March 30, 2010

Trade-wind music

SOMETIMES IT PAYS to procrastinate. I waited for so long to install a music player in my boat that they invented the iPod and made things a whole lot easier. But then I procrastinated about the iPod, too, and came to the conclusion that all I needed for music while cruising was a small AM/FM radio.

What drove me to that conclusion was the fact that you never know what’s coming up next on the radio. Often it’s something you’ve never heard before, something you’re glad to get to know; something you would never have chosen for yourself, given its name. The surprise element appealed to me greatly.

The main surprise was how few classical music stations my little radio could find when I got to the wilderness on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The classics always seem to be on FM for some reason, and as you cruise north of the city of Vancouver, FM coverage gets very spotty. There’s plenty of AM, of course. Lots of rock, country, Dolly Parton, and blues, but no classics on AM.

So I was once again thinking iPod thoughts one evening in a quiet little anchorage up north when, by some freak of radio-wave propagation, Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony came bursting through. That was the one they considered too long and too difficult to play, so it wasn’t until 10 years after Schubert’s death that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and made it famous.

It holds special delights for me because it reminds me so vividly of a voyage I made in the southeast trade winds of the South Atlantic. Schubert’s music forges ahead in a series of swoops just like my 30-foot sloop surged down those long tropical swells for days and weeks.

Every time I hear that last movement, beginning with the triumphant “Ta-dah-dah!” I feel myself lying on the sun-warmed foredeck, looking down over the bow at that split wave fanning out on both sides.

Schubert urges us on relentlessly, driving forward, forward, in an exciting contagious rhythm, as unstoppable as an express steam train. Persistent repetitive quatrains match the thrust of my sloop as she surfs forward on sunny blue seas flecked with sparkling white foam. Forward, forward, alive and joyous, filling the air with optimism and a wonderful feeling of progress toward a goal.

It’s a marvelous piece of music. Beethoven’s Seventh has a similar feel about it in places, but it’s Schubert who takes me straight back to the deep waters of the trade winds.

On this occasion it was a surprise gift from my little radio, and a temporary one at that. So maybe I’ll go along with the iPod idea after all. I’ll be able to listen to Schubert whenever I want then. But, of course, it would lack the wonderful element of surprise. So maybe I’ll just wait a bit. Who knows what new source of music they might invent next?

Today’s Thought
If they can’t hum it after we play it, it’s not for us.
— Lawrence Welk

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #33
Circling in fog. Well documented studies carried out in the Northern Hemisphere show that people cut off from sensory information about their surroundings tend to move in a circle, usually clockwise. Thus, if you’re caught in fog or dense rain without a compass, it’s more than likely that you’ll be circling in a clockwise direction.

From a New York book catalog:
First edition, profusely illustrated — Unconventional Sex Practices — spine cracked, appendix torn, $75.”

March 28, 2010

Spare a prayer or two

IT MUST SEEM VERY STRANGE to landlubbers when sailors talk about speed being the enemy of safety on seagoing sailboats. What speed, for Pete’s sake? You call 10 knots speed? My grandma goes faster than that on her skateboard.

Well, it’s all comparative. Ten knots is twice as fast as 5 knots, so if you’re sailing around the world, or just racing across an ocean, you get there in half the time in the faster boat. And, because boat speeds are so slow, that represents a saving of weeks or months.

In discussing the design of ocean racers, the British sailor and research scientist C. A. Marchaj[1] mentions five factors that have “a deleterious effect on seaworthiness.” They are:

1. Lighter displacement
2. Greater beam and a flat bottom
3. Reduced lateral area of the hull (separated fin keel and rudder)
4. Higher center of gravity, and
5. Increased freeboard

I mention this because there are two 16-year-old girls sailing around the world right now, each vying for the record for the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone, non-stop, and unassisted.

One, Jessica Watson, is sailing an S&S 34, a fairly conservative design, well-proven and fairly heavy, with a reasonably large underwater lateral area. She relies on an old-fashioned wind-vane self-steering gear that uses no electricity. And she has been plodding along quite gently for months. She is now within a few thousand miles of Sydney, Australia, where she will finish.

Abby Sunderland is sailing an Open 40, a radical racing design that is a handful even for a strong man. She is of light displacement. She has great beam and a flat bottom. She has reduced lateral area of the hull. And she relies heavily on generating enough power from solar panels, wind chargers, and a diesel engine to charge the large bank of batteries needed to run the electric autopilot that must do all the steering. And she is very fast, of course, because she was designed for speed above safety. Too fast for a simple wind vane to be effective, in fact.

