February 28, 2012

A word to savor

ONE OF THE ANCIENT SAILING WORDS that should be used more often, lest it disappear from our vocabulary, is futtock.  I love it.  It has a fascinating ring about it. It's a word to savor. I always think it sounds like something you shout when you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, or drop your sunglasses overboard.

But no, futtock is a corruption of foot-hook.  In wooden ships, futtocks are the curved parts of transverse frames extending from the floor-timbers at the turn of the bilge to meet the top-timbers.

Most of us will know the word from maritime historical novels, such as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, where neophyte sailors are always getting into trouble at the futtock shrouds on large sailing ships.

According to Cornell's old Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge, the futtock shrouds were usually iron rods, the harbingers of the rod rigging found on today's ocean racers.  These rods were downward extensions of the topmast shrouds. They helped stiffen the top in addition to taking the stress of the topmast rigging.  They were adorned with ratlines so that sailors could swarm up and over them, but the interesting thing about the futtock shrouds was that they slanted outward from the mast, and thus presented what the encyclopedia calls "an interesting obstacle to the beginner as he scrambled aloft."  Interesting indeed.  You had to be able to climb upside down, almost like a fly landing on a ceiling. How they kept their feet on the ratlines I'll never know.

Most ships also had an opening next to the mast, through which you could crawl instead, but no real sailor would be seen dead using what was called the lubbers' hole.  So they all went a-futtocking, and sadly some of them fell off.  Perhaps it's for the best that futtock shrouds have almost disappeared, but do let's try to preserve the word itself.  Say it after me. Futtock, futtock, futtock.  There, doesn't that feel better?

Today's Thought
Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
— Rudyard Kipling, Speech

"What have you done to my article on organic milk? I wrote 1,000 words and you've only used 300."
"Sorry. We had to condense it."

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

February 26, 2012

Two different varnishes

ONCE UPON A TIME I had a racing dinghy with a varnished foredeck that was much admired for its perfect glossiness.  I hadn't taken too much care with the application of the varnish, but when it had cured good and hard I rubbed it down with very fine waterproof sandpaper and then buffed it with a rag and metal polish.  It sparkled like liquid amber.

A few years later, having built a new dinghy, I bought a different brand of urethane varnish.  When it came to the finishing touches, I was very disappointed.  No matter how much I sanded and buffed, I simply couldn't get it to shine like the first one. Only recently did I realize why.  There are two different kinds of urethane paints and varnishes. There's polyester urethane, like Awlgrip and Perfection, and there's acrylic urethane, the kind of finish they put on new cars in Detroit.  One of these varnishes can be  polished to a high sheen.  The other can't.

I found this information on the Cape Dory bulletin board in a post by "Brandon" dated November 7, 2010.  Here's what he said:

"Polyester urethane molecules are much smaller than acrylic molecules. So when they cure, the polyester urethane forms a tighter matrix, which gives a harder, more abrasion-resistant film, with better chemical resistance than the acrylic.

"Acrylics are more forgiving in application, trap less dust and are buffable. When an acrylic urethane is buffed, due to the lower cross-link density the melting point of the resin is much lower, i.e. it is softer. When buffing is carried out, the resin-rich layer "melts" and reflows into the scratch. It is possible to retain an intact resin-rich layer at the surface protecting the pigments and not losing significant thickness. The edges of touch-ups can be blended carefully in the same way. Long-term performance is not affected, as much of the resin layer remains.

"With the polyester urethane, the paint is a very hard rigid film, and to get rid of a scratch you need to cut deeply into the paint, leading to the exposure of the pigments. This looks shiny to begin with but the long-term performance of the finish is now compromised.

"I am currently following the build of a 95-footer in Viareggio, Italy. We are using Awlcraft (Snow-white), and almost finished painting her. I am happy to use the acrylic because we have found fairing issues on the hull, even with the white paint, and with the acrylic we can re-fair this 6-square-foot area, reshoot the area and blend in. We don't have to repaint the entire 95-foot hull side as we would with the polyester!"

Considering how tricky it can be to apply the better-known twin-pack polyester urethanes by brush, it might be more practical to use the acrylic urethane, without worrying too much about the finish, and then fine-sand and buff your way to a perfect shine, as I did with the first dinghy.  

