Jun 29 2009

Sewing. Exciting!

Tag: boat workJonathon Haradon @ 2:16 pm

The sail-making kit arrived from Sailrite two months ago.  I immediately opened the box and had, on a mini-scale, the same feeling upon seeing our boat for the first time.  “What the hell am I getting myself into?”  I slowly plodded through the instructions and all of the components.  Like poking around the boat for the first time, this induced more feelings of dread.

34 yards each of light blue and dark blue ripstop Nylon Sailcloth
79 feet of leech line
81 feet of 5-ply Waxed Bobbin Twine (I still don’t know what this is for)
1 square foot of 2-3 oz Pearl Gray Cowhide Leather
240 yards of Seamstick Basting Tape (both 1/2” and 1/4”)
a variety of other stuff

One last item caught my eye.  2400 yards of 1 oz V-46 White Polyester UV Thread.  Over 1.36 miles of thread.  It would take me 9 minutes to sprint a distance the length of the thread included in the Sailrite kit.  It would take our boat over 7 minutes, at top speed in heavy winds to cover the distance.  I tried not to think about how much sewing this implied.

I did know the first step, though, of this project:  securing a location to do the sewing.  My condo would not do.  The total square footage of my condo is 1126  feet, not including the balcony.  The largest room is a mere 220 square feet.  The square footage of our sail: 706.37 square feet.  My condo would not do.

I had been to another sail-making shop though, when we needed a patch put on our jib.  They had an enormous wood floor that immediately made me harken back to my high school basketball days.  The perfect location was so obvious.  I even work at a school… easy access!  A week later I sheepishly asked my principal at my school if I could use the gymnasium after school the next week.

“For what?” she inquired.

“I’m sewing a sail for our sailboat.”

“Wow.  Do you know how to make a sail?”


“Do you know how to sew?”


She laughed and wished me luck.

A week later I carted into the gym a box of supplies, including my sewing machine, some scissors, pens, black clips and scotch tape that I borrowed from school, and the Sailrite kit.

I then left and fetched a 48-inch wide dust mop.  Because I knew the floor was gross.  No way was I laying our brand new thousand dollar sail down on that floor.

Sail laid out on gym floor

Sail laid out on gym floor

I pulled out the scraps they include for patches and making sure the settings on your sewing machine are correct; they would be my practice test runs and only the fourth time I had ever operated the sewing machine.  I hemmed and hawed, but finally set up a work station in the middle of the gym floor and went at it.

And it was surprisingly easy!

Step 1: Take a roll of Seamstick basting tape and methodically roll it on to the edge of one of the sail panels.  
Note: Be careful to keep the sail taught but not stretched while applying.  There can be no bunching or buckling of the sail or of the basting tape.

Step 2: Line up two panels.  Remove backing to basting tape.
Note: a little at a time is best.

Step 3:  Apply one sail panel on top of another, lining it up on the marks drawn on the sail by Sailrite.

Note: This time both sails must be taught, but not stretched, as they are joined together.  
This results in awkward positioning wherein one knee is on the union of the sail panels where they have already been basted so as to provide the main anchor point for proper sail cloth tensioning for the next basting. The other leg, so as not to be on the sail cloth, thus providing another anchor point on the sail, resulting in improper tensioning, and consequently buckling or bunching of the sail cloth, must wrap on top of and behind the other leg.  Now while balanced here, one hand pulls taught one sail, the other hand pulls taught and applies the other sail to the basting tape.  Yoga helps.  The position I would get into, incidentally, looks a little like a kneeling eagle pose.

Sail with basting tape applied.

Sail panel with basting tape applied.


Basting the panels together.

Panels basted together.

Panels basted together.

Step 4:  You should only do the joining of sail panels in small increments so as to ensure a proper sail union.  “Basting is a  critical step in sail-making.”  So says Sailrite.  Therefore, repeat step 3, 8 inches at a time, and just to join two sail panels you might be at this for 40 feet.

