November 30, 2008

Bleeding for beginners

ONE OF THE strangest facts about sailboats is that a tiny bubble of air can bring a hulking auxiliary diesel engine to a sudden stop. It hardly seems possible, yet it happens all the time — and usually at the most inconvenient moments, never when you’re safely tied up in your slip.

If you know anything at all about diesel engines — say, enough to turn the key to start one – you’ll know that they work by compressing air in the cylinders until it’s red-hot. Into these ruddy infernos, a high-pressure pump squirts a mist of diesel fuel.

The mighty explosion that follows drives the piston down in the cylinder and turns a big heavy thingummy round and round. This big thingummy is attached to a box of gears at the back that turns the propeller shaft. And then the shaft turns the propeller and makes the boat go forward. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

You will appreciate, therefore, that a working diesel engine is a ferocious box of tricks, noisy, vibrating, smelly, and husky as all get-go – a real macho piece of work.

So how can this monster be halted in its tracks by a tiny, girly, bubble of air? Well, it turns out that air is compressible. Let us pause here for a moment to reflect upon the significance of that last sentence. Maybe we need to backtrack a bit.

When the fuel pump sends diesel to the cylinder, the fuel pressure obviously has to be high enough to counter the pressure of the air that has been compressed in the cylinder. I mean, if the fuel pump pressure were less than the cylinder pressure, the cylinder would blow fuel back along the line to the pump, which would be just plain silly, not to mention stupid.

Now, to make sure this kind of blow-back can’t happen, there’s a little sort of check-valve thing that will only let fuel through to the cylinder if it’s highly pressurized. If it isn’t, the little valve thing simply won’t open. And that’s exactly what happens if air gets into the fuel stream. Diesel fuel is a liquid and is not compressible; so when it’s under pressure it’s forced to squeeze past the valve thing. But air is compressible. You can pressurize it, but it won’t expand enough to open the valve thing (which some people call an injector, I believe).

That means you can turn the key and let the engine go whumpa-whumpa-whumpa for as long as you like, but no diesel fuel is going to reach the cylinders as long as there’s air in front of the injectors.

To cure this problem, you have to bleed the engine. Bleeding a diesel is like burping a baby. Air has somehow got into its insides and has to be wheedled out. In both cases, it can be a tedious, messy job. First, you have to know which end to start at. In the case of a diesel, it’s usually the nether regions because diesel burps mostly travel from bottom to top.

Here is what they teach you in Bleeding 101 in auxiliary diesel college:
• Make certain there’s fuel in the tank and that the shutoff valve is open.
• If you suspect your fuel pump has a solenoid, switch the “ignition” key on.
• Undo the bleed fitting on top of the fuel filters and operate the priming lever on the fuel lift pump. When pure fuel is oozing out (no bubbles) tighten the fittings again.
• Loosen the bleed fitting on the body of the fuel injection pump and do the same.

Now, if that doesn’t cure the problem, you’ll have to take the advanced course:
• Open the throttle wide and switch on the “ignition” key.
• Partially undo the high-pressure fuel line nuts at the injectors.
• Turn the engine over slowly — use the decompresser valve if you have one — until clear fuel comes out of the fittings.
• Tighten the nuts again.
• Locate the clean rags and clean up the mess.

I’m happy to say that some engines, such as my Westerbeast 13, are self-bleeding. Cynical as I am, I have not yet been given reason to doubt that claim, and I am very grateful.

If your bleeding problem is chronic, you might want to check all the hose clamps and nuts in the fuel line for slackness before you get into the more serious stuff. You might just luck out and find the cause of the problem.

Meanwhile, here are five reasons why there’s air in your fuel lines:
--You’re out of fuel.
--Fuel is very low, and the pipe is sucking air as your boat rolls.
--The fuel tank shutoff valve is closed.
--There’s a leak in the piping, or connections are loose.
--You just changed a fuel filter and air got in the line.

Finally, if nothing has worked, get out the darned owner’s manual and read it. I know, I know, it’s tough -- but you’re out of options now. Be brave. Open it at Page 1 and start reading. Good luck.

Today’s Thought
A solemn, strange, and mingled air
’Twas sad by fits, by starts ’t was wild.
--William Collins, The Passions, 1.25.

The Central Office of Statistics has uncovered the following fascinating fact:
Four out of every five woman-haters are women.

November 27, 2008

Giving more thanks

THERE WERE some thank-yous I didn’t say at the family table yesterday. Not all of my family are sailors, so I didn’t want to bother them with my expressions of gratitude for a safe voyage I made last summer. It was a six-week circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the biggest island off the western coast of North America.

