Shipshape and Bristol Fashion: Our Top 10 Varnish Tips

There they were.  Dozens of bobbing boats.  Striking reds to canary yellows. Their hulls glistening from the wet shine of the water.  Then, hours later, they were laid over on their side in the dismal mud.  Looking more dismal themselves because of it. This happened twice a day and took our breath away.

But what do I know about these seemingly disheveled boats?  They must have been in shipshape!  Friends, we were in Roscoff!  Captain Yannick’s village back in France that we sailed to across the Atlantic Ocean from Pensacola last summer.

These photos were literally from our first few hours in France.  A couple of wide-eyed ocean-crossers wandering the cobblestone streets!

And, we had the perfect built-in tour guide.  Yannick himself, who took us around, showed us the fantastic, ancient churches in the downtown square, the cobblestoned streets, the beautiful waterfronts and delicious bakeries, and the even more ancient and even more fantastic castles right next to his very own home.  Yes.  Castles.  People live in castles in France!  And, before we were off to Paris, Yannick made sure we got the very best crepes Roscoff could offer.

  

It was a mesmerizing, humbling visit.  But one of the things Phillip and I remember most about that stunning coastal village were the tides.  Breathtaking tides that rose and lowered more than twenty feet at a time, twice a day.  The beautiful bay we walked along every day to go get our croissant and café, a colorful, glistening pool of boats in the morning was a brown, dry lake bed of boats in the afternoon.

I’d never seen anything like it.  The rather large boats were cleated to the seawall in such a fashion that they would simply sink until their hull touched bottom and then remain fastened tight and upright to the wall.  The boats on mooring balls or anchor, however, out in the bay would drop down with the tide until their hulls, too, reached the bottom and fall gently to one side or the other as the water slipped away.  Many of the sailboats actually had wooden props fastened to their sides to help hold them in a more upright position.  They stuck off like training wheels in the mud.  Can you imagine knowing your boat was going to “run aground” (although I guess that’s technically a “lay aground”) twice a day?  Other than the training wheels, how would you prepare your boat for that?  I’ll tell you: By keeping her shipshape.

And what does your mind automatically spout out after that?  That’s right.  And Bristol fashion!  But do you know why?

Friends, I had the idea to write a fun blog post for you all after we finished our varnish project this summer to share some of the lessons we learned along the way.  (And of course the rewards.  Yes, yes.  Total boat wood porn is coming I can assure you.  Be excited!)  I then had the idea to call it “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” and realized I didn’t really know the origin of the phrase.  You know me.  I love words, and I love to learn how phrases we commonly throw around originally came to be.  For example, do you know where the phrase “wet your whistle” comes from?  I’ll be honest, I always thought it was because our heads are a bit whistle-shaped, with a round bulbous head and a then a thin little neck sticking off.  So, I thought wetting your “whistle” (your neck and noise-maker) would mean taking a drink.  As usual, I was very wrong, but happily so.  Turns out, many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service.

You see?  Isn’t that cool to learn?  So, what about this quirky “shipshape and Bristol fashion” phrase?  Phillip and I were throwing it around often during the weeks we recently spent putting many, many coats of varnish on our wood, but if I was going to write about it, I wanted to know about it.  And, as a learning adventure often is, it turned out to be a very fun Aha! moment for me and a unique trip down memory lane.

The Origin of Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Apparently over some 200 years ago, the Port of Bristol was a thriving English seaport where many large vessels came via the Bristol Channel to bring cargo to England via the Avon River.  Much like Roscoff, the tidal range in the Port of Bristol was significant, rising and falling some 14 meters (45 feet) each day.  Talking about having to use the Tide Tables to calculate high and low tide!  Ships moored in the Port of Bristol would lay aground at low tide and, because of their keels, would fall to one side.  If the cargo, goods and supplies aboard the boat were not stowed away tidily or tied down, everything tumbled and valuable cargo could be lost and spoiled.  Meaning, boats that were kept tidy and in the highest standards of seamanship were considered to be “shipshape and in Bristol fashion.”  I can assure you the lovely Plaintiff’s Rest isn’t quite there yet …

(as we are elbow-deep in boat projects this summer), but she will be!  And, most importantly, her wood definitely is right now, as we just completed our varnish project for (hopefully) the next couple of years!  Thankfully, our Niagara 35 doesn’t have a tremendous amount of wood.  Frankly, for us, it seems the perfect amount.  Just enough to give her a nice, classic sailboat accent but not enough to overwhelm us with the upkeep.  And, we’re hopeful now, by using a new product this year (Awlwood) we’ll have to do even less upkeep on the varnish in years to come.  For a brief HaveWind varnish history, we stripped the majority of our wood (the eyebrow, handrails, stern rail, grate, swim ladder steps, cockpit table, etc., everything but the companion way) bare back in 2013 and put 10 coats of Schooner’s Gold on it.

 

We lightly scuffed and threw a couple more coats on again in early 2015.  However, this year, we knew it was time to scrape down to bare again on some pieces (particularly our eyebrow which had been flaking since last fall).  But we said “Screw that, we’re going to Cuba instead!”  Ha!  And, it wasn’t a mistake.  But, varnish was definitely high on the list this year.  The handrails still looked very good.  We had our local canvas guy (Tony with Coastal Canvas) make us some custom handrail covers back in 2015 and they have worked very well to protect and preserve the varnish on our handrails.

Our eyebrows, unfortunately, do not hold up as well because each time it rains, or the deck gets wet from spray or dew, the water eventually rolls down and sits until it evaporates on the top of the brow.  That’s why our brow looked like this by the end of 2016:

That is definitely not Bristol fashion.  Shame on you Plaintiff’s Rest crew!

Our stern rail also needed to be brought down to bare wood as it gets a lot of exposure on the back to spray and rain with no protection.

While we were pleased with the Schooner’s Gold we had used in 2013, Brandon with Perdido Sailor told us about a new product that he had been hearing good things about: Awlwood made by Awlgrip.

Brandon said he’d heard if applied right and enough coats, this stuff can hold up for three years before it even needs light coats in between.  What did we say?  Heck yeah!  While wet wood on a boat is pretty, brightwork is not our favorite thing to do.  So, we were excited about trying out this new product.  While the application process was a bit tedious (because the product is designed to chemically bond with the wood, that’s what apparently makes it last so long), Phillip and I were very pleased with the end-product, the color, coats and glassy look and we’re optimistic that it will last as long as promised.  We applied two primer coats (which had to cure 24 hours in between), two initial gloss coats (which also had to cure 24 hours in between), then an additional eight gloss coats two a day (just for good measure).  We also scuffed and re-applied a few preventative coats of Schooner’s Gold on everything else (the handrails, companionway, grate and cockpit table).  For now, the varnish on the entire boat is done.  The wood is glassy and stunning and, on the outside at least, we’re proud to say Plaintiff’s Rest is in shipshape and Bristol fashion:

   

Now that the project is behind us, we’d like to share with you …. (drumroll please):

Our Lessons Learned and Top 10 Varnish Tips

 1.  Be a good stripper!

While we have heard there are products out there that help release old varnish from the wood, we’ve found a five-in-one scraper and some heat is the easiest method.  Elbow grease is usually your best friend.  But for varnish that is still really thick (like on our boat the section of the eyebrow that is protected under the dodger), I put about 15 seconds of heat on it until the varnish bubbles, then it comes right off.

2.  Filling Cracks & Gouges

Unfortunately, one of the bad things about stripping with a five-in-one tool is the occasional gouge in the wood.  While this didn’t happen to us often, I’ll admit to taking out  a few chunks when I was heavy in the stripping.  Sorry gal!  But, aside from the occasional gouge, we also had a few cracks in our eyebrow and stern rail that we wanted to fill and smooth out before varnishing.  We could have used wood putty but Brandon recommended just filling them with epoxy for a much heartier fix, so we did that.

I was worried at first, however, that the epoxy would show through the Awlwood because our epoxy patches were so dark, almost brownish-black.  But, after nearly a dozen Awlwood coats all told, they completely blended and the wood now looks smooth and the color uniform.

3.  Washing the Teak

The wood prep process for the Awlwood was, I’ll admit, a bit tedious but it should be well worth it if that stuff really sticks for three years.  We had to strip the wood down completely bare and wash it.

