Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fossil Fuel for Pleasure

Well, there it is, damn it, riding on a slightly customized aluminum motor bracket to starboard, one more protuberance on an already-crowded pointy stern. Did the world really need yet another piston engine? Did I?

As outlined in previous posts, my decision to buy this 3.5 horsepower Tohastu was long and guilt-ridden. In the end, I felt that this boat is just too big to handle expeditiously and safely without the power. But I could not have guessed how much pleasure would ensue from strapping on this appendage.

As I mentioned, the first trip with a gas auxiliary was on a long, narrow reservoir, the South Saskatchewan River upstream from Gardiner Dam, to be exact. True to the forecast, the weather held very hot and still for the entire trip of four days, with just a few puffs of sailing wind at the very end. As it turned out, we motored about 150 kilometres, and had a surprisingly pleasant time doing it. Without the motor, we would have had to abort altogether.

Thanks to fossil fuel, we slow-powered our way through an area of wilderness seldom appreciated, where the river cuts through an otherwise almost desert-like region of southern prairie, home to prickly pear cactus, pronghorn and deer, cottonwood and bur oak. With the sail stowed, we motored along under hull speed — maybe five knots. Every ninety minutes or so, the motor would begin to flag somewhat, indicating it was time to refuel its integral fuel tank, less than one liter capacity.

Twice I spilled a small rainbow of fuel upon the water and I am still mad at myself for it. If you must run a gas outboard, I think it is your solemn duty to figure a way to refuel it without spills. Unfortunately, the people who profit by the industry do not make it easy. The motors are designed not to catch over fills, and the people who make jerricans don't make good filler necks. Since that first outing I have found a no-spill spout for the jerrican I have, but it is far from perfect and takes some skill to use without over-filling.

There are many motor boats that use Lake Diefenbaker, as it is called. But few slow down enough to enjoy the real nature of it. While motoring along at roughly one-third throttle — there is no more speed to gain from more power — I came up with some rationalizations for having a motor. The fuel use, compared to that which I use driving to the water with the boat following along on its trailer, is insignificant. I have made countless purely human powered wilderness trips over the years, but can think of not a single one that was begun without a car trip to the trail or canoe launch. Even underway, our nature trips rely on the whole gamut of military-industrial wonders: Goretex, LEDs, GPSs, ripstop nylon, heavy-metal batteries, satellite-produced maps, Lexan, Vibram, butane.

Yes, it is a slippery slope, and I will always feel circumspect about the motor. Yet that first trip on Lake Diefenbaker got me thinking about Neoma's capabilities as a river boat. I thought of the small Redwing power cruiser designed by Karl Stambaugh. Recently, I did solo trip to Lac La Ronge and was royally becalmed for nearly three days, getting just enough wind for one good sail. So I ran the motor a good deal. It runs quietly, sips fuel. It is not the End of Days.

One very real threat with the motor while traveling solo is falling overboard and watching it power your floating home over the horizon as you immerse yourself in hypothermia research. The little kill-switch cord that you are supposed to clip on yourself is too short to be practical with the motor hanging so far outboard — so you have to add a piece of line to end of it and remember to wear it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Trolling for Peace

Though I had my doubts about using a trolling motor on Neoma, I followed the advice of Birdwatcher builder and modifier, Aeneas Precht (whose wonderful boat is no longer available to view online). Aeneas said any cheap electric would work on this easily-moved boat, so I picked up a 36 pound-thrust model from a well known manufacture and did a few trips. You can just see mine on the stern in the picture.

I would hate to disagree with Aeneas about anything — he's a smart fellow — and the electric kicker does work wonderfully well within certain limits. I think those limits are reasonable to him. For me, they started to chafe after a season.

Electric motors are close to perfect. Unto themselves, they are cheap. I bought a surplus deep-cycle battery to run the motor, but even a new one of those does not cost too much. Such batteries are very heavy, nearly as heavy as a gas motor, but this boat can handle a lot of gear weight. E-motors are extremely long-shaft by design, and you can dial them to just the right depth. Mine clamped sideways on the canoe stern and was ready to use.

The real beauty is the silence. The boat moves along and yet would not disturb a loon. Electrics run emissions-free in the field, and battery charging can be likewise if you employ solar or wind options.

That brings us to the limitations. Recharging during a cruise is impractical. Good photoavolaic panels are expensive, and anyway you can't bolt enough of them on a sailboat to power her cruising. A windmill might give you the wattage, but these are extremely expensive, and there is no room on a boat of this size to mount one.

If you use the motor very sparingly, just for a few minutes a day to get into and out of anchorages, then one battery charge can support a cruise of a few days. Contrary to the misleading advertising of trolling motor companies, you cannot move a boat around for many hours a day and not damage your battery through over-discharge.

In windy conditions — and I'm not talking gales, just fresh breezes —you run into the same handling problems you get with oars. Birdwatcher's high-sided design can be a real liability in crosswinds, so you have to be sharp on the tiller to stay in control. And if there is much headwind at all, it can be very difficult to move against it.

Despite its limits, the electric is so reliable, so simple and, above all, so peaceful to use that I have made many cruises with mine.

Then the day came when Mark and I chose to make a cruise on a long, narrow reservoir. The forecast was for days of high-pressure weather and likely calms. We'd have to keep a schedule and cover distance in order to meet our  ferry vehicle driver. And when you get all-business like that, you start to covet a real motor. I slunk down to the shop and bought 3.5 horsepower Tohatsu, wondering if was going to propel me to hell.

Motors and Moral Purity

Earlier I have stated that Birdwatchers make demoralizing boats to row. This is no great discovery of mine, just an affirmation of the accepted wisdom about this boat. Jim Michalak, the early adopter of this design, has plenty to say about this aspect on his fantastic website. Phil Bolger himself accepted this verdict to the point that he drew the Birdwatcher II to accommodate a motor.

