July 22, 2014

Follow Knight, you'll be right

AFTER E. F. KNIGHT wrote his classic Sailing in 1889 it was regarded for many years as the sailor’s bible. In Old Testament fashion, Knight laid down the laws of design and performance, and he was regarded with holy awe by the burgeoning class of neophyte amateur sailors.

He was rarely moderate in his views, and this suited his audience just fine. There was no need to debate the pros and cons of anything. Just follow Knight, and you’ll be right.

One of the things he insisted upon was sufficient weight in a sailboat. He equated weight with power. This is what he had to say about the matter:

“The general requirements in a yacht are speed, accommodation, sail-carrying power, and weight. This latter property means, in other words, the ability to drive through a sea that, from its wall-sidedness, makes it an impractical barrier to get over. When a vessel has not the weight or power to meet such a wave, as a rule, it spells disaster, or, to say the least, very disagreeable consequences.”

Well, far be it from me to argue with the Old Testament, but I can’t help thinking there’s room for other views here. After World War II there was a lot of activity in ocean racing with very small, lightweight yachts. They were particularly fast off the wind and many could plane in the right conditions — something their heavy-displacement sisters could never do.

But what happened when the lighties came face to face with a wall-sided wave? They rose above it, of course. They skimmed over it in a fashion that would no doubt have surprised Mr. Knight. At least, they rose over the moderate-sized waves, and even though they had much of the way knocked off them, their light weight enabled them to get moving again much faster than their heavier competitors who had slowed down even more by having to plow right through the wave.

But, as usual, what is good for one design isn’t necessarily good for another. Slight differences in hull design cause boats to behave quite differently, and it became obvious after years of experience that compromise was called for, and what E. F. Knight said about heavy weight didn’t necessarily apply in all cases.

There was a famous British sailor called Adlard Coles who won just about every offshore racing trophy you could name. “I used to be a light-displacement fan,” he recalled, “but I have been converted to heavier displacement by Cohoe III, which I have found to be  a better sea boat. On the same length, she has far more room, but the principal difference is the immeasurably improved windward performance in really heavy weather.”

This sounds as if Coles is supporting Mr. Knight’s argument, but in fact Coles found the extra weight a disadvantage when racing in light or moderate winds. So, in the end he opted for compromise:

“My own preference, if building again, would be towards moderate displacement and a well-proportioned hull with no extreme features.”

It’s the old story. All boats are the result of compromise, and all too often you have to take the advice of “experts” with a pinch or two of salt.

Today’s Thought
All government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.
—Edmund Burke

“Doc, I need help.”
“What’s up?”
“I’m 88 and still chasing women.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I can’t remember why.”

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

July 20, 2014

Rafting down the white water

PART OF MY VACATION this year consisted of a different kind of boating. I floated down a tributary of the Colorado River in a rubber raft with members of my family. And all the way along the four-day trip I wondered at the huge difference the invention of tough inflatable boats has made to this business of running the white-water rapids.

When Col. John Wesley Powell and a party of 10 first explored the Green River nearly 150 years ago, they traveled in three 21-foot boats built of oak and described as “stanch and firm.” The boats were double-ribbed and were built with double sternposts and stems. They were divided into three compartments, two of which, fore and aft, were decked over to form water-tight buoyancy.

A fourth boat, a 16-footer, was made of pine — very light and built for fast rowing. If the cargoes were removed, each of these boats could be carried by four men. And they often were.

Frequently they, and their separate cargoes, were portaged around rapids beset with rocks. It’s difficult now to imagine what a difficult task this was, especially where a path had first to be made along the river bank, over which to carry everything. Three months and 1,000 miles after the expedition started, six emaciated men in two boats emerged from the high, steep-walled canyons. They had survived famine, attacks, mutiny, and some of the most dangerous rapids known to man.

One of their boats was wrecked in a rapid in the Canyon of Lodore, which is where my family and I were rafting. Col. Powell named it Disaster Falls “for the scene of so much peril and loss.” A little farther on, we came to another set of rapids that gave Powell and his men much grief in their wooden boats. This one he named Hell’s Half-Mile.

