October 31, 2013

Drowning like a gentleman

I THINK I WOULD BE CORRECT in saying that most amateur sailors, and certainly most Americans, believe it is their right to be rescued when they get into trouble at sea, no matter how inexperienced they might be.

But I was struck lately how different things were a few decades ago.  I have been reading a memoir by Stuart Woods, entitled Blue Water, Green Skipper.  Woods has written 50 novels, including the best-selling Stone Barrington and Holly Barker series. 

In 1977, Woods decided to take part in the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race  (the OSTAR) in a brand new Ron Holland-designed 30-footer, which he named Irish Harp.  He came 63rd out of 125 entrants, probably because he loaded his lightweight racer with all kinds of heavy gear, cases of French wine, fancy provisions from Harrods of London, and an early model EPIRB.

He mentions in the book that “Blondie Hasler, one of the founders of the OSTAR, would probably not approve of this equipment [the EPIRB] since he was against any competitor making use of rescue services. He has been quoted as saying, a competitor who got into trouble  ‘ . . .  should have the decency to drown like a gentleman and not bother the rescue people.’ ”

Hasler was not entirely joking. The feeling was quite prevalent among ocean cruisers in the 1970s. Eric Hiscock said much the same thing in print, and never carried an EPIRB on any of his circumnavigations. He believed that people who worked on the sea in a professional capacity were fully entitled to any rescue services available, but he thought that people who went to sea by choice, for their own personal pleasure, should never expect others to risk their lives to save them when they got into trouble. Self sufficiency was the watchword, combined with a very stiff upper lip.

I must confess that I was influenced by these cruising stalwarts.  I crossed the Atlantic twice in boats of 30 and 33 feet that had nothing more than VHF radios in the way of emergency transmitters.

Technology has changed the way we communicate now.  We are all much more interconnected by satellites, cellular towers, and the Internet. We talk more and more  about less and less and we feel the urge to be in touch whether or not we have anything important to say. I don’t think that is going to change in a hurry, but I like to think there are still a few cruisers out there, perhaps the ones who are getting away from it all, rather than taking it all with them, who think and act in the manner of Hasler and Hiscock. We don’t hear much about them but I’m sure they do exist.

Come to think of it, aren’t the only ones we hear about those who make the headlines by getting into trouble?  Those who don’t harbor any hope of being rescued are the ones who sail quietly and competently from port to port without any fuss, without bothering the rescue people, and expecting fully that they will drown like gentlemen should the occasion arise.

Today’s Thought
Self-preservation is the first law of nature.
— Samuel Butler, Remains

“How’s work going?”
“Great. My wife just hired a new personal assistant for me.”
“Blonde or brunette?”
“Neither. He’s bald.”

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

October 29, 2013

How I wrote a kids' book

A FRIEND WHO ASPIRES to become a writer, bless her misguided soul, asked me the other day how it was that I came to write a children’s novel called Danger, Dolphins & Ginger Beer. It was all about sailing.

“How did you get the idea?” she wanted to know.

Well, I told her, I had been a writer almost all my working life, but I’d never written a children’s book. I had been a newspaper journalist, a common hack writing the usual news stories and, later, writing a daily humor column.  But it occurred to me one day that a good journalist ought to be able to write just about anything, so I decided to write an adventure novel for kids.  I had one big advantage to start with — I knew where the action would take place. My family and I had sailed our own boat in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea.

There we saw a beautiful little island in Virgin Gorda Sound. On the chart it was called Mosquito Island. It had white sandy beaches and dark green palm trees rustling gently in the sweet-smelling trade winds. And, very importantly, it was just the right size for kids to have an adventure on.

Now this is a very romantic part of the world. It’s just a few miles from the island that Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island in his famous book, and even closer to an island called Dead Man’s Chest, where 15 mutineers were stranded with no food and one bottle of rum, yo-ho-ho!

It didn’t take me long to write the book, and I thought I was very smart.  But when I sent it off to the publisher, my editor there wasn’t happy. She made me rewrite the whole book and add new characters — a pair of twins — to complicate the plot.

I’d started the book with the youngest character, Andy, sitting on a hill, acting as a lookout and guarding the camp on Crab Island. “Wrong,” said my editor, “in a children’s novel you must introduce the main character immediately, and the main character is Sally.” So I changed the beginning to Sally sailing back to the island in a small dinghy. I still don’t like my editor’s finished version as much as my original, but if you want to get a book printed you have to do what the editor says, whether the editor is right or wrong.  

I discovered, rather belatedly, that children’s novels are subject to all sorts of strict rules. They’re not at all easier to write than adult novels. Kids are very clever and they know the difference between a good book and a bad one.

My biggest challenge was to prevent little Andy from taking over the book — he’s such a bouncy, appealing character and he wants to be everywhere, doing everything, all the time.

