October 19, 2014

The book within a book

I WOULD LIKE TO ACQUAINT YOU with the fact that former Marine captain Michael Pitre is a fine judge of boating books. Pitre, who served two terms in Iraq, has written a novel based on his experiences over there. It’s called Fives and Twenty-Fives (Bloomsbury) and has received high praise in the literary world as one of the great novels of war. In fact, Kirkus Reviews goes as far as to describe Pitre’s book as “one of the definitive renderings of the Iraq experience.”

I mention all this for good reason. On page 5 of the book, the hero of the story talks about a neatly organized stack of books that constitutes his ever-expanding sailboat research library. And he says: “John Vigor’s Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere sits atop the pile, catching my attention first.”

Page 5! So near the beginning! Be still, my heart! I have never been mentioned in a novel before, let alone so close to the start.

Pitre’s hero adds: “I reach for Vigor’s book, though I know it almost by heart at this point.”

What a perspicacious author this Michael Pitre is. What keen judgment he displays. Who could be more acutely perceptive? What an excellent choice he made in keeping Twenty Small Sailboats right on the top of his protagonist’s pile of boating books.

And what can I do by way of returning the compliment, other than to recommend with the greatest sincerity that you rush out and buy his novel? The book views the conflict in Iraq from the unusual perspective of a platoon of Marines whose job is to fill potholes in Anbar Province during the bloodiest period of the war. That’s more dangerous than you might expect, because every pothole is booby-trapped with an explosive device.

Fives and Twenty-Fives often reads more like a personal memoir than a conventional novel, and apart from describing many suspenseful moments on Iraq’s treacherous highways, it also delves into the problems faced by servicemen returning home from that life-changing conflict.

Pitre himself quit the Marines in 2010 to study for his MBA at Loyola and now lives in New Orleans. I can only hope that his novel tops the New York Times best-seller list — and, incidentally, makes millions of readers aware of another splendid book mentioned on page 5. 

Today’s Thought
Fame, we may understand is no sure test of merit, but only a probability of such: it is an accident, not a property of a man.
— Carlyle, Essays: Goethe

I was laying on the green,
A small English book I seen.
As Carlyle’s Essay on Burns was the name of the edition,
I left it laying in exactly the same position.

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October 16, 2014

Thank goodness for Dacron

I DON’T SUPPOSE one sailor in 100 ever gives any thanks to the persons who invented Dacron and nylon, the materials from which most modern-day sails are made. That’s because most of us take our sails for granted, little suspecting the time and trouble it took to maintain sails in the old days, and to preserve their shape for efficient propulsion.
Ernest Ratsey, one of the great names of sailmaking, described the materials from which sails were made in the 1930s in an article in The Rudder magazine.

“There are two kinds of canvas basically,” he explained, “a Southern-grown American cotton which is white and an Egyptian-grown cotton which is called brown Egyptian because of its reddish tint. The difference is really very marked.

“This brown Egyptian is getting lighter in color every year and the only feasible explanation I have heard for this change is that in the olden days the River Nile overflowed its banks when it had too much water in it and irrigated the fields, sending with the water a lot of silt, which in itself is a reddish-brown color.

“Now, since the Assouan Dam has been built, nature no longer floods the fields but it is done by man instead and scarcely any silt goes with the water as most of it has settled to the bottom.

“Don’t confuse brown Egyptian with tanned canvas. This is a dye which I believe comes from India. This tanned canvas is used quite a good deal by the fishing boats and trawlers working off the Brittany coast and in the North Sea. This dye is supposed to preserve the canvas and, of course, it doesn’t show the dirt or the mildew.

“In the old days flax was used a great deal for canvas. It is of a very soft nature and even when wet it remains that way but, of course. sails made from flax do not hold their shape owing to its softness, that is why it has been superseded by cotton. Egyptian cotton has a longer staple than Southern-grown American cotton and it makes a stronger sail which seems to hold its shape better.

“You hear a lot about ordering sails in the winter time and you probably think that this is a lot of sales talk. In a way I suppose it is, but the real reason is that during the winter months when the steam heat is on and the loft is kept at an even temperature, the canvas as it goes through the various stages of manufacturing into a sail does not vary very much and in the end should turn out to be a smoother sail; whereas in the summer you may start a sail on a nice sunny day, have it blowing northeast with rain on the second day and get a dry nor’wester the third.

