March 29, 2015

Phantom voices in the night

HAVE YOU EVER HEARD VOICES when you’ve been alone on the night watch at sea? Voices that don’t really exist?

Lots of people have, apparently, and it seems to be quite normal. The explanation is given by Professor Michael Stadler, a psychologist, in his book Psychology of Sailing: The Sea’s Effects on Mind and Body (International Marine).

All the noises and sounds in our environment are made up of multiple overlying sinewaves, according to Stadler. Pure sine waves with only one frequency do not exist in nature, he claims, nor can they be reproduced by musical instruments. They can only be reproduced artificially by tone generators.

On the other hand, there are many noises that contain a broad spectrum of almost all possible frequencies in random combinations. For example, there’s the noise of the wind and water in stormy weather at sea. These are complex noises that can, of course, contain all the frequencies you’ll find in speech or music.

“It thus often happens that the sailor who has been exposed to this white noise for a long time, and who is also worn out from struggling against the storm, will succumb to the illusion that he is hearing voices or music, even though he is quite alone,” says Stadler. “This is not a psycho-pathological symptom but an entirely normal occurrence which many people experience.”

He observes that even in a normal environment our hearing system operates a constant filtering process. “This selects the frequencies which are of greater significance for survival from the background of noise, which might otherwise mask them. Without this filtering process we would not be able to understand what the crewmember calling out from the fo’c’sle was saying.

“In extreme cases, when one is tired and perhaps in a position where the sound of another voice would be welcome, it can quite easily happen that the acoustic system understands something from the stimuli which in reality does not exist.”

Boaters have reported hearing phantom cries for help from someone in the sea at night, which must be a frightening sensation, and, of course, there is Joshua Slocum’s famous story about how the pilot of the Pinta came aboard the Spray and told him he would help him while he was sick.

It’s good to know that hearing human voices or music at sea is a frequent and normal occurrence, and that those who experience it are not necessarily crazier than the average yachtsman.

Today’s Thought
The voice which speaks in conformity with our dearest hopes will always be listened to.
— Emile Gaboriau, File 113

As an airplane is about to crash, a female passenger jumps up frantically and yells: "If I'm going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman."
She removes all her clothing and cries: "Is there someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?"
The guy in front of her stands up and slowly takes off his pants. 
"Sure honey," he says. "Here, iron these!"

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

March 26, 2015

It's a question of balance

ACCORDING TO TONY MARCHAJ, a sailor, pilot, naval architect, and research scientist, “Almost by definition, seaworthiness cannot be achieved if the boat is badly balanced.” Okay . . . but what do we mean by balance? That question was answered by a famous British designer, J. Laurent Giles. He said good balance is “freedom from objectionable tendencies to gripe [head into the wind] or fall off the wind, regardless of angle of heel, speed or direction of wind.”
He added that a well-balanced boat had an easy motion in a seaway, that is, she passed easily over the waves, neither tending to plunge the bow deeply into the next wave ahead, nor throwing her nose high in the air as a wave passed the fore body. She would also unfailingly lift her stern to a following sea.
“One requires of the balanced yacht that she should retain the utmost docility and sureness of movement in manoeuvering at sea, in good or bad weather,” he added. “She must maintain a steady course when left to herself, but must be instantly responsive to her helm so that the heavier seas may be dodged if circumstances permit. She must be capable of being left to her own devices, sailing, hove-to, or under bare poles.”
That sounds like a very tall order to me. What sort of hull has this wondrous quality of balance? Here’s Marchaj again:
“In a narrower sense, this means that the inherently balanced hull does not substantially alter is longitudinal trim, and does not alter its course during the process of heeling and rolling.” In other words, to be well balanced, a hull should immerse about the same volume of topsides forward and aft when she heels.
Marchaj points out that many of the good old boats still sailing now were either designed for, or affected by, the old International Offshore Rule, which produced shallow, beamy hulls with pinched bows. “Usually, when they heel, the stern is lifted and the bow falls. Consequently, these boats are difficult to control by rudder and are unseaworthy.”
If the bow digs in as the boat heels, a boat will try to round up into the wind, of course, not only because of the wedge effect of the forward sections but also because the center of lateral resistance has moved forward while, at the same time, the center of effort of the sails has moved outward and gains more leverage. This is when the person at the helm suddenly finds the tiller up under his chin. Not that it does much good if the boat heels too far and the rudder comes out of the water.
Luckily, most of us don’t often sail in sea conditions that challenge the full seaworthiness of our boats. But if you should be of a mind to cross an ocean or double Cape Horn, balance might be a good thing to keep in mind as you search for the right boat.