Percy the pelican, and the little bird who sits on his head when he’s fishing, are real characters, though. We saw scores of them on Crab Island and laughed every time a pelican dived at full speed into the shallow surf with a big whoosh of rumpled feathers and that huge beak wide open to scoop up little fish. I could never understand why they didn’t break their necks.

Scorpion Island is real too, but its name on the nautical charts is Anegada. The book’s main character, Sally, is no-one in real life that I know of.  She’s a different sort of main character from most. She’s not flashy, not a show-off. She doesn’t draw attention to herself or demand praise. She’s quiet and thoughtful and loving and brave and resourceful. I think if I were a girl, I’d like to be Sally.

Danger, Dolphins & Ginger Beer was first published by Simon & Schuster in New York and for about 10 years it was used as a school textbook in various parts of America. It was also in libraries all over the country, of course, and it was translated into German and published in Hamburg. It’s now out of print, but you can find used copies on the Internet. 

I have a large file filled with letters and pictures from schoolkids saying how much they enjoyed the book. But I’ve learned not to get too swollen-headed about that. I soon figured out that their teachers mostly made them write those letters to me as class exercises.

And then, flushed with success at having sold my first children’s novel (and having proved my theory that a good journalist could write anything), I promptly wrote two more. Alas, nobody in the publishing world wanted to publish them. Some people might surmise from this that some journalists are not quite as smart as they think themselves to be. But my theory is that some people just don’t recognize a good thing when they see it. Stupid publishers.

Today’s Thought
I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you.”
— Saul Bellow, NY Times, 21 Jul 85

One from the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette):
“How’s your husband doing with his drinking these days?”
“Much better. One bottle of beer puts him flat on his back now — if I aim it properly.”

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

October 27, 2013

How much heat you need

WHERE I LIVE, it’s the season of spiders’ webs and cold, clammy fog.  The silky glistening strands whose presence is revealed by the condensed moisture remind me that this is also the season when boaters need to start thinking about on-board heating, if they haven’t done so already.

If you’re starting from scratch, how can you find out how much heat you need?

Well, you can estimate pretty closely the hourly amount of heat you need for a cabin by multiplying the volume in cubic feet by a number varying from 10 to 20, depending on how fiercely cold the winter is in your area. The result is expressed in British Thermal Units, or Btu/hour.

In sub-tropical Florida, for example, the number would probably be 10; in southern California it would be 12 or 13; Washington state would rate about 15 or 16; and New England would be about 20.

For example, let’s say you have a cabin measuring 10 feet by 8 feet by 6 feet. That’s 480 cubic feet.  If you lived in San Diego (number 13) you’d need a heater capable of putting out 480 x 13 = 6,240 Btu/hour.

If you lived in Maine (number 20), your heater should be capable of producing 480 x 20 = 9,600 Btu/hour.

If you take it into your head to cruise all over the place, you should probably work out the coldest climate and the length of time you’re likely to be there, and make some sort of compromise.  There’s not much point in having a big, fierce heater if it’s not used for the majority of the time.

Very small boats might prove an exception to the formula rule expressed above. I have cruised on boats so small that a Coleman pressure kerosene lamp was adequate to heat the cabin and dry out our soaked underwear as well.

Don’t be tempted to use a household kerosene heater, though. They are too easily tipped over on a boat and they produce enough carbon monoxide to kill you.  Remember that carbon monoxide is present wherever there is an open flame or an engine exhaust.  If your source of heat is gas or kerosene you should either make sure to open a porthole or companionway slide to admit fresh air (and thereby cool down the cabin, which seems to defeat the whole object of the exercise) or have a proper smoke stack to dispose of the fumes laden with carbon monoxide.

Finally, if you have no heater, or your source of heat fails, try rum. If your insides are toasty warm, it hardly matters how cold the surrounding air is.

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

Doctors keep telling us that exercise kills germs. But how do you get the pesky little things to exercise?

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

October 24, 2013

Another peril of the sea

This is the Italian container ship Ital Florida on a good day.

This is the Ital Florida on a bad day. They call it a "stack attack." She lost at least three fully loaded containers in the Arabian Sea.

This is what the sea bed looks like in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California. It was one of 15 containers washed overboard from the merchant vessel Med Taipei.

