August 31, 2009

An unexpected encounter

WELL, we dragged our old dinghy Tokoloshe behind us for one last trip into the San Juan and Gulf Islands. It turned out to be an interesting trip. The plan was to meet up with friends on two boats in British Columbia, and to visit the world-famous Butchart Gardens, which are accessible by dinghy from a gorgeous little anchorage in Tod Inlet.

But, as it happened, we dragged anchor in Echo Bay, on Sucia Island, on the first night out and I had to weigh the anchor by hand in a hurry. I raised the 25-pound CQR and its 30 feet of chain with no problem. Or so I thought.

It wasn’t until the next night, in Bedwell Harbour, Canada, that the pain set in. As I discovered later, I had sprained a sacroiliac ligament. At the same time I had managed to pinch a nerve and my right foot had gone numb. It flopped awkwardly from side to side when I tried to walk.

I lay flat on my back for a whole day, doped up to my eyeballs with ibuprofen, and then we hightailed it under power for home and medical attention.

It was a long, tiring day but one that my wife June and I will remember for an unexpected encounter with orcas, those sleek black-and-white killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.
We were putting along between Stuart Island and Roche Harbor when we noticed a Washington State ferry hove-to in the water about half a mile ahead. A crowd of passengers was crammed onto the foredeck, all their necks craned in one direction. Two powerboats and a sailboat suddenly slowed down. And then we saw the puffs of white vapor low over the water and the huge dorsal fins standing high above the calm sea.

I idled the engine and put her into neutral. The whales came straight at us. A large rubber dinghy filled with whale watchers hovered cautiously off to one side of our stern. More yachts came to a halt in a wide circle around us.

We held our breath as a pod of five orcas raced past us, no more than 30 feet off to starboard, four of them in line abreast and arcing up together in absolute unison while the fifth trailed a little way behind.

We could see cameras and video recorders glinting in the sun on the other side of the whales as they came past. What wonderful footage it would make for the evening news if one of these magnificent beasts nudged us with its tail.

Even once the orcas were well clear, the large car ferry was still dead in the water. Another group of whales was following the first one. They, too, came straight for us, four of them flashing in the sunshine, shedding sprays of water from those tall fins.

Only when they were all well past us did we think about the dinghy floating behind us. Tokoloshe has a jet-black hull with a broad white stripe up to the gunwales. Sort of like a baby orca. “Maybe they thought she was a relative,” said June.

I’m glad she mentioned that only after they’d gone past.

Today’s Thought
Danger and delight grow on one stalk.
—John Lyly, Euphues

Atheism is a non-prophet organization.

August 21, 2009

Compassionate leave

THE MEN IN THE WHITE COATS have freed John Vigor from his padded cell and his pretend computer for a few days of compassionate leave with his family. This means there will be no more Mainly About Boats columns until he returns on Monday, August 31, 2009.

Meanwhile, if you need something really high-class and intelligent to read, there are more than 130 past columns to browse through in the archives over on the right. Have fun!

August 20, 2009

The inside skinny on dinghies

NOW THAT I’M SEARCHING for a new dinghy, I’ve been collecting some facts. The big choice is between an inflatable and a hard dinghy.

Here are some pros and cons for inflatables:

They’re compact when you deflate them.
They’re fast even with small outboard motors.
One of their best attributes is that it’s easy for swimmers to climb (or launch themselves) aboard.
For their size, they can carry heavy loads.
Because they are just big fenders, they won’t damage your topsides.

Barnacles on the rocks will puncture them.
A screwdriver in the back pocket of your jeans will puncture them. Don’t ask.
They are mostly pretty wet and bouncy under power.
It takes time to inflate or deflate them.
They’re fairly expensive.
They don’t stand up well to everyday hard work in tropical climates.
They are very attractive to thieves.

Here are the pros and cons for hard dinghies:

They’re better sea boats.
They’re much easier to row — and even sail, if you want.
They’re more durable.
They tow better behind your boat, with less drag.
They’re better able to withstand abrasion.

They’re less stable than inflatables.
They’re heavier and bulkier.
They need more stowage space on deck or on stern davits.

