Please visit our home site at

Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

This winter, the wind blew a well maintained, centegenarian cannery building off its piling in neighboring Sitkoh Bay!

There's something about Alaskans; 
If they survive, they think they've had a good time!

-- A Visiting Friend

If you can't dodge wrenches, you can't dodge logs!

-- Anke paraphrasing quote from the movie, DodgeBall...
Rip Torn, training his team by hurling wrenches, says,
"If you can't dodge wrenches, you can't dodge balls!"

For all the danger I keep harping about, sailing is pretty durn safe. The story I'm about to tell is pretty much our one hairy tale in 23 years of sailing along a rough coast. Well... lets say 15 years of bona fide, actual, out there sailing (as opposed to building, being tied to shore and a job, family visits or crises, etc). Still...

Winters in SouthEast Alaska aren't the igloo and dogsled kind. Usually, things hover within several degrees of freezing, with occasional ventures up or down. The warm Japanese Current confers moderation. It's a wet and piercing cold, to be sure, but seldom truly frigid. Winds can and often do blow up to hurricane force. But then it can flatten for days at a time to mirror calm.

That year was different.

Storm after gale blew off the Gulf. Our 'relief' was a switch, now and then, to colder, interior air rolling down from Yukon Territory, bringing its own, fierce winds and the deadly threat of freezing spray.

It was a Dark and Stormy Winter

We were snug as bugs in Sitka Sound, but had promised to watch animals for friends in Tenakee. We tried to wriggle out, but TKE is a small town, and all the locals were booked for the season. So off we went in LUNA.

The forecast looked good... S-SE F6-7 should have whisked us north and east in a day or two. We gave it a month. And good thing we did... no sooner had we cleared Sitka breakwater than the wind dropped to nothing...       ...then picked up again, on the nose! LUNA, we always said, loves to beat! She can't let a fair wind be.

So we beat, close-hauled north past and through stretches wild and beautiful at the best of times, grey and gorgeous under the lowering skies of winter. I'll skip the details (which takes a couple, long bottle nights for our stories yours!) and only say that, by the time we reached Penninsular Point, we'd waited out and sailed through three gales, two blizzards and a winter storm.

Penninsular Point is just north of where Peril Strait meets Chatham Strait at cross purposes. It sticks out from Chatham's west wall like a hammerhead, with a sandy bottom bight to the north and south. It makes a great place to wait for fair wind, sheltered in one lee or the other.

This time,  "It was comin' down outta the north with its loooong boots on" (as a friend liked to say... I do too, in a dark and gravelly voice).

We spiderwebbed into the S bight and waited. And waited. And waited. Two weeks non-stop huffin' and puffin' and snow. We'd wake to find our cockpit overflowing with the powdery stuff, and the decks swept clear.

It's a fine time, waiting snug for weather. Elaborate and creative meals. Poking around in the snow, ashore. Reading and music and love.

Finally, the forecast called for a change in weather. Southeast gales in the afternoon. Music to our ears. Straight shot into TKE, several days ahead of ourselves!

Right on schedule, the wind in the bight fell to nothing. We bundled up, pulled our anchors and poked our nose around the corner. Hmph. Still blowing bearded combers. We bucked against it, for a while, making progress but not much. Why don't we pull back in, have lunch and try again in a bit?

So back in, drop a lunch hook and have us a sammich. [Queue the ominous music!] Didn't even unsuit so we'd be ready to go at the first sign of wind.

We were just having some tea when we heard the shwssshh of swell in the bight. Alright!! That means wind S of us! I set down my tea, and heard something else. Looking up, I saw the trees at the top of the cliff swaying back and forth like they wuz born again (hallelujah)! Uh Oh. I reached down to pull my zipper up as the first gust hit.

By the time it's up, we were on the beach!

Those gentle swells were now going nuts with (I estimate) around 45kts of wind driving 'em, broadsides into our hull. Top of a spring tide... not the best time to be driven ashore.

A glance saw us pinned against a field of drift logs topping the steep gravel beach. The dory was getting squooshed between LUNA and logs.

I yelled to Anke to furl the mizzen (released but flogging), but HANG ON! Then leapt to the logs (no derring-do... they're stuck fast in sand and close as a dock). I pulled the dory out from between, and ashore, noting only a single puncture, near the sheer (lucky). 

Looking up, I see Anke, in mid-air and almost horizontal, loop-de-looping around the mizzen, overboard and back! She'd been jolted loose by the boat, surging and jerking erratically in surf and sand. But she took it in stride (as I calmed my beating heart) and furled the mizzen taut and tight.

Eventually, the tide receded, taking the chaos with it. It's a fail-safe beach, for the most part - one of the reasons we like it. But, since last we'd been there, a giant snag had grounded high and off to the east of our position, which foiled safety along that stretch... four-inch-thick branches like jousting lances defended the beach from invaders. A boat length that-a-way and we'd have been skewered.

We ran damage assessment (dory punch was the only casualty) and formed a plan. One that involved gathering blocking materials, skids and levers. Beaches like this one, luckily, are full of that kind of stuff... flotsam, like ourselves, cast ashore. It took us several breath-taking tries to row a brace of anchors through the surf and get them to set offshore. 

Turns out, our anchor pulled home with a ball of weed... we'd misjudged the distance and anchored in the foul zone.

The problems were threefold:
  1. We were tight and broadsides to a row of giant logs (couldn't spin the boat on her belly).
  2. Twice a day, high tide slapped at us, trying to erase whatever progress we'd made.
  3. The tides were getting lower... running lower and leaving us behind.
Worse, while it was only up and down between 30 and 45kts, 70kts and higher could appear any time... and we're looking down water unbroken till Antarctica. Kinda lights a fire. We had a smidgeon of protection from Morris Reef - shoal to the south of us - which might knock the legs out from under the very worst waves, but that was small protection.

Meanwhile, the bight was collecting more and more drift logs. Drift logs, it turns out, love to surf! Cowabunga!

Higher high water rose up in the wee hours, so we'd pause for a few to fend logs. We could just make out the long, inky blots of log in froth as they surged from the dark. The generous moon broke through the scudding clouds for just enough time, each night to light our staves, warm our hearts and lend us courage.

It was in one of these anxious hours that Anke, her grin agleam in lunar twilight, shouted her dodgin' wrenches remark over the cacophony of wave and wind. Later, she fell asleep on her feet, spilling her tea. That's my Baby!

We worked round the clock for three days. Raising up on the house jack and forcing a controlled topple. Setting and resetting skids and blocking as tide allowed. When the water came, cranking in and heaving on the lines. Lifting and shifting - waves tried to slap us back against the logs - we struggled to hold our ground.

We were finally able to move the boat out enough to spin it enough to pull on the anchor lines enough to inch forward on the crests enough to slide free! Free, HA HA HA HA... FREEEEEE!!!!

Well, almost.

Our dory, left on the beach logs in launch position (attached by a long line), did indeed launch, but swamped in the surf. No problem. Routine stuff. Our formerly offshore anchors, now slack and  inshore of us, entangled with the gauntlet of drift logs on our way out to weather anchors in deeper water. We fought to untangle them in the surge; finally having to cut and splice one that was hopeless.

