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Reading time: 10 minutes Instruments for Small Boat Sailors | If you have ever attended a boat show at the local stadium or convention center, you are probably familiar with the notion that every skipper dreams of having a bigger boat. Bigger boats are generally faster, more comfortable, and, let’s face it, they bring more prestige to the skipper and his crew.
Although they try to hide it at boat shows, the fact is that bigger boats bring bigger problems. If it is primarily powered vessel, a bigger boat will need more expensive fuel (small powerboats burn a surprising amount of fuel, as well).
Even if the boat’s primary propulsion is its sails, rigging a large boat is an expensive proposition. A wise man once said that a boat is a hole in the water into which one throws money. Well, a bigger boat makes a bigger hole.
This is not to say that a landlubber should be forced to abandon his boat show induced dreams of conquering the high seas, but he may be better served to consider a much smaller vessel than those headlining the sports arena floor.
Introducing the Trailer Sailor
There is a saying in the boating world that the fun of boat ownership is inversely proportional to the size of the vessel. In other words, people who own small or very small boats tend to enjoy them a lot more than owners of big boats. A sailboat which is small enough to live on a trailer in your driveway represents an exceptional value.
The advantages of a small boat are almost too many to number. Maintaining a large boat is a lot of work. A small boat still needs maintenance, of course, but since it is a lot smaller, the work can be done in an hour or two instead of being a day-long or multi-day project. A big boat needs to be kept in the water, but a small boat skipper is likely to use his boat more often because it is so much simpler (and cheaper) for him to get it out on the water.
If a small sailboat does have an engine, it will be a very small and simple one which sips fuel. A larger yacht is often totally dependent upon firing up the “stinkpot” to get in and out of the harbor, not to mention relying on it to get home on schedule. It is easier to learn to operate a small boat than a large one (however, almost everything that you will learn on a small craft will be directly transferable to a larger vessel if you do decide to move up).
The most obvious advantage to a larger boat over a tiny one is safety and crew comfort, but even this can be an illusion. Nautical literature is filled with tales of very small vessels surviving very large storms (including hurricanes) if the crew is able to simply button down and ride it out. It is rarely comfortable to ride out a storm in a small craft, but your boat will be a lot tougher than you suspect.
“Weather” or not…
Most larger yachts will have a suite of weather instrumentation which rivals a municipal airport.
Professional seafarers have depended on this technology since before the beginning of the steamship age, but it has only reached the recreational market in the past few decades. Modern electronics have made weather measuring instruments for small boats that are reliable and compact enough to be mounted on a sailing yacht. Davis Instruments Windex 10 is a simple wind indicator that can be mounted easily on Small Boats and Dinghies.
Davis Instruments Windex 10 – Wind Indicator Instrument for Small Boats and Dinghies
There are a few basic conditions that every skipper will need to keep track of. These will include wind speed and direction, air temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. These conditions are recorded and reported by commercial and government agencies around the world, so a means of receiving these reports can be helpful to supplement local observation.
Limitations of Trailer Sailors?
Some people refuse to consider a small boat because they are afraid it will be of limited use. Remember, the smaller the boat, the more fun it is to own! Some very tiny boats, including many which fit our definition of trailer sailors, have made incredible voyages, including several circumnavigations and exploring everywhere from the fjords of Greenland to the bays of Antarctica and everywhere in between.
A mooring kept yacht would seem to have a greater range, but in fact, the bigger boat is more or less trapped in a single body of water. Trailer sailors have the option of going “55 mph to windward” any time they want to on their trailer.
Even if your home waters are an inland reservoir, with a little planning and a well-timed vacation, your family could be cruising the Gulf Coast, the many islands of Puget Sound, the rocky headlands of New England, the sunny shores of the Sea of Cortez, the Great Lakes, or the Florida Keys.
As long as the water is deep enough for your keel and there is a road leading to it, you can sail your trailer sailor there!
The Life You Save May Be Your Own…
Although it is fun to dream and great to know that your boat would be up to an epic adventure, most of our trailer sailor adventures will be more limited in scope. Whether you are braving “the Roaring Forties” around Cape Horn or spending a lazy afternoon tacking back and forth across your local reservoir, things going wrong can be just as deadly for you and your crew. Small craft safety comes down to the same three elements:
- Maintaining your vessel and its equipment.
- Knowing how to operate it in a prudent manner.
- Being aware of the conditions you are sailing in by having instruments for small boats on board.
