So you want to buy a Cape Dory?

Buying a boat is a potentially stressful affair, usually with a significant amount of money on the line – not to mention a whole lot of hope and expectations, too. Several resources are out More »

More summer cruising: Exploring Beaver Island

When my wife, boys, and I departed St. Joseph back in June, we were hoping to make Beaver Island within about 10 days or so. I had talked up the beauty and More »

Summer cruising Part II (or fixing things)

With a new ZF Marine 12M gear from Trans Atlantic Diesels, Inc., my boys and I made the 5-hour drive back to Northport and Ariel on a Sunday. Installation was simple and the More »

Gotta pay if you’re gonna play

Just over a week into our summer cruise from St. Joseph to points north (we were hoping to make Mackinaw City) the transmission packed it in during our departure from Leland. With More »

Repost: Beaver Island Cape Dory Rendezvous, 2010

I’d nearly forgotten about a Lake Michigan Cape Dory site I created a few years ago. Digging through the posts, I thought this one was worthy of sharing here because of the More »

Building the Shellback dinghy

The Waypoints project is underway. Those interested in following my students’ progress should check out the Nautical Arts blog and the student blogs referenced in my second blog post, On being a lifelong learner.

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.

Video: Smooth Sailing

FOR SALE: Sta-Lok Fittings

I have a collection of NEW Sta-Lok fittings for sale. Please see the inventory below. I’d be willing to make a deal on the whole lot or on partial lots. Email or comment here if you are interested.

5/32″ wire:
6 qty – Terminal Studs with 5/16″ threads – $20.00/each (Retail: $28.00/each)
9/32″ wire:
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12 qty – Fork with 7/16″ pin – 45.00/each (Retail: $67.00/each)
6 qty – Eye with 1/2″ pin hole – 35.00/each (Retail: $44.00/each)
8 qty – Terminal Stud w/ 1/2″ thread – $45.00/each (Retail: $53.00/each)
5/16″ wire:
IMG_9807 IMG_9803
12 qty – Fork with 1/2″ pin – $64.00/each (Retail: $80.00/each)
7 qty – Eye with 5/8″ pin hole – $45.00/each (Retail: $66.00/each)
10 qty – Terminal Stud w/ 1/2″ thread – 50.00/each (Retail: $62.00)
3/8″ wire: (CD36 Bobstay, by the way)
14 qty – Fork with 5/8″ pin – $76.00/each (Retail: $100.00)
2 qty – Eye with 5/8″ pin hole – $67.00/each (Retail: $81.00)
8 qty – Terminal Stud w/ 5/8″ thread – $70.00 (Retail: $89.00) 

And just in case you have 7/16″ rigging :):

7/16″ wire Eye with with 3/4″ pin hole – $100.00 (Retail: $200.00)

Upgrading the fuel system and adding a polishing circuit

Like most boat owners during their first season of ownership, we had the odd issue to sort out when we sailed Ariel out of St. Joseph and toward Traverse City that first summer of 2003. Most of the issues were fairly minor, but one issue slowed our progress northward considerably and, at one point, left us without an engine during an approach through a narrow channel in unsettled seas and a good blow: algal bloom and sediment in the fuel tank. After changing filters and doing what we could to clean the diesel tank, we resolved to find a more permanent fix.

I spent some time browsing the trawler forums and decided Ariel needed an updated filtration system with a fuel polishing circuit. I purchased two Racor 500 FG filters off of Ebay and gathered the necessary bits to plumb the two filters in series. I mounted them on a piece of Starboard and routed the valves and lines such that I could switch between a primary filtration circuit, a secondary filtration circuit (the old Racor R24s), and a fuel polishing circuit. The fuel polishing circuit required a pump, so I bought a Walbro 6802 and mounted it in the port cockpit locker, above the fuel tank.

This system has been in service now for over 10 years, and it has worked flawlessly. It’s more than adequate for our fuel flow and capacity, but that’s what I wanted: a system that would end our worries.

