May 21, 2015

The most wonderful mystery

A PLEA FROM “Ariadne,” of Point Loma, San Diego, says:

“Dear John: I saw a reference in a magazine the other day to ‘the way of a ship in the midst of the sea.’

“Being rather quick on the uptake, I immediately recognized that this was a quote from somewhere . . . but hey, OK, I admit I know not where. Can you help?”

Well, sure, Ariadne. Several years ago I wrote the definitive article about it. But perhaps you were too young to read then. Or perhaps you were unaware of a book called The Bible.  No matter. Here it is again for your benefit. (And give my best regards to Dionysus.)


DEAR BRETHEREN AND SISTEREN. My text for today comes from Proverbs 30, Verse 19:

"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:

"The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."

Well, science has made great progress since those words were written. We can explain an eagle’s flight with aerodynamics. Herpetologists now know how a snake slithers across a rock. Dr. Phil understands all too well the wicked way of a man with a maid, and spares us no details. And that leaves the ship in the midst of the sea, the most wonderful of all the mysteries.

Little ships, and especially little sailing ships, conduct themselves in many different ways in the waves of the sea. You have probably experienced them all without giving any particular motion a name or a definition. But one man made a list for us to wonder at.

He is the well-known American naval architect and author, Francis S. Kinney. He held that there were eight motions of a sailboat at sea:

Broaching: Accidentally swinging broadside on to the wind and sea when running free.

Heaving: Rising and falling as a whole with the seas.

Pitching: Plunging and scending, so that the bow and stern rise and fall alternately.

Pitchpoling: Accidentally tumbling stern-over-bow in a half-forward somersault.

Rolling: Inclining rhythmically from side to side.

Surging: Being accelerated and decelerated by overtaking swells.

Swaying: Moving bodily sideways.

Yawing: Lurching and changing direction to either side of a proper course.
I note that the discreet Mr. Kinney refrained from mentioning wallowing and foundering, which has happened in boats I’ve sailed. The foundering in a small dinghy, luckily. Perhaps his designs never did those things. But he might well have included heeling, which is simply deliberately arrested rolling.

So next time you’re out there, take note of what your boat is doing, and at all costs avoid pitchpoling. That’s the most dangerous motion of all.

Today’s Thought I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.
— Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Mystery of Life,” in Riverside Sermons

A man rushed into the dining car of a train. “A lady just fainted next door,” he cried. “Anyone got any whiskey?”
Several flasks were offered. He grabbed the nearest one and drained it in one gulp.
“Thanks a lot,” he said, “it always upsets me to see a lady faint.”

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

May 19, 2015

Planning for calamity

I CONFESS to having impure thoughts. They’ve been going on a long time, on three continents and in practically every city I’ve ever lived in. They started when I was quite young, when I realized that everyone should have an escape vehicle in times of calamity.

Calamities, I knew even then, are rare, but it’s a wise man who recognizes that they can occur and who makes timely provision for his family to flee for their lives. I’m thinking of things like our resident volcano erupting, or the biker gangs going to war with each other in our town, or Sarah Palin being elected president.

My way of escaping is, of course, by sea, and to this end I have always turned my impure thoughts into deeds by choosing a suitable boat berthed in my nearest marina or mooring field. I recommend that each of you who lacks a boat suitable for crossing an ocean should follow suit and generate some impure thoughts of your own.

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. You’re not going to steal this boat when panic sets in. You’re merely going to borrow it to sail to New Zealand, or Tahiti, or wherever it’s nice and safe and peaceful. And when things have settled down, you’ll see that it gets returned to its owner. Honest.

Meanwhile, as you stroll the marina docks, pick out your boat and find out surreptitiously as much as you can about it. What kind of boat is it? Do some research on the internet. How many berths? Does she have a good sail wardrobe? Does the owner keep food and water on board? Does he lock the boat, and if so, what size bolt cutters do you need to buy?

Find out how to start the engine and how to raise the sails. You can do a lot of this by lurking at a distance and making notes but if you can bring yourself to be really impure, you could make friends with the owner and get invited on board. It would mean betraying a friendship when the time comes to borrow the boat, and ordinarily I would never encourage such a thing, but when it comes to survival — and survival is what we’re talking about here — then it’s every man for himself, as Nature intended.

