October 30, 2014

A sailor's favorite dream

ONE OF THE THINGS sailors like to do is day-dream. Mostly they dream about beer and women, but sometimes they dream about boats, specifically the boats they’d like to have built for themselves if they won the jackpot.

I was reading about one such boat the other day, an 80-foot, 50-ton, gaff ketch. She was designed by Edson B. Schock in 1941, in response to a request (presumably from someone who’d just won the jackpot) for the design of a yacht suitable for a cruise around the world.

Nobody in those days thought a 20- or 30-footer was suitable for crossing oceans, so Mr. Schock suggested an auxiliary ketch of rather larger dimensions, and he also argued for a gaff ketch rig because, as he pointed out, most of the trip from New York, through the Panama Canal, and south and west across the Pacific would be largely off the wind.

This boat was meant to accommodate the owner and two guests in some high degree of comfort. “Your party of three should require two staterooms, one double and one single,” said Mr. Schock, “and in addition it would be advisable to have an extra stateroom for your captain and also radio officer, should you consider it necessary to carry one.”

He also estimated that the crew’s quarters should have accommodations for three.

“The sail area would be about 2,800 square feet in the working sails, and the auxiliary power a 100-hp diesel engine with 650 gallons of fuel oil and 1,200 gallons of water.

“The lighting would be by DC current from a diesel generator and batteries which would also supply current for an electric refrigerator and an anchor windlass.

“In the design of the hull it would be advantageous to keep the displacement rather light in order that she would ride easily and lift to the seas, thereby keeping her out of the class of heavy displacement yachts which are frequently referred to as half-tide rocks when they are so heavy that they do not rise readily in a head sea.

“The construction, if of wood, would consist of double-sawn frames with either yellow pine or Douglas fir planking below water, and teak above with teak decks and all upper works of teak.

 “A yacht of this type and size . . . would make ample room for all and not be too cramped for such an extended cruise,” Mr. Schock concluded. “She would prove very seaworthy under all conditions.”

Well, I must say that all this talk about staterooms makes this a very attractive design, at least to anyone who has won the jackpot, but I find it a little worrying that Mr. Shock makes no mention of the extra accommodation needed for the stewards who would be running back and forth with the gin-and-tonics, and neither does he provide room for even a modestly-sized troupe of dancing girls. What the heck, if you’ve truly won the jackpot, you might as well go the whole hog, don’tcha think?

Today’s Thought
Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It isn’t. It is the opposite of vulgarity.
— Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sep 56

Tailpiece
“Are you still breeding birds?”
“Yeah. I just crossed a homing pigeon with a parrot.”
 “What for?”
“If the pigeon gets lost it can ask the way home.”

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October 28, 2014

Their armpits were charmpits

DOES ANYONE REALLY CARE whether the ancient Viking marauders ever took baths? I ask because their modern-day descendants appear to be somewhat sensitive on this subject. A Danish website claims, rather self-pityingly, that the Vikings “have long since had the reputation of being filthy wild animals.” This is a myth they’d like to dispel, according to the website.
The Danes are not slow to point of out that descriptions of the Vikings came mainly from Christian writers who had reason to spread fear about the bands of pagan berserkers who were ravaging Europe. “A Christian writer would be strongly biased to present the evil pagans in the worst light. To this day it is the writings of these Christians which give us the impression that Vikings were dirty savages. The reality seems to be quite the opposite.”

Frankly, if I were on the beach when a Viking longship hove into view, the last thing I’d be worried about was whether those guys with the bristling beards and large axes were suffering from halitosis or smelly armpits. But no matter, let’s hear what the Danes have to  say:

“We know from the accounts of the Anglo-Saxons that the Vikings who settled in England were considering to be ‘clean freaks’ because they would bath once a week. This was at a time when an Anglo-Saxon would bath only once or twice a year. In fact the original meaning of the Scandinavian words for Saturday was ‘Washing Day.’ “

In passing, it’s interesting to note the Danish use of the word ‘settled' above. It sounds much more genteel, and a whole lot less smelly, than the actual process of hacking and slaughter and rape and pillage that accompanied the arrival of the Vikings in England.

Nevertheless, these fine upright fellows also won praise for their cleanliness from an Arab writer called Ibn Rustah, and another called Ibn Fadian, who noted that the Vikings used to wash their faces and blow their noses every morning. The fact that they all shared the same bowl for their ablutions dismayed him somewhat, but he pointed out that no matter how they did it, they were cleaner than their European Christian cousins, who did not bother to clean their faces every day.

