February 9, 2016

Sailing science advances slowly

IT TOOK MANKIND a long time to figure out how to represent the shape of a boat on paper. Indeed it is quite an achievement to be able to “see” the three-dimensional shape of a hull in the mind’s eye just by looking at a set of lines drawn on a flat surface. It took centuries before waterlines, buttock lines, and stations became the everyday tools of naval architects.

In fact, before the sixteenth century little was known of the science of ship design, according to Steve Killing, author of Yacht Design Explained: “It was experience rather than theory that taught the shipbuilder (who was often the designer) what was fast and what was seaworthy.”

In those days, experimentation was the only way to make a new ship better than the last, and sometimes progress wasn’t progress at all, Killing says. “In 1697 Paul Hoste, a French Jesuit priest and professor mathematics, was beginning to explore the new science that Newton’s example had inspired.”

Hoste wrote: “It cannot be denied that the art of constructing ships . . . is the least perfect of all the arts . . . . The best constructors build the two principal parts of the ship, viz. the bow and the stern, almost entirely by eye, whence it happens that the same constructor, building at the same time two ships after the same model, most frequently makes them so unequal that they have quite opposite qualities.”

Progress in the early days was very slow, and we might be forgiven for presuming that science is making much greater strides in this modern age. But we are forced to think again when accidents happen such as the sinking of OneAustralia during the 1995 America’s Cup Challengers’ Series. That catastrophe came about because of simple structural failure.

So much for computer-aided design. “Even with the latest scientific know-how on hand, we’re still learning things the hard way,” notes Killing.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

Tailpiece
“How much is a bottle of brandy? It’s my nephew’s birthday and he likes brandy.”
“Well, madam, it depends on the age. Seven-year-old is quite reasonably priced. Ten-year-old costs a bit more. Twelve-year-old can be quite expensive.”
“Gee, that’s terrible. My nephew is 25.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

February 8, 2016

Sailing across Europe

IF YOU’RE NOT ACQUAINTED with him already, allow me to introduce Negley Farson. He was an early 20th century American author, adventurer, war correspondent and (more relevant to this column) a sailor. In the 1920s, he and his English wife, Eve, sailed a 26-foot wooden centerboard yawl called Flame from England, through the canals, rivers, and lakes of Europe, over the Alps and  right down to the Black Sea. It was an extraordinary voyage that took them eight months.

He describes it briefly in his famous autobiography, The Way of a Transgressor, although he did in fact devote a whole book to this boating trip. It’s called  Sailing Across Europe. Both books are still in print, together with many others, including a classic on fishing, which he loved dearly.

Flame was probably the first boat of its kind to go through what was then the only freshwater link across Europe connecting the North and Black Seas. It climbed over the beautiful Frankischer Jura mountains in a series of steps — 101 locks in 107 miles.

“So shallow and so overgrown with weeds was it, that we could not use our motor,” Farson reported, “and I hauled Flame, with a rope around my waist, over the Frankischer Jura range! As soon as breakfast was over, I would go out on the towpath and turn myself into a horse. Flame was 2 1/2 tons deadweight, and it took me three weeks to pull her over the mountains for 107 miles.”

They were now over the backbone of Europe, beginning the long descent to the Black Sea, but they missed disaster by inches at Ratisbon, where they shot beneath a bridge built in the year 1300. “Once out in that swift current of the Danube pouring out from its gorge above Kelheim, we were helpless. The steeples and roofs of Ratisbon simply raced at us as Flame hurled her weight at the one navigable arch of the bridge. We had taken out masts out to get under this arch.

“Not until the last minute did I see that the peasants at Kelheim had directed us to steer through the wrong arch. It was choked with rocks so that a white froth of rapids was sluicing through it. I had to swing Flame sharply to the right and try to hit a small open hole of arch by the town wall.

“We just made it, grazing it as we shot through. All I saw of it was a row of open mouths from the Ratisboners wondering what on earth was this little craft doing up above the bridge, some yells as we shot perilously at the bridge — and then the sun was shining on the back of my head again. The bridge was being snatched away into the distance behind us, Ratisboners wildly waving us a goodbye salute.”

On their way to the Black Sea, Farson and his wife experienced many more hair-raising adventures (some even life-threatening)  in countries recently destabilized by the Great War, and their journey makes wonderfully exciting reading. Great stuff for these cold winter nights.

Today’s Thought
Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes. And the cities you see most clearly at night are the cities you have left and will never see again.
— Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road

Tailpiece
“Do you prefer American girls, Canadian girls, Mexican girls, French girls, or German girls?”
“Yes.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

February 4, 2016

Silent Fan Club paradox

A LETTER FROM Ivor Tungin-Cheaque, Chairman of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, says:

Honorable Sir,

A dilemma of considerable proportions has raised itself in regard to membership of your Silent Fan Club. As you well know, members are forbidden to contact you or praise in any way your unmatched wisdom and unrivalled literary skills. Because membership is automatic from birth, you have the biggest fan club the world has ever known.

