June 30, 2009

The motor-sailing conundrum

Check back here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for new columns by John Vigor, one of America’s best-known boating writers and editors. He’s the author of 12 books ranging from a children’s novel to a full-blown boating encyclopedia. He is a nationally recognized sailing and navigation instructor, certified by the American Sailing Association. His column is Mainly About Boats, but after a working lifetime as a newspaper humor columnist, it’s Occasionally About Anything That Comes Into His Mind – and always worth reading.

WHENEVER THE WIND DIES on Puget Sound you’ll find cruising sailboats puttering along under power with their mainsails set and their foresails stowed. It’s called motor-sailing.

The question is: does the mainsail actually help? Is it contributing to forward motion, or is it a parasitic drag?

It’s a question that must have occurred to many a sailor trying to reach an anchorage before the dark stillness of night hides all the unmarked rocks in his way.

At first glance the answer seems quite simple: as long as the sail is filled with air, bulging with a business-like curve, it must be sucking the boat forward and adding to the engine’s speed. This must certainly be the case if there is a faint breeze blowing at 45 degrees or more from dead ahead. But what about a dead calm?

When there is no wind at all, the apparent wind caused by the boat’s motion through the water will come from dead ahead. This will make the mainsail flutter uselessly as the boom swings in to the centerline. There will definitely be no advantage in that case, and perhaps a slight disadvantage caused by the drag of the sail.

What then, if you pull the mainsheet traveler to one side or the other and pin the mainsail at an angle so that it fills with the air coming from ahead? This is what many sailors do, including me, to keep the mainsail quiet and, perhaps more importantly, to help cut down on rolling; but it has always worried me.

The sail might well be curved in a bulge that looks purposeful, but most of the power that it generates in this position is directed aft, not forward. It’s acting in the same way that a backed squaresail acts, and it’s robbing the boat of forward speed. The faster the motor pushes the boat, the greater the counter-effort.

So what we really should do in a dead calm is drop the mainsail altogether. We don’t, of course, not only because of the extra rolling, and not only because it involves work, but also because a little breeze could spring up at any time, and that would change the situation drastically. Even five knots of wind would change the mainsail from being a big bag of drag to a helpful contributor to forward motion, and we want to be ready to take advantage of it the second it happens.

And so we continue to motor-sail in the age-old way, our brows furrowed with the effort of trying to figure out whether the effort of dropping the mainsail is worth the slight gain in speed that might result. Mostly, I believe, it isn’t. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Today’s Thought
Expecting something for nothing is the most popular form of hope.
—Arnold H. Glasow

“Dad, if a girl kisses me, should I kiss her back?”
“Hell no, son. Kiss her lips.”

June 28, 2009

Paint that teak

ANYONE WITH ANY SENSE paints exterior wood on a boat, even if it’s teak. I don’t have sense, so I can’t do it, but I know from long, bitter experience that paint is right. A nice, buff-colored paint even looks like varnish from a short distance, and it’ll last six times as long.

The trouble with clear finishes is that they let the sun’s rays damage the wood underneath. It’s not the varnish that gives up. It’s the wood, shrinking and squirming in the heat, that finally shrugs off the varnish. A reasonable paint job, the kind that you and I can do with an ordinary brush, will protect the wood and last for many years.

But if you’re like me, and couldn’t paint teak any more than you could put pajamas on the Venus de Milo, then use ordinary marine spar varnish. Don’t use epoxy, polyurethanes, acrylics, or clear car finishes.

Spar varnish is soft. It was originally made for wooden masts and booms. It squirms with the wood. It doesn’t get hard and split off when the wood swells and shrinks. Rub it down gently once a year in northern climes, twice a year down south, and slap on another two coats. When you need to scrape down to bare wood because you’ve neglected the finish too long, you’ll bless your spar varnish because it comes off easily. Iron-hard polyurethane is hell to get rid of.

Don Casey, the boat-maintenance guru, says your spar varnish will last indefinitely if you treat your teak this way and maintain the seal. It would still make more sense to paint it, of course, but teak, I’m afraid, has a way of making sense fly out the window.

A little varnished teak on deck sets a boat off. It gives a boat the warm glow of a cherished object. It tempers the pale, sterile plasticity of fiberglass. At the same time, too much varnished teak is murder on a boat’s crew and her owner’s bank balance. Too much varnish, to put it bluntly, is a sign of poor judgment.