Now, while I will admit that our passage through those same notorious rapids produced copious flows of adrenalin and even a few souls lost briefly overboard, we did not suffer a fraction of the problems that beset Powell and his little wooden fleet.

Our rafts were 16- or 17-foot rubber dinghies with huge side tubes and self-bailing floors. They were blown up tight and covered with rugged Hypalon fabric. One was powered by volunteer steerage-class paddlers, and the others, carrying the first-class passengers like me, were each manned by a qualified river guide working a large pair of oars with great skill.

Powell’s boats ran into trouble when they were cast broadside-on against rocks by the fast-flowing current, but our rubber ducks simply bounced off most of the big rocks and scraped over the shallow ones.  When occasionally we got stuck, we jumped up and down and bounced her off, to go spinning downstream in slow circles amid the roaring standing waves.

 It was not quite a busman’s holiday for me. Although I have had a fair amount of experience with boats I know nothing about reading the waters of a wild river or how to place a big cumbersome raft in the right position to enter a rapid. I tried rowing a raft in calm water and found it slow, hard work, not something I’d want to do for very long.

Perhaps for smaller groups the other sort of boat used to run rapids would be just as suitable and a lot more manageable. I’m talking about the boat that looks like a dory with cocked-up ends and a large rocker to the keel that must make it easier to turn quickly to point directly downstream. But the lumbering rubber ducks are obviously the mommy vans of travel down the rapids, roomy and reliable, just the ticket to keep the city slickers happily apprehensive but not too scared. If Powell had been able to use these large inflatables he would have experienced a much different trip.

As for the beauty of the 2,000-foot high canyons through which we floated in Colorado and Utah, I can only say it is beyond my powers to convey it. This is truly unspoiled wilderness amid giant rock sculptures that make you gasp as you round every bend. I’m afraid the deep ocean is very boring compared with the rapids of the Canyon of Lodore.

Ø The Exploration of the Colorado and Its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell (Penguin Books)

Today’s Thought
In the wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.
— Charles A. Lindbergh

“What did the doctor do about your water on the knee?”
“Oh, no problem. He just gave it a tap.”

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

June 30, 2014

Summer break time

Dear Reader:  

It’s time for a summer break.  Regular service will be resumed on Monday, July 21, if all goes as planned, and I look forward to being with you again then. Meanwhile, there are more than 800 previous columns for you to peruse.  Try your luck. Just click on the list on the right.

John V.

June 26, 2014

Good living in small packages

I HAVE TO LAUGH when I hear people complaining about the tiny houses that are starting to spring up in America, particularly in the densely populated urban areas. They’ve obviously never lived on yachts.

Apparently the people with big houses think the value of their mansions will be dragged down by their mini-neighbors. And, because the people with big houses pay big taxes, the authorities in charge of setting building standards are listening to the complaints. Many have even set minimum house sizes, some of which start at 840 square feet, and many of which are larger.

Meanwhile, the Millennial generation has been paying rent for so long that they’re unable to afford the down-payments for the old houses that started getting bigger after World War II. The average American home grew from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,349 square feet in 2004 — a 140-percent increase. Yet the American household shrank by 18 percent between 1970 and 2003, from 3.14 people to 2.57, on average.

So the pendulum has started to swing again, and it seems the pressure is building for municipalities to approve smaller homes, even though they won’t bring in the same tax revenue.

I think the Millennials have the right idea. Anyone who has lived on a yacht for any length of time knows that it’s possible to survive in a very small space.  In fact, 840 square feet of living space would be considered quite generous in a yacht.

If you take the average 35-to-40-footer as having about 12 feet of beam, 840 square feet would provide you with a living space 70 feet long. Plenty of people have gone around the world in 30-footers, living with one or two other people for three years or more in a cabin measuring 10 feet wide by 10 feet long. Admittedly, there was additional space in a small forecabin and some stowage space in the cockpit lockers, but nothing like 840 square feet in total.

Meanwhile, the movement toward smaller housing footprints and more economical living will probably be beneficial for the secondhand market in yachts. Not only will people become more accustomed to small living spaces, but they will begin to realize the benefits of a floating home that can be moved almost anywhere in the world as often as they like.

