December 31, 2009

Saving the sun

ONCE AGAIN, we in the northern hemisphere have pulled the sun back from the brink. With our candles and flashing lights and the noisy festivities surrounding the solstice, we have persuaded our mother star to abandon its flight to the south. At this very moment it is inching back our way, lengthening our days and bringing back the warmth we so sorely miss.

Happy New Year to you. I myself am happy that its number is 2010. A nice, convenient, twenty-ten instead of the multisyllabic two-thousand-and-nine, or twenty-oh-nine. Or even twenty-aught-nine, as my Idaho relatives used to say, instead of twenty-naught-nine, as is only right and proper. They even spelled aught as “ott,” just the way they said it. But they’re only relatives by marriage, you understand. It’s not in the genes.

So what’s new for the New Year? Well, a cruise to Alaska, for a start. No, not on my yacht. On a real cruise ship. Yes, honestly. I know, I know, I vowed I’d never set foot on one of those floating monstrosities that have more in common with ugly slabsided condominium blocks than shapely ships of the sea. But, see, my sister and her husband are coming from South Africa for a short visit next summer, and they wanted to go to Alaska. So this seemed the quick and dirty way to do it.

I can well remember the trouble we had with cruise ships in the Caribbean, how I cursed them when we were making night passages through the islands in our 30-foot sailboat. They would appear ahead of us, their navigation lights lost in a 10-story blaze of twinkling lights, steaming slowly in wide circles so you didn’t know which way to steer to keep out of their darned way.

They were just killing time, of course, waiting for daylight to enter port and disgorge 1,500 stampeding passengers into a village with one main street and 50 duty-free jewelers’ stores, all owned by the cruise-ship company.

So I’m not expecting too much of the Alaska cruise. We have the cheapest accommodation on board, deep down in steerage, over the props and next to the rudder motors. There is no outside view. I just hope they’ll provide us with bilge pumps to keep the water off the floor -- although I expect to suffer some. It would only be right, considering that I’ve broken my solemn vow.

Today’s Thought
Travel seems not just a way of having a good time, but something that every self-respecting citizen ought to undertake, like a high-fiber diet, say, or a deodorant.
— Jan Morris, “It’s OK to Stay at Home,” NY Times 30 Aug 85

An old bachelor had been visiting an elderly widow every evening for three years. One day a friend said to him: ”Since you two get along so well together, why don’t you marry her?”
“I thought of that,” said the bachelor, “but then where would I spend my evenings?”

December 29, 2009

Reasons for singlehanding

A READER IN SAN DIEGO called Sally M. says her boyfriend is about to set sail on a singlehanded voyage around the world in his Westsail 32. “I know him about as well as anybody,” she writes, “but I can’t figure out why he wants to do this. What is that compels an otherwise sane and reasonable man to set off alone across an ocean?”

You might well ask, Sally. People are strange. There could be a host of reasons motivating your boyfriend, and if I were you I wouldn’t take any of them too personally.

In my book, The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge, I list 10 reasons that were originally compiled by Richard Henderson, a sailor and author with a profound knowledge of the singlehanded psyche. Here they are:

1. Practical purposes: To test a theory or to gather research material for a book. To earn money. To win a race. (Sometimes the practical reason is that the boat isn’t big enough for two, but that doesn’t apply in your boyfriend’s case, Sally.)

2. Self-significance: To find one’s place in the pecking order and acquire a sense of belonging.

3. Curiosity and fulfillment: A desire to see and experience things for oneself.

4. Recognition: Allied to self-significance, this takes things a stage further and involves a desire for fame.

5. Independence: The need for the greatest possible freedom and control over one’s destiny.

6. Escapism: Closely allied to independence. A rebellion against routine and flight from personal and societal problems.

7. Adventurousness: Pandering to the restless spirit, the desire for novelty, travel, and excitement.

8. Competitiveness: This takes many forms, including personal competition with the ocean and one’s inner fears as well as the desire to win races and set records.

9. Solitude: Some people are natural introverts. They like being alone. Others experience a spiritual cleansing that makes them more appreciative of subsequent human contact.

10. The Mother Sea: All life came from the sea. Some deep instinct, some unsummoned fascination, draws many people back.

Well, there you are, Sally. Choose your number, or maybe a combination of numbers. And don’t neglect the fact that he might be doing this for a much simpler reason, i.e., he just likes sailing alone for long distances. Duh.

So wish him well, give him your full support, and be prepared to welcome him warmly when he comes back a better man, which I’m sure he will.

Today’s Thought
There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage.
— Barbara Lazear Ascher, Playing after Dark

“Is there someone in the class who can tell me what steps you would take to determine the height of a ship’s mast using only an aneroid barometer?”
“Yes, sir. I would lower the barometer on a piece of string and then measure the string.”

December 27, 2009

Dressing the part

OLD WOTSISNAME, who moors just down the row from me, is getting to be a blight on the neighborhood. His jeans are smeared with Castrol 5W–40 engine oil. They’re frayed around the bottoms. One corner of a front pocket is drooping. There’s a hole just below the left knee. His shirt is missing the second button down and he never fastens the top one, so there’s a wide gap that exposes a dingy grey T-shirt splodged here and there with curry, tomato juice and grease from French fries.

It’s high time we instituted a dress code for sailors, a uniform, if you like, before OW gives all sailors a bad name. I have seen how people in the marina tend to veer off sideways to give him a wide berth. I have seen the fright in their eyes.

We need to present a better face to the public. We need to follow the example of the world’s fighting navies, who insist that their crews be dressed in accordance with discipline, smartness, and cleanliness, the better thereby to promote a proper sense of their rank in society.

I myself rather favor a return to the seamen’s petticoat trousers, which were standard dress aboard ships for hundreds of years. It would be greatly fulfilling to see yachtsmen and women neatly attired in clean petticoat trousers on the verandas of yacht clubs, or the afterdecks of yachts.

The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea says there was good reason petticoat trousers lasted so long. They offered protection to men working aloft on the yards, and also when rowing in boats, where the petticoat kept off rain and spray.

Most seamen in those days made their own clothes on board because they couldn’t afford to buy stuff from the ship’s store, or slop chest. “Worn canvas sails provided the basic cloth for home-made clothing,” says the Companion. “Almost all seamen of all nations made themselves canvas hats with a brim and coated them with tar to form a waterproof headgear known as the tarpaulin, abbreviated into ‘tar’ as the universal synonym for a sailor.”

Very well, then. I propose we revert once again to the universal seamen’s uniform of petticoat trousers and a jack tar hat. Think how organized and co-ordinated we would look if we all dressed that way. Think how the fashion editors would flock around to photograph us and praise our revived sense of couture.

If you have any influence with your yacht club or your marina friends, please pass on my idea. Meanwhile, I’ll try to break the news to OW. I’m not too hopeful, though. He’s such a reactionary when it comes to wearing petticoats.

Today’s Thought
Fashion is as profound and critical a part of the social life of man as sex, and is made up of the same ambivalent mixture of irresistible urges and inevitable taboos.
— René Konig, The Restless Image: A Sociology of Fashion

The shipwrecked man had been captured by cannibals. The cannibal chief asked: “What was your business among your own people?”
“I was a newspaperman.”
“An editor?”
“No, I was just a copy editor.”
“Well cheer up. Tonight you’ll be editor-in-chief.”

December 24, 2009

A Christmas plea

TINKLE-TINKLE, TINKLE-TINKLE. The man with the kettle is reminding us to give, and give generously. Today there will be sailors all over the world who are receiving Christmas gifts from non-sailors. And it is to the non-sailors that this column is directed.

All right, listen up now you lot. What are the traditional gifts a non-sailor like you gives a sailor? I’ll tell you: a couple of battens for the mainsail. A stainless shackle or two for the bosun’s bag. A woolly watch cap for cold weather ... let’s face it folks, I’m sorry, but this is not generous giving. The sailor in your life deserves better.

Now, heavens above, before you protest, let it not be thought that I am a purveyor of ingratitude. I believe as much as the next man that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I, too, believe it’s the thought that counts. I also believe that you should give according to your means and I am an ardent admirer of fiscal responsibility, thrift, frugality, prudence, parsimony and similar human traits that Mr. Roget reminds me of in his thoughtful Thesaurus.

On the other hand, the problem facing us today is that your average sailor does not want a silly hat or another mainsail batten to add to the pile of spares already cluttering the cockpit locker. What he really wants is a couple of gallons of anti-fouling paint at $150 a gallon. Or a 35-pound CQR anchor for $600. Or a new color GPS chartplotter for $800. Or a jib furling system for $2,000. Or a new diesel engine, Yeah, wow, a new engine. That would please him no end. Ten thousand ought to do it. Fifteen, maybe if they have to build new engine beds as well. It sounds like a lot but it’s not really, honestly it’s not, when you consider the huge amount of joy it will bring. A really huge amount of joy.

It’s not too late to correct your Christmas mistake. If you weren’t generous before, you can be generous now. Tinkle-tinkle. Do your bit to make a sailor happy retrospectively. Tinkle-tinkle. Give till it hurts. Tinkle-tinkle. I mean, really hurts. Tinkle-tinkle. On behalf of sailors everywhere, I thank you.

Today’s Thought
Money-giving is a very good criterion … of a person’s mental health. Generous people are rarely mentally ill people.
— Dr. Karl A. Menninger

“What’s that you’re burying?”
“Oh, just one of my chickens.”
“Chicken be darned. That looks like my dog.”
“Yeah, right, the chicken’s inside.”

