April 28, 2011

Keep a sharp lookout, mateys

ONE OF THE MOST enduring myths concerning sailors and the sea is that of the mermaid. The fact that nobody has ever produced a mermaid, dead or alive, for all to see and be astonished at, doesn’t seem to matter. Sailors, both professional and amateur, are incurable optimists, and hope springs eternal in the nautical breast. Well, in the male nautical breast, at least. I can’t imagine that too many women sailors would be over-excited at the appearance of a mermaid, no matter how unexpected.

There are certainly those who have claimed to have seen a mermaid, and there are others who scoff at such alleged sightings, claiming rightly or wrongly that too long a separation from the fair sex causes men to see what their fantasies would like them to see. Still others blame the sightings on manatees, those blubbery bewhiskered mammals so common in Florida in the winter; but how anyone could mistake them for mermaids is beyond me, particularly when you realize that the manatee's closest relatives are the elephant and the South African dassie.

One sighting that caused great interest was reported by a 16th century English sea explorer and navigator whose name lives on in New York, among other places. Here’s what Henry Hudson had to say:

“This morning one of our companie looking over boord saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up and by that time she was come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men.

“A little after a sea came and over-turned her. From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s, as they say that saw her, but her body as big as one of us.

“Her skin [was] very white, and long haire hanging downe behinde of colour blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell. Their names that saw her were Thomas Hilles and Robert Rayner.”

So keep a sharp lookout next time you go sailing, willya? You never know. Maybe Hilles and Rayner were on to something.

Today’s Thought
According to the constitution of mermaids, so much of a mermaid as is not woman must be a fish.
— Charles Dickens

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #192
As near as dammit:
1 knot = 33 yards a minute
2 knots = 66 yards a minute
3 knots = 100 yards a minute
4 knots = 130 yards a minute
5 knots = 165 yards a minute
6 knots = Exactly 1 nautical mile every 10 minutes.
Incidentally, a boat’s speed in knots equals the number of hundred yards it travels in three minutes.

“Care to join me in a glass of champagne?”
“Sorry, but I didn’t bring my swimsuit.”

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

April 26, 2011

Nautical potato cakes

AT SOME TIME IN MY CHILDHOOD I was fed potato cakes. I don’t remember where or when. All I remember is that they were delicious. Quite extraordinarily delicious.

I must have been very hungry at the time, for they made an impression on me that has lasted, lo, these many decades; and ever since then I have been engaged in a search for the recipe.

Over the years, my dear wife must have tried a dozen different recipes for potato cakes, but, alas, they have never achieved the high state of deliciousness that I remember so vividly.

I had, in fact, given up the search as a lost cause, reasoning that bland potato cakes can’t really be as delicious as all that, and writing off the whole original affair as a combination of impressionable youth and a stomach whose judgment was overwhelmed by its emptiness.

But yesterday I was reading an interesting little book called The Yachtsman’s Week-End Book, by John Irving and Douglas Service (Seeley Service & Co., London, 1938). It has many pages devoted to cooking at sea, and one of the recipes, for use in calm waters, came from Canada. It was for Potato Buns.

I naturally started salivating. I shall have to try it. It goes like this:

“Those left-over boiled potatoes again! Take a pound of them and put them on a well-floured board; break them up and roll them in plenty of flour, adding salt and pepper and a teaspoon of baking powder.

“Mix all this together with an egg and sufficient milk to make a stiff dough. Then roll the dough out about an inch thick on the board; over a slow flame, grill slowly in a greased frying pan. When done, cut in squares; split open and butter. The Greeks had a word for it.”

Although I don’t know the Greek word for delicious, I can’t help but hope that this nautical potato bun recipe deserves to be described that way.

Today’s Thought
The true gourmet, like the true artist, is one of the unhappiest creatures existent. His trouble comes from so seldom finding what he constantly seeks: perfection.
— Ludwig Bemelmans

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #191
The speed of vessels on salt water is measured in knots, and the knot is defined as one nautical mile per hour. It’s wrong, therefore, to refer to “knots per hour” because knots includes the hour. It’s also wrong to say 1830 hours. Hours is unnecessary. 1830 is enough. But that’s another matter.

