Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Are you in Distress?

Pop Quiz! If you saw a boat flying this flag, what should you do?
Scroll down for the answer.

This flag is the international daytime visual distress signal. Memorize it in case you ever see someone displaying it. Someone flying this flag is in distress.

Talking about being in a life or death situation on a vessel is much like talking about your mortality - it can be uncomfortable for some people. I have been fortunate in my over 40 years of boating (going all the way back to childhood) that I have never been in a situation - on my boat or someone else's - which required any kind of distress signal or deployment of flares. All that being said, I still prepare for the worst by inspecting all my safety gear on a regular basis and repairing / replacing anything that is expired or worn out. There is no substitute for being prepared for as many different situations as possible. As an exercise, I sometimes imagine a scenario and what I would do in the event that it occured.

Anyone who has owned a boat over the years has dealt with the issues surrounding the Coast Guard signaling requirement. Most boaters meet the signaling requirement with flares. The problem with flares is that they expire 42 months after manufacture. In order to stay current, most boaters are on a 3 year cycle of replacement. In many municipalities, it has become increasingly difficult to properly dispose of expired flares. They are considered hazardous materials and are not allowed to be tossed in the garbage. Flares contain perchlorate, which has been deemed a hazardous substance. Soaking them in water before tossing in the garbage is illegal since it will leach that chemical into the ground in the landfill. In the county where I live, they have monthly HAZMAT days during the summer months, and will take the handheld flares, but they will not take the aerial flares. Unfortunately, the aerial flares are the biggest problem. Aerial flares cannot be discarded by firing them off - because of laws against making a false distress signal. Many boaters solve their problem by buying new flares to satisfy the requirements, and then keeping some or all of the expired flares as "extras".  Eventually, the oldest "extra" flares will need to be discarded to make room for new ones, and the problem reappears - what to do with the oldest flares?

Using old flares as extras is, in my opinion, a dangerous practice. One blog piece I read recently where the author test fired some expired flares, the expired flares were much more unreliable than expected. In most cases, if you have a dud you can just reload and try another one. In one particular test, there was an expired aerial flare that misfired and did not launch when the trigger was pulled, but the round deformed, jamming the launch gun. If that happens in an emergency situation, you now have a jammed flare gun in a potentually life or death situation. Poking and prodding a dud flare to unjam the launch gun is a very dangerous activity. Once a pyrotechnic device misfires, it can be very unstable and must be handled with extreme caution. If you are going to keep old flares around as extras, I recommend firing off the newest ones first in any emergency situation before moving on to the less reliable ones.

Last year at the Annapolis Boat Show, I ran across the booth for the Sirius Signal SOS device. These devices are being marketed as an environmentally friendly way of distress signalling without the problem of outdated flare disposal. These devices are battery powered hand-held signalling devices that emit a constant SOS signal by flashing SOS in morse code using a white LED, visible in all directions. They market their device as a replacement for flares, negating the need to keep them on board any longer. The list of advantages that Sirius Signal gives for their devices being superior are as follows:

  • Floats with lens-up to optimize both the all-around horizontal and vertical light beams
  • No expiration or disposal issues
  • No flame - safer than flares
  • Visible up to 10 nautical miles
  • Battery-operated (3 C-cell Alkaline batteries, not included)
  • Daytime distress signal flag included in package to meet ALL requirements for DAY and NIGHT use in lieu of traditional flares
  • Duration - these lights will flash for hours, where flares are burned out relatively quickly
This device is solidly built and I have no question about it's durability and operation. However, I am not convinced that they are a complete flare replacement. While the device meets all the written requirements of the Coast Guard distress signaling regulation, it is my opinion that these devices are a SUPPLEMENT to the safety gear, not a flare replacement. Here are three reasons that I feel the Sirius Signal devices are not a complete replacement for flares.