December 22, 2009

Preserving our freedom

FOLLOWING THE DEATHS of three mountaineers on Mt. Hood, Oregon, there has been a renewed call for all climbers to carry locator beacons. The logic behind this move is unassailable: a locator beacon would guide rescuers precisely to the climbers in trouble. That would mean a great reduction in the expense of helicopters and other search-and-rescue equipment. It would also greatly reduce the risk to life and limb of search parties and rescuers.

So far, the expense of rescuing people who get themselves into trouble on mountains has been borne by the taxpayers. But there are those who argue, with good reason, that climbers who are rescued should pay for the costs involved. Perhaps they should have to take out liability insurance before they are allowed to climb.

I mention all this because exactly the same principle applies to those who sail small boats for pleasure. Sooner or later there will be a public outcry about the expense of rescuing foolish, unprepared sailors who get themselves into trouble on the water. Already, many states are requiring new sailors to attend a course about safety and seamanship. But that is nothing compared with some of the restrictions facing yachtsmen in other countries, where they are required to pass exams, gain experience, and have their boats inspected for seaworthiness before they can leave harbor.

It is all too easy, these days, to push the button on an Epirb, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, and send an SOS to your nearest Coast Guard center by satellite. The security of knowing they can be rescued from the middle of the ocean may actually encourage people to set off before they are ready, or before they have acquired the experience and equipment they need. And even more encouraging is the knowledge that rescue will cost them nothing.

I agree with the famous British circumnavigator Eric Hiscock, who said that people who sail for pleasure shouldn’t expect to be rescued when they get into trouble. They shouldn’t expect other people to risk their lives and spend their money because of their lack of preparation or foolishness.

If you are a professional seaman or fisherman, then certainly you are entitled to make use of whatever rescue services are available, but amateurs wanting to cross oceans or test themselves in bad weather along our coasts should understand that they do so at their own risk.

Like Hiscock, I have crossed oceans with no way of calling for help, apart from a short-range VHF radio. Some cruisers, over-imbued with the notion of entitlement, have called me foolish for doing so, particularly when modern electronics have made communication so quick and positive, but I stand by the principle.

There is a freedom at stake here. We pride ourselves on our freedoms in this country. But the freedom to sail where you like, how you like, could easily be eroded by the public’s indignation about the expense a selfish hobby incurs.

Today’s Thought
We have confused the free with the free and easy.
— Adlai E. Stevenson, Putting First Things First

New twist on an old gag:
“Who was that lady I saw you outwit last night?”

December 20, 2009

The power of a human

Dear John:
I have a question for you. There’s a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum riding on the answer. It’s like this: I was having an argument with the yacht club know-all in the bar last weekend. We were talking about inflatable yacht tenders, and how hard they are to row when your outboard motor breaks down. He said he didn’t think a human being could produce much more than 2 horsepower with a pair of oars.

I laughed in his face and said: “Only Superman could produce 2 horsepower. A normal man can’t even produce half a horsepower for any length of time.”

He then gripped me warmly by the throat. The bar tender intervened and suggested we make a bet of it with a bottle of the basic ingredient for a Dark ’n Stormy. So can you help?
— Manny in Minnesota

Dear Manny:
Jeez, if only you people would buy my books instead of fighting in the bar you’d save yourselves a lot of trouble. Probably a lot of money, too. On page 158 of the Boatowner’s Handbook you’ll find these enlightening facts:

“Human Power
“The average man in good condition can produce about 1/4 horsepower for about 40 minutes. He can produce between 1/6 and 1/7 horsepower for several hours at a time. This is sufficient to row a hard dinghy at a reasonable clip—say 3 to 4 knots—in calm water and no wind.

“The maximum power from a highly trained male athlete for a burst of a few seconds is a little less than 2 horsepower.”

So, Manny, I guess you’re both right, but you’re a bit righter than the club know-all because a burst of a few seconds doesn’t really count. It’s not going to get you very far in your inflatable. So the best thing to do is to sit down, get his hands off your neck, split the bottle, and make friends again. Maybe if you bought my book, Manny, YOU could be the club know-all.

Today’s Thought
You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God; you shall not have both.
— Emerson, Journals

“Gimme all the bad fruit and rotten eggs you’ve got in the store, willya?”
“You must be going to see that new comedian in the town hall tonight.”
“Keep it down, willya? I AM the new comedian.”

December 17, 2009

Fog and fear

I’VE JUST BEEN READING Frank Dye’s book about his wanderings in a 16-foot Wayfarer sailing dinghy. Year after year this Englishman returned to the USA to complete various stages of a voyage from Miami to the Great Lakes via Maine and the St. Lawrence River.

I can think of no book more likely to put people off the sport of dinghy cruising. Night after night Dye complains of being wet and cold, wrapped in two sleeping bags and flannel pajamas on the bottom boards of his boat. And when he’s not being wet and cold, he’s being frightened by howling winds, breaking waves, contrary currents, and thick fog.

His book is called Sailing to the Edge of Fear, but he tumbles over the edge on too many occasions for my liking, and often enough it’s because of fog. Fog is very scary stuff. What can you do about it?

Actually, there isn’t much advice to give about getting caught in fog that isn’t covered by common sense. If you see a fog bank forming ahead, and you have a chance to turn back to a safe anchorage, do so. It’s the seamanlike action to take.

Fog is treacherous. Go slowly and listen very carefully. If fog catches you out, try to get into shallow water and anchor there. Oftentimes that’s easier said than done, of course.

You should raise a radar reflector as high as you can so other vessels with radar sets will see you. And you should be meticulous about making the right sound signal every two minutes or less. I have noticed that too many skippers are very lax about this. I have even traveled on a Washington State ferry that made no sound signals in thick fog, presumably relying on radar and clearance from Seattle Traffic Control, which can’t possibly tell the ferry if a small craft, invisible to radar, is in its path.

If you’re sailing, the correct signal is one long blast and two short blasts. That’s also the signal made by a vessel not under command, or restricted by her ability to maneuver. The same signal comes from a vessel engaged in fishing, or towing or pushing another vessel.

If you’re under power, the fog signal (and the signal in any kind of restricted visibility, by the way) is one long blast every two minutes or less.

And one last tip – take along a horn that you can blow into. The fog horns that work off cans of compressed air don’t always work. I can vouch for that. I can also tell you that blowing the damn horn as loud as you can every two minutes is a pain in the you-know-what. You can’t go anywhere or do anything that lasts more than one minute, fifty-nine seconds. It puffs your cheeks out and raises your blood pressure. It makes you dizzy and produces black spots before your eyes. But it’s better than being run down at sea. So do it.

Today’s Thought
He that bringeth himself into needless dangers dieth the devil’s martyr.
— Thomas Fuller, Holy War

“I’ve found out why production has slowed down since you got that second computer.”
“Good. What’s wrong?”
“The big computer’s shoving all the work on to the little computer.”

December 15, 2009

Balancing the hull

THERE ARE MANY DESIGN FAULTS that sailboat owners will admit to, but unseaworthiness is not one of them. A skipper might well shrug off a lack of accommodation. He or she might well agree the boat is slow, or hard on the helm. But nobody wants to own an unseaworthy boat.

Seaworthiness is the happy result of a lot of factors but there is one that is often overlooked. It’s called balance.

According to Tony Marchaj, a sailor, pilot, naval architect, and research scientist, “Almost by definition, seaworthiness cannot be achieved if the boat is badly balanced.”

So what do we mean by balance? That question was answered by a famous British designer, J. Laurent Giles. He said good balance is “freedom from objectionable tendencies to gripe or fall off the wind, regardless of angle of heel, speed or direction of wind.”

He added that a well balanced boat had an easy motion in a seaway, that is, she passed easily over the waves, neither tending to plunge the bow deeply into the next wave ahead, nor throwing her nose high in the air as a wave passed the fore body. She would also unfailingly lift her stern to a following sea.

“One requires of the balanced yacht that she should retain the utmost docility and sureness of movement in manoeuvering at sea, in good or bad weather,” he added. “She must maintain a steady course when left to herself, but must be instantly responsive to her helm so that the heavier seas may be dodged if circumstances permit. She must be capable of being left to her own devices, sailing, hove-to, or under bare poles.”

That sounds like a very tall order to me. What sort of hull has this wondrous quality of balance? Here’s Marchaj again:

“In a narrower sense, this means that the inherently balanced hull does not substantially alter is longitudinal trim, and does not alter its course during the process of heeling and rolling.” In other words, to be well balanced, a hull should immerse about the same volume of topsides forward and aft when she heels.

Marchaj points out that many of the good old boats still sailing now were either designed for, or affected by, the old International Offshore Rule, which produced shallow, beamy hulls with pinched bows. “Usually, when they heel, the stern is lifted and the bow falls. Consequently, these boats are difficult to control by rudder and are unseaworthy.”

If the bow digs in as the boat heels, a boat will try to round up into the wind, of course, not only because of the wedge effect of the forward sections but also because the center of lateral resistance has moved forward while, at the same time, the center of effort of the sails has moved outward and gains more leverage. This is when the person at the helm suddenly finds the tiller up under his chin. Not that it does much good if the boat heels too far and the rudder comes out of the water.

Luckily, most of us don’t often sail in sea conditions that challenge the full seaworthiness of our boats. But if you should be of a mind to cross an ocean or double Cape Horn, balance might be a good thing to keep in mind as you search for the right boat.

Today’s Thought
Everything splendid is rare, and nothing is harder to find than perfection.
— Cicero

“Are you allowed to smoke at school?”
“Are you allowed to drink at school?”
“Of course not.”
“How about dates?”
“Oh dates are fine, as long as you don’t eat too many.”

© Copyright John Vigor 2009. All rights reserved. Not to be copied or published without the express permission of the author.

