John's Tips, Tricks and Thoughts

Weekly Digest:

Cool Supplemental Anchor Light

Some years ago Phyllis and I found out the hard way, when another yacht hit us, that sometimes boaters don’t look up and see anchor lights at the top of masts.

After that accident, we fitted a supplemental all-around white light on top of the radar on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56, as is allowed under COLREGS. Definitely the best solution.

I was just thinking about doing the same on our new-to-us J/109 when I remembered that our new B&G radar can display a blue light.

I have to confess that when I first saw that in the installation manual I thought “well, that’s the silliest feature I have ever seen on marine electronics, and that’s saying something”.

But now I have tried it, I take it back. And having the radar on standby with the light on medium intensity only uses 0.2 A at 12 volts.

And since it’s blue, a colour that is not used for any lights prescribed by the COLREGS, I’m pretty sure it’s perfectly legal under Rule 30.


Sneaky Power Users

We were on the boat for a couple of days last weekend and one evening I decided to check email and the weather on my iPad.

But when I picked it up, it turned out I had forgotten to charge it—it was as dead as John Cleese’s parrot.

Not a problem, we have a USB charging port on the boat and a USB C (it’s a newish iPad) cable.

I plugged in the iPad and, since this had reminded me, my iPhone 13, then at about 50% charge, into a different port.

The photo at the top of the Tip shows the total current draw before plugging in these devices:

  • Five LED lights on below,
  • AIS with drag alarm,
  • propane sniffer,
  • boat monitoring system,
  • and two anchor lights
    • will be another Tip and is why the radar is on (in standby).

The photo below shows current with both devices charging, and no other changes.

Yikes, these two handheld devices are drawing 3.5 amps at 12 volts, or 160% of what it takes to power a small boat at anchor at night.

Yes, I know, in a couple of hours or so both devices will be fully charged and only require a trickle of amps to keep them there.

Still, suppose Phyllis charged her iPad and iPhone, too, and then maybe we have guests with devices, and then there’s the iPad we use for navigation. And many boats have one or two laptops…

It’s stuff like this, albeit not by itself, but added to other sneaky users of amps, that push cruisers into expensive electrical system upgrades including: excessive arrays of solar panels and/or the clutter, noise, and weight of wind turbines; or a generator.

Worth thinking about.


Sail Heel Angle

The late, great—I know it’s a cliché but he was—Buddy Melges, when asked how to drive a boat well upwind, would say that the secret is keeping the angle between the headstay and horizon constant.

For us lesser helmspersons, an inclinometer makes this way easier.

I was just about to fit one to our J/109 when I realized that the smart compass I installed last winter also measures heel angle and sends that out on the NMEA 2000 network, so it was just a matter of moments to add it to one of the cockpit readouts.

Once the boat is fully powered up, sailing a constant heel angle through the puffs and lulls is a way faster and more comfortable way to helm upwind than just following the jib telltails.

Excessive heel is also a not-so-subtle hint that it’s time to reef.

Nothing more than 20 degrees is fast on the J/109, flatter with a full crew on the rail.

The M&R 56 is fastest up wind at about 23-25.

Boats that are not as easily driven will need more heel, and full-keel boats with a lot of wetted surface are often fastest at high angles—as much as 35 degrees.

That said, many people, particularly those new to sailing, let the boat heel too much.

Anyway, every sailboat should have a way to display heel angle. If your autopilot compass does not have this feature, a simple inclinometer will do.


Never Forget The Go-To-Sea Option

Screenshot of Gloucester Harbour, kindness of Google Earth.

Have a quick read of this account of a race crew getting hit by a nasty thunderstorm when approaching their home port of Gloucester, Mass.


Anything jump out at you?

The first thing that hit me is that they never even considered waiting offshore for conditions to improve, or even daylight, before trying what turned out to be a very dangerous approach.

Sure, it would have been rough out there but the wind was in the North so they would have been in at least a partial lee from Cape Ann.

What about running off for Cape Cod where they could have rounded up under the Hook and anchored with no lee-shore danger?

Don’t get me wrong. I was not there and Mass Bay can be a bad place, particularly if the current is running against the wind, with limited sea room in a northerly. Maybe they made the right call.