By now, the tide had receded, and our offshore anchors were smack-dab under the ebbing surf line. Should've picked 'em up on our way out, if we'd been thinking clearly. Had to wait for high, again, to pick 'em up; close but clear of turbulence.

Now that we were free, the forecast switched, of course. We had the rest of the night-ish to get north to Tenakee Inlet before it turned against us, again. Tired as we were, we sailed off into the dark and stormy night...

But I'll leave that tale for another time.

PS. There's a moral... never sail under a deadline!

We had a lot of advantages in a situation that could have wrecked another boat. Shoal draft kept us upright, and able to step ashore. The copper bottom eliminated chafe concerns. We had a sea-going dory for backup, capable of taking us over winter waters. We had, and put ashore, spare rations and gear enough to set up a camp should the worst come. We had the heavy movers to force the boat downhill, against the weight of surf. We had cold weather active gear, and solid lighting to let us work long hours. We knew the bight well and had chosen it, in part for its fail-safe beach.

There's that element of luck that can toss agley the best laid plans. But Fortune favors the well-prepared; it never hurts to hedge one's bets, especially when gallivanting about in winter.

All in all, we think we had a good time!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The DIY Mandate: Do It Yourself!

By Rustin Wright

Never throw anything away you can't retrieve at low tide.
Codger's advice as passed on by Mike McConnell

I'm a sucker for manifestos... pithy declarations of basic principles. Here's a brace of 'em for the DIY Revolution. Follow links provided for easier reading.

Like so many manifestos, they're not a perfect fit... certain turns of phrase and assumptions, here and there, make me twitchy. But gotta love 'em for their enthusiasm - a trait essential to anyone who gets up on a soap-box and shouts the Truth as they see it. And good on 'em! I won't quibble with their fine print.

Of course, I see it all through a particular - possibly peculiar - lens. But then, you're here, reading this, so it's likely one we share.

All this can apply to the low life on the water.

In many ways, these are clarion calls to go back to the future. A time when self-reliance was the rule, and not the exception. A time antedating extremes of specialization, when we were Jacks and Jills of all trades, masters of none. A time before the 'attractive nuisance', when use at your own risk was caution enough. It wasn't by any means a Golden Age, but it had its silver linings.

The downside of manifestos is that they're wordy. They're hard to put together, in the morning after dancing in the streets. So we need a slogan to sum it all up and chant at the running-dog corporatarians... Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle.


Click HERE for easy reading or distribution.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Electricity in a NutShell

Nikola Tesla, Boat Electrician Extraordinaire

There are few areas, in boating, that attract more gew-gaws, gizmos and gimcrackery than the electrical system.

Time was, nobody had one. Oil lamps for cabin, anchor and running lights. Lead lines for sounding. Paper charts and a handful of tools for navigation. A fiddle, squeeze-box and lungs for music. Hailed passing ships with a bellows voice. Sailed with eyes and ears open by night.

We sailed our first ten years this way, and loved the simplicity. But lamp oil's getting rare and expensive. It's messy and doesn't burn quite clean... even a well trimmed wick irritates, these days; we became slightly sensitized, over the years. So electricity it is.

Now, I'm no technophobe. But I notice that I've stepped onto a slippery slope!

Here's a simple, modern Wish List:

Radar, GPS, Computer with Nav Software, Auto Pilot, Windlass
VHF (Base Station w/ Antenna and Coax Cable)
Depth Sounder, Knot Meter, Anemometer
Fridge/Freezer, Freshwater Pressure System
Running, Anchor, Spreader, Spot, Cabin Lights
Bilge Pumps, Sniffers, Blowers, Fans, Engine Starter and Wiring
Music System (Player, Speakers)
Solar Panels (1KW?), Controller, Battery Bank, Pulse Desulphator
Wiring, Switches, Fuses, Distribution Panel
120V Shore Power Parallel system, Inverter
Dry Cell Battery Charger, HeadLamps, FlashLights

That ain't asking much... no electric furling, winches, ham radio, single-sideband, TV... and the computer doubles as a DVD player (my aren't we the thrifty ones!).

And that only comes to... hmm... carry the two... decimal point here... YOW!!!

Here's the problem. If you, like us, have a shoe-string operation, a wish list like this one is going to come out near the price of whole rest of the boat. The less expensive the boat, the worse the relative bite of the electrical system.

Okay. New approach. In this one, we try to think like a Jeep, rather than a Cadillac.

Goals are few components, reduced complexity, low draw.

New, leaner, meaner Final List:

Radar, GPS (Hand-held), Computer (12V) with Nav Software, Auto Pilot, Windlass
VHF (Handheld)
Depth Sounder (Leadline), Knot Meter, Anemometer
Fridge/Freezer, Freshwater Pressure System
Running, Anchor, Spreader, Spot, Cabin Lights
Bilge Pumps (Bucket and Sponge), Sniffers, Blowers, Fans, Engine Starter and Wiring
Music System (iPod and iHome)
Solar Panel (130W), Controller, Battery Bank, Pulse Desulfator
Wiring, Switches, Fuses, Distribution Panel
120V Shore Power Parallel system, Inverter 
Dry Cell Battery Charger, HeadLamps, FlashLights

Wiring et al is held to a minimum by using rechargeable (NiMH) drycells, and charger for hand-helds, anchor and stern lights. An outlet circuit powers computer, charger and music. Few circuits (cabin lights, nav lights and outlets) allow bargain distribution panel. Battery's a Group 27 lead-acid (car) battery, rated 107Ah.

[NOTE: Check around harbor dumpsters for abandoned batteries. Can trade them in for discount on new one, and/or try reconditioning with a Pulse Desulfator. These pulse a charge through the plates, knocking sulphates free, thereby upping battery capacity. They are believed to extend battery life, and can moderately restore lost performance. Cheap, relative to batteries, so pay for themselves over time.]

I can't stand cigarette lighter plugs. Bulky and designed to break the connection. We're looking into PowerPole Connectors as an alternate.

For an anchor light, we use a little Brunton LED tent lantern. It's waterproof, and a single charge of its 4xAA batteries lasts about a week of nights. We've got a bigger, 30 LED lantern that we use if anchored near town (city lights). It doubles as an area light if we have to work outside at night. Inside, the main light is a 'natural tone' florescent, supplemented by candles.

[NOTE: Check with local churches... there's almost always a little storage room full of half-burnt candles they're happy to dispose of!]

The computer is a luxury... it pays its way by allowing me to write and finalize designs on board. It's an ASUS 901 EEE... 12V and solid state drive means low power consumption.

Our Solar Panel (Kyocera KC130TM), is the biggest that will fit on deck. These employ a technology that's more output on a smaller footprint, and is more efficient in cloudy or low light conditions. We oversized it (spendier option) to reduce having to orient for optimal performance (sometimes, in winter), and to cover occasional, creative fits on the computer.

