Monday, August 27, 2007

Refit: new deck hardware

The trouble with upgrading certain items on an old boat is that they have a habit of making other items, that you never originally intended to renew, look even more worn out than they really are. So, to match Arabella's shiny new cockpit winches, various other shiny items of deck hardware have now been added.

Most of these items are mere fripperies that just look nicer than the items they replaced, but the pop-up midships cleats are what I really wanted for practical purposes. Arabella lacked any midships cleats for spring lines or short-handed docking, but her narrow side decks meant that installing traditional cleats would have presented a tripping hazard for the unwary, myself included. These cleats are very low profile and are spring-loaded so that they pop up when you pull the latch.

Matters below decks are less bright and shiny, as the yard continue to grapple with the problem of getting the (now replaced) ST60+ Graphic to integrate with the other instruments. I live in hope...

On the positive side, the new latches and gaskets to the cockpit locker lids have successfully kept out the heavy rain of recent weeks, and Arabella's cockpit lockers and bilge are as dry as a bone throughout.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Downloads area added

I have added a small downloads area for anyone interested in accessing and downloading documents about Arabella or about the Pandora International generally. Look for Downloads in the list of Links in the right hand margin of this page, or click HERE.

Most of the documents are in PDF format, with a couple of exceptions that are in Word where they might be useful to others who might want to recycle them.

The documents added today are:

  • Pandora International: original sales brochure
  • 1973 Boat Test: Pandora International
  • 2000 Used Boat Test: Pandora Mark 1
  • Arabella's 2005 Survey (PDF)
  • Power Consumption Calculator (MS Word)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Refit: back to work again

Her moment of racing glory behind her, for this year at least, Arabella's refit has resumed. The objective was to have completed the loose ends by the end of July but, in fairness to the yard, the weather has been less than helpful. Here's what we did manage to get done in July.

Above: Arabella in pieces once again. The ST60+ Graphic Display has been removed and returned to Raymarine for replacement as it has turned out to be faulty, refusing to (Sea)talk to the cockpit instruments.

Above: Work in progress: Mr G and I have been constructing the box which will enclose the consumer unit, battery charger and other electrical equipment at the aft end of the starboard settee berth.

Above: The cabling and deck gland for the solar panel have now been tidied up.

Above: New toggle catches have been fitted to the cockpit lockers. The locker lids now boast gaskets in the hope of reducing the amount of water that finds its way inside - the current weather should given them a good test.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Worst floods for a generation (vaguely boaty)

As I type this, much of Gloucestershire and parts of Hereford & Worcester are under water as the Rivers Severn and Avon burst their banks following days of torrential rainfall. Hundreds of thousands of people are without drinking water, and a smaller - but still very large - number of homes have no electrical supply.

The news presenters have taken to calling these "worst floods for a generation." That, and a particular shot taken from a news helicopter showing the flooded fields that have transformed Tewkesbury into a beleagured island, reminded me of an old family cine film, captured on silent 8mm, of those self-same flooded fields a generation ago, in November 1960.

I've posted the clip here and on Arabella's new Movie Gallery - not for the flood pictures, which we can all see live on 24 hour news feeds, but for the interesting manner in which my family and their friends amused themselves in those biblical floods nearly 47 years ago.

Stay with the movie and you'll see what I you think they'd be allowed to do this in the Health & Safety-conscious Britain of 2007? With or without a risk assessment?

On an embarrassing note, the stupid yellow pom-pom hat sported by my older brother, back then in the Good Old Days before I was born, had an extended life and was regularly worn by me on the way to and from school, at my mother's insistence, as late as 1970. I'm pretty sure Social Services wouldn't allow that degree of mental cruelty to children in Britain in 2007.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Round The Island 2007 - 30th Overall!

Who says twin-keelers can't race?! At the end of an eventful day, Arabella came home in the 2007 Round The Island Race in 30th place overall in the ISCR Group of 680-odd boats. An exceptionally good result for a thirty-three year old bilge keeler - she was the eighth-placed twin keeler overall - that had been set up for cruising rather than racing, had only been back in the water for a couple of weeks following an incomplete refit, using a set of tired old sails and had only been test-sailed twice, briefly, in winds up to F2.

Above: Looking very business-like on the final leg. I get to look good on the weather rail, clutching my trusty Garmin and looking like a tactician, while the rest of the crew do all the real work, out of sight behind me in the cockpit! (image copyright Sailing Scenes, used with permission)

The plan had been for the three of us to put in a decent test-sail on the day before the race, but as ever the pressures of work had put paid to that. We'd already elected one of our number to act as skipper, by virtue of his racing experience, and he and I got two hours out on Southampton Water in the early evening, while the third crew member made his way down from London by train.

This very short test-sail was bedevilled by the same light airs as the first such attempt had been, a week earlier. We'd planned on at least seeing how Arabella would handle in stronger breezes, but it was not to be. We'd also planned on calibrating the log, but the paddle wheel had decided to clog up, presumably with the some of the copious weed that afflicts the marina where Arabella is kept. Our final crew member called to say that his train was pulling into Southampton Central, and we turned back towards home, resigned to unscrewing the paddle wheel and freeing it once we were tied up alongside.

As luck would have it, the paddlewheel unclogged itself seconds before we turned into the marina. That was one less job at least. Our final crew member, waiting on the dock, took our lines, and we headed off to the pub to, um, settle our tactics.

We finally got our heads down just before midnight, sleeping among the debris that inevitably takes over the cabin of any boat as small as Arabella when you try to squeeze three adults into it.

Just before the 3.00am alarm, the first hints of race day's wind began to rattle the halyards and awoke me, curled in the nest I'd manage to clear for myself in the forecabin. It was still dark. I contemplated rolling over and trying to grab a little more sleep, but at at that moment the alarm sounded.

The ship's company stirred and, somewhat less than energetically, extracted themselves from their berths. Bleary-eyed, we carried anything surplus that we could - seat cushions, kit bags, all but a couple of fenders, spare dock lines, the tender - up to the car. Then we staggered back down the pontoon, got the outboard started and warmed up, and cast off at 3.50am. Under power, I helmed us out into Southampton Water as the wind began to pick up and daylight began to appear behind a mass of dark clouds. It looked like a very grey morning was in store.

Above: Pre-dawn. The other members of Arabella's crew look more cheerful than they probably feel.

Our elected skipper took the helm as we raised the mainsail and headed down Southampton Water to the waiting area for the start. The paddlewheel for the log was still working and we quickly calibrated it, using the Speed over Ground (SOG) data from the GPS; the tide was slack, so we hoped we'd got the calibration more or less correct.

I went below decks and rustled up bacon rolls and coffee for the ship's complement. The Origo spirit stove onboard runs on meths. It didn't take long for the smell to get to me. I'd woken up with a headache. Now it began to get worse. I couldn't know it, but it was going to stay that way for the next 15 hours or so.

Above: The early starters were pouring across the line as we sailed down Southampton Water.

Ahead to port, we could see boats streaming out of the Hamble three abreast, all making their way to the waiting area. By now it was 5.45am, and we could see the early starters already pouring across the start line and heading off down the Western Solent.

We switched off the outboard, and let the main, assisted by the now-ebbing tide, pull us slowly down towards the northern waiting area. It was getting very light by now, and one of the passing boats reminded us to switch off our nav lights.

Time to pull the outboard out of the well. It was passed down to me, below decks, and I wrapped it up in an old sail bag and laid it down on the cabin sole in the saloon. There was already a mess below decks: bags of food and drink mixed up with sailbags and oilies. I tried to create some order out of the chaos, pushing food bags up forward, leaving downwind sails near the companionway, laying out charts, firing up the handheld GPS chartplotter and re-setting it.

The smell of the stove, the motion of the boat in the increasing chop as we moved into the waiting race fleet and the greasy breakfast all conspired to worsen my headache. Nausea began to set in. Hurriedly, I slipped on my oilies and popped up above decks to grab some fresh air.

Above: In the northern waiting area, twenty minutes to go. Everyone's being very civilised at this stage!

Twenty minutes to go to our 6.40am start. We were in the northern waiting area now, manoeuvring among the fleet. The wind was filling in, but not too strong, and everyone around us was pretty much in control. It was busy in there among the waiting fleet, but not too dramatic.