WE CAN SAFELY add the word “container” to the list of perils that threaten those upon the sea.
Based on survey results, the World Shipping Council estimated in 2011 that on average there are approximately 350 containers lost at sea each year, not counting what they delicately refer to as “catastrophic events.”  Those are times when ships lose “from 50 to several hundred” containers overboard in one accident. 
And if you include the catastrophic losses, ships lose approximately 675 containers at sea every year.
Now, nothing spoils a nice day of sailing like running full-pelt into a half-submerged 40-foot container in stormy seas. And it’s even worse at night. For small yachts, these are perils as dangerous as any reef or rock. What’s more, they’re scattered all over the world’s oceans and they’re totally uncharted.
It’s not as if these were freak accidents. They happen all the time on a regular basis, and you can bet your life that the number of lost containers is growing every year.  It seems to me that if you are going to defy the basic tenets of good seamanship, and overload your vessel with deck cargo piled so high that it topples overboard in heavy seas, then you ought by law to provide each and every container with an Epirb that activates itself if it falls overboard, plus a buoy on a long line to enable its recovery when it sinks. Then the shipping company should be made to recover the container before it is allowed to carry any more.
We worry about the amount of floating plastic and debris that is already fouling our deep-sea habitat and threatening the lives of sea creatures, but few of us pause to think how much trash is being deposited on the ocean floors in steel containers.
But besides that, human lives are at stake here. Floating containers are deadly to small boats.  This ought not to be a game to see how many containers we can stack on deck without any falling overboard, and how much more profit we can make by piling a few more on top of that. It’s time the shipping companies faced up to their responsibilities and quit laying these death-traps for small-boat mariners.
Today’s Thought
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
— William Whiting, Eternal Father, Strong to Save
“Daddy, what’s a pink elephant?”
“It’s a beast of bourbon, my dear.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

October 22, 2013

Sailing smooths the troubled soul

THERE IS SOMETHING about sailing that attracts people with problems.  Perhaps it is an escape —  the thought of gliding gracefully over calm waters in healing silence, far from the worries and distractions of modern civilization.  Perhaps it is the faint hiss of the wake, the beautiful swell of the sails and the gleam of the varnish.

The interesting thing is that the size of the boat doesn’t seem to matter.  I can remember two occasions when I took grown men sailing in an 11-foot Mirror dinghy.  They were seeking salve for their troubled souls, and they didn’t seem to mind cramming themselves into a boat designed for one adult and one child.

The first occasion involved an older friend who was going through a palace revolution at work. He was a director of a large and powerful company and his future was to be decided by the full board of directors at a special meeting after lunch.

He asked if I would take him sailing in the Mirror. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “Two things can happen. They can kick me out — and then I’m done for. Or they can promote me — and I’ll be in the catbird seat.  Meanwhile, I can’t stand the stress.”

We went sailing on the bay.  I gave him the helm. I thought it would distract him from what was happening at work, and I guess it did.  He never did lose his tenseness completely, but the soothing, calming effect of sailing worked its magic on him and the farther we went the more he relaxed.

After a few hours, when he judged the board meeting would be over, we headed back, and he drove off.  I learned next day that he was the new executive boss of the company, destined to become rich and powerful, and never to set foot in anything as small as a Mirror again.

On another occasion a military man asked me to teach him to sail. He was a major in the army. He, too, took the helm of the little Mirror and  was soon sailing with some confidence. He seemed to be a very nice man, not at all as fierce as I had imagined an army major might be, and he was obviously a quick learner. I thought him very smart, in large part because, at the end of the lesson, he praised me for being a good teacher.

Two weeks later he committed suicide. Shot himself in the head.

I was shocked, and didn’t know quite what to think of that, or how I might have borne some responsibility. In the end, I decided that the magic of the Mirror came too late to save his troubled soul. I can only hope he found a few precious moments of mental peace while we were out in the Mirror together.

Today’s Thought
To know how to suggest is the great art of teaching.
— Amiel, Journal, 16 Nov 1864

Heredity is one of those scientific terms that can be very confusing, but basically it means that if your grandfather didn’t have children, then your father wouldn’t have either, and neither will you.

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

October 20, 2013

The role of inertia

OF THE PEOPLE who find themselves at sea in a small ballasted monohull, few realize that their continued existence depends largely on the outcome of a constant fight between wave impact and inertia.

It is generally understood that a deep-keeled monohull sailboat of almost any size can be capsized by a breaker plunging down the face of a large ocean swell.  But what is not so well understood is the fact that it’s inertia that resists the initial effect of the wave impact. It’s inertia that prevents sudden capsize.

The deeper, heavier, and longer a boat is, the more inertia she possesses. In fact, heavy-displacement keelboats may have as much as five times more resistance to being rolled over than ultra-light boats of the same length, according to renowned research scientist and naval architect Tony Marchaj.

Now, if you have trouble understanding the physical property called inertia, it might help to know that it has two opposite effects.  Matter that is at rest wants to stay at rest. It will resist any attempt to move it suddenly.  And the more matter there is, the more it resists. That’s why it’s difficult to make a boat with a heavy mast roll suddenly: the mast resists quick movement.

