Drowning: A deadly calmness

Spring has sprung which means it’s time to remind you all of the dangers of drowning.

Drowning is not a noisy, dramatic event. Our body’s response to suffocation by water is quite different to the commonly held view that it involves waving arms and shouting for help. That comes before you are drowning. At that point you are in a state known as “aquatic distress” and can still assist in your own rescue by grabbing at floatation devices. If you aren’t saved at this point you quickly pass to drowning. Then, instinct takes over.

In an article in the US Coastguards ‘On Scene’ magazine Dr Francesco Pia, Phd, describes what he terms ‘the instinctive drowning response’ as follows:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.

Drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water for from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

So, if someone dives, jumps or falls overboard and appears to be calm, don’t assume they are not in trouble. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. Talk to them. Ask them: Are you OK? If they reply immediately, they’re probably fine. If they just look blank there’s a chance that they are drowning and you must act quickly to assist them.

Keep a watch on people playing in the water, look for these other signs of drowning:

Head tilted back with mouth open.
Head low in the water, mouth at water level
Eyes closed, or glassy and empty, unfocussed.
Vertical in the water, not using legs
Hyperventilating or gasping
Attempting to swim but not making headway
Attempting to roll over on the back

So, if the kids are screaming and splashing, be thankful, they’re not drowning. If they go unnaturally quite, that’s the time to worry. One day this knowledge may save someone’s life.

 

 

The art of seamanship

What is the art of seamanship? The dictionaries define it as the skill or technique or art of handling a boat or ship at sea. It surely is that, but I think it’s a bit more.

Seamanship is certainly about having the sailor’s basic skills, but it must also be about judgement. Good seamanship isn’t just being able to steer a steady course or make a tidy splice. It’s knowing how and when to apply ones skills to keep the boat and her crew safe and sound.

It’s been said that the superior boater uses his superior judgement to stay out of situations that require his superior skills. That sounds like a good definition of seamanship to me.

Winch handle habits

Back at the dawn of time, when I started sailing, I was taught to never leave the winch handle in the winch after tacking or trimming. The reason, I was told, was to avoid injury should the winch pawls fail and the sheet tension spin the handle with great force, catching an arm or other body part.

I’ve always been sceptical of this advice because I’ve never met anyone who’s been injured by a whizzing winch handle released by a failing pawl, or even anyone who knows of someone who’s been injured this way. However, I continued to remove my winch handle and stow it in a winch holder when not in use because I wanted the winch top to be unencumbered should I need to release the sheet quickly. Besides, my favourite winch handle was non-locking and you know how the sea loves to eat winch handles.

I’ve never had a boat where the winch handle being in the winch was a trip hazard to people stepping in and out of the cockpit but if I needed additional motivation for my ‘stow the handle after use’ policy that would be it.

Then one day I was discussing winch handle habits with another sailor and he said he always moves the handle over to the lazy winch after the tack, basically using the lazy winch as a winch handle holder and at the same time having it ready for the next tack. I can’t think of an objection to this practice as long as you have locking winch handles and the handle doesn’t trip you when you leave the cockpit. And the practice does avoid the risk of injury should one of those nasty winch pawls give way. But then again, some habits die hard.

Running aground

Sailors fall into two categories – those that have run aground and those that will run aground.

I have run aground countless times – seven transits of the US ICW and gunkholing in the skinny waters of the Bahamas and Chesapeake Bay will do that to you – and it’s usually a pretty harmless event. More often than not, running aground hurts you’re pride more than the boat.

Here are some running aground basics:

1. Recognize that you are aground as soon as possible and stop forward motion. A slight feeling of sluggishness or the entire crew lying in a heap at the front end of the cockpit are clues that you have run aground.

2. If motoring, go into reverse immediately. If sailing, get the sails down, check for lines in the water and start the engine, then go into reverse. Be aware that your rudder is vulnerable when backing up in shallow water. If you’re towing the dinghy this is where the painter gets wrapped around the propeller.

3. If reversing fails, limit the damage by getting an anchor out to windward. If possible orient the boat to provide the most protection from wind or waves.

4. Reduce draught (draft if you’re from across the pond) by heeling the boat. A very effective method is by pulling on a masthead halyard from the dinghy. Another method is putting weight onto the end of the swung-out boom – a crewmember or a flooded dinghy being the main candidates. Motor or tow the boat off into deeper water. If you have twin keels or a winged keel this method is unlikely to work because your draught will increase as you heel – you’ll need to get weight onto the fore deck to try to reduce draught.

