March 31, 2009

The safety of the sea

MOST SAILORS don’t die at sea. The majority die of heart attacks when they get their boatyard bills. Seriously, very few sailors die in storms at sea but the prospect of sinking far away from land is what keeps many would-be ocean cruisers at home. In fact, sinking, from whatever cause, is our biggest fear. We pack our sailboats with liferafts, dinghies, lifejackets, drysuits, flares, VHF radio, SSB radios, satellite phones, and Epirbs just in case our boat sinks.

But the plain truth is that our boats are safer than we think. Probably safer than our cars. Very few small yachts sink in deep water even in the worst storms. Some get rolled over and dismasted, but they don’t sink. Almost all make it back to shore under power or a jury rig.

Size, of itself, doesn’t equate with seaworthiness. Small is not necessarily dangerous, and large is not necessarily safer. If a boat is designed so that it will admit little water if it’s turned upside down by a big breaking sea, it possess one of the major components of seaworthiness. And even the smallest boats can be designed that way.

Small boats are certainly more uncomfortable, but small boats, especially light-displacement ones, have the advantage that they yield to the seas and offer little resistance, whereas bigger boats offer solid surfaces for heavy water to damage. The disadvantage is that deep-sea sailing in a small boat is like living in a busy tumble drier — only it’s a whole lot colder and wetter.

The last time I looked, the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest sailboat belonged to Hugo Vilen, whose boat, Father’s Day, was just was 5 feet 4 inches long, the size of coffee table. Soon the record will go to a boat that is deeper than it is longer, because the occupant will have no choice but to stand the whole way. I imagine it will be almost as uncomfortable as flying coach.

John Guzzwell circumnavigated the world in a boat he built and called Trekka. She was just 20 feet 6 inches long. That was regarded as quite an achievement … until Sege Testa went round the world in Acrohc Australis, which was 11 feet 10 inches long. Now, I hear, there’s an attempt to race around the world in sailboats just 10 feet long. When will they ever stop?

Anyway, the message is that few sailboats are lost at sea, and there’s no evidence to suggest that small boats sink more frequently than big ones. So, if you’ve always wanted to cross an ocean in a small boat of your own, don’t let fear stop you.

Today’s Thought
Rivalry is good for mortals.
—Hesiod, Works and Days.

Advice to nubile women:
A man resembles a fine wine: He starts out like the grapes on a vine and it’s your job to crush him underfoot and keep him in the cellar until he matures into something you'd like to have with dinner.

March 29, 2009

Death by improper anchoring

I WAS MORE THAN a little concerned to learn that “improper anchoring” had caused the death of three men off the coast of Florida. NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, together with former University of Florida player Will Bleakley, lost their lives on a February 28 fishing trip. A fourth man, Nick Schuyler, was the sole survivor.

The TV and newspaper reports left out the important technical details. They were apparently satisfied that “improper anchoring” was a fairly normal cause of death at sea. But, as one who anchors his boat many times during the summer cruising season, I was interested to discover what kind of anchoring is lethal. Luckily, I stumbled upon the official accident-investigation report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Here are the missing facts:

The four men had anchored Cooper’s 21-foot Everglades outboard sport fisher in the Gulf of Mexico about 35 miles west of St. Petersburg. The boat was anchored by the bow in the usual way, but when it came time to leave for home they found the anchor was stuck. Cooper had lost an anchor the previous weekend because it wouldn’t come free from the bottom, so this time he agreed to a suggestion from Bleakley to use the power of the 200-hp outboard to break it free.

Accordingly, they took the anchor line aft, fastened it to the portside transom eye bracket, and Cooper opened the throttle in forward gear. It was rough in the Gulf that afternoon, and the boat immediately swamped over the transom, rolled to port, and capsized.

Unable to send a distress message, the four men struggled to stay on top of the inverted hull, sitting in water up to their chests. One by one they succumbed to hypothermia and drifted away from the boat. Schuyler, the only survivor, managed to stay with the boat until his rescue after 46 hours in the water.

