May 22, 2016

Bad things happen at sea

WHAT’S THE WORST THING that can happen to a sailor at sea? Here are some of the answers you’ll get if you ask around:

Mast failure. Nothing makes your heart beat faster than the sight of your mast going overboard, or so I’m told. The seriousness of the situation depends on many things, of course, especially how far away you are from land and rescue services.

Anchor dragging onto a lee shore. Naturally, this only happens in the worst weather when it will cause maximum harm. Depending on the forecast, and how fast the anchor is moving, and how far offshore you are, it can be white-knuckle time. The answer is to retrieve your anchor and put out to sea as soon as the wind starts blowing hard onshore.

Engine failure while entering a strange marina. It happens with puzzling frequency. It’s as if engines know when best to punish you. One answer is to have a stern anchor set up and ready to hurl overboard within seconds.

A leak in the water tank at sea. It really gets your attention when you wake up to find your floorboards awash in fresh water. Whether you die of thirst or not depends on your knowledge of extracting lymphatic fluid from fish, as Dr. Alain Bombard did, and how much moisture there is in those cans of baked beans in the galley. 

Seasickness. For those afflicted, nothing is worse, even death itself. In fact, some in the deepest throes of this maritime misery have been known to beg to be allowed to die. Don’t let them. Force-feed them with dry crackers, keep them hydrated, and give them a steady supply of brown paper bags. And don’t expect any thanks.

Some other suggestions I’ve come across::

— Going hard aground at high spring tide in front of the yacht club.

— Turning turtle at sea; and, poignantly,

— Getting too old to sail.

Today’s Thought
The true test of seamanship is how a sailor reacts when things go wrong.
— John Vigor

Tailpiece
“You quite sure you captured this gator yourself?”
“Yup.”
“Howcome it’s all dirty along one side?”
“Hit the mud when it fell out of the tree.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another  Mainly about Boats column.)

May 19, 2016

Why hulls are not symmetrical

THE OWNER of a 28-foot Cape Dory sloop was once upset because his rudder post did not come up through his cockpit on the exact centerline. It was, in fact, offset by about an inch or so to one side. Was this normal? he wanted to know.

But what he was really asking was: Is it okay for this not to be symmetrical? The human brain loves symmetry to the extent that it will forgive all kinds of mistakes. If something’s wrong it doesn’t matter — as long as it’s equally wrong on both sides. It’s more important that mistakes should match.

Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out the way the brain would prefer them to, as demonstrated by the Cape Dory’s rudder post. In fact, there are many, many boats that emerge from the manufacturing process rather differently from what the yacht architect so painstakingly designed. In the heyday of one-off wooden yachts, a naval architect was well pleased when a 35-footer came within 6 inches of its designed overall length.

Even today, in this era of improved precision, it’s not always possible to match a finished boat to those beautifully faired lines on the designer’s drawing board. For example, one experienced contributor to the Cape Dory bulletin board confirmed that when he worked for Sam Morse, building the famous Bristol Channel Cutters, it was quite obvious that the hull mold was asymmetrical.

Now, Sam Morse boats are renowned for the quality of their build and finish, and BCCs have always been top-of-the-line cruisers. Even so, “One had only to stand behind the boat and look forward along the garboards (where the lower part of the hull joins the keel) to see the difference between the port and starboard side of the boat,” he wrote.
“I noticed this difference quite readily when installing the ballast. The lead castings for the ballast reflected the hull’s asymmetry.”

Sam Morse is not alone. BoatU.S. Magazine quoted the owner of a 2007 C&C 115 who discovered his deck was off-center by 1 1/2 inches. The builder responded: “One of the norms of the industry is that no builder guarantees symmetry. Even in strict one-design classes there are variations ...”

A hull that is not symmetrical will probably list to one side, of course. That fact, combined with an offset rudder and a mast that is not quite on centerline, might make a boat a race-winner on starboard tack and an absolute dog on port. On the other hand, the mistakes might tend to cancel each other out so that you end up with a reasonably normal boat on both tacks.

It is difficult to predict in advance what the overall effect of an asymmetrical hull might be. We are dealing here with changed centers of buoyancy and gravity, and possibly with the center of lateral resistance, too.

