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Captain's Columns

written by Capt. Betsy

These columns were originally written for and published on a website called "LifeJacketStore.com," which sadly has since gone out of business. The columns deal with various aspects of safety on the water, with stories and examples taken from our 25 years of building, living and travelling on rafts.

 


How the Son of Town Hall was Designed for Safety at Sea

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This is the Son of Town Hall, a sailing raft built almost entirely of scrap, recycled materials- junk, if you like. It looks like it couldn’t go anywhere, yet in the summer of 1998, it made a historic crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to Ireland, in 60 days. Were these people totally nuts, incredibly lucky, or what?

My husband, Poppa Neutrino, and I, Capt. Betsy, who together designed, built and sailed the Son of Town Hall, hear these kinds of comments all the time. We have been building rafts for over 20 years. At first we built rafts that were strictly for river and inland travel, but at a certain point we began to explore the idea of taking a raft around the world.

We spent years designing the Son of Town Hall, thinking of every possible problem it could encounter at sea, and figuring ways to solve those problems. We used a basic triad of three elements for designing a vessel which would be safe at sea, yet could be built with little or no money, using scrap and salvaged materials.

The safety triad we used was:

  1. It had to be unsinkable and built strong enough not to break up
  2. It had to stay aligned with the wind and waves in heavy weather, in order
    not to broach and roll over.
  3. It had to be self-righting, just in case it did get flipped or rolled

Beyond these three elements, of course, there were many considerations for personal safety, basic safety equipment, and so on. We carried on board safety equipment in excess of what was required by both the US and Canadian Coast Guards. But before we ever attempted to go to sea, we had to attack and solve the problems of making the raft itself safe and seaworthy.

Making the raft unsinkable was the easiest part - a raft by definition is unsinkable, floating because of the very nature of the materials with which it is built; unlike a boat, which depends upon water-tight integrity in order to float. We had developed the raft concept over the years, using all kinds of wood and floatable products such as plastic bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, etc.
salvaged from the beaches. We also used poured polyurethane foam, which added additional flotation, and also"glued" together all the floating chunks into one solid mass. All this flotation was incorporated into a framing of 2x6's and skinned over with plywood. For strength, we incorporated into the hull of this raft long, heavy logs, acting as an internal keel, stiffening the lengthwise structure of the hull. All the construction was heavily reinforced for strength, and each piece of the plywood in the cabin and hull was sewn into the frames with 3/8 inch polypropylene line, borrowing from ancient traditions in which construction was done by lashing and sewing, giving flexibility and strength.

To make the raft self-righting, we designed and built it so that the bottom contains almost all of the weight, and the top part is very light. The combined effect of the weight and flotation in the bottom is such that whenever the raft begins to heel over at all, the weight works to push the side of the hull that is up, back into the water, and the flotation being pushed under on the opposite side, acts to push that side back up - a double fulcrum for self-righting. During the testing and redesigning phase,
we sustained a double 90 degree knockdown in 10 foot breaking surf, and the raft came back up instantly, proving the effectiveness of this design feature.

Our biggest problem was getting the raft to steer downwind. With a flat bottom, and drawing only 20 inches, there simply was no resistance underwater. Every time the wind went over 15 knots, the raft would turn sideways. This obviously would not be safe at sea, and our many attempts to solve this problem nearly drove us to despair. After literally years of testing and redesigning, we finally solved it by installing a huge retractable daggerboard at the stern, just ahead of the rudder. This,
together with a very small storm square sail hoisted at the bow, effectively turned the raft downwind under all circumstances.

During the crossing we endured gale strength winds on 3 occasions, with waves up to 20', sometimes coming from several angles, as they had been generated by different weather systems. The raft steered itself perfectly through all of these, and gave all of us on board a deepening sense of confidence and security. Our years of mental efforts and insistence on solving each element ahead of time had paid off, and we succeeded in making the North Atlantic crossing, a first ever by a raft built from scrap.


How Do We Know We are Safe?

In our modern, so-called first-world society, we enjoy so many conveniences that we have come to take for granted, from hot and cold running water and central heating and air conditioning, to phones that we carry in our pockets, and live satellite pictures from around the world in nearly every room of our houses or apartments. We depend upon a huge network of inter-connected machines, and even take it personally when there is a breakdown and temporary disruption of service.

