April 19, 2015

No more lies about size of waves

THE COMING OF SPRING in the northern hemisphere ushers in a sense of renewal, a sense of refreshment and commitment to improvement. Spring always makes me want to be a better person than I was, which, admittedly is not difficult. This new sailing season I shall, once again, attempt to follow the Ten Commandments for Sailboat Owners:

1. Thou shalt not lie about the size of the waves, nor yet of the speed of the wind which hath assailed thee.

2. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s gorgeous Hinckley nor his adorable wife.

3. Thou shalt not curse the weather forecaster unless severely provoked.

4. Thou shalt not pour scorn upon the Coast Guard boarding party, yea even though thine potty be legal.

5. Thou shalt slow down both in the marina and the anchorage; neither shall thine junior offspring run amok in the outboard dinghy.

6. Thou shalt not stamp thine foot, nor beat thine breast, nor rent the air with thine fists when thou receivest thy bill for engine repairs, for it frighteneth the children

7. Thou shalt not laugh openly at thine seasick mother-in-law.

8. Thou shalt not neglect to switch on the cooling water before starting the engine and blame it upon thine spouse.

9. Thou shalt not lie about when last thou changed the engine oil.

10. Thou shalt honor thine foredeck crew, and refrain from assailing them with raiséd voice, for they are the salt of the earth.

And one more for the helluvit:

11. Thou shall not allow thine halyards to smite thine mast, lest it arouse sleeplessness and bitterness among thy neighbors.

Today’s Thought
We must do the thing we must
Before the thing we may;
We are unfit for any trust
Till we can and do obey.
— George Macdonald, Willie’s Question

“What happened to your ear?”
“Well, I was ironing my shirt when the phone rang and I accidentally put the iron to my ear.”
“Bummer. And what happened to the other ear?”
“Well, I had to call 911, didn’t I?”

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

April 16, 2015

Mayhem at the masthead

IN THE INTERESTS OF FREE SPEECH, a whistleblower for VigorLeaks recently intercepted the following  letter to our local office of the Social Security Administration:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to apply for Social Security disability benefits. This is what happened:

I was employed as a yard hand at the local marina. My boss told me to replace a burned-out light bulb at the top of a mast on a 45-foot cutter. Having drawn a suitable bulb from the Stores Dept. I proceeded to the boat. I had no help to get up the mast but hit upon the idea of filling two large plastic buckets with water. I tied them together and winched them to the top of the mast on the main halyard.

I then secured my bosun’s chair to the halyard with the thought that the weight of the buckets would help me ascend mast.

Unfortunately, as I cast off halyard, I discovered that the weight of water in the buckets was considerably more than my weight. I therefore shot up the mast at high speed.

Unfortunately, my right shoulder crashed into the spreaders and became dislocated and heavily bruised. At the same time, the descending buckets hit my left shoulder, cracking the bone and causing considerable pain.

Upon my arrival at the masthead, two fingers of my right hand got jammed in the pulley, causing one to be broken and the other to be badly squashed. I had no time to install the new bulb because the buckets, having hit the cabin top, fell over on their sides and emptied themselves. I was now considerably heavier than the buckets, and began descending at a rapid pace.

Unfortunately, on my way down I met the buckets coming up at high speed, causing severe contusions and bruising, and fracturing two ribs. I slammed heavily onto the cabin top, breaking a toe on my right foot. And then I must have lost control of my senses because I let go of the halyard.

The buckets now descended from top of the mast at high speed, one delivering a blow to my cheek, which was badly cut, and the other hitting me squarely on top of the head, which rendered me unconscious until a nice lady from one of the other yachts, having seen me bleeding and heard my screams, gave me first aid and called 911.

My boss says he doesn’t think I will ever be fit to work on boats again, at least not for his boatyard. I would therefore like to apply for disability and look forward to hearing from you.

[Name withheld to avoid embarrassment. -- Ed.]

Today’s Thought
There is no person who is not dangerous for someone.
— Madame de Sévigné, Letters

“Where’ve you been?”
“Yeah, half an hour ago, they tell me.”

