Blue Water Sailing as a Retreat Option?, by CMC

Saturday, Feb 3, 2007

Coming from a Southern family and having hunted as a child and adult, and having backpacked the Smokies, I would not want to depend on a mountain man scenario for survival during TEOTWAWKI. I want to walk a bit further with this. Most particularly consideration of a sailing vessel and the ocean as a way of survival. I seriously question the concept of mobility, particularly mobility at sea. I remember Sun Tzu said something to the effect that "when the army of maneuver meets the army of the fortress, the army of the fortress generally looses." But I think that the mobility concept here may be an exception to what Sun Tzu said. Having sailed since I was 9, and my first offshore passage with a friend of my dad's and his son when I was 10, I ve been drawn to the ocean rather than the golf course. My first and incidentally most survivable offshore capable boat was an old converted ships lifeboat, wooden hull, wooden masts, plow wire for standing rigging and canvas and cotton for sails. Simple, basic, rough. The preceding sentence is read in a few seconds and many can visualize what's written there. But its a little more in depth than that. The “in depth” goes something like this. With a wooden hull and plow wire rigging and cotton sails a knowledgeable person can take a vessel like that and maintain and/or repair her anywhere in the world given a lot of [time and] luck. Taking an axe to cut down a tree then a foot adze to rough out a plank, the a box plane and a draw knife to fine the plank up (bear in mind all of these tools you carry deep sea in something that is less than 40 feet on the waterline) and spike it in to the hull to replace a defective plank. Then the aforementioned plank is in the hull the same material that the sails are from , raw cotton is used to caulk the plank periphery to make the repair watertight. Then its paid or sealed with a white lead and copper oxide and linseed oil mixture. Or use the same tools on another tree carefully chosen to be a mast or bowsprit or gaff or boom. Where of course all of this leads is to the discipline nay more like way of life of wooden boat building and seamanship,and being able to survive that way. Or survive any way--whether on the ocean or a ranch or farm its no different. It is the same way of life with each of their own peculiarities, for many different paths of survival but all of them take time and none are learned in a year or 18 months from a book.

My first and second boats were both wood, the second one was a 42 foot John G. Alden design, cutter rigged and built in 1936, that I sailed and lived aboard for 15 years. She was still going deep water and crossing oceans over 50 years after she was constructed, and still is today. I remember the first major re-fit I did taking the working sails off and storing them in my parents basement, (I was a youngster then and they were still alive and tolerant of an eccentric non-golfing kid) and the second night of that, going to get the bare minimum (mainsail, working jib, staysail, a genoa and storm trysail) at 10 PM because I didn't like the feeling of insecurity--of not being able to sail out of my slip, sail out of the marina, sail out of the harbor, and the bay if necessary. My parents did not understand then .I'm not sure I did completely either. I do much more clearly now.
An offshore vessel departure is something that does not involve just slipping the lines and leaving the marina. It starts years before that point in the preparation and continuing maintenance necessary to prep a small (under 60 feet long) sailing vessel to cross oceans and more importantly those who sail in her. I think its the same with a survival retreat. With a boat, each hull material is a complete discipline in itself. Each way of life (ocean, farm, ranch) is a discipline unto itself with many interlocking parts. Wood hull with galvanized plow wire or for that matter the same wire (1 x 7) that the utility companies use to guy poles, and cotton, flax or canvas sails and manila line for running rigging is a survivable vessel. More modern more easily maintainable materials at least now: aluminum(my favorite hull material hands down) , steel (my second choice)or fiberglass (my least favorite) accompanied by stainless steel running rigging, dacron or carbon fiber sails and sometimes masts are only maintainable with the society and level of industrialization that we have now. I was a navigator in modern fiberglass boats years ago in Latin America. I tried to replace a piece of 1 x 19 stainless standing rigging and its fittings on a sailing vessel. If you want 1 x 7 or 7 x 7 [mild] steel or galvanized rigging, no problem. However, stainless, dacron sails, synthetic line running rigging, argon gas for aluminum welding and or the equipment to do it with, then forget it. That pretty fiberglass (barrels of oil for resin and glass fibre cloth) production boat is repairable these days on the shores of the industrialized countries, but in the third or fourth world it won't happen. Post-TEOTWAWKI it won't happen, either. Post-TEOTWAWKI, what the h**l are you gonna do with a refrigerator with a TV in the door? Post-TEOTWAWKI you will find families who build boats out of wood and galvanized steel and so forth and have been doing so for generations. Primitive but effective .That pretty GPS chart plotter you carry and its backup--and for that matter all of your onboard electronics and electrical may be a victim of EMP. The navigational gear may be a victim of the vulnerability of the GPS satellite constellation going down due either to EMP (unlikely to get them all in high orbit with one shot) or lack of ground correction of satellite position due to orbital perturbations. Interesting concept. How many carry paper charts. How many can do the old lunar distance sights and calculations to determine with reasonable accuracy, the correct time to determine one's longitude a.k.a. Joshua Slocum (remember the EMP? WWV and WWVH probably along with CHU and a host of other time stations are off the air either temporarily or maybe for good along with,--depending on your luck quotient--most or all of your onboard electronics, particularly in a wood or fiberglass hull. And for that matter how many carry a sextant and the tables (HO 214, 219, 229 or 249) to reduce the sun, moon and star sights you take or even better yet found a 1920s-era copy of Nathaniel Bowditch's “The American Practical Navigator” to learn the spherical trigonometry to reduce the sights without tables?