But when matter is already moving, it wants to keep moving at the same speed in the same direction. It doesn’t want to be disturbed, and it will resist any sudden changes.

Now, you should not assume that a mast with great inertia will prevent rolling altogether. A steady force will always start the mast moving. What inertia prevents is sudden movement, so that a wave breaking against the side of a heavy-displacement boat with a heavy mast will not be able to throw her over on her beam ends, as it might a light-displacement boat.

There are limits, of course, to the amount of inertia a heavy mast can produce, and as is usual with everything to do with yachts, there are penalties to be paid. Inertia will certainly slow down the frenzied, jerky rolling of a boat running in the trade winds and let her tick slowly from side to side like the pendulum on a grandfather clock.  But, if she falls into a rhythm that coincides with the intervals of the swells, the distance of her rolls to each side will be amplified, and you will end up with the sickening feeling that she’s never going to recover from a particularly heavy roll and just keep going over forever.

So, the job of the yacht designer is to find that happy compromise between beam, draft, length, displacement, and distributed mass which results in a reasonable amount of inertia, but not so much as to cause sickening rolling, excessive hobby-horsing, or a downgrading of performance. Few people who go to sea in ballasted monohulls appreciate how difficult that job really is.

More information
I’VE HAD SOME SQUAWKS from readers who couldn’t quite believe what I said in my last column about the Coast Guard constantly and deliberately contravening the law of the land and the Constitution of the United States by boarding private yachts for random inspections.

Well, doubters might like to click on this link for more information:

Today’s Thought
Architecture is preeminently that art of significant forms in space — that is, forms significant of their functions.
— Claude Bragdon, Wake Up and Dream

“Have a good time at the party, darling, and be a good girl.”
“Jeez, Mom, make up your mind.”

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

October 17, 2013

What's missed most of all

ALTHOUGH MODERN CRUISING YACHTS seem to be able to provide almost all of the luxuries of the modern home — right down to the toaster, the microwave, and even a form of washing machine — there is one appliance whose absence is rued more than any other: the dishwasher.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that the dishwasher, the most desirable of all electric mod-cons, should be the one that’s missing.  Very few people find any kind of enjoyment in washing dishes by hand, even on shore, but when it comes to washing up in salt water in the cockpit of a boat rolling its gunwales under at sea, even avowed martyrs tend to cry off.

I know what I’m talking about.  I have solid dishwashing credentials. I have washed dishes three times a day for four men for 33 days in a row while crossing the Atlantic.  I was the designated dish washer and dryer because I couldn’t take my turn at cooking.  Not only was I unable to cook, but any attempt made me seasick.  As I was also the navigator, they needed me to be un-seasick in order to fathom out where we were, so we came to a compromise.  I would wash up and they would cook.

I also washed dishes professionally as a crewmember of an ocean liner plowing a wake between South Africa and London. I was, in fact, a paid-up member of a seamen’s union — catering branch.  The job involved fetching food and washing up for six men in the starboard greasers’ mess.  But after a couple of nights of dutifully washing their dishes, the greaser’s steward from the port greasers’ mess across the way wandered by and asked what I was doing.

He laughed when I said I was washing up, of course. He said nobody did that any more. “Throw them out of the porthole,” he said.  “Pick up clean dishes from the dishwasher in the Tourist Class galley.”

I felt a little guilty at first, throwing all that perfectly good crockery into the sea, but it did give me a lot of spare time to go on deck and catch a nice tan to show off in dreary London, and I was much obliged to my new friend across the way.

I have known cruisers who advocate putting all your dirty mugs, dishes, and cooking pots into a mesh net and dragging them behind the boat overnight.  The theory is good, but I have never had the guts to try, fearing that some hungry shark would be attracted to this nice shiny bundle and devour all our cooking and eating utensils.

Experienced singlehanders do all they can to reduce the number of plates and pots they use. The male variety, especially, tend to save labor by eating and drinking straight from the can, deliberately living on baked beans for days on end, and treating everything edible as finger food. 

Well, when you’re on your own and there’s no one to criticize your table manners, what does it matter how you actually transfer food from the stove to the mouth?  All it takes afterward is a good suck of the fingers, and you’re good to go. No washing up. What a joy.

Today’s Thought
It’s not labor that kills, but the small attritions of daily routine that wear us down.
— Roy Bedicheck, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist

‘Waiter, there’s a button in my plate of crab.”
“Terribly sorry, sir. It must have come off when the salad was being dressed.”

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

October 15, 2013

Manners makyth boaters

IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED to me that I should write a column about radio etiquette for boaters.  You know, how to be politically correct on your VHF radio. I have rejected the idea because it is so boring.