It's good to have this knowledge, but sometimes I wonder how much longer it's going to take me to learn everything I really need to know about sailing and maintaining small boats.

Today's Thought
Knowledge and timber shouldn't be much used till they are seasoned.
— O. W. Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

 "How's your glassblower friend?"
"Not so good. He inhaled by mistake and had to go to the doctor with a pane in his stomach."

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

February 23, 2012

The way the wind blows

I ONCE TOOK an advanced motoring course and failed.  Well, actually, at the end of a grueling two-hour drive through a busy city at rush hour, my examiner turned to me and said: "I honestly don't know whether to pass you or not."

It was a cruel blow because I rather fancied myself as a driver, and in a fit of pique I said: "Well, if you can't make up your mind it means I don't pass.  So fail me." Which he promptly did, the so-and-so.

Part of the problem was that I wasn't driving an advanced motoring sort of car.  I owned a little yellow Mazda with a wheezing engine and a juddering clutch. To change to a lower gear I had to double de-clutch. It was an infra dig, non-sporty car and obviously not one your normally advanced driver would touch with a barge pole. When I took the test again in a new VW Passat, with a different examiner, I passed with flying colors.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was that part of the test involved my giving the examiner a non-stop running commentary on road and traffic conditions. "Pedestrian ahead on the right might be wanting to cross the road.  Wet patch on road might be slippery.  I'm going to change down for this right-hand corner after signaling my turn. I'm going to overtake this bus because there's a hill ahead and he will slow down and hamper traffic." That sort of thing.

In later years, when I was teaching people to sail I applied the same principle of the running commentary, of thinking ahead. Besides proving that they were awake, it told me a lot about their powers of observation.  "Tall thundercloud in front of us, might need to reef.  No-wake zone coming up. That big powerboat is throwing up a huge wake, might need to turn to meet it.  Boat converging with us is on starboard tack and has right of way."  All that stuff.

But the one thing I emphasized over and over was wind direction.  Every few minutes I would turn to a learner sailor and say: "Wind direction!"  He or she would then have to point straight into the wind with an outstretched arm.

It's interesting how many landlubbers can't tell you where the wind is coming from, even though they can feel it on their face and hair, and see dust and leaves being pushed along. But it is, of course, an essential skill for the sailor, for it is the source of power for his boat and he must adjust the sails correctly according to the wind direction.

It becomes quite difficult in very light weather, but after a while (and many shouts of "Wind direction!") the neophyte sailors could supply a reasonably good direction most of the time, and they began to note it unconsciously and continually. In fact, it became second nature, as it should be for anyone who takes a small sailboat, or even a powerboat, on a body of water of any size. In due course, a good sailor will be able to tell the wind direction even while lying below in a bunk.  As I said, it's an important skill for any sailor, but almost essential, I'd say, for singlehanders.

Today's Thought
All things require skill but an appetite.
—George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum

"Did you manage to sell my book yet?"
"Well, I have to tell you that Random House absolutely ate it up. But there's bad news."
"What's that?"
"Random House is my poodle."

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

February 21, 2012

Storm management

I AM REMINDED very forcibly now and then that while men change, and manners change, and even boats change, the sea does not. I have often heard that the best way of riding out a gale at sea is to heave to, but this is what I read the other day in a 1946 edition of A  Manual for Small Yachts by R. D. Graham and J. E. H. Tew:  "We put forward the view, definitely, that the hove-to position is not the best one to withstand a storm."

When such knowledgeable and experienced sailors as these two make a statement like that, it behooves us to listen well.

"As the weather worsens you may get seriously alarmed by the behavior of the ship," they said. "Make some attempt to render the cockpit partially watertight by filling it with spare sails or cushions; get down the headsails and then the mainsail.  The ship will then lie broadside-on in the trough of the sea and will bob over the waves like a cork. You will probably be amazed at the safe and easy way in which she rides — but, and there is a substantial but, the tops of the waves will slop over the stern and the crests will break with some violence into the cockpit. It is not likely that they will break up things yet, but if the cockpit is not watertight a dangerous amount of water will get below.