5. Seek assistance from the professionals, or hail a passing Good Samaritan. It’s time to swallow your pride. If you contemplate an ICW journey a Tow Boat US insurance policy is fantastic value.

6. Running your engine in shallow water and when aground churns up the bottom: Check your raw water intake strainer – if it’s filled with sand and mud check your raw water pump impellor for damage.

With a boat that can safely take the ground and some experience of getting afloat again you’ll be able to explore with impunity the very fringes of the watery world.

Coax cable connectors for boats

Here’s a short look at the type of coaxial cable connector you might encounter when installing your radio and AIS antenna systems.

Boats use 50 ohm coaxial cable for their radio and AIS systems – it comes in different sizes but the three you are most likely to encounter are RG58 (nominal size 6mm, but rarely more than 5.5mm), RG8X (nominal size 7mm but usually 6.5mm and the best choice for boats up to super-yacht size) and RG213 (nominally 10mm, actually about 9.5mm – the cable you need for long runs, 30m or more). Coax cable comprises an outer jacket covering a layer of fine mesh or braid, an insulating layer called the dielectric and then the centre conductor. The outer braid and the centre conductor must never meet. Whichever coax size you have you’ll need to join it to the equipment, and to itself, using a variety of connectors:

The PL259 and its female partner the SO239. This connector pair was developed in the late 1930’s by a designer with the fantastic name of E. Clark Quackenbush. He worked for Amphenol at the time and I wouldn’t have mentioned him at all were it not for that magnificent name. Anyway, he designed what was to become the most widely used connector in the amateur radio field.

PL stands for plug and the number, 259, is the inventory number assigned to it by the US military. The socket into which it plugs is given another inventory number, 239, and the prefix SO for socket.

All marine VHF radios have a built-in SO239 antenna socket to accept a PL259. Top quality marine antennas use the same connector, so the antenna cable will have a PL259 at each end, whatever other connectors it has for intermediate joins.

The PL259 is simple, mechanically rugged and relatively easy to fit. That’s why it’s popular on boats. Purist radio techies will tell you about its non-constant impedance but at marine frequencies, around 150 MHz, this doesn’t matter a jot.

Fitting: Most PL259s are the solder type but usually only the centre conductor is actually soldered into the pin, the braid being held mechanically. In some cases the cable is crimped onto the cable, making contact with the braid through the pvc jacket. For this you need an appropriate crimping tool so this type is more popular for industrial application. The leisure sailor is more likely to choose a screw-in-earth type, where the cable is screwed into the threaded inlet of the plug once a section of braid has been exposed, and then the centre conductor is soldered into the pin. Many top quality PL259s are made for the bigger cable size and have an adapter insert to suit the smaller sizes of cable. Using an adapter is convenient because it grips the coaxial braid firmly. I like silver plated connectors because they avoid corrosion and they solder very well – and I’d always have silver or gold plated centre pins for this reason.

You can get PL259s that require no soldering, they are entirely mechanically assembled. The Shakespeare Center-Pin connector is a good example. A little expensive, perhaps, but they are great for solderophobes.

The PL259 is not fully waterproof and the join should be protected with silicone self fusing tape when used outside.

When the cable run on a boat encounters a bulkhead or the deck you have a choice – do you drill a hole and pass the cable through it, continuing the unbroken run, or do you use a bulkhead connector of some sort? I’ll save the debate over the relative merits of deck plugs, deck glands and the various joining methods for another time, but no discussion of the PL259 would be complete without a mention of the barrel connector.

The barrel connector is a double female – you can plug a PL259 into each end and make a mechanically strong connection between two sections of cable. The barrel connector comes in a variety of lengths starting with the small, discontinuously threaded version about 1” long, up to a 12 inch long monster.

The short barrel connector is called a PL258. This shows that the bloke in the spares department in the US military wasn’t on his toes when it came to designating inventory numbers because this is clearly a double socket (SO) and not a plug (PL).

The longer versions are often called PL363 barrel connectors, or bulkhead connectors, or double-females and some other weird designations. You have to specify the length. The PL363 comes with a pair of nuts to secure it through the bulkhead or the deck or a radar arch base. The standard nuts are a bit wimpy but you can buy more substantial ones – the thread is 5/8” 24 tpi.

The BNC connector is a bayonet connector designed for applications where frequent connecting and disconnecting occurs, such as on laboratory oscilloscopes. Despite this it has found its way into applications such as connecting the antenna to an AIS unit, or even for cable to cable connections.

BNC stands for Bayonet Neill Concelman, after its two designers.