So there you have it on the best authority. If you ever thought Vikings were smelly beasts, you had it all wrong. Shame on you. As the poet said, a Viking by any other name would smell as sweet, then and even now.

Today’s Thought
Whoever eats bread without first washing his hands is as though he had sinned with a harlot.
— Babylonian Talmud: Sotah

Tailpiece
“How’s the new Jewish opera singer getting along?”
“I’m not sure. She doesn’t seem to know if she’s Carmen or Cohen because she’s always so Bizet.”

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

October 26, 2014

Latitude hooks and daring feats

I’M NOT SURPRISED that ancient Polynesian sailors managed to find their way from remote Easter Island to the mainland of South America. What interests me far more is how they found their way back. Easter Island is, after all, a tiny speck of land 2,300 miles west of South America, and 1,100 miles away from any other island.

Scientists recently conducted a study that shows interbreeding between the native peoples of Easter Island and those of South America. They believe it occurred between 1300 and 1500, and the genetic evidence shows that it was probably the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island who made the long ocean voyages there and back.

The Polynesians had fast, seaworthy sailing canoes, it’s true, but can you imagine how skilled they were as navigators at a time when most European sailors were clinging cautiously to the coastlines in slow, dumpy vessels that were little better, if any, than those of the ancient Greeks and Romans?

How could they hope to make an accurate landfall on Easter Island after the long lonely trek from South America? It is nothing less than astounding.

I know that one of their tricks was to place themselves on the latitude of an island and then to run either due east or due west until they hit land. And one of the devices they used to determine their latitude was a straight piece of split bamboo with a loop at the top. This straight piece had a shorter piece of bamboo, known as the pointer, tied at right angles to the looped piece.

I learned this some years back when I edited Dennis Fisher’s wonderful little book called Latitude Hooks and Azimuth Rings (International Marine). The latitude hook relies on the fact that the stars appear to rotate around fixed points known as the celestial poles. In the northern hemisphere, for instance, the north celestial pole is marked, as near as dammit, by Polaris, the North Star. With a latitude hook held at arm’s length, and the pointer aligned with the horizon, a navigator knew he was maintaining his correct latitude if he could see Polaris through the loop on the top.

If the star were above the loop, he would head farther south; if below the loop, he’d head north, In the South Pacific, he’d use the constellations Southern Cross and Centaurus to figure out the position of the south celestial pole.

While it sounds very simple, it must have taken some skill to use a latitude hook with any degree of accuracy, and I suspect that the final landfall was achieved with the aid of other navigational tricks learned by the Polynesians, such as their ability to deduce the position of an island still hidden over the horizon from the angle of reflected swells.

However they did it, it was a marvelous achievement for the times, and if you’d like to try your hand at it some time, get hold of a copy of Fisher’s book, because it also tells you how to build and use 18 traditional navigational tools, including the astrolabe, the cross-staff and the octant. Even if you don’t build any of the instruments, it’s a fascinating read.


Today’s Thought
Navigare necesse est; vivere non est necesse.
— Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Tailpiece
“Paddy, you should be more careful about pulling your drapes at home. When I drove past your house last night I distinctly saw you kissing your wife.”
“Ha, well, then the joke’s on you, O’Riordan. I wasn’t home last night.”

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

October 23, 2014

Something beautiful and slippery

I WAS WRITING SOMETHING for a magazine the other day and I mentioned the ancient Viking ship discovered in Gokstad, Norway, in 1880. I referred to her as “slim and slippery.” Someone objected to that description, saying the Viking ships were squat and fat and not very far advanced in the art of design.

Not so, I’m afraid. If you look at her lines you’ll see that she is, in fact, extraordinary in her beauty and fineness. She was light and fast and hardly disturbed the water she moved through.

Frederick K. Lord wrote an article about the Gokstad ship in The Rudder magazine in which he said that, considering the forms of contemporaneous ships, “it seems incredible that a vessel so far ahead of its time could be produced.” Contemporaneous, in this instance, means somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D.

She was a skuta, a type of small warship mentioned in the Sagas. She was designed mainly to be rowed but she did carry a squaresail for use when conditions were suitable. “She was built for speed,” said Lord. “Such a craft must have been very much used, being light, swift, and handy for short voyages and general purposes.” Her length was close to 80 feet and her beam was 16 foot 8 inches. She displaced 63,700 pounds and drew only 3 foot 8 inches of water. She carried about 80 men.