  1. Confusion: If you've ever been out on a boat at night, you will find that what looks familiar in the daylight becomes a confusing array of steady and flashing lights of varying colors at night. Especially if you are navigating in coastal or inland waters, where shoreline lights are present, I'm sure you've encountered the situation where the navigation lights of buoys and lighted marks are obscured by or mixed in with shore based lights. The Sirius Signal device becomes another flashing white light amid a confusing array of other lights already in the environment. Offshore, where there is less light pollution from other sources, these may be more effective as a signaling device. The advantage of a flare in this scenario is uniqueness. Since flares are almost never used for any other purpose, you can be fairly certain that if a flare is deployed and someone sees it, there will be no mistaking a flare for any other signal.
  2. Unfamilarity: In this age of instant communication via cell phone, VHF, Satellite link, Morse Code has gone the way of the Do-Do bird. Without cheating and looking it up, do you know the morse code pattern for S-O-S? If you saw it flashing in the confused night time environment referenced above, would you recognize it for what it was - a call for help? Further, they include a "distress signal flag" to meet the day time signaling requirements. If you had difficulty with the pop quiz at the beginning of this article, that is a great illustration of the flaw in the daytime signal argument.
  3. Visibility over the horizon by elevation
  4. Elevation: The Sirius Signal device suffers from lack of elevation in normal use. These lights would usually be displayed right at the water surface. If you're forced to abandon your vessel into a life raft or dinghy, you are floating just a foot or two above the water level. Large swells can momentarily obscure the visibility of your light. Furthermore, being closer to the water, your light will disappear over the horizon sooner. The advantage of a flare in this scenario is elevation. An aerial flare fired high in an arc will be visible from a longer distance than a flashing light at water level.
I don't want to give you the impression that I think these devices are useless. Far from it. They are well built devices that are suited for a very specific purpose. Much like the tools in your tool box, each tool is in the box for a particular application. While it's true that you could use a crescent wrench as a makeshift hammer, I bet you wouldn't consider tossing out your hammer because you have a crescent wrench. Similarly, in a life or death situation, you may find that there are boats out and about but nobody seems to see your flashing white light or signal flag. Maybe a flare will get their attention. In that case you will be glad you have some on board.

Unfortunately, I have no good alternatives to offer you on how to dispose of expired flares, but I am also not ready to remove them from my boat and replace them with a flashing light just yet.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Nine Days in Paradise: Day 1

In January of 2016, my family and I chartered a catamaran in the Virgin Islands for a week. This article is one of a long overdue series of posts detailing the trip. You can view the entire series here. Over a period of a few weeks, new entries in the series will appear for your enjoyment.

When doing the preliminary planning for this trip, we were unable to find a flight that would get us to the boat early enough on Saturday to make full use of the boat and get to our first destination. Therefore, we chose to fly in a day early and spend a night in a hotel to get a full day on the boat.

We departed Baltimore on an early flight - with a layover in Miami. The flight down to Miami, the transfer, and the flight to St. Thomas were relatively uneventful.

At the airport, we gathered our bags and hailed a taxi to get us to the hotel. The ride across the island was interesting and it was great to see a bit of the non-tourist areas on our way to the hotel. The first order of business was to stop by hotel bar and get welcome drinks. Dylan and Mitchell had their first "legal" adult beverages, as the drinking age in St. Thomas is only 18.

The Marriott Frenchman's Reef
Dinner at the Sunset Grille
We stayed at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef, a very nice resort style hotel on the east side of Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Our room had a nice view of the ocean. As we were only staying a night, we didn't have much time to explore the resort or use any of the amenities (other than the bar). We had a very nice outdoor dinner at the Sunset Grille and then a late walk around the hotel before hitting the mattress. A long day of traveling and schlepping through airports had us all wiped out. Yet another good reason to fly in a day early!

Early to bed, anticipating a busy day on Saturday...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How many points do you have?

A while ago, I read an interesting article about the Black Box theory. I filed it away in my memory banks but recently I came across it again. It had to do with accumulating "points" for doing something proactive and "seaman-like" in preparing or maintaining your boat. Rather than elaborate further, or be accused of plagiarism, I'll point you to the original article, here.