This attitude extends into nearly every aspect of our lives; the way we drive, for example, assuming that the brakes will always work, the transmission will never fail. Could we stop in time, if something unexpected happened ahead of us and we step on the brakes to no avail? And in spite of numerous studies showing that the use of seat belts saves lives, many people still do not use them, as if accidents happen only to somebody else. This same attitude of assuming that all will work according to specifications and the unknown or unexpected will not infringe, is present on the water. Too many recreational boaters simply take their vessel and its equipment and their safe passage on the water for granted, and do not give enough thought and preparation to what could go wrong.

Every vessel has its own individual and unique safety hazards, and it is up to the owner and operator to determine what these are and how to safeguard against them as much as possible. For example, there may be an open stern, where a person could easily slide off should they fall on a slippery deck. On some fishing vessels, there may be lines or nets feeding out, which, if you were to become caught in them, could pull you right over, and most likely, under. On many sailboats, there is a danger of being hit on the head by a boom as it passes from one side to the other. Tania Aebi, the youngest woman to circumnavigate solo under sail, tells a story in her book, Maiden Voyage, about a friend who was killed leaving harbor by a blow to the head from the boom of his mainsail as it passed across the cockpit in an accidental jibe.

All of these hazards, and many more, can be thought out and foreseen, and through adaptations of equipment or design, and training in safe operational procedures, many of them can be avoided.

Having built seven rafts, all from recycled scrap, and raised 5 children while living and travelling the rivers, bays, and canals of the US, we have spent countless hours mind-sweating the dangers of each new situation, and putting into place effective safeguards. For example, one of our rafts had big paddlewheels on the sides, creating a serious danger of falling in front of the turning wheel, which would, if it hit a person, almost certainly kill him or her. For this reason, no one was permitted forward of the position of the wheels, once the vessel was underway. When the children were small, we created a completely enclosed deck space on each raft, where they were free to play without the danger of falling overboard.

On the Son of Town Hall, once we had handled the basic safety features of the vessel through design and redesign, we spent time thinking what our biggest dangers would be during the crossing itself. We determined that our biggest hazards were being run down by a ship, fire, and falling overboard. The fire hazard was particularly dangerous because of the presence of the foam in the hull, which gives off toxic fumes if it catches fire. We put into place a system of safeguards, which included double shut off valves for the propane stove, extra fire extinguishers and fire buckets; also a checking procedure which required that at least two crew be aware of any fire that was lit, and take responsibility to see that it was safely put out. Candles and lanterns were replaced by battery-operated lights, and no stove or heater was ever left unattended while lit.

We had a 24-hour watch for approaching ships. Because the vessel was self-steering under sail, the watch keeper often did not have to sit at the helm, but was required to make a check in all directions every 15 minutes for signs of ships. This check was made from the safety of a large, central section of the raft, which was enclosed by shoulder-high fencing, and open to the sky. We had on board a radar detector, which was turned on whenever visibility was lowered by fog or precipitation, and was an enormous aid in spotting vessels, often before they were visible to the eye. Whenever a vessel was detected, we contacted their bridge via VHF radio, to check that they were aware of our position and track. In almost every instance, the ships had already spotted us on their radar and were planning evasive maneuvers if necessary. This was less true on the Grand Banks, where almost constant fog conditions and frequent close encounters with fishing vessels, often dragging gear, kept us on high alert, looking and listening.

Our third major danger was that of falling overboard. With only four people on board, we stood individual watches, which meant that a person was often alone at the helm, especially at night. We wore our lifejackets and safety harnesses at all times when on deck or at the helm. We had double clips on our harnesses, so that we never had to unclip in order to shift from one attachment to another, leaving ourselves momentarily vulnerable to a sudden lurch or wave. Whether day or night, the person being relieved of watch duty was responsible to be sure the next person was clipped in at the helm. The person on watch never left the clipped in position to do any other maneuver without first calling a second person out to spot them.

Some of these policies may seem excessive, even unnecessary. We have endured ridicule and criticism from other sailors and fishermen for our extreme safety consciousness. But we believe that anything that you are not prepared for will eventually happen, and so we take the point of view of exhaustively mind-sweating every possibility ahead of time. We wonder how many boating accidents every season could be avoided if everyone spent a little extra time before venturing out onto the water, thinking and picturing the various dangers they might encounter, and preparing for them in advance.


Why Don't We Use PFD's?