Yes, wash the teak.  And it was crazy to see how much orange came out of it.  Like we were literally washing the orange oils out.  And it was so sad and grey afterward, I was afraid it wouldn’t get back to that beautiful teak hue (but never fear, it did!).  At Brandon’s recommendation, we used a half-gallon of ammonia with a half-gallon of water, a couple tablespoons of Cascade dishwasher detergent and a squirt of Dawn and it worked like a charm.  We washed our brow and stern rail a few times scrubbing with a Scotch Brite pad against the grain of the wood.

4.  Ditch the Tape!

While Phillip and I thought we were doing a great job back in 2013 carefully taping off all of our handrail bases and the eyebrow so we could varnish without leaving a drop on the deck, we wrong … so very wrong.

It was way harder (and took weeks longer) to pull and pick all the tiny little flecks of blue tape that remained after we’d finished varnishing.  You can see them here around the handrail base as the tape would tear when we were pulling it off.

  

Now, did we make a mistake in leaving that tape out for a couple of weeks in rain and weather (which caused it to deteriorate and meld to the boat)?  Yes, but the varnish, itself, that seeped onto it around the handrail bases and under the brow also caused it to adhere to the boat.  And it didn’t even prevent all of the leaks onto the deck anyway.  I spent many afternoons on anchor with a dental pick trying to get all of the little blue flecks and yellow varnish drops off.  And, the worst part.  The tape pulled chunks of white paint off of our port lights, making them look very un-Bristol like!

No more tape!  Now we just paint carefully and keep a little wet tray of acetone- (or brushing liquid)-soaked Q-tips nearby while painting to catch any accidental dribbles.  It’s really not that hard to not get it on the deck, or wipe it up quick if you do. We will never tape again!

5.  Watch the Weather

But, even if you do, it’s going to rain.  Trust me, it just is.  It’s like washing your car.  The minute you check the weather, decide you’re safe and get a good, wet coat on, thunderheads will start to appear.  You’ll hear rumbles in the distance.  And you’ll start frantically fanning or blowing on your wood hoping it will cure in time to fend off those mean little rain drops.  But if, like us, you decide to put on many, many coats, there’s just a chance one time, right after you put a coat on, it’s going to rain!

“Fight back varnish!  Hold the line!” we would tell it.  And, two things we were pleased to see with the Awlwood: 1) the further we got into the coats, the quicker they began to dry (sometimes in just under 15 minutes), and 2) even if you did happen to get a light drizzle that left little pockmarks in your last coat, it was easy to sand down and lay another coat on.

6.  Watch the Dew!

This was a bit of a new one for us.  Because we’ve been doing boat projects around our somewhat normal day jobs, we were rising very early in the morning to get one coat of varnish on in the a.m., then returning in the afternoon/evening to get another coat on before nightfall.  I will say, it did become a very nice routine seeing the sun rise over our girl’s stern every morning.  Good morning pretty girl!

But, coming to the boat to do varnish in the early hours meant we often found our boat covered in drops of dew.

While that’s no big deal–just dry the wood and varnish–where we made a mistake was to just wipe the wood, not the entire deck.  We often found then, while we were laying on a coat (and walking around the boat causing her to list from one side to the other), the rest of the drops on the deck would converge and come running down to our wet varnish in little streams leaving dried drop marks behind later.  So, if you’re going to do the dew, make sure you dry the entire deck too.

7.  Our Thoughts on Awlwood

As I mentioned, this was our first time using the Awlwood product.  While the prep process and application guide were a bit of a headache, I’m thinking it’s going to be well worth it in the end.  The first two coats we did were the primer and we could tell as we applied them how well they were truly bonding with the wood.  The color immediately stayed “wet” and the primer left the visible grain of the wood behind which told me it wasn’t just coating but actually seeping deep down in.

 

Then the first few coats of the gloss started to bring out just a touch of shine.

But after all layers were applied the brow was just as glassy as the handrails and we could tell from a close inspection of the wood how truly thick the Awlwood varnish on her really is.  I don’t think we’ll have water intrusion, even on the top of the brow, for a very long time!

Another nice benefit of the Awlwood product Phillip has told me is that if you get a nick in the varnish later (say something hits the brow and knocks a chuck out down to the wood), unlike Schooner’s varnish you can fill the nick with Awlwood gloss and essentially “varnish it away” without having to go down to all bare wood again.  This is because the primer remains bonded with the wood, so only the gloss coats can be chipped and they can also be repaired without having to go through the entire process again.  That’s pretty cool!

8.  Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

At least don’t sweat it out doing it outside … if you don’t have to.  If you have a home, condo, garage, shed, etc. where you can set up all the portables to do coats inside, that makes it so much nicer than sweating it out doing in the hot sun on the boat.  It also allows you to get more coats on after sunlit hours or when it’s raining or wet outside.

Man look at the mirror shine on the table!  You can literally read the Schooner’s can in the varnish!  

Sorry … I get a little excited about wet wood!  ; )

One thing we do NOT paint inside anymore, though?  Is these!

Our stinking swim step ladders!  Why?  Because we decided to …

9.  Get a Little Plasteak With It

I know, I know.  We’re supposed to be purists, mostly.  While we do love the wood on our boat and are happy to do a little varnish work every few years to keep it looking its utmost Bristol-ey, these guys were just “Killing us Smalls!”  As you all know, we have a boat for a reason.  We love the water.  We love to sail.  We love to kite-surf.  And, we love to swim.  Which means our swim ladder spends a good bit of time in the water when we’re out on the hook.  And we found, even when we stripped these down bare and slapped something like 12 coats of Schooner’s on, that within just 6 months (only 6?!), they were already starting to flake and turn yellow.  Phillip and I finally said “screw it” and ordered up some Plasteak steps for the swim ladder last fall.

They look totally fine next to the varnish on the stern rail and we have never regretted the decision.  Our steps still look absolutely brand new going on about a year and a half now.

9.  “I’d Do Ten”  

And you have to say that in a “Brandon voice” — all gruff and scratchy.  We love that guy.

Ironically, speaking of Roscoff, that was an open-mouth selfie (Yannick’s favorite) that we took to send to Yannick in Nice, France.  

And, we’ve been saying that for years.  Anytime the number ten comes up in conversation, Phillip and I cock our head back and blurt it out: “I’d do ten.”  Why?  Because that’s what Brandon told us waaaaay back (he’s been with us from the start) in 2013 when we were just starting our very first varnish project.  Phillip and I were ordering up our Schooner’s, researching application methods, etc., having no idea entirely how big the project was going to be or how many coats we would put on.  I’m sure we were both thinking something like three to five.  Then we asked Brandon and, after a thoughtful pause, he said “I’d do ten.”

I’m sure that’s what Phillip and I both looked like.  Ten?!  Are you for freaking real??  But, he most definitely was.  And, so that’s how many we did the first time.  And this time, we really kind of did 12 because we did two primer coats and then an additional 10 coats of gloss.  But, what we learned in varnishing is that the prep work is really the hardest part.  Once the wood is ready, slapping the coats on is nothing.  Sometimes it only takes a quick, rewarding 15 minutes at the boat.  And, if you’re going to take the time to prep the wood, why not spend just another couple of days putting ten coats on as opposed to just six or seven.  You’ll be glad you did two years later when your varnish is still Bristol and banging!  At least that’s our mantra.  Plaintiff’s Rest’s wood is most definitely in shipshape and Bristol fashion now and we’re expecting her to stay that way for a couple of years at least.  Hope these varnish tips have helped.  Happy Painting Peeps!

Posted in Atlantic Crossing, Boat Projects | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Swimming With Sharks!

“What are we doing?”  “I can’t tell you.  It’s a surprise.  I just need your shoe size.”  That’s all I knew.  While Phillip planning some total surprise for me—just on any given day, and especially when we travel—is totally normal, this was one of the first times I was overwhelmingly intrigued by it.  Riddled with the thought of it.  Excited by the unknown prospect of it.  One of the many (many) things that make Phillip and I work so well is that he loves to plan: trips, excursions, first-time experiences and random, active adventures for us.  And me?  I love to do it, all of it, every bit of it.  Seriously, pretty much any outdoor/active/artsy thing he has in mind for us.  Phillip has surprised me with spur-of-the-moment bike tours, walking haunted house excursions, random rock-climbing, pub crawls, even a super intense personal trainer session for me and I loved them all.

