December 30, 2010

Punishment for resolutions

I HATE PEOPLE who publish lists of New Year resolutions. So, to punish them, here are mine:

► I resolve never to varnish again. I will commit to memory the John Keats Varnish Rule: A Thing of Beauty Is a Job Forever.

► I resolve to wear a harness and safety tether whenever my wife is looking.

► I resolve never to pee over the side again while we’re sailing, unless:

(a) The head is blocked again, or

(b) The holding tank is full again, or

(c) I think nobody’s watching.

► I resolve not to take along a gallon of wine every time we go for a sail, on account of what happened last time. (However, the cat did recover quite well.)

► I promise, when on a cruise, not to eat all the chocolate before we broach any other supplies. The bitter recriminations are not worth it.

► I resolve not to sail rings around other slower boats, unless severely provoked.

► I resolve never again to race people who don’t know we’re racing.

► I resolve (rather unwillingly) not to get testy and shout a little when my wife refuses to jump a mere 6 feet to the dock with a boathook in one hand and the mooring line in the other. Sheesh, people can easily jump 18 feet these days. Grumble, grumble.

The end.

Today’s Thought
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #140
The basic requirements for an oceangoing yacht are these, in order of importance: seaworthiness, comfort, self-steering ability, and speed. Seaworthiness includes stability and self-righting as well as brute strength. It also supposes the ability to claw off a lee shore in heavy weather and the ability to lie a-hull or heave-to safely when unattended.

“Mom,” said the baby ear of corn, “where did I come from?”
“Why, dear,” said Mom, “the stalk brought you, of course.”

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December 28, 2010

VigorLeaks reveals job distress

IN THE INTERESTS OF FREE SPEECH, VigorLeaks today publishes a recent letter to a Washington state department that was intercepted by a freelance whistleblower:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to apply for Social Security disability benefits. This is what happened.

I was employed as a yard hand at the local marina. My boss told me to replace a burned-out light bulb at the top of a mast on a 45-foot cutter. Having drawn a suitable bulb from Stores Dept. I proceeded to boat. I had no help to get up mast but hit upon idea of filling two large plastic buckets with water. I tied them together and winched them to the top of the mast on main halyard.

I then secured my bosun’s chair to the halyard with the thought that the weight of the buckets would help me ascend mast.

Unfortunately, as I cast off halyard, I discovered that the weight of water in the buckets was considerably more than my weight. I therefore shot up the mast at high speed.

Unfortunately, my right shoulder crashed into the spreaders and became dislocated and heavily bruised. At the same time, descending buckets hit my left shoulder, cracking the bone and causing considerable pain.

Upon my arrival at masthead, two fingers of my right hand got jammed in the pulley, causing one to be broken and the other to be badly squashed. I had no time to install new bulb because the buckets, having hit the cabin top, fell over on their sides and emptied themselves. I was now considerably heavier than buckets, and began descending at a rapid pace.

Unfortunately, on my way down I met buckets coming up at high speed, causing severe contusions and bruising, and fracturing two ribs. I slammed heavily onto the cabin top, breaking a toe on my right foot. And then I must have lost control of my senses because I let go of the halyard.

The buckets now descended from top of the mast at high speed, one delivering a blow to my cheek, which was badly cut, and the other hitting me squarely on top of the head, which rendered me unconscious until a nice lady from one of the other yachts, having seen me bleeding and heard my screams, gave me first aid and called 911.

My boss says he doesn’t think I will be fit to work on boats again, at least not for his boatyard. I would therefore like to apply for disability and look forward to hearing from you.

[Name withheld to avoid embarrassment. -- Ed.]

Today’s Thought
There is no person who is not dangerous for someone.
— Madame de Sévigné, Letters

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #139
Ever wondered what’s in seawater? Well, here’s a list showing the number of grams of various chemicals in every 1 kilogram of seawater at a salinity of 35 percent:
Chloride 19.4; Sodium 10.8; Sulphate 2.7; Magnesium 1.3; Calcium 0.4; Potassium 0.4; Bicarbonate 0.1; Bromide 0.067; Strontium 0.008; Boron 0.004; Fluoride 0.001.

“Where’ve you been?”
“Yeah, half an hour ago, they tell me.”

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December 26, 2010

Small boats, simple voyages

SAILING, FOR MANY GOOD REASONS, tends to be regarded by many as a complicated and expensive pastime. But it needn’t be. Small simple boats can afford pleasure and gratification out of all proportion to their cost. And small gentle voyages can generate as much joy and satisfaction as long adventurous ones.

The man or woman who gingerly sails a dinghy along a friendly shore is no less worthy of our respect than the sailor who braves the mighty ocean. We all have our own areas of anxiety and doubt in our own abilities, and when we conquer our fears it is just as much a triumph to cross the bay as it is for someone of sterner nature to cross an ocean. And yet, human nature being what it is, we tend to judge other sailors by the size of their boats and how far they’ve traveled: their most distant ports, and the length of their voyages.

Now it is true that sailors who cross oceans in small boats perform prodigious feats of seamanship because they sail the same seas as big ships that have large crews specializing in the various skills needed to move people and cargoes across oceans. Sailboat sailors are their own cooks and navigators. They are their own engineers and riggers. They handle the sails and anchors and electrical circuits. And they face exactly the same hazards as large ships, including the storms, the rocks, and even pirates.

Yet, at the same time, to take a small boat across a body of water of any size is no small feat. To each his own goals and ambitions. We all set our own limits, and who can gainsay our individual achievements? What we all seek deep down is a feeling of ability, of achievement, of confidence. And sailing a small boat on a small voyage often does generate the confidence we need to deal with the greater troubles the world constantly throws at us.

Seamanship is as much a set of the mind as anything else. You are the only judge of your seamanship. We challenge ourselves, we feel fear, and sometimes we get more fear than we bargained for, but we learn and we gain confidence, and are not as frightened quite as much the next time. And there always is a next time for those who challenge themselves.

Today’s Thought
Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage.
— R. L. Stevenson

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #138
Oars for a yacht tender often benefit from being a little shorter than those designed for serious long-distance rowing in a special, light craft. The simple rule of thumb for tenders is that the overall length of each oar should be about 1 1/2 times the distance between the oarlocks. Thus, for a tender with a 4-foot beam, the oars should be 6 feet long.

Mary had a little lamb
That leaped around in hops
It hopped into the road one day
And ended up as chops.

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December 23, 2010

Presents you need for the boat

I HAVE HEARD IT SAID by both sexes that it’s very difficult to buy Christmas presents for men. That being the case, perhaps we men should do our bit to make this task easier, and, incidentally, thereby help the economy to get up off its knees.

One way to do this would be to make up a list of the Christmas presents we’d like to receive, and hand it out to friends, relatives, co-workers, and passers-by. I have heard this idea expressed often enough, but quite frankly it doesn’t appeal to me. I find it a little crass, a little indelicate, a little too much like begging. I would certainly be inhibited about asking for big-ticket items. And it is pre-loaded with the inherent danger that potential present-givers will reward your presumptuous requests by ignoring them completely, so that you receive nothing at all from your list. Such a deliberate kick in the teeth would be highly damaging to your self-esteem, which, I understand, can lead to destructive behavior on your part. That is not the kind of spirit Christmas is supposed to engender.

It has occurred to me, however, that a wish-list of this sort would be completely acceptable if it were presented in the form of a request for items for your boat.

You might think this a little strange at first, but it’s not really. It moves the guilt factor away from you to a third party. And people (even landlubbers) know instinctively that boats have souls. They realize that there are strong emotional ties between sailors and their boats that stop short only of kissing and hugging. Well, in most cases, anyway.

So, the point is that a present-list for your boat would be welcomed by those of your family and friends who are being driven to a frenzy by not having any idea of what might bring you joy this Christmas.

Now, you may already have been infected by the negative attitude that commonly assaults all brilliant new ideas like this. You may be saying, “But people will surely query why a boat would need a new flat-screen, Internet-ready, 72-inch, plasma TV with icemaker.  Or a case of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky; or a five-year subscription to Playboy. How do you answer them?”

Well, good heavens, it’s not difficult. Use your common sense. Close your eyes slightly. Look wise and mysterious. Say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Explain that the bond between a man and his boat is intimate and very private. Tell them you have this intuitive, exclusive insight into your boat’s true needs and desires. And make sure they realize that every boat knows the difference between real Johnny Walker and the cheap hooch they distill up in those scruffy hills in Arkansas.

Today’s Thought
Ever since Eve gave Adam the apple, there has been a misunderstanding between the sexes about gifts.
— Nan Robertson

The need to de-name first
Incidentally, here’s what can happen if you don’t use Vigor’s famous de-naming ceremony before you rename your boat:

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #137
How far away are your navigation lights visible? Well, with a 12-volt system and lights showing through clear glass or plastic in the most favorable weather conditions, a 24-watt bulb is visible at about three miles. A 12-watt bulb is visible at about two miles. Through red or green glass or plastic, a 24-watt bulb can be seen at a little over 1 mile. Incidentally, to increase visibility from three to four miles, you have to double the brightness.

He asked her for a burning kiss;
She said in accents cruel:
“I may be called a red-hot babe
“But I’m still nobody’s fuel.”

