March 30, 2014

Debris in the oceans

HOW SAFE IS THE OCEAN for small yachts these days? Satellites looking for possible debris from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 keep sending back pictures of scores of large objects floating around in the lonely Roaring Forties. So far, none of these objects appears to have come from the missing jetliner, though. It’s just random flotsam that makes you wonder what would happen if you ran into it in heavy seas on a dark night in a small yacht.

It is not easy to estimate how much of a threat this represents for the thousands of cruising sailboats currently working their way around the world. Much of this flotsam is too small to do much damage to a reasonably sturdy boat but unfortunately some of it actually is substantial enough to punch a hole through a wooden or fiberglass hull.

What we do know, however, is that energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed it’s traveling at. In other words, if you hit a large piece of debris at 3 knots, it will do x amount of damage to your boat. If you hit it at 6 knots, though, it will not do twice as much damage (2x); it will do four times as much damage (4x).

This makes a good argument for slow sailing boats, especially at night, because there is normally no hope whatsoever of spotting a dangerous piece of low-lying debris ahead of you on a dark night in the middle of the ocean. It also makes a good argument for something that cautious sailors used to do in the early days of yacht circumnavigations in the last century: tucking in a reef or two at nightfall to reduce speed and perhaps avoiding the need to flounder around trying to reef the sails in a sudden wind squall at 3 a.m.

There is already plenty of stuff in the water for a sailboat to hit without the airlines adding to the problem. Ivor Wilkins, a journalist living in New Zealand, ran into a whale one night in his yacht Thistledown.  Author Frank Wightman ran into a tree off the mouth of the Amazon in his sloop Wylo one dark night. And Lord knows how many people have run into semi-submerged steel containers. We know hundreds of containers fall off ships every year, and no small yacht is a match for one of those.

I don’t know of any modern skippers who insist on shortening sail at nightfall. There may be some, but I don’t think there are many. But perhaps there will be a few more now that the satellite searches we’re seeing on television every day make it obvious that charging through the dark seas at high speed at night is the equivalent of driving down the freeway while wearing a blindfold.

Today’s Thought
Allow time and moderate delay; haste manages all things badly.
— Statius, Thebais

"How do you like your new mustache?"
"I didn't like it at first. Then it grew on me."

March 27, 2014

Here's a man on a truck

A FEW DAYS AGO, on March 23, 2014, I wrote a column titled “A lack of sea-going trucks.”

It was a response to a query from a reader who wanted to know what a nautical truck really was. It turned out to be a flat wooden disk atop the mainmast of a sailing ship. I said that when a warship’s yards were manned, as a salute to a visiting Lord High Emperor or someone, a sailor was chosen to stand right on top of the truck. He had to stay there, sometimes for hours, I presume, with only a thin iron rod inserted into a hole between his feet to steady him.

Another reader, Dale Stevens, asked if I had an illustration of this feat, and I was sorry to say that my search of the Internet had revealed nothing, probably because nobody has stood on a mainmast truck since the Internet was invented.

But I was wrong (as usual). A reader in the United Kingdom (Welsh Wales actually, if I’m not mistaken) has put me straight. His first name is Jack and I don’t know his last name but his boat is called Rhyddid, which is Welsh for Liberty, and he has provided a link to a most fascinating video on YouTube. It’s a presentation of young sailors and marines manning a land-based mast in Britain. And lo! this mast has a truck, and an iron rod, and a brave young man standing and saluting right on top of the truck.

I don’t know if the U.S. Navy does stuff like this now, or if they ever did, but it’s certainly fascinating to watch the Brits keeping up their old traditions, including the compulsory tot of rum, which that man richly deserved. 

Here is the link, thanks to Jack. Don’t miss it!

Today’s Thought
She comes majestic with her swelling sails,
The gallant Ship; along her watery way,
Homeward she drives before the favouring gales;
Now flirting at their length the streamers play,
And now they ripple with the ruffling breeze.
— Southey, Sonnets

They say money can’t buy happiness, but I bet it’s more comfortable to cry your eyes out in a 40-foot Hinckley than in a 26-foot McGregor.

March 25, 2014

Farewell to 'Wetazel'

WHEN I SEE the eight-year-olds buzzing around the marina in their 8-foot Optimists I am always astonished at their confidence and ability. They sit to leeward with big grins on their fearless faces while their gunwales lap the water, and they waggle the tiller with all the panache of salty old professionals.