On a 27-foot boat like mine, there is simply no space on deck for a hard dinghy. I don’t have a roller furling jib, so I need the foredeck space. But all the same, I am biased toward a hard dinghy, even if it means towing it everywhere on coastal trips.

L. Francis Herreshoff listed his requirements for a hard dinghy as follows:
► It should row easily, light or loaded
► It should be light enough to be hoisted aboard easily
► It should be constructed strongly to it will not leak, and take some abuse
► It should tow steadily, always holding back on its painter and never yawing around.

I’m not sure it’s possible to find a dinghy like that, especially one that will always hold back and never yaw around. But I’ll keep looking. Miracles do happen, they tell me.

Today’s Thought
For she IS such a smart little craft,
Such a neat little sweet little craft —
Such a bright little,
Slight little, Light little,
Trim little, slim little craft!
— W.S. Gilbert, Ruddigore

You’ve heard of King Arthur’s Round Table, of course. But do you know who was the roundest knight? It was Sir Cumference. And how did he acquire his size? From too much pi, naturally.

August 19, 2009

The dreaded dinghy decision

THE TIME HAS COME to start thinking about a new dinghy. Groan. I hate having to think about a new dinghy. It’s such an impossible task. There simply isn’t a perfect dinghy for a 27-foot sailboat, no matter how much you pay, no matter how cleverly you build.

I’ve had my old dinghy for about 14 years now. She has served three different boats and been towed in the open ocean for hundreds of miles. She is easy to row and tow and she is about as seaworthy as a dinghy can get. She has never shipped a drop of water. She has never needed an outboard motor, either. I can scull her with one oar over the stern and she’s almost perfect for setting out a second anchor when the weather turns iffy.

But ... she was very rough to begin with, a practice fiberglass shell for some boatbuilding school, probably. I don’t know her origins. She came with a 22-foot sloop I bought. She was obviously designed as a 10-foot outboard fishing skiff, but with a nice sheerline and high flared bows. She is as cranky as all hell and we have to be very careful how we get in and out. But her narrow beam contributes greatly to her seaworthiness. She is heavy, so we have dragged her over the rocks and barnacles for so many years that the wooden skeg is almost completely worn away and the thin fiberglass bottom is deeply scored.

Now she has developed a leak in the after buoyancy compartment and I have been driven nearly crazy trying to find the source. I have even epoxied the whole outer bottom surface of the buoyancy compartment, to no avail. And when her gunwale fenders started peeling off and screws started falling out of the oarlock fittings, I thought to hell with it, enough is enough. Did I mention I once T-boned her with my 25-footer when she was moored sideways across the head of our slip? The gunwales are still cracked.

So we’ll soon take her on one last trip in the islands and then put her out to pasture. Maybe a sandbox for some backyard kids somewhere. Maybe a flower planter in some landscaping project. There’s life in the old gal yet, but it won’t be as our dinghy any more.

Today’s Thought
Change doth unknit the tranquil strength of men.
—Matthew Arnold, A Question

“That short fortune-teller just escaped from prison.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, they’ve just issued an all-points bulletin for a small medium at large.”

August 16, 2009

The two-boat blues

A FRIEND OF MINE finds himself in the unenviable position of owning two boats. He found and bought the new boat of his dreams while he still owned the old boat of his dreams, so now he has two boat mortgages, two monthly mooring payments, and two depreciating assets growing weeds and barnacles on their bottoms.

Naturally, he has been trying to sell the old boat of his dreams, an aging 30-foot coastal cruiser/racer, but he hasn’t met with much success. As he found out, this is not a good time to be selling a boat. He figures he’s going to have to accept about 60 percent of what he was asking for the boat, maybe a bit less. That’s a drop of about 40 percent from what it was worth just a couple of years ago.

I must admit I can’t find it in my heart to feel too sorry for him. He is quite well off and he can afford to lose a few thousand here and a few thousand there. But he’s not the type to grin and bear it. He frets about it. He hates losing money through no apparent fault of his own.

