Finding a lost crewmember

Darrell Nicholson is a veteran voyager and delivery skipper with 11 years and 30,000 ocean miles of voyaging experience aboard his 1937 gaff-rigged ketch Tosca. He and his wife Theresa Gibbons have voyaged in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans and are currently sailing in the Andaman Sea off Thailand. A former pilot boat captain, Darrell holds 50-ton master’s license. He is a regular contributor to Ocean Navigator.

How do you approach the problem of keeping the gear aboard your boat working properly?

DN: Keeping a 63-year-old boat like Toscaor any boat, for that matterready for ocean passages requires a positive outlook, a dash of creative genius, and a good sense of humor. Although we’ve tried to keep our equipment inventory to minimum, maintenance is still an important part of our life on Tosca. I try not to split my life in half by saying, “Well this is working and this is having fun.” It is simply part of cruising and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

I figure that I spend about 15 to 20 hours a week keeping Tosca ship shape, although much of the work is cosmetic improvements or modifications not necessarily related to her performance.

Typically, at the start of each cruising season I do a thorough check of Tosca’s equipment and then put her through a couple of shakedown sails, including an overnight passage. I have a list of things to check, which I am continually updating. My list includes the stern shaft packing, through-hulls (including hoses and clamps), propeller, zincs, underwater fittings, spars, chainplates, standing rigging, running rigging, shackles, sails, winches, windvane, solar panel, batteries, bilge pumps, depthsounder, 406 EPIRB, VHF radio, SSB receiver, GPS, the LPG stove, lights, electrical connections, and plumbing. But having a list doesn’t help much if you don’t know what to look for or aren’t thorough in your inspection. If a small item like a cotter pin fails it can set off an expensive chain reaction. A lot of this you learn through experience, but most of it is common sense.

Except for life raft inspections and engine maintenance, I don’t really keep a schedule, although I did at first. I make my rounds with a box full of tools, a flashlight, and lubricating spray, checking the gear before, after, and during each passage. On long passages, I am particularly watchful of metal fatigue and chafe.

If a particular piece of equipment fails or looks suspicious, I don’t simply replace it with a new one that I hope will do the job better. I try to find the cause. Often it’s just time and a harsh environment taking its toll, but it could also be because there is a design or installation flaw that presents an interesting challenge.

Usually you get what you pay for, but I’ve found that, when properly maintained, Tosca’s older, more traditional gearlike her heavy bronze and teak blocks, belaying pins, hank-on sails, and gaff-rigged mainserve us just fine.

OV: What is your philosophy regarding putting gear aboard? Do you like to put every system you can aboard, or do you prefer to keep it simple?

DN: I was 24 and had $500 saved when I left Miami with two good friends, including a very good-humored woman who later became my wife. Theresa and I had no choice but to keep it simple, navigating by the stars, taffrail log, and lead line. We’ve since added a depthsounder, knot log, a GPS, and simple comforts like fans and fluorescent lights. But we still try to keep it simple. It’s nice to know we could still sail quite confidentlyand comfortablyif the engine and batteries went dead.

I think the safety and convenience provided by modern equipment has opened the world of ocean navigating to hundreds, if not thousands of people who would never have ventured 100 miles offshore. Voyaging requires striking a balance between confidence in yourself and your boat and trust in truly marvelous electronic and mechanical systems. Too much emphasis on either side can disturb this balance. The overconfident old salt is just as doomed as the neophyte who follows his GPS into the rocks. Even when we can tap into up-to-the second digital charts and weather forecasts, sailors will still have to trust instincts that only the sea can teach.

We still switch off the GPS and take sun shots at sea. We still heave to off strange harbors at night. Watchkeeping on Tosca means being on deck, not watching a radar screen. Each person has to find his own zone of comfort, and mine is a bit quirky. I look forward to the day I can afford a satellite phone, but I’m quite happy without refrigeration.

OV: How proficient should the average voyager be in repairing and maintaining the myriad systems aboard boats today?

DN: I think the average voyager (is there is such a thing?) should be able to maintain every system he has on board. “You deserve it because I know you can take care of it,” were words spoken to me when I got my first sailing dinghy as a child.

Voyagers should also be relatively proficient in repairing the boat’s essential systemsfor instance, hydraulic steering, self-steering gear, electric windlasses, watermakers, autopilots, refrigeration, engines, generators, etc.and carry the necessary spares. By relatively proficient, I mean that he should be able to carry out routine maintenance, trace electrical faults, troubleshoot mechanical failures, replace filters, seals, bearings, fuses, impellers, etc. A lot of this means simply having the workshop manual on board and the necessary spare parts.

In the case of equipment that is more complicated and difficult to repair at sea, there should some form of reliable back-up. If you can’t navigate safely without it (as in the case of steering gear) you should be able to fix it or have a back-up plan.

Just because modern yachts boast an array of electronic equipment doesn’t mean the average captain need be a technical wizard. I think it is more important that he or she has an interest in learning about these systems and the creative ability to improvise with what is available on board.

OV: How complete a set of tools and spares should one carry?

DN: I am a tool nut and a packrat. I have four big boxes of tools on Tosca, but that includes an array of woodworking tools that most cruisers could live without. Almost every tool I have ever needed to use I’ve bought as soon as I got the chance. Likewise with spares. In most cases, if a part gave me trouble in the past, I now have a spare on board. You never know what’s going to come in handy. I once fixed an Atoms windvane with the swivel from a key chain. Recently, a friend fixed his tiller pilot with a windshield-wiper motor he scavenged at a scrapyard.

OV: How much training is necessary in handling the gear on board? Where does a voyager find such training? Or is experience the only teacher?

DN: In the end, the true test of your ability to keep your world humming along smoothly comes at sea, when the emotional and physical challenges and forces of wind and sea come into play. That is where you learn what works and what doesn’t, for every boat has its own little quirks.

By Ocean Navigator