So take three deep breaths — and paint the damn stuff.

Today’s Thought
Painting is the intermediate somewhat between a thought and a thing.
—S. T. Coleridge, Table Talk

“How about a kiss, gorgeous?”
“Certainly not, I’ve got scruples.”
“No problem, babe, I’ve been vaccinated.”

June 25, 2009

Fighting the seagull wars

PEOPLE GO TO GREAT LENGTHS to stop birds perching on their boats. If you’ve ever seen the damage they cause to decks and canvas with their highly potent poop, you’ll understand why.

A dollop of seagull dung dropped from the top of the mast hits the deck with a mighty smack, and breaks up into smaller splats that cover an astonishingly wide area. If you don’t wash it off within a few minutes, the active ingredients in those white splodges with the black centers start gnawing away at your gelcoat or mainsail cover, often turning white gelcoat purple in patches and bleaching the color out of dodgers.

Gulls and other birds love to perch on the top of the mast or stride around on the spreaders with their minds in neutral, just enjoying the view and appreciating the hospitality of the kind boat owner who provided such nice facilities.

The kind owners, in their turn, foaming at the mouth and grinding their teeth, place spikes on top of their masts to prevent birds from alighting there. They string thin nylon lines a few inches above the spreaders, and they try all sorts of tricks to keep birds away from the mainsail cover, including attaching fake owls and snakes that amuse passers-by, but don’t affect the birds’ habits in any way at all. Nothing really works except Old Wotsisname’s method.

OW, who moors down the row from me, lives on board. His doctor warned him that his rages against the seagulls were not good for his heart, so instead of trying to shoot them with ball bearings and a slingshot, OW started to use his brain instead.

He now leaves bowls of food in his cockpit for the seagulls. The food consists of fish paste mixed with cement. The birds find it irresistible, apparently. They haven’t pooped for weeks. The only problem is they’re too heavy to take off and now sit in row on his boom, glaring at him.

OW doesn’t mind that too much. “Better than the alternative,” he says philosophically, glaring back at them.

Today’s Thought
A bird appears a thoughtless thing,
No doubt he has his little cares,
And very hard he often fares,
The which so patiently he bears.
—Charles Lamb, Crumbs to the Birds

There was an old lady of Worcester
Who was often annoyed by a rorcester.
She cut off his head
Until he was dead,
And now he don’t crow like he yorcester.

June 23, 2009

The dreaded taste test

I FOUND OLD WOTSISNAME deep in conversation with Sam Psmythe (silent P, as in bath) on the marina dock the other day. OW had a problem, and Sam, as usual, had the answer. But it wasn’t an answer OW wanted to hear.

OW’s sailboat, like many others, has a drip pan under the engine. From time to time it fills with water. It drives OW mad, because he can’t tell where the water is coming from.

“Could be the cockpit lockers,” said Sam. “Rain water. They always leak. Or it might be the stuffing box on the propeller shaft. Salt water. That’s supposed to leak a drop now and then.”

“But my drip pan holds half a gallon,” OW protested. “That’s a whole bunch of drips.”

“Maybe it’s dripping too fast. Maybe it needs adjustment.” Then Sam had a brainwave. “Is it fresh water or salt water?” he asked.

OW scratched his left ear and thought about it. “Dunno,” he said finally. “How would I tell?”

“You taste it, of course,” said Sam triumphantly. “There’s no other way. Stick a finger in it. Lick your finger. Taste it.”

OW, who is not particularly finicky in respect to hygiene, tidiness, or anything else he associates with poofters and deviants, went a little pale. He scratched his ear some more. “Got to be a better way,” he said.

Sam laughed immoderately. He loves to needle OW. “Chicken!” he cried.

OW muttered something about his head holding tank, which shares a common bulkhead with the drip tray, but Sam went off down the walkway, chortling to himself.

This problem isn’t unique to OW, of course. Sooner or later every serious sailor is going to want to know whether the water in the bilge is rain water or sea water. And sooner or later he is going to have to screw up his courage and lick the damn stuff, followed by a large tot of rum to kill both taste and germs.

