Internet Bliss

While enjoying my usual evening libation in the cockpit, I often grab a cellphone or laptop to find out what is happening in the world, what messages may have come in that I can ignore, and whether or not thunderstorms are likely to wake us at the usual 2 a.m. With the wonders of Wi-Fi and cellular phone service, these joys/chores of modern life have become necessities for most cruisers, and there are many ways to achieve the state of “connected” bliss on board.

For many boaters, regular cellphones and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops (and other devices) provide plenty of connectivity when close to shore and in marinas. While coastal cruising from Maine to Florida, I am frequently within good cellphone coverage — even over to the Bahamas. Yes, there are big gaps at times, but I can survive for a few hours without checking Twitter. Almost every marina has Wi-Fi, and if they don’t, there is bound to be an Internet cafe or other public Wi-Fi nearby. I’ve run into Wi-Fi in the weirdest places far off the beaten track, like on a cay in the Bahamas with no regular phone service — but it had satellite Internet and TV!

However, many others feel the need for stronger data connections and will utilize marine Wi-Fi and cellular receivers that can feed an onboard Wi-Fi router. This can mean the difference between enjoying a quiet night of Facebooking while anchored securely in the middle of the harbor vs. schlepping a laptop ashore in search of a signal. However, the days of “stealing” free Wi-Fi from unsuspecting shoreside homeowners and businesses with unsecured networks is largely over. Though it is still possible to be a data thief, you can’t count on it for reliable service.

Obtaining a legitimate data connection that can supply the speeds and reliability you need means a combination of Wi-Fi and cellular phone data when coastal cruising. In some harbors, there are public Wi-Fi signals that reach out over the harbor, and in others you may be able to get permission and/or pay a fee to a nearby marina. But, Wi-Fi is limited in range and there are many security concerns. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi is relatively  hackable and you should read up on how to secure your data connections, possibly by using a VPN.

Typical home Wi-Fi routers have about a 150-foot range indoors and possibly up to 300 feet outdoors, depending on what’s between you and the router. Marine Wi-Fi receivers with large antennas that can be mounted on a high point above deck obstructions will receive at greater range.

With a dedicated marine Wi-Fi receiver, you can expect much improved performance over any regular Wi-Fi receiver in a portable device, however coverage and range in the real world will be highly variable. I have seen brochures for marine receivers that claim “up to seven-mile range,” and some claim to reach up to 12 miles offshore, which is meaningless since a lot depends on the originating source. If you just need a strong signal on your home mooring or in a marina and know what networks you want to connect to, a marine Wi-Fi receiver may be a great solution for you.

While cruising in unfamiliar waters, you will have the problem of sorting through all the available Wi-Fi networks to find the ones that allow you to connect and provide the service you need. That problem is made more difficult by all the other boats in the harbor broadcasting their own wireless networks. The other night, I was located well offshore in a harbor on a small island that I know has only one public Wi-Fi network, yet a quick look at my phone showed many of the boats around me were broadcasting signals that were much stronger than the public Wi-Fi service in my location. I didn’t try, but I assumed that most of those other boats had their networks properly password protected! I’ve used the public service before and know that it is expensive, slow and unreliable. The best Wi-Fi receiver won’t be able to solve that problem for you.

Cell your soul
The most reliable option, at least within the U.S., is receiving your data via a cellular phone network. Cell signals offer much greater range that can extend many miles offshore. I have found that phone company coverage maps often underestimate coverage on the water, since they probably do little testing out there. Ordinary mobile phones are often quite effective within a mile or two of much of the U.S. East Coast. Again, there are significant gaps in coverage, depending on your carrier of choice, but in general you will find a good cell signal more often than you will find good Wi-Fi, particularly when underway. Hopping from one Wi-Fi network to another is a study in frustration, but maintaining a decent cellular signal all day long is a regular occurrence for boaters in many parts of the country. In other areas of the world, your service and choices may vary greatly.

Security is much better on the cellular networks than it is on Wi-Fi, and I have also found that it is much more reliable during inclement weather. When the power goes out ashore, most of the Wi-Fi networks go down too, but usually the cell service stays up and running. This can be a tremendous safety factor during hurricanes and lesser storms, when communications may be critical. At the very least, it is great to be able to call home or send an email to let everyone know you have weathered the storm. It is also great when you need to find parts, contact your insurance company or transfer some funds when all of the ATM machines ashore go dark.

All the major mobile carriers offer unlimited data plans, as do many prepaid carriers. Data-only plans are available too, but they may not be a better deal than a traditional phone plan. Unfortunately, the word “unlimited” doesn’t really mean limitless amounts of high-speed data, so read the fine print. However, for many of us, an unlimited cellular plan is cost effective and provides the greatest real-world data coverage.

For some boaters, a good option is to combine Wi-Fi service with cellular coverage via your phone when needed. You can “tether” other devices to your phone in order to utilize the phone’s data plan. In general, this is not for extended or heavy data usage, but it can be a great option if you just need to use your laptop for something that the phone can’t do. The other day my son downloaded a new book to his Kindle by tethering to his cellphone. One thing to keep in mind is that tethering seems to deplete your phone’s battery faster than ever.

The best of both worlds
Luckily, there are now single devices that allow you to have great Wi-Fi range when you want it and great cellular coverage when you need it. For example, the weBBoat 4G Plus by Glomex includes a 4G LTE cellular antenna and a Wi-Fi antenna, with automatic switching between antennas based on signal quality. It accepts two SIM cards, allowing you to utilize different cellular providers depending on cost, location, etc. Up to 32 devices can be connected on board at once. The antenna unit looks like a small satellite dome and can be mounted in a high spot free of obstructions. Glomex claims you can get reception “up to” 20 miles offshore. Again, your experience may vary, but you typically won’t find reliable signals at maximum range.

One interesting thing to consider is that Glomex notes that your onboard Wi-Fi signal, broadcast by the weBBoat unit, can be significantly degraded on metal boats, so it is possible to connect up to four Wi-Fi router/access points to the unit. You can also connect to LAN ports using an Ethernet cable.

Average power consumption is listed at 150 mA, and it will work on 10 to 30 volts DC. Retail price is $995, which seems reasonable considering all the various components included with the system. It is easy to spend well north of $200 when purchasing just a regular consumer/landlubber-grade, shoreside Wi-Fi router for your apartment.

It would be possible to use land-grade Wi-Fi routers on board too. I took a look at my reasonably up-to-date home Wi-Fi router, made by Linksys; the power adapter puts out 12 volts and the unit needs up to 2 amps. The Linksys could run off an ordinary boat’s 12-volt system, though battery drain would be significant if utilized 24/7. However, it might be an option to improve your onboard Wi-Fi coverage when in a marina or other location with Internet access and the ability to keep your batteries charged up.