It’s a challenging trip--more difficult, many say, than the Inside Passage to Alaska--because of its exposure to the vast uneasy reaches of the north Pacific Ocean in addition to the many narrow passages and races where the tidal current rips through at 8 knots or more. On the seaward side it’s 200 miles or more of wilderness heaven, of bears, eagles, whales, orcas, seals, and sea otters, with precious few marinas or places of refuge scattered among the surf-flecked rocks and islands.

So, belatedly, I’d like to give my thanks this day after Thanksgiving.

Thanks to my dear wife June, for sharing with me the task of sailing our 27-foot sloop, Sangoma, from Bellingham, Wash., to Port Hardy, at the northern end of Vancouver Island. (There she left me while I sailed back home alone down the outside.) And thanks for filling the boat with enough easy-to-fix food for the whole trip (and at least six weeks more).

Thank you, rusty (but trusty) old Westerbeke 13 engine. Thanks for starting every time without fail, despite the way I have neglected and abused you these past years. Thanks for helping me tow to safety another sailor who was in trouble at sea.

Thank you Battery Number 2 for holding a charge, despite your 10 years of age. I had the faith. You delivered the current.

Thank you sails, mast, and rigging, for not failing in that storm south of Brooks Peninsula or those frightening hours in Johnstone Strait. I know I should have replaced those stays and shrouds years ago. Thank you for giving me another chance.

Thank you autopilot for steering in some atrocious weather. I wasn’t sure you could handle those huge rolling swells from astern, but you showed me.

Thank you little fiberglass dinghy for behaving yourself. For not ramming me at sea, for not filling with spray and sinking, for not getting your painter wrapped around the propeller. You weren’t always this good, I seem to remember. Thanks for trying harder.

Thank you dear porcelain toilet for not getting stopped up. I knew I could trust you. I’m going to give you some extra virgin olive soon to keep your little valves soft and pliable. I am, honest.

Thank you warm and cosy sleeping bag for putting up with me every night for 44 nights in a row. I am going to get you dry-cleaned and de-odorized soon, I promise. A real de-luxe dry-cleaning. June has threatened to burn you, but don’t worry, I won’t let her.

Thank you little pressure alcohol stove for never giving any trouble and never setting the galley curtains on fire. That was very much appreciated.

Thank you paper charts, all 100 of you. What can I say, except that I couldn’t have done it without you, and probably shouldn’t have done it with you, considering you’re 10 years old and have never been updated. Luckily, rocks and islands don’t move much between updatings.

Thank you GPS for finding the complicated way into Sea Otter Cove and guiding me in thick fog all day from Port Susan to Sooke. Your appetite for batteries was moderate, your contribution to safe navigation was inestimable.

Thank you CQR and Bruce anchors for never once dragging. I love you.

Thank you rudder for not falling off; compass for not deviating or variating; boom for not cracking me over the head; coamings for only crunching my shins twice; and Canadian weather forecasters for trying very hard against great odds.

Thank you Carl Alberg for designing a tough little Cape Dory that looked after me, gave me great pleasure and satisfaction, and brought me safely back home.

Finally, thank you Neptune and Aeolus, gods of the wind and the sea. I saved some champagne to give you a special toast for looking after me so well … Cheers!

Today’s Thought
Thanksgiving-day, I fear
If one the solemn truth must touch,
Is celebrated, not so much
To thank the Lord for blessings o’er,
As for the sake of getting more!
--Will Carleton, Captain Young’s Thanksgiving.

It’s just such a pity, I always think, that life’s major problems don’t all hit us when we’re 16 and know the answers to everything.

November 25, 2008

Light and sweetness

EVERY TIME I flick through the West Marine catalog my eye is stopped by those beautiful brass kerosene anchor lamps. The Dutch firm of Den Haan has been making these anchor lamps for more than 75 years.

They have Fresnel lenses, bails top and bottom, and safety guards. They’re thorough seagoing lamps, fit to make any sailor swoon.

But, the last time I looked, there was a line in the catalog that made me grind my teeth: “Not Coast Guard approved to mark a boat at anchor.”

Well now, so what? Who needs Coast Guard approval?

According to the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (the Colregs), if you have a boat less than 164 feet in length and you put out an all-round white light that can be seen for two miles, it’s a legal anchor light.

It doesn’t have to be electric. The Colregs say so. A flame from a kerosene lantern with a wick half-an-inch wide and a half-inch high will do the trick.

To be visible for one nautical mile, a light needs a brightness of just under one candela.
Here are other distances and the brightness required:

2 /4.3
3 /12
4 /27
5 /52

And what, you say, is a candela? Hell, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. It’s kinda boring. But if you must know, read on.

The candela is the metric system’s base unit of luminous intensity. You can think of it as one candle-power. It’s pretty close. So you’d need an oil lantern the equivalent of 4.3 candles to be seen two miles away. Or five candles in a glass jar, for that matter.