This is the kind of accident that is far more likely to happen to an outboard powerboat with a low transom than to most sailboats, particularly when two or more people congregate in the stern to inspect a recalcitrant outboard motor or bring aboard a large fish. But if you have a small sailboat, it’s a danger to keep in mind.

Bigger sailboats, say from 20 feet upward, mostly are better designed to deal with swamping from aft, and indeed, there are occasions when anchoring from the stern is a useful technique. In the tropics and sub-tropics it ensures a cooling breeze blowing through the boat from aft forward. If, while anchored by the stern, you set the spinnaker, you can send crewmembers flying into the sky for thrilling trips and dips in a bosun’s chair. Anchoring by the stern also solves the “hunting” problem of sloops and cutters, when they “tack” restlessly from side to side. Your boat will lie very quietly to a stern anchor.

And if you sail into an anchorage, you can cruise slowly downwind under jib only until you find a good place to drop the stern anchor that every well-found cruising boat should carry. Just tip it off the stern and let the rode run. Snub gently until the anchor digs in, and you’re all set. You can roll up the jib or let it fly forward to slow you down, and you can let it fill again to set the anchor good and deep in the ground.

If you want, you can later take the anchor line from the stern to the bow chock, so that you’re anchored in the normal way. Then the people on the other boats will stop looking at you as if you’re mad.

Today’s Thought
We are as near to heaven by sea as by land!
—Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Hakluyt’s Voyages.

A secretary noticed her boss standing in front of the shredder, looking puzzled.
“Need help?” she asked.
“Yes,” said her boss, waving a piece of paper. “This is a very important document. How do you work this machine?”
She turned the shredder on and inserted the paper.
“Great,” said the boss. “I only need one copy.”

March 26, 2009

Stars in his eyes

I HAVE JUST edited a charming little article that will appear in Good Old Boat magazine’s July issue. It’s about a man who has been sailing all his life, 30 years or more of experience in fact, including crossing and recrossing the Pacific in his own small boat. The point of the article is that never, in all this time, has he managed to learn the names of the stars, let alone find the right ones for navigation.

Michael Kilday took a four-week course on celestial navigation in the 1970s but was completely unable to fix the constellations in his head. He looked in vain for The Scorpion, The Lion, and Orion’s Belt. Even the Big and Little Dippers eluded him. However, he found that if he stared at the firmament long enough he could find almost any constellation he could imagine, including The Bunny and The Naked Lady.

He was ashamed of himself at the time, because the experts all agreed that if you intended to go to sea, you had to know your stars, and how to shoot them with a sextant. Nevertheless, he found his way around the oceans quite safely with the sole aid of two celestial objects he knew he could identify without doubt — the sun and the moon.

He has got over his shame by now, of course, but he still remembers it as he and his wife sip their sundown rum-’n-Cokes in a beautiful anchorage in Grenada, in the West Indies. Like the rest of us he now navigates with a GPS plotter that tells him exactly where he is at night without any need to consult the constellations, and even if the cloud cover is 100 percent.

I can identify with Mr. Kilday. I, too, failed the star-chart test. It didn’t take me four weeks, though. One glance was enough to convince me that my brain wasn’t big enough to take it all in. I knew that immediately. But, like Mr. Kilday, I managed to find my way across the Atlantic twice with the aid of the sun only. Even the moon was too much for me. Figuring out the squirrely movement of the moon was far too much work. But working with the good old reliable sun was easy. I could find my position at any time during the hours of daylight. And, at an average speed of 5 knots, that turned out to be plenty good enough.

I take my hat off to those small-boat navigators who habitually took star sights at dawn and dusk, and swore that it was quite easy. What they didn’t realize, though, was that it was far easier not to take star sights at all. There are times in life when it doesn’t pay to listen to the experts.