“This is really most disconcerting to the sailmaker because the canvas reacts very differently on each of these days, so you can see that it is much simpler and should be a safer proposition making sails during the wintertime.”

Today’s Thought
Oh, what a blamed uncertain thing
This pesky weather is!
It blew and snew and then it thew
And now, by jing, it’s friz!
— Philander Johnson, Shooting Stars

Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are
(Up above the footlights’ sheen);
Forty-nine or seventeen?

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October 14, 2014

An overabundance of caution

THERE ARE FAR TOO MANY SAILORS who are too cautious for their own good. They plan the hell out of everything. Every little excursion they make must be thoroughly researched. The right charts must be purchased as a backup to the GPS. Relatives must be furnished with a document to hand to the Coast Guard if they go missing. The radar must be working properly before they’ll cast off, as must the AIS and the VHF and the SSB. And so on.

I blame the Nanny State that forces us to wear seat belts and helmets for our own good, and imposes upon us speed limits and laws about not talking on cell phones. People with common sense don’t need this molly-coddling. As for the rest — well, Nature will take care of them. They’ll kill themselves and the human gene pool will be cleansed of their stupidity.

Way back in 1940, The Rudder magazine ran an article by Charles Blackford entitled “How I Cruise.” Charles was an inspiration to all of us. When he was asked what lists he used to provision the boat for a cruise, he said: “When I go cruising, I go for fun. I don’t intend to play valet to an ice box or chef to a five-course dinner. One old carton carries the chow, another the cooking and eating gear. All you have to do is pull them out into the light and dig. No hunting about under berths or in dark lockers.”

His questioner seemed somewhat shaken, but he continued nevertheless and asked how Charles Blackford set about the overall planning for a cruise. According to the article in The Rudder, Blackford replied: “I don’t plan. I may think about going a certain place five or six years, then when the combination of circumstances seems just right, I collect someone to go along, chuck my gear into the cabin and start. “Generally, I don’t get there. Quite often I find myself headed in the opposite direction, the wind being what it is. I have places where I want to go in all directions and all distances, so it doesn’t really matter.

“But when I do get started I run day and night as long as the wind is fair. If it heads me before I get to my destination I don’t argue but run into the nearest hole the wind allows me to make. Generally I find it quite as interesting as the place for which I was heading. (I’m always disappointed in my destination if I accidentally happen to arrive there.)

“Coming back, I take it easy, duck from pothole to pothole with a couple of days tucked up my sleeve for bad weather. If I don’t use them up I spend them in a short run from home, just lazing around and finishing up the grub so we won’t have much to lug off the boat. I cruise for fun, not as a self-imposed endurance contest.

“Having spent 15 or more years deep water I get my kick out of browsing in and out of pot holes. Cruising is a time of relaxation to me, not a desperate race against time and wind. I’ve gone out for days, had a good time, and never been twenty miles from my mooring.”

Today’s Thought
The man is prudent who neither hopes nor fears anything from the uncertain events of the future.
— Anatole France, The Procurator of Judea

Instinct is what allows a man to recognize a mistake the second time he makes it. Experience is what keeps him from admitting it the third time.

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October 12, 2014

Keeping the watch down below

ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TASKS a sailboat skipper faces is persuading the off-watch to get below and stay below. Particularly at the start of a coastal passage, which normally starts during daylight hours, it takes a fair amount of nagging to clear the off-duty crew out of the cockpit. If it’s a warm sunny day, the breeze is fair, and the sea calm, nobody wants to be down below.

But it’s important that the watch due to take over in four hours should be properly rested. The watch system should be started immediately you leave port, and even if the off-watch isn’t yet ready to sleep, they should at least lie on their bunks and start forming the habits that will serve them until they next reach port.

 Thomas Fleming Day, the editor of The Rudder magazine, had a great deal to say about the behavior of off-watch crews, especially  with regard to sailing at night, and he maintained that “the watch whose watch is below should keep it there, and not go on deck. If called on deck for the purpose of shortening or making sail, they should come at once. The skipper should not, unless it is necessary, interfere with the man he places in charge when his own watch is below. By doing so, you teach that man not to depend on his own judgment and knowledge. If he is a man you can trust, trust him, or else don’t let him have charge.”

Thomas Day also had this to say about night sailing: “Remember that it takes about three times as long to make or shorten sail in the dark as it does in the day. Therefore, if you have to get in canvas, give the men plenty of time. Never parley with squalls at night; take in sail until you find just what the blow is going to amount to.”