Meanwhile, you might want to memorize the official definition of a candela, so you can blurt it out through gritted teeth when the Coast Guard sits you down in front of the spotlight and grills you about your “non-approved” anchor light:

“The candela is the luminous intensity, in the perpendicular direction, of a surface of 1/600,000 of a square meter of a black body at the temperature of freezing platinum under a pressure of 101,325 pascals.”

The Coasties will be astonished at your knowledge, not to mention humbled and amazed, so now is your opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Tell them to move off a distance of two miles to confirm that they can indeed see your anchor light.

As soon as they leave, blow out your lantern and slip away into the darkness.

(PS: Don’t mention my name in connection with any of this, or there will be serious consequences.)

Today’s Thought

And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
--New Testament: John i, 5


“Where did you get that nice new anchor?”
“Well, I was going to my boat yesterday when this beautiful blonde came along carrying a 25-pound CQR. When she saw me, she threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes, and said: ‘Take what you want.’”
“Ah, good choice. The clothes probably wouldn’t have fit you anyway.”

November 23, 2008

Money before morals

ONE OF MY faithful readers, Oded Kishony, wants to know how he can cut down on marina expenses. The parlous economic situation into which the country has drifted has given him (and many other boat owners) pause to think.

Well, one way to save money is to pay your mooring fees in advance. For instance, at my marina they’re offering 10 percent off if you pay for a year in advance.

Now, compared with the 4 percent you’d earn from a bank certificate of deposit, that’s a good deal. But it does mean you have to have the cash already saved up. For example, if your monthly slip fee is $300, you’d need $3,600 in hard cash right now. Most of us won’t find that much by searching under the bunk cushions.

Don’t be tempted to put it on a credit card. They’ll charge you 18 or 20 percent, so you’re actually losing 8 or 10 percent. And if losing money is your object, why not invest in the stock market? Now seems an excellent time for it and you can lose money much quicker there.

For those of us who only pretend to be rich yacht owners, finding that much ready cash is not easy. Luckily, however, there are ways to make money if you have even a modestly sized boat.
Some time ago I read in one of the West Coast magazines an article about a liveaboard yachtsman who was using his boat to farm chickens. They even went sailing with him. They roosted on the main boom, and he trained them to jump into the air and fly around for a bit when he jibed. Then they settled down on the boom again on the opposite tack.

He never lacked a bird for the pot, but he did have to react quickly when he spotted a fowl about to lay an egg. He got very good at snatching them up before they hit the deck. Some marina owners, the hoity-toity kind, will undoubtedly object to nautical chicken farming and find ways to prevent it. But don’t be dismayed. There are other things you can do that they won’t even know about.

You could farm mussels, for a start. The way the professionals do it around here is simply to moor barges and drop lots of nylon lines overboard. Baby mussels, all unsuspecting, very obligingly attach themselves to these string lines and grow big, fat, and delicious. All you have to do is pull in the line, sell your fresh mussels to the restaurant chefs lined up outside, and count your loot.

And another thing: you could rent out your boat as locker space. Boaters never have enough room on their own boats for all their boating stuff. So let them keep their spare stuff on your boat, for a small remuneration. I can see a great demand for this community service.

There’s probably also a need for a smokers’ den. Smokers probably suffer more discrimination than any other group of Americans these days. I feel sorry when I see them standing in soggy heaps in the pouring rain and cold outside office blocks and retail stores, maintaining the statutory 20 feet from the comfort and shelter of any building. Think how happy you would make them by providing a warm and cosy place in which to meet other smokers and share their tales of blight and misery.

And while we’re on the subject of renting out space, my instinct tells me that there are couples everywhere seeking a discreet place in which to rendezvous for lunchtime assignations. You could provide a secret parlor d’amour for which they would be willing to pay handsomely. And for heaven’s sake don’t worry about the morality of it. Morals take second place when a depression is staring us in the face. Survival is what counts.

More mundanely, you could cut off your bowsprit and boomkin to reduce the overall length of your boat, which is how dock charges are usually assessed. Or you could use your boat as your business office, and deduct the expenses from your income for tax purposes. You could set up a floating hospice for the terminally seasick and if you have a really tall mast you could rent it out to digital telephone companies.

But for the best returns on your boating investment you should investigate the possibility of distilling hooch. Any passing hillbilly will tell you how.

I once had a friend who did it on a 25-footer. He used the coils from an old fridge. He marketed his “white lightning” to fellow boaters with great success. A few went blind, admittedly, but this was forgiven (and his reputation assured) when others discovered that it would remove old varnish and Cetol with one stroke of the brush. He sold the recipe to a chemical company in Illinois and retired with his fortune to an island in the South Pacific.

So don’t sit around and mope about how marina charges are going up all the time. Do something about it. You, too, might hit the jackpot.