There were no Optimists in my early sailing days. We were not a sailing family, and I was the only one who showed any interest in the sport. That happened after a chance encounter with a young man sailing a 14-foot Redwing dinghy.  I was on the beach, and as he came past he shouted: “Want to come for a sail?”

I was 13 years old and didn’t know any better, so I said “Yes.” About two years later I discovered the local yacht club. While poking around the dinghy park I came across a boxy-looking 14-foot wooden dinghy that somebody said was “a club boat,” whatever that meant. I kept a close eye on it for some time, and it became obvious that it was never used. In fact I was doubtful that it would float, because the bottom seams had dried out, leaving small gaps between the planks.

After a few months I learned that she was called Wetazel, an appropriate name, and that she was one of a class of singlehanded catboats used in the 1936 summer Olympic Games in Germany. I didn’t know when this one was actually built, but I could tell she was very, very old.

The more I looked at her and poked around her, the more proprietary I became. Nobody at the club showed any surprise when I began acting as if I owned her. One day I took my pocket money and  bought a big can of Pliobond, a sort of liquid rubber. I slathered Pliobond all over her insides and thought in my naivety that it would make her waterproof.

I bent on her rust-stained old mainsail and took her for a sail on the bay one beautiful summer’s day. She leaked, of course, despite all the Pliobond, but I had a bailer and could keep up with it by shoveling out water every 10 minutes or so. No matter,  I was delighted with her. It felt wonderful to be in charge of my own vessel. I was the teenage captain of my own destiny and
free to do what I wanted anywhere on the seven seas.

We were on a dead run, and it was getting time to bail again, when a gust hit us from astern. It depressed the bow just a little and the boatload of bilge water suddenly all charged forward until the bow was under water. She just kept sailing on down and filled completely with water. The steel centerboard dragged her under and she sank from beneath me. I wasn’t wearing a life jacket, of course. No one seemed to in those days. But I could swim, after a fashion, and I managed to make my way to an island sandbank where I stood, shocked and shivering, with water up to my knees for half an hour or so until a little outboard runabout came along by chance and rescued me.

I never said a word to anyone at the club, or at home, about my little misadventure, and nobody ever asked what had become of Wetazel. I consoled myself by thinking that her life was over anyway, and that she had experienced a hero’s funeral. Sort of like a Viking funeral, only wetter. And I have never sailed another boat under since then.  

 Today’s Thought
The sea carries no tracks; one disappears into it and it leaves no trace, returns from it without a mark to show whence one came.
— Edward L. Beach

Books I dreamed I found in my library:
Mother and Child, by Polly Anderson
The Appointment, by Simeon Mundy
Ceaseless Fall, by Eileen Dover
Shattered Window, by Eva Brick
Front Row of the Stalls, by Seymour Legge
Droopy Drawers, by Lucie l’Astique

March 23, 2014

A lack of seagoing trucks

SOMEONE WHO signs herself “Persephone” says she was reading a book that described a small boat as “a real sea-going vessel from truck to keel.”  Now she wants to know what the truck is.
“My guess is that it’s the mast cap,” she says, “the bit that the stays are attached to. Can you confirm?”

Well, Persephone, you’re close, but the fact is that most sailboats don’t have a truck these days.

There are, in fact several meanings of the word truck. There’s the vehicle, for a start, such as the well-known pick-up truck. There’s also the noun that indicates “dealings with” someone: “That boatyard robbed me blind. I’ll have no truck with them in future.”

But the truck we’re concerned with here is a flat disk of wood fitted horizontally on the extreme upper end of a mast of a sailing ship. On ships with more than one mast, it was found on the tallest mast.

It usually had holes bored down through it for flag signal halyards, or small sheaves instead, if it was a fancy truck. In old navy days men used to man the yards as a salute in honor of a visiting sovereign or high official, or in celebration of a national event. In ships of the line this display was topped off by a man standing on each truck.

If you know how the movement of a ship is exaggerated and quickened at the top of a mast, you’ll understand that this was an onerous duty for the poor soul chosen to man the truck, especially when you consider that the only way he could stand on this lofty perch for hours at a time was by steadying himself with the help of a small iron rod temporarily inserted in a hole between his feet.

There are very few sovereigns who need saluting these days, and probably just as few private yachts  with mast trucks big enough for a person to stand on — but I think that’s something for which we can all be truly grateful.