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

April 14, 2015

How to do a pre-survey survey

WHENEVER ANYBODY asks about buying a used boat, I always advise them to get a professional survey. It will cost several hundred dollars, of course, but it could save you a small fortune in unexpected repairs.

But, alas, I am not very good at following my own advice. Of the five major boats I’ve owned, not one was surveyed before I bought it. In fact, I’m almost ashamed to admit that two of them were mail-order boats — ones I found on the Internet and bought sight unseen.

I don’t know whether I have a special talent for sorting out the winners from the losers, or whether I’ve just been plain lucky, but I never regretted any of those purchases. Nevertheless,  if someone is not willing to gamble, as I am (and lose gracefully, if necessary) then I still think a professional survey is the way to go on anything worth more than, say, $5,000.

It occurs to me, however, that you can save money by doing your own pre-survey survey. By that, I mean you can take a good look at a boat and decide whether you would like to buy it if a professional survey showed it to be sound.

There are many bits of boats that can’t really be tested without destroying them. There are also many bits that are hidden, and whose integrity cannot be established. You will note that survey reports are replete with ifs and buts and legal sentences that mean “I can’t guarantee that this boat is seaworthy or even fit for the purpose of the survey.” On the other hand, an experienced surveyor will use survey language in certain ways to indicate that he thinks this one is in pretty good shape for its age and it’s probably as good any other of its kind, and if it was up to him, he’d make an offer for it.

Now, what can you do before you call in the surveyor? Well, for a start, try to persuade the owner of the boat to leave you alone on board. It’s very inhibiting to have him or her hanging around while you poke in all the private places of the object of his affection. It’s like asking if you can undress his wife and have a good look. Well, maybe not quite like that, but very similar, wouldn’t you say? In any case, try to be alone with the boat.

There are four elements you can employ to do your own pre-survey survey. The first two are your eyes and your nose. Use your eyes to look for cracks, uneven surfaces, water in the bilge, oil under the engine, and tell-tale dribbles down below, from where the hull joins the deck and underneath the portlights.

Use your nose to sniff in all the hidey-holes on board. Sniff for smells of mold and rot. Sniff for mud, dead baby crabs, and god knows what in the chain locker. Sniff for leaking gas and engine fuel. A good, clean-smelling boat is a sign that it is being looked after.

The third element is your feet. Stomp all over the deck, the cabin-top, and the cockpit floor. There should be no flexing anywhere, no sign of fiberglass “giving,”  no sign of fiberglass delaminating.  Jump up and down on the foredeck. Give extra stomps alongside stanchion bases and all deck fittings that are screwed or bolted in place. That’s where water can seep in and rot a wooden core.

The fourth element is a medium-sized screwdriver with a plastic handle. Hold it back to front, with the spindle in your hand, and tap the hull and superstructure with the plastic bit. Tap all over, and use your ears. A solid piece of fiberglass makes a sharp rap when you tap it firmly. Some people say it “rings” but I’ve never heard that. What you’re looking for, and listening for, is areas where the fiberglass has delaminated, so that it is no longer one cohesive, solid piece. When you find a “soft” area like that, the screwdriver will make a duller “thunk” rather than a nice sharp rap.  Sometime the difference isn’t much, but you should be able to detect it.

Use your discretion, of course, and rap as gently as you can, consistent with getting decent results. Once again, try to do this out of the sight and hearing of the owner, because nothing irritates a boat owner more than some stranger whacking the hell out of his nice gleaming topsides.  Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be intimidated, either. It might be torture for the seller, but this is a perfectly legitimate way to assess the structural integrity of a boat you are genuinely interested in buying.

I might also mention that surveyors often use a small hammer, rather than a screwdriver handle, to tap the fiberglass with, but I advocate a screwdriver for most buyers. The sight of an amateur attacking a boat with a hammer is likely to cause the seller to scream.

There’s not much you can do about the engine, except to ask to hear it running, and to check it visually for leaks, stray wires, and excessive vibration. You’ll need to engage a marine mechanic to check it properly at a later stage because most surveyors can’t, or won’t, assess its state of health.

