Waiting for the spring as your boat sits on the hard may not seem the best time to improve your seamanship, but a boat truly at rest does provide an ideal environment for enlightenment through contemplation. The path to a higher order of safety begins with what I call a vulnerability survey.
Pick a sunny day, let yourself aboard, quiet your mind and take an unhurried look around. Can you accurately picture what is behind every closed door, inside every hidden void? If you are a do-it-yourself owner, the answer is probably yes. If not, it may be no. Here is an irrefutable truth: when things go bad at sea, the better you know your boat, the better the chances for a good outcome. This is part of the enlightenment we seek. Even if you have no desire to get your hands dirty, harbor doubts about your mechanical abilities and are the opposite of self-sufficient, a single day spent poking around your own boat will be time well spent.
Standing there in your dormant boat, recall emergencies you have heard or read about or those you have imagined. Most fall into one of four categories—flooding, fire, personal injury or man overboard. The point of the vulnerability survey is to imagine how such emergencies might occur on your boat and how you would deal with them, or better still, how you can make them less likely.
Water surging over the cabin sole is a pucker-inducing event, even if the cause usually turns out to be relatively benign: someone failed to close the flush valve on the head; a rail-under sail put the galley sink below the waterline; a hawse pipe is ingesting green water; the bilge pump float is stuck; a freshwater tank has sprung a leak. Calm consideration of such possibilities is difficult when you are ankle-deep miles from shore.
As part of your survey, locate the possible sources of all such leaks and consider how you would deal with them. Do you need a siphon break on the head intake? Should the galley drain seacock stay closed while underway? How about a watertight plug for the deck pipe? Does your bilge pump have a manual switch? Do you have a second pump? Are there chafe points in your freshwater plumbing runs?
Be sure to also consider more serious flooding scenarios, such as a loose hose, a sheared through-hull fitting, a failed shaft seal, a lost prop shaft, or an impact breach of the hull. This is where knowing your boat—really knowing it—can make all the difference. How many seacocks are there? Do you know exactly where they are located? Can you get to them? Can they be closed? Can they be closed by your weakest crewmember? Are all below-the-waterline hose barbs long enough to accommodate two hose clamps? Are your clamps in good condition? Are spare clamps at hand? Are hoses or seacocks at risk from loose gear or stores? Are bungs nearby?
Modern shaft seals keep out the ocean with a bellows or a spring, so failures can be dramatic, even catastrophic. On my boat, I have avoided this risk by sealing the shaft with a traditional stuffing box whose biggest failing is likely to be an increasing drip rate. But consider this. A close friend of mine almost lost his boat when his stuffing box seized to his prop shaft and spun with it, ripping the shaft log hose in half. Since then I now regularly check the running temperature of my stuffing box. How would you deal with water flooding in around your prop shaft or, worse, through the opening where the shaft used to be?
The story of the little Dutch boy teaches us you can hold back the ocean with just a finger, but that’s only true if you can get to the hole. Can you access all of the below-the-waterline hull on your boat, or will you have to rip out furniture to do so? In the latter case, do you carry a wrecking bar?
Imaginary waves break aboard harmlessly, but three feet of real seawater in a 10ft x 10ft cockpit will double the weight of a 40-footer—like perching a second boat on the stern.
A boat at sea needs to shed water. Will your cockpit drain quickly? Do your cockpit lockers latch securely? Can you secure your companionway? Are your hatch dogs strong? Can your portlights survive a solid impact? Are your bilge pumps big enough to clear your bilge quickly? Are they adequately protected from ingesting debris?
Let’s turn our attention to fire. Most on-board fires are related to wiring. So what do you know about the wiring of your boat? The answer is probably “not much.” After all, most of it was factory installed and is forever hidden in conduits, wrapped harnesses and behind liners. Fortunately, both the evidence and the source of a wiring problem are almost always found at a wire’s ends, visible to anyone armed with a bright light and perhaps a mirror. Seaworthy wiring is neat, orderly and terminates into crimped connectors—clean, dry and corrosion-free. If you find tangled chaos, oxidation, bare wire around screw terminals, wire nuts, twisted connections or wraps of electrician’s tape, these need to be eliminated.