Today’s Thought
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
That give a name to every fixed star
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those who walk and know not what they are.
—Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Administration Committee of a large hospital recently decided to add a new wing. They asked a panel of doctors to vote on the idea.

The Allergists voted to scratch it and the Dermatologists advised them not to make any rash moves. The Gastro-enterologists had sort of a gut feeling about it, but the Neurologists thought the administration had a lot of nerve. The Obstetricians felt they were all laboring under a misconception.

The Ophthalmologists considered the idea short-sighted; the Pathologists yelled, “Over my dead body,” while the Pediatricians said, “Oh, grow up!”

The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness; the Radiologists could see right through it, and the Surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing. The Internists thought it was a bitter pill to swallow, and the Plastic Surgeons said, “This puts a whole new face on the matter.” The Podiatrists thought it was a step forward, but the Urologists felt the scheme wouldn’t hold water.

The Anesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas and the Cardiologists didn’t have the heart to say no. In the end, the Proctologists left the decision up to some asshole in Administration.

March 25, 2009

Now's the time to go

THERE’S ONE GOOD THING you can say about this economic recession, or semi-depression, whatever it is: it’s a good time to buy a boat. It’s an especially good time for anyone contemplating sailing around the world in a good old used boat because this is most definitely a buyer’s market. Many people are wanting and needing to sell. Few people are willing to buy.

Even before the greedy insurance agents and bankers sent us down the slippery slope to penury you could sail around the world in a boat costing less than a used car. We have fiberglass to thank for that. All too often we look down on fiberglass boats as cookie-cutter Clorox bottles, but their greatest attribute is their longevity which, of course, has caused much dismay among boatbuilders.

In the good old days when yachts were made of beautiful wood that satisfied the souls of sailors, boatbuilders could rely on their two staunch allies, time and microbes, to limit the life of their products. The ravages of time and the appetites of rot-forming microbes made certain that boats didn’t last more than 20 or 30 years.

But now, in the fiberglass era, 40 and 50-year-old boats are still going strong and boatbuilders are tearing their hair out because the sales of new boats are depressed.
There are bargains galore for buyers looking for old-fashioned but still-solid sailboats capable of sailing around the world, especially those buyers who are prepared to build in a little sweat equity of their own.

The two best times to sail around the world are when you’re young, broke, and carefree, and when you’re old, rich, and carefree. The former beats the latter hands-down.

So if you’re young and worried about your job, there could hardly be a better time to go than now. While the world is wringing its hands and crying uncle, you can be out there on the wide ocean, under the white trade-wind clouds and sunshine, watching your bow wave turn the warm blue water into white lacy foam and thinking about the sandy beaches and coconut palms and nubile maidens in grass skirts swaying their hips to greet you on your next island landfall. (If you’re female, I can quite understand that the maidens in grass skirts might not be much of an incentive, but hey, the sandy beaches and coconut palms are still very attractive.)

So get to it, willya? Tell ’em John Vigor sent you.

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.

“And thus I predict that without a doubt the world will end in 50 million years,” said the famous lecturer.
“How many?” cried an alarmed voice in the audience.”
“Fifty million.”
“Whew!” came a relieved voice. “For one dreadful moment I thought you said 15 million.”

March 22, 2009

My silent fan club

SOMEBODY ASKED the other day why so few readers leave comments in this blog. Well, there is a very good reason for that. I don’t suppose many readers realize it, but this column commands the respect of one of the oldest and biggest fan clubs in the world. It started many years ago when I was a newspaper columnist, with this letter from the founder and chairman:

Dear Sir, I write to inform you of the existence of the John Vigor Silent Fan Club, the main aim of which is not to write you fan letters.

This means you don’t have to answer them. Thus you may save your time to continue your noble task of pouring gems of wisdom (which flow so freely from your mighty pen) at the feet of the ignorant masses for their enlightenment and upliftment.