A Japanese diplomat was the guest at a dinner party in New York. When the meal was over, the men withdrew to the lounge for coffee, brandy and cigars — but the guest remained with the women.
“Aren’t you going with the gentlemen?” asked the hostess.
“No madam,” he said, “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t swear.” He sighed, “But then ... I’m not a Christian.”

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

April 24, 2011

Just blame etaoin shrdlu

HANDS UP ALL THOSE who want to know difference between a lapsus linguae and a lapsus calami. (Pause for hand raising.)...(Another pause)...(Final pause) Well, I’m very disappointed.

I might have to tell you anyway, so please sit down at the back, there. I have taken the precaution of locking the doors. You can’t leave. Thank you.

Now, for your edification, lapsus is Latin for an error, a slip, or a lapse. Linguae in the same language means “of the tongue.” So a lapsus linguae is a slip of the tongue, as when you call out the name Flossie passionately in the middle of the night and your girl friend is called Bertha.

A lapsus calami is a different kind of slip. This time it’s a slip of the calamus, or pen. For years I thought that calami, the genitive form of calamus, was derived from the ink of the cuttlefish, a marine animal otherwise known in its edible form as calamari, but it turns out that a calamus is the Latin name for a reed, or cane, or anything made from those objects, such as a pen.

A lapsus calami can have consequences far more serious than those that arise from a lapsus linguae, not only because it is written in black and white, and therefore cannot be denied as a lapsus of the listener, but it also lasts a lot longer, as when you send a “congratulations on your pregnancy” card to an old friend who isn’t actually pregnant but has suddenly developed a passion for Belgian chocolates.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that in the old days when I was a newspaperman, a lapsus calami was very often caused by the printer’s devil, a fellow called etaoin shrdlu.

This was in the days of hot lead, of course. Yes, I know, I know, you look at me sitting here so suave and debonair and say to yourself “He can’t be old enough to remember the days of hot lead,” but he is, and none the worse for it.

Every line of type in the newspaper was cast on the aptly named Linotype machine, a little foundry in its own right, and if the Linotype operator made a typing error, a lapsus digitae, he or she simply ran his fingers over the line of keys to abort the line, or slug, as it was known, in a hurry. And etaoin shrdlu was just how the keys lined up on the keyboard.

The compositor was supposed to spot and remove these incorrect slugs, but compositors being what they are, inherently dozy and further dulled from the fumes of the Linotype machine, they often slipped up (lapsus compositae), and so the words etaoin shrdlu frequently found their way into print and became well known to newspaper readers.

Nowadays, it would be hard to read more than a few words of digital media without coming across a lapsus calami. People just don’t care about spelling or grammar any more, and the internet is cluttered with examples of lapsus twitteri, lapsus facebookeri, and lord knows what otheri.

And what, you may ask has this to do with boats? Well, nothing, of course. Surely that’s obvious, isn’t it? Just because some people have boats and other people write about boats, it doesn’t mean that the whole world revolves around boats. But as a matter of fact I did start out with a thought about boats. I was drawing up a list of possible names for boats and etaoin shrdlu suggested itself to me. So there.

Okay, I’m going to unlock the doors now. You’re dismissed. Don’t get killed in the rush.

Today’s Thought

The most successful column is one that causes the reader to throw down the paper in a peak of fit.
— William Safire

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #190
A boat is said to be on soundings when she is within the 100-fathom line. In water deeper than 100 fathoms it was inconvenient in bygone days to sound with a lead-line. So when a ship sailed out to sea beyond the 100-fathom line, she was said to be off-soundings.

“John, don’t let my father see you kissing me.”
“But I’m not kissing you.”
“Thought I’d warn you just in case.”

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

April 22, 2011

Smart cats use a potty

AT SUMMER ANCHORAGES in the San Juans, the morning activity starts early. Even before most of us have had our first cup of coffee, a parade of inflatables starts heading for the shore, each one with an eager dog up forward pointing the way, desperately searching for the best place to pee.