Step 5:  Roll up both panels from each end so that only the seam is showing.  
Note: Rolling the 4 foot wide panels at the head (top) of the sail by yourself is easy.  Rolling 40 foot wide panels at the foot (bottom) of the sail by yourself is not.

Panels lined up to sewing machine.

Panels lined up to sewing machine.

Step 6:  Finally some sewing!  Drag entire ensemblage over to sewing station and begin to sew.  
Note: A 45 degree zigzag stitch is proper, 3 mm wide.  No backing of the thread is required at the edges because luff tape will cover and anchor the strands of thread.  Be sure to sew as close to the edge of the seam as possible.

Step 7:  Repeat Step 6.  Two rows of zigzag stitching are required at each seam.
Note: Three rows if using a straight stitch.
Note: On 40 foot sail panel seams, two rows of zigzag stitching will require you to change the bobbin on a standard consumer sewing machine a minimum of three times.  This will be annoying.
Note: On 40 foot sail panel seams, two rows of zigzag stitching will take beginning sewers 2 hours.
Note:  Your back will hurt from leaning over.
Note:  Your eyes will get fuzzy from staring at one spot for hours.
Note:  Your left leg will cramp from being awkwardly positioned to the side while controlling the speed with your foot on the footpad.
Note:  Your right knee will hurt from being on the ground for hours.  Even if wearing a knee pad.

There you have it.  Sewing the sail panels together in 7 easy steps.  All it takes is time.  Lots of time.  Next comes the reinforcement patches on the corners and the edges.  Both do not seem as straight forward as stitching in a straight line for 40 feet.

Jun 26 2009

For janky pieces of shit, Syzygy is #1!

Tag: humorous,preparationjonny5waldman @ 4:57 am

[reposted from my outside blog ]

A year ago, back when Syzygy was named Sunshine, and her port of call was listed as Portland, OR, I set to scraping off the old name and cleaning up the paint in preparation for applying the new vinyl letters.

The boat was up on stilts, then, at a workyard in Berkeley, so I had to climb a ladder to get aboard. I dragged the ladder back a few feet, closer to the stern, and climbed up five or six steps and from there began scraping off the letters. The letters were white vinyl, about eight inches tall, on blue paint, and it was just luck that I started on the left side, and not the right, so that after a little bit of work SUNSHINE became UNSHINE. I giggled at first, then thought about the irony, or the truth, as it were, in the new name. I sorta wished we hadn’t sent off our paperwork to the US Coast Guard with the name Syzygy, because UNSHINE was so perfect. It was our style. It was unique. And it was so easy — I’d barely started, and the job was already done. Voila, name removal and reapplication complete! If only other boat projects could be like that.

But Syzygy (which was my grandfather’s favorite word) it was, so on with the work I  went. Maybe it was an omen, this little taste of completion well before it was deserved. Or maybe it was an omen that before things would be completed, they would lack a certain luster. Or maybe it was an omen that painting (or preparing to paint) is a bitch. Or maybe the omen was this: there will be jank. Lots and lots of jank.

Now, it has recently come to my attention that my sailboat is the 5th thing that pops up if you Google the phrase “janky piece of shit.” If you don’t use the quotes in your query, my sailboat pops up 8th on the list. Given how much there is to be proud of onboard Syzygy, the amount of satisfaction I gain from this little internet phenomenon is perhaps disproportionate to its actual value. I’m not concerned though; you take from life what joys it provides, and if those joys come wrapped in a package with a return address from Janky and Co., in Gary, Indiana, you don’t return the package to its sender and ask for a refund. You open it up, and enjoy the contents, even if the contents are pieces of crap, as janky as janky gets. So that’s how it is, an that’s why I now officially want my boat be at the top of the online janky list. When people around the world look up “janky piece of shit,” I want THE answer to be Syzygy.