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December 21, 2010

Women who go to sea

NOT ALL WOMEN believe they were meant to go to sea. That’s the view of Karen Larson, founder and editor of Good Old Boat magazine. In her editorial article in the January/February 2011 issue she adds: “I’m convinced, in fact, that the vast majority are sure that women are not meant to travel on boats of any kind. Historically, it hasn’t been our role.”

Well, er, I’m sorry. Karen, but I have to disagree. I have just been dipping into Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, the Year China Discovered America. And he details the interesting historical role that woman played on the 15th-century treasure fleets that China sent around the world.

Aboard all of these ships were hundreds of concubines, recruited from the floating brothels of Canton. They were not allowed to go ashore at any port of call, and they were not allowed to marry Chinese men. It was their job to attend grand banquets aboard the treasure ships, where they ate and drank with ambassadors and envoys, and thereafter satisfied some other appetites. They were well educated, played cards and chess, sang, acted, and danced.

They were “not viewed with contempt because of their profession; they were regarded as a long-established, legitimate and necessary part of society,” Menzies argues.

Well, the world has changed a lot since those days, I guess, and not always for the better. I don’t recall seeing any concubines tucked away on today’s round-the-world yachts, and I’m not sure they would be received with joy and loud handclaps by today’s puritanical society in any case.

Nevertheless, it just shows that you have to be careful when you talk about women’s historical roles on ships and boats. There are many women serving in the U.S. Navy these days in all kinds of capacities, and just recently they started appearing aboard submarines. I know a woman master mariner who pilots big ships across the bar where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, and another who captains large passenger/vehicle ferries in the Pacific Northwest. And let’s not forget the dozens of documented women pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read who struck terror into men’s hearts between 600 BC and the 19th century. And the women who still race small sailboats non-stop around the world. Women are out there carving roles for themselves if you look for them, lots and lots of them, and always have been. And while it’s true that the vast majority prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on shore, that’s also true for men. And if you say, well, what I really mean is that many more men than women go to sea on small boats, that can only be because the women have more sense.

Today’s Thought
Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.
— Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #136
No matter what the professionals say, celestial navigation is neither difficult nor mysterious. As three-time circumnavigator Eric Hiscock put it: “Setting the course, keeping the dead reckoning up to date, and fixing the position by observations of the celestial bodies, call for nothing more than simple arithmetic, a little geometry, and some dexterity in handling a sextant.”

A lady is a woman who never shows her underwear unintentionally.

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

December 19, 2010

The old Christmas dilemma

I’VE BEEN WONDERING if my wife would like a new anchor rope for Christmas. She got the old one quite dirty with mud last year when we anchored at Sucia Island. But of course nothing is straightforward about buying a Christmas present for your wife. There are always those nagging questions. Would she like traditional three-strand nylon, or would she prefer nylon double-braid? Which would be kinder on her hands? And — very important this — which would surprise and delight her more on Christmas morning?

Perhaps I could throw in a decent pair of canvas gloves, so she doesn’t add to the number of calluses she seems to be collecting, but if I do that I can only hope she reciprocates by buying something nice for the boat.

On the other hand, a really nice present for her would be a new GPS chart plotter, not one of those cheapo Chinese knock-offs, but a really deluxe Garmin color plotter with interfacing capabilities to link up with the radar and depth-sounder I think she might like for her next birthday. I can justify the cost. She is my darling and deserves nothing but the best.

I already have her stocking stuffer. It’s the cutest, top-of-the-range iridium oxide scraper, to help her get the old antifouling paint off, next time we haul. The expense was nothing. You’ve got to let your wife know how much you love her. And you want her to be cheerful in the sport she loves so much. I work hard at it, but it does give me pleasure to make her happy.

Today’s Thought
God loveth a cheerful giver.
--New Testament: II Corinthians, ix, 7

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #135
The old superstition is that a boat with too presumptuous a name will attract bad luck. To call a boat Sea Conqueror or Wind Tamer is to tempt the Fates. The gods like boat names to be humble, or at least non-confrontational. If you inherit a boat with a name that challenges the gods, change it — but first use Vigor’s famous interdenominational de-naming ceremony.

“Why do giraffes have such long necks?”
“Boy, but you ask some dumb questions. So they can eat from tall trees, of course.”
“Okay, so why do the trees have to be so tall?”
“So the giraffes won’t have to bend their necks, naturally.”

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

December 16, 2010

Bring it on, Al

HAVE YOU NOTICED how little we’re hearing about global warming recently? I wonder why that should be? Could it be because the whole country is registering record-low temperatures; because even way down south in Florida they’re going to the beach in their overcoats?

I have never been sure how much to believe about global warming. I do believe the earth has warmed up and cooled down many times over the centuries. There’s plenty of good solid evidence for that. But I have no idea if any of the previous warmings were influenced in any way by the presence of mankind and his infernal combustion machines on the face of the earth.

Al Gore and his ilk assure us that the earth is warming right now and that mankind is to blame. And he thinks it’s wrong. He wants to stop it. Well, I’m sorry Mr. Gore, but a great many of us who live north of 40 degrees in latitude can hardly wait for it to arrive.

Can you imagine what Puget Sound, the San Juans, and the Canadian Gulf Islands would be like if we suddenly inherited the climate now enjoyed by Southern California? Sunshine, warm winds, and warm seas are the only ingredients missing from this paradise for cruising boaters.

A little global warming around here would transform our lives. Boating people from all over the world would flock to our palm-fringed shores, white beaches, and warm turquoise water. The yacht charter business would boom beyond belief, creating jobs and prosperity that would surge right through our economy. Western Washington’s families would flourish in a brand-new American dream. The color would return to children’s faces. Their little bellies would be full, and their happy laughter would become a hallmark of the new, beloved global warming. Tourist dollars would overflow our coffers, and no longer would our poor State Governor have to sob her eyes out over drastic cuts in essential services.

So c’mon Mr. Gore, pony up. You promised us global warming. Where the hell is it?

Today’s Thought
Global warming — at least the modern nightmare vision — is a myth. I am sure of it and so are a growing number of scientists. But what is really worrying is that the world's politicians and policy makers are not.
— David Bellamy

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #134
What exactly is a motor-sailer? Well, here’s the rule of thumb. Imagine a hefty headwind of Force 6 (22 to 27 knots) and a short, choppy sea. If a sailboat could make way to windward more efficiently under shortened sail than under her motor alone, she is an auxiliary sailing yacht. If she could reach her windward destination quicker under power alone, she is a motor-sailer.

Don’t worry if your job is small
And your successes few ...
Remember that the mighty oak
Was once a nut like you.

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December 14, 2010

Where have all the sailboats gone?

MARINAS ALL OVER PUGET SOUND are advertising vacant berths — the same marinas that not so long ago were telling people they’d have to wait years for a slip. So the question occurs to me: Where have all the boats gone?

Our local marina in Bellingham, one of the biggest in the Sound area, now has scores of empty berths. The recession is hitting closer to home at last. I expect that some of the smaller boats have gone home on newly purchased trailers, and some of the larger ones may have been hauled out for cheaper long-term storage, but an awful lot have now left the safety and convenience of the marina for exposed anchorages along the shores of Bellingham Bay. There they will take their chances with winter storms from the southeast and the occasional blast from the northwest, which can raise a nasty chop with a fetch to windward of five or six uncluttered miles.

These boats are refugees from the national economic storm, of course, huddling together in their discomfort and uncertainty, and disconnected from the marina’s umbilical cord. But sooner or later they will have more than storms to contend with. Sooner or later people are going to object to their growing presence off the opulent shores where they have clustered, where million-dollar condominiums overlook their peeling varnish and flapping canvas. Sooner or later the people who own the rock-strewn land where they park their tenders are going to object.

We live in a forgiving and understanding town that has few pretensions to grandeur. It’s known as the City of Subdued Excitement and although it has a university, a large hospital, and some high-tech industries, its background is in logging, fishing, and coal-mining. So there will be a lot of sympathy and understanding for those refugee boats bobbing up and down in the chop just offshore.

But at the same time there are always major forces at work that will want them removed. What is their legal position? Are they legally entitled to anchor there permanently and disturb the eelgrass, or whatever it is down below there that seems more important than human beings and their desires? If there are any liveaboards, how will they get rid of their waste without polluting the bay in the way it was polluted by the oldtimers without a thought for Nature’s health?

And what about the marina authorities? Are they going to stand idly by and watch their source of income flee, or will they use their hefty legal and political muscle to herd those deserters back inside and make them pay their dues once more?

I am all in favor of freedom of anchoring, because I don’t have a million-dollar condo overlooking a fleet of refugee yachts. I have always taken the part of the little man because I’m a little man myself. But if you look at what has happened to little sailors all over this country, the omens are not good. There is a heavy ground-swell of conviction that the free spirits among us must be corralled. They must be regulated and herded and taxed because they are different and therefore dangerous and — most of all — because they have the guts to take the risks in life that we would like to take if only we had the guts to take them.

I think I know where all the boats have gone, but how long they’ll be able to stay there is another matter.

Today’s Thought
Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
— Samuel Johnson.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #133
The exact length of a nautical mile has varied with our ability to measure the earth. It is the equivalent of one sixtieth of one degree, which is in itself one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the distance around the earth. For all practical purposes, one degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles. And therefore one minute of latitude equals one nautical mile. For many years the nautical mile was reckoned to be 6,080 feet, but now it’s officially 6,076.1 feet or 2,025.4 yards. For small-boat navigation, you can presume the nautical mile to be 2,000 yards. Unless you’re on fresh water, of course. There the mile is still the landlubber measure of 1,760 yards.

