September 18, 2014

Equinox and a trusty compass

ONCE AGAIN I HAVE FAILED to write a book about the equinox and putting one’s faith in a compass. It was an idea that rattled around in my head briefly a few years ago and it seemed like a good plan at the time. But I regret to say it was an idea that escaped, like so many others, never to be captured again.
I did, however, write a short piece to serve as a sort of story skeleton, a bag of bones, which, suitably clothed, could turn into a minor masterpiece. So here, by way of compensation, is the short version of my unwritten magnum opus: 


The cedars in the back yard were twinkling with cool gray mist this morning, a sure sign that the autumnal equinox is almost upon us.

For years, when we lived on Whidbey Island, Washington, my wife June and I used to make a short pilgrimage on the date of the equinox. We went to a grassy little west-facing hillside in a quiet state park. We took along a blanket, a bottle of Vouvray, some cheese and crackers, and maybe a baguette. And, of course, our hand bearing compass from the boat.

On the evening of the equinox we watched the sun go down into the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and checked the accuracy of the compass. This is one of only two days in the year when the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in west. Otherwise, it’s always either north or south of true east and west.

At that magic moment when half the blazing red sun was hidden beneath the sea horizon, I checked its bearing with the compass up to my eye. Every year, the compass proved accurate to within one degree. And at that moment I was flooded with a wonderful feeling of trust.

Cruising under sail is built on trust in so many ways. You trust that the mast won’t fall down, you trust that the engine will start, you trust that the waves won’t be big enough to sink your boat, and, of course, you trust that your compass is telling the truth. (The way you know whether your main steering compass is telling the truth is to check it against your hand bearing compass, now proven accurate by the sun itself. Trust, but verify, as it were.)

We always stayed long after the sun sank into the strait. We went home cold and happy and damp from dew, and slightly woozy from the wine, holding hands, with our trust in our compass and our boat restored for another year.

And every year I think to myself what a wonderful metaphor this is for life. And I tell myself I must nurture that nascent thought and expand it into a living philosophy and write a fascinating book about it and make a lot of money and get famous and appear on Oprah. But I never do. Restoring trust is easy. Writing a book is hard work.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan, NY Herald Tribune, 17 Dec 63

“Dad, what’s horse sense?”
“It’s one of Nature’s little safeguards, son. It’s what keeps a horse from betting on people.”

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September 16, 2014

On sailing like a gentleman

ON THE NEWS YESTERDAY I heard a recording of a man calling 911, reporting in a remarkably calm voice that there was a “gentleman” pointing a gun at people in a Wal-Mart store.
It struck me then that we’re losing all sense of what a gentleman is.

It also made me wonder what kind of boats gentlemen sail. But maybe it’s easier to mention the kind of boats gentlemen don’t sail. For instance, I can’t imagine anyone calling the Coast Guard to complain about being rocked by an enormous wake caused by a “gentleman” in a MacGregor 26 with an 80-hp outboard motor.

Gentlemen don’t sail Flickas either. At least, the people who run the Flicka 20 sailboat blog aren’t gentlemen. One large headline reads: “Vigor is an idiot.” This is followed by a drunken rant from a San Francisco architect  complaining about a chapter in my book Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere. Not only was he drunk, by his own admission, but he patently hadn’t read the book, since he misinterpreted my estimation of the Flicka’s seaworthiness. If the Flicka people had any decency they would delete that libelous and ungentlemanly rant.

In general, gentlemen sail Folkboats and all boats by designers such as Herreshoff, Fife, Nicholson, Uffa Fox, Alberg, Crealock, Atkin, Chapelle, Lyle Hess and their peers. And it’s not true that gentlemen never sail to weather, as the popular saying insists. Any lady will tell you that gentlemen frequently sail close to the wind — but they’re careful  never to pinch.

I have personally known some real gentleman sailors, such as Hiscock, Gau, Bardiaux, Guzzwell and Moitessier, although, come to think of it,  I’m not too sure about Moitessier. He didn’t behave like a gentleman when he sneakily and illegally massacred all those seabirds’ eggs on Ascension Island.