* * *
Today’s Thought
Make money, money by fair means if you can; if not, by any means money. --Horace.

* * *

“I hear your wife is exercising regularly.”
“Yes, three months ago she started walking five miles a day.”
“That’s great. Is it helping?”
“It’s wonderful. She must be in North Dakota by now.”

* * *

November 20, 2008

Yo-ho-ho! and a boatload of oil

WHEN SOMALI pirates operating from little boats seized a huge Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in crude oil, a little light went on in my head. Those pirates were asking for $25 million in ransom money.

I have a little boat. I could do with $25 million.

Yesterday I motored out into the channel where the supertankers pass by on their way to the refinery. When a nice fat one came along I called her on Channel 13.

“My name is Abu bin Hijakka,” I said.
“Whaddya want?”
“Is this the captain?” I asked. “Avast there! Halt your ship, I’m a pirate.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am.”
“Where are your buccaneers then?”
“There are two possible answers to that. (1) Under me buckin’ hat, and (2) It’s their day off.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re not a pirate, you haven’t got a wooden leg.”
“They don’t make wooden legs these days. They’re all aluminum. You don’t have to varnish them, you see.”
“And where’s your parrot?”
“He drove me mad telling the same joke over and over so I fed him to the cat.”
“What was the joke?”
“Never mind the joke, stop your ship or you’ll be sorry.”
“How sorry?”
“Very, very sorry.”
“I don’t believe you. Can you say Aaargh?”
“No, you said it with four As. That’s wrong. Real pirates say it with only three As.”
“All right then, Aaarg!”
“No, you left the H off. Sorry, you’re a phoney.”
“Am not.”
“I’m a pirate. I know all the words to Eskimo Nell and I’m wearing skull-and-crossbones underpants.”
“Let’s see.”
“No, it’s private.”
“Do you have a union card?”
“A union card?”
“The Pirates’ Union. We only stop the ship for union members. Are you a member?”
“Yes, I’ve got a card.”
“What’s it say on the front?”
“It says National Union of Pirates, Catering Branch.”
“Catering branch?”
“Well, it’s not so much catering as drinking, actually. Rum mostly. Yo–ho-ho and ...”
“Well, I’m very sorry, but we only stop for the Boarding and Fighting Branch, the ones with cutlasses in their teeth and flaming beards.”
“I’ve got a grappling iron under my shirt.”
“What for?”
“What do you mean, what for? Haven’t you ever been grappled?”
“Not really, no. Although once in a pub in Boston, this lady ...”
“Never mind that. Stop your ship immediately.”
“What if I say pretty please?”
“There, I knew you weren’t a pirate. Pirates don’t beg.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Pirates will do anything for $25 million.”
“Twenty-five million? There’s nothing on this old bucket worth twenty-five million.”
“What about all the oil, then? You know, the light sweet crude.”
“There’s no oil here, matey. This is the ferry to Anacortes.”

Well, it was his lucky day. I gave him a severe talking-to and let him off with a warning. The next one won’t get off so easily, specially now I have discovered that you can use Canned Heat gel to set your beard on fire.

* * *
Today’s Thought
We hang little thieves and take off our hats to great ones. --German proverb.
* * *
California’s wine growers have listened to pleas from senior boatowners who have to make several trips to the head every night.
Vintners in the Napa Valley area, ordinarily producing Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio wines, have now developed a new hybrid grape with anti-diuretic properties that will eliminate the need to visit the head during sleeping hours.
It will be marketed as Pinot More.
* * *

November 18, 2008

Non-essential essentials

I HAVE JUST edited an article for a magazine, and I feel deprived. The author and his wife have sailed almost halfway around the world in a 42-foot ketch, and the purpose of the article was to tell other amateur sailors how they, too, can do it.

The bit that stopped me in my tracks was a sentence that said a laptop computer is “essential equipment” on the author’s boat and most other voyaging boats for communications, the Internet, and electronic charting.

Now, as one who advocates smallness and utter simplicity in cruising boats, I found that statement very disturbing. In the course of my editing, I could, of course, have cut that sentence out. I bet nobody would have missed it; even if they did I could have invented a good technical excuse. I’ve had a lot of practice at that. But as it happens I didn’t delete it, despite the great temptation. My ethical record remains unblemished.

So a laptop is “essential” equipment, is it? Baloney. As far as I’m concerned, to cross an ocean you need a boat with a deep keel or a centerboard, a rudder, a pole from which to hang the sails, and a bucket to bail out the bilges. A little stove would be nice to make some hot coffee or a meal now and then, but you can eat cold canned food if you have to. I have.

Let me list a few essentials that the aforementioned author has on his boat, compared with what Captain Joshua Slocum had on his boat when he became the first man to sail singlehanded around the world.