As expected, the wind was to the right of the axis down the Western Solent. Our pre-agreed tactics in such conditions called for us to cross the start line at the north end, right under the committee boat, and to favour the Hampshire side - but never straying far from the main channel where the ebb tide would be at its strongest - before crossing toward the Island side halfway down. As the 10 minute warning came over the VHF, we unfurled the genoa and began to work our way towards the committee boat as subtly as we could. It was fairly clear that others had the same idea, but we seemed to have got the drop on them and, as the five minute warning was broadcast, found ourselves in clear air near the line and in no danger of being forced over it. The question now was whether things would stay that way.

By and large they did. A handful of other starters began to cluster in around us, and we had to start sailing more aggressively, putting ourselves on to starboard tack to keep near the front of the fleet, but just to the right side of the line. That wasn't perfect, as we were now heading south, away from the northern end of the line where we wanted to be, but after what seemed an interminable 15 second countdown, the gun sounded and we could at last head up into the wind and crossed the line almost immediately.

Just as immediately, we lost our advantage. The mainsail was being squeezed forward somehow. Its foot was unfeeding off the front of the track on the boom. It took us a moment or two to figure out that the first reefing line was bar tight and that all our attempts to harden up the main halyard were succeeding simply in making the problem worse. Each swig on the halyard merely caused the mainsail to work forward, more of the foot unfeeding every time.

Competitors that we had jumped on the line now began to swarm around and past us. The reefing line was jammed fast and no amount of pulling and fiddling with the break would release it. We were going backwards through the field. It was an easy decision to get out a knife and cut the reefing line, before tightening up the main halyard while feeding the mainsail foot back into the boom track. Arabella surged forward again and we began to make up places.

Above: Mainsail finally sorted out, Arabella (centre boat, light blue hull, sail number K535) attempts to claw her way back up through her Division on the leg down to the Needles mark. (image copyright Paul Wyeth, used with permission).

The making tack down the Western Solent was definitely starboard. Against that, we had to balance the tactical need to keep north for the first few miles. We did the best we could, me on the weather rail, holding the handheld plotter and trying to guide the helm along the north side of the main shipping channel to pick up the best of the tide. Despite Arabella's twin keels, we were able to point up well to windward, getting the benefit of the making tack for longer than others. They appeared to be sailing freer, perhaps getting more boat speed for the water. The Garmin, though, was telling us our SOG and we knew that we had to hold the making tack for longer even if we sacrificed boat speed - the tide was making all the difference, piling the ground speed on top of our 4.5 knots through the water.

When we finally ran out of deep water channel and tacked onto port, it was clear that we had made the right call. Port tack was truly, truly slow. We got back onto starboard tack as fast we could, and again overhauled another bunch of boats that had been sailing freer and forced onto port tack too soon. Now that it was clear what we had to do, we kept up that tactic all the way down to the Hurst Narrows. The tide picked up here, and we sailed through the standing waves with an incredible 10 knots SOG appearing on the Garmin. At that kind of speed, it was just a matter of minutes down to get down to the Needles.

Time to decide when to turn downwind and round the lighthouse. Painfully aware of the Varvassi wreck and boilers strewn around the seabed there, waiting to catch us out, we dispensed with the usual trick of lining up the top of the lighthouse with the Coastguard cottages and put our trust in the incredible accuracy of the GPS. We turned inside much of the fleet and cleared the boiler with, I reckoned, just a few yards to spare.

That moment of nervousness past, we came downwind and raised the cruising chute. The mobile phone had been ringing, and as I went below and pulled out the sail bag containing the chute, I took a quick look around, but there was no chance of finding it. Below decks looked as though it had been through a washing machine. There was debris everywhere, pre-packed sandwiches and drinks scattered around with charts and gloves and binoculars and goodness knew what else. Nausea set in again and I ducked out of the cabin and back up into the fresh air. My headache got worse.

(I later found that the missed calls were from another Pandora International based in the Solent, Ladybird. He had been given a different handicap and an earlier start than us, but the plan had been for us to hook up if possible and enjoy some match racing at the back of the field. He'd seen us at the start and again near Salt Mead, but we had become so engrossed in keeping our position well up in the fleet that we never noticed him and had now, although we didn't know it, left him far behind. It was in the back of my mind that he must be somewhere up ahead of us, given his earlier start, and I wrongly assumed that we hadn't caught him up yet).

We got the chute up, after a couple of failed attempts and tangles - more lost time - and began to accelerate downwind. The mood on board was turning. This had started out as an excuse for a picnic and a few beers afloat. I'd even promised to provide a hot meal, which was sitting in the pressure cooker somewhere down below decks.

But that had all gone by the wayside . A number of things were now very obvious to all of us. First, Arabella was fast. Perhaps that shouldn't have come as a surprise, but for my part I'd been conditioned to believe that bilge-keeled Pandoras were slow and fin-keeled ones were fast, and as far as the other crew members were concerned, just about any small, cheap old boat was a dog by definition. The limited test-sailing we'd done, while demonstrating that Arabella would move along in light airs, had been insufficient to overturn those preconceptions. Now, however, we knew different. Second, we were turning out to be pretty good as a team: the other two were physically and psychologically much better attuned to racing than I was, but between us we had a great helm, a great crew and a decent, aspiring tactician (and I've always been a strong navigator). Given that we had never sailed as a team before, we were doing an exceptionally good job in a boat that was giving us her all. Third, we could see by the way we'd got well in among the the fleet that had started ten minutes before us that we had made serious places on the first leg, and we were beginning to get competitive about it.

Nobody came right out and said it,but we all knew something had changed. We were serious now. This wasn't a boy's day out any more. Our elected skipper began to get tougher on us, his usual affability replaced by a sharper, more businesslike approach.

Using the cruising chute was frustrating - we couldn't get a straight downwind run, but had to put in a series of gybes that meant we zigzagged our way in and out, always staying close inshore. Meanwhile we watched others, flying proper spinnakers, heading straight downwind and overtaking us. Most of the fleet seemed to have headed further out into the English Channel - some of them quite a few miles out by the look of it - and we couldn't tell if we were losing ground to them, but it felt like we were. One competitor near us had gone very close inshore, despite the hazards there, and he also pulled well ahead. Only a few competitors were adopting the same strategy as us, staying inshore but not so close that Peter Bruce's "Wight Hazards" needed to be open on the page.

Nausea took over. I went over to leeward and lost my breakfast. I would not eat again until after we got back to port. The others occasionally reached down and retrieved what food they could from the melee below decks. I stuck to sipping bottled water and hung grimly on as the channel swells passed under Arabella and rolled her sickeningly from side to side. Taking the helm might have helped, but the skipper was, rightly, showing no signs of surrendering it and in any event I needed to get back onto the tactics.

We took turns to use a pee bottle. Using the sea toilet was unthinkable, even if it could have been reached under the debris below decks. My own mood was getting darker, as my headache worsened and the nausea refused to release its grip. The other two crew, both far more experienced than I as sailors and racers, were carrying me now. I could feel it, and it was embarrassing and frustrating, but there didn't seem to be anything that I could do about it. To try and make some meaningful contribution, I took a spell on the sheet for the cruising chute. The sun was out now, and was high over the mast, right in my eyes as I stared fixedly at the luff of the chute, sending piercing stabs of pain deep into my brain. I began to wonder why I had ever decided to do this, I clearly wasn't up to it - unlike the boat and the other crew, all of whom were strong.

As I had expected, we picked up the inshore tidal eddy in the run down to St Catherine's Point, and the mark arrived surprisingly quickly. The wind was with the tide now, and the overfalls were very mild. We took a conservative line, a few hundred yards offshore, as we rounded the point and set about trying to find some point of sail on which the damn chute would pull well and which was also vaguely on the course we wanted to set. It was a forlorn hope. While the main fleet still stayed well to seaward, those competitors who were around us continued to sail off downwind under spinnaker, while we gybed back and forth as best we could.

The making tack just kept taking us further inshore than I wanted us to be as navigator. Matters were not helped by the fact that my pre-race homework had been at its weakest in relation to the run down to Bembridge: I knew what the tide was doing, but the Garmin just kept showing obstructions close inshore and I couldn't make out the charted depths.