December 13, 2009

Sneezing on your sleeve

I WONDER WHO THE IDIOT WAS who first suggested that we sneeze into the clothed inner part of the angle made by a bent arm? I refuse to call it an elbow, because the elbow is the outer part of the angle made by a bent arm. The idiot got that wrong, too. You can’t sneeze into your elbow unless you’re built wrong.

It seems to be the swine-flu epidemic that started this. And by this, I mean the disgusting action of sneezing a noseful of snot onto your shirt or sweater and watching it drip down the length of your arm right there in front of everybody. Who in their normal mind would want to do that?

I remember a more sensible era when good Moms used to check that their kids had nice clean handkerchiefs before they set off for school. Among the posters on walls and hoardings there was one from the government that said “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases, Trap the Germs in Your Handkerchief.” How sensible. Those of us schoolkids who forgot our handkerchiefs and surreptiously wiped our noses on our sleeve cuffs in desperation, were disdained by the little girls and chastised by our teachers.

And now, what has happened to the handkerchief? Has it gone the way of the Dodo? Am I now the only one who reaches in his pocket for a handkerchief when he feels a sneeze coming on?

What if you’re in evening dress? Are you going to blow your snot and germs onto your tuxedo all evening, and if you do, will your partner still dance with you and kiss you goodnight? I’m all in favor of birth control, but this seems to be an unusual way to go about it.

And, more importantly, what if you’re bringing your rotten swine flu to my boat? Foul-weather gear is not absorbent, in case you’ve forgotten. The snot and phlegm won’t soak in. It will just drip down in thick, slimy, yellow ropes.

And every time you raise your arm to adjust the topping lift or wave at a passing seagull, a vast cloud of predatory germs will spill out. They’ll settle in the galley, just below the hatchway, and lurk there by the million, waiting for something moist and hot blooded — something vulnerable and delicious (namely, me) — to come past. I can just see them there, wide-eyed, smacking their lips and rubbing their little hands in glee, ready to pounce.

Sneezing on your sleeve is not just disgusting, it’s totally unhygienic. I’m not surprised swine flu is spreading so fast. If, for some reason, fashion or plain stupidity has dictated the demise of the handkerchief, then the least people could do would be to wear an absorbent bandage around their arms. There is probably a fortune to be made by someone who invents a Velcro-fastened, throw-away elbow patch. Or maybe, just maybe, if this epidemic goes on long enough we will come to our senses and realize that handkerchiefs were not mere fashion accessories but a truly sensible way to prevent the spread of disease.
Today’s Thought
Human beings are the only creatures who are able to behave irrationally in the name of reason.
— Ashley Montagu

“Dad, why do they throw the meat to the lions like that? Why can’t they serve it nicely?”
“Well, son, the fact is, lions are lousy tippers.”

© Copyright John Vigor 2009. All rights reserved. Not to be copied or published without the express permission of the author.

December 10, 2009

Where is global warming?

WHILE THE SCIENTISTS AND POLITICIANS in Copenhagen prattle on about global warming, we in western Washington state are experiencing record-low temperatures. It was 14 degrees here in Bellingham early this morning and I am wondering whether I should have winterized my boat more thoroughly.

She’s afloat in salt water, of course, and that water is about 40°F, so in theory she should be warmed from the bottom. But, in practice, an icy northeast wind blows in through the louvers in the companionway drop slide and freezes any bottles of water left lying in the galley.

Where is global warming when you need it, I say -- if there is such a thing as global warming. I read an online article in the German newspaper Der Spiegel the other day that said scientists are at a loss to explain why AVERAGE global temperatures have NOT gone up at all in the past 10 years. So global warming seems to be the wrong description. It’s a convenient political description.

What’s really happening is regional warming. There’s no doubt that some places, such as the Arctic region, are getting warmer. But there’s equally no doubt that others are getting colder.

The fact that the scientists are puzzled doesn’t surprise me. The earth does strange things, all on its own. Fossils tell us that there have been warming and cooling cycles over billions of years, long before man made any contribution to carbon dioxide build-up. We even know that the magnetic poles reverse themselves from time to time. The north magnetic pole was once the south magnetic pole.

I am always skeptical when I hear that temperatures have risen by one degree in the past 100 years. Can anyone be sure that a thermometer in use 100 years ago would relate with such precision to one made this year? Accurate to within one degree? Hmmm.

Anyway, a little global warming would be greatly appreciated around here right now. I could be very happy anchored in water warm enough to swim in, beneath skies of Caribbean blue, with a few coconut palms doing their little bendy wind dance on the white sandy beach just over yonder. I have sailed with ice on deck, and I tell you, I didn’t like it. I prefer it when the ice is tinkling in my drink, and the sweet lazy harmony of steel drums comes drifting across from the shore as I lie back in the cockpit.

Today’s Thought
Knowing how hard it is to collect a fact, you understand why most people want to have some fun analyzing it.
— Jesse L. Greenstein, Chairman, Dept. of Astronomy, Calif. Institute of Technology

Time flies like a speeding arrow.
Fruit flies like a rotten banana.

December 8, 2009

Seaworthy small boats

SOME TIME BACK I helped construct a seaworthiness quiz for Small Craft Advisor magazine. The quiz was designed to give the owners of small sailboats a reasonable idea of how seaworthy various designs might be. And, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated for them the desirable qualities that add up to seaworthiness in very small craft.

But now and then someone comes along and says: "What were you thinking? How can such small boats be seaworthy?" Well, they say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s what most of these someones are equipped with.

It’s quite obvious that dinghies and their ilk can’t meet all the qualities necessary to claim seaworthiness for larger vessels, ones that can accommodate people in the shelter of a cabin. But sailing dinghies can indeed provide two of the most important qualities: to stay afloat and to keep their crews alive.

If these someones had done their homework, they’d know that tiny open boats have made remarkable ocean voyages that demonstrate their seaworthiness. I could mention Captain Bligh, for a start, and Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world. And then there was Frank Dye, who sailed his 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy hundreds of miles across the North Sea from Scotland to Iceland, and to Norway.

These sailors provided an element of seaworthiness that their small craft lacked, of course. They were all expert seamen. In fact, when faced with storms at sea, Dye, in his unballasted, centerboard dinghy, would take the mast down, set a sea anchor so that the boat faced into the oncoming seas, and then lie down on the floorboards and go to sleep. “There’s nothing much else to do,” he said. Except pray, perhaps.

In coastal cruising, much of the seaworthiness of a dinghy like the Wayfarer lies in its ability to run for shelter close inshore, to maneuver closely among rocks, and to land on a beach and be pulled up out of harm on inflatable rollers. Larger, less nimble yachts with deep keels would not dare close a shore like that in heavy weather; their only recourse then is to seek deep water offshore, where their seaworthiness will be well tested.

In at least one way, the smaller the sailing dinghy, the more seaworthy it is. That is when the worst happens and the boat capsizes. The smaller the boat, the easier it is for the crew to right her.

The well-found camp-cruising dinghy cannot sink — she has built-in buoyancy. With a sealed mast and boom for flotation, she cannot turn completely turtle, and so the crew can stand on the centerboard to right her. She will also have self-bailers that will draw all the water from the cockpit once she comes upright again and gains way.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that small boats can be seaworthy. They can’t provide the shelter and comfort of a larger vessel, admittedly, but their closeness to the water provides delicate insights and thrills unknown to those lofty someones who batter their way through the seas in their seaborne chariots, carefully insulated from both the sea’s danger and its intimate secrets.

Today’s Thought
There are many advantages in sea-voyaging, but security is not one of them.
— Sadi (Emerson, English Traits: The Voyage)

“That’s a funny-looking dog you’ve got there.”
“What? I’ll have you know I paid $1,000 for this dog. He’s part terrier and part bull.”
“Which part is bull?”
“The part about the $1,000.”

© Copyright John Vigor 2009. All rights reserved. Not to be copied and published for commercial purposes without the express permission of the author.

December 6, 2009

The silence of the fans

IVOR TUNGIN-CHEAQUE, chairman of John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, writes:

Most Honorable Sir,

Since March 22, 2009, when you were last kind enough to publish my humble scribblings, things have taken a nasty turn.

It is with great concern and no small alarm that I have to inform you that you now have eight (8) “followers.” It is my belief that these so-called “followers” are being secretly trained to write to you, expressing their delight and appreciation for the pearls of wisdom and delicate witticisms that flow so freely and generously from your mighty pen.

This, of course, is a direct contravention of the rules of your Silent Fan Club, which state that anyone who praises you in any way shall henceforth be expelled from the club.

While you still have millions — nay, billions — of fans worldwide who cleave solidly to their commitment never to contact you (I might mention with great admiration and respect such names as Angelina, Madonna, Reese, and Shania) it is nevertheless very worrisome that your “followers,” although a small and impotent group at present, might in time gather enough strength to spell the doom of what must undoubtedly be the largest fan club in the whole wide world. I therefore urge you to keep careful watch, and to repel, with force if necessary, any attempts to contact you, to curry favor with you, or to flatter you in any way.

On another matter, I have to report that we have successfully diverted the attention of millions of your devoted fans who might have been tempted to write letters of praise to you. I was able to persuade a Mr. Tiger Woods, a golfer, I believe, to run his car into a fire hydrant and a tree in the early hours of one morning, while his wife ran behind him wielding a large club. This, I assured him, would buy him the kind of publicity he seems to crave – exactly the kind of publicity you seek to shun. I was correct. The tabloids were soon spreading sensational rumors that Mr. Woods had knocked himself out after attempting three holes-in-one. I hope he appreciates our efforts on his behalf.

I close with admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit and charm, the subtle thrust and parry of your sparkling repartee, and the wisdom, Solomon-like, that graces your princely brow.