Shakespeare Marine makes some units that are very similar in function to the Glomex models. The WebWatch WC-1 and WCT-1 also look like miniature domed satellite receivers, and they offer both increased Wi-Fi reception at great ranges and 4G/LTE reception on the cellular networks. The WCT-1 sports a built-in HDTV receiver, which could be quite useful in coastal waters. HDTV coverage near major U.S. cities can be quite good, and some report better picture quality than when using cable TV. Of course, channel selection will vary from place to place. I have found that TV weather stations are often quite useful when carefully watching the approach of distant tropical systems.

The Shakespeare units operate on 12/24 volts, with a 1 amp max draw. Pricing is in the vicinity of the Glomex units.

Shakespeare also sells their JellyFish JF-3 Classic Multi-Band Antenna, which appropriately looks like a jellyfish due to its domed antenna enclosure sporting three different cables to support the GPS, cellular and Wi-Fi antennas. This unit is a passive antenna, meaning it does not require a power input for amplifying signals, and it does not broadcast an onboard Wi-Fi signal. The cellular and Wi-Fi cables do not sport standard Ethernet connectors, so you will have to cobble together a way to supply an onboard Wi-Fi router or connect to a particular device.

Note that you can also purchase inline signal boosters that will work with various passive marine cellular antennas, but those aren’t the focus of this article on all-in-one solutions to getting your selfies online!

Catch a wave
Wave WiFi is another company offering an almost-all-in-one solution incorporating cellular and Wi-Fi antennas, but the output is a regular Ethernet cable that can be connected to an onboard laptop or separate router. Utilizing a standard Ethernet cable makes connecting to all sorts of non-marine devices much easier, potentially lowering costs. However, many devices require a Wi-Fi signal, which is the beauty of the all-in-ones noted above.

Onboard networking providers

Digital Yacht
digitalyachtamerica.com/

4G Yacht
www.4gyacht.com/marine-internet

Glomex
www.glomex.us

Shakespeare Marine
shakespeare-ce.com/marine/

Wave WiFi
www.wavewifi.com/

Winegard
www.winegard.com/connect/marine

Well known in the RV world, Winegard is now offering a marine unit that looks interesting and is less expensive than most. The Winegard ConnecT 4G1xM combines a Wi-Fi extender with a built-in cellular data antenna and router. A Winegard cell data plan (on the AT&T network) is required for 4G access. With no contracts, monthly data plans start at $20 for 1GB, and you can get 20GB for $150. Unlike the Glomex and the Shakespeare units, the Winegard utilizes an array of five short vertical antennas with no surrounding dome. The unit includes Ethernet ports and broadcasts a local Wi-Fi signal for your boat. Power requirement is 9 to 16 volts at up to 1 amp. List price is $479.

With its relatively costly data plan and the inability to use your own mobile SIM, the Winegard units might be good for those that mostly stay around Wi-Fi with the occasional cruise to more distant waters — hopefully places with good AT&T coverage. Since there is no contract, 4G data could just be purchased when needed.

Less is more
I am not usually a fan of integrating functions on a boat, which can create a single point of failure that takes out multiple necessities. However, in the case of Wi-Fi and cellular data, there are many benefits: fewer power supplies, fewer cables, fewer antennas to site and mount, fewer holes to drill for wire runs, fewer holes to waterproof and fewer controls to manage. Many of these devices are monitored and controlled using smartphone apps. And, your smartphones on board provide the ideal and very usable backups for the single-point-of-failure devices.

Other smartphone apps can assist with the proper installation of an all-in-one unit. For example, I have found that Wi-Fi scanning apps are a great way to test out router positions. You may be surprised by how you can dramatically improve signal strength by relocating a router. Also, phones can be used to help you find open and/or pay-to-use Wi-Fi access points that may require you to send in credit card information or sometimes to call for support.

Having a radar arch bristling with antennas, domes, wires and other electronics can make your boat look like a serious world cruiser, but reducing windage and complication back there might improve your real voyaging experience. And, you’ll be able to watch cat videos while offshore!

This article was originally published by Ocean Navigator in the November/December 2018 issue.

Where is Everyone?

That's a photo from July 4th weekend at Cuttyhunk Island, a very popular port of call in Massachusetts. Eventually, even that boat left the mooring and we were all alone anchored in the outer harbor.

Weather--perfect. Wind--light. Holiday--yes. Very few boats. OK, it did pick up on July 4 itself, but there was still plenty of room to anchor inside The Pond.

That was unheard of in the past. Much of the marina was empty too. I don't have any specific information as to why we are seeing less boats on the water, but IMHO this is a continuing trend observed over the course of the last ten years enjoying these same waters.

Those of us in the marine industry see the same pattern in terms of business activity, boats sold, and participants. I suspect the participation numbers are actually much worse than the statistics would indicate. Many of us old farts still own boats, but we also use them much less than we once did. 

There are many factors one could imagine contribute to this: fuel and mooring costs, repair costs, boat prices, lack of time, etc. On the other hand, you can pick up a great coastal cruising boat for a fraction of the price you could when I got started back in the 1980s, and salaries are a lot bigger today. I was recently looking at what would have been a $120,000 dream boat to me back in say 1984. Today, I could pick up that same boat for $30,000. And, there are tons of smaller boats one can pick up for under $5000 that would make fantastic summer cruising homes for someone willing to put in a little elbow grease.

I'll discuss these issues at greater length in the future, but for all those dreamers out there now is the best time I have seen in my 40 years of cruising to find a boat that can take you anywhere. It's a buyers' market--just ignore the hype of the magazines about all the expensive crap you don't really need.

Five-Step Anchoring

1. Your main anchor should be able to hold your boat securely up to gale-force conditions, including wind shifts of up to 360 degrees. I recommend one of the new-generation anchors like Mantus, Rocna, Manson Supreme, and Spade. The rule of thumb that works is to go with a steel anchor that weighs about one pound for every foot of boat length, and go up one size if in doubt: a 35-pound anchor for a 35-foot boat, or a 45-pound anchor for a 40-foot boat.

2. All of the anchor rode touching the bottom should be chain, backed up by nylon for those times when you have to anchor in extra deep water. Final scope with chain should typically be five times the water depth + the height of the bow over the water. Height of bow = 5 feet, water depth = 15 feet, that adds up to 20 x 5 = 100 feet of rode. In most of New England having 100 feet of chain means you are usually on all chain, but have 200 feet of nylon backing it up in case you need more length.


3. Lower anchor gradually to bottom until it touches, then pay out chain slowly as the boat drifts back with the wind. Do not drop the anchor to the bottom followed by a pile of chain on top. This is known as the "dogpile" method of anchoring, for good reason. As the boat drifts back, periodically snub the chain so the anchor digs in and the chain straightens out. When you have laid out the proper scope add an anchor snubber of light nylon line totaling about 15-20 feet from the bow roller, with enough line to securely cleat it on deck. You want to adjust this line so there is an arc in the chain and all the tension is on the nylon. This dampens the strain on the anchor chain, windlass, and deck fittings. Also makes things quieter.