As OW said, there must be a better way. How do chemists distinguish between fresh and salt water? Is there some sort of litmus test? Obviously, salt water has a higher specific gravity than fresh water, so if you floated eggs or peas or beans or something fairly close in density to water they might sink in fresh and float in salt. What if you marked an ice cube’s flotation line in fresh water and then placed it in the bilge. Wouldn’t it float higher in salt? Or is the difference too small to be noticeable?

Then again, salt water conducts electricity better than fresh water, so maybe you could just hook up your battery and test the flow of amps. Dammit, there has to be a better way than placing in our mouths that foul-smelling gunk we call bilge water.

If there are any inventors out there looking for work, here’s a project that would provide you with a steady income. Just a simple test, please. Salt or no salt, that’s all we need to know. We, and the ladies who have to kiss us, would all be truly grateful, and we’d probably be prepared to pay quite a lot.

Today’s Thought
There can be no disputing about tastes. (De gustibus non est disputandum.)
—Jeremy Taylor, Reflections upon Ridicule

“I’d like to see General Bloggs, please.”
“Sorry, sir, but General Bloggs is ill today.”
“What made him ill?”
“Nothing in particular, sir, just things in General.”

June 21, 2009

Cling like a monkey

I MENTIONED THE OTHER DAY that the waters of Puget Sound, together with the adjacent San Juan and Gulf Islands, are some of the best small-boat cruising grounds in the whole of the United States. But there is one drawback that visitors, in particular, should be aware of. Our waters are cold. They’re in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit, even in summer. You’d be lucky to survive half an hour without protective gear in water that cold. So the Golden Rule around here is: Don’t fall overboard.

Most production sailboats come complete with deck stanchions and lifelines these days, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical about their efficiency. Most of them are so low that they’d catapult you overboard if you lurched hard against them at deck level. And when you’re on top of the cabin trunk, working at the base of the mast for example, you’re high enough to fall clean overboard without even touching the lifelines when the boat is well heeled over.

So maybe it would be wise go back in time a bit and take the advice of some of the old-time singlehanders who were sailing wooden boats across the oceans before the plastic revolution. They rarely had lifelines.

When I was a teenager, a young French colonial from Indo-China came sailing into my home port of Durban, South Africa. His tubby 27-foot ketch, Marie-Thérèse, had no lifelines, by design. Her owner, and sole skipper, didn’t believe in lifelines.

I asked him what he did to stay on board in rough weather while working on deck.

“You must learn to cling like a monkey,” he told me.

That man was Bernard Moitessier, who later became an icon of single-handed long-distance sailing and one of the most famous sailboat cruisers in the world.

Times have changed, and we now give greater respect to the question of safety (perhaps too much respect when it comes to advising others) but Moitessier’s advice is still very valid.

Regard your lifelines purely as backup. If you come adrift, they may save you; they may not. And even if you habitually wear a harness clipped onto a jackstay, make the Golden Rule and Moitessier’s mantra your absolute priorities: Don't fall overboard. Learn to cling like a monkey.

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

Paddy was crossing the fairway when a ball smacked him on the back of the head.
A golfer came up and said: “Why didn’t you get out of the way?”
“An’ why should I?” said Paddy angrily.
“Because I said ‘Fore!’ and that’s a sign to get out of the way.”
“Oh and is it now?” cried Paddy. “Well I’ve got news for you. When I say ‘Foive’ it’s a sign you’re going to be hit on the jaw. Foive!”

June 19, 2009

Stuff I don't really need

MY 27-FOOT CRUISING sailboat was built in the early 1980s. Life was very simple in those days. The emphasis was on plain seaworthiness and ease of maintenance. But it’s very hard to keep things simple these days. The peer pressure to “upgrade” is strong and relentless. The boating bulletin boards are awash with posts explaining how to install three-stage “smart” regulators or patented dripless shaft seals.

Luckily, I am very resistant to work that doesn’t result in any observable benefit, and I hate change. So my boat has stayed nice and simple. I have learned to ignore the questioning looks of visitors who imagine this plainness to be the result of dire poverty. I know that 90 percent of the “improvements” people make to their boats do not make them easier to sail or cheaper to maintain. The very opposite, in fact.

