March 28, 2010

Spare a prayer or two

IT MUST SEEM VERY STRANGE to landlubbers when sailors talk about speed being the enemy of safety on seagoing sailboats. What speed, for Pete’s sake? You call 10 knots speed? My grandma goes faster than that on her skateboard.

Well, it’s all comparative. Ten knots is twice as fast as 5 knots, so if you’re sailing around the world, or just racing across an ocean, you get there in half the time in the faster boat. And, because boat speeds are so slow, that represents a saving of weeks or months.

In discussing the design of ocean racers, the British sailor and research scientist C. A. Marchaj[1] mentions five factors that have “a deleterious effect on seaworthiness.” They are:

1. Lighter displacement
2. Greater beam and a flat bottom
3. Reduced lateral area of the hull (separated fin keel and rudder)
4. Higher center of gravity, and
5. Increased freeboard

I mention this because there are two 16-year-old girls sailing around the world right now, each vying for the record for the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone, non-stop, and unassisted.

One, Jessica Watson, is sailing an S&S 34, a fairly conservative design, well-proven and fairly heavy, with a reasonably large underwater lateral area. She relies on an old-fashioned wind-vane self-steering gear that uses no electricity. And she has been plodding along quite gently for months. She is now within a few thousand miles of Sydney, Australia, where she will finish.

Abby Sunderland is sailing an Open 40, a radical racing design that is a handful even for a strong man. She is of light displacement. She has great beam and a flat bottom. She has reduced lateral area of the hull. And she relies heavily on generating enough power from solar panels, wind chargers, and a diesel engine to charge the large bank of batteries needed to run the electric autopilot that must do all the steering. And she is very fast, of course, because she was designed for speed above safety. Too fast for a simple wind vane to be effective, in fact.

Abby’s kind of boat is fine in heavy weather if you can keep her going fast. If you can’t, she is likely to be capsized by a large wave, and she is likely to remain upside down a considerable time (as Isabelle Autissier’s similar boat did) because the hull is shaped like a flat iron. Indeed, recognizing this possibility, the designer has provided ballast water tanks on each side, so that in case of a 180-degree inversion, Abby can pump water over to one side to make the boat heel until the long thin keel sticking up in the air can get enough grip to right the boat.

Only a week after her start from Marina del Rey, California, Abby ran into trouble with her power-hungry equipment. “The fact is I am just not able to generate enough power with my solar panels and wind generators to keep up with all of my energy needs. We didn't budget enough fuel for me to run my two alternators as often as I have been needing to ...” She had to put into Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for repairs, and to restart her record attempt – which will make for an awkward end to her bid, since she won’t be able to finish at her home port where the crowds will be waiting.

Late last week, down in the Furious 50s, Abby experienced autopilot problems and had to steer by hand for half the night in strong winds and high waves. This is the problem with a radical boat that will not look after itself when the chips are down, as a more conservative boat like Jessica’s will do. The problem is simply crew exhaustion, because you can’t just lock yourself down below and go to sleep. Abby’s boat must be kept moving, and moving fast, to stay seaworthy.

I have to say that I think Abby’s boat is most unsuitable for her quest. Some will disagree and I respect their opinions, particularly since Abby has shown herself to be an extraordinarily capable sailor.

But she’s approaching Cape Horn right now on one of the most dangerous sections of her circumnavigation and I am praying that nothing goes wrong with the mass of complicated electronics on which her life depends. If you’re in the habit of saying prayers before bed, you might want to slip one in for Abby for the next week or so until she can head north into calmer waters.

[1]Seaworthiness: the Forgotten Factor, by C. A. Marchaj (International Marine, Camden, Maine)

► Jessica Watson —
► Abby Sunderland —

Today’s Thought
What are the wild waves saying,
Sister, the whole day long,
That ever amid our playing,
I hear but their low, lone song?
— Joseph Edwards Carpenter

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #32
The best pencil for chartwork is one with a medium lead. A No. 2 works well. A softer pencil makes a bolder line, but tends to smudge. A harder lead is more difficult to see and erase. It also digs into the chart and shortens its life. Whatever you use, be sure to include a good eraser. It’s the navigator’s best friend.

One of the greatest kindnesses you can do for your friends is to trust them with your secrets. They feel so important when they tell people.


Bob K7ZB said...


We have been praying for both of them for months... especially now for A.S.

Nice column.


oztayls said...

Hi John

Abby's choice of design and equipment (likely not hers!) is indeed unfortunate for one so young and relatively inexperienced. It seems to me that there has been a lack of basic planning as evidenced by the power issues which caused her to make for a port. We can only hope and pray that she is up to the task ahead of her. God knows that teenagers need their sleep more than we older folks, so her challenge is all the more greater than Jessica's given the extra muscle that her boat requires.

God speed Jessica and Abby...

PS. I see the Tailpieces have survived the years, and I still can't resist the urge to read them first!