Anchored for a Storm, August 2020

Hobbes would have described the weather event as nasty, brutish, and short. It hammered Connecticut on August 27th from the northwest through Bethany, North Haven, Hamden, and then, big-time, Branford. The town had 99 percent of its power knocked out, with lines down everywhere and hundreds of trees sheared off, uprooted, or otherwise mangled.

We were anchored in good mud, upwind of a marsh, in four feet of water, with the oversized ground tackle we've lugged around on Pup for 17 years so that we can sleep at night. As a last-minute thought I led the rode from the bow roller to the big midships cleat that's bolted through the cockpit coaming. This provided a little extra stretch and helped with the shock-loading. I'm not sure the bow cleat would have held. NOAA reported multiple microbursts with windspeeds in our zone at 90-100 mph, or 80+ knots. Melissa's video below is three clips from the first couple of minutes when it hit. Then it got really windy for a little while and she stopped filming so she could hold on with both hands.

In those few minutes we were busy, running in gear and trying to stay behind the anchor rode to take some strain off it. We had our PFDs close at hand, and possibly should have put them on. But I've never liked the idea of being trapped under a boat with an inflated PFD, and thought, well, we can always walk ashore...

A word about NOAA, an agency that does a lot of good work with not enough money and, it must be said, under extra pressure these days from some dubious non-scientific outsiders: Their 24-hour weather predictions for this storm had been very good, along the lines of "There's a strong potential for nasty weather to develop by tomorrow afternoon. Keep an eye out for it." That was enough to make us cancel our cruising plans and stick close to home. And the warnings did increase in urgency the next day, but what had been expected to be some severe thunderstorms coalesced very quickly into something much more powerful, and the system moved so fast that NOAA's marine emergency alerts began to arrive less than half an hour before the weather did. Even then, we could clearly see what was approaching us on radar from a smartphone app while listening to NOAA weather warnings over the marine VHF that focused on danger in White Plains, New York, over 50 miles west of us.

We didn't have time to run far, but we were only a few minutes from where we wanted to be in case of really bad weather — in the shallows, with sticky mud to anchor in, room for plenty of scope, protection from waves and flying debris, and a soft place to leeward if we had to scud or wade.

There's a good discussion of the whole event by Ryan Hanrahan of NBC Connecticut.

- DL



Do Not Tease the Cutlass Bearing

Back in the 1980s there appeared a few articles in Yacht Racing & Cruising (and later Sailing World) under the name Ebon Bilgewater, a determined and sometimes hapless young sailorman. This is a slightly updated version of one originally called “Beating the Bushing.” Reprinted by permission.

Anyone who has spent some time around auxiliary sailboats will be familiar with the curious sensations generated by a worn cutlass bearing: a deep, low buzzing in the ears, as if a giant mosquito were hovering nearby, and a tingling numbness in the legs akin to what is felt by some motel visitors after standing on their Vibro-Beds for several hours. The numbness is most noticeable while motoring through a glassy calm with a hot sun beating down relentlessly overhead.

The trade name is Cutless, but most people call the innocent-looking part a cutlass bearing. Photo courtesy of Johnson/Duramax

 The more worn the bearing, the more intense the sensations: In yawls and ketches with neglected bearings, watching the mizzen shrouds vibrate for more than a few seconds will induce optical illusions and nausea. So it is both a seamanlike and medically sound practice to change cutlass bearings when they become worn; and, as in everything else, there is both a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Before getting into procedures, a word about the cutlass bearing itself is in order. First, the proper term for the item is "stern bushing" or "stern tube bearing." But even more proper, if you’re a boat-parts purist, is calling it a cutLESS bearing, because Cutless is a trade-name for the stern bushing made by a particular company. However, the word “cutlass” is widely used, especially because experiences with this particular boat part remind us that a cutlass is a type of sword, habitually used by pirates to hack innocent seafarers into tiny, indiscriminate pieces.