But by entering Gloucester they were taking huge risks because of the breakwater under their lee. They got lucky on the aborted mooring approach but it could have gone very differently: hitting another boat, getting their mooring gear or someone else’s around the prop…the list is endless. A simple engine or steering failure could have have ended in a nasty wreck.

Have I made the same mistake? Yes. In fact, that’s why this jumped out at me.

I try to never forget:

  • It’s not the sea that kills sailors, it’s the hard bits around the edges.
  • The very human, and understandable urge to get home can lead us to bad choices.
  • Always consider ‘staying out there’ as one of our options.


Check Your Emergency Tiller

The stuff I have found on our new-to-us J/109 amazes me.

When I first inspected the boat, we found that someone had siliconed the hatch over the rudder-shaft head. I guess it leaked a bit so, instead of replacing the O-ring or the hatch, they glued it down.

My friend and ace boat technician, Pat, who is young and plenty strong, straining to get the hatch off…in pieces.

So after we fixed that with a new hatch, I figured I should check the emergency tiller, actually a better design than found on many production boats, except that the threaded rod that was supposed to hold it in place was misaligned so it would not stay attached in use.

No, not bent, misaligned. It had been like that since the boat was built and no one—particularly TPI who built the boat, or the two surveyors who had inspected her since—had ever thought to check whether it actually fitted.

In half a day I both fixed the misalignment and improved the design of the retaining bolt and its bracket to make it more secure.

Check your emergency tiller and, while doing so, assume that everyone who came before you was an incompetent, uncaring idiot. And if that turns out not to be the case, be happy.


Don’t Trust Used Rope

Modern ropes are fantastically strong, to the point that, in most cases, at least on cruising boats, there is a massive margin of safety simply because the rope is generally chosen with enough diameter to be easily handled and is therefore many times stronger than the peak load.

In fact, I can’t remember when a piece of running rigging last broke on me…until last month when I was reefing in moderate winds and the clew pennant parted off with a hell of bang—luckily no other damage was done.

The interesting thing was that at the moment it broke it was under way less load than it had repeatedly withstood when fully reefed and sailing with the mainsheet fire-taut.

And I had carefully inspected the old spinnaker halyard for any signs of chafe before repurposing part of it for the reefing line.

My first guess was that the core was Aramid (Kevlar), which is notorious for failing without warning where it bends over a sheave, but the broken ends don’t look like it, and the place where it broke was not so-stressed.


Heck, maybe at some time in its life the halyard had been exposed to some chemical that attacked it. Maybe the line was bought on the cheap from some no-name or even counterfeit company—apparently it happens in the climbing world.

Anyway, regardless of what caused it, I learned a valuable lesson:

After many decades of no failures I had become complacent about rope strength.

Going forward I won’t repurpose, but will replace old mission-critical lines that I don’t know the history of, precisely what they are made of, by what company, and where sourced, regardless of how good they look.

Worth thinking about when buying a used boat.

More on running rigging here.


Good LED Steaming/Deck Light

We fitted a MarineBeam LED Steaming/Deck Light on the mast on our J/109 a year ago, and so far I’m impressed.

Small, light, relatively inexpensive, and amazingly bright, with incredibly low current draw.

Of course we don’t know how reliable it will be over time, but so far so good.

By the way, I have never used deck lights at sea. Too dazzling and disorienting, and, worst of all, our own bodies throw shadows just where we want to see. Much prefer, and recommend, head lamps.

The primary reason we have a deck light is to reduce the risk of someone running into us because they did not look up and see our masthead anchor light. Yes, it happens.


eWincher as a Windlass

Our J/109 has a great anchor locker as well as a removable anchor roller, but no windlass, and there is no way in hell we are adding all that weight up forward on this boat.

No worries. Our eWincher, driving a two-speed primary cockpit winch, hauls the rode as fast, or maybe a bit faster, than the massive windlass on our last boat, and there is plenty of power, to the point that I would be confident of hauling the boat up to the anchor in say 25 knots of wind.

One small fly in the ointment: our anchor rode is 8-strand braid and catches on the stripper on the self-tailing winch, so someone must tail the line off the winch.

