Small Stuff

Published: January 2012

On Wednesday, November 31, the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane season officially came to a close. In terms of hurricanes, the six hurricanes in 2011 mean that it was only slightly above average. The season's 19 tropical storms, however, make it the third most active tropical storm season since 1851, the first year records were recorded.

For people living along the Gulf and Southeast Atlantic coasts, 2011 will be remembered as a quiet year; there were no hurricanes or tropical storms. But for anyone living near the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern coasts, their memories of the 2011 hurricane season are likely to be far different, even though only a single hurricane—Irene—came ashore.

By historical standards, Irene didn't pack much of a punch; it came ashore as a category one hurricane and was soon downgraded to a tropical storm. It's path however, swept up some of the most populated areas of the Atlantic seaboard, from North Carolina to New England, inflicting close to $10.1 billion worth of damage, including $300 million to boats. In terms of destruction, Irene—a relatively "minor" storm—was the 12th costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Speaking of natural disasters, 2011 has been a heck of a year (and as Seaworthy goes to press, it's still not over). Aside from the single hurricane, there have been blizzards, tornados, heat waves, droughts, heavy rain, and catastrophic flooding. The insurance company Munich Re calculated that in the first six months of 2011 there were 98 natural disasters in the United States, about double the average of the 1990s. Ouch!

Last fall, the Department of Energy (DOE) released the results of its tests on the effects of E15 on marine engines—inboards, outboards, and I/Os. Without going into detail, all of the engines tested with E15 had problems, including severe damage to components, misfiring, and an increase in exhaust emissions. Two of the three outboards that were being tested conked out before the tests were completed. In contrast, the engines in an E0 control group did not exhibit any fuel-related issues. After reviewing the results, Margaret Podlich, the president of BoatUS, said that while the organization supports the effort to develop renewable fuels, the trend of using higher and higher levels of ethanol is clearly not the solution to America's energy problems.

If not E15, then what? The answer may be butanol, which, like ethanol, is an alcohol that can be made from corn, beets, and various cellulosic raw materials— switchgrass, wood chips, or a host of other organic materials. Unlike ethanol, however, butanol is less corrosive, doesn't attract moisture, can be shipped through existing pipelines, and has a much higher energy value (110,000 Btu per gallon vs. 84,000 Btu for ethanol). In a recent test, an unmodified 1992 Buick, powered solely by 100-percent butanol, was driven coast to coast, averaging 26 mpg, which was a significant improvement over the 22 mpg that the car had been getting with E0 gasoline. Finally, in terms of flammability, butanol is similar to diesel fuel and would be far safer on a boat than gasoline or ethanol.

The next and obvious question is, why aren't we all using butanol? Part of the answer has to do with how the stuff is—or was—made. Back in the 1980s when the government started looking into various biofuels, the cost to produce butanol was significantly higher than it was to produce ethanol. That cost advantage gave ethanol a 30-year head start in the race to become the nation's biofuel. In the last few years, however, improved technology has meant that the cost to produce a gallon of each fuel is roughly the same (although butanol is far cheaper to produce in terms of the amount of energy delivered per gallon).

It's also possible that butanol may have some long-term effect on engines that has yet to be uncovered. (Remember, many years ago, everyone thought ethanol would solve the nation's energy problems.) There is also the not-too-insignificant reality of ethanol's financial and political momentum in the marketplace. But hope springs eternal; ethanol plants can be converted to make butanol, and if the stuff proves to be as promising as scientists believe it is, there may be good news down the road for anyone who owns a car or boat.

The frightening photo above is of the bow of the boat featured on the last page of the October Seaworthy that was driven ashore near Norfolk, Virginia, in Hurricane Irene. Our first reaction was that the damage is indicative of a light fiberglass lay-up; it's certainly not the hull of a stoutly built, offshore cruiser. But it also is a good example of why you need to rig a nylon bridle to absorb the shock loads when using an all-chain rode in heavy weather. In this case, the bow was being thrown high into the air by the hurricane-driven waves, and with nothing to absorb the shock-load, the windlass was yanked out of the deck. The chain then began sawing into the hull. Aside from taking pressure off the windlass, a nylon bridle would also have helped to take pressure off the anchor.