You may already be aware of the existence of your Silent Fan Club as, true to the constitution, not one of our many thousands, perhaps millions, of members has written to you. For instance, have you heard from the President of the U.S.A, lately? Queen Elizabeth? Philip or Charles? See what I mean? See how effectively the club operates — the discipline and strength of its members?

I know that you are fully aware of your rare genius and the stunning contribution which, in your typically selfless way, you are making toward the betterment of mankind throughout the world at large, but I’ll bet that your built-in modesty — always apparent in the truly greatest of mortals — has not allowed you to realize just how popular you are, or how large your silent fan club.

Still, as chairman of the club, I am not satisfied that it is yet the biggest of its kind in the world, which is the reason why I have, just this once, had to break the code of silence by writing to you.
Would you please publish my appeal for more members? I am sure there are many millions of people who will flock to the cause and agree not to contact you in any way to praise you. This is the only condition of membership, and there are no dues to be paid.

If you will do me this honor I can promise you that you will be basking in the silent admiration of countless fans from every country on earth — admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit, charm, the subtle thrust and parry of your sparkling repartee, the wisdom, Solomon-like, from your princely brow.

Yours Humbly and Obediently,
(Chairman, John Vigor Silent Fan Club)

P.S. Please excuse the crayon — they don’t allow me to have anything sharp in this place.

WELL, that was the letter that started it all, and you can imagine how much the club has grown since. The Queen still hasn’t written, bless her royal heart. I believe that Dubya nearly succumbed but couldn’t find his pencil. And Angelina Jolie actually got as far as writing but was persuaded to tear up her letter before it was due to be mailed. Whew! Close call. It would have been awful to have to expel her from the club.

In conclusion, I must just say how wonderful it all is, and how encouraging to know that all of you out there are filled with silent admiration for this column despite the fact that nary a postcard of praise or an e-mail of ecstasy ever comes my way.

Well done, all of you. Such willpower. Such self-discipline. I salute you.

Today’s Thought
There are moments when silence, prolonged and unbroken,
More expressive may be than all words ever spoken.
—Owen Meredith, Lucile.

Yet another notice we noticed:
In the animal control waiting room:
“Back in 10 minutes. Sit! Stay!”

March 20, 2009

Dear John . . . Aaargh!

IT’S THE FIRST DAY of spring. Do my thoughts turn to frolicking among the daffodils and prancing around the Maypole? No they do not. My mind is full of thunder clouds and little bolts of lightning. I have just received my annual “Dear John” letter from the Port of Bellingham.

Dear John, they say, we’re putting up your moorage fees. It happens every year, regular as clockwork at the spring equinox. Twelve hours of daylight and 24 hours of dark thoughts.

If you own a large ship, your dock charges are nearly always based on tonnage, which is the amount of cargo she can carry. But in the netherworld of yacht marinas, moorage charges are based on overall length. Actually, in my marina, they’re based on the length of the slip you’re allocated, so in my case I have to take a 30-foot slip for my 27-foot boat. There are no 27-foot slips and they won’t let me moor in a 25-foot slip, the next size down.

Few people outside a small cadre of deep thinkers realize how unfair it is to charge for moorage by the length of the boat rather than its cargo-carrying capacity, or, in the case of a yacht, the volume of water it displaces.

After all, if you double the length of a boat, you increase its interior volume by eight times. Dave Gerr, the well-known New York naval architect, says a 55-foot boat is actually 21 times larger than a 20-footer, assuming similar proportions for each. He also says that its taxable value is 21 times greater.

But does a 20-footer pay a 1/21st part of the moorage fee a 55-footer pays? Nowhere near. Marinas charge by the foot, so the owners of 20 footers (and, naturally, 27-footers) are being robbed blind.

This is blatant discrimination, of course. While the rich get richer, the poor subsidize their moorage fees. It’s shameful. More than shameful, actually, since it’s done so deliberately.