Diesel engine (Slocum, no engine); radar (none); autopilot (none); wind vane (none); Dutchman sail-flaking system (none); watermaker (none); two alternators producing 150 amps (none); refrigerator (none); single-sideband radio (none); Pactor e-mail system (none); towed generator (none); battery monitor (none); 2,000-watt inverter (none); fuel polishing system (none); WiFi (none); laptop computer (none).

I myself am not a greatly experienced voyager, but I have twice crossed the Atlantic in boats of 33 feet and under that lacked the “essential” laptop computer, not to mention radar, autopilot, electronic charts, fridge, single-sideband radio, and a whole lot of other things from that author’s list. I didn’t even have an electric bilge pump.

The strange thing is, now that I know what’s essential, thanks to this experienced author, I suddenly feel deprived. It’s like not having taken advantage of hallucogenic drugs when I was still young enough to recover and save myself. It’s just too late for me to start on the essentials now. And besides, most of the boats I sail don’t have anywhere on board that would be dry enough for a laptop.

I am astonished that I managed to cross the Atlantic twice without all the goodies I really needed. To tell the truth, I’m really rather ashamed of myself. I shall try to do better in future, honest. Pray for me, willya?

* * *

Today’s Thought

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand … Simplify, simplify. --H. D. Thoreau

* * *


“That’s an unusual vase.”
“Yes — my husband’s ashes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. How long has he been gone?”
“He hasn’t gone. He’s just too lazy to find the ashtray.”

* * *

November 16, 2008

Time for Plan B

TIMES ARE getting tough, so let’s talk for a minute about Plan B. Plan B goes back a long way, to a time when I was living in a South Africa, a time when South Africans expected an uprising, a bloody revolution. Plan B was always to steal a boat.

We had a boat, of course, a nice little C&C 28, a Trapper-class fin keeler, fast and pretty. But we wanted something a little bigger and more seaworthy, something that could take us around the Cape of Storms and across the Atlantic to America, my wife’s country.

So whenever we sat on the veranda of the Point Yacht Club in Durban with our sundowners, our eyes would scan the serried ranks of sailboats gleaming before us in the sub-tropical sun.

We were very picky. We had to be able to handle her ourselves, just June and me and our 17-year-old son, Kevin. We’d prefer a ketch, for easy sail handling, but a sloop or cutter would be OK, too. We particularly wanted a boat with wind-vane self-steering. Something between 30 and 35 feet. Four berths. A full keel. Fiberglass or steel or aluminum, no wooden hulls, thank you. Been there, done that. Oh, and a engine that was easy to start, because we probably wouldn’t have the engine key. Definitely wouldn’t have the key.

There were usually two or three contenders, and our current choice would change from time to time as new intelligence came in. Kevin was our main source. “They hide the cabin key in a flap of the dodger,” he’d announce after a sail through the ranks in his dinghy. “They have an Aries vane and a 10-foot Avon dinghy with a Yamaha outboard.” We promised him the best berth in exchange for his information.

Come the revolution, when the streets were dripping with blood, and there was shooting and stabbing and buildings ablaze and all that sort of thing, we would rendezvous at Plan B and make our escape, unnoticed in all the carnage.

OK, nobody’s expecting that same kind of revolution in America right now, but things are getting tougher. If your mortgage has gone toxic and bankers keep yelling at you because you’re overdrawn again and you’re worried sick because it looks like your job is going down the tubes, you might want to start thinking about Plan B.

They tell me it’s a lot cheaper to live in Mexico. Those Caribbean islands look quite nice, too. The weather’s great and the rum is cheap. But first you’ve got to get there. Maybe it’s time you started working on Plan B.

* * *
Today’s Thought

Men’s plans should be regulated by the circumstances, not circumstances by the plans. --Livy.

* * *

“A cat burglar got into our place last night.”

“How you know it was a cat burglar?”

“Because the only things missing are the parrot and a liter of milk.”
* * *
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November 14, 2008

Warping the woofed weft

Old Wotsisname down the row from me drives me mad. He’s a liveaboard who’s been sailing for 30 years and he’s never learned to do an eye splice in his dock lines. He uses bowline knots to make the loops that go around the dock cleats; big ugly bowlines that make you want to throw up.

“I wouldn’t trust those bowlines,” I said to him one day when the forecast was for 40 knots. “They’ll work loose and you’ll be cast adrift.”

“Won’t hurt me none,” he shrugged.

That’s the trouble with O.W. He’s selfish. Not a considerate neighbor. His old 38-footer is bullet-proof. It’s built of concrete with mild steel reinforcing, and multiple rust streaks to prove it.

“But think of the boat next to you. You’ll mash that nice Jeanneau to bits.”

