July 21, 2016

Time to watch the weather

IT’S TIME for East Coast boaters to start worrying about hurricanes. One owner of a 35-foot sailboat who often crosses over to the Bahamas has already started worrying. He wants to know if sailboats can survive hurricanes. “How high do the waves get, and how do yachts handle them?” he asks.

Well, certainly, many sailboats have survived hurricanes. For example, Atom, a 30-foot Tahiti ketch sailed around the world by Jean Gau, a New York chef, survived a hurricane that sank the Pamir, a four-masted barque, not far away from him.

But it’s misleading to say if one small boat survived a hurricane then others can survive also. There are boats and there are hurricanes, and no two are the same. To a great extent, it depends on how far the boat is from the center of the hurricane, and whether she is in the safe quadrant or the dangerous quadrant.

As for the height of waves, here’s what Captain Edwin Harding, author of Heavy Weather Guide, has to say about it: Waves of 35 to 40 feet are not uncommon in an average hurricane. In giant storms they can reach to 50 feet or higher.

How do you deal with waves that high? It depends on the size of the breaking crests, the characteristics of your boat, and where the nearest land lies, whether you heave to, lie ahull, or run off. In extremis, there doesn’t seem much you can do other than take down all sail, slide the companionway tightly shut, and climb into a bunk with a lee cloth to prevent your being flung out. Any jetting crest that is taller than 55 percent of the overall length of your boat will capsize you if it hits you broadside on — a 19-foot crest if you’re aboard a 35-footer. That’s a huge plunging breaker, admittedly, but they do happen and if the wind is blowing against the Gulf Stream, things can get even worse, and very quickly.

So if I were crossing to the Bahamas and back I’d keep a good eye on the weather forecasts. I never want to be at sea in the teeth of a hurricane, even if I think I can survive because Atom survived.

Today’s Thought
Let him who knows not how to pray go to sea.
John Ray, English Proverbs

Mary had a little watch,
She swallowed it one day,
So now she’s taking laxatives
To pass the time away.

July 19, 2016

The boats that chuckle

A MESSAGE from Frank, in Columbus, Ohio, says:

“Dear John: You once wrote a column about lapstrake planking. I was recently visiting in New England and saw lots of lapstrake wooden boats. What’s the advantage?”

Well Frank, the first thing is that it’s beautiful. If you like looking at pretty girls, you’ll like looking at lapstrake. It emphasizes all the curves. That’s not actually why boats were built with overlapping planks, or strakes, in the first place, though.

Because each plank overlaps the one below it, the thickness is almost doubled along each edge. That makes it very stiff and strong — suitable for one-design racing dinghies, smallish fishing boats landing on beaches, or ship’s launches that take a good pounding. And because it’s so strong, a lapstrake (or clinker-built) hull is normally much lighter than its carvel-planked cousin.

But building in lapstrake is a fine art, and mostly a lost one these days except in a few wooden-boat centers scattered around the country. In the old days the planks had to be finished so finely that they would not leak even in the absence of caulking. These days, a fine bead of polyurethane or polysulphide makes it easier to form a watertight seal along the plank edges but formerly it was the skill of the boatwright alone that kept the water out.

The planking always starts at the keel and works its way upwards. Copper nails with rooves fasten the planks together with a minimum overlap of about 5/8 inch with 1/4-inch planks — and more on bigger boats, of course. At the stem and transom, where the planks come together, the strakes need expert treatment and call for fine woodworking skills.

Older wooden boats without caulking would open cracks along the seams if they dried out for too long, but if they were allowed to soak in water again for a couple of days, the wood would swell and cure that problem.

There isn’t much lapstrake construction around these days, of course, at least not in commercial production, but when fiberglass took over from wood some 60 years or more ago some boatbuilders thought it might be a good idea to produce lapstrake GRP boats.