Day believed that in order to be comfortable and keep your crew in good humor, each watch when it goes on or off duty should be given a bite to eat and a warm drink. “If you don’t carry either a spare hand or a cook, then the watch below should get something ready for themselves, and for those coming off, before going on deck. A big pot of coffee or cocoa that can be warmed up, is the best thing.

“A well-fed and warm crew is a willing and good-tempered crew. If you let your men get cold, wet, and hungry, they will soon degenerate into a set of growlers and spoil your night sail.”

Well, take heed all you skippers. Now you know. You wouldn’t want to be sailing at night with a degenerated set of growlers, would you?

Today’s Thought
The night seemed long. Wilbur's stomach was empty and his mind was full. And when your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it's always hard to sleep.
— E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web


Fascinating fact from the Central Office of Statistics:
Four out of every five woman-haters are women.

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October 9, 2014

All in a flap about flying fish

I  HAVE READ A BOOK written by an eminent ichthyologist that states categorically that flying fish do not flap their wings.  I have read the same thing in Wikipedia.  Both sources maintain that the flying fish use their special pectoral fins only to glide, not for propulsion.

Well, I have news for them. Flying fish DO flap their “wings.” I have seen (and heard) flying fish flapping their wings in the Atlantic tradewind zones. I was ideally positioned to observe this phenomenon — a few feet above water in the cockpit of a small yacht — on a day when white caps were flashing as far as the eye could see. In between them, the flying fishes flew, sometimes singly, sometimes in large shoals so that the whole surface of the sea seemed to be moving off.

The “experts” say these little guys wiggle their tail fins to get up speed and then simply glide with their wings outstretched. They do that, certainly, but they also flap their wings. They look and sound like giant insects when they’re airborne. They appear to be some kind of  locust or mantis, and their wings make that same kind of dry fluttering noise.

They soar for a hundred yards or more at a time, using their wings in bursts, then gliding. On occasion they use their tails and wings simultaneously to regain flying speed as they touch the breasts of swells, just like planes doing circuits and bumps.

They fly to escape from predators, of course, and when they fled from us they usually started off downwind, and took a slow semi-circle of a curve before landing face into the wind; but not always. Sometimes they flew upwind from the yacht; and at night we occasionally found them stranded on deck. We never ate them, but I’ve heard that they are delicious, fried for breakfast.

I must admit that it has occurred to me that the flying habits of fish might not be of great interest to you, but I hope that some of you, at least, will be in a position some time to see for yourselves that I speak the truth. I hope also that you will join me in thumbing my nose at the experts who say flying fish don’t flap their wings. They do.

Today’s Thought
The good ship darts through the water all day; all night, like a fish, quivering with speed, gliding through liquid leagues, sliding from horizon to horizon.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

“How’s your new math tutor?”
“He’s great. Even his teeth have square roots.”
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October 7, 2014

The most unseamanlike sail

I HAVE LONG REGARDED the spinnaker as the most unseamanlike sail ever invented. This view was confirmed when I was the navigator/helmsman aboard a 33-foot sloop called Diana K and we raced across the Atlantic from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. During that race we flew a spinnaker for 3,000 miles.

That darned sail encouraged the boat to roll from side to side, gunwale to gunwale, for days and weeks on end. In order to keep it filled in light winds we always had to head off-course slightly to one side or the other. We could hardly ever steer the boat exactly where we wanted her to go, because it didn’t suit the blasted spinnaker. That rig — mainsail and spinnaker — must be the most frustrating combination known to man for downwind work in the trades.

The continual necessity to jibe, forced upon us by slight wind-shifts, wore us out. Every little change in wind direction meant long spells of hard work for the one man on deck who wasn’t steering. He had to handle the sheets, the guys, the uphauls, the downhauls, and the spinnaker poles themselves.

All this constant work was bad enough in the daytime, but at night it took on a new and frightening dimension. In the dark, the power of the spinnaker seemed ominous, specially in hard winds.

My watchmate, Eddie, was the first to admit openly that he hated charging into the black of the night with the spinnaker up. “It’s like driving down the freeway blindfolded,” he complained.

My friend Nick chimed in: “You can stand it for about half an hour,” he said, “then the mind begins to boggle.” Nevertheless, we did it. We did it because we were racing. If we didn’t do it, our competitors would, and we’d be left miles behind.