That last one, in particular, was a ton of fun.  The Sweat Social out of New Orleans.  Phillip told me we were going for an “adventure run” off of Bourbon Street.  “Okay, cool,” I thought.  I love to run.  Well … jog … semi-fastly.  Let’s put it that way.  But as we jogged along the bank of the Mississippi River near Hannah’s Casino in downtown New Orleans, I ran by a spunky little gal thumping out some awesome booty music, setting up a few yoga mats for a private river-view fitness session and I thought: “Man, that would be cool.  A private pump-it-up session on the streets of New Orleans.”  I tapped Phillip who was running ahead of me and pointed out Street-Fit Frida to him with a thumbs up.  He laughed, smiled, but kept running and I left Frida in my rearview, thinking nothing more of it.  But then Phillip circled around, jogged slowly up to the little circle of yoga mats and said “Surprise!”  I soon found the little private Sweat Social workout session on the Mississippi River was for me.  Me??  You see?  Totally cool shit like that!  Phillip plans it all the time.  He loves to do it and he loves that I will always love to do whatever he plans—no questions asked, with no idea what my day is going to look like.  I just need to know what to wear and if I’m going to get wet.  That last question I forgot to ask this time because, although I didn’t know it, I was about to get very, very wet.

My first thought when Phillip asked for my shoe size, though?  A play date in moon shoes!

Heck yeah!

Or maybe those funky impact-reducing kangaroo boots?  I even thought maybe we were going to some place where you can walk on the walls or ceiling with special Velcro or magnetic boots and gloves.

I would totally do that.  …. Well, with a safety net.  I’m not crazy!  Well, not entirely.

These are serious thoughts that ran through my mind because these are the types of things Phillip might seriously plan for me.  Super cool, right?  What had he actually planned this time?

A dive.  No, take that back.  The best dive of our lives.  To date.

And Phillip has been diving for more than twenty years: for pleasure, in the Marines, as a volunteer search and rescue diver.  He’s gone on hundreds of dives.  I’ve gone on, maybe a dozen.  The best with him, though.  Hands down.  And now the best, ever, for both of us, together.  And it wasn’t out in the Gulf or the Ocean or even a magnificent, secluded cave.  It was in a tank.  In Tampa, Florida.  What made it so special?

We swam with these guys!

 

Yes, sharks.  Right next to us.  We weren’t in a cage.  We weren’t in some protected tank just looking at them.  We were there.  Exposed, in open water, with only a half-inch of neoprene between us and their thousands upon thousands of sharp teeth.  At first it didn’t frighten me because they swam pretty far away but as we got closer and closer, there were a few times I found myself inadvertently in their path as they swam straight toward my face, deciding how best to avoid me, and I did have a few “Don’t freak out Annie, just breathe” moments when the shark locked his eyes on me for a frightening second before he just puttered on by.  It was such an enlightening, frightening, invigorating experience.  Way better than moon shoes I’m sure!  You want one of those moments too?  Well, we’re all suited up …

Whose ready to dive with us?  Some very cool footage for you here from our dive with the sharks, many thanks to the fantastic Dive Masters at the Florida Aquarium who trained us, took us down and graciously filmed the entire dive for us so Phillip and I could share moments like this with you.

Our most important take-away from this dive?  The education and enlightenment as to the true nature of sharks, their docile temperament, the need for them in our oceans and the unfortunate, very human-like tragedy of the greedy, plunder with which we trap, maim and needlessly kill them.  Our highly enthusiastic and passionate aquarium guide and dive masters spent a good bit of time talking with us before-hand about the nature of the sharks, their absolute disinterest in us, particularly as food, and their desire to simply be left alone, to rest, eat and explore.  They also taught us sharks in the wild generally only eat about five times a month and, when they do, unlike the many degrading movies that portray them as human killers, it is not humans.  The occasional reported bite is more often a case of mistaken identity or harassment.

Humans harassing animals?  Noooo!

Don’t you wish that were true?  A shark’s number one enemy is actually humans.  Particularly in China and other Asian countries, where they catch sharks by the hundreds upon hundreds, pull them out of the water for mere seconds to cut their fins off and toss them back—bloody and maimed—where they die in minutes.  Simply because they like shark fin soup.  Knowing that, before Phillip and I went into the tank, changed my perspective entirely.  I didn’t feel as scared as I thought I would.  Rather, I felt sorrow and appreciation for an ancient animal that was put on this earth to help keep it healthy.  What I did not know, but our guide explained to us, is that sharks help keep the oceans and reefs healthy by eating diseased and dying fish.  They help filter the waters of diseases and decay harmful to other fish and marine life.  Yet, there are so fewer sharks in our waters than there used to be because of us.  Greedy humans.  It was humbling.

The dive, itself, however, was mesmerizing.  It was a tank of wonder!  We saw huge sting rays, bright green eels, hundreds of fish, a sea turtle, a nurse shark and, of course, the big beauties we swam with: three tiger sharks, a female approximately 7’5” feet long and two males between 5-6” feet long.  They were slick and silvery, their skin, naturally the color of shimmery low-rider paint, and their thousands of teeth (constantly bared at you because they are always “breathing” water in) scattered in an impressive array in their large mouths.  Because their eyes are located on either side of their skull, they also see two separate fields of vision.  Imagine what that “looks like” and computes to in their brain?  One large panoramic image joining at the bridge of their nose?  I have no idea, but I had a great time imagining what they were seeing.  Especially when they saw me.  A wide, blue-eyed blonde, my hair wafting strangely around my head, these odd appendages sticking out and flailing, and bubbles constantly floating above me.  How strange I must have looked?  Certainly more weird than edible, right?  That’s definitely the impression the sharks gave us as they swam overhead, many times just inches from our heads.  Oh, how my heart pounded!  It was such an amazing experience.  Easily our best dive ever.  And, all because this man decided, yet again, to plan something fun for us.

It only required some spontaneity on my part.  And my shoe flipper size.  Had Phillip said that, I might have had a clue.  But I’d rather not.  Surprises are my favorite.

Posted in Landlubber Outings, Videos | 1 Comment

Captain’s Tribute

A little over 10,000.  That’s how many blue water miles I’ve racked up since I started sailing.  In preparing my Sea Service forms for my Captain’s License application, I’ve had to mentally trek back through my many offshore passages and day-sails to calculate the necessary “days underway” that I need for my USCG 6-pack, and it’s been a very fun journey.  In order to meet the USCG licensing requirements for a 6-pack, I was required to have 360 days on the water, with 90 of those days falling in the last three years and 90 of those days being in ocean or “near coastal” waters.  Luckily for me, the majority of my sailing has occurred in only the last three years so the first portion of that requirement was easy for me to meet.  (It actually shocks me some days to look back and see how much sailing I’ve done so recently.  When you look at the big picture, I really am fairly new to all of this.)

But boy did I take to it!  The day we splashed and re-named our Niagara, just three days after my 31st birthday, May 31, 2013.  With only 400 nm under my belt at the time.  What a ride it’s been!

If any of you are thinking about going for your Captain’s License too, you may be thinking: “What is considered a ‘day underway’ and what does ‘near coastal waters’ mean?”  Good questions.  According to my research and the folks at Mariner’s, a “day underway” is “at least four hours underway,” and “near coastal” waters means seaward of the boundary line.  The boundary line for the western coast of Florida, which is where I’ve done a good bit of my blue water sailing, is 15 nm. Unfortunately, I had not kept up with my sea time from the start.  I would have definitely done that if I had it to do over again because a) it’s humbling and rewarding to look back and reflect on prior passages and b) it’s good to keep up with your sea time in case you ever need to apply it for something like acquiring your captain’s license.  I would recommend any of you out there who may be thinking of getting some accreditation in the marine industry someday keep up with your sea time and have the captains you sail under sign off for you each time you complete a passage.  Here is the Sea Service form the USCG requires for obtaining any license.

You’ll see for each vessel, they ask your “average distance offshore.”  I’ll tell you it was a very cool moment when I was filling out the form for Yannick and I had to think … my average distance offshore during those 30 days across the ocean, had to be at least 1,000 nm+.  That’s wild but so exciting!   I have also since bought a log book so I can do a short, one page write-up on each of the passages I have made, the dates, nautical miles, destination, and one or two memorable moments from the passage.  It’s fun to go back through when I’m feeling nostalgic—or just a little too landlocked—and let my memories take me back to blue waters.