Above: Frustration on the downwind leg, in near perfect conditions. St. Catherine's Point astern. Most of the fleet has stayed to seaward, and we find ourselves with just a few other inshore-minded racers. Most of them have spinnakers and can run dead downwind, so are peeling off to port as we are forced to hold our course to keep the cruising chute filled.

Time passed. The Princessa cardinal appeared in the binoculars. I gave the helm a course to steer and hoped I hadn’t set us across anything that we wouldn't want to ground on. The fleet was beginning to bunch up again, as the main body to seaward began to close in on the mark at Bembridge, a couple of miles further on. Spinnakers and chutes were being doused up ahead.

Time to gybe again. The chute tangled itself around the forestay. It had done this once or twice before, and on each occasion I had been able to go up on the foredeck and free it. But this time, the problem was worse, and one of the sheets was under the boat. We had no choice now but to drop the chute and raise it again. My headache ratcheted up a couple of notches. Once the chute was down, we had a hurried debate. There were boats behind us, a lot of them, still under spinnaker. The nearest, a couple of SCODs, were pulling up fast on us. But the mark at Bembridge was now on the nose, and our boat speed was good even under main and genoa. We opted to leave the chute down and brave it out all the way down to the mark.

It paid off. We rounded the mark still ahead of the SCODs and rejoined the main fleet, now stretching ahead of us in an unbroken wall towards Cowes, out of sight ahead. The Beken of Cowes dory was there, snapping pictures of the fleet as it passed. Arabella was now on a fetch and went over on to her ear. Back up to the weather side, weight over once again.

Above and below: Arabella rejoins the main fleet at Bembridge (images copyright Beken of Cowes, used with permission)

There was a long overdue lift in the crew's spirits. We were clearly well up in the fleet, mixing it with much larger boats that had been in the earlier starts. We could also make out a few other competitors who had been in our start, flying their distinctive dayglow green fleet flags, and set about trying to get on terms with them.

It helped that I was back in familiar navigational territory now, using the Garmin handheld and my tactical homework to guide the helm inshore of No Mans Land Fort, comfortable that I knew the height of tide. The body of the fleet headed north, across the main channel, towards the Hampshire shore. We felt sure that was not the right thing to do, and stayed in the smaller stream of boats that kept over towards the Island, out of the now adverse stream.

Above: Arabella battles against increasing chop on the leg from Bembridge to Castle Point. (image copyright Sailing Scenes, used with permission)

The fort flashed by, and I guided the helm out to the posts marking Ryde Sands, easing him ever so slightly to starboard, to starboard. It was a battle of wills now: he wanted to stay in, I wanted him just a bit further out to clear the shallowest part of the sands which were showing clearly on the Garmin's tiny screen. The posts came into sight, and ahead of them, through them, we saw boats going hard aground. Our part of the fleet took the hint, and so at last did our helm, falling off the wind, aiming further out.

Out towards Sturbridge. The water was deep here, and the adverse tide was telling. The helm wanted us back in towards the Island shore. I was happy to agree with 2.5m of tide under our keels in addition to the charted depth. But the drying sands inshore shoaled rapidly and all I could do was warn the helm to tack as soon as he noticed a sharp reduction in soundings. We headed in, almost in to the end of Ryde Pier, tacked back out again, then again back towards the Island shore. The helm was braver than I was, ignoring my pleas to tack and holding his course inshore till the last possible moment before tacking out again. We passed quite a number of yachts aground on the sands.

The Island shore began its pronounced curve towards Castle Point. We could now work the wind along the Island shore in around 6 or 7 metres of water, reasonably safe in the knowledge that we would be clear of all obstacles. All sense of time had been lost. I couldn't remember how the tide was setting, and there was no chance to go below and grab the tidal charts, as we were now needed more than ever out on the weather rail.

The wind was building, and with it the chop. I hadn't given much thought to the Pandora's reputation for being a wet boat before now, but all that changed as water bucketed over the bow and caught me, the forward man on the weather rail, full on. It was a good job the Garmin was waterproof.

I leaned under the boom from my perch on the weather rail, and looked over at the main body of the fleet, still packed over on the Hampshire side. They were scattering before an inbound container ship. I was meant to be in charge of tactics, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what they were all doing over there. Was it herd mentality? Who knew, we were still getting a decent SOG of 5 knots, cheating the tide by staying so close inshore. I felt confident that we were where we should be.

The atmosphere in the cockpit was becoming fractious. Our skipper was letting out the mainsheet at the same time as the other crew member was trimming the genoa, continually catching the crew member's head with the end of the boom. Tempers, which had stayed remarkably calm in the face of the pressure we had imposed on ourselves, were beginning to fray very slightly.

The Island shore was arching out to meet us now as we closed on Castle Point. The wind was getting flukier, mostly force 4, but with gusts of up to F6 as we passed valleys and gaps in the trees on the shore. Ahead of us, we could see yachts on our tack heeling over, occasionally broaching, in gusts. There was a unenthusiastic debate about reefing the genoa at least - bearing in mind we'd cut the mainsail's reefing line at the start of the race - but we opted to carry on under full sail. Arabella didn't seem to be losing any boat speed even in the gusts.

The finish line came into sight. We made one of our few tactical errors by not staying over close in to East Cowes, on port tack, once we passed Castle Point. Instead, we headed out and tacked back across to the southerly finish line, but that required us to put in one final tack right on the line and in so doing we crossed a much larger Moody, which rammed us up the stern with an almighty crunch, his pulpit hitting Arabella's pushpit and demolishing the MOB danbuoy and horseshoe. There was no question of stopping to remonstrate, we were on port tack now, the pair of us, both desperately trying to build up boat speed once again to get us those last few yards over the line as other boats poured over on starboard.

We crossed the line at 4.32pm, having taken 9 hours 52 minutes in uncorrected time to complete the course.

The Moody came over once we were clear of the line and checked we were okay, and we left the matter at that. Fortunately there was no real damage to either boat. His nav light had detached from the pulpit, which otherwise looked okay, and Arabella's pushpit had torn out its mounting screws to starboard (note to yard: it should have been through-bolted!) and was very slightly bent. The MOB gear and mountings looked more-or-less capable of salvage provided the mountings could be straightened, but we left a detailed examination for later. My inclination was to treat it as a genuine racing accident and leave the matter there, as long as I didn't hear further from the Moody. It didn't even seem worth protesting.

We handed in our declaration forms at the barge and set sail once again across an increasingly choppy Solent to Southampton Water. We were all exhausted. Our skipper had taken the helm quite some time before the 6.40am start, and had relinquished it only to take a leak twice during the race. Now, more than ten hours later, he passed me the tiller and found a spot below decks, near the main hatch, to sit and nurse a beer. The other crew, who had frankly made up for my lack of prowess, was just as knackered and sat back in the cockpit, trying to relax.

I was beyond coherent speech and my head was exploding, even if the nausea had finally started to subside. But I didn't care. Not only had Arabella safely made it through ten hours of very intensive sailing, but for the first time I was helming her myslef in decent winds, F5-6, and I was revelling in it! I might not be much of a racer, but as a cruising sailor I could really appreciate her speed, her balanced, responsive helm and her forgiving nature in the gusts. I could see that I was going to have a lot of fun sailing this boat in the months and years ahead.

Above: Tired but happy, helming Arabella back across an increasingly choppy Solent on the way back to Southampton.

Before long, we were in the lee of Calshot and into the smoother conditions of Southampton Water. I set a course for Southampton, and Arabella romped homeward through a series of rain squalls. The sky darkened under the black clouds, even though it was supposed to be daylight for many hours yet, and we switched on Arabella's nav lights once again.

Safely tied up back in the marina, we three fortysomethings were so stiff and bruised that we could barely walk. We staggered up to the marina office, terra firma rolling alarmingly under our feet, and bullied the duty staff to log onto to the official website so that we could see our result. We couldn't believe it when we saw we were 29th overall (as we then were - subsequently the results were corrected and we were awarded 30th place).

In as celebratory a mood as our physcial condition permitted, we grabbed hot showers and headed back down to the boat. I lit up the stove for the first time since our 4.30am breakfast cook-up, heated up the minestrone in the pressure cooker - better late than never - and dished it out.

Dusk fell. A companionable silence descended upon the cockpit while we appreciatively spooned up the hot soup.

"That," said one of the crew, "was fun. What a great little boat she is!"

