Small Stuff

Published: April 2011

Anchor symbol A Seaworthy reader we'll refer to as "Bill" called just before Christmas to ask if we knew any tricks he could use to help a friend raise his 24-foot sailboat that was sunk at the dock. Seaworthy told him what we knew, which wasn't much. A day or two later, Bill called to say that they had managed to raise the boat, but there was more to the story. A lot more.

It seems that prior to sinking, the boat had grounded in its slip and twisted its swing keel, which ripped open the hull. After the boat was raised, two pumps had to operate at full capacity to keep up with the incoming water. About the time Bill and his friend were giving each other high fives, one of the pumps quit and the boat began heading back to the bottom. Despite much effort, the pump refused to start. It was about 9 p.m. (on a work night) and Bill suggested they try to move the boat to shallow water so that it would be easier to raise later. The boat's owner, however, said he had a better idea and asked Bill to help him move it to a nearby marina. The two began pulling the boat along a bulkhead and just as they were nearing the marina, there was a loud popping sound followed by a shower of hot sparks. They'd hit a power line. All of the lights in the neighborhood went dark.

Bill didn't think about how he could easily have been killed, although those thoughts came later. Instead, he said he hoped no one in the affected area was on a respirator. Bill also hoped that he wasn't going to get in trouble with authorities from the power company; he and his cohort beat a hasty retreat to their darkened homes.

The story has a mostly happy ending. The lights came back on eventually. It appears that no one in the area had been on a respirator, or if someone was, they must have had a backup generator because there was never anything about it in the news. More to the point, Bill didn't get in trouble, although he's still worried about it, which is why his real name wasn't used. Alas, after all of their hard work, the boat sank again.

The moral? The utility companies warn homeowners to check before digging in their yards ("contact Miss Utility"). Since power lines on poles are in plain view, it's a good idea to always look up when you're moving something as tall as a sailboat mast around close to shore in a crowded neighborhood.

Anchor symbol It sounds like something out of Greek mythology: reports of mysterious singing that can be heard coming from the dark waters beneath the boat. And just like the mythological Odysseus, the singing tends to drive anyone who hears it crazy!

Comely Sirens? (Hubba-hubba.)

Uh, no, the singing being heard these days is more likely to be coming from the boat's propellers. According to Leonardo Montoya of Rice Propulsion, the "singing" is actually a high-pitched hum that's similar to the sound you get when you rub your finger around the top of a wine glass. A more appropriate name might be "an annoying humming sound," which is what it is.

Montoya says the cause is not completely understood but is likely a function of the propeller's diameter, rpm, boat speed, and the thickness of its trailing edge. Should you encounter the chronic singing, replacing your prop with one that is identical may cure the problem; there have also been instances on a twin-screw boat where the singing was remedied simply by switching the props' positions. The ultimate cure is to take the prop to a prop shop and have something called an "anti-singing edge" put on the suction side of the blades. Montoya says this should be a last resort, however, since the thinner edges will be more vulnerable to damage.

Anchor symbol In the July 2009 "Small Stuff," Seaworthy mentioned that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) surveys about 3,000 square nautical miles a year, which sounds like a lot, but it's not; there is a backlog of critical areas waiting to be surveyed that runs 40 to 50 years. NOAA charting typically involves commercial shipping channels, while the backlogged areas tend to be the ones used by recreational boats.

Given the budget constraints facing the federal government, it's possible that the 40- to 50-year backlog will become even longer, maybe much longer. So unless you plan to live a long, long time, don't count on ever navigating with upto- date charts. Incidentally, over half the information currently on charts goes back to hydrographic surveys conducted before 1940.

Ray Williams, a member in Quantico, Virginia, wrote Seaworthy about a possible solution. SURVICE Engineering, a company in Belcamp, Maryland, has come up with an inexpensive technique for taking soundings in the bays and backwaters that have long been ignored by NOAA. Instead of using commercial vessels and pricey equipment, SURVICE has been using recreational boats and small computers that are about the size of a first aid kit. The owners of the boats — unpaid volunteers — record depth information via their boat's off-the-shelf GPS chart plotter and depth sounder. The information recorded by the boat owners is arbitrary, based solely on where they happen to be going in their boats, and uploaded to SURVICE whenever the boat computer comes into range of a Wi-Fi. Thus far, the volunteer system has plotted over 2 million different soundings. While that seems impressive, 2 million soundings on an area as large as the navigable waters of the U.S. is just a bare-bones beginning. Over time, John Hersey at SURVICE says the company hopes to cover every inlet, bay, and river with the goal of identifying areas that are shallower than the current charts indicate.

Hersey said SURVICE is hoping to work out an arrangement to sell the information to NOAA or, lacking that, to one of the companies that sell GPS chart plotters.

Anchor symbol Several years ago, Seaworthy wrote that the proper VHF radio response to a man overboard situation was pan-pan and not mayday. Pan-pan is broadcast to indicate that you have a very urgent message regarding the safety of the vessel or one of its crew. A mayday should only be broadcast when the vessel or one of its passengers is in grave danger.