I have experienced the very thing that John Vigor refers to numerous times over my boating career. I always assumed it was just plain old luck. But after growing up in a boating family, and learning proper preventive maintenance and seaman-like practices under the expert tutelage of my father, I think maybe it's the Black Box points keeping me safe.

Many years ago, when I was sailing one of my first boats that I officially owned (prior to that I sailed boats owned by my father), I had taken my Hobie 14 sailing on the Gunpowder river. The ramp at Gunpowder park has a very small beach next to it which was bordered by a retaining wall made out of rocks. At the end of the day's sail, I was approaching the beach to get the boat ready for the trailer. The point of sail I was on was dead down wind. Due to the layout of the ramp and the surrounding geography, I was unable to come in at a different angle. Just as I was about to make landfall, the wind shifted slightly and I jibed unexpectedly. This caused the boat to change course and I found myself suddenly heading for some very ugly looking rocks. I immediately threw the rudder over hard to avoid hitting the rocks and guide me back toward the sandy beach. To this day I have no idea how I managed to avoid crashing that day. I can only assume black box points of some kind.

Which reminds me - I need to go to the boat soon and give her some TLC.

See you on the water!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Buying a Catalina 320 - Part 2

In response to a question that was posed on the Catalina 320 list by a prospective buyer of a Catalina 320 looking for problem areas to be aware of, I wrote the following response. This response has been refined by input from others, and has been improved from the original email for publication. 

Due to the length of the material, it is being broken out into two blog entries. This is part Two. For part one, click here.

Catalina 320 Pre-Purchase Inspection

By Doug Treff, September Song, Hull 350

General things to look for in your prospective purchase:

First of all, hire a competent marine surveyor in your area. Don't rely on your broker to recommend one. Find someone who has no "skin in the game". Many times, marina owners and managers will recommend a good surveyor. Your surveyor will look for all of the following, but you can save some money by educating yourself and eliminating any boats that have obvious problems. In addition to the usual Yacht Pre-Purchase survey, I always recommend people to have the engine surveyed by a diesel mechanic, including oil analysis. Many times this can be combined with sea trial and survey day. In the long run, this is money well spent. Most marine surveyors are not engine mechanics and they will usually clearly state that you should hire a mechanic for a complete engine inspection. Major engine work or re-powering a sailboat is expensive and you’ll want to know ahead of time, so you can make an appropriate allowance in your offer.