4. Once all is deployed, put engine in reverse and gradually increase rpms as anchor digs into position. You should feel a nice solid jerk and the bow should straighten out when you pull tight on the chain. Do a couple of bounces back hard on the anchor chain to make sure the anchor is well dug in. If the anchor is not well dug in things will feel squishy as you back down, you may be able to detect that the boat is going backwards, and often the bow will not swing into a straight line from the anchor. Reset the anchor if it doesn't feel solid!


5. Always have a second anchor ready to go quickly if needed. Your main anchor shouldn't drag if it is set properly, but a midnight wind shift can change everything. Even a well dug in anchor can pop out in a severe squall with a major windshift. A lightweight Fortress anchor makes an ideal secondary hook that can be more easily taken out in a dinghy if needed. Do this if a big blow is expected even if you believe the main anchor is well dug in and well placed. The second anchor is your insurance policy.


6. Bonus tip. Prepare a glass of favorite evening beverage and sit in cockpit admiring the view knowing you are secure for the night.

Master of Your Own Domain

When you are living onboard you feel like the master of your own domain, so why not purchase your own domain name for your personal blog, website, and email addresses?

A domain is the part of a website address after the www and before the .com, such as www.johnkettlewell.com. And it can be the part of your email address after the @ and before the .com. The part after the domain (the .com or other) is called a Top Level Domain, or a TLD. You may have noticed that many addresses end in .com, with lots of others ending in .net, .org, or a slew of other TLDs. Many TLDs are viable for use with your personal domain, and you may be tempted to purchase a domain that ends in something other than .com. This is one way to sometimes purchase a domain name that is already taken with the .com ending.

Buy Your Domain

Unfortunately, there is a downside for most of us if we stray beyond the most popular options of .com, .net, and .org. Spammers and other dobadders have purchased lots of domain names using some of the other lesser known TLDs, such as .xyz. Subsequently, many top-level TLDs, as attractive as they might be to you, get blocked by spam filters. I tried out a domain that I fancied which was available with the TLD .xyz, which is the one used by www.alphabet.xyz (Google's parent company). One of the first messages I sent using a .xyz domain email address was questioned by a friend. He sent me an email via another channel asking if it was a scam. In short, stick to a .com if you want to look as legitimate as possible and have the least confusion around your address, with the second choice of trying .net or .org if you can't find the .com you want. One other thing that you'll find is people are so used to typing in .com after an email domain that anything else is bound to lead to misdirected emails.

Domains are easy to purchase and don't cost more than about $9-$12 a year through most providers. Reputable ones that I recommend based on my own experience include Namecheap (not the cheapest, but first class), Namesilo (one of the cheapest and reliable), and Google Domains. I own several domains that I have purchased from Namesilo and others that I have moved there after purchasing elsewhere. I like Namesilo's combination of low pricing (less than $9 for a .com domain), easy to use interface, and reliability. Namecheap has a bigger name, but I'm not certain they are worth the slightly higher cost. They charge extra for WHOIS identity protection (see below) after the first year, but it is included in the Namesilo price. I find the Namesilo interface to be easier to use.

Google Domains has one flat price, $12 per year, for hosting .com domains. It might be the ideal place to register a domain if you plan on just using email forwarding from your domain, with no dedicated mailbox. In other words, your email gets received by the domain and then forwards to another email client, like Gmail or Outlook.com, where you have an Inbox. I'll show you how you can then send mail from your domain later on.

To find a domain you just go to one of the websites mentioned above, such as www.namesilo.com. You'll find a search box on the homepage where you can start plugging in names that you love. You'll quickly discover that many real words are already taken, and every possible four-letter combination is gone. There are still some five-letter combinations available, but most are not actual words. You may be tempted to add things like hyphens and numbers (allowed), but they could lead to confusion since they are less common. A handy site that helps in finding an available domain is www.domainnamesoup.com. You can plug in lots of options, like five-letter domains that begin with z or q, etc. Keep trying and you'll find a domain you can be proud of!

Host Your Domain

You can purchase your domain online quickly and easily and soon be presented with a control panel where you can do various things with the domain. The basic setup at most domain registrars will include "nameservers" that will announce to the Internet where your domain is and how to find it. You will also find a section of the controls where you can adjust your DNS settings. These include entries that might "park" your domain with a mini-webpage that says something like, "This site under construction." Namesilo provides a standard parking page that tells people the domain is parked with them.

One option to watch out for is WHOIS privacy. This is the registration contact information for anyone trying to get in touch with the domain owner or manager. Many people (myself included) opt to utilize a registrar service that makes this information anonymous, but allows for messages to be redirected to your actual email address. This helps (somewhat) to prevent scam messages from being sent directly to you constantly, and allows for some anonymity. In general, it is not a good idea to allow your real email address to appear in plain text anywhere on the Internet or else it will be scooped up by web crawlers and spammed constantly.

Another important option on the DNS page will allow you to modify or add MX records that govern where your email goes and how it is handled. Namesilo, Namecheap, and Google Domains allow forwarding of domain email addresses to another location. In other words, I can set up John@MyDomain.com and have it automatically forwarded to my favorite Gmail address or other location. With Namesilo it is easy to set up different forwarding addresses for different email addresses. In other words, I could have John@MyDomain.com go to my Gmail account, but Jolie@MyDomain.com might go to a different Outlook.com account. This is a great setup for husbands and wives, or any couple, to share a domain, but have different email addresses that forward to different places.

Send Email From Your Domain

For some, receiving domain email in another account, say Gmail, is all that is needed. Personally, I love Gmail for its cost (free), large storage limit, and associated services like Google Drive and Google Photos (free, unlimited photo storage), calendars and contacts. I'd have a tough time leaving Gmail for any reason.

But, if you just do the forwarding, any responses you make to your domain emails or any new emails you create will go out with your regular Gmail address. Many of us would like the option to both send and receive domain email using our domain email address. Many people do this by purchasing email service from a specialized provider that provides you with MX and other records that you add to your DNS at your domain registrar. Each registrar and each email service provider does this a bit differently, so check out their help sections for detailed instructions. Set up at first can be a bit daunting and typically takes a half-hour or so if all goes well. Don't worry if something doesn't work right at first--you can't really break anything permanently!

There are innumerable email service providers that can provide email services, with a wide variety of options in terms of pricing, storage limits, types of interface available, service options, etc. There are too many to list, but I suggest prioritizing based on three main criteria: reliability, security, and features. It is a very competitive market, so pricing tends to be very similar for similar options. Expect to pay as little as $20 per year at the low end up to $50-$60 per year for robust, almost professional grade email.

At the low end I have used and can recommend POBox.com, which has a service that forwards emails to your other email account, like Gmail, but then also provides SMTP sending services through POBox. They also offer a robust level of service for $50 per year with a 50GB inbox and most of the bells and whistles anyone would want. They are now owned by Fastmail, an Australian company that offers similar services but with somewhat different pricing and options. Both companies and services are excellent. Another robust option is to purchase Google's G Suite for $5 per month, with a 30GB inbox and all the other services that Google provides to free users, but with a business level of privacy and security. G Suite even has real customer service available via email, chat, and phone, which is worth the $5 per month over the free level.