Abby’s kind of boat is fine in heavy weather if you can keep her going fast. If you can’t, she is likely to be capsized by a large wave, and she is likely to remain upside down a considerable time (as Isabelle Autissier’s similar boat did) because the hull is shaped like a flat iron. Indeed, recognizing this possibility, the designer has provided ballast water tanks on each side, so that in case of a 180-degree inversion, Abby can pump water over to one side to make the boat heel until the long thin keel sticking up in the air can get enough grip to right the boat.

Only a week after her start from Marina del Rey, California, Abby ran into trouble with her power-hungry equipment. “The fact is I am just not able to generate enough power with my solar panels and wind generators to keep up with all of my energy needs. We didn't budget enough fuel for me to run my two alternators as often as I have been needing to ...” She had to put into Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for repairs, and to restart her record attempt – which will make for an awkward end to her bid, since she won’t be able to finish at her home port where the crowds will be waiting.

Late last week, down in the Furious 50s, Abby experienced autopilot problems and had to steer by hand for half the night in strong winds and high waves. This is the problem with a radical boat that will not look after itself when the chips are down, as a more conservative boat like Jessica’s will do. The problem is simply crew exhaustion, because you can’t just lock yourself down below and go to sleep. Abby’s boat must be kept moving, and moving fast, to stay seaworthy.

I have to say that I think Abby’s boat is most unsuitable for her quest. Some will disagree and I respect their opinions, particularly since Abby has shown herself to be an extraordinarily capable sailor.

But she’s approaching Cape Horn right now on one of the most dangerous sections of her circumnavigation and I am praying that nothing goes wrong with the mass of complicated electronics on which her life depends. If you’re in the habit of saying prayers before bed, you might want to slip one in for Abby for the next week or so until she can head north into calmer waters.

[1]Seaworthiness: the Forgotten Factor, by C. A. Marchaj (International Marine, Camden, Maine)

► Jessica Watson —
► Abby Sunderland —

Today’s Thought
What are the wild waves saying,
Sister, the whole day long,
That ever amid our playing,
I hear but their low, lone song?
— Joseph Edwards Carpenter

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #32
The best pencil for chartwork is one with a medium lead. A No. 2 works well. A softer pencil makes a bolder line, but tends to smudge. A harder lead is more difficult to see and erase. It also digs into the chart and shortens its life. Whatever you use, be sure to include a good eraser. It’s the navigator’s best friend.

One of the greatest kindnesses you can do for your friends is to trust them with your secrets. They feel so important when they tell people.

March 25, 2010

Cats on boats

MUCH AS I LOVE CATS, I don’t love cats on boats. Cats have a habit of falling overboard at sea, or running off with the local tomcat in port. For a long time I thought the only proper pet for a sailboat was a parrot, but I have since been informed that parrots are much more demanding than you might imagine. If you want to look like a pirate, it’s going to cost you a lot of time and money.

Lots of people go cruising here in the Pacific Northwest with their dogs, and have to run them ashore morning and evening to fertilize the landscape. And a few do take their cats sailing with them. Cat-owning sailors are less subject to being bossed around by their pets because cats don’t jump up and down and demand to be taken ashore from an anchored yacht, as excited dogs do. They’re far calmer and more self-contained.

Nevertheless, there is still the problem of where they do their doo-doos. Most cats will happily use a sand-box, but that creates problems, too. I have, however, heard of a couple of cats who had been trained to use the ship’s head. One was a male called Pepe, who sailed around the world on Pieter de Klerk’s boat Aqua Viva.

I once rescued Pepe from a fight he was losing with the resident tomcat at the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town but I never did learn how Pieter trained him to use a human toilet. Someone told me recently that the way you do it is to place a sandbox over the head to start with, gradually lower it into the bowl over a period of days, and then remove the sandbox altogether.

How wonderful it must be when you no longer have to bother with messy smelly cat litter while crossing an ocean. The only thing better would be if your cat could flush the toilet afterward. I bet Pepe could do it, with a little training.

Today’s Thought
Did St. Francis preach to the birds? Whatever for? If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.
— Rebecca West, This Real Night

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #31
Scale of charts. If you’re confused about large-scale and small-scale charts, here’s how best to remember: Large scale, large detail; small scale, small detail. This is not exactly intuitive, since you get a large area on a chart with small detail, and a smaller area with large detail. So I suggest you don’t bother your tired little brain any further by trying to figure it out. Just memorize it, okay? Large scale, large detail. There. Nice work. You’ve got it.