Colin Archer took the lines off her and no doubt marveled, as many others have done after him, at the advanced design and construction. “The boats of Norway are today almost exactly like this old ship,” said Lord, “and such an instance of persistence of type is without parallel in the history of shipbuilding and affords indisputable proof of the skill and knowledge of the Norsemen in designing and building ships. Considering the leading dimensions and type, what designer today would undertake to improve the lines of this boat? Could he produce a fairer set of waterlines, buttocks and diagonals?

“Many parts are decorated with ornamental tracings and carvings and the whole bespeaks the conscientious care with which these Viking boats were built. Driving down the wind with swelling sail, shields on gunwale, and crowded with a crew of lion-hearted men dressed in barbaric splendor, the whole a mass of color — what a sight it must have been!”

A sight to make a stout-hearted man quake in his boots and run to lock up his wife and daughters, I should think.



Today’s Thought
Never slay more than one man in the same stock, and never break the peace which good men and true make between thee and others.
— The Icelandic Sagas 

Tailpiece
An Italian immigrant was having trouble with English irregular verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt any more,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation. “I putted on weight.”

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

October 21, 2014

Ladies' pajamas and a sensitive question

ONE QUESTION that you don’t often hear is: What pajamas should a  lady wear while cruising on a boat?

It only got asked once in my lifetime. My wife asked it.

I said immediately, “Babydoll pajamas, of course. Pretty pink ones.” It occurred to me that I would appreciate a bit of help pulling up the anchor, and a lady in  babydoll pajamas in the cockpit might attract some male brutes from nearby yachts.

But such was not to be. My wife led me to believe that she was never going to appear in public in pink babydoll pajamas and what’s more what kind of a man was I even to suggest such a thing?

“I am a sailorman,” I explained. “Sailormen like babydoll pajamas, specially pink ones.”

“Dream on,” she said, and never mentioned the subject again.

I have since consulted Wikipedia to ascertain why the love of my life was so put off by the suggestion of babydoll pajamas. According to Wiki, “A babydoll is a short, sometimes sleeveless, loose-fitting nightgown or negligée intended as nightwear for women.”

I’m no expert on haute couture, admittedly, but that sounds perfectly harmless to me. In the event, she made a small compromise. She appeared on board in conventional pajamas — long sleeves and full-length pants — but they were pink.

And yet she was mortified when, after a four-day passage at sea, we arrived in port in the middle of the night and she was called from her bunk to help with mooring. A berthing gang of men was standing by on the quay in case we needed help. “Oh!” said June, taken aback.

“What?” I said.

“We’ve just arrived safely at our first port in our own yacht. And I’m wearing pink pajamas and an orange anorak. So chic!”

Men don’t have the same concerns about haute-couture faux pas, of course, and we couldn’t care less about upsetting the finer feelings of a stubble-chinned bunch of longshoremen. In the tropics my pajamas are invariably loose athletic shorts. Around here in the Pacific Northwest a cozy track suit works well. I can go straight from my bunk to the foredeck to check the anchor rode and not have to worry about the fashion police arresting me because my top doesn’t match my pants.

I guess men are lucky. In most ways, it’s very nice to be a sailorman, even in the lamentable absence of pink babydoll pajamas.

Today’s Thought
I remember seeing a movie with Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney where they were husband and wife, and they got in bed, and he had on polka-dot pajamas and she had on striped pajamas, and when they got up the next morning he had on the striped pajamas and she had the polka dot pajamas, and that was considered racy at that time!
— Bob Newhart

Tailpiece
Little Mary woke at 2 a.m., called for a glass of water, and demanded to be told a fairy story.
“Hush, sweetheart,” said her mother, “your father will be home soon. He’ll tell us both one.”

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

October 19, 2014

The book within a book

I WOULD LIKE TO ACQUAINT YOU with the fact that former Marine captain Michael Pitre is a fine judge of boating books. Pitre, who served two terms in Iraq, has written a novel based on his experiences over there. It’s called Fives and Twenty-Fives (Bloomsbury) and has received high praise in the literary world as one of the great novels of war. In fact, Kirkus Reviews goes as far as to describe Pitre’s book as “one of the definitive renderings of the Iraq experience.”