However, I have found that the free level of Gmail suits my needs wonderfully, and there is still a great way to send domain email direct from the same Gmail inbox I know and love. It takes a little setup and a few minutes, but in the end you have free domain email that rivals many paid options. 

Domain Email from Gmail

1. Forward email from domain registrar to Gmail.

2. In Gmail go to My Account/Sign-in & security/Signing in to Google/App passwords

3. Create a new "App Password" for the domain you want to add as a sending address

4. Go to Gmail/Settings/Accounts and Import/Add another email address

5. You will see a link to "Add another email address" you own

6. Enter name: John Doe (the name you want people to see your email is coming from)

7. Enter email address: johndoe@johndoe.com (or other address you want to use and is set up to be forwarded from domain registrar)

8. Check box for "Treat as an alias"

9. Select to change Reply-to address to the new email address being added (johndoe@johndoe.com)

10. Select "Next Step"

11. SMTP Server use: smtp.gmail.com

12. Username: johndoe@gmail.com (use your regular gmail address for the account)

13. Password: enter the "App Password" created in Step 3 above

14. Select "Secured connection using TLS" and Port 587

15. Click "Add Account"

16. You will get another box where you will be prompted to enter a confirmation code that will be emailed to the new address (which in turn should be forwarded to Gmail)

17. Enter the code manually in the box instead of clicking the link in the email that arrives in Gmail

18. If all goes well your new domain email address will now appear under Gmail/Settings/Accounts and Import. It can be chosen to be the default sending address if you want it to be.

19. When composing messages in Gmail select the sending address desired using the drop down arrow at the end of the From line.

20. Those who receive email sent from this new domain address will see your new address in the From location in their email inbox, but if they go so far as to explore deep into the email headers they will see that the Return Path is set to your actual Gmail address. Gmail rewrites the email headers to do this for some reason. The only way to avoid this is to send your domain email using a SMTP server outside of Gmail using a service like POBox.com, Fastmail, or another of your choosing. However, only rather technical types would ever delve into the email headers, so for most correspondents your email will appear to be coming from your domain email and any replies will be sent back to your domain email.

Rewards of Your Own Domain

Aside from the branding advantages and the nice feeling of having a unique email address, there are some further benefits to having your own domain email. Since you control the domain names and where your email is being forwarded you are no longer at the mercy of an unreachable giant like Google if your email account is shut down or you are locked out. Similarly, if using a full-service email service provider that you don't like or goes belly up just change the domain DNS settings and you are on to another provider. It is unlikely to happen, but not unheard of. Do some Googling around to read some horror stories about people locked out and losing years' worth of correspondence, contacts, and documents. If this happens and you still are using Gmail simply redirect your emails by changing the forwarding or the MX records at your domain registrar.

Another advantage is the ability to have an email address people will find easy to remember and distinctive. Instead of JohnZQ136458 at Gmail you can be John@YourOwnDomain.com. You can also create new email addresses for specialized uses. You might want to have a few generic addresses for use in places where you might not want your name to be known. It is possible to set up a "catch-all" system where anything written before the @ symbol will be forwarded to you. The idea is to have a different address for American Express and Visa, and another for Boat US and Defender. In other words, you can have a unique email address for almost anything, making it easy to determine where spam is coming from. This can also make it easy to block a specific address.

However, I don't really recommend using the catch-all method since anything sent to your domain will be vacuumed into your inbox. Spammers often send out emails to lots of guessed addresses since there is very little cost, assuming quite rightly that many emails sent to people like "info" and "contact" will have a working address. If you limit the addresses your domain accepts you will limit the amount of spam coming in.

Lastly, your own domain email is potentially more secure and private than large, free email services. Thieves tend to go where there is a lot of opportunity to score and the chances are very slim that some odd domain is going to be lucrative. Generally, your personal domain won't attract much attention. Still, I would only go with domain registrars that offer robust security, including two-factor authentication when logging in. Same goes for any email providers. You will find many, many options for domain registrars and email services, but stay away from ones that are too small and obscure to have much of an online track record. You may be able to save a few bucks a year, but there are many reputable options that are very competitive in price.

I look at domain email as another way to personalize my tiny, obscure corner of humanity, while also gaining some great practical benefits. Try it, you'll like it!

New-gen Anchors are Now-gen

I must admit that before I told the proponents of so-called “New-Gen” anchors to get off my lawn I had a moment’s hesitation. Could there really be something new that would make me give up  tried-and-true options like my CQR and Danforth anchors that had kept my boat’s secure through many blows? 

Frankly, I am a bit of an experimenter when it comes to anchors. Before setting off on a two-year voyage to Panama and back I purchased a little-known option to grace my boat’s bow, a Bulwagga. Based on mostly a few vague test reports and the strong testimonial of a friend who was using one I took a leap of faith, which indicated I had some lingering doubts in the back of my mind about the traditional equipment used in many anchoring dramas. Drama is not something you want when anchoring!

Old Faithfuls

First, it has to be recognized that there is a lot more to anchoring than simply tossing over the latest design that is touted to compensate for your inadequate technique. People like the Hiscocks, the Roths, and the Pardeys have managed to blunder around the world many times using the “Old Faithfuls” like CQR, Danforth, and even the Bruce. The latter I have never had respect for after having personally fended off quite a few boats dragging down or scraping along my sides while supposedly “anchored” with a Bruce. There are those who swear by (instead of at) the Bruce, but it should be noted that they always recommend an enormous size.

I will admit that some anchors are probably great, if you are allowed to use twice the weight! However, my wife, who usually lowers the hook, doesn’t agree. Most of us prefer anchors that offer great holding power at a reasonable weight that can be readily handled by a short-handed crew. I was reminded of this in a remote part of the Caribbean when we met a couple onboard a large trawler yacht that were in a pickle. Their enormously powerful windlass had packed up and they were unable to haul their 150-pound anchor onboard. The nearest possible repairs were over 200 miles away. A bunch of cruisers formed a human windlass and hauled the anchor up, then wished the couple “good luck” as they set off for a non-stop trip to safety with only a single chance to anchor if required.

A New Kid on the Block

It is not clear where or when the New-Gen anchors arrived on the scene. Some will argue that none are really new--only developments of ideas that had been tried previously, but now combined into a new paradigm. In any case, I believe the person who possibly coined the term “new-generation anchors” was Peter Smith of New Zealand, the designer of the original Rocna anchor. He at least popularized the term, and he started a new battle in the anchor wars that have raged since someone tied a rock to a rope and compared it to his friend’s inadequate rock.

