When we were formulating our long-term list of places to visit during our cruising life, the Pacific northwest was high on our list. And having spent Christmas and New Year on the shores of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, we can confidently say that as a cruising ground it has now gone well up the list. It has everything we like—magnificent scenery, wonderful wildlife, a fascinating culture and friendly people. And that’s just where we were—as you progress farther North into the more remote areas we’re reliably informed it gets better and better.
So, what is there that’s not so good? Well one thing that astonished me was the amount of timber everywhere, both on the beaches and in the water. Not just small stuff either—huge logs and stumps that could easily do substantial (if not terminal) damage to any decent sized yacht. But clearly there’s a sizeable sailing community in the area, so how do they cope with it? And beyond keeping a really careful look-out, and perhaps avoiding night passages, what else can be done?
Watertight bulkheads afford an obvious passive advantage. In the event of a really serious collision in the bow area, such an installation offers (at the very least) the chance that the boat will survive the impact afloat. And for that reason alone they must be worth having in my view. Yet they are hardly ever seen outside purpose built high latitude boats, despite the positive safety element they offer. Why not?
I suspect this is largely down to cost, although this is far less of an issue with a yacht constructed in aluminium or steel. In either of these materials installation of watertight bulkheads (or compartments) is relatively straightforward, as no special materials are required, and it’s generally just a case of welding in plate and stiffening at a suitable station behind the bow. But in GRP (fiberglass) it is more complicated, due the need to laminate in reinforcement and stiffeners on either side of a bulkhead material such as marine ply, which is a much more labour intensive (and therefore costly) operation, and in may ways much more difficult to achieve a total seal. And from looking at many GRP boats it’s clear that there has seldom been any thought put to the installation of such a bulkhead in the first place, making the task even more complicated, and retro fitting nigh on impossible.
A Simple Modification
One possible option with a GRP boat that can be employed is to box in the area under the forward bunk and fill it with expanded foam. This isn’t perfect, as it may only come partially above the waterline, and will also cost a lot in terms of lost stowage space, but it can be, at least, a step in the right direction. Beyond that, though, anything else is going to require major surgery, and much expense.
I’m sure that if we, as customers, demanded watertight bulkheads in new built boats, whatever the material, designers could come up with appropriate solutions and builders would oblige – and charge us accordingly. Maybe most buyers don’t think it will happen to them and, in fairness, I can count the number of boats that I know of that were sunk through collision on the fingers of less than one hand. But equally, most of the experienced sailors I know have had at least one serious collision with a floating object that might, were luck not on their side, have sent their boat to the bottom.
It’s certainly happened to me, crashing upwind in a good F6 and rough seas, where we had virtually no chance of seeing anything floating until the very last second. And we didn’t—just an almighty crash that virtually stopped 9 Tonnes of boat and smashed me into the wheel and threw another crewmember into a bulkhead. The seconds it took to lift the floors to check for damage seemed like hours, and we were all badly shaken by the experience. When we hauled the boat later to check for any external damage we found just how lucky we had been, as whatever we had struck made the initial impact less than six inches below the keel root, leaving a good ding and stripping off half of the epoxy coating. A foot higher and it might have been a very different story.
So when we had our Ovni built, there was no question in our minds that we would have a watertight bulkhead. It has certainly brought me peace of mind, especially on those dark nights when I’m off watch, tucked up in my bunk and Pelerin is charging along. At such times I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has fervently hoped that there’s nothing floating out there, lying in wait for us. Let’s hope we never have to put it to the test.