I mention all this for good reason. On page 5 of the book, the hero of the story talks about a neatly organized stack of books that constitutes his ever-expanding sailboat research library. And he says: “John Vigor’s Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere sits atop the pile, catching my attention first.”

Page 5! So near the beginning! Be still, my heart! I have never been mentioned in a novel before, let alone so close to the start.

Pitre’s hero adds: “I reach for Vigor’s book, though I know it almost by heart at this point.”

What a perspicacious author this Michael Pitre is. What keen judgment he displays. Who could be more acutely perceptive? What an excellent choice he made in keeping Twenty Small Sailboats right on the top of his protagonist’s pile of boating books.

And what can I do by way of returning the compliment, other than to recommend with the greatest sincerity that you rush out and buy his novel? The book views the conflict in Iraq from the unusual perspective of a platoon of Marines whose job is to fill potholes in Anbar Province during the bloodiest period of the war. That’s more dangerous than you might expect, because every pothole is booby-trapped with an explosive device.

Fives and Twenty-Fives often reads more like a personal memoir than a conventional novel, and apart from describing many suspenseful moments on Iraq’s treacherous highways, it also delves into the problems faced by servicemen returning home from that life-changing conflict.

Pitre himself quit the Marines in 2010 to study for his MBA at Loyola and now lives in New Orleans. I can only hope that his novel tops the New York Times best-seller list — and, incidentally, makes millions of readers aware of another splendid book mentioned on page 5. 

Today’s Thought
Fame, we may understand is no sure test of merit, but only a probability of such: it is an accident, not a property of a man.
— Carlyle, Essays: Goethe

Tailpiece
I was laying on the green,
A small English book I seen.
As Carlyle’s Essay on Burns was the name of the edition,
I left it laying in exactly the same position.

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

October 16, 2014

Thank goodness for Dacron

I DON’T SUPPOSE one sailor in 100 ever gives any thanks to the persons who invented Dacron and nylon, the materials from which most modern-day sails are made. That’s because most of us take our sails for granted, little suspecting the time and trouble it took to maintain sails in the old days, and to preserve their shape for efficient propulsion.
Ernest Ratsey, one of the great names of sailmaking, described the materials from which sails were made in the 1930s in an article in The Rudder magazine.

“There are two kinds of canvas basically,” he explained, “a Southern-grown American cotton which is white and an Egyptian-grown cotton which is called brown Egyptian because of its reddish tint. The difference is really very marked.

“This brown Egyptian is getting lighter in color every year and the only feasible explanation I have heard for this change is that in the olden days the River Nile overflowed its banks when it had too much water in it and irrigated the fields, sending with the water a lot of silt, which in itself is a reddish-brown color.

“Now, since the Assouan Dam has been built, nature no longer floods the fields but it is done by man instead and scarcely any silt goes with the water as most of it has settled to the bottom.

“Don’t confuse brown Egyptian with tanned canvas. This is a dye which I believe comes from India. This tanned canvas is used quite a good deal by the fishing boats and trawlers working off the Brittany coast and in the North Sea. This dye is supposed to preserve the canvas and, of course, it doesn’t show the dirt or the mildew.

“In the old days flax was used a great deal for canvas. It is of a very soft nature and even when wet it remains that way but, of course. sails made from flax do not hold their shape owing to its softness, that is why it has been superseded by cotton. Egyptian cotton has a longer staple than Southern-grown American cotton and it makes a stronger sail which seems to hold its shape better.

“You hear a lot about ordering sails in the winter time and you probably think that this is a lot of sales talk. In a way I suppose it is, but the real reason is that during the winter months when the steam heat is on and the loft is kept at an even temperature, the canvas as it goes through the various stages of manufacturing into a sail does not vary very much and in the end should turn out to be a smoother sail; whereas in the summer you may start a sail on a nice sunny day, have it blowing northeast with rain on the second day and get a dry nor’wester the third.

“This is really most disconcerting to the sailmaker because the canvas reacts very differently on each of these days, so you can see that it is much simpler and should be a safer proposition making sails during the wintertime.”

Today’s Thought
Oh, what a blamed uncertain thing
This pesky weather is!
It blew and snew and then it thew
And now, by jing, it’s friz!
— Philander Johnson, Shooting Stars

Tailpiece
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are
(Up above the footlights’ sheen);
Forty-nine or seventeen?

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