After being at sea for over 2 months, moving, on average, at a pace slower than I could walk, I found the experience of riding at high speeds in a car close to terrifying. I was also appalled to discover a fact I had failed to notice before - that many of my friends did not even wear seat belts. Despite the fact that more people are killed on the US highways each year than the number of Americans killed in our entire time of involvement in the Vietnam conflict, few people consider that when they get behind the wheel or into the passenger seat of a car, they are probably doing the most dangerous thing they will do in the entire span of their lifetime.

The whole seat belt issue has its obvious parallel on the water in the issue of PFD use. In port after port that we have visited in our raft travels over the years, we have observed that few fishermen and even fewer recreational boaters, especially adults, wear PFD's. As with seat belt use, government has stepped in, legislating safety for us: nearly every state has laws requiring the wearing of PFD's ( and seat belts) by children - the age limit varies.

One thing is certain: to use a PFD or not to use one is a decision that too many people are making without rational and logical consideration, driven by some unknown, unconscious force, and this can lead to unnecessary tragedy.

Consider the case of the shellfish warden on Martha's Vineyard, who fell overboard from his small boat in October of 1999, and disappeared within minutes below the surface of the water, within sight of a passing jogger, who quickly summoned help and set in motion a huge search and rescue operation. Despite all efforts, the body was not recovered for days. One cannot help but wonder, if he had been wearing a PFD to hold him above water and provide some amount of protection against hypothermia, would he have lasted long enough for help to reach him?

We on the rafts have frequently been teased or ridiculed for what others consider excessive or paranoid behavior in our use of PFD's, safety harnesses, and other safety rules we have instituted. Our rules about the use of PFD's, which varied according to individual situations, took into account the conditions of weather (rough or calm; warm or cold), presence or absence of current, and swimming ability (adults and children alike had to demonstrate ability). On the high seas we used PFD's and safety harnesses whenever we were on deck, no matter what the weather. The thought of the possibility of a tragic loss of one of our crew, where there was no help available other that ourselves, was sobering enough to humble even the most arrogant among us.

We are not totally alone in our approach. The Coast Guard requires their crews to wear PFD's whenever they are underway. Offshore racing organizations generally have far stricter safety equipment requirements than those of the governments of their participants, and certainly more than the average casual sailor makes use of.

I was discussing this whole conundrum with a young friend the other day, and she admitted that she is not in the habit of wearing a seat belt. But she wouldn't even think of not wearing a PFD, she said. Bringing up an example from her own experience of an accident in which a seat belt could possibly have been a detriment, she went on to say that she had never heard of nor could she imagine a situation in which a PFD could be anything but an assist.

I of course can see how in certain situations, especially on fishing or other work boats, where gear and maneuverability can be a problem, a bulky PFD could be an impediment, even a danger. But now that inflatable PFD's have been designed and tested to the point where several models are Coast Guard approved, this should no longer be a deterrent to PFD use.

So what is at the bottom of this resistance to doing what would seem only rational and in the interests of self-preservation? To think about what dangers confront us and to safeguard ourselves against them seems only sensible, yet to many it would seem that such behavior would signify weakness. Is it our unconscious connection to the Vikings and other brave (some said fool-hardy) individuals who set out into the unknown with little or no safety measures available to them? Do we feel that if we take advantage of those safety devices we now have, that we are less brave, or less manly?

It is almost as if we are unwilling to believe in our own mortality. I can remember when travelling in Mexico, I would see truck drivers climb into the driver's seat, cross themselves, and then take off full speed, passing on blind curves and hills, totally disregarding every thought of "defensive driving;" and shark fishermen leaving harbor and heading offshore in their small open boats with just a single outboard motor, no PFD's of any kind, no oars or sails for backup. These are extremes of fatalism we Americans perhaps can look at and think, I would certainly never be so foolish. But aren't the seat belt and PFD issues really just a lesser degree of the same type of irrationality?

I would like to hear readers' opinions and comments on this issue; however,  we are finding that the majority of what is being put on our forms is ads and links to sites that we would not choose to promote or to link to. Therefore we are temporarily removing all forms from the site until such time that we can format them differently to prevent this problem. Please accept our apologies, and if you would like to add a comment to this page, please
  e-mail us: [email protected].   We will include all legitimate  comments on the site.

Thanks for your input.