Nature compensates for everything. One of the nicest things about old age is that you can whistle while you clean your teeth.

March 23, 2010

You put your coffee where?

THE WOMAN WHO CUTS what’s left of my hair went to barber school. That makes her one of the boys, so it’s quite natural that she is interested in sailing around the world.

But she surprised me the other day by lending me a book by Bernard Moitessier, one of her sailing heroes. When I say “by Bernard Moitessier,” I should explain that it wasn’t by Bernard Moitessier in the normal author/publisher way. It was a book assembled after his death in 1994 by his self-styled “companion,” one of a string of females dear Bernard left wallowing in his wake. It’s called A Sea Vagabond’s World.

He was indeed a vagabond when I first befriended him. At least that what’s he called himself. The rest of us called him a seaborne Hippie, a bumbling, mystical doofus who couldn’t sail very well and who built boats (knowing hardly anything about boatbuilding) and promptly lost them through bad seamanship.

But this is heresy to my barber, bless her heart, who worships the very waves he sailed on, so I do my best to encourage her enthusiasm without revealing the facts that would shake her faith in this French guru of long-distance cruising.

And yet the facts are right there in this book she lent me. Moitessier always was infected with a slight case of the Tristan Jones syndrome. As an educated reader, you will know, of course that Tristan Jones suffered mightily from hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, to the extent that you could never know where the truth ended and the lies started. Dear old Bernard wasn’t in his league, but perhaps that wasn’t for want of trying.

For instance, in A Sea Vagabond’s World he tells starry-eyed barber girls how to exist on a tropical atoll. This, apparently, calls for plenty of garden compost, tropical atolls being notoriously short of the stuff. But luckily we all have it within ourselves to make compost. I quote:

“Make a chicken-wire cylinder, stand it on end, and fill it with minced leaves and stems and lots of chopped sea cucumbers, fish guts, kitchen scraps and other organic matter … Urine and excrement complete this mixture. I figured that on Poro Poro my family — two adults and one child — produced 50 to 80 gallons of human fertilizer a year.”

Now once your human-fertilizer compost heap is complete you have to leave it for a week, says Bernard, before “adding more sea cucumber, human waste, urine, and kitchen scraps.”

After that, things heat up, apparently. “A thermometer stuck into the heap would burst at 130 degrees.”

Now, if we wanted to we could pause here for a moment and ask why the heck a thermometer would burst at 130 degrees. That’s not very hot. However, intriguing as that question is, we should waste no time in hastening on to his next statement: “I’ve even used this amazing heat to brew myself a cup of instant coffee.”

Yeah, right, Bernard. You stuck your coffee cup into a pile of steaming human waste to warm it up? And then you drank it? Oh, sure. Of course you did.

I haven’t found out yet if my barber lady drinks instant coffee. I feel compelled to warn her not to use the Moitessier method but I don’t want to shatter her dream of settling on a compost-starved South Sea atoll. Damn you, Bernard, I knew from the moment I first set eyes on you that you would cause trouble wherever you go.

Today’s Thought
There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.
— John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #30
Chart table size. The minimum size for a chart table in even the smallest boat is 28 inches by 21 inches. Ideally, it should measure at least 42 inches by 28 inches, but not many of us can afford that luxury. Incidentally, 100 paper charts folded in the normal matter fill a chart drawer measuring 28 inches by 21 inches to a depth of two inches. If you’re like me and don’t have a chart drawer, you’ll find you can stow about 100 charts under the saloon cushions in three neat little piles on either side.

He who laughs last probably had to have the joke explained.

March 21, 2010

Changing fashions

I NOTICE A LOT OF INTEREST lately in loose-footed mainsails for cruising boats. It’s funny how these fads come and go. I personally don’t think a loose footed mainsail is any better than one with its foot attached to the boom. I’ve raced and cruised with both types. In fact, a loose-footed main is much more difficult to control in some circumstances. When you douse it, for example, the slippery Dacron spills all over the cabin top and makes for very dangerous footing – unless, of course, you subscribe to another fad: lazy-jacks.

When your mainsail is attached to the boom it’s easier to fold the sail into a pocket and roll it onto the spar, where you can get the sail ties around it. This is especially helpful for a singlehander.