“Stupid lah-de-dah Froggy boat,” said O.W. “Should build them stronger.”

“C’mon,” I said. “Let me teach you to do an eyesplice. It’s easy – and they can’t come undone.”

O.W. knitted his beetle brows together. “It’s too hard,” he said.

“Nonsense,” I cried, “I can show you.”

I won’t bore you with the details. Everybody knows that the best nylon dock line is a rope made of three strands, known technically as the warp, the woof and the weft. It’s true. You can look it up in a dictionary if you don’t believe me.

For the first tuck there are three simple steps. You tuck the warp under the weft, the woof under the warp, and the weft under the woof.

Now, with the warped weft in your left hand, and the wefted woof in your right, you turn the woofed warp under the newly wefted woof, over the original wefted warp, and under the new warped woof.

In a couple of minutes we had a nice new splice in O.W’s stern line.

“Have you got it?” I asked.

“No,” said O.W. “It’s too complicated.”

One of today’s big problems is that people like O.W. have lost the art of concentrating.

“Nah, it’s not complicated,” I insisted. “Pay attention. Listen up.”

We moved to his bow line, and I did it all over again. Nice splice, even if I say so myself.

“Now you have a go,” I said.

He undid the bowline in his forward spring line and started in with the marline spike. In two minutes he had built a bird’s nest of the first order, an unholy mess.

I shook my head and sighed. “No, no, in Step 2 you warped the weft instead of woofing the warp,” I pointed out. I undid his tangle, straightened it out, and finished the splice. “Now listen, here’s a mnemonic.”

“A what?”

“Something to help you remember:

With what will we weft the woof?
“Why, the warp, as always, in truth.

I told him it was one of those clever little rhymes sailors invent for various eventualities, like:

When in danger or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream and shout.

O.W’s face lit up. “I know that one,” he said.

“I bet you implement it, too,” I said.

The wind was building by this time, and I thought it unwise to undo the bowline on the last line, his aft spring.

“I’ll leave you to practice your woofing, warping, and wefting,” I said.

He never did, of course. But now, at least, every time I walk past O.W’s boat, there’s only one ugly bowline knot left to turn my stomach. If he ever gets around to splicing that last line we’ll have to have a nice little woof-wetting ceremony.

* * *

PS: If you feel compelled to have your say, please click on the word ‘comments’ below. (Unless you are a librarian with steel-rimmed glasses who read my last blog, in which case don’t bother. I temporarily discourage comments from enraged librarians.)

* * *

November 11, 2008

Boycott libraries

AS IF things weren’t bad enough already, librarians are getting in on the act. My local newspaper recently published an article by two local librarians who ask: “Is the economic downturn changing your lifestyle?”

Their answer to this drastic state of affairs is to urge people to visit the library. “You can escape to an exotic place through books,” they say, “a delicious break from the daily news.”

Non-librarians might notice a tiny flaw in the logic here. Hiding from the economic downturn is not going to change things for the better, surely? Well of course not. Not if you give it a moment’s thought.

But never mind that. What interests me more than their lack of logic is their lack of concern for us writers, the very people who provide the raw material that fills their libraries.

I mean, you take us boating writers. How do those librarians (hiss!) think we’re going to survive the hard times if people read our books in libraries instead of buying them, as any honest decent person should?

It’s cheating to borrow boating books from the library. We boating writers get nothing from that. We get precious little from books that are sold to nice people (less than 10 percent of the cover price, mostly) but we get absolutely nothing from the people who are seduced into entering libraries. They can suck the marrow from our brain bones without adding a cent to their credit-card debt. I mean, is that fair?

I’ve spent years learning how to write sentences that don’t end in prepositions. I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to sail nicely. I’ve studied which boats are best for crossing oceans and I have qualifications that would almost make a naval architect or a professional captain green with envy. I know hydrodynamics and aerodynamics and which sailboats are babe magnets.

And I write all this good stuff down in books with the aim of selling it to needy people. You have to agree that’s providing information and entertainment to the public and earning an honorable living for me.

Or it would be, if the librarians (hiss!) weren’t white-anting me and giving away all my knowledge for nothing.

They look so harmless, even appealing, as they sit there in their knitted sweaters and sensible shoes, reading fairy tales to groups of ankle-biters whose minds they hope to warp and indoctrinate by luring them into libraries at a very young age. But if you look into their steely eyes you’ll see hate; hate for writers; especial hate for boating writers.

“Don’t buy books,” they tell the kids. “Just come here and read them for free. We’ve got all the Vigor books. You don’t need to subsidize the likes of him.”

Pretty soon, the likes of me will die out. There will be no more writers. We’ll be flipping hamburgers instead of writing. There will be no more books. There will be no more libraries. And, praise the lord, there will be no more cruel librarians (hiss!).