Mary has a cool, cool gown,
It’s almost slit to bits.
Who gives a damn for Mary’s lamb
When we can see her calf?

December 12, 2010

A curse on big wakes

LIKE MOST PEOPLE who travel slowly in sailboats, I have often been angered by the irresponsibility of powerboaters who drag large, dangerous wakes behind them.

Let me say straight away that this is not a rant against powerboaters per se. There are considerate powerboaters and inconsiderate ones, and while I’m quite sure the former vastly outnumber the latter, the memories of the latter are what stick in my mind.

I’ll never forget something Robert Hale of Seattle once wrote. He is the well-known and respected publisher of the annual Waggoner Cruising Guide for the waters of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. In the 2003 edition he wrote:

“Shortly after going from sail to power, I came to understand what I call the First Rule of Powerboating: Never Look Back. Because, if we powerboat skippers would look back, we would be appalled at what we do to other boats.”

Coming from a powerboater, that was a very honest and refreshing statement. It actually inspired me to invent a curse for sailors to use when faced with enormous wakes that inconvenience other boats and even threaten to capsize or swamp smaller vessels.

It’s a curse that might help you to vent your fury harmlessly in circumstances where you might otherwise be tempted to reach for your rifle and let Nature take its course. This, in fact, is one of four examples in a chapter devoted to curses in my book How to Rename your Boat — and 19 Other Useful Ceremonies, Superstitions, Prayers, Rituals, and Curses.

By the way, I do understand that this is not the best season for serious cursing. I do understand that I should be spreading bonhomie and the warmest of Christmas greetings in a touchy-feely sort of way, but I’m not quite that much of a hypocrite yet. I don’t wish a Happy Christmas to obnoxious creators of dangerous wakes, or a happy anything else for that matter. This what I wish for them:

Woe to you, thou beslubbering speedhog!
May your filters choke and your injectors freeze.
May every ill befalling a boat bring you to your knees.
May you run out of whisky, and ice cubes, too.
May there be no more pleasure for you or your crew.
May all your bronze tarnish and your varnish all flake.
May your batteries die and your propellers shake.
May your anchors drag and your bilges overflow.
May you rot in a hell where they make you go slow.
Curse you! Curse you! My curse be upon you wherever you go!

Today’s Thought
I sent down to the rum mill on the corner and hired an artist by the week to sit up nights and curse that stranger.
— Mark Twain, A Mysterious Visit.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #132
Boats are not tied up. They are made fast to the shore. The old rule of thumb states that a boat makes fast alongside a jetty, pier, or wharf. She makes fast in a slip, and to a buoy or pile.

It’s too bad that by the time we get old enough not to care what anybody says about us, nobody’s saying anything about us.

(Come back every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 9, 2010

A ketch called Guppy

AMONG THE HUNDREDS of cruising sailboats plowing across the North Atlantic right now there is one rather special 38-foot ketch called Guppy. Most of the boats are taking part in the annual lemming run known as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) but aboard the Guppy is a lone 15-year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker who is trying to become the youngest person to sail alone around the world.

She started officially from Gibraltar and then spent some time in the Canary Islands and the Cape Verdes, waiting for the hurricane season to end. Now she is deep into the Atlantic with more than 1,000 miles to go to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, but making good progress.

When she gets there it will be a homecoming of sorts, because once upon a time, before she started her record attempt, she ran away from Holland and ended up in St. Martin. The police found her and sent her back home. As you might gather, she is a feisty, well-developed, and very determined 15-year-old who was formerly the subject of a court battle when authorities tried to prevent her father from allowing her to set sail on her own. But a Dutch court eventually ruled that she was competent to handle a yacht,  and so she is now well on her way in the northeast trades.

But I’m afraid I’m not terribly sure why she’s doing this. After all, she will be 16 by the time she finishes, because she’s going to be visiting a whole lot of ports of call on the way. The present holder of the record, the Australian Jessica Watson, was also 16 when she finished at Sydney — but only just. She scraped in a little while before her 17th birthday. So in theory, Laura Dekker could complete her voyage as a younger 16 than Jessica Watson’s 16. But that would surely be a hollow victory because Jessica not only sailed alone around the world, she also sailed non-stop and without any outside assistance via Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Southern Ocean — a far more venturesome voyage than the one Laura is apparently contemplating.

Frankly, if I had a 15-year-old daughter I wouldn’t let her sail off on her own no matter how accomplished a sailor she was. My conscience wouldn’t let me. In my book, parents are supposed to protect their kids. My fear would be that there is more danger in the ports she’s going to visit than there is at sea, which is bad enough.

Nevertheless, I wish her lots of good luck on her long voyage. I admire her guts and tenacity. And as she matures she will learn that good judgment comes from experience. And experience (alas) comes from bad judgment.

Today’s Thought
The real meaning of travel, like that of a conversation by the fireside, is the discovery of oneself through contact with other people, and its condition is self-commitment in the dialogue.
— Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #131
Mainsail slides tend to jam in the mast track if they’re seized too firmly to their cringles (as many sailmakers tend to do, unfortunately). When the sail is being hoisted, the fastening should be free to move to the top of the slide, where the pull comes from. When you’re striking the sail, the seizing, or shackle, should be free to move to the bottom of the slide.

Many a good man gone wrong is just a bad man finally found out.

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

December 7, 2010

Normal and natural errors

ONE OF THE THINGS that small-boat navigation teaches you is that nothing is precise. The best navigators make allowances for the unknown factors that always affect small boats, especially sailboats. They plot their positions within a circle of uncertainty and if they’re seeking landfall at a particular spot on a coastline, they aim way off to one side or the other, so they know which way to turn when they sight land.

When I was a lot younger I thought I knew how to navigate with precision. This misconception was confirmed when I sailed a 17-foot dinghy across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. I studied the tide tables and figured out the speed and direction of the tidal stream (or the set and drift as I used to call it then) for every hour. I then drew my course on the chart and adjusted the compass heading to account for the distance the tide was pushing me sideways in each hour. And thus, with a great sense of triumph, I arrived off the rather featureless French coast exactly at Calais.

It was beginner’s luck, of course. Nobody can forecast the exact speed of the current, or its exact direction. Nobody can tell you how much leeway your boat will make. Nobody can forecast your exact speed or distance covered during any one-hour period, and so the detailed markings you make so carefully on the chart turn out to be impractical nonsense. In my case, it was probably a matter of all the errors canceling each other out — a minor miracle in other words.

Years later, when further experience had taught me some humility, I read The Yacht Navigator’s Handbook, by Norman Dahl. [1] In the introduction he says: “When I was first taught navigation (in the Royal Navy) errors were thought of as being rather disgraceful, the sole result of poor technique by the navigator. Whilst I always accepted (and still accept today) that I was not the most brilliant navigator in the world, I was disappointed to find that, however hard I tried, errors never seemed to go away. Navigating a submerged submarine, and later, yachts of many kinds in many situations, eventually made me realize that errors are an integral part of navigation and need to be studied in their own right.”

Dahl said a major purpose of his book was to show that errors in navigation are normal and natural, and that a major skill in navigation lies in your ability to interpret the results in terms of the likely errors. He goes on to show boat navigators how they can actually use the errors to help make sensible decisions about their positions and a future course of action.

As one who had never experienced any difficulty in making errors I found Dahl’s advice very comforting, and I never again tried to do anything as impossibly precise as maintaining a rhumb line from Dover to Calais.

I expect Dahl’s book is out of print now because it was first published in 1983, before the great revolution in navigating that finally did bring near-precision to position-finding. We don’t think of errors now, because GPS doesn’t allow for that. It will tell us our position to within a boatlength in any kind of visibility, day or night.

And yet people have run aground using GPS, often because GPS is more accurate than the charts you plot your position on. There have been many reports of yachts wrecked on rocks, reefs, and islands that were where either GPS or the charts said they weren’t.

So we now all find ourselves in the position that I was in all those years ago, when I knew precisely and without doubt how to cross the English Channel. It’s surely time we started doubting again. It’s time we listened to Mr. Dahl, time we started taking all the possible errors into account. Time to accept that navigation is never precise, even with GPS.

[1] The Yacht Navigator's Handbook, by Norman Dahl (London, 1983, Ward Lock Ltd.)

Today’s Thought
The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
— Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship: The Hero as Prophet.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #130
Lines of position. Two lines of position plotted on a chart should cross as near to 90 degrees as possible. For an acceptable fix, the angle between the two lines should never be less than 60 degrees or more than 120 degrees. But the old rule of thumb is that any bearing is better than none. In practice, a fix from two lines intersecting at an angle as small as 30 degrees can be used if applied with a large dose of caution and common sense about errors. Anything less than 30 degrees or more than 150 degrees is hardly worth plotting, though.

“What made you marry old Bella?”
“She was different from all the other girls I’ve met.”
“In what way?”
“She liked me.”

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

December 5, 2010

Knives save lives

I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that people whose lives depend on rope should always have a sharp knife at hand. The more you sail, the more you realize the need for a knife. That need doesn’t arise often, thank goodness, but the occasions when it does are usually characterized by strong winds, heavy seas, threatening rocks, and a crew paralyzed with panic.