If you have a loose-footed mainsail with lazy-jacks, you have to face the boat almost dead into the wind before you can lower the mainsail, otherwise the battens will hang up on the lazy-jacks. This isn’t always convenient or even possible.

And talking of battens — there’s another fad cruising boats don’t need: full-length battens. Only sailmakers love full-length battens. There’s money in it for them. I personally recommend a totally battenless mainsail for a cruising boat, one cut with a slightly hollow leech, just like a foresail. With that kind of main, with no battens to get hung up on the rigging, you can even claw it down on a dead run.

But battenless mainsails with attached feet are not the fad right now, so I don’t expect any of you to go running right out to order one. My words of wisdom all too often fall on deaf ears, I’m afraid.

There are a lot of other fads around right now, too. Furler-reefing headsails, of course, which, I admit, do have many advantages as long as they’re working properly. Mainsheet tracks adjustable under load by means of a bevy of blocks and yards of fiddly line. Wing keels (very good for gripping the ground firmly when you hit the sandbank). And a host of sails with exotic exciting names, such as Code Zeros, Scorchers, Bloopers, Zoomers, Poppers, and asymmetrical spinnakers that won’t help you on a run, as a spinnaker should; they can only reach.

Of course, if a fad sticks around long enough, it becomes the norm. In the early 20th century, even the Bermudan rig was a fad. It was deemed OK for racers, but a big non-no for cruisers because the extra length of the mast made it more difficult to stay. The gaff rig, with a stumpy, well-stayed mast, was the one you needed if you were going to sea and likely to be turned upside down. That mast would survive a capsize, whereas a Bermudan mast would be torn off or smashed in half.

But nobody I know takes this into account any more. There are a few enthusiasts who still prefer bullet-proof short masts and gaff rigs, which makes a lot of sense for ocean passagemaking, but the emphasis today is on how to rig a jury mast when your Bermudan mast falls down. Or, of course, how to call for a tow. I guess that’s progress. Sort of sideways progress, but progress nonetheless.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #29
Sail-plan center of effort. An old rule of thumb is that the center of effort (CE) of a sail plan should be 2 to 8 percent of the load waterline length forward of the center of lateral resistance. This is the amount of lead. However, the CE is just a theoretical concept useful in planning, and fine tuning is usually needed to determine more exactly the position and cut of the sails for best hull balance.

“Can you describe your missing financial adviser, sir?”
“Yes, he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and $50,000 short.”

March 18, 2010

Another 10 for spring

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

WITH SPRING cometh another Ten Commandments for the new sailing season:
1. Thou shalt not lie about the size of the waves, nor yet of the speed of the wind which hath assailed thee.
2.Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s gorgeous Hinckley nor his adorable wife.
3. Thou shalt not curse the weather forecaster any more than is absolutely necessary.
4. Thou shalt not pour scorn upon the Coast Guard boarding party, yea even though thine potty be legal.
5. Thou shalt slow down both in the marina and the anchorage; neither shall thine junior offspring run amok in the outboard dinghy.
6. Thou shalt not stamp thine foot, nor beat thine breast, nor rent the air with thine fists when thou receivest thine bill for engine repairs, for it frighteneth the children
7. Thou shalt not laugh openly at thine seasick mother-in-law.
8. Thou shalt not yet again neglect to switch on the cooling water before starting the engine and blame it upon thine spouse.
9. Thou shalt not lie about when last thou changed the engine oil.
10. Honor thine foredeck crew, and refrain from assailing them with raiséd voice, for they are the salt of the earth.
And one more for the helluvit:
11. Allow not thine halyards to smite thine mast repeatedly, lest it arouse sleeplessness, enmity, and bitterness among thy neighbors.

Today’s Thought
We must do the thing we must
Before the thing we may;
We are unfit for any trust
Till we can and do obey.

— George Macdonald, Willie’s Question

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #28
The French scientist and adventurer Dr. Alain Bombard maintained that nine out of 10 castaways adrift at sea die within three days, despite the fact that it takes longer than that to perish of hunger and thirst. Studies indicate that panic and loss of morale are the chief causes of death. Both may be reduced substantially by careful preparation (mental and physical) for being cast away.

“What happened to your ear?”
“Well, I was ironing my shirt when the phone rang and I accidentally put the iron to my ear.”
“Bummer. And what happened to the other ear?”
“Well, I had to call 911, didn’t I?”

March 16, 2010

Why the Jolly Roger?