Today’s Thought
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get him into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail with the chance of being drowned.
— Dr. Samuel Johnson

“Any sovereigns in your family?”
“No, but I had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.”

March 20, 2014

That sinking feeling

A READER in Victoria, British Columbia, asks:  “Have you ever had that unnerving feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re sailing broadside to the waves at sea?  I mean the feeling of falling, out of control, when you come off the top of a large wave.”
Well, yes, I have. It’s about my least favorite motion aboard a yacht.  The fact is that a boat broadside on to steep seas is probably at greater risk of being capsized when she is on top of a wave than at any other time.

When she is lifted upward and then quickly abandoned by a passing wave, she momentarily experiences a feeling of weightlessness, or at least partial weightlessness. At that moment, with a large area of her hull out of the water, she has practically no form stability.

In theory, a small puff of wind in her sails could blow her over 90 degrees. In practice, the inertia of her mast and rig slows down her response, and before she can heel too much she is once again surrounded by water and experiencing an excess of buoyancy and righting moments by being pressed down into the sea.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating exercise to sense those moments of instability in your own body when you’re sailing on a beam reach in a lively sea. especially on a light-displacement yacht or racing dinghy.

Today’s Thought
If the danger seems slight, then truly it is not slight.
-- Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum: Principiis Obstare

“So how did you kids enjoy Dad’s cooking while I was away?
“We fought over it all the time, Mom.”
“Wow, was it that good?”
“No, the loser had to eat it.”

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

March 18, 2014

Favorite sailing books

EVERY NOW AND THEN somebody asks me to name my favorite sailing books. Well, there are so many good sailing books available these days that I find it impossible to nominate a short list. Hiscock and Ransome, Herreshoff and Day, Guzzwell and Roth — they’re all wonderful, inspiring authors, and who can say which of their books, together with many others like them, is better than any other?

However, for sheer convenience I divide my favorite books into those written by Don Casey — and all the others. Don has a rare knack for explaining with clarity and simplicity how to fix anything on a boat. His English is a joy to read and his sense of humor is delightful.

But for sheer drama and adventure afloat I recommend two relatively unknown authors, Frank Wightman and Marcel Bardiaux. Neither is alive today, but their writing lives on with undiminished charm and elegance.

Wightman’s The Wind is Free (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1949) is a classic story of a small, modest man consumed by a burning desire to build his own boat and cross an ocean. Wonderful reading.

Bardiaux’s Four Winds of Adventure (Adlard Coles, London, 1961) is a staggering tale from another man who built his own boat and overcame almost unbelievable difficulties sailing singlehanded across five oceans. An absolute tour de force.

The Wind is Free is readily available on the used-book market but Bardiaux’s book, in English, is less so.  I did find a copy for sale on, though. If you can read French, there are many copies floating around on

Today’s Thought
Books for general reading always smell badly. The odor of common people hangs about them.
— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

“Do you have any dogs going cheap?”
“No, sir, all our dogs go ‘Woof!’”

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

March 16, 2014

On rocks and yacht handling

THEY SAY there are only two kinds of sailors: those who have run aground, and those who are going to. I belong to the first group and the one thing it taught me was that modern sailboats are not easily damaged by running aground. It depends on circumstances, of course, so that if you run onto a large shallow reef in a gale of wind, your boat could well be pounded to bits. But what I’m referring to is the much more common mishap of touching a sandbank or hitting a lone rock lurking just below the surface.

My most recent encounter with a rock occurred a few years ago when I deliberately sailed my 25-footer into a rock-strewn area to help a fellow sailor whose boat had gone aground and got stuck. As luck would have it, he managed to wiggle off and sail clear before I got to him. Then, on the way back to deep water, I struck a rock at four knots.

We were all knocked off our feet and there was a terrific clang from the aluminum mast. I hopped down below to check the bilges, but she was not making water.  I felt sure substantial damage had been done, but when we had her hauled out the next day there was nothing more than a hole the size of a small orange on the leading edge of the lead keel. That blemish was soon filled with epoxy and we were back in the water on the next tide.

 Thomas Fleming Day expanded on this subject in his book, On Yachts and Yacht Handling.

“This is a subject upon which I can pose as a master,” he said. “If any man has been ashore more times than I have, I should like to meet him and spend an evening comparing notes. One of my favorite amusements is to sail into places where a man has no business to go; consequently my boat is continually hung up on rocks, shoals and bars.

