May 3, 2016

The propeller's worst friend

IN THE YEARS I have been writing about sailing, I have come across many suggestions for preventing barnacles from attaching themselves to propellers. One friend of mine swore by axle grease that he stole from the marine railway when his boat was hauled out for antifouling. He would smear thick gobs of it on his prop just before launch time.

Other people advise you to use carnauba wax, or zinc paint. I myself have tried two coats of copper antifouling paint. It worked for a while, but eventually wore off. I’m told the backroom boys are working on a way to apply a Teflon coating to a bronze propeller, so barnacles simply won’t be able to stick to it. But so far none of these remedies has worked satisfactorily in all waters. The very action of a propeller working in water quickly abrades whatever coating you apply.

There is one trick that really does work, and that is to tie a black plastic bag around the prop each time you reach your home mooring or slip. Some fanatical racers do that, but I’m sure you can see the problems, not the least of which is to remember to remove the bag before you set off again.

There is a theory that barnacles will not touch a prop that isn’t protected by a sacrificial zinc. Apparently the tiny electric currents generated in the bronze of an unprotected propeller are sufficient to deter them, and convince them to move to the boat next door whose propeller is nice and docile, thanks to its sacrificial zinc.

No doubt you can spot the problem, here, though. The electric currents that keep the barnacles away are also slowly eating the propeller away. Maybe if you can afford a new propeller every couple of years you can live a lovely life free of worry about barnacles. If not, you, like most, will just have to put up with an increasing number of barnacle squatters and a corresponding decrease in motoring speed as time goes by.

You can, of course, dive and scrape off the barnacles from time to time if you sail in warm waters. But if you live in the frigid zone of Puget Sound like me, then grinding your teeth and swearing in a sailorly fashion seems to be all there is to do about it until the next haulout. You might find, though, that the occasional beer or Dark ’n Stormy helps.

Today’s Thought
Though you drive away nature with a pitchfork, she always returns.
— Horace, Epistles, 1, x

Tailpiece
“Why has your dog got such a flat nose?”
“He keeps chasing parked cars.”

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

May 2, 2016

Seasickness explained

I SOMETIMES WONDER how much more popular sailing would be if it weren’t for seasickness. It’s a great pity that such a satisfying and enjoyable sport should make people physically ill. It’s not surprising that many people, after experiencing their first bout of seasickness, firmly put aside any thoughts they may have had about taking up yachting, and devote themselves instead to golf, table tennis, and crocheting little socks for newborn babies.

On the other hand, there are many people like me who go sailing despite a tendency to suffer seasickness. We have convinced ourselves (perhaps without much evidence) that the pleasures of sailing overcome the miseries of hanging over the side and puking. 

Although it’s a disease of the mind, rather than the stomach, there should be no shame in suffering seasickness. Almost everyone will become sick if conditions are rough enough. Even in normal weather, 60 percent of people cast adrift in small inflatable liferafts succumb to seasickness. So the rather regrettable fact is that it’s more normal to be seasick than not.

The cause of all this misery is understood to be a conflict between what your eye sees and your inner ear “feels.” The inner ear is the balance organ, of course. When you’re down below, and no horizon is visible, your inner ear senses that your body is dropping through space as the boat falls off a wave. But your eyes say no, hang on, we’re not moving relative to anything we can see in the cabin.

So your confused brain sets up a little boxing ring with Eyes in one corner and Inner Ear in the other and lets them fight it out. Skin, meanwhile, loses pallor and becomes damp and cool. Legs, intuitively fearing the outcome of this fight, become a little wobbly. And finally, Stomach, noting no real progress in the ring, takes things into its own hands, as it were, and says it’s obvious that something’s radically wrong, and if you guys can’t figure it out then maybe I’ve been fed some poison. I don’t want to be the fall guy. I don’t want to be blamed after all this is over, so I’m going to throw up everything I’ve eaten in the last 12 hours. And I’m going to do it now, right now.

As a matter of fact, scientists don’t yet have a logical explanation for the nausea and vomiting. I have considered explaining it to them, but you know how they sneer when an outsider tries to tell them anything. I see no good reason why I should suffer such rejection. Maybe they’ll work it out for themselves in a century or two.

Today’s Thought
Money does not buy happiness but it does allow one to be seasick in finer surroundings.
—Dave Martin 

Tailpiece
“Why are you looking so gloomy?”
“My wife just had a baby girl.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I was hoping for a son to help with the washing up.”

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

April 28, 2016

Varnish time or sailing time?

