September 28, 2014

Safer singlehanding

SINGLEHANDED SAILING can be a wonderful experience but there is one thing that often frightens off beginners. It is the thought of being stuck at the helm while running downwind in increasingly heavy weather, when you dare not leave the helm because the boat is already overcanvassed and likely to broach-to and throw you overboard if you don’t take every approaching wave exactly stern-on.

Not being able to leave the helm to take in sail is (as somebody once put it) the maritime version of wearing a ball and chain. It turns an enjoyable sail into an adrenalin-fueled fight for your life. 

The situation arises when you’re running before a stiff breeze that gradually strengthens. It’s very difficult to detect a dangerous increase in wind speed when you’re on the run, and even expert helmsmen can be taken by surprise this way. The old advice is to shorten sail at the same wind speed off the wind as you would on the wind. But that’s easier said than done. All too often, you realize your peril only when the boat starts misbehaving. The helm becomes heavy. She becomes slow to react to the rudder. The waves start threatening to break over the transom. There’s no crew to reduce sail. And you dare not move from the cockpit. How long before you succumb to cold and exhaustion?

There are a couple of things the neophyte singlehander can do to avoid this nasty situation.

First, invest in some sort of self-steering. An automatic wind vane is expensive but worth its weight in gold to the singlehander. Alternatively, an electric autohelm will do a fine job as long as you have sufficient battery power aboard. Either of these devices will give you a chance to drop the mainsail while the going is good, before things start getting out of hand.

Secondly, learn to heave to. The time to heave to is when you first wonder if the wind isn’t getting a bit strong. If you’re beating, there’s no problem. Just go about without unsheeting the jib. Give the main sheet some slack when you’re on the new tack and fix the helm down so that it counterbalances the backed jib.  If you’re on the run, watch for a chance to round up on the same tack, then pull the jib aback and fix the helm down. Your boat should ride like a duck on a pond, five or six points off the wind and forge ahead at 1 knot or so.

Now you have all the time in the world to reef or change sails and a much steadier platform to work on. You can also take the opportunity to make a warming cup of coffee or pour something a little stronger.

Life suddenly becomes more enjoyable, not to mention safer, when you find yourself in control of the boat, instead of the boat being in control of you.

Today’s Thought
I hear the wind among the trees
Playing celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.
— Longfellow, A Day of Sunshine

A young woman went to the doctor complaining of aches and pains. “I think I’ve got the swine flu,” she said.
“Swine flu nothing,” the doctor said. “That’s Egyptian flu — you’re going to be a mummy.”

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September 25, 2014

My career as greasers' peggy

FOR A BRIEF PERIOD of my life I was a professional seaman. At least, I was a member of the seamen’s union. Catering Department, actually. I was the starboard watch greasers’ peggy.

The greasers were close to the lowest form of life on the liner — just slightly above the gooseneck barnacles that festooned the hull. As I understood it, they worked down below in the engine room and squirted oil on the pistons as they went up and down. There were six of them in the starboard watch and they were a rough lot. They wore dirty blue overalls and thick black boots. I was their slave.

I changed their bed linen. I cleaned up after them in the heads. I brought them their meals in the tiny greasers’ mess up near the bows. When they had finished, I threw their dirty dishes overboard through the porthole. I learned that trick from my oppo, the greasers’ peggy on the port side.

As a matter of fact, I was regarded as a sort of hero by the port-side greasers’ peggy because I had been spoken to by the Captain Himself. He came around one day on an official inspection when we were near the equator and reprimanded me for putting wet cutlery away in the drawer.

“Must put it away dry,” he said gruffly. “Fearful health hazard, wet cutlery. Specially in this heat, what?”

I did my best to look contrite. “Aye, aye, sir,” I said in my best toady fashion.

“Cor!” said my fellow peggy afterward in admiring tones. “He don’t usually bovver to speak to the likes of us. He must like you.”

I decided then that if I were going to be bullied by the Captain, I didn’t want to be a greasers’ peggy any more.  If I ever went to sea on a big passenger ship again, I wanted to be an officer, and have dinner (etc.) in a nice white uniform with the pretty ladies.

So when we reached port (and having discovered how much work you had to do before they’d let you become an officer)  I decided that writing for a living wasn’t so bad after all, and I’ve been doing it non-stop ever since.