The problem is that fiberglass doesn’t like to make sudden sharp bends, and lapstrake is ALL sharp bends between one plank and the next if you run your hand down the side of the hull from top to bottom. So they had to fillet the joints between planks into nice gentle curves, which took more material and added weight — and that, in turn, negated the light-weight advantage of lapstrake hulls. I expect the construction of a lapstrake mould was also much more difficult and expensive than a plain carvel one. The net result was that a fiberglass lapstrake hull was strong and pretty and more maintenance-free, but often impractical from the point of view of construction and cost.

One-off wooden racing boats are rarely built in lapstrake, despite the weight advantage, because of the added resistance of each lap at slow speeds and because the greater surface area of the hull results in more drag.

One thing that surprises people who have never owned a lapstrake boat is how much noise they make at anchor. Each little passing wavelet smacks into the underside of the laps with great zest, resulting in an unexpectedly loud chorus of noise that owners of lapstrake boats are wont to dismiss as cheerful “chuckles.” But let me tell you, Frank, that if you’re anchored nearby, in the middle of an otherwise quiet night, you might not be chuckling so much.  

Today’s Thought
This sort of thing takes a deal of training.
— W. S. Gilbert, Ruddigore

A newly released government report reveals why universities are often referred to as “storehouses of knowledge.”
“It is simply that undergraduates bring so much knowledge in,” says the report, “and graduates take so little out.”

July 18, 2016

Current and speed over ground

HOW OFTEN have you heard a boat owner say: "I need more power to fight the current.  I need a bigger engine."

Whenever I hear that, I know this is not a true sailor talking. This is a land person, not a water person.

Land persons know about power in cars. More power enables a car to go uphill faster. With enough power and low-down torque, you don't even need to change gears.

Land persons appear to equate a boat struggling against a current with a car going up a hill, which is something a natural-born water person never does.

Water persons are blessed with a natural affinity for sensing the speed and direction of their craft. They can "feel" movement that they can't see. Something deep down inside tells them they're also going sideways or even backwards when it looks as if they're going straight ahead.  They know without ever having to think about it that the thin sheet of water they're sailing in is often moving with respect to the ground beneath it because of a tidal stream or an ocean current.

They know when they are steaming upstream against an ebbing river that the current they're fighting is not the same as a hill on a highway. Their speed through the water does not decline, as an underpowered car's does with respect to the road. It's the current that robs them of speed over the ground, not the lack of engine power. Always presuming, of course, that the engine is capable of pushing the boat at hull speed.

A bigger engine is not going to help, unless it's a whole lot bigger, because it takes an enormous amount of extra power to make a displacement hull exceed its hull speed by even a small amount.

This whole business seems to be quite difficult for land persons to comprehend, but I expect the manufacturers of new, more powerful engines are quite happy to let them remain ignorant.  And the water persons are quite happy, too, knowing that the land persons will always be the lubbers they suspected them to be.

Today's Thought
Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer, NYT 3 Dec 78

 "Hey buddy, I thought you had a date with that blonde tonight."
"Yeah, I did."
"What happened?"
"Well, we went to her place and sat around and chatted and then she put on some quiet music and changed into her lingerie and lay down on the sofa. I guess she was ready to go to sleep. Then she turned out the lights — so I came home. I can take a hint."

July 14, 2016

Beware deck-stepped masts

IT PAYS SAILBOAT BUYERS to be suspicious about deck-stepped masts. It pays to check if the deck directly beneath the mast has sagged. And the way the canny buyer does this is by feeling the tension in the mast shrouds. A soft deck simply won’t support much tension. It will just sag further.

You can just about play a tune on a properly tensioned shroud. In fact, I’m always amazed at how much tension the experts advise you to wind in via the turnbuckles.

I have in front of me the carefully preserved pamphlet that came with a pair of Loos tension gauges I bought many years ago, and it says:

“Contrary to popular thought, a slack rig is more punishing on a hull than a properly adjusted tight rig. Insufficient tension will not reduce the loads transmitted to the hull. Slack rigging will punish the spar and rigging needlessly by allowing excessive movement, chafe, and shock loading.”

