Small Stuff

Published: April 2012

 A few weeks before Christmas, one of the BoatUS claims adjusters, Angela Nixon Sargis, had what she described as “the strangest phone call ever.” After five years of working in the marine insurance claims department, that covers a lot of phone calls.

Angela had been talking to George Stafford, a marine surveyor in Durham, Connecticut, about a BoatUS claim when George abruptly cut her off by announcing in a tense voice that he had to leave. Click! The line went dead.

George had been in the parking lot at a local marina when he heard a frightened voice nearby calling for help. He looked over the embankment and saw an elderly gentleman struggling to land a big fish. The man was standing on the edge of a bouncing floating dock, inches from a very strong—and frigid—river current. As George was running toward the float, he called out the obvious question: “WHY AREN’T YOU WEARING A LIFE JACKET?” The man answered that he didn’t have one.

Question: Why didn’t the man save himself by dropping the fishing rod?

Answer: The fish would have gotten away. (Duh.)

George helped the older gentleman hoist the fish onto the float. He even took a picture of the fish to commemorate the event before releasing it back into the water. The man, clearly shaken, said he was done for the day and headed home. George went up to the marina office and found out the man had been retired for many years and, rain or shine, always came to the marina on Thursdays to fish.

So the following Thursday, December 22, George met the man at the marina with a Christmas present: a spanking-new life jacket. The older gentleman gladly accepted his gift and promised to wear it whenever he went fishing.

 Unless you have a built-in marine battery charger on your boat, there’s a good chance that after a few months of idleness, your boat’s battery will need a boost to bring it back to dependability. There is also a good chance that you’ll be supplying the charge with a portable battery charger, like the one you use for your car.

West Marine publishes recommendations on how to care for starting, deep-cycle, and dual-purpose batteries. Among them:

  • Batteries should be charged if the hydrometer reading is below 1.1225 specific gravity, or open circuit voltage is below 12.4 volts, or if the first load test is below 9.6 volts. (To that we would add, “Or if you suspect they need it.”)
  • Unplug the charger before connecting or disconnecting a battery to avoid dangerous sparks that could cause a battery to explode.
  • Stop the charge when two hydrometer or voltage readings recorded two hours apart indicate no increase. Further charging would be useless and may damage the battery and shorten its life. If the battery won’t come to a full charge, replace it.
  • Do not leave a battery on a trickle charger for more than 48 hours. Serious damage to the battery WILL occur (or even start a fire, which has resulted in several BoatUS Marine Insurance claims).
  • Never attempt to charge a frozen battery. To avoid explosion and serious injury, allow it to warm up to 60 degrees F before charging.

 In the last issue, Seaworthy mentioned that isobutanol had many advantages over ethanol as a biofuel: It doesn’t attract moisture, is less corrosive, can be shipped in existing pipelines, and has a much higher energy value than ethanol (110,000 Btu per gallon vs. 84,000 Btu). Unlike ethanol, it can be used (legally) to power jet airplanes. The article also mentioned a 1992 Buick, powered solely by 100-percent isobutanol, that was driven coast to coast without any problems. The Isobutanolmobile averaged 26 mpg, which was a significant improvement over the 22 mpg it had been getting with E0 gasoline. (And WAY better than it could have gotten with E100, if it would run on the stuff.)

Cynics among you will say that sounds too good to be true; isobutanol will never make it in the marketplace. It’s too practical. Besides, ethanol is making money for a lot of people.

Hmm. According to the Redwood Falls Gazette, an ethanol plant in Minnesota is being converted to a plant that produces isobutanol because it makes economic sense. A spokesman for the plant noted the many advantages of isobutanol as a fuel and said that the switch was being made “to provide a better margin for our [investors].“ The reason, without getting too deeply into chemistry, is that isobutanol can be used instead of oil to make rubber and plastics. So if the market for fuel is weak, the plant can produce rubber or plastics, and vice versa. This could help smooth out the $$ bumps that occur in any commodities market. As one financial analyst said, ”Isobutanol is more evolutionary than revolutionary.“

None of this means that there will soon be a stampede to convert ethanol plants to produce isobutanol, but if it proves to be profitable for investors at the plant in Minnesota, it could open the way for more ethanol-isobutanol plant conversions. And if they, too, are profitable, who knows, the common-sense biofuel just might catch on.