Sunrise on our way to Cuba, December 2016.

It’s been an enlightening, educational and humbling process going back through all of my sea time and reflecting back on those passage.  In doing so, I thought it would be fun to share with you all, the many lessons I have learned from the many captains I have sailed under, the primary being my person, my partner, my forever adventure buddy: Phillip.

 

Captain Phillip

Where to begin …  To the man who—when I come barreling out of a slip at 5 kts and almost take out three boats with both my bow and stern—will say: “It was my fault, honey, I should have … ”  Phillip has had such patience with me from the beginning.  And because we were both so new to the liveaboard cruising lifestyle, it has been so much fun to learn, try, screw up and grow together, both of our hearts 100% invested in each other and our beautiful, frustrating boat.  The greatest lesson I have learned from Phillip is that no matter how hard, or trying or scary any aspect of cruising may be—from running aground, to docking debacles, to discovering you have rotten stringers—it will always be easier, less frightening and more fun to tackle when we do it together.  To my forever buddy and the many more adventures, mishaps and lessons we have in store.  Cheers!

March, 2016: Our first time (and drink – thanks B!) out on the hook after three months, re-building our rotten stringers, re-rigging and conquering about 1,000 other projects at the yard.  Ahhhhh …..

 

Captain Kevin

Kevin has been on this journey with us from the start, from our first boat-shopping days to the purchase of our 93.46% perfect boat and he taught us so much along the way, particularly on defining our cruising goals and how we really want to spend our time on the boat.  The best thing I learned from Kevin?  “Just shove it out.”  A great de-docking technique that will guarantee no wayward backing or unwanted collisions.  Fun video for you here from one of our day sails with Kevin aboard his stunning Pearson 36 cutter, Pan Dragon, where Kevin demonstrates this super simple, never-fail trick.  Just shove it out!

 

Captain Brandon

“Go slow, hit slow.”  The best thing Brandon ever taught me?  Only go the speed at which you’re willing to crash into something.  That’s a good lesson.  We also learned a thousand things from Brandon during our time at the shipyard, one of the most important was: Always label anything you take apart, so you’ll know exactly how it all goes back together.  That way you won’t have to, you know, re-step your mast just to flip a stupid little aluminum plate ninety degrees.  That was fun.  But, one final, very important lesson from B: How to dock under sail.  “Because what you are you going to do when your engine goes out?” Brandon asked as he shamed us into finally, for the time, docking under sail (fun video of that adventure for you here).  And, notice he said “when” not “if.”  Because it’s going to happen.  It’s a boat, right?  Thanks for everything you’ve done for us B.  Cheers!

 

Captain Mitch

Mr. While You’re Down There!  Lord, did we have a time with him bringing our boat home for the first time from Punta Gorda, FL to … well, as many of you know, we didn’t make it all the way to Pensacola the first time.  We only made it to Carabelle, minus a few essential boat parts.  (And if you don’t yet know that story, holy crap, go get yourself a copy of Salt of a Sailor stat!)  One of the most memorable things I learned from Mitch?  Sight sailing.  Or, sailing by the stars as I called it.  Mitch taught me how to sail at night not by straining your eyes at the compass or the GPS but by getting on your course, then putting some part of the boat (a stanchion post, the spreader tip, the clew of the sail, anything) on a star and using that to hold your course.  It was a fantastic revelation and one that made me love sailing at night that much more.  Thank you Mitch.  Oh and “While you’re down there, could you get me some curly fries.”  Mitch.  There’s just none such like him.  Fun video for you here of his Nonsuch 35, aptly named Tanglefoot.

 

Captain Ryan

 

The ambassador of offshore sailing adventures at SailLibra!  What does Captain Ryan say about sailing across the 500+ plus, sometimes gnarly miles of the Gulf?  “Easy stuff.”  As long as you don’t panic, you think first and act second.  After several fun, windy romps across the Gulf on his offshore adventure boat, Libra, I definitely learned from Ryan the art of staying calm.  Even when sailing through the narrow, reef-lined inlet to Cuba in 10 foot seas and 25+ knot winds.  “Easy stuff.”  But, he’ll be the first to warn you: “Oh, if I’m panicking, yeah, you should totally panic.”  A good sense of humor.  That really helps out there too.  Fun video for you here from mine and Phillip’s sail from Key West to Pensacola on Libra.

 

Captain Jack

Jack Stringfellow.  I swear that’s the man’s real name and wasn’t he destined to be a captain with that one?  I’ve only sailed under Captain Jack one time but, to date (and to be honest I hope it stays that way) it was the most extreme conditions I’ve ever sailed in.  From my recent Captain’s exam, I know it ranks a 10 on the Beaufort scale.  We sailed two days on a Leopard 48, into brutal headwinds, topping out at 43 true, 48 apparent, but the boat and crew handled it beautifully.  What did I learn from Captain Jack?  He’ll be the first to tell you, Jack can get a little … wired.  He’s a very Type A personality, very task-oriented and very (very!) energetic.  It’s one of the things that makes him a great captain, but he also taught me the importance of the need for a “safe word.”  Because everyone gets a little wound up at times.  His safe word?  TRANQUILLO!  Fun video here from our very windy delivery of the Leopard, a 400 nm, 60 hour sprint across the Gulf, Pensacola to Naples.  Whew!

 

Captain Ben

I can’t wait to get back to the Bahamas!  But I’m so glad I went when the opportunity struck.  Remember this trip?  My spur-of-the-moment jaunt off to the Bahamas to sail with Ben Brown on his 47’ Beneteau, Cheval, in the Abacos Regatta in 2015?  What a fantastic adventure that was.  And what did Captain Ben teach me along the way?  The beauty of Bossa Nova.  You see, Ben is a long-time musician.  A sax player, and a fantastic one at that.  He played for the Cheval crew several times during my trip and it was the first time I was ever serenaded on a boat.  I found music and the water go together.  Almost like they’re one in the same.  Now, even when there’s no music playing, when I look out on the water gracing our hull, I hear music.  Thanks to Ben, it’s often Bossa Nova and more often than not it’s the song Ben played for us that morning on Cheval — “When she walks, she’s like a samba, that swings so cool and sways so gentle … ” Can anyone name that tune?

 

Captain Yannick

“Don’t tell me I did a good job, if I didn’t do a good job.  If I f&*cked up.  I need to know.”  Love that man.  Captain Yannick.  Our fiery French captain across the Atlantic freaking ocean.  He was so driven, so focused, so phenomenally energetic (working on boat project after boat project, day after day across the ocean) and such a diverse, eclectic personality.

I’ll bet you didn’t know: Yannick was a film student, a fighter jet pilot, a desert race marathon runner, even a published author and a raging Daft Punk fan.  His was an incredible and surprising friendship to form out of our 30 days across the ocean and he still texts me often, just to say “WHOO!  HOO!”  The most important thing I learned from Yannick was confidence.  If you have something to contribute, speak up and say it.  Don’t use your “recommendation voice.”  And, like much of the French do, which I appreciate: Don’t placate.  If a crew member fails at something, placating them by telling them they did a “good job” is not going to help them improve.  A very bold, hearty sailor he is and Phillip and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity Yannick shared with us in letting us sail with him 4,600 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

To all the captains I have sailed under and learned from: Thanks for the lessons, the laughs and the many-invoked Annie “Whoo Hoos!”  But, mostly, to the man who made this entire journey of mine possible.  From completely ignorant second mate (more like deckhand) on our very first sail across the Gulf together, to now an ocean-crossing, aspiring captain, the sailor who has inspired me, challenged me and encouraged me every step of the way.  I can’t wait to sail the rest of the world with you my love.

April 3, 2013 during the survey/sea-trial of our Niagara.  Where it all began.

Posted in Sail Skills, Sea School | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Let’s Talk About this Captain’s Exam

We should, because I can’t believe how close I came to failing.  What I learned was the test itself is not really that hard … if you know how to study for it.  And if you know how to find the Niantic River.  Stay with me.  We’ll get there.

First, let’s talk about this Captain’s Exam.  Had I known exactly what it was going to be like going in, I would have approached my studies in a completely different manner.  And, it was partially on a stroke of wild luck in the last two days before the exam that I took the steps that actually enabled me to pass.  Otherwise, I’m 100% positive I would have failed.  I really would.