It’s time for a revolution. Shout it from the rooftops: “Taxation by displacement, not length.” If one of you will kindly step up and wave the flag, I’ll be right behind you.

Today’s Thought
He was naturally subject to a kind of disease, which at that time they called lack of money.
—Rabelais, Works.

If smoking is so bad for you, how come it cures salmon and ham?

March 18, 2009

Upgrading your engine

WHEN THE DREADED day comes, and your old auxiliary engine finally decides to head for the great scrapyard in the sky, what are you going to replace it with? There’s almost complete agreement these days. You’ve got to get a new diesel, right?

But why a diesel? It’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone who owns a good old boat. In fact, it’s more of a fashion than a logical choice. There’s much to be said for modern gas engines with fuel injection and solid-state ignition.

The most popular reason given for choosing a replacement diesel is that it’s safer. But sailors who own diesels mostly cook with propane gas, which can blow a boat to pieces just as easily as gasoline can.

A gas engine is cheaper, smoother, and more powerful than a diesel of the same weight. It’s easier to crank, easier to repair, even for an amateur, easier to remove from the boat, and much quieter in action.

Gasoline engines in cars are designed to run about 3,000 hours, or 100,000 miles before they need an overhaul. Now, the average boat owner logs 200 engine hours a year, so, if you maintain it faithfully, it would take nearly 15 years before a gas engine needed an overhaul.

As for safety — your nose is very good at sniffing out very small concentrations of gasoline. Together with a bilge blower run for five minutes before every start, it will virtually eliminate the chances of a surprise explosion.

So, when the time comes to replace your auxiliary motor, don’t be stampeded into diesel. Gasoline engines have been used in small boats for many decades. Consider their advantages very carefully before you make your choice.

Today’s Thought
To some will come a time when change
Itself is beauty, if not heaven.

—E. A. Robinson, Llewellyn and the Tree

Yet more notices we noticed
Outside a muffler store:
“No appointment necessary. We heard you coming.”

March 15, 2009

The pull on a sheet

THERE ARE TIMES when I wonder what sort of loads my jib sheets are carrying. Those times usually come when we are screaming along on a close reach in 20 knots and (for a change) I have nothing else to worry about.

I look at the working sheet, and its bowline, and the lead block, and the winch, and the cleat, and my little brain wonders how many pounds of tension are being created in all those spots, and what would happen if something suddenly gave way.

The modern rope we use for sheets and halyards is a wonderful material, strong almost beyond belief, but it does have its limits, of course, and if your brain demands peace of mind while you’re sailing, maybe you should be quite sure all your running rigging is adequately sized.

You can make a pretty good estimate of the strain your jib imposes on its sheet. You simply square the wind speed in knots and multiply the answer by the sail area in square feet. Then you divide the answer by 232. This gives you the approximate pull on the sheet in pounds.

For example, let’s say you have a 200-square-foot jib, and the wind is blowing 20 knots. Square the wind speed, 20 x 20, and you get 400. Multiply that by the sail area, 200, and you get 80,000. Divide that by 232 and the result is 344.8 pounds, say 345 pounds.

That’s the weight of two big men, which explains why you need the help of a winch to trim the jib when it’s blowing hard. And here’s another thing: wind pressure in the sail rises as a square of wind speed, so the greatest pull you’ll experience on that sheet is likely to be double the 20-knot figure, or in the region of 700 pounds. If you want peace of mind, make sure your gear can handle it.

Today’s Thought
The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
—Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Another notice we noticed:
In an optometrist’s office:
“If you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’re in the right place.”

March 13, 2009

The sea’s finest show

THE MIRACLE called phosphorescence is one of the finest shows the sea ever puts on. There are times when the water seems to crackle with light. Your eyes alone don’t seem to do it justice. You long to hear it or taste it—to feel the extraordinary sensations you are witnessing so inadequately.

In a small boat you are very close to the sea, and when it’s putting on a show you can touch those glimmering lights and get tiny sparkles all over your hands and face.