The interesting thing is that most of the inquiries about the boat have come from men of retirement age. Most of them are looking for a cheap boat to live aboard. It’s very likely that some of them have had their homes repossessed for failing to keep up with the mortgage payments, so it’s not surprising that they’re making low-ball offers on the boat. I don’t know how long they’ll be able to keep up with the boat mortgage and slip fees. If they’ve got any sense at all they won’t even try. They’ll set off straight away on a round-the-world voyage and sell the boat in some foreign land when the economy has improved.

Meanwhile, the message for the rest of us is quite plain: Don’t sell now unless you really, truly have to. And if that’s the sorry case, make sure your boat is painted and cleaned and scrubbed and looking as gorgeous as your girlfriend on the night you first kissed her. That way, you might be lucky enough to get 70 percent of what it’s worth, instead of only 60 percent.

Today's Thought
There is no such thing as “soft sell” and “hard sell.” There is only “smart sell” and “stupid sell.”
—Charles Brower, President, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn.

“They found a hole in the wall that goes around the nudist camp.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. The police are looking into it.”

August 13, 2009

A plea for anchor rollers

(Watch this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor.)

WHEN I WALK AROUND our local marina I can hardly believe how many boats lack anchor rollers. What were the manufacturers thinking? Thirty footers and bigger, without any proper means of retrieving the anchor and its rode. Did they imagine their boats would never ever anchor, from choice or necessity?

In my humble opinion, no boat over 20 feet in length should be allowed to leave the factory without a proper anchor roller at the bow.

Anyone who has ever tried to weigh anchor by hand in a boat without a bow roller knows how awkward and difficult it is. Consequently, you’ll notice that all sorts of after-market rollers get bolted on by boat owners seeking to ease the pain of retrieving the anchor. Some of them look far too flimsy for the job. Some stick out from behind the forestay at an odd angle. Others have to be bolted on top of a bed of teak to bring them to the correct level. And they’re not cheap, either. A reasonably sized one that will house the anchor costs in the region of $200 with shipping. And then you have all the fun of fitting it yourself.

I am lucky enough to own a boat that was designed from the beginning to have an anchor roller. It’s part of a simple bronze fitting that incorporates the bow chainplate, a bow roller, and the stemhead fitting to which the forestay attaches. I bless its little heart every time I weigh anchor, which I am able to do sitting down on deck behind it and bracing my feet in the anchor well.

In the days of my youth I used to be able to raise that way a 35-pound CQR on an all-chain 5/16-inch rode in 90 feet of water. Nowadays, my anchor weighs only 25 pounds and there is only 30 feet of 1/4-inch chain; the rest is nylon line. So I have it a lot easier and I’m very grateful.

I can only imagine that unscrupulous boat manufacturers deliberately omit a bow roller in an effort to keep the selling price down a few bucks. It’s a wicked practice, like selling a new car without a horn, or without a spare tire. If I was in charge of the boat-manufacturing industry I would make it a federal crime to sell a boat without an anchor roller. But since they’re never likely to elect me to that position, the situation is unlikely to change unless we all start complaining to our representatives in Congress.

Never mind health care for the moment. Never mind Iraq and Iran and North Korea and cash for clunkers. Forget all that for now. Surprise your elected U.S. representative. Ask him or her to sponsor legislation about bow rollers. You never know. It might be such a refreshing change from the same-old, same-old, that Washington DC could catch fire with enthusiasm for compulsory bow rollers. And if that means some boat manufacturers will end up behind bars, so be it. They deserve it.

Today’s Thought
The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public.
—Samuel Johnson, Miscellanies

“Did you know old Joe survived mustard gas and pepper spray?”
“No. How’s he doing?”
“Oh he’s a seasoned veteran.”

August 11, 2009

How to sail a boat

MANY YEARS AGO, when I was being taught how to teach people to sail, my instructor, Captain Corinne Mattingley, played the part of a puzzled beginner. She asked: “Why does the jib have two sheets when the mainsail only has one?”