Here’s what I learned: The exam is all multiple choice, 120 questions.  30 are devoted to Rules of the Road, of which you can only miss 3 as you must get a 90% on that portion to pass.  (I’m proud to say I got a 100%, and I’ll tell you how.)  60 questions focus on “Deck and General” (think firefighting, environmental protection, life-saving equipment, marlinspike and seamanship, boat handling and boat characteristics, etc.) and you must get a 70% on that section to pass.  Meaning, you can miss 18 of the 60, but the wide range of topics this section covers requires immense studying to familiarize yourself with every potential possible question you might see on the exam.  I learned many folks struggle with this section for that reason—it simply covers such a vast array of obscure, rarely used or cited regulations.  Another 30 questions are devoted to Navigational Aids (think red and green buoys, nuns versus cans, channel markers, navigational lights, etc.), while the remaining 10 questions are reserved for plotting.

In response to the question of whether to physically go to Captain’s School or go at it on my own through an online course like I did, I got many mixed messages from folks who had taken the exam in the past.  (Boaters … the only people on earth you can guarantee will have conflicting opinions on any given topic.)  Some licensed captains told me the school was five days of the teacher simply reading to you, directly from a script with a final exam at the end.  That was one of the main reasons I chose the online course.  I know myself well enough to know I do not absorb information well when it is simply read to me.  For hours.  In a monotone voice.  My brain turns it into that wonka-wonka-wonka of Charlie Brown’s teacher and my mind would totally wander—if it didn’t shut down entirely and take a nap—and I wouldn’t absorb a thing.  Then others told me—after I’d already decided to go the online route—that the school tests you every day, over and over.  That their specific intent is to teach you the answers to the questions.  If that’s the case, had I had it to do over, I would have gone to school.  But, I kind of did, on my own, just before the buzzer, and it literally was the decision that saved me.

So, the “Captain-in-a-Box” package I purchased from Mariner’s Learning System consists of five study books (both hard copy and digital), which cover each topic on the exam with a practice exam at the end of each (hard copy and digital, so two practice tests for each topic), as well as a chart and chart-plotting tools.

The hard copy materials are for your own independent studies, but you must take and pass the online course (trying as many times as you would like) before you are provided the necessary certificate that enables you to sit for the Captain’s exam.

The materials were very thorough, dense at times, but jam-packed with information, which was nice because you could read and try to absorb the knowledge at your own pace, then test yourself at the end to make sure the information actually stuck.  This was one of the reasons I chose the course.  What I was not aware of, however, were the massive amounts of regulations, rules and tedious USCG requirements that were buried in the materials, but not included on the practice exams as well as the intentional trickiness of the questions.  Even if you know the applicable rule for the situation, by heart, many of the questions are tricky and designed to trip you up.  Often, the answers seemed to range from maybe right to arguably righter, but there was only one Coast-Guard approved rightest answer that mattered.

Let me give you a sample.  This was one question that irked me from the beginning.  Particularly because it was a Rules of the Road question, so a very important one, but if I could, I would lodge a complaint about it.  It’s just … arguable in my opinion.  Rule 17 of International Steering and Sailing Rules states that the stand-on vessel (meaning the vessel with the right of way):

“[M]ay take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.”

Sounds simple enough, but let’s look at these two different questions applying that rule:

The answer to #8 is C, while the answer to #13 is C.  Are you in any way confused?  Doesn’t the B option in #8 look awfully like the C option in #13.  The catch?  Whether the action is one the stand-on vessel may take versus must take.  In #8, they ask what is “required” meaning the rule needs to state it is an action the vessel must take.  Although I would argue the “should” in question #13 and “must” fall awfully close together.  But, this is just one example of how tricky the questions can be and how easy it is to pick the wrong one.

The good news?

They’re going to look just like that on the exam.  Exactly like that.  Word.  For.  Word.  Every single practice question I took in the months and weeks before the exam, when it appeared on the exam, read verbatim (both the questions and the available answers) from the questions and answers I had studied.  So, any question I had seen and studied before, always appeared exactly the same in subsequent practice tests, so choosing the right answer was easy.

My main fear going in, however, was that the questions would not look the same on the exam, or there would be others, dozens maybe, that I had never seen before.  For instance, if I had never been asked how many and what type of life preservers are required for 7 adults and 3 children on an uninspected vessel in the practice exams, I was not going to know the answer to that question on the exam.  Is it the materials?  I’m sure.  Buried somewhere along with the 8,043 other tiny little tidbits of information in the 500 pages I read through that seem almost impossible to commit to memory.

While the Mariner’s materials are comprehensive and do provide everything you need to know to pass the exam, for me personally I felt I needed to be quizzed—over and over—on everything that might possibly be on the exam.  Knowing this, on a whim, two days before the exam, I Googled around looking for other practice OUPV exams online and I hit the mother-load.  Thank you BoatSafe.com!  As I started taking practice exams available on other websites, I realized how many more possible questions there were—some straightforward, but many very confusing—and I was failing the exams left and right.  Failing!  I’ll be honest, I kind of freaked out a little.  Thankfully Phillip was out of town those few days because I spent about 10 hours straight each day taking practice exam after practice exam after practice exam.  I literally answered, I’m sure, in those two days over 5,000 multiple choice questions.  I’m not kidding.

I wasn’t sure what else to do.  I felt I could either read through the materials over and over and hope the tiny little tidbits, hidden in the riff raff, would stick, or I could bank on a hope that the questions would look exactly the same on the exam.  I chose the latter and spent hours of time on these sites, until I could ace every single exam, 100%.  I highly recommend these if you are thinking about taking the Captain’s Exam.  They were invaluable to me:  

http://boatsafe.com/uscgboat/  (my favorite, covering all potential topics on the exam)

http://www.raynorshyn.com/NavRules/Default.asp (a very good one, but only covering the Rules of the Road)

http://meiere.com/CreateExam/start_Exam.php (again helpful, but only covering navigation)

With this basis going in—the undeniable fact that I only knew specific answers to specific questions, far more than I knew the actual, entire wealth of material they covered—I was really nervous about the exam.  Despite Phillip’s persistence that I was going to pass, I was not so sure.  I distinctly remember telling him in a text message: “If the questions are the same, I’m home-free.  If they’re different, I’m f*&cked.”  Pardon my French.

So, there I sat on the day of the exam, with four other guys—each of us with parallel rules and pencils in hand—waiting to take the test at a Comfort Inn conference room in Pensacola.  Before the exam, we all started chatting and I found this nervous-looking chap next to me had apparently done exactly what I did.  Memorized all the answers to every single question he could find and hoped they would look exactly the same on the exam.  Then the two guys next to us—each of whom had failed the exam once and each of whom looked far more saltier and weathered than Chap and I did—laughed and told us, that wasn’t the case at all.  “Some of the questions are the same, but others are different,” they said.  You’re screwed, basically, was the message Chap and I got, which pretty much ended the pre-exam conversation.  Then we just sat there and chewed our pencils until it was time to sign-in and start.

Chap and I had already decided we would take the Rules of the Road exam first as that was the one you had to get at least a 90% on to pass the exam.  Meaning, you could only miss 3 out of the 30 questions.  Just three!  I sat first, opened my exam booklet and started working my way through.  After 4-5 questions, I looked up and caught Chap’s eye.  We both smiled.  Huge grins and nodded.

The questions were exactly the same.

Exactly.  Word.  For.  Word.  Chap and I were golden!  We breezed through the Rules of Road.  (He and I both getting a 100%, thank you!) and started tackling the others.  Now, the Deck and General was a little more difficult as I mentioned.  It just covers so many topics, from vessel stability, to emergency procedures, to CFRs, to six-pack specific regulations, to the marine radiophone, marine engines, you name it.  While there are 60 question on the exam, so this allows you to miss 18 on that section and still pass, the world of possible questions they might ask you probably peaks in the 1,000 range, perhaps.  I’m not being precise on that, but it is a lot.  And, I also say with 100% certainty that I would have failed the Captain’s exam had I not gone rogue in the days before and started taking dozens and dozens of sample captain’s exams online because many (many!) of the questions I encountered that I recognized and knew the answer did not come from the Mariner’s materials, but, rather the online exams and—again—they were worded exactly the same.  Say it with me again: “Thank you BoatSafe.com!!”