I’m a veteran of several anchor war skirmishes, but have since retreated to a safe anchorage where I try to remain neutral. Unfortunately, my refuge anchorages are frequently invaded by barbarian hordes sporting archaic steel weapons on their bows. Based on many unwanted close encounters in squalls, thunderstorms, tropical storms, and gales I have become an anchor voyeur--carefully examining, while trying to look nonchalant, the weaponry displayed when others seek safe anchorage near my boat. I peer out of my pilothouse with binoculars at the inadequate appendages on your bows, and begin to mutter under my breath when I see something truly embarrassing. In recent years I have begun to notice that the difference between meeting someone at 2am as they drag past and having a good night’s sleep is often related to the vintage of your hook.

What brought me to this? The answer arrived in a mysteriously flat box one day. My new Mantus anchor came disassembled, but was quickly put together with several ordinary bolts, nuts, and washers. If nothing else, the sheer genius of creating a take-apart anchor had me nearly won over. One can easily imagine the advantages of being able to stow a spare, taken apart, down below, or possibly keeping that great big storm anchor somewhere deep in the bowels of the boat for that one time you need it.

Why the Mantus? In addition to the take-apart advantage, the Mantus had all the cool stuff that the new-gen gurus were writing about: a large and scoopy spoon-shaped fluke with a very sharp point, an arched shank and big rollbar designed to always flip the anchor upright into its burying position, and a relatively thin shank to aid deep penetration. It also features strong construction with no hinge, and all sorts of bragged about geometry that sounded wonderful.

Fortress: www.fortressanchors.com

Knox: www.knoxanchors.com

Manson: www.mansonanchors.com

Mantus: www.mantusmarine.com

Rocna: www.rocna.com

Spade: www.spadeanchorusa.com

As someone who has anchored successfully in all weather with anchors designed back in the first half of the 20th century I am not easily impressed by hype. I had to try for myself. One of my first experiments with the Mantus was on a night with lightish winds, but in the Taunton River with a strong reversing current. We spent the evening anchored with a large fleet watching July 4th fireworks off of Fall River, Massachusetts. Most of the boats were on short scope, and the best anchoring techniques had not been used in the rush to get to the beer coolers. Of course the wind picked up after dark around the same time the current reversed, and the two forces opposed each other. The anchorage became a mess of boats of all sizes and types spinning in all directions with crews pulling up dragging anchors. Through it all the Mantus stayed put with no fuss, though we too had anchored in haste with little thought to setting for a blow. A modest test, but good to know.



Subsequently, we have Mantused our way around Southeast New England for several years, testing the anchor out in a variety of familiar places where we have anchored many times with the barbarians using old-gen equipment. Cuttyhunk is one of my favorite spots. We know the harbor, the bottom, and how anchors perform there. I have anchored inside hundreds of times--it’s easy because I just drop my anchor in the same hole I have been using for decades! In reality, it can be a challenging anchorage due to many weedy areas, almost never enough room to let out adequate scope, changing winds that can reverse in the middle of the night unexpectedly, and the proximity of numerous other boats that may not be all that familiar with the whims of how to properly use ground tackle. In this anchorage we have been t-boned in the night by a dragging four-boat raft up, we have anchored through numerous gales, tropical storms, and Hurricane Bob, and we have tested many popular anchor types: Danforth, Fortress, CQR, Bulwagga, and now Mantus. Though we anchored routinely with the Mantus for several years before getting caught in a big blow, the first real test came in the Columbus Day Weekend gale of 2016. It wasn’t a survival storm, but we had solid 40-knot winds with higher gusts for many hours. The Mantus held firm with no dragging and no fuss, though our anchor chain snubber line did break in the middle of the night. It was the first time that had ever happened, indicating it was a pretty good test of our anchoring gear. The Devil is in the Details Since that experience, and after numerous other minor blows, I have gained tremendous confidence in my New-Gen anchor. But why is it better than my old CQRs and other traditional gear? First, that very sharp point definitely aids penetration, especially if the bottom is weedy or a bit hard. We always lower the anchor carefully until it reaches the bottom. We then let out chain gradually, with periodic snubbing as the boat drifts back on the wind. Very soon after getting our new anchor we noticed something different in this process. Almost from the time the anchor is on the bottom there is a solid bite. There is never any squishy feeling as you often get as a plow-type anchor does its thing and plows along the bottom. The Mantus just penetrates right away. Because of this, it is not a good idea to dump the anchor and chain and then let the boat fly downwind until it comes to a sudden and abrupt halt--you might break something! The second thing we noticed early on with the Mantus is that there is a slight possibility of fouling the anchor by dumping it abruptly to the bottom, allowing the chain to loop under and catch on one of the “ears” where the big hoop is bolted to the anchor. It doesn’t happen often, but we have managed to foul the anchor a couple of times. Once you get used to the usual solid and early bite the anchor makes you will be able to tell if something is wrong, because if it isn’t you get that squishy feeling from the old plow anchor days. Other anchors with hoops, like Rocnas and Mansons, do not have bolt-on hoops and would not suffer from this problem. Despite the early and strong bite these anchors make we still try to lay out adequate scope of at least 5:1 with all chain, or more if there is a big blow. However, many times I have had to shorten things up in places like Cuttyhunk as the harbor fills up and others begin to crowd around. I feel pretty secure on as little as 3:1 in ordinary wind conditions, and we have never dragged once the anchor has been set in a mud bottom. Set it by backing down hard at 5:1 scope and you can almost immediately shorten things up if you need to. We have also used the Mantus in sandy mud, shelly conditions, smallish rocks, and extreme weed with good success. This is a truly universal anchor, though I can’t claim experience in pure sand as is found in the Bahamas and Caribbean. The aforementioned hoop on the Mantus is larger than on some other New-Gen. anchors. I am not certain, but it seems this aids in shedding mud and weeds when weighing anchor. The large scoop-shaped flukes on these anchors tend to bring up a big ball of muck and junk at times, and I have noticed that some of the non-Mantus designs are a bit harder to clean in this regard. The bigger hoop means there is more space between the hoop and the flukes. A bonus with the hoop design is that it makes for the perfect handle to use when manhandling the anchor off and on the bow roller or moving it around deck. The lack of a hinge between the shank and the head, like the CQR uses, also makes the anchor much easier to physically move around. The hinged designs always flop one way or other, inevitably pinching fingers and banging shins. The thin shank of the Mantus definitely does aid in penetration, compared to some thick-shanked designs like the old CQR. I have observed both anchor types when on the bottom, and the CQR shank was often on its side and not really buried, while the Mantus does tend to roll upright and dig downward. Strangely, despite burying well I have found that when you are retrieving the anchor it comes out of the bottom much more easily once the boat is right over it. After a big blow it would sometimes take an hour or more to pull out a CQR and I have spent half a day pulling Fortresses and Danforth anchors out of the bottom. Not so with the Mantus.the
Another touted feature that we have proven in real-world testing is the amazing ability of New-Gen hooks to reset when the wind shifts. Cuttyhunk is notorious for sudden shifts in the middle of the night when a land breeze overwhelms the prevailing sea breeze. We have been through many 2am anchoring drills when a zephyr of a southwest wind turns into a honking blast of northeast off the land. Needless to say, the many boats on short scope due to inadequate room and poor technique often go whistling away in the dark. If possible, we try to anchor with nobody behind us for this very reason. In any case, we have found that even these complete reversals in a matter of moments are handled well by the Mantus. We’ve also been through quite a few big thunderstorms with winds clocking around from all directions, often more than once--no problem! These New-Gen hooks just reset with the clever combination of the big hoop keeping the pointy end pointed down, the sharp point aiding quick penetration, and the thin but stiff shank with no hinge forcing the anchor to rotate to face the new direction. Another New-Gen anchor that doesn’t use a hoop, the Spade, gets away with it by having a very heavily weighted tip that makes sure the point stays down. Though I have no direct experience with a Spade I have observed several anchoring upwind of me and they seem to do well overall, with one or two dragging incidents observed. I’m not sure if the point and head area is a bit too blunt for weedy bottoms, and maybe the lack of a hoop does make penetration iffier. There are not a lot of Spade anchors in the wild to be observed in comparison to the hoop types, so it is harder to draw conclusions. I’ll have to experiment with one some day! Anchoring Perfection?