Cat owners are not burdened with this task. Cats will use trays of litter. But on a small sailboat, a tray of litter is a burden of its own, and an odiferous burden at that.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could train your cat to use the head? Well, you can if you know how. I was the personal friend of one cat who circumnavigated on a sailboat and who used the toilet all the time. He never flushed it when he was finished — never did get the hang of the seacocks – but at least he never used up valuable stores of toilet paper, either.

If you would like your cat to emulate this paragon of virtue, just dial up www.karawynn.net/mishacat/toilet.html

Karawynn Long, a writer and designer living in Seattle, explains in detail how she trained her beloved Misha to perch on the porcelain in less than two weeks. Considering the general level of intelligence among cats, and their resistance to doing anything that appears to be designed to please you, or save you trouble, that was a magnificent feat. Your cat might not be as brilliant as Misha was, and you might not be as persuasive as Long, but it’s probably still worth persevering when you consider the alternative.

Long’s method starts by moving the cat’s litter box next to the toilet, and gradually raising it until it’s level with the seat, and then right on top of the seat.

The next stage is to remove the litter box entirely and find a large metal mixing bowl that fits snugly into the top of the toilet with a couple of inches of litter in it. Then you gradually reduce the amount of litter until it’s almost all gone, after which you start adding water.

Once the water in the mixing bowl is a couple of inches deep, and your cat is comfortable with the new process, you simply remove the mixing bowl, leaving the bare toilet. Et voila! says Long, your cat is now toilet trained.

I have left out some fancy bits about how you get your feline friend to place his/her feet correctly on the toilet seat, but if you’re serious you will visit her website anyhow and get the full instructions.

I have to admit that Misha did his stuff on land, not on a boat, and I don’t know how a cat manages on a bouncing, heeled sailboat. But I do know they can do it, and WILL do it if they think they’re getting away with something.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #189
When to make sound signals? Most boaters know you have to make them in fog, but it’s also required if you find yourself in snow, thick rain, dust storms or any other situation in what the rules call “restricted visibility,” by day and by night. And here’s a little-known fact: You must make the signals when you’re NEAR an area of restricted visibility, such as a fog bank, even if you’re in brilliant sunshine yourself. That’s to warn a ship in the fog that you’ll be right in her path when she pops out of it.

“This here plant belongs to the fuchsia family.”
“Uh-huh. You just looking after it while they’re away?”

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

April 19, 2011

The perpetual battle to stay dry

A REGULAR READER called Nikolay has asked for advice about foul-weather clothing. He says: “To give you an idea of the intended usage: I'm a keelboat weekend sailor, some multi-day cruises, and the odd 50-100 nautical-mile race.”

I get the feeling that Nikolay is more than a little shocked, as I am, by the price of offshore foulies of the type designed for people who can’t shelter behind a dodger.

I have to say that I personally have yet to find foulies that were completely watertight, no matter what the price. There’s always the wave that smacks you full in the face and lets cold drips run down inside.

I’m told that the answer, in this case, is to wear wool underneath your oilskins, because wool keeps you warm even if it’s wet. I’ve heard the same about artificial fleece, with its alleged “wicking” properties, but I’m still skeptical about that.

In any case, I was interested to read how Robert Crawford fortified himself against the elements when he raced his little 20-footer from San Francisco to Hawaii in the 2008 Singlehanded TransPac. He had no dodger, of course, so he was totally exposed.

In his book, Black Feathers (also the name of his Cal 20), he says he wears several layers, some for warmth and some for dryness.

The first layer must be thin and breathable, he says. It must wick moisture away from the body. (I presume a sporting-goods store can help you here.)

The second layer, usually fleece, provides insulation and needs to be thick enough to be effective.

The third layer consists of foul-weather pants on the bottom, and a thin, breathable, waterproof, shell of a jacket on the top.

Now comes the surprise. On top of all that, Crawford wears a wet-suit hood over his head and neck, leaving just his face peeking out. It’s one of those hoods with extensions over the shoulders.

Finally, he dons the upper foul-weather jacket.