But a recent newspaper article has given me cause for concern about the exploding world population. The article said that the Real Madrid soccer club is claiming to have 45 million fans. This is nothing compared with Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, which numbers its fans in the billions — but the implications are alarming

Since enrolment in your honor’s club is automatic, there have never been never been more members of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club. Nor has there been so great a demand on our administrative services. Never before have we struggled so valiantly to  keep track of new members and expel those few who break their vows of silence.

It is obvious, however, that the more the world population grows, the greater the chance that some members will break their vows of silence by reading your columns and publicly praising you. They will then have to be expelled.

This means that as the club grows, so its numbers will decline. This is a vexing paradox.

My humble suggestion is that you should immediately start toning down the the cleverness of your columns and the skill with which you wield the editorial pen. If your fans find less to admire in your writing, the less likely they will be to give in to their instinct to burst into ill-considered praise.

I shall, of course, keep you informed of developments.

I close with admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit and charm, the subtle thrust and parry of your sparkling repartee, and the wisdom, Solomon-like, that graces your princely brow.

Yours Humbly and Obediently,

IVOR TUNGIN-CHEAQUE (Chairman, Vigor’s Silent Fan Club)
PS:  I hope this makes sense. They’re replacing the padding in my cell and it’s very distracting.

Today’s Thought
To communicate through silence is a link between the thoughts of man.
— Marcel Marceau, US News & World Report, 23 Feb 87

Tailpiece
“My husband is so careless about his appearance. He just can’t seem to keep buttons on his clothes.”
“Maybe the buttons weren’t sewn on properly in the first place.”
“Oh, you may have a point there. He’s terribly careless with his sewing, too.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

February 2, 2016

Why pets and boats don't mix

A young couple readying their boat for long-distance cruising want to know what kind of pet would be best to take along on their 35-foot sloop. Well, I have definite ideas about pets on boats, and I couldn’t do better than refer them to a column I wrote several years ago. It went like this:

EVERY SUMMER EVENING, toward sunset, quiet anchorages all over America suddenly become busy as dinghies begin ferrying dogs ashore from yachts. The dogs, cooped up all day on small yachts, almost always stand in the dinghy bows, ears pointed forward, tongues flapping in the breeze, panting with eagerness to get on dry land and empty their bladders.

It’s the poop parade and it’s not pretty. It starts with the dreadful, awkward business of trying to get a dog down into a dinghy in the first place, and ends with the equally dreadful, awkward business of trying to get it up, out of the dinghy and back on deck.

Sailing with dogs is such a lot of bother that you have to wonder why anybody would do it. I love animals as much as the next guy, perhaps more than most, but when I’m cruising I don’t want my choice of destinations and times of sailing to be dictated by an animal whose only ambition is to lift his leg on the nearest beach.

Dogs don’t enjoy sailing. They don’t care if you’re doing two knots or 10. They don’t mind if you hoist the spinnaker or not. They don’t even know what a spinnaker is. People take dogs sailing because they’re lonely for their dogs, not because their dogs are lonely for them.

If you can afford a boat, you can afford to put the dog in a good kennel while you cruise, or to hire a dog sitter. If you really love your animal, you will do what’s best for the dog, not for you. Don’t kid yourself that the dog can’t live without you. Dogs are pack animals and like to follow a leader but believe me, any leader will do. And if a dog’s going to be cooped up with nowhere to go, it surely would prefer to be cooped up on dry land that stays level and doesn’t make it seasick.

In the main, dogs won’t use a sandbox on board, or even a piece of Astroturf on the foredeck or in the cockpit. They’ll hold in a pee until their bladders almost burst. They’ll hang on to a poo until their eyes change color. They only want to go ashore, find a neatly tended marina lawn, or someone’s pretty flower garden, decorate it with their internal debris, and scratch the hell out of it. That’s doggy heaven; and the whole process is repeated again at dawn the next day.

If you must have an animal on board then a parrot makes more sense than anything else. The pirates knew what they were doing. Did you ever hear of a pirate with a dachshund, for goodness’ sake?

And if not a parrot, then a cat. Cats are more compact. They don’t need exercise. You can ignore them and they’ll ignore you right back, with no hurt feelings. And, best of all, you don’t have to take them ashore. They’ll use a litter box. In fact, some will go one step better, and use the head.

I once met one called Pepe who had sailed around the world on a boat called Aqua Viva. His owner, a lawyer, had trained him to sit on the toilet seat by first placing his sandbox there. Pepe never did learn to open the seacock and flush the loo, but nobody was complaining about that.