But something even more miraculous happened to us one night in tropical seas. Imagine a thin oval disk about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide lying at an angle, 6 feet under water. As we approached slowly, the whole disk erupted instantaneously in an eerie greenish flash that bounced off our white sails.

Every few minutes, another disk, lying at a different angle, would go off like a strobe light. On calm nights it sometimes took us hours to pass through large fields of these flashing disks. We were near the island of Fernando da Noronha, 200 miles off Brazil, at the time—precisely where Charles Darwin had seen them 148 years before.

He had no definite explanation for them, but we had: Just one of the sea’s ordinary, everyday miracles.

Today’s Thought
How cunningly nature hides every wrinkle of her inconceivable antiquity under roses and violets and morning dew!
—Emerson, Letters and Social Aims.

More notices we noticed:
In a non-smoking section:
“If we see smoke we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action.”

March 10, 2009

A yachty aide-mémoire

IF YOU CAN remember what the word mnemonics means, you probably don’t need mnemonics. It’s my personal misfortune, however, that I can’t hardly remember anything, so I’m one of those sailors who definitely does need mnemonics.

I even had to invent a mnemonic to help me remember the colors, shapes, and numbers of navigation buoys. I mean, it’s all very well to remember “Red, Right, Returning,” but what if you’re entering a strange port at dusk, and you can’t see whether the buoy’s red or not? There are many times when you can’t see anything but the black silhouette of a buoy, or maybe just its number. Which side do you leave it on then?

Well, to help me sort it out, I imagine a Russian nun carrying a green milk can from the nunnery cow barn. I recite to myself: “Even Red Nuns Carry Odd Green Cans.”

Those of you who know how to navigate by the Mark 1 Eyeball method will recognize the shorthand code in my mnemonic. It tells you that red buoys are nun buoys — the ones with the conical, pointy tops. It also tells you that nun buoys always carry even numbers. Conversely, can buoys — the ones with the flat tops, like cans of soup — are always colored green, and they carry odd numbers.

Thus, if I stumble upon a buoy while returning to port at dusk, I know I should leave it to starboard, if it (a) has a conical top; OR (b) it’s colored red; OR (c) it carries an even number. OR all three, of course. But any one will do the trick.

However — and there’s always a however — it’s an unfortunate fact that buoys with lights on them do not necessarily conform to the nun or can shapes. From a distance, in broad daylight, most lighted buoys look like can buoys with their middle section missing. In daylight, such a buoy will not tell you which side of the channel it guards. If you’re nervous, you have to hang around until dark, and only when it starts flashing either red or green will you know which side to leave it on.

Meanwhile, it’s sad that there can be no mnemonic for lighted buoys. It’s a flaw that was apparently overlooked by the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities when they bequeathed System B to us. You’d think a high-powered bunch of maritime brains like that would have seen the problem coming, and invented distinctive shapes for red light buoys and green light buoys. But no. No such luck, dude. What do they care about Eyeball Mark 1 navigators in pesky little sailboats, I ask you? Nothing, that’s what. If they ever choke on their caviar, some of us won’t be too concerned.

Today’s Thought
They make glorious shipwreck who are lost in seeking worlds.

A hard man is good to find.
—Mae West

March 8, 2009

Advice to the lovelorn

IT’S NOT OFTEN that I’m asked for advice in marital matters, but I could hardly ignore this plea from a boat widow in California:

DEAR JOHN – I need your help. I have been happily married for 10 years but I’m worried my husband is becoming a pervert. He has started secretly looking at boats. I do my best to satisfy him in every way, but I have found a yachting magazine hidden under the cushions in the den. It has a double-page spread of a gorgeous Hinckley.

He also keeps a well-thumbed cover from Good Old Boat magazine in his wallet. It features a shapely C&C 30 having a bottom job. I know he quietly goes on the Internet and watches videos on and There are advertisements showing provocative Catalinas saying: “Call us, we are in your city.”