Yahoo Boo-Boo

With the advent of electronic editing, journalism has reached a sorry state. See for yourself. Here’s a recent headline from Yahoo News, gawd help us:

By Justus Wanzala MAIMAHIU, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Not many women are clean energy entrepreneurs in Kenya. So, on the advice of other farmers, she turned to briquettes made of compressed . . .

Today’s Thought

Many are wonders and none more wondrous

Than man, with skill to cross the ocean,

Harnessing the gales and driving

A path through storm-grey seas that threaten

From all sides to engulf him.

— Sophocles, Antigone.


Overheard in the club bar:

“He calls himself a sailor? He doesn’t even know the difference between a pintle and a gudgeon.”

“Yeah, that’s pathetic. A pintle is twice the size of a gudgeon and its tail feathers are much longer.”

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


March 24, 2015

Lake Wogglebone race results

HEREWITH AN EXCERPT from the latest issue of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette):
From Our Own Correspondent

Results of the weekly race held at Lake Wogglebone under the auspices of the New Egalitarian Yacht Club (LLC).

Eau Class, One-Design, 16-foot centerboard sloops:


Wind: Southwest Force 7.

Sea state: Choppy.

Weather: Low cloud, rain showers.

Despite inclement weather, 10 boats arrived at the start line. Racing was postponed 30 minutes while the Chairman of the Race Committee drove to the gas station to get fuel for the Committee Boat’s outboard.

Shortly after the five-minute gun, the Committee Boat  commenced to drag anchor, allowing Teaujam, at the back of the fleet, to start first on port tack. Teaujam’s attempt to cross ahead of the fleet on port failed, however,  because her crew got her finger jammed in the centerboard case with the board  in the up position.

In attempting to avoid Teaujam’s sideways slide, Beauzeau and Dumbeau went about without warning, causing four boats to their leeward to capsize directly in front of two others who struck them and capsized themselves.

While the Committee/Rescue Boat coped valiantly with the rapidly deteriorating situation, Teaujam’s skipper was able to jump on the centerboard and force it down, despite his crew’s screams. With four others close behind, Teaujam rounded the weather mark first.

Unfortunately, in all the confusion she left it to starboard instead of to port. After realizing his mistake, her skipper jibed, hardened up for the beat back, and collided with two of his opponents. The remaining two, in attempting to avoid them, accidentally jibed and capsized.

As, once again, there were no finishers, the committee decided the race on the order of boats that managed to arrive at the first mark.

Five protests against the Race Committee for starting the race in unsuitable conditions were withdrawn because the Chairman of the Race Committee threatened to resign if there was any more criticism.


1.  Teaujam

2.  Beauzeau

3.  Dumbeau

4.  Neau hableau inglés

5.  Sleaupeauk

Stop Press: Teaujam’s crew has been treated at the Lake Wogglebone Emergency Clinic for an injured small finger. Very few stitches were required. In any case, her skipper has apologized fulsomely. He is now looking for a new crew.

Today’s Thought
Success in yacht racing depends so much upon coolness, self-reliance, and quickness of apprehension.
— Tyrrel E. Biddle

“Boy, she looks as if she was made for that coat.”
“Yeah, but I still figure she could have held out for a mink.”

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

March 22, 2015

Some fires to remember

FIRE ON A BOAT is a dreadful thing. Fire on a ship is dreadful, too, even if it’s not your ship. Even if you weren’t on the ship at the time of the fire. . . . Let me explain.