IT’S A PARADOX that the best time of the year for sailing is also the best time of the year for varnishing. You can either varnish or you can sail, but if you have any willpower at all — if you want to show that you’re a real man, (even if you’re a woman) — you will deny yourself the hedonistic pleasure of sailing, and pick up the varnish brush. You know it must be done. You know exactly what will happen if you neglect your varnish.

Now, a little varnished teak on deck sets a boat off. It gives her the warm glow of a cherished object and it tempers the pale, sterile plasticity of fiberglass. But too much teak on deck is madness. It’s murder on the varnisher and the bank balance. Too much brightwork, to put it bluntly is a sign of poor judgment on behalf of the designer and the owner.

Nevertheless, if you maintain the seal, varnish can last indefinitely, says author Don Casey in his book Sailboat Refinishing (International Marine).

“Besides avoiding moisture penetration at nicks and scratches, you must protect against surface erosion by periodically applying a fresh top coat. Exposed exterior varnish should be recoated at least annually in northern climes, every six months in the tropics. Scrub the varnish to remove all traces of grease and dirt, then sand the surface with 180-grit paper (or scuff it with bronze wool) and lay on a new finish coat.”

There. It’s so easy. Now you know what you really should be doing. If you have any conscience at all, you will hate yourself next time you’re out sailing instead of varnishing.

Today’s Thought
The New England conscience ... does not stop you from doing what you shouldn’t—it just stops you from enjoying it.
—Cleveland Amory, New York, 5 May 80

Tailpiece
“Ah, monsieur, so you ’ave climb ze Matterhorn, eh? Zat is a foot to be proud of.”
“You mean feat, don’t you?”
“Ah, m’sieur climb it twice already?”

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

April 26, 2016

The need for boat-bonding time

BRITISH  EMPLOYERS are giving staff as much as three weeks paid leave  to settle in new pets. They call it “pawternity leave” and it’s in addition to normal annual vacation time.

Roughly 1 in 20 companies offer special time off when employees obtain a new pet. Some firms allow workers to take a few hours off to settle an animal in a new home, but others offer up to 21 days of paid leave. This time can be used for training, visits to the vet, or simple bonding time at the new location.

Well now, what does this suggest to you? Yes, of course. What about special leave for a new boat? Right on. We all know that a boat has a soul. She needs tender loving care and attention as much as any old moggy or mongrel.

There is an obvious need for a few weeks of pampering time to settle your new boat in its berth or on a mooring while you splice up some fancy new mooring lines. You could use the time to introduce your little darling to the neighboring boats, so she doesn’t feel like the perennial new kid on the block. You could give her bottom a new lick of antifouling paint and tickle her fancy with a coat or two of fresh varnish. And, naturally, you’d need to take her for quite few test sails to see how she reacts to your handling. There is no end to the list of things you could do in three weeks of paid leave.

To those who will say all this is just plain silly, I’ll add this: what is the difference between pets and boats? Surely what’s right for one is right for the other. In fact, if you think about it, boats are more useful than pets, and just as pretty. They don’t bite or scratch, don’t soil the carpet, and don’t steal the barbecue steak. Boats carry you to places and have room for you to sit down sheltered from the rain and drink beer and wine.  What pet can compete with that? You can fish from a boat and smuggle booze or drugs if you want to. 

A boat will ignore you just as well as a cat, if that’s the relationship you want, but, unlike a dog, no boat will disgrace itself by mindlessly running to fetch balls and sticks. Neither do you have to follow a boat with a plastic bag every time you take it out in public. Furthermore, your boat won’t bite the postman’s leg and get you fined.

There is so much to learn about a new boat, so many surprises.  How many old screwdrivers are there rusting in the bilge? What’s that livid, fluffy, orangey-green stuff under the galley sink? Why the hell won’t the engine start all of a sudden, and why have the batteries gone flat? This all takes time. Employers should have realized this need for extended bonding a long time ago. In fact, perhaps it’s time it was written into law. You might want to sound out your member of Congress on the subject. Or, if you have access to Mr. Trump, whisper it in his ear. He has a yacht. He’ll understand.

Today’s Thought
Were it not for love,
Poor life would be a ship not worth the launching.
— Edwin Arlington Robinson, Tristram

Tailpiece
 What do you call a fish with no eyes?
A fsh.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

April 25, 2016

The safety of smallness

SOME YEARS BACK I helped construct a seaworthiness quiz for Small Craft Advisor magazine. The quiz was designed to give the owners of small sailboats a reasonable idea of how seaworthy various designs might be. And, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated for them the desirable qualities that add up to seaworthiness in very small craft.

