VHF and Vessel Traffic Services

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could tell when and where those big ships will appear?  Actually, you can.  On San Francisco Bay, VHF channels 12, 13, and 14 are dedicated to exactly that.

  • Channel 12 is reserved for ships outside the Golden Gate, whether approaching or exiting the bay.
  • Channel 14 is utilized by commercial traffic inside the Golden Gate.  If you learn the docks and anchorages around the bay, you will always be on top of the traffic.
  • Finally, Channel 13 is for “bridge to bridge” communications … no, not the kind of bridge you drive across … ship’s bridge to ship’s bridge.

Set your handheld VHF to scan these three channels as well as channel 16, and you will not get caught unawares when it comes to commercial traffic approaching your location.

For more information on VHF radio channels, turn to page 71 of the Tide & Current Tables.

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Fun with COLREGs – By Craig Walker

I get this question a lot: “Why do big ships have right of way (Stand on vessel) when operating in our SF Bay? I always thought a sailboat had right of way over power vessels.” During our Captain’s License course this weekend, the class engaged in a lively debate over this question. Of course, part of the class is devoted to in-depth study of Right-of-Way Rules, formally known as COLREGs – International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea or Navigation Rules. We get into the nitty-gritty detail of the International and Inland Navigation Rules.

At this point, I’d like to make a plug for obtaining (purchase or download for free) a copy of the Navigation Rules, studying them and keeping copy in your duffle bag. By the way, every vessel 12 meters or more in length must have a copy of these rules on board when under way.So what is the answer to the question above?  Drum roll, please…

The answer is Rule 10, Traffic Separation Schemes, part (j) which states: a vessel of less than 20 meters in length or a sailing vessel shall not impede the safe passage of a power-driven vessel following a traffic lane. This rule applies in both International and Inland Rules.For many of you, your exposure to the rules may only have been presented in terms of what you need to know to sail one of our boats or pass an exam according to ASA standards. You know, for example, that a sailboat on a starboard tack is the stand-on vessel vs. an approaching vessel on a port tack which is the give-way vessel. But, did you know that was Rule 12, Sailing Vessels, part (a), sub-part (i)?

(a)    When two sailing vessels are approaching one another, so as to involve risk of collision, one of them shall keep out of the way of the other as follows:        (i)                When each has the wind on a different side, the vessel which has the wind on the port side shall keep out of the way of the other; …

It’s kind of similar to when we learned to drive a car. We all got a Drivers Handbook. Remember that way way back when? It’s true for driving a car that you don’t need a copy of the CA State Vehicle Code  in your glove box or memory, but we are still responsible for following the laws prescribed. And, guess what, if something goes wrong, it is the Vehicle Code that is going to sort things out.  It’s the same for boating and the COLREGs. The good news is there are only 38 Rules. If you are serious about spending time on the water, I recommend learning them.

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Abacos Trip – By Art Ewart

My wife, Kathleen O’Dea, and I just returned from an outstanding bareboat charter in the Bahamas. Along with Tradewinds Club members Marcus Libkind and Steve Rathfon, we spent a week on a Mooring’s Beneteau 42 foot monohull. Brandy secured the reservation with Moorings for us, providing a nice discount.

The trip couldn’t have been sweeter. There were no sailing challenges we hadn’t covered in all our collective Tradewinds classes. Sailing in the Abacos, the “Outer Islands” of the Bahamas –a notoriously shallow sea area–we had no trouble navigating with a five foot draft. While armed with paper charts, hand held GPS and a chart plotter (which didn’t fully work until the 3rd day), we still relied almost solely on our Ipad applications, INavx, Navionics and Garmin BlueChart. Marcus was our primary navigator. The cruising guide by Steve Dodge, Guide to the Abaco, provided precise course bearings and a wealth of tips for the cruiser.

Starting from Marsh Harbor we sailed to such exotic sounding places as Green Turtle Cay, Elbow Cay, Great Guana Cay, and Hope Town. Snorkeling at various points was the best we’d seen anywhere in the world. Clear, blue-green waters allow you to see your anchor dug in and the occasional turtle swimming by.

