Runaround Hazel

Ah, she likes to travel around,
She’ll love you and she’ll put you down.
Now people let me put you wise,
[Hazel] goes out with other guys.

—Dion, Runaround Sue (#1 on the Billboard Charts, October 1961), added to hjsailing playlist

That blog-post title and song reference goes out to T. McMahon (Terry). He’s my great friend and Colleen’s father. I’m also pretty sure he is the most prolific commenter on this blog (he’s certainly the most prolific user of exclamation points!!!). It’s a thing a beauty to see him and DD (Dianne) cut the rug to Runaround Sue.

In all seriousness, I’m so grateful to them for not only putting up with, but enthusiastically supporting, my public ruminations on Colleen’s life and our relationship. I know that they know that if I didn’t care about Colleen, I wouldn’t be writing about her. Over the past six years the relationship between me, and DD and T has had a million-and-one opportunities to end-up permanently in a ditch. It didn’t; one could argue that it’s stronger than it ever has been. I cry happy tears as I write about it—such a testament to grace.

One of the things that has been most surprising to me on the voyage is how few other singlehanded sailors I have encountered. In thinking back, I can only remember meeting two other singlehanders in my three months of voyaging, and one of those had his wife and two kids onboard for a time.

The words “berth”, “berth” and “berth” are homonyms in sailing-parlance (i.e., words that sound the same, are spelled the same but have different meanings). “Berth” can mean: 1) where a ship lies at anchor or on a wharf, 2) where one sleeps on a boat (i.e., a bed), 3) sufficient distance for safe maneuvering (e.g., “Keep a clear berth of the shoals.”). Going with definition #3 here, I find that other (non-singlehanded) sailors tend to give singlehanders like me a “wide berth”… until they get to know us. I was talking to my daughter Emma on the phone about this phenomenon and she said, “Yeah, makes sense. Two people living out in the woods is, ‘a couple getting back to nature.’ Whereas a single person living out in the woods is just a creepy loner.”

Besides the benefit of being given a wide berth by others, singlehanders have the added benefit of being able to talk freely to their boats and other equipment without being judged as having a diagnosable mental illness. While others might call it “anthropomorphizing” (i.e., attributing human form or personality to things not human), that’s clearly wrong-headed and just plain stupid because it presumes Hazel and her companions are non-human (i.e., without souls).

Returning to the opening reference of “Runaround Sue”, I sincerely hope that none of you thought a 30-year old with the beauty, spunk, wanderlust and wandering eye of Hazel James would limit herself to one guy. I don’t blame her, she can’t help it if she lives too large for one soulmate.

From my many talks with her over the last several months, she’s opened up and shared that she has two: Otto and Ox. While Otto and Ox are very different, somehow the three of them make it work.

She spends more time with Otto than with Ox and it makes sense, she’s a sailor. Otto has a sinewy build—lean and muscular—and is sensitive. His job is to sense the wind. He ignores everything else going on shipboard and focuses on one thing: the wind. When all hell is breaking loose elsewhere on deck, or her captain is forward making a sail change, or sleeping in the cockpit, Hazel appreciates Otto’s single-minded focus.

While Otto’ has a lot going for him, Hazel relishes her short but passionate interludes with Ox. If you’re looking for a mental image, picture Ox as Fabio on the cover of a historical romance novel.

Fabio’s timeless modeling

However, unlike our friend Fabio, Ox is built like an ox: barrel chest, gruff, dirt and grease under fingernails, but sexy in his own right. As we all know, Hazel is adventuresome. Like other adventuresome people, she can get herself into quite a jam from time-to-time. When she does, Ox is first on her speed dial.

Given I’m singlehanding, the four of us—Hazel, Otto, Ox and yours truly—can talk openly. It’s a beautiful thing to be in Hazel’s cockpit and reach my hand over the windward rail, pat her aquamarine hull, and tell her my dreams. Often, when she is not sailing as well as she could given the wind direction and speed, I ask her, “Tell me what you want girl… just tell me what you want.”

“Otto” is our Monitor Windvane self-steering unit made by Scanmar International in Southern California (“Otto” being a play on “automatic”). He is hands-down some of the coolest technology in the entire world. On passage, I can spend hours just watching him work. Some have asked me, “When you are on passage, how to you just sit there and steer for hours and days on end.” The simple answer is, “I don’t.” Even daysailing, Otto does over 95% of the work and I only disengage him and take the helm when changing course or tacking or gybing.

A conventional auto-helm (a.k.a., auto-pilot) relies on an electronic compass to sense when the boat is off-course and then uses electricity and hydraulics to force the boat back onto a pre-determined compass heading. Instead of a compass and the earth’s magnetic field, Otto uses a windvane to sense the wind’s direction. He then redirects the power of the water flowing past Hazel James to gently guide her back to a specific angle to the wind. I wasn’t kidding when I told you he’s sensitive.