“With this combination I can take continual water splashes in the face without having water penetrate the inner layers,” he claims. “The water goes between the wet-suit hood and the foul-weather jacket. As the water continues downward, it travels between the foul-weather jacket and the waterproof lightweight jacket under the wet-suit hood, and then exits the clothing at the tail of the two jackets. This works very well. You must make sure the second layer is thick enough to keep you warm, however.”

You might think that he’d be looking like the Michelin man with all that stuff on, but there’s a picture of him in the book, clad for action, and he looks surprisingly trim (and dry).

The elephant in the room here, of course, is the price of all this gear. It’s not going to be cheap. But I’ve come to the conclusion that if you simply can’t stand torture by constantly dripping water, you just have to pay the price for good foul-weather gear, specially if you’re going where it’s wet, wild, and above all, cold.

Today’s Thought
It’s grand, and you canna expect to be baith grand and comfortable.
— Barrie, The Little Minister.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #188
How big is she down below? The most reliable indicator of the amount of living room aboard a sailboat is displacement — that is, the actual weight of the boat loaded and ready for sea. Length overall, or length on deck is not an accurate basis for comparison.

Instinct is what allows a man to recognize a mistake the second time he makes it. Experience is what keeps him from admitting it the third time.

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

April 17, 2011

The limits of singlehanding

HOW BIG A SAILBOAT can I manage singlehanded? That’s a question I get asked a lot. Two kinds of people ask that question: newcomers to sailing, and experienced sailboat owners who have grown weary of the endless battle to recruit and maintain crew.

The answer is fairly simple in essence. There are two definite limiting factors to handling a boat with safety and confidence:

► First, can you raise the heaviest anchor on board without the help of a winch and secure it properly in the bow roller or on the foredeck?

► Second, can you handle the biggest sail on board in all kinds of weather?

In ordinary circumstances, you may not have to weigh anchor manually without the aid of a winch or capstan, but it’s still a good indication of your strength and ability — and the day might come when you simply have to raise it by hand in a hurry or kiss the anchor goodbye.

As for handling the biggest sail, if you’re a beginning singlehander your biggest sail should be the mainsail, not a spinnaker. You should be able to reef it, lower it, smother it, and get sail ties around it in the heaviest winds.

Now, if you’re confident about your ability to manage these two things, you’re probably physically able to singlehand that particular boat. There are other factors to take into account, though, such as your mental ability to adapt to solitude and the prospect of having no one else to help you in an emergency.

Don’t be misled by the fact that people race around the world singlehanded and non-stop in boats of 50 or 60 feet. Those are sailing’s superstars, exceptional athletes with muscles like a California governor and minds like traps of steel. I’m not saying you couldn’t be one of them, heavens no. But my advice is to start smaller and work your way up slowly.

Today’s Thought
The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.
--Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #187
Ever wondered how much strain your foresail sheet puts on the winch or cleat? The old rule of thumb was this: Square the wind speed in knots and multiply the answer by the sail area in square feet. Then divide the result by 232. That gives you the approximate pull on the sheet in pounds. Thus, a 200-square-foot jib in a 20-knot breeze generates a pull of about 345 pounds. And the maximum pull the sail is likely to exert is about double that figure.

A woman walked into the doctor’s office and said: “My husband won’t come to see you, but he isn’t sleeping well. He tosses and turns all night. Is there something you can give me for him?”
   The doctor opened a drawer and handed her a sample box. “Slip one of these pills into his coffee after supper,” he said. “That should help him.”
   Next morning the woman met the doctor in the street. “How did your husband sleep?” he asked.
   “Perfectly, doctor. I slipped three pills into his coffee and he ...”
   “Three? Good grief, I said ONE.”
   “Yes, I know doc, but anyway, five seconds later he stripped off all his clothes, flung himself naked on top of the table, and fell deeply unconscious among the crockery.”
   “Oh my word! Did he break anything?”
   “Oh, just a few things, doc, but it didn’t matter — we weren’t planning to go back to that restaurant again anyway.”