“While this is not particularly good for a boat, it has done me no great harm, as I have gathered a lot of knowledge and experience which, you willing, I will spread before you.

“Yachts, unlike merchant vessels are seldom damaged by taking ground. This is because, in proportion to their weight, they are extremely strong fabrics. A merchant vessel when loaded has little reserve buoyancy, and when she strikes, she hits hard; but a yacht is almost as buoyant as an empty barrel, and unless she hits with a perpendicular motion, does so very lightly.

“Frequently, when a yacht hits a rock it seem to those on boat as if the end of things had come; but when an examination is made it will be found that little harm has been done.

“I once struck a rock with a small sloop. It was blowing a strong breeze and considerable sea running; it threw me over the wheel to land on my head in the fore end of the cockpit, and knocked the rest off their pins. The centerboard was driven clear up and out of the case against the cabin roof, the sloop making a jump over the stone and into deep water on the other side.

 “We all thought the boat must be badly damaged, but as she made no water we turned round and worked her home. When she was hauled out, the only sign of the blow was a dent in the lead keel just deep and wide enough to hold a finger.”

The author goes on for many pages to describe how strandings occur and what to do about them, but he ends with this admonition:

“But better than all these directions is the advice to keep off rocks, shoals and shore. Don’t go into places unknown to you unless you have a good chart or your lead going . . . an ounce of precaution in this matter is worth tons of cure.”

Today’s Thought
He who will not be ruled by the rudder, must be ruled by the rock.
— Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
—Groucho Marx
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

March 13, 2014

For the want of an Epirb . . .

IF MALAYSIA AIRLINES Flight 370 had been carrying a commonly available radio beacon that costs less than $1,000, the navies and rescue aircraft of the world wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars searching for signs of the missing airliner.

I would wager that almost all sailboats crossing an ocean these days carry with them a 406-MHz emergency position-indicating radio beacon, known to us all as an Epirb.  It’s a compact, battery-driven radio and GPS combined that broadcasts to orbiting satellites when it’s activated. It tells the satellite who you are, how to contact your family, and exactly where you are, to within a few yards.

Epirbs can be activated manually or they can be supplied with an automatic hydrostatic release, so that they will float off, transmitting all the while, if your ship sinks under you. The most expensive Epirb listed in last year’s Defender catalog is priced at $950, and many others come a lot cheaper.

Why on earth wouldn’t commercial jetliners be supplied with one or more Epirbs that could be jettisoned on parachutes over the ocean in times of emergency?  Obviously, each airliner would have to be fitted with a means of dropping them overboard, but the extra cost of that would be minimal, compared with the price of the plane.

Airlines know full well that their aircraft disappear from radar screens when they cross oceans. Radar beams travel in straight lines, and do not bounce back to the receiver when the plane rides beyond the curvature of the earth.

It’s only once in a blue moon, of course that a plane disappears as mysteriously as Flight 370, but history records that it can, and does, happen. That means it will probably happen again.

Many lives have been saved at sea by Epirbs and the ground control systems they link to. The system has been in operation for many years. It’s not as if the airlines haven’t heard of it.  If humble sailboats can afford emergency beacons that pinpoint their position at sea, then surely airlines can make arrangements to use this technology, too. I wonder how long it will be before they are shamed into adopting it?

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

— Horace, Odes

"May I print a kiss on your lips?" I said, And she nodded her full permission: So we went to press and I rather guess
We printed a full edition. — Joseph Lilientha

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

March 11, 2014

Engine problem: Lack of sludge

A PERPETUAL PROBLEM with boats is the toilet system. Too often it smells; repairs are an unpleasant task; finding a place for storage of the sewage is never easy; and pumping out can be a disagreeable adventure.

Little surprise, then, that composting toilets are becoming more popular on boats.

Listening to public radio the other morning, I learned that Brooklyn, New York, is doing something very similar to composting toilets. They have eight huge, egg-shaped, steel tanks that contain millions of gallons of Brooklyn’s sewage sludge. The sludge is food for uncountable numbers of bacteria. The microorganisms inside the digester eggs make methane gas that can be used to heat homes or make electricity.

That same gas can also run internal combustion engines, of course. It’s comparatively simple to convert an engine from gasoline to methane gas. 

