Plan for Trou­ble

By con­sid­er­ing all the things that can go wrong at sea – and de­vis­ing solid strate­gies to ad­dress them – we can be pre­pared for nearly ev­ery con­tin­gency.

Cruising World - - Front Page - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY AL­VAH SI­MON

Decades ago, Doris Day sweetly re­minded us: “Que sera, sera. The fu­ture’s not ours to see.” Per­haps not specif­i­cally, but the suc­cess­ful evo­lu­tion of Homo sapi­ens is largely due to our abil­ity to en­vi­sion the fu­ture, an­tic­i­pate con­tin­gen­cies and de­velop strate­gies to in­flu­ence the out­come. I be­lieve that this is the core el­e­ment of sound sea­man­ship, which might sim­ply be termed “fore­hand­ed­ness.”

While it is true that an ounce of pre­ven­tion is worth a pound of cure, no amount of prepa­ra­tion can ab­so­lutely elim­i­nate ev­ery cri­sis at sea, for the oceanic ex­pe­ri­ence is fluid in ev­ery sense of the word. There­fore, our imag­i­na­tion must ex­tend into the realm of emer­gency man­age­ment.

And what are our most likely emer­gen­cies? An 11-year study con­ducted by the U.S. Coast Guard re­vealed that sailors: fall off their boats, set them alight, fail to keep the mast up or the wa­ter out, ex­pe­ri­ence more draft than depth, lose steer­ing and hit hard things with soft bod­ies.

Each of these top­ics de­serves an ar­ti­cle unto it­self. But by touch­ing on just a few, I hope to get our minds per­co­lat­ing on plans spe­cific to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, but more im­por­tant, de­velop the calm con­fi­dence un­der stress to cre­atively solve even un­fore­seen emer­gen­cies.

Fire: The most ob­vi­ous sources of on­board fire would be the gal­ley and en­gine room, as both run on flammable flu­ids. How­ever, from stem to stern, a mod­ern ves­sel is laced with po­ten­tial hot spots via com­plex wiring. A 12-volt arc from a loose cable can cre­ate tem­per­a­tures that ex­ceed those on the sur­face of the sun. Make sure all crew know where and how to shut off the main bat­tery sup­ply quickly, and un­der­stand that wa­ter is the worst pos­si­ble way to fight an elec­tri­cal fire. En­sure that there is a well-la­beled port­hole in the en­gine box or en­gine room able to ac­com­mo­date the ex­tin­guisher’s noz­zle. Air is fuel; open­ing the com­part­ment may en­cour­age a smol­der­ing fire to burst into in­sup­press­ible flames.

But, no mat­ter the na­ture of a fire, we should never al­low it to get be­tween us and our sup­pres­sion equip­ment. This means that ex­tin­guish­ers and fire blan­kets should be spaced at both ends of the boat. There is no such thing as a small fire in con­fined spa­ces be­cause toxic smoke can fill the cabin in sec­onds. At the dock, we may have ad­mirably prac­ticed es­cap­ing via the main com­pan­ion­way and the bow hatch, for­get­ting that at sea, that bow hatch is of­ten blocked by the ship’s dinghy.

There will be no call for help if the hand­held VHF ra­dio and EPIRB are left be­low. Are they in a handy grab bag? Does ev­ery­one know where that is? Even if it is de­ter­mined that the fire can be con­tained, del­e­gate one crewmem­ber to im­me­di­ately pre­pare aban­don-ship equip­ment.

Steer­ing: On one of my Pa­cific

cross­ings I heard four may­days on the ra­dio, all of which were re­lated to steer­ing fail­ure. Aux­il­iary self-steer­ing sys­tems, as op­posed to servo-pen­du­lum styles, of­fer true re­dun­dancy in the event of main-steer­ing fail­ure. That is if you can free up a rud­der jammed hard over. Iden­tify cutout points in your sys­tem, such as cable clamps, quad­rant key­ways and ar­eas where you can ac­cess and cut hope­lessly jammed ca­bles. Can you get your wrenches or bolt cut­ters in there?

Have you tested the true vi­a­bil­ity of your emer­gency tiller? Is there a pre-shaped bung next to the gap­ing hole where the rud­der stock used to be? Don’t laugh, I have seen sev­eral in­ci­dents where the shaft sim­ply parted, and the rud­der flut­tered down through thou­sands of feet of empty ocean.

There is a plethora of the­o­ret­i­cal ju­ryrigged steer­ing sys­tems, none of which will work on a poorly bal­anced boat. First, prac­tice get­ting the sail com­bi­na­tions and trim to bal­ance the boat as finely as pos­si­ble. Move bal­last for­ward to re­duce weather helm, aft to in­crease it, and port and star­board to cre­ate a turn­ing bias. Even the back­stay ad­juster can con­trib­ute to con­trol. Once these forces are aligned, you might find you can roughly steer with the sheets and trav­eler alone. Don’t for­get prop walk as a fi­nal touch.

Lines crossed from a head­sail to a tiller, coun­ter­bal­anced with a bungee cord, is per­haps the sim­plest form of self-steer­ing (see “Take A Free Ride,” Jan­uary/fe­bru­ary 2018). A trail­ing bucket or small drogue on a bri­dle lead­ing to out­board winches can be moved across the quar­ters by eas­ing on one winch and haul­ing on the other. This will slow the ves­sel but help main­tain some steer­age. A pre-drilled panel of ply­wood, such as a locker cover, can be at­tached to the spin­naker pole with clam clamps. Prac­tice the rope work re­quired to har­ness the new tiller onto the push­pit.