"When you no longer dare to lie "a-hull," i.e. without any sail set, either because too much water is coming in aft, or because you fear that the breaking crest will stave in the hull, you must put her before it. Get out two warps, tie bundles of old rope, motor tires or cushions on the ends and pay out on each quarter. Tie up the clew of the foresail in a bunch and hoist the head a few feet. With the aid of the helm the ship will pay off and forge slowly ahead before the wind. Lash the helm amidships or as seems best. The ship will yaw six points on either side but will ride the seas with surprising security. A breaking crest will occasionally strike her, perhaps once or twice in an hour. Her stern offers less resistance than he side, and being struck end-on, she can recoil more easily.

"The slower you are moving through the water, the safer you will be.

"If you allow the ship to run too fast you will probably get a big sea breaking into the stern (pooped). When you feel the ship carried along with the waves and not quickly responsive to her helm, you should slow her down.

"We do not think that a keel yacht when lying a-hull is in any danger of being capsized."

Well, I must say that I have lain a-hull in ordinary gales and weathered them quite well (that is, without excesssive panic), but when the seas grow very large I believe there is indeed a danger of capsize, especially when your boat begins to be picked up and thrown bodily to leeward.

Then, as Graham and Tew said, it's time to run before it.  The trick is to know when to do it, not to leave it too late. The other trick is to arrange to have plenty of sea room.  It's not much use running before solid water if you're going to run into solid land.

Today's Thought
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it.
— Samuel Johnson

"Dad, what's bigamy?"
"Well, son, it's when two rites make a wrong."

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

February 19, 2012

Too smart for words

ONE OF MY MANY FAULTS IS THIS: When I am out cruising,  I try to look smarter than I really am.  Mostly it works. But not always.

A while back we were cruising with a buddy-boat manned by a couple inexperienced in the kind of mooring you have to do in some places up the road in British Columbia. Smugglers' Cove is one of those places. It's tucked away into the folds of the "extraordinarily humpy, bumpy, lumpy hills of the Sechelt Peninsula," as my wife, June, puts it.

We hadn't planned to stop at Smugglers' Cove but as we passed by we decided to look in.  "It's exactly the kind of magic place you hope to come upon," said June. "It takes you by surprise, a small, enclosed and unseen inner harbor where you drop anchor and take a line ashore and feel all snug and romantic, a whole series of little coves and bays and pools."

Yes, a line ashore. We have experience of this.  We have brought along a special stern line, an extra long line, and we take it around a madrona tree and back to the boat. That way, cunningly, we experienced cruisers can cast off in the morning without going ashore.

Next door, our friends struggle to take a single line ashore and tie it to tree.  They'll have to make another trip in the morning to cast it off.  June and I, the experienced cruisers, smile knowingly.

But, come morning, it's low tide.  Rocks, lots of rocks, have appeared between us and the shore. Our mooring line  is high and dry, tangled and twisted around itself and snagged by jagged rocks .  Can't shake it free.  Neither end will move.

Our friends don't notice.  They go ashore, untie their line, reel it in, and they're ready to go. 

So we do what we have to.  We cut our nice long stern line. Yes, we cut it. We wait until they're not looking, and we slice right through it surreptitiously. We snake both ends in like greased lightning and stow them in a big tangle in the lazarette.

Now we have two stern lines, each one too short.  But the main thing is that our buddies, who rely on us for cruising expertise, haven't noticed, and we get busily under way looking as sailorly as all get-out.

"Do you remember how to do a long splice?" June asks as we motor out.  I scratch my head. "Better get started before we need the stern line again. Oh — and do it down below where they won't see you."

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

Happiness is that temporary feeling of pleasantness you have when you are so agreeably occupied that you forget how miserable you really are.

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

February 16, 2012

Everything in its place

PERHAPS THE GREATEST VIRTUE required of a sailor is tidiness, for it equates directly with safety. Every boat should have ample arrangements for the stowage of all the gear needed to run the ship at any time, in any weather.
The ancient Greeks understood this. You will recall that Xenophon, the historian, once asked his wife Philesia for something in their house, and she couldn't find it. So Xenophon proceeded to lecture her.