Now for a boat with 7/32-inch 1 x 19 stainless-steel shrouds, such as a 27-foot Cape Dory I once owned, the Loos people advise you to pre-load the tension to 700 pounds. The forestay should be tightened to 1,000 pounds.

I was always scared to do this. The numbers sounded too big. When I first bought my gauges I screwed up my nerve and set the shrouds at 450 pounds apiece. Years later, encouraged by the fact that the sides of the boat had not yet risen to meet each other, and the mast had not yet been driven through the deck, I raised the tension to 600 pounds. But I never got as far as 700 pounds.

The Loos pamphlet goes on to warn that “the lateral stiffness of the mast and the fore-and-aft stiffness of the spreaders is reduced by a factor of 2 when the leeward shrouds go slack. This important structural characteristic is not generally recognized.”

I presume that when they say “reduced by a factor of 2” they mean the mast stiffness is halved. That sounds quite serious. But then, one must also recognize that they are in the business of selling tension gauges. Not that I would suspect them for one moment of deliberately scaring people into buying their gauges. It’s just that I’m a born skeptic. And 600 pounds was just fine for me, thanks.

Today’s Thought
We're probably the opposite of the Osbournes. We run a very tight ship.
Hulk HoganH — Hulk Hogan

Last month a local Small Claims Court judge told a nervous woman witness to make herself at ease, and talk to him as if she were talking to her husband or friends at home.
The case is still proceeding.

July 13, 2016

The magic of the centerboard

I OFTEN THINK what a clever invention the humble centerboard is. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of a wing on a plane, but on a boat it’s a mostly invisible part of the magic of sailing.

I say magic, because the centerboard, like a fin keel, stops a boat making leeway by making leeway. That’s right. If a centerboard didn’t make leeway of between 3 and 5 degrees, it couldn’t work. It wouldn’t provide the “lift” to stop a sailboat drifting off to leeward so fast on the beat that it would never be able to make way to windward. And it has to be moving forward through the water to provide lift, of course, otherwise it will be stalled and allow the boat to slide sideways.

According to The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, the centerboard for small craft was invented in America in colonial times. “The need to be able to sail to windward close-hauled, with an entirely flat-bottomed work boat arose from the great stretches of shallow waters found in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic seaboard from Long Island Sound to Florida, and so the centerboard was born.”

Although some famously successful ocean racing yachts have had centerboards, naval architect Ted Brewer says the pure centerboard cruiser has fallen out of favor now, although it still has much to offer the sailor.

If you’ve sailed with a pivoting centerboard, you’ll know how useful it is in balancing the helm by moving the center of lateral resistance forward and aft. If you raise the board partly to angle it aft, for instance, it greatly reduces the tendency of a sailboat to round up while on the dead run.

To take this a step further, some boats have two centerboards, one large one up forward, and another smaller one aft. The task of the forward board is to reduce leeway, while the aftermost board is raised or lowered to attain neutral helm. This is particularly handy in heavy weather, when the changes to sail balance caused by reefing can by compensated for by adjusting the boards.

Like a fin keel, the efficiency of a centerboard usually increases with its aspect ratio. The longer and thinner it is, within reason, the better it will perform, especially if it is given a streamlined shape that provides more lift for its area.

It seems so simple when you look at it. You simply stick this piece of board down into the water through a slot in the boat and it stops you going sideways. But if you care to think about it, there’s a lot of interesting science and hydrodynamics going on down there. Like many aspects of sailing, we don’t normally give it much thought. It just works when we want it to, and that’s that. But it’s magic all the same.

Today’s Thought
 ‘Tis frivolous to fix pedantically the date of particular inventions. They have all been invented over and over fifty times. Man is the arch machine, of which all these shifts drawn from himself are toy models.
— Emerson, Conduct of Life

“What happened to that guy who tried to cash your check?”
“They took him away in a strait jacket.”