Which got me thinking that there is no reason why we shouldn’t capture the sewage sludge generated aboard boats and use the resulting methane gas to run the boat’s engine.

It’s such an elegant solution to so many aesthetic and environmental problems that I’m amazed it hasn’t been done before.

I dreamed last night that my new sailboat was one of the first with a methane-driven auxiliary engine.

We were coming back from a trip to the islands when the wind died on us. I switched on the engine but it died five miles from home.

The methane-gas gauge pointed to zero.

I motioned toward the toilet. “Quick,” I said to my wife, “we need sludge or we’ll be out here all night.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No time for prudery,” I said. “We need sewage sludge to get home.”

“I don’t produce sludge to order,” she said indignantly. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do it?”

“Can’t go,” I said. “I’m constipated. I think it was the cheese casserole you made last night.”


“And probably the hard-boiled eggs you served for lunch.”

“I’m not talking to you.”

“But you have to do your bit for the boat,” I said. “We’re stuck unless we can produce some sludge.”

But she wouldn’t be persuaded, so I called the boat-tow company.

“We’ll be there in a half-hour,” said the nice man.

“I just need some sludge for a methane engine,” I explained.

“No problem,” he said. “I have a case of baked beans ready to go.”
Today’s Thought
Waste brings woe.
— Robert Greene, Sonnet

A boy was sitting on the curb in Denver, Colorado, with with a marijuana cigarette in one hand and a hip-flask in the other.
A little old lady approached him and said: “Sonny, why aren’t you in school?”
”Jeez, have a heart, lady,” he said. “I’m only three.”

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

March 9, 2014

A plea for continued silence

THAT WAILING NOISE in the distance is the chairman of John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, Ivor Tungin-Cheaque. He has just discovered that the number of pages viewed by readers of this blog has just passed the 500,000 mark. As the administrator of the world’s largest fan club, it is his duty to ensure that no member ever steps out of line by openly praising the content or quality of the writing in this column. 

You will no doubt recall that membership is completely automatic, and open to all people of every nation and creed. But Mr. Tungin-Cheaque has always been obsessed with the notion that the more columns I publish, the greater the likelihood that someone, somewhere, will actually like one, and be tempted to praise my clever use of metaphor and simile,  the sharpness of my rapier-like wit, my vast command of grammar, and the wondrous depth of my knowledge of manifold subjects.

And if that should happen, Mr. Tungin-Cheaque has the unpleasant task of expelling that someone, somewhere, from John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club.  So far, luckily, he has never had to perform this duty, but he is starting to cavil at the steadily increasing number of page views this column generates. I have tried to persuade him not to worry, but he feels that the law of averages is against him, and that the greater the readership, the greater the likelihood that some Silent Member somewhere will experience an uncontrollable urge to praise me — and thereby start a wholesale stampede for the exits.

So, on his behalf, and for sake of his sanity, I must beg all of you Silent Members to abide by the rules of the club,  and to steel yourselves against the temptation to shower me with the praise I so richly deserve. Please don’t crown me with laurels or even whisper congratulations, much as you would like to.

Thank you. Mr. Tungin-Cheaque will be most grateful.

Meanwhile, we have unfortunately come to the end of the series of essays named The Disease Called Cruising, which means I shall have to find something new and fresh to write about. Damn, it’s not easy.

However, here’s a tidbit that might intrigue you if you own a boat. Writing on the Three Sheets Northwest website earlier this year, Scott Wilson made this comment about the Seattle Boat Show:
“A popular and frightening statistic you’re likely to hear at the show is that every year, the average age of boat owners increases by six months.”
Now think about that for a moment. It’s generally accepted that the average age of most people will increase by 12 months every year. But it seems that if you own a boat, your average age increase from year to year will only be half that of the general population. In other words, instead of living for three-score years and 10, boat owners may look forward to seven-score years even.

You may find this a frightening thought when you add up the cost of an additional 70 years of boat maintenance and slip fees. And one is forced to wonder how sprightly a 140-year-old would be on the foredeck while jibing the spinnaker.

But perhaps this is just a local phenomenon. If I were you, therefore, I’d take great care to stay well away from the Seattle Boat Show.

Today’s Thought
When you become senile, you won’t know it.
— Bill Cosby, NY Times 17 Mar 87

A local junior-school teacher was trying to teach the concept of distance. She asked whether her pupils throught 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,” said little Susan, “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.)

