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Sailing Through a Meltwater Pulse

By Dmitry Orlov

January 19, 2016 -
"Club Orlov" -   It's January, and the Greenland ice sheet is melting. There was recently a winter hurricane in the North Atlantic, and another in the Pacific. On New Year's day there was a thaw at the North Pole. Greenand is melting; when it melts, the ocean level will go up 20 feet (6m). This will be enough to flood all the coastal cities—permanently. So far, predictions as to how fast this melting will occur have proven to be worthless, with the actual melting rate outpacing them by a huge margin. And although many people still believe that the effect will be gradual—less than an inch a year—another view on the matter is that at some point there will be an avalanche-like collapse of the Greenalnd ice sheet, which will generate a meltwater pulse, sending ocean levels up many feet in a single step.

And there are all those who, whenever I publish something that mentions climate change, crawl out of the woodwork and gnash their exoskeletal mandibles at me, to the effect that climate=weather, and it's all a conspiracy theory. They are all idiots and deserve a boathook in the eye. Sailing on...

For the sake of this discussion, I will assume a meltwater pulse of 10 feet (3m). What will it mean for those of us who live on the water and sail along the coastline? And, more specifically, what will be the impacts for the sailboat design I have been working on for about a year now—QUIDNON, the houseboat that sails?

Ignoring, for the moment, other impacts, most shoreline marine facilities—marinas, boatyards, fuel docks—were constructed to be a few feet above the highest high tide. In many cases, they now have less than a foot of freeboard at highest high tide, and given a bit of a storm surge that number becomes negative, and the ramps that lead down to the floating docks stick up at a jaunty angle. A 10-foot rise will put virtually all of these facilities under a few feet of water at high tide, rendering them inoperable. With the transformers under water, they will be unable to provide electricity. Travelifts—the cranes that lift boats out of the water for maintenance—will be rendered inoperative, and so there will be no more haulouts.

But the worst part of it will be that entire marinas, which consist of an interconected structure of floating docks that float up and down on pilings with the tide, will lift off the pilings and drift off. The entire raft of docks and boats will drift until something runs aground. Then, when the tide ebbs, leaving the entire tangled mess high and dry, the powerboats will settle on their propellers, bending the drive shafts, while the sailboats—virtually all of them keelboats—will fall over, tangling their rigging together and becoming dismasted. A few tide cycles and a stiff blow later, and an entire marina's worth of boats will turn into an unsalvageable tangled pile of wreckage. For marinas in zones without much tidal range (a few spots on the Intracoastal Waterway in the US, all Bahamas) that use fixed docks instead of floating ones, the problem will be about the same: as the meltwater pulse arrives, the boats will individually lift off pilings and sail off in random directions in a tangled mass.

So much for marinas; but what of anchorages. After all, a few of us will have the foresight to get out of the marina and anchor somewhere. If you find an isolated anchorage in which to ride out the meltwater pulse, you might do fine, but in a crowded, shallow anchorage, where most boats have just a few feet under them at low tide, a 10-foot water level rise will cause them to run out of scope (the ratio between anchor chain length and depth). Anything less than 4:1 scope is unlikely to allow the anchor to hold a boat in place. They will drag anchor and end up littering the new coastline, which will run thorugh shopping mall parking lots, suburban subdivisions and historic waterfronts.

Most reasonable people would consider such a scenario, and conclude that when (note: not if but when) it happens, living aboard boats will become impossible, along with recreational boating if the boat is stored in the water. It might still be able to launch boats from trailers, at low tide, from the very top of some boat ramps. Kayaks, canoes, dinghies and rowboats could still be used. But without shore water, shore power, pumpout services for sewage, floating docks to tie up to and ramps leading to dry land, living aboard a boat will be almost impossible for most people.

Without functioning boatyards with travelifts it will no longer be able to maintain boats, which all need to have their bottoms painted and through-hulls maintained (that's a technical term for holes in the bottom of a boat, masking the fact that they are a bad idea). People who live aboard boats and drive to work will find it difficult to do so if the marina parking lot ends up under several feet of water twice in each 24-hour period.

But suppose you are an intrepid sort of sailor who doesn't mind living at anchor in the midst of a postapocalyptic landscape, fetching your water and fuel in jerricans by dinghy and pushcart from some place further inland? (I assume that the boat is a sailboat, because, with fuel docks underwater, there weren't be any reasonable way to keep a powerboat fueled.) What if you get around the lack of boatyard facilities by careening the boat? Well, then there are still some additional issues.

1. With all the jetsam and flotsam getting washed off what used to be dry land—cars, trucks, houses and so on—sailing around and anchoring will be rather difficult. When anchoring, it is useful to look at a chart, and see whether the holding ground in an anchorage is marked “sand” or “mud” or “hard.” But what if the spot where you want to drop the hook is full of mangled wreckage? Will the anchor hold, and will you be able to get it back out?