And there are others I have read about — Roth, Knox-Johnson, Adlard Coles, Miles Smeeton, and so on. So I know they’re out there.Finally I would observe that nobody who anchors too close to you is a gentleman; and neither was Tristan Jones.

Anyway, next time you’re in Wal-Mart and someone starts waving a gun around, please remember to tell the 911 dispatcher that it’s a man behaving badly. Gentlemen simply don’t do that.

Today’s Thought
A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.
— Lana Turner

A limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

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

September 14, 2014

The urge to build boats

EVERY NOW AND THEN I feel the urge to build a boat. This has been going on all my life from the teen years onwards. Mostly, I am able to keep the feeling under control but on a few occasions I have succumbed.

I sometimes wonder if other people feel the urge, I mean ordinary people who don’t even live near water and normally have nothing to do with boats. There might be a quite a lot of them. They might get the urge and not know what it is, apart from some vague feeling of unease or some suspicion of a life mission not completed.

Scientists tell us we came from the sea. There is salt in our veins. So I would guess there is some vestigial desire to build something that can float on the sea, not only to enable us better to catch fish but also to allow us to indulge in that other great human urge to explore the world, most of which is covered by water.

I have never shown any great talent for boatbuilding. My first experience came in my teens when I helped an older friend build a small Harrison-Butler carvel-planked sloop.  I was the gofer and the one who held the heavy dolly on the head of the copper nails fastening the planking to the ribs. He was the one inside the hull, fitting the copper rove collar and clipping off the nail short before riveting it tight with swift light blows from a ball-peen hammer.

My next outburst of boatbuilding came many years later when I helped a friend build a 33-foot light displacement sloop. She was strip-planked, and each plank was through-nailed and glued to the ones beneath. I remember thinking at the time that she was virtually a copper mesh surrounded by wood. It certainly made her very tough, but I hated to think how complicated it would be to repair a stove-in plank at some later date.

Both those boats were wooden, of course, and wood is still the finest material for small boats, as far as I’m concerned. You can, of course, build a fiberglass boat if you wish, but it’s a very messy business and quite full of stress as you wonder if one layer of glass fibers saturated with resin is really going to stick to the last layer. Or did you leave it too late, so that the resin has already cured sufficiently to lose its stickiness? I wouldn’t like to think about that in a storm at sea.

And the killer for me is that you have to have a mold to build a fiberglass boat, or at least some kind of lattice work or framework in the form of the finished hull. Normally, that means you have to build a wooden boat first, to form your mold, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Many wooden boats, perhaps the great majority these days, are covered with a sheath of fiberglass in any case. This not only waterproofs them, but also prevents the bitey things in the water from burrowing into the wood and eating the hull from the inside out.

There were occasions when I build a string of four small racing dinghies from kits, but that doesn’t take much skill, just patience and a lot of time to get a decent finish. I only had one major disaster, in the early days before I properly understood the technique of stitch-and-glue to join the seams of a plywood boat. The resin supplied with the kit was of the kind used for building up several layers, which I did, before and after applying the fiberglass tape. Nobody told me that this kind of resin would never cure hard unless you excluded the air from the last layer with a plastic covering, or sprayed on a chemical to exclude the air.

So, yes, the resin stayed sticky and nothing I could think of doing would make it set. In desperation I painted over it anyway, called the boat Messy, and deliberately dabbed ugly splodges of paint over the hull to make it seem like one big joke.  I have to say that she did, in fact, hold together, and after a few years her seams appeared to have cured somewhat, but it was a long, hard lesson for me.

I dreamed the other night that I was crafting a lovely sleek 14-foot clinker-built Whitehall rowing boat with two rowing stations and a sculling notch in the transom. I knew all the time that it was far beyond my shipwrighting capabilities, of course, and I did wonder if I shouldn’t be building something simpler, such as an Irish curragh; but in dreams nothing matters except the emotions and sensations. That’s how I got to win the Finn class in the Olympics — but that’s another dream.

Today’s Thought
Unpinned even by rudimentary notions of time and space, dreams float or flash by, leaving in their wake trails of unease, hopes, fears, and anxieties.
— Stephen Brook, The Oxford Book of Dreams

Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.

