Nearly Thoughtless Thursday: A Movie for Cruisers

What movie released in the past twenty-five years would you imagine tops the list of perennial cruiser favorites?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s not The Perfect Storm. And it’s certainly not All Is Lost.

No, cruisers are a more lighthearted and optimistic bunch than that.

And after a few years of employing the scientific method known as “paying attention when other people are talking,” I have made the somewhat preliminary–some might say prematurte–determination that this honor belongs to 1992’s Captain Ron.

I’ve seen it twice now, and I almost get it.

Landlubbers, please note this movie should not be confused with a training video.

Sailors, what do you think? Has any movie character on land or sea worked his or her way farther into your hearts than Kurt Russell’s Captain Ron?

Polluting the water: Diesel spill

To memorialize the past week we’ve spent here in Cambridge trying to track down the fuel line problem that keeps killing our engine whever we try to leave, today’s post consists of a witness report filed yesterday with the United States Coast Guard regarding the incident that capped it off.


Nothing funny here. . .

I own a documented 1990 Pacific Seacraft 34, official number [number redacted], named Meander. We filed paperwork a few weeks ago to change her hailing port from Fairport, VA to Cambridge, MD, but have not received a new certificate yet.

On Monday, October 26, 2015, I was doing engine work on Meander in slip G-1 in the southwest corner of the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin off the Choptank River. Intending to test our fuel line for leaks by pressurizing the fuel tank through its vent port, I disconnected the tank’s vent line from the port.

. . . unless stupidity is funny. . .

However, in a moment of distraction, I connected the pressurizing equipment, a hose from the exhaust port of a ShopVac, not to the tank’s vent port but rather to the interior end of the tank’s vent line.

. . . but it isn’t.

When I turned the vacuum on, residual diesel fuel in the vent line blew out its exterior end. On my boat, the vent line’s exterior port is located below the companionway and over the cockpit. By the time I realized that I had set the job up wrong, the residual fuel had already collected in the cockpit’s gutters, and some unknown quantity entered the waterway through its drains.

[Editor’s note: Just one cup of an oily product dropped into a body of water is enough to create a slick the size of an American football field. ]

This happened between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM, and checking overboard, I did not see any slicks forming on the water surface. So I left the boat to run some errands. When I returned after 5:00 PM, however, I observed that a slick had formed around my boat and had migrated down the south wall of the marina into the next two slips. I then notified first the Coast Guard, and then Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

At the suggestion of the latter, I also called the Cambridge Rescue Fire Department, who responded sometime around or after 6:00 PM. While I took a follow-up phone call from USCG Petty Officer [name redacted] in the cabin of the boat, the fire department apparently deployed oil-absorbent socks.

After Officer [name redacted] and I finished up, I went above to talk with the fire department’s incident commander. I didn’t get all the details of our conversation, but did hear his suggestion that I call in the morning if it looked as if the spill had spread. The fire department left the site around 7:00 PM.

Just bad enough.

On the following morning, Tuesday, October 27, 2015, it appeared to me that the slick had extended itself along the entire south wall of the marina, so I called the fire department again. The incident commander from the previous evening responded, and we walked the length of the south wall. He concluded that much of what was on the south wall was probably attributable to other boats along it; that the slick attributable to my boat did not appear to have changed; and that there was not enough diesel left in the water to warrant further action.

Officer [name redacted] also followed up with me. At his request, I took the following nineteen (19) photos. The first photo looks east from the marina’s west end; the next seventeen proceed along its south wall from the southwest corner to the southeast corner; and the last photo looks west from the east end.


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I solemnly swear (to sell this @#$% boat)

I have read my statement as documented above (and, if applicable, on continuation pages), and to the best of my knowledge and belief, it is true and correct.

Nearly Thoughtless Thursday: The Most Important Locker

What is the most important storage space in your house? Is it the one with the family photos? The one with the warmer clothes stored up against the onslaught of the coming winter? The one with the decorations for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or such other seasonal celebration as may be dictated by your culture and heritage?

Out here in the frontier of the municipal marina, a place so rough-and-tumble that you have to leave your lodgings to do your laundry, our priorities are dictated by one consideration: survival.

So you might well understand how we prize the locker with the cleaning supplies that keep everything looking ship shape (interesting turn of phrase–I wonder where it came from) and smoothly functioning. Or more critically still, to get us out of a jam when something breaks while underway, the locker full of spare engine parts. Or, when the ship hits the can, the one that holds the emergency flares and the spare life jackets.

And you might conclude, then, that one of these lockers is the most important storage space on a cruising sailboat.

You might conclude that. But you’d be wrong.

On a cruising sailboat, the most important locker is this one.


Any somewhat more accomplished cruisers out there with a somewhat more educated opinion? Please post a comment.

Not So Fast: More Engine Trouble

One week ago, I wrote a post about a starter circuit repair I performed on Meander.

I noted how I was mercifully equipped to do this by the collective wisdom of others who know much more about, oh, everything than I do. And I concluded by expressing the gratefulness I felt at my improbable success, at least “until the next mountain-in-a-molehill arises.”

And so I could hang onto that feeling for a fleeting moment, I prudently avoided getting into the fact that I had already seen the top of that molehill looming on the horizon.

Because even as I put the piece to bed by clicking the “publish” button, I was smelling diesel fumes coming from the galley.