Aware that the bayonet design allowed noise to intrude when the cable was subjected to vibration the Neill Concelman partnership came up with a more secure variation, the TNC, for Threaded Neill Concelman.

Both connectors have male and female halves – typically the male bit is attached to the AIS unit and the antenna cable is fitted with the mating female connector. Barrel connectors are also available for cable to cable joins. BNC and TNC connector sets are often chosen as cable to cable connectors when the reliable but chunky PL259/barrel connector/PL259 connection is unworkable.

BNC and TNC connectors are fiddlier to fit to the cable than the good old PL259 but they are high performance connectors, used for frequencies as high as 11 GHz. That’s a gazillion times more critical than the simple 150 MHz of VHF.

Another connector you might encounter on boats is the N connector – named for that prolific connector designer Mr Paul Neill of Bell Labs who designed it in the 1940s. This is another connector set that has high performance, being suitable for frequencies up to 11 GHz. Large commercial VHF antennas often come with an N connector and RG213 cable.

If you have satellite communications on your boat you may encounter the F connector to attach to a remote antenna system and if you want to connect your handheld VHF radio to a fixed antenna you might use an SMA connector, although some manufacturers have their own proprietary antenna connector.

So there you have it, the low down on RF connectors for boats. Have a look at the selection of cable, connectors and other antenna system components at saltyjohn.com

Salty John website redecoration

It’s been a busy couple of weeks on the IT front. We’ve built a new website for the sale of general chandlery items at discount prices, sailorssurplus.com, and we’re working on revamping the Salty John site and taking the opportunity to concentrate on marine antenna systems and rig tension gauges.

 

I must say I’ll miss the old Salty John site, it’s become as comfortable as a well worn pair of deck shoes. But it wouldn’t do any longer; it was too grumpy when visited by the new smart phones and tablets.

We’ve been Metz Communication’s sole agents in Europe for over ten years and that’s the most important part of our business – marine antenna systems. We’ve also offered Loos & Co rig tension gauges for that long, too, and they’re another big chunk of the business. So those two products share their own website, saltyjohn.com

We’ve never wanted to be a general boat chandlery, we simply can’t carry the huge inventory needed to fill that role. What we can do is concentrate on finding bargains to bring to our customers, buying direct from manufacturers and using our low overhead to keep prices ultra-keen. For that we needed a separate site, hence the birth of sailorssurplus.com

 

 

Do your spreaders droop?

With rigs being checked over and re-stepped ready for the new season it might be timely to revisit one of my pet subjects, drooping spreaders:

Drooping is not usually a good thing. You don’t want drooping bits. You especially don’t want drooping spreaders. Drooping spreaders are a symptom of a rig in distress, a rig on the road to catastrophic failure.

Perky upward pointing spreaders are what you want. Perky spreaders have tips that bisect the angle of the shrouds that pass over them. In this way the load on the spreader is even and the spreader is disinclined to be pushed up or down, slackening the shroud and threatening the integrity of the whole rig.

Spreaders come in lots of shapes and configurations: The racier boats have spreaders with aerofoil sections, like little aircraft wings, to reduce wind resistance. Cruising boats tend to have longer spreaders to give a broader based rig, sacrificing sheeting angle for better mast support. Old fashioned cruising boats under about 45’ tend to have single spreader rigs, for the sake of simplicity, whilst more modern boats with relatively taller masts adopt multiple spreaders at shorter boat lengths. Spreaders can be fixed at the mast or fully articulating and they come with a variety of methods of attaching the shroud to the spreader tip so it doesn’t jump out. But whatever the spreaders design, droopiness must be avoided at all costs – check your spreaders now!

A word of caution: Once you become an aficionado of the perky spreader your marina dock strolls will take on new meaning, your eye will be inexorably drawn aloft in search of droopers with the attendant risk of an early bath or a broken toe.

So, there you have it. Get your tension gauge working to set your rig just right, re-pin and wrap your turnbuckles, check your spreaders and have a great season.

Heaving-to

When the wind pipes up and the going gets tough heaving-to is a great tactic that lets you stop the world and get off for a while. Or, as Bernard Moitessier says in his classic The Long Way: “….when you no longer know what to do: come about without touching the sheets, put the helm alee, stretch out in the cockpit, eyes closed, and then see things as they are….”.

You can heave-to to have lunch or to weather a storm or, of course, to lie in the cockpit and contemplate. How you do it depends to a large extent on your boat and you should practice the manoeuvre so that you can do it when you need to. For most it’s a matter of tightening up to close hauled and then tacking without releasing the jib sheet. Once the jib is aback, let out the main a little and lash the helm alee. Each boat will behave somewhat differently but the principle of setting the helm and main to drive the boat against the backed jib remains – it’s a matter of finding the right balance for your boat and the prevailing conditions.