This is no unsubstantiated desire, as Matt, Jon, and I derive great (dare I say intense?) pleasure from removing janky parts from the boat. Lately, I’ve discovered a new twist on the jank removal: if I’m good, I can double the fun by selling the janky stuff that we don’t want. This being America, eBay and Craigslist being only a few clicks away, perhaps this should have occurred to me earlier. I would never claim to have overlooked this option because I’m such a nice guy. No, I overlooked this option because the sheer removal of janky pieces of shit overwhelmed my senses to such a degree that rational thought was unavailable to me for the next half hour, and by then it was too late, because by then the janky piece of shit was in the middle of the dumpster. 

So I’m not sure how this realization came to me; I blame poverty. And for the poverty, I blame the boat. Take warning, would-be-boat-owners! A sailboat will do that to you. It will eat your money, and force you to sell your trash, and trick you into thinking you are some kind of entrepreneurial genius for having thought of (aka resorted to) it. Take it from me!

Nevertheless, I sold the old metal radar arch for $300. I sold the old fiberglass propane locker for $150. I sold the old 15-gallon water heater for $100. To think: people want to pay me for the crap I don’t want! Amazing! What a world! Gooooooo capitalism!

Some jank, though, is so janky it’s hard to get rid of. I tried to sell a few cans of freon refrigerant from 1989, but my listing was removed from Ebay, because I’m not licensed by the EPA to sell that stuff. So what am I supposed to do with it? It’s janky, it’s toxic, and it eats holes in the Ozone layer — and some poor sailor out there is still using a refrigeration compressor older than I am, and probably could use it to keep his lemonade nice and chilly. I’m sure it’s illegal to ship the stuff, too. A conundrum, no? All I want to do is get rid of this jank, but the law won’t let me. Curses! I sure would like to barter it for something… ehem ehem.

So here’s one more effect of boat ownership: me and janky pieces of shit are now best buddies. In fact, I’m thinking of pointing jankypieceofshit.com to syzygysailing.com. Not bad, huh? That’s probably because I don’t own any more, because I’ve weeded them all out. It’s also probably because my last name isn’t Janky.

Jun 22 2009

The solstice.

Tag: Uncategorizedmattholmes @ 5:31 am

Just cooked a great meal with karen on the boat on an uncharacteristically balmy calm day and watched the sunset go down over the water while sitting on the soft green grass splitting a bottle of cold white wine and eating chocolate mousse out of a plastic container from the corner store to mark the longest day of the year.  Glorious!

Jun 18 2009

Gaining Perspective

Tag: humorous,introspection,musings,preparationjonny5waldman @ 6:26 am

[Reposted from my Outside blog]

In late November I flew to the East Coast to visit my family for Thanksgiving. It was the first time I’d spent 10 days away from the boat in six months. They gave me an earful, my family.

On a walk in the woods with my mom, she asked if I was “prepared to weather a downturn in the economy.” I hemmed and hawed, and admitted all my savings were sunk into the sailboat. Then I tried to explain that cruising is really cheap — you load up on rice and beans, and just take off and go, like a climbing road trip. She seemed unconvinced, and rightly so.

My cousin Myles asked if I was done fixing up the boat; I told him it was complicated, that the boat was sorta like his house — a huge, ornate 1880’s Victorian, perpetually mid-repair, in a historic town. He grasped the situation immediately, and said, “So you’ll never be finished.” I smiled. “Exactly.”

My cousin Joel told me to read “Adrift” — Steve Callahan’s terrifying story of shipwreck and survival — and I told him I had, and that if he thought that story was good, he should read “Survive the savage sea,” by Dougal Robertson.

This got them — my whole extended family, now — riled up, and the comments began to pour forth. Myles, reasoning that piracy was more of a threat than sinking, suggested that I acquire cannons. My dad chimed in: torpedos! Myles: machine guns! My cousin Jim: Missiles!

I opened another beer, and tried not to get defensive. Maybe I should bring their phone numbers, so that I could have the would-be-pirates call them directly to negotiate the ransom?