This brings up another point: Carrying firearms is a sensitive business because many , if not most foreign governments are mildly nervous about this practice unless you are a commercially documented vessel, have a bonded stores area in the vessel where you can lock up tobacco, spirits and firearms when in port. (The most likely time the firearms are going to be needed is in harbor) and the customs agent can come aboard and seal that locker. And in TEOTWAWKI there is no guarantee that pratique procedures in a foreign country are going to be followed. There is also always the possibility that at sea, you well may be outgunned and at sailing vessel speeds (maybe 7 knots, which is about 9 mph ) you can't run away. And there you cannot bug out to a pre-cached position either.

When I was younger and had my Alden I lived alongshore in the Gulf of Mexico. A group of us all live-aboards (in those days we were rare and a close knit community) used to sand table what it would be like if the balloon went up. The most likely scenario we envisioned was a limited nuclear strike on the CONUS. Consider if one will being alongshore in the Northern Gulf of Mexico and what it would take to get “away” provided one survived the first strike. And we lived the life (many of us did with a minimum of 60 days dry stores aboard) and walked the walk, always prepped for sea (not an easy thing to do.) Figure say from Mobile, Alabama to get out of the Gulf of Mexico basin where one would be deep sea, the closest being the Southern littoral of the North Atlantic Ocean would take a minimum of 7-to-8 days on a vessel with a 40 foot waterline length. (Considering that will provide on a very good 24 hour noon-to-noon run, 150-170 miles driven hard with cooperating weather. We then figured if we could get past Cuba and the tip of Florida. From Mobile, depending on the time of year and the weather that can be a daunting task. We might have a chance. There was another cadre of people in the marina, who rarely left their slips. They took a minimum of 24 hours to get gear below decks stowed in lockers to be able to get underway. Those in our group could be stowed for sea and underway in 30 minutes. We practiced it routinely.
Also consider the very long distance most of it along shores of various countries (you are much safer when deep ocean both from wars, storms, and people.) Then one begins to appreciate if one will, the risky scenario for a person or family. But eventually one must put in to a harbor. Somewhere. Today ( when I was young we didn't have them) with water makers a vessel with deep bunkers (my last vessel, 48 feet LOA carried 600 gallons of diesel and 1,000 gallons of water in deep tankage)--the diesel fuel needed to make the electricity to charge the batteries to run the water maker to fill the tanks and fishing equipment and solar and wind adjuncts and rain catchment and so on and so forth. Eventually one must put in. That of course is when you are the most vulnerable. Even in a large vessel where you can carry the depth of stores--line and sails and wire and welding equipment and blocks and parts--material needed to repair the ravages of days and days and days at sea, finally the larder runs out. Depending on how far down things fall then you may well have no idea of the conditions where you are putting in. And if you are putting in under duress for example, dismasted and under jury rig while trying to double Cape Horn--and it has happened to many vessels in the high latitudes of the great Southern Ocean--then the options considerably narrow. Have you ever thought about in a small boat what even considering a passage through he Canal might be like during TEOTWAWKI? The only other alternatives are either Cape Horn or Cape of Good Hope. Look at a chart.