The trouble with ocean-going cats is that they almost always seem to fall overboard and drown, or else, if they’re females, they run away with some local riff-raff tomcat as soon as they get to port. So, if you have a cat you should try not to get too attached to it because sooner or later you’re going to learn that sailboats and household pets are a very poor mix.

Today’s Thought
America is a large, friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.
 —Arnold Toynbee, News summaries, July 14, 1954.

Tailpiece
I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

—Ogden Nash.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 31, 2016

Port and starboard poppycock


AMERICA’S largest-circulation boating magazine is trying to educate landlubbers. The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine tries to explain why we sailors refer to port and starboard instead of left and right.

The answer, says BoatU.S., “is that the starboard side is ALWAYS the starboard side, no matter which way you, or anyone else, is facing on board.”

Now I have heard this explanation many times before, and the lack of logic has always offended me. Who in his right mind would suggest that the right side of a boat becomes the left side if you’re facing backward? 

What about the bow and the stern? Do we call the front part the bow because it’s always in the front, no matter which way we’re facing? Of course not. We refer to such things as port and starboard to confuse landlubbers. We call the front part the bows and the back part the stern because it makes us seem smarter. It’s sailor talk and obviously too difficult for mere landlubbers to master.

I cringe when I read the false explanations in magazines. “Imagine that you’re on a boat and the captain asks you to quickly put fenders over the right side,” says BoatU.S. “If you were facing one another, would that be your right or his?”

Well, for Pete’s sake, does your right arm become your left arm if you turn around and face the other way?  Why should the right side of a boat suddenly become the left side because a human being turned around?

“Imagine it’s getting dark, or heavy weather is upon you, and you can’t see which way people are facing on the boat. Saying ‘It’s to your left!’ or ‘Look to the right!’ would make no sense to anyone and would create confusion that could threaten the crew and the boat,” says the magazine.

What poppycock. It sure makes you wonder how people get along when they’re ashore on dark nights. How the heck do they manage to get anything done without running into each other?

The truth is the there is no reason why we shouldn’t use left and right instead of port and starboard. The U.S. Navy uses left and right for steering instructions. The U.S. Coast Guard uses left and right in place of port and starboard. “HARD RIGHT (LEFT) RUDDER means put the rudder over to the right the maximum degrees allowed by that class of ship,” says the book.  If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for readers of BoatU.S. magazine.

The real reason we use port and starboard, and the rest of the nautical nomenclature, is that we simply continue to use the words that have evolved over the ages as ships have evolved. We didn’t deliberately invent the word starboard so dumb sailors wouldn’t get dizzy trying to find their right hands at night. It derived from the old words for steering board, the side over which the steering oar was traditionally placed.  And the port side was the side you placed against the quay in port, so you didn’t damage your steering oar.

But there’s no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t talk about the front end, the back end, the right side and the left side, if we wanted to, so that anybody, even dumb sailors, could understand. And, come to think of it, one of the things I love about Washington State car ferries, which have front ends at both ends, is that they label them End No. 1 and End No. 2.  No confusion there, no matter which way you’re facing.

Today’s Thought
Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Tailpiece
“Doctor, I think I’ve got water on the knee.”
“No problem, I’ll just give it a little tap.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 28, 2016

Sad sailor soils his salopettes

HANDS UP those of you who know what salopettes are.

Yeah, well, okay, I should have known there would be some smart-asses among you. Salopettes, for the rest of us, are sailing trousers and tops combined, a sort of Frenchified, adult onesie. You might say they’re a fancy kind of waterproof bib and trousers — sleeker, cooler, and much hauter in the ranks of nautical haute couture. And, naturally, correspondingly more expensive.

I mention this because someone called Torp has been writing about them on Yachting Monthly’s “Scuttlebutt” forum. Salopettes have been giving Torp problems:

“I have a pair of enthusiastically bright yellow salopettes,” he writes. “They are my pride and joy. However, I used to race on an old boat with blue ‘grippy’ stuff all over the deck. Courtesy of a good few sea hours buttock-down on the windward rail, I have found that this stuff has transferred itself to the seat of my trousers and no amount of scrubbing has made a dent in. So, long ago, I stopped trying.

“I don't mind, and the clothes are still waterproof so I'm not planning on forking out for a new set. However, I've been sailing on a different boat recently. This is one of those posh icebergs with gleaming gelcoat and fixtures and fittings pretty much still in their shrink-wrap.