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

April 14, 2011

Dodgers: A necessary evil

IT WAS A LOUSY DAY, but typical enough on the Inside Passage in midsummer. There was no wind, just a grey, cold drizzle, and I was sitting on the bridgedeck at the forward end of the cockpit, facing the bow, with my feet down inside the companionway. The autopilot was doing the steering and the kettle was boiling for coffee in the galley. Despite the weather, the scenery was magnificent, as usual, and I was thinking to myself that if it weren’t for the damned racket of the engine, this would be heaven.

I was also thinking, “Thank God for the dodger.” Without the spray dodger to shelter me from the cold and wet, I just wouldn’t have been there. I’m too much of a wimp to enjoy sitting out in the wind and freezing rain of a Northwest summer.

Some people desperately hate dodgers and I would be one of them if I didn’t think that their pros outweigh their cons. But only just, mind you. Let’s have a look at some of their advantages and disadvantages:

You can keep the main hatchway open and no rain will get below.
A dodger provides better ventilation, which is especially good if the galley is aft.
Dodgers keep you warm and dry, out of wind, and provide shade as well. They increase your endurance in adverse conditions, which is a big safety factor.
They provide places to keep stuff: the binoculars, snacks for the deck watch, the handheld VHF radio — even charts, when the hatch slide is pulled closed. I find that the older you get, the greater the list of pros becomes.

All too often they look terrible. The dodger on my Cape Dory 27 quite spoiled her sleek lines. If I were Mr. Alberg, her designer, I would never have forgiven me. You see very few aesthetically pleasing dodgers around, and the ones you do see are (a) usually on boats longer than 35 feet and (b) horribly expensive.
Then there’s the windage. Dodgers don’t go down in size as the boat gets smaller because people are much the same size, and it’s the passage of people that governs the size of a dodger. So small boats have comparatively larger dodgers and the effect of windage is comparatively greater. They’re a handicap to windward, they can add to weather helm, and they’re an eyesore to boot.
Dodgers reduce visibility, especially in the rain or spray they’re supposed to dodge. They also make it more difficult to “feel” the wind direction and make a connection with the water.
Ironically, a dodger is of no use in extreme survival conditions at sea, when it should be folded down flat and securely lashed in place, which does no good at all to the plastic windows, of course.
Another thing: to fix a dodger in place, you often have to drill 15 or 20 holes in the cabin-top, each one a possible entry point for water that will rot the plywood or balsa sandwich and cause great consternation and loss of money at some later stage.
Some people claim that a dodger makes it awkward, if not unsafe, to climb from the cockpit to the side-deck, but that really depends on the design of the boat and the dodger.
The anti-dodger crowd also claim that if you dress properly for the weather, you don’t need no stupid dodger. But I fear that any attempt to keep me warm and dry on the way to Alaska would have me looking like the Michelin Man, and just as unable to move.

So, on the whole, my vote goes to the dodger. I don’t like dodgers, at least the ones I can afford, but my soul craves comfort and my flesh is weak.

Today’s Thought
We have all sinned and come short of the glory of making ourselves as comfortable as we easily might have done.
— Samuel Butler the Younger, The Way of All Flesh

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #186
Is a boat “she” or “it”? The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, subscribed to by all the maritime nations of the world, refer to ships as “she” and “her.” And so do the Inland Rules of the United States. So let’s have no more nonsense about a boat being “it,” okay?

“And how did you find your steak today, sir?”
“Sheer luck. I just happened to knock that little bit of potato aside ... and there it was.”

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

April 12, 2011

All’s well that ends well

IF I’VE HEARD IT ONCE, I must have heard it a hundred times: the best kind of stern for a sailboat is the double-ender, because it splits the overtaking seas. But as far as I know, there is no evidence that this is true. Boats with transom sterns seem to be just as seaworthy as Colin Archers, and in fact may have some advantages.

There was the famous case of the Colin Archer Sandefjord, which was turned head-over-heels in the Atlantic on her way to South Africa. A huge following sea lifted her stern while the bow dug in, and she simply flipped lengthwise. This could have happened to a boat with any kind of stern, of course, but it just showed that double-enders are not immune to pitchpoling.