From time to time, you might want to change your planned escape vehicle. Better boats come along now and then, or easier boats to spy on. I am tempted to tell you which boat I have my eye on presently, but it wouldn’t be wise. All I can say is that it’s always known in the family as Plan B. It’s not clever to tell anyone else about it, lest they should take advantage of you and beat you to it when the time comes. Let them do their own homework, I say. Let them have their own impure thoughts, and learn to live with them, as I have to.

Today’s Thought
“The unfit die—the fit both live and thrive.”
Alas, who say so? They who do survive.
— Sarah N. Cleghorn, The Survival of the Fittest

“Are you Russian?”
“Do you always drink your vodka neat?”
“No, sometimes my shirt tail hangs out.”

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

May 17, 2015

Things to know, just in case

THERE ARE THINGS you should know about sailing a boat that you are never likely to put into practice, but which you should know anyway because you never know . . .  Yes, it’s true, you never know. Who can tell for certain what lies before us, at sea as much as on land?

One of the things you should know is whether you can drink sea water to stay alive in an emergency. There are certain stories in the history of the sea that suggest it’s possible to drink sea water for a reasonable length of time. For example, Dr. Alain Bombard, a French physician and biologist, claimed to have crossed the Atlantic in a 15-foot inflatable dinghy with only a sextant, almost no provisions, and no fresh water. He said he drank a limited amount of sea water and used fish as a source of water and food. His claims were later disputed, though, and it was suggested that had actually taken along fresh water and consumed it on the ocean, and that he had also been secretly provided further supplies during his voyage.

It is never easy to ascertain the exact truth about anything in this life, but you should know that the consensus of doctors having experience with castaways is that sea water should not be drunk, except to augment an ample supply of fresh water. In that case, as much as a pint of sea water a day might be acceptable.

John Voss drank a glass of salt water every day during his circumnavigation and I myself have drunk a small cup of the South Atlantic for 30 days in a row without apparent ill effect (if you exclude minor mental instability). Sir Francis Chichester found that the occasional drink of sea water relieved leg cramps caused by excessive sweating in the tropics. But we were all drinking adequate supplies of fresh water, too.

An eminent sailor and physician once advised me to try drinking half a cup of sea water once or twice a day when I suffered prolonged bouts of seasickness. It wouldn’t stay in my stomach long, he assured me, but the tissues would swiftly absorb the minerals needed to balance the bodily fluids — including the blood, incidentally, which is very similar to salt water in chemical makeup.

All right, then. The odds are that you’ll never need to drink sea water. But you just never know. If the impossible should happen, remember what I’ve just told you. Don’t drink sea water as your only source of water. It will only bring on the madness and hasten your demise.

Today’s Thought
Pure water is the best of gifts that man to man can bring,
But who am I that I should have the best of everything?
Let princes revel at the pump, let peers with ponds make free,
Whiskey or wine, or even beer, is good enough for me.
—Anon. Spectator, 31 July 1920

“Help, there’s a creature destroying my garden. I think it escaped from the zoo.”
“Try to keep calm, madam.  Can you describe the animal?”
“Well, it’s big and gray, with tusks and large ears. It keeps picking my cabbages with its huge tail — and I can’t tell you where it’s stuffing them.”

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

May 14, 2015

The case of the jiggling chartplotter

I WENT FOR A RIDE in a powerboat the other day, the first in many a year.  It was a smart-looking trawler type, disguised to look like a 30-foot tugboat. It belongs to my friend Jere and his partner Sue, who were taking it for a run after an extensive overhaul.

No expense was spared, it seems — brand new engine and transmission, new wiring, new electronics, and all the bits and pieces that are needed to make a powerboat work.

One of the pieces of electronics in the wheelhouse was a computer screen that could be toggled  to show a color GPS chart, a depthfinder, a radar display, an AIS display and Lord knows what all else. And not only toggled, but overlaid. You could, for instance, overlay the GPS chartplotter with the radar display, just to be sure that the island you saw on the radar was also marked on the GPS chart. Of course, you could also confirm that fact by looking out of the window, but it’s obviously very comforting to powerboat people not to have to depend anything as low-tech as Eyeball, Mark I.