I was taken aback by that simple question. I ummed and erred while my reeling brain struggled to pull itself together. Eventually she took pity on me. “The mast is in the way of the jib sheets,” she explained. “You need one on each side.”

Well, I knew that, of course. Just never thought about it. People like me who have sailed from childhood often sail by instinct without knowing the reasons for things. For instance, it took me a long time to figure out the answer to the question: How do you know when your sails are correctly trimmed?

The point I had always overlooked here is that there are two “modes” of sailing. The first is when you’re trying to sail to windward as efficiently as you can. The second is for every other point of sailing.

In the first case, you trim your sails for a beat, and then you cleat them and steer the boat left and right to keep the sails filled correctly. You luff or fall off as the case may be, steering a weaving course as the wind direction changes.

In the second case, on all courses from a close fetch to running dead before the wind, you steer the boat steadily at the spot you’re aiming for and you keep changing the trim of the sails to suit the changing wind.

So when you’re beating you constantly steer the boat to suit the wind; and when you’re sailing free you sail a steady course and constantly trim the sails in or out to suit the wind.

In practice, of course, most of us don’t bother to keep trimming the sails because the wind usually tends to switch back and forth, so we trim for the average. But if you want to race it’s important to react more quickly to wind changes, and even if you’re cruising it’s reassuring to know the theory – so you could go faster if you really wanted to.

Today’s Thought
We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.
— Rutherford D. Rogers, librarian, Yale

Advice for the semi-adventurous: Don't join dangerous cults: Practice safe sects.

August 9, 2009

Do you need a life raft?

(John Vigor’s column appears here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday)

AN IMPECUNIOUS YOUNG COUPLE about to go ocean cruising in a small sailboat asked me the other day if they needed a life raft. I said no. I told them their inflatable dinghy would do just as well, as long as they could protect themselves from wind, rain, and sun.

The trouble with a life raft is that there is no guarantee that it will work properly when you need it, or that it will stay afloat long enough for you to be rescued.

For a start, they’re expensive to buy and maintain. They contain very little to help sustain life. Some don’t even have any water. So you’d need a grab bag whether you had a life raft or an inflatable carried half-inflated on deck.

Life rafts are cramped, too. I guess four people could tolerate being in a four-person life raft for four hours, but only a six-person life raft would be tolerable for two for a week.

Then there’s the question of how you can launch a raft in a storm, and keep it safely alongside while you get yourselves and your stuff into it. Seven lives were lost during the storm that hit the Fastnet Race off England in 1979 in incidents that the later inquiry called “failure of the life raft.” The inquiry board discovered that the yachts these seven people abandoned were later found afloat and towed to harbor. The board added: “The rafts clearly failed to provide the safe refuge which many crews expected.”

During the vicious Queen’s Birthday Storm off New Zealand in June 1994, the only lives lost were those of a family of three who abandoned their boat and took to their life raft, never to be seen again.

The pressure to abandon ship before it’s necessary is very great but the fact is that very few boats sink from the stress of storms. Even those abandoned with hatches open seem to survive.

So my advice to the young couple about to set off on their first cruising adventure was simply: “Never abandon your boat until you are absolutely, positively sure it’s going to sink. Then, if you have an Epirb, you’ll be rescued just as quickly in your inflatable dinghy as in a dedicated life raft.”

Today’s Thought
What is safe is distasteful; in rashness there is hope.
— Tacitus, History

“Did you hear that Johnny backed into the meat grinder?”
“Goodness, no — how is he?”
“Well, he’s OK, but he got a little behind in his work.”

August 6, 2009

What about clunker boats, then?

ONCE AGAIN our revered leaders in Washington are ignoring the wants and needs of the sailing fraternity. Congress is pleased to give away billions of dollars to automobile dealerships and their customers, but there is not a single penny coming the way of anyone who sails a clunker boat.

I won’t go into the obvious wrong inherent in the Cash for Clunkers deal — giving $4,500 of taxpayer money to the people who made the bad choice to buy large gas guzzlers, while dissing the people who made the good choice by buying economical smaller cars ­— instead I’ll concentrate solely on the inequity between car owners and boat owners.