He described a visit he had made to a Phoenician ship: "I have never seen gear so well arranged, or so many coils of rope and tackles stowed away so neatly. A ship needs a large number of spars and warps when she enters port or puts to sea; much rigging when under sail, and contrivances to protect her against enemy craft.

"She carries a stand of arms for the crew and each mess needs a set of household utensils. In addition, she carries a cargo which the captain sells for profit. All the gear necessary for these several functions was contained in a small store not more than 15 by 12 feet."

Xenophon continued: "I noticed that each article was so neatly stowed that it was ready to hand; it had not to be searched for and there was nothing to cast off and cause delay when anything was needed in a hurry.

"I found that the bosun knew each particular locker so well that he could, even when on deck, say exactly where anything was stowed and how much there was of it. I saw this man in his off-duty time inspecting all the stores most likely to be needed.  I asked him why he did this.

" 'Sir,' he said, 'I am looking to see that all the gear is properly stowed, nothing foul, nothing missing. For when God sends a storm at sea there is no time for searching for gear or clearing it if foul. God threatens and punishes careless sailors and you are lucky if you escape with your lives. You are fortunate if, even when you show good seamanship, he brings you safe into port.'"

Xenophon then admonished Philesia for not being able to do the same thing in a large house founded on solid earth, furnished with ample storerooms.  I don't know if Philesia was ever able to improve her performance to Xenophon's satisfaction, but I do know it's important for sailboats of all sizes to make every attempt to keep all the gear neat and tidy, which calls for a plentitude of stowage spaces (and preferably a handy diagram showing what's stowed where, if you haven't got the kind of memory displayed by that Phoenician bosun).

Today's Thought
Method is good in all things. Order governs the world. The Devil is the author of confusion.
— Swift, Letters: To Stella

"Excuse me, sir, but this coin you just gave me is counterfeit."
"Well then you may have it, my man. Keep it for your honesty."

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

February 14, 2012

The need for a name

I SPOKE the other day to a man who had a boat for sale.  "What's her name?" I asked. "No name," he said.

"No Name?" I said, "You mean she's called No Name?  "No," he said, "I mean she hasn't got a name."

Poor boat. Poor unloved, neglected boat. How can you have a boat without a name? Things have to have names.  Names are just words. There must be words, otherwise you can't talk, you can't communicate. You couldn't really even think if things didn't have names. You'd just have these blurred, vague little black-and-white pictures in your mind, such as I presume cats have. In fact I've often wondered how human speech began. It probably sprang up simultaneously with the ability to think.  I can't believe it could work any other way.

But in any case, boats have to have names.  If you buy a boat and don't like its name you can change it.  It's not unlucky, as long as you de-name the boat first.  I once wrote a special de-naming ceremony, hoping to make some money from it. It's in one of my books. And it's also all over the Internet for free, of course, so that wasn't a particularly good idea for making money, although it's typical of most of my efforts.

It can be quite hard to name, or rename, a boat, so that's probably why the man selling the boat hadn't got around to it yet.  He'd only had the boat for 10 years.  The problem is that there are so many names to choose from.  If you ask Mr Google for boat names he comes up with thousands of them; however the best ones are the personal ones that mean something to you but are also reasonably short, easy to pronounce and spell on the radio, and non-offensive.

Funny names, and rude names that try to be funny, seem to go best with small sailboats and sport-fishing boats, although I'm never quite sure that it's funny to give a poor boat a rude name like UP YAWS.  Bigger boats call for more dignified names, such as PERSEPHONE or POLYANTHUS, that tend to suggest that the owner attended university and studied very clever things pertaining to literature or botany or something. 
One of my favorite boating hacks, Dylan Winter, who is slowly circumnavigating Britain in a 19-foot Mirror Offshore, and recording his journey in his video series, Keep Turning Left,[1] insisted on calling his boat the slug, presumably because it's slow and ugly.  I don't agree with him, but at least he did the right thing by giving it a name.

