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HSH Yacht Articles

6 Gulf Passages: the lessons learned


Jeremy R. Hood

Next time I will put the GPS in the oven! Not of course when the oven is lit but to protect it from lightening during a storm. The idea only came to me recently as I was thinking back over the four Gulf of Mexico crossings and a couple of passages between Corpus Christi and Clear Lake that I made in the first six months of this year. Quite a considerable amount of passage making even for me and these six voyages were all in different boats. Well, what is it that I will do differently on my next crossing as a consequence of these experiences.

First of all I will put the GPS in the oven during a lightening storm. Until now I have always disconnected electronic navigation equipment during storms, removing the antenna and power supply and often physically moving the unit to a safe locker somewhere. The idea of putting it in the oven is to provide even greater protection. When you are in a car you are protected from lightening by being surrounded by a metal box. The effect has been known for many years and is often referred to as a Faraday cage after the discoverer of the effect, Michael Faraday. Well what better Faraday cage for your sensitive electronics that your stove! I really believe it will work and hopefully the idea will save some reader from having to fall back on his rusty celestial navigation.


For all six passages the owners had considered safety an important factor. For each of the Gulf crossings the boats were equipped with liferaft, dinghy, VHF radio, flares, life jackets and harnesses. In addition one of the boats had a 406 Mhz EPIRB, two of the vessels had Ham/SSB radio and on four of the passages we had a cellular phone. In fact I had checked equipment before each trip and felt comfortable with the items aboard apart from one boat which had fairly cheap and to my mind inadequate safety harnesses. The cellular phones proved a mixed blessing. Taking them with us led family members ashore to believe we could always be contacted and so when this proved difficult ( as it did on two occasions) needless anxiety was caused. However when they worked the convenience was considerable. Once more I had the lesson reinforced that the most likely problem aboard a well equipped boat at sea is communications. But trying to get relatives ashore to accept this is not so easy.

On each of the sailboats (one trip from Corpus was aboard a motor yacht) the rigging had been checked prior to departure and on two of the boats removable inner forestays had been fitted to facilitate the use of a storm jib at sea. However it was a good job that we did not rely on the recent survey of one of the boats when it came to the rigging. The survey (undertaken by a company in Florida) had mentioned that one of the lower shrouds had a couple of broken strands and as is always prudent in these cases the owner had decided to have this replaced. But in replacing this shroud we found one of the backstays and another lower in a worse state and though it delayed our departure date these were also replaced. Broken strands on stainless rigging are one of the few telltale signs that indicate impending failure and in this case they had been caused by forming swaged eyes in the stainless steel rope. This is not a good practice especially for offshore vessels. This yacht had apparently been sailed offshore by the previous owner and so it came as a surprise to find that the almost new fully battened mainsail had no reefing lines run and that rigging them was not all that easy. On another of the vessels the sails had been removed by a sailmaker, repaired and then bent on and rigged ostensibly ready to go. However several of the lines were led incorrectly and these had to be re-run before we could hoist the mainsail.

Below decks two of the vessels had new lee cloths fitted to the bunks and in both cases these proved to be poorly fitted and were uncomfortable or in one case unusable. On one of the boats the owner had purchased a galley strap though there were no strong points to which it could be attached. In fact on only one of the five vessels was there a satisfactory arrangement in the galley to secure the cook and the pans on the stove. One of the vessels had no galley strap and a gimballed stove that stuck; a potentially dangerous arrangement.


Not being too particular about what I choose to eat was a decided advantage on several of the passages. In all cases there was sufficient food though this ranged from one of the boats being stocked with cases of snacks and no "real " food to speak of, to another where each meal had been planned in advance, cooked, frozen and was ready to serve. The preplanned meals were certainly preferable to the snacks as far as I was concerned though the best provisioning was undertaken by Judy Bouillion for a passage I made with her husband Elliot and two of his nephews from Clear Lake to Destin, Florida. Judy had precooked several packages of pasta which were frozen and ready to reheat but in addition there was plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and snacks. The cook of the day had plenty of choice and the variety led to us eating gourmet meals on several occasions. When the weather was rough, as it was for a number of days, the precooked food was easy to reheat while in calmer conditions the selection on board provided for innovation and appetizing meals. Of course essential to this provisioning was a good refrigerator and freezer and the newly installed Grunhert cold-plate units worked extremely well and even froze water when we ran out of ice!

Aboard commercial vessels it has always been recognized that the food on board is an essential element of a successful passage and this is certainly true aboard small boats. Planning a provisioning list is not as easy as it may appear yet the effort is amply rewarded by the successful completion of a happy passage with a replete and relaxed crew. Don't relegate the task to the last minute and do provide plenty of options.