ONE THING I should have learned as a newspaper columnist is never to ask your readers what you should write about. Never even hint that you don’t know what to write about, because if you do, people will send you long lists of brilliant subjects that need weeks of intensive research and fact checking. Good grief, so much work.

Well, I never was one for letting the facts spoil a good story, or for letting over-weening enthusiasm cut into the cocktail hour, so when my friend Jennifer Moran sent me a list in a recent comment to this blog, I skipped right over her first three suggestions.

(1)I know nothing about parasail spinnakers. (2) Splice revision? I can splice three-strand line but cannot be bothered with the complications of braided line. I do bowlines instead. (3) Constructing an emergency rudder. Too boring. I’m writing for people who will never build an emergency rudder in their lives. Besides, I don’t know how.

Which brings us to item No. 4: why is a pirate flag called a Jolly Roger? Now that’s more in my line, Jennifer. Thank you. The answer is easy: Nobody knows.

It seems that the Jolly Roger was intended to show that pirates attacking a merchant vessel would show no mercy, since, if they were captured, they would be hanged anyway for being pirates. There is all sorts of speculation about why the flag is called a Jolly Roger but no hard facts.

So, if you have nothing better to do with your life than worry about Jolly Rogers and where they came from (a sad state of affairs, egad — and not you, of course, Jennifer) I can do no better than refer you to a splendid series of essays and illustrations in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia.

All you have to do is click on the following line and all your questions will be answered. Mostly with other questions, but heck, it’s getting near sundowner time, so let’s not quibble, OK?

Today’s Thought
The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.
— Lyndon B. Johnson, People 2 Feb 87

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #27
For boats under 20 feet overall, the number of adults carried should equal overall length times overall beam, in feet, divided by 15. The answer can be rounded up to the nearest whole number.
Clearly, as all boats are different, and as some people are bigger than others, this rule should be applied with a liberal dose of common sense.

Overheard at Starbucks:“You wouldn’t think it now, but Fred used to be the same age as George Clooney.”

March 15, 2010

An empty green wine bottle

I WAS SITTING ON MY BOAT the other bay, quietly minding my own business, when Sam Psmythe (silent P as in bath) came wandering down the jetty. Like so many boat owners, Sam likes to talk.

“I’m thinking of buying a boat for the singlehanded TransPac,” he said. “I’d like to cross an ocean. But I’m wondering if I wouldn’t be bored to death. Sixteen days of nothingness, with every wave looking like every other wave.” He looked at me quizzically. “You’ve crossed oceans,” he continued. “How did you find it? I guess you didn’t go nuts — not yet anyhow.”

I had to tell Sam that I never tired of watching the sea and the way my 30-foot sloop, Freelance, handled herself in the trade winds. The regularity of the swells and her forward rush down their faces was almost hypnotic and I spent many happy hours lying on the foredeck in the shade of the sails, watching her brilliant white bow wave rise and fall on the warm blue water.

I never got bored. Perhaps my mind is less complicated than most and is more easily satisfied by minutiae. But I know what Sam meant. On easy passages like that, small differences assume great significance precisely because everything else stays much the same. On Freelance we all suffered sensory deprivation to some extent.

For example, there was an entry in the official ship’s log that said: “Passed green wine bottle floating in the sea.” That was a measure of how much our senses lacked stimulus. The fact that a single piece of garbage could stimulate me to jump up and point and call June and Kevin from down below is indicative of how empty and featureless the ocean appears on the surface day after day.

We talked about that bottle for half the afternoon, wondering how long it had been out there, a thousand miles from the nearest land, and why it was still floating. We discussed whether it had come from a ship, and who had drunk its contents, and why it was alone, and where it would end up if it didn’t sink. We almost went back to rescue it, in case there was a message in it. We tried to recall if there was a cork in the neck or not ... and so it went on. One old green bottle kept us fully entertained for hours. It was the highlight of our day in the tropics.

So yes, I told Sam, there are times when it can be boring, but when that happens Nature sends along an old wine bottle to keep you amused, or a whale, or a ship on a collision course to frighten the pants off you. Even if you’re easily bored, you’re never bored for long, especially if you’re a singlehander with a lot of work to do.

Now frankly I don’t think Sam will ever do the TransPac alone. He’s too gregarious. He would probably wither up and die if he didn’t have someone to talk to all the time. But if by some chance he does try that solo passage, he now knows what to do. “I’ll just take along a whole bunch of empty green wine bottles,” he said, wandering off thoughtfully.