"Absolutely," I said, as if there'd ever been any doubt. Then stood up, walked over to the side, and smartly vomited my wife's finest minestrone into the marina.

(Edit: a modified version of this entry was published in the Twin Keeler Newsletter, 2007 Issue 4)

Conditions: NW F3-4, becoming W F5-6 later. Mixed sun/showers, some heavy. Sea state slight/moderate.
Distance covered (GPS over ground): 88.6 NM
Total distance covered to date (2007): 107.9 NM


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Refit: running for the start line

With just a few days remaining until the Round The Island Race, Arabella is still not quite ready. Although her basic systems are essentially there or thereabouts, and the snagging list gets shorter all the time, a lot of reasonably advanced issues remain, not least the issue of why the GPS won't talk to anything else on board. These items in turn have a habit of bogging the yard down, so that they don't get on with some of the simpler stuff on the "to do" list.

I concluded a week or two ago that it was time to wheel in my secret refit weapon. Sure enough, Mr G****** the Colombian handyman and I have spent a couple of days on Arabella tackling those jobs that were on the yard's list, but don't really need the yard to do them.

Above: It had to be done...the obligatory clock and barometer!

In all honesty, I'd have been happy to have the yard do these jobs - the difficulty is that they can, from time to time, be mind-bogglingly slow and their chippie's hourly rate feels as though it is as much as, if not more than, the Harley Street paediatrician my wife insists on taking our kids to see. Mr G*****, in contrast, is quick and costs about a third of that rate. What's more, his work is very, very good, provided you can mutually overcome his lack of command of the English language.

Having never been to the English seaside before, Mr G***** brought along his long-suffering wife, who does most of his translation for him and provides him with coffee and sandwiches at indeterminate intervals. This whole working-on-a-boat thing was clearly a very exciting departure from the norm - they spent the entire lunch-break wandering up and down the marina pontoons, ooh-ing and ah-ing at all the boats.

Above: In between dismantling, sanding and varnishing the galley woodwork, we fixed as many safety and other fittings as we could. We tried to be as professional as we knew how to be - this ABC extinguisher in the forepeak, for example, is through-bolted to a wooden backing pad to spread the load evenly and save damaging the GRP. Below: The other, smaller extinguisher fitted beneath the companionway step.

Working together, we went through a load of little jobs. Fire extinguishers went on, as did the fire blanket. The galley woodwork was miraculously varnished. The compass and binoculars holders were mounted and varnished. The obligatory clock and barometer appeared on the saloon bulkhead. Curtain tracks were installed. The Tiller-Tamer appeared on the tiller. The Origo spirit stove, freshly cleaned and tested, re-appeared on its gimbals. The galley sink was scrubbed and a new plug and chain installed.

Above: Tiller Tamer installed to the tiller.

I worked on the exterior also, cutting away at the oxidised white-ish gel coat. I launched the tender and worked around Arabella's topsides, washing and shining, before taking the scrubbing brush and reaching under the boat, cleaning the slime off from below the waterline and the raked twin keels.

Above: Fire blanket installed to galley area.

As we worked away, the yard's man came along and started his own jobs, bolting the reefing points to the underside of the boom, strengthening the cockpit cleats by through-bolting them into wooden backing plates, cutting down and installing the uppermost batten to the mainsail. He replaced the gasket to the new forehatch, added the catches. The anchor locker received a new catch, too.

Above: Useful little details added in time for the upcoming race.

What was really striking was just how much progress we made in such a short time. I left feeling at the end of the second day feeling much happier. Arabella's electronics were still not quite behaving themselves, but little by little she was coming together. She'd be ready to race at least.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

First test-sail

With Arabella's refit still trailing loose ends and snagging items, it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I approached her first and only test-sail before participating in the Round The Island Race.

One of the two other crew for the race had kindly agreed to join me, as had Steve from the boatyard and SWMBO. The weather forecast was unispiring: very light breezes and heavy rain showers. Still, this was the appointed day and the only chance we were going to get.

As we boarded Arabella from the pontoon, it soon became clear that weight distribution needed careful thought. With three men, none of them overly lightweight, and a woman standing on one side, Arabella heeled over considerably, although I was pleased to see that her initial tenderness was replaced by much greater stiffness once a certain angle of heel had been passed, and her keels began to counteract the lean.

Arabella's outboard engine, freshly serviced, started at the first pull, and we slipped the lines and motored out the marina into the channel outside. With the same alacrity with which it had sprung into life, the outboard died and we quickly unfurled the genoa to catch what little breeze there was while we investigated the problem. It turned out to be fuel starvation - we'd forgotten to loosen the little breather valve on the external tank - and power restored, we motored out to onto the broad, grey expanse of Southampton Water.

Raising the mainsail, we switched off the outboard and Arabella heeled gently as she caught the light breeze and we headed upwind. Considering how little breeze there was - F1 -2 at best - she accelerated remarkably smoothly until the log read 2.5 knots. This seemed to be an underestimate to us and, taking advantage of the fact that we were at slack water, we checked the GPS for SOG, which suggested the log was under-reading by around three-quarters of a knot. I made a mental note to calibrate the log.

With wind in her sails, Arabella was noticeably less tender than she had seemed at the dock. Putting someone out on to the weather side deck, if not exactly the rail, made a difference, but there was no sense of instability. In fact, given the light airs, Arabella felt remarkably stiff and in the groove.

Upwind, her helm was, if anything, neutral - not what I had expected from a lightwieght GRP hull. It could have been the lack of wind, or it could have been the twin keels, but whichever was the case, she needed remarkably little effort at the tiller to hold her course upwind. Changing course felt almost like helming a dinghy, perhaps not surprising given Arabella's modest measurement. There was an immediate response to inputs on the tiller, and a nice sense of 'feel' transmitted from the rudder.

We turned our attention to the downwind sails once we had cleared the Hamble River entrance and come to a halt, in dead calm and pouring rain, off the Coronation racing mark. With Steve's expert help, we raised the blue and white ghoster, and ran gently downwind, getting the feel of her. Arabella's helm felt light and responsive to me, much less hard-mouthed than the previous Varne 27 that I had owned. But in these light airs, it was difficult to be certain. For sure, she was happier downwind than the old Varne, accelerating more quickly - but then, she was a much lighter boat - and with less tendency to wallow and roll.

Next up was the red, white and blue cruising chute. Although Arabella's rig was clearly set up for the use of a spinnaker pole, no such item existed in her inventory and I was keen if possible to rely on cruising sales, even for the race. Frankly, spinnakers scared me, I'd seen them take a boat out of control just once too often. It took a bit of fumbling to get the chute rigged and hoisted, but after quite a while we were up and running, while I feverishly tried to remember all of Steve's hints and tips as he rattled them off.

Once I felt I had understood how to set the chute, we ran off on a broad reach all the way back up Southampton Water, often just ghosting along as the wind weakened to F1 and occasional calms. The tide, as much as anything else, carried us back home.

Taking stock as we headed back to London, we felt we had done the best we could in the circumstances. The weather had hardly given us the chance to put Arabella through her true paces, but nothing had broken and we understood how to hoist, set and lower her downwind sails and by coming out with us, the man from the yard had seen where problems might arise and left armed with a list of urgent items that he could attend to in the week or so that remained until the race. In addition, upon arrival at the dock, we'd attempted to pump the bilges and discovered that although the pump sucked up water, it then lost it in a great spurt from the non-return valve, discharging it into the cockpit locker rather than overboard. That, too, went on the list for the yard.

Arabella had put the first 20 miles under her belt in this reincarnation. It wasn't much, but I felt reasonably confident that she would make it round the island. We had no ideal how fast she was, however, and as we drove back, we discussed what food and drink to bring with us on the big day. Clearly, we couldn't expect to complete the 55 mile course, together with the return trip up and down Southampton Water, in anything less than a very, very long day. The race was more likely to be a picnic. But she should make it round.

Conditions: F1 - F2, sea state smooth, heavy rain showers
Distance covered: 19.3 NM
Total distance covered to date (2007): 19.3 NM


Monday, June 11, 2007

Servicing lifejackets

Arabella's first test-sail is coming up in a few days, if divine providence smiles upon me and the yard do their stuff. In addition to sending annoying numbers of emails to the yard, whose personnel now cringe at the sight or sound of me, I have been checking all of the safety gear that will be required, including my stock of lifejackets.