But now and then someone comes along and says: "What were you thinking? How can such small boats be seaworthy?" Well, they say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s what most of these someones are equipped with.

It’s quite obvious that dinghies and their ilk can’t meet all the qualities necessary to claim seaworthiness for larger vessels, ones that can accommodate people in the shelter of a cabin. But sailing dinghies can indeed provide two of the most important qualities: to stay afloat and to keep their crews alive.

If these someones had done their homework, they’d know that tiny open boats have made remarkable ocean voyages that demonstrate their seaworthiness. I could mention Captain Bligh, for a start, and Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world. And then there was Frank Dye, who sailed his 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy hundreds of miles across the North Sea from Scotland to Iceland, and to Norway.

These sailors provided an element of seaworthiness that their small craft lacked, of course. They were all expert seamen. In fact, when faced with storms at sea, Dye, in his unballasted, centerboard dinghy, would take the mast down, set a sea anchor so that the boat faced into the oncoming seas, and then lie down on the floorboards and go to sleep. “There’s nothing much else to do,” he said. Except pray, perhaps.

In coastal cruising, much of the seaworthiness of a dinghy like the Wayfarer lies in its ability to run for shelter close inshore, to maneuver closely among rocks, and to land on a beach and be pulled up out of harm on inflatable rollers. Larger, less nimble yachts with deep keels would not dare close a shore like that in heavy weather; their only recourse then is to seek deep water offshore, where their seaworthiness will be well tested.

In at least one way, the smaller the sailing dinghy, the more seaworthy it is. That is when the worst happens and the boat capsizes. The smaller the boat, the easier it is for the crew to right her.

The well-found camp-cruising dinghy cannot sink — she has built-in buoyancy. With a sealed mast and boom for flotation, she cannot turn completely turtle, and so the crew can stand on the centerboard to right her. She will also have self-bailers that will draw all the water from the cockpit once she comes upright again and gains way.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that small boats can be seaworthy. They can’t provide the shelter and comfort of a larger vessel, admittedly, but their closeness to the water provides delicate insights and thrills unknown to those lofty someones who batter their way through the seas in their seaborne chariots, carefully insulated from both the sea’s danger and its intimate secrets.

Today’s Thought
There are many advantages in sea-voyaging, but security is not one of them.
— Sadi (Emerson, English Traits: The Voyage)

Tailpiece
“That’s a funny-looking dog you’ve got there.”
“What? I’ll have you know I paid $1,000 for this dog. He’s part terrier and part bull.”
“Which part is bull?”
“The part about the $1,000.”

April 21, 2016

What boat did they sail?



HOW DID MONKEYS cross 100 miles of open sea about 21 million years ago? That’s what scientists are asking. According to a study published in the journal Nature, fossil evidence suggests that monkeys managed to migrate from South to North America across the 100 miles of water that separated the two continents at the time.

Some people have suggested that they swam across. But Jonathan Bloch, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History quite rightly pooh-poohs that idea.  “It is a difficult feat,” he says with impressive understatement. He thinks it’s more likely that they may have accidentally rafted across on a floating raft of vegetable matter.

But no one, it seems, has suggested the obvious — that the monkeys deliberately sailed across.  I have always maintained that sailing is much easier than human beings make it out to be.  I can see no reason why a bunch of monkeys couldn’t sail a boat a mere 100 miles across the Atlantic. It’s a day’s run, for goodness’ sake. The only question is what kind of boat.

I imagine it must have been the sort of boat that later developed in the South Pacific, a large type of canoe with a single float off to one side for stability. Those snobbish people in the Northeast will claim it was a Cape Cod Catboat, of course, but there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support that idea.  In any case, catboats are centerboarders, not fit for open sea work.

And I have no doubt the scientists will soon be hearing from the residents of Kansas, where the wicked witch released a flock of flying monkeys, but I think we can dismiss that claim, too, since although some monkeys can glide from tree to tree, there are none that can fly 100 miles non-stop.

It is surely reprehensible of Nature to introduce this mystery to the public before enough facts are known. For instance, who can say for sure the continents were exactly 100 miles apart 21 million years ago? Who can say for sure there were no monkeys in North America at that time? Just because no fossils have been found, it doesn’t prove that the monkeys weren’t there all the time, does it? Of course not.

Or maybe the Atlantic was frozen during one of those Great Ice Ages we read about, and the monkeys just walked across. Who can say? 

It took humans a long time to work out why the chicken crossed the road. It will probably take a lot longer to figure out how the monkey crossed the sea.