In storm conditions you’d be down to storm jib and fully reefed main or trysail but you can heave-to with a fuller sail plan if you just want to stop for lunch or to carry out some task which is best done with the boat still.

Hove-to, the boat should lie about 40º or 50º off the wind and forereach slowly. You are underway so need to act accordingly regarding collision avoidance.

A good skill to acquire is heaving-to.

A head’s up on the marine toilet

On my cruising boats I’ve always opted for conventional flushing marine toilets in Airhead2a1conjunction with a holding tank. On my earlier cruising boat there was a Y-valve to allow waste to be directed to the holding tank or discharged directly overboard, on my later boat all waste went via the holding tank to a dockside pump-out facility or overboard.

These systems were quite satisfactory and I never felt the need to seek alternatives such as on-board waste treatment systems with their complex macerating and chemical treatment paraphernalia.

I did once have a VacuFlush system on a power boat I owned and it was the nearest thing to a home loo I’ve seen on a boat. Step on the foot pedal and whoosh, away it all went. But it used fresh water for flushing and was battery operated thereby consuming two essential resources which excluded it as an option for long term cruising.

A composting toilet is something I’d always thought of as the ideal choice for a cabin in the wilderness rather than on a boat but a couple of years ago I came across this article:

http://www.svsarah.com/Sarah/ewCompostingHeadInstall.htm

It’s a very informative and appropriately lavatorial discourse on the installation of a composting toilet on a boat and makes a good case for such a choice. So, don’t pooh-pooh alternative toilets until you’ve sat down and read it.

Personally I’ll be sticking to my conventional hand flushed marine toilets but I do love the name of the device – the Air Head.

Chesapeake Bay seasons

I have a particular fondness for sailing on Chesapeake Bay where I was lucky enough to keep a boat for five years. Here’s a taste of the seasons on the Bay:

In spring the sailing on Chesapeake Bay is grand, the air fresh, winds reliable. The weather’s changeable, though; tee shirt or foul weather jacket, you never know. Most times you need both in the same weekend. Spring marks the beginning of a season that stretches before us, a blank page to be filled with familiar landfalls and new destinations. Before we can sail, though, we have to prepare; anti-foul the hull, drain the antifreeze from the water system, flush it and top up, change the engine oil, check the rig tension and load the sails back on the boat. Let the season begin.
The summer winds are fickle. A tiny breeze, a mere zephyr, tickles the surface. This is more frustrating than a dead calm. In a dead calm I’d give up, drop the sails, secure the boom and settle down with a good book. Or crank up the engine and be off to my destination. But where there’s a whiff there’s a way; the temptation to try is irresistible. I hoist the main and my lightest jib, use the topping lift to take some of the weight of the boom, go easy on the halyard tension. I know that attempting to move downwind in this tiny breeze is hopeless so I work her onto the wind, a tad below close hauled. I tell the others to keep still, whispering so as not to scare the wind-gods. Is she moving? I watch the wake, toss bits of lint into the water, and stare up at the sails willing the jib to be caressed into shape by this hint of a breath of a breeze. Eventually the tell-tails flutter into life, the boat begins to make way. This movement conspires with the true wind to create an apparent wind and that brings more movement. Yes! We’re sailing. Now let’s just keep her going – a tweak here, a tweak there.

Summer afternoons often bring thunderstorms and we try to get the hook down in a snug anchorage or settle into a marina berth before they let loose their venom. Once in a while, in September and October, hurricanes threaten the Bay; they’re born in the tropics, grow in size and intensity as they move across the Atlantic and many will re-curve when they reach the US, some heading up the coast and reaching Chesapeake Bay as vicious maelstroms threatening the coastal communities with high winds and huge tidal surges.

By the end of October the hurricanes are gone. Autumn is in the air, a magical time on Chesapeake Bay. The breezes are back after the stultifying heat and calms of summer, the trees are starting to acquire what will become a magical mantel of golds and reds and yellows and browns, and delta-flights of honking Canada geese arrive for the winter. I step onto a dew covered deck at dawn and watch the mist rising like steam; all is quiet except for the occasional slap and roil of a fish taking its prey. The first hint of the sun shows itself through the trees on the eastern shore, a promise of another fine day for sailing. But sailing comes later, when the wind arrives; for now I finish my coffee and slip below for another hour in the snugness of a still warm sleeping bag.

Chesapeake Bay – one of my favourite sailing grounds.