May 29, 2014

Take me to the fasteners

I DON’T REMEMBER exactly when yacht chandlers turned into huge fancy supermarkets. The marine stores of my youth were mostly dark, dank places that smelled intriguingly of tar and hemp, and had a long wooden counter with a couple of tough-looking guys behind it. One of them invariably had a wooden leg and a parrot on his shoulder. The other never wore anything above the waist other than a dirty singlet, the better to show off his tattoos of ladies with long legs and exposed bosoms.

Unless you knew the exact nautical terms for the things you wanted to buy, it was an intimidating experience to go shopping in these places. You had to know the difference between a futtock shroud and a gammon iron, otherwise you risked a severe dose of scoffing and derisive snorts of laughter, especially if you owned a vessel that displaced less than 600 tons deadweight.

But my, how things have changed. How genteel it has all become. And how overwhelming. And confusing. My local marine emporium now caters for clients who live in smart homes in the suburbs, and who go to work in suits and ties. They own fancy yachts that they keep in the downtown marina. They’ve never heard of a futtock shroud and the store assistants don’t give a damn because they don’t have to serve you any more. You have to serve yourself.

And this is the problem. Whereas in the olden days you could just ask the guy with the parrot to find you half a gallon of reddish-brown, hard epoxy, antifouling paint, you now have to wander aimlessly on a solo circumnavigation,  back and forth between the serried ranks of shelves piled high with glittering trinkets for smart yachts.  The best you can hope for, as you back and fill your way around the store, is to catch a glimpse of something that looks like a paint can, or something that at least looks as if it might logically lead you to a paint can, such as a piece of 180-grit sandpaper, or a 3-inch bristle paintbrush.

The fact that I can never find anything in the same place twice is, I think, a deliberate ploy to lead me to collide with merchandise that I would never bump into normally, with the object of creating what the marketing experts call an impulse buy.

Now, I am fairly resistant to impulse buying. In the first place, I hate shopping, and in the second place, all I want to do is grab the thing I really need and get out of there. Because I get mad when I can’t find what I need straight away, I sometimes  walk out in a huff without buying anything at all.  It’s not a clever thing to do, because eventually I have to come back and start shopping again, but I can’t help it, and it makes me feel better, at least temporarily.

So what I’d like to suggest is that marine supermarkets should fit little GPS units to their shopping carts.  You should be able to punch out your desired purchase on the keyboard, and the GPS should guide you right to the very spot on the very shelf on which your intended purchase lurks. If you have ever tried to buy one flat-head, stainless-steel, machine screw, 1/4-inch by 3 inches, with a slotted head, plus washer and nut, you will know how handy the GPS could be.

It could have a husky lady’s voice saying: “Turn left; straight ahead  20 paces; second aisle on the right; third shelf from the top; Oh-oh, you’ve gone too far; recalculating . . . make 180-degree turn . . .”     

There is probably a fortune awaiting the person who perfects this kind of GPS. It could be a stand-alone unit or an application available to those who can afford smart phones. And never mind marine stores. Think of how many you could sell to food supermarkets. No more frustrating searching for that elusive Belgian chocolate or that special Alabama moonshine your girl friend likes so much.

The technology exists. It’s such an obvious need that someone is bound to fill it soon. I can’t wait.

Today’s Thought
The customers had a tendency to stop shopping when the baskets become too full or too heavy.
— Sylvan N. Goldman, (On why he designed the first grocery carts in the 1930s.) NY Times, 27 Nov 84


Overhead at a Boy Scout meeting:
“Did you ever have one of those days when you felt just a little untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, discourteous, cowardly, and antagonistic toward those wretched old women who always wait for suckers to help them across the goddam road?”

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

May 27, 2014

Is your skipper trustworthy?

IT WOULD BE RATHER STUPID to go to sea with someone you didn’t trust. But how do you know whether a potential skipper is trustworthy or not? Even if someone has a good reputation as a seaman, how do you find out how he would behave in an emergency?

I think the answer is that you have to go by instinct. If the hair on the back of your neck stands on end when you first meet him, you probably shouldn’t go to sea with him. But if he seems a decent enough sort of bloke, and especially if he laughs at your jokes, it might be worth taking a chance on him.

I had a friend once who trusted me, rightly or wrongly, to sail him across the English Channel in a 17-foot centerboarder. I don’t know what decided Bob to take that chance, except that he had worked out a plan, and I was part of it.