The Solar Panel is by far and away the most expensive component. One option is to go bargain basement (many 2nd hand deals). We've gone, instead, for higher performance, small footprint and long, guaranteed life to prorate cash investment, and reap performance dividend.

This all still costs a galling 10% of SLACKTIDE's total (including the electrical system and copper plate).

The VHF base station is the one thing I hanker after. We get a good five miles, line of sight, with the hand-held, but Alaska eats that up pretty quick. I've spent enough time in EMS circles to appreciate long distance communication. We seem to have a general surplus of power, though we'll look for a radio with low stand-by power draw.

One odd-ball item we're looking into is an ionizer. These help clear the air of particles (dust and woodstove). They make a li'l, 12V guy for cars that should handle our space. [See SHEMAYA's comment, following post].


Also on the cost list are tools and materials. I won't detail it, but it's a fairly spendy kit when all the dust settles. We like a butane soldering torch, though are considering a 12V iron. Don't forget a multi-tester!

A good reference book is a fine idea. We found the The 12-Volt Bible for Boats by Miner K. Brotherton to be very easy to understand... something to be valued over brevity, at least to get going!

The electrical system is one of the main causes of fire on board. Bone up on safety standards, and follow 'em for trouble free function. Don't forget type ABC (C=electric) Fire Extinguishers.

The best systems, once installed, go forever after unnoticed.

PS. So far, we've only ocassionally run low on power (50% of battery charge) in the dark o' winter. It's a portent that I'm spending too much time on the computer and need to take a break. Our 7W florescent cabin light and LEDs are just sipping power, so the next daylight hours will start catching us back up. Most of the time, there's power to spare.

This post also appears at

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lord of All I Survey: Notes on the Chart

Typical Chart of Tricky Bit

I hear that the ability to take in significant detail from a perusal of a chart is an acquirable skill.

Not me. Not yet, anyway. But not for want of trying!

One problem is that it's often wet, windy and wild just as we're negotiating a tricky bit of coast... entering or leaving a cove, threading a rock pile or reef, running into or out of a river.

Another is that so much of where we sail - in the shoal fringes inaccessible to deeper craft - is either not charted at all, or wildly inaccurate.

Here's a set of tricks that help with both problems...

We'd draw this after a row-by survey noting what was marked by kelp or not,
and checked on LOS ranges (can see 'boot'/creek mouth?),
current set and that all danger reefs are visible.
Note considerable simplification and detail omission.

Hand Chart

We start with a notebook of weather-proof paper - the 'write in the rain' type - and pencil. We're going to draw a 'chartlet' that we can hold in hand, on deck, in the thick of things for quick and continuous reference. It will be our guide, without having to run down to check the chart every time short term memory draws a blank (pretty often, for me... short term memory).

[Note: We like mechanical pencils with a fine, medium lead for chart annotations... write concisely with a light hand for easy erasure (corrections). Any old pencil with thicker lead works for Hand Charts... look for a heavy, dark line, visible longer in low light conditions.]

From the chart, we copy a representation of important features; coast outline, rocks, shoals, channels. This doesn't have to be too accurate or detailed; just enough to clearly identify features and a safe course. It helps to strip out information you won't need. Draw in a route whose dangers and courses are marked by identifiable features.

Identifiable features may include points, islands, exposed rocks, depth contours (need to sound for these), and ranges.

Ranges are any two things that line up to establish a line of sight (LOS), or a line of position (LOP). The difference is that the line of sight is the strait line determined by two points, while a line of position is one that you're sitting on. These can be used as danger lines (e.g., don't cross that there LOS, it's a rock pile on t'other side of it), or safe passage lines (e.g., line up that big, white boulder with the peak and stay on that LOP to the first bend... you'll be clear).

Useful line ups can be marked right onto the chart.

Compass bearings can be useful, though in our grounds, we hardly use one (lots of shoreline detail and distinctive background. For various reasons, they're seldom as spot on as an LOS.


The first time into a new area, all you've got to go on are your charts with notations of any local knowledge that might have been passed your way (note it on your charts, but treat it skeptically), and the information from your senses. If it's a complicated spot, consider a row-by to nail down details.

We make up our Hand Chart, and update it as we go. Sometimes it'll be a correction (as in, they drew the shoreline wrong), but most often, it's visual LOPs using uncharted features (e.g., trees, boulders, ravines), an addition (reef, rockpile, mudhole, etc.), description (bottom type, beach characteristics, etc.).

Hasty sketches of profile views can be drawn in. How do things look on the the approach? Where's the channel, visually speaking? When, where and what am I looking at for my ranges?

After we're settled (preferably sometime the same day) we often go for a hike or row. This is a time to take a more complete and less hurried survey. Compass bearings can be taken or checked, without boat's motion. If we're out at low tide, many hazards are visible that were not, on the way in. We can use this time to calculate heights of channels and bars, using the Rule of Tenths. All info goes onto the Hand Chart, which is by now looking a bit worse for wear.

Once back beside the fire, we tidy up the Hand Chart and redraw a fair copy in the log. We've wanted to collect these into a binder, organized in line with the Coast Pilot, but so far haven't gotten to it. If there are specialties, here, we note 'em... thimbleberry stands, orach, a freshwater stream.

One of the benefits of the process of drawing and re-drawing is that the picture you're developing gets its best shot at making the jump to long term memory.

Yes, but is it ART?
 The Mental Map

The generation before ours spent a great deal of attention on cultivating a sense of profile navigation. Ideally, one could look at a picture from anywhere within the cruising range and - from the profile of islands, mountains, sea and spits - know exactly where the picture was taken.

I'm still a novice at this - my brain doesn't work well in that way - but my powers are increasing! Especially from the decks of a slow boat, one has hours to contemplate, analyze and identify one's environs, purely in terms of profile. I play it as a sort of game, using the chart to back up my (increasingly educated) guesses.

Over time, my picture of our cruising grounds is slowly building into a mental map of the entire region. Every season fills in new gaps in the map. It's getting common to sail into some far nook we last visited a decade previous, and find it not only familiar, but fresh - the Hand Chart redundant for today.

The Delorme Topographical Gazetteers (Atlases), taken together, are another resource. These are available for all 50 states. They're small scale (cover more area with less detail), but give a good sense of the lay of the land.
These help identify peaks (usually marked as points on the chart), runs of ridges, valleys and contours... all of which are very helpful for visual navigation. As a perk, they can help clue you in to how winds might flow in a given locale, helping toward the selection of an anchorage

They're not to be used as a sole reference for navigation, but then, what is?

Friday, February 24, 2012


Be careful what you water your dreams with. 
Water them with worry and fear 
and you will produce weeds that choke the life from your dreams. 
Water them with optimism and solutions, 
and you will cultivate success.
Lao T'zu

Most of the water in our lives is safely outboard. The ocean, rain, rivers. We've gone to some lengths to keep it that way.

But some of it is invited aboard.

A reader asked about our system, and it turns out to be startlingly intricate... here I was thinking it simple! Here's a medley of ways and means we handle it.

