on board from a television to nail files, from solar showers to a 12 V coolbox.

Life aboard in cold climates is made much more comfortable by Tilley lamps. They burn pressurised paraffin and provide plenty of heat as well as light on cold dark evenings. High-latitude summers have enough daylight for our two solar panels to power all our toys, day and night, under way and in port. Tropical days are much shorter, and the nights correspondingly longer, so that we were running out of electrical power when underway. The backup, of course, was to start the engine to provide charge, but I felt a lot happier after we bought the towed generator to provide extra charge at sea. I don’t have a wind powered generator aboard as, to me, they look very likely to turn into another ‘thing that is trying to kill you’ in a rising gale. They can also be noisy and transmit vibrations throughout the hull, so personally, I’d rather find room for more solar panels than fit one at the moment.

In addition, there is room aboard for hobbies. This, for us, includes books, cooking equipment, a laptop computer and, for me, tools. Really, I wonder if you’re really suited to the cruising life if your hobbies do not include making and mending things. I know people who cruise with a steady stream of local workmen coming aboard to fix and fit things. To me, doing those things myself is part of the joy. On the other hand, it is important to know your limitations: I am not a diesel engine expert, and sometimes the reliability of that engine is fairly essential, so I have people who have been on training courses and who have easy access to all the right spares parts look after that for me. My partner, Nicky, enjoyed sketching, pastels, water colours and even got into cross-stitching while we were away. Some people have a sewing machine on board and even make a bit of money from it. We found that skill-bartering worked well for us: my electronic skills helped me fix someone’s self-steering and their underwater dexterity meant that they could scrape our weedy bottom clean in half a day.


How to buy a boat

4 November 2009

The first step to a cruising life is to choose and buy your boat. Or maybe build it, but even if you’re planning to do that, you have to choose the design first too. Many sailors already have a boat, and so the advice for them is to look at it afresh and decide if it really is the one for you, and your companions, and for the lifestyle you have in mind.

The two main differences between local day sailing or day racing, and cruising is that you  spend many more hours on board, both sailing and anchored or tied up, and you may end up sailing in weather or sea conditions that you did not specifically choose.

Starting with the hull, the most important thing is that it is a seaworthy shape. Seaworthy is not the same as fast.

Plan form

If you look down on a yacht and it looks like the front half of a much bigger boat, then what you have may well be fast, it may even plane in a calm sea with a huge spinnaker up. The trouble is that when it heels, it will tilt bow-down. It will be a real handful in a blow, needing a skilled and alert hand on the helm. That wide aft-section has a huge buoyancy and when following seas come up under it, it will be picked up and swept to the side, again needing quick, agile and accurate actions from the helm to prevent broaching.

When you look down on a sea-kindly yacht it looks like a boat, tapering in nicely at both ends with the widest beam around midships.

It should not be too beamy either. I have seen a diagram that shows a normal ocean swell passing under three different boats from the on the beam. One is an old-fashioned design called a lead-mine, which was very narrow with a heavy lead keel very deep below (hence the name). Due to the circulation of water within every wave, this design actually leaned into the oncoming wave as it approached and then tilted its mast after it as it departed. A flat-bottomed racing, planing design sits flat on the water and is tilted in the opposite way by the approaching water bulge – away from the approaching wave, then away from it the other way as it departs. The third boat, nicely proportioned in a classical, boaty kind of way, just goes up and down vertically without leaning either way.

Now, real waves are not the exact right size or shape for any boat and if there is such a beam wave that does not make Rusalka roll at all, there are enough of them that do that I’ve never noticed one in a rough sea. None the less, I’m sure there is some truth in that diagram, and that beamy boats  feel much worse when wallowing in a big sea.

‘Wallowing in a big sea’, you say? Well, don’t sit there wallowing, get some sail up and get moving! When she’s planing along with a white wake behind, you won’t be wallowing, you’ll be skimming over the top of it all as she was designed to do. Well that’s thinking like a racer again. What about when there’s no wind for three days, just a big swell on the beam? What about when you’re cooking and eating, or when you and your partner are both tired and no one  wants to hand-steer? What about if one of you has just fallen down the companionway, or burnt your hand while cooking and first aid is required? When you’re cruising, you can’t just retire and head back to the clubhouse when something goes wrong, or radio the safety boat to come and take a crew member off. You need a boat that will look after itself and all on board all the time, no matter what happens. You need a seaworthy boat, and that’s one that’s boat-shaped.


There is no doubt that the best lift to drag ratios come from high aspect ratio foils. That means that a long, narrow wing is more efficient on an aircraft and that a deep, narrow keel and a similar rudder are more efficient underneath a racing yacht. This underwater layout is also very handy in a crowded marina – the boat will be instantly responsive to the helm and you will be able to turn sharply into any tucked-away berth. This design also goes with the beamy, bummy plan form described above. When she gets twitchy in a blow with the unbalanced hull causing you to veer off course with every wave or gust, then the highly efficient steering will allow the highly alert helmsman instantly to correct every twitch and veer.