While we were negotiating for Meander three months ago, we had a marine survey done—the boat equivalent of a home inspection. And while our surveyor did disclaim that his services did not extend to a thorough inspection of every component of the engine, he was yet conscientious enough to point out those irregularities that were clearly observable by anyone who knew what he or she looking at.

And one of the irregularities the surveyor observed was a pronounced wetness around the fuel pump, indicating a leak. And, of course, the smell of diesel.


Primed suspect.

After the survey, we continued our negotiation by requesting that the previous owners correct a select few of the many mostly minor items it had uncovered. And according to Pam, having the leak at the fuel pump fixed is one of the items we requested.

At least, it was one of the items she requested. However, it was me who had been doing the negotiating.

“Well, you did ask the sellers to fix that leak, didn’t you?”

A direct question deserves a direct answer.

“Yes, absolutely, there’s no question that I did. And there’s no question that the sellers gave the fuel pump job to their mechanic. So the only possible explanation is that he didn’t do the job very well, except for the second possible explanation in which they didn’t give the job to him after all, because when I revisited the boat to check the completed work out, I don’t remember them showing me the fuel pump, although they should definitely have done that because I definitely asked for it, and I should have made them show it to me. Or maybe I shouldn’t have, because, now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure I had prepared a list of the items I was supposed to check that day, and I don’t think a fuel pump fix was on the list, so the third possible explanation, I think, is that I might not have, you know, asked for it. I don’t remember now if I did or not. But now that I think of it, even if I did remember not asking, I wouldn’t have to say so anyway, ‘cause I’m an American, darn it, and the Fifth Amendment says I don’t have to testify against myself. So there.”

A direct question doesn’t always get a direct answer.

Moving on from that helpful exchange, we proceeded to investigate the source of the smell yesterday. I pulled off the cover separating the galley from the engine compartment. I reached for the “diaper” placed under the engine to capture nasty dripping petrochemicals before they can escape into U.S. waterways. And when I pulled it out, its nominally white finish was almost completely altered by pink stains.


Pink: a lovely color, really, anywhere except under a diesel engine.

And when I reached up to the fuel pump and the fuel filter, I found each of their bottoms wet, and the hose between them absolutely soaked.

Thanks to that little chat Pam had earlier had with me, at least I knew where to look.

Live to Fight Another Day

In my experience, if you give most do-it-yourselfers a choice between an electrical job and a plumbing job, they will choose the electrical job almost every time.

Makes sense to me. Electrical failures, at their worst, can kill you. But plumbing failures can get your stuff wet.

I reflected on this as I considered the leak in front of me in the light of my recent starter circuit victory. That operation had been like every electrical home repair I had undertaken in two previous houses, requiring nothing more than snipping some wires and attaching them to other wires. (Granted, accomplishing the not-getting-killed part of such operations does require knowing what to snip and what to attach.)

In contrast, this job would require removing fluid-filled hoses. And clamps. And gaskets. And replacing—what? Any of them? All of them?

Add to this the problems I foresaw in confronting an entity as alien to me as anything Sigourney Weaver faced in those movies. The potential to spill another pint of diesel into the bilge, or to leave an air bubble in a fuel line, or to have an invader’s spawn implanted in my body cavity for the duration of a slow and painful gestation period that would ultimately result in my untimely and grisly death—each of these awful possibilities crossed my mind.

And so we opted instead to call a boatyard not far from our marina, and were told that they could see us right away. All we had to do was to cast off from our slip, motor around the corner, arrive in the vicinity of their service dock, and call them from the water so they could come out to catch our lines.

Of course, anyone who read the recent story of our best laid plans to get some anchoring practice in will see where this is going. Once again, we never got out of the marina.

Déjà vu all over again

Witness, if you will, the heroic power of one man facing an electrical modification alone, relying solely on his own tools, his own wits, and detailed step-by-step instructions consecutively given by no fewer than four other people.

OK, so no one is going to be offering me the lead in any Lone Wolf and Cub movies anytime soon. But if a light bulb on the set goes out, perhaps I’ll be on the call list to fix it. Because this time, when we turned Meander’s ignition key and pressed her start button, her starter robustly kicked in once again and coaxed her engine immediately into life.

And so we went about casting off our lines. First, the port bow line. Then, the port stern line. Then, the starboard stern line.

And then, with three lines off, the engine suddenly slowed. And then wheezed. And then died.


Yeah? Well, I hate you, too.

Starboard stern line back on. Port stern line back on. Port bow line back on. And another call to the boatyard, this time to find out if they made house calls.

They did. At 11:00 AM, the yard’s office manager told us their mobile Boat Fixing Person would be over right after lunch. Then at 1:30 PM, the office manager called to say the Boat Fixing Person was delayed on another job, but would be over before the end of the day.

And so we spent the rest of the day hunkered down in our cabin, engine compartment and companionway open, trying to stay warm against dropping afternoon temperatures, waiting for the Boat Fixing Person. Who, ultimately, never showed up.

That other job must have been a doozy.

What happens next?

No harm, no foul; just a little frustration. We’ll call again this morning and lobby the office manager to be moved to the top of the list.

When the Boat Fixing Person arrives, he or she will find the starter operating quite nicely due to my previous electrical triumph, thank you very much. And after listening to our vivid description of yesterday’s failure, he or she will tell us, “Sounds like you ran out of gas.”