I once saw a racing dinghy called SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS.  The hand-painted name ran non-stop from the starboard transom forward to the bows and back down the other side.  A shudder ran down my spine at the thought of the poor crew on the race committee boat who had to write down that name as it flashed over the finish line among half-a-dozen others.  And I often wondered how much the sign-writer's bill was. Mr Disney and Mary Poppins have a lot to answer for.

[1] http://www.keepturningleft.co.uk/     

Today's Thought
Let us speak plain: there is more force in names
Than most men dream of; and a lie may keep
Its throne a whole age longer if it skulk
Behind the shield of some fair-seeming name.
— J. R. Lowell, A Glance behind the Curtain

"Why did they throw you out of college?"
"Because you caught it?"
"No. Because I couldn't spell it."

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

February 12, 2012

The ideal boat

I SAW A QUOTE by Carl Lane recently. He said: "You are not going to find the ideal boat. You are not even going to have it if you design it from scratch."

Now Mr. Lane, who died in 1995, was a very perceptive author who wrote a great deal about boats. Many of his boating books were best sellers and his other writing was widely published in such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. Peter Spectre, the well-known New England writer, once described Carl Lane as having "a monomaniacal love of boats and boating."

But, with all due respect, Mr. Lane was wrong. Many of us have found the ideal boat. And those of us who haven't found it yet simply need to change the definition of ideal.

One of life's great lessons is that it's possible to live with a partner who is not perfect in all respects. In fact, love is not requiring your partner to be perfect. You can eventually learn to love your loved one's faults. Or, alternatively, you can ignore them. And the same goes for boats. Boats are what they are. It's you that has to change. You must come to terms with the word "ideal."

An ideal boat is one that does the job it was designed for. Of course, many boaters expect their boats to be jacks of all trades.  They take daysailers cruising. They drive coastal cruisers across oceans, and so forth. The fact that the boats don't always perform to perfection under these circumstances doesn't make them any less ideal. It's the owners who are at fault by expecting too much of them.

I can't think of a boat I've owned that wasn't ideal for the purpose for which it was designed and built. I will readily admit that some didn't sail very fast, but they had wonderful accommodation. Some had weather helm, but their varnish work was beautiful. For every fault, there was something to compensate. One was very fast and very wet and totally capricious in a following sea, but my god she had a beautiful sheerline and I loved her dearly.

I believe the kind of perfection Carl Lane was talking about comes second to other qualities, such as dependability, solidness, safety, reliability, ease of handling and quality of workmanship.

If you look hard enough you will find plenty of virtues in your boat. Praise the virtues and smother the faults. Then you'll realize you actually do own the ideal boat.

Today's Thought
No perfection is so absolute
That some impurity doth not pollute.
— Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

"So you truly believe your husband's death was due to a broken heart?"
"Yes, Your Honor. If he hadn't broken my heart I wouldn't have shot him."

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

February 9, 2012

A head by any other name . . .

I MENTIONED T. Harrison Butler the other day. He was the famous British naval architect perhaps best known for his metacentric theory of yacht design. But in his 1945 book, Cruising Yachts, he also includes a delightful passage about toilet arrangements on small boats, which he refers to in his delicate way as "sanitary accommodation."  Here's what he had to say:

"This is a most important question which, perhaps for reasons of modesty, is generally most inadequately dealt with.  Accommodation is necessary even in small day-boats . . .

"I am inclined to think that the ability to lodge the sanitation in the forecastle, apart from the main cabin, decides what must be the smallest size of a cruising yacht.  I am utterly opposed to a separate compartment in any yacht under about 12 tons.

"In the first place, it is absurd to sacrifice two-and-a-half feet of valuable space in the best part of the hull for functions which are limited to a few minutes a day;  in the second place, these small compartments, ill-ventilated, smelly and difficult to clean, have no advantages from the standpoint of privacy. A mere thickness of wood does not comprise seclusion, and for all practical purposes of concealment, apart from the visual, might not be there.

"Now, if the sanitation is lodged in the forecastle, there is considerable secrecy, for one can enter the forecastle from the saloon for a variety of purposes. Never forget that that, even when anchored head to wind, the current of air is from the stern forwards, and with an open forehatch the use of the convenience is attended with no unpleasantness.