About the biggest negative factor with the Mantus is that it doesn’t fit on my bow roller arrangement all that well compared to the traditional anchors that existed when the boat was built. The long, thing shank reaches a bit further back and doesn’t allow me to easily snug the anchor up tight to the roller. It is bad enough that I remove the anchor and wedge the hoop into my bow pulpit at times to prevent the anchor from bashing around. At other times I use lashings to keep it in place. However, I suspect it would fit well on a roller arrangement that was designed for something like a Delta anchor (fixed shank plow type). You might be tempted to try a New-Gen anchor that is one size smaller than your old-gen, but I don’t see the point. If your anchoring windlass and other gear is sized for a 45-pounder you might as well use a 45-pound New-Gen and gain extra holding power. It will rarely be needed, but it is nice to know it’s there.

If you need something lighter carry a couple of smaller Fortress aluminum hooks. They are not really “new-gen” anchors since they are refined versions of the older steel Danforth anchors dating back to the early 20th century. In many independent tests the Danforth and Fortress pattern anchors offer the most holding power per pound in straight-line pulls (when properly dug in). They make fantastic secondary anchors for when you need to kedge a boat off the ground, or for creating a Bahamian moor, or for rowing out in the dinghy with a long rope rode when a big blow is suspected. However, they do not reset reliably in dramatic wind shifts, and they are more finicky to get set in the first place. They are also very difficult to retrieve once they’ve been buried after a big blow. They are notoriously bad in most weedy bottoms. A belt-and-braces approach to anchoring is to carry more than one type of anchor for different conditions, and the Fortress is a great complement to a New-Gen main anchor.

Bottom Line

Binocular peeping has convinced me that when someone is anchoring upwind I want them to be using a hoopy New-Gen anchor; however, I can understand the reluctance to give up on a tried-and-true old friend that you have dragged around anchorages all over the world. I have been there, done that, and decided to move on. There are several different brands and types of New-Gen anchors, but I don’t think you can go wrong with one of the popular designs with a hoop. I have observed good performance from Mantus, Rocna, Spade, and Manson. The Knox is another interesting looking design from a Scottish company, but I have never seen one. I’m sure there are others equally as good or better, but you may want to start your new-gen experiments with one that has a well-known track record. Choose one that fits your boat, your eye, and your wallet, and give it a go! 

To ease the transition I suggest putting the New-Gen anchor on the bow, but keep the old-gen lashed on deck nearby, just in case. It will make a great toe stubber!

This article was published in the January-February 2018 issue of Ocean Navigator.




Wisdom of the Snowbirds

After the recent disasters of Irma and Maria in the Caribbean and in Florida many are wondering what can be done to protect their boats during Hurricane Season. Well, #1 is to not be in hurricane prone areas in the first place! We have been spoiled by relatively quiet hurricane seasons for several decades, and many boaters have forgotten the wisdom of the not-so-ancients who would never venture south of Cape Hatteras/Norfolk before November 1.

Today we are seeing harbors like Marathon in the Florida Keys packed with boats in August and September when they used to be nearly empty. It was inevitable that a big storm would come along and demonstrate why the old wisdom was to stay north until after November. This is the wisdom of the snowbirds.

When I first started heading south from New England in the 1980s this snowbird wisdom was ingrained in the boating public. We all headed to the Chesapeake for the big Annapolis boat shows around Columbus Day, then meandered south down the Chesapeake to Norfolk around Halloween time.

Yes, we did occasionally encounter the late-season hurricane in those years, but we weren't trapped in a place like Marathon with few alternatives but to ride it out and hope for the best. Between Virginia and Florida there are literally thousands of "hurricane holes" up winding creeks, and with modern forecasting and the usual week or so of warning most boaters can move several hundred miles up or down the ICW to get into a better position.

I understand that many boaters in places like Marathon consider it "home," and if you have a job or kids in school it is very hard to leave when a hurricane is headed your way. But, I can't beat around the bush--that is a bad plan for your life on a boat!

Some estimates are that 75% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon were either sunk or blown ashore. I'm not sure accurate numbers will ever come out, but the general scale of the problem was dramatically illustrated during Irma. Marathon is not a good place to spend Hurricane Season!

Get off the Dock in a Hurricane

Your boat is almost always better on a mooring and/or on anchors than at the dock in a hurricane. Docks feel solid and reassuring in normal conditions, or even in pretty severe storms, but the difference in a hurricane can be storm surge. The photo was taken during Hurricane Bob with our boat at the time, Echo, on a mooring with anchors out in Cuttyhunk. Only three boats in the harbor broke loose, and they were all due to either inadequate mooring lines or too little scope. One boat picked up its mooring and dragged it ashore. If they had put out 50 feet of line the boat would have been fine.

Why were we there? Simple, the storm was predicted to go right over us, or very close, and the storm surge was predicted to be 10 feet or more. I think we had close to 10 feet. The fishing dock and the ferry dock were under water in Cuttyhunk. Four-wheelers and large propane tanks floated off of land and drifted by us. A small shack floated by, roof upside down, like a boat.

If we had been tied to the fixed docks everything would have been under water. Lines would have to be either impossibly tight, or terribly loose. Even if our boat didn't break loose or float off other boats would have, and they would be right next to us. Watch the videos from Irma of boats sinking in slips, tied securely to pilings and docks, due to collisions with the marina infrastructure or other boats.

Yes, if your are on a mooring or anchor your lines could break, and your anchors can drag. But, at least your boat is pointed into the wind and seas and it can have a chance. When tied up to a dock you are at the mercy of the wind direction and how well your neighbor has prepared, and how well the marina has maintained everything. But, get a 10-20 foot storm surge, and nobody is prepared. At anchor or on a mooring your boat has a chance. Add extra lines and extra scope and the boat can rise with the rising water.

