August 19, 2014

Watch out for mangled life-buoys

AS USUAL, the new West Marine catalog is full of little surprises. The nation’s largest chandler, the country’s biggest marine superstore, is now selling pet toys and accessories. Toys for dogs, mostly. You might well ask: “Do dogs on boats need toys?”
The answer is “Probably.” After all, they can’t move around much; there’s not enough space to romp as dogs were built to do. They just have to lie there on the settee berth, spreading hair and slobber on everything and getting bored.

What dogs really want is to be ashore, smelling the local news on tree trunks and adding their own headlines to fire hydrants. Dogs don’t want to be cabin’d, cribbed, and confined on boats.

And they have to go ashore in any case because they’ve never managed to master the principle of the litter box, something that cats learn with ease in early kittenhood. Dogs need to scratch in real dirt, and the fouler the better, so they can get it stuck between their claws and bring the smells back on board to savor all night long.

By way of illustration, the catalog shows what appears to be a bulldog pup savaging a round life-buoy, eyes tightly shut in bliss. This particular life-ring probably deserves a good savaging, since it’s too small to preserve the life of anything heavier than a dieting chihuahua. But the principle of teaching dogs that it is blissful to chew up the ship’s life-jackets  is surely dangerous. How long before there isn’t a decent life-jacket to show the Coasties when they next stop you?

Another thing that strikes me is that there’s no mention of toys for cats. Or for parrots. I guess that’s because cats never get bored. (Too busy planning how to get the dog into trouble.) And nautical parrots just spend their spare time swearing and complaining  about the food. So, for the time being, it’s dog toys that are being promoted. This indicates to me that more dogs go boating than do cats or parrots. It also indicates to me that West Marine, which researches these things thoroughly, is expecting to make some money in the near future by selling new life-preservers to replace those that get chewed up.

Today’s Thought
No one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success or “get rich” in business by being a conformist.
— Paul Getty, International Herald Tribune, 10 Jan 61

“I hear that hussy in the tiny thong got badly sunburned yesterday.”
“Good, I’m glad. She got what she was basking for.”

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

August 17, 2014

When the heater made ice

I DOUBT THAT THERE IS anything more shippy on a yacht than a small cabin heater. It doesn’t matter whether it’s black and pot-bellied, or stainless-steel and shiny. A heater always seems to add a large dose of old-fashioned character to a boat.

My favorite type is the one that uses kerosene. I grew up with Primus stoves on boats so I love them and understand them. There was one on a little Cape Dory 25D we once owned. June and I found her on an island in north Puget Sound, and sailed her home one bitter-cold day in February, when there was ice on deck. We stopped overnight at a marina in Anacortes, where we ran into an old sailing friend. He offered to lend us an electric heater because, he said, a cold night was forecast, but we scoffed and waved him away. “We have a nice Force 10 heater installed,” we said.

After a meal ashore, we came back to the boat and lit the heater. It had started life as a kerosene model, but the previous owner had converted it to gas. A small can of propane screwed onto the bottom.

We soon noticed something strange. It didn’t seem to be producing a lot of heat, and what heat it did produce rose to the top of the cabin and stayed there. What was even stranger was the fact that the can of propane was collecting a coat of ice. If we stood up in the cabin, the air was luke-warm from the belly-button up, and freezing cold from the belly-button down. As time went on, the layer of ice on the can grew thicker, so we shut the heater off, fearing that it was actually producing more cold than heat on average. Our bunks were below belly-button level, so we spent a very cold night aboard, having brought only light-weight sleeping bags with us.

One of the first jobs I did on that boat was to convert the Force 10 back to kerosene fuel.

It was a fairly easy job once I’d bought the right tools for flaring the copper tubing and so on. The new burner put out a lot more heat and never tried to make ice, but the hot air still hung around above belly-button level until we bought a 12-volt fan and mounted it where a reading lamp used to be. That stirred the air up nicely, distributing warmth all over the cabin.

But we rarely ran that heater because the fan used electricity, and I was scared we might flatten the battery overnight and not be able to start the diesel engine on a cold morning.

I have learned over the years that very little is simple on a boat, and the less you have to go wrong, the better off you are. So we didn’t have a heater on our next boat. Thicker sleeping bags and extra blankets did the job just as well.

Today’s Thought
She knows the heat of luxurious bed.
— Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

Some puns are better than others, but those jokes about German sausage are truly the wurst.

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

August 14, 2014

Short bow means faster boat

HAVE YOU EVER wondered what shape of bow is most seaworthy for a sailboat? For example, does a raked bow, or a spoon bow, better fit the shape of an oncoming wave? Does this mean that the bow will have more buoyancy than a bow that is more upright — a plumb bow, or even a tumble-home bow, as some catboats have? And is buoyancy important in a bow? Does it stop a boat on the run in heavy weather from plunging deep into the swell ahead and causing a pitchpole?