Your job here is to locate show-stoppers that would cause you to not buy the boat. This will save you money by preventing the survey of multiple vessels.  Use the very simple inspection list below to weed out boats that need work. You will be astonished by what you can find with no more than a critical eye and a slightly cynical nature. This list is NOT comprehensive and is meant only to help you find obvious problems on your own. Your surveyor will do the rest. Bring with you a small flashlight and a note pad for this inspection. Signs of shoddy workmanship or amateur looking repair jobs should lead you to question everything. Take lots of notes – if you’re looking at multiple boats they will all start to run together. If appropriate, use your smart phone to snap some photos as well.
  1. If the boat is out of the water, walk the perimeter at ground level and examine the rub rail from below. You are looking for any deformities that may indicate impact damage. The rub rail is made of aluminum and will show bends and deformities where serious collisions may have occurred. These may also be potential leaks inside to examine later. 
  2. Examine the bottom closely. Make note of excessive paint build-up or peeling bottom paint, as
    Bent Rudder Shaft
    this will be a job facing you at some point if there's 10-20 years of paint built up.  The bottom should be fair and smooth. Look for signs of blistering. While you're down there, closely examine the propeller and shaft, looking for signs of pitting or corrosion that could indicate an electrolysis problem. Stand directly behind the center-line of the boat and check that the rudder is properly aligned with the keel, not bent to either side.
  3. While you're walking around the boat on the ground, stand back and walk slowly, examining the hull from a distance. Wear a pair of polarized sunglasses. Often they will reveal things that escape the naked eye.
  4. Walk the entire deck and feel for soft spots that indicate serious structural problems. Gently test life line stanchions and other deck fittings for soundness.
  5. Look around at the attachment points for the standing rigging. Any signs of rust or hairline cracks could indicate a serious problem.Look for cracks in the swaged fittings and also in the chain plates where they attach to the deck.
  6. First impressions: Upon entering the cabin, is it clean and tidy, or a cluttered mess? Messy owners are often lazy about proper maintenance.
  7. Use your nose. Does it smell like mildew, diesel, or sewage? All these odors could be signs of potential problems - and of course each smell will have a specific cause. You'll want to examine what could be causing any odors, because it could be costly to clear up later. Sewage odors have many causes, one of which is noted in this post. Generally the holding tank related problems noted on C320’s are easily repaired and documented on the C320 site. Diesel odors? Mildew smell? Pull up the floor boards and look for stagnant water or signs of an oil slick on the bilge water. This could contribute heavily to any odors, especially fuel or oil leaks, as well as mildew odors from stagnant water in the bilge. If you find oil or fuel in the bilge water, alert the marina manager and do not turn on the bilge pump!
  8.  While you have the floor boards up, examine the visible structural grid below them for any signs of stress cracks or repair jobs. This may be difficult due to limited access.
  9. Also in the cabin, look for signs of leaks. Leaky decks can be a real problem once the core gets wet and starts to delaminate. Water stains on wood bulkheads and floors, peeling varnish, drip spots or stains on upholstery are signs of trouble. Feel the acorn nuts in the cabin roof for water droplets. Look on those nuts for discoloration or deposits that might indicate leaks. Examine the interior areas around the chain plates and mast base, looking for signs of water intrusion.  Anything that looks like it's been leaking for a long time is a potential serious problem. A good strategy is to examine the interior of a boat within hours of a rain event. Not always possible, but it helps.
  10. If your broker will allow it, pull the forward engine cover and examine the fiberglass drip pan
    under the engine, looking for any obvious signs of leaking. While you're looking at the engine, check the belt tension (not too tight or too loose), and just look over the engine. Most well cared-for marine engines are (nearly) spotless, and show little sign of oil or grease build-up. Yanmar paints everything including the hoses. If you're looking at a boat that is 20 years old and the hoses are painted like the engine, there's a strong possibility that the hoses are 20 years old as well. Look at the raw water pump. Feel around on the underside for any dripping water that could indicate a leaky system. Take a white paper towel or rag and wipe around some of the joints in the diesel fuel system. Off-Road diesel in the US is usually dyed pink and will show up clearly on a clean white paper towel. You should not find any fuel leaks. Feel the bottom edge of the oil filter and the lowest point on the engine and see if it has any oil drips forming. If you see a can of Quick Start (pictured) sitting in the engine bay, that's a sure sign the owner is having starting issues. Don't use this stuff. Get your engine repaired before you destroy it.
  11. Look around the batteries and examine the fiberglass below them for any signs of acid damage from leaky batteries. Even if current batteries are good, there may be damage from battery leaks gone by.
  12. Glance around the cabin for any signs of amateurish or non-standard repairs. Electrical
    components should look professionally installed, and there should not be any loose or dangling wires of unknown origin. Automotive battery chargers have no place on a boat!
  13. Examine the hull for signs of repair work and the deck as well. When anti-skid is repaired, it becomes quite obvious due to the intricate pattern. Learn the standard anti-skid patterns of the C320 and question anything that looks non-standard. Repair work is not necessarily a problem if done well. Trust, but verify that work is done right. Closely examine the transom area for crazing where the swim ladder touches when lowered. There is a lot of stress on this area when the ladder is being used.

By this time, you should have a fairly good idea if the boat you are examining is sound or not. After you've decided to make a purchase, make your offer contingent on a successful pre-purchase survey, engine survey and sea trial. Don't skip these steps.  

After you’ve bought your C320, please visit the C320 IA web site and join the association for additional access to resources and information about your boat.

Now go sailing!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Buying a Catalina 320 - Part 1

In response to a question that was posed on the Catalina 320 list by a prospective buyer of a Catalina 320 looking for problem areas to be aware of, I wrote the following response. This response has been refined by input from others, and has been improved from the original email for publication. 

