January 15, 2015

Slow boats have compensations

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES, I must admit, when I have envied the ability of a powerboat to plane at 25 knots. Speed, sheer speed, is an exciting component of the boating experience, and you don’t get much in the way of sheer speed from a small, full-keel displacement sailboat.

On the other hand, there have been occasions when I have grinned to see the inhabitants of a powerboat being shaken around like peas in a pod as the hull slams and crashes and bashes through choppy seas.

I have ridden in a powerboat doing 70 miles an hour, and not only my kidneys knew how uncomfortable that was. My knees did, too, and so did my spine. Seventy miles an hour on water is a not a reasonable speed for human beings to endure.

Few powerboats can match the comfort of a sailboat in a seaway. The mast and keel ensure slower accelerations and attenuated rolls; and simply knowing that a sailboat will safely recover from a knock-down position frees you from the ghastly feeling you get in your stomach when a powerboat’s rolls fall into resonance with beam seas, gradually gaining in amplitude until you have to scream at the helmsman to head up or bear away before the final death roll sends you into capsize.

When I’m happily trundling along at five knots with the tiller in my hand, and all’s well with the world, it always makes me grin to see a passing powerboat porpoising, while it’s white-knuckled occupants hang on for dear life.

Porpoising is an interesting facet of powerboating. Eric Sorensen describes it in his book, Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats, as “an oscillation in pitch and heave, with the bow alternately rising and falling.”  In other words, the front end of the boat at speed on a plane is jerking up into the air and slamming back down again, time after time without end. Porpoising happens when the center of lift under a planing hull constantly moves forward and aft. It always reminds me of a panicked rabbit fleeing from a wolf.

Apart from the discomfort it causes, porpoising just looks so inelegant, so thoroughly out of control. It jars the esthetic sensibilities of ordinary sailing folk as they wend their graceful way across the waterways at a reasonable speed in blissful comfort.

So, on those rare occasions when I feel that envy for speed creep upon me, I console myself with the thought that a non-planing slowcoach of a sailboat has its compensations. It won’t be troubled by porpoising, for a start.

Today’s Thought
She bears her down majestically near,
Speed on her prow, and terror in her tier.
— Byron, The Corsair

"Hey buddy, I thought you had a date with that blonde tonight."
"Yeah, I did."
"What happened?"
"Well, we went to her place and sat around and chatted and then she put on some quiet music and changed into her lingerie and lay down on the sofa. Then she turned down the lights — so I came home. I can take a hint."

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

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