Today’s Thought
Little minds are interested in the extraordinary; great minds in the commonplace.
— Elbert Hubbard, Epigrams

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #26
At sea, red buoys are generally much easier to spot from a distance than green buoys, which often tend to look black from afar. At night, buoys with green lights mostly look yellowish at a distance and buoys with white lights often appear faintly red at first. These changes are caused by the filtering effect of the atmosphere.

Why does a chicken coop have two doors?
Because if it had four doors it would be a chicken sedan.

March 11, 2010

One lean dream machine

(Mainly about Boats — a new column every Monday, Wednesday, Friday)

IT WAS ONE of those mornings when I couldn’t wake up. I lay there long after the alarm went off, half asleep, loathe to leave my dream, even though, as usual, it made no sense.

I was a reporter writing a front-page story:

NEW YORK, Thursday — In a shocking revelation, the Buddhist mayor of New York confessed yesterday that he is one-third cabbage.

“I was always kind to caterpillars in my previous life,” he explained. “I often let them eat me ’til it hurt.”

Recent DNA tests have confirmed that the mayor’s genetic make-up is 33 1/3 percent Brassica oleracea, or common cabbage.

His wife said yesterday that she was not surprised. “His political opponents often describe him as a vegetable,” she added.

It is not known how this revelation will affect the mayor’s standing among voters. “But I fully expect to be more popular among the Greens,” he said. Strong support is also expected from the Boston Beans and Has-Beans Party.

Meanwhile, after a hastily convened meeting in the Oval Office, President Obama called for bipartisan support for the Mayor. “He has deep roots in New York,” he said. The President also instructed the Attorney-General to find out if boiled beef and cabbage is protected by the Constitution ... chairman of the Vegetable Rights Movement deeply moved and delighted ... somebody thinks he would be good shredded for salad ...

I’m surfacing now, rubbing my eyes and realizing it’s Thursday. Omigawd, I have a column to write for Friday. And no ideas. Tabula rasa, as they used to say in Rome.

So this has nothing to do with boats or sailing. The only excuse for it is that people who are interested in boats and sailing are also interested in other things. They have nimble, wide-ranging minds. They have loving dispositions and are forgiving of dumb columnists who have overdrawn their idea boxes to the point of bankruptcy.

And in any case (he said unapologetically) you were forewarned. This column is called Mainly about Boats. It’s not Always about Boats. So there.

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, Newsweek 30 Nov 59

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #25
Locating the center of a depression. If you need to know where the middle of an approaching low lies, so that you can avoid its worst winds, just stand facing the wind. In the northern hemisphere, the low is on your right side and slightly behind you. Down south of the equator, it’s on your left side.

That’s Buys-Ballot’s Law, incidentally. I didn’t make it up myself. (Could have, if I had wanted to.)

Hickory, dickory, dock,
Two mice ran up the clock.
The clock struck one
And the other escaped with minor injuries.

March 9, 2010

When is waterproof not?

(Mainly about Boats — a new column every Monday, Wednesday, Friday)

IMAGINE FOR ONE MOMENT that you manufacture handheld marine VHF radios for boaters. Imagine, too, that your bean counters have figured out that it’s more profitable for you to replace a radio (if someone complains it’s not waterproof) than it is to make all your radios waterproof in the first place.

Now here’s the thing: Is it morally wrong to warrant a radio as waterproof when you know it’s not? Bearing in mind, of course, that the consumer is not going to be out of pocket if water does get into it.

I merely ask. I am not pointing a finger. In fact, I’m probably the very first person in the world to have been struck by this weird notion. But, quite coincidentally, several years ago when the consumer magazine Practical Sailor tested seven brands of handheld VHFs marketed as waterproof, water resistant, or warranted against water damage, only one turned out to be truly waterproof.

Now I have a silly notion that a VHF is a safety item of the last resort. When I really need it, the waves will be breaking over everything, it will be pouring with rain, and I’ll probably drop it in puddles a few times.

So I’d rather have a truly waterproof radio than one that might fail if I accidentally spit on it, even if they promised to refund my money — presuming that, lacking any means to call for help, I survived to collect it.

Today’s Thought
The foundations of morality are like all other foundations: If you dig too much about them the superstructure will come tumbling down.
— Samuel Butler the Younger, Note-books

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #24
Bulwarks. To be any use at all, bulwarks on your sidedecks should be no less than 3 inches deep. Experienced cruisers Lin and Larry Pardey have 8-inch bulwarks on their 29-foot boat, for example, but anything over 4 inches is good for footing, preventing gear from sliding overboard, and strengthening stanchions.