We had one day of consistent 35 knot winds with gusts of 44 knots. But with shallow seas surrounded by reefs and very little fetch, it felt no more challenging than a 20 knot day on SF Bay. After the morning cruiser’s net weather briefing advised sailors to stay put, we were out on our best day of sailing!

There are surely many other fine places to sail in the world, but the proximity of the Abacos, the cost, the sailing conditions, snorkeling, the beautiful little harbor towns and the Bahamian people, place this area at the top of the list for me.

Art Ewart

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What’s in a Small Craft Advisory?

Did you know there isn’t a “standard” definition of a Small Craft Advisory (SCA)?  The criteria used to issue a small craft advisory is dependent upon geographical location and may include wind, wave, and/or ice conditions.  According to NOAA’s National Weather Service, in California (including San Francisco Bay) the criteria is “Sustained winds of 21 to 33 knots, and/or wave heights exceeding 10 feet (or wave steepness values exceeding local thresholds.”  If you have ever taken Advanced Coastal Cruising, you know Tradewinds won’t allow you outside the gate if wind is 34 knots or higher, wave heights are greater than 12 feet, or period (steepness) is less than 9 seconds.  The above NWS guideline is why.  A 42 foot boat may seem big, however, it is still considered a small craft.

Here on the bay, we are spoiled by daily winds in the range of 25 to 30 knots from May through September.  Which means if we wait for a day that is not a SCA  we have to wait until October to go sailing!  If you are like me, you don’t wait.  You relish those days of guaranteed consistent wind, sheltered from the waves and swells that normally accompany big wind!

Unfortunately, sailing all summer during Small Craft Advisories tends to lessen our appreciation of what it really means, leading to an “I sail in SCA days all the time, I can easily handle  it.”  And then we run into a winter SCA!  Small Craft Advisories in the winter ARE NOT the same animal as during the summer.  Winter storms bring sustained winds in the SCA range with gusts often times well into the Gail Force range (34 to 47 knots).  In the winter, conditions can easily escalate in a matter of minutes.  I remember one time on Windfall cursing the fact I had under 5 knots.  Less than 15 minutes later, unable to control a boat under full sail with over 35 knots of sustained wind and much higher gusts I was genuinely afraid for my life (and that of my then 14 year old daughter!)  I also remember another SCA winter day that I made the decision to keep the boat in the slip, drink coffee, and fellowship with some good buddies on the boat, while listening to mayday calls all day long.  In one of the calls, a schooner had lost both masts and was being driven toward Red Rock.  The USCG got to them minutes before the boat would have been driven onto the rocks.

So here is this week’s tip.  Go ahead and brag about your skills by saying things like “If I waited until there wasn’t a SCA I wouldn’t be able to sail until October.”  But, when winter rolls around and you see a SCA in the forecast, consider staying inside by the fire instead of going sailing!

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It’s Getting Dark Earlier

In my opinion winter has arrived.  It’s not really winter until December 23, however, for me it’s winter when we move off daylight savings time back to standard time.  That’s the point it starts to get frustrating getting back to the dock before the sun sets!

So here’s a little trivia for you.  On Saturday November 10, 2014:

  • Sunset at the Golden Gate is 5:03 PM.  Legally, sunset is the point in time that the very top of the sun disappears below the horizon.  It’s the time international regulations require navigation lights to be turned on.
  • At 5:30PM, the sun will be 6 degrees below the horizon.  A point in time called civil twilight.  You can still see fairly well, however, it’s dark enough that planets and stars are beginning to be visible.  This is the point in time most States require you to turn on the headlights of your car.
  • At 6:00PM, the sun will be 12 degrees below the horizon and night officially begins.