The bearing sometimes lives in a strut; sometimes, logically enough, in a stern tube projecting below the boat or embedded in the trailing edge of a keel. What it bears is the propeller shaft, which first comes out of the engine's transmission and then goes through the stuffing box. The cutlass bearing is the last thing that holds the shaft on its way to the propeller. Theoretically, the shaft makes its way through the bearing straight and true; the clearances between shaft and bearing are minute and precise. No matter how well-aligned the shaft, though, within a certain number of years it will wear down that bearing surface and start to bounce around at a high frequency, thus causing the medical problems referred to earlier.

Cutlass bearings have traditionally been made chiefly of brass or other composition metals like monel, which is an alloy of mostly nickel and copper, used extensively for marine propellers and shafting. The bearing surfaces used to be made of lignum vitae; now they're usually vulcanized rubber, arranged in longitudinal grooves that lightly hold the shaft and allow water to flow in and out as far as the stuffing box for cooling and lubrication. Some cutlass bearings today are made entirely of plastic, so that inserting and removing them is simply a matter of adjusting their temperature (by refrigeration or subtle use of a torch or hair dryer) to let them expand into or contract out of tight places.

The cutlass bearing here lives in the projection of the stern tube outside the keel. Note the painted-over set screw. Doug Logan photo.

 The cutlass bearing to which I am referring in this cautionary tale is one of the older variety: It is to the all-plastic bearing what Ahab, at the height of his monomaniacal fury, is to Skipper, of Gilligan's Island.

Problem: You have just bought a used displacement sailboat. In the surveyor's glowing report, there is one sentence that disturbs you: "Cutlass bearing needs replacement ASAP." You sail the boat for a full season, and whenever you run the engine, you worry. Gradually,you begin to hear the giant, invisible mosquito. Little by little, the vibration of the cockpit sole takes hold of your psyche, until, as the first golden leaves of autumn drift down into your anchorage, you resolve to haul early and have at the bearing, before it causes a problem. You haul and block the boat, remove the prop, loosen the shaft at transmission, slide the shaft easily from engine, and stare haughtily at the naked interior of the cutlass bearing. Now, all you have to do is remove it.

If your cutlass bearing lives in a strut outside the hull, you’re in luck. You can skip all 12 steps in the next section and go directly to the conclusion: “The Right Way: Three Easy Steps.”