The idea behind a fuel polishing circuit is to cycle the entire contents of the diesel tank through the filters, thereby removing any sediment or water that – unchecked – could cause more problems. I generally run the polishing circuit back at dock after a lively sail, when the contents of the diesel tank are likely to be stirred up.

This is the original concept as I drew it:




And the layout before it was mounted in the engine compartment:


The original fuel setup with the R24s and an old Fram, the orange top just visible above the oil fill.


The new fuel filtration setup in place.


New setup plumbed and ready for service.


On/Off switch for the fuel polishing circuit.


Walbro fuel polishing pump and mounting location in port cockpit locker.

walbro walbromountedbig


And here’s some of the original write up providing background and info about the installation from the old website, should you care to know a few more details:

When we finally tackled the fuel issue a day later, we discovered that Ariel was suffering from a major buildup of crud in her diesel tank. After removing the Racor spin-on element, catching it and the spilled fuel in a ziploc baggy, I gave the bag a good shake and held it up against the sunlight coming in through the companionway. It was virtually opaque; I could just make out thousands of tiny black specks held in suspension.

During Ariel’s winter layup, I will be draining the tank and doing another thorough cleaning to ensure a fresh start for next season. The most important part of our approach, however, is the addition of two Racor 500FG turbine filters in series, with our old Racor R24S plumbed on a manifold as backup so that we can switch to a fresh filter if the 500s begin to show signs of restricted flow. This setup will drastically improve the engine’s reliability factor, and it is something called fuel polishing that will make our crud woes a thing of the past.

Unlike tractor-trailers, trawlers, and other vessels that have a high fuel turnover rate, sailboats – especially here on Lake Michigan where tides and remote, inland slips are non-existent – often have fuel that is months (if not years) old. Invariably, condensation forms inside the tank, dripping into the fuel, creating a wonderful environment for growth. It is this growth – unchecked for 24 years – that caused all of our woes. Without a higher turnover rate, there is little that can be done to prevent this problem. Even biocide will not solve the problem once it presents itself; once the creatures are dead, their carcasses will still clog filters. But how to get a higher turnover rate? Fuel polishing.

By plumbing an electric fuel pump into the fuel system that circulates fuel through the filters and back into the tank, it is possible to keep old fuel clean and free from devastating blooms of crud. Completely turning over the fuel at least three times a week is the recommended practice. This is what we hope to accomplish this winter with our dual Racor 500 fuel filter installation, and a basic fuel polishing system.

After last summer’s nonsense and the pain of spending over $100.00 on Racor spin-on elements, I spent some time searching Ebay for a cheaper (in the long run) alternative to our current R24S filter. I was able to find two new 500FG turbine filters for 75.00 a piece with a much cheaper element–8.00 each vs. R24S at 25.00 each. Now that I’ve got the filters, I need to determine the best way to set up the filtration system so that it’s possible to change filters while underway, and maintain a fuel polishing circuit. After a bit of musing, I came up with the sketch above. This system would utilize all but one of our current filters, so we wouldn’t be wasting any pieces, plus it allows for an easy way to prime the fuel lines and filters–not to mention ensuring the likelihood of having an engine when we need it most.

The Walbro pump, located where it is, and the priming pump on the R24 allow for easy priming on both sides of the manifold (valve). After changing the filters in the 500FGs, all that is necessary to bleed the system up to the lift pump is to close the valve located just after the two 500FGs, flip on the Walbro and let it run for a minute or so. Once fuel has been drawn through the 500FGs, it’s a simple process of opening the valve to direct fuel to the engine, then operating the lift pump until there’s fresh fuel at the tertiary filter’s bleed points–although I doubt that would even be necessary since there shouldn’t be any air between the second valve and the tertiary filter. Similarly, switching the first valve to the R24, I can easily use it’s built-in pump to prime it. Here’s a picture of the pump I’m after, it’s a Walbro 6802, 7 psi shut-off, max. capacity of 60 gph, continuous-duty pump. The pump is often available new through Ebay or through for about 100.00.