Yours Humbly and Obediently,

IVOR TUNGIN-CHEAQUE (Chairman, John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club)

P.S. Once again, please excuse the crayon — they still won’t let me have anything sharp in this place.

Today’s Thought
Those who are silent, self-effacing and attentive become the recipients of confidences.
— Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day

“Psychoanalysis is a lot of hokum.”
“What makes you say that?”
Well, I’ve been having analysis for six weeks and my shrink says I’m in love with my umbrella.”
“That’s just nuts.”
“That’s what I told him. Admiration, possibly--and I must admit we have built up a sincere affection for each other--but love? That’s crazy.”

December 3, 2009

Poor old Frigga

FRIDAY IS UPON US. Frigga’s day. Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, the wife of Odin, the most powerful of all the gods.

In olden times, Frigga’s day was regarded as a lucky day. Northerners held their nuptials on that day. And all was smiles, and happiness ever after — until the Christians came along.

As they spread their gospel, they also spread the calumny that Frigga was a witch. Because of this false testimony, Friday became regarded as an unlucky day, a day on which no right-minded sailor would set sail, for fear of bad luck at sea.

That old superstition still holds sway among those intending to set out on long voyages in small boats, and even among those who man the warships of countries with large navies. No-one who depends on the sea for his or her livelihood scoffs at this superstition.

So what to do, if you simply must sail on a Friday? Well, there is a way to set sail on Frigga’s day without attracting bad luck, if you know how. And here’s how:

Start your voyage on a Wednesday or Thursday. Go a mile or two purposefully, and then return to your mooring or slip to attend to some problem that seems to have arisen. Perhaps the cook forgot to buy matches. Perhaps the bosun has discovered a stay starting to strand. Perhaps the skipper left his chronometer on his bedside table at home. There are many convincing causes that would require a prudent crew to return to port.

Now you can set sail on Friday without the burden of bad luck hanging over you, because you are not actually setting sail on Friday, but merely continuing a voyage that started on Wednesday or Thursday.

And if a Christian should challenge you, and accuse you of deception, you can say: “You’re a fine one to speak of deception, my man, after what your people did to dear old Frigga.”

Today’s Thought
And on Friday fell all this mischance.
— Chaucer, The Nonne Preeste’s Tale

Men don’t make passes
At girls who wear glasses
Girls who should, but don’t, wear glasses
Will never know if men make passes.

December 1, 2009

The wonderfullest mystery

DEAR BRETHEREN AND SISTEREN. My text for today comes from Proverbs 30, Verse 19:

"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
"The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."

Well, science has made great progress since those words were written. We can explain an eagle’s flight with aerodynamics. Herpetologists now know how a snake slithers across a rock. Dr. Phil understands all too well the wicked way of a man with a maid, and spares us no details. And that leaves the ship in the midst of the sea, the most wonderful of all the mysteries.

Little ships, and especially little sailing ships, conduct themselves in many different ways in the waves of the sea. You have probably experienced them all without giving any particular motion a name or a definition. But one man made a list for us to wonder at.

He is the well-known American naval architect and author, Francis S. Kinney. He held that there were eight motions of a sailboat at sea:

Broaching: Accidentally swinging broadside on to the wind and sea when running free.
Heaving: Rising and falling as a whole with the seas.
Pitching: Plunging and scending, so that the bow and stern rise and fall alternately.
Pitchpoling: Accidentally tumbling stern-over-bow in a half-forward somersault.
Rolling: Inclining rhythmically from side to side.
Surging: Being accelerated and decelerated by overtaking swells.
Swaying: Moving bodily sideways.
Yawing: Lurching and changing direction to either side of a proper course.

I note that the discreet Mr. Kinney refrained from mentioning wallowing and foundering, which has happened in boats I’ve sailed. The foundering in a small dinghy, luckily. Perhaps his designs never did those things. But he might well have included heeling, which is simply deliberately arrested rolling.

So next time you’re out there, take note of what your boat is doing, and at all costs avoid pitchpoling. That’s the most dangerous motion of all.

Today’s Thought
I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.
— Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Mystery of Life,” in Riverside Sermons

A man rushed into the dining car of a train. “A lady just fainted next door,” he cried. “Anyone got any whiskey?”
Several flasks were offered. He grabbed the nearest one and drained it in one gulp.
“Thanks a lot,” he said, “it always upsets me to see a lady faint.”

November 29, 2009

A plea for help

Dear John:
My wife is threatening to divorce me if I spend any more money on the boat. Can you help?
--Desperate Dan, San Diego

Well, Dan, I’m sorry but I don’t think I can help. There are too many unknowns. How much work does your boat need? How much money have you spent already, to make your wife so mad? Has she made this threat before? Did it worry you? Did she back down? Will she back down next time?

Political correctness demands that I advise you to quit spending money on the boat and start patching up your marriage. But logically, the first question should be — which is more important to you, wife or boat? If you can’t have both in good working order, which one would you choose to spend the rest of your life with? Only you can answer that. (Hint — Whose picture do you have in your wallet next to the West Marine card?)

Have you considered taking your problem to Dr. Phil? His national audience of voyeuristic landlubbers might be fascinated to know how much it takes to outfit a boat in a half-decent wardrobe of sails and running rigging. Yachtsmen are all too often portrayed as filthy rich and incurably snobbish but you could make the case for the rest of us, the great majority of male sailors whose financial states compel them to hide from their wives the bills from the boatyard, the sailmaker, and the engine repair man.

Meanwhile, the only advice I can offer is that you should bone up on stuff like cooking supper, washing clothes, darning socks, and fixing buttons. Just in case.

Today’s Thought
What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.
— George Levinger

“I see Old Moneybags finally got hitched to that chorus girl he’s been chasing for so long.”
“Yeah, he spent a fortune on her, so he had to marry her for his money.”

November 26, 2009

Propellers made easy

A FEW DAYS AGO I was editing an article for a forthcoming issue of Good Old Boat magazine. It said:

“When you select a propeller, you should match every dimension of that propeller to the hull and the engine driving it to attain maximum efficiency. This makes propeller selection and calculation very difficult for those of us who are not naval architects.”

Well, that’s not completely true in my opinion. The experts in too many fields, such as navigation and splicing rope, like to spread the word that it’s more complicated than it really is.

There are two ways of selecting a propeller: theory and practice. And even naval architects often have to resort to trial-and-error after they’ve tried their best with theory.

Let’s say you’re not satisfied with your boat’s performance under power, and you suspect the propeller is the wrong size. First check the diameter. Go to page 45 of my book, The Boatowner’s Handbook, where there’s a handy little graph. Lay a ruler between horsepower and prop shaft revolutions, and see where it crosses the column marked “Propeller diameter.”

On page 47 you’ll find another graph that shows you the pitch you need. This points you in the right direction for your prop. It’s about as good a result as the naval architect will get with all his complicated calculations.

So much for theory. Now we come to the practice. This doesn’t hardly need any brains at all.

Make sure your boat’s propeller is free of barnacles and the hull is reasonably clean. Take her for a run in calm weather. The ideal propeller will allow the engine to reach the manufacturer’s top-rated revolutions per minute (and therefore full power) with the throttle opened fully. And at this stage, your boat should be achieving full hull speed.

Now, if your engine starts to lug, or emit black diesel smoke, before it reaches top-rated rpm, you’ve probably got too much pitch. It’s like trying to ride a bike uphill in top gear.

On the other hand, if your engine reaches top revs too easily — that is, before your boat reaches hull speed — you probably need to increase the pitch. You’re riding downhill in low gear and your little legs are whizzing around but you’re not going very fast.

A propeller shop can alter the pitch of most auxiliary sailboat props a couple of inches, at a fraction of the cost of a new propeller. For boats with the usual 2-to-1 reduction gearbox, a decrease in prop pitch of 2 inches will increase engine revs per minute by about 300 to 400.

It’s unlikely that you’ll need to change the prop diameter, but you might like to know that for roughly equivalent performance, if you decrease the diameter 1 inch, you should increase its pitch 2 inches.

You don’t need to be a naval architect to check your propeller’s actual performance this way. It’s as much art as science — plus a bit of grunt work to get the damn prop off the shaft to which it clings so determinedly.

Today’s Thought
An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home, has no responsibility for implementing the advice he gives, and shows slides.
— Edwin Meese 3rd, White House counsel

A pessimist is a person who builds a castle in the air and then locks himself in the dungeon.
An optimist, on the other hand, is a person who fixes your eyes.

November 24, 2009

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

(Hop aboard every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor)

DAMN. IT’S COMING UP THANKSGIVING. Gotta write a blog, and it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. What has Thanksgiving got to do with boats, for Pete’s sake? Think, man, think. What’s the connection? Scratch head. Pull finger out of earhole and type, dammit.

Well, okay, I suppose some of us should be grateful for boats. If it weren’t for boats I couldn’t have written articles and books about boats and got paid for it. On the other hand, if there were no such things as boats I might be better off. I might have been a plumber, as my mother suggested, instead of a pretend writer, and I might have earned a fortune instead of a pittance.

I could be sitting in my villa in Nice or Monte Carlo right now with my own plumbing all done in pure 22-carat gold, drinking pink Moët de Grand Excellence champagne out of chorus girls’ slippers and tossing euro coins to the dull-witted writers begging in the street below.

So I don’t know that I’m very grateful for boats.

Mind you, I suppose there’s a fair chance that if it weren’t for boats there would not be any white folks in this country. We’d all still be in freezing-cold Merrie Bloodie Englande painting ourselves blue and trying to invent fire and Oprah Winfrey. There’d be no Thanksgiving, either, of course, and this country would be overrun with swaggering, cocksure turkeys. Ugly buggers that they are.