An all-purpose bucket lives on deck. We like the 2 gallon size made from food grade plastic, white, with a rope painter. Its small size makes it easy to heft saltwater aboard for washing down decks, pre-rinsing dishes, latrine duty. If it's been raining hard, we use it to bail most of the dory before finishing with its smaller, dedicated scoop.

Also on deck (usually) are four, 5 gallon jerrycans, each of which holds about a weeks worth of fresh water, more or less. These were a score... British military surplus, they have 1/4" thick walls (tough as nails). We fill them two at a time, usually... we'll fill 'em all if heading into a flat area.

Fresh water in SE Alaska is plentiful, and mostly deliciously potable. We look for steep creeks running down directly from mountainsides, or small rivers with good flow. We avoid those with flat stretches below muskeg (acidic peat bogs common to the area), where water may have sat, stagnant and warm, before joining the stream. In late summer, the fish runs start coming in, and we'll avoid spawning streams until they clear of fish remains... usually November-ish.

Giardia (a protozoa infection) is always a risk. It can be carried and introduced by animals (a common name for it is beaver fever after high concentrations from waters contained by beaver dams), including humans, and almost any surface water is susceptible.

Official advice is to treat, filter or boil all untested water. Some argue that this is over-kill; that a healthy person's immune system resists small concentrations... the problem (goes the argument) occurs in high concentrations or when the immune system is depressed. We've followed this line of reasoning, based on scarcity of giardia victims in SE, and (I must confess) laziness. If you do boil water to sterilize, it's a minimum of three minutes at a roiling boil. Stir when cool to re-oxygenate.

If we're not satisfied with the look of things, we do have a Katydyn pump filter, and can collect it off our sails or by setting a collection tarp. Only ever resorted to this once or twice. Sails are easy (put 'em up with a one panel bight at the bottom, and catch the drip), but water so caught tastes of smoke.

Steep creeks are usually small and can be hard to spot. To find water, we'll often ghost along a steep shoreline, listening hard. The sound tells you a lot about volume, the bed (mossy creeks are quieter than those running over clean stone and sometimes even if there's a convenient pool to draw from.

One or both of us will row in - as near high tide as is practical - with jerrycans, a funnel and salad bowl (for a scoop)... if it checks out (clear brown water has tannin from the muskegs).

In winter, we chop through ice, as necessary. If the jerrycans are freezing up, we may hang them overboard, where the heatsink of the North Pacific keeps them fluid. We don't sleep with a fire, at night... if it's cold enough, we'll fill our coffee and teapot in the evening. Next morning's fire will thaw them out before boiling for breakfast.

Morning water involves ablutions (might include a 'spit-bath'), the aforementioned water pots - one for coffee, the other warming for the day's thermos. A cup's worth of rice/lentils (plus 2x water by volume), most days. Wash-up (once a day, if diligent).

We mix in saltwater, as much as possible, to stretch the fresh. Use it instead of dry salt if liquids are called for, half and half for potatoes, when we have 'em, a little less for spaghetti. All but the final rinse for dishes.

Saltwater is dipped from SLACKTIDE's side-flaps, which are handy to the galley. With a handled pot in hand, we can easily reach the water. The french press is sloshed clean overboard. Don't shake it out, and the residue is just right for coffee!  A little salt water in coffee (don't over do it!) replaces the old country pinch o' salt... delicious!

After breakfast, we refill one pot for the day's water, which usually suffices for cold drink, cooking and brushin' teeth.

Some projects - laundry, spring cleaning, canning, wine making in berry season - all these take more fresh water. We'll sail right up a tidal river mouth and dry out in easy reach of all the water we need. Cleans the copper, too!

A water related thought: we keep weight down by carrying as much dried food as possible. Just add water! Since it's available all around us, we can defer the weight. Saves hundreds of pounds.

So those are the WaterWorks on S/V SLACKTIDE.

There are lots of other ways to go - holding tanks, dockside fill-ups, reverse osmosis, solar stills - it all depends on the use of your vessel, your cruising grounds and habits.

The watercourse way...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Annotated List for KISS Living

If we're gonna be up a creek, we'd best have a paddle!
(Not sure of provenance, but found this image here)

Annotated List for KISS Living

In a recent post, A Stitch in Time, I wrote of TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know IT), and concluded with a list of skills and stuff to have on board. Not coincidentally, the same list applies to shoe-string living, on the water or off, and more generally to emergency preparedness.

The debate surrounding most anything, these days is highly polarized. Left/right, liberal/conservative, sane/insane, perpetrator/victim. Most of us are just trying to find our way among a few facts, and laying bets on those to which we give credence. 'Nuff said.

I take it you're reading this because you're interested - in practice or vicariously - in a simple life on or near the water. After all, that's all I got. The whys and wherefores aren't so important. We're all welcome, here.

It doesn't take TEOTWAWKI for this kind of information to be useful. Emergency situations can crop up out of nowhere. Katrina in New Orleans, flood or fire in California, snowstorms in Chicago, car breaks down in Texas. You're laid off, foreclosed upon or the ol' ticker skips a beat.

So this list can be approached 'Post Collapse', 'Emergency Preparedness' or 'Voluntary Simplicity'. Works for me, any which way, so suit yourself.

Much of the information given below can be found online. Rather than buy a stack of tomes with exhaustive, specialized detail, look for good, concise presentations. Print 'em out and organize them in a binder/notebook, and trade up whenever you stumble upon better.

The alternatives are good, general compendiums in book form, covering a range of subjects or important/complex subjects in greater detail.

We use both. Look for good presentation and information density. Don't let 'em collect dust... get that knowledge into your head and hands. Kids eat this stuff up... let 'em!

Main sources of information are books (Consider buying local, Libraries and Inter Library Loan); magazines; online articles, blogs, zines and websites; people (don't forget old-timers!). I've included links to many that we have onboard or have been helpful to us. But it's a wide world, and we don't get out, much.

Finally, don't undersell your own ability to figure things out. We don't want to spend our time re-inventing the wheel, but our own focus and tenacity can solve problems and resolve questions that are unique to us. That's a powerful tool perched on your neck... don't waste it!


Survival Training - Books, SAR (Search and Rescue), seminars, etc. provide training and education over quite a range of scenarios. Never know when you'll be separated from your base.

Basic Medical Training - I recommend Wilderness First Responder training, usually available through your local SAR. Sets you up for most anything that can be handled without access to medical facilities. Where There Is No Doctor and Pain Free are good, core references.

Pharmacopoea - Natural medicines and tinctures, aspirin, antibiotics, anaesthetic. Books should be available for medicinal plants in your locality. Ask around. Do be sure to find reliable sources, and cross-reference these to the best of your ability. Pay attention to cautions and dosage. This stuff is potent... like any medications, they can kill as well as cure.

Dentistry - Cavity stabilization and tooth extraction are emergency procedures (not standard DIY). But emergencies emerge. Teeth are right next to the brain and wired for extreme sensitivity. A bad tooth is red flag and left untreated or improperly handled can kill. Serious stuff. Try Where There Is No Dentist for an intro.