Due to the length of the material, it is being broken out into two blog entries. See Part Two in a future entry.

Catalina 320 Review and Known Issues

By Doug Treff, September Song, Hull 350

In my opinion, the Catalina 320 is a fine vessel for the purpose that it serves me - cruising the Chesapeake Bay. As with any boat, there are pluses and minuses with the design.  Every boat design is a compromise of form and function. I believe that Catalina hit a home run with the 320, and its continued popularity, even after being replaced by a newer model, bears that theory out. The strong C320 owners association adds value as well, since we all share ideas and solutions to problems. Below is a list of things I Love, things I don’t love, common repair issues and design flaws for the C320.

Things I Love:
  •  The Aft cabin - Having the Aft cabin really makes a huge difference in the amount of space on board for accommodating guests. It also offers more privacy than other boats without this feature.  At the 2015 boat show in Annapolis, I toured the current models. The 315, which Catalina considers an equivalent new model to the discontinued 320, does not have the same size aft cabin. You need to move up to a 355 to get a similar aft cabin now.
  • It's competitive compared to other models - I am continually amazed how I can hang with larger boats when out sailing. Boats that should have a speed advantage due to sail area and waterline length, yet I can keep pace with them.
  • The Cockpit is comfortable and roomy for entertaining, and the large wheel makes it easy to sit outboard and see around the cabin while steering the boat. Bonus - the walk-through transom.
  • A full shower in the head - This is my first boat with a shower and it was a huge selling point.
Things I Don't Love:
  • Side-loading aft berth - Whoever sleeps closest to the door to the aft cabin will be disturbed when the other person needs to get up in the middle of the night for any reason. Unfortunately, in this size vessel, there's no other way to design an aft berth this large.
  • Cabin Storage Space - There is limited storage space on the boat. Due to the location of the batteries and sewage tank, the starboard settee is not very useful for storing things. I would never put food in there and you really shouldn't pile a lot of stuff around the batteries.
  • Sail handling locations - When single-handing, the helmsman will need to leave the helm completely to tend the main sheet due to its location on the cabin roof. I generally don't like Hunters but one of the things I've admired about them is the arch with the main sheet right at the helm station. Same comments apply for the Jib sheets. The primary winches need to be about 2 feet further aft for handling by the helmsman.
  • She rounds up easily - Due to the very wide aft cross-section, when the boat heels too far, the rudder loses effectiveness, causing the boat to round up, often resulting in an unexpected tack. Especially troublesome when considering the other problem regarding sail handling. If single-handing, you cannot dump the sails quickly while also tending the wheel. The solution is keeping heel angle under control through sail trim, and reef early. I recommend that every C320 owner make it a priority to properly rig the reefing setup and practice using it so they can do it efficiently when needed.
Common C320 Repair Issues:

There are very few inherent problems that span across all C320 model years. During the production run, Catalina made changes to their design based on customer feedback. The 320 is a good example of a reliable production boat and many survey problems are due to poor or deferred maintenance. Below is a list of known problems and issues that has been pulled from monitoring the C320 list for a number of years. It will give you a good check list.