It’s true that Christopher Columbus used a boat — but he didn’t land in North America, even though most Americans think he did. So there’s no reason to be grateful to Christopher Columbus. If he had found America we’d all be speaking Spanish with bad accents by now and I wouldn’t be able to earn a living because I speak only English. Well, and Afrikaans. And a bit of Zulu and Fanagalo. And a smattering of French and German. And two years of Latin, with several canings for not doing homework. And nine months of lispy Castellano, which I don’t remember any more. Oh, and one sentence in Polish. Don’t know any Greek, though, apart from alpha and omega and ouzo.

But I digress. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, remember? Okay, well, despite everything, I guess I have to be thankful for boats. One brought me safely thousands of miles across the oceans to my nice new home in America and others continue to fascinate me and brighten my life. So I take it back. I am grateful to boats.

Here’s to boats: I’ll drink to that. Kindly hand me my bottle of Moët de Cheapskate.

Today’s Thought
Maybe the only thing worse than having to give gratitude constantly … is having to accept it.
— William Faulkner

“How much is a bottle of brandy? It’s my nephew’s birthday and he likes brandy.”
“Well, madam, it depends on the age. Seven-year-old is quite reasonably priced. Ten-year-old costs a bit more. Twelve-year-old can be quite expensive.”
“Gee, that’s terrible. My nephew is 25.”

November 22, 2009

The perfect sailing hat

I HAVE BEEN SEARCHING for the perfect sailing hat for years. Still haven’t found it, but I’ve come close.

I lost my hat the very first time I sailed in a keelboat. I was just a kid, a cabin boy, standing up in the forward hatch of a beautiful Knut Reimers wooden racing sloop called Viking, owned by Fred Smithers, a lawyer who lived in Cape Town. We were crashing into a black southeaster near Cape Point when the afterguard decided to tack. The jib swept over the deck, brushed against my head, and wiped my hat off. I saw it floating away to leeward and knew instinctively that no-one was going to offer to go back for it.

Since then, I’ve tried many different hats, from knitted black watch caps to a bright red fisherman’s sou’wester, but none of them has fully met my requirements, namely the need to be lightweight, waterproof, windproof, and irresistibly attractive to ladies.

I notice that some famous cruisers such as Larry Pardey let themselves be photographed in wide, shady, straw hats that look pleasantly goofy but I know for a fact they can’t wear them when they go up forward to douse the jib in anything over 10 knots of wind.

I rather like the look of some European yachting hats, the kind you see them wearing at Cowes Week or when the Queen comes to inspect the fleet or say howdy to the members of the Royal Yachting Association or whatever. And those Greek skipper’s caps, which look so very dashing, have undoubtedly helped lure many an innocent maiden into the nether regions of floating gin palaces; but the trouble with all of them is that they won’t stay put in any decent wind. Besides, you need a lot more chutzpah than I’ve got to wear a cap adorned with captain’s gold braid when you’re only the skipper of a 26-year-old, 27-foot sloop like mine. The hat should fit the vessel as well as the man.

And it should fit the weather, of course. For example, around here last week it was blowing 60 and gusting 80 miles an hour. Just a few miles up State Route 20, in the Cascades, they were expecting 20 inches of snow overnight. And down here on the coastal plain of Puget Sound, it was all solid rain and inside-out umbrellas.

We hear a lot about hurricanes on the East Coast but they don’t even know we have hurricane-force winds on the coast here every winter, regular as clockwork. We don’t whine about it. We just tie our hat strings tighter around our chins.

Anyway, to cut it short, I eventually found that the most practical headgear for my part of the world was a good old baseball cap underneath a hood attached to an anorak or a foul-weather jacket. The hood should have strings under the chin, of course, so you can adjust its tightness and prevent the baseball cap from escaping.

Now you have a waterproof, windproof hat with a peak that keeps the spray off your glasses and the sun out of your eyes; a hat that won’t get knocked off when you lurch against the shrouds; a hat that can’t be brushed off by the jib when some fool decides to tack without warning.

It’s almost ideal. It certainly fits the vessel. The only problem is that it conveys a sort of rumpled homeless appearance, which seems not to appeal to nice ladies, even without the plastic bags around my feet. My aim for next season is to improve the look of this arrangement so as to convey more of a feeling of dashing nautical nerdiness. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

Today’s Thought
Ignorant people in preppy clothes are more dangerous to America than oil embargoes.
— V. S. Naipaul

“My husband is so careless about his appearance. He just can’t seem to keep buttons on his clothes.”
“Maybe the buttons weren’t sewn on properly in the first place.”
“Oh, you may have a point there. He’s terribly careless with his sewing, too.”

November 19, 2009

Getting the tension right

OLD WOTSISNAME IS WORRIED about the rigging that holds his mast up. “It’s tight now,” he said, twanging a wire, “but when I go sailing, the leeward shrouds always feel loose.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Well, last time I just tightened up the leeward turnbuckle to take up the slack. And when I went about onto the other tack, I tightened that turnbuckle up, too.”

“And what happened?”

“Nothing. The leeward shroud is still slack. Always.”

I plucked one of OW’s shrouds. It was as tight as a violin string. “You could play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto on this wire,” I said. “But that’s the good news.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“You’re driving your mast down through your deck,” I said. “The rigging is far too tight. A few more turns on the turnbuckles and your cabintop is going to end up on your cabin floor.”

What OW didn’t realize was just how powerful the turnbuckles are. And how he could overstrain the rig by trying to eliminate the slackness in his leeward shroud.

That slackness is always going to be there. The old rule of thumb is that the leeward shroud should feel slack, but not look slack, when you’re beating in a medium-strength wind.

The reason is that stainless-steel wire stretches. There’s construction stretch for a start, which results from the strands settling into place when the first load is applied. That’s a once-only, permanent stretch. And then there’s elastic stretch, which is temporary, allowing the wire to return to its original length each time the load is removed.

Now the elastic stretch may be greater than you imagined. For example, when a 33-foot stainless-steel 1 x 19 wire (of ANY thickness) is loaded to half its breaking strength, it will stretch 2 inches. That’s why the leeward shroud goes slack. It’s fine. It’s meant to.

“So what should I do now?” said OW.

“Loosen it all and start again,” I said. “I’ll lend you my tension gauges.”

The first thing to do in tuning a rig is to find out the displacement of your boat. Then give the upper shrouds and the backstay a tension of approximately 10 percent of the boat’s displacement. A higher tension will automatically be induced in the forestay because it makes a narrower angle to the mast than does the backstay.

Then tighten the forward lower shrouds or babystay until the mast bows forward slightly, but noticeably, at the spreaders.

Tighten the aft lowers to straighten the mast again.

When you’re out sailing in a moderate breeze, check that the mast is straight and adjust the upper or lower shrouds with equal turns of the turnbuckles on both sides, slackening the port side if you tighten the starboard side, and so on.

That’s all there is to it.

Now, if you’re still awake and you’ve been concentrating hard, you may think that 10 percent is quite a lot of tension to preload into the topmast shrouds, and it is; but it’s about right.

The breaking strengths of all the shrouds on one side of the boat should equal a little more than the boat’s displacement, say displacement times 1.4 for offshore cruisers, times 1.2 for inshore cruisers, and times 1.0 for racing boats and daysailers. When you have double lower shrouds, however, (that is, forward lowers and aft lowers) then you should use only one shroud for this calculation, the thinking being that only one lower at a time carries the load.

I don’t know how much extra load OW was placing on his deck, but I can tell you that the normal compression load on a mast step while you’re sailing is as much as 2.5 times the displacement. Now OW’s concrete barge must weigh 15,000 pounds, so his mast is thrusting downward with a force of 37,500 pounds or nearly 17 tons.

Frankly, I’ve never quite understood how thin-walled aluminum tubes can withstand loads as high as that, but they do it all the time. To me, it’s just another of those bits of magic that make sailing so interesting.

Today’s Thought
Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
— Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress

Four-year-old Janie had been put to bed for the night when her little brother wandered along and tried to enter her room.
“You can’t come in, Jimmy,” she said, “cos Mom says little boys mustn’t see little girls in their nighties.”
Jimmy went outside, closed the door, and was puzzling about this when the door opened again.
“It’s aw wight Jimmy, you can come in now,” said Janie. “I’se tooked my nightie off.”

November 17, 2009

Northern love affair

I WAS ASKED the other day by someone who has spent a long time in the sub-tropics: “What do northern sailors do in winter?”

Well, some go skiing. Some flee south in RVs. Some go away on cruise ships. These are the dilettantes, the dabblers, the amateurs, the superficial tire-kickers.

And before you accuse me of using big words you can’t understand, let me explain that a dilettante is someone who follows sailing for an amusement, a diversion. Someone who doesn’t take sailing half seriously enough.

The real sailors are reading books of ocean adventures. They’re studying boat plans and looking at ads for Herreshoff 28 ketches. They’re making plans to get time off from their partners, and continue their clandestine affairs with their boats.

They’re poking holes in the shrink-wrap so they can get inside and sit on the saloon couch for a bit, maybe making a cup of coffee on the stove and searching for the half-bottle of rum they hid in the medicine cabinet. Just to fortify the coffee, of course.

They check the bilges for water and crank the motor over half a turn by hand, so the impeller doesn’t take a fatal set. They check that there’s air circulating, to deter mold. They switch on the VHF, listen to forecasts of raging storms, and grin to themselves, snug in their winter refuge.

They read with delight the logs of their past year’s cruising, and dream of those lovely lazy breezes and warm seas. They play back in their minds, time and time again, the peaceful nights at anchor, the early-morning call of the loon, and the shrill cry of a kingfisher carrying breakfast back to a forest of open beaks.