This month's Practical Boat Owner magazine (July 2007) ran a good 'how to' article on servicing lifejackets, so that was open on the page as I set to work at our kitchen table. First, I unscrewed each gas cylinder and checked it had not been fired, before screwing it back in, hand-tight. Then I moved down to the automatic firing head (all of my lifejackets are automatically activated by immersion in water). I was shocked to discover that in one case, the firing head was embossed with an expiry date of March 2007 - despite the lifejacket having been purchased in August 2005 with a three-year guarantee!

Fortunately, the firing heads fitted to the remaining lifejackets expired in mid-2008. I managed to find a re-arming kit online for the particular lifejacket that needed it and, having got that ordered, sat back for a moment and contemplated. I'd never activated a lifejacket. Since I had to re-arm one of mine, why not try it out now? It might be interesting, and it would certainly be educational.

I figured that climbing in the bath to trigger automatic inflation sounded like too much hard work, so I opted to pull the manual cord instead. I was a little bit nervous. I didn't know whether there would be a big bang as the gas cartridge was fired, or whether to expect an explosive inflation of the vehicle airbag variety.

In the event, it was all very calm. There was no bang at all, just a quiet hissing noise as the lifejacket filled up, which took something between 1 and 2 seconds.

Once the jacket was inflated, it was really very full indeed - think of a well-inflated balloon as an analogy. If you ever need to inflate a jacket using the mouthpiece, bear this point in mind: blow till you think the jacket is full - then keep blowing some more. We are talking extremely highly-inflated. As in, Beckham could take a free kick with it.

Above: Just in case (like me) you've never seen one and wondered, this is what one of those compact, rolled-up 150N lifejackets looks like after you've pulled the toggle.

I'd made sure the jacket was fitted snugly before pulling the cord. Following inflation, the straps became a fair bit tighter, especially across the chest, although not painfully or constrictingly so.

But how tight was tight enough? Would the jacket still ride up? The answer was yes - a good, even pull upwards would still cause the jacket to ride up by a few inches. I could easily imagine the difficulties that would follow if you were unfortunate enough to be in the water at the time. The sensation of being held firmly by the jacket - which ought to be a good thing - then becomes counter-productive, because it's clearly so darned buoyant that it will fight your every attempt to pull it back down into the correct position. What with its size and grip, moving around, not to mention contorting yourself to pull it back down, would be seriously hard. As to adjusting the strap to tighten it - the way those twee little airline safety briefings describe, just before take-off - you could forget it. I had real difficulty even unbuckling the strap at the front to release myself.

All of which serves only reinforces the point, made in the Ouzo report, that crotch- or thigh straps are de rigeur. Once it's on, the jacket isn't getting any better-fitted, and if it is to do its job, those straps are likely to make all the difference. Increasingly, I am coming to the view that it's as-good-as-criminal for the marine "safety" industry to sell lifejackets without crotch- or thigh-straps, and to market such straps only as an optional accessory. Fortunately, I did buy thigh straps for my jackets at the same time as I purchased the jackets themselves. I would urge anyone reading this to go out and get straps at the first available opportunity. And to use them.

Oh, and do remember to check the expiry date on the firing mechanism, won't you, even if your lifejackets were bought quite recently? Three-year guarantees, it would seem, are not quite what they appear to be....

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Refit: back afloat at last

Nine days since I last saw poor Arabella, in quite a state and not looking very ready at all to go sailing in. The yard have used the time to good effect. She is not as ready as she should be, but as the pictures below demonstrate, Arabella is now looking like something one might actually consider sailing in.

Below decks remains messy, as the yard grapples with recalcitrant electronics and tricky joinery.

Some of the electronics/electrics issues are hard, like getting the GPS to talk to everything else. Some of them are silly, like cabling the deck spot to the steaming light switch and vice versa.

As to the joinery, the yard's chippie has gone on holiday for two weeks. Meaning that Arabella's interior woodwork will remain unfinished. Hmm, the perfect opportunity to wheel in Mr G****** the handyman, my secret, low-cost refit weapon, as threatened in my last posting. Arrangements have been made...

Above: At last! Arabella is back at her marina berth. There is still work to be done, but you have no idea how much better I feel, just knowing that she is getting readier and readier to sail.

Above: Arabella's running rigging on and ready to bend on sails. The new Solara solar panel is now installed and charging. I don't like that messy cabling from the panel to the deck plug, though. I've asked the yard to tidy that up and preferably to use a low profile deck gland like, um, the one I provided to them for that purpose.

Above: Arabella's mainsheet and Harken traveller arrangement, shamelessly copied from an idea of Steve Colclough, the class captain of the Pandora racing fleet at SCYC, Abersoch. I have departed from his concept slightly: I have left the sheet block down at the level of the cockpit sole (not raised via a wire strop) and have angled the traveller control lines and cam cleats aft, to facilitate single handed sailing.

Above: More electrics! To the left is the new galvanic isolator. On the right is the charge regulator for the new solar panel.

Above: Arabella's Tohatsu 6HP outboard has been serviced and is back on board, ready to use (seen here with one of the two Simrad TillerPilots being tested).

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Heart of Gold

Chris Geankoplis of the US was in touch with me recently. His Pandora International, Heart of Gold, is registered in Oregon, but is kept in the Ionian. She's a close relation of Arabella's, having also been built in 1974 and carrying sail number 520. Chris sent me some great pics, but this one's my favourite - how many other Pandoras have been through the Corinth Canal, I wonder?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Refit: darkest before the dawn?

Arabella was supposed to go into the water on 30 May. The objective was that she would be ready to sail, even if certain cosmetic loose ends remained (she is entered for the Round The Island Race on 23 June).

Anyway. This is what she looked like on 28 May, still ashore with one working day remaining. Not exactly encouraging...

There has been an 'interesting' exchange of views with the yard today... the new handover deadline is 7th June. Which leaves little time for test-sailing prior to the RTI.

This latest hiccup in progress has led me to consider bringing my Secret Refit Weapon into play (a.k.a. Mr G******, our local Colombian handyman up in London). I reckon he'll cost about a third of what the yard does, will be about three times faster, and he can do joinery to die for. More to follow when I have laid my wicked plans...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Battery Management: My "24 hour+" Rule

Once you unplug from the shore power and sail off into the blue yonder, you become both the consumer and the provider of your electricity. Every amp that your systems take out of the battery bank is going to have to be put back somehow, sometime. And the longer you stay out, the more difficult the electrical balancing act becomes.

This is especially true on a small yacht like
Arabella. Weight and space restrictions dictated a modest battery bank. This would have been fine if all I’d wanted to do was run a log and echo-sounder, and to switch on the nav lights occasionally, as previous owners had been content to do. Unfortunately, I’d changed all that in the course of the refit. Arabella was now a great deal more power-hungry than she used to be.

Deciding how to satisfy this increased power consumption necessitated working out a proper plan. I’ve set out the thinking in detail here. It’s a bit lengthy, but I hope it will help others going through a similar thought process. At the end of it all, I came up with my “24 hour +” rule – namely that I knew I could extract at least 24 hours out of the battery, and that could be extended with rationing and/or by running the outboard engine.

(Disclaimer: I came to the issue of battery management as a complete tyro. Hours of reading and online research, coupled with talking to various suppliers, have educated me to a point where I can state what follows with reasonable certainty. As always with things that you read on the web, however, take my opinions as a starting point only before double-checking with a reliable source.)

Arabella’s battery management plan broke down into a three-step process:

  • carrying out a power consumption audit
  • selecting a battery with suitable capacity
  • deciding how the battery could be charged

(A) Power Consumption Audit

Before I could make any decisions about battery capacity and charging for
Arabella, I had to work out how much power I was likely to consume in a variety of situations. I could of course disregard power consumption when Arabella was tied up in a marina and hooked up to shorepower, as the Studer Innotec MP12/12 charger (rated at 12A) would be constantly charging and maintaining the battery as required, and in addition I could use the 240v power socket installed in the galley to run a variety of 240v appliances.

Above: Studer Innotec MP12 series battery charger (240v)

The real-life situations that I had to think about therefore were:

- day sailing;
- night sailing; and
- anchoring.