Last weekend he went to Las Vegas with a bunch of guys from his office. I believe it’s legal in Nevada to consort with boats aged over 18. When I tackled him about it, he said they went to see the spring flowers. What should I do? —Cathy W., Dorchester, Calif.

Cathy, Cathy, please calm down, it’s all perfectly normal. Young boys straight out of puberty take pictures of boats they’ve got friendly with, and send them to each other on their cell phones. Your husband’s actions don’t mean he doesn’t love you. Men have been lusting after boats for centuries. Mostly they just look. Rarely do they touch. They live in a fantasy world. They mean no harm. If I were you, I would get advice. The two of you should make an appointment with a sympathetic yacht broker and discuss the problem. It’s just possible that a small deposit and reasonable monthly payments will solve everything. Good luck. (And don’t call me, I’ll call you, okay?)

Today’s Thought
Love is a fiend, a fire, a heaven, a hell
Where pleasure, pain, and sad repentance dwell.
—Richard Barnfield, The Shepherd’s Content.

Notices we noticed:
On a maternity room door:
“Push. Push. Push.”

March 5, 2009

The spring ritual

IN SPRING a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of hanging upside down by his toes in the hatchway as he tries to perform maintenance tasks in the rear end of his boat. It should be a crime to squeeze a large auxiliary engine into the tiny, convoluted space available in the stern quarters of a small sailboat, but scofflaw yacht designers get away with it all the time.

They put the seacocks for the cockpit drains back there. They put the stuffing box for the propeller shaft back there. They put the dipstick for the transmission box back there. And they put other stuff in there that has to be looked at, poked at, adjusted, and maintained every year before the sailing season starts.

And when I say “back there” I’m talking about a space that’s mostly filled with oily engine, an irregular space under the cockpit with sloping floors and curved walls. It’s a space you can’t even get to on most boats unless you empty an adjacent, claustrophobic, cockpit locker and ooze yourself inside. Even then, if you can find a way to contort your body so you don’t slide head-first into the murky bilgewater, you won’t be able to reach every nut that needs turning or lever that needs to be unfrozen because your arms simply aren’t long enough.

Once you’re in there you can’t turn around. When you’re done, you have to back out. People regularly get cramps and find they’re stuck in position. I know of at least man who had to be rescued with the Jaws of Life by the local fire brigade. He would undoubtedly have starved to death had he not been equipped with a cell phone to call for help.

A sailor called Charlie Brenton was talking about this much-feared annual ritual on the Cape Dory bulletin board the other day. Here are his thoughts:

“Since most of us did not purchase our Cape Dorys new, many are unaware that Cape Dory did require prospective owners to pass a specific physical examination before purchase. Original Cape Dory owners were required to be less than 5 feet 4 inches tall and to weigh less than 120 pounds. Waist size was not to exceed 28 inches. Arm length was critical. It was required that the new owner prove that he could tie his shoes without bending over. Once these requirements were fulfilled, it was furthermore recommended that an additional joint be surgically inserted in the forearm between the elbow and wrist. Many of the spring maintenance problems that skippers experience are directly related to the inability to pass the Cape Dory physical.”

Charlie, who sails a 33-foot Cape Dory sailboat registered in Newington, New Hampshire, apparently did not pass the Cape Dory physical himself, but he has figured out his own personal solution to the problem of squeezing into the black hole back aft:

“Each spring I go on a three-day fast,” he said, “then I roll myself up to the configuration of a beach ball. With the engine room cover removed, my 10-year-old kicks me around the cabin until he is able to boot me over the exhaust riser to the realm beyond. Then I know that I am ready to uncoil and go to work. He throws me a sock full of wrenches, both metric and SAE, a box of Band-Aids and an occasional beer. He then sits enthralled while his Dad adds entirely new words to the English language.”