While home, I also added a few more names to the list of People Who Wish They Could Come Sailing With Us:

-My mother’s boss
-At least one of my folks’ neighbors
-Half of my friends, including one who’s just finishing grad school and afraid to look for a job
-At least one former coworker

Heckling and eager stowaways aside, it felt good to get away from the boat and gain some some perspective. Onboard Syzygy, it’s easy to get so involved, so focused, so lost within a project that it’s impossible to decompress or relax. At the same time, being away from the boat was also disorienting. Soon enough, withdrawn from the boat, I found myself getting antsy. I chalked it up as an urge to tinker. The urge to repair and build was so physical — like I needed to hold tools in my hands lest they curl up and wither — that I had to wonder if the sailboat thing hadn’t changed me.

I climbed up onto the roof of my folks’ house and did some caulking. I put down some new roof with my dad. I cleaned the gutters. I tried to go with the urge, but this was just regular maintenance. I still yearned to build something, and the opportunity that presented itself came, courtesy of my mother, in the shape of… a squirrel-proof bird feeder. It was no sailboat, but it was a challenge: could I use a little ingenuity to outwit mother nature? (The answer, sadly, was no. Squirrels are tenacious little things.) As I dug through the garage looking for parts, I wondered: do I enjoy asking for trouble? Do I tend to invite problems my way? In another sense, I was looking for an opportunity to solve a problem. Such opportunities are often compelling. Can I get up that rock? Can I get up that mountain? Can I get down that canyon? Can I run those 26 miles? Or how about: Can I fix up an old sailboat and sail it around the world?

I spent last week away from the Syzygy, too, visiting my family again. The urge to tinker was still there — I climbed up the Chestnut tree in the backyard and hacked off some dead branches, and sanded and painted the rusting wrought iron railings on the front steps — but even more evident was the urge to nestle in, stay put, have some coffee and just relax. After all this fixing-up-a-sailboat work, I needed a break. I needed to, as they say in the South, “set a spell.” So I sat. And that’s when I noticed the coolest thing: I’ve changed. I’m way more patient than I used to be (though still no saint). I’m way more eager to immerse myself fully in a task. And I’m more comfortable without distractions, just me and my thoughts.

This last realization occurred near the end of a six-hour, coast-to-coast flight, when I noticed the passengers near me getting fidgety, almost childishly so. I sat, knees bent, safety belt buckled, neck squished against one of those godawful airplane headrests that comes standard on those godawful airplane seats, and thought: this is nothing. This aint no sailboat, and this aint no ocean.

Jun 16 2009


Tag: boat work,energy efficiency,victoriesmattholmes @ 6:47 pm

I built this:


Out of this:


I read Nigel Calder’s “Refrigeration for Pleasureboats” three times, I read Richard Kollman’s forum on marine refrigeration, and I spoke with Marcus a few times (a fellow cruiser-friend in the marina).  Marcus is lending me his top-quality, indispensable refrigeration tools (much thanks to Marcus!), and also turned me on to RParts, where I ordered all my stuff.  I learned how to “sweat” copper tubing (i.e. silver soldering copper), how to form flare fittings, how to use a refrigeration gauge set, the detailed principles behind refrigeration, and I built my own refrigeration system.  I’m pretty proud of this 1.5′ x 1.5′ x 1′ cube of refrigeration goodness–it’s hard to believe that a month ago I didn’t understand how this thing worked, and now I’ve built my own out of parts.  It’s not making anything cold yet, but I pressure tested it yesterday and to my immense satisfaction and relief I have no leaks!  (that’s huge–to find and fix a leak would have been a nightmare)

Refrigeration is a lot more interesting once you understand how it works.  You don’t want to hear the details, but I have admin access on this blog so I’m going to tell you all about it.