Flood­ing: At the first sign of fill­ing bilges, cer­tainly hit the switch on the elec­tric bilge pump. But, the car­di­nal rule of flood­ing is to stop it. If it is a breech in the hull or a failed through-hull fit­ting, you can pump un­til the bat­ter­ies are flat and your arms fall off, and still not have as­cer­tained, much less rec­ti­fied, the prob­lem.

Start by clos­ing all the through-hull valves, the lo­ca­tion of which all the crew must be fa­mil­iar with. Don’t for­get the pack­ing gland, be­cause it is a likely cul­prit. Al­ways have an ap­pro­pri­ately ta­pered wooden bung near each through­hull fit­ting. If the hull it­self is breached, a small sail can be roped over­board from the bow and slid aft to cre­ate a di­a­per patch. This will sel­dom stop a leak, but will slow it sub­stan­tially to give you time to fas­ten your pre­fab­ri­cated ex­ter­nal patches. That is why you al­ways have to have a set of mask, snorkel and fins handy, used in con­junc­tion with a safety har­ness and long tether.

Of course, you must have a dual-ac­tion high-ca­pac­ity man­ual bilge pump, but that Y-valve you fit to your ma­rine head makes a spare man­ual bilge pump for any ex­tra hands to man. And when bilge de­bris clogs the pump valves, as it too of­ten does, there is al­ways those medium-size buck­ets you need to carry for just such an emer­gency.

Ground­ing: The mo­ment that your keel kisses Mother Earth, de­ter­mine the state of the tide and the pre­dicted winds. If the tide is flood­ing, will you be pushed on or off the dan­ger? If off, heel the boat with a dinghy full of wa­ter to ex­pe­dite the mat­ter, and have a cup of tea. If on, run a kedge an­chor from the bow as far into deep wa­ter as pos­si­ble. A long ny­lon rode can stretch up to 20 per­cent of its length. If heav­ily ten­sioned, this elas­tic­ity will help nudge the ves­sel’s bow around with the lift and fall of each wave. If the tide is ebbing, heel the boat to the up­hill side. Lay out pro­tec­tion for the hull, such as old tires or fen­ders. Close off any po­ten­tial in­ter­nal leaks, such as fuel lines to a heater, un­der­wa­ter through-hulls, etc., and check that paint locker to en­sure that caus­tic flu­ids or nox­ious fumes are not es­cap­ing into the bilge.

Dis­mast­ing: We will al­ways be tempted to sal­vage what we can of our ter­ri­bly ex­pen­sive rigs. But in so do­ing, will that Gor­dian knot of rope and cable even­tu­ally foul the pro­pel­ler or rud­der? Will the ser­rated stub of the mast chew away at the hull? The first plan of at­tack should be to ma­neu­ver the ves­sel to the lee­ward side of the top­pled rig. Typ­i­cally, one car­ries a mas­sive bolt cut­ter to chop it all away. But have you tested those cut­ters on a piece of your largest-di­am­e­ter stain­less-steel wire? In any event, the furl­ing gear will pre­vent you from get­ting at the forestays. Did you pack a good hack­saw, or bet­ter yet an (al­ways charged) 18-volt grinder with a cut­ting disc al­ready fit­ted?

An­other ap­proach is to splay your split pins a mere 15 de­grees. They are then eas­ily ex­tracted with a sim­ple set of hand pli­ers. In a gale, the most likely con­di­tion for a dis­mast­ing, it may be ad­vis­able to cut away all but the head­stay. The sunken rig will then act as a sea an­chor and keep the ves­sel head to wind un­til con­di­tions al­low an at­tempt at a jury rig.

I have se­curely fas­tened to my deck a 17½-foot alu­minum spin­naker pole of sub­stan­tial di­am­e­ter and weight. It is far too large for a ves­sel of my size. It would be less cum­ber­some to set if I left it at­tached to the mast. But then I would lose it should the main rig fail. The jaw snaps per­fectly to a hoop on the deck-step box. I have lines al­ready des­ig­nated, and the knots and at­tach­ment point iden­ti­fied to ten­sion two stays and two shrouds. I have a shackle at­tached to the pole, which will hold the block for the makeshift hal­yard to hoist my free-footed tri­sail. Ah, but have I fac­tored in that there will be new and un­usual sheet­ing an­gles?

Your an­ten­nas will most likely go over with the mast. Do you have a spare VHF or AIS an­tenna? There will never be a time when you need them more.

The point of all this is: “Think it through!” That is, hy­poth­e­size the myr­iad sit­u­a­tions that could go wrong and vi­su­al­ize what your re­sponse will be, what ma­te­ri­als will be re­quired, what skills should be prac­ticed, who on board will be as­signed to what tasks. In­volve your crew. These men­tal ex­er­cises can be en­gag­ing, ed­u­ca­tional and even fun. If you make it a game be­fore it isn’t, you will be able to han­dle any and all emer­gen­cies at sea with com­pe­tence and con­fi­dence.

Over the course of two cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tions, con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor Al­vah Si­mon has pon­dered or prac­ticed all as­pects of plan­ning and sea­man­ship.

Do you have a spare VHF or AIS an­tenna? There will never be a time when you need them more.

Clock­wise from top left: A bucket and bri­dle can be po­si­tioned for steer­ing sing winches. Pre­fab­ri­cated patches will stem a leak. A sail with lines at­tached can be slid in place to slow a breach. In a pinch, even a cut­ting-board rud­der may save the day.

The au­thor’s 171⁄2-foot spin­naker pole, stored in­de­pen­dent of the spar, can eas­ily be set up as a jury-rigged mast.

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