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November 9, 2008

Call me Captain Bligh

SCOTT Sanchez commented the other day on my column “Are you smart enough?” Those of you with good working brains will recall that the column contained a paragraph of mis-spelled words, words whose letters had been arranged in the wrong order.

“Too funny,” said Scott. “I was reading along and knew something was strange but just read on. To me that's sracy. Maybe I should try sailing backwards.Thanks for the laughs.”

Well, Scott, it certainly is an interesting phenomenon that the well-honed human mind can read words whose letters are all jumbled up just as if they were correctly spelled. Apparently it’s because we tend to read words as a whole, not letter by letter – although I have to tell you there are some people who move their lips when they read, which means they’re sounding out the letters. Even some librarians do it, I’m told.

This makes me wonder why we spend years in school learning to spell, beginning with teh cta sta on teh mta. Why do we bother? And of what practical use to us is Spellcheck? We dno’t ndee no daenmd Spelcchelk.

But aside from that, I was interested in Scott’s remark that perhaps he should sail backwards. This might strike some of you as an off-the-wall statement, something that might have flown out of the mouth of an Alaskan governor during a Katie Couric interview. But no, hang on. Not so fast. There’s sense in what Scott said.

Years ago, when I was an active dinghy racer I learned to sail a Mirror dinghy backwards. It was very simple. You just luff up dead into the wind until all way is off. Then you hold out the main boom to one side and the tiller to the other. Et voila! Suddenly, m’sieur, you are sailing backwards; what’s more, you’ll find that you can steer in any direction normal to a sailboat.

This turned out to be very useful on race days. Just before the start gun, I would luff up close to the line near the committe boat and start sailing backwards, yelling “Starboard!” very loudly and waving my arms. This little tactic sowed panic among the tightly packed Mirror fleet heading for the line. In the heat of the moment, with 10 seconds to the gun, they couldn’t decide whether I was on port tack or starboard.

Assuming that I had right of way, some went about, some jibed, and some lost their heads completely and hit the committee boat. All scattered as if I were flying the bubonic plague flag. And while they did that, I sheeted in the mainsail on the correct side and started sprinting forward toward the line. As the start gun went, I would find myself all alone in a nice big hole, with a clear wind and the next boat five lengths behind.

You might regard this as bad sportsmanship. Well, I didn’t say it was a good thing. I’m not proud of it. I just can’t help it. My character changes when I’m racing. My wife, June, who crewed for me, started off calling me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She ended up calling me Captain Bligh.

I had to give up racing in the end. Illegally luffed too many boats that were overtaking me to windward. But I am unrepentant. They asked for it. Damn fools should have known you don’t overtake John Vigor to windward (even if the rules say you can) without suffering the consequences. Sheesh, who do they think they are?

PS: To leave a comment please click on the word “comments” below.

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November 6, 2008

Ammonia from heaven

AN OMINOUS little news report from Associated Press says that “a refrigerator-sized piece of space junk fell harmlessly into the South Pacific Sunday night.

“The junk was a tank full of ammonia coolant on the international space station that was no longer needed. Astronaut Clayton Anderson threw it overboard during a spacewalk in July 2007.”

Say what? He threw a huge tank of ammonia in the sea? Harmlessly?

Good grief, if I even pee in the sea the Coast Guard will come and get me. Are they going to arrest Anderson? I bet not. These NASA people think they’re above the law, immune to prosecution. They’re in cahoots with the Coast Guard.

By federal law, I have to carry a little placard on my sailboat that says I’m not allowed to throw all kinds of things overboard. There are so many things that I’ve never read to the end of the list, but I bet tanks full of ammonia coolant are there. So how does NASA get away with it?

And another thing – how do they know it landed harmlessly? How do they know it didn’t land on a whale, or, worse yet, on an innocent sailboat minding its own business with nobody even thinking of watching out for a flying fridge full of ammonia aproaching at 760 miles an hour?

If my boat were hit by a speeding, red-hot piece of space junk that big and that toxic there’d be nothing left of it. Nobody would know I had been wiped out for ever, gargling bravely in boiling ammonia and cursing that litter-lout Clayton Anderson. Why do we let these people get away with it?

It’s not as as if this were an isolated incident, either. It happens all the time. NASA is out of control. I can still remember that huge SpaceLab wobbling around in low orbit before it eventually fell on Australia, providentially doing nothing worse than scaring a couple of kangaroos in the desert. NASA sent it into space knowing full well they wouldn’t be able to control where it landed. It could have wiped out a large passenger liner, never mind a small sailboat.

The open ocean is becoming an uncreasingly unsafe place for amateur sailors. Already the seas are full of mile-long fishing nets left unattended for an unwary sailboat to get tangled up in. There are weather buoys and oil derricks and huge steel containers washed off the decks of ships, partially afloat and almost invisible even in daylight.

