Techniques & Tactics

Eyeball Navigation: The Heart of the Art

Eyeball navigation with binoculars

Quiz any curmudgeon these days on the subject of proper wayfinding and you’ll soon find yourself reefed down in a gale of conventional wisdom about the importance of paper charts, compass bearings, dead reckoning, sextants, and the like. But what curmudgeons tend to forget, as they rail on about how modern nav tools are corrupting us, is that many of their sacred cows are also just tools. They are more primitive, simpler, hence more reliable in one sense (if not more accurate), but still they are not the organic root of navigation.

Reduced to its purest form, human navigation (as opposed to more advanced forms used by migratory cetaceans, birds, and fish) is simply a matter of being able to look at something from a distance and say what it is. In a state of nature we can travel knowingly only as far as we can see.

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For Whom The Bait Trolls

A lot of bluewater sailors I know complain that they never catch fish while on passage. Once upon a time I had this same problem, but since perfecting my technique I've never once been skunked on a passage during which I have tried to catch a fish. It's really not very hard and is great way to vary your diet at sea.

Some veggie-lantes I know do like to argue that it is immoral to catch and eat fish. But the way I see it you have to look at things from the fish's perspective. A fish that is bigger than you normally will not hesitate to eat you if it is hungry. But it also probably won't kill you for sport and prominently display your remains in its home. Thus, rule number one in my guide to ethical fishing: Never kill a fish for fun.

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Windvane Variations


I am a huge fan of self-steering windvanes. They work extremely well, are perfectly energy efficient (i.e., they draw ZERO power), and are easy to service and maintain. They truly are as simple as bicycles, and as you may have gathered from my recent Zen of DIY post I like simple gear. I also like bicycles.

Windvanes aren't nearly as popular as they used to be, primarily because electronic autopilots are now reasonably reliable, surprisingly energy efficient, and amazingly versatile. Back in the day, when I first started ocean sailing, this was not the case. I gained a lot of valuable experience steering in big waves when I was crewing around on other people's boats precisely because every time I went sailing the autopilot on whatever boat I was on always broke. Once I crewed on a boat with two autopilots, and they both broke. Consequently, the first thing I did when I bought Crazy Horse and prepped her to go offshore was remove her autopilot. I replaced it with a Monitor servo-pendulum windvane that never gave me a lick of trouble during two-plus years of wandering the North Atlantic.

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Surfing Cat in Oz


This is a Perry 43 catamaran named Saltonay coming in over the bar at the Southport Seaway entrance to Queensland's Gold Coast in Australia. If you watch the whole video you'll see these guys had one hell of an exciting ride.

Bulletin boards on the net have been crackling with critiques of the skipper's seamanship. Having studied the situation a bit, I've come to the conclusion he knew what he was doing, though I'm not sure I would have done the same thing in his position.

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The Art of Motorsailing


This is a common sight at Dowling's fuel dock in St. Georges, Bermuda, both in the spring and the fall when the seasonal stampede of migrating yachts passes through.  It never fails to amaze me how many jerry jugs of fuel some bluewater sailors are willing to carry.  In this case I counted 16 jugs open on the quay waiting to be filled and another four on deck.  At five gallons a pop that's an extra 100 gallons of fuel this crew will somehow lash down on the deck of their 40-foot sailboat.  At 7.3 pounds per gallon (the most generally accepted average weight for diesel fuel) that's an extra 730 pounds this boat will be carrying well above its center of gravity.  Or to look at it another way: that's like sailing around with over 900 feet of quarter-inch high-test anchor chain stored on deck.

Is this necessary?  In most cases, I suspect, it really isn't.  On Lunacy, for example, making the same passage this boat was preparing to make (Bermuda to the West Indies), I carried just one 5-gallon jerry jug on deck for insurance.  I probably have about the same tank capacity as this boat (70 gallons), did lots of motoring on the way down (82 hours), and still had about 25 gallons of fuel left aboard (including what was in the jerry jug) when I arrived in St. Martin.

Over the years I've noticed that a lot of cruising sailors aren't nearly as savvy as they might be about using their engines to get where they're going.  I can't count how many times I 've seen sailboats bashing violently into big head seas with their sails down and their engines running close to full out, burning tons of fuel while crawling along at ultra-slow speeds with their crews experiencing maximum discomfort.  Sometimes I wish I might be magically transported aboard one of these vessels so I can slap its skipper upside the head and ask: "Do you really enjoy paying more money and creating more pollution just so you can waste more time and be more miserable aboard your boat???"

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