Ever wonder why the average man prefers women with beauty to women with brains?
It’s because the average man sees more clearly than he thinks.

March 7, 2010

Dancing out of port

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday – a new Mainly about Boats column)

SINGLEHANDING A CRUISING SAILBOAT has many advantages. The skipper never has to argue with the cook about what to have for supper, for example. But there is one recurring dilemma for the person alone on a boat and that is how to control the boat’s speed and direction in the time between raising the anchor and getting back to the cockpit.

It’s extraordinary how a perfectly well-behaved boat will suddenly decide to veer off sideways at astonishing speed toward an adjacent anchored boat as soon as the anchor comes clear of the bottom. It’s going to take two or three minutes to haul up the rode and get the pick settled in the roller. But you don’t have two or three minutes. The distance to the next yacht is one minute; maybe 50 seconds if a gust of wind hits you.

This is why singlehanders so often drop anchor way, way apart from anyone else. It isn’t that they’re anti-social or because they had bad experiences with nasty sailors when they were little kids. It’s just that they need lots of room in which to drift, out of control, while they wrestle with their newly recovered ground tackle.

Sometimes, though, anchorages are crowded, and, thoughtless as it may seem, nobody sets aside drifting room for special-needs singlehanders. What then? Well, if you have a tiller, rather than a wheel, there are things you can do. You can steer from the bow, for a start.

If you tie the tiller off to one side with a piece of elastic surgical tubing, or a bungee cord, you can take a length of cod line from the tiller, across to the opposite coaming, and forward outside the stanchions to the bow. If you stand on the foredeck and pull the cod line, the elastic will stretch and allow you to pull the tiller over one way. And if you let the cod line go completely, the elastic will contract and pull the tiller over the other way. Because you need two hands for the anchor rode, you can stand on the cod line with one foot to keep the tiller positioned exactly where you want it.

In this way, if you leave your engine ticking over slowly in forward gear, you can steer your way out of trouble while you are actually weighing anchor. If you are especially ingenious and your engine controls are cooperative, you may be able to attach another piece of elastic tubing to the gear lever and another length of cod line to run up the other side to the bow. That will keep your second foot happy by giving it something responsible to do, too, and the anchored hordes will be provided with free amusement as you dance your way out of port.

I expect there are those of you who will say that an autopilot with a wireless remote can do just as good a job of steering from the bow. But where, I ask, is the fun in that? And if you want to experiment by standing on your remote control on the foredeck, be my guest.

Today’s Thought
The Athenians do not mind a man being clever, as long as he does not impart his cleverness to others.
— Plato, Euthyphro

Boater’s Rules of Thumb #23
Hauling the boat. The first thing to do when you haul the boat out of the water is to scrape off bottom growths immediately. If you let the plant and animal life dry out it sets like concrete within a couple of hours. If you can’t scrape or arrange for a power wash-down immediately, then try to keep the bottom wet until you’re ready.

“Nurse, get the patient’s name so we can inform his mother.”
“But doctor, his mother already knows his name.”

March 4, 2010

The Coastie-candela confusion

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday -- a new Mainly about Boats column.)

IN THE CONTINUING SAGA of brass oil lamps for anchor lights, Nikolay R. reports thus:

After some searching, I have successfully located a local store that carries both the DHR and Weems & Plath brass oil lamp for a slightly more reasonable price than procuring it through a West Marine retailer.

I wonder, would the 10-inch anchor lamp be sufficient to meet the intent of international Col-Regs?
Nikolay R.

The short answer, Nikolay, is yes. The COLREGS say that if your boat is less than 164 feet long, you need to exhibit when at anchor at all-round white light “where it can best be seen.” It must be visible for two miles. (If your boat is less than 23 feet long, you don’t need an anchor light at all, provided you don’t anchor in or near a narrow channel, fairway, or anchorage, or where other vessels normally navigate.)

This light doesn’t have to be electric. The COLREGS say so. A flame from a kerosene lantern with a wick a half-inch wide and a half-inch high will do the trick. The regulations say a light needs a brightness of 4.3 candelas to be seen two miles away.

And just what is a candela, you ask? Why, heavens, it’s a unit of luminous intensity of course. You can think of it as roughly one candle-power, so your oil lamp needs to be the equivalent of 4.3 candles.