It was he who bought the boat in England, because he wanted to visit the rivers and canals of the Continent. His problem was that he didn’t know how to sail or navigate. So when I offered to skipper the boat for him, I was able to negotiate another part of the plan, and that was to continue to Sweden, where, we had heard, ladies ran naked through the birch woods, chased by enthusiastic young men.  I thought we should see for ourselves whether or not this was true.

It can be quite tricky to take a small boat across the English Channel to France, and because Bob was a landlubber I didn’t want to take any chances, so when it started blowing I found the end of the main halyard and tied it around his ample midsection, which effectively tethered him to the mast. Luckily, it didn’t blow hard enough for a reef, which would have required unfastening Bob, feeding some halyard up the mast, cleating the halyard and fastening it around Bob again.

In any case, we made it safely to Calais, where Bob was released.  We lowered the mast, entered the French canal system, and set off northeastward toward the Scandiwegian blondes as fast as the Seagull outboard would take us, which wasn’t very fast actually, certainly not as fast as a healthy young blonde can run.

We never made it to Sweden, unfortunately, for reasons connected with people’s kindness. We met such charming and helpful people along the way, and accepted so many social invitations, that we ran out of time. After three months, we had got no farther than Amsterdam, so we had to turn around and go back home.

Crossing the Channel again got us caught up in a new adventure that I don’t have to space to tell about now; suffice it to say that we got back home in one piece eventually, and when we were having our first celebratory beer ashore I said to Bob: “Thanks for trusting me.”

And he said: “I knew you’d be OK. You laughed at my jokes.”

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

“Hello gorgeous, can you suggest something in the way of a good time?”
“Yeah, my boy friend. He’s standing behind you.”

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

May 26, 2014

Sailing lessons for judges

THERE IS A READER in Fort Worth, Texas, who has a long memory. He says: “Several years ago you had a story about the editor of a prison newspaper who was serving time for stealing a yacht. He said he was going to do the same thing again when he got out.  Whatever happened to him?”

Well, I have to tell you he’s still got two years to go, if he continues to be a good boy. Meanwhile, for the benefit of those of you who didn’t read the original column, here it is again:

MR. OBAMA'S SELECTION of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has touched a raw nerve in the editorial department of The Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette).

It evoked a scathing editorial in the latest issue of the prison's underground newspaper, whose editor happens to be doing time for grand yacht theft. Here is his weighty piece, word for word:

IT'S HIGH TIME judges were chosen for their fairness and ability. Not because they're Hispanic. Not because they're women. These are values chosen solely because they advance the political aspirations of the current president and his party. What we desperately need right now is judges who sail. It's time we had a sailor on the High Court.

There has never been a greater need to select judges based on their knowledge and  experience without regard to their jender (sic) or race. We need people like sailboat owners, people of charm and distinction and good taste, people who would see immediately that stealing a sailboat is not a crime and never could be. It's like picking a wild flower or eating a blackberry. The principle is exactly the same. Would anybody send a person to prison for that? These things were put on earth for all to share.

Just as land cannot belong to one person, as my Native American friends so rightly believe, so sailboats are placed on earth for the benefit of us all. And if a sailboat belongs to everybody, how can one solitary person (namely, me) be accused of grand theft of it? I ask you! That's what I told the judge but he wasn't having it. Stupid judge. I bet he never sailed a boat in his life. Anyone who has sailed would have been on my side and recognized the validity of my argument.

The lack of sailing judges at all levels of the justice system amounts to nothing less than discrimination. It's shameful. It's tragic. It's making innocent people like me suffer. When I get out of here I'm going to start a nation-wide campaign to make sailing lessons obligatory for all judges. Or maybe I'll just steal another yacht and take off for Tahiti. I haven't decided yet.

Today's Thought

If the district attorney wanted, a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.

—Barry Slotnick


“I don’t trust this caddie. I think he’d steal my ball as soon as look at it.”

“Yeah, right, I agree. I wouldn’t putt it past him.”

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

May 23, 2014

The Maddison Project: Take 4

AS YOU UNDOUBTEDLY KNOW, it was fairly easy for ancient mariners to calculate their latitude. It was longitude that was the problem for an awful long time. According to the famous economist Angus Maddison, King Philip III of Spain offered large financial rewards in 1598 to anyone who could solve the problem of longitude. Similar incentives were offered in France and Holland, and the British government created a Board of Longitude in 1714 that offered a prize of $20,000.

That prize was won by John Harrison, who, after 25 years of effort, made a watch that was unaffected by the movement of a ship and changes in temperature. Harrison’s chronometer was successfully tested in trial runs to the West Indies in 1762-64.