I must say that all went very well. The weather was kind and the new engine purred with a feeling of suppressed power. A mighty wake curled up astern and a big dial in the new teak instrument panel pointed to how many gallons of fuel we were consuming every minute.

There was just one disconcerting occurrence. The new GPS chartplotter rolled with the boat. By that I mean that as the boat rolled to starboard, the electronic chart rolled to port, so that it stayed upright, as if it were somehow on gimbals. Not the whole screen, you note. Just the chart showing on the screen.

Now it’s all very well to have a chart that’s always aligned with the horizon, but it’s a little awkward to have to twist your head, or the top half of your body, to line up with the chart every time the boat rolls one way or the other.

On any boat that I ever owned, the paper chart and the person consulting it rolled together, so that due north and top of one’s head always happily coincided. On Jere’s boat, it was very strange to have to keep twisting one’s neck in order to keep one’s eyeballs in the same relative position on the moving chart. Except that it wasn’t the chart that was moving, of course. It was staying dead upright, just like the galley stove, while my head moved with the rolling boat. I hope I am making all this perfectly clear.

Nothing that Jere could do in the way of pushing or sliding his fingers against the touch screen made any difference to the jiggling chart. I suggested it must have something to do with the radar interface. The external radar antenna is often gimbaled so that it stays level with the horizon. It must be either the radar or the galley stove, I said. But since neither the radar nor the galley stove was switched on, let alone overlaid, my suggestion was not received with great gusto.

Jere is a man of great skill and patience, and I’m sure he will get it sorted out sooner or later, if just for the sake of any susceptible guests who might find themselves going green while watching that jiggling chart. Meanwhile, I’m afraid someone is  going to have to rip the plastic covering off the instruction manual and read the bit about how to cure a jiggling chart.

I know, I know, it’s admitting defeat; but somebody has to do it. Sue is very organized and she can read.  That’s a good start. Maybe she’s the one to solve the problem.

Today’s Thought
What we call “Progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.
— Havelock Ellis, Impressions and Comments

 “And where have you two been all day?”
“Hi Mom. Daddy took me for my first visit to a zoo.”
“Oh, how nice.”
“Yes, and one of the animals had a full house and made Daddy pay $50 over the table.”

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

May 12, 2015

Not guilty of distracted sailing

I WAS LISTENING to the evening news the other night. Someone had just been found guilty of distracted driving, presumably in a car. I don’t remember what distracted him from his driving, but it did make me think that sailing a boat is full of distractions. And you have to attend  to each and every one of them at the same time.

I presume that if distracted driving in a car is against the law, then what the law requires is undistracted driving, which happens to be the opposite of multi-tasking.

Now, my friend Peter Ashwell used to tell me I was no good at multi-tasking. Being a scientific man, he always described as it as an inability to handle disparate attention, a description that worried me quite a lot at the time, but which meant the same thing as being lousy at multi-tasking.

I suspect now that he was bluffing me. We were fierce competitors in international-class racing dinghies. He never forgave me for sailing past him to the finish one time when I had just got a brand-new mainsail, upon which I had stuck several used Band-Aids to make it look old and blown-out.

It was one of the few occasions when I managed to beat him. And he was probably right about my concentration span. When I was going to windward I concentrated fully on the jib. I watched the leech for flutters and the telltales for positive flow. Nothing else mattered.

I should, of course, have also been paying attention to windshifts, the position of fellow competitors, the curvature in the mainsail, and a dozen other factors. But no, my little world revolved around the jib. If the jib was drawing perfectly, I knew I was getting to windward in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not always the fastest boat to windward that wins a yacht race. Multi-tasking is what it’s all about. Perhaps no other sport requires you to be aware of so many situations and act upon them simultaneously, particularly if you’re singlehanding.

If you’re on port tack you have to be very aware of how closely the starboard boats are going to cross your bows. You not only have to watch your jib, but you have to decide whether to pull off to go behind them or try to make it across in front of them. You may have to sheet in the main to point a bit higher, and waggle the tiller to go in the right diection. You have to watch the water for stronger puffs and either luff up or ease the mainsheet.