The kind of knife I’m referring to must be capable of slicing quickly through the largest rope on your boat. That may be the anchor line, a halyard, a sheet, or even the dinghy painter. If you have ever seen a crewmember pinned against the cockpit bulkhead by a mainsheet across the neck after a sudden jibe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve ever got a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override of the genoa sheet in a surprise squall, you’ll appreciate the need for fast relief.

The only question, really, is what kind of knife; and where do you keep it?

My preference is for a fixed-blade sheath knife worn on your belt, so that it always goes with you. It can be a nuisance sometimes, I know, when it catches on the lifelines or something, but it’s worth the bother. The blade should be as long as practical, even if it’s illegal ashore, but nothing less than 3 1/2 inches.

I have never figured out whether it’s better to have a plain, hollow-cut edge or a serrated edge. I think the knife manufacturers are still trying to work this one out, too, because many of them offer blades that are partly serrated and part plain knife-edge.

I remember Jerry Powlas, technical editor of Good Old Boat, saying that a serrated edge was good only for bread knives, but there are many who swear by the fast cutting power of a serrated edge. And if you buy a blade that’s half serrated and half plain, how can you go wrong? I believe that Jerry’s main objection was that he found it impossible to sharpen a serrated edge to the same razor sharpness he creates on his ordinary blades.

If you can’t wear a sheath knife on your belt for some reason, then find a good place in the cockpit where you can keep a fixed-blade knife, somewhere that is readily accessible day and night.

You might also want to keep in your pocket a small rigger’s or yachtsman’s knife, one of those with a folding knife blade, a marline spike, and (very important) a beer bottle opener. Alternatively, you could have a Leatherman-type multi-tool with a small knife blade and a pair of pliers that can open shackles, as can the spike on the rigger’s knife. But these knife blades are only second-best in an emergency. It takes time to find them and it’s fiddly to open them, and you might have only one hand available anyhow. And even when they’re finally open and ready for business, they really are quite puny for the job, compared with a big robust sheath knife. They are, however, infinitely better than nothing.

There is one fairly frequent situation where a good cutting knife is called for, and that’s when you get a rope or fishing net around the propeller shaft. I would hesitate to use an expensive sheath knife for this because you’re bound to blunt the knife against the metal shaft, and I have often thought that some kind of hacksaw blade with a decent handle would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice Christmas present for a sailor, a knife might be a good choice. If you Google the names Gerber, Myerchin, and Spyderco you’ll find some very modern designs made expressly for cutting rope in a hurry. You’ll also notice that the purchase prices of the more exotic models are such that you might well be tempted to investigate my hacksaw-blade idea with justifiable fervor.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #129
Cruising drop-outs. The success rate among people who set sail for a planned cruise of 6 to 18 months is only 35 to 40 percent. That’s according to Lin and Larry Pardey, well known cruisers and authors, after they’d been cruising for 14 years. Their definition of “success” was: “Finding satisfaction or enjoyment from what you are doing; having a sense of harmony on board; feeling glad you had the experience; eager to continue or go off again.”

“I need a new dipstick for my car please.”
“But the old one must still be there, madam.”
“Yeah, sure, but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

(Come back every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 2, 2010

Dreams I don’t remember

LIKE MOST COLUMNISTS, I am involved in a perpetual search for subject matter. I rarely know, from day to day, what I’m going to write about next. Some of my best ideas come in dreams, but the frustrating thing is that I very rarely can remember my dreams.

While I’m having my dreams, I think to myself what a marvelous idea this is. How my readers are going to love this one. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s full of useful tips — this is a columnist’s dream column. And then, poof! it disappears as soon as I wake up. Can’t remember a darned thing about it, except that it was astoundingly good.

I once had the idea of keeping a notebook and pen on my bedside table so I could wake up and write down the details of my dream while it was still fresh in my mind. The results were startling. The wonderfully creative thoughts that had passed through my sleeping mind were absolute driveling gibberish when examined next morning in the stark light of day. Nothing made any sense.

Once or twice, toward dawn, I have awakened so gradually that my waking mind was still attached to my sleeping mind, and there was a partial transfer of creative thought that actually made sense. I can’t say either of those dreams was spectacularly helpful in writing a column, but at least they weren’t gibberish.

My intuition tells me that I dream about boats a lot. I’m sure I design brilliant boats and sail them perfectly. I bet I win lots of races and cruise to exotic places and wear smart yacht club blazers and attract the attention and adoration of lovely women wherever I go.

And, talking about women, I don’t know for sure, because I never can remember, but I expect I dream about women just as often as boats. Most men do, I’m told. Nice women, of course, modest, wholesome women equipped with the highest moral standards, clever, interesting women known as much for their brains and character as their looks.

Admittedly, a bad woman may have crept into my dreams now and then. Some kind of wicked hussy. I have no way to confirm or deny it and I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. But if that happened, it’s not my fault. I plead innocent. I’m not in charge of my dreams and I don’t know who is. Furthermore, I am not responsible for my actions in my dreams. Actually I don’t even know what bad women do. Well, to tell the truth, maybe I do have a vague idea of what they do. But I’m not sure, because if they did it, I’ll never know what it was. I’m just not capable of remembering it.

Today’s Thought
Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.
— Dr. William C. Dement

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #128
Distance from lights. Never try to judge your distance from a single point of light at sea at night. It provides no clue by which our perceptions can judge its size and distance with any accuracy. In most cases, when the light becomes visibly nearer, you are in immediate danger of running into it.

“Who was that girl I seen you out with last night?”
“You mean ‘I saw.’”
“Oh, right. Who was that eyesore I seen you out with last night?”

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

November 30, 2010

Don’t let blisters bug you

“SHOULD I BUY a boat with blisters?” That’s the query from a reader in San Diego. “Cautious” has fallen in love with a 10-year old, 30-foot sloop, but he’s scared to tie the knot. He’s afraid to commit, because when he had her surveyed he found she had “a whole lot of dime-sized blisters on her bottom.”

Well “Cautious,” my advice is to grit your teeth and buy her. Nobody’s perfect, and no boat is, either. Although fiberglass boats have been around for more than 50 years, there’s still a lot of misinformation doing the rounds, especially regarding the dreaded boat pox.

It’s reassuring, therefore, to hear the experience of David Pascoe, a marine surveyor based in Destin, Fla., who says that in 30 years of surveying and examining 4,000 hulls, he has seen fewer than 10 cases where blisters have resulted in serious structural degradation of a hull.[1]

We’re talking here of dime-sized blisters. In 99 percent of the boats Pascoe has surveyed, blistering involved only the gel coat and the surface mat — neither of which is a structural part of the hull laminate.

Pascoe says that even boats with numerous blisters up to about 1-inch in diameter usually show no significant weakening of the plastic. As a result, “moderate blistering on an older boat rarely impedes the sale.”

As a matter of fact, Pascoe reckons that by the time a boat is 8 or 10 years old, “whatever is going to happen to the hull has probably already happened.” That means if she hasn’t developed blisters yet, she’s not ever likely to, so don’t be tempted to apply a barrier coat.

It’s quite another matter if a new boat develops blisters, of course. On a boat that’s been afloat for only two or three years, it’s likely that blistering is just the beginning. That’s not good news. But one that’s been afloat for eight years or more without developing blisters is a pretty safe bet.

Interestingly, Pascoe doesn’t even think it’s necessary to do anything about small blisters. Admittedly, they make the hull more difficult to paint and they will slow the boat down slightly, but: “If blisters cannot be shown to be causing significant damage, then repair is certainly not mandatory, despite the many horror stories you may hear from people trying to sell you a costly repair job ... Bear in mind that blister repair jobs are now big business for boat yards, so that taking advice from yard managers may not be a good idea.”

He makes another good point, too: “Further, you should be aware that the number of failed blister repair jobs that surveyors find is very high. No one’s ever going to know why blister repairs fail because no one is going to spend the money to find out.”

So go ahead, “Cautious.” Be brave. Put your money where your heart is. Who else is going to see your new girl-friend’s bottom anyhow?


Today’s Thought
The desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.
— Fontanes, Address to Napoleon, in behalf of the French Senate, 1804

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #127
Locating faint lights. To find a faint light, such as a star, at night, look a little to one side, or above or below where you might expect to find it. If you look straight at an object, the light rays fall on an area inside the eye that is not as sensitive as the surrounding areas. So faint lights are often first seen in or toward the corner of the eye.

”Why do you call it love at second sight?”
“I didn’t know she was rich when I first saw her.”

November 28, 2010

Mobile hair factories

ANYONE WHO HAS LIVED ON A BOAT for any length of time knows about hair. Hair is everywhere, inside and out. It’s all over the saloon floor. It gets stuck in your toes as you walk. Long strands of hair drape themselves with casual cockiness over your saucepans and newly washed plates in the galley. You’ll find it on faucets, mirrors, the toilet seat, in the bilge, everywhere. Hair is even a safety issue because it clogs drains and bilge pumps, and it never seems to rot or fade away into dust.

