Clever gadgets and good ideas

While most voyagers spend plenty of time thinking about and shopping for big items for their boat, like engines, watermakers and chart plotters, sometimes the small items get overlooked. Here are some interesting new ideas and a few indispensable new tools that may make voyaging easier.

Light-emitting-diode (LED) technology accounts for some of the most useful innovations in recent years. Petzl has converted the task-light side of their rugged Duo headlamp to LEDs in your choice of three, five or eight diodes. The five-diode array produces plenty of light for deck work and more than enough for reading charts and keyboards. Where the old incandescent version ran for 17 hours, the new five-LED array will last 80 hours on the same four AA batteries. With a little less working light, the three-LED version will provide 130 hours at easy reading-level illumination.

The other side of the Duo remains a halogen spotlight with an adjustable focus. This bulb eats batteries within a few hours, if left on, but is bright enough for spot-checking sail trim all the way to the masthead, or finding that buoy 100 meters off the port bow. This combination of lights in one headlamp has always made the Duo an outstanding piece of equipment. It’s now even better, and no sailor should be without one.

LEDs are showing up everywhere else, too. Myerchin Inc. is incorporating a red LED into the handle of its Lightknife line, a favorite with the Coast Guard and military rescue personnel. The idea is to illuminate, with the push of a small button, only the blade and whatever you’re cutting, saving your night vision. This is a clever application of new technology, but the light needs to be a lot brighter to be really useful. John Myerchin, the designer of the line, reassured me that a more powerful diode is in the works for future units.

The folding-knife sample from Myerchin also illustrates a useful blade design. The combination of a straight and serrated edge allows this tool to serve as both your everyday rigging knife and a quick-cutting rescue blade. You can order it with a marlinespike or gut hook.

Gut hook? Yup, the tool often associated with fishing or hunting. It’s handy for anything cord-like that you want to catch and cut in one clean motion. Law enforcement officers like them for cutting off plastic handcuffs. The gut hook could be just the tool for cutting through the fishing net jammed in your rudder.

For a pure rescue knife, I like the features of the Spyderco Snap-it EMT. A snap hook is at one end, allowing the knife to be securely clipped to a belt loop, D-ring or the lifeline. The other end has an eye for a wrist loop or belt lanyard.

The thumbhole in the blade is actually large enough for easy one-handed opening, even with gloves on. On most other folding knives, the thumb catch is too small, or comes in the form of a stud or peg, which can catch on clothing and open the blade by surprise. Once open, the blade lock on the Spyderco is nearly impossible to trip accidentally, unlike knives that use the lanyard attachment as a trip lever. The serrated blade is sharp enough to cut lobster pot warps, stout enough to pry against the prop shaft, and just long enough to get the job done without getting in its own way.

Unfortunately, this clean and efficient design will have to serve as illustration only. Rumor has it that Spyderco has discontinued the line! Hopefully, someone will pick up the design, and maybe even add a marlinespike.

Another innovative new rescue tool is the Laser Flare, produced by Greatland Laser in Alaska. It comes in sizes from small to very small and generates a broad, red laser beam visible up to 20 miles at night. Return illumination from the reflective tape on life vests or survival suits is nothing short of dazzling. Unlike a pyrotechnic flare, which lasts a few minutes at the most, the laser device will keep signaling or searching for five to 72 hours, depending on the model. The batteries are replaceable, and the units are waterproof.

In the category of useful and fun is the new Kestrel 4000 hand-held weather station. Kestrel has managed to cram everything a sailor wants to know into a box the size of a cell phone. The device measures and records temperature, humidity, wet bulb, dew point, wind speed, wind chill and barometric pressure. Data can be stored, allowing you to monitor trends without leaving the device on all the time. It weighs only a few ounces, is waterproof, and floats. With an optional adapter, it can download data to your computer.

The Kestrel, and similar miniaturized instruments, gives small vessels like pulling boats and sea kayaks access to the same local weather data as ships and voyaging boats. The route-planning and safety implications for small-boat travel are obvious. Less apparent, until you have one in your hand, is how much fun they are.

