July 30, 2009

Swimsuits for boats

(See this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column.)

OLD WOTSISNAME who moors down the row from me is in a dilemma. It started when he read in the Daily Bungle that world-champion swimmer Michael Phelps had been beaten by a competitor wearing a polyurethane swimsuit. Phelps had a special Speedo swimsuit of his own, of course, but it wasn’t as fast as the newest polyurethane one apparently.

A light went on in OW’s devious head. He feigns indifference to the wholesale criticism of how slowly his old concrete boat sails, but deep down inside it hurts. He would do almost anything to beat somebody some day. And when he heard that a polyurethane swimsuit adds speed to a swimmer, it occurred to him that a polyurethane bottom might also add speed to his boat.

His first idea was to buy a few dozen poly swimsuits, cut them up, sew them together in flat sheets, and glue them to his boat’s bottom. Then he found out that two dozen poly suits would cost about 10 times what his boat is worth. Maybe 100 times.

The next step was to find out what polyurethane sealant such as 3M 5200 would cost if he ordered it by the barrel and painted it on the bottom. But that idea was squashed when I explained to him that the swimsuit wasn’t just polyurethane but a special fabric such as Spandex that repels water and traps air.

Then Phelps poked a stick in the wheel. He won the world 200-meter butterfly in Rome wearing a swimsuit that stretched only from his waist to his ankles. Broke his own world record while he was at it.

So now OW is wondering whether he should cover only the aft section of his hull, rather than the whole underwater body; and if so, with what? The answer might prove interesting. I saw him yesterday walking along with a smug grin on his face. He was carrying a large roll of bubble-wrap. Well — it does repel water and it does trap air. Maybe he’s on to something.

Today’s Thought
The greatest inventions were produced in time of ignorance; as the use of the compass, gunpowder, and printing; and by the dullest nation, as the Germans.
—Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: Voyage to Laputa

“How’s your son getting on these days?”
“He just turned 18. He kissed his first girl and started smoking.”
“Wow! Must have been some kiss.”

July 28, 2009

How to write for magazines

NOW AND THEN someone asks me how to write for sailing magazines. And I reply: “Frequently, and without hope.”

Frequently, because they often ignore or lose unsolicited articles. And without hope because most beginners fail to understand what a particular magazine is looking for.

I have written for many of the biggest sailing magazines, and I’ve worked as managing editor of a powerboat magazine, so I have labored on both sides of the aisle.

As a professional writer, trying to sell my wares, I have been ignored by the best of them. Even if they’ve published you before, even if you’re well known, it makes no difference. Both Sail magazine and Cruising World have taken more than a year to reply to proposals or articles I submitted. One day, I guess, in an emergency, they shuffled through the slush pile to find something usable, and accidentally came across my stuff. There was rarely an apology or an explanation. Just some mumbling in the background about my submission “falling through the cracks.” Again.

When I became a managing editor myself, I made it my business never to keep a writer waiting longer than one week for a decision. I may not have been a good editor, but I was very popular with my writers.

One day I’ll tell you the best way to go about writing for sailing magazines, but meanwhile, if you are serious about earning money, I’d suggest you find another more lucrative field than sailing. Almost anything from gardening to gangrene will find you a wider audience and better compensation.

I must, of course, reveal that I am the copy-editor for Good Old Boat magazine, and I happen to know that the Editor, Karen Larson, will give you answers in considerably less than a year. Furthermore the magazine’s editorial requirements are listed on the website <www.goodoldboat.com>.

(But I still think you’d be better off writing about gardens. Or babies. Or knitting. Anything but sailing.)

Today’s Thought
With pen and pencil we’re learning to say
Nothing, more cleverly, every day.
--William Allingham, Blackberries

“What caused the fire on Fred’s yacht?”
“The investigator said it was spontaneous combustion — a $20,000 policy on a $10,000 boat.”