As I worked my way through, I marked each question I came across that I did not recognize.  And, trust me, they were very easy to spot.  When I say Chap and I memorized the questions and answers, I mean it.  If it was a question you had studied before, you knew it by the time you read the first three words of the question.  You then stopped reading the question and started looking for the specific phrase you knew was in the right answer.  I hate to say that’s the best way to pass the captain’s exam.  But, for me, it just was.  In the Deck and General section, I marked 16 questions I did not recognize and breathed a sigh of relief.  I was 100% confident about my answers on the other 44, so I knew I had already passed.  I simply had a 25% chance on each of the remaining 16 to increase my score above 70%.  Although it wouldn’t matter.  What’s the joke?  What do you call a lawyer that failed the Bar twice before he passed?  A lawyer.  Same here.  A captain who gets a 70% on the Deck and General section of the exam, as opposed to a 100%, is still called a captain.

I breezed through.  With the first three sections (Rules of the Road, Deck and General and Navigational Aids) behind me, knowing I had passed each, I felt I was on the downhill stretch.  Just a coast to the finish line.  While I wasn’t an absolute whiz at the chartplotting.  I generally got 100’s on those exams when I would take my time, re-plot, re-measure and re-calculate, but even when I goofed up somehow, I got an 80 or higher.  I had yet to score below 70.  And, here I was allowed to miss 3 out of 10.  Those are some pretty good odds.  Everything was gravy then, right?

That was until the stupid Niantic River.

I sat there in my chair, shaking my head back and forth, not fully believing what was happening.  I had studied so hard and it was going to come down to this?  The stupid Niantic River!?  I huffed.  The rules said you could not ask the proctor any questions while taking each module of the exam, only after.  But, nothing made sense!  He must have given me the wrong chart or the wrong light list or something.  The question was: “What chart would you refer to for more information on the Niantic River?”  It wasn’t a question, or even the type of question, I had been asked during my many, many chart-plotting practice sessions.  The question was always: “What’s your ETA to the lighthouse?” or “What true course would you need to steer to arrive at Faulkner Island?” or “What was your set and drift at 18:45 on a heading of 43°?”  Any of those I could have answered.

I flipped frantically through the light list, searching for a listing for the Niantic River (although the question had not asked specifically about the light marking the Niantic River) and while I did find a listing for the river but it didn’t in any way match the numbers on the multiple choice answers before me.  I was stumped.  Irritated.  A little pissed off, frankly.  I marked the Niantic conundrum as one question I was probably going to miss and moved on.  The next question asked me what megahertz frequency I should tune to in order to get mariner’s broadcasts for Hartford, Connecticut, and I huffed audibly. Every other plotting test I had taken was just that, an exercise in plotting.  It required marking a lat and lon position, drawing a line, finding a heading, converting true to compass, vice versa, or distance to time.  All of that stuff.  No one had ever asked me what the freaking megahertz was for Hartford freaking Connecticut!  What the hell?  Frustrated, I marked that question as well as one that I did not know the answer to, frustrated to find two of my three gimmees already gone, and I was only on question #4 out of 10.  Things were not looking good for captain-to-be Annie.  The only comfort I took was in watching my buddy Chap flip through his light list just as I had done, shifting feverishly back and forth between the numbers listed in the book which in no way matched those on the exam.  At least I wasn’t the only one who was stumped.

Thankfully #5 was the exact type of plotting I’m used to.  Find the ETA for my arrival at Horton Point if I leave at 11:35 at a speed of 8 kts.  Perfect.  I’m golden.  I start working through a few more like that, hopeful I could get the remaining 8 questions right in order to pass, then I saw it.  While working a heading toward the compass rose, my parallel ruler landed right on it.  The Niantic River!  I had no idea it was even on the chart.  You’re probably thinking: “That might have been a good place to start, seeing how it is the chart-plotting portion of the exam.”  And I would say: “You’re funny.  You think I know what I’m doing.”   Silly you.

I had to hold back laughter when I saw right there by it, too: Niantic River, refer to Chart 13211.  I looked back at the multiple choice questions on dreaded question #2 and there it was.  C. 13211.  How freaking easy!  And what a dunce I was for not being able to answer it.  For not even referring to the chart to try to answer it.  My eyes then started darting around the chart.  What other really helpful things might I find here …  Then I found it.  The megahertz for various marine stations around that area.  For Hartford Connecticut, it was 13.427.  Right there.  On the chart.  I felt like such an idiot.  But a happy one at that!  I was about to pass this sucker!  I made my way through the rest of the plotting feeling like I probably got them all right, but you always guess a little on those when the distances or headings are just a few degrees off.  It’s hard to be that precise with a parallel ruler.

But, I stood excitedly before the proctor and asked him to grade my plotting portion right there on the spot, and he did.  100%.  I nailed that shit!

I can’t tell you how glad I was to know I had passed and to have all of that behind me.  I’m sure a lot of those tidbits about cumulus clouds, MARPOL regs, and the reflective material on lifejackets started to dribble out of my head the minute I left the room.  But that’s fine.  I knew that stuff when it mattered, and I had done it!  Passed the Captain’s Exam!

While I do still have a little bit of work ahead of me in rounding up my necessary Sea Service forms, getting my physical and drug test, the really hard part is behind me.  Now it’s just a formality.

If any of you out there are thinking about going for your Captain’s License, I highly recommend it.  If only just for the education and training.  STCW school was awesome and I have a lot more confidence now that I will respond more calmly and effectively if we do face an emergency out there.

But, for the exam, I also highly recommend you take every single practice exam out there you can find.  Learn the materials, try to make them stick, but after that, try to remember all the answers.  Oh, and don’t forget to actually look at the chart.  Amazingly, there’s a lot of really helpful stuff there.  Who knew?  Stupid Niantic River ….

The pic I texted to Phillip right after I found I had passed.  Happy Cap’n Annie right there!

If any of you are curious about the process or have any questions for me about the study materials or the exam itself, feel free to reach out.  As always here at HaveWind, we’re happy to share!

Posted in Sea School | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

Wind Chicken Gone Wild! (Article in SAIL Magazine)

The wind chicken did what?  Another really fun article here for you guys that was just recently published in SAIL Magazine’s July 2017 issue about our five-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico this past December to Cuba.  As I mentioned … I’m so glad we went when we did.  It was a little comical, though, watching us plan for all sorts of calamities out there and then ironic to find the ones we worried about never occurred, but what did happen, we could have never guessed.  “If it’s gonna happen … ” right?  Full article below.  Hope you guys enjoy the salty read!  A big thanks to SAIL Magazine editor, Peter Nielsen for commissioning this one from me.

Wind Chicken Gone Wild

“I don’t think the rudder post is supposed to move like that,” I told the Captain.

“It turns with the wheel” he said dismissively.  “Starboard to port,” eyes still closed, hands clasped on his chest.

“I didn’t say turn.  I said move.  Athwartship.”  His head snapped up.  That did the trick.  Severely nautical terms usually did, although they still surprised me when they would occasionally tumble out of my mouth.  As if I didn’t know the person who was talking.  It wasn’t long ago I thought sailing was only for people who wore blue embossed blazers and said things like “halyard, forestay and yaaarrr.”  Barely three years a sailor now and I still feel very new to it because new things seem to happen every time we go out.

 

Five days. Four filthy long johns.  Three rudder nuts.  Two sailors and one wayward wind chicken and we finally made it to Cuba. This was our longest offshore voyage, 500 nautical miles across the Gulf of Mexico, just the three of us—Phillip, myself and our champion, a 1985 Niagara 35—and while we had many expectations and preparations in place for what might go wrong, the things that actually did go wrong on that passage could have never been predicted.  If this voyage taught me anything, it’s that sitting around trying to dream up predicaments that might occur out there is a foolish man’s game because it’s the things you cannot predict that will teach you the most.

“Athwartship,” Phillip repeated involuntarily as he leaned over and watched what I had been watching on the cockpit floor.  The rudder post cap was moving athwartship about a half inch to port, another to starboard with each pitch of the boat.  If you thought your eyes were playing tricks on you, the grey scrape of butyl it left behind each time confirmed they were not. While offshore voyaging undeniably increases your tolerance for wear and tear on your boat, a wobbly rudder post in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico is not something I think I will ever develop a stomach for.  The rudder freaks me out.  It’s the only thing that steers the boat and if it falls out, it leaves behind a gaping hole that sinks the boat.  I hate the rudder. At least I hate when it’s moving.  Athwartship.

