Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Last Saturday was the final day on the fall sailing season for the high school team I coach. Actually Thursday was the last official day, but four of them wanted to drive two hours to get in one last day and one last regatta. You gotta love those people who can’t get enough of the things they are passionate about, and respond to each last time or last day with a plea for “just one more.”

Maybe a coach shouldn’t be happy after his team finishes seventh in an eight boat regatta, but after silencing the Vince Lombari voice in my head, it occurred to me I was proud of my very young freshman and sophomore sailors who thought nothing of going head to head with the best varsity junior and seniors from other schools. It took me a while to really pinpoint why I was so proud of them, but out of the blue, despite years since I have heard, read, or spoken the word, the perfect word came to me – gumption. Gumption is a word that seems to be out of fashion, but it sounds great and is enthusiastically positive without being syrupy or trite.

Dictionaries offer many definitions for gumption – initiative, resourcefulness, courage, spunk, guts, common sense – but the definition I like best comes from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.”

It took gumption just to get to this regatta. When the event was first discussed, it was explained that it was two hours away, that the school would not provide transportation, that the school prohibited the coach from driving students in his own car, and that kids therefore had to provide their own transportation. None of the varsity skippers was prepared to hurdle those obstacles, but the future star freshman, and head gumption-eer immediately responded with “I’ll go. My mom will drive.”
“Has she agreed to that?”
“Not yet, but she will.”
The very talented out of town sophomore who sails with us, but is usually prohibited from competing in official school competitions, said he “would clear his schedule” for some outside competition. The freshman’s regular crew, our team captain, responded with her usual “I have no life outside sailing; I’m available.” And a few days later the volunteer for everything sophomore who always wants to go “even if I’m not sailing” offered to crew. The plan was hatched. We committed to the regatta.

It took a little more gumption to stick to that commitment after a series of setbacks. Future star freshman sprained her ankle the weekend before the regatta. She couldn’t sail all week, but swore she would heal enough and tape up the ankle sufficiently to sail on Saturday. On Wednesday the very talented (best kid on our team) out of town kid thanked me for a great season and said he now had a family obligation on regatta day. A call for a volunteer replacement elicited only one sophomore who was a crew and not a skipper. The only solution was to elevate the volunteer for everything sophomore from crew to skipper, and although he just started to drive the boat this year, and is about ninth on our depth chart, he was our man. None of the kids thought of any of this as an obstacle; it was just an adjustment in the plan.

When it came to the racing, there were six races in the A fleet for future star freshman and her crew, and six races in B fleet for volunteer for everything sophomore and his crew. In the first five races, future star freshman was averaging sixth place out of eight and volunteer for everything sophomore was averaging seventh. But in the final race for each, things started to fall into place. Future star freshman advanced from sixth at the windward mark to first on the last leg and then lost one boat to finish second. Volunteer for everything sophomore put together a good first leg to be fourth at the windward mark and gained one boat to finish third.

In our own gumption based scoring system, we threw out the first five races, counted only the last race in each fleet, and won the regatta by one point.

My sailors impressed themselves with what they accomplished in those final races, but they really impressed me with the gumption that it took to get them that opportunity for success.

As I think about it, maybe one of the things I like most about sailing is the gumption of the sailors. High schoolers are frequently willing to risk repeated capsizing and challenge themselves to sail in strong wind that the coaches know they can’t handle. Blue water sailors, long distance ocean racers, and solo single handed round the world racers all possess incredible knowledge and skill, but they are all the more admirable because of the gumption they demonstrate in pursuing their challenges.

And a final shout out goes to a couple of my friends who had the gumption to fly to England, compete with world class sailors, push the limits of their aging (and in one case, sick) bodies, and test the limits of their small boat sailing abilities in overpowering wind and massive waves. You have my admiration.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Autobailers- Part Two

Removal and replacement with a watertight plate

For a very long time, leaking autobailers had been my nemesis as I battled to keep all 12 of our high school sailing team’s well used 420’s fully functional. This year, it was time to abandon our duct tape solution (actually better tape than duct tape, but just tape nonetheless) and move on to a real solution. Several ideas occurred to us, but each seemed both expensive and flawed in one way or another.

  • Replacing the autobailers would be expensive ($62 each x 12), and they would quickly fail again with the boats exposed to our very sandy environment and the care left in the hands of multiple, careless, high school students.
  • Fiberglass work to plug the holes after removing the autobailers would be tricky and time consuming, especially given the very thin hulls on 420’s. A quality fiberglass repair of a 3” by 5” hole also takes expertise I don’t have.
  • A friend offered to weld the old autobailers shut, but after discovering the gaskets inside, he determined they would melt into a gooey mess that was not compatible with welding.
  • A stainless steel plate bolted to the hull with the same bolts used by the removed autobailer would seem to work nicely. I couldn’t find anything like this sold commercially, and I worried that having them made would get almost as expensive as buying new autobailers. When I examined an old bailer I had removed, discovering that the bottom of the bailer was not flat, but a pan shape, I became totally discouraged about the cost of having such a piece custom made.
What we (mostly a former sailing team member, now a college graduate) finally came up with was a way to reuse pieces of the old autobailer to make a waterproof plate. The 420 autobailers are constructed from three separate pieces of stainless steel and a couple of gaskets. The chute that drops to let out water is sandwiched between two frames. Our solution was to replace the chute and its gaskets with a solid piece of hardened West System epoxy resin that would span the hole and bond to both frames of stainless steel with a water-tight seal. We tried it out on our boats during the summer, and we have been sailing for six weeks this fall with no leaks.