The Wrong Way: 12 Easy Steps

  1. You understand that the cutlass bearing has been embedded in the aft end of your keel for 14 years, and that it is likely to be a bit recalcitrant about coming out. All right, then, the first thing you will have to do is remove the set screw that (you think) keeps it in place. The screw might be in the side of the external strut, or in the keel at the side of the bearing, or inside the boat, aft of the stuffing box somewhere in the stern tube. It will probably be painted over, or stripped, or both. Also, if it’s inside the boat there will be tankage, or plumbing, or some engine or cockpit part that will prevent you from turning your hex wrench or screwdriver more than a twitch at a time. (If the screw is not already stripped, go ahead and strip it; get that step out of the way. Maybe you can get hold of enough of it with Vice-Grips to move it, or if that doesn’t work, hit your Vice-Grips with a hammer. You didn’t like those Vise-Grips anyway. Or just face the music and drill it out. You can tap a new set of threads before you put in the new bearing.)
  2. Next, listen to some pundit tell you that a bearing can be knocked out with a dowel or a piece of pipe of a bit smaller diameter. If you are foolish enough to try to tap the bearing out with a dinky little hammer and a broomstick handle held against the bearing, and find that it doesn't work, you will probably be foolish enough to think a little more force is necessary. In that case, the best thing to do is go and get the jack of your foreign car, place it between your engine transmission and the cutlass bearing, and crank it right up.
  3. After you have put the remnants of your automobile jack in an appropriate receptacle, you will probably want to lose your temper, go to the hardware store, and buy a four-ton hydraulic jack. By all means, do so. They're surprisingly inexpensive, and pack quite a wallop.
  4. Place your new hydraulic jack between your engine transmission and the cutlass bearing, using all sorts of blocking materials and galvanized pipes in between. You will be dimly aware that you are skating on very thin ice over very deep water. It will be exciting. Go for it.
  5. As you pump up the pressure on the hydraulic jack, and near its maximum capacity, you will begin to hear creaking and moaning in the boat. You will be tempted to pay attention to these sounds. You may even think that the boat is trying to tell you something, like: Stop. The bearing isn't going to move. Quit bothering it, or you’ll be sorry. But you won't listen to the boat, will you? No, you are quite sure you've got all the angles covered.
  6. Sooner or later you will reach a point where you will want to give the jack One More Little Pump. By now things are very exciting, with strange and exotic sounds coming from everywhere. You know the bearing has to give, and you know it will be on the next stroke. Oh boy. You can hardly wait. Just to be on the safe side, though, remove yourself from the area and do that last stroke by remote control. Tie a piece of flag halyard to the jack handle. Take off the doors or hatch to the engine compartment, lead the flag halyard over the top of the engine, and pull the pump handle in the comfort of your main cabin.
  7. You have now pulled the handle that extra stroke. You have heard even more strange and portentous sounds, but, as you cringe your way back to inspect the bearing, you find that it hasn't budged. You're good and mad now, aren't you? Go ahead, show that bearing a thing or two. Give it the Old What For.
  8. For the Old What For you will want to be fully braced, knees bent, feet wedged against something solid, hands holding the length of flag halyard in a pose which, if the flag halyard weren't there, would remind an onlooker of a late 19th-century pugilist.
  9. Now begin your last Herculean tug. The creaking and groaning will resume. Increase tension. The cords in your neck will stand out like the striated vertical ridges on the slopes of a brewing volcano. Your fingers, wrapped by turns of a stretching, humming polyester boa constrictor, will turn a royal maroon. You will probably want to grit your teeth and grunt something like, "Come on, you little...," and more to the effect that if the cutlass bearing doesn't move, you will somehow punish it severely. What you don't realize, and you will understand quickly in hindsight, is that it is impossible to intimidate a cutlass bearing.
  10. At some point during the Old What For you will hear a loud noise; a giant cracking, clapping sound, much like what you would hear if you happened to be standing near a sequoia when it was snapped off halfway up the trunk. The flag halyard in your hands will go slack, and simultaneously you will punch yourself in the nose. You will then fall backwards into your companionway ladder, which will shatter like a prop in a Three Stooges gag.
  11. Now you can pick yourself up off the cabin sole. Your ears will be ringing, but you can be thoroughly pleased with yourself. Judging from the sonic boom, the cutlass bearing has emerged from the stern tube at Mach+ speed, flown through the chain link fence of the boatyard, and landed at the far side of a neighboring parking lot. 
  12. Check your work. Remove the jack and all blocking materials from the bilge where they have fallen. Look down the stern tube. The cutlass bearing is still there, is it not? Now look behind you. Your two aft engine mounts are sheared off, are they not? And the transmission is now resting directly on the turn of the bilge. What a nuisance.

The Right Way: Three Easy Steps

  1. Find yourself a comfortable stool, or a boat cushion will do. Place it on the ground near where the cutlass bearing is located in your keel or strut. Sit down.
  2. Take a new hacksaw blade, wrap one end of it in a rag so you won't hurt your hand, insert it in the cutlass bearing, and begin sawing. Saw for quite a while, until you’re through to the stern tube all along the bearing.
  3. Take another new hacksaw blade, begin at a point about 90 degrees away from your first cut, and saw for another long time. At some point during your session, the cutlass bearing will slip from the stern tube like a jellybean from the mouth of a child, and land in your lap. This may hurt, but you should be glad of the pain.

Ebon Bilgewater is Ambrosia Bilgewater's brother.