But, to get back to the Cape Dory man’s question, does a little asymmetry really matter? Not in most cases, I venture to suggest. I learned this from personal experience. One morning I was happily cleaning my teeth when I noticed to my horror that the middle of my top teeth did not line up with the tip of my nose. In other words, my center of sniffing was displaced to starboard of my center of chewing by about one-half tooth.

It was rather a shock to me to discover after decades of looking at myself in the shaving mirror that I had an asymmetrical face. I immediately took action to disguise my disfigurement. I learned to smile infrequently; and on the rare occasion when a smile was essential I learned to open the outer ends of my lips in light-hearted happiness and keep the middle parts firmly clamped shut.

Then, after considerable research, I learned that many people, if not most, are asymmetrical in one way or another. The length of legs can differ. One eye can be slightly higher than another. Women’s individual breasts frequently differ in size and pointiness. And I finally noticed that one of our most famous national TV newscasters has a nose running northeast and a jaw sloping southwest — and it does not impinge one whit upon his pomposity.

So I don’t worry about my nasal/dental asymmetry any more. Well, not most of the time, anyhow. I have found, though, that on meeting an interesting person of the opposite sex, my nose now bends itself slightly half a tooth to port to line up with my top teeth. It does this quite automatically without any urging from me and I take this as a happy sign of how Nature compensates for all our inadequacies. Which means that you shouldn’t really worry too much if your rudder post is offset, your center of buoyancy is skewed, or one ear sticks out more than the other.

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

Tailpiece
Commander: “What blankety-blank put these goddam flowers on the navigation desk fer chrissake?”
Lieutenant: “The Admiral did, Sir.”
Commander: “Purdy, ain’t they?”   

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

May 17, 2016

Are blisters over-rated?

“SHOULD I BUY a boat with blisters?” That’s the query I once received from a reader in San Diego. “Cautious” had fallen in love with a 10-year old, 30-foot sloop, but he was scared to tie the knot. He was afraid to commit, because when he had her surveyed he found she had “a whole lot of dime-sized blisters on her bottom.”

Well, my advice to “Cautious” was simply: Grit your teeth and buy her. Nobody’s perfect, and no boat is either. Although fiberglass boats have been around for more than 50 years, there’s still a lot of misinformation doing the rounds, especially regarding the dreaded boat pox.

It’s reassuring, therefore, to hear the experience of David Pascoe, a marine surveyor based in Destin, Fla., who says that in more than 30 years of surveying and examining 4,000 hulls, he has seen fewer than 10 cases where blisters have resulted in serious structural degradation of a hull.[1]

We’re talking here of dime-sized blisters. In 99 percent of the boats Pascoe has surveyed, blistering involved only the gel coat and the surface mat — neither of which is a structural part of the hull laminate.

Pascoe says that even boats with numerous blisters up to about 1-inch in diameter usually show no significant weakening of the plastic. As a result, “moderate blistering on an older boat rarely impedes the sale.”

As a matter of fact, Pascoe reckons that by the time a boat is 8 or 10 years old, “whatever is going to happen to the hull has probably already happened.” That means if she hasn’t developed blisters yet, she’s not ever likely to, so don’t be tempted to apply a barrier coat.

It’s quite another matter if a new boat develops blisters, of course. On a boat that’s been afloat for only two or three years, it’s likely that blistering is just the beginning. That’s not good news. But one that’s been afloat for eight years or more without developing blisters is  pretty safe bet.

Interestingly, Pascoe doesn’t even think it’s necessary to do anything about small blisters. Admittedly, they make the hull more difficult to paint and they will slow the boat down slightly, but: “If blisters cannot be shown to be causing significant damage, then repair is certainly not mandatory, despite the many horror stories you may hear from people trying to sell you a costly repair job ... Bear in mind that blister repair jobs are now big business for boat yards, so that taking advice from yard managers may not be a good idea.”

He makes another good point, too: “Further, you should be aware that the number of failed blister repair jobs that surveyors find is very high. No one’s ever going to know why blister repairs fail because no one is going to spend the money to find out.”

