Wednesday, June 25

Dazed and Confused

fôg, fäg

When I looked up the definition of fog on the old ‘interwebs’ I found the definition of, “something that obscures and confuses a situation or someone’s thought processes” and I like it. I know that’s how I felt the first time I was caught in very dense fog late at night. Luckily I was on a boat with another skilled sailor and the boat was chock full of reliable and working instruments like RADAR and GPS. Without the instruments, we may have had a very hard time making it back to the harbor, safely.

Sometimes you just get caught. When you do, you better hope you’re prepared to make your way back in or wait it out. Either way you should be patient and prepared with the right tools and equipment.

Just the other day I was operating as a paid Captain on a private charter. There was patchy fog to the North and I knew we might get caught in the thick of it as the evening cooled off. Before I left the harbor I had the GPS/Chartplotter set to guide me back to the opening of Monroe harbor, the autohelm on, an air horn rather than the typical ginger ale in the cup holder next to the helm, the appropriate navigation lights on, and a sail plan should we get smothered in the thick stuff. Needless to say, it happened. We got caught.

    The trip started off beautifully.

I was taking out a group of two adults with three children. As is required, the children being under 16 years old were all donned in the appropriate sized PFDs. The adults were instructed on basic safety.

As I left the harbor, I had a plan to go out on a beam reach and return on a beam reach. This is an easy plan to execute especially with a north breeze. I took a bearing on the autohelm compass as we left the harbor. All I had to do, if the breeze stayed consistent and I didn’t make much leeway, was add 180 degrees and go back the way I came. We enjoyed a very nice sail under jib alone headed almost due east towards the crib. About 40 minutes into the trip, more and more patches of fog began to roll in.

    The fog started to roll in.

Usually I can time my tack about perfectly so I enter the harbor mouth with a few minutes to spare to make it to the dock on time (charters start and end on time). This was a two hour charter so we would sail for 50 minutes and then tack back. Once I noticed the fog getting thicker from the North, I made the decision to tack early and keep my distance from shore to a minimum.

A few minutes after we tacked around, the wind shifted 15 degrees and velocity increased 4 knots. We were initially sailing in around 8-10 knots of breeze so this increase represented quite a significant change that needed to be addressed. It was time for instruments and a change in plans.

    More fog plus the sun setting made for increased difficulty.

I put on the Autohelm and put us on a heading that the good old GPS told me to go to. I adjusted the jib to spill off air at the top and keep speed down while keep us moving through the bit of chop that had developed over a couple of days. I told the group that it was time for the fog game!

Earlier I had allowed my guests to spend some time on the bow as that’s always a great place to hang out. Part of the fog game requires everyone in the cockpit and to start making signals and the kids get to be official mates and the Captain’s lookouts. They ate it up.

Every two minutes we sounded our air horn. One prolonged blast followed by two short blasts as is required for vessels under sail alone. We had been listening to Bob Marley throughout the trip but now we had to listen for other vessels and sounds. All part of the fog game.

Within 10 minutes of the entrance to Monroe Harbor we turned on the engine and the steaming light and furled in the jib. We motored at 1.5 knots. I knew at this point we would be most likely to be near other vessels and fixed objects. We also adjusted our sound signal to one prolonged blast as is required for vessels under power (generically speaking).

Wouldn’t you know it, within 4 minutes of our mark we sounded our blast and had one returned. The sound was way, way too close for comfort. The blast came from starboard and we quickly looked over and within seconds we finally make visual contact with a 40 plus foot catamaran motoring around 3 knots heading to the same mark. Within a minute or so we made visual contact with the red flashing light of the harbor entrance. All of the planning and tools worked. Phew.

    At this point we were in the harbor slowly cruising and this 
      part of the fog game included the little ones at the helm to 
      their great surprise.

Even though I’ve practiced sailing in limited visibility and made it back to the harbor without incident many times, I’m always aware of the immense responsibility and risks associated with sailing in these conditions. This long winded story is really a long introduction and example of what it means to be out on the water in restricted visibility.

I absolutely expect more fog this summer. In fact as I write this article I see dense fog coming over the Calumet River and into the yard. The conditions have just been perfect for it. What can you do the next time you go out to be prepared? Safety first is my mantra.

You will need an air horn. Rule 35 of the Navigation Rules require you to make the appropriate signals. Rule 35 specifically covers sound signals in restricted visibility. Remember, this is day or night.