Basic Self Defense - This is an individual choice issue. Many books, classes and whole disciplines cover a range from 'empty hand' tactics to physical/spiritual mastery of martial arts. Weapons may or may not be part of your choice, but consider that they won't always be at hand. At a minimum, learn how to prevent and defend yourself from personal assault.

Engineless Sailing - The Complete Sailor is the best all-round book I know of. Consider Emergency Navigation, as well, in case you have to cover long distances.

Make Fire, Vinegar, Pine Tar, Charcoal, Tallow, Soap, Rope/twine, Leather, Weaving - I don't know of a single, good source for these, but all can be found online. Many libraries have the The Foxfire Book series (link is to first of many), a collection of mountain folk skills.

Alcohol - Recreational, medicinal (tictures), for fuel and potentially for trade. The Alaskan Bootlegger's Bible is one comprehensive text among many. Be aware that many laws control the production and distribution of alcohol, and that it's an addictive toxin. Some forms are lethal toxins (learn the difference!). In emergency situations, consider that its consumption won't likely be in your best interest.

Metalworking - This is the skill that separates us from the Stone Age (not a bad age, but we may as well take advantage!). Lots of metal lying around, for our lifetimes. Being able to work it is a bootstrap skill. I recommend The Complete Modern Blacksmith, among others.

Forage / Gardening / Food Preservation (drying, smoking)/ /Beekeeping Animal Husbandry? - These are traditional farming skills and can be locale specific. Two general references are Country Wisdom & Know-How, and Back to Basics.

Fishing / Hunting (snares) - More local knowledge. Indian Fishing and Living Off the Sea are good places to start. Snare info can be found online (snares offer a great advantage to active hunting... they're on the hunt 24/7).

Leather tanning - Online info available. I'd recommend brain tanning, for starters, as ingredients are always on hand. Check out rawhide, while you're at it.
Stone-age (start-from-zero) skills - Flint-napping? Basketry? Pottery? - These skills might come in handy, but, for our lifetimes, there's a super-abundance of metals and containers lying around in piles, so this is pretty well covered, for now. But there are plenty that are useful in a pinch, and I'd recommend at least a survey of techniques. Neo-primitive, neolithic and wilderness survival online sites are good sources as are a variety of books.

    Sailboat, Gear and Outfit - DIY or BUY.

    Full Set of Hand Tools - Quality tools are often available, second hand, at very good prices. I'm a little out-of-date, but solid tools at competitive prices are available through Frog Tools, WoodCraft and WoodWorker's Supply, among others. An ax and medium sized tool-box will hold everything needed to build a boat from standing timber, and shape metal. Not necessarily fast, but capable.

    Non-Hybrid Seeds - Hybridized seed don't breed true (can't save seeds from this harvest for next). Non-hybrid seeds (sometimes called heirloom seeds) can be found online, in individual seed packets or garden- to farm-scale mixes, with a range of varieties. Many are packaged for long term storage, and can be kept in reserve for years.

    Year's Supply of Food? - Some food on hand allows you to concentrate on emergencies and provides a cushion in changing conditions. No finite supply is a long term solution, however, and the ability to feed oneself and dependents from local and renewable sources is a more flexible approach. Azure Standard is one supplier of bulk food goods, both organic and non. Buy local where you can, and cut out middle-men.

    Grinding/Processing Mills / Plant Oil Extraction- Many foods, wild or domesticated, benefit from processing. Plant oils are difficult to extract without tools. For a wide selection of these and related, non-electric tools, see Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog (Lehman's primarily serves Amish and Mennonite communities).

    Clothing - Consider durable, flexible clothing with backups. Innermost and outermost layers get the most wear, so you may want to lay in more of these. Learn to darn those darn socks!
      Firearms / Ammuniton, Weapons - Depending on your views on hunting and defense, firearms may be a part of your life. Consider that a flintlock using DIY black powder from field ingredients need not be replenished with manufactured ammuniton. Crossbows, blowguns, atlatls, slings and snares may all be more useful in the long run, and have their own degrees of fun and interest. Certainly, they can be DIY in a wider range of conditions. Remember that everything in this category is inherently dangerous, and all appropriate safe practices need be observed. Sources are various, with many books and online sites dedicated to each.


      Okay... them's the basics as I see it, but the list is by no means complete. If more come to me (on my own or via readers), I'll come back and update this post.

      Remember that this is just a start and tip of an iceberg. You'll find your own paths through the mountains of choice offered us, at present. Look for flexible solutions in keeping with your situation, beliefs and style. Get your family and friends involved for the sheer pleasure of it. More heads are better than one, and community is a crucial resource.

      Don't panic, friends, but don't put this off... the times, they are a'changing, and not always for the better.

      Wednesday, February 22, 2012

      A Stitch in Time

      From Disaster Movie by LionsGate

      A Stitch in Time

      For years I've been huffling about TEOTWAWKI, The End Of The World As We Know It.

      My first serious introduction to the concept, back in the '80s, was through the book Limits to Growth by Meadows, et al. Recently, an excellent animation, There's No Tomorrow by Incubate Pictures (see at top of righthand sidebar) lays out the situation in a clear and accessible  manner.

      Go watch it...      ...Okay, you back?

      Growth is inherently exponential. Any system with a positive growth rate doubles in a finite period of time. The only alternatives are cessation of growth or decline, neither of which are viable options for our credit (aka debt) based economy. Planetary resources are finite. These are facts, universally agreed upon.

      The core assertion is that consumption is proportional to the scale of the system. When it doubles, so does consumption. Historically speaking, this has been an understatement. Growth in consumption has outstripped growth of combined world economies and population (aka, the rising standard of living, averaged). This is also agreed upon; this growth is, in fact, considered necessary to modern economies.

      Critics contend that we can innovate our way out from under the connection between growth and increased consumption. They assert that free market forces will drive innovation and make profitable the tapping of previously exorbitant reserves.

      The problem I see with this is that innovation takes place within the laws of thermodynamics. It does not pull rabbits out of hats. Current conditions offer immense rewards for successful cold fusion, for example, but to no avail. Uneconomic reserves may become  profitable to develop, but only if energy and other necessaries in the process remain relatively inexpensive. Rising costs of extraction and processing could eat up profitability.

      The question is, how many doubling periods can we sustain before consuming the last of some vital resource (one upon which a functional economy depends)?

       If your answer is "some finite number", welcome to lunatic fringe. If it's "some infinite number", congratulations... you're completely sane (you may leave, now... nothing in this post is going to make sense to you).

      We've saturated the planet (no new, fertile continents to expand into). We've halved our reserves of energy, more or less, with no viable prospects to replace it. We've committed our economic and physical infrastructures, globally, to a dependence on cheap energy (particularly oil) and continuous growth. The same situation and consumption dynamics apply, even more strongly, to other non-renewables necessary to modern economies. Water, topsoil, plastics, to name a few.

      Long odds are, we don't have another doubling period in us.