As we mentioned earlier, taking care of a trailer sailor is a much simpler proposition than living with a larger yacht. Since the boat lives in your driveway, you are able to take care of things yourself and at your own pace. Even if you are not very mechanically inclined there are plenty of tutorials and forums on the Internet where you can learn everything you need to know about taking care of your boat.
The trailer sailor is small enough that learning its systems is very simple. In fact, building a small sailboat yourself is not that hard. It is a time-consuming project, and over the span of the project, most builders find that they haven’t really saved any money over buying a factory-built boat.
However, by spending a few hours a week on the project, spaced over several months, the amateur builder finds that he has a better built and more beautiful craft (since he is working for himself, the amateur builder usually does not take shortcuts and can afford to use the best materials). If something goes wrong during the life of the boat, the builder knows that he will be able to fix it because he built it!
Life On The Water
The basics of sailing, learning how to launch your boat, raise and lower the sails, and make it go where you want it to go can pretty much be learned over the space of a weekend, but you will spend the rest of your life perfecting those skills. There are sailing clubs just about everywhere you can find enough water to sail on, and most factory built boats will have a class organization where you will find plenty of friends willing to teach you the basics of sailing.
Keep in mind that whenever there is more than one boat sailing in the same water, inevitably a contest will breakout to see which one is the fastest.
It always feels great to have the faster boat while it can be humbling to wring all the performance you can out of your boat and still come up short, but racing, no matter how informal, is a great way to boost your boat handling skills. It is important for the skipper to share those skills with his crew, as well. With the limited space aboard a trailer sailor, it is good if everyone can pull their weight, and it is great fun to watch your kids learning how to handle the boat. Many skippers will tell you that the proudest moment of their sailing career was the first time they sat back with a drink while their kids took the helm and navigated across the bay.
With modern weather services both broadcast and over the Internet, a trailer sailor can usually choose the best conditions to go sailing in. If the skipper knows that it is going to be a stormy day, better to leave the boat on the trailer and take in a ball game. Keep in mind that broadcast or Internet forecasts are going to cover a wide area, and what the small boat sailor needs to know is the conditions where his boat is sailing right now.
A larger craft will have plenty of room full function weather instrumentation, but a trailer sailor usually will not have the dashboard space for all the weather gizmos that a skipper desires. While there is no replacement for the Mk1Mod0 Human Eyeball, there are a number of portable electronic devices which can fill the void.
Talk to Me
With so many government and commercial weather services available, being able to take advantage of their broadcasts should be a primary consideration. One of the first electronics to bring aboard is a so-called survival radio receiver. These units are primarily marketed to Preppers or Survivalists, but they will be welcome in any boater’s kit. Although the technology of these units pales in comparison with a modern smartphone, their simplicity means that they can be built very ruggedly so they will survive the marine environment.
Many will feature solar and/or hand crank charging in case the batteries go dead (keep fresh batteries on hand anyway), and being able to listen to some music or a talk show can help to entertain bored or seasick crew members. Most importantly, most survival radios will have a dedicated band to automatically tune in NOAA station. Some will even have an alarm feature to alert the listener of a storm warning.
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The next step up would be handheld radios which feature broadcasting capability. Most of these units are very rugged, able to stand up to being dropped on the deck or even into the water, and will feature NOAA monitoring and alarm functions. Units operating on the FRS, or Family Radio bands do not require a license for transmission, but they are intended for short-range use with other units on the same band. GMRS or General Mobile Radio Service bands do require operators to be licensed by the FCC, although many portable radios are designed to operate on both FRS and GMRS channels.
FRS/GMRS radios are primarily intended for short range, land use, and their channels are generally not monitored by marine operators, but they can be used to communicate between a boat and a shore party and their NOAA alert functionality will be universally appreciated.
Popular models in this category include the Motorola T400 and the Ships and larger boats will have permanently installed VHF Marine band transceiver sets. These units are naturally more reliable and better performing than a handheld unit, but a small vessel may not have enough room or a sufficient power supply for a permanent installation.
Handheld units like the Uniden MHS126 or UN-MHS75 have many of the features that the skipper of a merchant’s vessel would expect, such as automatic monitoring of Channel 16 (International Emergency Band), Channel Watch features, and automatic NOAA weather updates. Although these “marine walkie-talkies” have a limited range, they are more than sufficient for communicating with a merchant, government, and recreational craft in the immediate area where you are sailing.