While we all know that Congress is giving this money away in an attempt to look like good guys so they’ll get re-elected, the stated reason is to reduce pollution and so reduce the amount of greenhouse gases smothering our atmosphere.

Now I know any number of aging sailboats whose diesels spew smoke of many colors into the air, and at least some of those colors must contain pollutants. Old Wotisname’s engine, for example, belches clouds of white smoke at start-up. As the engine warms, the exhaust turns light blue, at least until he puts it in gear. Then, as he revs up, it turns black and coughs up swarthy blobs that make rainbows on the water.

There are also plenty of fishing boats and work boats whose engines are kept going with bubble gum and hairpins as their owners battle to make a living. I have no doubt that they would like to reduce the amount of soot that collects on their transoms, and contribute to a healthier world, but where is Congress when they need it? Who is going to give them $4,500 for their worn-out Universals and Yanmars?

I can’t help thinking that if we had a president who sailed, as the Kennedys did, things might be very different. Perhaps we should pass the hat around and buy him a Sunfish or something.

Today’s Thought
We stand today poised on the pinnacle of wealth and power, yet we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight. This, in brief, is the quiet conservation crisis.
—Stewart L. Udall, US Secretary of the Interior, The Quiet Crisis, 1963

“Did you hear that little Willy swallowed some coins and had to go to the hospital?”
“Oh my goodness,no. How’s he doing?”
“The nurse says there’s no change yet.”

August 4, 2009

Warping out of a slip

(Keep an eye peeled for a new column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

JEFF YOUNG contacted me after reading last week’s column about the difficulties of backing out of a slip. He says he has a small boat and not much experience, so docking and undocking is still nerve-racking. He likes the idea of a “snap line” to aid in backing out of a slip, “but I’m not quite sure how the line is rigged on the dock.”

Well, Jeff, it’s really very simple. Like most simple things, however, it takes longer to describe it than to do it. I’m presuming you’re bow-in, in a slip.

I use a 3/8-inch braided nylon line, but 1/4-inch would probably be enough. Make the line twice the length of your boat on deck.

At the stern (outer) end of your dock, you need some kind of fitting for the line to run through freely. For example, my floating concrete dock is attached at its outside end to a thick wooden post driven into the seabed. The attachment fitting is simply a horizontal metal hoop that runs from the front face of the dock, around this piling, and back to the dock. The whole dock goes up and down with the tide, and the metal hoop rides up and down the piling.

I take one end of my line, pass it through the hoop and hold it in one hand. I take the other end of the line and hold it in my other hand. Then I walk back along the dock the length of the boat until I come to the end of the line. At this stage, standing next to the bow of my boat, I have a doubled line that runs from one hand, down the dock, through the metal hoop, and back up the dock to my other hand. I lay this doubled line down on the dock.

Now I go back down the dock and grab the doubled line near the hoop. I coil the doubled line down upon itself on the dock in figure-eight loops (best for running free without tangles) until the two ends of the line come to hand. In one end I make a loop and drop it over the cockpit winch. The other end I make fast around a nearby deck cleat.

When I cast off the stern line, I make sure to leave it under my coil of doubled line, so there’s nothing to hinder the line as the boat, in slow reverse, pulls the line off the coil on the dock as I back into the fairway.

When all the slack in the doubled line is taken up, the boat will jerk its bow around about 90 degrees toward the side opposite the doubled line. I then cast off one end of the line from the cleat and quickly haul in the whole line, starting at the end on the winch. The free end of the line runs through the hoop on the dock, and back to me. I gather it all into the cockpit.

If you find it more convenient or have an extra crew member, you can coil the doubled line in the cockpit and feed it out as you back out; but I prefer to let the boat pull the line off the dock.
The essence of this maneuver is to find something at or near the end of the dock (or an adjacent moored boat) that will let your line run through it freely when you need to retrieve it. One sailor I read about built a little vertical roller on the end of his dock for this purpose. A pulley block would do the job, but a knot might jam in it. A large steel ring would be fine, or a simple piece of galvanized water pipe (or a hunk of 2 x 4) sticking straight up for a foot or so – anything for your line to run around. If you’re using an adjacent boat, the pushpit or pulpit provide good turning points.