When I was a young and innocent newspaper reporter, a British cargo ship called the Forresbank caught fire down the coast. Her crew abandoned her and were rescued by another ship. The Forresbank ran aground on the Wild Coast, a 100-mile stretch of darkest Africa sparsely populated by black tribes.

To the astonishment of  everyone on the newspaper, the salvage rights to the Forresbank were auctioned off for next to nothing to one of us — a copy editor who worked at night. He figured he could salvage the ship during the day, and trek back to the newspaper at night. He was, of course, a misguided optimist, since the Forresbank lay at the foot of a steep cliff about a five-hour drive from the city and the newspaper.

Two friends and I decided to pay him a visit at the wreck site, and we set off from Durban one afternoon in my friend’s rickety old car after carefully provisioning with a large bag of jerky and an even larger jug of cheap red wine.

There were no coastal roads along the Wild Coast. The few dirt roads that did exist wandered through scarred valleys running toward the coast from the main road inland.

We eventually ran out of roads altogether and crept along a rough and furrowed track that looked vaguely as if it might be going in the right direction. After several stops to replace bits that had fallen off the car we found a flattish area were we could camp for the night. We reckoned the Forresbank was only about an hour away by foot, though we could see nothing of it, of course. We planned to set out the next morning.

Meanwhile, by luck, we had found an abandoned native mud hut in a state of ruin. But it still had half a roof and, interestingly, a rusty old bed frame with springs and a thin, stained, coir mattress that had apparently been partially consumed by some animal. There was also a newer cushion with metal thread running through it that somebody must have used for a pillow. The bed obviously wasn’t fit to sleep on, so we decided to doss down on the floor alongside it.

We had jerky for supper and took turns at sipping from the wine jug, remarking all the time on the fine scenery floodlit by the full moon, and agreeing with each other about how wild the Wild Coast was.  

About midnight, after final sips from the wine jug, I lit a final cigarette and sat on the bed to take my socks off. Next thing I knew there was someone coughing and shouting “Fire, Fire!”  It was about 3 a.m. and the hut was full of thick smoke. My face was tingling and the mattress on which I found myself lying was smoldering.

We all ran outside and had a good laugh, then I went back in and dragged out the mattress, clear of the hut. I left it to smolder away outside then went back inside to find the important thing, the wine jug. After a few more sips, during which time the hut had cleared of smoke, we went back inside to resume sleeping. I woke up early next morning to discover I had slept on the bare bed springs. My face had red stripes on it from the metal threads in the pillow, which had also been smoldering.

As we had run out of jerky and wine, we decided not to risk the trek to the Forresbank. We were city boys. We weren’t used to living off the land and we didn’t think the natives would be friendly when they discovered the remains of the fire. So we drove back home to Durban and never did see the Forresbank. Which just goes to show you how fire at sea on a ship can have grave consequences even if you were nowhere near it.


Today’s Thought
Man is the animal that has made friends with the fire.
— Henry van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

Two inmates of a mental home were strolling in the grounds with a nurse when a passing pigeon dropped something white on the coat of one of the men.
“Wait here a minute,” said the nurse, “and I’ll fetch a tissue.”
The man turned to his friend. “She’s nuts,” he said, “by the time she gets back that pigeon will be miles away.”

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

March 19, 2015

Rescue n the Southern Ocean

ONE OF THE GREATEST sea-rescue stories ever told must surely be that of Pete Goss, a former British Royal Marine. He rescued a Frenchman, a fellow singlehanded competitor in the 1996 Vendée Globe race around the world. He exhibited such heroism and determination that he was given France’s highest award for gallantry, the Legion d’Honneur. Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Medal of the British Empire, and he was elected Yachtsman of the Year.