Every source of information that I looked at informed me that I couldn't rely on any general rule of thumb here. I would need to conduct a thorough audit of the amount consumed by each electrical item (including electronics) on board in each of the above situations.

A trawl through the web and some book-reading produced a variety of worksheets, some more user-friendly than others, from which I drew up my own version. An example can be found in this useful article by Nigel Calder. My version can be downloaded by clicking on the link a few paragraphs further down - it's in
Microsoft Word format and can therefore be recycled for your own needs.

Conceptually, the power audit was simple. It involved:

  1. finding out the power consumption of Arabella's electrical items. I had to list all the 12V electrical items in use on a "typical day" (more on which shortly), and find out how many Watts (or Amps) they each consumed. Usually this is on the appliance or in its handbook. If you can only find a figure for Amps, simply multiply this by 12 (volts), to convert it to Watts.
  2. calculating the daily total Watt-hour (or Amp-hour) requirement for all the listed items. I had to estimate how many hours I would use each item, then multiply each item's wattage (or ampage) by the hours that I would use it for in a "typical day".
  3. adding all the totals together to get the final daily total Watt-hours (or Amp-hours) consumed.

Simple really. Except that it actually took much longer than I expected, for two reasons. First, not all suppliers actually provide details of the power consumption of their products, and even if they do, they do so somewhere obscure and hard-to-find (hint: the manufacturer's website is usually where you will end up) and in an inconsistent manner, with some items rated in Watts, others in Amps. Second, what is a "typical day" on a small yacht - how do I know how many hours I will be sailing for? Contrast a six hour trip down the Solent with, say, a fifteeen hour Round The Island Race. There's a bit of a difference.

The first issue required simply determination and a calculator. Where necessary I pestered manaufacturers for power consumption figures by phone or email. With one notable exception, whose products I will not be buying again, I got prompt and helpful replies. To resolve the problem of having all of the data jumbled up in Watts and Amps, I chose to stick with Amps. Others may be more inclined to work in Watts, but in my case I chose to go the other way simply because my (eventual) battery would be rated in Amp-hours. This meant employing all those formulae that I learned in school and promptly forgot, namely:-

Watts = Amps x Volts
Amps = Watts / Volts
Volts = Watts / Amps

So, for example, if I knew that an item consumed 2.4 watts per hour and was rated 12V (a fairly safe assumption for British marine equipment running on a 12V system, but one that will have some purists up in arms), then it consumed 2.4/12 or 0.2 amps per hour (0.2Ah).

The second issue – analysing the “typical day” – was more difficult. In the end I found it easier to do away with the whole day thing. Instead I used building blocks. I worked out the likely consumption for 6 hours’ day sailing and, separately, for 6 hours’ night sailing (when additional items, such as running lights, would be in use). It wasn’t a precise art, because one couldn’t say, for example, for how long the VHF would be in listening mode and for how long it would be used in transmit mode – each of which uses very different amounts of power. The same went for the tillerpilot, which would spend some time in standby.

I could assume some reasonable maximum usages for each six hour block though, which I then tabulated, printed and laminated for inclusion in
Arabella’s on-board reference manual’ for ease of reference. Those wishing to see all the details can view the tables by clicking this link or download them from my Downloads area, but in summary I came up with the following ‘average’ consumption figures based on worst case (maximum realistic) power consumption – this assumed for example that the tillerpilot was in constant use, not merely on standby:

  • 1 hour’s day sailing: 2 Ah (or 12 Ah in a typical six hour period)
  • 1 hour’s night sailing: 3 Ah (or 18 Ah in a typical six hour period)

(I didn’t do a full table for consumption at anchor or on a mooring, but assuming the very worst case of having all the interior lights on, and an anchor light as well, I came up with 2.5 Ah for each hour. This wasn’t too realistic, however, as I wouldn’t use all the interior lights at once and in any event I carry a Freeplay wind-up lantern (an overhang from my camping days) for use in such situations. So I basically didn’t waste too much time on planning for the load at anchor).

Before moving on, what this exercise did demonstrate to me – very clearly – was just how profligate some onboard items are in terms of power consumption. In particular, the decision to go for LEDs across the board for nav and interior lights began to look like one of my more intelligent decisions.

(B) Battery choice and capacity

Vehicle batteries are not suitable for use on yachts, simply because they are not designed for deep discharge – once the engine has started, all the power demands (such as headlights) are simultaneously offset by the input from the car’s alternator. Repeated deep discharges will kill a vehicle battery in no time.

Marine batteries in contrast are designed for deep discharge cycles, that is, they can be be repeatedly discharged and recharged over quite a long lifespan. There is a limit, though, beyond which draining a deep discharge battery is unhealthy for it. The limit is somewhat disputed, but most people would agree that discharging below 50% of nominal capacity will shorten the life of a marine battery to an extent, and going below 70% is no-no. If the 50% limit is observed, then all things being equal, a modern marine battery should be able to withstand several thousand cycles of discharge and recharging. (Incidentally, there is a very helpful 12 volt primer here, including a reference table showing battery state of charge against voltage under load).

It made sense, therefore, to go for the largest capacity battery I could. After all, if I could safely use up to 50% of its capacity before needing to recharge it, then at the discharge rates described above I could likely survive a good deal more than six hours, day or night, without bothering to use the outboard or rig up the solar panels. However, that theory only held true up to a point. Batteries are heavy, and the more capacity they have, the bigger and heavier they become. And heavy isn’t good on a small yacht like
Arabella, so there is a realistic maximum driven by weight and the ability to shoehorn the battery into its home under the starboard quarterberth.

In the end, the best I could manage was a 115Ah liquid battery. That would give me up to 57.5Ah of usable capacity (up to 50% drain). So now I knew how much capacity I had. How was I going to maintain or replace it? On to the final stage of the plan…

(C) Recharging

The next thing to work out was how, and how quickly, all that power consumption was going to be replaced by recharging the battery. That entailed working out (a) by what means power would be generated and (b) how much power would be generated, and over what timescale. It seemed fairly clear to me from the outset that recharging at sea was likely to be a losing battle, but the important thing was to work out the net drain, i.e. how quickly I would run out of electrical capacity despite recharging as I went. Or, put another way, to what extent recharging could extend
Arabella’s time away from a 240V socket by stretching out the nominal capacity of whatever battery was ultimately installed.

A number of factors came into play here. First, it would be wise to leave the marine with a full battery – so fitting shorepower and a decent battery charger was a no-brainer. Second, when it came to charging out at sea or at anchor, I needed to balance what I might quite like against what I already had. What I already had was a Tohatsu 6HP outboard with a charging circuit. What I would like was solar power. So that was to be my starting point.

Tohatsu 6HP outboard

This shoves out 5A per hour maximum, and is therefore a significant contributor to recharging the battery - at a price. It burns petrol. Specifically, it drinks 2.5 litres per hour at maximum revs. So the electrical capacity it generates is limited by fuel capacity (and it’s unlikely in most circumstances that I ever have more than 7 or 8 hours’ fuel on board, for reasons of safety and space).

Solar panel

I’m a big fan of solar, having for some time used a nifty little SunLinq 12W panel that folds up into a small, lightweight pack and comes with a whole range of cables and connectors included. The downside is that small solar panels like the Sunlinq don’t pump out all that much charge, especially on a typical English day, and you can’t drape too many of them over a boat the size of

Nevertheless, I wanted to make use of solar power. It’s not cheap to install, but I just love the way you get power for free thereafter. After a fair amount of research, I alighted on Solara semi-flexible panels, supplied by Barden UK. These were the same panels that were installed by Barden on Ellen MacArthur’s yacht,
Kingfisher. They could be fixed with adhesive or screwed and, due to the synthetic surface, would shape around slight curves, such as Arabella’s coachroof. Critically, given how small the coach roof was, these panels could also be walked on with no fear of broken glass or damage.

Above: Solara 120M solar panel

The space I could spare on
Arabella’s coachroof – forward of the main hatch – would permit the installation of a 120M panel rated at 34W. That might seem as though it would put in a huge amount of charge, but the reality is somewhat different. Recalling the formulae above, the nominal 34W rating has to be divided by the panel’s rated voltage (which is 16.5V, not 12V) which results in a mere 2A in every hour. Moreover, most reputable solar panel suppliers recommend that you assume that on a typical English summer’s day, the panel may generate (from dawn until dusk) only 4 hours equivalent of charge. They then suggest you discount that figure by 20% to allow for battery resistance and loss in the cabling.