Less fun, perhaps, but a good idea all the same, is the Wag Bag, produced by Phillips Environmental Products Inc. These folks have taken on the problem of human waste — and where it should and should not end up. The “device” uses no LEDs or batteries. It’s just a clever packaging system with a water-absorbing chemical that congeals and secures liquid waste. Once full, the bag is sealed in a bombproof pouch of heavy plastic. The manufacturer claims it is safe for disposal in landfills.

Phillips’ main market is the military, wilderness guide services and river-rafting outfits. But stowing a dozen or so ready-to-go bags could be a good idea for a voyaging boat that occasionally anchors in no-discharge zones or mounts a minimalist holding tank. Simply place the bag in the bowl of your head under the seat. No orange dye or underwater cameras are necessary to determine that waste is staying aboard.

On the subject of staying aboard, we’re watching for FCC approval of the new personal locator beacon (PLB), already sold and used outside of the continental United States. This device is a small version of the 406-MHz EPIRB carried aboard most oceangoing vessels and uses the same Cospas-SARSAT (search-and-rescue satellite-aided tracking) system. It is compact enough to be carried by an individual anywhere on land or sea.

While the development of the PLB is certainly interesting, whether or not it represents a good idea remains to be seen. The search-and-rescue community ashore is already concerned about the culture of push-button rescue created by cell phones. The pre-release marketing of PLBs by some manufacturers suggests that rescue is assured just by owning one of their beacons. While the probability of false alarms is minimized by the actuating sequence, there is concern that the incidence of nuisance calls will increase as these hand-held units penetrate the hunting, fishing and snowmobile markets. Mariners, I think, are less likely to trigger a PLB or EPIRB inappropriately. Most are familiar with the kind of response set in motion by activating one.

If you think about it, a PLB could be more useful than one mounted on your vessel. When I was last voyaging, I heard two stories about missing sailors thought to have been blown out to sea while shuttling to or from shore in their dinghies. A hand-held unit is more likely to be taken along when traveling away from the mother ship in less-than-ideal conditions, or aboard sea kayaks or other small voyaging boats. It can also be used off-season while hunting, fishing or snowmobiling. Of course, the beacon will be registered to you personally, not the vessel. So when you trigger it just because your snowmobile ran out of fuel, we’ll know who you are.

For less than $30, the Hopkins Otoscope allows you to examine your kid’s ears just as well as the $300 unit in the clinic. Recognizing an ear infection is not rocket science. Look in their ears every now and again, and you’ll get to know the appearance of a healthy eardrum. When it turns bright red, you’ve got a problem. If you have kids aboard, or do a lot of diving or swimming, the ability to examine ears or start treatment can bring peace of mind.

An otoscope is just an instrument for shining a bright light, in line with your eye, at the focal point of a small magnifying glass. It lights and magnifies anything you need to work on: the splinter in your finger, the tick in your mate’s scalp, the solder jumper on your radio or the fine print on the radio warranty. If you’re in charge of medical care aboard, an otoscope will be very useful. If you’re in charge of the electronics, you’ll wonder what you did without one.

Finally, another idea worthy of mention to mariners is the hydration pack, often identified by the brand name Camelbak. These low-tech devices have been standard equipment for hikers and skiers for years but have yet to become popular aboard voyaging boats, and I don’t know why. It consists of a food-grade plastic bladder with an attached hose and self-sealing mouthpiece. They are sold separately or incorporated into a backpack. They represent the ideal way to stay hydrated in almost any environment.

A sailor can wear a hydration pack on watch and always have water immediately available without leaving the deck or the helm. They don’t roll around the cockpit like a water bottle, and they can be hung over a berth for storage and easy access off watch. Because of the mouthpiece, they should be considered personal. Fortunately, they’re inexpensive enough for everyone to have their own.

Jeff Isaac is a sailor, writer and physician’s assistant based in Crested Butte, Colo.

By Ocean Navigator