All these things, and many others, distract you from the important task of watching the jib, if you are of the distractable kind. But dealing with distracted sailing, as I have learned the hard way, is how sailboat races are won. You have to be able to carry out many tasks all at once. Perhaps each separate task will not receive the full amount of attention it deserves, but, believe me, if you teach yourself to deal with many things at once, instead of focusing blindly on one aspect of the game, you will come out ahead in the end.

And if sailboat skippers can use distracted driving to garner success, why should it be illegal for landlubbers to practice it in cars?

Today’s Thought
When we think we're multitasking we're actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing - quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we're being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we're simply giving ourselves extra work.
— Michael Harris

An attractive woman playing bridge with three men felt a foot run up and down her calf.
“If that’s my husband,” she said calmly, “I bid three no trumps. If it’s anyone else, I bid you watch out for my husband.”

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

May 10, 2015

Some cures for griping

WEATHER HELM is not much discussed in polite sailing circles. In the same way that you don’t entertain party guests with tales of an ancestor hanged for treason, or a maiden aunt gone mad from syphilis, you don’t go around telling everybody your boat has weather helm, especially if you’re trying to sell it. Nevertheless, most boats have it, and it can be a vexing thing to have.

Weather helm is the name we give to the tendency of a sailboat to turn bow-first into the wind. The term is actually incorrect, since weather helm is what the helmsman applies in an effort to counteract the tendency to round up, which is known as griping.

If your boat has a tiller, your arm can become mighty tired fighting weather helm. It’s an unrelenting tug that soon becomes much less than fun. Even if you have a wheel, and don’t have to counteract griping with sheer muscle power, excessive weather helm is a bad thing because putting the rudder over in an attempt to keep the boat going straight slows the boat down considerably and puts a heavy strain on the steering gear. In other words, like a leaky loo, too much weather helm is not a good thing to have.

So what causes it, and, more importantly, how do we cure it? Well, you might have to face the fact that it’s not always possible to cure it entirely, depending on the shape of your hull, the shape, size and position of your keel, and the position of your masts and sails.

What the designer seeks in the first place is a close balance between the center of effort (CE) of the sails and the center of lateral resistance (CLR) of the keel and the underwater hull and appendages.

Normally, the CE is a little forward of the CLR, because (just to make things more difficult) the CLR moves forward as the boat starts to move through the water. So it’s partly a guessing game with a new design. You may have seen boats like the Catalina 30 with little bowsprits added at a later stage. That’s an after-market effort to move the CE forward, to counteract weather helm. But you have to be careful. Move it a little too far forward and you get lee helm, which is even worse than weather helm.

Some designs will always carry more weather helm than others. Hull types like the old IOR designs with a lot of beam carried a good way aft, and hard bilges, will quickly gripe in a puff. Boats with high-aspect-ratio rigs carry weather helm more quickly because the CE of the tall narrow sails is higher, so CE moves farther outboard over the water as the boat heels, thus pushing the boat from the side, and much farther out from the side, gaining leverage with every degree of heel.

Boats with blown-out, baggy sails suffer from weather helm because the CE moves aft. You can cure a bit of that, especially in rising winds, by tightening the halyards and flattening the sail any way you can, which will move the CE forward. The deepest bulge in a sail, the camber, always moves toward the edge under most strain. You can try that yourself with a handkerchief if you need convincing.

What other cures are there? Well, you could move the whole mast and rig forward. (Well, most of us couldn’t, actually, for obvious reasons.) You could rake the mast forward very slightly, or at least set it completely upright if it’s leaning aft. If you have a racing mast, a bendy mast, hauling on the backstay will induce an aft bend in the mast that will flatten the sail and reduce weather helm. In heavy winds you should set the mainsail traveler down to leeward as far as possible so that the sail spills wind and lies flatter. That helps quite a lot.

One thing often overlooked is that a large headsail can contribute to weather helm, too. Quite a lot of the area of your 150 percent genoa lies aft of the CLR, which is somewhere in the middle (in fore-and-aft terms) of your keel. You might as well be adding that extra genoa area to your mainsail. Change down to a smaller genoa or working jib, or roll it up to a similar size, and your CE will move forward.