Over the years of making offshore passages I have experienced many different watch systems from the self imposed ones of my single-handed passages to those aboard a tall ship with a watch of ten persons. The passages this year also provided some variety of watch systems though on each of the trips there were never less than four persons in the crew. On one of the boats we arranged to have just one person on watch at night for a two hour stint , letting the autopilot steer and this worked well until the Autohelm failed. After that it meant two persons on watch, one to steer and the other to keep watch, trim sails and check the navigation. Clearly this was more tiring and especially so when rough weather necessitated anyone on deck wearing foul weather gear. Generally though all of the watch systems worked reasonably well though most crew not used to offshore passages found the longer watch periods easier as it then meant longer periods of sleep. For one or two off the crew I sailed with a three hour off watch period was rarely long enough to get any worthwhile sleep yet others could manage over two and a half hours and still be ready for their next watch. What I learned this year is that generally in the warm Texas climate getting cold at night is not often a problem and that longer watches are more feasible than in colder climes. That said, last year even my thermal long-johns were not sufficient to keep me warm during a night passage from Corpus in February!


On three of this years passages I experienced problems with auxiliary engines and on one boat we averted problems by recognizing a build up of water and dirt in the primary fuel filter/water separator. Many of the problems occurred as a result of engines used only briefly in the bay and never run under load at sea for any length of time. As always the main problems encountered were in the fuel systems of diesel engines. Water, dirt and air in the fuel line can all cause an engine to fail and all of the problems can manifest themselves offshore when previously during bay sailing no problems were evident. This is particularly a problem with dirt and algae in a fuel tank which will be loosened from the bottom and sides of the tank as a result of pounding. Having the right tools and plenty of fuel filters will ensure an engine can be restarted but the real solution is to ensure a fuel tank is clean, sound and free of water before making a passage. Though not an easy thing to achieve, the effort will always be worthwhile in reducing by around 90% the chances of engine failure.


All of the sailboat owners had given serious thought to heavy weather and each vessel carried a storm sail though on one of the boats it was impossible to rig it and on another the sail could be hoisted on a new removable inner forestay though it could not be sheeted satisfactorily when we came to use it. On three of the passages small repairs to the sails had to be made. In one case this was because a poorly repaired seam became loose and in another case as a result of the staysail leech chaffing on the radar dome. One repair was to the inboard end of a mainsail batten pocket which is a particularly high stress area (hence the recommendations often made for fully battened or no battened mainsails on cruising boats).

All of the repairs were relatively simple requiring needle, thread and sail palm though in one case the lack of sail repair material meant the repair had to be postponed until we made port.

Problems with the sails were generally minor though they did account for a significant proportion of repairs that had to be made at sea. On one boat the genoa sheets were a continuous line with a snap shackle tied at the mid point for attaching to the clew. I should have removed this before we left and tied the traditional bowlines. Each time we tacked the shackle proved a danger and then, when a storm hit and we had only an extremely small area of sail unfurled, the flogging sail caused the shackle to open with the result that neither sheet was attached to the sail . Fortunately the furled sail did not unfurl itself before the strongest gusts were over and I could reattach the sheets - this time with two separate bowlines. On one of the passages we did have a problem with the roller furling line which chaffed in two during one night. Though we had no replacement line on board (I shall next time) we were able to use the spinnaker halyard as a temporary line until we reached port. Chafe is often a problem on long passages and can often be spotted though occasionally everything is fine until a block or line suddenly moves with the result that a line can chafe through in a few hours.


On two of the boats the autopilot failed. In one case I am not sure why, though it may have been as a result of a nearby lightening strike (though the boat was not hit by the lightening and no other equipment failed). On the other vessel it was a case of incorrect installation with the sensitive control box being mounted in the engine compartment despite installation instructions which specifically said this should not be done. However on a passage to Mexico an Autohelm 3000 steered almost all the way apart from times when the Ham or SSB radios caused problems for the electronic control box. In all cases the Loran and GPS units performed satisfactorily though during lightening these were invariably disconnected as mentioned earlier.


On one of the passages the steering failed as a result of a locking nut becoming loose on the steering quadrant. The problem was easily rectified there but as a consequence of the slack cables the chain in the binnacle had jumped off the sprocket. Again not a serious problem to put right until we realized that we did not have on board a sufficiently large screwdriver to free the mounting screws. What should have been a relatively simple repair at sea led us to put in to port. Having a good tool kit is as essential as having the right spares. On another trip a shackle either broke or came undone causing us to temporarily lose our mainsheet. Having a spare shackle of the correct size enabled us to effect a speedy repair albeit that all such repairs are difficult at sea.


All of the passages were completed satisfactorily despite any problems that occurred during the trip and in no cases was safety compromised. However better preparations and having aboard replacements for essential lines, shackles and other items would have made things easier. On a sailboat, sail repair items are essential as is a complete tool kit.

In all cases many of the problems could have been avoided by undertaking a short shake-down sail a week or so before departure. This would have given plenty of time for problems to be corrected rather than trying to achieve everything immediately before departing on a substantial passage. As I learned (or thought I had) in the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared, and this applies to ocean passages in all regards! And lastly, thanks to those owners who took me with them on these passages. As always I learned things as I hope they did also.

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