2. There are many fixed bridges which, in the US, along the Intracoastal Waterway, have 65 feet of vertical clearance. After a 10-foot meltwater pulse, that becomes a 55-foot clearance, which will not be enough for any sailboat over about 34 feet that can't drop its mast to pass under during high tide. And then there are all the bridges that open—bascule, swing and lift—and wouldn't it be nice if the bridge tenders left them with the bascules up, the swing span open and the lift span up before permanently abandoning their posts, but what are the chances? And so, depending on where along the coast you find yourself when the meltwater pulse arrives, and with no boatyard crane available to pull your mast, you may be stuck, with no way to make it out to deep water.

3. In addition to significantly higher ocean water levels due to the meltwater pulse, we are also likely to face many more hurricanes. Currently, there are three tactics for dealing with hurricanes on a boat: emergency haul-out (not possible with the travelifts not running and the boatyards flooded); finding a hurricane hole (good luck with that, now that they are all full of debris, making anchoring an uncertain business); and, for the ridiculously intrepid and annoyingly ultra-competent, taking off to sea (on this, see previous point).

But what if the boat you live on happens to be a QUIDNON?
  • QUIDNON is designed to run aground safely. It only draws a couple of feet, and its bottom is clad in roofing copper—a tough material that also resists marine growth, only requiring a periodic light scrubbing and brushing.
  • With its bottom flat, it settles upright and can safely dry out at low tide. If it drifts into a parking lot or a suburban subdivision, there it will remain until the water comes back, and then sail back into deeper water.
  • The lack of shoreline facilities don't affect it much: its bottom never needs to be painted because the copper cladding is designed to outlast the 30 years that is the design service life of a typical QUIDNON, and there are exactly zero underwater through-hulls to maintain, all of its water inlets and outlets consisting of siphon tubes that reach down into the engine well from above the waterline.
  • Lack of shore power is not a big problem for a QUIDNON, there being plenty of solar panels, a wind generator and room for a generator set on deck. There is even room for a high-temperature plastics burner, a biochar kiln, and a digester for biodegradable jetsam and flotsam.
  • Lack of access to fuel docks is not a big problem. QUIDNON's inboard-outboard, which lives in the engine well and can double as the dinghy motor, is used to maneuver and motor through calms, but most of the time it's possible to sail. QUIDNON is overcanvassed by most standards, and can move in the faintest zephyr. Thanks to the junk rig, it can even sail backwards, with the sails backed.
  • Lack of shore water is not a big problem, there being lots of area from which to collect rainwater, and huge tanks in which to store it over long dry spells.
  • The jetsam and flotsam clogging up the anchorages and the waterways may be problematic, but with just a 2-foot draft it should be possible to either see through or otherwise read the water to figure out what the bottom is. The plan can be to always dry out at dry tide, anchoring is a matter of finding a spot that has 3 feet above level ground at high tide, and putting down some stakes. The stakes are long steel pipes, with a pointed, conical plug at one end and a ring to tie a rope to on the other. Each of these goes through two holes, one through a fold-out hoop at deck-level, and one in the chine runners that protrude from the bottom on both sides. Once hammered in place, they effectively pin the boat in place, which then floats up and down when the tide picks it up.
  • If the need arises to pass under bridges that either don't open or are fixed and now too low, the solution is simple: drop the masts. On QUIDNON, this operation doesn't require a crane, and can be performed with the boat in the water, by just one person, using a come-along.
  • Lack of shoreside transportation with which to get to a job shouldn't be a problem either. With all this wreckage lying around, and many formerly prosperous coastal areas now unreachable by land and, for most people, by water either, there will be plenty of new opportunities in the salvage business.
  • If a hurricane hits, a QUIDON can be kept secure by running it aground at high tide and running lines out to pegs in multiple directions. No hurricane hole is needed; just a sheltered spot with a gently sloping shore.

In all, when the meltwater pulse arrives, it seems to me that, should you decide to stick around anywhere near the former coastline, your choices are 1. to get yourself a QUIDNON, or 2. abandon ship and flee to higher ground, and try to get by tied up alongside all the other miserable environmental refugees. I believe I have done my homework, and I think I know which choice I would prefer. Only two questions remain: Do I have enough money? and Do I have enough time? If you are interested in inhabiting the shoreline moving forward, please pitch in any way you can. Thank you.

Dmitry Orlov was born in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in the 1970’s. He is the author of Reinventing Collapse, Hold Your Applause! and Absolutely Positive, and publishes weekly at the phenomenally popular blog www.ClubOrlov.com .

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