Let’s face it, people are mobile hair factories. The stuff just keeps growing, and as fast as it grows it falls out. Frankly, I have never understood why humans grow hair in the first place. It must be a manufacturing defect. I mean, what use is it? Why do we have pubic hair, for instance? Surely our pubes can survive well enough without hair? What use is underarm hair? It’s hot and sweaty enough already under there. Why do I have hair on the back of my knuckles, for goodness’ sake? Yes, I can understand the need for hair on the head to prevent sunburn, but how do you account for the fact that as we age (and need even more sunburn protection) the damned hair falls off our heads and starts growing out of our ears and nostrils. Whaaat?

I can remember looking at the compass one dark night in mid-ocean and thinking I was hallucinating. It was a domed compass, saltwater-damp and glowing faint red, but with puzzling streaks all over, so that the white lubber line looked like a jagged thunderbolt. I ran a finger over it and the streaks gathered together into a thick string of hair.

And then, when I first got my Cape Dory 27, she had a beautiful cockpit grating made of teak. It was first-class workmanship, a wonderful piece of furniture, and probably worth as much as many boats. But the first time I lifted it up (because the cockpit drains didn’t seem to be working fast enough) I was astonished at what was trapped underneath. The bottom of each little hole was matted with clumps of hair — hair that had trapped and nurtured foul-smelling globs of gelatinous goo of such a virulent nature that it almost snarled at me.

So if I had my way (at least until there is a general recall of humans to redress our tonsorial defect) anyone coming aboard a boat of mine would either have to wear a hairnet or be shaved all over. Long hair, short hair, all gone, if you please. Some supporters of hirsuteness may well believe that hair has its place, but that place isn’t on any boat of mine.

Today’s Thought
Interest in hair today has grown to the proportions of a fetish. Think of the many loving ways in which advertisements refer to scalp hair—satiny, glowing, shimmering, breathing, living. Living, indeed! It is as dead as rope.
— Dr. William Montagna, Brown University

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #126
The jumping light. Most people who have sailed at night have experienced the phenomenon of a fixed or flashing point of light that appears to jump around the horizon. Psychologists call it the autokinetic illusion. After we stare fixedly at one point for too long, the light reappears some distance left or right of where we expect it. Some say it comes about through imperceptible movements or strain in the eye muscles. The rest of us just accept it as a fact of life afloat, and sweep our eyes from side to side while waiting for the light to appear again.

“And how’s the patient this morning, nurse?”
“Much better, doctor. He tried to blow the foam off his medicine.”

November 25, 2010

Royal wedding disaster

GOOD GRIEF, what was he thinking? Prince William has chosen to get married on April 29 — the day of the Boat Show.

Those poor British yachtsmen now have to choose between what’s going on at Westminster Abbey and what’s going on where they’d really like to be — at the inaugural Liverpool Boat Show. What a terrible choice to have to make.

And what an extraordinary reflection on Prince William. Has he forgotten his Royal Navy heritage? Sailors all. What must his dad and granddad be thinking? Would either of them have even so much as dreamed of getting married on the day of the Boat Show? Of course not.

If you HAD to get married on the day of the Boat Show for some reason of international diplomacy or internal family peace, then you’d obviously get married AT the Boat Show, where the Royal Yacht would be waiting to waft you off for your Royal Nuptials immediately afterward.

I can only imagine how forlorn and disappointed those sailing Brits must be, how they must be wondering about the relationship between their future king and his bride as regards attendance at future Boat Shows. In the old days, a monarch would put his foot down with a firm hand and insist on getting married on a day that didn’t interfere with the yacht club prizegiving. And his bride, recognizing the coziness of her situation, would naturally fall in with his wishes lest she be cast into a dungeon or be sent to the Tower for beheading.

But times have obviously changed quite drastically, even for princes. The Pankhurst era is over. Women don’t chain themselves to railings any more. They actually have the vote. (And perhaps one should note here that no male member of the Royal Family ever stepped in to prevent that while it was still possible.) So it’s the old story. Give them an inch and they’ll take an ell. And having taken an ell, it’s hello Westminster and to ell with the Boat Show. Sob. Only time will soften this blow.

Today’s Thought
Kings are not born; they are made by universal hallucination.
— Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #125
Survival in a liferaft. You’re far more likely to survive in a liferaft or lifeboat that can be sailed and steered. Dr. Michael Stadler, a German professor of psychology, says that waiting passively to be rescued in a helplessly drifting lifeboat is a prime cause of despair and hopelessness.
“Even the most desperate situation is bearable . . . provided they have some sense of having their position and environment under control.”

“Oi was niver drunk, Yer Honor, and Oi tried to tell the officer so.”
“And wouldn’t he listen?”
“Oh, he was listenin’ all roight, Yer Honor; ’twas moiself that couldn’t say it.”

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

November 23, 2010

Symmetry, where art thou?

IT OCCURRED TO ME RECENTLY that human beings value symmetry more than precision. Now this is not as deep a thought as you might imagine. It crept up on me after I read a question on the Cape Dory bulletin board from the owner of a 28-foot Cape Dory sloop. He had discovered that his rudder post did not come up through his cockpit on the exact centerline, but was in fact offset by about an inch or so to one side. Was this normal? he wanted to know.

But what we all understood him to ask was: Is it okay for this not to be symmetrical? The human brain loves symmetry to the extent that it will forgive all kinds of mistakes. If something’s wrong it doesn’t matter — as long as it’s equally wrong on both sides. It’s more important that mistakes should match.

Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out the way the brain would prefer them to, as demonstrated by the Cape Dory’s rudder post. In fact, there are many, many boats that emerge from the manufacturing process rather differently from what the yacht architect so painstakingly designed. In the heyday of one-off wooden yachts, a naval architect was well pleased when a 35-footer came within 6 inches of its designed overall length.

Even today, in this era of improved precision, it’s not always possible to match a finished boat to those beautifully faired lines on the designer’s drawing board. For example, one experienced contributor to the Cape Dory board confirmed that when he worked for Sam Morse, building the famous Bristol Channel Cutters, it was quite obvious that the hull mold was asymmetrical.

Now, Sam Morse boats are renowned for the quality of their build and finish, and BCCs have always been top-of-the-line cruisers. Even so, “One had only to stand behind the boat and look forward along the garboards (where the lower part of the hull joins the keel) to see the difference between the port and starboard side of the boat,” he wrote.

“I noticed this difference quite readily when installing the ballast. The lead castings for the ballast reflected the hull’s asymmetry.”

Sam Morse is not alone. The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine quotes the owner of a 2007 C&C 115 who discovered his deck was off-center by 1 1/2 inches. The builder responded: “One of the norms of the industry is that no builder guarantees symmetry. Even in strict one-design classes there are variations ...”

A hull that is not symmetrical will probably list to one side, of course. That fact, combined with an offset rudder and a mast that is not quite on centerline, might make a boat a race-winner on starboard tack and an absolute dog on port. On the other hand, the mistakes might tend to cancel each other out so that you end up with a reasonably normal boat on both tacks.

It is difficult to predict in advance what the overall effect of an asymmetrical hull might be. We are dealing here with changed centers of buoyancy and gravity, and possibly with the center of lateral resistance, too.

But, to get back to the Cape Dory man’s question, does a little asymmetry really matter? Not in most cases, I venture to suggest. I learned this from personal experience. One morning I was happily cleaning my teeth when I noticed to my horror that the middle of my top teeth did not line up with the tip of my nose. In other words, my center of sniffing was displaced to starboard of my center of chewing by about one-half tooth.

It was rather a shock to me to discover after decades of looking at myself in the shaving mirror that I had an asymmetrical face. I immediately took action to disguise my disfigurement. I learned to smile infrequently; and on the rare occasion when a smile was essential I learned to open the outer ends of my lips in light-hearted happiness and keep the middle parts firmly clamped shut.

Then, after considerable research, I learned that many people, if not most, are asymmetrical in one way or another. The length of legs can differ. One eye can be slightly higher than another. Women’s individual breasts frequently differ in size and pointiness. And I finally noticed that one of our most famous national TV newscasters has a nose running northeast and a jaw sloping southwest — and it does not impinge one whit upon his pomposity.

So I don’t worry about my nasal/dental asymmetry any more. Well, not most of the time, anyhow. I have found, though, that on meeting an interesting person of the opposite sex, my nose now bends itself slightly half a tooth to port to line up with my top teeth. It does this quite automatically without any urging from me and I take this as a happy sign of how Nature compensates for all our inadequacies. Which means that you shouldn’t really worry too much if your rudder post is offset, your center of buoyancy is skewed, or one ear sticks out more than the other.

Today’s Thought
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
— Francis Bacon

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #124
Height of lifelines. The rule is that lifelines should be no less than 30 inches above deck. Anything much lower is good only for catapulting you overboard, and higher is better.

Commander: “What blankety-blank put these goddam flowers on the navigation desk fer chrissake?”
Lieutenant: “The Admiral did, Sir.”
Commander: “Purdy, ain’t they?”

November 21, 2010

Ready to charter? (5)

HERE’S THE LAST installment of our 10-question quiz for would-be charterers.


Question 9. You notice the engine temperature gauge shoot into the red. What is your very first action? Should you:

(a) Call the charter company on VHF radio?

(b) Turn the motor off immediately?

(c) Look over the stern to see if water is coming out of the exhaust?

Taking a bearing

Question 10. You know full well that one compass bearing on its own can’t give you a position fix. So why, when you’ve been on other boats, has the skipper often put a hand bearing compass to his eye after spotting an approaching ship? Was it:

(a) To practice taking bearings without a distracting background?

