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All Quiet on Board

While sailing is infinitely quieter than using the engine, it also brings its own array of sounds.
We sailors love to wax poetic about the peacefulness of sailing, but the reality is that sailboats can be about as quiet as a can of loose rocks. The various clangs, bangs, and thumps heard aboard almost all vessels not only disturb the peace, they can keep the off-watch from getting essential sleep, erode your confidence in a building wind, and make you a pariah in marinas or at anchor.

What follows are a number of strategies for muffling or eliminating the most common and most annoying onboard noises. I like a quiet boat. So will you.

Mast Noise    Some sailors seem deaf to halyard slap. Or maybe they just think it is one of sailing's inherent sounds, like the gurgle of the bow wave (good) or the moan of the wind through the rigging (not good). It isn't, and if you allow your halyards to slap all night, don't expect your neighbors to hold you in high esteem.

The first step—and often the last—toward eliminating halyard slap is simply to clip the shackle end away from the mast, preferrably on the rail or the pulpit. Securing the tail of the halyard away from the mast is typically not so easy, so try pulling it away from the spar with a piece of shock cord or light line that you can attach to a shroud.

A more elegant method of accomplishing the same thing is to fit the aft or forward (depending on the halyard) edge of the lower spreader with a small thumb cleat a foot or so out from the mast. Looping the halyard tail over this cleat will separate it from the mast.

Internal halyards can slap inside the mast if they are not set up tight, but more often the slap you hear when the boat rolls at anchor is made by unsupported electrical wiring inside the mast. The best solution for this is to install a thin-wall PVC conduit inside the spar to contain the wiring. This is easy enough to accomplish when the spar is out of the boat. (I put detailed instructions regarding this in my book, This Old Boat.) An alternative that can be affected with the mast stepped is to drill small holes in the side of the mast one quarter, one half and three quarters of the way up the mast. Drill the top and bottom holes on one side of the mast and the middle hole on the opposite side. Use a hook of stiff wire to fish the electrical wires (but not any internal halyards) toward the holes so that you can get a piece of softer wire around them. The trick here is to make the soft wire loop long enough to let the electrical wire hang straight until you get all three loops around it. Now go back to each hole, starting at the top, and use the loops to pull the wire against the side of the mast. Twist the ends together around a bead or a small washer to keep them on the outside of the mast. Tightening the three loops forces the electrical wire into a zigzag path down the inside of the mast and thus eliminates the annoying noise they can make when they're loose.

Loose halyards are the most common offenders of peace and quiet both underway and dockside. Fortunately, the situation can be easily remedied by simply separating the heads and tails from the mast.
Mast pumping doesn't necessarily make noise, but it can still disturb your peace. In this case I am talking about pumping at anchor, which occurs when the boat sits to the current rather than the wind. The cause is a phenomenon called the Karman Effect, and the permanent cure is to attach fins to the mast that detach the airflow. An alternative solution is keeping an empty sail slide in the mast track above the mainsail. Where pumping is a threat, hoisting a line tied to that slide allows you to set up what becomes, in effect, a baby backstay.

Leech chatter isn't really a mast noise, but this is the most appropriate place to mention it. Not only does a fluttering leech generate an incredible amount of racket, it wears out the sail and is counter-productive from a performance standpoint because it disrupts the flow of air aft. If your big headsails lack leech lines, have them installed, and learn how to tension them to make the sail quiet and more efficient.

Carefully researching the noise a wind generator makes before you buy one can pay big dividends down the road in your own peace of mind and your neighbors' too.
Wind Generators   
Wind generator noise can be so obnoxious that it merits special mention. On the scale of annoyance, a howling wind generator is second only to a genset running all night as far as making you persona non grata with neighboring boats. Wind generator noise is generally a function of the design of the generator, so the best preventive is not to bring aboard a generator that sets up a howl. That means doing your research before you purchase a wind generator. Output capacity should not be your only consideration; you also want to know what kind of shipmate the generator is likely to be. As a rule, generators with more and/or shorter blades tend to make less noise than those with fewer and/or longer blades.