If you are permanently moored in the slip, you might even consider a single light chain the length of the boat, permanently attached to the end of the dock and looped around the cockpit winch when you need it. You can then just cast it off the winch when your turn is completed, and it will sink and not inconvenience any other boats. No need to retrieve it. A nylon line, weighted in places so that it sinks to the bottom, would also do the trick.

Incidentally, I always keep a sharp knife in my pocket to cut the line if anything gets stuck, and I make sure the line doesn’t get near the prop.

Don’t forget to put the gear in neutral or forward while you retrieve your line. It only takes a few seconds to get the line aboard, and then you’re all set to proceed along the fairway in forward gear under perfect control.

Today’s Thought
Avoid business with the sea, and put thy mind to the ox-drawn plough, if it is any joy to thee to see the end of a long life. On land there is length of days, but on the sea it is difficult to find a man with gray hair.
—Phalaecus, Epigram

What do you call a Frenchman who explodes a grenade in his kitchen? Linoleum Blownapart.

August 2, 2009

The hardest part of sailing

BACKING OUT OF A SLIP is the most challenging part of sailing. That’s the opinion of a couple who recently started sailing. I met Carl and Mona last week while they were practicing docking and undocking their Catalina 27. They can already sail pretty well once they’re clear of the marina, and they manage to berth the boat without causing too much damage, “but backing out makes us really tense,” said Mona.

Humph, I thought. Backing out a Catalina 27 is chickenfeed. They should try backing out a heavy-displacement full-keeler like my Cape Dory 27. At least they can steer in reverse.

Their trouble is that they have an outboard that can’t be turned left or right to steer in astern gear. So in theory they should go straight back. But in practice the stern always turns to port no matter what they do with the rudder. That leaves them facing the wrong way in the narrow channel once they’ve left the slip. Then they have to steer backwards until they’ve cleared the approach channel.

It’s prop walk that sends them the wrong way, of course. It applies to small outboards just as it applies to large inboard engines. But, as I said, once they’ve gathered a bit of speed, they can steer the Catalina quite well in reverse. They don’t like it, though. It makes them uneasy. They think it highlights them as beginners who don’t know what they’re doing. But in fact it’s a perfectly legitimate maneuver in a responsive boat, and I told them so. There’s a beamy 40-footer that regularly comes zipping past my stern in reverse with a pint-sized lady at the wheel. She obviously doesn’t suffer any apprehension.

Part of Karl and Mona’s problem is that they’re still very cautious. They back out of the slip with the engine idling because they’re scared of running into the row of boats berthed just 50 feet behind them. They go so slowly that the rudder can’t steer the boat. My feeling is that if they gave the engine full power in reverse from the very beginning, they would have sufficient stern way to steer the boat in the direction that counteracts prop walk. A quick change into forward and a short burst of full throttle with the helm over would have the boat facing the right way to exit the channel.

That won’t work with my boat, however. She takes too long to gather stern way, even at full throttle. And she won’t steer in reverse even on the best of days, so you never know where you’ll end up. The one constant seems to be that if there’s a decent wind blowing, she will tend to hang dead downwind from her propeller.

So we use a light line from the end of our dock to the starboard cockpit winch. The line is doubled around a convenient fitting on the dock. We back her out until, at 25 feet, she comes to the end of the doubled 50-foot line, and then the bow suddenly gets jerked around to port, no matter how skew she is. I let go one end of the line. It feeds through the dock fitting as I pull it smartly aboard. It’s magic. We’re facing the right way in forward gear in the middle of the channel, exactly where we want to be. If there were an audience, they’d applaud, I’m sure. This trick actually makes us look like masters of small-boat maneuvering. That’s always good for self-esteem, even if we know it isn’t actually true.

Today’s Thought
Chaos is a friend of mine.
—Bob Dylan

A little girl had just finished her first week of school. 'I'm justwasting my time,' she said to her mother. 'I can't read, I can't write,and they won't let me talk!'