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Expecting the Unexpected

Sailing can take you to the far reaches of the world, beyond the realm of ordinary services, where breakdowns put a premium on preparation and ingenuity.
Three times during the Great Depression my grandfather loaded his family into a Model T Ford and made round trips between Dallas and Los Angeles. I still recall the wonder I felt as a small boy, my feet just reaching the front edge of the porch glider and lime sherbet melting unnoticed in my bowl, as he told me about those trips. His stories always stopped at some unexpected hazard and my part was to get it going again.

"What did you do then, Grampa?" I would ask wide-eyed, unable to see how the trip could continue.

"Well," he would say, "we just turned that old jalopy around, pulled her down into reverse, and backed right up that mountain."

More than once when our keel has been solidly embedded in the bottom or our batteries flat as a flounder, I have thought about those stories, about my granddad's matter-of-fact approach to adversity, and looked for a way to back up my own mountain.

What about you? Sailing comes loaded with the potential for the unforeseen: thin water, mechanical failures, navigational difficulties, changing weather, shorted electronics, injury, and dozens of others. How prepared are you to deal with the unexpected?

No matter how far you plan in advance, the unexpected will happen, and that's when cruisers need the skills and equipment to adapt.

Anticipation    The secret to adapting successfully to the unexpected is to expect it. This is not really a contradiction of terms. Take the weather for example. What skipper has not been "caught out" as friendly white clouds give way to fire-breathing black monsters and gentle seas turn frighteningly rough?

Changing weather is as inevitable as death and taxes, especially for anything longer than a day sail. So why should it be unexpected? Experienced sailors expect the weather to change and equip their vessels with an array of sails for varying conditions. The longer the trip, the greater the exposure, and generally the more comprehensive the inventory of sails. When the wind goes light, an acre of colorful nylon is hoisted to keep the boat moving. When the weather takes a nasty turn, tiny bulletproof sails allow the boat to continue—safely if not comfortably—in most conditions the prudent sailor is likely to encounter.

If you are counting on your engine to trump the weather and keep you moving in calm conditions or propel you safely into port when wind and seas increase, you are overlooking the most common of glitches—engine failure. Never happened to you? Then consider yourself lucky—and overdue.

If you expect engine trouble, you can be prepared for it. This might take the form of putting aboard spare parts and a service manual, and perhaps enrolling in a mechanic's course—most engine problems are minor. Working out a way to use the dinghy motor to propel the mother ship is another response. Too often the "anticipated" response to engine failure is to call for assistance. Near shore this is generally effective even if it does reflect poorly on your seamanship, but if your problem is electrical, the radio may also fail.

"If you expect trouble, you'll be prepared for it."

In the event of engine failure, an effective anchor can be your greatest ally, yet how many sailboats carry only minimal ground tackle? Some astoundingly carry none at all. Like engines, anchoring systems also fail. For weekend trips to the same sandy cove, a small Danforth could be perfectly adequate. But if you decide to take a longer trip or check out another weekend destination, it should come as no surprise that you could encounter differing bottom conditions. If your selected anchorage is carpeted in thick grass, for example, the Danforth is not going to set well—if at all. With night falling, what would your choices be? You could sail on to look for an anchorage where your Danforth will hold, which is a somewhat lackluster alternative. You could don mask and fins and try to plant the anchor by hand. Or you could simply lower the yachtsman anchor you chocked at the bow just for this eventuality. (A plow will also penetrate grass if it isn't too thick.)

Preparation    The best test of your boat's preparation is to consider every essential item aboard and ask yourself, "what if it fails?" If your answer is "I don't know," your preparation is incomplete. Now is the time to think about it, not when the item actually does fail.

Suppose you rely on GPS for all your offshore navigation. You drop below for a quick position and the heretofore-accurate magic box places you just south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Can you get home?

What happens if the rudder fails or is damaged? Here a far-flung crew in the Canary Islands reconstructs their rudder on the dock.

Suppose you forgot to turn off the running lights and much later when you hit the starter button, nothing happens. If you plan to handle this problem using the radio, think again.