I mean, everybody knows you don’t tell your mates on Channel 16 how you’ve just pumped out your holding tank in the middle of the yacht basin. Everybody knows not to ask the Coast Guard for a radio check, because it makes them so mad. Everybody knows you never end a conversation with “over and out.” If it’s over it’s not out. Jeez, make up your mind.

One thing that might not be so well known is that you should hold the microphone about two or three inches from your lips and talk briskly in a deep, gruff, macho voice.  You see, the same VHF channels that you use are also used by loggers, fishermen, rum runners, tugboat skippers and Somali pirates.  These are tough guys, and they can hear you when you’re calling your yacht-club friends anchored nearby on Happy Daze to come on over for sundowners. You don’t want those tough guys out there to think you’re effeminate, or a pushover, or unable to resist a boatload of hairy party-crashers. You need to sound tough, too.

I can’t vouch for this, but a macho voice on the radio might also just dissuade the Coasties from boarding you for a potty inspection. When they call you on Channel 16 and say they’re going to board you, ask the nice officer if he once signed a statement swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States. When he says yes (because they all have to, you know) ask him why he’s contravening the Fourth Amendment, which states that he can’t board and search your boat without a warrant from a judicial official; and that your right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and that he needs probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, describing the boat to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. Says so right there in the Constitution, officer.

They’ll board you, of course. At gunpoint, if necessary. They don’t worry about contravening the Fourth Amendment because they have the backing of the Pentagon and those bums in Congress, who will knowingly ignore the Constitution when it suits their own ends and when the negligible number of votes from the yachting fraternity is not going to affect their chances of re-election.

Apart from that, all I can add is that you should never mention on Channel 16 the name of any boat called M’Aidez.  When I was young and naive — well, that is, even more naive than I am now — I named my racing dinghy M’Aidez.  I thought it was deliciously chic, not to mention absolutely hilarious. (I told you I was naive.)

We raced offshore in those days, and the results of races were sent to the beach party from the committee boat by VHF radio.  It didn’t take long for everyone to discover that whenever my boat’s name was mentioned in the results, every marine radio operator within listening distance pricked up his ears and prepared for action.

God knows what would have happened if I’d ever needed to be rescued and somebody had broadcast a Mayday for M’Aidez.

Today’s Thought
For as laws are necessary that good manners may be preserved, so there is need of good manners that laws may be maintained.
— Machiavelli, Dei Discorsi

 A Hollywood film unit hired a public relations officer for a movie they were making in Africa.
The director explained: “Your job is to promote goodwill.  So be sure to humor the locals. If they say Africa is bigger than Texas, don’t argue. Agree with them.”

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

October 13, 2013

Cruising boats need Samson posts

YOU DON’T SEE MANY Samson posts on small boats these days, which is a pity. Every cruising boat should have a Samson post. There is something very shippy about a Samson post, something that connects a sensitive person to a nautical heritage going back thousands of years. But if you’re not a sensitive person, or don’t give a damn about your nautical heritage, you probably don’t even know what a Samson post is. Well, for your edification let me quote from the Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press):

“Samson post: a single bollard or bitt at the fore end of a small vessel for making fast a tow rope, anchor cable, etc.”

It is, indeed very useful for those purposes, and also for mooring lines. It is a sturdy, honest-to-goodness hitching post that puts to shame those piddling little deck cleats now supplied in its stead by tight-fisted, insensitive boatbuilders.

When I converted a little Santana 22 club racer into a mini-cruiser, the first thing I did was to make her a Samson post of 2-inch by 2-inch white oak. I took it right through the deck, bolted it through the forepeak bulkhead and footed it on the keelson. I stood back many times to admire it, confident in the knowledge that it was more than man for the job.

I shaped the top into the traditional pyramid form, filed comely curves into the upright edges, and varnished the hell out of it.  I knew the lines around it would wear the varnish off, but I couldn’t help myself.  I wanted it to start off looking good anyway.

It needed a through pin, of course, and I couldn’t decide at first whether it should north-south or east-west. I eventually made it east-west, responding to some half-memory of an illustration in an old book, and hammered a piece of 3/8-inch stainless steel rod into a hole slightly too small. The hole, unfortunately, wasn’t exactly horizontal, so the Samson post always had a slightly woozy look about it, but that never stopped it doing its manly job, and I loved it anyway.

Another nice thing about a Samson post is that if you ever need a tow, you can show off  by making the line fast with an esoteric knot like the capstan hitch, or the towboat hitch, which, I suspect, is the same thing. I understand that girls are attracted to sailors who can do the capstan hitch, but I can’t vouch for that personally. The closest I came to it was once when  woman told me she admired the way I coiled a line around my arm. She was the skipper’s steady girlfriend, so it came to nothing, and rightly so, because line-coiling demands none of the flair and expertise of the capstan hitch, and, of course, a capstan hitch is no darned good without a Samson post, which that particular boat lacked.