Then we’ll show him or her the fuel pump leak we had fixed three months ago. Or had asked to have fixed. Or had forgotten to ask to have fixed.

And we’ll watch and learn as the problem is taken care of and the invoice proffered.

And once again, I’m going to reach for that grateful streak I know I have buried in me somewhere. Since boarding Meander two months ago, we’ve put more than twenty hours and eighty nautical miles on this engine. And these things that might have happened to us on the water–first the starter failure, now the fuel pump leak–keep happening instead in the safety of the slip.

But in the ninety-eight parts per hundred that make up the rest of my temperament, I am filling up instead with dread. Because the conventional wisdom tells us that these things happen in threes.

And I’m not eager to find out what will happen with this hunk of iron next.

Blessedly Uneventful

One week after Meander’s sudden and unexpected refusal to start scuttled our plans to motor out of our marina and practice a little anchoring, and two days after my improbable and undeserved triumph over a glitch in the starter circuit of her engine, my wife Pam and I decided to do with her what she was designed for in the first place, and go sailing.

This might have been, say, the sixth time in seven weeks we’ve done this in our nearly two months on Meander. Since buying her, we spent three weeks in the relative isolation of rural Virginia trying to get her and us ready to go; three days motoring up the Chesapeake Bay under no wind to our home port in the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Basin; half a week sitting under a nor’easter; and much of the rest of our time writing about it all. So it really isn’t remarkable, I guess, how little sailing we’ve done.

And since a combination of family-oriented travel on one hand and unused vacation days on the other made both my father-in-law, Dale, and Pam’s brother in law, Bob, available, we decided to invite them along.

This would be the second time Dale and Bob had been together on a boat under our command. On our first sail, we were in a boat with no head; I developed a sudden and unexpected case of diarrhea; and they spent our last half hour on the water creating purposefully loud but determinedly polite conversational cover in the cockpit while I, shielded from view by a hastily inserted set of companionway boards, made inadvertently loud and thoroughly impolite noises while hovering over a hastily scrounged plastic garbage bag in the cabin below. So it really is entirely remarkable that they accepted.

With this particular company aboard once again, we went to great lengths to create a sailing experience that could be described as blessedly uneventful, and completely devoid of the sudden and unexpected. And we did it. Mostly.

Little bumps and scrapes

Some days, I wonder if we’ll ever get out of a slip cleanly.

I’ve already written up another departure attempt, the last one we made under my command on the day on which the question of who should be Meander’s captain was settled once and for all. Our attempt yesterday was a lot cleaner, primarily, I think, because we chose not to put the boat under motor before ensuring all her lines were cast away properly.

But a truly clean departure from a slip is, for practical purposes, characterized by the boat not making contact with the docks and pilings surrounding it on the way out.

And the details of yesterday’s performance informed us that we still have a way to go yet. After casting off the third of our four lines with an appreciable wind on our starboard side, Pam struggled to get our last line away while I sat stupidly at the helm with the engine idling. In just a matter of seconds, we once again were at rest against the port pilings.

So, on the “down” side, we still need to improve our departure tactics and our timing.

On the “up” side, however, we had Bob on board this time to push us off the pilings when I put us into reverse. It suddenly seemed to make my heartfelt promise not to have another gastric attack worth the risk of failing to keep it. Good job, Bob.

Big bumps and scrapes

Once away from the marina, we raised our sails, cut the engine (“Ah, that’s better”) and let Meander do what she was built to do. She crossed the Choptank River peacefully, and then Pam called for a tack.

To tack effectively, the helmsman must turn the bow of the boat all the way through the wind so that the sails that had previously been filled on one side fill out again on the other. So it was not without reason that Pam, observing the prolonged flogging of our headsail as we ended up facing directly into the wind, turned to her helmsman and asked, “Mike, what’s going on back there?”

That’s when I realized I had unconsciously picked up a pair of binoculars in mid-maneuver.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I just got distracted by that sailboat way off to starboard, the one that seems to be heeling excessively. I had been thinking that her crew should reduce sail. But her sails aren’t even up, and she’s not moving.”

And this is how we learned what it looks like when a sailboat is hard aground.

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High and almost dry.

What I had first seen as excessive heeling, was, in fact, a pronounced listing to starboard. The rail on that side was nearly in the water, while her underbelly to port was high and dry. And at her stern, one could just see the top of her rudder, a part of a boat that no boat in the water should ever be showing.

We checked the chart for her location between Howell Point and Green Can No. 19A, a buoy that marked the limit of the shoals that extend about half a mile out from the point’s entry into the water. The chart indicated that parts of the area between the point and the buoy were so shallow that they would uncover with the rising and the falling of the tide.

Oh, yes, she was stuck. And, it appeared for the moment, abandoned. No crewmembers were visible abovedeck, and no towboats or salvage operations were around to try to pull her off.

Dale, Bob, Pam, and I conversed.

“Can we get closer?”

“A little, but not too close. She’s smaller than us and probably has a lesser draft. If she’s stuck, we’ll get stuck well before we reach her.”

“Should we hail her?”

“Well, it stands to reason that if she had both a radio and a crew member to operate it, we would have been hearing their own calls for help. Since we’ve heard nothing all morning long, she must be missing one or the other, so hailing her would be useless.”

“Well, she certainly looks as if she’s missing her crew. They might have been picked up hours ago.”