March 6, 2014

The end of our series

The Disease Called Cruising
20. No way to say goodbye

WE STOOD in hot September sun in the road that runs like a spine down the middle of Hendrick’s Isle, Fort Lauderdale. Our boat, lying in the canal a few yards away, had been sold. Our car was ready to go.

“Don’t you want to take a last look at her?” said June.

“No,” I said, “let’s go.” I knew I would cry if I stood there on the dock looking down on that lovely boat.

Nothing makes me sadder than a farewell. It’s as bad with a boat as it is with people. Maybe worse. I like to slip away quietly without fuss. I’d be okay if we could just get in the car and drive away with no backward glances, no regrets.

One big adventure was ending. Another was beginning.

I started the little Buick and headed west. We had nowhere to go to. And we had everywhere to go to. We had escaped from the oppression and uncertainties of South Africa. We had arrived safely in America.

We had no jobs and nowhere to live. We would just keep driving until we found a city we liked, with people we liked. Some place where there was work.

June put her hand on my knee. “You all right?” After 25 years of marriage, she knew me very well.

I nodded. I couldn’t talk. My throat felt hot and swollen.

I drove automatically, but I didn’t see the road. I saw Freelance. I saw her heeled far over, lying a-hull in a gale off the Cape of Good Hope. I saw her looking frail and pretty at anchor against a background of rugged volcanic cliffs at St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic.

I saw her sturdy 31-foot hull flying through the trades under twin jibs, with June at the tiller laughing with delight, reeling off 142 miles in one day and scattering clouds of flying fish from her foaming bows. I saw her silhouetted dramatically against the palms and mangroves at sunset in Marigot Bay, St. Lucia.

I could hear the sizzle of supper on the stove and see, flooding the cabin, the mellow glow of brass kerosene lamps.

I could smell fresh varnish, hot under the tropical sun, on her iroko caprail, and I could feel the pain of fingertips raw from sanding. We looked after each other, Freelance and I.

Farewell? There’s no way to say farewell. How do you say farewell to a part of your body, your soul, your life?

I never saw her out of the water before I bought her. I never had her surveyed. I never sailed in her. I just took one look and I knew. And I was right.

In the passing years I got to understand her well. I became wise to her few faults, and I forgave her them. I spent countless hours in the dinghy, hovering, just admiring her.

One last look? Oh God, no. I loved her.

No backward glances. No regrets. Keep driving.  

Today’s Thought
To meet, to know, to love—and then to part,
Is the sad tale of many a human heart.
S. T. Coleridge, Couplet Written in a Volume of Poems

Golfer: “You must be the worst caddie in the world.”
Caddie: “Oh come now — that would be far too much of a coincidence.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

March 4, 2014

A cruisers' parliament

The Disease Called Cruising
19. Our Beloved Leaky, Reeky, Tiki

IF YOU GO north on Hendrick’s Isle in Fort Lauderdale to where the sign says “Royal Retreat” and walk between the buildings toward the yachts moored in the canal, you’ll see the tiki hut beside the pool.

That’s our town hall, our pub, our meeting place, our parliament. As parliaments go, it’s not terribly imposing, but it’s well situated. From the tiki it’s only a few steps to any of our five boats.

Its open sides let in cooling breezes and its palm-frond roof keeps out most of Florida’s summer downpours. It leaks a bit and it reeks of suntan oil, but there’s a handy ledge all the way around at the right height to steady your hand so you don’t spill your beer while watching the ladies in the pool, and there’s room inside, at a pinch, for all eight of us.

It’s also our carpentry shop and paint shop when Steve’s not looking. Steve manages the apartments. He has trouble with visiting cruisers. We’re not supposed to do maintenance or repairs in the tiki hut. But heck, you can’t help it.

Sometimes, during the day, you just find yourself there, and in your hands there’s a piece of wood sawn neatly in two, or a table-top covered with fresh varnish, and you honestly have no recollection of how things came to be that way.

Mainly what we do in the tiki hut, though, is solve the world’s problems. There’s no subject too complicated for the combined brains of the tiki hut, no dilemma that can’t be solved, no one whose personality can’t benefit from a bit of friendly advice.

Bob and Susan’s problem is that Steve keeps hollering at them for using our pool. Their Prout catamaran is moored in front of the apartments next door, which have no pool of their own. So, naturally enough, Bob and Susan use our pool.