(b) To check if you’re going to collide with the ship?

(c) To take the seamanlike precaution of making the compass will always work when it’s needed to take bearings on lighthouses and flashing buoys?


9(c). If you turn the motor off immediately you won’t know whether water was coming out of the exhaust, which will probably be first question anyone asks you. It takes only a second longer to look over the stern before switching off. Then you’ll have valuable information to pass on when you call the charter company.

10(b). If bearings on an approaching ship don’t change after a few minutes, you’re on a collision course. Make an early and obvious change of course to keep clear of her, even if you have right of way.

Today’s Thought
As far as yachting is concerned, there is not a blasted thing here as good as it used to be.
— L. Francis Herreshoff

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #123
Leeway in sailboats. Many factors affect leeway, but as a general rule it can be assumed that a close-hauled sailboat will make about 3 to 5 degrees of leeway in a 10-knot breeze. In a 20-knotter, she’ll more likely make between 5 and 8 degrees. So beware when you’re at the helm: she’s not going exactly where she’s looking.

“Had a marvelous time in Switzerland. Can’t remember the name of the place, but it was great.”
“Hell no, it was freezing.”

November 18, 2010

Ready to charter? (4)

ARE YOU READY to charter? Here’s Part 4 of our five-part quiz series:

Rules of the Road

Question 7. You are under sail on a northerly course. You need to charge the batteries and cool the fridge, so you have the motor running and in gear. On your port bow, at a relative angle of about 45 degrees, you spot a fishing boat steaming toward you. She’s coming back from the fishing grounds with her catch. Do you:

(a) Change course and/or speed to keep clear of her, because sailboats must keep clear of fishing boats?

(b) Hold your course because, when two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel that has the other on its starboard side must keep clear?

(c) Hold your course because power-driven vessels must keep clear of sailing vessels?


Question 8. Where would you most likely hear someone mumble “True virgins make dull companions — add whisky”?

Would it be:

(a) In a disreputable sailors’ bar?

(b) At a meeting of Male Chauvinists Anonymous?

(c) In the wheelhouse of a small and smelly fishing boat?


7(b). Remember, the collision rules don’t talk about fishing boats. They refer to vessels “engaged in fishing.” Fishing boats that aren’t engaged in fishing are regarded as ordinary power-driven vessels (or, though not very likely these days, ordinary sailing vessels). Remember, too, that a sailboat using her auxiliary engine in gear is considered to be a power-driven vessel, whether or not she has any sail up. (If she does have sail up and is also being driven by an engine, she should display a black shape at the bow.)

In any case, in our example we have a simple case of two power-driven vessels crossing.

8(c). You might also hear it at the chart table of a knowledgable charter yacht skipper as he or she uses the traditional navigator’s memory aid for the headings to convert true bearings to compass bearings, or vice versa: True-Variation-Magnetic-Deviation-Compass (Add Westerly).

Today’s Thought
It must not be forgotten even in the finest weather that there is no such thing as “playing at sailors” when at sea.
— C. E. Seth-Smith

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #122
Beware of lee helm. Lee helm not only adds resistance to forward progress (far more than weather helm does) but it is hard on the helmsman. There is something very unsettling about steering a sailboat with lee helm. It’s also dangerous in heavy weather, tending to make the boat constantly fall off the wind until she jibes and jibes again. So the rule is simply this: don’t live with lee helm any longer than you have to.

“Man, but that big guy over there is dumb.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He just failed his blood test.”

November 16, 2010

Ready to charter? (3)

HERE’S PART 3 of the 10-question charter quiz for your amusement and delight. Are you ready to charter yet?

Fuel tank range

Question 5. You’re cruising in your trawler-type power cruiser. Your proven-accurate fuel gauge says your 40-gallon diesel tank is two-thirds full.

You know your 36 hp engine uses 2 gallons an hour at your present cruising speed of 10 knots. In the absence of headwinds, currents, and waves, is it reasonable to assume that you:

(a) Could power non-stop to a port 125 miles away?

(b) Would need to carry 13.3 gallons of extra fuel in containers to make that same port?

(c) Should reduce speed to 5 knots to halve fuel consumption and double your cruising range?

The painter again

Question 6. Despite your very clear and calm orders, your dumb crew has allowed the dinghy painter to become entangled in the propeller as you power astern to set the anchor. What is the first thing you should try to do to untangle it?

(a) Shift gear to forward and give the motor a quick burst.

(b) Shift gear to forward and turn the motor slowly by hand with a crank or with a very short jab at the starter motor after activating the compression release.

(c) Shift into neutral and pull like hell on the end of the painter?


5(a). Two-thirds of 40 gallons is 26.6 gallons. So, consuming 2 gallons an hour, you can steam for 13.3 hours at 10 knots. That’s 133 miles. In theory, you’d make it. In practice, you’d want to top up the tank before leaving, or carry 10 gallons of extra fuel in jugs, just to be safe. And just in case you didn’t know, halving your cruising speed will add to your range, but it certainly won’t double it.

6(b) If you’re safely at anchor, this is the recommended method. Yes, it’s tempting to try a reasonably hard tug on the painter but it’s usually in vain and could actually tighten up the snarled line. Speeding the prop in forward gear is almost guaranteed to make matters worse. Even if it does clear, the painter will probably tangle up again immediately. Your last resort, of course, is to dive with a very sharp knife. The dumb crew, I mean, not you.

Today’s Thought
Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of non-knowledge.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #121
Lateral plane as a percentage of sail area. Lateral plane area is what stops a sailboat slipping sideways in a beam wind. Sail area is what tries to make it slip sideways. As a general rule, the relationship between the two can be expressed thus:
— The total lateral plane (including the rudder) of full-keeled boats should be between 12 and 16 percent of the sail area.
— The area of a fin keel (only) should be about 7 to 10 percent of the sail area.
— The lateral plane area of a centerboard (only) may be as little as 5 percent of sail area.

“What are those marks on your nose?”
“They’re from my glasses.”
“Well for Pete’s sake why don’t you tilt your head back more?”

November 14, 2010

Ready to charter? (2)

HERE'S PART 2 of the 5-part, 10-question quiz for would-be charterers.


3. You’re on a beam reach under full sail in open water with plenty of sea room when you notice a line of fast-approaching, low, rolling cloud. It looks dark, almost black, but you can see sunshine and calm sea behind it, so you know that whatever it is, it definitely won’t last more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Should you:

(a) Furl the foresail and double-reef the main?

(b) Hold your course and, if it starts to blow, spill wind from the mainsail for the duration of the squall?

(c) Hold your course and run dead downwind for the duration of the squall?


4. In open water you spot a disreputable-looking sailboat about two miles to windward. You can’t make out whether there’s anybody on board, but you think you hear a gunshot. Sure enough, about a minute later, you hear another. And about a minute later (but not exactly a minute) definitely another gunshot.

What’s going on?

(a) They’re drug runners warning you to keep well clear.

(b) It’s a family squabble and you’d do well not to get mixed up in it.

(c) They’re in distress and asking for your immediate assistance.


3(a). This is a line squall, capable of blowing very hard and doing a lot of damage in a short time. Spilling wind could allow the mainsail to flog and rip. Running downwind could result in a wild uncontrolled broach or dangerous jibe. Always play it safe and keep the boat under tight control.

4(c) It’s the very first distress signal listed in the international and inland regulations for preventing collisions: “A gun or other explosive signal fired at intervals of about a minute.” (It could also be a family squabble, of course, depending on the neighborhoods you frequent, so be cautious if you approach to lend help.)

Today’s Thought
After the verb “to love,” “to help” is the most beautiful verb in the world!
— Baroness von Suttner, Ground Arms

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #120
Reading the tropical waters. Dark blue water means deep water, 20 fathoms or more. Vivid blue-green is the color of the coral sand covering a flat expanse of reef with 4 to 6 feet of water over it. Dark brown indicates coral heads. Brown or yellow indicates reefs with 3 or 4 feet of water over them. White means beach sand. You’re probably already aground.

Two inmates of a mental home were strolling in the grounds with a nurse when a passing pigeon dropped something white on the coat of one of the men.
“Wait here a minute,” said the nurse, “and I’ll fetch a tissue.”
The man turned to his friend. “She’s nuts,” he said, “by the time she gets back that pigeon will be miles away.”

November 11, 2010

Ready to charter?

I NOTICE THAT SOME PEOPLE are happy to swop boats with others in distant cruising destinations, so that both parties can have boating vacations at little or no cost. But I couldn’t do that. Sharing my boat would be like sharing my wife. It may be very old-fashioned of me, but I can’t do that.

Like most people, I prefer to charter. Sometimes, however, the charter companies are fussy about your experience of handling boats. So, what do you think? Are YOU ready to charter yet?

Here are the first two questions in a 10-part quiz I prepared to test your skills. The answers are below, so be careful not to peek before you’ve answered the questions.

1. Anchoring

Your chosen night anchorage is a charming little cove protected from the prevailing wind by a high, steep hill. The holding ground is good but when you arrive there your find it’s crowded with charter yachts.

You notice, however, that there is space enough for you up to windward of everybody else, close in toward the beach and under the hill in about 10 feet of water — plenty for your 5-foot draft, even allowing for the tide.

Should you:

(a) Anchor there?