A cruising sailor’s creed

When I was 19 I spent a year living on a remote island in the Marshall Islands. During my time there I worked alongside the islanders, my neighbors and my hosts. I learned how to harvest coconut meat – their sole source of income – ripping open blisters on my tender palms as I ripped the tough coconut husk from the shell on a sharpened steel spike driven firmly into the ground. I taught their children in a thatched hut with a coral rock floor. When it rained heavily and the wind drove the rain in sideways under the thatched roof, I moved my students to the opposite side of the hut and kept right on teaching. I sat on woven grass mats in my hosts’ homes, playing cards or talking by lantern light late into the night about their past, their island, their adventures, their dreams. I delivered my condolences and the traditional bar of soap to a grieving family and paid my respects to the lifeless body, covered by a clean, white sheet, motionless atop a woven mat, hands folded peacefully across her chest. I attended yokwe parties and ate (sometimes I didn’t know what) whatever was put before me. Loathe to leave, I delayed my departure date repeatedly, radioing the secretary on the big island to say “one more week, one more week.” I wept when I said goodbye. I promised never to forget my island friends.


As a kid I had always loved fish and the water, so it was natural that I got hooked on snorkeling and spearfishing while I was on Woja.  Almost every day after I’d finished my work, I’d don my bathing suit, grab my mask and spear, and head to the water. I’d bring my fish to Elie, my next-door neighbor, and ask him which ones were edible and which weren’t. Elie taught me how to prepare the fish, and I would eat supper with him and his family. Elie was grateful for the fresh fish; his boys no longer valued the tradition of harvesting their own food from the sea, canned and processed foods proving too convenient. I was pleased that my sport was useful – if not entirely necessary – and part of his culture’s tradition.

Now I’m a high school teacher and a Lake Michigan sailor. I don’t teach in a thatched hut, I don’t husk coconuts, and I don’t spearfish. I satisfy my longing for adventure with summer sailing on Lake Michigan and camping trips to the Upper Peninsula – as if being dad to two energetic and imaginative young boys isn’t adventure enough.

When winter approaches, which is right about this time of year, I enjoy reading sailing blogs. Generally the photos of far-off exotic places bring me a little warmth during the cold Michigan winter. Lately, however, the photos have left me feeling a little…cold. Spearfishing, it seems, has become a popular sport among cruising sailors – at least those whose blogs I follow. Many of their blogs feature photos of stunning and enormous dead fish – and delectable recipes. I understand the allure – trust me, I do – but I’m troubled.

When I was into backpacking there was a motto: “Take only pictures; Leave only footprints.” A few years later, when I was obsessed with my classic ’74 Land Cruiser and off-roading, the motto was “Tread Lightly.” I’m beginning to think that it’s time cruising sailors come up with a similar creed.

I’m not a militant conservationist, but my time in the islands taught me – among many, many other things – to respect the local people and their resources. The photos and videos of sailors – transients, guests, interlopers, in some cases – harvesting far more fish for just themselves than I ever caught for my adopted Marshallese family troubles me, leaves me cold. I understand the allure, but I also understand the importance of treading lightly, respecting the native people, and leaving as little evidence of your presence as possible. Perhaps sailors need to add to their extensive tradition of aphorisms, proverbs, and sayings a new phrase: “Catch only the wind; Make nary a wake.”

Video: Blisters and barrier coat

Ariel was hauled out today, prompting a few thoughts on osmotic blisters and barrier coating a hull. The portion of the video that got cut off at the end essentially posits that a hull in good condition, without evidence of osmotic blisters, should NOT be barrier coated.

Mac Race video compilation

Readers of the blog might recall that I raced in the Chicago-Mac Race this summer. Here’s a brief video I put together for the skipper and crew of Elixir, the boat I crewed aboard.

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