The Weather is Here…
Wind and waves are deceptively frightening. We say deceptively because the great majority of boating-related accidents and injuries occur in calm, even nice weather. This may be due to the fact that most recreational boaters simply choose not to be afloat during a storm, or perhaps the frightening conditions of heavy weather sailing simply make the skipper and crew more aware of the dangers and therefore generally more cautious about what they are doing.
The first step in avoiding the dangers of heavy weather is being aware of what is going on locally in the atmosphere. Accurate weather measuring instruments allows the skipper to track weather conditions and quantify when and how fast they change. A fully equipped larger vessel will have a weather instrument suite which includes an instrument to measure wind speed and direction, air and sometimes water temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.
The Wind is the primary condition which a sailboat skipper will want to keep track of since the wind is what makes the sailboat go. The skipper and crew need to trim their sails to achieve the most efficient propulsion while keeping in mind that too much wind (or too much sail for the wind conditions) can lead to capsizing or damage to the boat. Using an instrument to measure wind speed, the skipper will be better able to predict changing conditions and reef (reduce sail area) before conditions become too dangerous.
A larger craft will have a wind vane to read wind direction and an anemometer for wind speed mounted at the mast top which is wired to displays in the cockpit or navigation station. On the tiniest of craft, there may only be enough space for a light pennant fixed to be attached to the highest point on the vessel. The pennant is pretty to watch but can also provide the sailor with a good deal of information. The pennant will fly opposite the wind direction, and the stronger the wind blows, the stiffer the pennant will be.
The simplest way to determine wind direction is to face directly into the wind until you feel the same amount of wind on both cheeks, then if you can, identify a landmark directly in front of you. Use your compass to determine the bearing of the landmark, or take a compass reading of the wind direction. Most portable wind meters will not have a wind vane, but some of the more sophisticated models will include an internal compass which can be used in a similar fashion to the “wind on both cheeks” method.
Accurate temperature readings may not seem critical to a recreational sailor. If it gets chilly, personal comfort dictates putting on a jacket or foul weather gear. In actual practice, with the fun of being on the water and the excitement of new sensations, some crew members may ignore the need for donning weather protective clothing until it is too late. Given the wet and windy conditions of sailing, hypothermia, an uncontrolled drop in body temperature is a constant danger.
A sudden drop in air temperature may precede a sudden change in atmospheric conditions, signalling a quickly developing storm.
Thermometers are generally small and rugged enough to be mounted in a small cockpit, but if the instrument is mounted improperly the readings could be false due to direct sun.
The barometer is considered the single most valuable weather prediction instrument carried on board. Current barometric readings will provide a picture of what the atmosphere is doing, but the change and rate of change in pressure readings are even more informative.
A quickly falling barometer indicates an imminent storm. A bulkhead mounted mechanical aneroid barometer requires no power, although a salty marine environment may negatively affect the internal gear mechanism. Handheld barometers are often too fragile to be practical. An electronic barometer such as the one featured in a handheld weather station is again the most favorable solution for the small boat sailor. Portable wind meters such as WeatherHawk WM-350 and SM-28 include the option for barometric readings.
Load Up and Set Sail
Probably the greatest small boat sailors of all time were the ancient Polynesians. Although their craft was not really what we would think of as trailer sailors, the boats did live on the beach when they were not being sailed.
These same boats (which were among the fastest non-engine powered watercraft of all time) were constructed by hand from all natural materials with no written plans, fibreglass, epoxy, or metal fittings. The navigators who sailed them had not weather instrumentation other than their own eyes and knowledge passed down from father to son for generations. Using this stone-age technology, they became the dominant culture over nearly a fifth of the Earth’s surface.
We may never become as intimate with the sea and the weather as the ancient Polynesians, but we face the same dangers and experience the same joys every time we go to sea in our small boats. It is an attainable adventure which is within reach of almost everyone, and one which can be shared and enjoyed by the entire family. Keep the following principles in mind:
- Smaller vessels are incredibly capable, versatile, and much cheaper to own and operate than large yachts. The smaller the boat, the more fun it is to own!
- Although a trailer sailor may not have enough space to carry a suite of full-function weather instruments, the skipper can use handheld electronic devices to keep track of the weather and communicate with other vessels.
- There are several types of radio sets and receivers which can monitor NOAA Weather alerts and can be set up with an alarm for emergency conditions.
- Tracking wind conditions is vital for sailing vessels for both the safety and performance of the craft. A simple portable wind meter gives the skipper up-to-the-moment readouts of wind speed and changing conditions.
- Hypothermia can be deadly on the water. Keep track of air temperature and wind-chill conditions.
- Use a barometer to track and predict changes in local weather conditions.