At the back of all our minds was the fact that if one of us fell overboard the spinnaker would have to come down before the boat could be turned around. And we knew from experience that sometimes spinnakers don’t come down without a fight. They get caught up on things. They wrap themselves around the forestay. They fall in the water, slide under the hull, foul the rudder and propeller, and generally cause havoc.

To handle a spinnaker at all requires some skill, and to douse one in a strong wind calls for some brute force. And to do this successfully at night takes a bit of luck as well, which is not surprising when you think about the large sail area you’re dealing with.  Diana K’s spinnakers had a surface area of 670 square feet each. Her mainsail and fore triangle, by way of comparison, totaled 420 square feet.

I guess that racing boats will always use spinnakers, symmetrical or asymmetrical, around the buoys and across oceans, but if you’re planning to cruise across an ocean I’d advise you not to touch one with a barge pole. Try a square sail. Try twin jibs. Try the twistle rig. Try anything but a spinnaker.

Today’s Thought
One ship drives east and another drives west
With the selfsame winds that blow.
’Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
-- Ella Wheeler Wilcox
A peasant in Afghanistan was handed a sealed ballot at the polling booth. He started to tear it open.
 “What do you think you’re doing?” screamed an official.
“I just wanted to see who I voted for,” he replied.
“Are you crazy?” the official exclaimed. “This is supposed to be a secret ballot.”

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October 5, 2014

Some rules for style points

A BOAT WITH STYLE POINTS is a lovely thing to see. Everything happens so smoothly and looks so right. There is never any shouting or panic when approaching the dock and nobody ever falls overboard while trying to get into the dinghy.

There are those who insist that if you have to ask what style points are, there is no hope for you. They say it’s in the genes, that you have to inherit style. But I have not found that to be true. I believe you can generate style points by following certain rules and by behaving like a civilized human being, that is, one who, amongst other things, doesn’t condone advertising on his clothing.

The rules are basically simple, though comparatively few people, alas, seem to follow them voluntarily. For example, there are people who leave port with their fenders still hanging over the side, sloshing back and forth in the waves and thumping on the topsides. Such a sordid display marks the boat’s crew as a bunch of thoughtless slobs. On a stylish boat, the crew whips the fenders in at the speed of lightning as soon as the boat leaves the dock. Just like bra straps, they do a good job, but they are not meant for public display.

It goes almost without saying that no lines should ever trail overboard and that there should never be any washing drying on the lifelines. The experienced boat watcher will also judge your boat’s style by the way you hang your mainsheet when the boat is docked. There are ways to do it so that the bitter end does not extend beyond the body of the coils, and if you don’t know how to do it you should learn very quickly.

And while we’re talking about lines you should be aware that no style points are awarded for Flemish coils, either in the cockpit or on the dockside. They are too infra dig, too twee, too pretentious, and too easy to do. Very few things to do with style come easily, and Flemish coils are a form of cheating, of trying to score points on the cheap.

The same goes for captain’s hats with gold braid and fried egg, and even those hokey Tilley hats with the little pocket in the roof for your passport and spare pot. Floppy sun hats are de rigueur aboard the stylish yacht, preferably ones that come from thrift stores and look well used.

Loads of style points are allotted to boats that wear burgees at the masthead instead of those tacky plastic wind-direction indicators. In fact, flags in general are a very important part of creating stylish boats. You should know where to fly a courtesy flag and an ensign. You should also know that you should strike the ensign at dusk and break it out again at 8 a.m.  Most of all, you should know better than to fly one of those vulgar flags that invites people over for cocktails. Boats with style don’t have to appeal to the general public to come and help drink their cocktails.

 There are many other little rules that will become apparent if you take the trouble to make a close study of a boat well known for style, some dealing with the number of coats you need for a proper varnish job and some with how often you, or your hired hands, should scrub the teak deck.

And finally there is the golden rule that marks every stylish boat: the color of the hull. Capt. Nat Herreshoff, a yacht designer renowned for great style, put it well when he said there are only two colors to paint a boat, black or white — and only a fool would paint a boat black.

Today’s Thought
And the Devil said to Simon Legree:
“I like your style, so wicked and free.”
— Vachel Lindsay, A Negro Sermon

“Do you really believe kissing is unhealthy?”
“Definitely. My husband is watching.”

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