And, as we said in the October issue, the photo is also a good reminder of why you shouldn't go boating in a hurricane.

Brett Carlson, a marine surveyor in Miami, Florida, sent Seaworthy this photo of a large piece of glass that buried itself in an outboard cowling during Hurricane Irene. The boat was being stored ashore at Abaco Yacht Services at Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas and the glass was believed to have come from a large trawler, although there were several other boats nearby that also had large windows blown out. Anyway, it's a good reminder of why you should stay inside during a hurricane. And board up—or at least tape up—larger windows on your home and boat.

Several years ago, a BoatUS employee was on Long Island Sound and overheard a mayday being broadcast by someone who obviously was new to boating. Not only was a mayday unwarranted—he was merely lost—but when the Coast Guard asked for his position, the best the man could do was, "Out to sea, you fool." That's not the sort of response that's likely to get someone rescued, at least not in a hurry.

Mitch Kramer of TowBoatUS Oyster Bay on Long Island Sound says that about a third of the people who call for assistance can't give their boat's position and even have trouble describing where they are. Many give their street addresses. Others have referred to the Long Island Sound as "the ocean" and said things like, "the sun is to our left" or "we can see the buildings in New York." Kramer said he's learned to be patient, although he often wonders what the outcome would be if one of these befuddled skippers were having a medical emergency.

There are a host of solutions, not the least of which is for inexperienced skippers to take a boating course and become familiar with charts, GPS, and other arcane nautical instruments like the compass. In the meantime—you gotta love this—anyone with an Android or iPhone can download the (free!) TowBoatUS app, which allows the harried him or her to relay the phone's (and boat's) Lat/Long position with the tap of a finger. The towboat captain will instantly know your position within a few square yards as opposed to, say, a few hundred square miles.

Two other features of interest: First, you can text, e-mail, or post your position on Facebook to anyone—friends or family. It's also worth noting that you can relay your Lat/Long position using your VHF even if you're out of cell range.

The app is available by going to

While we're on the subject of new seagoing apps, Sea State is a new app for iPhone4, iPod Touch, and iPad2 that measures the effective wave action on a boat. Using the phone or tablet's built-in gyroscope and accelerometer functions (who knew?), the app measures dominant wave period and wave height, which can be used to document sea conditions in your log or maybe get someone else busted in a no-wake zone. Unfortunately, Sea State's precision may make it more difficult for you to exaggerate conditions to friends and family when you're safely ashore. The app can be downloaded for $0.99.

In the last issue of Seaworthy, there was a story about Scott Croft's near-encounter with a tug and barge late one night while he was aboard a sailboat on the Hudson River. Scott is the assistant vice president of Public Relations here at BoatUS, and his account brought a nostalgic response from John Smith, a marine surveyor in Sheldon, South Carolina.

Many years ago, John was an enthusiastic young boatswain on Clearwater, the 106-foot sailing vessel that has been the flagship of a movement to clean up the Hudson River since 1969. Late one night, Clearwater was making its way down the river after spending three days in the town of Hudson, educating "boatloads" (his pun) of school children on the nature and ways of the river. The ship was bound for Lower Manhattan so that the crew could give a similar presentation to more kids at 8 a.m. He remembers it being a long night.

There was a slight mist, almost a fog, on the water. Clearwater was approaching a bend in the river under power when John saw a spotlight. He immediately called out to the captain that there was a tug approaching.

He was expecting the ship to slow down and change course so that the tug could pass safely. Instead, Clearwater kept plowing down the middle of the channel. John peered out into the misty darkness and watched nervously as the light grew steadily brighter. He called back a second time, but again, there was no response. John suspected that Clearwater's powerful diesel was drowning out his warnings so he sprinted aft and told the captain that a tug was just around the bend and moving quickly! John said the captain smiled and told him to watch and wait.

We'll let John tell you what happened:

"We entered the turn in the river. Moments later, a Hudson River Line locomotive blew past our port side heading north from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie. The tracks were elevated just a few feet above the water and the locomotive's headlight was shining bright, bouncing up and down as it passed us. As its taillights disappeared into the darkness, the captain just chuckled.

"I had learned yet another lesson about how things looked different at night on the water."

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