So go ahead, I told “Cautious.” Be brave. Put your money where your heart is. Who else is going to see your new girl-friend’s bottom anyhow?


Today’s Thought
The desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.
— Fontanes, Address to Napoleon, on behalf of the French Senate, 1804

Tailpiece
”Why do you call it love at second sight?”
“I didn’t know she was rich when I first saw her.”

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

May 15, 2016

A knife could save your life

I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that people whose lives depend on rope should always have a sharp knife at hand. The more you sail, the more you realize the need for a knife. That need doesn’t arise often, thank goodness, but the occasions when it does are usually characterized by strong winds, heavy seas, threatening rocks, and a crew paralyzed with panic.

The kind of knife I’m referring to must be capable of slicing quickly through the largest rope on your boat. That may be the anchor line, a halyard, a sheet, or even the dinghy painter. If you have ever seen a crewmember pinned against the cockpit bulkhead by a mainsheet across the neck after a sudden jibe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve ever gotten a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override in the genoa sheet in a surprise squall, you’ll appreciate the need for fast relief.

The only question, really, is what kind of knife; and where do you keep it?

My preference is for a fixed-blade sheath knife worn on your belt, so that it always goes with you. It can be a nuisance sometimes, I know, when it catches on the lifelines or something, but it’s worth the bother. The blade should be as long as practical, even if it’s illegal ashore, but nothing less than 3 1/2 inches.

I have never figured out whether it’s better to have a plain, hollow-cut edge or a serrated edge. I think the knife manufacturers are still trying to work this one out, too, because many of them offer blades that are partly serrated and part plain knife-edge.

I remember Jerry Powlas, technical editor of Good Old Boat magazine, saying that a serrated edge was good only for bread knives, but there are many who swear by the fast cutting power of a serrated edge. And if you buy a blade that’s half serrated and half plain, how can you go wrong? I believe that Jerry’s main objection was that he found it impossible to sharpen a serrated edge to the same razor sharpness he creates on his ordinary blades.

If you can’t wear a sheath knife on your belt for some reason, then find a good place in the cockpit where you can keep a fixed-blade knife, somewhere that is readily accessible day and night.

You might also want to keep in your pocket a small rigger’s or yachtsman’s knife, one of those with a folding knife blade, a marline spike, and (very important) a beer bottle opener. Alternatively, you could have a Leatherman-type multi-tool with a small knife blade and a pair of pliers that can open shackles, as can the spike on the rigger’s knife. But these knife blades are only second-best in an emergency. It takes time to find them and it’s fiddly to open them, and you might have only one hand available anyhow. And even when they’re finally open and ready for business, they really are quite puny for the job, compared with a big robust sheath knife. They are, however, infinitely better than nothing.

There is one fairly frequent situation where a good cutting knife is called for, and that’s when you get a rope or fishing net around the propeller shaft. I would hesitate to use an expensive sheath knife for this because you’re bound to blunt the knife against the metal shaft, and I have often thought that some kind of hacksaw blade with a decent handle, or even a few wraps of duct tape, would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice present for a sailor, a knife might be a good choice. If you Google the names Gerber, Myerchin, and Spyderco you’ll find some very modern designs made expressly for cutting rope in a hurry. You’ll also notice that the purchase prices of the more exotic models are such that you might well be tempted to investigate my hacksaw blade idea with justifiable fervor.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

Tailpiece
“I need a new dipstick for my car, please.”
“But surely the old one is still there, madam.”
“Yes, yes, my good man — but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

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

May 12, 2016

Finding a cure for hunting

SOME BOATS MAKE QUITE a menace of themselves at anchor when they continuously “hunt” from port to starboard and back. This hunting habit carries them far and wide across an arc of 20 degrees or so, with the anchor as its center. It wouldn’t matter much if there were plenty of room, but since the plastic revolution every man and his dog seems to be able to afford a boat, so all the nice anchorages are very crowded.

A boat with an all-chain rode usually sits very quietly at anchor, but most day sailors and coastal cruisers choose a rode that starts with a small length of chain next to the anchor, and then nylon rope right to the bitter end.