"Again, these contrivances have to be used at sea, when there may be a considerable motion. An arrangement that, with skilled acrobatics, can be made to function in harbour may be quite useless at sea. With a mixed crew of four, I have never, either in Vindilis or Sandook, found the forecastle lavatory any detriment, except once or twice at night. Under these circumstances, a bucket in the cockpit has sufficed.

"The under-water machines[1] are not suitable for a very small craft; they are too heavy and too high.  Nearly three feet sitting room must be allowed, but part of it can be gained by utilizing the extra height given by the forehatch. In such craft, a bucket will be used. The compartment in which the bucket stands ought to be lined with lead or other metal, otherwise in time there will be a chronic smell, for with a wood lining adequate cleansing is impossible."

The bucket-and-chuck-it toilet system is now illegal in U.S. coastal waters, of course.  You have to be several miles away from the land before you can do that.  We now have to pump our waste into holding tanks or else install Porta Pottis. Either way, it's pretty disgusting to have to carry your sewage around with you, but it's a penalty we have to accept in the name of creating a greener earth;  although I have to admit it makes me quite mad when I pass a whale, and think of the massive amounts of effluent he and his pals dump into the water, apparently  without upsetting Nature in any way.    

[1] I presume he means the old fixed toilets, flushed with sea water, that discharged directly through the hull into the surrounding water.  —JV

 Today's Thought
Out of the world's way, out of the light,
Out of the ages of worldly weather,
Forgotten of all men altogether.
— Swinburne, The Triumph of Time

"How's your new computer system working?"
"It's wonderful. Works like a charm."
"Great. And how's business?"
"Dunno. We had to close down the business to run the computer system."

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

February 7, 2012

Of sails and widows' weeds

LAST WEEKEND, on one of those rare winter days in the Pacific Northwest when the sun blazes from a cloudless sky, I happened to find myself in the San Juan Islands.  Here and there, tall white sails moved briskly against a backdrop of calm blue waters.  It was a sight to bring joy to a winter-weary heart,  a sign of a coming spring filled with hope and cheer.  Above all, it was a refreshing change from the black blanket that has smothered this country of ours.

Everywhere you look these days, people are dressed in black.  The somber mood of widows' weeds seems to have pervaded the national psyche, perhaps reflecting the deep gloom and anxiety connected with a misfiring economy.  Even Madonna, at what was supposed to be the joyous occasion of the Superbowl, was in black, for goodness' sake.

I find few things more uplifting than the cheerful sight of sails pulling taut in a brisk breeze.  White ones, red ones, tan ones, and spinnakers like Joseph's coat of many colors — there's something proud and upright and inherently happy about sails scudding over blue water.

I don't doubt there are others, but the only yacht with black sails that I ever knew belonged to my boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, and he was making a deliberate statement, rebelling against organized society.  He built himself a 24-foot Thuella-class sloop designed by T. Harrison Butler from plans he found in a municipal library book.  His black sails, constructed of heavy canvas that had "fallen off" a railroad car, combined with his solid telegraph-pole mast, made his little Wanda top-heavy and she rolled downwind in deep staggers like a sailor coming off shore leave. Nevertheless, Henry crossed the oceans singlehanded and showed the yacht-club toffs what could be done on a budget that wouldn't feed a parakeet.

In any case, the fashion moguls need to be shaken out of their gloomy rut.  This black national uniform must go.  We've had enough of women in black. We need lighter colors and lighter hearts to lead a recovery, not only an economic recovery but a recovery of spirit, too.  What this country needs is more bright jaunty sails to lead the way. Perhaps somebody with influence could mention this to Mr. Obama.

Today's Thought
The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses so very soberly now.
— Jerome K. Jerome

"I hear Susan is off tranquillizers now."
"Yeah, she asked to be taken off."
"She found she was being friendly to people she wouldn't normally even speak to."

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

February 5, 2012

The bountiful sea

THE NEWS from Africa is sobering.  In the continent's most advanced country, South Africa, there are rural areas where landline telephones no longer operate.  Thieves have brazenly stolen the copper wires and sold them to illegal dealers in scrap metal.  At the same time, the fledgling cell-phone network is on its knees.  Reception is erratic because of the recent fierce geomagnetic storms on the sun.