Today’s Thought
A knot is a picky thing; if you don’t tie it exactly right, it is an entirely different knot — or it is nothing at all.
— Brian Toss, Knots

 Johnny’s mother had just presented the family with twins.
His father said: “If you tell your teacher, I’m sure she’ll give you a day off school.”
Sure enough, Johnny came home smiling. “No school for me tomorrow,” he announced.
“Did you tell your teacher about the twins?” his father asked.
“I told her about one,” said Johnny. “I’m saving the other one for next week.”

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

October 10, 2013

Dreams in small increments

CHUCK PAINE, one of America’s best-known smallboat architects spoke to me in my sleep the other night. He said he wished he’d squared off the bottom of the keel of his sweet little Frances 26/Morris 26 design.  If the corners had been sharp instead of rounded, she would have gone to windward even better, he said.  I don’t know why he told me this, but I have to believe him. I have seen the little winglets on Boeing planes that achieve the same purpose.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate how small details like this make a big difference on yachts. Inches of freeboard here, square feet of sail area there.

Another famous North American boat designer, Ted Brewer, once told me he’d wished he’d given one of his designs an inch more sheer at the bow. An inch? On a 40-footer? “It would have made a big difference visually,” he assured me.

You probably know as well as I do how a mainsail can start lifting right next to the mast when it’s backwinded by the jib. There are days when it seems to do this on purpose. But it takes only the smallest adjustments to put things right: you can ease the jib sheet an inch, or sheet in the mainsail an inch, or tighten the clew outhaul an inch. That’s all it takes to make the difference. Anything more heavy-handed marks you as a neophyte.

I used to scoff at the notion that an extra inch of beam could make a difference to a boat’s performance.  After all, it was regarded as a minor miracle if, in the olden days of wooden construction, a boat was finished within two or three inches of her designed overall length.

But an inch of beam does in fact make a difference because the interior volume gained through that inch stretches the whole length of the boat.  It’s more in the middle and less at the ends, admittedly, but neverthless it’s not just an inch across the belly section.

I used to sail on a old wooden boat in San Diego that had an extra wooden skin added to the outside of the hull. It was only about 3/4 inch thick, but over the 35-foot length of the boat, it must have weighed a ton and I imagined  the boat must have sunk a good couple of inches in the water. But an old salt came on board and asked the skipper: “How much extra freeboard did you gain?”

I forget now exactly how far she rose out of the water when that extra skin was added, but it did give me furiously to think about how much the extra volume of water displaced all around the hull must have weighed, and, in consequence, made her float higher.

I have more respect now, when people tell me about small changes that have made big differences.  I don’t scoff any more.  If Chuck Paine says square edges are faster than round edges I’m happy to accept it. I wish he’d give me advance warning of when he’s going to appear in my dreams, though. I’m sure I could think of some good questions to ask him.

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

“I had a date with Jack last night.”
“How’d it go?”
“He had the nerve to try to kiss me.”
“Wow, I bet you were furious.”
“Yeah, every darned time.”

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

October 8, 2013

Knowing when not to talk

I WAS ASKED the other day if I would care to give a talk to our local Sail and Power Squadron. I said, as I almost always do in similar circumstances, that I would not. I know full well that there are sailors there, and many of them, who know far more about the sea and sailing than I do. I would be an imposter among the truly knowledgeable. And besides, I am a wretched speaker.  I have the kind of mind that needs time to select words, to wrestle them from their hiding places in my mind, and to test them for aptness before I let them loose in public. For this reason, I prefer to write. And write rather slowly, at that. Then, if I find my offering lacking in appeal, I  have the option of seasoning it with a dash of Attic salt.

This request reminded me of another journalist with the same problem. He wrote a weekly column for The Star, a London newspaper, during World War I, and was known simply by his pen name, Alpha of the Plough. In his book, Leaves in the Wind (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1919), he republished a delightful column that describes my situation precisely. Here is a salient extract:

“THE OTHER DAY I went to dine at a house known for the brilliancy of the conversation. I confess that I found the experience a little trying. In conversation I am naturally rather a pedestrian person . . . I do not want to be expected to be brilliant or to be dazzled by verbal pyrotechnics.

“But at this dinner table the conversation flashed around me like forked lightning. It was so staccato and elusive that it seemed like talking in shorthand. It was a very fencing match of wit and epigram.

“I thought of a bright thing to say now and then, but I was always so slow in getting away from the mark that I never got it out. It had grown stale and out of date before I could invest it with the artistic merit that would enable it to appear in such brilliant company.