The thing about serious sailors, as opposed to those dilettantes, is that they are in love with their boats. They can hardly bear to be parted from them. They tend and care for them. They talk to them as if they were flesh and blood. They nurture them. They praise their good qualities and pardon their faults.

And in that definitive demonstration of ardour, they look back, long and hard, when they part. That’s what real sailors do in winter.

Today’s Thought
A man nearly always loves for other reasons than he thinks. A lover is apt to be as full of secrets from himself as is the object of his love from him.
— Ben Hecht

“What’s the special today?”
“Ve got fine zoop today, sir. You like some zoop, mebbe?”
“Zoop? What’s zoop?”
“You don’t know what is zoop? You know what is stew, yes? Vell, zoop is same ting, only looser.”

November 15, 2009

Beware of lifelines

I’M NOT A GREAT FAN of lifelines. I suppose they may stop someone going overboard now and then, but mostly they just stand there doing nothing, interfering with the foresail sheets and chafing the mainsheet.

They have to be strung through upright stanchions that landlubbers instinctively grab when they think you’re coming into your berth too fast. And nothing could be better designed than a stanchion to lever the deck loose and open up holes around the fasteners where water can penetrate.

Lifelines inevitably stretch and droop with age because people hang their fenders from them and use them as clotheslines when they’re out cruising. They make it difficult to board the boat without doing a Nazi goose-step unless you add special hardware to make gate openings near the cockpit, and worst of all, they all too often come with a plastic coating that traps moisture inside and hides from view the subsequent corrosion of the wire.

All boats with cabins and sidedecks seem to come with lifelines these days, probably because society is currently so obsessed with the safety of others and so consumed with doubt that ordinary sailors like you and me are capable of sailing a boat without falling overboard. So if you must have lifelines, and it seems you must, even if only to placate the misplaced concern of the do-gooders, then let them be good, honest, plain stainless steel with no plastic covering.

This overweening solicitude for our welfare was not always present. Fifty or a hundred years ago there were lots of boats sailing around the world without lifelines, some of the greatest, such as Slocum and Moitessier, among them. It was obvious, even then, that you couldn’t definitely, positively, rely on lifelines to stop you going overboard, especially when you were working on the cabin top and the boat was heeled well over. They simply couldn’t be made high enough, or sturdy enough. Indeed, many modern lifelines masquerading as safety features are fit only to catapult you overboard. Sensible sailors never trust them, preferring to put their faith in cabin-top handrails, tethers, harnesses, and jacklines.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the U.S. Coast Guard is experimenting with rope lifelines, although the stuff they use hardly qualifies for the term rope these days, being constructed of exotic fibers that are actually stronger than steel. They won’t rust, of course, but they can’t effectively be spliced, so they need mechanical terminal fittings. They’re lighter than stainless steel, and naturally more expensive, so they’re more likely to be found on flat-out racing boats whose owners don’t mind spending money as long as it makes the boat go faster. (Or on vessels for which the U.S. taxpayer foots the bill, of course.)

I’m told that such lifelines don’t abrade easily, and are tougher to cut than you might think, but I am conservative enough not to want them on my boat, thanks. Not yet. Maybe in 50 years, when I’ve got used to the idea. Meanwhile, I think it would be hard to find anything better for lifelines than good old stainless-steel wire rope. Without the plastic cover, of course.

Today’s Thought
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
— Tacitus, Annals XV

“Didn’t you hear me pounding on your wall last night?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t like to complain. We were making quite a bit of noise ourselves.”

November 12, 2009

My barometer speaks Cherman

A BAROMETER IS A SAILOR’S BEST FRIEND. It gives its services freely and constantly; and you never have to buy it a drink. The one on my boat has a case of shiny brass and it’s an aneroid. I believe that means it doesn’t have a sex. A gender, that is.

I’m told that male barometers are boastful and exaggerating, whereas female ones are gentle, calming souls who are not keen to give the bad news. On a female barometer the arm points to “Possible Rain – but Highly Unlikely Dearie” or “Delightful Day – Don’t Forget Your Sunscreen.” Male barometers just list three brutally simple forms of weather, clockwise from the left: “Rain,” “Change,” and “Fair.”

Now my barometer is not only aneroid. It also speaks Cherman. On its face it says: “Regen,” “Veränderlich,” “Schön.” Luckily I learned Cherman from an old girl friend, so I could read the instructions:

“Guten tag, mein Hairies und Damen, das ist der Cherman Weddermasjien, mit der Movink Lever für der Predikshun von Donner und Blitzen, und Sturm und Drang.

“Achtung dumkopf! Nicht upwinden. Gefingerpoken und upwinden ist verboden. Der Weddermasjien ist solo für lookenpeepen. Das ist nicht eine Klockwerken Masjien. Danke schön.”

Surprisingly, der Movink Lever scale is marked in millibars and centimeters. Other barometers may be marked in inches and millimeters, or any combination of these measurements. It’s not necessary to know the precise measures, though, because it’s the trend of the pressure that’s important. High pressure means fair weather. Low pressure means the likelihood of storms. That’s all you need to know. Oh, just one other thing — if the pressure falls at least one millibar per hour for 24 hours, you’re in the path of a weather bomb. Get the heck out of there, and quickly.

Barometers are also used by airplanes and mountain climbers, of course. As you rise above sea level, air pressure drops, so the barometer can tell you your altitude. This is very handy if you ignored my warning about the weather bomb and need to know your height when you get blown out of the water.

Today’s Thought
The best weather instrument yet devised is a pair of human eyes.
— Harold M. Gibson, Chief Meteorologist, NYC Weather Bureau

“Yes, I’ve been very unfortunate with both my husbands.”
“Oh? Why?”
“Well, the first one ran away.”
“And the second?”
“He didn’t.”

November 10, 2009

Lowering the mast

A LOT OF NORTHERN BOATS are having their masts lowered right now in preparation for a winter on the hard. I keep reading of the difficulties of pulling the mast and how you need a small crane, a large fork-lift, or at least an 18-foot-tall A-frame made from 2 x 4s. And as I read, my thoughts drift back to how we did it with such little fuss in the old days.

I had a 28-foot racing sloop called Trapper in those days. I used to form a raft-up with a couple of 25-footers, one on each side of my boat. And they would lift my mast up with their mainsail halyards, the tail-ends of which were formed into loops with bowlines and allowed to slide up my mast until they were stopped by the spreaders.

I stood by the butt of my mast as they cranked away on their winches, and guided it aft to lie over the stern pulpit. Then my friends lowered away together until the top of the mast rested on the bow pulpit. It was quick and very simple.

Once we’d secured all the rigging and lashed the mast in place, we’d extricate ourselves from the raft-up and motor Trapper to her mooring, where my wife and I would take up our stations, one at each end of the mast, and lower the mast over the side onto an 11-foot wooden dinghy.

I would then scull the dinghy to a nearby jetty and we’d haul it up off the dinghy and march off with it on our shoulders to our car, where we put the mast on the roof rack and drove it a short way to the yacht club’s spar yard to work on it.

When the mast was ready to go up again, we did the same things in reverse order. It seemed such a simple and logical procedure at the time, well within the capabilities of a couple of reasonably fit adult sailors. We didn’t have to pay more than $100 for a crane. We paid our friends in beer or whisky, and performed the same services for them when they wanted to drop their masts.

I sometimes wonder which path the march of progress is taking. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be going forward, despite all the new tools at our disposal.

Today’s Thought
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
— Albert Einstein

“Is that the sound effects department?”
“Good, send me a galloping horse immediately.”
“What for?”
“Well, the script calls for the sound of two coconut shells being clapped together.”

November 8, 2009

Sex on small boats

THIS BEING A FAMILY COLUMN, we do not often talk openly about sex on small boats. Regrettably, this subject is also much neglected by the yachting media in general. It was obviously also neglected by yacht designers in the past. Aboard those narrow-gutted, full-keeled little cruisers there was never room to swing even half a cat, never mind roger a woman. The priority in those days was to make boats efficient at sailing, rather then reproducing the human race. Imagine that.

Nevertheless, to get back to the original point, if we intend to live in a democracy that defends our constitutional right to free speech and plentiful sex, then sex on small boats needs to be discussed with openness, frankness, and dignity. If the kids are offended, just send them off in the dinghy to play on the beach somewhere until we’re through.

It is perhaps not irrelevant to this discussion that the latest revision of Lin and Larry Pardey’s long-running book, The Capable Cruiser, shows Lin topless on the dust-jacket cover. She is perched on the main boom at the mast, pointing to something on the horizon, dressed only in a long wrap-around skirt, the kind known as a Polynesian pareu. I have noticed that Lin is not averse to telling people how much she enjoys sex aboard their small motorless cruiser, Taleisen. (Incidentally, the picture above is not of Lin Pardey but of a young woman in Rimatara, French Polynesia, in 1887. She is wearing a pareu.)

It’s all very well for the Pardeys, of course. They don’t have any kids. How do couples with kids manage on a small boat, I wonder, the kind that doesn’t have a double stateroom aft. You can’t send them off in the dinghy every time you feel the urge.

Traditionally, and in the absence of passion-killing ankle-biters, the V-berth was the passion pit. But most V-berths on small yachts are difficult to get into. You have to back in and fold yourself in half like a pocket knife. By the time you’ve got your limbs sorted out you’ve sprained two sacroiliac tendons, you’re exhausted, and the last thing on your mind is a bit of nookies. When people who live on small boats talk about safe sex, it’s not disease they’re thinking of, it’s broken bones, pulled muscles, and strained backs.