“And what would we say to them, anyway? ‘Hi, we’re sorry you’re stuck, there’s not much we can do, but we’d be glad to radio for help?’”

And, of course, we speculated freely on how she came to be there in the first place. Sailing without charts? Got cocky and tried to cut a corner? Got lost on the water at night or in a fog? Alcohol?

In the end, however, our speculations were as useless as we were. Seeing no sign of life, we simply sailed on by.

Blessedly Uneventful

It occurs to me now as I write this that there was one possibility our speculations hadn’t covered: that a singlehander met with an accident that left him or her incapacitated belowdeck, out of reach of the radio, and that the boat motored itself up onto its grounding. And that there was one option we hadn’t considered: to radio the Coast Guard and apprise them of the boat’s location and condition.

It’s entirely likely, of course, that the Coast Guard already knew all it needed to know, and that the crew are in fact fine, if somewhat humiliated. After all, it’s not as if the boat were aground in an unpopulated and isolated area, cut off both from observant eyes on shore and passing boat traffic.

But the thought that we didn’t think to take the worst-case scenario off the table with a little extra insight and action does makes me pause.

And seeing that sailboat listing pathetically to starboard, I reflect on how potentially dangerous the sudden and unexpected can be, and I put our departure struggles into perspective. Coming to rest against a piling simply does not compare to any journey that might have ended in the loss of a boat, a limb, or a life.


Working definition of Blessedly Uneventful: Any day you don’t fall over backward into the water while sitting atop the stern pulpit trying to frame a photo of your entire boat under sail.

It doesn’t matter, then, how slow we are with our lines or how many times our headsail flogs. There is room in sailing for recoverable errors of that sort. And any day that lets you return safely to the dock to reflect on those events can indeed be gratefully accepted as blessedly uneventful.



Sailboat aground: Pamela Webster.

Raised sails: Mike Webster

A Decidedly Unhelpful Primer on Sailboat Starter Circuit Repair

Last week, I wrote about how our plans to go anchoring were frustrated by our suddenly revealed inability to go motoring.

Yesterday, I did stuff to the starter circuit of my sailboat that got the motor running again.

Out of sheer gratefulness for having had everything I needed to do handed to me as if on a silver platter, I feel a need to share the love.

I have therefore prepared, as suggested by the post’s title, this Decidedly Unhelpful Primer on Sailboat Starter Circuit Repair.


  • A cell phone.
  • A brother who happens to be an excellent diesel mechanic.
  • A wife who happens to be an excellent researcher.
  • Access to the internet.
  • An online article from a well-informed stranger who had a problem similar to yours and desired to share the expertise acquired in solving it with other boat owners.
  • Pencil and paper.
  • Various electrical connectors and crimping tools inherited from the previous sailboat owner.
  • A mom-and-pop marine supply store with a helpful owner.
  • A credit card.
  • A little over $40.00 in miscellaneous crap suggested by your brother, your wife, the well-informed stranger in the online article, and the marine supply shop owner.
  • A handful of F-bombs.


  • Using the cell phone, call your brother on a Sunday afternoon. If you’re lucky, he’s hanging around the house today and will pick up on the first try.
  • Whine and moan to him about how you’re getting absolutely no response from your sailboat’s engine when you turn the ignition key.
  • Pay attention closely when he says, “Sounds electrical. I’d check the circuit between the ignition key and the starter.” (This step is essential.)
  • On Sunday evening, casually mention to your wife that your brother thinks your engine problem is in the circuit between the ignition key and the starter.
  • Go shortly thereafter to bed, expecting to call a local mechanic in the morning.
  • Get up the next morning.
  • Whine and moan to your wife about how expensive it is going to be to have the boat towed to a boatyard for repair by a competent local mechanic.
  • Pay attention closely when she says, “Actually, I followed up on your brother’s comment last night by doing a little browsing, and I found a Tartan 3500 owner who seems to describe what we’re facing exactly, right down to the ‘B-style’ control panel with the ignition key.” (This step is essential.)
  • Using your internet access, retrieve the article she emailed you.
  • Read the article.
  • Say to yourself, “Hey. . . that fix looks like something I can do.”
  • Using the pencil and paper, make a shopping list of all the miscellaneous crap you’ll need to make the suggested repair.
  • Inventory the various electrical connectors and crimping tools the previous sailboat owner left you.
  • In coordination with the results of the inventory, reduce your shopping list to only those things you, uh, actually have to buy.
  • Walk the list a mile and a half to the mom-and-pop marine supply store.
  • Assist the store’s helpful owner in reviewing every one of the twenty-four spools of tinned marine wire he’s got sitting on a shelf in no particular order, looking for a label that says 10 AWG.
  • Point out that the 20-amp fuse holder assembly he’s holding out to you probably isn’t large enough, electrically speaking, to accommodate the 30-amp fuse you need.
  • Gratefully accept a properly sized fuse holder assembly from his hand.
  • Collect the rest of the miscellaneous crap you’ll need and bring it to the counter, where the kindly and elderly service counter lady will literally handwrite the receipt, itemizing each item you’re buying on a pressure-sensitive two-ply form with the store’s name pre-printed at the top just like it was 1989.
  • Using your credit card, pay the lady.
  • Lug your newly purchased miscellaneous crap a mile and a half back to the boat.