“And so, mentally out of breath, I just sat and felt old-fashioned and slow, and tried to catch the drift of the sparking dialogue. But I looked as wise as possible, just to give the impression that nothing was escaping me, and that the things I did not say were quite worth saying. That was Henry Irving’s way when the conversation got beyond him. He just looked wise and said nothing.

“There are few things more enviable than the quality of good talk, but this was not good talk. It was clever talk, which is quite a different thing. There was no 'stuff' in it. It was like trying to make a meal off the east wind, which it resembled in its hard brilliancy and lack of geniality. Wit alone never made good conversation. It is like mint sauce without the lamb.”

 Today’s Thought
The American’s conversation is much like his courtship. . . . He gives an inkling and watches for a reaction; if the weather looks fair, he inkles a little more.
— Donald Lloyd, “The Quietmouth American,” Harper’s, Sep 63

Judge: “What is your name and occupation?”
Prisoner: “My name is Sparks, I’m an electrician.”
Judge: “What is the charge?”
Prisoner: “Battery.”
Judge: “Officer, place this man in a dry cell.”

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

October 6, 2013

How fit you need to be

PEOPLE WHO PUT OFF CRUISING until retirement age sometimes ask how fit you need to be to sail a boat at sea.  I always tell them that “reasonable physical fitness” is all you need for cruising.  That’s a cop-out, of course, because everybody’s needs are different, but what I mean by it is that you don’t have to go to the athletic extremes of deep-sea racing crews.

If people do seek advice about exercise programs, I advise them to check with their doctors, and tell them that they’re interested in anaerobic exercises that improve strength. Aerobic exercises such as running, swimming or cycling actually don’t contribute much to the needs of sailors, unless they happen to fall into the water a lot. They do, admittedly, improve one’s general level of fitness if it has fallen to an unacceptably low level, and they do benefit the heart, lungs and circulation, but otherwise they don’t help much.

Being reasonably fit means you can tug on a halyard without pulling a muscle, and haul up an anchor without straining your back.  A fitness regime for sailors should concentrate on strengthening the back, shoulders, arms, and even fingers.

But the fact is that once you’re living on board you can hardly help getting enough exercise to keep you fit. It’s interesting how many times a time you find yourself climbing up the companionway ladder. And if you’re anchored out you’ll get plenty of good exercise from swimming, walking the dog on land, trying to get the darned outboard started, and (eventually) rowing the dinghy ashore.

Of course, if you’ve been physically inactive for some time, you might want, out of an abundance of caution, to see your doctor for a physical check-up before you start a major voyage.  But if you’re under 35 and don’t suffer from cardiovascular disease, and don’t have any known primary-risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and smoker’s cough; or secondary-risk factors such as a family history of heart trouble, obesity, stroke, or diabetes, you’re pretty much good to go. And go you should.

Today’s Thought
We can now prove that large numbers of Americans are dying from sitting on their hands.
— Dr. Bruce B. Dan, NY Times, 27 Jul 84

“I’ve got nothing against you personally,” said the hefty boxer to his weedy opponent. “In fact, after this bout I’ll even stand you a pint — as long as we’re in the same blood group, that is.”

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

October 3, 2013

Navigating by barometer

NOT MANY OF US would define a barometer as a piece of navigational equipment. But two very experienced South African round-the-worlders, Barry and Patrick Cullen, introduced many skippers to the concept of barometer navigation during the first ocean yacht race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro in 1971.

The racing fleet had to skirt the South Atlantic High, a disk-shaped area of high pressure with wind strengths gradually increasing from zero in the middle to Force 4 at the outer edges.

The dilemma facing each navigator was whether to sail close to the center, thereby lessening the distance to be traveled, or to go farther north, the long way around the edge, thereby getting more wind.

The Cullens were sailing a famous 47-foot Colin Archer ketch called Sandefjord. They solved the problem by finding the wind they wanted and noting the barometer pressure. If the pressure dropped, they edged closer to the center of the high.  If the pressure rose, they headed out toward the edge. And so they automatically stayed almost equidistant from the moving center of the high-pressure area, carving a huge but efficient semi-circle across the South Atlantic.

Now this is, admittedly a comparatively crude method of rounding a high, but the Cullens stood no chance of taking home a trophy, so they were quite happy to know that they were probably doing the best that dear old Sandefjord was capable of, without all the stress and nail-biting that normally accompanies  electronic weather forecasting and optimum course-finding.

There are highs in all the big oceans that can be navigated the Sandefjord way. The only thing you have to watch out for is the natural variation of the barometer, the diurnal variation, which rises between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., and also between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m.  The barometer falls between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and also between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

How much does it rise and fall?  Well the range of the diurnal variation varies according to latitude. It’s about 0.15 inch (5 millibars) at the equator and about zero at the poles.  And it occurs with great regularity, regardless of local weather patterns, although they may mask its presence, of course.