Suppose the boat lurches as you are crossing the cockpit with a winch handle in your hand. Off balance, you smash the ship's compass with the heavy handle before slamming into the coaming and losing the handle overboard. Can you still find your way? Can you trim the headsails?

Duplication of equipment is one good answer to "what if it fails?" With two winch handles aboard, a lost one is only an economic disaster. Dual batteries forgive injudicious use of electrical power. Dual steering compasses are not a particularly bad idea. And GPS has become so cheap that a spare is a viable option. But if both units agree that you are in Bismarck, then what?

What is really needed is duplication of function. Instead of carrying a back-up steering compass, put a hand-bearing compass aboard. It can be pressed into service to replace a damaged main compass but it is also useful for its primary function.

Offshore, a sextant and tables are capable of standing in for an unhinged GPS. Near shore a compass and a log can get you safely to your destination. If you were navigating before GPS (and before Loran), you can do it again. If not, you should learn how.

Carrying different types of anchors is preferable to exact duplication or carrying the same anchor in two or more sizes. A variety of anchors not only gives you a backup in case you lose an anchor, but you will be able to deal with a broader range of bottom conditions.

"Call upon the one thing that should be in every skipper's kit—ingenuity. My granddad took an ample supply in his old Model T. You better have some aboard your boat. "
Backup equipment need not be sophisticated or expensive. A lead line is an adequate stand-in for the depth sounder. A few plastic jugs filled with water can soften the blow of discovering a leak in the main tank. A tapered wooden plug would be nice to have aboard when you back the shaft out of its coupling.

Anticipate not only equipment failure, but also crew failure. Expect someone to fall overboard—in the worst possible conditions—and be sure that you have both the skill and the equipment to retrieve that person.

Expect illness or injury and equip your boat with first aid supplies. The farther from assistance your course takes you, the more extensive your medical supplies should be.

Expect unexpected stops on a cruise and be sure the charts you have aboard will get you into harbors along the way, even those you had not planned to visit.

Ingenuity    However, no matter how well you perform this exercise, how far-sighted you are, and how carefully you prepare the boat, eventually you are going to encounter a problem that you have not anticipated. Expect it, and call upon the one thing that should be in every skipper's kit—ingenuity. My granddad took an ample supply in his old Model T. You better have some aboard your boat.

There are bound to be setbacks, gear failures, and other challenges along the way. A hands-on approach will not only save you money, but prove informative as well.

If problem solving is not your strength, pay attention to solutions you hear about and file them away for future reference. A rusted out container left friends cruising south without priming alcohol for their kerosene stove. One can only stand so much sushi! They used a propane torch to preheat the burner (about one minute, if you're taking notes). When their only cylinder was empty, the rum supply was pressed into service until they reached a port where fuel alcohol was available.

Dismasted 400 miles offshore, some other friends assessed their situation—less than 20 gallons of gasoline for the boat's small inboard. A passing ship could provide only diesel fuel, but our friends discovered that they could coax the engine to run on a mixture of one part gasoline and three parts diesel. The engine suffered irreparable damage from such abuse, but they reached the coast safely without further assistance.

I have seen juice cans replace fuel pumps, sails lashed over hull damage, cushion covers stitched over torn sails, galley tables used as rudders, and fiberglass used to cast a broken bone. I once spent an entire day adapting a junk-pile power-steering pulley to replace the broken pulley that drove our rapidly defrosting freezer. And we once pushed our 14,000-pound boat more than 100 miles with our three-horsepower dinghy. Where there is a will, there is probably a way—if you look hard enough.

Sailing is a fluid activity, in both senses. The more you participate, the more you will encounter the unforeseen. And the more prepared you will be to deal with it. Don't bemoan or curse the unexpected when it happens to you. A primary attraction of sailing for most of us is the promise of adventure and excitement. What adventure is there in knowing everything that is going to happen? When the unexpected does happen, accept it—and adapt.

Suggested Reading:

A Nearly Doomed Delivery by John Kretschmer

Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance by Don Casey

Devising a Better Bilge Pump by Don Casey


Don Casey is offline  
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