I suppose that if you’ve ever made love in the back of a car, you’ll probably find a V-berth roomy enough. Maybe. I’m not sure. To tell you the truth, I grew up in a country where the back seat of a car had room only for a large grocery bag, so I have never had the pleasure, if it is a pleasure. I now do have a car with a large back seat, but I’m not as flexible as I used to be and my bones are more brittle. I can’t do the athletic contortions that I’m told are necessary. So I guess I’ll never know.

When I was much younger and more flexible I fantasized about sex with those lascivious blonde Swedish girls who (rumor had it) were always cunningly letting themselves be chased through the woods by randy young men waving birch branches. Coincidentally, a male friend with similar dreams bought a 17-foot dinghy in England. It had a small cabin on it. So I met him over there, and we set sail for the woods of Sweden via the English Channel and the continental canals.

But, alas, because of too much non-sexual dallying on the way, it took us three months to get from France to Holland, and the onset of winter drove us back to England, broke and very frustrated. We never did pause to wonder where we would make love if we actually caught one of those lovely Swedish nymphs. There wasn’t room on our boat for the birch branches, never mind the nymphs.

On really small boats you have to do it standing up with your head out of the hatch. In a crowded anchorage, that means you have to assume a look of calm nonchalance while you ostensibly scan the horizon for signs of storm clouds or something. In the interests of maintaining this little deception, you should not scream or roll your eyeballs too far back in your head. Other nearby sailors, the crafty devils, are very quick to notice things like that and make their own deductions.

In these modern times, while the hoi polloi are concentrating on safer sex, small-boat sailors are still searching for better sex. It’s a sad reflection on the state of yacht design. The naval architects have failed us. Maybe WE should go ashore in the dinghy, find some friendly bushes, and strand the kids on the boat while we fumble for the solution.

Today’s Thought
Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.
— William J. Brennan, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 24 Jun 57

“Sorry lady, bad news. I just ran over one of your roosters in the road out there. I feel real bad about it and I’d like to replace him.”
“Well sure, just as you wish, mister. You’ll find the henhouse next to the barn.”

November 5, 2009

Saggy spreader syndrome

OVER-ZEALOUS LEGISLATORS have made various attempts in the past to ban droopy drawers, the kind that hang below the waistline and expose one’s unmentionables to the gaze of the scandalized public. But no attempt that I know of has ever been made to rid sailboats of droopy spreaders. And that’s a pity, because spreader sag is not only unsightly, it could also be dangerous.

Spreaders normally tilt up slightly at their outer edges, giving a boat a look of happiness and confidence. But occasionally you’ll come across a boat whose spreaders are horizontal or even drooping slightly, which promotes a sordid, down-in-the mouth look.

The golden rule is that all spreaders should exactly bisect the angle formed by the shrouds at their tips.

If that doesn’t make immediate sense to you, you might want to go off in a corner for a while and think about it. Meanwhile, the rest of us will proceed backward to find out why we need spreaders in the first place.

Mast designers and riggers try to keep the angle between the shroud and the top of the mast at 10 degrees or more. If you have a tall mast and a narrow boat, that angle will likely be less than 10 degrees. But if you poke the shroud out sideways from the mast with a stick, you can make the shroud join the top of the mast at a better angle.

Why is this important? Well, it’s a question of physics. In rough terms, if you impose a 20-pound sideways load at the masthead, you will induce about 240 pounds of tension in a stay with a joining angle of just 4 degrees. But if you cleverly increase that angle to 12 degrees with a spreader, the tension is reduced to about 80 pounds. I presume you can see why that is desirable. If you can’t, you’d better join that other fellow in the corner over there.

All right, then, but why should the spreader tips be higher than their bases at the mast? It’s because most spreaders are designed as pure compression struts. In bad cases of the droops, the spreaders would tend to slide farther downward, slackening the shroud and robbing the mast of its proper support.

This is why your shrouds should always be captive at the ends of the spreaders. If your spreaders don’t already have built-in clamps, you should seize the shrouds in place with Monel wire, and cover the tips with plastic spreader boots to prevent damage to the sails.

So have a good look at your spreaders. If they’re droopy, please do something about it. And okay, yes, you two can come out of the corner now.

Today’s Thought
It basically was an art before. We’re just starting to scratch it into a science.
— Dennis Conner, on yacht racing

“This a pet shop?”
“Yeah, whatcha want?”
“Gimme 318 cockroaches.”
“Why do you want that many?”
“I just got thrown out of my apartment and they say I have to leave it exactly as I found it.”

November 3, 2009

Inspired by Slocum

I HAVE LONG THOUGHT how lucky we are that the first man to sail around the world alone was also a splendid writer.

I first read Captain Joshua Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World, as an impressionable teenager and what struck me then was his modesty, his humility and his very obvious enthusiasm for the sea, even when it wasn’t being very kind to him. He made single-handed ocean sailing sound … well, if not easy, then at least very manageable and businesslike.

I later learned that my hero Slocum was not exactly an angel. He once shot to death a pirate who threatened him, and in later life he served jail time for indecently exposing himself to a 12-year-old girl.

Nevertheless, Slocum made it plain for the first time that it was possible for a small boat with a crew of one to sail clean around the world without the drama and exaggeration normally found in the yachting literature. In this way he inspired many timid souls to follow his example. At any given time today, hundreds of small boats — and by small I mean anything under 40 feet — literally hundreds of small boats are sailing around the world, many of them manned by husband-and-wife teams or families with small children.

Although Slocum’s book was written more than 100 years ago, it retains an enthusiastic freshness that’s wonderfully infectious. To enjoy this book you don’t need to know port from starboard or a pintle from a gudgeon. There are, inevitably, some incidents that have to be explained in technical terms, but they’re few and far between and you can skip over them without losing any of the sense, or urgency. In fact, Slocum writes much more about the land and the ports he visited than he does about his ship and the seas they traveled over.

For me, reading Sailing Alone Around the World as a teenager aroused the feelings of restlessness and adventure so common to youth. I wanted to build my own boat, as Slocum had done, and indulge my curiosity by travel under sail to exotic faraway places. But, like so many others, my plans were long thwarted by a combination of family commitments and cold feet. I did start building my own wooden yacht once, but soon abandoned it when I realized the size of the task I’d set myself. I simply wasn’t up to it.

But Slocum wouldn’t let me rest. He kept me awake year after year with visions of a sailboat running swift and true through the trade winds toward some distant palm-fringed shore. Finally, when I was 50, I crossed an ocean as the skipper of my own boat, with my family as crew.

It was a fiberglass boat, I confess, and one that I bought, not built. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t a circumnavigation, either; but I felt proud enough when it was over, and very grateful to Captain Slocum. Given my limitations, I thought I’d done my best; and a man can’t ask for more than that.

Today’s Thought
Most happy he who is entirely self-reliant, and who centres all his requirements in himself alone.
— Cicero, Paradoxa

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

November 1, 2009

One thought at a time

YOU CAN’T SEE IT, but I have a special page that my blogmasters call a “dashboard.” It’s where I go to write these columns, and obtain certain technical information that puzzles and mystifies me. It might as well be written in ancient hieroglyphics.

Nevertheless, my dashboard informs me that I have five “followers.” At first I thought they might be stalkers, but I have since deduced that this means I must be winning the race, right? Wait. No. That just means I am no worse than sixth from last. Okay, I’ll take that. I hate being last.

My old friend and racing rival Peter Ashwell always said my greatest handicap was my lack of disparate attention. That was his polite way of describing my inability to think about more than one thing at a time.

For instance, if we were beating, I applied my total attention to watching the jib telltales. Nobody sailed closer to the wind than me. Nobody changed course quicker as the wind switched. My eyes, my brain, my everything was concentrating on keeping the boat in the slot, getting to windward faster than anyone else.

And if I may say so without boasting, I was good at it. The trouble was that I was so immersed in this one vital task that I didn’t notice if the wind had headed me, and I should be on the other tack. I didn’t notice if the wind was blowing harder, or from a better direction, on the far side of the course. I failed to implement the proper strategy of staying between between my closest opponent and the next mark of the course.

I knew that winning sailboat races incorporated many different skills, including an overall strategy and minute-to-minute tactics. It’s like a game of chess on water. The moves that your opponents make dictate an appropriate response from you.

I knew all this, but once I had those little fluttering telltales in my sights I was dead to everything else. And I can tell you now, from long and bitter experience, that being the best helmsman to windward doesn’t mean you’re going to win the race. The winner is the one who is good, on average, at doing all the things required, but not necessarily the best at any particular one of them.

There are probably things I could do to improve my disparate attention. I could try talking to my wife while driving the car, for instance. When I’m driving, I’m driving; and I never talk to her if I can help it, not because I don’t like her or anything, it’s just that I’m driving. I’m concentrating.

I once heard an entrant at a piano-playing competition loftily dismiss the chances of a competitor because “his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing.” I can sympathize with that poor competitor. I know exactly what it feels like. We’re both handicapped. There should be special parking places for people like us.

Today’s Thought
Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.
— R. L. Stevenson, Ethical Studies

“Are you sure this hairnet is invisible?”
“Perfectly sure, lady. We’ve been selling them all morning and we’ve been out of stock for a week.”

October 29, 2009

Gastronavigation 3

AS IS ONLY RIGHT and proper, the final column in our Gastronavigation series deals with fellow creatures of the water. They may be fellow creatures, but they’re not as fortunate as we are. These are fellow creatures that we eat. And they’re not even cooked. No, not oysters. Fish.

I first came across Tahitian Raw Fish in Cape Town just before we set off to race across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro in a lightweight 33-footer. The chewy little white cubes made a tangy and refreshing appetizer in the hot South African summer.