On that basis, the 120M panel would provide only 6.6Ah of charge on a sunny summer’s day. Interestingly, this (entirely theoretical) charge rating appears not to be massively out of step with the real-life results obtained by
Practical Boat Owner magazine in a recent solar panel group test (PBO 466, October 2005). Based on an average over three days, PBO obtained 8Ah/day from a Solara 120M. A spot reading taken with the panel partially shaded gave 5Ah/day. PBO found that even a very slight, hazy overcast on an otherwise bright day, would reduce output by up to 25%, suggesting an output of 6.0Ah/day for the Solara 120M in such conditions. Accordingly, the 6.6Ah/day based on the theoretical calculation seems like a conservative averge and I am inclined to rely on it.

On a practical level, the Solara panel was – unlike many others - thin enough to permit
Arabella’s main hatch to slide over without fouling it. And, as a final reassurance that I was on the right track, Phibius had recently fitted the identical panel to Arabella’s sister ship.

(D) Putting it all together

I now had two sources of charging when away from shorepower. I could generate 5 amps every hour by burning petrol – of course 2-3 amps would be consumed by the onboard systems while I did so. Alternatively, I could generate up to 2 amps per hour from solar power but subject to a conservative limit of 6.6 Ah per day.

On a six hour midsummer day-sail, therefore, I could maybe generate 2.5 Ah from using the engine at the beginning and end of the sail, and a further 6.6 Ah (average daily maximum) from using the solar panel all day, giving me a maximum of 9 Ah. Since my estimated consumption @ 2 amps over that 6 hour day sail was 12 Ah, I would ‘drain’ power to the extent of 3 Ah (or so) on that sail. Insignificant.

But at night, the drain would be far worse, especially since the solar panels would not be in use, and I would likely already be at sea (hence the engine would not be used to get in and out of port) so I had to assume a full 18 Ah drain in each 6 hour period.

The real problem, however, would arise on an extended passage. Again assuming summer sailing, if I started out in daylight and assumed an exact 12 hour cycle between day and night sailing, after 24 hours – in other words on the morning of day 2 - I would have consumed 60Ah and, at best, replaced 6.6Ah of that from the solar panel. I might then (just) make it through the rest of day 2 in daylight before hitting the 50% battery consumption limit. The battery would still give me some more hours of power, of course, but after exceeding the 50% limit, I would be damaging it. I would need to run the engine for some hours by dusk on day 2, in order to build up any kind of reserve to get me through the night ahead.

Hence my “24+ hour” power rule. How much “+” I could ever extract would depend upon:

  • the amount of direct sunshine received by the solar panel;
  • how much I wanted to run the outboard engine (allowing for restricted fuel capacity); and
  • cheating: what could I switch off? Assuming I plugged in my trusty Walkers Trailing Log then, if I was well out to sea and clear of hazards, I could turn off all the nav instruments and helm myself or try to use the Tiller-tamer, relying solely on occasional GPS plots from the handheld, backed up by DR. That would save some serious Ah.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

After Ouzo: the impact on Arabella's refit

Above: Did Ouzo suffer the fate plotted on this chart? The Marine Accident Investigation Branch say that she did. (Image copyright MAIB)

In life, Ouzo was a modest little yacht. But the loss of Ouzo and her three crew, in near-perfect visibility and moderate conditions on the night of 20/21 August 2006, has cast a tragically long shadow over the UK's yachting scene.

The wide-ranging Marine Accident Investigation Branch Report came out barely a month ago, and has already become established as one of the most influential - and hotly-debated - references on yacht safety to be published in recent years. To the extent that the report fundamentally changes our awareness of the risks at sea, then perhaps the human suffering underlying the terse, efficient language of the investigators will not have been in vain.

It seems incomprehensible that the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao could not have seen Ouzo through some combination of radar and visual lookout. But allegedly, it did not, at least not until too late, and the best theory is that Ouzo was either run down or swamped by Pride of Bilbao's wash.

Even more frightening is the distinct possibility that the watch on Pride of Bilbao, having become aware that they had had a close encounter with a small yacht, took no action in the aftermath to check whether the other boat and crew were safe. The absence of a stream of post-encounter invective over the VHF might, one suspects, have been a clue that all was not well in Pride of Bilbao's wake.

But that topic is beyond the scope of this blog. My point is that large numbers of leisure craft owners have now been forced to reconsider their long-held assumption that they were somehow magically visible to large ships, who would then automatically avoid them if the ColRegs so dictated. That assumption, already much contested, has now been shattered beyond repair.

There is no substitute for reading the MAIB report in its chilling entirety. What I would like to do here, however, is explore two of the important aspects of the report from the point of view of the owner of a very small sailboat. First, how can I ensure that Arabella is seen by large vessels at sea? Second, if the worst happens, and Arabella's crew end up in the cold English sea supported only by their lifejackets, what if any steps could they take to reduce the risk of suffering the terrible, lonely fate met by Ouzo's three crewmen?

Being Seen

With Arabella currently coming to the end of her refit, the mast about to come down, and only a tired old tri-light at the masthead currently, I do at least have the advantage of having a clean slate to work with as regards lighting and radar visibility. Others, with no reason to drop the mast and some hundreds of pounds worth of kit installed up there already, might not feel so sanguine. Anyway, here's what I have decided to do.

1. Nav Lights - I had already had new LED nav lights installed at Arabella's pulpit and pushpit. Given the MAIB's focus on the risks posed by crazed tri-light lenses and lower-rated bulbs in navigation lights, I have reversed an earlier decision concerning the masthead tri-light. I was going to replace it with a cheap but identical unit, mainly because the horrific cost (£250+) of LED tri-light units had put me off the idea of going all-LED, notwithstanding their greater range, lower likelihood of failure - no filaments - and energy efficiency. Now, on reflection, I have bitten the bullet and am fitting an Aqua-Signal Series 32 LED unit. These units are type-approved by (among others) the MCA and the USCG and have a rated range of 2 nautical miles, somewhat in excess of what Arabella is required by law to carry. I had the opportunity at a recent demonstration to see the Series 32 operating side by side with a conventional tri-light. The difference in intensity is huge, and gave me a lot of comfort that this was money well spent.

Above: Aqua-Signal Series 32 LED combined tri-light and anchor light (as fitted to Arabella)

2. Radar Reflector (passive)
- In the aftermath of the Ouzo report, MAIB commissioned Qinetiq to produce a report on the effectiveness of some of the leading brands of radar reflector available in the UK. It made depressing reading: in truth, none of the passive reflectors tested gave superb results, and many struggled to satisfy the underlying ISO8729 requirement. In fact, none of the passive reflectors consistently produced a radar cross-section (RCS) that satisfied the ISO8729 requirement. How bad is that? What the report also highlighted, however, was the remarkably consistent return given by Tri-Lens passive reflectors across a wide range of angles of heel. Given the importance of consistency of return - most vessels carry ARPA (Automatic Radar Plotting Aid) which only tracks targets which it gathers on at least 50% of radar scans - this certainly elevated the Tri-Lens design, to my mind, towards the top of the list. The downside of the Tri-Lens models is weight and bulk: the smallest model tested is the 'Standard' (12" x 12" x 6" and 5.5 lbs) and frankly, on a boat as small as Arabella, that's just too much reflector to install aloft. I therefore decided to fit the Tri-Lens Mini. Its size and weight are more in keeping with Arabella's scale at 8" x 8" x 4" and 2.2 lbs.

Above: Tri-Lens Mini Radar Reflector

However, the Tri-Lens Mini only guarantees an RCS (radar cross-section) of between 0.60 and 1.0 square metres, which is well under the ISO requirement and does not compare well to the (peak) RCS generated by the reflectors referred to in the Qinetiq report. Its saving grace is that the return generated is every bit as consistent as those of its larger siblings. An RCS of 1.0 sq m is not of itself problematic in terms of detection, except in ensuring 50%+ returns at close range (up to 2 nautical miles) or long range (10+ nautical miles), as the Qinetiq report highlights. One can only hope that the consistent return generated by the Tri-Lens Mini might go some way to counteracting that problem, but I harbour no illusions. I just feel very strongly that a consistent return elevates the Mini over some of the alternatives. I also feel able to justify the risk of non-detection at certain ranges because of my simultaneous choice to install an active radar reflector (below). If I had not purchased the active reflector, I would not have risked the Tri-Lens Mini. If your boat is big enough, I imagine you'd want at least the Standard version of the Tri-Lens, so don't let me lead you astray. And do read the Qinetiq report very carefully before committing.

