February 25, 2010

Lifesaving plankton

(The Mainly about Boats column — Monday, Wednesday, Friday.)

EVERY NOW AND THEN, mostly after a particularly acute attack of conscience, we try to think of something substantial to write that might possibly be of use to our sailboat-loving readers, rather than the pithy nonsense that all too often slithers across these pages. And mostly we fail.

But today we are pleased to be able to offer good solid advice on how to survive a shipwreck far out at sea — something, we fondly imagine, that must occupy a fairly large portion of our readers’ everyday thoughts. The situation we have in mind, one that obviously could occur to any one of us at any time, is that our sailboat has suddenly sunk and stranded us in an open rubber dinghy.

While we are out there, heaving gently in long threatening swells, it behooves us to recall the words of ocean scientist William Beebe. It was in 1927 that he declared: “Shipwrecked men in an open boat, if their lot is cast on waters rich in plankton, need never starve to death.” (In the interests of fending off vicious feminist attacks, we add rather hastily that we have reason to believe that this lucky happenstance applies equally to shipwrecked women as well, should they find themselves stranded in an open boat.)

Plankton is made up of minute forms of animal and plant life, a sort of soggy grey-green-brown sludge. You catch it by dragging a fine sieve behind the boat at night. Don’t try it during the day, because plankton don’t like the hot sun. They sink to avoid sunlight and even strong moonlight.
An old shirt will work quite well for a sieve, since you’re unlikely to have a fine-mesh net handy, and a towing speed of 2 knots or so is about right.

You wouldn’t believe it to look at it, but a large proportion of plankton consists of crabs and other crustaceans, so it makes a rich and nourishing food, even raw. You may recall that the Frenchman Dr. Alain Bombard proved Beebe’s theory in 1952, when he drifted across the Atlantic in a rubber life raft without food or water, existing on fish that he caught, and plankton.

There is one rather important caveat to bear in mind. If the plankton is red it may have an unfortunate side-effect known as death. So don’t mess with the red tide. Otherwise, slurp away sans peur. You’re fine to go.

Today’s Thought
Fish should smell like the tide. Once they smell like fish, it’s too late. --Oscar Gizelt

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #19
Boarding ladder. The old rules of etiquette required that important visitors be brought aboard on the starboard side of your boat. You will already be familiar, naturally, with the fact that provisions, fuel, and crew come aboard over the port side.

Does your dog have fleas? Simply rub him with raw alcohol and let him roll in sand.
The fleas get drunk and kill each other throwing rocks.


Anonymous said...

I realize this might not be entirely related to the topic... as much related say, as a pig and a dodo.
But could you write a few entries on using such devices on board as oil-lamps,wind-vanes, and foot operated fresh water pumps. Things that let you be free of using electricity constantly. Tidbits perhaps on how to select the most appropriate ones, what to look for, and any sound advice on installation, usage, and maintenance.

Nikolay R. (Tartan T30, Toronto)

Kevin Vigor said...

As I'm sure you're aware, Bombard is not without controversy - Lindemann tried to reproduce his results and ended up concluding Bombard was a fraud [1].

Of course, there's relatively little to lose should one find oneself in mid-ocean without supplies. But given the choice, I'd prefer to follow Lindemann's strategy and stock my raft lavishly with rations and beer.

[1] http://www.mare-tv.de/mare/english/pdf/mare54/mare54_saltwater.pdf

oztayls said...

Bill Belcher, ex of Ladysmith (wtmb) Boating Club in South Africa (later moved to New Zealand) and inventor of a very good wind vane self steering system, was some years ago shipwrecked on Middleton Reef. He survived by eating raw seagulls which he caught bare handed as they alighted on the dome roof cover of his inflatable life raft! There is a smorgasboard out there for the brave...

He wrote a book about his experience:
Shipwreck on Middleton Reef : the story of a Tasman survivor / Bill Belcher & Aileen Belcher