During the La Ronge cruise that I described in the last post, I intentionally skipped over the first part of trip, which was a long row to open water. There is an excellent marina on the lake that we wanted to use, but it sits at the head of an extremely narrow bay several kilometres long. As usual, it was glassy when we launched and I got out the oars. 

This was the first time I was obliged to row for an extended run. Just getting the oar ports opened up and threading the blades through is far more fuss than using oars over a gunwale. You need to find something to sit on, slide it into place. Visibility forward is poor when you swivel around for a peek between strokes. Even in the perfect calm of the narrow bay, I found the boat would not track at all well. I spent much energy in corrective strokes. My long carbon fiber oars, borrowed from a recreational rowing boat I own, were wasted on this boat without a sliding seat; shorter, wooden oars would be just as good, which is to say not very good either, just cheaper. 

Having used the oars previously over shorter distances I already knew that the boat was all but uncontrollable in any kind of cross wind. You sit so far astern that it is impossible to get sufficient leverage from the oars to combat the windage of the high-sided sharpie. Bolger had written that, in any kind of wind, you would simply sail. For maneuvering around docks, getting into and out of the shallow anchorages that make this boat such a delightful cruiser, some improvement over Bolger's oar arrangement had to be made. 

I tried placing inexpensive oar-locks at several locations around the boat's perimeter and experimenting with rowing while standing. It worked moderately well except that you need really long oars to reach the water from such a high boat. My nine-footers were too short. To cope with wind, the only way to dock was to drift down upon your landing, back rowing to control your speed. You have to have a nimble person on the bow, ready to jump onto the dock, to fend off the boat and yet not lose her. You only get one chance. In crowded areas, around expensive plastic boats, it would be hair-raising. 

Anyway, back to the long bay. I rowed about two-thirds of it, maybe six kilomtres or four miles, before giving up. I was very sweaty, which I did not mind. I did mind that the boat was a such a dog to row. It wandered. There was no carry between strokes. The sun was setting and we had to make camp within hailing distance of the launch. It was a pleasant spot, and Mark, my usual crew, was good company. But while we drank our wine and chatted, I had motors in the back of my mind. 

Among many criteria, I had chosen this design because it accommodated no engine. Given the exciting yet troubled times we live in, the beautiful places I have to sail and the reasons I go there — peace and quiet — going motorless had a lot of appeal to me. Moral purity? Yeah, maybe. At least in this one aspect, why not be a purist? Except that it did not work in practice. 

Upon returning from that trip, I promptly went out and bought what I thought was a still-noble compromise: an electric trolling motor. I'll write about that in the next post.

Neoma reaches adulthood

My Phil Bolger-designed Birdwatcher, christened Neoma, made her last cruise of her first sailing season near the end of September on Lac La Ronge in north-central Saskatchewan, a vast, wild but moderately accessible lake that has become her de facto home waters. To recap, I had veered from Phil Bolger's drawings in a few small details:

• no over-head Lexan panels or "skylights" for me
• my oar ports were store-bought port lights, the oars and locks borrowed from a rowing shell
• I had put the sail rig and off-centre centreboard to port instead of to starboard, to favour right-handed crew
• my steering linkage was made of #50 roller chain, sprockets, flange bearings and and shafting, all inexpensive, common items from an industrial hardware supply

All those modifications worked beautifully well for me.

When it came to the sailrig, I had made bigger changes, and trouble-shooting my cat-ketch, spritsail rig was the task of this late-season voyage.

After finally getting the boat to open water (see my next post on oars, motors and moral purity), Mark and I made sail. With the mizzen now smaller, with about 20 square feet trimmed from its trailing edge, we hoped the helm would balance better. I had re-cut and resown the ill-fitting jib, and we hoped this would now do its job without bellying out into a terrible shape, and pulling Neoma's bow to leeward.

The wind was snapping hard, big whitecaps were rolling down from the northwest, and the little boat absolutely tore away on a beam reach. The weather helm was much reduced, but still significant. But we had more sail up than was really prudent. We turned a little downwind after rounding a point, and the boat was surfing like a dinghy. We were clipping eight knots at times. We sailed this way for an hour or so, covering a lot of lake and fighting to keep up navigation-wise. Just in time for lunch we got under the lee of a small island and dropped the rig in a glassy bay in front of an empty island cabin.

For the afternoon, we decided to set main and jib only — no mizzen. The boat was tamed right down, the amount of helm was just right and the sailing was very relaxing. It started to drizzle. The beauty of Bolger's design is that you never have to have your upper body out in the elements, yet you don't feel stuck "indoors" either. Tucked under the superstructure, but with the breeze moving through the boat, the effect is like sitting on an open-air verandah.

We noodled around the lake for the next three days, and the boat worked perfectly, without fuss or bother. The morning we were going to turn back west for the marina, the wind had veered halfway round the compass, so we had a following breeze to take us in. It was more than a breeze, really. It felt like half a gale, and we had to cross the very open south bay of the lake. The waves were steep-fronted whitecaps and had built to about five feet from trough to peak — about as big as they get on this lake. As we left the shore behind us, and no land visible ahead, I hoped everything would hang together. It was a long way to drift even right-side up. I tried not to think about broaching and being upside down.

In fact, the boat showed no tendencies that way, and we had a wonderful crossing. We just rode the swells and took pleasure in the boat. Everything worked. There seemed to be no terrible strain, or even a moderate one. The last cruise of the season was going to be over all too soon. I have to say I felt a bit of pride at that moment. I had built a boat, had designed and built her sail rig, and it was carrying us capably through the Canadian wilderness. I thought of all the adventures to come. Neoma had grown up.