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

September 11, 2014

When to fly code flags MEG

A MESSAGE from someone who signs herself “Anne Who Was There” says: “I saw a lot of flags flying at half-mast on Thursday in memory of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York and it reminded me that you once wrote a blog lamenting the fact that not enough yachts fly flags these days. Could you dig it out and republish it please?”
I’d be delighted, Anne.  Any request that saves me writing a new column is very welcome. Thanks for asking. This is how it went:

WE DON’T SEE ENOUGH FLAGS flying on small boats these days. Hardly anyone even flies a burgee at the masthead any more, which is a great shame because that colorful little triangle of fluttering cloth denotes pride of ownership and bestows a disciplined liveliness on a boat.
And as for signaling flags, we might as well be talking about dodos, or pterodactyls, or home-based land-line telephones. And that’s another pity, because there is a huge section of the International Code of Signals devoted to the ancient art of sending messages by flags.
You can signal with one flag, or two, or three. There are literally hundreds of coded messages waiting to be sent, and anybody with a set of code flags ought to be absolutely itching to send a few. I mean, imagine you spot some old friends aboard a far-flung yacht in an anchorage — but you don’t carry a VHF radio (because you don’t have to) and you don’t have their cell-phone number because you never wrote it down like you were supposed to. So now what? Well, code flags to the rescue, of course.
Get out the signal book. Look up the right signal and hoist the flags. Simple. There are codes for every occasion. For example, here’s a handy three-flag hoist: MEG. It means “Bowels are regular.” That’s a message your friends are always happy to receive. And relieved to receive, you might say. Of course, that might not always be the case, so the people who drew up the international code cunningly also provided MJD (“Patient has flatulence.”) and MIO (“Patient has clay-colored stool.”) There are other codes describing sailors with other delicate variations of tummy problems, but we don’t need to dwell on that now. You can look them up for yourself in private after dinner.
One two-flag signal of particular interest is XP. It is not clear why the compilers of the signal book thought fit to include this hoist, since it means “I am in thick fog.” But perhaps they needed a belly laugh after dealing with all that sordid stool business. In any case, if you ever come across a vessel flying XP, if you can read it, it’s already too late.
One signal you might want to memorize is SN. It means “You should stop immediately. Do not scuttle. Do not lower boats. Do not use the wireless. If you disobey I shall open fire on you.” Heavens, what a vicious and belligerent message for two little flags to convey. The only reply I can think of is MEG flown in reverse order, which should be read as “My bowels are NOT regular.” Not now, anyhow.
The international code does not deal with flags alone, of course. All other forms of signaling by sea are covered, including the use of the human voice as transmitted by radio waves. It seems that radio waves may sometimes distort the human voice so much as to make it intelligible without the help of the international code. Now I fear very few of my sailing friends practice this, but it’s not sufficient to say “One, two, three and four” over the radio. The code insists that you say unaone (oo-nah-wun), bissotwo (bees-soh-too), terrathree (tay-rah-tree) and kartefour (kar-tay-fower.) In fact, here is the full list, just in case you want to impress the Coasties when they ask to come aboard and inspect your potty arrangements:
Figure spelling table
Figure or Mark to be Transmitted
(Code Word Pronunciation)
Decimal point
Today’s Thought What harm in getting knowledge even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a mitten or a slipper? — Rabelais, Works
Tailpiece The luckiest man is the one who has a wife and an outboard motor that both work.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

September 9, 2014

Introducing Tinder for Boats

MY NEW START-UP is going to make me a fortune. I freely admit that it’s very similar to Tinder, the latest and greatest mobile application for online dating. Tinder, which judges people based on appearance alone, has created a worldwide storm among the legions of lonely hearts seeking love and cuddles, but there is one important difference between Tinder and my app:  mine is Tinder for Boats.