Yeah.  Well you can see where this is going, can’t you?  What about when the helm is exhausted, or when the self-steering is not at its best? Do you just accept broaches and rounding up as par for the course? Of course not. You need a boat that has inherent directional stability. Stability is an interesting subject. A coin on a table is ‘stable’ no matter whether is sitting on its side or balanced on its edge, but it is much more stable lying on it’s side. Fighter jets with anhedralled wings (sloping down as they leave the fuselage) are inherently so unstable that a human cannot fly them straight and level without the aid of the fly-by-wire computer. On the other hand they can twist and turn in flight so sharply that they hope to out-manoeuver any adversary.

A long-keeled yacht has a large tendency to want to keep going in the same direction, for the same reasons as the flights on the back of a dart or an arrow keep it predictable in flight. This can be a nuisance in a crowded marina, but can be a life-saver in a storm with exhausted or injured crew, with no one on deck for hours at a time, in a big following sea, under electronic or windvane self steering, etc, etc. In short, when cruising.

Having the aft end of the long keel attached to the bottom of the rudder not only makes the rudder much stronger, but also helps keep ropes and other debris out of the propeller, and stops floating things getting between the keel and the rudder to ruin your day that way too.

Berths and accommodation

The first thing you’ll lose without that big back-end is the stately aft cabin. It’s useful when all your family or friends want to come and stay in a marina, but it’s no use at sea and quickly becomes a junk storage area when living aboard for any time. When people came to visit us in distant places we booked them in a local hotel and took them for day sails around the bay. Sea berths are easy to get in and out of, are narrow and they have lee cloths or lee boards to keep you in place whatever the boat does. Double bunks are nice in harbour. Design a liveaboard boat for the people who are going to live aboard, under way and at rest. Liveaboard yachts are not holiday clubs or floating hotels – booking a hotel room ashore helps the local economy and gives both you and your guests space to relax and enjoy the visit.

Big, open spaces in a boat at sea are dangerous spaces. The narrower the walkway, the less far there is to fall. Falling into a something a foot away hurts, falling against something that is two or three meters away can easily break a bone, and a broken bone 800 miles from land can be a serious problem.

Other considerations

Apart from the main items discussed above, most of the rest a boat can be altered and adapted if they’re not quite right already. It’s worth thinking about a few points, though. If too much needs altering or adapting, it may alter the price you would like to pay for a given boat.

You’re going to want a big anchor, lots of heavy chain (or nylon rode) and a windlass to pull it all up with. Make sure that if these are not fitted already, there’s plenty of room for them, and not too fiddly to access and operate.
Guard rails
Nowhere is it written in stone that a yacht must have wire guard rails, but a power boat can have welded steel rails. I had a local stainless steel fabricator weld two 1″ tubes coming up off the top of the pushpit curving along beside the cockpit another 9 inches above the top wire and then curving down to replace the first stanchion, just ahead of the cockpit. These make the whole cockpit much more safe and secure, give me something to hold when standing staring out to sea, and gave me a place to mount a couple of solar panels, like solid dodgers.
The cooker must be on gimbals, so that it can be used at sea. There must be a bolt to stop it swinging around, for example when opening oven door, in port.
Windows and hatches
There is a story of one of the early ocean yachtsmen taking a hammer to the boatyard and smashing all the windows in his newly built yacht to prove to the builders that they weren’t strong enough. That’s probably over the top, but there is also a story here in Jersey of a powerboat coming back from France getting caught in overfalls where the tidal flow, the wind and the uneven seabed combine to cause large standing waves. It had the whole cabin top ripped off and sank in no time, losing all on board. I have seen yachts with very silly patio doors or french windows that didn’t look like they would stand the first boarding sea. Think in terms of wheelbarrow-fulls of water travelling at flying-through-the-air speeds. It certainly sounds like a hammer-blow when you are below.
Also think about securable hatch covers on the companionway and on all internal and cockpit lockers. You must not lose a companionway board in a storm and you do not want your woodwork tools all over the place inside after the first knockdown. I knew someone who cut 10-inch round holes on their cockpit coamings to fit big, weatherproof loudspeakers out there for the stereo. I don’t think those speaker cones are wheelbarrow-proof, and once ripped away, those 10-inch holes will sink the boat in a few hours. I hope he’s still OK.
You do not need a fridge on a boat. If you have one, providing it with power will come to dominate your life. Poor people living in hot countries – and that is a very large proportion of the whole human population – do not have fridges. Learn to shop and eat like they do. In the Caribbean we ended up going ashore about every other day. When ashore we treated ourselves to visits to cafes and bars. When shopping we had to discipline ourselves only to buy enough for the rest of today and for tomorrow. Anything fresh would be going off after that. We are used to milk in tea, but we soon got introduced to the joys of a kind of chai – tea bags, cinnamon bark and sugar all in a teapot and left to stew. Most meat we ate was in local eateries; afloat we made vegetable curries, lentil stews, ate fruit, and enjoyed the odd slices of ham or local cheese. It really wasn’t a hardship by any means. We have a fridge, but switching it on is a luxury, not a routine necessity.

In the end…

All of the above is not to say that perfectly successful long-distance cruises can’t take place in fast boats, or that people cannot live aboard boats with no guard rails or with huge aft cabins. These are just thoughts about the kind of things that may not be obvious, but that individually or collectively may make life a little more comfortable or a little safer in some circumstances.