A refrigerator works by moving heat from one place to another.  It does not “create” cold.  Heat is removed from the icebox and deposited at the “hotbox” (that’s my own term, it will be helpful for the discussion).  On our boat, the hotbox happens to be the storage space under the quarterberth; for your fridge at home, the hotbox is just the space behind the fridge.

On each side of the circuit there is a heat exchanger.  The heat exchanger transfers heat from the air to the refrigerant in the icebox, and from the refrigerant back to the air in the hotbox.  The heat exchanger in the icebox is called the evaporator; the heat exchanger in the hotbox is called the condenser.

The refrigerant is the medium that moves the heat around the circuit.  If the refrigerant was simply pushed around in a circle, it would not be inclined to transfer heat out of the cool icebox into the warm hotbox–that would be trying to push the heat uphill, so to speak.  The key is to pressurize the refrigerant, using a compressor.  When the refrigerant is compressed, it warms up; when it de-compresses (expands) it gets cold.  The refrigerant comes out of the icebox medium-warm.  The compressor pressurizes the refrigerant, which heats it up.  Then the pressurized refrigerant passes through the condenser–which looks like a mini car radiator–and as the refrigerant passes through the condenser its heat is transferred to the air (just like your car radiator, in fact).  The refrigerant returns to the icebox at a mediumish temperature, but this time it’s pressurized.  At the icebox, the refrigerant is allowed to expand–which causes it to get cold.  The cold refrigerant sucks up heat as it passes through the evaporator.  Then the process is repeated.  Good diagram.

There’s one more principle at work: phase changes.  If you just pumped a liquid around in circles, from the evaporator to the condenser to the evaporator to the condenser, etc, then you might be able to remove a small amount of heat from the icebox and dump it at the condenser.  However, you can’t suck up much heat just by warming up a liquid and then cooling it off.  The real way to suck up heat and drop it off elsewhere is to use a PHASE CHANGE to your advantage.  The phase change is the key to the whole process.

Consider heating a quart of water in a pot on the stove.  It takes 320 BTU of energy to heat that water from 33 degrees F to 211 degrees–320 BTU to change the temperature of the water by 178 degrees.  Then, to heat that water only 2 more degrees, from just 211 degrees to 213 degrees, it takes 1934 BTU!  Because at 212 degrees, the H2O changes from water to steam; this is the phase change.  During the entire process of converting water to steam, you keep dumping in large quantities of energy and the temperature stays the same–all the energy goes into the conversion from liquid to gas.  The message is that the energy required to do a phase change from water to steam is WAY GREATER than the energy required to change the temperature of the water itself.

In refrigeration, we store our heat as a phase change of the refrigerant in order to efficiently transfer it from the icebox to the hotbox.  We don’t use water though, because we want the phase change to take place around the 20 degrees F in our refrigerator (not very helpful to us for it to take place at 212 degrees).  We use refrigerant specially formulated to undergo the phase change near freezing (in our case, R134a).

We pump a liquid to the evaporator, and then let it expand into a gas; that expansion to a gas sucks huge amounts of heat out of the box.  Then back at the compressor we compress the gas, which heats it up (essentially exchanging “pressure energy” for heat).  Then we send it through the condenser, where the the hot gas dumps off all its heat and turns back into a liquid (condenses!) in the process.  Then we sent the liquid back to the evaporator, where it turns into a gas again . . . and so on.  The refrigerant goes to the icebox as a liquid, but it returns as a gas; the phase changes that happens in the icebox and the hotbox are the primary means of temporarily storing the heat in the refrigerant for transfer from one location to another.

