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.

Metz marine VHF antenna

An aerial is an aerial is an aerial. No it isn’t. Not by a long chalk.

A marine VHF whip antenna depends for its performance on proper design and build-quality. That tin can at the bottom of the antenna contains the DC shunted coil that must be precisely tuned to the proper resonance. Getting this bit of the design and build right is the difference between an antenna that performs well and one that doesn’t.

The Metz range is based on a heavy gauge stainless steel shell which encloses the 16 AWG coil wound around a substantial form. The coil assembly is sealed in a solid epoxy compound. This build method allows prolonged transmission without danger of coil distortion as the antenna heats up.

Lower quality antennas have fibreglass bodies enclosing light gauge coils and inadequate forms all sealed in a waxy substance. This flimsy internal construction leads to distortion of the coil as the antenna heats up when transmitting, which changes the antenna characteristics, leading to poor performance and even damage to the radio.

To survive in the marine environment the antenna needs to be strongly built of appropriate materials – look for stainless steel components, including both the body and the whip. How the antenna is built internally isn’t so obvious – you’ll need to rely on reputation and a good warranty.

You don’t need to pay through the nose for top quality construction: the Metz Manta is similar in price to ordinary fibreglass bodied antennas and substantially lower in price than some other stainless bodied antennas. And it carries a lifetime coil warranty. Check it out at the Salty John on-line shop

Setting off

The sun was still low in the east, just peeking through the tops of the trees. The wind hadn’t got up yet and the surface of the small bay was a mirror. The reflection of the water disturbed by my oars dappled Adriana’s hull. I marveled again at her lines; that sweeping sheer, the elegant transom, the curve of her bow. Carol appeared from the cabin and looked for me, shielding her eyes; she found me and waved. The dinghy nudged the sand and I shipped the oars, Henry jumped ashore, darted here and there, sniffed, pissed against a felled tree trunk and then stood rigid, looking back at me, tail wagging, anticipating. I stepped out and pulled the dinghy a little way up the shore, found a piece of driftwood, an old tree branch, and hurled it along the beach. Henry dashed after it, snatched it up, dropped it, savaged it and then ran back to me with it in his mouth. I tried to take it from him but he wanted to fight over it. I grabbed one end of the branch and lifted, he wouldn’t let go, his little legs pedalled wildly in the air but his jaws were firmly clamped. I lowered him back to the ground, released my grip on his branch and he dashed off with it, triumphant.

I looked out at Adriana now bathed in the morning sun and was a swirl of emotions; happiness, pride, trepidation. Today we would set sail on an adventure, an odyssey. Our course would take us from this small anchorage in a creek on Chesapeake Bay to points south; to Florida and then to the Bahamas, Hispaniola and the Caribbean.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu

Waves – the wind’s assassin

The BBC is today carrying the story of a new record wave height for the North Atlantic, nineteen metres, or about sixty-three feet, measured by an oceanographic buoy. A few years ago I heard a report by the Irish Met office of a wave off Donegal that measured in at over twenty metres, sixty-seven feet. The Irish Met Office says the buoy that measured that wave is 11km off the coast; it too was generated in deep water by persistently high winds. Whichever claim is actually the record, they’re both pretty big waves and I wouldn’t like to meet either one in a small boat.

By the way, these are wave heights measured by buoys, there is a report of a wave measured by a ship which was a staggering ninety-five feet.

The probable maximum height of wind waves is around 80% of the wind speed. So, a 50 knot wind blowing over an area of ocean with unlimited fetch would produce a maximum wave height of about forty feet. This height is achieved after it has been blowing for a day, having doubled in height since the first four or five hours of the storm. Further maximum wave height increase is more subdued, it takes two days to get that wave up to fifty feet in height.

The average wave height in a storm is about half the height of the top ten percent of waves and one third of the highest wave. So, if the maximum wave height in our 50 knot blow is forty feet, the top ten percent of waves will be about twenty feet and the overall average will be about fourteen feet. It doesn’t sound so bad when you put it like that, does it? Except that you still have to survive those forty-footers.

The Compass

I don’t suppose anyone would argue with the proposition that the wheel is the most compassimportant invention in the history of mankind.

I do realise that some folk think it was the thermos flask:
“The thermos flask! That only keeps cold things cold and hot things hot!”
“Yes, but how does it know?”

Even so, most don’t seriously doubt the impact the wheel has had on mankind’s development. And I don’t think there’s any doubt the compass is up there with the wheel as a significant invention.

The compass was discovered in 11th century China when someone realised that a lodestone suspended from a thread always pointed the same way. What a ‘Eureka’ moment that must have been!

Unfortunately the Chinese marketing organisation of the day didn’t immediately see the navigation application as worthy of pursuit, seeing more potential in the Feng Shui application. So property developers concerned with the spiritual well-being of their building’s occupants, rather than explorers, were the first beneficiaries of this new technology.

Eventually, however, word spread of the lodestone phenomenon and the compass was put to proper use and the rest is history.

Then came GPS, but that’s another story.

Boat food

Looking through the old recipe books built up over five or six years of liveaboard cruising I’ve spottedrecipe-book-300x275 an old favourite: Maddie bread.

Maddie bread is a great treat for breakfast or as an anytime snack. We liked it in place of toast, which was a pain to make using those stupid wire racks over a cooker burner.

