April 19, 2016

What's to know about sailing

SAILING LOOKS so simple. You just lie back in the cockpit in the shade of the mainsail and waggle the tiller thing, right? Well, not quite. In fact, sailing is one of those sports or pastimes that demands a surprising amount of general knowledge in a host of subjects, and the more seriously you take your sailing, the wider the range of knowledge you need.

Here is a list of some subjects a well educated sailor will know quite a lot about. It’s in no particular order — just as the thoughts came into my head:

Hydrodynamics — How the hull, keel and rudder react to the passage of water. How propellers work. The effects of drogues and sea anchors. The efficiency of bilge pumps.

Aerodynamics —  How the superstructure, sails, mast and rigging are affected by the wind.

Sail handling — Knowing when to reef and how to reef. Knowing how to heave to.

Textiles — The various uses of Dacron, nylon, Velcro, Kevlar, Mylar, Spectra, Manila, and others.

Fiberglass — the different ways glass fibers are assembled and woven and their uses.

Resins — polyester, epoxy, vinylester etc., and their attributes.

Paints — alkyd enamel, alkyd-acrylic enamel, alkyd-silicone enamel, Teflon and vinyl bottom paint, epoxy topside paint, epoxy bottom paint, ablative, sloughing, and copolymer bottom paint, and a whole lot more.

Solvents and sealants — How they work and what to use where.

Woods — Their characteristics and uses in boatbuilding, their strength, resistance to rot etc.

Engines — A working knowledge (and preferably more) of diesel and gas, inboard and outboard engines.

Cooking — What and how to feed a cold, hungry crew. The art of provisioning, and saving water. Where to store the beer. How to make a Dark ’n Stormy.

Anchoring — An important art that starts with books and ends with practice. Or perhaps the learning never ends.

Rigging — The mechanics of keeping the mast tuned and upright.

The Galvanic scale — What metals eat other metals when you aren’t looking; what’s safe to use and what’s not.

Navigation — Pilotage (inshore) and celestial (offshore). A huge subject on its own, even in these days of GPS and satellite phones.

The Rule of the Road — Another huge subject, often modified by the old precept that small boats with any sense always give way to big boats.

Radio procedure — How to make professional-sounding calls on VHF and HF radios, including knowledge of the international phonetic alphabet.

Naval architecture — How the shape of hulls affects performance and the differences between racing boat and cruisers.

Meteorology — The ability to recognize changes in atmospheric pressure and what this means for winds in your area. Reading the clouds and knowing in advance when to reef or douse sail.

Geography — Knowing where not to be in hurricane season. Knowing when to turn right for the West Indies. Arriving in countries that you actually aimed for, especially those where they speak English.

First aid — Knowledge of how to treat a hurt person until you can get professional help.

Electronics — A surface knowledge of how to use AIS, a chart plotter, an Epirb, etc.

Emergency procedures — What to keep in a grab bag, how to call for help, how to stop a leak, how to put out a fire, how to launch a life raft, etc.

Literature — The stories and lessons to be learned from others who have gone before you.

And much more, including a healthy dose of physics. Speaking of which, Einstein was a lake sailor. He knew that e = mc2.  In other words, energy equals mass times speed squared. This means that if you hit something at 2 knots you might do damage worth $500. But if you hit at 4 knots the damage will be $2,000, not $1,000. And if you hit at 6 knots, well, holey-moley, you’re going to have to declare bankruptcy.  That was Einstein’s major contribution to sailing and we thank him for it.

Meanwhile,  just think about all the knowledge you’ve accumulated about the simple sport of sailing — and how much there still is to learn.

Today’s Thought
It is better not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.
— Josh Billings

A traveling salesman was held up when heavy rains flooded Interstate 5 south of Seattle.
“It looks just like the Great Flood,” he said to the motel receptionist.
“The great what?”
“The great flood. You know . . . when Noah saved all the animals . . . you must have read about it?”
“Gee, no, I haven’t read about it. On account of all this rain we haven’t seen a Seattle Times for three days now.”

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

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