For my money, I’d rather live in a few hundred square feet that I can sail to the gorgeous anchorages of the South Seas or the British Virgin Islands than in 840 unmovable square feet stuck next to neighbors who throw frequent loud parties and never return the garden tools they borrow.

Today’s Thought
Good things come in small packages.
— Anon      

“What did the doctor do about your water on the knee?”
“Oh, no problem. He just gave it a tap.”

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

June 24, 2014

Start sailing and grow thinner

COULD SAILING BE THE NEXT FAD in the great American obsession with weight loss?  Could it be the answer millions of overweight Americans have been seeking so desperately for so many years?

The thought occurred to me after I read that Kevin Trudeau, author of a best-selling book about losing weight, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a judge in Chicago. Apparently Trudeau had been making false claims in weight-loss infomercials to boost sales of The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

Mr. Trudeau seems to have been a very naughty boy, but what interested me more than his literary peccadillos was the fact that he has sold more than 850,000 copies of the book, earning him almost $40 million.

I smell a huge market here, a market desperate for books that tell people how to lose weight, preferably books that tell the truth and offer a truly proven way to lose weight.

Well now, I suggest you look around at your fellow sailors. Does it not strike you how few of them are obese? And why would this be? The answer could be the core of a new best-seller, a book that would earn millions of dollars.

I am quite keen to write that book. I would urge obese Americans to take up sailing as a means of shedding those unwanted pounds of flesh. And meanwhile I would appreciate it if you would let me know your ideas about what actually causes sailors to be skinny and healthy.

My wife, ever the realist, says it’s obvious what makes sailors thin. “After the mooring fees and the diesel repairs and the new genoa and the fancy anti-fouling paint, there’s no money left over for food,” she declares.

That may be true, but there’s another sure-fire aid to weight loss that sailors tend to forget about, and that’s the thing that happens as soon as you leave harbor. I’m talking about seasickness. There’s nothing like mal de mer for a quick and positive reduction in avoirdupois.

I can testify to that, having once lost 10 pounds on a nine-day passage around the Cape of Good Hope. I arrived in port without an ounce of flab. Going to sea in a small boat definitely dims the appeal of large unhealthy meals; and reducing the intake of calories is truly the quickest way to lose weight. Anyone who survived a World War II prison camp can tell you that.

And then there’s all the exercise sailors get, plenty of it unforeseen, such as trying for 20 minutes to get the outboard started and then having to row the dinghy ashore to let the dog do his thing on the beach. And the sweaty business of rubbing down the bottom and slapping on more anti-fouling; and rubbing down the varnish and slapping on more varnish. There’s a reason why skinny sailors have fat muscles.

So there we have it. I can already see the pre-publication publicity:

Ø Sail to grow thin.

Ø Sail to grow attractive.

Ø Sail to grow healthy.

Ø And buy my book to make me rich.  

 Today’s Thought
As life’s pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that’s better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced.
— Alan King, NY Times, 28 Oct 81

Two little Native American boys were sitting on a bench in the reservation with a small puppy when a man in a priest's robe drove up in an SUV.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"We're telling stories," said one boy. "Whoever tells the biggest lie gets to keep the dog."
"That's terrible," said the priest. "When I was a little boy I never told lies."
The boys looked at each other with big round eyes. Finally, one said: "Okay. That's it. The white man wins the dog."

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

June 22, 2014

Exercises for those afloat

IN MY last column I mentioned John Guzzwell, who sailed around the world singlehanded in a 20-foot yawl. She had no headroom down below, and precious little space on deck. So now a reader in Idaho wants to know: “How did he get enough exercise when he was at sea?”

Guzzwell was only 25 at the time, and fit as a flea, so I don’t suppose he needed much exercise to keep fit. It is a recognized fact, though, that people who spend a lot of time aboard boats, especially those who permanently live aboard or those who are long-distance cruising, have a problem getting enough exercise.

This is particularly true for deep-sea voyagers in sailboats, who need upper-body strength more than anything, to handle the helm, the sheets, the halyards, and the reefing gear. As you get older, the problem becomes more acute, as many of you will have found out by now.