Now nylon line is nice and springy, so when a puff of wind hits the starboard bow, the boat slides aft until all the nylon line is taken up. Then it stretches a bit and, recovering its elasticity, slings the bow back over to the opposite side. It continues this back-and-forth slingshot motion in a wide arc ad infinitum.

Once again, it wouldn’t matter much if all the boats in a congested anchorage could be induced to indulge in synchronized hunting. If they all went to port at the same time, and all swung back to starboard together, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, neither the yacht designers nor Nature seem to think this problem worthy of investigation and correction, so we poor souls with boats that hunt have to learn to live with it, scrambling for fenders and yelling loud curses when one boat hunting left comes speeding sideways toward its neighbor boat hunting right.

There are three things I know of that can lessen the arc through which a boat will swing at anchor, and I offer them in order of effectiveness:

The bridle

Deploy your rode as usual, lead it through one of the chocks near your bow  and make it fast. Now take a line of suitable size and tie a rolling hitch around the rode just ahead of the chock. Give this line a few feet of slack, pass it through the chock on the opposite side of the bow, and cleat it. Now offer up some rode from your original anchor line until you have a bridle in front of the bow, that is, an inverted V pointing toward the anchor. Make your original rode fast when the two legs of the V are equal in length. Don’t expect too much from this bridle, but it does help a bit.

The riding sail

If you have a yawl or a ketch, set your mizzen and sheet it in tight. You can center it, or tie it off slightly to one side or the other, as seem best. There are times when the stalled sail will flutter and rattle its fittings and drive you mad. You will have to choose between going crazy and being smitten against your neighboring boat. 

If you have a sloop or a cutter you can set a riding sail as far aft as you can get it. The usual arrangement is to hank it to the backstay and lead the sheet forward onto a cockpit winch. It’s often recommended that you use your storm jib for this purpose, but a boat with a full keel normally needs a rather larger spread of sail to be effective. I don’t regard it as a very seamanlike procedure in any case. It always seems wrong to have an unsupported leading edge to a sail that shape. But a lot of people swear by it, and they’re entitled to their own biased opinions.

Set another anchor

You will drastically reduce the arc of your swing if you set a second anchor at an angle of about 45 degrees to the first one. It’s the principle of the bridle again, only reversed and on a much more effective scale. You will have rodes leading off to each side of the bow at just over 20 degrees each and your bow will be snubbed very quickly each time it wickedly attempts to stray from the path of righteousness. Of course, there’s a problem with this arrangement, too. You need room to put out the second anchor, and some ignorant fool is almost surely going to drop his anchor right over yours.

Oh, and there is a fourth method I’ve just remembered.

If you have a cutter or a sloop, simply anchor by the stern. Try it some time. You will be amazed at how quietly she will lie downwind. In fact, this is often the most effective method of all to cure hunting. Its only drawback is that the people all around you will regard you as the village idiot because you’re doing something different from their brand of superior seamanship. No matter. I find that if you return their disapproving looks with a nice, friendly, vacant smile it drives them nuts. You might want to take along some straw to chew at the same time.

Today’s Thought     
Seamanship is the art or skill of handling and maneuvering a vessel in the way that best satisfies the needs of the craft rather than the expectations of critical onlookers.
— John Vigor

Tailpiece
“I was swimming in a Florida swamp when three gladiators came straight at me and . . .”
“No, no, not gladiators. Allegories. Things like crocodiles.”
“Well what are gladiators, then?”
“Gladiators? Uh, they’re, like, flowers you grow from bulbs.”

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

May 10, 2016

Waiting for first scratch

LAST TIME I painted a deck it was a major disaster. Because of incompatibility between two lots of epoxy undercoat, my whole twin-pack polyurethane deck peeled off in one piece two weeks after I finished it, and I had to do the whole damn thing again.

Even after I eventually got it right I didn’t experience the inner joy that’s supposed to make you burst with happiness. I was always afraid some fool would drop a winch handle and chip it. Or some landlubber would sit on it with a marker pen in his back pocket. Or some damned seagull would drop his freshly picked mussel on it from a dizzy height to break it open. The suspense was killing me.

In the end, I invented a ceremony that brought me peace of mind. I called it the First Scratch Ceremony and made it a chapter in my book How to Rename Your Boat — And 19 Other Useful Ceremonies.