So many sailboats with transom sterns have survived bad gales at sea that it would be futile to try to count them; futile also to rate the seaworthiness of different types of stern, except that one can say fairly surely that extra-long overhangs such as those on pure racing craft like the 30-Square-Meter Class have no business going to sea.

Moderation is the name of the game, as usual. A traditional counter stern, a reverse counter stern, or a canoe stern is perfectly acceptable, as long as it is not stretched to excess.

This being the case, sailboat sterns are usually designed for reasons other than seaworthiness. Double-enders, for example, may be prone to pooping, according to naval architect Ted Brewer, because they lack the reserve buoyancy of a wider transom stern or a counter stern. The main advantage of a pilot-boat stern like the Colin Archer’s was specific to their function as workboats, apparently. Brewer says there was no transom corner to be smashed when the pilot boat pulled away from the freighter in a rough sea.

Transom sterns and moderate counters provide more deck space and locker space than do double-enders, as well as more reserve buoyancy. If they’re properly designed, and don't drag in the water, they’re not only efficient but also aesthetically pleasing.

L. Francis Herreshoff drew some fine sterns, as did Carl Alberg. In fact, Alberg’s Triton looks better from aft than from any other angle, especially to those who appreciate a nicely curved rear end.

Today’s Thought
Nothing in human life ... is ever right until it is beautiful.
— Harry Emerson Fosdick

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #185
The consensus of doctors having experience with castaways is that you should not drink sea water unless you can augment it with an ample supply of fresh water, in which case as much as one pint of sea water a day might be acceptable for short periods.
Incidentally, if fresh water is scarce, the old rule is to cut down on food as well. Large amounts of water are needed to digest proteins, in particular.

“Is your wife that gorgeous blonde on the left of that horsefaced old bag, or is she the ravishing brunette on her right?”
“She’s the one in the middle.”
“Omigawd ... I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, me too.”

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

April 10, 2011

Where do they get 11 percent?

SAFETY EXPERTS say their rule of thumb for the working load of three-strand laid line is that it should not exceed 11 percent of its tensile strength.

Those experts! Where do they get 11 percent from? It’s one of those statistics that gnaws at the mind. Why not a nice round figure such as 10 percent, or 25 percent?

Eleven percent, besides being a very odd figure, also seems awfully low. That’s using only about one-tenth of the line’s ultimate strength — surely a wasteful and expensive way to go about things.

The fact is that ropes have become so strong in recent years that we choose our sheets for their handling qualities more than their strength. A properly sized sheet would most often be too thin for comfort if you’re using bare hands.

Braided rope, on the other hand, may be pressed into use at 20 percent of its breaking strength. They claim that the core of braided rope is better protected as the rope ages.

I have to say that 25 percent seems to be a perfectly reasonable figure for the three-strand rope, though — with the possible exception of the anchor rode, and the halyard that’s hauling me up the mast in the bosun’s chair.

Today’s Thought
Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious?
Guard himself as he may, every moment’s an ambush.
— Horace, Odes.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #183
Are your crew or passengers going to be seasick or not? The symptoms of mal de mer often occur in the following order, thus giving the observant skipper a chance to find calmer water or return home before the inevitable happens:
► Frequent yawning
► Slight headache
► Dry mouth
► Wan pallor
► Cold sweat
► Nausea
► Vomiting

Teacher halted the class in front of the deer enclosure at the zoo.
“Tommy,” she said, “do you know the name of that creature over there?”
“No, teacher.”
“Come on now, Tommy, I’ll give you a clue. It’s what your mother often calls your father.”
Tommy’s eyes opened wide in amazement. “Gee, Miss,” he said, “I never realized a louse was so big.”

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

April 7, 2011

Damning the dreary dawn

THERE ARE TIMES when amateur sailors become over-emotional about their boats. They gurgle with praise for their boats’ good qualities, and treat them like members of the family. They give them pretty names, and look back at them with blatant love when they leave them. Some even talk to their boats, and swear they have souls. They are overwhelmed by the romance of it all, the common notion of sailing off into the sunset toward sighing palm trees on sandy white beaches, and gentle breezes on warm blue waters.