All I can say is that Charlie’s suggestion of a qualifying physical exam before purchase is a good idea. The fact that it might produce a new race of sailing dwarfs with chimpanzee arms is neither here nor there. At least the damn cockpit seacocks will work as they should.

Today’s Thought
Nothing is so easy but it becomes difficult when done with reluctance.
—Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos

Notices we noticed:

Outside a church:
“Seven days without God makes one weak.”

March 3, 2009

Another great escape

I’VE BEEN SURPRISED recently to receive several letters from prison inmates. They all had read my book, Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere, and they all had questions about which boat might be most suitable for them.

I’m at a loss to explain this sudden development. Are they planning to break out of jail and disappear over the horizon in a stolen boat? Or are they about to finish their terms with the realization that now is a good time to find bargains in used sailboats? You wouldn’t think the national economy would have much impact on someone in the slammer but I suppose they have a lot of time to ponder on it.

Perhaps it’s just the thought of spring that has seeped into their minds after a long bleak winter. When you’re wasting your life away reclining on a barebones bed in a concrete cell, you might well entertain romantic visions of white sails in warm turquoise water, and green palm trees rustling on soft sunny beaches. Hell, I do that myself, and I have a nice soft bed.

I always advise them to go simple. Most of them seem to be interested in singlehanding, and simplicity is the key for the lone sailor. Boat speed seems to be of interest to them, too, which is understandable, I suppose, if you’re being chased by the law. But I keep telling them that none of the 20 boats in my book is going to be able to outrun the Coasties or the Home Security guys who routinely drive around at 20 knots because they don’t have to pay for the gas.

If I were on the lam I’d want a small inconspicuous sailboat, something that wouldn’t attract attention, something that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. Something old, a bit shabby, and tired-looking. Something a bit like me, I guess.

Today’s Thought
His venture sounds like a banana peel awaiting its victim.
—Charlotte Curtis, New York Times


A new poll reveals Americans’ 10 favorite forms of exercise:
• Jumping to conclusions.
• Hurling insults.
• Sidestepping responsibilities.
• Throwing fits.
• Running down friends.
• Running up bills.
• Pushing their luck.
• Fending off creditors.
• Pulling fast ones.
• Passing the buck.

March 1, 2009

The Terrors of Being Towed

I ONCE SAILED a 17-foot sailboat across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. But I didn’t sail back. I was towed by a cabin cruiser. And I’ve never been so scared in my life.

I was young then. I knew it all. I gave the towboat my anchor chain and shackled a concrete weight in the middle to prevent snatching. I lowered my heavy metal centerboard for maximum stability. Big mistakes.

We left Calais at dusk in a dead calm. The other skipper had promised to go no faster than 6 knots, but we took off at 10. The tow line stretched bar taut. The concrete black slammed into the swells, showering the open cockpit with heavy spray and drenching me.

Every few minutes she’s heel far over, staggering and juddering as the centerboard gained lift. I strained against the tiller, trying to keep her in line astern. I heard water swishing down below, but couldn’t leave the helm to pump. I daren’t go forward to cast off the tow for fear of immediate capsize. I couldn’t communicate with the cruiser.

In pitch darkness, rigid with fear, I was dragged at 10 knots toward the Goodwin Sands lightship, which had its name painted on its sides in 6-foot white letters. The idiot powerboat skipper circled it and yelled: “Where are we? Which way to Dover?”

When we finally got to Dover he towed us into the Royal Navy’s submarine pen. Police pounced on us and searched both boats. Turned out there had been a big jewel theft in France. A getaway cruiser had been stolen in Calais.

The cops removed the idiot skipper and his friends, and I didn’t feel at all sorry for them. I collapsed on a damp bunk strewn with debris from the police search and vowed never to be towed again if I couldn’t cast off the tow line from the cockpit at any time I wanted.

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

Another notice we noticed:
In a bar’s non-smoking section:
“If we see smoke we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action.”