And let’s not forget the best cure of all: reef the mainsail. Get rid of the sail area at the aft end of the boat that is constantly pushing the stern away from the wind and making the boat want to point up.

A little weather helm is a good thing. You don’t want it to disappear completely. You just need to be able to control it. Tank testing has shown that about 2 or 3 degrees of rudder from dead center helps lift a sailboat to windward. More than 4 degrees just acts as a brake to your progress.

In gusty weather, most of us will try to ride out the puffs by easing the mainsheet and putting the rudder over to leeward, but because excessive heeling is a major cause of weather helm it’s always wiser to reef down and keep the boat more upright if the wind is likely to continue at a greater strength.

Do what you can to lessen weather helm. It’s a good feeling to be in decent control of your boat in heavy wind. And I’ll tell you what — I won’t mention your weather helm to anyone if you don’t mention my maiden aunt.

Today’s Thought
It would have been as though he were in a boat of stone with masts of steel, sails of lead, ropes of iron, the devil at the helm, the wrath of God for a breeze, and hell for his destination.
—Emory A. Stones

“The doctor said I’d be on my feet in two weeks.”
“Was he right?”
“Yeah, I had to sell my car yesterday.”

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

May 7, 2015

Thoughts on lying ahull

SOMEWHERE IN Rich Wilson’s book about the Vendée Globe race he makes an offhand reference to the fact that it’s not safe to lie ahull in a sailboat in a storm. I was surprised by that statement because Wilson is one of the most experienced sailors in the world.

In his book, Race France to France — Leave Antarctica to Starboard, he tells how he was the only American competitor in the 2008/9 running of the non-stop race around the world for singlehanders. At age 58 he was the oldest of the 30 skippers in the race, and he finished in 9th place in his Open 60 class boat, Great American III. It was a magnificent effort that placed him among the absolute elite of ocean racers.

But he obviously didn’t know that others in his elite class, some who went to sea a long time before him, did use lying ahull as a storm tactic. It was, in fact, standard procedure in the days when round-the-worlders sailed in boats with deep full-length keels and wine-glass sections. Wilson’s storm experience presumably has been in modern multihulls and fin keelers, which need different handling in storms.

Lying ahull, of course, is a passive and very simple tactic. You simply douse all sail and lash the helm to leeward.  A boat with a full-length keel will drift slowly sideways-on to the waves. As the wind drags her through the water like a barn door, she leaves an area of big eddies and swirls to windward. When a top-heavy swell hits those swirls, it tends to break and expend its energy before it reaches the boat.

Of course, when the seas get so big that they pick up your boat and hurl her bodily sideways, it’s time to change tactics and run off before the wind, but most boats plying the trade-wind routes at the right times of the year never face such bad weather. And meanwhile, lying ahull in a “normal” gale is a safe, approved tactic for most boats with traditional keels — always allowing, of course, for the fact that all boats react differently.

Fin-keeled boats do better in bad conditions if they are kept moving, so that the keel moves through a greater area of water in which to expend the energy the boat accrues from abnormal wave action.

 Anyone needing a more thorough explanation should read C. A. Marchaj’s fascinating book Seaworthiness: The Forgotten Factor.

All of which goes to show how even the most experienced sailors can’t know everything about sailing and seaworthiness. It is indeed a vast subject, and we can all learn more every day.

 Column No. 1,000
THIS IS a special day for the Mainly about Boats column. This is, in fact, column number 1,000. Many thousands of words have gone into these columns, some sucked out of the air, some the product of grinding teeth, many forged in panic with a deadline approaching.
Three columns a week for seven years adds up to about two-and-a-half full-length novels. All 1,000 blog posts are stored in the archives, on your right, for you to fossick through at will.  Sooner or later you should find something there that interests you, or amuses you, or possibly even educates you. That was the plan, anyhow. I hope it  worked.
Fair winds and good landfalls.

Today’s Thought
While the spoken word can travel faster, you can’t take it home in your hand. Only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader.
— Kingman Brewster, President, Yale

A friend of mine thinks he’s going to make a fortune. He’s working on a dog food that tastes like a mailman’s leg.

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — a new Mainly about Boats column.)