What all this amounts to is a lack of accountabliity and responsibility. Any ship that loses a container should have to recover it before it can do any harm. NASA shouldn’t be allowed to dump its space junk with a cavalier disregard for lives and property.

Next time I’m boarded by the Coast Guard I shall mention all this to them while they inspect my holding tank to see if I’ve pumped any poop overboard.

“Poop,” I shall say indignantly, “poop, indeed! What if I told you I work for NASA and am pre-cleared to shove a whole tank of boiling ammonia overboard?”

That’ll show them. And I shall rip up my little placard in their faces as they slink back to their cutter.

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To leave a comment, go to Blog Archives at right and click on “Ammonia from heaven”
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November 5, 2008

Are you smart enough?

ARE YOU intelligent enough to own a boat? I only ask because it takes a certain amount of brain power to move even the smallest of boats safely from one place to another. No matter that you simply want to row the dinghy from the beach to your boat, you still need a certain number of brain synapses, all holding hands tightly and working together, to come up with the elements of a plan: pick up oars; place in oarlocks; find oarlocks; curse person who left oarlocks under thwart where near invisible; now place oars in oarlocks … you know the drill.

If you don’t have enough synapses, or they’re not feeling well, or they’ve gone on strike because they fear you’re going to outsource their jobs, I’m afraid you don’t have the intelligence to own and operate a boat.

Now, as you probably know, intelligence varies from day to day, so some days you may be intelligent enough to own and operate a boat, but on other days, the blah days, you’d be safer if you stayed ashore and let your teenage daughter drive you to the bowling alley. But how will you know if your little synapses are generating enough intelligence? Well, here’s a quick test:

Aer yuo albe to raed tihs? Appernalty olny 55 penrcet of poelpe can. Teh oethr 45 petrcen cna’t. Btu, if yuo can, tehn yuo aer intiegllnet enoguh to own a boat. Yuo may fnid it hrad to bevelie taht yuo can untersadnd waht yuo’re rdanieg, but resechar crriead out at Cmbarigde Unietrsivy in Egnlnad has rveeaeld teh phemnnoeal poewr of teh hmuan mnid. It dosne’t seme to meattr in waht odrer we plcae teh lerttes in a wrod bescuae teh integlleint mnid raeds teh wrod as a wlohe, not one letetr at a tmie. So coninrgaltuatos, you hvae psased teh integlleince tset adn yuo aer fit ot clal yesourlf Citapan.

For those of you who have no idea what’s going on in the last paragraph, I’m sorry to have to say you’re in the 45 percent group. Too bad. Stay on dry land today, will you? Maybe your synapses will be fitter tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep.

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“Granny, what’s it called when one person goes into the bedroom and sleeps on top of another?”
“Ah … ahem … well, Johnny … um … it’s actually called sexual intercourse.”
“Huh, that’s strange. My friend Billy told me it was called bunk beds.”

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PS: To leave a comment, go to Archives at right and click on “Are you smart enough?” All criticism will be bravely tolerated.

November 2, 2008

Throw the bums out

My name is John Vigor and I approve this message …

My friends, a lot has been said recently about bailing out homeowners with toxic mortgages. But nothing at all has been said about bailing out sailors whose boats are about to be foreclosed. Nothing at all.

Not one word of comfort has been offered to suffering boat owners who have been forced to swallow the anchor. Not one billionth of the 700-billion-dollar bailout has been set aside to save Joe the Sailor from the avaricious clutches of a predatory bank whose CEO gets to take home a bonus of $7 million this Christmas.

Is this not wicked? Is this not discrimination? Is this not un-American behavior of the worst kind?

It’s as if Obama and McCain have never heard of decent, hardworking owners of sailboats -- people who live good lives, pay their taxes on time, and contribute to the economy by consuming large amounts of beer.

A pox on such thoughtless politicians, I say. You can’t trust a presidential candidate who doesn’t sail. Have they never wondered what happens to old shellbacks when they are cruelly deprived of their beloved boats? They tell me that old golfers never die; they merely lose their balls. But what happens to foreclosed sailors? They can’t even afford to paint their bottoms.

My friends, we must use the power of the vote to change this desperate state of affairs. We must let it be known that we want a President who can steer a ketch as well as fly a plane. We want a Vice-President who can reef and splice as well as field-dress a moose. We want leaders who aren’t afraid to fight for a boat owner’s right to bop a banker on the bean when he tries to repossess a humble sloop or cutter.

My friends, tomorrow we vote. If they can’t sail it means they have no hearts. Throw the bums out.

My name is John Vigor and I (once again) approve this message.

PS: If you'd like to leave a comment, click on "Throw the bums out" under "Archives" over on the right of this page.