  • Using the various electrical connectors and crimping tools inherited from the previous sailboat owner, try to connect the newly purchased wire to the newly purchased fuse holder assembly.
  • Throw the fuse holder assembly into the trash after damaging it irreversibly. Apply the first F-bomb.
  • Calm yourself.
  • In consideration of another three-mile round trip to the marine supply store for another fuse holder assembly, and having no guarantee that you’re even on the right track with this whole repair approach in the first place, resolve to continue without a fuse for now, noting that if you can just get the damned engine started, you can go back and put it in later.
  • Install terminal connectors on the remaining wire ends.
  • Try to put a wire on one terminal of the starter.
  • Watch an unexpected shower of sparks fall into the bilge as you inadvertently touch the wrench to another terminal.
  • And, reflecting on how obvious you just made it that you don’t really have any idea how all this stuff is actually wired together, turn off the AC master switch as well.
  • Also, remind yourself of the location of the nearest fire extinguisher.
  • Continue to add wires to various terminals on the ignition key assembly and the starter. Apply one F-bomb for each nut dropped into the bilge and for each moment in which you say, “How am I going to get a wrench on that?”
  • When all connections are made, reconnect all the batteries.


  • Test the repair by turning the ignition switch. Hear nothing.
  • Press the starter button. Hear nothing.
  • Empty out your remaining cache of F-bombs as rapidly and loudly as possible. Stew for several moments over your unrewarded effort and your waste of time and money.
  • Lament to your wife, sotto voce, that you hate diesel engines and the electrical systems that start them, and that you want to sell the boat and go live in a condo where you pay a nice monthly maintenance fee to let someone else put up with all this crap.
  • Pay attention closely when she says, “Did you remember to turn the engine and house master switches back on?” (This step is really, really essential.)


  • Test the repair by turning the ignition switch. Hear the happy high-pitched sound of the audible oil pressure alarm scraping its way across your eardrums.
  • Press the starter button. Hear the engine turn over and putt-putter into life. (Gasoline engines roar into life. Diesels putt-putter.)
  • Think to yourself, “Wow, that was easy.”
  • Remember you don’t have the intake seacock for the engine’s raw water system open. So turn off the damned engine before you overheat it, for crying out loud.


It seems so improbable to me. A brother who makes a smart suggestion, a wife who knows what to do with that suggestion, a stranger who enjoys sharing what he’s learned about an activity he loves, and a store owner willing to follow me around for twenty minutes finding all the right parts.

To no credit of my own, it turns out that I came to this engine problem of mine armed as much with the right people as with the right tools and materials. And as a result, I, no diesel mechanic, spent just a few hours of my own time and less than fifty dollars on an engine repair I expected to cost us several hundred.

I am not worthy. (And if the boat should burn to the ground next week due to what fire investigators find was a faulty exercise in engine wiring, we will then know precisely how worthy I’m not.)

But just now, just for a little while until the next mountain-in-a-molehill arises, I am indeed grateful.

The Best Laid Plans

Earlier this week, Pam and I laid out a plan to do something yesterday that neither of us has tried in three years.

What we planned to do was motor from our marina to a spot across the Choptank River where our chart said so. This is a chart abbreviation indicating a soft “seabed,” as publisher NOAA has officially so designated, or a soft “bottom,” as most sailors and cruisers would say around the family dinner table.

While trying to educate myself with respect to the types of seabed materials one typically finds wherever charts say so, I typed in the Google search term “so soft bottom,” and quickly found myself looking at a line of women’s underwear. I guess I should have known better, since this was just after I tried to search on another chart term, “sy sticky bottom,” and found myself confronted with one particular thing that apparently afflicts the wrong end of rabbits and many, many other things considerably less suitable than that for discussion around the family dinner table.

This is why Pam does the research in our household.

Anyway, earlier this week, Pam and I laid out a plan to do something yesterday yadda yadda yadda. What we had planned to do was to motor from our marina to a spot across the river, throw down an anchor and watch Meander not move.

Why Practice Anchoring?

Anchoring is an essential skill for cruisers because it enables them to park in anchorages instead of marinas, which, in turn, helps them save money. And who doesn’t like money?


Meander’s two plow-style bow anchors by CQR. The manufacturer chose those three otherwise arbitrary letters for their resemblance, taken rapidly together, to the word “secure.”

But more importantly, the ability to anchor also gives cruisers more options for dodging storms that catch them on the open water. Many anchorages provide shelter from at least some storms. And one that can do so even from the howling winds and four-story waves of a hurricane, is called, appropriately enough, a “hurricane hole.”

In contrast, almost any marina operating under the conditions offered by a hurricane would be called “millions of dollars in boat insurance claims waiting to happen.”

That kind of anchorage, had we been able to get to one, would have been our first choice to ride out the hazards Joaquin could have placed on our doorstep last week. But once there, we would have had to be able to, uh, anchor. And we haven’t accumulated anything like enough experience with that skill to take that chance. So we stayed in our marina instead, and got lucky.

Better the devil you know, you know?

Anyway, earlier this week, Pam and I yadda yadda yadda, motor from marina, spot across river, throw down anchor, watch Meander not move.

We never got out of the marina.

Why We Didn’t Practice Anchoring


Meander’s Danforth anchor off the stern. You know, I’d really like to try it someday.