Here is what the process looks like:

First, we remove the autobailers and separate the three pieces, the two frames and the chute. They are fastened together with six copper rivets that need to be drilled out.

Drilling Out the Autobailer Rivits

Autobailer with Rivits and Lever Removed

After the pieces are separated, the chute and its gaskets are discarded.

Next, the top and bottom frames are tightly bolted together. Then, they are temporarily bolted to a piece of wood that will serve as the bottom form when we pour in the resin later. Wax paper must be inserted between the wood and the frames to prevent adhesion of resin to the wood.

Frames Ready to Receive Fluid Resin

The resin is two part West System epoxy with High Density 404 Adhesive Filler mixed to a thick, but pour-able, consistency. It is just poured into the frames, making sure all the corners are filled. (We waited 24 hours before removing the assembly, but the resin sets up in about an hour.)

Pouring Resin into Metal Frames

The final step is removing the new pieces from the temporary molding board and inserting them into the boats to plug the holes where the autobailers were removed.

Finished Autobailer Replacement Plate

All the old silicone or 5200 needs to be removed from the fiberglass on the boat before installing the new piece, and this is the most time consuming and tedious part of the process. When installing the new piece, all the old nuts and bolts are used. Working simultaneously from both the top and the bottom of the boat takes two people and is a little awkward. Careful attention needs to be paid to craftsmanship when the new sealant is installed. (We screwed this up on a couple of boats and had to reseal them.) We used marine silicone sealant which lasts for a long time, but had we been 100% sure this whole approach was going to work, we might have used 5200 for a permanent bond.

View of 420 Hull with Autobailer Plug Installed

Has anyone else come up with another way to eliminate autobailers that they would like to share? Other comments on autobailers?


Friday, October 22, 2010

Autobailers- Part One

Keeping it simple?

Autobailer side view - open

Some time ago, Paul Elevstrom came up with a simple solution for removing the water that accumulates in the cockpit when sailing small boats in big wind and waves. He used the fundamental Bernoulli principle (low pressure created by moving fluids – you remember) to invent the autobailer. In Lasers, 420’s, and other small boats I have seen, the autobailers all have the same basic design. A chute that can open and close is mounted at the lowest point of the hull and depends on suction caused when the boat is moving rapidly forward to remove water from the boat. It has “a wedge shaped venturi that closes automatically if the boat grounds or hits an obstruction, and a flap that acts as a non return valve to minimise water coming in if the boat is stationary or moving too slowly for the device to work.” (Description from Wikipedia, with British spelling of minimize.) Mr. Elevstrom’s autobailers have been bailing small racing boats for a long time now.

But wait! Autobailers have also been letting significant amounts of water leak into small boats for a long time now. Maybe cutting a hole in the bottom of a boat to let the water out is not such a simple solution. Isn’t that how boats sink?

I think many of us have had love/hate relationships with autobailers over the years. Sometimes they seem to work, and sometimes they cause annoying leaks. My experience is that they work well when they are installed, maintained, and used properly, but when those things are done poorly, the system breaks down quickly and the water flows the wrong way, sometimes in copious amounts. I suspect Paul Evelstrom was very good at care and maintenance. I certainly try to be good about those things with my Laser, but don’t always live up to his or my own standard. However, many small boat owners don’t believe in maintenance. They hate autobailers.

Among those who abhor maintenance are all of the sailors on the high school sailing team I coach. They not only abhor maintenance, they are inclined to practice abject neglect or worse on all of their equipment. Fighting these instincts in upper-middle class American teenagers is a tilting at windmills kind of exercise. Apparently, it is one of my callings.

We have a fleet of twelve old 420’s, no maintenance person or budget, and our boats, which are shared with the town recreation department, are heavily used. Despite ever improving preventative maintenance (done mostly by me), things still break – frequently. Although problems run the gamut in older boats, the overwhelmingly most frequent failure is leaking, nay, hemorrhaging autobailers. These devices depend on two different gaskets and a silicone or 3M5200 seal - three opportunities for water infiltration. For two years now, our favorite solution has been to tape over bailers with a 4” wide, waterproof tape which obviously also eliminates any possible benefit from autobailers. For several reasons, this approach has had various degrees of success, but it seems the “coach, my boat leaks” complaints never stop.

In fairness to the kids, some of the boats had seriously flawed autobailers by the time we got them. On top of that, we launch from a beach. Raising the main and putting on the rudders while standing in the shallow water stirs up the bottom enough to create an insidious slurry cloud that exposes all underwater parts to as much sand as water. Sand on the sailors’ boots also gets deposited inside the boat when they hop in. Rubber gasketed autobailers are just no match for sand that can penetrate the smallest of crevices. I can’t imagine the perfection in care and maintenance required to keep a bailer opening freely and closing tightly in these conditions.

With all due respect and deference to Paul Elevstrom, autobailers demand a high level of care and maintenance that is just not possible for us (and many others I suspect). A device that uses simple mechanics and physics turns out to be not so simple when operated by teenagers in a sandy environment. For us, a hole in the bottom of the boat is just a leak.

We won’t miss having working autobailers. They really don’t work well in the 420 anyway until the boat is going fast. Our courses are always short and don’t offer long fast straight-aways where the self-bailers work best.

The solution for us is a bleach bottle bailer and no hole in the bottom of the boat. Since all our boats came with an autobailer, the problem became how to remove them and plug the holes (twelve times) with a minimum of cost and effort. Necessity being the mother of invention, we came up with a way.

I haven’t heard a leaking boat complaint in six weeks, so I’m cautiously optimistic we may have found a relatively simple and definitely cheap solution for the hole in our boats.

Part Two will attempt to explain and illustrate our approach.