Refrigeration is by far the single largest energy sink on a cruising sailboat.  In the average residential home, refrigeration is 5% of the energy bill–not an insignificant amount. One site says that the average fridge uses ~$8 of electricity per month, depending on how big, what kind, and where you live.  The efficiency of the refrigeration system depends very strongly on the refrigerant dumping off heat as it passes through the condenser.  Most systems use air-cooled condensers (I put in both air-cooled and water-cooled condensers–the air-cooled is the radiator-looking thing in the picture above; the water-cooled is the black circle of tubing on the top of the apparatus).  If the air-cooled condenser is located in a cool spot with good air-flow, this heat dump can happen very effectively; if the condenser is located in a hot spot with stagnant air, or even worse in the hot engine room, then the refrigeration cycle’s efficiency plummets.  Meaning that the fridge runs much longer, and consumes much more power.  Moral: the quickest improvement you can make to reduce your energy needs on a sailboat is to improve the air circulation around the refrigeration condenser.

You can do the same for your fridge at home: just pull the fridge away from the wall an extra inch, and you’ll greatly increase the air-circulation around the condenser, improving the efficiency.  Avoid shoving plastic or paper bags between the wall and the fridge for storage–that’s not helping out your fridge, or your electrical bill.  Even better, use a vacuum to clean off the condenser tubing on the back of the fridge–that gunk kills the condenser’s ability to dump heat.

Jun 13 2009

Free Advice

Tag: marina life,musings,preparationjonny5waldman @ 2:47 pm

[ My Outside blog, reposted here ]

There’s no shortage of advice at the marina. One guy in particular, Steel Boat Jim, who I refer to as Maine Guy on account of his Downeast accent, is a treasure trove. You’d be hard-pressed to carry on a conversation with him and manage to sneak away without having received a point in some direction.

The first time I met Maine Guy, back in November, he was wearing a gray t-shirt from which his stomach protruded, and he had a beer in hand. It was maybe noon. I liked him already.

“So when ahh you leaving?” he asked. I was up on deck, the grinder in my hands, and earplugs in my ears. I pulled them out, and said, “Huh?”

“When ahh you leaving?”

“Not for more than a year,” I said.

“Well, remember, after yooah all stocked up on food, then buy yooah electronics.”

“Sounds like good advice,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I’ve wrecked all my fuckin’ electronics.”

He went on, providing more detail — but the pattern had been established: 1) question; 2) answer; 3) unsolicited advice. Technically, the advice also goes unheeded, but he doesn’t know that.

I stopped by Maine Guy’s steel boat, the Arctic Tern, a couple of weeks ago, and after checking out his new solar panels, got to talking about wind generators.

“Yooah totally fuhcked if yooah relying on a wind genertah!” He said. “That thing’s a piece of fuckin’ gahbage! You gotta undastand, theah’s no wind from twenty degrees to twenty degrees. In the tropics, that generatah’s gonna be worthless.”

Maine Guy says that a lot: “you gotta undastand,” as if he’s the purveyor of ancient wisdom. That’s the prelude to his free advice. It’s not patronizing so much as amusing. Of course, he had a point. Wind generators produce no power in winds below about 10 knots, and much of the ocean is festooned with such light air.

“If you buy a wind generatah, theah goes a yeah of cruising,” he said. I’m not sure if I could survive for a year on $2,000, but I got the gist of it. He continued. “If you buy a radar, theah goes a yeah of cruising. If you buy a life raft, theah goes a yeah of cruising.”

I knew better than to steer the conversation toward money or the economy, as he had earlier e-mailed me a long rant about converting my savings from dollars to gold, so I played defense. I said, “Yeah, if you know what you’re doing, you may be OK without those backups.”

Maine Guy had an answer for that, too. “Hey, isn’t that what adventure’s about?”

Score another point for Maine Guy, but remember that there’s a line between adventure and recklessness, a line that we’ve gotten to know in the mountains. That and we already have a radar and a life raft, and we’re not about to sell them.

In the spirit of passing on more advice — this time literally — Maine Guy dug through his bookshelf and handed me a copy of “Blue Water,” by Bob Griffith, one of the circumnavigators on that list I found later. “If you read this book,” he said, “you’ll find out that the most important things on your boat are the anchor, the anchor, and the anchor. And that in two thousand years of sailing, not much has changed.”

“What’s the second most important thing,” I asked.

“A bottle opener,” he said.