The man he rescued was Raphael Dinelli, whose boat sank in a storm more than a thousand miles south of Fremantle, Australia, far down in the frigid Southern Ocean. Goss, who happened to be 160 miles ahead of him, was asked by the race organizers if he could go back and pick up Dinelli from a life raft dropped to him by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Goss, at the time, was dead downwind, and that wind was blowing over 60 knots. Every half hour or so, Goss’s boat was knocked flat in the water by breaking swells estimated to be about 60 feet high. He was himself fighting to stay alive. But he knew what he had to do. Under storm sails he beat back slowly in atrocious conditions, and with the help of the RAAF, he located Dinelli, who was suffering so much from exposure that he accepted he was probably going to die. “But he never gave up,” said Goss, in his fascinating book, Close to the Wind. “He kept pushing death before him, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.”

Anyone who has been to sea in a sailboat in conditions even half as bad as these will appreciate the difficulty of finding anything as small as a liferaft and then of transferring its occupant onto a boat under sail only. Displaying superb seamanship, Goss luffed up alongside the raft. “I ran forward and threw off the headsail halyard,” said Goss. “Raphael gripped the grabline. Got him!”

They both heaved, and Dinelli was on deck. He lay face down and tried to move, but he was too stiff and cold. “It was hardly surprising— he had spent two days waiting for me to rescue him. I gently turned him over to reveal a nose and two very inflamed eyes surrounded by thick, yellowish wax. A feeble ‘Thank you’ could be heard from inside the immersion suit. All I could see was his eyes and I shall never forget them . . .  I dragged him back to the cockpit by his ankles; his feet were agonizingly painful because of the cold, and he couldn’t walk. We worked together to get him under the cockpit overhang.

“It took five minutes to undress him. His hands and feet were in the worst condition: cold, colorless and useless. Skin came away on contact and I wondered if there would be long-term damage. The next step was to get him below through the small hatch, which was difficult to negotiate at the best of times. He was very stiff—it was as though rigor mortis was setting in, and it took a couple of attempts  before he tumbled through. Now he was below in my cramped, wet little hell hole.

“ I put a dry set of thermals on him, pulled a woolly hat over his head and eased him into my best sleeping bag. He couldn’t straighten out  so I propped him in a sitting position against my kitbag and put a support under his knees.

“Every movement was slow and painful for him . . . I made a very sweet cup of tea in a cyclist’s drinking bottle; I had it on board for just such an occasion as it has a nipple on the top and you can’t spill the contents. I helped Raphael slowly and painfully wrap his frozen hands round it. He took a sip and a look of pleasure lit up a face haggard beyond its 28 years. He told me later that it was as though he had landed in England.”

Goss gradually nursed Dinelli back to health during the 12 days or so it took them to sail back to Australia. Goss was given a time allowance, and rejoined the race. He wasn’t the winner, but he became the public sensation of the race. About 150,000 people were lined up in France when he arrived, cheering for their new hero.

Ø Close to the Wind: An Extraordinary Story of Triumph Over Adversity, by Peter Goss (New York, 1999; Carrol & Graf Publishers).

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

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave, sir. Pets are not allowed in the dining room.”

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

March 17, 2015

She was pretty, fast, and demanding

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO I was wondering whether it’s possible to love a boat, in the truest sense of the word. Since then I have remembered that a man once wrote to me from Oswego, New York, confessing that he loved his boat so much that his wife was beginning to have doubts about their relationship.

“I own a Cape Dory Typhoon sailboat, “ he said. “My wife says I love it more than I love her. I don’t know how to compare different kinds of love, but I admit that I love my boat and I love it quite a lot. Is this so very wrong?”

My reply was:

Hell no, A.J. You don’t lose your manhood if you love a boat. You might lose your wife, but that’s another matter.

I loved the very first boat I owned. It was an International sliding-seat canoe that I bought in a moment of love-induced madness. I didn’t realize at that moment that I wasn’t man enough for this little beauty. I was a scrawny youth, weighing all of 125 pounds, and 125 pounds was just not heavy enough. After repeated dunkings I came to the conclusion that this was unrequited love, the kind I already felt for my high-school English teacher, who had wonderful legs and magnificent pair of . . .  but no, I digress.