The tiki parliament solves the problem by making Bob and Susan our guests. The six of us with pool rights start an 18-hour daily rota system. We take it in turns to invite Bob and Susan, our comrades of the sea, to be our guests in the pool.

Steve does not take kindly to this. He decides to get even. He yanks the cable from the air conditioner in our shoreside bathroom. The bathroom turns into a sweatshop in the summer heat and humidity, but the oracles of the tiki hut take it in their stride. Worse things happen at sea, we say. And in any case our mighty brain power is finely focused on something else now.

We have this crab, you see. It lives in the sand just alongside the hut. One breakfast time, Bob discovers that it eats Cheerios. So, for the past three days we’ve been engaged on a scientific quest to establish whether crustaceans can also exist on Quaker Oats, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and Almond Delights.

One of our parliamentarians, Captain Crunch (so named for the difficulty he experiences in berthing his Morgan 42) proposed that we test Twinkies as well. But we vote him down. It’s a scientifically proven fact that Twinkies is not breakfast food, we assure him, and it would only muddy our research, invalidate our conclusions and perhaps even prevent the publication of our important paper . . .

I’ll tell you something: At the end of the month, when we all split up and move on, we’re going to miss our dear old tiki hut. But I’m thinking that Steve will be heaving sighs of relief.

Today’s Thought
A society like ours, which professes no one religion, and has allowed all religions to decay, which indulges freedom to the point of license and individualism to the point of anarchy, needs all the support that responsible, cultivated homes can furnish. I hope your generation will provide a firmer shelter for civilized standards.
— Alan Simpson, commencement address at Vassar, 31 May 65

“What’s your opinion of bathing beauties?”
“Dunno. My wife’s never let me bathe one.”

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

March 2, 2014

A night of quiet contentment

The Disease Called Cruising
18. So Nice When You Stop
IN ONE RESPECT at least, ocean voyaging is like hitting your head against the wall. It’s so nice when you stop.

Life offers the long-distance sailor few greater pleasures than the contentment of lying peacefully at anchor in a safe harbor after an ocean crossing.

For the first time in more than two months, a great silence has fallen over our 31-foot sloop, Freelance. Not since we left Cape Town 5,500 miles ago have we enjoyed a sheltered anchorage like this.

At St. Helena Island we bucked, rolled and tugged at our chain as the tradewind swells came romping around into the lee of the little island. At tiny Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil, we lifted, fell, and tilted in rollers that crashed mightily on to the beach 100 yards ahead.

But now, after a boisterous 16-day passage from Fernando, we are lying folded in the arms of a large natural bight called Port Elizabeth harbor on Bequia island, near the southern end of the chain of islands forming the West Indies. Little cat’s-paws come skittering toward us across the flat water, darker patches on a midnight-blue sea sprinkled with quicksilver reflections of lights ashore. These little breezes spring against the bow in a popple of wavelets.

As I keep anchor watch, my wife, June, is stretched out serenely on a saloon berth, glad to be free of the stiff canvas leeboard she needs at sea.

My 17-year-old son, Kevin, is deeply asleep on the V-berth in the forecabin, limbs spread-eagled at odd angles as usual, his hair blowing gently in the warm draft from the open forehatch above him.

There is no clinking in the lockers any more. There are no alarming thumps against the hull. There is no rolling, no surging, no champagne-bubble hiss of waves passing the cockpit. Freelance has tucked her head under her wing, too. All is stillness and peace.

Ashore, where the palm trees are trying to touch their toes in the brisk tradewind, people and machines are making noises. After so long at sea, they sound strange to my ears, quiet but very clear, as if I were hearing them in a seashell.

I go below to shake Kevin. It’s time for his watch.

Back in the cockpit, I find June has come up for a breath of fresh air. We hold hands, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark night.

Kevin pokes his head up through the hatchway and rubs his eyes. He sits down in silence.

Ours is a deep and peaceful family love. This boat, this voyage, has bonded us tightly together. But in a few months, when we reach America, Kevin will go to college.

He will leave us and start his own voyage through life. He has proved himself a man on this trip. But he seems so young to abandon.

No matter. Time yet for a few more safe harbors. The West Indies lie strewn before us like pearls in wine. Time for a few more nights of quiet contentment like this before the sadness of parting.

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

Quote from a church newsletter:
“A pleasant time ended with the singing of hymns.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)