Captain Cook, the great explorer, who had used the then-new Nautical Almanac on his first Pacific voyage in 1768-71, found his longitude by the cumbersome lunar method. But for his 1772-75 circumnavigation he used a copy of Harrison’s watch, and when he returned to Plymouth three years later, the cumulative error in longitude was less than eight miles. It’s hard for us to imagine now what a miracle that must seemed at the time.

By the end of the eighteenth century great progress had been made in the design of ships and rigging. There had also been big strides in gunnery, meteorology and astronomy. The precision of navigational instruments was much greater, too. Charts had been enormously improved and were supplemented by detailed coastal surveys.

All this meant that sailing had become safer, and the duration of voyages much more predictable. Fewer vessels were shipwrecked, and there was also great progress in reducing the number of seamen who died on long voyages. For instance, during Anson’s voyage around the world in 1740-44, he successfully harried the Spanish in the Pacific and captured a huge treasure ship with the loss of only four men by enemy action. But he lost more than 1,300 men from disease, mainly scurvy.

Anson’s experience led the British naval physician James Lind to carry our dietary experiments, and in 1753 he recommended orange juice and lemon juice as a specific against scurvy. Captain Cook followed Lind’s advice in 1768-71, and tried out a number of anti-scorbutics, including oranges, lemons, and sauerkraut. It was spectacularly successful — he had only one case of scurvy — but it wasn’t until 1795 that the regular issue of lemon juice was adopted by Britain’s Royal Navy.  

In his work for the University of Groningen, Angus Maddison figured that between 1470 and 1820, Western Europe’s merchant fleet increased about 17-fold. Its carrying capacity rose even more because of technical progress in the design of ships, sails and rigging, winds and currents.

In this period, voyages became less dangerous for ships and their crews. Travel time became more predictable and regular, and ships became bigger while the number of crew required per ton of cargo was substantially reduced. European domination of the world’s oceans was reinforced by advances in naval armament, and the capacity to organize business on a large scale in ventures that required significant capital outlays over a relatively long period.

Today’s Thought
The most advanced nations are always those who navigate the most.
— Emerson, Society and Solitude: Works and Days

Just as the cruise ship was approaching Athens a woman passenger buttonholed the captain.
“What’s that white stuff on those hills far in the distance?” she asked.
“It’s snow madam.”
“Yeah, I thought so, but that darn fool of a First Officer told me it was grease.”

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

May 21, 2014

The Maddison Project: Take 3

IN THE LAST EPISODE of the Maddison project we learned that maritime progress in the 15th century had shifted to Portugal, where caravels were now exploring the Atlantic. But there were also major improvements in navigation. New instruments were developed, and much better charts were being drawn.

“In the northern hemisphere, the pole star provided a more-or-less constant bearing and altitude,” Maddison points out. “On a north-south passage, a navigator could observe the pole star each day at dawn and dusk, when he could see both the star and the horizon. By noting changes in altitude, he could get some idea of changes in his position. In sailing east-west, he could keep a steady course by maintaining a constant polar altitude.”

All this had been done before, of course, but very crudely, using finger spreads or other rough means of measuring altitude. But in the 15th century the Portuguese developed the quadrant, which made it possible to judge latitudes and distances sailed.

“The sun’s altitude could not be measured with a quadrant, as its light was too bright for the naked eye, so a variant of the astronomer’s astrolabe was developed for mariners. because of the earth’s movement, the altitude of the sun was different every day, so altitude readings had to be adjusted for daily changes in the sun’s declination. These tables were constructed by the astronomer Zacuto in the 14702. After practical tests of the instruments and tables on trial voyages, a naval almanac, Regimento do Astrolabia et do Quadrante, was compiled, which was available to Vasco da Gama when he sailed to India in 1497.”

In 1569 the Flemish mapmaker, Gerard Mercator, developed a projection technique to represent the world’s sphericity on a flat surface. On his charts, parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude cut each other at right angles. Meridians were spread apart as they approached the poles, and to compensate the spacing of latitude degrees was increased progressively toward the poles. The result of this was on a Mercator chart, the line of a constant compass bearing was straight. This made it much easier to plot and maintain a course at sea, but strangely enough, Mercator charts were not generally used until the 17th century.

In 1594 the English navigator, John Davis, invented a simple back staff that could be used to measure the altitude of the sun without sighting the sun directly, and by the end of the 17th century it had replaced and seaman’s quadrant and astrolabe.