I cannot cover all the details of this rule in this article as there are many variations. However, you should know a couple of basic signals. Click here for a link if you want to dig deeper.   

If you are under sail and sail alone, you will need to make one prolonged blast and two short blasts on your horn every two minutes. If you are a power boat or a sailboat under power alone or power and sail, you will need to make one prolonged blast every two minutes. If you are fairly certain you’re close to other vessels, signals can be made in shorter periods. Otherwise have someone keep track of time and stick to the two minute schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, please have a sail plan. This should be the case even if you’re out for a lunch sail in perfect 80 degree, sunny weather. If your plan changes, come up with a new one on the fly. It’s always better to know “what’s next.”

Check your instruments. Do you have an auto pilot system? Is it reliable? Permanently installed compass? GPS? Chartplotter? What is the deviation between your compass, auto pilot compass, and GPS? Which one will you rely on? Do you know how to operate them responsibly and accurately? If not, practice on a sunny and calm day. Personally, I have 3 GPS and chartplotter options on my boat including the Navionics app on my iPhone. It’s really handy and completely worth the money.

You should also know what navigation lights to have on. When sailing at night or in restricted visibility, put your navigation lights on. If you are under power put on your steaming/masthead light. Speaking of which, let’s clear up a common misuse of the term ‘masthead light.’

A masthead light refers to your steaming light. The light is not necessarily at the masthead or top of the mast. Many times on sailboats this light is ½ - ¼ of the way up the front of the mast. There are a few locations for masthead lights. Ever notice a powerboat with an all around white light that is only a couple of feet above the helm station? That light represents the masthead or steaming light and the stern light all in one. Make sense?

Keep all passengers off the bow if at all possible. I had to have someone on the bow with a 1,000,000 candle powered spot light just to see fixed objects and other boats on moorings when visibility was less than 2 boats lengths or about 90 feet. The cockpit is the safest place for everyone on board. If you do collide with an object there’s less chance of an MOB situation.

Keep your VHF on and handy in case of an emergency. You can also listen to traffic in case there are other vessels attempting to communicate via radio. If you should find yourself in a close quarters situation remember the emergency blast. 5 short blasts is the official “oh crap!” sound signal. I’ve used it twice in unsavory situations. And by unsavory, I mean terrifying. The signal worked and a collision was avoided.

My last piece of advice, go slow. If you’re in the thick of it, objects moving or fixed will come out of nowhere. Just like when I’m docking I follow these rules; never approach anything faster than you want to hit it and if you’re not bored, you’re going to fast.

I hope this article has your juices flowing and thinking about your next voyage, be it power or sail. Get to know your boat and your instruments. Know the rules and check your equipment for optimal functionality. There are numerous resources online that clearly explain the rules of the road for navigation. If you have any questions or would like to add to the discussion, you can email me at or chime in on the blog.

Wednesday, June 18

Marko Lucht – Dockmaster, 20 questions:

How long have you been in the boating business?
I started in 1969 at MarinaCity as a summer job when I was in college, so that makes it forty five years.

Where else besides Crowley’s have you worked?
Marina City for a total of thirty five years for five different owners, including twenty years for BAM Marine and four for Skipper Bud’s.  I have worked at Triple A Boatyard, BelmontHarbor, BurnhamHarbor, RiverCity as a tour leader for River Bikes, and Riverdale Marina. 

The positions in which I have served include dock manager, marina manager, service manager and general manager. I have also worked part time as an independent harbor mechanic and power boat delivery captain.

How long have you worked at Crowley’s?
It’s hard to believe, but five years now.  I still feel like the new kid.

How did you first start working here?
Interesting story...
I had known Grant Crowley for about twenty five years when the situation at Riverdale began looking very bleak in 2008.  I spent the winter visiting my friends at all the boatyards in the area. 

I stopped in to see Grant just to cry on his sleeve a bit, never dreaming I would end up working here. He stunned me by asking if I wanted to sign on. He told me he was expanding the power boat customer base here and that they were starting an in/out dry stack service.  Well, this was right up my alley.

Which departments have you worked in?
I started working for Jeff Strunka and the yard crew, and then soon joined the dock master team.  They were all good experiences because I had the chance to see the different responsibilities of both crews and the tasks that overlapped.