Here’s a recipe from Florence Herbulot, a talented French sailor, cook, and translator of the Patrick O’Brian books, among many others:

TAHITIAN RAW FISH, from Cooking Afloat, 1965.

For this dish you can use any sea fish as long as it is perfectly fresh: mackerel, whiting, bream.
Place the fish, either in fillets or cut into cubes, in a deep dish. Sprinkle generously with lemon juice; leave to marinate for 1 to 2 hours and then add some olive oil and pepper; marinate for a further 2 hours.

As soon as the fish is really white, with no trace of transparency, it is “cooked,” that is, the flesh has been seethed by the lemon juice just as if it had been boiled in water and vinegar.
The only difference is that it takes longer than cooking, but the flavor is wonderful.

The Latin American version of this is called ceviche, which comes with additional ingredients and many different flavors. One favorite of mine is the Mexican recipe that uses green coriander leaves (cilantro):

CEVICHE APPETIZER, yacht Sangoma, Bellingham, WA, 2009

1 pound fish or scallops
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tablespoon diced green chili pepper (jalapeño)with seeds removed
1 tablespoon cilantro
A smidgeon of grated green ginger root
Cut meat into small cubes and marinate in juice for three hours, stirring occasionally.

How you serve up your ceviche depends on your imagination. I don’t have much imagination, so I just put it in a bowl and let everybody spear their own bits with toothpicks.

Incidentally, if you can’t catch your own fish, ask the store for frozen Orange Roughy, a deep-sea perch that lives for nearly 150 years. It’s on the threatened list, but we import millions of pounds annually and it’s perfect for these recipes. Just don’t tell the conservationists John Vigor sent you.

Today’s Thought
All men are equal before fish.
— Herbert Hoover, NY Times, 9 Aug 64

“So did you wash your parrot with dish detergent?”
“And what happened?”
“It died.”
“There, I told you not to use detergent.”
“It wasn’t the detergent. It was the spin-drier.”

October 27, 2009

Gastronavigation Part 2

VERY WELL, THEN. Please pay attention now. Here, as promised, is the second column in the Gastronavigation series.

Ten years ago, when my wife June and I were exploring the wilderness of British Columbia in our 25-foot sailboat, we met a couple of cruising Oregonians called Burl and Abigail Romick. They were sailing a C&C 35-footer, a Landfall, called Wind Song.

We came across them near the northern end of Vancouver Island while we were sheltering from a northwesterly gale in Bull Harbor, an area described with some accuracy in the Sailing Directions as “remote.” And very windy, as it turned out, even in summer.

When the weather calmed down, we went our separate ways south, down the “outside” of Vancouver Island, but we linked up with Wind Song again in Barkley Sound. And there the Romicks treated us to a gourmet meal of quite unexpected delicacy. It was built around a delicious dish they called gravlox.

They made it from a salmon they had caught. It was soft, sweet, salty, peppery, and tangy with dill. After five weeks of canned food and cruising rations, it was a sensation. Our jaded tastebuds were clapping their little hands and yelling with delight. Here’s the recipe:

GRAVLOX, from Burl and Abigail Romick, Wind Song, Barkley Sound, 1999

Center cut of salmon, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, cleaned and scaled.
Large bunch of dill. (Or dried dill, if you’re cruising.)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons crushed peppercorns

Slice lengthwise and remove backbone and small bones.
Place half of fish skin-side-down in a glass or enamel baking dish or casserole. Sprinkle dill on top.
Combine salt, sugar, and peppercorns. Sprinkle over dill.
Place the other half of the fish on top, skin-side-up.
Cover with plastic, weighted down and place somewhere cool (refrigerate if possible) for 48 hours. Turn fish over every 12 hours or so and baste with the liquid marinade that forms.

You’ll need a sharp knife to take off horizontal slices, because the meat is quite soft, and you can serve it on crackers or bagels as an hors d’oeuvre, eat it with salad, or simply rip pieces off with your fingers and gobble them down if nobody’s watching.

If you’re at home, you can, of course, buy a ready-filleted center cut of salmon at your grocery store, delicatessen, or fishmonger. It’s not cheating. But if you can, catch your salmon yourself. It will never taste better.

Today’s Thought
The Americans are a funny lot: they drink whisky to keep them warm; then they put some ice in it to make it cool; they put some sugar in it to make it sweet, and then they put a slice of lemon in it to make it sour. Then they say “Here’s to you” and drink it themselves.
— B. N. Chakravarty, India Speaks to America

Two definitions for you today:
Diplomacy — the art of letting someone else have your own way.
Nonchalance — the ability to look like an owl when you have just behaved like an ass.

October 25, 2009

Gastronavigation week

The latest issue of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) poses a question of interest to all amateur sailors. The question comes from Titus Aduxass, who, like several of his fellow inmates, is planning to acquire (hem, hem) an ocean-going sailboat and set off for Tahiti as soon as he gets out of prison.

In a letter to the editor of the Gazeout he asks: “What stuff can you cook under way in a moderate-to-rough sea?”

Well, that inspired me to devote all three columns this week to the gentle art of gastronavigation, about which I know practically nothing. But I pride myself on the fact that knowing nothing about something has never stopped me writing about it.

Thus we plunge boldly into Gastronavigation I, featuring one of my all-time favorite recipes, one that you can prepare in heavy weather with a minimum of effort on one of those little gimbaled single-burner stoves hanging from a bulkhead.

This recipe originated with Commander E. G. Martin, winner of the first Fastnet Race in 1925 with Jolie Brise, a 56-foot converted pilot cutter built of wood in Le Havre, France, in 1913.


Place four medium-large onions, peeled and cut into quarters, into a covered saucepan with 3 to 4 cups of cold water.

Add 2 tablespoons Bovril (or other strong beef stock), 4 ounces butter, a dessert-spoonful Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce, a little black pepper, and (when the cooking is nearly done) a small glass of sherry or rather more white wine.

Boil gently for 30 minutes or until the onions have fallen to pieces and are soft, stirring occasionally.

Okay, now for the translation. Bovril. What the heck is Bovril? Well, it seems to be the distilled essence of British cows. It’s black and bitter and it’s still available at my local supermarket. But I don’t use Bovril. I use enough beef stock cubes to make 4 or 5 cups of bouillon.

And 4 ounces of butter? Just reading about it is enough to clog your arteries and give you a heart attack. On land, I use only 2 ounces of butter. It still tastes delicious. But at sea, when a hungry crew needs lots of quick fuel to burn up, give them a full 4 ounces. They’ll love you for it.

Incidentally, Jolie Brise went on to win another two Fastnets, and is still sailing and racing today at the age of 96. Last year she was first in class and first in fleet in the Tall Ships Race from Liverpool, U.K., to Maloy, Norway.

Coming on Wednesday: A West Coast recipe. How to turn a fresh-caught salmon into delicious gravlox.

Today’s Thought
I want a dish to taste good, rather than to have been seethed in pig’s milk and served wrapped in a rhubarb leaf with grated thistle root.
— Kingsley Amis

“Waiter! Take your thumb off that steak.”
“Very well, sir, but if it falls on the floor again it’s your fault.”

October 22, 2009

What happens at 27 feet

BOB K7 ZULU BRAVO left a comment with my last blog in which he wondered why I seem to have a tendency to like boats around 27-28 feet. He wanted to know what is compelling about that length for me.

Well, it’s difficult (since I own a 27-footer) to protest that I like many different kinds of sailboats from 11 feet to about 35 feet. That’s true, but the fact is that I do prefer my boats on the smaller side. I like the feeling of being in control without having to rely on others for brain power or muscle power, and as I am not over-endowed with either, the smaller the boat, the safer I feel.

But there are limits, of course. There are the usual compromises. Small size means small accommodation. My wife and I toughed it out on a delightful little Santana 22 for several years of exploration in the Pacific Northwest. It was like camping on water in a fiberglass pup tent. Wonderful for young people, but more of a challenge and less inviting as the bones get creakier and the sinews less flexible.

Designers will tell you that interesting things happen when a boat gets to about 27 feet overall. It’s then big enough for four full-length berths. It can accommodate a decent full-size head compartment. It has room for a cabin table and a permanent, if somewhat constricted, galley. And, joy of joys, you can stand up in the darned thing to put your pants on. It has headroom.

At the same time, it’s small enough to singlehand with comparative ease and, when properly designed and built, it’s plenty big enough to sail around the world. There are compelling reasons why one of the longest production runs in the history of yachting, if not THE longest, is the Catalina 27.

The price of buying and maintaining a boat looms large in my equation, too. I don’t believe I could afford anything larger than a 26-year-old 27-footer. The Internet and communications technology have badly affected journalists like me. Unlike the big song companies, I don’t get a royalty every time someone downloads my product. My De-Naming Ceremony is free all over the Net, for example. Sometimes I don’t even get a credit, never mind a check.

Which brings me to Bob’s second query: “Having read these columns for some time now, are you contemplating a book compiled of them in the future?”

I’d love to turn them into a book Bob, with nice line illustrations, too, but think about it: who is going to pay for a book when they can get all these columns free on my blog?

Too many people these days equate First Amendment rights and freedom of speech with free access to the sweat and blood of writers and researchers. It can’t last. Things have got to change. But that’s cold comfort for those of us trapped in the crossfire right now. My mother was right. I shoulda been a plumber.

Today’s Thought
Small things are best: Grief and unrest
To rank and wealth are given;
But little things On little wings
Bear little souls to Heaven.

— F. W. Faber, Written in a Little Lady’s Little Album.

“Mom, is it true that we’re dust before we’re born?”
“Yes, dear, I believe so.”
“And is it true that we’re dust after we die?”
“Yes, dear. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I just looked under the fridge, and somebody’s either coming or going.”