Incidentally, you need a brass-cased aneroid barometer for this business. A mercury barometer has no place on a small boat because the boat’s motion makes it “pump” up and down. But we now also have available the digital electronic barometer with a liquid crystal display screen that shows you a history of the changing pressure plus a current reading.  That’s very handy and a great safety feature — but there is still much to be said for the aneroid barometer. It’s very simple, extremely reliable, doesn’t need batteries, and doesn’t throw a fit if it accidentally gets wet.

Today’s Thought
There be triple ways to take, of the eagle or the snake,
Or the way of a man with a maid;
But the sweetest way to me is a ship’s upon the sea,
In the heel of the North-East Trade.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Long Trail.

A soldier applied for a weekend leave pass.
“What for?” asked the lieutenant.
“My wife’s going to have a baby.”
“Very well.  It’s good to see a man with family pride.”
On Monday morning the lieutenant asked the soldier whether the happy event had taken place.
“What happy event?” said the soldier.
“Did your wife have her baby?”
“Jeez, have a heart, lieutenant. Don’t you know it takes nine months?”

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

October 1, 2013

Making fiberglass gleam

IT WAS WITH no small degree of astonishment that I recently learned how I should have been making my fiberglass gleam during all these long years of boat ownership. It was thanks to a four-page article in the latest issue of America’s largest-circulation boating magazine, BoatU.S. magazine, that I learned how I was supposed to have done it.

I read that article through from beginning to end with a growing sense of shame and disillusionment.  I ended up confessing to the cat, who could sense my distress:  “I am guilty, guilty as charged.  I have never ever made my fiberglass gleam like this. I am a failure, an impostor, and unworthy of boat ownership.”

Let me boil down those four pages for you, so that you won’t repeat my failure.  Making your fiberglass gleam is apparently not just a matter of vanity but a matter of protecting your boat. To do this you should follow these steps:

1.  Remove oxidation from the topsides with a power orbital buffer and oxidation remover.

2.  Remove the oxidation remover.

3.  If the oxidation was severe, remove remaining oxidation with orbital buffer and oxidation remover.

4.  Remove oxidation remover.

5.  Eliminate any stains remaining. Use rubbing compound and a rag. Rub by hand.

6.  Remove rubbing compound.

7.  Polish hull with buffer and a dedicated polish.

8.  Remove polish.

9.  Polish hull again.

10. Remove polish again.

11. Seal the shine in with a thorough coating of paste wax over the whole hull, by hand. Let it dry.

12. Remove paste wax.

13. Apply another coat of paste wax by hand. Let it dry.

14. Remove paste wax.

15. The coup de grace — apply a coat of carnauba wax by hand.

16. Clean off the carnauba wax with a buffer and a microfiber bonnet.

Now, I don’t know how long all this is supposed to take you, but presumably you can get it all done in just one winter because the article then adds that in spring “you should be able to get away with a quick polish and then sealing in the shine.”  And if you can actually bring yourself to use the boat after all this spiffing up, during the sailing season you can renew the shine by giving the gelcoat another carnauba wax job every other week.

Well, let us pause for breath here. As I told the cat, I have never wax polished the hull of any boat I have owned. When fiberglass hulls were invented, the inherent promise was that they would never need any maintenance.  We would be freed from the annual task of rubbing down the topsides and slapping on another coat of paint.  They would simply shine forever, reflecting the rays of the sun and spreading joy and happiness wherever they went.

It wasn’t true, of course.  They got scuffed and battered just like wooden topsides before them, and after a few years we noticed that the gelcoat developed a sort of powder on its surface, and when we complained to the builders they laughed and told us how naive we were.  “One word governs all of boating,” they pointed out. “Entropy. Go look it up.”

I decided then and there that my topsides would have to take their chances in life and I cleverly decided that white was the only color for a hull because oxidized white hulls look better than oxidized hulls of any other color, especially red or blue.

I also learned in later years that when a boat got so badly oxidized that it looked like a moose shedding fur, you could slap on a coat or two of twin-pack polyurethane paint and it would look bright and shiny and brand new for at least seven years to come, and with about a quarter of the effort you’d need to make your fiberglass gleam by applying wax paste and repeating the whole process until Armageddon set you free.

I’m sure the BoatU.S. people think that anybody with my attitude is unfit to own a fiberglass hull, but I don’t really care.  My cat thinks I’m plenty smart, if a little over-emotional.

Today’s Thought
I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. . . . What do you want — an adorable pancreas?
— Jean Kerr, The Snake Has All the Lines

“Officer, is this the crash victim?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Is he badly injured?”
“Well, so-so, sir. Two of the wounds are fatal but the other one’s not so bad.”

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