The essence of the ceremony is that you deliberately put the first scratch on your new paint job in an inconspicuous place. And then, when your gleaming paintwork finally does get ravaged by some thoughtless idiot, you won’t be consumed by a paroxysm of rage. You will be able to control the very natural urge to commit homicide because it won’t be the first scratch.

The ceremony ends with a lovely (even if I say so myself) little prayer to Aphrodite, the guardian of love and beauty, imploring her to bless the first scratch that will spare us the agony of the endless wait, the awful anticipation that keeps honest mortals awake at night, staring into the darkness, wondering when that wonderful new paint finish will first be violated.

I’m not planning to paint a deck any time soon, but when the time does come I will definitely organize a First Scratch Ceremony and party. And I won’t stint on the champagne, either.

Today’s Thought
The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.
—Havelock Ellis

Tailpiece
“Why are you puffing so much?”
“Man, I just saved myself a buck. I missed the bus and ran after it the whole way.”
“Jeez, you dummy, why didn’t you run after a taxi and save $10?”

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

May 8, 2016

What to do about fog


EVERY NOW AND THEN I run into some sailor who has just been scared witless by running into fog in the islands somewhere. We don’t get a lot of fog around here, but when the tidal currents are flowing fast and Washington State ferries are blowing their horns all around you, it can be a very frightening situation. I’m often asked: “What’s the best thing to do about it?”

Well, to tell the truth, there isn’t much advice to give about getting caught in fog that isn’t covered by common sense. If you see a fog bank forming ahead, and you have a chance to turn back to a safe anchorage, do so. It’s the seamanlike action to take.

Fog is treacherous. Go slowly and listen very carefully. If fog catches you out, try to get into shallow water and anchor there. Oftentimes that’s easier said than done, of course.

You should raise a radar reflector as high as you can so other vessels with radar sets will detect you. And you should be meticulous about making the right sound signal every two minutes or less. I have noticed that too many skippers are very lax about this. I have even traveled on a Washington State ferry that made no sound signals in thick fog, presumably relying on radar and clearance from Seattle Traffic Control, which can’t possibly tell the ferry if a small craft, invisible to radar, is in its path.

If you’re sailing, the correct signal is one long blast and two short blasts. That’s also the signal by a vessel not under command, or restricted by her ability to maneuver. The same signal comes from a vessel engaged in fishing, or towing or pushing another vessel.

If you’re under power, the fog signal (and the signal in any kind of restricted visibility, by the way) is one long blast every two minutes or less.

And one last tip – take along a horn that you can blow into. The fog horns that work off cans of compressed air don’t always work. I can vouch for that. I can also tell you that blowing the damn horn as loud as you can every two minutes as you motor along cautiously is a pain in the you-know-what. You can’t go anywhere or do anything that lasts more than one minute and fifty-nine seconds. It puffs your cheeks out and raises your blood pressure. It makes you dizzy and produces black spots before your eyes. But it’s better than being run down at sea. So do it.

Finally, if you’re in an area where authorities such as Seattle Traffic Control are maintaining a radio and radar watch over congested traffic lanes, call them on VHF and ask if there is any ship traffic headed your way. Make sure you know your approximate position first, of course, so they can check to see if they’re picking you up on radar. You’ll find the appropriate VHF channel on the chart or in a cruising guide, but in a pinch you can use Channel 16, either to ask for the correct channel or to broadcast a message to all stations in your area advising them of your name, position, speed and heading.

Finally finally, if you boat is big enough and you are rich enough to afford an AIS transceiver there is very little reason to panic in fog. You will know the position and speed of all nearby vessels over 300 tons, and they will be aware of your position, speed and direction. With any luck, you’ll all miss each other. (Yeah, they said that about radar, of course, until the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm ran into each other, guided by radar. Try Google for the whole story.)   

Today’s Thought
He that bringeth himself into needless dangers dieth the devil’s martyr.
— Thomas Fuller, Holy War

Tailpiece
“I’ve found out why production has slowed down since we got that second computer.”
“Good. What’s wrong?”
“The big computer’s shoving all the work on to the little computer.”

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