Above: Tri-Lens Mini, as fitted to Arabella's mast.

3. Radar Reflector (active)
- the Qinetiq report, in common with a number of tests carried out by boating magazines in recent years, praised the Sea-Me Active Radar Target Enhancer, not only for its consistency of return, but also because of the way in which it enhanced the return, artificially increasing the RCS to give the impression that a much larger ship had been painted by the other vessel's radar. Given the modest size and power demands of this unit (150mA in standby, 350mA when transmitting), I felt that I could stomach the not-so-modest cost and fit a Sea-Me in conjunction with the Tri-Lens Mini. I would only use the Sea-Me when out in open water, not when day sailing in the confines of the Solent.

Above: Sea-Me Active Radar Target Enhancer

Some important points to note about the Sea-Me:

(a) It works only with ships' X-band radar, not with the S-band radar that they use on approach to port. Some passive reflectors do also show up on S-band radar as well as X-band. For this reason, it may be unwise to abandon a passive radar reflector altogether.

(b) It needs power! If your battery drains, it is of no help whatsoever. Another reason for keeping that passive reflector.

(c) The essence of the Qinetiq report is that (to quote) "the Sea-Me RTE has a peak RCS that is very high in comparison to the passive reflectors described in this report. On the basis of these results it is the only reflector tested that would fully satisfy the performance requirements of ISO8729 and the proposed specification for ISO8729 Ed.2 (only up to an elevation angle of 10˚ or Category 1)." (my emphasis)

Assuming sufficent battery power, and bearing in mind that the Sea-Me's consumption is very modest, this last point really made the decision for me.

Above: Sea-Me as fitted to Arabella's masthead

In The Water

doesn't carry a liferaft. I never planned on departing from that, given her modest size and lack of stowage space. Tragically, Ouzo's owner made exactly the same decision, for exactly the same reason. We will never know, given the speed with which catastrophe appears to have overwhelmed Ouzo, whether her crew would have been able to deploy a liferaft. It does seem clear, however, that if there had been a raft and if they had been able to use it, Ouzo's crew would have survived much longer than they did in the water. Instead, they likely succumbed to hypothermia in one case, drowning in the other two cases. Being out of the water, in a raft, would have changed that. I have in the past rented liferafts for longer passages. That will remain my practice.

Absent a liferaft, the priority is on getting rescued quickly (before hypothermia sets in) and not drowning in the meantime. Short term, cold shock and drowning (or near-drowning) appear to be more immediate hazards than hypothermia. The need for the fastest possible rescue would be met by an EPIRB or PLB, and before I do anything too ambitious in Arabella, a beacon of some kind is at the top of my list. Given the choice between an EPIRP and a PLB, I am leaning towards choosing a PLB. Again, this is an issue of space but personal safety also plays a role - if I go overboard, at least the PLB will be in my pocket ready for use. That may appear to be of scant comfort to others in my crew, but the way I see it, if we all end up in the drink, what matters is that at least one of us has got a PLB and knows how to use it. Better that than leaving the EPIRB behind to go down with the ship or having a relative novice fumbling with it (a hydrostatic release not being entirely practical on a boat as small as Arabella). That said, PLBs do not satisfy quite the same tests and requirements as EPIRBs and it is as well to consider the differences before buying, as there is less difference in cost that one might imagine - a useful analysis can be found here. Anyway, I'll post again as and when I make my decision.

(As an aside, the MAIB report speculates that, as an altenative to a PLB or EPIRB, a waterproof, handheld VHF might have enabled
Ouzo's crew to radio for help. I have to say that I have some doubt on this point. I do in fact possess such an item, but it is an early model and not unlike a brick in size and weight. I can't say that I much fancy sailing with it stuffed into the pockets of my oilies, as well as the PLB that I don't yet own. But even if I was in the market for one of the newer, more compact models now available, would it really be of much help? What kind of range would it have, held close to a bobbing head at sea-level, shielded from line of sight by swell? I can imagine using it to vector in a rescuer once in sight, but not for much else. In the particular location in which Ouzo is believed to have met her end, one must ask whether a mobile phone in a waterproof case wouldn't have been a wiser option than a VHF.

On a connected point, how would one vector a rescuer in to one's position? Obviously a GPS-enabled PLB or EPIRB would be a great help, assuming the GPS worked, which various reviews suggest may not be as much as a given as users might wish for. But when it came to communicating position by voice, I wonder whether grabbing the (waterproof, one hopes nowadays) handheld GPS on the way over the side wouldn't be a smart idea.

Anyway, back to the main thread...)

The second necessity- that of not drowning while waiting hopefully for rescue - primarily relates to the use and fitting of lifejackets. The one member of Ouzo's crew who escaped death by drowning and saw in the grim dawn (only to succumb to hypothermia) wore a well-fitted lifejacket with crotch straps. The other two crew did not have crotch-straps and the evidence points to them having struggled to keep their airways clear of the water. All of Arabella's lifejackets have crotch-straps, so that point is covered off already. A subsidiary point is whether sprayhoods fitted to the lifejackets would have helped Ouzo's crew. I'm half-convinced by this, but not so much that I want to go out and buy new lifejackets on the back of it. I'm holding back and thinking more about this one, including researching whether certain sprayhoods sold as accessories could be compatible with my particular lifejackets.

Above: A breathable wetsuit, like this one from Musto, could be part of an arsenal for combating hypothermia?

Staying afloat is one matter, avoiding hypothermia quite another. There is, I think, a danger of believing that just because you got off a mayday and/or activated a PLB or EPIRB, assistance will be along shortly. The open sea is not, however, quite the same as the roadside: even quite close inshore, you are further away from help than you think, and especially so after dark. Survival in UK waters can be measured in hours (or even minutes, outside summertime) before hypothermia sets in.

Having been taking some tentative steps towards dinghy sailing, I've been looking into sailing wetsuits. The available medical research on combating hypothermia suggests that, while a full body wetsuit is not as effective as an insulated drysuit, it could provide up to 10 hours survial time in water at 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, someone wearing ordinary light wight clothes in the same conditions would succumb in an estimated 65 minutes. An insulated drysuit could add half again to the wetsuit-based survival time, assuming it was well fitted and didn't allow cold water to dribble in, which in practice is unlikely. (These figures, incidentally, are quoted from "Essentials of Sea Survival" by Golden & Tipton, 2002, at pp. 47-48, citing research conducted in 1978 and 1987. The authors are at pains to emphasise that there are serious questions as to the accuracy of survival estimates based on immersion in laboratory-controlled conditions rather than in open water).

It may came as a surprise to those unfamiliar, as I was, with these suits but they are a very far cry from the nasty rubber items that you may have encoutered in the past. The use of technical fabrics has advanced to the point where lightweight, comfortable wet-suits (such as this one from Gill, but do also check out Musto for breathables) can now be found for a reasonable cost. I am quite tempted to pick one up, not for use on a summer's day sail on the Solent, obviously, but for singlehanding or for longer/night passages. The extra time that a wetsuit (or for the ambitious, even a drysuit) might buy you could be just enough to keep you alive until rescue.

At the end of the day, anyone else that bothers to read this will or won't be convinced by my approach. But I have found it very helpful, as the post-Ouzo debate has developed, to see what other people were thinking and how their approach was to some extent tailored to the size of their boat. The decisions they took have undoubtedly influenced my thinking, even if I didn't always feel that I agreed fully with their conclusions.

The smaller the boat, the more difficult some of these decisions become, especially with older boats whose resale value will in no way reflect the price of the safety equipment that they would ideally carry. My view on the budgetary issue was that I scraped round and found the extra cash somewhere. My belief is that many yotties can and will do likewise.

Ultimately it comes down to one's own appetite for risk and the chilling realisation that one day, it may be you facing the fate that Ouzo's crew endured on that perfect night last August.