July 26, 2009

Dimples in my bottom

(Read John Vigor’s mind here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)

SOME TIME IN THE PAST a manufacturer of golf balls discovered that putting dimples in the surface of the ball made it go faster and farther. Now every golf ball has dimples.

I’m not sure that anyone understands why this is. Specialists in aerodynamics talk a lot about the boundary layer and amount of friction and drag caused by a ball moving through air, friction that obviously slows the ball, but it’s not in any sort of language I can understand, although I am forced by personal ignorance and empirical evidence to believe that what they say is true.

Now you may be wondering what golf balls have to do with sailboats. The answer is what they have in common — drag. Sailboats move through water, which is about 800 times denser than air, and they move at about 1/800 of the speed of a golf ball. And as they do so, they meet resistance in the form of drag on the underwater wetted surface.

Now some people I know (hint: racers) go to a lot of trouble to make the underwater paint job really smooth. The idea is to make the boat slip more easily through the water, to create less fuss, to lessen drag, and go faster.

It has never occurred to them that they are emulating the ancient style of golf ball, the one before dimples were invented. It has never occurred to them that their boats might go faster if the underwater paint job was dimpled.

Well, that’s my excuse, anyhow. My boat has a dimpled bottom. I would like to claim that it was by design but it actually wasn’t. When it came to painting the bottom, I decided to use a coarser-than-usual roller because I wanted to get a nice thick coat of copper paint on. I was a little surprised at the rough texture it left behind, but once you’ve started you might as well grit your teeth and go through to the finish, I always say. And so I ended up with a bottom paint job rougher than an alligator’s backside.

I am not dismayed, however. My research, which led me to golf balls and dimples thereon, cheered me up immensely. I think I may be on to something. I am certainly not going to sand my bottom smooth and start again. I am hoping that my dimpled bottom will allow me to go faster and farther, just like a well-struck golf ball.

I am even thinking of patenting the idea. Once the racers hear about it, they’ll all want to try it. If I make enough money I might be able to afford a nifty little racer myself. I remember how to do it. You just have to yell “Starboard!” a lot and shout “Room to tack!” Nothing to it.

Today’s Thought
If it is not true, it is very well invented.
Giordano Bruno, Degli Eroici Furori (1585)

The maitre of a New York hotel watched in amazement as an Ohio tourist carefully washed his dessert spoon in the finger bowl.
He rushed up apologetically, saying: “There’s no need to do that sir.”
“Oh no?” said the tourist. “This is a new suit, buster. You think I want ice-cream all over my pocket?”

July 23, 2009

Insuring the insurance company

(The Mainly About Boating column appears here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)

THE MARINE INSURANCE DEPARTMENT of BoatU.S. produces, from time to time, an excellent little print magazine called Seaworthy. They call it the “Damage Avoidance Newsletter.” The idea behind it is to inform their customers about the negligent and silly things people do to their boats — the fires, the sinkings, the collisions, the silly things that result in more claims and less profit for the insurance division. Because Seaworthy taught its readers valuable lessons, and because those lessons resulted in fewer claims and more profit, BoatU.S. used to send out Seaworthy free to all its insurance customers.

But now things have changed. In this difficult economy, BoatU.S. has apparently seen the need to cut costs. They want me to read Seaworthy — oh yes they want that all right, because that benefits them — but they no longer want to pay for a print copy. They want me to receive it by e-mail instead.

Well, I don’t want it by e-mail. I am a old newspaperman. I want a nice print copy that I can take out on the deck with my afternoon tea, along with Newsweek and the Seattle Times, and page through at my leisure. Staring at a computer screen is not the same. There simply isn’t the same sense of tactile pleasure.

So now BoatU.S. is sending me leaflets, begging and pleading for my e-mail address, and I’m ripping up the leaflets and cursing them. I have to add that BoatU.S. is actually still publishing a print copy of Seaworthy, and I can still get it, but now they want to charge me for the privilege of learning things that will make them bigger profits. It’s not a big charge, I admit, something like $6 a year, I believe, but it’s the principle that sticks in my craw. Why should I pay for something that benefits them? And if it’s only $6 a year, can’t they pay it, for goodness’ sake? Are they so starved of profits that 50 cents a month is going to kill them?