Those of you who use Tinder already, and  know the difference between left-swiping and right-swiping, will want to know a little behind the theory driving Tinder for Boats. Well, to start with, we all hate selling a long-loved boat to someone who, we deeply suspect, doesn’t deserve or appreciate it — someone who is simply not going to look after it in the way we did. Now, you can often recognize this sort of person just by looking at them. They don’t do their buttons up right, they wear non-matching socks, they have splodges on their shirts, and rusty rings through their eyebrows. They don’t comb their hair nicely or carry a clean handkerchief.

But it’s very difficult to deny them a purchase after you have met them face-to-face. I mean, what sort of excuse can you offer? “I’m not going to sell my boat to you because you’ve got snot on your  handkerchief.”?

The buyer, on the other hand, doesn’t want to waste his time looking at a boat being sold by an obvious rogue, one of those with shifty eyes and a cunning mouth, whose ears stick out, and has a broken nose and facial tattoos.You can just tell he has stolen this boat, or left at half-a-dozen boatyards a whole trail of unpaid bills that you will inherit if you’re foolish enough to buy the boat.

So TFB (Tinder for Boats) will show two pictures, the seller and the boat in one, and the prospective buyer in the other.

Thus, the buyer can inspect a boat with picture of its seller, and seller can take a good long gander at a prospective buyer. If both of these people swipe right, because they like the looks of each other, they can make mutual contact and do a deal. If, however, one or the other swipes left, then there is no contact and no embarrassment on either side.

Of course, we all understand that the real Tinder is to a certain extent driven by sex. Well, actually, quite a large extent. But then, isn’t everything?  So I should warn you that unscrupulous boat owners with broken noses and sticking-out ears might be tempted to hire sweet young things in provocative outfits to pose as sellers on Tinder for Boats. In that case, just be quite sure in your own mind that you know which goods you’re buying.

Today’s Thought
I gotta tell ya, with our $2.4 billion in profits last year, they gave me a great big bonus. Really, it’s almost obscene.
— Lee Iacocca, Time, 1 Apr 85

“Did I tell you about the cruel blow that fate struck my parents in New York?”
“No — I thought you were born in Seattle.”

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

September 7, 2014

Fancy duds for fancy prices

AN OBSERVANT READER in San Diego, California, asks why the latest West Marine catalog (“Prices good September 4-21”) concentrates so much on clothing, rather than on bits for boats.  “The main sidehead on the front page says: ‘New Fall Apparel,’ ” he reports. “Is West Marine turning into a clothing store?”

Well now, I’m not getting into this. I recently promised to be nicer to West Marine. I asked God to fill my soul with kinder thoughts for the giant marine superstore, so that I could cut down on the criticism.

On the other hand, and upon more mature reflection, it occurs to me now that my promise doesn’t bind me not to repeat anything I have written on this subject before. So here is a column that was published more than two years ago. It still seems to be very appropriate, except that the prices have probably gone up in the interim:  

WHAT IS THE well-dressed sailor wearing these days? It's a question that doesn't normally occur to me, but it just so happens that West Marine has sent me a brochure listing all the wonderful boating things they have for sale, including what it pleases them to call "yachting apparel."

I must admit I have never owned any “yachting apparel.”  My sailing duds normally come from the thrift store and usually cost $1 for the top and $3 for the pants. This enables me to take off my tee-shirt and use it to mop up spilled engine oil without experiencing a twinge of conscience or a significant diminishment of my personal fortune. My granddaughter also informs me that the holes in my jeans are absolutely haute couture. She says the holes are  actually supposed to coincide with tattoos on my thighs and calves, so people can see them, but as I'm too old to have tattoos she thinks my hairy legs will do instead.

However, we stray. What I was saying is that I have West Marine's list of what you should be wearing if you wish to be admired and respected at the yacht club and on the racing circuit. Here is what they recommend:

Ø Tech sailing hat, $19.99.  It looks like any other baseball cap and has a West Marine logo on it, so they should be paying you to wear it because you are advertising West Marine.

Ø Sailing gloves, $26.99. They look like $5 gardening gloves without the pimples and I dare say you could use them to pull weeds when you're not sailing.

Ø Shoes. Apparently you need SeaRacer+ Sailing Shoes with GripX3, $119.99 They have an "exoskeleton" that "improves grip and protection for the top of your foot." Huh? The top? Go figure.