After some investigation, we found the nuts on the three bolts that hold the rudder post cap to the cockpit floor had somehow wiggled loose.  Why call them lock washers if they don’t?  Our first attempt at fixing this problem was a sweaty upside-down hour, hanging head-first into the port and starboard lazarettes slipping in the only thing that would fit between the cockpit floor and the quadrant—a flat wrench in a flat hand—and tightening each nut one millimeter of a turn at a time.  This held for about eighteen hours then the dreaded rudder post movement returned.  Now it was time to get serious.  Or crazy.  Where once barely a hand and flat wrench fit, we now wanted to get a nut in there too.  And some Loctite.

“Get me the doo-dads box,” Phillip said.  Believe it or not, that is its official title.  It’s an old fishing tackle box full of odds and ends.  The land of misfit nuts.

Finding nuts, however, to double up on the bolts was a far easier task than actually threading them on, hanging upside down again, single-handed, this time with slippery Loctite fingers.  It was like adding tricks to a circus performance.  Now walk the tightrope while juggling knives and balancing a sword on your chin.  We can totally do this!  You see?  Crazy.  You have to be.  Just a little.

“Maybe we can steer it down.”  It’s hard to believe even looking back on it that the “it” I was referring to was our Windex, better known on our boat as the “wind chicken.”  This was another wild card the Gulf dished out for us on our way to Cuba and definitely falls in the “I can’t make this stuff up” category.  Our second night on passage was a tense one, battling steady 19+ headwinds with heavy heeling and bashing into four-foot seas.  With the rails buried on starboard and waves cresting up and soaking the genny, we were heeled so far over the wind actually climbed the mast and lifted our windex arrow up to the top of the VHF antennae and began whipping it around like the bobble end of a kid’s bumblebee headband.  This is the exact type of outlandish situation you can never dream up ashore.

Phillip and I … begging with the wind chicken to come down.

One stupid piece of plastic—probably made in China and probably worth about ninety-eight cents—was now thrashing around violently port to starboard, up, down, around in circles, threatening to snap off our primary portal for communication, our eyes and ears on the horizon and our solitary method for finding, tracking and contacting other vessels in the blue abyss.  If the arrow snapped the antennae off, our VHF and AIS would shut down like a light switch.  All because of a ridiculous piece of plastic.  You see?  So crazy you can’t make it up.

Phillip and I weren’t sure if there was supposed to be some little stopper ball that was intended to prevent wind chickens gone wild and perhaps we had missed it in the package or failed to install it correctly when we stepped the mast after rebuilding our rotten stringers earlier that year.  Or perhaps the thought that the arrow could be lifted up and turned into a bull whip on the end of the VHF antennae is so far-fetched no wind chicken manufacturer has ever thought to design around it.  It was such a wild, crazy, stupid thing to be happening—threatening to disengage some of our most important systems—yet there was nothing we could do but sit, watch and curse it.  Until we had the idea to “steer it down.”

Phillip kind of shrugged his shoulders, shook his head but took to the wheel anyway seeing no better option. And, thankfully with some creative sail trim and steering we were able to reduce the heeling of the boat enough to change the angle of the wind on the mast.  When the severity of the whipping lessened, the wind chicken finally started to shimmy its way down, like a grass skirt on a hula girl, to its resting place at the base of the antennae.  Whew.  DownWhat now?

That was actually a common sentiment out there.  With the boat moving twenty-four hours a day, using many systems and running them very hard every hour of every day, the likelihood that something might break, start to wiggle, or even whip around like a disoriented bat was actually pretty high.  One of the best things about voyaging with a partner is the sense of accomplishment you feel after you’ve tightened the rudder post or fixed the bilge pump or rigged up a new halyard or whatever other thousand things you can tackle together out there.  Because that’s exactly where you will tackle them, is out there.  It takes a little crazy to get you to go and, after that, just more and more wind chickens gone wild until nothing completely freaks you out anymore.  When you feel an odd thump, smell a strange burning scent or hear an alarm go off, often your first thought is: What now?  But your next is usually: I can do this.  Upside down.  In the lazarette.  With Loctite.  Totally!  “Get me the doo-dads box.”

Posted in Voyage to Cuba | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Top 5 Lessons from Sea School

Ahhh … Sea School.  What a great experience.  It was five full days of classroom and hands-on training primarily on how to respond to emergencies on-board a vessel but also personal safety, emergency medical response and how best to prevent emergencies in the first place.  Phillip and I went to the Sea School in Bayou la Batre, Alabama.

You actually stay there on the “campus” for the course, sleep in dorms (no co-ed … doh!) and eat three square meals cooked daily in the kitchen.

Total cafeteria style food, but it’s perfectly edible and fills you up.  The whole set-up really starts to make you feel like you’re on a ship with fellow crew mates, sharing chores, clean-up, meals and plenty of sea stories during every break.  Many sea school graduates have also left their mark or insignia on the block wall that leads to the classrooms.

Lookie there.  Annie Girl!  And a nanner!

And while I’ll admit, many of your days look like this.  Eight hours of classroom lessons with a quiz at the end, and it seems hard sometimes to just stay awake …     ZZZZZzzzz

Some days look like this!  Yowza!

In all, it was a great balance of hands-on versus book learning lead by some great instructors.  While Phillip and I learned a TON, I thought I would share here five of our favorite takeaways from STCW training at Sea School:

5.  First Aid and CPR

I’ll be the first to admit, I had NO first aid training prior to this course.  While I had a general idea of how to administer CPR, I learned in our first aid class that things have changed and the approved method is now different.  Rather than 15 chest pumps followed by 2 breaths, they now recommend 30 pumps followed by 2 breaths.  We also had a very knowledgeable and insightful instructor for this course, Vietnam veteran (26 years in the Navy) and career firefighter (24 years with the Mobile Fire Department) Karl Ladnier, who opened my eyes to the reality of the force needed to correctly administer CPR.  He told us with the first few chest pumps you’re going to feel some “crackles.”  He said this was the cartilage breaking up.  That would be followed by more cracks which likely meant you were breaking the patient’s ribs, and you know what he said: “I’d thank anyone who broke a few of my ribs to save my life.”

Here is a photo of Karl during our firefighting training.

You cannot be timid, Karl said.  CPR requires a lot of force or it will not be effective.  We also learned what the true purpose of CRP is.  While the hope is it will revive the patient to full thriving order (like it does often in the movies), the reality, as Karl explained it, is that that rarely happens.  Only in a very small percentage of the cases does the administration of CPR itself bring a person back.  Rather, the CPR is much like putting the patient on a “machine” where outside forces are physically pumping the body’s heart to move blood and blowing in air to maintain oxygen, simply to keep the body alive, but the minute you “pull the plug” or stop CPR, the body will go immediately back into cardiac arrest.  Most times the CPR is only intended to prolong the period of time in which shock from a defibrillator machine might save the patient.  And, this is only if the CPR is administered within the first few minutes after the cardiac arrest.  You see?  All good, true, eye-opening things to know about something I thought was quite simple and often saved lives.

A snapshot of Karl teaching us in class.  (You weren’t really supposed to have your iPhone with you in school so I had to sneak it … Shhhh!)

4.  Firefighting!

Boy did Phillip and I learn a TON in this section of the course.  I had no idea there were different types of fires (Class A, B, C or D) that each call for different types of extinguishers.  I’ll admit, I thought the canister fire extinguishers we all have on our boats were designed to put out any fire.  But, it turns out, the fuel source of the fire can have a great impact on what agents will actually extinguish it and what agents may only feed it further, spread it or cause you more danger in trying to put it out.  For instance, if you were to use water or even a foam fire extinguisher on an electrical fire, you could inadvertently shock yourself because both water and foam conduct electricity.  Also, using water on a flammable liquids fire can splash the burning liquid and spread the fire to areas that were not yet ignited.  Who knew!

I can tell you this newbie firefighter didn’t.  

After spending a day in class learning about the different types of fires and the different types of extinguishers that should be used to put them out, as well as how to administer them, it was time for a field day!  Off to the fire hut we went to enter a burning room (a repurposed cargo container) in thick smoke and heat up to 800 degrees, with oxygen packs on to learn how to spray a stream of water to put out a fire.