You will learn even more about your boat’s electrical system if you take it on a test drive. Turn on everything electrical and then spend a half hour touching wires and terminals. (Only do this with 12-volt circuits; do not energize any 100-volt circuits!) Better yet, spend $15 for a non-contact infrared thermometer and measure the temperature of wires and terminals. Safe wiring runs cool. If you find a hot wire or a hot connection, it needs attention. Fires also need fuel, so look for paper, fabric or liquid flammables in close proximity to exposed wiring or hot appliances.
Next, aim your bright light—the brighter, the better—into the engine space. A very long time ago, a friendly captain invited my buddy and me aboard a big motoryacht. The thing that made the biggest impression was the white carpet in the engine room. To a couple of teenage hot-rodders, white carpet near an internal combustion engine seemed, well, kind of nutty. I’m still doubtful about the carpet, but bright white is the right color for an engine space. If yours is dingy, dirty or simply the natural color of fiberglass laminate, it can hide dangerous deficiencies.
Diesel fires nearly always involve atomized fuel, like that sprayed from leaky injector plumbing, but you will do better here to concentrate on what you see, not what you are looking for. Is there the sheen of fuel or oil? A trickle of water? A trail of rust? A layer of belt dust? Gray soot? Aging hoses? Loose wiring? All of these conditions are not fire hazards, but all impact seaworthiness. A pristine engine and engine space is your best assurance that all is well.
A galley fire is probably a much greater risk in harbor, but a gas explosion is always a clear and present danger with propane aboard. The key to staying safe is a properly vented locker and proper plumbing that is regularly pressure tested. Open the wheel on the tank (it should be closed while your boat is in the yard), activate the gas solenoid and light all the stovetop burners. Turn them off but leave the solenoid on. Note the pressure gauge at the regulator, then close the wheel valve on the tank. If the plumbing is leak free, the needle on the gauge will not move for at least 15 minutes.
If you do have a fire aboard—say someone left your copy of Tao Te Ching on top of the inverter—could anyone immediately find the fire extinguishers? Will one or more be accessible no matter where the fire is? Thump every gauge to make sure the needle remains in the green.
If the extinguishers are dry chemical, remove them from their mounts, invert them and pound their bottoms with a rubber mallet to fluff up the powder. If any are approaching 10 years in age, plan to replace them in the spring. Use the old ones to put out a practice fire. That, too, is likely to be enlightening.
Most onboard injuries are thankfully minor: a galley burn, a slip with a knife, a scalp abrasion, a stubbed toe, bloody knuckles. Now is a good time to take the first aid kit home and refresh it.
In my mind, the greatest risk aboard a cruising boat at sea is falling. Here it is wise to accept a truth about the size of boats: the bigger they are, the farther you fall. A saloon that feels wonderfully spacious at a dock can become an ice rink at sea. Can you traverse your boat from stem to stern without letting go of a solid handhold? If not, you and your crew will be at risk in a seaway.
Footing is equally important. Does the companionway have secure treads? Is your cabin sole beautiful but slippery? Could a bit of well-placed grit make it safer?
Sharp corners are another danger. No surface you can fall against should have sharp corners or sharp edges. An interior that does not feature rounded corners and edges is not seaworthy.
You might also take a look at your rig. Is the boom high enough to not constantly threaten the crew’s heads? Conversely, is it so high that furling the main is a high-wire act? Does the sheet sweep the cockpit when tacking? Do you hear both pawls clicking positively when you turn the sheet winches? Are the cotter pins in your rig taped or rubber tipped?
By now, Grasshopper, you shouldn’t need much nudging from me (and a topside survey may need to wait until the cover comes off in the spring) but never forget that, like shoe soles or tire tread, antiskid textures lose effectiveness with age and wear. How good is yours? Is there antiskid everywhere you step? Are your lifelines trustworthy? Handrails well placed? Do you have strong attachment points for harness tethers?
Take notes as you peer at, prod and peruse your boat. Create a list of deficiencies and concerns, some that may need immediate attention—servicing seacocks, correcting wiring deficiencies—and some that may require more thought, like adding handholds or cutting access openings. This list may also inspire additional yard visits and further enlightenment. Every risk eliminated improves the seaworthiness of your boat. More than that, knowing your boat and inhabiting it in an intimate way will make you better at avoiding danger, quicker at grasping the source and scope of trouble, and better equipped to master it. That makes you and those who sail with you safer at sea.
Photos by Peter Nielsen
Read more about off-season prep in Windshifts: Why I Love this Time of Year