Here’s a list of all the stuff I don’t have on my boat, in no particular order:

Full-length battens
Electric bilge pump
Boom brake
Non-drip propeller shaft seal
Loose-footed mainsail
Dutchman mainsail control
Mainsheet traveler adjustable under load
Self-tailing winches
Anchor winch (capstan)
Jib roller furler
Folding (feathering) propeller
Extra-large (after-market) alternator
Digital voltmeter
LED lights
Three-stage “smart” regulator
Masthead anchor light
SSB radio
Laptop computer
Outboard motor for the dinghy
Mapping GPS
Cabin heater
Pressure water
Water heater
Gimbaled cooker
Halyards led to cockpit
Chart table
Entertainment center

I know people who have crossed oceans without any of the equipment listed above. I myself have cruised the wilderness Pacific Coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island for six weeks at a time without any of that equipment. This doesn’t make me a hero but it doesn’t make me irresponsible, either. Simplicity has many rewards. And it makes coming home to a hot shower and a cold beer so much nicer.

Today’s Thought
Blissful are the simple, for they shall have much peace.
—Thomas Ā Kempis, De Imitatione Christi

“Why did your algebra teacher confiscate your rubber-band pistol?”
“She said it was a weapon of math disruption.”

June 16, 2009

Honoring the hockey puck

ONE OF MY MOST VALUABLE navigation tools is the little hand-bearing (“hockey puck”)compass I wear on a cord around my neck. It’s an essential part of chart navigation, of course, because it’s what you use to take magnetic bearings of prominent features on land. Two or more of those bearings allow you to plot your position on the chart.

But the hockey puck compass is also valuable if you navigate by GPS. Let’s presume you’re heading for an anchorage on Flybutton Island, one of many in the Trousers Archipelago. As usual, with islands overlapping, covered with pine trees, and all looking alike, you can’t see any obvious entrance to Zip-Up Cove on Flybutton Island.

However, you have programmed a waypoint into your GPS; and now your GPS is telling you to steer a course of 250 degrees magnetic to Zip-Up Cove. All fine and good, but because of currents and leeway, your main steering compass is not going to take you to Zip-Up Cove while you steer 250 degrees. If you’re beating, your boat will be making leeway, so she won’t be going where she’s pointing. And if you’re in a current, as you mostly are around here, you have to allow for being set sideways.

An experienced navigator knows how to compensate for all this, naturally, and your GPS will tell you how much you’re going off course. But there’s a simple trick that’s very reassuring to Nervous Nellies: When the GPS says the direction to your destination waypoint is 250 degrees, get out your hand bearing compass and sight through it until it shows 250 degrees. Now you are looking at the actual place on land that you are aiming for. Make a note of any landmarks you can see, such as a tower or a tall tree, or a mountain with a cleft.

When you can actually see a place to aim for like this it’s a great help with the steering. You still need to compensate for being set off course, but it’s reassuring to have the GPS course confirmed by your hand bearing compass.

Another thing — if you stand in the cockpit to take your bearing, you’re usually well away from any ferrous metals and current-bearing wires, so your hockey puck compass is not affected by the ship’s deviation, and will show a true magnetic course. (If you wear glasses, just make sure the frames aren’t magnetic.)

As you probably know, there are many other uses for this little compass; too many to explore in this limited space, but they include the ability to warn you of impending collisions with other vessels, and to reveal the deviation of your main steering compass. Your hockey puck can also help you stay clear of charted (but not visible) underwater dangers, and by giving you two quick bearings, it can tell you how far you are off a prominent landmark. In addition, it will tell you in an instant if your anchor is dragging.

Furthermore, if you take it ashore with you, it will help you find your way back to the boat in a dark anchorage, or in thick fog. And so on. For 150 bucks or less, it’s a great safety aid for any sailor and a particularly valuable tool for the navigator.

Today’s Thought
Those who travel heedlessly from place to place, observing only their distance from each other, and attending only to their accommodation at the inn each night, set out fools, and will certainly remain so.
—Lord Chesterfield

“Who was that eye doctor I saw you with in Alaska?”
“That was no eye doctor. That was an optical Aleutian.”

June 14, 2009

The winds are fading

WORRIED SCIENTISTS are now saying that winds all over the world are getting lighter. They’re not sure why, but some, inevitably, are blaming global warming.

Well I can tell them what’s causing it. It’s not global warming. It’s all these wind farms people are building. All those windmills sticking up in the air, the ones the posh people call turbines. The ones that generate electricity. The ones that are sticking up where nothing was sticking up before.