I grew up sailing and surfing and diving. I would not consider the ocean as a refuge if the balloon goes up. In my humble opinion one is too vulnerable. Vulnerable to whom? To a Caribbean Island fisherman whose family is starving because the inter-island freighter has stopped running and he needs antibiotics/pure water/salt/diesel fuel/gasoline/toilet paper. Or vulnerable to a rogue element of a Third World military --or for that matter a First World military--who have the materiel to be the top guy on the heap of post industrialization in your part of the ocean. Or,... Well you get the idea. Post 9-11-01, I sold what will probably be my last offshore vessel, a 48 foot aluminum pilothouse ketch with five watertight compartments. I finally woke up and realized that although I could (and did) single hand her offshore without problems, being survivable and secure did not seem to be a practical scenario. That plus my age led me to other considerations. - CMC

JWR Adds: I agree with CMC's basic assertion. I consider blue water sailing a viable retreat alternative only for someone that is: A.) An experienced yachtsmen that lives close to his boat harbor, and B.) has the means to afford the right boat and can afford to fully equip it, and C.) that has an established overseas retreat destination that is well-stocked in its own right. So in effect, a well-stocked sailboat is not in itself a retreat, but rather could be your G.O.O.D. vehicle to get you to an established offshore retreat. In all, the preceding list eliminates most of the people reading this! It may sound brutal and terse, but for anyone else "sea-mobile" retreating is just another fantasy--unaffordable and unrealistic. I briefly discuss some issues regarding seA-mobile retreating in my non-fiction book Rawles on Retreats and Relocation. The following is a quote from the book:

Unless you are an experienced blue water yachtsman with many years of experience, then I cannot recommend “sea mobile” retreating. I only know a few yachtsmen with this level of experience--most notably Mark Laughlin and Matthew Bracken. (BTW, Some of the characters and descriptions in Matt Bracken’s recent novel “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” shed some light on sea-mobile retreating.) IMHO, for a long term Crunch with anticipated fuel shortages, only a sailboat with an auxiliary engine makes sense. If you do choose this approach, then by all means select the largest sailboat you can afford (and that can be manned by a small crew) with the following features:
A minimal radar cross-section.
A retractable keel so that you can navigate shallows.
A very quiet auxiliary engine.
The largest fuel and fresh water tanks possible.
A full suite of communications gear (marine band, 2 Meter, CB, and HF.)
At least two Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, plus a sextant and a couple of accurate hairspring or quartz watches. (In case your GPS receivers fail, or if the GPS satellites ever fail. (Such as if the GPS constellation is ever destroyed or significantly degraded by anti-satellite weapons.)
A hull and rigging design that will “blend in” with the crowd of seasonal yachtsmen.
Plenty of spare parts.


Be forewarned that your inevitable desire to add a large photovoltaic array will be in direct opposition to blending in. If you buy photovoltaic (PV) panels, buy canvas covers to make them less obvious when sailing near shore.

A sailboat moored at night is vulnerable to sea-going looters. Even today, piracy is a problem, particularly in the Caribbean and the waters around Southeast Asia. This threat will surely expand by an order of magnitude WTSHTF. So plan your landfalls carefully!


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