Just looking at the running and standing rigging will tell you whether the boat has been decently maintained over the years and give you a feeling for how much of what the seller is telling you is the truth, and how much is hyperbole, added to furnish verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

If you carry out this cheap and informative pre-survey survey, you should get a very good idea of whether you want to go ahead and call in a professional surveyor.  You can show him all the places where you suspect trouble and he will be very grateful. Don’t expect to get a discount on his fee, though. Just doesn’t happen.

Today’s Thought
There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.
— John Ruskin

Was sick.
In his delirium
He mentioned Miriam,
Which was an error
For his wife was a terror
With the name
Of Jane.

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

April 12, 2015

Woman trouble for Dylan Winter

MY ENGLISH FRIEND Dylan Winter is in trouble with women sailors. He has been shot down in flames by angry women readers of Small Craft Advisor magazine. He roused their ire by writing a humorous article in which he tried to figure out what male boat owners should do to make their wives and girl friends more interested in sailing. Sailing with men, that is.

Perhaps he didn’t deserve all the flak that came his way. He is a gentle, educated soul who sails small boats quite peaceably with his wife, Jill, and his family. And he produces some of the most artistically meritorious sailing videos I have ever seen as he wends his way slowly around Great Britain in a small sailboat.*

All the same, he should have known better. I, for one, could have told him that American women sailors are very sensitive to being treated with condescension or superciliousness by men, even in jest. They know their pintles from their gudgeons, and they demand respect. I must say I’m all for it. Respect is good.

Nevertheless, we need to face the facts. And the real question is, do women like sailing?

I voiced my views on this subject several years ago in a column on this blog, and it might help to repeat it here now. Of course, there’s also a chance it might not help after all; but what the heck. Faint  heart ne’er won fair lady, so here goes:   

DELICATE SUBJECT THIS: Do women really like sailing? It’s a question that occurred to me during a recent meeting of a little committee whose members write and edit articles for our local yacht club’s newsletter.

The editor wanted to know: Are we having enough articles of interest to women members? Recipes, for instance. Or: Where can they get nice nautical fabric for settee cushions? Or: What’s the best detergent for washing up in salt water?

Then it occurred to me that these questions are condescending. Women sailors are no different from men sailors, except they smell better and seem to stay cleaner longer. Sailors are sailors, and if women are interested in sailing they’ll be learning all the same stuff that men learn.

The truth is that most people don’t like sailing. It’s a minority sport. But those who do sail aren’t divided into categories by gender. We all know women who have sailed around the world singlehanded and non-stop. Perhaps they weren’t the first to do it, but there’s no reason now to think women aren’t the equal of men as sailors.

What may be confusing is that there are probably fewer women than men whose ambition is to sail a boat. And that’s probably very wise of them, considering that sailing a small boat is the slowest, most uncomfortable, and most expensive method of travel known to mankind and womankind.

However, the fact that there are still special sailing schools run by women, only for women, seems to me to smack of discrimination. I don’t know of any sailing schools for men only. I think the women-only schools sprang up because of a nasty rumor that men are prone to shout at women who can’t perform a simple action on a boat after being shown how to do it a hundred times, for goodness’ sake.

Women don’t shout at other women, apparently. I presume that whatever needs to be done, the teacher just does it for the pupil and keeps the peace. But what worries me is that when they have graduated, those women will have to sail with men again, so they might as well have got shouted at in the first place and have it all over and done with. (If it’s true about men shouting, of course, which I’ve never seen proven.)

But, anyway, to presume that women sailors want special articles in the club newsletter about how to butter parsnips at anchor, or sauté mangel-wurzels under way, seems demeaning. Women who like sailing want to know how to tell the difference between variation and deviation and where the deepest chord of the mainsail should lie in heavy weather. And if nice nautical fabric is needed for new cushions, why shouldn’t it be a man who searches for it, rather than a woman? Come to think of it, maybe it’s time for a woman editor for the club newsletter. Then the questions wouldn’t even be asked.