Because the human mind tends to favor the memories most pleasing to it, and deliberately subdues those that distress it, very few sailors ever talk much of the hard times that lurk in wait for every sailor, no matter the size of his boat. But one of the few was the long-time editor of Yachting Monthly magazine, Maurice Griffiths. His job was to promote the sport of yachting but he was a realist. He also recorded the bad times. Here’s a refreshingly honest excerpt from his book The Magic of the Swatchways (Sheridan House Inc.).

“Acquaintances on shore who do not go sailing sometimes exclaim rapturously, ‘How perfectly mar-vellous to be able to watch the dawn rise at sea!’ Except that I could not stand having such people aboard, I wish on occasions like this they could be here to see how much pleasure there really is in watching daybreak at sea in a small yacht.

“I have seen a good many, and every single one has seemed hours overdue, dull, tedious, bitingly cold, and infinitely long in minding up its mind what it is going to do.

“You are usually feeling either dead tired or faint from continuous seasickness, or both, and when by the time you can see clearly, and you teeth are chattering and your fingers and toes have lost all felling, the sun appears, and almost immediately a cloud gobbles him up and you probably don’t see him for the rest of the day.

“Meanwhile, the boat plunges on and a few icy showers of spray warn you to put on your oilskins. No, I never like the dawn at sea, especially when it follows a warm, almost tropical night as this one had been.”

Today’s Thought
The dawn is lonely for the sun,
And chill and drear;
The one lone start is pale and wan,
As one in fear.
— Richard Hovey

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #182
Good seamanship starts in port. Detailed preparation is the secret of a successful passage. Inexperience and poor preparation are the parents of adventure; and adventure is another word for circumstances out of control.

A well proportioned young woman walked into a bar in a remote village in Kenya and ordered a whisky. She sat on a stool, ogling a small group of suddenly silent men, until one came across to her.
“Excuse me madam,” he said, “but this is a private meeting of big game hunters.”
She fluttered her eyelashes and said: “That’s okay, I’m big — and I’m game.”
So they shot her.

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

April 5, 2011

Non-phonetic brain matter

I HAVE ONE of those brains which, if you try to push too much into it at one end, things fall out from the other end.

Now it so happens that I learned a phonetic alphabet at an early age. I don’t remember where I learned it (because that’s one of the bits that has fallen out) but it may have been in the Boy Scouts -- from which, incidentally I was cruelly expelled shortly after my Tenderfoot test for smoking in bed. I thought I was safe (I was with the Scoutmaster’s daughter at the time) but it didn’t work out that way.

Anyway, the phonetic alphabet I learned was the one used by the armed forces in World War II and it went like this:

Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-Ray, Yoke, Zebra.

Now, somewhere down the line somebody thought it would be a good idea to make this list more “international,” that is, easier to remember for those whose home language is not English.

Frankly, I would have thought that, having won the war, English speakers would be entitled to impose their phonetic alphabet on everyone else. I mean, what the heck is the use of winning a war if you can’t even tell the losers how to spell?

But no, we behaved like whipped wimps and let ourselves be dictated to by them furriners, so that even the U.S. Coast Guard, enquiring about the name of my sailboat, expected to be replied to in the new phonetic alphabet. Which, incidentally goes like this:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Now we come to the strange bit. I can never remember the new alphabet for more than 10 minutes at a time. Yet I can recall the old one perfectly, even if I don’t think about it all winter.

For once, my brain has seized upon a block of information and absolutely refused to let it be kicked out and replaced by a new block. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, my first impulse on the VHF radio is to spell according to the old alphabet. I can recite the new alphabet if I’m given a moment to think about it, but it never comes naturally. The old one just won’t let go.

I think my brain is trying to tell me something. I think it feels there’s something unnecessary about the “new” alphabet, maybe something unfair. A man shouldn’t have to learn two phonetic alphabets in his lifetime, specially when there’s nothing wrong with the first one, which he took special pains to memorize thoroughly and impress the Scoutmaster’s daughter. And all I can say is that I agree with my brain. I think it has got this right.