I now fear the inevitable result of all this. Thousands of curmudgeons like me will refuse to pay for Seaworthy. We will forget all the good lessons and safety tips we learned from that excellent magazine, and we won’t learn any new ones because we don’t read Seaworthy any more. We will have more accidents. We will have more fires. We will hit more rocks. Our bilge pumps will short-circuit. Our seacocks will rot from electrolysis and our outdrives will leak at the stern because we will forget to do the maintenance. The number of claims upon BoatU.S. insurance will rise steeply and if the company doesn’t go bust we will all have to pay higher premiums.

There is an ancient saying that claims a kingdom was lost for the want of a nail. Perhaps BoatU.S. should think about it.

Today’s Thought
What the insurance companies have done is to reverse the business so that the public at large insures the insurance companies.
—Gerry Spence, Time, 24 Mar 86

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

July 21, 2009

The line of false hope

(John Vigor posts a new column here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

AS OF FRIDAY JULY 17, more than 1,450 customers of the Steamin’ Bean coffee shop drive-through in Kansas City, Mo., had paid the bill for the person in line behind them. The faulty thinking behind this lemming-like fad is that it’s an act of kindness that fills you with touchy-feely goodness. It’s nothing of the kind, of course. When everybody pays everybody else’s bill, nobody benefits, except possibly the coffee shop when the customer behind you buys a smaller cup of coffee than the one you left money for.

I know this because I was in the line at West Marine the other day. I had bought a roll of that blue masking tape that is supposed to last a week in the sun but never does. It cost about three bucks, I guess, but the clerk greeted me with a big smile and said: "There’s no charge. The man in front of you paid your bill.”

I summed up the opportunity with my customary lightning alacrity.

“Hang on,” I said, “let me figure this out. I haven’t finished shopping yet. I need one of those fancy new fish-finder-depthsounder-GPS/radar thingummies and a 9-foot Avon inflatable dinghy. How much is left over?”

“Um, well, actually he only paid enough for the roll of tape he could see in your hand.”

I was shocked. “This a great disappointment,” I said loudly so everybody in the line could hear. “Here I am, expecting a wonderful act of kindness, a magnificent surprise that would open my heart to the fundamental goodness of the human race, and what do I get? A kick in the teeth, that’s what.”

“But he paid for your tape,” the clerk said weakly.

“Yeah,” I said, “and now in return I’m supposed to pay for the guy behind me. Can you see what he’s carrying? That box with Garmin written all over it? Do you know how much a top-notch color chart plotter costs?”

The clerk opened and shut his mouth like a goldfish in a bowl.

“This is a crock,” I said. “I am deeply saddened. You should never have accepted his money. It’s a cruel joke, a gesture that brings me to the brink of despair. I feel like howling with dismay or even jumping off a bridge. What a rotten reflection on the baseness of human nature and …”

“Sir,” said the clerk desperately, “why don’t you just take the tape and go? You don’t need to bother about the customer behind you.”

“Thank you,” I said promptly, recalling how infrequently it is that you get something for nothing at West Marine. “I think I might just do that.”

Pity I didn’t pick up the expensive green tape though. The cheap blue stuff honestly never lasts more than two days in the sun.

Today’s Thought
Pessimists are usually kind. The gay, bubbling over, have no time for the pitiful.
—Seān O’Faolāin, The Heat of the Sun

From a book catalog:
“First edition, profusely illustrated — ‘Unconventional Sex Practices’ — spine cracked, appendix torn. $75.”

July 19, 2009

Stand up and be counted

(Read a new column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE syndicated a story recently about Zac Sutherland, the 17-year-old from Marina del Rey, California, who has just sailed singlehanded around the world. In the story, the American Sailing Association is quoted as saying that only about 250 people have ever sailed around the world alone in the 110 years since Joshua Slocum first showed it could be done. I wonder how they know?