      Despite quibbles over timing and mechanism, in doubling time we find ourselves approaching the end of our run. The glass is half full of us, half empty of resources. And that's the problem... sometime between now and when we double again, that's it.

      A stitch in Time.


      So here's how Anke and I approach all this in the here and now...

      First, the observation that we're fortunate to be loving the life we live. We'd be out sailing on a shoestring whether or not we think the sky is falling. It's a happy coincidence that what we like doing is also a stitch in time.

      Second, anybody looking forward to TEOTWAWKI just isn't picturing it. We're now some 7 billion souls on a planet that had substantially less than half that when I was born. One billion (a thousand million) of them are critically malnourished at present. For them, TEOTWAWKI has begun, and nobody's dancing.

      Third, the bunker/hoarder approach isn't to our taste. I mean, look. A big pile of food ties you down. In the scenarios where it comes into its own, it's an attractive nuisance. Chances are it won't be starving hordes over-running your redoubt (not that we'd care to mow them down if it were), but a desperate yahoo with an improvised slingshot, who'll put your lights out from behind while you're rotating canned peas. And when that food's gone, it's gone.

      Our (engineless) sailboat affords us mobility - the means and skills to git, if and when the gittin's good. Safety from mobs (likely to be orbited and infested by bullies, thieves and other abusers) lies in social distance. Forage is good, in our area, but is spread wide over a large region. Should trade be possible, the ability to transport goods from one zone to another is essential.

      Hoarding is a dead end, for us, but we do keep a years worth of supplemental carbs aboard (grains and legumes). A straight up benefit is that we don't have to check into any town, much less a larger one (with cheaper goods) for a year at a time. In TEOTWAWKI terms, it would give a year or more to address whatever learning curve new conditions present (depending on how quickly we learn to extend it with local, wild plants).

      That learning curve plays out against our chosen grounds. Despite inroads, it's one of the richest and most intact bioregions left in North America. As we learn to subsist in ever greater degree, that abundance is fresh food in a natural pantry that can't be emptied, broken into or burnt.

      Skills are the greatest possessions in a desperate world. Not only are they directly useful, they can't be taken from us, and make us more valuable alive than otherwise. Don't take up space, don't rust (well okay... they fade a bit), and sharpen with use. How to make things, find and identify and prepare plants, hunt and fish, make fire, treat trauma and illness. That's a hoard worth having!

      Tools are handy things. Steel tools are what separate us from neolithic technology (which, by the way, I consider superior technology, and the hope of the further future). Steel, and a mountain of knowledge and practice. I see workable steel being readily available for several generations to come. Couple that with a basic knowledge of metalworking, and you can bootstrap yourself up from any pile of scrap. Start with a knife.

      Meanwhile, the boat and its gear, a good set of handtools, food processing, sewing and fishing gear pretty well covers the field.

      Last but not least is community. People you know, trust and love; who know, trust and love you in return. These will be your allies if and when push comes to shove. You'll have things to offer one another none foresaw. Knowledge and skills and strengths in common. Resources and tactics. Commiseration and good times.

      Anke and I have such a network webbed across all the communities of our range. We meet and bond with new folks every season; reconnect and deepen our ties with old friends.

      If you're reading this, I'm pleased to count you among them.


       Post Collapse Skills to Get NOW
      • Survival Training
      • Basic Medical Training (don't neglect midwifery)
      • Pharmacopoea (natural medicines and tinctures, aspirin, antibiotics, anaesthetic)
      • Dentistry (cavity stabilization, tooth extraction)
      • Basic Self Defense
      • Engineless Sailing
      • Make Fire, Vinegar, Pine Tar, (Regular and Activated) Charcoal, Tallow, Soap, Rope/twine, Leather, Weaving
      • Flint-napping? Basketry? Pottery?
      • Forage / Gardening / Food Preservation (drying, smoking)
      • Milling / Plant Oil Extraction
      • Beekeeping
      • Fishing / Hunting (snares)
      • Carpentry / Boatwright
      • Metalwork (forging, tempering and shaping tools)
      • Leather tanning
      • Stone-age skills (start-from-zero skills)

      Stuff to Get NOW
      • Sailboat, Gear and Outfit
      • Full Set of Hand Tools
      • Fixit Materials 
      • Non-Hybrid Seeds
      • Year's Supply of Food?
      • Firearms / Ammuniton

        Just a couple thoughts on firearms...

        A .22 rifle is a versatile weapon, and was the choice of Inuit hunters (among the best in the world). Ammo is inexpensive and compact, and comes in a variety suitable for a range of uses. They're light, accurate, and powerful enough (with a well placed shot) to take down the biggest game, and certainly deer. Do note that it is illegal, in most states, for game larger than varmint, being considered too light for a reliable kill-shot.

        A shotgun is even more versatile. With an array of barrels, chokes and ammunition types it can range from birdshot to big game, being fully adequate at every stage. Unfortunately, ammo and accessories take more space, and is quite expensive in comparison to the .22 .

        Firearms aren't necessary for hunting, but they, like food on board, give a cushion for tackling the learning curve.

      Tuesday, February 21, 2012

      Quick and Dirty Mind: Zen and the Art of Git 'Er Done

      Quick and Dirty at Sea
      Tim Severin on the The Brendan Voyage

      Git 'er done!

      -- Sensei Larry, the Cable Guy

      Quick and Dirty Mind

      The phrase 'quick and dirty' can trigger a defensive, group reflex from a large segment of the boating community. Hackles raise quickly, just at dirty - a vestigial reaction from potty training, I imagine. 

      Admittedly, the phrase is rather vague, and the reactions reflect that ambiguity. Associations are made, often sub-consciously, with various derelicts, kludges and failures that the defensive have known. Or the phrase may suggest an aesthetic, offensive to the spit-and-polish crowd.

      So what do we mean by it; we who cherish and practice Quick and Dirty boatbuilding?

      To us, Quick and Dirty is a state of mind. Not a method or choice of materials, though those may come into play, but an attitude. A practice. Active meditation in the Zen sense of the word.

      Quick Mind implies simplicity. Quick Mind is an awareness and tendency toward simplicity. Occam's Razor adapted to boatbuilding [Of two solutions with equal utility, choose the simpler]. Quick Mind manifests in design and execution.

      Practically speaking, simplicity inclines one toward fewer parts, straight lines and few but simple curves, uniformity, multiple functions of single parts, synergies, open and flexible design. Away from intricacy, complication, sub-divisions and gimmicks.

      Quick Mind implies efficiency. Quick mind is an awareness and tendency toward efficient procedures and movements. Inefficient approaches to even simple designs will slow the project.

      Practically, efficiency inclines one toward working with one's body physics, just so motion (not too much; not too little), organization of effort and material and space, repetition of like tasks (to benefit from a smooth and continuous learning curves), concentration of effort (longer hours, shorter commutes), communication. Assess, address and appraisals. It also inclines one to eat, sleep and take breaks in their measure. All work and no play makes Jack and Jill slow boy and girl.