Today’s Thought
There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.
-- Napoleon

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #181
The old definition of seakindliness, as laid down by Howard I. Chapelle, was “the ability of a boat to meet heavy weather and remain reasonably dry, shipping no solid water and relatively little spray.” Incidentally, it was his opinion that few boats under 40 feet in length could meet the other requirements of seakindliness, namely that it should permit comfort for the crew through a slow, easy roll (with no jerk or sudden stop at the end of each one) and an equally slow and easy pitch.

“Officer, please tell the court if you searched the luggage in this man’s room.”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
“Did you find in it any property belonging to the hotel?”
“No, sir.”
“No towels? No sheets?”
“No, sir.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Only a chambermaid in his grip, sir.”

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

April 3, 2011

Sun’s over the yardarm

LOOKING AROUND TOWN the other evening, I noticed an awful lot of places where people could buy and consume liquor. It occurred to me that for a country that technically discourages the consumption of alcohol -- and in fact once prohibited it altogether -- there is a some hypocrisy at work here, for we do not make it exactly difficult for those seeking to slake their thirst. And although our young men can vote, and fight and die for their country in wartime at the age of 18 years, they cannot legally touch an alcoholic drink until they are 21.

There has long been a tussle between the Puritans and the libertarians regarding drinking, of course, and the winners of this tussle have varied from age to age. It was not always shameful to be drunk. For instance, in the 17th century the crews of sailing ships were served a half-pint of rum each per day.

Now half a pint is an awful lot of rum. I don’t think those men would be allowed to drive cars, had there been cars, after downing a half-pint of rum. And yet they managed, mainly, to scamper up the ratlines to the foretopsails, and out along the yards to set, reef, or hand the canvas in all kinds of wind, wave, and weather, without killing themselves.

Their rum ration was divided into two servings. The first came when the sun was over the yardarm – about 11 a.m. – and the second at the end of the working day. The officers took their rum straight, but the crew’s was diluted with water.

It was known as grog then, of course, named for “Old Grog,” Admiral Edward Vernon (1684 – 1757) who first ordered the rum to be diluted with water about 1740. His nickname appears to have been derived from his favorite grogram foul-weather cloak.

Grogram, you say? Why yes, grogram – what the Concise Oxford Dictionary describes as a “coarse fabric of silk, mohair, and wool, or these mixed, often stiffened with gum.”

So why did Old Grog order the rum to be diluted? Well, Wikipedia says:

“Following Britain's conquest of Jamaica in 1655, a half pint or ‘2 gills’ of rum gradually replaced beer and brandy as the drink of choice. Given to the sailor straight, this caused additional problems, as some sailors would save up the rum rations for several days, then drink them all at once. Due to the subsequent illness and disciplinary problems, the rum was mixed with water. This both diluted its effects and accelerated its spoilage, preventing hoarding of the allowance.”

This went on in the British Royal Navy with elaborate ceremony, until 1970, if you can believe it, and to this day their ships are not dry, as are U.S. Navy vessels.

There was a suggestion recently that the skippers of American yachts should be tested for sobriety even while their vessels lay safely at anchor, because they were still technically in charge and might need to get under way at short notice. It’s an argument that’s difficult to refute, but if it ever became law it would certainly be honored more in the breach than the observance.

No more dark-’n-stormies in the cockpit after a long day’s sail? Who could be so cruel?

Today’s Thought
I know folks all have a tizzy about it, but I like a little bourbon of an evening. It helps me sleep. I don’t care much what they say about it.
-- Lillian Carter, NY Times, 20 Dec 76

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #180
Every underwater hole through a boat’s hull should be fitted with a reliable seacock, either the tapered-plug type or the nylon ball-valve type. On no account use the gate-valve type because you can’t tell at a glance whether they’re open or shut or partially clamped down on a piece of debris.

“Why so gloomy?”
“I got married three days ago.”
“So why is that making you gloomy?”
“Well, I gave all my life savings to my new husband.”
“And where is he now?”
“Dunno. I’m still waiting for him to come back from his honeymoon.”

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