BoatSense Included in ⁠"Best Boating Books of All Time⁠"

BoatSense is currently listed by The Book Authority in the 15 Best Boating Books of All Time . The Book Authority uses "a proprietary technology to identify and rate the best nonfiction books, using dozens of different signals, including public mentions, recommendations, ratings, sentiment, popularity and sales history." They don't do business with authors or publishers, and they don't accept requests to list a book.


BoatSense Reviews:

Soundings: Sea Stories 

Good Old Boat 

WaveTrain  and Points East 

Carol Newman Cronin - Boats Meet Books 

Sailing Scuttlebutt: Why We Are Who We Are

Professional Boatbuilder

Mystic Seaport and a Rope Treasure

Any few hours spent at the Mystic Seaport will yield a surprise or two, even if you've been there dozens of times. I've loved the place since I was a kid and the Charles W. Morgan was hard-docked in sand. We went this Black Friday after Thanksgiving, figuring correctly that the crowds would be stuffing the malls and the seaport pathways would be lightly traveled.

A massive eye splice -- wormed, parceled, served, and tarred. When was it made? On what ship did it serve? Doug Logan photos.

It was first aboard the L.A. Dunton, a Gloucester fishing schooner from the era of Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. Her spars were out but she'd been recently recaulked and painted. Then to the Morgan. She was not only afloat but heeling slightly to a brisk northerly that was hinting of the snow to come. Then aboard the Joseph Conrad, the sail training ship whose second incarnation was so well-chronicled by Alan Villiers. Then respects to the Emma C. Berry, to my eye the prettiest gaff sloop of them all. Then, eventually to the Rope Walk.

As we were leaving we looked between the buildings and spotted an amazing rope trove under the roof of an open shed. There were old tarred shrouds and ratlines aplenty, but also some of the most wondrous examples of wormed, parceled, served, and decorated marlinspike work that could be imagined: massive eye-splices, hawser and cable ends, and some items whose purpose I'm ashamed to say I can only guess at. It's off to the old maritime reference books for me, and I'll follow up with anything I find.


BoatSense Talk at the Jamestown Library: Chaos and Seamanship

A cumulonimbus chaos agent near St. Thomas. Doug Logan photo.

We had a discussion about BoatSense (both the book and the idea) recently at the Jamestown Philomenian Library in Rhode Island, with a couple dozen old and new friends, among them shipmates from over the years and former colleagues from Sailing World and Cruising World. Pretty much everyone in the room was an old hand as far as boats are concerned, and there were some serious racing sailors there — one Olympian and at least two others who had won championships at the national or international level.

We focused for a while on one of the themes of the book — chaos. The world that boats operate in, at the intersection of two vast fluids, is by nature chaotic, if only because those two fluids are of very different densities. The intersection is a zone of uncertainty, and each fluid has a profound effect on the other. And they both have profound effects on boats, which then tend to exhibit chaotic tendencies themselves. So, life aboard boats is to a great extent about dealing with mayhem, both natural and man-made — anticipating it, preparing for it, averting it, mitigating it, and learning from it.

Racing sailors, in particular, challenge chaos in a conscious way, tacking and jibing in tight quarters, or keeping a spinnaker up those extra 20 seconds in order to claim room at a turning mark, knowing that the potential for chaos increases with each second of delay, and welcoming the challenge. But all sailors and powerboaters, if they stick with the game long enough, develop an appreciation of the forces that seem to conspire to make their time on the water more challenging. And their relationship to those forces, whether in preparation or response, is defined by the practice of seamanship. 

— DL

BoatSense Review by Carol Cronin

There's a welcome review of BoatSense by Carol Cronin on her blog, where she collects her thoughts on a variety of topics, mostly marine-oriented. Carol is an Olympic sailor (Athens, 2004), a meticulous editor, and novelist. She's also an old (not to say aged) friend ⁠— the kind who would actually take the time to read a book through and then offer a thoughtful response.