According to my friend Crystelle Wilson, a former newspaper reporter in Durban, "Last month a massive storm led to fears that airline routes, power grids and satellites would be disrupted. Scaremongers speculate that these solar flares can lead to irreparable power outages. And when electricity dies, so will the human population. The majority of people will be unable to maintain their current lifestyles without fuel and electricity. Subsistence farmers may fare better for slightly longer."

All of which makes me think that people with sailboats may fare even better than subsistence farmers if the worst really does happen.  The human race managed to survive for many thousands of years without electricity, of course.  It also managed to survive quite well without radio, TV, e-mail,  text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook, although the current, digitally obsessed generation might find that hard to believe.

Cruising sailboats are able to generate all the electricity they require, one way or another. They have wind generators, dragged-propeller generators, solar generators, and engine-driven generators and alternators. And sailors didn't suffer too badly in the days before generators, either. They certainly managed to keep the human race going in a manner that required no reference to  what was happening on the sun.

And there is always something else available to the cruising sailor: the electric eel.  This creature has been much overlooked, but a pet electric eel in a small aquarium might be a wonderfully clean source of energy for a small boat.  These eels put out some 600 volts, about five times the voltage of an American household electrical outlet.  If you hooked one up head and tail to a 12-volt battery you'd have an awful lot of amp-hours at your disposal in exchange for a few meager scraps of electric eel food.

As for human food, the sea is one of the Earth's greatest suppliers.  I have a fascinating little book somewhere that explains how you can live entirely off the sea, gathering and catching and eating everything from seaweed and barnacles to rock cod and geoducks. If I remember right, it's called  Living off the Sea, by Charlie White. I really must dig it out and have it ready for the next round of solar flares.

 Today's Thought
Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation.
— Cicero, De Officiis

Now that Iran is in the nuclear reactor business, all the savvy businessmen in Tehran are moving into the catering field. They're opening fission chip shops.

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

February 2, 2012

How big a boat?

Beginning sailors have  often asked me:  "How big a boat can I safely sail singlehanded?"

It's not an easy question to answer, unfortunately, because it all depends.  It depends on the person's physical fitness, strength, experience, nautical cunning, and determination.

Nevertheless, there are two definite limiting factors that can help a person decide how big a boat he or she might be able to handle with safety and confidence.

The first factor is the anchor. Ask yourself if you can raise the heaviest anchor on board without the help of a winch and manhandle it onto the foredeck.  In ordinary circumstances, you wouldn't have to do this, of course, but it's still a good indication of your strength and ability.

The second factor is whether you can reef, hand, smother and get gaskets around the largest sail on board in all kinds of weather. That sail will probably be the mainsail because it's safe to presume that most large headsails will be roller furlers these days.

If you feel confident in your ability to manage these two things, you're probably physically able to singlehand that particular boat. There are many other factors to take into account, of course, not the least of which is your mental ability to withstand solitude on long ocean passages and the ever-present prospect of having nobody but yourself to relay on, even if you break a leg or have a heart attack.

Exceptionally skilled sailors are racing around the world singlehanded these days in boats of 50 feet and more, but the average sailor would be wise to build up experience in boats of no more than 40 feet overall, and preferably quite a lot less.  There is some truth in the fact that a bigger boat provides a steadier working platform in heavy seas, so that dousing sails in squalls might well be easier for a singlehander on a 40-footer than one on a 30-footer, but I have to say that as I get older I set my sights lower.

I have always loved sailing dinghies, and they're probably the only vessels I've really felt totally confident about handling in all conditions.  The sails are small enough, and the forces on sheets and helms low enough, that my limited muscle power can cope adequately.  So what it boils down to increasingly for my singlehanded aspirations is a dinghy with a lid on and a fixed ballast keel.  There's no comfort in a boat like that, of course, but there is a great safety factor in its smallness when one person has to provide all the operating power.

Today's Thought
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
— Thoreau, Walden: Solitude

There's many a young go-getter, who, later, is sorry he go-gotter.

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