As you can see, there is almost an hour of “twilight,” which begs the question, when does Tradewinds policy require you be secured at the dock, anchor, or on a mooring?  That’s easy.  When regulations require navigation lights Tradewinds requires you to be secured for the night.  One more small complication.  Sunset at the Golden Gate is 5:03.  In Marina Bay, we are east of the Golden Gate and there are hills between us and the setting sun.  Sunset here is about 10 minutes earlier.

I’m already tired of these short days!  Come on equinox!

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A is for Anchoring, At Anchor

Some time back, the Cal 40 Chaparral carried her crew to the ancient port of Paphos on the south western tip of Cyprus, where Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and passion, is said to have risen out of the foaming sea and floated ashore in a clam shell.

We found ourselves in Paphos on a bright morning with a fresh southerly blowing Chaparral into the old port, open to the S, SW. It was packed with vessels anchored bow and stern, riding in the chop.

We picked what seemed to be the best spot in the crowd, behind a ketch with a hard-shell dinghy tied alongside, and ahead of a large red sloop, and boats all around. Under the many watchful eyes of already anchored crew, we dropped our plow anchor off the bow and the Danforth off the stern, luckily providing little entertainment, and took our bearings from nearby landmarks.

The ketch ahead of us was named Renaissance and its dinghy Nuisance. I waved to the skipper and a woman, presumably his wife, and a small boy with a black dog. The red sloop astern of us, Tabasco, had several young men on board, drinking beer for breakfast.

After Chaparral had settled in, we pumped up the dinghy and set out to find the local harbormaster, check out the fuel dock, and forage for fresh victuals in town. Threading our way carefully, we rowed between boats that had sailed here from all over the world. The Full Tilt, Serendipity, Address Unknown, Vanira, Aeolis, and many others, huddled together at rest, each with a story to tell.

At the open air market, filling our shopping nets with potatoes, onions, apples, olives, some kind of sausage, and beautiful looking eggs, we felt a hot, dry wind building, coming from the SE now. We decided to save the rest of our shopping for the next day, after taking on fuel and water. This wind and its sudden gusts made our skipper uneasy and we hurried back to the anchorage, where small, steep waves were already running.

Soaking wet from the wild dinghy ride, but greatly relieved to see Chaparral dancing up and down – she hadn’t moved – we noticed the Renaissance had dragged. She was still ahead of us, but closer and more off to the side. We let out chain at the bow, hauled in line at the stern, to drop back from her.

By late afternoon, the wind had increased to about force 7, frequently gusting higher. We watched our position and the boats around us, so far so good. When the wind took a breather and slowed, I decided to make an early dinner. Just as I was breaking some of the eggs into the skillet, our skipper called all hands on deck. The Renaissance was dragging, again, and coming straight at us, but her crew was on board.

We jumped to hang all fenders to port. With the roar of their engine at full throttle and a big exhaust cloud rising, mother and boy furiously hauled in rode at the bow, while the skipper eased a lot at the stern. As soon as their bow anchor was free in the water, the wind blew them sideways and even closer to us. The Renaissance‘s  skipper screamed for his crew to leave the bow anchor dangling, get back, now, and deal with the stern anchor. The dog was running back and forth, barking, snarling, ready to attack, ignoring his yelling master’s threatening commands.

We could do nothing but brace for impact and fend off, but shouted “back!”, anyway. Instead, the skipper opened throttle, lurched forward spinning the wheel to port, barely missing our bow, but ramming his stern into our side. All our fenders, and breaking the rule of never using any body parts to separate a heavy boat from an obstruction, saved us from serious damage.

The Renaissance had its stern anchor down and couldn’t get it up. The skipper sent his son into the Nuisance, un-cleated the stern anchor rode and handed it to the boy to hold it tight. Then he drove off full throttle downwind, with the dog howling at the boy, tossing up and down in the dinghy. The mother stood frozen. In the wake of Renaissance, the boy tied the rode to the dinghy painter and watched his world leave him behind.