“The skipper is fiercely boat-proud  and ALWAYS well turned-out in the latest, freshest kit in a sleek pale grey (a color that wouldn't last five minutes on me). Today I received several vibes that my dirty bottom and I are not quite up to the required standard. Remarks were directed towards my dulled posterior 'letting the side down', and I did observe the skipper later checking the spot I had just quit, presumably to make sure that none of my ancient arsegrime had contaminated his treasured decks. A further subtle hint I picked up on was that whenever we passed another crew at close quarters I was hastily bundled into the cockpit.

“Anyway, it's a great boat and I'd like to continue sailing on it, but I'm fairly sure I'm soon to receive an ultimatum from the owner — he's going to tell me that my smutted cheeks are making the boat look bad. So please, can anyone recommend a product that will get rid of him?”

A little later, Torp, returned to the forum with an update on his unfortunate problem:

“Following hours of fruitless scrubbing and sluicing over the past few years, for no apparent reason some of the seemingly-unshiftable filth started to come off in last weekend's dreadful weather.

“When we got back the skipper watched, stoney-faced and silent, as I had to hose all the buttock-width streaks off his gleaming gelcoat.

“The weird thing is, though, the salopettes don't even look any cleaner! And judging by the state of the boat afterward, LOADS came off. LOADS did. What the hell is that stuff?!

“Also! Does anyone else need crew?”

Well, as you can imagine, Torp received many suggestions from fellow forum members concerning what to do about his dirty bottom, most of them more humorous than practical. There was one that caught my eye, however. It suggested that if the skipper wanted his crew to match his own splendid outfit, he should provide them all with the appropriate uniforms, as all the top racing owners do. Absolutely right.

Meanwhile, as the owner of nice comfortable 20-year-old foul-weather gear, I have no plans to replace it with fancy salopettes. I fear it will take more than new duds to make me acceptable on gin-palace racing boats.

Today’s Thought
It is possible in England to dress up by dressing down, but it’s a good idea to be a duke before you try it.
— John Russell, NY Times, 9 Mar 86

Tailpiece
“Sara says she ran into you at the vegetarian club.”
“That’s a lie. I’ve never met herbivore.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 26, 2016

Tricky question from lame brain

MY BRAIN HAD A QUESTION for me in the middle of the night: How does a rudder rud?

“We know how a writer writes and how a singer sings,” it said, “but how does a rudder rud?”

My brain thinks it’s quite funny on the quiet but in fact its sense of humor is quite warped. Nevertheless, as I had the rest of the disturbed night to think about it, I did start considering the question.

I seem to remember learning that it’s not the rudder alone that steers a sailboat. It’s all very vague now, but apparently the rudder just starts the boat turning, and the hull, now being at an oblique angle to the boat’s forward progress, is forced off to one side or the other. So I’m not exactly sure how the rudder ruds, except that it’s a hydrofoil that generates lift in either direction, according to how you turn it.

Nevertheless, it’s the action of the rudder that you feel when you’re slicing along to windward on a lovely day in a calm sea and all is wonderful around you. A couple of fingers on the tiller is all that’s need to keep your little beauty running straight and true — until a sudden gust of wind comes along, and you find yourself tugging the tiller up under your chin. It’s the dreaded weather helm, of course. Even on boats where the sail plan is nicely balanced with the keel plan, weather helm will show its ugly face, and it’s not hard to see why.

If you take a model yacht, place it in water (your bath will do), and use a finger behind the mast to push it forward, the boat will tend to go straight as long as the mast is upright. But if you heel the yacht over and push in the same place in the same direction with the same finger, you’ll find that your finger, the source of forward power, is now out to the side of the boat. You’re creating an off-balance push from one side of the boat. Naturally, the boat will try to turn toward the opposite side. You will have to counteract that tendency to round up into the wind by turning the rudder.

Now the rudder is a very effective brake. On sailboats it needs to be a large hydrofoil because it moves through the water comparatively slowly. Various designs of rudder make brakes of greater or lesser efficiency, but they all slow the boat down, some considerably, when they are turned. That is why it pays to reef the sails when the boat is heeling too much. The mast, being more upright now, creates less weather helm for the rudder to deal with.

This is all very simplistic, of course, suitable for a lower-class brain to absorb. It’s presuming that the driving force is transmitted at one point through the mast, which is convenient but not true. You can tell that because of how the mainsheet pulls when you’re on the run. There are forces on the shrouds and stays, too, all driving the boat forward.

It’s also presuming that the rudder is working upright in optimum conditions in calm water, which is not always the case. We all know that a rudder is less effective the more the boat heels, and hardly works at all in the foaming water left by a wave breaking under the stern. So it’s all really highly complicated and, I regret to say, too esoteric for a brain like mine.

Today’s Thought
He who will not be ruled by the rudder, must be ruled by the rock.
— Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature

Tailpiece
Words of wisdom from Scotland:
“A weel-bred dog gaes oot when he sees them preparing tae kick him oot.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)