      Dirty Mind implies the least approach that does the job, whether in method or materials. Dirty Mind inclines one to understand and accept the nature of materials. It is the state of mind embodied in that old advice, "Don't patch old fabric with new cloth." Not that new cloth won't do the job, but it expensively exceeds need.

      Dirty mind implies thinking out-of-the-box and improvisation. It inclines one toward creative uses of materials. It inclines one away from the latest and greatest, in favor of tried and true. Or maybe the other way. Latest and greatest may indeed be the quick and dirty solution. Or the solution may be untried but promising. Let Dirty Mind guide you among the pros and cons.

      Quick and Dirty Mind implies the equilibrium of form and function. Balance between what is needful and what is desired. Between art and science. It embraces integrity, performance, robustness and sea-worthiness.

      We all have an aesthetic - a set of tastes. De gustibus non disputandam. Yet these are malleable. Subject to cultivation and manipulation. Great effort is spent to shape our tastes as potential consumers of goods and services. We are pushed and drawn this way and that in directions we may not fully understand.

      Consider that form, well fit to function, is a beauty in and of itself. Handsome is as handsome does.

      Workboat, or 'fisherman finish' - with its rough and ready carpentry, stout gear, flat paint and signs of wear and tear - may seem plain and plebeian in comparison to the warm glow of varnished woods, buff and glossy paint, the patina of weathered bronze and silvered, teak decks.

      It’s our call.


      Jeremy Ulstad is a boat rat / renaissance guy who formulated these Quick and Dirty guidelines:

      Agile Boatbuilding:

      1. Make it Cheap – Thrifty does it!

      2. Make it Fast – Not gettin’ any younger!

      3. Make it Work – Not working is no good!

      4. Make it Right – Dial ‘er in!

      This checklist will take anyone a long way!

      Got 'er did!
      Sensei Larry, the Cable Guy

      Monday, February 20, 2012

      Haybox aka Thermal or Retained Heat Cookers

      Drawings from Aprovecho

      Cheap energy ain't so cheap, anymore.

      A friend, who suffered from arthritis and heated with wood, once told me, "I want the best return in BTUs on calories invested." Mmm. There's a deep thought!

      It's become much more common, recently, to consider efficiency in terms of  insulation. But our crafty forebears applied it to cooking, upping that return on investment of which my friend spoke.

      The general concept of a haybox is an insulated container, closely fit to a lidded pot. Anything with lots of air spaces trapped within it (hay, newspaper, foam, wool, etc.) may be used... 4 inches all round the pot being a good working minimum.

      Historically, hay was a choice insulator. It would be chopped coursely and, while damp, packed firmly around a dedicated pot. Once dry, it would retain the pot's shape in a tight fit. Hence the name haybox. They were common by land and sea. Soldiers used them to cook rations in the field.

      Bring the contents of the pot to a solid boil, put it in the container and close the lid. No more fuel necessary! Cooking continues at a simmer for hours. Recipes are similar to those for crock pots.

      Piping hot soup on deck in the wee hours! WOO-HOO!! Don't even have to wake the cook (and a cook awoken is a grumpy cook).

      Additionally, a thermal mass (brick, stone, shaped concrete plug) may be heated on the side, and inserted with the pot for dry baking. A metal liner is a safety feature for this method, as the thermal mass can reach scorching hot temps if not watched carefully.

      A notable refinement is to line the container (outboard of the insulation) with a reflective layer of foil or equivalent. Tristan Jones (I seem to remember from One Hand for Yourself, One for the Ship) spoke of layering foamboard cut to fit a pot. Nomex cloth?

      Here are some pics of various DIY solutions, and commercial thermal cookers (vacuum insulated). Search for any of the title terms under images for a quick overview, or go straight to any of the many excellent articles posted online.


      Looks like a Sailor's work!

      How easy can it get?

      Lanny Henson Green Pail Cooker

      Here's a row from Africa.


      Here are a couple just to get the flavor... can be very spendy. Many claim advantage over a straight, retained heat cooker by enabling convection cooking vs. straight simmering. Anyone out there got one and care to comment?

      Watch out for thin bottomed inner pots, which don't heat well. Some complain of warm spots and heat loss around the lids, especially but not always in cheaper models.

      Thermos Shuttle Chef Thermal Cooker by Nissan
      Thermos Thermal Cooker by Thermos

      This post also appears at

      Sunday, February 19, 2012

      At the Races: Running Narrows Without an Engine

      EEEEEEE! ha?
      Photo of Sergius Narrows  by Richard Nelson
      (Check him out!)

      I don't blame you for being scared -- not one bit. 
      Nobody with good sense ain't scared of whitewater.
      Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen

      Archipelagos, by their nature, are full of islands. Islands, by theirs, break up tidal flow of water, and squeeze it into passages between islands. When water is squeezed down tightly, we get narrows.

      Most narrows develop some current. Via a complex of factors, tide will be higher on one side than the other, and water will flow from high toward low until equilibrium is achieved. The greater the difference, the greater the current.

      Water, by its nature, is chaotic. A chaotic system cannot be fully charted. Races and rapids are inconstant, surprising, changing from moment to moment, often for no apparent reason. They are wild and utterly magical places. I love 'em. But I respect 'em, too!

      Dangers - At some, vague point, certain narrows develop races, or rapids. Really bad ones - those with complex course, edge or bottom - may develop eddies, rips, haystacks, standing waves, swirls, or whirlpools. And of course, rocks, shoals and cliffs.

      Some narrows form passages between inner and outer waters. On the outside, onshore ocean swell, surge or seas can meet a strong, current outflow with spectacular and often deadly results. Avoid these conditions at all costs. Many's the seasoned fisherman has foundered in these conditions.

      Yahoos present a significant danger. Traffic often backs up to wait for windows of lesser current (see TIMING, below). Our preferred time of transit can be crowded with traffic, all of us more or less hopped up on body chemistry. Most traffic is competently captained. But there's an ever increasing percentage of empowered morons.

      Some of these may be generally reckless (planing boats have a high percentage of yahoos at the helm, and all are skipping across the water). Other while serious, may be in over their abilities. In restricted channels with limited and/or erratic maneuverablility, defensive seamanship on your part is essential. Communicate via clear signals, radio, and voice where possible. Don't rely on the comprehension of idiots, however.

      One of the worst dangers is panic. Adrenaline flows in direct proportion to current. Even for experienced sailors, rapids can suddenly introduce new situations, never before encountered and threatening disaster. It is essential that you overcome panic. Breathe, assess and address. Seconds are precious.

      Finally, no matter how calm it is outside the narrows, it can be wild within. Take all safety precautions you would in a full storm. Wear your life-jackets and Clip in! You may not have a moment or hand free to do it once inside. Consider going in reefed... you can always shake it out.

      Information - Chart names often give a hint as to what lies ahead. Devil's Elbow, Race Point, Ford's Terror - these are subtle, red flags. Narrows are often charted with intimidating symbols and annotated with cautions, usually in close-up insets of their own. Coast Pilots and some cruising guides provide important information. Local knowledge, when available, is invaluable.