Today’s Thought
A month of days, a year of months, 20 years of months in the treadmill, is the life that slays everything worthy of the name of life.
— Roy Bedicheck, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist

An elderly man put a five-dollar bill into the Salvation Army kettle. Then a thought struck him.
“What happens to this money?” he asked.
“I give it to the Lord,” the young woman replied.
“And how old are you now, Miss?” the old gent asked.
“I’m 21,” she said.
“Well,” he said, taking his five dollars back, “no need for you to bother. I’ll be seeing Him long before you.”

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

September 23, 2014

When things go really, really wrong

THE GEARBOX on a Westerbeke engine I once owned was controlled by a small lever that stood straight up when the gears were in neutral, and leaned either backward or forward when the appropriate gears were engaged.

 This lever was joined by a long cable to the remote gear control lever in the cockpit; but on one occasion, as we were coming into our marina slip, the cable slipped off the gearbox lever out of sight down below. This left the gearbox in forward gear, of course, with no way of getting it into neutral or reverse.

I moved the now-useless cockpit lever into reverse to halt the boat in the slip and revved the engine. Nothing happened to the actual gearbox, so, instead of stopping, the boat leaped forward and broadsided our dinghy, which was moored across the head of the dock. There was a loud crunching noise and lots of confusion before I had the sense to shut the engine down.

A similar thing happened to a famous boat called Tzu Hang, a 22-ton ketch sailed by Miles and Beryl Smeeton with their crew, John Guzzwell. The incident forms one of the funniest episodes in Guzzwell’s book, Trekka Round the World (Fine Edge), largely because of the behavior of Mrs. Smeeton, known always as “B.” She was a very strong-willed lady, physically as tough as nails but loving and generous to her husband and friends.

The incident occurred within sight of a posh yacht club in Auckland, New Zealand, when the Smeetons were offered the use of the commodore’s personal mooring buoy. Not wishing to make fools of themselves, the crew of Tzu Hang drew up a battle plan. Here is Guzzwell’s description of the scene:

‘ “The Commodore’s buoy is painted white,” explained Miles Smeeton. “It’s down here amongst a group of moored yachts. I know which one it is, so I’ll go off in the dinghy and leave you two to bring Tzu Hang over . . .”

‘B. got the engine going and I went up in the bow and began cranking the anchor chain aboard with the windlass.

‘I saw Miles had reached the mooring, and as the anchor came aboard he gave the signal to B. that we were all clear. She pushed the gear lever forward and Tzu Hang began to gather way as we turned downwind to approach Miles.

‘Unknown to us, below the deck, the gearshift lever became disengaged from the transmission, with the engine still in gear turning the propeller.

‘I saw Miles cup his hands and shout, “Take her out of gear, B.” as we approached him.

‘From aft I heard B. ask: “What did he say?”

‘ “He says to take her out of gear,” I relayed from the bow, standing ready with the line I was to pass to Miles.

‘ “OK, I’ve got her out of gear,” said B., moving the now-useless lever back to the neutral position.

‘ “Give her a touch astern,” directed Miles from the dinghy, looking a little anxious.

‘ “What did he say?” B. asked me from aft.

‘ “He wants you to give her a touch astern,” I called as the distance to Miles decreased rapidly.

‘B. moved the lever to the astern position and revved the engine. Tzu Hang surged ahead and I heard Miles shouting, “No! Astern, B. Go astern!”

‘ “What’s the idiot shouting now?” asked B., a steely note to her voice. “I’ve got her astern,” and she increased the power as Tzu Hang headed directly for the figure in the dinghy who was now waving his arms and yelling,

“Astern B.! You’ve got her ahead!”

‘B. was quite angry now, and she did not like being shouted at when she knew perfectly well what she was doing. She had moved the gear lever to astern and done what she was told. She was not about to listen to Miles or anyone else now. Tzu Hang was now making 7 knots and a respectable bow wave as we bore down the last few yards on Miles and rammed him square amidships. In a split second he managed to transfer himself to the bobstay below the bowsprit. He was still shouting, ”Astern, B., go astern!”

‘I looked aft at B., not sure what to do.

 ‘ “Did I get the bastard?” she demanded in a cold voice. “Oh, good!” she said with satisfaction as the upturned dinghy disappeared astern.