July 11, 2016

Poof! And the dream is gone

THERE WAS A TIME in my life when I used to write about things other than boats. In my newspaper life I wrote six columns a week for metro dailies for 20 years, and people were always asking me: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Well, the truth is that like most columnists, I am involved in a perpetual search for subject matter. Even now, when I concentrate mainly on boats, I rarely know, from day to day, what I’m going to write about next. Some of my best ideas come in dreams, but the frustrating thing is that I very rarely can remember my dreams.

While I’m having my dreams, I think to myself what a marvelous idea this is. How my readers are going to love this one. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s full of useful tips — this is a columnist’s dream column. And then, poof! it disappears as soon as I wake up. Can’t remember a darned thing about it, except that it was astoundingly good.

I once had the idea of keeping a notebook and pen on my bedside table so I could wake up and write down the details of my dream while it was still fresh in my mind. The results were startling. The wonderfully creative thoughts that had passed through my sleeping mind were absolute driveling gibberish when examined next morning in the stark light of day. Nothing made any sense.

Once or twice, toward dawn, I have awakened so gradually that my waking mind was still attached to my sleeping mind, and there was a partial transfer of creative thought that actually made sense. I can’t say either of those dreams was spectacularly helpful in writing a column, but at least they weren’t gibberish.

My intuition tells me that I dream about boats a lot. I’m sure I design brilliant boats and sail them perfectly. I bet I win lots of races and cruise to exotic places and wear smart yacht club blazers and attract the attention and adoration of lovely women wherever I go.

And, talking about women, I don’t know for sure, because I never can remember, but I expect I dream about women just as often as boats. Most men do, I’m told. Nice women, of course, modest, wholesome women equipped with the highest moral standards, clever, interesting women known as much for their brains and character as their looks.

Admittedly, a bad woman may have crept into my dreams now and then. I have no way to confirm or deny it and I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. But if that happened, it’s not my fault. I plead innocent. I’m not in charge of my dreams and I don’t know who is. Furthermore, I am not responsible for my actions in my dreams. Actually I don’t even know what bad women do. Well, to tell the truth, maybe I do have a vague idea of what they do. But I’m not sure, because if they did it, I’ll never know what it was. I can’t remember it.

Today’s Thought

Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.

— Dr. William C. Dement


“Who was that girl I seen you out with last night?”

“You mean ‘I saw.’”

“Oh, right. Who was that eyesore I seen you out with last night?”

July 7, 2016

There's action down below

WHEN I LOOK at a marina full of boats, I wonder if the boats are really as deserted as they look. Just because they're not out sailing doesn't mean they're not being used. I have spent many happy hours down below on docked boats. Some of them were bigger than I could really afford, but they offered comforts that smaller boats could not match.

Nothing feels cozier than the cabin of a yacht when the wind is howling from the southeast and cold rain is drumming on the skylights. What better way is there for the harried city worker to relax than to stretch out on a bunk with a favorite book or good music on the stereo?

To go below into the womb-like confines of a cabin smelling of teak and lemon oil is to shut out the worries of the weekday world. And alone, or with a loving companion, there is a satisfaction approaching bliss in doing nothing in peculiar, in simply relaxing in a snug little vessel floating on a highway that — if you wanted to — would take you to all the exciting, exotic places in the world.

Even in summer, an afternoon spent in the sunny cockpit, happily tying a Turk's Head on the tiller, or lazily re-varnishing the little spot where the jib sheet rubs on the teak coaming, revitalizes the spirit and feeds the soul.

You may sometimes feel the pressure to go sailing when you don't particularly want to, simply to fall in with the popular notion that you have to leave your slip to prove that you're a proper sailor and not a veranda yachtsman.

But you don't have to fall for that. How you enjoy your boat is up to you. And if you can afford a big boat in which you can goof off standing upright, why should you make yourself miserable in one with no more than sitting headroom?   

Today's Thought

The bow that's always bent will quickly break;

But if unstrung will serve you at your need.

So let the mind some relaxation take

To come back to its task with fresher need.

— Phaedrus, Fables  

Confucius say: "If man think by the inch and talk by the yard, he will be kicked by the foot."