 When Doug Hillman arrived at work last October 7, the wind was blowing out of the east-northeast at 25-30 mph. As the owner of Sebastian River Marina in hurricane-prone Sebastian, Florida, wind makes Doug nervous. Earlier that morning, he had been listening to the weather forecast on television, which predicted that two weak fronts driven by a high would result in a windy day with gusts to maybe 25 mph. The wind that day was slightly more than had been predicted, but Doug wasn’t concerned. During the night, however, the wind increased even more, rattling the windows and occasionally shaking the house. By the next day, a Saturday, the wind was blowing at a sustained 35 mph with an occasional gust to 50. The television forecast, he recalled, continued droning on about 25-mph winds.

Forecasters are the first to admit they don’t always get it right, but that didn’t stop Doug from being annoyed that someone hadn’t noticed the predicted wind speeds had doubled. By Sunday— normally Doug’s day off—the wind had increased to 40 mph with gusts to 60. Nearby Cape Canaveral recorded an 80-mph gust. Doug, in what could be described as a quiet rage, headed for the marina and did whatever he could to protect the boats. Luckily, the water never made it over the marina’s surrounding seawall, and all of the boats survived unharmed. That wasn’t true of other marinas in the area, however, where several boats broke loose and were either sunk, dismasted, or scattered in the surrounding marshes.

Where were the weather forecasters? Steve Letro, the meteorologist in charge at nearby Jacksonville, notes that on October 9, NOAA broadcast a gale warning for 35- to 45-mph winds and higher gusts. Coastal Flood and High Seas warnings were also issued for seas to 15 feet. He says they got it right and complains that unless forecasters use the word “hurricane,” nobody seems to pay much attention. But Letro says the National Weather Service can only use the dreaded “H” word when a weather system is actually classified as “tropical,” which this one was not. Other wind events have their own names, like “gale” or maybe “tornado.”

Why hadn’t the high-wind message, whatever it was called, gotten through to Hillman, an avowed weather watcher? Looking back, Doug says his biggest mistake was not listening to the weather channel on his VHF. Television forecasting routinely devotes a minute or two to each area of the country, which is fine for everyday weather— will I need my raincoat?—but Doug says it’s not always sufficient for extreme weather events.

Television forecasters get their information from a variety of sources, including NOAA. Usually they get it right. But Letro says that the most reliable forecasts come directly from the source—NOAA’s VHF forecasts.

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More on Moorings

With most hurricanes, people do whatever they can to prepare their boats and houses, and either head inland or hunker down at home and hope for the best. What Bert McConnell did when Hurricane Irene came ashore was grab his camera and watch the storm from the Waquoit Bay Yacht Club’s deck in Falmouth, Massachusetts. A few doors away, Ed Rogers watched from his house. The result was Ed’s self-published book (not for sale) that documents what can happen when a moored boat breaks loose in a crowded mooring

The series of events began when a 30-foot sailboat, KaBoom (a name that wound up being strangely prophetic), chafed through its pendant and began “sailing” through the mooring field. The first boat it encountered was Rogers’ 29-foot sailboat, Sweet Pea. Rogers had stripped off Sweet Pea’s canvas and secured it with two 3/4-inch nylon pendants with hose for chafe protection at the chocks. He anxiously hoped KaBoom would kiss off his boat’s hull and continue on to the beach. Instead, he watched as the two boats became entangled and spent nearly an hour bashing against each other before Sweet Pea’s pendants finally parted. Sweet Pea then sailed a tortuous course through the fleet and wound up on the beach. Meanwhile KaBoom remained safely tethered on Sweet Pea’s mooring with the frayed pendants tightly wrapped around her rudder. The next day, her owner had to go underwater with a knife to cut the pendant.