  • Early models of the C320 did not have solid fiberglass in the deck around the chain plates to protect the core from water leaks. Sometime later, they started doing solid Fiberglass in these areas. Nobody has been able to definitively state when that change was made, so exercise caution here and address chain plate leaks ASAP.
  • Stemhead fitting – There is a known flaw in the design of the original stemhead fitting which could lead to rig failure if a crack develops. The stemhead fitting on all C320s should be examined closely per the article here. It might be wise to share the following information with your surveyor. http://www.catalina320.com/filemgmt_data/files/Stemhead%20Article.pdf
  • Sewage tank vent design flaw – Catalina uses a 5/8” vent fitting on a ¾” hose. The vent is too small and the screen often clogs. Easy to fix, but this can cause all kinds of holding tank problems due to poor venting of tank. See the association site for a fix to this issue.
  • Older 320's may need a fuel tank replacement. If you search the 320 forum, you'll find discussions of fuel tank leaks over the years. Consensus seems to be 15-25 years is about when the failures start in Catalina aluminum tanks. Replacement tanks are available and they DO fit in and out of the boat without cutting any fiberglass.
  • Slow water leak from Aqua-Lift muffler box - You'll need to have your mechanic check for this during the sea-trial. Not a huge amount of water, but it can contribute to an exhaust odor in the cabin over time.
Design flaws – other issues:
  • Port List – Not every boat, but many C320 owners have noticed a slight list to port. This could be different from one boat to the next depending on installed options like air conditioning, or extra batteries.
  • 1996 and older models do not have a molded toe rail aft of the cabin. This is a safety issue and I have already nearly gone overboard twice because my foot slipped right off the boat.This issue was rectified with the 1997 model year.
  • Early models (1995 and older) had a shallow bilge. The deeper bilge is more desirable if you can find one.
As you can see, no boat is without inherent design flaws and common problems. Don't let this list scare you off. The majority of the C320 fleet out there today is well loved and cared for. Hopefully you now will be better armed to uncover some of the common issues.

The next post in this series will focus on how to do your own pre-purchase inspection of a sailboat before you submit an offer or hire a marine surveyor.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Coiling Double-Braided line without twists

Sorry about the lack of posts around here lately - been busy with life and such...

Here's some really good information to hold you over until theres a new blog entry:

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Day Two - St. Michaels to Beards Creek

We woke at a reasonable hour, getting the Dogs fed and walked. Returning to the boat,  we made some breakfast and readied the boat for departure. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the breeze started to fill in. It was looking to be a great day! After we motored up the Miles River and into Eastern Bay, the wind direction became favorable and we were able to sail our way out into the Chesapeake Bay, past Bloody Point. As we were sailing along, there was a Catalina 380 going the same direction. Anybody who's a sailor knows that whenever two sailboats are headed in the same direction it's a race. A 38 foot sailboat should be able to easily sail away from me, just based on waterline length and sail area. But time and again, as we were tacking our way out of Eastern Bay, he was unable to shake me. I take pride in good sail trim and it was clear that he was not paying enough attention to his...

Who's a spoiled dog?
After we cleared Bloody Point, we turned Northwest towards the mouth of South River. Unfortunately, the wind decided to go on it's afternoon siesta and we were barely drifting along. Combined with an adverse tide, it was starting to get frustrating so we fired up the engine. Two hours later, we made our approach to Mikes Crab House south. Of course this was the time that the wind decided to pick up, just as we were attempting to pull into a slip. Eventually we got things sorted out and had September Song securely tied up. Time for showers and then we could go get some dinner!

Plenty of slips available at Mikes - Even on a Saturday!
After dinner, we went back to the boat, and during the process of getting ready to head to our anchorage for the night we started noticing a foul odor coming from the head (bathroom). It seems our sewage holding tank had filled up and at this moment it was leaking bad stuff out of the vent. Boat sewage tanks have a vent line (outside the boat) that lets air escape from the tank when you pump more stuff into the tank. The problem is that when the tank fills up, the fluids can also escape from the vent line and go overboard. Since the Chesapeake Bay is considered a "no discharge zone", we needed a pump-out ASAP. At 7 PM on a Saturday, our options were few, and getting fewer as time went by. I grabbed my cell phone and pulled up the Maryland DNR list of pump-out stations. After making a few calls, we found a place that was less than a mile from our location. Kudos to the fuel dock guys at Oak Grove Marina who, after receiving my urgent call, stayed open later than their usual time to provide me emergency pump-out service.

Finally, after all those matters were tended to, we headed to Beards Creek, where we were spending the night. We found a nice, peaceful spot to anchor right off the runway of Lee Airport. Doesn't sound too peaceful, but there wasn't any air traffic after dark, and the few planes we did see were small private ones. There really aren't too many good places to walk the dogs in Beards Creek. Let's just say that I cannot confirm or deny that we may have landed somewhere with a "No Trespassing" sign.

Total distance covered: 39 miles