I suspected this would happen all along. I reckon the wind has been slowing down since the heyday of the old windjammers. It’s only logical because the earth isn’t spinning as fast as it used to. It’s slowing down.

I suppose you all know that wind is caused by the rotation of the earth. It’s the surface of the earth sliding past the lowest layers of the atmosphere that causes wind.

Now it’s quite obvious that the more things you stick up into the air, the more you’re going to slow down the earth. The first law of science is that you get nothing for nothing. So if you’re going to stick up four masts into the sky and drive a ship around the world, you’re going to pay for it somehow. The added drag is going to slow down the earth’s rotation. I’ve been worrying about this ever since I realized it one day in science class at school, but nobody ever listens to me.

What happened in my case was that the number of sailing ships decreased dramatically when steamships took over, so there was a respite for a while that made nonsense of my theory and everybody poked fun at me and said how stupid I was.

But now, suddenly, we’re sticking up thousands of whirring windmills instead of masts, and the scientists are (wait for it) wondering why the winds are slowing down. Can you believe it? Well, you and I could try to explain it to them, of course, but I for one won’t bother. They wouldn’t understand. They’re very slow learners.

Today’s Thought
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
—Old Testament, Hosea, viii,7

Twinkle, twinkle, little star
I don’t wonder what you are
I surmised your spot in space
When you left your missile base.
Any wondering I now do
Centers on the price of you.
How I shudder when I think
What you’re costing me per twink.
—William Pratt.

June 11, 2009

The puffins are back

OH GLORY BE. OH JOY. The Daily Bungle reports that the birds are flying north. The tufted puffins are back, apparently. And if the tufted puffins are back, can the rest be far behind? I refer to the burled dimwitts, the ring-necked godsends, the unbridled waterworts, and the wungood terns (each of whom deserves another).

What this avian invasion foretells, of course, is the start of another wonderful season of sailing in the best sailboat cruising ground in the country. It’s our little secret and we strive to keep it that way: hundreds of friendly, pristine islands and cozy anchorages in the San Juan and Gulf Islands.

For our own nefarious reasons, we try to make outsiders believe it’s the worst climate in the country. You probably have the impression that it’s cold and damp all the time here in the Pacific Northwest, a miserable climate of non-stop rain, galoshes, umbrellas, and mold behind the ears. Good, that’s what we want you to think. But for the record, we’re now into our 22nd day in a row with no rain. Just blue skies, 70 to 80 degrees, and that lovely warm northwesterly wind.

Most of all, we don’t want the Californians to know how nice it is up here. We’re only separated by one state, for goodness’ sake, and you can’t trust Californians. They’re very unpredictable people. And there’s so many of them. We don’t want them coming up here throwing their money and weight around and pushing up the price of everything. They fired their former governor, the very sensible Gray Davis because he warned them to quit their excessive borrowing and spending. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. In his stead, they elected a weightlifter with an Austrian accent and an abundance of muscles balanced by a vast deficit of political knowhow. So now California, the fifth biggest economy in the world, is broker than broke.

It’s all very worrying. You never know where Californians might go to next. I hope they don’t read the Daily Bungle. And if they do, I hope they won’t understand the significance of the arrival here of the tufted puffins and their feathered pals. But, just in case, I think I’m going to start a rumor on Twitter that tufted puffins like bad weather and that their bites are poisonous to Californians. Yeah, sure they’ll believe it. Of course they will. Hell, they believed a muscle-bound weightlifter could cure their money problems, didn’t they?

Today’s Thought
If I were running the world I would have it rain only between 2 and 5 a.m. Anyone who was out then ought to get wet.
—William Lyon Phelps

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

June 9, 2009

Is this morally wrong?

IMAGINE FOR ONE MOMENT that you have a factory making handheld marine VHF radios. Imagine, too, that your bean counters have figured out that it’s more profitable for you to repair or replace a radio (if someone complains it’s not waterproof) than it is to make your radios waterproof in the first place.

Here’s the question: Is it morally wrong to warrant a radio as waterproof when you know it’s not? Bearing in mind, of course, that the consumer is not going to be out of pocket if water does get into the radio.

When the consumer magazine Practical Sailor tested seven brands of handheld VHF radios marketed as waterproof, or warranted against water damage, only one turned out to be truly waterproof. Just one!