What is your favorite time of year at Crowley’s?
Hmm...he replied pensively. 
The busy seasons are the best. Launching in April and May and haul out in October and November are fast paced and demonstrate the remarkable teamwork that takes place here, but no one can keep that kind of pace going all the time.

I also enjoy the summer when there is more time to interact with the customers and fellow staff, and also the in/out service on the north dock with the big Taylor fork lift. 

Winter is a good tome to stretch out, regroup, go to Marine Industry Day and the Maritime Festival, and to prepare for and work at Strictly Sail and Yachtapalooza.

What do you enjoy about working for Crowley’s?
Great question!
I love the people, both customers and staff.  It’s like an enormous family here.  The dock department is very egalitarian; we act as equals and learn from each others’ knowledge and experience.

Then of course, there are the boats and heavy equipment factors.  This is like every little boy’s dream job.

I also enjoy representing Crowley’s for organizations like Shipmasters and the Chicago Yachting Association.

My job provides me with an endless supply of endorphins.

How often do you go boating?
Not as often as when I was younger.  These days it is mainly as a delivery captain or an occasional peaceful sail with friends.

What kind of boat?
I’m from the power boat sector, and I’ve always been fond of Sea Rays, especially in the thirty to sixty foot range.  I enjoyed having worked for Skipper Bud’s for that very reason. I had the chance to deliver mostly Sea Rays to and from all points between Grand Haven and Milwaukee and as far downstream as the Kankakee River.

Did you grow up boating?

What is your favorite boating activity?
Anchoring about five miles out and hooking a kite to the bow rail, then me tethered to the boat with a couple PFDs on and under me, floating in a sea of alpha waves.

How many Employees work in your department?
Usually there are two to three dock masters with one or two temporary assistants during busy times.  We all have other talents besides being good with boats; generally my coworkers seem to be skilled IT types for some reason. Good place for a technical Neanderthal such as me to have his silly questions answered.

What qualifications do you have?  
I came to Crowley’s with experience on fork lifts, man lifts, TraveLifts, Taylor lifts, hydraulic trailer lifts and the very unique Abel-Howe crane at Marina City, although its controls are very similar to those of a TraveLift. 

What is your number one recommendation to boat owners?
Take it slow and watch out for the other guy. 
There are three positions on the shifter:  Forward, Reverse and Neutral.  We need to use Neutral more often.

In your area of expertise, what can a boat owner do to maintain their boat?
Simply, adequate fenders and proper tie ups at the dock.

What is the one complaint that you hear most often?

What is the toughest part of your job?
Not falling prey to panic during haul out season when the Ninety Fifth Street bridge opens and there are twenty boats coming in at once looking for a place to tie up.  Mike Folan is a Zen master at staying calm. And Crowley’s employees from any and all departments will pitch in if they are on the dock.

When are you most likely to be found in the harbors?
I enjoy going to any harbor after work, taking a shower, changing clothes, and then checking the docks for old friends to kick back with for awhile.

What is your favorite winter activity?
I enjoy music, especially jazz.  I have an enormous collection of old vinyl.

What is the best way to get a hold of you to ask a question?
That would be Marko Lucht at 

Wednesday, June 11

Stormy Weather

By Marko Lucht

This is the time of year when we can get very unpredictable weather in Chicago. By unpredictable we certainly don’t mean to insult the prognostication expertise of such professionals as Tom Skilling or our friend Amy Seeley from NOAA Weather. But the effects can be unpredictable as well as the suddenness of the changes.

For example, we battened many things down around the boatyard here at Crowley’s in anticipation of the high southerly winds which were predicted for Monday June 2, but who knew that D and E docks would get blown away in DuSable Harbor?! 

The sudden strong straight line gusts, officially known as outflow boundaries, that often precede a severe thunderstorm are caused by a microburst, in which a localized column of sinking cold air, which descends to earth and spreads out in all directions. An outflow boundary is characterized by a sudden drop in temperature coupled with an increase in pressure, and may last over twenty four hours, sometimes extending hundreds of miles from its origin.

Illustration of a microburst. The wind
regime in a microburst is opposite to
that of a tornado.

Before leaving your boat for the day, make sure your sails are secure. A few years ago Crowley's own Jon Paige saved a boat from being tipped off its cradle during high winds when he noticed its furler just starting to unravel from nearly a hundred yards away. He heroically sprinted across the boatyard and was up on the bow of the boat before most of us realized what was going on.