You’ve probably noticed that modern production sailboats often feature bows (and sterns) that are shorter and more upright.  Ted Brewer, the well-known boat designer, says in his book Understanding Boat Design (International Marine):

“The long spoon bow, now rarely seen except on meter boats, was de rigueur on sailing yachts for many years because it reduced the handicap rating, yet picked up waterline length and speed as the boat heeled in a press of wind. However, this was only an advantage when the racing rule favored a short waterline; on two boats of the same overall length, a short bow automatically gives a longer waterline and a potentially faster boat.”

Brewer adds that the shorter waterline of the spoon bow does have the advantage of reducing wetted surface when the vessel is running upright or slightly heeled, as opposed to the constant, greater wetted surface of the long-waterline, short-stemmed yacht.

However, “modern sailing yachts reduce wetted surface by fin keels and spade rudders, not by spoon bows,” he points out.

As to the question of seaworthiness, the extra-long overhangs seen on some classes such as the 30 Square Meter are widely regarded as safe only in reasonably calm water. Modest spoon, clipper, and raked bows appear to be the safest for boats designed to cross oceans. All the same, there’s no bow that I know of that can prevent a pitchpole if conditions are right.  (Or, should I say, wrong.) Even heavy-displacement Colin Archers, with their bluff buoyant bows, have been known to capsize heel-over-head.

Today’s Thought
Regardless of type, every boat is a compromise of four basic factors: seaworthiness, comfort, performance, and cost.
— Ted Brewer, Understanding Boat Design

Blessed are the pure in mind, for they shall inhibit the earth.

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

August 12, 2014

What's going on down below?

I OFTEN SENSE a feeling of guilt when people explain why they aren’t using their boats as much as they (perhaps) should be. Indeed, there are a good number of boats that seem never to move from their marina slips. And, just as often, the pundits will seize upon this fact to proclaim the merits of small boats, compared with big boats.
A few years ago I mentioned in this column that Don Casey, the well-known sailor and author, had some profound words on this topic: "When you have a modest, simple boat, you can sail at the drop of a hat, no small advantage for  a pastime entirely dependent on the vagaries of wind.... Smaller sails and lower stresses make smaller boats easier to sail and arguably safer for a small crew.... Small boats are handy, tacking easily through narrow waters. They can also traverse thin water. In fact, given seaworthiness, a small boat can take you everywhere its  larger sibling can go and lots of places beyond the big boat's reach. Small boats are also more economical to own, operate and maintain.... The ploy I favor is to own a boat substantially smaller than what you can afford."

This is all true, of course, and as a lover of small boats myself I have no quibble with it, on the understanding that “small boats” are boats of 35 feet or less. But it does overlook one important point.

When I look at a full marina, especially on a cold and miserable winter afternoon, I wonder how many unseen people there are aboard those boats. Are the boats really as deserted as they look?

Just because the boats are 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 more cozy than the cabin of 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 lead 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. You don’t need to feel guilty for not sailing it every waking moment. And if you can afford a “big boat,” that is, something of 27 feet or more, 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."

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

August 11, 2014

Why I don't like heroes

LAST WEEKEND I watched the golf on television, and I got to wondering why people love their heroes so much. Almost every move made by Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson brought the crowd to ecstasy. The gallery exploded with applause and whistles when one of them actually sank a putt.  It occurred to me, however, that if I were a golfer I wouldn’t want to watch the masters at work.

It’s the same with yachting. When I read about how John Guzzwell heroically saved Tzu Hang or Marcel Bardiaux dived to move a heavy anchor along the sea bottom to save his boat, I don’t feel exultant. I don’t cheer or whistle or stomp on the ground. I simply feel inadequate.

I know I’ll never be able to emulate the feats of the sailing greats. They’re not normal. They’re supermen. They have talents I can never possess and it makes me feel jealous and resentful. How can I love and respect and adore people who make me feel deficient and incompetent?

The sailing heroes I worship are the unsung ones, the ones who make their way from port to port, and across oceans, using a minimum of talent and drama. I like the skipper who loses an anchor now and then, or who forgets to compensate for the current and ends up where he didn’t want to be. Such sailors make me feel good. They make me feel it’s only normal to have to go back to rescue the dinghy because I didn’t cleat the painter properly. They make me feel it’s not a crime to run out of fuel because I left the damned spare cans  in the trunk of the car again.

I like them because they’re not capable of anything heroic. And most of all I like them because they’re not better than me.  I realize what that says about my character. And I don’t care.