Admittedly, there are lists on internet websites of many of the solo circumnavigators, but I can hardly believe they’ve got them all. Many long-distance solo sailors purposely avoid the limelight. They don’t seek publicity. Very often, they undertake their mammoth voyages for private, intensely personal reasons, not to raise publicity for running shoes or expensive Swiss watches.

It is not difficult to imagine them slipping back quietly into port after completing a circumnavigation, with no expectation of cheering bystanders or fireboats with arcs of spray. Alongside the braggarts and show-offs, there are many deeply modest sailors out on the oceans whose achievements are motivated by a desire to conquer inner fears or find self-significance and self-confidence in a highly competitive world.

I’m sure some of them slip through the cracks quite deliberately and are never entered on the internet lists. It would be really interesting to know exactly how many. Two hundred and fifty just seems too few.

Today’s Thought
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
—President John F. Kennedy

I hear they’re going to replace the dollar bill with a metal coin.
It’s called the quarter.

July 16, 2009

Where are the risk-takers?

A new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor appears here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

EVERY NOW AND THEN I have to ask myself: Are we becoming a nation of wimps? I ask this question because just about every single cruising sailboat I come across has a roller-furling jib.

There are a few diehards, admittedly, who have hanked-on jibs, but we refer to them scathingly as “Larry Pardy-type purists.” When our inefficient roller-reefed jibs won’t get us home against the wind, we switch on the good old diesel engine. We’re scared to get out of the cockpit. We’re too frightened to go to the mast or, heaven forbid, the foredeck, to handle the sails. We lead all our sheets and halyards and reefing lines back aft, where they form miles of tangled spaghetti and block the cockpit.

All this while we peer myopically out of the comfort of the dodger (to protect us from those nasty elements), with the EPIRB ready for action, the VHF radio set to Channel 16 at our fingertips, three sets of automatic bilge pumps raring to go, and the six-man liferaft ready for launching from the cabintop.

Are we getting soft because of the kind of vehicles we drive these days? Our cars have moon roofs, heated seats, and twin-level air conditioning. Finger-light steering. Safety belts and air bags in the front and sides. GPS ladies with lovely voices to tell you when to turn. Crumpling front ends so we can crash into each other with impunity. There’s no choice any more. You can’t buy a new car without seat belts or dozens of other safety features mandated for you by a caring society. Your safety has become public business, and you’d better comply or face prosecution. Now it’s carried over into boats, the last refuge of freedom and individualism.

Sailors like Knox-Johnston and Moitessier didn’t even have lifelines around their decks, let alone furling jibs. They didn’t tie themselves to the boat with tethers. They recognized the dangers and judged themselves able to deal with them; which they were.

Is cruising attracting the wrong kind of people? Where are the adventurous risk-takers? Why are cruisers so different from the racers with hanked-on jibs who dominate the foredeck with cat-like tread and hurl themselves at breakneck speed through the Southern Ocean in boats they know will stay upside down if they capsize? Such racers are few, of course, and the cautious cruisers are many. There is a growing gulf between the adventurous devil-may-cares and the roller-reefing wimps, and I’m not sure it’s a healthy development for sailing or for the human race for that matter.

Today’s Thought
There are periods when the principles of experience need to be modified.... when in truth to dare is the highest wisdom.
—William Ellery Channing, Works, p.641

“I see your husband has given up smoking.”
“That’s right.”
“Must have taken an awful lot of willpower.”
“I have an awful lot of willpower.”

July 14, 2009

The luck of the Turk’s Head

Read a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
I DON’T SPEAK MUCH about this because, if too many people know about it, the magic disappears, but Turk’s Head knots bring good luck to a boat. I don’t know how I found this out. Perhaps it has something to do with enchanted circles. But I’ve had Turk’s Heads on every boat I’ve ever owned and I’ve always been wonderfully lucky. (Knock on wood.)

