Monthly Archives: December 2015

What?! Another project?!

I’m fortunate to teach in a school that supports its teachers and their crazy innovative ideas. In just one short week, I’ll be launching a new class that combines language and applied arts as students work together to build four Shellback dinghies. The course? Nautical Arts.

Here’s a brief description of the course (something school administrators require when you come up with a crazy idea and they want it formalized):

Nautical Arts provides an innovative, exciting, and unique synthesis of language arts and a practical, hands-on approach to learning as students work in groups to build – from the keel up – an attractive and functional sailing dinghy. Emphasizing teamwork, short- and long-term planning, project management, writing and documentation via an online blog, construction skills and techniques, and – of course – developing an appreciation for great nautical texts, the course has at its core a service component: the students’ completed project boats will be auctioned, and the proceeds will be donated to a local charity.

I am thrilled to have the chance to pursue a project like this, but at the same time I’m more than a bit apprehensive because, according to builder Eric Dow, it takes “an experienced builder 100 hours,” and I’m dealing with 16 inexperienced builders and 50-minute class periods. I did a bit of quick English-teacher math that looks like this: four students times 60 hrs = 240 hrs of labor. Figure a 50% rate of efficiency, and we’re coming in at 120 hrs of labor. Close. Hopefully, close enough! We do have some after-school hours and Friday afternoons that we can take advantage of if we need a few extra hours to get the job done.

In the meantime, I’m planning on soliciting some support from local businesses during the week. Really, I think this is a great opportunity not only for our kids but also for the community to get involved and give back through a cool project. I’m hoping I can get some strong support. I spent a bit of Christmas break putting together some informational sheets that I can take around to local businesses to pitch the idea. Fingers crossed.


The plan for the rest of this week is to build at least one ladder frame – the “jig” for the rest of the boat’s construction – and to create patterns for the major components. It’s going to be a busy end to 2015 and a crazy start to 2016! Wish me (us) luck. And if you’re interested in helping sponsor the project, drop me an email or message through this site. Happy New Year!

Tether vs No Tether: When safe isn’t

My dad and I had a little back and forth email exchange recently about this article from Practical Boat Owner – “Is it safe to use a tether?” As the article read-in below indicates, using a tether to keep sailors aboard has been the prevailing wisdom.

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Solo sailors, especially, are dependent upon a harness and tether, and rely on the system to either stay aboard or enable them to pull/climb/claw their way back aboard after a fall overboard – at least, that’s the hope. Tethers and jacklines are mandatory safety items for most (if not all) open water races. Even the Chicago-Mac race rules required us this summer to rig jacklines and have safety tethers. (The fatalities of 2011 Chicago-Mac race prompted a change in the race rules and generated attention related to the design and use of tethers: Practical Sailor blog and New Mac-Race safety regs). My thoughts last summer about the actual safety of the system are confirmed by the video linked below. The first rule – of course – is to stay ON the boat; DO NOT go over the side. But if you do go over the side, you may wish you weren’t tethered.

Watch the video yourself and see what you think:


Many sailors, perhaps, place too much faith in their equipment. If you read the Practical Boat Owner piece, you’ll note that four of the “real-life situations” at the end of the article highlight the danger of being tethered if you do go over the side. And in two of the situations, slipping or wriggling out of the lifejacket/harness was the saving factor. In the other two situations, it sounds like the skipper got free from his tether in one instance, and in the other the boat drove up on the beach. I also recall another story of a husband and wife cruising alone together. The husband had the night watch and when the wife awoke in the morning to relieve him, he was nowhere to be seen. She soon found him – dead – being dragged behind the boat by his tether.

So what’s the take away? A few things come to mind, but first the obvious: don’t go over the side; stay on the boat! Second, design a jackline and tether system that prevents crew from going over the rail. Perhaps rig a jackline along the centerline of the boat and use a tether that’s less than half the boat’s beam. At the very least, test your current jackline/tether arrangement to see what could happen if things went wrong. Third, ensure that you have a functioning quick-release tether – easily releasable under load – that will allow you to keep your lifejacket on in the event of a trip overboard, rather than wriggle free from it to avoid immediate drowning. And the last item: it just might be better to go untethered, depending upon your circumstances. Given the option, I’d much rather take my chances with a MOB recovery than A) be drowned while being dragged alongside the boat, or B) be stripped of my lifejacket and adrift for who knows how long while awaiting rescue.

As any good sailor will agree, it’s important to know the potential limitations of any system you rely on aboard – whether it’s radar, your engine, GPS, or your anchor. And whether you use jacklines and a tether or not, it’s always good practice to consider eventualities. Doing so just might save your life.



Boys sleeping in the port settee, radar assisting through a fog, GPS plotting our course, and iNavX running on the iPad as backup. Heading south and home toward St. Joseph after a summer cruise.

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