Luckily, however, there is a system of muscle strengthening that might well have been designed especially for boaters. I have already mentioned it in a previous column, which my reader in Idaho obviously missed. So, once again, here are the basics, which you can practice at home before a voyage starts, and even while you are under way:

Exercises for sailors over 50

Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of room at each side.
With a 5 lb potato bag in each hand, extend your arms straight out from your sides and hold them there as long as you can. Try to reach a full minute, and then relax.
Each day you'll find that you can hold this position for just a bit longer. After a couple of weeks, move up to 10 lb potato bags.
Then try 15 lb potato bags and then eventually try to get to where you can lift a 20 lb potato bag in each hand and hold your arms straight for more than a full minute. (I’m at this level right now.)
After you feel confident at that level, start placing potatoes in the bags. 

Today’s Thought
I get my exercise running to the funerals of my friends who exercise.
— Barry Gray, New York, 19 May 80

A little 5-year-old girl was heard swearing like a trooper in a city park.  Somebody reported her to the park keeper who went up to her and said:  “I hear there’s someone in the park who’s using very naughty language.”
“Who told you that?” demanded the girl sharply.
“A bird whispered it in my ear,” said the park keeper.
“I’ll be damned,” said the girl.  “And I’ve been feeding the little bastards.”

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

June 19, 2014

Ideas change with age

THE OFT-REPEATED ADVICE about world cruising under sail is: Go young; go small; go now. It seems to be an established fact that the younger you are when you set out, the smaller your boat can be without causing you too much discomfort. It’s also a fact that most people demand bigger boats and more comfort as they grow older.

It was therefore interesting to learn what John Guzzwell had to say about the matter. He once held the record for circumnavigating alone in the smallest boat, a 20-foot 6-inch light-displacement yawl called Trekka that he built himself in Victoria, British Columbia.

He was in his early 20s at the time, and found Trekka to be an excellent sea-boat, fast  under sail and easy on her crew. In his book Trekka Round the World (Fine Edge) he points out that Trekka’s chief disadvantage was a lack of space down below. “This was most apparent in port and never noticed at sea,” he said. “In port the lack of space became a nuisance largely because of shore-side customs. Getting into a jacket and trousers required me to become something of a contortionist, and the toilet arrangements were hardly as easy as when at sea.”

Trekka lacked standing headroom, of course, but the main disadvantage was that Guzzwell was unable to return the hospitality so freely accorded him during his  record-breaking voyage around the world.  “Had I been able to invite some of these people into a more spacious saloon, I would have done so,” he said, “but two persons down below in Trekka was about the limit.”

So the question now arises, more than 50 years after that epic voyage: What boat would John Guzzwell choose if he had to do it again singlehanded? Well, hardly surprisingly, she would be a little bigger, a light-displacement 30-footer, in fact. She would have a small inboard diesel engine instead of an outboard. She would have standing headroom, and she would be cutter- rigged instead of yawl-rigged.  She would also have a self-steering wind vane. (In the 1950s, when he built Trekka, not a lot was known about wind-vane self-steering, so she was designed with a small mizzen to help her sail herself on most courses.)

“One’s ideas tend to change with the passing years,” he notes, “but I see a lot of people missing out on much of the enjoyment of boating by attempting to take their shore-side conveniences with them. Most seem to want maintenance-free boats, yet load up on somewhat unnecessary equipment that needs constant attention to keep it working.”

So we can add one more recommendation to the old advice: Go young; go small; go now; go simple. And if the years have intervened and foiled your best intentions, until you suddenly find yourself middle-aged or more, then take John Guzzwell’s short cut. Make it a 30-foot cutter with a modest diesel and a sturdy wind vane, and leave the fancy stuff ashore. That man knows what he’s talking about.

Today’s Thought
Luxury is an enticing pleasure, a bastard mirth, which hath honey in her mouth, gall in her heart, and a sting in her tail.
— Francis Quarles, Emblems: Bk. i, Hugo

There was a young woman called Hall
Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
The dress caught on fire
And burned her entire
Front page, sports section, and all.

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