Because when Pam turned the ignition key as we had turned it a dozen times before, we got the usual audible oil pressure alarm that indicates “power on,” a sound that is prerequisite to pressing the engine’s start button to crank it into life. But when she pressed the start button as we had pressed it a dozen times before, she got. . . nothing.

Pam then checked every lever and switch that routinely plays a part in this heretofore routine engine starting operation. And after trying again, and failing again, and trying once more, and failing once more, Pam finally gave up and handed the ignition key to me.

And when I turned it as we had turned it a dozen times plus three before, I indeed got a different result.

For me, not even the audible oil pressure alarm would come on.

Change of Plans

Earlier this week, Pam and I yadda yadda yadda. But what we actually ended up doing yesterday was to create, through a carefully considered strategy of desperate improvisation, our first-ever diesel engine troubleshooting plan.

Operating under my personal conviction that the engine’s complete lack of interest in starting had electrical roots, and armed with several sources of arcane information written by one half dozen diesel experts and accumulated by us over our several years’ ascent to this latest challenge in our cruising life, we decided to trace Meander’s electrical systems:

  • From the engine battery, of which there is one.
  • From the house batteries, of which there are two.
  • To the engine control panel, of which there is one.
  • Through the boat’s intervening wires, cables, and switches, of which there is some seemingly endless number, a number which, while in all probability finite, would nonetheless still require me to employ exponential notation to pack it onto the space offered by a page of standard office letterhead.

And so I spent much of yesterday afternoon suspended through Meander’s companionway, half-upside-down, with my head in her engine compartment.


Not the bottom we originally planned.

After using a multimeter to verify that all three of the batteries in the adjacent locker to port were carrying a full charge, I got down to it. I traced visible conductors with my eyes. I traced blind ones with my fingertips, feeling my way along and hoping not to find anything shocking. I pushed and pulled on lone wires and on wires in bundles, trying to see where they ran to. I determined where this cable that disappears up into this dark crevice on this side of the boat reappears behind some completely unrelated tangle of stuff on that side of the boat. And I pulled out the multimeter again–twice–to verify that the wires I knew should be carrying the juice to the engine control panel were, to all appearances, doing no such thing.

And at the end of the day, I had enough hard data to arrive at the following working conclusions.


Change of Plans, Revisited

Late last night, Pam and I laid out a plan to abandon our first-ever troubleshooting plan on our boat’s diesel engine and instead call a qualified marine mechanic in the morning. After all, one can spend either time or money; and when the first option is clearly getting one nowhere, the second becomes necessary and inevitable.

And once we’re up and running again, we’re going to motor out of this marina to a point across the river and throw down an anchor. Because I have a feeling we’re going to have to spend an awful lot of time hereafter in anchorages to be able to pay for what’s about to happen next.

The Wind

In 1976, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot scored a No. 2 hit on U.S. radio with a tribute to twenty-nine sailors who lost their lives when a freighter on Lake Superior went down the previous year.

Nearly fifty years later, I wonder if Mr. Lightfoot has another song in him. Because last Thursday, another cargo ship and the thirty-three crew members she carried were presumably sent to the bottom by Hurricane Joaquin.

I’ve written before that the wind can make fools of the most experienced seamen.

Much of the time, its capriciousness will get a laugh from them; sometimes, a curse. But once in a while, it will cost them their lives.

The Beaufort Scale

The wind can drive even large ships onto reefs and shoals, and can create waves that will bury their bows in seawater or flip them right over. So it is important that sailors learn never to underestimate this force of nature.

But while efforts to understand and use the wind stretch back into prehistory, attempts to develop a consistent standard describing its strength are remarkably young. In Great Britain, the earliest recorded attempt to create such a standard appears to be Daniel Defoe’s 11-point wind scale in 1704.

And nearly 130 more years passed before Britain’s Royal Navy adopted a single wind scale in 1831 for use on all its ships. The scale so adopted was the creation of an Irish Royal Navy officer, Francis Beaufort.


Everybody crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.

Like Defoe and other predecessors, Beaufort assigned numbers to wind terms that were more or less understood throughout the maritime culture of his day. For instance, his Force 4 was a “gentle breeze,” his Force 5 a “moderate breeze,” his Force 6 a “strong breeze,” and his Force 12 a “hurricane.”

The problem with all these scales, however, had lain in the “more or less” part of “understood.” Depending on individual experience and temperament, one man’s “gentle breeze” could be another man’s “strong breeze.” Put these two guys on one ship and give them each a gallon of beer a day. And pretty soon, the one will be implying, gently and diplomatically, of course, that the other is a total wimp. And the other will be offering, quite generously, really, to extract the one’s molars with his fists.

Yep, they allowed alcohol on Royal Navy ships back then, and, to a lesser extent, they still do today.

So Beaufort’s innovation, starting in his own ship’s logs in 1805, was to create working definitions of these terms by correlating his scale’s points to the observable effects of the wind on the sails of a Royal Navy warship.

For the men under Beaufort, a Force 6 wind soon became not just a “strong breeze, but “that in which a well-conditioned man-of-war could just carry, in chase, full and by, single reefed topsails and top-gallant sails.” (You know, there are still people around nowadays who know what that meant.) And a Force 12 hurricane became, in a much easier phrase that has since passed into sailing folklore, “that which no canvas could withstand.”

Had it not been a British invention, the men of the USS Constitution (the ship, not the document) would have found this emerging tool very handy for the tasks they faced during the War of 1812.