Give your boat a chance in a hurricane.

Hurricane! Secure Your Car

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Leeward Islands and a landfall in the USA looking very possible as of today, I thought of doing a blog post on hurricane preparation. It is an important topic, but today I will review an equally important subject for boaters: what to do with your car during a tropical storm.

Seriously, your car is often extremely important both before, during, and after a storm. It is likely to be how you get to your boat in the first place, assuming you aren't living aboard. It may be your escape hatch if the storm proves to be too threatening or if the worst occurs and your boat is damaged, aground, or possibly sunk. Third, once the storm has passed your car may be the only means to escape the damaged area, and it will likely be your lifeline to obtain food, water, and repair materials.

Keep the car filled with gasoline, if possible, and consider storing some spare water and supplies there. My trunk always has things like jumper cables and even a small starter battery that doubles as a cell phone charger. Being able to escape a wet, damaged boat and possibly even spend a night in a dry car with a charged cell phone might look pretty good after a storm. You may even consider storing some important valuables in the car, if you can find a great spot to leave it.

The other day I heard a great tip while watching a weatherman talking about the flooding during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. He said check out your height above sea level by using the compass app on your iPhone. My Android phone doesn't come with a native compass app, but there are many in the Play Store and quite a few do include height above sea level. I'm still researching which ones are good and which ones prove to be accurate, but this can be an extremely valuable piece of information to have when thinking about where to put your car. Protection from wind and debris will mean nothing if the car is flooded--seek higher ground!

This often means abandoning the marina parking lot, which is frequently located strategically right next to the docks and the harbor--not the place to avoid damaging storm surges that come with hurricanes. In New England, one can often walk inland a couple of blocks and you'll notice that you are going uphill. Florida, not so much. In fact, it may not be possible to find a place immune to tropical storm flooding within a reasonable distance from the marina. If that is the case, consider parking garages that allow you to go up a floor or two. These tend to be strongly built structures which may also provide shelter from the wind, and more importantly flying debris.

Until you have experienced a hurricane or two it is hard to appreciate the dangers of debris flying through the air. Maybe you have noticed that people cover large building windows with plywood sheets. Think of your car windows enduring the same pummeling. However, don't even think about trying to cover your car with any sort of normal cover. It will either shred in the storm, and/or flap so much the car's paint will be ruined--probably both.

I actually search for parking opportunities that allow me to either point the car into the wind or go stern (rear bumper) to, and downwind of a large, sturdy structure made of concrete. If you park close to such a structure, with the nose of the car up towards a wall, it can prevent rain from driving into the engine compartment under the force of 100 mph winds, and anything that is blowing through the air will be blocked.

Believe it or not, these types of parking opportunities are something I note during the boating season. Where can I park the car, nearish my boat, with protection from likely storm force winds, high enough above sea level to be safe from flooding, and also a place that the car can be left without fear of being towed or broken into? It can be tough to find such a place, so start making mental notes as you explore the area near a new marina or mooring.


Further Thoughts on Going Aground!

I was reading a great Panbo post on a grounding in Camden harbor, and it reminded me of some things to think of when dealing with groundings. Panbo, by the way, written by Ben Ellison, is the best boating blog about marine electronics there is, and a must read about everything boating too.

Why do we go aground in the first place? I believe #1 on the list is loss of "situational awareness." What exactly does this mean? Think of the U.S. Navy ships getting run down by commercial vessels in Asian waters, which unfortunately has happened a bit too frequently lately. Here are ships presumably equipped with not only the latest in navigational equipment, but also crewed by extremely well trained and disciplined teams of people who should know exactly what is going on all around them. Yet, two large ships collide with good visibility and no apparent reasons why. What happens?

#1, I am convinced, is the great demand put on everyone to monitor all the amazing navigation equipment we have nowadays. Think of all that gear, people staring at screens, punching in coordinates, noting courses and bearings, monitoring radios, listening to commands, etc., etc. No matter how well trained, how well equipped, or how well disciplined there is only so much information the mind can process and at a limited speed too. Couple that with night vision being ruined by staring at brightly lit screens, while also being constantly distracted by people coming and going, coffee being delivered, and all the whatnot that goes on with many people around and it is a recipe for disaster.

How does this relate to us ordinary Joe Blows sailing the coast in small boats? The same exact problem can rear its ugly head. I was sailing offshore behind a large catamaran that was equipped with all the mod cons, including radar, chart plotters, etc. Offshore the watch stayed below watching videos while assuming that various alarms would alert them that something needed actual attention. However, even if the alarm worked, it takes a few minutes to scramble out of the cabin, and then your eyes aren't adjusted to the dark, and it is very easy to turn the wrong way, let go of the wrong line, or trip over something lurking in the dark. I had to call this boat on the VHF repeatedly to warn them they were sailing directly into the path of an enormous cruise ship, lit up like a city, miles from land, traveling at high speed and likely on autopilot. The alarms didn't work, the crew wasn't watching, disaster was close at hand.

Entering some crowded gunkhole you may have to deal with the same issues. The depth sounder alarm starts blaring painfully, your wife is shouting something from the galley, the chart plotter is glared out in the sun, the harbormaster is yakking about something on the radio, boats are jammed all around on moorings, people are board sailing and paddle boarding across the channel, your dinghy painter is too long, the engine is overheating, and your hoping to get anchored in time to catch the water taxi. Your boat comes to a sudden stop and your brain is crashing due to sensory overload. Where exactly am I? Why have I come to a crashing stop? Is that the bilge alarm going off? What is that cruiser shouting at me?

In other words, too much information, too quickly. Just like on those Navy bridges. But, what is the answer? You don't want to abandon the chart plotters, radar, VHF radio, depth sounders, etc. I often find that the simplest answer is often the best. Reduce clutter. Turn off depth alarms. Use a printed chart that you can see in bright light and won't be at the wrong scale. Turn the VHF radio way down or maybe even off if it is a distraction. Reduce your speed--create more time for your brain to process all the information. The other day I was sitting on the beach next to a popular channel when a big boat approached at high speed, then suddenly throttled way down, actually went into reverse, did a 360, then entered the channel at dead slow and under control. I admire that skipper for suddenly realizing that life was coming at him way too swiftly and a little bit of patience would probably make the day go much better. I have gone so far as to tell guests to stop talking to me and/or realize that I may or may not answer. If they ignore my suggestion, I just ignore them. Better to be a social outcast and afloat than the life of the party and aground!

Aground!

OK, you've gone aground. I always say if you haven't gone aground you haven't gone anywhere. Typically, there is no need to panic (is there ever?). The first step is to check the state of the tide, if you don't already have it in your mind. If it is falling, you have to work quickly. On the other hand, maybe the tide is on the rise, where patience becomes a virtue.