Now I have a tendency, probably quite ridiculous, to regard a handheld VHF as a safety item of last resort. When I really need it, I’ll be boarding the dinghy or the liferaft. The waves will be breaking over everything. It will probably be pouring with rain and I’ll probably drop the radio in puddles a few times.

So I’d rather have a truly waterproof radio than one that might fail if I accidentally spilled my beer on it, even if they promised to refund my money — presuming that, lacking any means to call for help, I survive to collect it.

For the record, I think it’s morally wrong and I hope someone, sometime, sues them blind. If they won’t react to moral persuasion, perhaps a large and very painful loss of money will do the trick.

Today’s Thought
I am afraid we must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy.
—George Bernard Shaw

“I see old Fred’s been made secretary of the chess club.”
“That’s nice. What does he have to do?”
“His main job is to read the hours of the previous meeting.”

June 7, 2009

The perfect down-wind rig

A PERSISTENT DREAM of would-be world cruisers involves sliding down those lazy trade-wind swells. The breeze is a gentle Force 4, the water warm and blue beneath a tropical sun, and playful waves scrub themselves with white-caps of foam.

But what rig?

Few can agree on the best rig for dead downwind sailing in the trades. Squaresails, twin jibs or spinnakers, main and gennaker, main-and-boomed-out-jib are among the favorites. None of this bothered the first man to sail around the world alone, Joshua Slocum. His Spray sailed herself downwind under main and ordinary foresails. Some so-called experts say she couldn’t have done that. Seattle-based Jonathan Raban, editor of The Oxford Book of the Sea describes the feat as “a necessary conceit in the writing of Sailing Alone Around the World … an ingenious literary device.”

I know Raban and admire his literary knowledge, but he’s wrong on seamanship. Slocum fitted Spray with a very long bamboo bowsprit, from which he flew a jib sheeted in dead flat. It contributed almost nothing to the boat’s forward speed but its center of effort lay so far ahead of the boat’s center of lateral resistance that the great leverage kept her heading downwind while the mainsail did the work of pushing her forward.

Slocum also tacked downwind, 20 or 30 degrees off the true wind, to bring his foresail into play, to stop the mainsail chafing against the shrouds, and to tame excessive rolling.
So Slocum didn’t need conceit. He was a sailor through and through, and this was just good sailor-sense.

Incidentally, my favorite rig for trade-wind sailing is the twistle (twin staysail) rig, an interesting variation of the twin-jib rig. Its great advantage is that the twin foresails can lie forward in a deep, flat V, thus greatly reducing the excessive rolling associated with downwind rigs. You probably haven’t heard much about the twistle rig, but I describe it in my books, Small Boat to Freedom, and The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat, if you’re interested in finding out more.

Today’s Thought
The world tolerates conceit from those who are successful, but not from anybody else.
—John Blake, Uncommon Sense

“And what kind of doctor are you?”
“I’m a naval surgeon.”
“Holy cow! I never realized you guys specialized so much.”

June 4, 2009

Snobby yachtie knottery

MIKE REED, A KNOWLEDGEABLE friend of mine, walked up to my boat the other day and inspected the main halyard. “Isn’t that a buntline hitch?” he said.

“Oh yes,” I said quickly. “How clever of you to know that.”

As a matter of fact, at that time I couldn’t have told you the difference between a buntline hitch and a cow’s backside. When I looked at the way I’d tied the halyard to the metal clip, it looked as if I’d tied a clove hitch backwards by accident. Anyway, I now know what a buntline hitch is and I have added it to my vast repertoire of useful knots for yachts.

A few nights later I was manning a table at a meeting of our Corinthian yacht club. The subject for the evening was knots, and several of us were demonstrating individual knots, the ones most used on small sailboats.

I was given the sheet bend to demonstrate. It’s a knot I don’t trust to stay in place, so I wasn’t too thrilled to be delegated the sheet bend, although I’m told it’s one of the first knots described in The Ashley Book of Knots, that massive tome of knottery that I’ve never been able to afford. But at least I know how to do the sheet bend and to warn people to make sure both free ends stick out on the same side.

