Last Post

I’ve decided this will be my last blog post.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult to generate fresh material to interest my boating audience. I suppose this is mainly because I don’t get out on the water as much as I used to. I can’t bring myself to just re-post YouTube links and I don’t want to become a bore regurgitating the same old stuff, so I’m bowing out now. I’ll leave the site active for a while so newcomers can browse the archives.

Site traffic has declined a bit recently but is still very good for a boating blog, more than 250 unique visitors a day, so a big thank you to my faithful followers!

The Salty John on-line boat business is in its thirteenth year and flourishing as a supplier of communication antenna systems, including the fantastic Metz antenna range. I’ll continue to devote my time to that enterprise for many years to come.

I wish you all fair winds!

John

The curse of the inanimate object

“Bit smelly down here, isn’t it?” said the engine.

The engine’s talking to me. I’m hanging upside down in the bowels of my boat trying to get this bloody job done and the engine’s talking to me. OK, I’ll play:

“Err, yes, the smell. Boats are like that, very difficult to keep the bilge from smelling.”
“Well, try a bit harder, please. Some of us have to live down here.”
“Right, but can’t you see I’m busy right now?”
“What’re you doing?”
“Trying to unbolt your exhaust elbow so I can replace it. Last bolt’s stuck.”
“Yeah, we like to do that. Four bolts to undo, the fourth will always be the one that sticks. Twelve screws holding something, the head on the last one will be stripped. We wait till you’ve invested some time and effort before we plonk the first obstacle in your way.”
“Who’s we?”
“Inanimate mechanical objects.”
“Why put obstacles in my way? I’m doing this for you.”
“See, that’s not true. You’re fixing me because you don’t want me to break down. I don’t care if I break down. I’m not the one that’s going to suffer. You are. You’re changing the exhaust elbow for your own selfish reasons. See, you lot need to be honest with us.”
“You lot?”
“Animate objects, specifically humans.”
“OK. Sorry. I lied. I’m doing this job because I don’t want the engine to stop just when I need it. Please help. Is that better?”

The spanner moved, the bolt turned freely.

“Wow. Thank you, engine.”
“You’re welcome. You’d be amazed what a polite request will do.”
“I’ll change my ways, engine. I’ll never again swear at an inanimate object; kick it, hurl it across the room. Promise.”
“Good. Now, see what you can do about that smell, will you?”

Dream or nightmare?

I’ve read somewhere that the most widely held dream in the western world is to set off in a 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 dream 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 f……  boat!” Then she went on deck and stood her watch. And then again, 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 sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Set off now, before you’ve learnt enough to know this isn’t the life for you.”

Aground!

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

I’ve run aground countless times – seven transits of the US ICW and gunkholing in the shallow 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 you’re 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. 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

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

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.

Storm tactics: 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.