Today’s Thought
Children, behold the Chimpanzee;
He sits on the ancestral tree
From which we sprang in ages gone.
I’m glad we sprang: had we held on,
We might, for aught that I can say,
Be horrid Chimpanzees today.
— Oliver Herford, The Chimpanzee

Tailpiece
“You say the tow-truck guy charged you $50 a mile for towing?”
“Yeah, but I got my money’s worth — I kept the brakes on all the way.”

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

April 19, 2016

What's to know about sailing

SAILING LOOKS so simple. You just lie back in the cockpit in the shade of the mainsail and waggle the tiller thing, right? Well, not quite. In fact, sailing is one of those sports or pastimes that demands a surprising amount of general knowledge in a host of subjects, and the more seriously you take your sailing, the wider the range of knowledge you need.

Here is a list of some subjects a well educated sailor will know quite a lot about. It’s in no particular order — just as the thoughts came into my head:

Hydrodynamics — How the hull, keel and rudder react to the passage of water. How propellers work. The effects of drogues and sea anchors. The efficiency of bilge pumps.

Aerodynamics —  How the superstructure, sails, mast and rigging are affected by the wind.

Sail handling — Knowing when to reef and how to reef. Knowing how to heave to.

Textiles — The various uses of Dacron, nylon, Velcro, Kevlar, Mylar, Spectra, Manila, and others.

Fiberglass — the different ways glass fibers are assembled and woven and their uses.

Resins — polyester, epoxy, vinylester etc., and their attributes.

Paints — alkyd enamel, alkyd-acrylic enamel, alkyd-silicone enamel, Teflon and vinyl bottom paint, epoxy topside paint, epoxy bottom paint, ablative, sloughing, and copolymer bottom paint, and a whole lot more.

Solvents and sealants — How they work and what to use where.

Woods — Their characteristics and uses in boatbuilding, their strength, resistance to rot etc.

Engines — A working knowledge (and preferably more) of diesel and gas, inboard and outboard engines.

Cooking — What and how to feed a cold, hungry crew. The art of provisioning, and saving water. Where to store the beer. How to make a Dark ’n Stormy.

Anchoring — An important art that starts with books and ends with practice. Or perhaps the learning never ends.

Rigging — The mechanics of keeping the mast tuned and upright.

The Galvanic scale — What metals eat other metals when you aren’t looking; what’s safe to use and what’s not.

Navigation — Pilotage (inshore) and celestial (offshore). A huge subject on its own, even in these days of GPS and satellite phones.

The Rule of the Road — Another huge subject, often modified by the old precept that small boats with any sense always give way to big boats.

Radio procedure — How to make professional-sounding calls on VHF and HF radios, including knowledge of the international phonetic alphabet.

Naval architecture — How the shape of hulls affects performance and the differences between racing boat and cruisers.

Meteorology — The ability to recognize changes in atmospheric pressure and what this means for winds in your area. Reading the clouds and knowing in advance when to reef or douse sail.

Geography — Knowing where not to be in hurricane season. Knowing when to turn right for the West Indies. Arriving in countries that you actually aimed for, especially those where they speak English.

First aid — Knowledge of how to treat a hurt person until you can get professional help.

Electronics — A surface knowledge of how to use AIS, a chart plotter, an Epirb, etc.

Emergency procedures — What to keep in a grab bag, how to call for help, how to stop a leak, how to put out a fire, how to launch a life raft, etc.

Literature — The stories and lessons to be learned from others who have gone before you.

And much more, including a healthy dose of physics. Speaking of which, Einstein was a lake sailor. He knew that e = mc2.  In other words, energy equals mass times speed squared. This means that if you hit something at 2 knots you might do damage worth $500. But if you hit at 4 knots the damage will be $2,000, not $1,000. And if you hit at 6 knots, well, holey-moley, you’re going to have to declare bankruptcy.  That was Einstein’s major contribution to sailing and we thank him for it.

Meanwhile,  just think about all the knowledge you’ve accumulated about the simple sport of sailing — and how much there still is to learn.

Today’s Thought
It is better not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.
— Josh Billings

Tailpiece
A traveling salesman was held up when heavy rains flooded Interstate 5 south of Seattle.
“It looks just like the Great Flood,” he said to the motel receptionist.
“The great what?”
“The great flood. You know . . . when Noah saved all the animals . . . you must have read about it?”
“Gee, no, I haven’t read about it. On account of all this rain we haven’t seen a Seattle Times for three days now.”

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