(b) Anchor to leeward behind everybody else, far away from the beach in 40 feet of water?

(c) Ask someone already anchored if you can raft up alongside them for the night?

2. Maneuvering

At your on-board briefing the charter company representative informs you that you have a right-handed propeller. She asks if you understand this, and you nod wisely. After all, most things are right-handed, right? That’s obviously another word for normal.

So, when you’re backing out of your slip under power, what’s most likely to happen to the stern if the rudder is centered?

(a) The stern will probably tend to swing to port, or your right as you face aft.

(b) It will just go backward in a normal straight line.

(c) It will probably tend to swing to starboard, or your left, facing aft.


1(b). If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know why the answer isn’t (a). Frequently a steep hill or cliff will create a backwind for a short distance to leeward. You could end up being sucked in toward the beach and going aground.

It pays to be suspicious. There’s usually a good reason why nobody’s already anchored in what looks to be a prime spot. As for (c), even if you found a willing host, most charter companies forbid rafting up — for good seamanlike reasons.

2 (a). Looking from astern, a right-handed propeller turns clockwise when it’s driving forward. In reverse, it turns counter-clockwise. It also tends to “paddle-wheel” the stern one way or the other, particularly at slow speeds.

So think of the propeller as a paddle wheel moving the stern to the left when you’re in reverse, as seen from behind. Correspondingly, a left-handed prop will move the stern to the right in reverse, of course. Different boats behave differently, but this is what a prudent sailor would reasonably expect and be prepared to make allowance for.

Today’s Thought

It takes several years for anyone to learn to handle a yacht reasonably well, and a lifetime to admit how much more there is to learn.

— Maurice Griffiths

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #119
Knots and line strength. All knots (and even tight kinks) reduce the strength of a line. Here’s how much the strength of the line is reduced by:
Anchor bend, 24 percent; round turn and two half hitches, 30 to 35 percent; bowline, 40 percent; clove hitch, 40 percent; sheet bend, 45 percent; reef knot, 55 percent.
Note: None of this should worry you unduly because most modern lines on yachts are far stronger than they need be.

Teacher: “How many times can 2 be subtracted from 10?”
Student: “I have done it 154 times and every time it comes to 5.”

November 10, 2010

Just a slight panic

SAILING A SMALL BOAT introduces many personal feelings and emotions that must be quite alien to the landlubber. When I sail out to sea, for example, there is always a sudden twinge of anxiety when the land disappears and I realize that my boat is alone on a very wide sea. There is always that sudden sense of worry, of disbelief that land exists anywhere.

No matter how many times I do that, the anxiety always appears on schedule. I feel it in the pit of my stomach until the physical routine of running the ship consumes me once again, and all fear is forgotten until the next landfall — when a different breed of concerns takes over.

There’s another feeling the landlubber will never experience either, and that’s the anxiety, verging on controlled panic, you experience when land should appear but doesn’t.

It happened to me once. After 16 days at sea I was approaching the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, specially chosen as my landfall because of its height and therefore its visibility from a great distance.

But when my calculations showed I was within sighting range, there was nothing but blue sea and sky. Hour after hour went by as I fussed with my navigation and did my sums over again and again. My alarm was contagious. My crew started to worry alongside me. Ten miles to go, and no St. Vincent.

With sinking feelings in our stomachs we wondered out loud. Could the compass be wrong? Were we completely lost? Was the sextant giving false readings? Was our chronometer acting up? Were the charts wrong? Did we have enough food and water to find some land somewhere, anywhere?

Five miles to go. Nothing. Had there been an earthquake? Had St. Vincent been blown off the face of the earth? If so, wouldn’t we see some trees and wreckage? Our minds, urged on by partially controlled panic, ran amok with logical reasons for our worrisome situation.

Suddenly there was a flash of light high up to starboard. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was sun reflecting off a car on a mountain road. We were about to run into St. Vincent. I was so startled, I automatically jibed and reversed our course.

In the next few minutes, the whole island revealed itself and we were, in fact, about four miles off, dead on course. Oh, what a relief. You can’t imagine our joy. The island had been hidden by a sea mist that had blended on the horizon to make one seamless view of the blue sea and sky. So much for the pilot books, and their tall tales of how far away St. Vincent is visible.

I have to tell you that we all felt physically drained after the gamut of emotions that had wracked our minds and stomachs for so many hours, so perhaps the landlubbers are, after all, quite happy to be spared that particular experience.

Today’s Thought
“We are lost!” the captain shouted,
As he staggered down the stairs.
-- James Thomas Fields, Ballad of the Tempest

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #118
Knots good and bad. A good knot has three important attributes:
1. It must hold fast under all conditions.
2. It must come apart easily when you want it to.
3. You must be able to make it automatically — that is, your finger muscles should retain a memory of the knot.
In addition, the best of knots can be tied or untied under strain.

“Who’s the gorgeous girl over there?”
“She’s the village belle.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s wringing her hands.”

November 7, 2010

Ocean dinghy sailing

IT WAS ALWAYS a source of regret to me that my seagoing sailboats were never big enough to carry a sailing dinghy. I always thought a small wooden dinghy would make an ideal lifeboat if the yacht sank, and I always thought I could sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary.

By force of circumstance, we always ended up with a rubber duckie that could be deflated and stowed in a cockpit locker; but the problem with an inflatable dinghy (or an inflatable liferaft for that matter) is that most of them are incapable of sailing anywhere, so you just have to sit there and pray that a ship will come your way and rescue you. Nothing deflates morale quicker. People have been known to die in days because they despaired of ever being rescued, whereas others endured long-lasting hardships simply because they were in charge of their own fate, making progress toward land and therefore generating hope.

Because we never had a small wooden sailing dinghy, I never had to do much thinking about the practical aspects of how you survive storms on the open ocean in a small dinghy. It was only years later that I read Frank Dye’s book about his extraordinary voyages from Scotland to Iceland and Norway in his open, wooden, 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy.[1]

On the passage to Norway, Frank and his male crew survived four capsizes in a Force 9 gale in the frigid Norwegian Sea. But ordinary gales never bothered them. The way they dealt with ordinary gales was this:

— They lowered the mast in its tabernacle until the upper end of the mast rested in a boom crutch a few feet above the transom.

— They fastened a cover from gunwale to gunwale over the mast, enclosing all the open cockpit.

— They streamed a parachute drogue from the bows.

— They lay flat on the floorboards to keep their ballast weight low.

The effect of the cover and the drogue was to keep the boat automatically facing into oncoming waves. In fact, the cover, being higher at the stern than near the bows, acted in the same way as a trysail would on a keelboat.

“Under the cover it was difficult to realize that a gale was blowing outside,” Dye remarks in his book with typical British sang froid. The Wayfarer rode well with a slight snatch as the drogue pulled her over each breaking crest. There was a rattle of spray on the cover and an occasional jump sideways as a cross-sea caught her. And in these conditions Dye and his crew even managed to get some rest.

The Wayfarer is a remarkable boat, of course, stable, fast, responsive, and seaworthy. And Frank Dye was an equally remarkable man.

I am grateful to him, because now that I know how to sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary, I fervently hope I never have to.

[1] Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, Second Edition, by Frank and Margaret Dye (Adlard Coles Nautical, London, 2008).

Today’s Thought
Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.
— Billy Graham

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #117
The knots you need. You can do almost everything you need to on a boat with just two knots, one bend and two hitches — five in all. They are the anchor bend, the bowline, the reef knot, the rolling hitch, and the clove hitch.

“Why did they transfer your boy friend from that submarine?”
“He has a habit of sleeping with the window open.”

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

November 4, 2010

Sailors’ worst nightmares

WHAT’S THE WORST THING that can happen to a sailor? That’s what Old Wotsisname and a couple of his pals were trying to figure out the other day as they stood around on the docks dodging rain showers.

OW said the worst thing that ever happened to him was being banned from the yacht club bar for calling the commodore an idiot to his face. But he got his own back. He resigned from the club and moved his boat to another city — yeah, OW really showed them!

However, his pals had other ideas about the worst calamities that can happen to a small-boat sailor, among them:

► Mast failure. Nothing makes your heart beat faster than the sight of your mast going overboard. The seriousness of the situation depends on many things, of course, especially how far away you are from land and rescue services.

► Anchor dragging onto a lee shore. Naturally, this only happens in the worst weather when it will cause maximum harm. Depending on the forecast, and how fast the anchor is moving, and how far offshore you are, it can be white-knuckle time. The answer is to retrieve your anchor and put out to sea as soon as the wind starts blowing hard onshore.

► Engine failure while entering a strange marina. It happens with puzzling frequency. It’s as if engines know when best to punish you. One answer is to have a stern anchor set up and ready to hurl overboard within seconds.

► A leak in the water tank at sea. It really gets your attention when you wake up to find your floorboards awash in fresh water. Whether you die of thirst or not depends on your knowledge of extracting lymphatic fluid from fish, as Dr. Alain Bombard did, and how much moisture there is in those cans of baked beans in the galley.

► Seasickness. For those afflicted, nothing is worse, even death itself. In fact, some in the deepest throes of this maritime misery have been known to beg to be allowed to die. Don’t let them. Force-feed them with dry crackers, keep them hydrated, and give them a steady supply of brown paper bags. And don’t expect any thanks.