In addition to Otto, Hazel James does have a conventional auto-helm and it’s a big help when motoring or maneuvering in tight situations. However, as you might imagine, using an auto-helm on a long passage, hour-after-hour, day-after-day on large ocean swells takes a significant amount of electrical energy. For a motor yacht with alternators on its constantly-running engines, that power consumption is no big deal. Even large modern sailing yachts that rely on their electrical auto-helm generally find themselves running a diesel generator a significant portion of the day just to keep up with the auto-helm’s power requirements (they’re also running water makers, extensive refrigeration and air conditioning). Furthermore, auto-helms are complex and finicky, and are one of the most prone-to-failure units on a cruising yacht. Well-outfitted power and sailing yachts that rely on their auto-helms generally carry an entire spare unit on a passage. Conversely, while windvane self-steering has some complexity, the unit is entirely mechanical and, with some ingenuity, most anything on it can be fixed or jury-rigged at sea.

So I hope now you are intrigued and saying to yourself, “That’s great Dan but how does Otto do all this?” If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m hoping, just hoping that a video is worth a hundred thousand words. Here goes…click on this link for YouTube video.

For those who have time and really want to geek-out (hey… who doesn’t have time on a sequestered Sunday afternoon?), here’s what you’re seeing:

Beginning of video – The tall white “Monitor” fin is Otto’s windvane. If you’ve been following the blog from the beginning, you’ve probably noticed the windvane in pictures off the “transom” (back of the boat). When motoring or at anchor, I take the windvane off and store it below decks to reduce wear-and-tear, that’s why it’s not in some pictures. The windvane is sensing changes to the relative wind direction. Relative changes could either be due to the wind direction over the sea-surface changing or the boat starting to “round up” into the wind or “fall off” away from the wind.

20 seconds into the video – We start looking over the transom down into the water (Hazel James is moving at 5.5 to 6 knots). The pendulum-looking thing that is moving from left-to-right is the “oar”. While the windvane senses the wind’s direction, it lacks the power to steer the boat. So, how do we generate the power needed to steer the boat without relying on the ship’s electrical system? Do you remember as a kid, being in the backseat of a car with the windows rolled down, you’d stick your hand out and feather your palm ever-so-slightly upward and your arm would be immediately forced upwards? The oar is doing the same thing but left-to-right instead of up-and-down, and its using water as the medium instead of air. When the vane senses a change to the wind direction, it rotates the oar one way or the other and the oar is forced left-or-right by the water pressure. Yeah I know I’m an engineer by education and love all things mechanical but I still am fascinated by how cool and innovative this is.

Note the red and green control lines tied on to the oar. Red for port (left) and green for starboard (right). (good mnemonics are: “Left” and “Port” both have four letters, “Port” wine is red)

30 seconds in – We see the red and green control lines routed through blocks (pulleys) from from the oar to the ship’s wheel.

At 40 seconds – You see the wheel being moved left and right, this is all Otto steering to the wind.

In addition you can see a tab on top of the control-line drum on the wheel that looks like a big thumbscrew. That allows the helmsman to disengage Otto if they want to hand steer. When disengaged, Otto keeps doing what he’s doing but the ship’s wheel is free of the control-line drum.

The remainder of the video is an interesting live view of the instruments available to the helmsman. From left-to-right: 1) auto-helm controls, 2) boat speed, 3) wind direction and speed (it’s blowing about 14 knots), and 4) depth sounder.

Pretty cool—huh? No electricity and very reparable at sea when things inevitably break. Windvane steering does have its limitations. If you’re in close-quarters and the wind shifts, which often happens near land masses, the boat’s direction will shift. When the wind is very light, Otto struggles to feel the wind and the boat speed is so low the oar lacks power. It’s nice to fallback to the electronic auto-helm in those situations.

Hazel’s engine is referred to as an “auxiliary” engine because it’s not her primary means of propulsion, the sails are. The engine is a 3-cylinder diesel with 3,800 hours on it. It’s the original engine from 1990 and, with good care, should run well over 7,000 hours. The 3 cylinders generate 27 horsepower. For comparison, a “go fast” center console powerboat of similar length would have 700-1,000 horsepower generated by two or three outboards.

Given it’s an auxiliary engine, I’ve named him Ox and, as said before, he gets Hazel out of tight spots. Here’s a video of him at work.

For those who want more geek-out, in this video you’ll notice how much louder Ox gets when I lift the engine hatch. The silver foil that lines the inside of the engine hatch is special noise dampening foam. With the hatch closed, Ox is incredibly quiet and moves HJ at 4 knots, maybe 5 if I’m really pushing it.

Also, for ease of lifting the hatch with one hand and taking the video with the other, I removed the companionway ladder prior to starting the video. Here’s what the engine hatch and companionway look like with the ladder in place…

Looking aft, engine hatch and companionway (galley to port [since looking aft, right of picture], King Neptune’s Throne to starboard)

On some more personal notes, after thinking that I could set-sail mid week this week, I’ve just learned that the curfew has been extended another 7 days. Apparently someone in the BVI recently died of coronavirus complications. I believe it’s the first death here. Unfortunately, this person was feeling increasingly ill, but did not contact the authorities or come forward early and died shortly after being admitted to a hospital. The government is doing aggressive contact tracing on that person and a couple of the victim’s contacts have skipped-town and the authorities are trying to locate them.

I’ve been following the U.S. and world news and it’s interesting how aggressive and science-based the BVI’s communications are. From their most-recent post:

No half-measures around here

Still, a big sigh for me. To paraphrase the lyrics of “Brandy”—for Hazel, Otto, Ox and me, “…no harbor is our home.”

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