Still dangling its bow anchor, the Renaissance cut too close to the Tabasco, snaring their bow anchor chain. The quick thinking Tabasco crew tied a fender to their stern rode, let it go and hauled up the bow anchor hard, to free it and get away. With a clear path, the Renaissance now drove over the chain of the Vanira, hooked it with the dangling bow anchor and, going great guns, picked up Serendipity’s rode as well, making, in short order, a fine mess of tangled ground tackle and ripped out anchors.

There was shouting, loud engine roar, and grinding and cracking of fiberglass from the dragging clump of boats. It took a long time to sort things out before they all could re-anchor, with the innocent victims keeping as far away as possible from the menacing Renaissance.

We were getting ready to row our dinghy over to the boy, who was crying and dangerously swamped with waves, when the Tabascos, after re-anchoring further down, came in their dinghy to retrieve their floated stern anchor. We hailed them, pointed to the boy and they drove over and took him on board. Shortly after, the Nuisance turtled, but held fast the Renaissance’s stern anchor rode.

With the wind blowing, and feeling like we had been spared, we kept checking our bearings, still good, ate our well-deserved dinner, best eggs in a long time, and made a list of what not to forget on shore the next morning. I had my heart set on some of those fresh anchovies I saw in the market. Then, the wind fury returned. Surely, it wouldn’t rage like that all night long? But if it did, it was good to know that our anchors had held through the blow in the afternoon. We assigned anchor watch and quietly turned in.

At 0230, with a carpet of stars shining brightly above, the untiring wind picked up speed, screeching gusts came stronger, and Chaparral started to drag, jolting us on deck. With so much excitement earlier, nobody had noticed that the dangling bow anchor of the  Renaissance charging at us had gone under our chain, messing with our well-settled plow anchor, too.

Our skipper said: “Let’s get out of here.” We brought in our anchors faster than ever and pointed Chaparral out to the open sea. We would be safer out there, away from grounding land and tight anchorages. We would catch rain for fresh water and find fuel and anchovies on the Island of Rhodes, if the wind would blow us there. The sea was foaming, but Aphrodite and her clam shell were nowhere in sight.

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Some Thoughts About Fairway Turns

My last tip How Fast is TOO FAST! In a Fairway? got me thinking about fairway turns.  As an instructor, I can honestly say teaching this skill causes me to experience more “stomach muscle tightening” than any other skill I teach.  Which is interesting, I enjoy practicing them.

Here are a few of the “techniques” I have seen that cause my “stomach muscles to tighten.”

  • Accelerating into a fairway turn.  Generally the reason for a fairway turn is a boat unexpectedly backing out in front of you.  I don’t know about you, but accelerating toward danger just seems wrong.  Also, any acceleration in forward is going to require and equal and opposite acceleration in reverse to offset it, which leads to the next problem.
  • High amounts of throttle.  Generally speaking, a fairway turn doesn’t require a great deal of throttle.  Just enough to hold the boat in position against momentum and wind.  The only time a lot of throttle is “needed” is if too much throttle was used during the last transmission shift.
  • Slamming the transmission back and forth rapidly and at high throttle.  The goal of a fairway turn is to turn the boat around while staying in the same location.  Rapid  shifting and high throttle settings cause the boat to move … exactly the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Trying to “finish” off the fairway turn on the leeward side of the fairway.  Your goal should be to remain as far upwind in the fairway as you can!  Trying to transition out of the fairway turn and into forward while on the lee side of the fairway allows the wind to blow your boat down onto the boats that are there.
  • Too close to the port side of the fairway.  Assuming port prop walk, it’s normal to start from the port side of the fairway and turn to starboard.  As the bow moves to starboard, the stern moves to port and hits the boat or dock finger behind the boat.  Start with enough room to  allow the stern to swing.
  • “Downwind” fairway turns.  On a boat with port prop walk, it is natural to do a fairway turn to starboard.  A problem may arise when the wind is blowing from port to starboard.  Momentum and wind are both pushing you to the lee side of the fairway.  Right were you don’t want to be.  All is probably going to be ok if you are on the windward side of the fairway, and provided you shift into reverse early enough, with just enough throttle to overcome momentum and wind, and assuming you didn’t accelerate into the turn.  That’s a lot of “ifs.”  Sometimes its easier to do the fairway turn to windward, even if it’s opposite the direction prop walk wants to take you.  Please don’t try this without first practicing the maneuver in a safe area.  Not all boats will do it well.