If it is already too late and you own a wind generator that has turned out to be a howler, you may be able to quiet it somewhat by wet-sanding (with 600-grit paper) and polishing the blades to remove mold marks and other surface flaws. The smoother the blades, the quieter they will pass through the air.

Deck Noises    Light-air sailing conditions should be ideal for the off watch to get good sleep, but pulsing sheet tension can repeatedly drop the snatch block on deck, making more racket down below than you realize. The traditional cure is a ropework thump mat around the pad eye that anchors the snatch block, but most modern jib blocks are on tracks. I tend to tie my snatch blocks upright with a piece of shockcord attached to the lower lifeline, but another alternative is attaching the block through a short length of large diameter rubber hose. When the sail collapses, the donut of hose prevents the block from falling onto the deck.

"Anchors stowed on rollers tend to clank unless they are kept under tension."
Anchors stowed on rollers tend to clank unless they are kept under tension. Lever-style tensioners are quick and easy solutions to this potential problem, and they apply enough tension to make the anchor and the chain forward of the tensioner essentially rigid. You can do the same thing, albeit less conveniently, with a short length of line between the chain and a bow cleat.

If you want any peace and quite at anchor, abandon any thoughts of using a plastic tarp as a harbor awning. Sail cloth is likewise a bad choice for awnings—both rattle incessantly in any breeze. Awnings should be made of canvas, either natural or synthetic. Both fabrics, when properly tensioned, are nearly silent in anything less than gale conditions, and you'd probably strike the awning before it got to that.

Awnings should be made of canvas for the best auditory results.

Wind scoops are another source of noise at anchor. Lightweight fabric seems like it would be ideal for catching zephyrs, but unless the fabric is also soft, it will be noisy. Some attachment methods are also noisy. On the othert hand, canvas wind scoops lashed in place make no noise at all.

There are, of course, an endless number of additional actions you might take to achieve a quiet ship. The ones I've listed here should get you started in the right direction. Then again, you could just wear ear plugs, but only if someone else is on watch. There are some sounds you don't want muffled.


Inside the Asylum

Few things can be more nnoying than incessant noises down below. Here are number of tricks you can employ to preserve sanity on board by tempering the cacophony.

  • To keep locker contents from rolling and banging, begin by installing fore-and-aft dividers in your larger hullside lockers. These function like baffles in a water tank to limit the potential for movement as the boat heels or rolls.
  • Use waffle-weave shelf liner to muffles the inevitable shifting of locker contents (it also improves ventilation).
  • Fit hullside lockers with canvas pockets. These provide useful, quiet stowage in an area that is normally wasted. The canvas also prevents the rest of the locker's contents from banging against the hull.
  • Galley pots can be corralled with "pot holes." These are holes cut into cabinet shelves that cradle specific pots. Alternate nesting pots with plastic bowls to yield a quieter stack.
  • Canvas pockets can also quiet pot lids. An equally quiet alternative is to capture the lids against the underside of a counter or shelf with parallel lengths of shock cord.
  • To keep stowed bottles and jars quiet, slip them into tube socks, you'll also eliminate the risk of breakage.
  • Even the slightest roll tends to make by-pass cabinet doors clank in their tracks. Inexpensive anti-rattle screws for sliding windows work equally here.
  • Hinged doors rattle when there is play in the latch, so use a couple of foam buttons with self-stick pads to quiet them.
  • Water pumps cycling in middle of the night are rough on sleep, so silence them by bolting the mounting feet to twin lengths of 3/4-inch rubber hose, then screw the hose to the boat.
  • Adding an accumulator tank in your fresh water plumbing will allow water to be drawn without the necessity of the pump running, thus reducing rapid cycling. 

Don Casey is offline  
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