Ø Boots, $79.95. Not your ordinary boots, of course. These are Gills, and "worn by many of the world's top sailors." If you want to look smart, win races, feel like a top-world sailor, and go bankrupt, buy Gills.

Ø Shirt, $29.99. This short-sleeved, simply styled, classic camp shirt comes in bluestone, ivory, seafoam, and black. Such sweet colors. But it regains macho status from its name: Men's Anchor Shirt. (Not an anchor anywhere to be seen, though.)

Ø Shorts, $39.99. Real sailors wear jeans, but if you must match the rest of your outfit then you need Men's Admiral Shorts in Driftwood Khaki or Oyster Khaki.  There's a 9-inch inseam from your oysters to your driftwood, which should be long enough for most.

Ø Offshore jacket and bib, $409.00. Alaskan crab fishermen face the toughest working conditions in the fishing industry. They wear yellow PVC slickers that cost about one-tenth of West Marine's Musto duds. But what do they know?  Musto will keep you looking smarter and smelling fresher than those dumb crabbers.

So if you add it all up it comes to $725.90. Not bad, really, if you're a 1 percenter.  Or pretending to be.

Today's Thought
Fond pride of dress is sure a very curse;
Ere fancy you consult, consult your purse.
— Benjamin Franklin.

"How do you like your new beard?" "I didn't like it at first. Then it grew on me."

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

September 4, 2014

No pictures, thousands of words

THOSE OF YOU who visit this space regularly will know that, strictly speaking, this is not a blog. It’s a column. The word blog is an abbreviation of web log, which signifies a kind of personal diary, a record of your recent comings and goings and happenings and emotions, all published for the world to see on the world-wide web. (All the world that’s interested, that is.)

A column is quite another matter. This a column for readers, and by readers I mean people who can assimilate more than 140 characters at a time — people who can read several contiguous sentences without having to pause to feed their brains on eye candy.

This column is called Mainly about Boats, although you’d probably not know that unless you read the small print at the bottom. You will, however, have noticed that this column almost always appears without illustrations, something that is very unusual in the electronic publishing business these days. In fact, if it were a blog it would be a blingless blog, which apparently is not the way to attract traffic. Too bad. I happen to prefer words to pictures.

Words, on their own, are quite tricky enough to manage without having to bother about pictures. When I was editing books for International Marine they came up with a very professional manuscript by Migael Scherer, of Seattle. It’s called A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound. I could find no fault with her copy, except that she constantly referred to those places where small boats are placed in the water as “boat launches.” I knew full well that everybody around here calls them boat launches, but when it came to the printed word I found it confusing, because a launch is a type of boat. Webster’s New World describes it as “an open, or partly enclosed, motorboat” or (formerly) “the largest boat carried by a warship.”

So I changed “boat launch” to “launching ramp” about a million times, after having carefully considered such alternatives as slipway, marine railway, etc.  Migael wasn’t happy about that and wanted me to change a million “launching ramps” back to “boat launches.” But in the end I prevailed, mostly on the grounds that such a classy book deserved language with the highest degree of clarity.  “Launching ramp” might have been fuddy-duddy, but it was certainly clear.

And, talking about that, it is interesting to note how difficult it is sometimes to use clear words to describe the simplest of objects or emotions. On the same page as “launch” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is the world “laugh.” Have you ever tried to describe a laugh?

The COD makes heavy weather of it:

“laugh (lahf) v. & n. 1. make the sounds and movements of face and body by which lively amusement, sense of the ludicrous, exultation, and scorn, are instinctively expressed; have these emotions.”

Webster’s dives even deeper into these muddy waters, adding definitions for laugh, chuckle, giggle, titter, snicker, and guffaw.

In other words, it’s far easier to laugh than to describe it.  And it’s far easier to fill a blog with pretty pictures than with interesting words.

Today’s Thought
The words! I collected them in all shapes and sizes and hung them like bangles in my mind.
— Hortense Calisher, Extreme Magic

“Any Royalty in your wife’s family?”
“No, but she had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.

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