You sometimes see an advertisement for an oil lamp that states “Not Coast-Guard approved.” So who needs Coast Guard approval? The Coasties didn’t make the laws. They merely enforce them. If your all-round white anchor light can be seen for two miles it doesn’t matter if you’re burning grandma's drawers in a galvanized bucket. As long as they produce 4.3 candelas (as I’m sure your grandmother’s would) they’re legal.

And if the Coasties give you a hard time because you have a non-approved anchor light, slay them with this official definition of a candela:

“The candela is the luminous intensity, in the perpendicular direction, of a surface of 1/600,000 of a square meter of a black body at the temperature of freezing platinum under a pressure of 101,325 pascals.”

Then tell them to back off two miles and open their peepers.

Today’s Thought
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.
— New Testament: John i, 9

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #22
Bosun’s chairs. The golden rule when going up the mast in a bosun’s chair is this: never trust anybody else. Check everything yourself. Have a back-up halyard. Prefer rope bindings to metal shackles; rope is more honest. And the rule once you’re up there is simple: don’t drop any tools. Crews on deck just hate that.

Exhaustive intensive researches
By Darwin and Huxley and Hall
Have conclusively proved that the hedgehog
Can scarcely be ravished at all.
And further industrious enquiry
Has incontrovertibly shown
That this state of comparative safety
Is enjoyed by the hedgehog alone.

March 2, 2010

Light to drink wine by

IN A REPLY to my last column, Nikolay R., of Toronto, Canada, said he would like to become an energy-self-sufficient boater with oil lamps and a freshwater foot pump. Any ideas, suggestions or recommendations would be highly appreciated, he said, in particular the material from which the lamp is made, and the type of fuel. “From my looking around, I favored but I’m not sure if there’s a better place to get them."

Well, Nikolay, let’s start with oil lamps. On a boat you need an all-brass lamp. Every time I flick through the West Marine or Defender catalogs my eye is stopped by the beautiful brass kerosene lamps. The Dutch firm of Den Haan has been making these anchor and cabin lamps for about 80 years. They are thorough seagoing lamps, fit to make any seaman swoon. They’re tried, they’re tested, and they’re expensive. But if you regard them as investments and family heirlooms you may be able to quiet the objections of your conscience or your wife.

Vermont Lanterns appears to stock a greater variety of Indian-made nautical lanterns at much more reasonable prices. I personally can’t vouch for their quality but they certainly look lovely. In the other catalogs, the firm of Weems & Plath seems to be buying out the old-established manufacturers of nautical lanterns.

You might want to start with one of the less expensive lamps, the kind favored by the Welsh miners, which retails for about $100 to $130, depending on size. I still have one that I used for years both as a cabin light and an anchor light, hanging over the cockpit from the main boom.

Lighting and maintaining oil lamps forms the kind of calming, unhurried ritual that pipe smokers used to enjoy in the days when people actually smoked pipes. It takes you back to an age when ambiance and reliability was favored over speed and convenience, and lantern light was good for the soul.

You will find your own favorite ways of filling the fuel reservoir and trimming the excess carbon from the wick. You will discover your favorite fuel — either expensive and characterless lamp oil in small bottles, or robust, energetic, water-clear, K-1 kerosene by the gallon. People with finicky noses say kerosene lamps smell. They are the same people who turn green when confronted with tarred hemp and scream about second-hand cigarette smoke. They are not true sailors. Ignore them.

Lamp oil is not supposed to smell at all. Clear kerosene is not supposed to smell much. If it does smell, it’s one of those smells that immediately invokes a wonderful mental image of peace and order, a vision of a snug warm cabin glowing gold in a peaceful anchorage, of a glass of wine with dear friends and good company. That’s what you pay for when you buy and maintain an oil lamp. It’s something you’ll never be able to buy with the flick of an electric light switch.

PS: Warm the chimney glass slowly with a low flame for a minute or two after lighting, before turning it up to full blast. This is the voice of bitter experience.

Today’s Thought
Man is the animal that has made friends with the fire.
— Henry van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #21
Boom sizes. For a simple, round, aluminum boom, the diameter should be one-forty-fifth of the overall length. The wall thickness should be one-twenty-sixth of the diameter. Yes, you’ll probably need the calculator.

“Waiter, is this the tea I ordered?”
“What does it taste like, madam?”
“Ah, right, then it must be tea, madam. If it tastes like kerosene it’s coffee.”