With the down side in mind, here are a couple of thoughts on a “better way” to do a fairway turn.

  • As with most things in sailing, if you didn’t think about it 10 minutes ago, you waited too long.  Know what you are going to do before you actually need to do it.  Plan ahead.  As you turn into the fairway, set up L.O.T. for your docking and have a backup L.O.T. for a fairway turn if it is needed.  It’s too late to plan that boat backs out of the slip at you.
  • Where in the fairway do you need to be to approach your slip?  Will that location work for a fairway turn?  If not, how are you going to get into a location that will work if one is needed?
  • Know the boat you are on.  Will it do a fairway turn to windward opposite prop walk?  How does it handle a downwind fairway turn.
  • Your goal is to turn the boat around, while holding position.  Use only enough throttle to accomplish that goal.
  • Let the boat do the work.  If you are exhausted at the end of the maneuver, you are working way too hard at it.
  • Watch the stern more than the bow … you can see it better and chances are it is closer to obstacles anyway.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  As anyone who does boat checkouts with me can attest.  I take the wheel in almost every checkout and do a fairway turn or two.  Often times I will stop the fairway turn after 90 degrees and try to get the stern as close to an upwind mooring ball as possible.  Its a great way to practice fairway turns and staying to the windward side of the fairway.
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How Fast is TOO FAST! In a Fairway?

I wish this was an easy answer. It would be nice to be able to say; “Just set your speed at X knots and everything will work out great.” Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes I think fairway speed, as the old cliche goes, “is more art than science.”

I do know this, if you are pushing a bow wave, you are way too fast. From the office, I see it all the time, and cringe. One small hiccup and … ouch.

Your wake starts as a small ripple coming off the transom. As you move faster, the wake moves forward along the hull. As it moves forward, it gets bigger. As you are motoring down the fairway, check your wake. If it has moved as far as amidships, slow down! Look at the boats in slips beside you. If they are moving past quickly, slow down.

Which brings up the other side of the question. How fast is too slow. You have to be going fast enough to have good rudder authority. You have to have enough speed to hold your location in the fairway? You have to have enough speed to make a safe turn into your slip. The only way to figure out if you have the right speed is to try it out ahead of time in a similar but safe area.

Docking into an upwind slip generally requires a bit more speed than a downwind slip because you must have enough rudder authority to get the bow up into the wind. Try this before going into the fairway. Find a nice safe place to test conditions. For example, if you plan to dock in a slip in the “Silver Fleet” upwind row, try turning into the wind in the open area of the marina well to windward of any slips and/or boats. Using the buoys in the marina as reference points will help you gauge your speed. How much speed does it take to have good control of your turn? Any slower is too slow … any faster is probably too fast.

Remember.  No two dockings are the same.  Review your L.O.T. every time you bring a boat in.  Fairway speed is one element of Transition.

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A Strange Wind Blowing

I took a walk on the docks yesterday afternoon and experienced something I haven’t felt in about a year. A warm wind coming out of the North. It reminded me that summer is over, and some of the “close quarters” docking and motoring techniques I have relied on all summer might now get me into trouble. Actually, it’s not the techniques themselves, more the fact that techniques need to be adjusted for conditions. This was reinforced this morning, when we again had wind from the North. This time, I watched an experienced skipper back out of a slip and nearly get driven by the wind into a boat on the far side of the fairway. All summer he had been backing into a wind.  This time, he was backing with the wind and failed to adjust his LOT. Made me think … maybe it’s time for a quick refresher on LOT.  Always start by checking conditions … wind … boat location … obstacles … dock lines … etc.