► Some other suggestions from OW’s consultation group included:
— Going hard aground at high spring tide in front of the yacht club.
— Turning turtle at sea.
— Complete compass failure at sea.
— Getting too old to sail.

And, rather poignantly, one old salt opined that the worst thing that can happen to a sailor is to lose his or her long-time sailing partner. I thought it better not to ask him how he knew.

Today’s Thought
The true test of seamanship is how a sailor reacts when things go wrong, as they surely will.
— John Vigor

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #116
Winged keels. Wings at the bottom of a keel are an advantage only if you have a draft restriction. They get ballast low and help cut down on induced drag, but most boats could be made equally efficient by using deeper ordinary keels.

“You quite sure you shot this gator yourself?”
“Howcome it’s all dirty along one side?”
“Hit the mud when it fell out of the tree.”

November 2, 2010

How Creamer did it

EVER SINCE I READ ABOUT Marvin Creamer’s voyage around the world without navigational instruments of any kind, I’ve been wondering how he actually did it. I mean, how in fact did he deduce his latitude by eyeball only?

His explanation for the great unwashed public was simple. The former East Coast geography professor said he observed when a particular star was directly overhead. At that moment, the star’s declination (published in navigation tables) equaled the observer’s latitude.

If, at the time of observation, the star was not directly overhead but at least passing over his meridian, it must have been on a line either directly north or south of him. Then he simply estimated its angular distance away from directly overhead and converted that to miles, one degree being the equivalent of 60 nautical miles.

Yeah, right. The theory is sound . . . but the practice? Can you imagine standing on the heaving deck of a small sailboat at sea, hanging on for dear life, craning your neck upwards, squinting around the mainsail, and trying to judge when a star’s meridian transit occurs? How did Creamer do that? Well, I found the answer, or some of it, in the appendix to his book.

Apparently he drew an imaginary line from the polar point to the star before its transit. He extended that line in both directions and then he waited until that imaginary line divided the sky into two equal halves.

Okay, that’s the (very) approximate time of meridian passage, but how did he tell if the star was directly overhead or not?

“The observer should fix his shoulders in a north-south direction, stare upward, fix an imaginary zenith point and then make a zenith distance judgment.”

Hmmm. He makes it sound so easy.

“Normally an observer has a bias to his left or right,” Creamer continues, “which will affect where he ‘sees’ the star. By averaging two sights, one facing east and the other west, he can fix a point for the star and estimate his latitude based on the star’s declination.”

Creamer was in his late 60s when he sailed around the world via Cape Horn without even a compass or a watch. All I can say is that he was a very special and very gifted type of navigator. He also had his fair share of good luck. That, he explained, consisted of not having bad luck at dangerous times.

After his voyage was over, he discovered that his latitude estimates were within 100 miles of true latitude 68 percent of the time, and within 200 miles 95 percent of the time.

So, what next? you ask. What act can possibly follow that, to startle and amaze us all?

Why, blindfolded, of course. Yes, now someone needs to sail around the world blindfolded. And alone, naturally. And non-stop. And be under 15 years old.

Nothing less will startle and amaze us now. I’m afraid Creamer has desensitized us.

Today’s Thought
Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will — whatever we may think.
— Lawrence Durrell

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #115
Best keel shape. For the best windward work, a deep narrow keel is more efficient than a wide shallow one. The maximum cross-sectional width should be about 35 to 45 percent of the chord aft of the leading edge and it should be tapered smoothly to a fine edge — then either cut off bluntly at right angles or rounded to a small radius.

“How long did it take your son to learn to drive your car?”
“Oh, three or four.”
“Weeks or months?”

October 31, 2010

Trusting your crew

A FRIEND OF A FRIEND is dreaming of crossing the Pacific under sail. He normally holds down a highly technical and well-paid job, but he’s out of work right now and not likely to be hired again until the economy improves.

However, he is a frugal man and has husbanded his resources. So now he’s thinking that this might not a bad time to turn his dream into reality.

His loyal wife, who crews for him on their 32-foot cruising sloop, is happy to go along with him, but he is worried about his two daughters, aged 16 and 14.

“If they were boys I wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation,” he says, “but I’m not sure girls will be able to handle the hardships.”

Well, I don’t know these daughters of his, of course, but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit old-fashioned to regard girls as lacking in the ability to handle crew duties aboard yachts. What they might lack in brute strength they surely make up for in ingenuity. You only have to be able to read to know that girls of 15 and 16 are sailing bigger yachts than his around the world on their own these days.

Besides, boys don’t always make ideal crews anyway. The last time I crossed an ocean with a son, who was then 17 years old, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about him.

As we were the only two watchkeepers, he had specific orders to call me if he spotted another vessel at night. He had specific orders to call me if he thought a sail change was necessary. He had specific orders to wear a harness and tether when he was alone in the cockpit at night.

But he was 17. He was becoming a man. He couldn’t help himself. Nature was pumping testosterone through his tissues. He didn’t obey any of those orders. Although he was color blind, he guided us through a fleet of fishing boats one dark night way out in the South Atlantic while my wife and I slept below. I nearly had a fit when I found out.

And when we were running fast in the southeast trades I was woken up one night by the thud of footsteps running forward along the cabintop. My untethered son was jibing the foresail singlehanded, shifting the pole from one side to the other. I lay awake, staring into the darkness, listening to the noises, waiting for the thuds that would indicate he was returning to the safety of the cockpit. But they never came. Had he gone overboard? I reasoned — I hoped — that he had returned along the side deck. I wanted to get up and peek out of the companionway hatch, but I didn’t want him to know that I had caught him in an act of disobedience because that would have forced me to impose disciplinary punishment or else lose my power of authority over him, such as it was. So I lay there fretting for another half hour until it was time to go on watch and I could decently make an appearance. And there he was, sitting in the cockpit, neatly buckled up and looking the picture of innocence in the moonlight. I could have bitten him. But I didn’t ask him why the jib pole was suddenly on the other side.

I don’t think a girl would have disobeyed her father/skipper like that. Girls don’t have the same impulse to prove they’re macho.

Or do they? Maybe now I’m the one who’s acting old-fashioned. Well, if I am, I can’t help it. Old-fashioned is what I am. Like it or lump it. But my advice to the friend of a friend is simple: Go for it. Invest some trust in those daughters of yours. I’m sure it will be amply repaid.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #114
Size of keel bolts. If your keel is held in place by bronze bolts, those bolts should have a cross-sectional area of not less than 1 square inch in total for every 1,500 pounds of outside ballast. This is valid for bolt material with a tensile strength of at least 60,000 pounds per square inch. Bolts made of stronger metal such as Monel or stainless steel can be correspondingly smaller.

Did you hear about the short-sighted moth who blundered into a 2-year-old’s birthday party? He burned his end at both candles.

October 28, 2010

Message from the foredeck

SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS is a wonderful thing. We now have small radio headsets that send and receive voice messages over short distances, presumably to save people the trouble of raising their voices.

I first became aware of them in a quiet anchorage on the west side of Vancouver Island a few years back. They were on the heads of an elderly couple who were preparing to raise the anchor of their chunky 35-foot, full-keel sloop. He was on the foredeck managing the ground tackle, a balding man in blue jeans. She was in the cockpit, behind the wheel, managing the engine controls, a large lady in pink shorts.

I don’t know why they needed headsets. I could hear every word.

“Come to port, Martha,” he said.


“Port, Martha, port. Left, dammit. Ring finger, Martha, ring finger.”

“Okay. Don’t shout.”

“I’m NOT shouting . . . MARTHA! You’re going RIGHT. Come LEFT.”

“I AM coming left.”

“MARTHA, for chrissake face FORWARD when you want to come left. Left, dammit, quickly, LEFT!”

To avoid that kind of debacle, my wife and I worked out a simple system of hand signals for anchor raising. For example, when I wanted her to turn to port, I simply held out my port hand. It worked fine for us but it occurred to me recently that we always overlook one of the most ancient and effective methods of conveying messages on board ship, one that cuts through raging storms, engine din, and even cannons blasting. I’m talking about the bosun’s pipe.

Furnished with a pipe up there on the foredeck, old baldy could have whistled up a storm of explicit instructions. In the old days, the bosun and his mates used to issue about 50 different commands from this shrill whistle with its two basic notes and its three distinctive tones (straight whistle, warble, and trill).

For the man on the foredeck, the advantages are many; perhaps the greatest of which is that the person in the cockpit can’t answer back. Then, also, there’s the fact that nobody else in the anchorage will understand what you’re talking about. As long as the person at the wheel knows that phweet-phwip-phwip means “You’re a congenital idiot,” that’s all that matters.

And, of course, a pipe needs no batteries. You don’t have to memorize an instruction manual. It’s cheap. It’s practically indestructible, and it has a romantic connection to the history of the sea stretching back centuries.

If you’d like to hear a couple of traditional commands and learn more about the bosun’s pipe, or bosun's call as it's also known, just click here:

Today’s Thought
Evil communications corrupt good character.
— Menander, Thais: Fragment

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #113
Strain on jib sheet. To find the force applied to the sheet by a jib or forestaysail, multiply the sail area in square feet by the wind speed in knots squared. Then divide the answer by 232. This will give you the approximate pull on the sheet in pounds.

President Obama is punting his new family budget plan. It makes sure you can pay as you go — as long as you don’t go anywhere.