Carol Cronin — author, editor, Olympic sailor

First she pegs me as a curmudgeon, or maybe curmudgeon-in-waiting, and I can see where she gets that impression. A lot of what she read of my writing when we worked together came from that sort of viewpoint, which I hasten to add was encouraged and sometimes commissioned by our mutual friend and editorial director at the time, John Burnham. But then she dives into what we could call the philosophical parts of the book, most of which came from an earlier time when I was editor of Practical Sailor. In those parts I hoped to promote the idea that much of the real pleasure and fulfillment you can get out of a boat is fundamentally different from what's advertised by the people trying to sell boats (and all the gear that's supposed to make you happier and safer and more comfortable on boats), and also fundamentally better and more valuable both on and off the water. And Carol gets that, as people who have been steeped in boats for a long time all get it, even if they work in the boat-selling industry and have trouble saying it out loud. (Practical Sailor, by the way, is subscriber-driven and accepts no advertising.)

Carol points out that the collection of yarns and advice is "varied" and  "somewhat difficult to categorize," and she's right about that, too. I have a lot of yarns, but I tried to pick a few that would get across a range of pleasures and points of worth. And I have a lot of advice (some good, some suspect, some gratuitous), but there are already several excellent reference books out there full of the stuff. So I wanted to lay out maybe a dozen or so points of specific practical advice for the new or lightly experienced person who might be in the market a boat—advice that I think is not given enough, but that can make a big difference in whether that person will end up in boats for a long time or leave early in disappointment.

Then, after she hauls me under the keel for several uncaught word repetitions in the book (a form of typo to which I am prone) she says, "It might be a hard one to categorize, but this book will make an easy gift for anyone who thinks deeply about the world, especially if they like stories that center down on boats."

Can't ask for better than that. Thanks, Carol.

— DL

The Hunt for a Boat Diesel Coolant Leak

A few posts down in this feed there's one called Give Me Pressure. It had to do testing for a leak between the raw-water side and the coolant side of a heat exchanger. The leak itself was one of those creeping, intermittent, insidious little sneaks that puts white steam and the sweet smell of coolant into the exhaust with no sign of external leaks on the engine, and no bad gaskets. 

He2The new heat exchanger (left), built from plans over 20 years old, had to be pulled back off the engine when the header/expansion tank (right, marked Nor'Pro) proved to be the leaky culprit. That tank has an upper chamber that holds the coolant reservoir; its bottom chamber opens to the exhaust ports. That space is supposed to be dry. It wasn't. There was rust. And two pinhole leaks. Let's not call the new heat exchanger unnecessary. Let's call it a proactive purchase. No hard feelings. We'll keep the old one as a spare.

Ha (I laugh bitterly), if only I'd known when writing that post what I know now... that there was no breach in that heat-exchanger; that parts for old, off-brand, marinized diesels are not to be found on any old shelf; that by the end of summer I'd be as fast as a Le Mans crew chief swapping out major parts, knowing the peculiar recalcitrance of every bolt, every hose clamp... well, I guess I'm glad I didn't know.

The good folks at Sen-Dure in Fort Lauderdale made me a new heat exchanger from plans dating back to the last century that I think even they were surprised they still had. I installed it, started up the old Isuzu, and the leak continued. This was... let's say it was disappointing.

So, having eliminated as culprits...

  • The coolant-side heat exchanger end gasket (replaced)
  • The head gasket (pressure-tested)
  • The heat-exchanger itself (replaced)
  • The transmission oil-cooler (doesn't circulate coolant in this engine)

... I figured the only thing left to leak was the big header/expansion tank, which in this engine contains coolant in a chamber directly above a dry chamber that receives exhaust gases from the cylinders.

PortsideengineGood view of the port side of the engine, and a chance to bust some more rust, touch up the paint, check the water-pump impeller...