I needn’t have worried about being forced to recommend a knot I wasn’t too happy with. Only two people came to my table to enquire after the sheet bend, and I warned both of them to do a double sheet bend instead. The others all came along to watch me do my famous “instant bowline,” a trick that makes a non-slip loop in the end of a line with two flicks of the wrist. It’s not actually a true bowline, but it’s pretty close, and those who are mesmerized by the action of creating it never seem to examine its construction too closely.

All this got me to thinking about the snobbery of yachtie knottery and how few knots you really need. One of my favorite books, A Manual for Small Yachts, by R. D. Graham and J. E. H. Tew (Blackie, London, 1946) is quite adamant that only nine knots are essential: overhand knot, reef knot, figure-of-eight knot, clove hitch, rolling hitch, round turn and two half-hitches, fisherman’s (or anchor) bend, sheet bend, and the bowline.

I would knock the overhand knot off that list and substitute a double sheet bend for the single sheet bend. Otherwise, I have to agree. But, in fact, if you are not a natural knot nut, and have trouble understanding those diagrams that show strands weaving themselves over and under and around and behind and all over until they finally disappear up their own fundamental orifices, then I think you’ll be relieved to hear that you can probably do almost everything you need to on a boat with just two knots, two hitches, and one bend — five in all:

► Anchor (or fisherman’s) bend
► Reef knot
► Bowline
► Rolling hitch
► Clove hitch

Finally, if you really are severely knot-challenged, a confirmed fumbler from way back, and would just like to get one knot right every time, practice the round turn and two half hitches. It’s actually two round turns and two half hitches, but don’t let that put you off. There’s hardly anything you can’t do with that knot. It might look a bit bulky and inappropriate for some applications, but it’s safe, it’s sure, and nobody’s going to accuse you of being a knot snob.

Today’s Thought
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.
—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“I’ve just sold my second novel.”
“Great! What did you use for the plot?”
“The film version of my first novel.”

June 2, 2009

Cures for hunting

SOME BOATS MAKE QUITE a menace of themselves at anchor when they continuously “hunt” from port to starboard and back. This hunting habit carries them far and wide across an arc of 20 degrees or so, with the anchor as its center. It wouldn’t matter much if there were plenty of room, but since the plastic revolution every man and his dog seems to be able to afford a boat, so all the nice anchorages are very crowded.

A boat with an all-chain rode usually sits very quietly at anchor, but most day sailors and coastal cruisers choose a rode that starts with a small length of chain next to the anchor, and then nylon rope right to the bitter end. Now nylon line is nice and springy, so when a puff of wind hits the starboard bow, the boat slides aft until all the nylon line is taken up. Then it stretches a bit and, recovering its elasticity, slings the bow back over to the opposite side. It continues this back-and-forth slingshot motion in a wide arc ad infinitum.

Once again, it wouldn’t matter much if all the boats in a congested anchorage could be induced to indulge in synchronized hunting. If they all went to port at the same time, and all swung back to starboard together, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, neither the yacht designers nor Nature seem to think this problem worthy of investigation and correction, so we poor souls with boats that hunt have to learn to live with it, scrambling for fenders and yelling loud curses when one boat hunting left comes speeding sideways toward its neighbor boat hunting right.

There are three things I know of that can lessen the arc through which a boat will swing at anchor, and I offer them in order of effectiveness:

► The bridle.
Deploy your rode as usual, lead it through one of the chocks near your bow and make it fast. Now take a line of suitable size and tie a rolling hitch around the rode just ahead of the chock. Give this line a few feet of slack, pass it through the chock on the opposite side of the bow, and cleat it. Now offer up some rode from your original anchor line until you have a bridle in front of the bow, that is, an inverted V pointing toward the anchor. Make your original rode fast when the two legs of the V are equal in length. Don’t expect too much from this bridle, but it does help a bit.

► The riding sail.
If you have a yawl or a ketch, set your mizzen and sheet it in tight. You can center it, or tie it off slightly to one side or the other, as seem best. There are times when the stalled sail will flutter and rattle its fittings and drive you mad. You will have to choose between going crazy and being smitten against your neighboring boat.

If you have a sloop or a cutter you can set a riding sail as far aft as you can get it. The usual arrangement is to hank it to the backstay and lead the sheet forward onto a cockpit winch. It’s often recommended that you use your storm jib for this purpose, but a boat with a full keel normally needs a rather larger spread of sail to be effective. I don’t regard it as a very seamanlike procedure in any case. It always seems wrong to have an unsupported leading edge to a sail that shape. But a lot of people swear by it, and they’re entitled to their own biased opinions.