Maddie bread is short for Madeleine’s German Graham Bread: Our friend Madeleine introduced us to it, she claims it’s German in origin, Graham is a type of wholemeal flour and it’s a kind of bread. So, it’s an accurate if not succinct title.

By the way, don’t confuse Graham flour with gram flour; the latter is made from chickpeas, not wheat.

Anyway, on with the recipe:

1 cup of all purpose flour
2 cups of Graham flour. (Substitute wholemeal outside North America)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup brown sugar
2 cups of buttermilk. (A substitute for buttermilk is ordinary milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar added per cup).
Cinnamon or raisins, optional.

Blend all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add buttermilk – mix with spoon. Add cinnamon or raisins if desired. Turn into greased bread pan and bake for 1 hour at 180ºC (350ºF).

Delicious with butter and jam. Enjoy.

Oh, and here’s a tip for keeping your flour, rice, pasta and other dry staples weevil free – put a few bay leaves in the storage container. Put unopened bags or boxes of these products in large plastic bags with a few bay leaves. I don’t know why this works, but it does.

The Dream

I’ve read somewhere that the most widely held dream in the western world is to set off in aIMGA0014 small boat to sail around the world. It’s the lure of total freedom that does it, of course, and as dreams go it takes some beating – master of all you survey, no schedule, no boss, tropical beaches, gin clear water, fun in every port.

As you acquire more knowledge, however, reality draws closer and you have to address some of those inconvenient concerns that intrude – the ones that make you bash your pillow, turn over and try to recapture the dream as it was, unadulterated. Concerns like: How much money will we need? What if we get ill? What about storms? Will I get seasick? But then you tell yourself these are just speed bumps on the road to freedom. Many, many people have been this way before and they overcame all kinds of obstacles. You know for sure it’s possible and, of course, you’re right.

But I’d suggest that those who have actually sailed beyond the horizon are less likely to Adriana Culebradream of a life on the ocean waves than those who have barely set foot on the deck of a boat. A rough three day offshore passage during which you’re debilitated by seasickness can’t intrude unless you’ve experienced it. Running aground, dragging anchor, the constant motion and having a clogged heads won’t disturb the dream because they’re concepts beyond your ken. Ignorance is, indeed, bliss and a little knowledge is dangerous.

I sailed in an offshore race with a very experienced man and wife team and two days out the wife stood in the saloon and screamed at the top of her voice “Get me off this fucking boat!” Then she went on deck and stood her watch. And then I’ve listened to people who have done no more than coastal hop from marina to marina expound their plans to set off around the globe.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from seeking adventure in a small boat, I’ve done it twice, but beware the little devil who whispers in your ear, “set off now, before you’ve learnt enough to know this isn’t the life for you.”

Coaxial cable for VHF

OK, so you have a superb radio and a top class antenna. What do you use to connect one to the other without losing the potential of these fine pieces of kit? Coaxial cable is the answer, but not all coax was created equal.landfallnav_2247_118626322

Coaxial cable for VHF radio and AIS is 50 ohm – your TV cable is 75 ohm so you can’t just use some coax left over from your satellite dish installation.

Furthermore, marine cable needs to work in a hostile and constantly moving environment so conductor and braid need to be tinned copper to resist corrosion and the conductor needs to be stranded so it can bend without breaking. A good PVC jacket will keep sunlight degradation at bay.

But what size cable should you choose?

You should aim at a transmission loss of no more than 50% in the run from radio or AIS engine to antenna. In fact, the requirement of the ISAAF for offshore racing is no more than 40% loss in the radio antenna cable.Cables

A loss of 3 decibels (dB) halves the signal so you’ll want to restrict the line loss to no more than that. Signal loss in the cable, known as attenuation, is determined by the size and construction of the conductor, the quality of the shielding and the operating frequency.

Good quality RG213 will lose about 33% of the signal strength in a 20m run, about 45% in a 30m run, so for very big boats it’s the way to go. However, RG213 (and its slightly lower spec but similarly stiff cousin, RG8U) is nominally 10 mm diameter, nearly half an inch in old money, so it’s heavy and doesn’t like to go around tight corners. It’s difficult to work with.

RG8X is nominally 7mm diameter, although actually about 6.5mm diameter unless it has a particularly thick outer jacket. This cable is much lighter and easier to work with than 10mm cable. Good quality RG8X will lose a little less than 50% in a 20m run.

You may also see RG58 cable, it sometimes comes with cheap aerials. It is nominally a 6mm cable, but usually closer to 5mm diameter, and is very lossy. OK for very short runs, perhaps, but certainly not for masthead installations. It loses a whopping 65% of the signal in a 20m run. That means 15 watts of your 25 watts maximum power is lost just in the cable run. It’s scandalous that this cable is offered in ever increasing lengths, factory crimped to an aerial. It used to be offered in 5m lengths for power boats but just recently I’ve seen it offered in 25m lengths. Don’t use it for anything more than 6m runs or you’ll lose more than half your signal power.

So, make sure your cable is of marine quality with good shielding and for a cable run of up to about 20m use RG8X, for much longer runs you’ll need to wrestle with RG213/ RG8U. Don’t use RG58 except for very short runs, up to 6m.

And remember: “A penny in the antenna system is worth a pound in the radio”, so don’t skimp on your antenna, cable and connectors if you want to unlock the full potential of your radio or AIS unit.