So, out came the new heat exchanger, off came the header tank, and in the lower chamber where there should have been carbon but no rust, there was rust. In the dark of night I stuck a LED gooseneck light down into the fill hole on top of the tank, peered into the exhaust-elbow opening... and lo, there was a pinhole of light. I rust-busted around it and took the tank to a talented local metal fabricator, who welded a small steel plate over the pinhole. This whole procedure happened twice, because another pinhole appeared after the second rust-busting.

Header3There was a lot of rust and a couple of small leaks from the coolant reservoir into the chamber of the header tank where the exhaust comes to mix with seawater on its way to the discharge.

And finally (never say finally) the tank, which I tested with both water and air, was leak-free. I reinstalled everything, filled up with fresh coolant, took the boat on a couple of late-season runs to double-check everything, then topped up the tanks and changed the oil. Now the boat is hauled out. The next steps are to winterize this carefully coddled cooling system, cover the boat, and call it quits for the year.

Header3Most of the surfaces cleaned up pretty well with solvents, 3M kitchen scrubbers, rags, and wire brushes. WD40 is a good, relatively cheap cleaner for jobs like this. It works especially well sprayed on the threads of studs and bolts that have a lot of grime in them.

The chances that more pinholes won't appear over the winter or next summer are slim. Maybe the tank will last one run, one week, another whole season? But there's no replacement tank out there. When it leaks again it will be time for major surgery. With luck the shell and the welded-on exhaust couplings will survive, but it will have to be cut open for new channels and chambers to be custom-made and installed. Which is why I'll be dreaming this winter of repowering, of sailing, of rowing, of swimming.

-- DL


Mayflower II in Mystic

The original Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620. Her replica, Mayflower II, was launched in England in 1956 and voyaged across the Atlantic under command of the great sailorman Alan Villiers, himself a human bridge between the days of square-rigged sailing ships and the modern day.

Mayflower 2Above, Mayflower II was relaunched on September 7, 2019, after a three-year refit at Mystic Seaport. (Doug Logan photo)

Since then, Mayflower II has been kept and cared for by Plimouth Plantation. When it came time for a major refit, Plimouth partnered with Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. Mystic had the facilities and skilled shipwrights to take on this massive task, and three years later, on September 7, 2019, Mayflower II was lowered slowly down the ways  into the water again.

The keynote speaker at the relaunching ceremony was Nathaniel Philbrick, bestselling maritime author, who published a lively history of the Mayflower in 2006. Here's an excerpt from Philbrick's address:

Jeremy McGeary to Fiddler's Green

This summer the world of sailing journalism lost one of its best, Jeremy McGeary, an Englishman who came to the U.S. many years ago, already steeped in so much nautical know-how that he could have rested on his laurels and just let the rest of us know what was what. But his mind and his curiosity just kept expanding, and anyone who had a chance to work with him grew richer for the experience, while having a tremendous amount of fun at the same time.

MacMcGearyWhen we were together at the Cruising World and Sailing World offices in Rhode Island, Mac and I would take a walk at most lunchtimes, discussing boat design, the latest gear, the weather, navigation, and, for lack of a better phrase, the Water Rat's Worldview. I learned from him on every single outing. We worked together on reviews, Boat of the Year projects, and Cruising World's first website. (Mac was a wary but perspicacious contributor to that brave new world.) Whenever another editor had to do a deep dive on a particular boat's design, Mac was the go-to. He was a naval architect with a gift for making difficult ratios and equations understandable; he could turn them into concepts to be understood at the seat-of-the-pants level.

For more on Mac, read Darrell Nicholson's tribute, Eight Bells for Jeremy 'Mac' McGeary in Practical Sailor.

Darrell and I barely overlapped at Cruising World before I was seconded by the company to set up a new web project in New York. After that I went to be editor of Practical Sailor while Darrell and Mac worked together in Newport. Then, eventually, Mac went to Good Old Boat, Darrell became editor of Practical Sailor, and Mac ended up doing a lot of test projects for Darrell on the side. The world of sailing journalism is pretty tiny. The loss of a man like Mac is felt right around the compass.