‘I looked ahead to see us rapidly approaching a large motor yacht that we were going to hit in the next few seconds unless we were very lucky. I quickly let go the anchor, and the chain came rattling out of the hawse pipe and whipped past Miles, still clinging to the bobstay.

‘Closer and closer we came to the motor yacht, and there was no doubt in my mind that we were about to sink her, too. Twenty-two tons of teak, bronze, and lead were not to be denied. I closed my eyes and was suddenly jerked off my feet as the anchor grabbed something and Tzu Hang sheered away at the last possible instant. We proceeded to go round and round in a circle, just missing the motor yacht each time.

‘I  helped Miles up over the bow and he rushed aft and cut the engine. We slowly came to a halt and I thought I saw the flash of binoculars from the balcony of the yacht club.

‘When I went below, B. was sitting very quietly in the saloon, knitting, the sounds of the needles unnaturally loud. Miles and I knew when to shut up.’

Today’s Thought
Chaos is come again.
— Shakespeare, Othello

“Did you have that man-to-man chat with Jimmy, dear?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Was it successful?”
“Well, I tried to explain about the birds and the bees, but he kept switching the conversation back to girls.”

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

September 21, 2014

The earth's biggest wilderness

IN THIS ERA of discernible climate change there has been a lot more talk than usual about wilderness, and how best it may be preserved. But one thing that mostly escapes attention is the fact that the earth’s greatest wilderness is the sea.

When we talk about wilderness, of course, we think of it as unspoiled nature.  And what makes it unspoiled is the absence of human beings. Most people think of wilderness as little pockets of the earth’s surface that we want to preserve just as they are. But the problem is that besides preserving them we want to see them and experience them. That means our presence, even our temporary presence, causes the wilderness to be despoiled. We affect it; we change it with our jeeps and all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, rumpling the land and fouling the air with their exhausts.

So far, though (apart from the great dumps of plastic in the ocean gyres) we haven’t managed to change the sea to the same extent. None of mankind’s endeavors has left any permanent monuments in the oceans, such as crumbling pyramids or rusting Eiffel Towers. There is  no Great Wall of China at sea, no Taj Mahal or Mt. Rushmore. The sea erases all signs of man’s presence as soon as we pass over it.

If fact, when you’re on a small boat in the middle of the ocean it’s easy to believe that you are seeing something that no human being has ever seen before, and never will again, for the surface of the sea is constantly changing. It’s never the same from minute to minute.

And beneath the surface, out of sight of passing man and largely unknown to him, the sunlit ocean is very busy, teeming with life of all sizes from microscopic bacteria through tiny animal and vegetable plankton to the giant squid, intelligent beings about which we know so little, and the world’s biggest mammal, the blue whale.

As a matter of fact, scientists in New Zealand are now getting a rare look at a sea creature with tentacles like fire hoses and eyes as big as dinner plates.

A colossal squid known as an Architeuthis, weighing 770 pounds and as long as a minivan, was hauled out of an Antarctic sea several months ago. The rarely observed animal was frozen until recently, when a team of scientists got a chance to thaw and inspect it at a New Zealand museum.

I have often wondered on a calm night at sea whether any of these fearsome and highly intelligent creatures could see my boat silhouetted against a moonlit sky and, if so, if they would be tempted to attack it as the ancient krakens were reputed to do. At times like this I have had to remind myself that I’ve read no reports of giant squid smothering a small boat in their tentacles and dragging it down into the underworld. On the other hand, boats (and ships) do disappear mysteriously at sea from time to time, and who knows why? And who knows how many giant squids there are in any given stretch of ocean and who knows how large the biggest of them is?

I found the best way to resolve my feelings about this was to go below at the end of my watch, take a generous nip from the rum bottle in the medicine cabinet, and curl up in a tight ball in a nice warm bunk.

Today’s Thought
Not only is the sea unspoiled and without artificiality, there is a primeval quality, a purity surrounding its environment. Maybe you appreciate the sea because when you are lost upon its vastness your life is not jammed up with the trivia, the meaningless detail, and the foolish stuff of civilization.
— Hal Roth

Exhaustive intensive researches
By Darwin and Huxley and Hall
Have conclusively proved that the hedgehog
Can scarcely be ravished at all.
And further industrious enquiry
Has incontrovertibly shown
That this state of comparative safety
Is enjoyed by the hedgehog alone.

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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.

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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.

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