On being ... a close call

By Ingrid Sapona

There’s a VHF radio on my boat. It’s quite old but it works and I’m very happy to have it -- it’s a safety thing. A 12 volt battery powers the radio and the few other electronics I have on board.

Unlike the other instruments on the boat, the radio wires are not colour-coded in the traditional manner of red for positive and black for negative. When I first discovered this I was concerned I might ruin the radio by attaching the wires wrong to the battery posts. Fortunately, at the battery end it’s clear which wire goes on which post and at the radio end the wires have connectors that slip into complimentary (male/female) ends on the radio, so you can’t accidentally cross the wires.

Because it’s not good to leave instruments on board over the winter, I take the radio off in the fall and reinstall it in the spring. No matter how careful I am, I always end up pulling one connector off when I disconnect it. The first time it happened I panicked, but I soon discovered that every chandlery stocks connectors and most boat owners simply keep spares in their tool box, which is what I now do.

The other day I was doing various things on board and I decided to connect the radio. The first item of business was to attach a new connector to the wire that had surrendered its connector last fall. (Honestly, it happens to one wire every year.) After that I fitted the male/female ends together and flipped the battery’s master switch to the ON position and then turned on the radio.

It’s normal to hear a bit of static when you turn on a VHF and I thought I heard some, but it was quite faint. I adjusted the volume and squelch, hoping to tune something in. Moments later I saw smoke from the back of the radio. I quickly turned the battery’s master switch to OFF and pulled the radio up and away from the area to see where the smoke was coming from.

I noticed the wires were almost touching a bit of carpeting that lines the shelf just under the radio’s mounting bracket and I thought the wires had somehow singed the carpet, causing it to smoke. But, the carpet didn’t really look burnt enough for the amount of smoke. I didn’t panic, per se, but my heart was racing because electricity always makes me a bit nervous.

A few minutes later the smoke subsided and I popped my head out of the cabin and I yelled to a nearby club member (Fred -- not his real name), asking him to come help. After I explained what happened, he diagnosed the problem quickly. He noticed that the copper wire was exposed near the connectors and he though the wires had likely touched, causing a spark that singed the carpet.

As he was talking I noticed that the ends of the wire looked burnt. We both looked more closely and concluded that, in fact, the carpeting was fine -- it was the plastic around the wire that had melted. By that time, I suspect Fred could sense my anxiety and he tried to reassure me it would be an easy fix.

When I told him how uncomfortable I am with electrical stuff, he offered to help me install a new wire, once I got the old one out. I gratefully took him up on his offer and we discussed the type of wire and insulated connectors I should get.

After Fred left I decided to start removing the old wire before I lost my nerve. I disconnected everything from the battery and removed it in order to get at the wiring. It wasn’t until I started removing the radio wire that I realized how fried it was: the plastic on all nine-plus feet of it was melted.

Though I felt unnerved from the moment I turned the radio on and saw smoke, by the time I got home I was a wreck, thinking about how dangerous the whole thing was. An electrical fire is never good, but given that I’ve got about six gallons of gas on board for my outboard, the incident could quickly have become a disaster.

Thinking there must be something to learn from this (besides the proper use for electrical tape, which until then I thought of as just a better, if more expensive, alternative to duct tape), I’ve gone over the incident in my mind a number of times. I blame myself for not having paid more attention to the boat’s wiring, though I have become a bit more familiar with it as a result. At the same time, I do give myself credit for having reacted quickly by turning the battery’s master switch off, and for having a fire extinguisher within reach, in case I had needed it.

I kept a piece of the melted, twisted wire. Want to know why? No, not to remind me of what a close call I had… I kept it to remind me of how damned lucky I was!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a good dancer

By Ingrid Sapona

Gene Kelly was more my type than Fred Astaire, but I wouldn’t have turned down the chance to dance with either. Truthfully speaking, my all-time favourite dance scene is in White Christmas. It’s the one with Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing to “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”. Their syncopated tapping on the overturned boat and their graceful gliding down the pier is my idea of romantic.

Though Dancing with the Stars has brought ballroom dancing back into vogue, I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many guys out there sweeping women off their feet with their fancy footwork. It’s certainly never happened to me or my single girlfriends. But, a recent encounter I had with a guy at my sail club reminded me of how delightful it is to come across someone whose social graces are so refined you feel like you’re Ginger and you’d swear there’s an orchestra in the background.

I first met Alex (not his real name) last year. He had just joined the club and another member (I’ll call him Bill, but of course that’s not his real name either) roped him into being on a committee I’m on. From the start I had the feeling Bill, the big brother type, invited Alex on the committee to try to set us up.

Alex was cute, nice, and helpful. He didn’t talk much about his home life and I noticed he spent a fair bit of time on his boat. Whenever I saw him he was alone, but that’s not unusual at the club -- lots of wives and girlfriends don’t seem to enjoy sailing. We had fun on the committee but there really was no spark.

In fact, I had pretty much forgotten about him until I ran into him on a recent Friday afternoon at the club. We stopped to chat and he asked how my business is going. Work’s been weighing heavy on my mind lately and I ended up saying more than I usually do about my business frustrations. When I got into my car I was angry with myself for going on-and-on about my worries to a virtual stranger.

As I was driving out I passed him headed to his car and I rolled down the window to apologize because my response was probably way more information than was called for in answer to his innocent question. He laughed and reassured me that he truly was interested or he wouldn’t have asked and he told me not to worry about it.

As I drove home I was thinking about how sweet and genuine he seems, and how perfect he’d be for one of my single friends. I decided I really should try to introduce them. But first I had to figure out a way of finding out if he’s single.

By the time I got home I had an idea. I had been given two tickets to a talk featuring a well-known writer. Since I had an extra ticket and it was free, I decided to ask him to join me. I figured if we went to this event together I might have the opportunity to find out what his status is and if he’s interested in meeting my friend. I didn’t know exactly how I’d do that, but I figured during the course of the evening I’d think of some way – whether subtle or straightforward – of doing so.

As soon as I got home I sent him an e-mail. I intentionally kept it light and funny. I posed a series of questions I thought might be going through his mind as a result of receiving the e-mail and I included answers to each question. The first question was: “Does she have an ulterior motive?” Answer: “No.” Of course, I knew that wasn’t totally true. I did have an ulterior motive: trying to find out if he’d like to meet my friend. And of course, I realized he might think my motives were, shall we say, a bit more personal. But, figuring I had nothing to lose, I went ahead and sent it.

The following morning I got an e-mail in reply. His opening line was that he likes the way I write (he doesn’t know I make a living at it) and he likes my insight. Hmmm… What does that mean? I wondered. The next couple paragraphs he cleverly sashayed between saying yes and saying no. Reading it was like being spun about the dance floor.

Then, before I knew what was happening, he masterfully led me into the final, dramatic dip: a single, cleverly-phrased sentence in which he mentioned that, though he was free the evening of the event because his girlfriend had other plans, he really didn’t think he’d enjoy the lecture so he was declining the invitation.

Bravo! Gracefully done, I thought. The crucial information is revealed with no harm (though now I’m even more convinced he’d be perfect for my friend) and no hurt feelings. And, best of all, no need for awkwardness next time we run into each other.

Boy-oh-boy… sure makes me wish everyone was as good a dancer.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona