November 20, 2014

Hunting and pecking for a living

ONCE IN A WHILE somebody will ask me how many words I have written during my career as a professional writer. I can honestly say I don’t know. Millions, certainly. Maybe even millions of millions. But I don’t know. Only amateurs count the words.

For 20 years I wrote a 1,000-word newspaper column six days a week. I seem to remember that came to about 5,000 columns. At the same time I wrote editorials for seven years. That’s somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 editorials. Then I wrote editorials full-time for another paper for two years, six a week. That’s an extra 600 or so.  

Then I wrote books about boats. Twelve or so were accepted by publishers. Three or four never did find a home. In between, I wrote articles for magazines. I never kept count of them, but there were certainly scores, possibly hundreds. And these days I write columns for my blog. I’ve done more than 900 so far. So what I say to the people who ask is “Go ahead, you do the math.”

The second thing they ask is why I never learned to touch-type. They see me hunting and pecking at the keyboard and jump to the conclusion that I was never taught properly. Well I was, as a matter of fact.

One of the subjects we studied at journalists’ college was touch-typing. We were all young men, then, of course. Women newspaper reporters were very rare at that time. I don’t think our editors trusted them to know what news was. We certainly didn’t have any women cub reporters at our college.

We took lessons in typing from a rather nice middle-aged lady who wore a resigned look on her face. She knew what would happen. She knew the young male reporters bursting with testosterone and awash with hormones would never want to be seen touch-typing in the newsroom like a bunch of fairies. Real reporters pounded their typewriters with two fingers and swore at the keys when they got stuck.

We didn’t actually wear fedoras and trench coats, and we all did pass our typing exams because we had to, to keep our jobs, but as soon as we got back to our respective newspaper offices we all abandoned touch-typing and regressed to manly hunting and pecking.

For one thing, it made our stories more concise, which endeared us to the copy editors. They had great power over us. They could change our spelling and our grammar and cuss us out in front of everybody. We were very scared of the copy editors.

The other thing about two-finger typing was that it slowed down the communication between the brain and the fingertips. That was a good thing because it gave you a chance to criticize your writing. When we did eventually get a woman in the reporters’ room she was hated by the copy editors because her stories were always three times as long as they needed to be, and filled with useless twiddly-bits, as if she were chatting idly to her next-door neighbor.

The problem, as we figured it out, was that she was a star touch-typist. She typed at the speed of a blazing comet. She didn’t have to think about where to find the m or the n or remember when to hit the caps lock or anything. Her fingers flew to each hidden key surely and automatically, and there was nothing to stop the steady stream of words from her brain flowing straight out of her fingertips, no time to assess the true sense of the words that flowed like Niagara out of her typewriter, no chance to do a modicum of self-editing as she wrote.

In the press club bar in the evening, the poor copy editors who had the dreaded task of cutting her copy down to size would order large whiskies with shaking hands and we young-blood male reporters would shake our heads solemnly and commiserate with them. We actually bought them drinks when we could afford it. It was always a good thing to keep in with the copy editors.

I still hunt and peck. I am still an atrocious typist. But what the heck. Who cares? I don’t have to worry about copy editors any more. And, glory be, the keys don’t get stuck together now, either.

Today’s Thought
He wrote for certain papers which, as everybody knows,
Is worse than serving in a shop or scaring off the crows.
— Rudyard Kipling

There was an old lady of Worcester
Who was often annoyed by a rorcester.
She cut off his head
Until he was dead,
And now he don’t crow like he yorcester.

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November 18, 2014

A paean to the trade winds

ONE OF MY FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHS of my wife shows her sitting in the cockpit of a 30-foot sailboat we then owned. She is reading a book, with her sunhat pulled down over her eyes, and she is the picture of peace and serenity. Meanwhile, a few feet away in the background, a large white foaming crest runs the length of the boat. She doesn’t turn a hair. She is absorbed in her novel. For this is the friendly trade wind, the southeast trade in mid-South Atlantic, where the water is warm and deep blue, and the sky is dotted with little puffs of cotton wool clouds.
The trade-wind belts must be proof that God loves sailors and wants to make up for all the storms and hurricanes that He creates in other parts of the oceans. There is a magic to the trades that no landlubber can experience, a fair breeze that speeds a small boat along on her course for weeks at a time, surging and dipping in a welter of foam as the sails swell with power.
The square rig was the ideal one for the trades, of course, and I often think that modern sailors who try to run downwind in the trades with goosewinged mainsail and jib are either too lazy to do anything special for the trades, or else are simply ignorant and therefore condemned to suffer the rolling and jibing and chafing of the damned.
In the middle of the last century, the big names in small-boat cruising mostly used twin jibs for trade-wind work. They rigged them on the forestay and poled them out from the mast. They ran the sheets aft to the tiller and discovered to their delight that the boat would steer herself. If she strayed off course, one jib would pull more strongly than the other, and automatically move the tiller to correct the course.
This rig is still widely used, especially on small under-crewed boats, and I have sailed many thousands of miles with a refinement known as the twin-staysail (twistle) rig. The twistle has the advantage that it allows the twin jibs to lie farther ahead of the forestay in a deep V, which counteracts the rolling motion normally associated with running dead downwind. The self-steering action is even more pronounced in the twistle rig, of course, because the sailplan’s center of effort is so far ahead of the center of lateral resistance. The boat feels as if she is running on rails and doesn’t even need a rudder.
The trades have a reputation for being constant, both in force and direction, claims that are false in both cases. The “reinforced” trades can sometimes blow as hard as 30 knots, but they normally confine themselves to between 12 and 20 knots. And, of course, this is all downhill work, for nobody in their right senses plans a long passage to windward in the trades. As for direction, the trades often vary 20 or 30 degrees from northeast or southeast, but that causes no great bother for most rigs.
In many cases, the trade-wind route is the long way to anywhere, but it’s still the fastest and safest. What’s more, a trade-wind passage is a wonderful experience. It’s about as close to Nirvana as any ordinary sailor is likely to get. 
Today’s Thought
And winds of all the corners kiss’d your sails, To make your vessel nimble.
— Shakespeare, Cymbeline
There was a young lady of Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comment arose
On the state of her clothes
She admitted: “Where Ah itchez Ah scratchez.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

November 17, 2014

Full keel versus fin keel

IN THE EARLY STAGES of falling in love with sailing, the question most frequently asked is: “Should I buy a boat with a full keel or a fin keel?”
The answer is that it depends on whether you want to do serious deep-sea sailing, out of sight of land and well away from sheltered waters. That’s when you need a full-keeled boat. If you’re doing coastal sailing or round-the-buoys racing, a fin-keeled boat will do you fine, and it will probably be faster, nimbler, and more weatherly.

So why buy a full-keel boat at all, especially since there aren’t many of them being built nowadays? Well, in short, they’re better at handling storms at sea if you’re short-handed.

The eminent research scientist Tony Marchaj, a champion racing sailor, tells us that a boat at sea is part of a dynamic system. The large surface area and shape of a traditional, long-keeled underwater hull can damp rolling better than the small surface area of a fin keel. This difference becomes marked when the boat is stopped in the water.

When the boat is stationary, after a few rolls the water in which the keel is swinging back and forth becomes filled with random eddies and swirls that offer less resistance to the keel. But if a boat is moving forward, the rolling energy (that is, overturning energy)  can be dissipated more efficiently into a much greater area of less confused water.

That’s why it’s usually necessary to keep a fin-keeled yacht running in heavy weather, whereas a boat with a full-length keel can lie hove-to, or ahull, and still dissipate the wave energy that is trying to roll her over through the greater area and superior damping qualities of her underwater shape.

Racing boats with fin keels usually carry crews large and skilled enough to man the helm at all times in heavy weather, and they can therefore benefit from staying on the move. But mom-and-pop boats must often stop while their crews cook, navigate, or get some rest. A full keel will then be more of a safeguard against getting rolled over than will a fin keel.

In other words, a traditional long keel will look after you when the boat is dead in the water; but a fin keel needs to be kept moving. Nevertheless, Marchaj points out that even a full keel will have more damping action if it can be kept moving. “In a survival situation, active rather than passive tactics are usually successful,” he says. “Those who are able to maintain some speed and directional control fare better.”

Ø If you’re interested, there’s much more from Marchaj, and a primer on how to handle storm conditions in a full-keeler, in my book, The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat (International Marine).

Today’s Thought
When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.
— Shakespeare, Richard III

“They tell me O’Riordan stayed up all night to see where the sun went.”
“Oh did he now? And what happened?”
“It finally dawned on him.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

November 13, 2014

How much water you need

I SEE THAT Californians affected by drought are now having their fresh water rationed. They’re restricted to 50 gallons per person per day. And they’re complaining of hardship. Poor babies.


People who cross oceans on small sailboats mostly use less than one gallon of water a day each, even in the tropics. In fact, if the California ration were applied, a boat doing a non-stop 30-day transatlantic crossing with four crew would need to carry 6,000 gallons of water weighing about 19 tons. An impossibility. Those whining Californians don’t know how lucky they are.


For drinking only, about half a gallon (two liters) per person per day is adequate to maintain good health, but one whole U.S. gallon (3.78 liters) is preferable as a minimum in hot climates, especially if it’s the only potable liquid.


You can, and surely will, get by on less, depending on the outside weather and temperature. But providing between a half-gallon and one gallon a day for each person for the projected duration of an ocean passage automatically assures you of an emergency reserve. You should figure out the number of days to allow for by dividing the distance in miles by 100. You’ll almost certainly cover more than 100 miles a day, but that’s the figure to aim at for planning purposes.  


Good water will remain sweet for at least six months in tightly sealed opaque containers stored in a cool place away from bright daylight. Don’t forget that it’s important to divide your water supply among separate tanks or containers in case some of it should go bad or leak away. There’s hardly anything worse than running out of water. As any Californian can tell you.

Today’s Thought

Water, water everywhere
Atlantic and Pacific
But New York City’s got them beat
Our aqua is terrific!
— Edward Koch, Mayor of NYC

“You’ve got to lose weight. “I’m putting you on lettuce, carrots and green onions for a week.” “OK, doc. Before or after meals?”

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

November 11, 2014

Racing advice from a smiley guy

KEN READ’S PLEA for simpler racing reminded me of why I gave up racing. Ken is the president of North Sails, and as I said in my last column, he feels that racing has become too expensive and complicated.

That’s not the reason I quit, however. I was already racing in a simple and inexpensive dinghy class. I quit because I wanted too hard to win.

We raced on Saturday afternoons, but by Friday evening things were getting tense. My gut was in a knot. Sleep was hard to come by. On Saturday morning, like as not, I would say to my crew, my wife June, “I don’t feel like sailing today.”

She would look at me knowingly and shrug. It was okay with her. But an hour later I’d say, “Let’s just go down to the club and see what the weather’s doing.”

Invariably, the weather was all wrong. It was either blowing a gale or there was no wind at all.

An hour before the start I’d say, “Oh, what the heck, let’s just rig the boat and go for a test sail. See if we want to race. But I don’t think so.”

Well, of course we raced. We always raced. And that’s when I became Captain Bligh, according to my crew. I changed from being a nice smiley guy to someone who was ruthless and obsessive. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, muttered my crew.

I gave no quarter. When the secretary of our association came creeping past me to windward I luffed him, suddenly and unexpectedly. “Go home!” I shouted. He looked at me like a spaniel whose trusted master had just kicked him in the balls.

I submitted protests and read the riot act to anyone who got in my way. I was thoroughly unpleasant, and my gut ached something terrible.

In the end I knew I had to give up racing, not only because I wasn’t good enough to win every time, but also because it turned me into somebody I didn’t like. I had the choice of learning to lose gracefully, of course. But that didn’t appeal to me then. I needed to quit cold turkey.

Luckily, it worked, and after a year or two of non-competitive cruising I was able to lose gracefully, in fact not to worry at all about losing. Well, mostly, anyway. I’m not sure that my character was improved. It’s just that I didn’t mind losing because I didn’t race anymore, and I didn’t race anymore because I didn’t want to feel the tension and experience the aching gut.

I’ll admit that I miss it, though. Winning a race can have the same effect as snorting a drug. But I’m too old now, so it’s a moot point. I’m a nice smiley guy all the time now; and every time I see those suckers out there in the bay with their guts in a knot and screaming “Starboard!” at each other I think to myself, “Well done, lad, you got out just in time.”

Today’s Thought
Sport begets tumultuous strife and wrath, and wrath begets fierce quarrels and war to the death.
— Horace, Epistles

There was a naughty Mr.
Who hugged a girl and Kr.
She fled in great fright,
So the very next night
That Mr. Kr. Sr.

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November 9, 2014

A plea for simpler racing

KEN READ, PRESIDENT OF NORTH SAILS, got a lot of publicity earlier this year when he suggested that recreational sailboat racing should be simpler and more relaxed. His message, as relayed by the Scuttlebutt newsletter, was simple: The harder we play, and the more we invest in our recreation, the fewer the people who want to take part in the game.

This sounds very much like a plea for inexpensive one-design racing, of course, the sort of racing that I have always championed, where speed doesn’t really matter; the kind of racing where the skill of the crew is what counts, not how much you spent on a new mainsail or a scientifically faired keel.

I’m surprised that Ken Read should have taken this tack, because I would imagine that most of his business comes from dedicated racers and not from the owners of cruising boats, who are notorious for hanging on to sails for 25 years or more. But no doubt Mr. Read sees a bigger picture, one in which racing goes into a steep decline if the same few (rich) people keep winning all the time. I have seen this happen in a keelboat class where one skipper was simply better and more dedicated than the rest, so I know these things do happen. And if people stop racing, it’s not good for North Sails’ sales.

Read says that the people who organize sailboat racing exert a lot of energy to encourage a lot of people to do a lot of racing, but perhaps they’d get better results if they did a little tweaking of the status quo, and made racing more fun.

That makes sense, because many sailors are convinced that the only sensible thing to do with a sailboat is to race it against others of its class and size. They see no point in using a sailboat for anything else, except perhaps crossing and ocean or circumnavigating the globe. After all, if you want to go sailing in the West Indies you might as well fly there and hire a boat to do some gentle racing. What could be more fun — and wouldn’t it be cheaper in the long run?

Read cites the increasing popularity of rally and pursuit races and advises sailing committees not to keep postponing races until conditions are perfect. “People want to sail,” he said, “not float around waiting for perfect conditions.”

While he was at it, he handed out more similar advice:

Ø Stop worrying that the start line is off by 5 degrees; start the race.

Ø Get rid of uncomfortable gut hiking off the lower lifelines.

Ø Start some races downwind.

Ø Provide a variety of courses, not just windward-leeward.

Ø Involve youngsters more in sailing big boats; not all of them want to sail dinghies.

Ø Professional racers should be helping the amateurs by being available at regattas to give tips and guidance.

I wish Mr. Read a lot of luck with his campaign. Racing can be a lot of fun if it’s properly organized.  Simple rules, no protests, one-design boats, handy facilities for parking and rigging, short courses, clear instructions, and a place nearby for eating, drinking, and boasting afterward would be a good start. And finally, a simple system of dividing a large fleet into three groups, with beginners, medium skippers, and experienced skippers starting at five-minute intervals. And, finally, moving the perpetual winners backward a class and the perpetual losers forward a class, from race to race, until everybody has a reasonable chance of winning overall.

There’s one little snag, of course. Somebody has to do all the arranging and organizing. Sounds to me like a job for a sailmaker.

Today’s Thought
The leader must know, must know that he knows, and must be able to make it abundantly clear to those about him that he knows.
— Clarence B. Randall, Making Good in Management

 “Johnny, did you give your guppies some fresh water?’
“No Mom, they haven’t finished the water I gave them last week.”

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