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Safety At Sea

I figured this out years ago when finishing Suilven II, a Wharram Tiki 26 catamaran. We needed a good watertight seal on the forward lockers. These were exposed to the occasional dollop of fast moving “green water” so the seal needed to be good.

Commercially manufactured seals weren’t readily available so I decided to improvise using silicon sealant, molded to the gap between the hatch and the deck coaming. The result was a perfect seal. It was so good that a fall in temperature would lower the pressure in the locker and make the hatch hard to open!

When I finished my Storm LT kayak three years ago I decided to use the same technique to form the fore and aft hatch seals, rather than use a soft rubber seal. It has worked very well, keeping water out during practice wet-exits.

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The hatch has been positioned, and the silicon pushed out. Allow a day or two to fully cure.

Here’s how to do it.

Clean up and degrease the flange where the hatch will sit. It’s important that the silicon sealant bonds well to this surface.

  1. Tape of the exterior surfaces where you don’t want extruding silicon to stick.
  2. Liberally coat the underside and edge of the hatch with a release agent. I used Pathway Polymers “Synlube 531 Release Agent” simply because I already had a can. Whatever release agent you use, I strongly recommend a trial with the silicon rubber you intend to use (GE Tub & Tile 100% silicon in my case). A stick up could be very tricky to undo!
  3. Squirt a generous bead of silicon onto the flange.
  4. Carefully place the hatch into the exact position. Push it down to extrude the sealant. You may want to improvise some spacers for exact positioning. It has to right first time!
  5. Allow the silicon to fully cure then pry off the hatch.
  6. Trim the surplus silicon with a sharp utility knife.

You now have a durable silicon rubber seal that exactly matches the shape of the hatch. The fit will be so good that you may need a handle or pull cord to remove it.

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Nylon straps that can be tensioned hold the hatches in place.

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You might think leaving a wooden boat without an automatic bilge pump for almost five months is asking for trouble and I will admit I have never been comfortable with the concept. But I have spent a lot of time aboard Rainbird dealing with potential sources of fresh water leaks, which, of course, is deadlier than salt water in a wooden boat. In fact, when I repainted the decks a couple of years ago I re-caulked almost everything.

The previous owner warned me to keep the bilges dry. The builder left a lot of the interior cedar planking untreated – even in the bilges. It’s been like that for 35 years and appears absolutely fine but if water ever accumulated things could change very quickly. Maybe he thought untreated cedar breathes and in the daily heating and cooling cycles, condensation never forms. I lined the hulls of my Tiki 26 catamaran with quarter-inch thick cork tiles for this reason. They gave great insulation and their porous surface never allowed condensation even in bunk areas.

Surprisingly, with just the hatches cracked open for ventilation and no internal heat, Rainbird wintered very well. When I left in the fall I pulled up some of the cabin sole and left drawers and lockers partly open. I think solar heating through her pilot house windows allows a certain amount of air moment and drying. She smelt a tad musty when I arrived in early March but within a few hours that had gone.

An automatic electric bilge pump would be a good safety feature. Although Rainbird has a large manual pump stowed in a locker it could take valuable seconds to get it set up and working.

Before heading offshore I need to figure out a different system, perhaps with the manual pump mounted in the cockpit (but not using the cockpit drains). Being a “belt and braces” type I am also considering a Y valve on the engine’s raw water intake to pump bilge water in an emergency.

No matter how sound she may be right now, a rock, dead-head or some tsunami debris could change that very quickly. And I have been warned; while single-handing through the Gulf Islands a couple of years ago I hit a reef while entering a tight anchorage. Even though I was only doing a couple of knots under power I scared myself enough to have the cabins soles up within 20 seconds from impact! Thankfully not a drop of water where it shouldn’t have been. When I next hauled her out I wasn’t surprised to find a few inches missing from the front of her lead fin-keel and further examination revealed a previous repair. Stuff happens when navigating these rocky shores.

The bottom of Rainbird's keel was damaged when she hit a reef. After grinding the damaged back a previous repair was revealed. I used multiple layers of epoxy and micro-spheres to fill the damaged area then finished the job with a grinder and a coarse file.

The bottom of Rainbird’s keel was damaged when she hit a reef. A previous repair was revealed after grinding the damage back. I used multiple layers of epoxy and micro-spheres to fill the damaged area. Not too much at once as it gets hot and sags. I finished the job with a grinder and a coarse file.

The finished repair, ready for paint.

The finished repair, ready for paint.

Putting on a Personal Flotation Device should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Here’s why!