Dennis Wilder, a member in California, wrote to point out that while Seaworthy may have been technically correct, he felt that there could be situations where the person in the water was in grave danger and mayday would be more appropriate. Seaworthy checked with Capt. Michael Cown, with USCG Search and Rescue, who agreed that mayday might sometimes be more appropriate. In either case, he said that the Coast Guard is going to respond to either pan-pan or mayday.

There are at least three possible situations where the use of mayday would be called for: 1. if the person in the water has disappeared, 2. if getting the person back aboard could be a problem, especially if the water is frigid and hypothermia is a possibility, and 3. if the person in the water can't swim and/or is starting to panic.

Anchor symbol While we're on the topic of distress calls, there has been some discussion over the years about whether you should use a VHF or a cell phone to contact the Coast Guard in an emergency. A cell phone is convenient, transmissions won't be interfered with by other skippers, and it is certainly more private. A VHF radio, on the other hand, allows the Coast Guard and TowBoatUS to home in on your signal. Nearby boaters who hear your broadcast would be able to offer assistance.

There is now a third way to summon help: texting. The Wall Street Journal reports that a 17-year-old man used his cell phone this past November to text family and friends when his canoe overturned in the Hudson River, 45 miles south of Albany. The young man was with his 73-year-old grandfather.

The article said that recipients of the message (there were several) called 911 and the two men were rescued a short time later. They were treated at a local hospital for possible hypothermia and then released.

The first question that's likely to pop into the head of anyone over the age of 30 is, why didn't he simply call somebody? The answer could be that by texting a large group, he knew there was a greater likelihood that someone would receive the message and immediately notify authorities.

Or it could also be that's just how today's 17-year-olds do things.

Anchor symbol Are you interested in how the super rich live? Probably not, but maybe you should be; the boat gadgets they buy to amuse themselves will eventually be available to you. A press release from the charter yacht company, Lürssen, says that it has developed an iPad app that gives passengers of the charter yacht Solemates II control of "everything but the captain's steering wheel."

Anyone who spends $850,000 a week to charter Solemates II ($690,000 a week, plus expenses, which typically work out to another $150,000) will get an iPad for the duration of the voyage, which allows him or her to control the shipboard entertainment and climate systems. So instead of switching off the lights before going to bed, for example, you just tap on the iPad! The press release says the iPad can also be used to top off a piña colada, although it doesn't explain how that's accomplished.

For now, everyone else will have to amuse themselves by playing Angry Birds.

Anchor symbol The proposed expansion of the 4G broadband Internet service throughout the country, according to the GPS industry, threatens to wreak havoc with GPS receivers. An industry publication called GPS World says 4G transmitters "will create a disastrous interference problem for GPS receivers (complete loss of fix) when in the vicinity [about five miles] of these transmitters." There are 40,000 transmitters scattered throughout the United States.

A test is being conducted to see which GPS devices are affected and what sort of filtering might work and what it might cost to correct. GPS is now widely used in automobiles, boats, and even smartphones. The good news is that the system is maintained by the Air Force, which isn't likely to let surfing the Internet interfere with national security.End of story marker

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Photo of the Orca II

Anchor symbol Freedom is one of those words that's bandied about in boating, maybe to describe feelings of exhilaration out on the water or as a selling point for a boat that requires little upkeep — freedom from maintenance. Certainly looking at the awkward little boat above, there are dozens of words that are likely to pop into your head, none of which have anything to do with freedom. Its 50-year-old wood cabin and hull certainly aren't free from maintenance and at 42 tons with a draft of almost eight feet, it's not likely to be an exhilarating boat to sail.

Still, as much as any boat you're liable to come across, the word "freedom" belongs in its description.

Thirty years ago, it belonged to a man named Otto Stramm, a Czechoslovakian-born dentist who was living in East Germany. According to Bob Noyce, who knew him later in life, Stramm lost just about everything under the communists. It isn't clear whether Stramm bought the boat or built it in his backyard, but late one foggy night he loaded his wife and two children aboard and then sailed down the Elbe, through the Kattegat and Skagerrak Straits and across the Atlantic Ocean to freedom. Considering what had happened to other would-be defectors, the family's escape must have taken a great deal of planning and courage.

Dr. Stramm kept the boat for the rest of his life. Long after Stramm's kids had grown up and moved away, Noyce remembers Stramm's wife bringing him to the boat so that he could spend the day sitting in the cockpit. Stramm had begun to suffer from Alzheimer's but Noyce said he truly loved the boat and always seemed to perk up when he was aboard.

After Dr Stramm passed away, the boat fell into disrepair but it is now being restored by Bob Emmet, a retired oceanographer. When he's finished, Emmet plans to sail around the Chesapeake, going wherever he wants to go and doing whatever he wants to do. He says he may even go offshore and drift around in the Gulf Stream.

Whatever other words you conjure up to describe the old boat, it's hard to think of one that's more appropriate than "freedom."