Visitors' Responses


Date: Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Comments:

i was out at goat rock beach here in northern california, being trained to be a seal watch volunteer. on our way out to the watch site our group encountered a lifeguard, and requested that he give us a short description of the dangers of this beach (reputed to be the most deadly of our extended area, having had over 103 drownings). i bring this up to point out that this obviously experienced and quite masculine guardian of lives, brought out his recently purchased PFD and swore to us all that he wouldn't consider going in to save someone without having it on. if lifeguards are catching on - shouldn't the rest of us?


Date: Thu, 04 May 2000

Comments:
It's simple: no one has designed a really comfortable and attractive PFD yet. They all either feel like you're wearing a deflated
innertube or look like you just walked off a UFO. Float coats aren't too bad, but are unsuitable when the temps hit 95 and up (like on the East Coast in July). The new auto inflatables aren't bad, but they are expensive and not really well suited for recreational boating, where part of the fun is being able to jump in the water spontaneously. (I've spent more time in the
water fully clothed than with a bathing suit on.)

In spite of their problems, I do wear a PFD anytime I feel insecure: at night, in bad weather, etc. But the PFD manufacturers need to work on designing really comfortable equipment that doesn't look too dorky. When they do, I'll buy it -- and wear it.

Just my .02 worth.

Chris J


Date: Saturday, December 30, 2000

Comments

To wear or not to wear a PFD/seatbelt is a matter that should be left strictly up to a given individual. It is certainly not something that should be decided by government. However, should a person choose not to use safety equipment, there should be no crying when they bite it. If a person not wearing safety equipment puts others at risk, they should definately use whatever is available. Children should be forced to wear safety gear until they are old enough to make an educated decision. As in many other things in life, when anyone makes a decision they must be prepared to suffer the full consequences without whinning. I admire your adventures, and wish you fair winds.

Gary


Date: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Comments

Sunday, January 14, 2001 Hello to the Floating Neutrinos. I read the great entertaining article by Chris Mapp in the Dolphin Talk News about your overnight docking stay in Port O'Connor, TX. I congratulate you on your incredible achievements of building and sailing entirely scrap raft vessels that are seaworthy safe. I commend you for your obsessive-compulsive safety precautions. I and many others definitely agree that everyone should wear a PFD lifejacket on a boat and everyone should wear a seat belt in a motor vehicle. Years of research statistics, seeing or hearing about friends and people lost in accidents, and just plain common sense support these facts. Unfortunately, many of us are just too lazy or too hardheaded to do the right thing. Accidents can happen to anyone and usually at the most unexpected time; therefore, routine wearing of a PFD when on the water and a seat belt when on the road will increase your chance of survival. I wish many more years of good luck and safe sailing to the crew of the Vilma B. and to all the boaters and the sailors of the bay and the sea. Sean K. O'Sullivan, MD (Radiologist in Victoria, TX and frequent fisherman of Port O'Connor, TX)


Date:
Monday, July 15, 2002
Time:
22:47:42

Comments

"It had to be unsinkable and built strong enough not to break up " Unsinkable? Have you heard of the Titanic?


Date:
Saturday, December 14, 2002
Time:
21:13:27

Comments

Good Luck Captain..!! I admire your sense of adventure !! M.De Cuba


Date:
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Time:
19:07:57

Comments

i always wear a PFD...one of those inflatable CO2 fanny pack types. if i hit my head on the way to the water, i'll be in trouble as it's a manual release model. but for me it's a good compromise as the regular PFD's are a pain. since i am almost always sailing singlehanded, i not always sure why i'm wearing a PFD as i'm cooked either way if i go overboard while the selfsteering is engaged....i guess it'd give me a few extra hours of quiet reflection :). (oh, yes, and my puppy always wears her PFD, too.) much peace. v. joe


Date:
Monday, August 18, 2003
Time:
04:32:50

Comments

Safety habits, like most learned rote activities, are most effective when they become unconcious actions. My experience with sailing, flying and climbing has taught me that one does well to adopt certain habits if staying alive is a priority. On a blue water cruise, clipping in and donning PFDs are simply good habits. There are certainly occassions when I have not put on a PFD, or behaved in other unsafe ways. I am not always rational about safety: sometimes looking danger in the eye is simply too appealing. But adopting good habits has kept me alive far longer than otherwise. As for your rules on your vessel. Every captain for whom I have crewed has had a certain set of rules, always focused on the safety of the vessel and the crew. There are vessels I have refused to crew aboard because the captain was clearly unsafe. I think your approach makes good sense for blue water cruising.