Today’s Thought If men are always more or less deceived on the subject of women, it is because they forget that they and women do not speak altogether the same language.
—Amiel, Journal, 26 Dec 1868

Tailpiece “Did you visit that spiritualist last night?”
“Was she a good one?”
“Not really, just a medium.”

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

April 9, 2015

Fame again after a century

IT TOOK a surprisingly long time for Edward Burgess to be formally recognized by his own countrymen. He died in 1891, but it wasn’t until 1994 that he was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

In case you didn’t know either, Edward Burgess was a Boston boy who taught himself how to design racing yachts that could beat those built by the best of Britain’s professional naval architects.

After a visit to England in 1883, Burgess returned to Boston to find the family business failing. He promptly set up a practice as a self-taught yacht designer, and, as luck would have it, his first commission was to design a defender of the America’s Cup against the British challenger, Genesta, in 1885. Burgess drew the lines of an 80-foot cutter called Puritan, which soundly beat the British yacht.

A year later, in 1886, he struck gold again with the design of the successful Cup defender Mayflower, and then, to cap everything, the following year he designed yet another Cup winner, Volunteer.

By this time, the whole country was aware of his triple successes, and showered him with acclaim for the brilliance of his designs. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that his business flourished to the extent that in seven years he produced designs for 137 different vessels, including yachts, fishing boats, pilot boats, and steamers.

In 1887 he was selected by the Secretary of the Navy to serve on a special board to choose designs for a new American naval fleet, resulting in the construction of the battleships Maine and Texas.

But his sudden rise to fame and fortune had its consequences. He died at age 43 as the result, it was said, of a fever brought on by his demanding naval work. And it wasn’t until more than 100 years later that his brilliant contribution to the art and science of yacht design was recognized by his induction to the Hall of Fame.

Today’s Thought
The splendors of earthly fame are but a wind,
That in the same direction lasts not long.
— Dante, Purgatorio

“Who’s that gorgeous girl over there?”
“She must be the village belle.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s wringing her hands.”

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

April 7, 2015

Bailing gas from the bilges

I WAS STOPPED IN MY TRACKS the other day when I read an account by a circumnavigator of how he used kerosene for cooking on his boat. I thought I was the only one left in the world who thought that was a good idea.

I grew up in the Dark Ages when every cruising boat used kerosene. The British and Colonial ones used paraffin, admittedly, but it was the same stuff under a different name, a slightly more refined form of diesel fuel.  It was used in lamps and Primus stoves and you had to pre-heat the kerosene burner with denatured alcohol. The Brits and Colonials pre-heated it with methylated spirits, but once again, it was the same stuff under a different name. They’re funny that way.

Anyway it was a lot of fuss and bother, and sometimes a lot of fun when the burner flared up because the pre-heating hadn’t been going on long enough. Few galley cooks had eyebrows in those days.

I still have a kerosene Primus stove, as a matter of fact. It’s in the garage, ostensibly for emergency use, but really for the pleasure of taking it out of its box once a year and trying to light the bloody thing. Nevertheless, I am neither hidebound nor stupid, so I readily admit that gas is the most convenient stuff to cook with on a boat. It has problems, though. Butane and propane are heavier than air and they’re highly explosive.

I remember smelling gas when I woke up one morning on a 72-foot ketch in Ramsgate, England. It was during the dog days of summer, dead calm. We fixed the gas leak and tip-toed around softly so as to cause no sparks, and waited for a breeze to ventilate the bilges.

We had a 12-volt bilge blower, but neither Gary, the skipper, nor I, the mate, wanted to risk switching it on.

“They’re supposed to be spark-free,” said Gary, “but . . .”

“Yeah, it only takes one spark,” I said.

Eventually, after considering everything, we decided to bail the gas out. Soon the residents of Ramsgate were treated to a strange spectacle. After dipping their buckets into the bilges, the crew of Thelma II would appear on deck one after another and solemnly pour seemingly empty buckets into the harbor. In true British fashion, the locals were too polite to enquire about this astonishing ritual, which must have rivaled even English Morris Dancing for sheer lunacy.

After 45 minutes we figured it was good enough. We all went ashore except for Gary, who bravely flipped the switch for the blower. We saw his hand move. There was no explosion. He grinned widely.