Location … draw an imaginary line down the middle of the fairway and try to place the boat on the windward side of that line. In the case of today, the skipper would have needed to make the turn.

Orientation … generally, it’s a good idea to get the bow pointed slightly to windward. That way, while the boat is transitioning from “backwards to frontwards” momentum, the wind will tend to straighten the boat out.

Transition … what are the steps to follow to go from “backwards to frontwards?” It might look like this
• Go to neutral
• Straighten the rudder
• Shift to forward at low RPM to stop the boat and let the bow “blow down”
• Throttle up to a safe fairway speed

Most years, there are four to six weeks of unbelievable San Francisco Bay weather between the “first storm” of the fall, and the onset of winter storms. We typically see the first storm right about the last week of September. It came through last week. The winter storms begin to hit about the middle of November. In between, the sailing is phenomenal! There is enough breeze to have a great time and its warm enough for shirt sleeves (sometimes less).

Get out there and enjoy this very fleeting time of San Francisco Bay sailing! Just remember to adjust your “close quarters skills” for the actual conditions, not what we have experienced all summer.

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Be Careful Out There

Anybody know what the two busiest boating weekends on the Bay are?

One is Opening Day on the Bay (the last weekend in April.)  The other is Fleet week, which is the first week or two of October.  This year, Fleet Week is October 9 through 13, with the main events taking place on Saturday the 11th and Sunday the 12th.  There are times during these events when it feels like you can walk across the boats occupying the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Here’s a photo of a radar screen taken during a previous Fleet Week event. It’s easy to pick out the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the land mass that is the San Francisco Peninsula. The black rectangle is the exclusion zone. The rest of the green dots are boats!

Fleet Week Radar Plot

Fleet Week Radar Image

Personally, I think Fleet Week is the “worst” of the two.  Not only are there a lot of boats, they are all crowded into a limited area and large areas of city front are closed, AND everyone is looking up at the air shows!  An absolute recipe for disaster.  I think my favorite example of the challenges Fleet Week can present came when the skipper of a sailboat was arguing with the Coast Guard over the VHF regarding who had the right of way … him or a container ship.  Seems this guy believes he has the right of way because he is a sailboat and the container ship is a power boat.  There was no convincing him that he was wrong.

With that in mind here is a quick review of the Rules, and the actions required by the Give-way and Stand-on Vessels.

  • Not Under Command (don’t see this one very often)
  • Restricted Ability to Maneuver (the Coast Guard may hold this type of traffic during the main events)
  • Vessel Engaged in Fishing (don’t see this on the bay very much)
  • Sailing Vessel (Port Tack gives way to Starboard Tack … If Same Tack, Windward Gives Way to Leeward)
  • Power Vessel (includes sail boats if the engine is engaged)

Rule 16 – Action by Give-way Vessel Return to the top of the page

Every vessel which is directed to keep out of the way of another vessel shall, so far as possible, take early and substantial action to keep well clear.

Rule 17- Action by Stand-on Vessel Return to the top of the page(a) (i) Where one of two vessels is to keep out of the way, the other shall keep her course and speed.

(ii) The latter vessel may however take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.

(b) When, from any cause, the vessel required to keep her course and speed finds herself so close that collision cannot be avoided by the action of the give-way vessel alone, she shall take such action as will best aid to avoid collision.

(c) A power-driven vessel which takes action in a crossing situation in accordance with Rule 17(a)(ii) to avoid collision with another power-driven vessel shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, not alter course to port for a vessel on her own port side.

(d) This Rule does not relieve the give-way vessel of her obligation to keep out of the way.

Check out Rule 17, Part b … to paraphrase … if the guy that’s supposed to give way doesn’t … you must get out of his way!  It’s interesting to note the there is no “Right of Way” … there are Give Way Vessels and Stand On Vessels!

Any way it goes, if you are out there during Fleet Week you are going to have a lot of ColRegs practice … know the rules and be careful out there!

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