► Set another anchor.
You will drastically reduce the arc of your swing if you set a second anchor at an angle of about 45 degrees to the first one. It’s the principle of the bridle again, only reversed and on a much more effective scale. You will have rodes leading off to each side of the bow at just over 20 degrees each and your bow will be snubbed very quickly each time it wickedly attempts to stray from the path of righteousness. Of course, there’s a problem with this arrangement, too. You need room to put out the second anchor, and some ignorant fool is almost surely going to drop his anchor right over yours.

► Oh, and there is a fourth method I’ve just remembered.
If you have a cutter or a sloop, simply anchor by the stern. Try it some time. You will be amazed at how quietly she will lie downwind. In fact, this is often the most effective method of all to cure hunting. Its only drawback is that the people all around you will regard you as the village idiot because you’re doing something different from their brand of superior seamanship. No matter. I find that if you return their disapproving looks with a nice, friendly, vacant smile it drives them nuts. You might want to take along some straw to chew at the same time.

Today’s Thought
Seamanship is the art or skill of handling and maneuvering a vessel in the way that best satisfies the needs of the craft rather than the expectations of critical onlookers.
—John Vigor

“I was swimming in a Florida swamp when three gladiators came straight at me and …”
“No, no, not gladiators. Allegories. Things like crocodiles.”
“Well what are gladiators, then?”
“Gladiators? Uh, they’re, like, flowers you grow from bulbs.”

June 1, 2009

Look to your fenders

THERE WAS A FRONT-PAGE picture of a boat in my newspaper the other day. The paper is the Daily Bugle, generally known as the Daily Bungle for obvious reasons. But this time the mistake wasn’t the paper’s. It was the skipper of the boat’s mistake. All his fenders were dragging through the water.

There is nothing that marks a lackadaisical skipper as accurately as a boat far away from its berth with its fenders flopping and splashing alongside. What made it surprising for me was that this pretty little motorboat had just been built by a special school for at-risk kids here in town. (Actually, I’m not at all sure what at-risk kids are, whether they’re likely to do bad things in the future, or whether they’ve already done bad things and are at risk of doing some more.)

No matter, I’m sure messing around with boats is good for them. In years past they built a replica of a longboat used by Captain Vancouver in his 18th-century voyage of discovery in the Pacific Northwest. She’s beautifully constructed, strong and pretty, about 26 feet long, completely undecked, and rigged with sails and oars. I have often seen her out sailing and being rowed by the A-RKs under the stern eye of a skipper/instructor and never once have I seen any sign of a misplaced fender; which is only good and proper, and how things should be.

Most people use fenders to keep their boat clear of the side of the slip. Without fenders, the hull would be rubbing and destroying itself against wood or concrete. And when anchored boats lie alongside each other for a raft-up, fenders are always much in evidence.

But because nothing looks sloppier than a boat under way with its fenders hanging out, the skipper who wants to look as if he knows something about boating will make it a priority to retrieve his fenders as soon as he leaves the dock. It takes time to do that, so many of us just do a quick walk around the boat, quickly and unostentatiously flipping the fenders up on deck. Once they’re all up out of the water, they can be loosened at leisure and tucked away in the aft lazarette or somewhere convenient.

Sailing with your boat festooned in fenders is like attending your wedding with your shirt-tails hanging out. Well, okay, I know people do actually get married with their shirts outside their pants these days, but I’m talking about proper weddings, decent weddings where people wear shoes and the groom cleans his nails.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s pretty certain that you can judge a boat by its fenders. So I warn you now, never go to sea with a skipper who forgets to take in his fenders. He’s a slob who lacks an eye for detail and a feeling for tradition and virtue. In such a man lurks danger and despair. The sea is a tough enough mistress already. You don’t need that extra freight.

Today’s Thought
Man yields to custom, as he bows to fate,
In all things ruled—mind, body, and estate;
In pain, in sickness, we for cure apply
To them we know not, and we know not why.
—George Crabbe, Tales in Verse

“Why’s old Fred looking so gloomy?”
“He says he’s having trouble with angina pectoris.”
“Omigawd. I hope his wife doesn’t find out about her.”