USS_Constitution_fires_a_17-gun_salute 2

The USS Constitution in Boston, all fired up.

Since then, the Beaufort Scale, like the U.S. Constitution (the document, not the ship), has proved itself well founded to keep up with changing times. Since its adoption by the Royal Navy 185 years ago, the scale has evolved to reflect:

  • Numerical wind speeds, not of interest to sailors before the introduction of accurate wind measuring instruments.
  • The heights and physical descriptions of waves, nowadays of more concern to today’s large, powerful motor-driven vessels than the wind itself.
  • The visible effects of the wind on trees, smoke, flags, and structures, so you landlubbers have some idea of what we’re facing.

Finally, Beaufort’s breakthrough insight in correlating the wind’s strength with its effects on one type of sailboat can be applied to sailboats of any type. In my copy of his copiously, fancifully and beautifully illustrated book on the art of sailing, The Complete Sailor, author David Seidman includes a wind speed table that suggests corresponding courses of action for the small coastal cruiser. Here are the last three entries.

  • Force 8 (Fresh Gale, 34-40 knots): Limit of boat’s sailing ability. Use motor or seek shelter.
  • Force 9 (Strong Gale, 41-47 knots): Run under bare poles, lie ahull, or sit to sea anchor.
  • Force 10 (Whole Gale, 48-55 knots): Swear oaths you will not keep once back on land.

That ever-present sound

It is widely assumed that sailors love the wind, and, to a point, this is not to be denied. The wind is, after all, what sets us apart from our motorboating brethren.

But, as the Beaufort scale demonstrates, there are limits. In winds up to about 16 knots, we take delight. Between 16 and 40 knots, we cope. Above 40 knots—if we were unlucky enough to be caught out there at all—we simply try to survive.


Not for the faint of heart.

Pam and I were not out there at all this past week. But I can think of several oaths I would gladly have sworn and kept as we sat here in our Cambridge, MD marina under a northeaster with winds to 25 knots and with Hurricane Joaquin on everyone’s radar.

And the one thing no mere study of a wind scale can prepare you for is the sound. The tremulous rustling of nervous trees. The slapping of halyards against masts throughout the marina. The whistling through your wires, the rattling of your rigging, and the creak of your docklines as they strain to hold your home on the water against being thrown onto docks and pilings by the rising tides.

And then, of course, there’s the sound of the wind itself. At 25 knots, not yet a howl. But a certainly a threat, and perhaps a portent: a constant, rolling resonance from across the water as if from a far-off and never-ending freight train, suddenly ramping up whenever a sharp gust, filling the space around you, seems to move your boat perilously close to the tracks.

The sound will get inside your boat. And after a while, it will get inside you.

And once lodged in there, it will have more power than the cold rain and the grey sky outside ever can to make you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.

To sail another day

There are places in the world, such as Patagonia, where the wind never stops.

Here in Cambridge, I know myself a little bit better than I did a week ago. And I now know that I could not casually move to a place like Patagonia–not for a salary, scholarship, or sponsorship; not for a prize, and not on a bet. Because the sheer dread I found being built up within me by the ever-present sound of the wind is something for which I simply have no answer.

But before I knew this, I already knew myself to be an anxious person. New people and places make me uneasy. New experiences and their learning curves discomfit me. And whatever by its very nature lies outside my direct control terrifies me.

I can’t control the wind.

But I know I don’t have to.

And I also know through experience that my amygdala, that hypersensitive little fear center in my brain, is trainable. Just one or two walks around the same block, and it begins to shut up and settle down. The truism is true, after all: Whatever hasn’t yet killed me has indeed made me stronger.

So now I have a simple task, and no reason to think I won’t succeed. Like countless millions of sailors before me, I learned how to use the wind. Now, I have to learn how to wait patiently under it, so I can live to sail another day.

And, out of respect both for the wind itself and for all who venture out in it, try to remember the thirty-three who didn’t.

Portrait of Sir Francis Beaufort by Stephen Pearce, National Portrait Gallery (London) retrieved from Peter Sommer Travels.

USS Constitution in Boston: Retrieved from Wikipedia.

Helicopter Rescue: Royal Navy Sea King Helicopter Comes to the Aid of French Fishing Vessel ‘Alf’ in the Irish Sea via photopin (license)

First Threat: Hurricane Joaquin

I have always congratulated myself on having the good sense to be born and raised in nominally weather-safe locations in North Jersey (read: Not the Jersey Shore), and, thereafter, on moving from one nominally weather-safe location to another.

In upstate New York, for instance, we were well north of major rainstorm territory, just south of major blizzard territory, some fifteen hundred miles east of major tornado territory, and some three thousand miles east of major earthquake territory.

Yes, you’re right. An earthquake is not a weather event. But when one is flailing about, grasping at minutiae upon which to congratulate oneself, does it matter?

To put a finer point on it, not once have my wife and I bought a house in a one-hundred-year flood plain.

But now, we live in a house that sits in a flood plain wherever we tie her up.

And now, we are facing our new home’s first threat.

What was I thinking?


On Monday, in an area several hundred miles northeast of the Bahamas, the Atlantic Ocean gave birth to a bouncing baby tropical storm that the World Meteorological Organization christened Joaquin.

Just four days later, Joaquin is all grown up. This morning, he is a Category 4 hurricane, reaching out from his 133 mph core to pound the Central Bahamas.