When you leave your boat at the dock, it is important to have it tied up properly so that no damage will occur to your boat, the dock, or even other people’s boats. A perfect hitch is one which holds securely but is easy for you to undo when the time comes. When you know what you are doing, minimalism is key. If your dock has posts, all you need is a clove hitch with two loops. Most docks these days use only dock cleats, so in this case your magic knot is known, for some reason, as a cleat hitch. There is a right way and quite a few wrong ways to do this. I’m not the best when it comes to descriptions. If only someone were able to come up with some sort of demonstration that could be viewable by electronic devices...

The  floating dock has become the industry standard, so you don’t have to worry about water level fluctuations because the dock will be going up and down in harmony with your boat.

At Crowley’s we always use four lines and at least three fenders when tying a boat to the dock or to another boat. There is a line at the bow and one at the stern to maintain proper alignment, and two spring lines, fore and aft, to keep the vessel in place. All lines may be tied fairly tightly because, again, the boat is not going anywhere the dock isn’t. During those busy seasons in which our dock has rafts of boats four abreast and when we expect high wind situations, we will often tie a tether line on the windward side from the third boat out to the dock.

When our preferred recreational activity is so weather dependent, it is important to understand the forces of nature and to be able to work in harmony with them rather than to take arms against a sea of troubles and being smashed by them.

Happy sails from Crowley’s and have a safe and fun boating season!

Neill Advanced Sailing Clinic Benefit Dinner at the Chicago Yacht Club

Craig will share how the race was really won as he takes you behind the scenes of the Cup with an interactive, dramatic visual presentation. As the former coach of the Canadian Olympic team, his experience as PRO of the America's Cup and his new position at ISAF, you have the opportunity to get his insights into what is planned for the world of sailing.

If you are a fan of the sport, participant, spectator or just curious about the America's Cup, come listen to Craig share how the 2013 America's Cup saw Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA sail to victory from the brink of defeat. 

Join us at Chicago Yacht Club, Monroe Station, on Saturday, June 14 to hear Craig's fascinating presentation at our dinner banquet. The event is $85 inclusive for dinner and the presentation, and all profits go to the CYC Foundation and the Neill Advanced Sailing Clinic. The event is open to the public, so please invite your friends.

Make reservations at 312-861-7777.

Thursday, June 5

Racing in the NOOD: Still Funny

Sailing in the NOOD, get it? Ok, I know I made the same joke last June when I wrote an article about the regatta. It's still funny.

For those of you that don’t know what the NOOD’s are, they’re the National Offshore One Design Regattas.

This year there are 6 events planned. St. Petersburg, San Diego, Annapolis, and Seattle have had their events. The Marblehead NOOD Regatta is in July. This week Chicago will get down to business. Racing begins this Friday morning and ends Sunday afternoon. Typically there will be 2-4 races each day for windward leeward courses.

As of this morning, there are 152 boats entered for the Chicago battle royale. T-10’s take the cake for the largest fleet, again. With 28 entries it’s sure to be a good time. I’ll be sailing in the “10” fleet this year and report back next week with a follow up and maybe a few cool GoPro pics/vids.

The Vipers are back as is the Rally Race. Good times to be had there, I’m sure. There are a total of 9 One Design sections overall. The newest One Design fleet is the J70 section. With 14 boats registered, it should be fun and pretty competitive.  

A majority of the races will be windward leeward courses. See the pic below for a good visual.

US Sailing defines the course as, “having two marks: one toward the wind and one directly downwind.  In this course, you must tack upwind to round the first (windward) mark, then sail downwind to round the second (leeward) mark and then sail upwind to cross the finish line.” Often there are offset marks, gates, short courses, long courses, and more complicated designs for each race. Generally the finish is on a downwind leg, not upwind as described above.

For those of you that want to go out and watch some of the racing, head out towards the Four Mile Crib  41°52′22″N 87°32′45″W or Harrison Dever Crib 41°57′58″N 87°35′28″W) and look for a mad house of boats! Please, please keep your distance if you do this. The courses are quite large and between races boats will spread out and need room to maneuver. Binoculars are highly recommended.

Sperry and Crowley’s will be at the event with a fine selection of hot kicks focusing on Sperry’s Performance Line. The tent will be in the Chicago Yacht Club Monroe Station parking lot Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. All Sperry shoes will be 15% off during the event.

For more info on boats entered, race results, etc, click here for a link to the official event page.