That’s Phillip in his suit there.  He actually had an issue with his oxygen hook-up and was without air for close to a minute.  But the ever cool Marine in him didn’t panic and handled the situation perfectly. 

And there he goes!  Off to fight the fire.

 

 

Okay, it’s clear I was having a great time donning all that hefty gear.  I mean, learning is allowed to be fun, right?  I pick July for the FireGals calendar!  Smokinnnn’

What we also learned during this exercise was how to properly walk up to and away from fires and effectively attack the fire to make sure we wouldn’t spreading the fire to more places or put ourselves in the center of a burning fire holding an empty extinguisher.  It was surprising to see how short-lived these extinguishers were.  Some only 17 seconds.  That can be a long amount of time if you know how to effectively approach a fire, but a very short time if you don’t, then you find yourself in the heart of the fire with no more extinguishing agent to use.  We also learned a very valuable lesson to never turn our back on a fire, because you never know what it might do.  This was a hard one for many of us to remember.  Here is a great video showing some of our exercises and what the instructors were teaching us:

 

And, I can report only one small, teensy burn from this training.  (And I, of course, lucky Annie, was the only one to get burned, but I was honestly kind of proud of it.  Look at that hideous thing!  I hope it leaves a little scar. : )

3.  Launching, Righting and Entering a Liferaft

Liferaft training was one of the primary reasons Phillip and I signed up for Sea School.  To really get a feel for the liferaft.  Phillip and I purchased a 75-pound 4-person liferaft in a soft pouch (not a valise or canister) which we keep in our port lazarette when we sail offshore and had read a lot about them in making that purchase (and great article from SAIL Magazine for you all here on how to choose the best liferaft).  But, Phillip and I have never actually deployed our liferaft or practiced getting in, out, righting it, etc.  So, the training at STCW was invaluable in this aspect.  We learned in class how to launch the liferaft manually or using the hydrostatic release.  How to cleat the painter line to secure the raft to the boat during deployment and also how to manually inflate the raft and enter the liferaft safely from the vessel.  I also learned each life raft’s painter line is manufactured with what is called a “weak link” that is designed to break under a certain amount of pressure if the raft is still connected to a sinking vessel (so the raft won’t go down with the ship).  Good to know.

In the pool, we practiced getting in and out of the liferaft, which can be a more physically straining than you realize, particularly considering you will likely already be pretty exhausted at that point, and how to right the liferaft by using the handles on the underside and standing on the side of the raft.

This is the 4-person raft we used during our pool training:

So liferaft learning.  Check!  I’m hoping if Phillip and I ever have to use ours, we’ll look this chipper and dry when we get in.  What do you think the odds are? ; )

2.  Using Your Pants as a Floatation Device

This was definitely my favorite take-away from STCW school, probably because I didn’t think it would actually work and I was shocked to find how well it did in fact work, and how easy it was to do.  While you can do it with a long sleeve shirt, too, by holding the neckline tight around your face just under your nose, breathing in through your nose and out (into the shirt) through your mouth, the shirt method was more difficult and more tiring than the pants.  The pants trick is a great resource for anyone who voyages often offshore and may someday find themselves treading water without a floatation device for God knows how long.  So … the method:

I found a good post and video for you here demonstrating the technique.

While this guy uses the method Phillip said he learned in the Marines, that is flipping the pants over your head to scoop air in, the method we learned in STCW class seemed more efficient with less use of energy.  (It can be a bit harder than you think to tread water and effectively flip wet pants over your head to capture air, particularly when you will probably be pretty exhausted by that point already.)  Rather our instructor had us put the pants, deflated, around our neck, hold the waistline opening under the water with one hand and scoop air down into the water and into the waist opening with the other, while the pants are already in place around your neck.  This proved to be a much easier, quicker method, particularly for the necessary periodic refills.  I was really blown away by this trick.  It can get very tiring treading water and this is a fantastic way to use something you probably already have on your body to give you much-needed rest at a time when you are probably tired, a bit panicked and in need of a moment to just float and assess your situation.  One other tip we learned: shoes will really weigh you down if you’re treading water.  They should be the first to go, BUT pull the laces out of them first as those may prove very useful for tying or fastening things later.

1.  The SEA STORIES

As Karl, one of our favorite instructors put it: Stories start one of two ways, “Once upon a time,” or “This ain’t no shit.”  Pardon my French but I think that accurately captures it.  This one, Numero Uno on our list, was actually Phillip’s pick.  One of his favorite takeaways from our week in Sea School were the Sea Stories.  Most of Karl’s stories fell in the “no shit” category.  It seemed for each teaching point in the book dealing with how to attack certain types of fires, how to check a hot door, how to approach an injured victim, on and on, Karl had a real-life personal firefighting story that would make you shake your head in disbelief but put some real life experience to the lesson to really make it stick.  After twenty-four years serving as a firefighter, he had clearly racked up some stories.  He told us about crazed people who had pulled a weapon on him, sad children who went back in to save their dogs and never made it back out, fellow firefighters who had made simple but grave mistakes, and of course some very funny stories as well.  The best one involved a beautiful topless woman and a request that he help hold up her chest.  I won’t repeat the details here, but trust me, it was rich!

Many of our fellow students also had some wildly bizarre stories to share as well.  One was a long-time tug boat captain who had dealt personally many times with fires aboard the ship, a breach of the hull, fouled props, failed engines, you name it.  It seemed everyone had so much to contribute in the way of real life experiences.  (Thankfully  we had a few too from our voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, that were fun to share.)  One, however, that our personal safety and pool instructor, Larry, focused on in discussing the design elements and equipment in the liferaft was Adrift.

Have any of you read or heard about this book?  Steve Callahan survived 72 days at sea in an inflatable liferaft and he shared his harrowing tale in this sobering book.  It really is eye-opening.  Larry, our instructor, also told us of another recently confirmed survival story about a guy who floated in a fishing boat from Mexico all the way to the South Pacific, spending 438 days and drifting over 7,000 miles at sea.  It’s unreal.  But it is also very real.  What we learned primarily from this course is how to deal with emergencies, yes, but primarily how to prevent them at the outset, how to follow procedures and safety precautions designed to ensure you never have to deal with an emergency in the first place.  But, if Phillip and I ever do find ourselves facing an emergency out there, I’ll at least know we have a good working foundation to initiate the best response in light of the situation.  For anyone thinking about preparing for extensive offshore voyaging or, in particular, working in the maritime industry, this would be a great foundation for your training.

You’re looking at two fiery grads here.  Five days at Sea School.  Done.

Posted in Sail Skills, Sea School | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Captain’s Quiz II

Back by popular demand … another Captain’s Quiz!  It seemed many of you really enjoyed testing your maritime knowledge in my last quiz and asked that I do another.  I have signed up to take the Captain’s License exam the end of June, so I’ll keep a few more of these coming to you along the way so you can continue to learn with me.  Phillip and I are also going to STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Code) training this week, so we’ll be picking up some great firefighting, life-saving skills there which we will share as well.  And whilst we’re getting our learning on over here in Bayou la Batre, I thought you could too over here at HaveWindWillTravel.  Last time I tested you all on some of the “Rules of the Road” portion of the Captain’s License test involving navigating oncoming ship traffic and the many different nav lights and signals.  Now, I’m knee-deep in marlinespike and seamanship, boat handling and meteorology.  Let’s see how you do on these.  Send in your answers in a comment below and I’ll come back after our fire-fighting session and post the correct answers.  Have fun!

 

#1  Boat Handling

Two vessels are abreast of each other and passing port to port in a confined waterway.  What should you expect as your bow approaches the screws of the other vessel?

A.  Your speed will significantly increase.

B.  You draft will significantly decrease.

C.  Your bow will sheer towards the other vessel.

D.  Your bow will sheer away from the other vessel.

 

#2  Marlinespike and Deck Seamanship

Under identical load conditions, nylon, when compared with natural fiber line, will stretch _______.

A.  less and have less strength

B.  more and have less strength

C.  more and have greater strength

D.  less and have greater strength

 

#3  Meteorology

The wind circulation around a high-pressure center in the Northern Hemisphere is _______.

A.  counterclockwise and moving towards the high

B.  counterclockwise and moving outward from the high

C.  clockwise and moving towards the high

D.  clockwise and moving outward from the high

 

Isn’t learning fun?  Hope you all are enjoying the Captain’s journey with me!  Ahoy!

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