The boat was a singlehander about 16 or 17 feet long and about 3 feet 6 inches wide. She had no stability of her own. You kept her upright by flinging yourself out onto what looked like a seesaw sticking out from the side. She was very pretty, very fast and very demanding. She had a tiller extension as long as an elephant’s trunk and when you went about you had to handle the extension, the mainsheet, the jib sheet, and the sliding seat all at once, and sometimes the centerboard, too. You really needed to be a 200-pound, eight-armed, lightning-fast octopus to handle that boat. But what a thrill it was (for those few brief moments before she capsized) when she flew up onto a plane and went skimming over the bay in a cloud of spray.

While I’m in confessional mood, I might as well admit that I had a previous love affair. A steamroller. A lovely green-and-black steamroller came along one day to make a new road near our house and I fell head over heels in love. I used to come running home from school to spend my afternoons with it. And I was heartbroken when its job was done and it just clanked away without a backward glance at me. I think maybe the sliding seat canoe caught me on the rebound.

Anyway, A.J, my advice to you is to go ahead and love your boat. Wives come and wives go. There seem to be plenty of them around. But Typhoons are not made any more. Those little beauties are getting rarer by the day. Do your duty, A.J. Love it, come what may.

Today’s Thought
Loving can cost a lot but not loving always costs more, and those who fear to love often find that want of love is an emptiness that robs the joy from life. — Merle Shain, Some Men Are More Perfect Than Others

“Your name?”
“Sparks, Your Honor.”
“What’s the charge?”
“Battery, Your Honor.”
“Officer, place this man in a dry cell.”

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

March 16, 2015

Oceans crowded with rowboats

MOST OF US don’t give much thought to what’s going on in the middle of the oceans, but I was surprised to learn how many hardy souls are rowing boats out there, unassisted by sails or motors.  And not only rowing, but racing each other across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

In his recent book, Little Ship of Fools (Greystone Books), Canadian author Charles Wilkins describes his role in an attempt to beat the record Atlantic crossing for rowing boats. His boat,  Big Blue was a 40-foot catamaran with a crew of 16. Eight people rowed at a time, all the way from Africa to the West Indies.

But the first people to row the Atlantic in 1896 were two Norwegian-born fishermen named George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, who crossed from New York to England in 55 days in an 18-foot open dory named Fox.

Since then, hardy extremists have made a kind of game of racing one another, or the clock, across the oceans of the world. Not all of them survive. In 1966 two young Brits named David Johnstone and John Hoare left Virginia in a craft called Puffin, rowed for 105 days in the direction of home, and simply disappeared off the face of the earth.

Two weeks later, a second British team consisting of John Ridgway and Chay Blyth set out from Cape Cod and arrived in Ireland safely to become the first of the “new age” rowers to cross the Atlantic.

In 1972, yet another pair of Brits, John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook, aboard Britannia II, become the first to cross the Pacific from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia. They took 361 days. Cook was the first woman to row across any ocean, incidentally,  and saved Fairfax’s life after he was bitten by a shark. She has an extraordinary story to tell, as you’ll discover if you Google her name.

Meanwhile, in his book Wilkins says 30 rowing crews attempted ocean crossings between 1966 and 1982, attempts now referred to as “historic” ocean rows. Only 15 completed the whole crossing. Three were lost entirely.

From 1997 onward the number of successful Atlantic crossings rose to something over 400, largely as the result of the introduction of a transatlantic rowing race, the Atlantic Challenge. In October of 1997, 30 boats, each with one pair of rowers, left the Canary Islands. Twenty-four of them reached Barbados. In 2003 the race become the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race, as many as 40 boats setting out every second year from Tenerife in the Canaries.

The sport is now regulated and archived by an English organization called the Ocean Rowing Society, which stipulates among other things that boats must be self-sustaining, must touch neither land nor vessels en route, and must run entirely without motors or sails.

All I can say is that if you thought crossing an ocean in a small sailboat was the height of madness, you need to reconsider that opinion. The prize must surely go to these crazy rowers.

Today’s Thought
I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.
— H. L. Mencken

An Italian lady always had trouble with English 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.)