Today’s Thought
The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.
—Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality

"How's your glassblower friend?"
"Not so good. He inhaled by mistake and had to go to the doctor with a pane in his stomach."
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

August 7, 2014

Wave sets in the ocean

I USED TO SCOFF at the surfers’ notion that ocean waves arrive in sets of 7 or 9.  They could never explain why that should be. They were adamant, however, and later in life I discovered that there were many people with scientific training who agreed with them, although they had no explanation for it either.
I put the theory to test once on a tropical beach on the island of Fernando de Noronha, off Brazil, where ocean surf was pounding the only beach where we could land in our inflatable dinghy. I stood off, outside the line of breakers, and started counting swells.  I found it difficult to tell whether one breaker was bigger than another, but I certainly wanted to miss the biggest ones because I didn’t have any experience of landing an outboard dinghy on a beach through heavy surf.

But the swells did seem to arrive in sets, as my surfer friends had claimed. After each set there was a calmer patch, and that was the signal to gun it for the shore, riding the back of the last wave ahead.

We did this many times, of course, and the biggest problem seemed to be deciding whether the particular set you were watching comprised seven waves or nine. If it was a nine-wave set, and you started off on the seventh wave, you could be in trouble. There didn’t seem to be any pattern  that I could decipher. Sevens and nines rolled along in a totally random fashion.

Another problem was the variation of the size of individual waves in each set. You could never tell when one wave was going to be smaller than the others, which is what we would have liked to have known. But there were usually one or two that were bigger than the rest, sometimes one after the other, sometimes not. In the end, we mostly crossed our fingers and hoped we had timed it right, between sets.

It’s natural to be fascinated by waves if you sail on an ocean or a decent-sized lake and, indeed, there is an awful lot to be learned about them. One of the first things you learn about waves on the open ocean is that the water in them doesn’t move forward with the wave. The molecules in a deep-water wave merely move up, forward a tiny bit, and then down again.  You can achieve almost the same effect by laying out a line on the ground and snaking a wave through it.

Guy Murchie put it rather nicely when he wrote in The Seven Mysteries of Life:

What’s an ocean wave made of?

At first glance, nothing but salt water;

But keep your eyes on it ten seconds . . . twenty seconds . . .

You’ll notice that the water is roused

Only momentarily by the wave

Which passes it by,

That the wave leaves the molecules and bubbles behind,

That the wave in essence is a kind of ghost

Freed from materiality by the dimension of time,

Made not of substance

But energy.

Today’s Thought
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. Francis Bacon

“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.)

August 5, 2014

You're a champion of champions

I DON’T SUPPOSE you ever think of yourself as being someone quite exceptional; but you are. I mean, the mere fact that you use a small boat for pleasure singles you out from the great unwashed herd. After all, the number of people in this world who go boating purely to make themselves happy is probably fewer than 1 percent of the population.

But, in addition to that, you are a Very Special Person for another good reason. In fact, you are  incredibly special because the improbability of your being here on Earth at all is literally so extreme as you make you a mathematical impossibility. That’s the view of the late Guy Murchie, renowned author of The Seven Mysteries of Life (Mariner Books). I’ll let Murchie explain:

“To begin with, you are a champion of champions, genetically speaking, because you are the product of an inconceivably complex and diverging web of ancestors, spiraling and branching back for billions of years into the primordial ooze of the proto-Earth, not a single individual of which, man or woman, animal or vegetable, ever failed to grow up to maturity and to beget viable offspring, while most other creatures around them, including many of their own brothers, sisters and cousins, faded away, and the majority eventually disappeared forever into extinction.

“This has to be true because of the finite dimensions of Earth and because, if your ancestors hadn’t been such top performers that they were 100 percent successful in procreation, obviously your ancestral lines of descent would be broken and you could not exist.

“But this is only the beginning of your improbability. Have you ever considered the odds behind conception, when only one out of tens of millions of sperms succeeds in siring a new offspring? . . . If we calculate very conservatively that each of your direct ancestors had somewhat less than one chance in a million to be conceived and raised to maturity (as he or she obviously succeeded in doing) your first-generation improbability (something a mathematician could write as 10--6) would still increase backward in time by several exponent numbers in each generation of each line of your descent, multiplying generation by generation to the population limits of your species, thereby reaching in the millennium now ending an improbability number far exceeding 10--110.  I chose 10--110 because that is the reciprocal of a thousand times more than all the atomic vibrations of all known space-time.

“Which, putting it rather mildly, would imply that your conception was inconceivable — and that, if anyone in some wild moment ever got the impulse to call you ‘impossible’ or (more diplomatically) ‘miraculous,’ he or she actually had a more than reasonable claim to being right.”

So there you are. Not only are you exceptional, but, because you are a boater, you’re in the top 1 percent of exceptional human beings. You are, in fact, so exceptional as to be totally improbable, at least mathematically.  And, as Murchie points out, only your actual presence here and now prevents you from being quite impossible.

Today’s Thought
Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.
— Ralph Ellison, Time 27 Mar 64

The Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) reports that a city council meeting was held yesterday evening.
“The chairman of the Works Committee was asked to give figures for how many people are employed by the City, broken down by sex.
“ ’Not too many,’ he replied. ‘Liquor is more of a problem for us.’ ”

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