Read our three-part in-depth review of eWincher to see if it’s right for you, before you blow a bunch of money on electric winches.


Apple Watch Photo-Trigger Hack

I needed to get the model and serial number off the fridge unit on our J/109, but the problem is that the plate is on the far side and inaccessible, at least to an arthritic old fart.

I was pondering using my borescope, but controlling it holding the wire would have been difficult.

Then I remembered that I can control the iPhone camera, and even see what it sees, on my Apple watch.

So I attached my iPhone to a selfie stick—don’t ask why I have one, it’s not why you think, I see enough of my wrinkled mug when shaving—and five minutes later the job was done.

And the photo is way higher resolution than that produced by a borescope, so easy to zoom in on the details.

Taking a photo of my Apple watch while in this mode produced a fun graphic, too.


Good Fractional Rig-Tuning Article

A multiple-spreader fractional rig is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most rewarding, to tune right.

We have five detailed step-by-step chapters on how to tune a masthead rig, starting here, but we don’t cover fractional rigs because they are unusual in the offshore cruising world.

But if you do have a fractional rig, like we do on our new-to-us J/109, there’s a good tuning article over at Practical Boat Owner.

I agree with most of it, although they do skip over the vital step of getting mast heel position and mast blocking right, but you can fill that in from our masthead tuning chapters.

1 Comment

Don’t Forget Weather Maps

I have to confess that, now we are no longer cruising offshore, I have tended to get my weather information from Windy and call it good.

But I just realized that that lazy approach was resulting in me losing the strategic and tactical feel for the weather I developed over some five decades of observing it closely.

So this morning, for the first time in months, I took a look at the excellent weather maps produced by our friends to the south—thanks to all you US tax payers—and was immediately reminded why doing that pretty much every day before looking at raw-model output—that’s what Windy is, just prettied up—is way better.

All the reasons for looking at forecaster-drawn maps are beyond the scope of a tip, but the most important one is that applications like Windy do not show fronts, and if we don’t know where the fronts are, and how they work, we are just plain weather-ignorant—fronts are where most of the weather that can hurt you lurks.

To learn more, we have an Online Book. The parts about how to download the weather are out of date, but the strategic and tactical method that kept Phyllis and me safe for so many years is timeless.


The Most Dangerous Thing Offshore Cruisers Do

Last week I linked to a well-done report and some associated testing over at Practical Boat Owner that made a convincing argument that sidedeck jacklines are worse, at least when used with a standard 6′ long tether, than not clipping on at all, because of the risk of being killed by dragging.

And then a few days later I came across a Scuttlebutt article titled, “Nearly half die when falling overboard”, with statistics from the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch supporting the title.

At first I was going to link to the latest piece in a tip with a scary title like “Why We Clip On” or some such.

But that felt kinda wrong so close to the first tip—when does informing turn into scaremongering?

So I decided, instead, to just remind us all that offshore sailing, at least when done with common sense and basic seamanship, is pretty safe.

Sure, people die by falling overboard. But people also die by their furniture falling on them at home.

So what’s the most dangerous thing most cruisers do? My guess is getting into an automobile…that is, unless they are wingsuit BASE jumpers, too.

Oh yes, here’s a link to the Scuttlebutt article, worth reading…at least as long as we keep things in perspective.

And if you are wondering about the photo, that’s Phyllis with our good friends and experienced offshore voyagers Wilson and Thelma, taken in Quebec during our drive of the Trans-Labrador Highway in 2019.


Carry Spare Banjo Fitting Washers

Banjo fittings are ubiquitous on engines (there are a lot of them around, too), usually in the fuel system, but the fresh water cooling circuit often has a few as well.

And each of them has a small copper washer each side of the fitting that acts as a seal.

Here’s the thing: the washers are not reusable…but most people do, including many professional mechanics who should know better.

Which is why a lot of engines are plagued with leaks.

So it makes a lot of sense to carry a few of each size. We could buy them one by one or we can buy a lifetime supply over at McMaster-Carr.

Thanks to my friend Wilson, who warned me about this when we bought the J/109, so I had the right washer to hand when the engine started pissing diesel fuel.