“All r-i-g-h-t!” We cheered and yelled from the dockside.

The locals shook their heads and pretended to be watching seagulls.

Today’s Thought
I adore life but I don’t fear death. I just prefer to die as late as possible.
—(the late) Georges Simenon, International Herald Tribune

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
"Sorry, sir, the chef used to be a tailor.”

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


April 5, 2015

A black eye for the Press

BY NOW, most of America will have read how Louis Jordan, 37, was plucked from the upturned hull of his old 35-foot Alberg sloop by the U. S. Coast Guard after drifting helplessly in the Gulf Stream off the Carolinas for 66 days.

Most of America will have read how he stayed alive (all the while nursing a broken collar bone) by catching small fish in his laundry, catching rainwater in a bucket, and reading his way right through the Bible twice.  Most of America will have learned of his suffering from hunger and thirst.

And most of America will have been misled by some of the shoddiest journalism ever to have been foisted on the public.

Anyone who has had the slightest connection with small boats and the sea will have been disgusted by the sloppy and inaccurate reporting of this accident.  Even newspapers within spitting distance of the sea were guilty of deliberate distortion and failing to check the facts.

The Virginia Pilot, for example, stated that “He cut off the mast to prevent his small boat from sinking.”

The facts, the plain unvarnished facts that anyone could have checked, were far different.

Jordan was actually spotted drifting off Cape Hatteras (between 124 miles and 300 miles off, depending on the news source) by a German flagged container ship called the Houston Express. They called the Coast Guard, who sent a helicopter to fetch Jordan from the ship.

He was taken to hospital on shore, checked, and discharged. He did not have a broken collar bone. He was not suffering from sunburn or any kind of exposure. He was not dehydrated. And he had certainly never spent a minute on the overturned hull.

None of the worthy members of the Press thought to ask him how he could have perched on the bottom of a full-keeled Alberg 35 for days on end.   Nobody queried if it is even possible for a relatively narrow boat with a ballast keel to remain inverted for more than a few seconds.

Nobody thought to ask him if he had an engine, and, if so, why he didn’t simply motor back to shore. Nobody asked him why, if he could cook and eat pancakes, he would want to eat raw fish. Nobody asked him why he was so far out to sea.

Obviously Jordan has very little experience of sailing at sea. He seem to have gotten into a storm and been capsized and dismasted. Nobody asked him if it was a 90-degree capsize or complete inversion. It seems he had the gumption to cut away the standing rigging attaching the damaged mast to the boat, but after that he just drifted helplessly. He was a liveaboard based in a marina in Conway, South Carolina, and he had food and water on board sufficient for a month.

When did he start rationing himself, if in fact he did? Nobody asked. His family reported him missing after he said he was going on an offshore fishing trip, and the Coast Guard conducted searches fruitlessly for 10 days.

The biggest question of all, and one that completely escaped the Press, is why his boat was found drifting off Cape Hatteras when the current should have carried it half-way across the Atlantic. The average rate of the Gulf Steam is 4 miles an hour according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), slowing to 1 mile an hour farther north.

There are 1,584 hours in 66 days, so, even at the speed of 1 mile an hour the boat should have traveled 1,500 miles to the north and east. This point obviously did occur to the Coast Guard, however. According to several reports they checked his financial records to see “if he sneaked ashore” somewhere.

I haven’t spoken to Jordan so I can’t know what he told the media. But I do know what the media reported, and it makes me ashamed to admit I was once a journalist. There can be no excuse for this total lack of professionalism. The Press is indeed in a very sorry state in this country, and it makes me wonder how much I can trust in anything I see in print or on the radio or TV. And if this is what the professional newsmongers are offering, God preserve us from the amateurs who run rampant all over Twitter and the Internet these days. Nothing is now more elusive than the truth.

Today’s Thought
The art of reading between the lines is as old as manipulated information.
— Serge Schmemann, NY Times, 10 Nov 85

 “How did poor old Joe survive that mustard gas and pepper spray?”
“Oh, it turns out he’s OK. He’s now a seasoned veteran.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)