      Good information will let you plan a transit course. All things being equal, this will let you know, in advance, which side of the channel to favor at any given point. Develop a clear understanding of where the known dangers lie, all along the route.

      Don't forget weather. Squally weather is no time to be sailing through narrows. Narrows often funnel and intensify the wind, and even a light squall can develop storm force gusts. Entrances and exits can get tricky with opposing, wind driven waves.

      Don't forget that all information regarding chaotic systems is incomplete, save as embodied by the system itself. Inform yourself, but stay open and flexible to conditions as they arise. Your eyes and ears will be providing the most pertinent info... look ahead (down current) to observe and assess dangers as they emerge.

      Physics - Momentum is an important factor in running narrows.

      As Isaac 'Fig' Newton pointed out, objects in motion continue in a straight line, unless acted on by a force. As a kid riding a bike, you probably attempted a sharp turn and skidded out. Our best and most ancient teacher - pain - patiently drove Mr. Newton's lesson home until we got it.

      Our boat's gonna be moving fast in the races. If narrows take a sharp turn, water (following the same rule) piles up on the down-current shore in local and persistent chaos before sorting itself out and tearing off in the new direction. Left to our own devices, we'll do the same. Assuming there's anything left of us to continue.

      Moral? Favor the inside, up-current side of any sharp turn, and control your speed.

      Boats with keels and/or very hard chines need to be aware of sheer. This is the equivalent of a flat water broach. We come racing out of fast moving water into a patch of slow or counter moving water. Keel grabs and acts like a giant rudder, turned. Combined with momentum, this effect may take you a startlingly long way off course before you regain positive control. And they don't call these 'narrows' for nothing!

      Timing - Current in narrows, like all things tidal, follows the Moon. Tidal ranges are greatest at spring tides and lowest at neaps. The greater the range, the greater the differential of height on either side of the narrows, the greater the volume of water rushing toward equilibrium and therefore, the faster the current. Whatever dangers lie in the narrows are made worse by this greater mass of water rushing through it. Waiting for lower tidal ranges, or even neaps, may be prudent.

      Slack tide is all important for engineless sailors. This is a short period of (relatively) still water between foul current and fair. Near springs, it may be very short, and though water is not flowing, it may be jostling uneasily. Neaps allow longer, more tranquil pauses. We don't always transit near slack, depending on the narrows and conditions, but it's the safest course.

      Our general method, for moderate to extreme narrows, is to wait for settled weather toward neaps, then work our way against the last of a foul current. As current eases off to slack, we force our way through. Once the new, fair current sets in, we're spit out the far end.

      All our wild water experience and advice comes from pushing the envelope by choice or misjudgement. Timing is everything! The rest is dare-devilry.

      It helps to have an anchorage - even a toe hold - in easy reach of the opening. Preferably where we can see and assess water movement (flotsam helps). Under some conditions, the route through the narrows can be scouted by foot or with a good tender, before committing the mothership.

      When in doubt, patience is the rule. Wait for conditions in which you are confident.

      Control - Staying in control is important. While water itself won't hurl you onto a rock (it takes a more sensible path around it... momentum, however has no such qualms), it can drag you over shoals or through reefy combs. The ability to maintain and/or change position within the current is vital.

      That being said, there are limits to control. These need to be understood, accepted and worked within.

      Once into a rapids, one is pretty much committed. Timing was your best bet on control, but now you've cast your lot. From here on out, your control consists of nuancing your position within the channel and current.

      Steerageway is the standard method. One needs a certain speed relative to the water to maintain it. Probably more than your open water minimum, as the water is not likely to be homogeneously smooth. Remember that your momentum is based on speed over the bottom, not over the water. But don't worry... the shoreline flashing past will remind you.

      To keep momentum down, hold your speed made good as low as possible while maintaining control. Reef, if necessary. Initiate evasive actions early, and have a good picture of your general transit route. Do your best to coordinate local ducking and weaving into that bigger picture.

      An alternative is to make way against the current while transiting stern first. This allows more speed relative to the water, subtracting from your speed over the bottom and therefore momentum. The danger is that, if you get swept into relatively slow moving water, the momentum you do have can back you down abruptly on your rudder. Keep a sharp eye aft with this method!

      In a light breeze, real or apparent, one can luff and tack to maintain position within the current despite near zero steerageway. It helps to have a crewmember standing by to back a foresail, and an oar out to assist tacking.

      With zero wind and lesser currents, one can relax and let the boat drift sideways. An oar out the side can be given a push or pull as necessary to adjust position.

      Techniques - Use a push pole to fend off shore or shallows, and assist tacks near the edges. It can double as an oar (fat end as 'blade') in support of the main sweep(s). We carry a pole at all times, but one can be cut for the transit.

      Take care not to get in line with the pole, as it is like a current powered lance... only push at near right-angles to the boat. Take care not to wedge the tip in a crack... the fixed pole will then sweep the decks as the boat rushes by. In very heavy current, skip the pole entirely.

      Dredging is an old sailing barge technique. Big barges used to drag iron sleds to keep their bows up-current. A shot of chain is more practical for smaller boats, and you can control your drift by the length of chain let overboard. Tie the end to the boat, and be ready to slip if there's a hang-up, and have a Plan B ready to hand. Don't use chain you can't afford to lose!

      Play the eddies. Especially while the main current is foul, one can work into it by exploiting eddies (counter currents) and slower moving patches. Both tend to form along the edges. Keep a sharp eye on your motion, both relative to water and the shore.

      If necessary, break a long transit into smaller legs, anchoring up in a quiet stretch clear of the main rapids. Be aware that a quiet spot with the current running one direction may not be at all quiet in the other!

      Use ranges (aka relative bearings) to determine whether or not you're clearing an obstacle or point. I'll talk about this generally important skill in another post. In this case, they help you determine your critical progress in relation to an object... whether you'd pass ahead, behind or collide, given your present course and speed. They will let you know when and by how much to alter position, course and speed in order to clear the object.


      So that's what I know on the subject. I'm sure there's still a LOT to learn.

      Races are exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. I still suffer cotton-mouth every time we go through. Forces involved are awesome and humbling. Drain the macho right out of you! They demand multi-tasking; not my forte. They're some of the best education available in reading water, written, as it is, in a bold hand and gripping narrative.

      Narrows are some of the most beautiful and dynamic places on Earth. Their currents stir nutrients that attract a broad swathe of the food chain. Predator and prey - most often one and the same animal - leap and flash in the tumult. Seabirds dive in raucous glee. Whales number among the traffic transiting between bodies of water, their numbers concentrated by the enclosing shorelines.

      So we do our homework, steel our nerves, hedge our bets, take a deep breath... and take the plunge!

      Nav Buoy in Sergius Narrows... they can go completely under!
      Photo by Richard Nelson
      RN hosts a most excellent radio show, ENCOUNTERS

      PS. These skills, like all of them, are best acquired through practice. Start small, in low current situations through straightforward narrows. You can make four passes a day, if you like. Work up in difficulty as you're abilities increase. Don't let other priorities push you through before you're ready for them! Assess, address, debrief.