According to this morning’s early news, Joaquin has so far appeared to be more a vandal than a murderer; the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency had not yet received any reports of fatalities or injuries attributable to him. That there should be no such reports coming out from under a Category 4 hurricane is both a miracle and a testament to the accumulated weather wisdom of the Bahamian people.

But it’s not over yet. Bahamian officials also reported that some people remain trapped in flooded homes, and that they lost communication with a couple of islands overnight.

And East Coast Americans do not seem to have accumulated the same wisdom. reports that a person was killed near Spartanburg, South Carolina in a vehicle submerged in flood waters, waters attributed not to Joaquin but rather to the heavy rains our forecasters have been warning us about for days.

So pray for the continued survival of the Bahamian people. And pray also that the rest of us get smarter. Because Joaquin, like many of his siblings, is expected to head north soon.

The Cone of Uncertainty

People along the U.S. East Coast have been tensely watching the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast Joaquin’s next moves for a few days now.

In particular, we have been consumed by one particular graphic tool known as the cone of uncertainty. Brian McNoldy, writing for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, describes it as “the cone that surrounds the main track line and gives a range of possibilities for the storm’s future path.”

In short, it’s the NHC’s best guess as to where the center of a storm might–repeat–might end up in the next few days.

Sometime yesterday, the graphic looked like this.

NOAA graphic 1

Yesterday’s cone of uncertainty.

And this morning, it looked like this.

NOAA graphic 2

This morning’s cone of uncertainty.

The second graphic tells us that the storm the NHC once believed could make landfall somewhere on the East Coast is now expected to pass us at sea. That is nominally good news; and we, the graphics-consuming public who have come to rely on such marvelous pictures as we assess what all this means for us, are greatly comforted indeed.

But let’s not get too comfortable just yet.

The cone of uncertainty is, apparently, just an amalgamation of several different storm track prediction models, each of which weighs different atmosphere conditions that could affect the track differently. (What else could it be, after all?) And the atmospheric conditions facing forecasters as they try to predict Joaquin have reportedly been somewhat more variable and complex than they usually have to deal with.

As a result, the individual models from which the cone of uncertainly is constructed are far from achieving a consensus about Joaquin’s track. And Mr. McNoldy goes on to report that the NHC has drawn criticism for not reflecting this increased unpredictability in the algorithms that produce the cone of uncertainty.

not noaa

This morning’s spaghetti plot.

The spaghetti plot shown above, apparently produced this morning, makes his point. Of the fifteen or so possible tracks shown in it, seven veer back toward the East Coast. And four of these make landfall between South Carolina and Georgia.

Not having been born and raised a meterologist, I am in no position to pass judgment on the work of the NHC.

I am just a member of the aforementioned public who has come to rely on such pictures. And thanks to Mr. McNolty’s reporting, I just felt my comfort zone shrink beneath my bottom. So it’s time to get up and do. . . something.

Preparing for a hurricane

Yesterday, after reviewing some hurricane prep web links provided by Commuter Cruiser and other sources, we began to prepare for Joaquin’s potential wind impact.

Reducing a boat’s windage essentially means removing and stowing any item on her exterior that, in catching the wind, might itself be subject to wind damage or might put excessive force on the boat’s structure. We started yesterday by taking down our roller furling jib, our staysail, our bimini canvas, and several pieces of protective canvas. Still to come are the mainsail and its cover, our cockpit cushions, and the dodger canvas currently keeping the past few days’ occasionally intense rain out of our companionway.

Then there is Joaquin’s potential for storm surges. According to our research both on line and among the locals here at the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Marina, these could lift the water we are sitting in from three to eight feet.

So we’ll move next to our dock lines, the deploying of which is an art unto itself. Short lines would keep the boat off our docks and pilings, but might not let her rise and fall to ride extreme changes in the water level. Long lines would do the latter, but not the former. Springy lines would absorb the energy of the boat’s surging back and forth on heightened waves coming in from the Choptank River instead of jerking her to a stop, assuming again that they stopped her short of the docks and pilings. All this is a balancing act.

And then there’s the matter of the lines’ basic strength. Currently, we have just one line leading from each of our four primary docking cleats to the four corners of our slip. We’ll double them. And since age has probably drained the lines of some of their initial strength, we’ll probably go further than that. Assuming we can find strong places on our boat, such as the base of the mast, to tie off to.

Finally, we’ll keep an eye on the forecasts. Hauling out remains an option, but one which diminishes with each passing hour as boatyard workers struggle to keep previous commitments to those already on their haulout lists.

boat us_hanging-by-a-cleat

Failure is another option. Just not one we like.

Will it be enough?

I have no idea how to answer this question. But we’ll go with what we think we know, adjust as best we can, and hope the middle of next week finds us still writing from the Cambridge Municipal Yacht Marina.

Meanwhile, I just might ask the buyer of our former home in upstate New York if she’s willing to rent out her basement.



Yesterday’s cone of uncertainty: Retrieved 10/2/2015 from Washington Post.

This morning’s cone of uncertainty: Retrieved 10/2/2015 from Boat US.

This morning’s spaghetti plot: Retrieved 10/2/2015 from Mike’s Weather Page. (No relation to the author.)

Boats suspended from docks: Retrieved 10/2/2015 from Boat US.