Hopefully, you've chosen your cruising boat so that it has a hull shape and underbody that can take the ground with reasonable safety and without any major damage. I have been on a full-keel sailboat that piled up on solid rock--boulders actually--and managed to nestle down amongst them with no major damage. A sharp fin keel with exposed rudder and prop might not do so well. A catamaran can usually rest upright with little fuss.

Many feel an urgent need to call for a tow, with the likely prospect of a $1000 bill or more, and the potential for greater damage. I have witnessed many a boat get pulled off a grounding by powerful engines and lots of skill, but with inevitable damage, when simply waiting for the tide would have done nothing more than scrape off some bottom paint.

Yes, there are situations where the tide is falling, possibly the wind is driving you ashore, and maybe large waves are pounding your vessel. Maybe, that is the time to call for a tow, but keep in mind the inevitable cost and potential for disaster. Most of us try to avoid with extra care any close calls with the bottom when there is any hint of a dangerous wind or sea, so hopefully your grounding will be like most: in a sheltered spot where waiting for tidal help will suffice.

Of course, I would always make sure to put out an anchor in the direction of deep water to both help pull the boat off when the tide rises, and also as insurance in case the prop is fouled or damaged. You may be surprised how much power you can generate with a well dug in anchor leading back to a powerful windlass and/or cockpit winches. I have literally dragged my boat back into deep water when the engine wouldn't budge her. Sometimes, all it takes is a little steering with the anchor line to get the boat pointed in the right direction. And, other times, the best route out is backwards, with the anchor line leading off the stern.

Having a dinghy handy with a portable depth sounder can be a great help. My dinghy has long oars that allow me to poke around and find deep water quickly. A boat hook or even a mop handle can do the same. You don't need lots of extra water--just enough to float your boat.

A tow should be your last resort, whether by your own dinghy or someone else's boat. Chances are that most of us don't have cleats strong enough for the strains of a serious tow, and rigging extra lines and such is time consuming if you are in a rush. Heed the first paragraph--a falling tide means you need to work fast. Sometimes all you need is a lightweight anchor that can be taken out quickly in a dinghy, and you can be back afloat in five minutes. I have performed this maneuver many times when my own engine wasn't enough.

Some people recommend hauling a sailboat over using a halyard as a way to reduce draft. In my experience this is both very difficult to achieve and also likely to break something, and often fails too--a trifecta of hopelessness! First, you need a big powerful tow boat to heel your boat over, and it has to be shallow draft and on scene. All of those things are unlikely to be present. And then you need a very strong halyard and mast, and hope it doesn't jump the masthead sheeve and jam permanently, if it doesn't break first. This all assumes that you can arrange everything quickly enough to avoid the falling tide--if the tide is rising, why bother? Of course, this idea doesn't work at all if you have a catamaran or powerboat.

A grounding is a situation where your first actions need to be swift, deliberate, and appropriate to the particular set of circumstances. Calling for a tow is usually not the first, second, or third option that should be tried. Good luck!

Smartphone Photography Onboard

Like most cruisers today I carry and rely on a smartphone for many things: email, maps, weather radar, even phone calls (Google it)! However, as someone who enjoys photography, and as someone who frequently sells illustrated articles accompanied by photographs, I have learned both the pluses and minuses of smartphone photography onboard.

The biggest plus is of course that "the best camera you own is the one you have with you." When a great photo presents itself you don't want to be regretting you left your DSLR and its heavy bag back on the boat. Since many of us feel naked without a smartphone, we tend to carry one wherever whenever. This means you won't miss that shot of the amazing sunset, or the funny looking dinghy at the dock, or the cute town ashore. You will have both your phone and your camera with you almost all the time.

I have benefited from this availability many times, and can bitterly remember many missed scenes from the past when all I had were big, bulky, expensive cameras that were likely to be buried in a protective case stored in a locker down below when you saw the scene of a lifetime. Those of us old enough to remember film cameras of the past used to remark that a sure way to encounter a Pulitzer Prize-winning scene was to leave your camera behind, or to be changing your film.

With digital cameras we don't have to worry about changing film, or running out of film, which was worse. However, the smartphone in your pocket is not always the ideal instrument to capture the scene. One huge disadvantage is also an advantage in certain situations. Most phones today have big, beautiful screens that allow for great compositions, if you can see something. Unfortunately, bright sun, shadows, glare, and polarized sunglasses mean that we are often taking photos using the crudest point-and-shoot technique--point the phone in the general direction of the scene and hope you've captured what you want. In those situations take lots of photos to make sure that something is usable.

I find that many boating photos on the water suffer from this problem. Even on days without bright, full sun there can be so much light and glare that using a smartphone screen is nearly impossible. You might be able to see something on the screen if you shadow it, or point the phone in a different direction, but then you're facing the wrong way to get the shot. The bright environment means the photographer only has a vague idea of what she is pointing at, and careful composition relies on cropping the scene later. Take lots of extra photos!

It's a Big Wide World

There's good news and bad news with regard to composition. Smartphones have wideangle lenses, often equivalent to around a 28mm lens for those of you who used 35mm film equipment. Wideangle is great for some things--not so great for others. Typically, a wideangle lens is great for onboard shots illustrating what it is like on deck or down below. But, try to capture that lighthouse you are sailing close to and it will look like you were miles offshore. In general, smartphones are not good for photographing other boats from your boat, or even most scenics, unless there is something really big and really close to your boat.

I have made some interesting shots underway, but most include my own boat in the scene. For example, a wideangle lens can work for sunsets over the deck, or when passing through a big opening bridge that looms over the boat, or when shooting the wide expanse of a crowded mooring field full of boats.

Wideangle lenses are of greater use ashore when looking for telling details: flowers, brickwork, door knockers, etc. But, you have to get really close to fill the frame. They are great for wide streetscapes with lots of buildings and people. You have to be careful with closeups of people because the wideangle will distort faces, making for big noses and goggly eyes. Typically, portrait photographers utilize slightly longish lenses in order to be able to stand a bit further away from a subject and to flatten features, which in most cases is more flattering. Watch out with wideangle lenses not to shoot up at people from close range, which can make for some silly looks. Try keeping the smartphone camera on the same plan as the other person's eyes, or be slightly above them looking down. Again, if you are a lot taller than the other person, or are shooting down at them, you get more distorted looks.

One huge bonus with many phones is that they are easy to hold still and don't create any vibration to mar the shot, while also utilizing digital and other stabilization technology. This means you can take photos in dim light without the use of a tripod, and the best smartphones do a pretty good job of it. Cheaper phones tend to boost ISO (a measure of sensitivity to light) in low light, which results in the equivalent of "grain" that we used to see using fast film. This digital "noise" is not liked by most people, though I have seen some photos that use it to good effect. However, in general, with a top-level smartphone camera, you will find many night scenes come out very nicely. For extra stability try leaning against a light pole, or physically hold your camera still against a wall or table. With some cameras the stabilization technology is so good you can take handheld shots onboard in very dark situations. Try out photography at night with your phone and find out what it can do.