The backstaff, in turn, was superseded by a much more precise instrument, the reflecting octant, in 1731. It was the work of the English mathematician, John Hadley. It was further improved in 1757 by a sextant developed by the British navy. The sextant permitted a quick and accurate reading of any celestial object against the horizon.  

Today’s Thought

One ship drives east and another drives west

With the self-same winds that blow,

‘Tis the set of the sails and not the gales

Which tells us the way to go.

— Emma Wheeler Wilcox, Winds of Fate

Seattle police arrested two kids yesterday.  One was drinking battery acid, and the other was swallowing fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.

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

May 18, 2014

The Maddison Project: Take 2


Medieval_.jpgMedieval illumination showing a mariner consulting a compass aboard a ship. It is the first known depiction of the use of compass on board a ship. The illustration is from a 1403 manuscript copy of Jehan de Mandeville (John Mandeville), Le livre des merveilles (originally published c.1355-57). The 1403 manuscript is held by the Bibliotheque national de France in Paris,



ANGUS MADDISON, the eminent economist, said there were three things that contributed significantly to improved sailing ships and increased trade in the 13th century. They came after about 1,000 years of scientific, economic, and political stagnation following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The three significant improvements were:

1. The magnetic compass -- somewhat like the old windrose, but with a pointer directed continuously to the north.

2. The Venetian sandglass. This was designed to measure time accurately over a short time, and enabled the true speed of a vessel to be recorded.

3. The wooden traverse board, which made it possible to keep a reasonable dead reckoning account.

The traverse board  had a face with eight holes in each compass point, and eight pegs attached in the center. At each half-hour of a four-hour watch, a peg was placed in the hole indicating the course of the ship during that interval. In another part of the board, the average speed for that half-hour was recorded with a peg.

"About the same time, portolans (charts with an indication of ports, anchorages, tides, depths, and winds) began to appear," said Maddison. "They provided sailing instructions derived from the experience of earlier mariners. They showed coastal outlines and distances between ports, with an array of alternative courses (rhumb lines). If none of these lines was appropriate for the intended voyage, they nevertheless helped the mariner design and pursue his own trajectory, using a ruler and a pair of dividers. The portolans were made of vellum (a single sheepskin up to 5 feet long and half as wide) with directions inscribed in black and red ink.

"These changes increased the productivity of Venetian ships, which had previously not ventured the trip to Egypt between October and April, when the sky was frequently overcast. With these instruments, the ship could make two return voyages a year from Venice to Alexandria, instead of one."

According to Maddison, the 12th century saw innovations in shipbuilding technique that reduced costs and improved efficiency. In Roman times, he said, the hull had been constructed first. By this, I believe he meant the outer shell. "Ships were held together by a careful watertight cabinetwork of mortise and tenon. The second stage was the insertion of ribs and braces."

But from the 11th century onward, the keel and ribs were made first "and a hull of nailed planks was added, using fiber and pitch to make the hull watertight. Somewhat later, the stern-post rudder replaced trailing oars as a more effective means of steering. The power of rudders was strengthened by the use of cranks and pulleys, so it was much easier to maintain course in bad weather."

Another important change involved changes in the rigs of sailing vessels. In the Mediterranean, the Arab lateen sail became the rig of choice, instead of the age-old squaresail. Lateen sails made it possible to sail in a wider range of wind conditions, especially against the wind, and reduced the time spent idling in port or at anchor waiting for a fair wind.

In the 15th century the focus of maritime progress moved to Portugal, which was exploring the Atlantic islands and the coast of Africa. "There were big changes in rigging that permitted sails to harness wind energy with much greater efficiency than earlier Mediterranean vessels. With more masts and a much more complex array of sails, ships become more maneuverable and faster. They could tack into the wind with greater ease. The Venetian galley, whose motive power depended on oarsmen, become obsolete. A new type of vessel -- the caravel -- was more robust and able to operate successfully in the stormier seas and currents of the Atlantic." 

Today's Thought
There is no greater disloyalty to the great pioneers of human progress than to refuse to budge an inch from where they stood.
-- Dean W. R. Inge
A local junior-school teacher was trying to teach the concept of distance. She asked whether her pupils thought they lived close to school, or far away.

Nobody was willing to hazard a guess except little Susan, who was quite adamant that she lived very, very close to school.

“How are you certain?” asked the teacher.

“Well, every time I come home my mother says: ‘Hell, are you home already?’”

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