August 7, 2011

When it just goes “click”

CRUISING SAILBOATS are rarely pure sailboats these days. There are very few that do not carry engines of one sort or another. The reason for this is that small-boat harbors and marinas have become so congested that most are not navigable under sail in anything much over 20 feet in length.

It is actually possible to maneuver a boat in a crowded harbor by warping and kedging, or even sculling, as sailors have done for centuries, but we have either lost the skill or the will, and certainly the patience, so we now find ourselves far too dependent on the engine to get us out to where we can use the wind to sail.

And to get the engine started in the first place, too many of us are dependent on the electric starter motor. It would be a great relief if we could start our engines by hand, instead of having to rely on electricity, and indeed a few inboard diesels can be started by hand, but they are necessarily of low horsepower and fit only for small yachts.

Now, there are other ways to start engines. One way is to use a small hand pump to pressurize a tank of air that will spin the engine vigorously for a couple of minutes. Think what a blessing that could be when your battery is flat or your solenoid has passed on to its final resting place. There are clockwork engine starters, too, that you can wind up slowly and easily before releasing them to spin the motor over.

But these mechanically simple starting aids are not common and they are therefore expensive, so the great majority of sailors are stuck with electric starter motors. They are obviously not ideal for boats, but because most boat engines are derived from the ones landlubbers build in huge numbers for their cars, tractors, and generators, so we are stuck with their method of starting them.

The one thing you can say for electric starters is that they don’t draw much energy from your battery. Surprisingly little, in fact, if the engine is working properly. For example, starting a medium-sized diesel will draw about 4,800 watts. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but even if you crank away for 20 seconds you’re taking only 2.5 amp-hours from the battery. That’s about half of what a dedicated CD player would consume if it were running 4 hours a day. And even with a modest 30-amp charge, your alternator will replace that energy in less than 10 minutes.

Nevertheless, this is not the best way to start a marine engine. Salt water and electricity don’t get on well together, and most of us could well do without that sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach when you turn the key and nothing happens but a little “click” that foretells all kinds of trouble and frustration to come.

Today’s Thought
Simplicity, most rare in our age.
— Ovid, Ars Amatoria

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #232
Just what is a yacht, exactly? Perhaps this is as good a definition as any. It comes from Chapman’s Piloting, Seamanship, and Small Boat Handling, and has the distinct advantage of brevity:

A yacht is a power or sail vessel used for recreation and pleasure, as opposed to work.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
“Yes. Do you have insurance?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...

I'd like to share, here, one of those amazing moments boat people occasionally get to experience.

I had stayed on my boat overnight in the slip in the hope of getting out early the next day. That didn't exactly work out, but the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee, as the poets say.

What I did get to see was sublime: In the early a.m., sitting, barely awake, in the saloon, I was certain that I heard a winch being tightened while under a slight strain. That was followed by the subtle swish of water as it passes over a reasonably fair hull.

These are not normal marina noises, so I went upstairs for a peek. (Side note: aboard our ketch the official terms for 'above decks' and 'below decks' are 'upstairs' and 'downstairs'. Purists are advised to buy their own boats.)

I stuck my head out of the cabin-top slide just in time to see what was probably a 28' sloop slide by, in light rain, under sail. The crew, mom, dad, and a child (all dressed in proper foulies), acknowledged me with a courteous glance and nod as they ghosted by.

I am certain that their boat was equipped with a perfectly adequate little auxiliary, but they chose not to use it. I wouldn't have minded a chuff-chuff-chuff as they went by that morning, but I never would have remembered it.

Instead, they chose to sail all the way to their slip, inadvertently providing me with a dream-like memory that is likely to last well past my brain's sell-by date.

And I thank them.

Giacomo Bernardi said...

Last night I finished reading "Small Boat to Freedom". I am European and moved to the US about 20 years ago. I have been to South Africa a number of times, my brother used to work at the University of CapeTown. I sailed a lot in France when I was young, and now I have a small sailboat (small sailboats to take you anywhere is on my bedside table).
Suffice to say that "Small Boat to Freedom" is now in my Pantheon together with very few of my favorite sailing books. I loved all aspects of it. The beginning with the South African struggle. The core with the sailing descriptions and all its genuine honesty, and the American Epilogue that is insightful and resonates among newcomers to the US.
Thanks for producing such a book. It'll stay with me for a very long time.
bernardi "at"

John Vigor said...

Dear Giacomo:
You are too kind. Thank you very much for your kind remarks about Small Boat to Freedom. They are much appreciated, especially coming from a fellow sailor. Glad to know you're familar with Cape Town, too, one of the loveliest cities in the world in my opinion, and one here I spent some very formative years of my life.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to write, and I wish you well.


John V.