Date:
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Time:
09:15:46

Comments

The problem with most life vests is that they are designed for emergency use. They are designed to keep you afloat and breathing even if unconscious. Thus they are bulky and uncomfortable. However, there is another type of PFD that is designed for mobility. It is a compromise, if you are unconscious or immobalized it will not save you. But it is designed for active people such as water skiers. I have always worn one while kyaking and find it to be quite comfortable. It also looks fairly nice, no harsh orange. I even wear it like a jacket while beach hiking. It is vented such that it is not too hot for summer wear. ------- I have really enjoyed poking around your site! And reading your adventures, Very Inspiring! I have often thought to build a raft but was never sure how to approach it. Perhaps now I shall. -- Erik

 


Kids Onboard

In a large anchorage between islands, not far from a large Florida metropolis, a 3 year old girl is rowing about among the anchored boats, alone, and without a PFD. She does not know how to swim.

Along the quay in a Mediterranean port, where the many sailboats are moored end-on to the sea wall, two small children, about 4 and 6 years old, without PFD's, are jumping back and forth from a boat to the shore. There is not an adult in sight, although voices can be heard from below decks.

In another part of the same harbor, a large group of children aged 6-10, all wearing PFD's, sit in individual small sailing dinghys, being towed in a long train from shore out to their practice area by their instructors, who are in a little outboard runabout. One counselor steers the boat while another is monitoring the children behind, and correcting their behavior under tow.

A toddler, wearing a PFD, runs and crawls freely about the deck of a sailing vessel underway, under the watchful eye of her father, while her mother handles the helm. The lifelines have been netted to the deck, providing a safe space for the child to explore without danger of falling overboard.

These various scenes illustrate the enormous range of ways in which we handle children around the water. I have known couples with young children who own large, beautiful sailboats, capable of world cruising, and consider travelling onboard as one of their deepest desires, yet do not venture out because their children are small. At the same time, I've also known whole families, including babies and teenagers, who live and travel on the water full time. Those who do it successfully have managed to think through and safeguard against the possible dangers, and certainly it can be done.

What is to be gained, for parents and children alike, is enormous - fresh air, physical movement, the open spaces of the seas and waterways, away from the confinements of city life in particular. There are big psychological gains for children from learning how to take part in various aspects of running a boat, as their age and abilities dictate, building competency and self esteem. Boating, sailing, and cruising are activities that the whole family can enjoy together and be involved with actively, making a successful joint effort to accomplish a real adventure. It is in this kind of shared experience that children learn the most about our life values and beliefs.

The French, with their numerous sailing schools for children, seem almost as though they have a national goal that all children know how to sail a boat before they grow up. Not a bad idea, actually, when you consider the benefits for the child. Even if they never sail again, the experience itself has put into them the ability to discern and analyze a diverse and constantly changing group of elements, and respond in motion so as to achieve a point.

We raised 5 kids, a good deal of the time living and travelling on rafts. Swimming lessons from the earliest age were the general rule. This was harder in a northern climate than in the south, where we were in the water every day. PFD's were worn at all times when outside of the cabin area, whether underway or at anchor, until each child had demonstrated sufficient swimming ability to jump in over their head, come up, tread water for several minutes, then swim the length of the boat twice, before taking hold of any support. Even then, if the weather or water temperature were cold, if it was rough out, or if we were in a river or tidal current, not only the children but all adults on board wore PFD'S on deck and in the dinghy. Even if an adult could handle a spill into the water, would they be able to save a child as well, without a PFD? Probably not. Our basic motto was, if it can happen, eventually it probably will, so be prepared at all times.

When we had toddlers on board, we built a netted play area on deck in which the netting was higher than their standing height, and they could not climb up it. Even so, one person kept an eye on them at all times. As they got older, there was the buddy system, as well as special rules onboard and at docks, e.g. no running, notify an adult of your location (going on deck,etc.), etc.

All became competent crew members, gaining new responsibilities as their abilities grew, and learning -by -doing through the solving of innumerable practical problems, small and large. Although none of our children are with us on the rafts at the present time (having grown up and launched their own life ventures), they each have a deep sense of their ability to meet life challenges head on and find creative ways to reach their goals. Our present plan of building an orphanage raft for street children from third world countries has as part of its foundation our family's experiences of life together living and travelling and learning on the water, building and growing together day to day. We know first hand the incomparable capacity for healing, learning and growing which exists on the water.

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