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Do you wear a personal floatation device (PFD) when you are on the water, even when it’s flat calm, or you are just making a short trip from the dock? Maybe you are strong swimmer and don’t see the need? If you are one of the many people who don’t then this true story might make you pause and think, because accidents are, by their very nature, unforeseen and unpredictable.

After several years of living on a sailboat, I must admit I had become quite blasé about water safety. Then one day, about 20 years ago, three of us could have died, and only a bizarre second “accident” prevented a tragedy. Here is the story and some of the lessons learnt.

It was a beautiful, late spring day and I was sailing along the UK’s south-west coast. A light breeze was blowing as I dropped anchor off the sleepy Cornish village of Cawsands. I was about 500 meters from the beach which, at this time of year, was only lightly populated with tourists. The only other boat in the area was a small sailboat, about 15 feet in length and crewed by a man and a child.

I was preoccupied with setting the anchor when I heard a distant splash. It was obviously a little more significant than a fish jumping from the water and it distracted me enough to look up. I was alarmed to see that the little sailboat, about 200 metres distant, now only had one occupant, a small child, who sat perfectly still at the rear of the boat, which was still moving under sail.

When I saw an arm rise from the water, some distance behind the boat, then disappear again below the waves the shocking reality of the situation I was becoming involved in started to sink in. Figuring that it would take too long to pull up the anchor and get underway, I threw my very small, inflatable tender over the side of my boat, grabbed a paddle and headed towards a struggling figure in the water.

As I headed towards him, I noticed that the sailboat, its sails full in the light breeze, was starting to turn out to sea. As it passed nearby I realised that its traumatised occupant was probably only 4 or 5 years old. “Do you know how to steer?” I shouted. No response came – he was frozen with fear and I was concerned that a gust of wind could capsize his boat at any moment. There was no way I could paddle fast enough to catch up with him so I concentrated a reaching the swimmer, who unlike the child, was not wearing a PFD and was clearly in considerable difficulty. At least, I thought, somebody ashore must have seen what happened and initiated a rescue.

After an exhausting few minutes of paddling I pulled alongside the man in the water. He was a big man, very overweight, exhausted and frightened. I could see blood in the water from a gash in his side. His knuckles whitened as his stiff hands gripped the line that ran alongside my little inflatable. I realised that pulling him aboard was going to be impossible, as he was already too weak to assist. A combination of shock and hypothermia in the cold Atlantic waters were taking hold. “OK, I want you to hold on and I’m going to paddle us ashore,”I said realising at the same time I was being very optimistic as wind and tide where conspiring to push us further out to sea. He was too exhausted to answer but made a feeble attempt to pull himself out of the water. I instinctively reached out to help him and tried in vain to heave him aboard, but I became alarmed as the tender started to buckle under the load, leading to a situation that could quite easily end up with both of us in the water.

At this point, a bizarre piece of luck occurred which probably saved lives. In the struggle with the swimmer I had lost track of the sailboat, which thanks to mother nature and some random sail settings, had come around in a wide circle and was now moving at a brisk pace and on collision course with us. The first I knew about it was when my tender was stuck with a dull thud from behind, nearly catapulting me into the water. Somehow in the confusion I managed to grab hold of the sailboat’s rigging and hold on for dear life. It turned out to be our salvation, as I managed to clamber on board, find some rope and put it around the man in the water. It was still impossible to pull him aboard so I set sail for the beach, dragging him and my inflatable alongside us.

As we approached the shore, the young boy sat opposite me, shaking and speechless, tears rolling down his cheeks. Looking towards the village the realisation dawned on me that the frantic running about and launching of boats I had expected to see just wasn’t happening. Life was going on totally oblivious to the drama on the water.

As I later paddled back to my boat, I patted myself on the back for a job well done with one hand, and hit myself over the head with the other for not wearing a PFD myself. Putting on a PFD should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Remember, being a great swimmer isn’t any help if you are injured or knocked unconscious during a fall overboard – only a PFD is likely to save you!

There were other lessons to be learnt too.

  • Two or more adults should be available when taking young children onto the water.
  • Have flares or other signalling devices readily at hand and know how to use them. Looking back, if I had taken 30 seconds to fire off a flare or sound the horn before jumping into the tender, I would have alerted people ashore and made a successful outcome more certain.
  •  Understand that if some one falls overboard you may not be able to get them back on board easily. This is where a floating line, lifebuoys, and boarding ladders become important together with a predetermined plan that everyone on board understands.
  •  Briefing your crew about the location and operation of safety devices, as well as man overboard procedures, is an essential responsibility of the skipper. Putting it off because it “might alarm the crew” or set a sombre tone is misguided. Ultimately, remember, it may be the skipper who needs rescuing!