The Turk’s Head first intrigued me because it has no beginning and no end that you can see. It apparently acquired its name from its resemblance to a Turkish turban, or so they say. I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Over the years I have almost conquered my impulse to cover every cylindrical object on my boats with Turk’s Heads. I am quite proud that my present boat has only two, and those quite modest, both on the varnished tiller. They act as end stops for a fine white whipping that I use as a hand grip.

Visitors often ask if I made them myself, and I always think what a stupid question. Do they imagine you can buy them at West Marine and shrink them to size on the job, for Pete’s sake?
I learned to make Turk’s Heads when I was a teenager. I taught myself from illustrations in knot books. As a matter of fact, just about everything I know about sailing I learned from books, including celestial navigation. It just needs a little patience and some serious practice.

Brion Toss, a respected nautical rigger, calls the Turk’s Head a “miraculous knot.” You have to allow for the fact that Toss is completely captivated by knots but even so he has a point. He likes to talk about its range of usefulness and its “elegant mathematical underpinnings.”

The latter refers to the Law of Common Division with reference to Turk’s Heads, discovered early last century by Clifford Ashley and George H. Taber, some of the most famous knot-makers ever known. This law controls the construction of the knot, which is defined by the number of leads and bights, and it states that if the numbers of leads and bights can be divided by a common number, it won’t work. At least, not with a single cord. For example, it’s not possible to make a Turk’s Head with four leads and four bights. Four leads and five bights will work perfectly, though.

Now this, I can tell from the droop of your eyelids, is way more than you wanted to know. Relax. You really don’t need to bother your little mind with it. It’s easier just to follow the instructions in the book. And then sit back and wait for the luck that will surely follow. I promise.

Today’s Thought
Have but luck, and you will have the rest; be fortunate, and you will be thought great.
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Why are you stopping here?”
“This is Lovers’ Lane.”
“I suppose this is your ‘out of gas’ routine.”
“No, no, this is my ‘hereafter’ routine.”
“What’s that?”“Well, if you’re not here after what I’m here after, you’ll be here after I’m gone.

July 12, 2009

How not to paint your boat

This is where you’ll find a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday

A FEW WEEKS AGO my boat was out of the water. I had painted the bottom and was busy taking the seacocks to bits, cleaning them, greasing them, and doing my best to put them together in the right order again with no bits left over. It’s not my favorite job because most of these seacocks are hard to get at on my boat and I either end up hanging by my toes from a deck hatch or lying prone on the cabin floor trying to reach around the engine. Either way, I have to have to take a break now and then to ease my cramped muscles and aching bones.

On one such break I noticed a young man and his girlfriend painting a sailboat behind mine. They were rolling and brushing a twin-pack polyurethane onto the topsides. I was surprised to see that the paint was dark blue, because he had previously applied a white undercoat. I naturally assumed the top coat would be white, too. Wasn’t it Herreshoff who said there are only two colors to paint a boat — white and black? And only a fool would paint a boat black.

He was rolling the paint on, and she was tipping it off, brushing vertically, straight up and down. I could see disaster looming and I had to work hard to curb the impulse to go over and give them advice. I have learned, in my old age, that people don’t appreciate unsolicited advice, especially from strangers.

I was right, though. It was a disaster. The next day he was sanding it all off. What were his crimes?

Well, first of all it’s not the cleverest move to paint a boat dark blue if you’re an amateur working out in the open in a dusty, windy boatyard. Colors such as black, blue, and red are traps for the unwary. Their appeal is that they look magnificent when they’re correctly applied over an absolutely perfectly smooth base. But the problem is that they exaggerate every little flaw in the preparation and execution.

White is very forgiving. It doesn’t glitter and reflect with such overt enthusiasm as the show-off darker colors, but it shines with enough modest beauty for most of us, and it covers up a lot of amateur sins. It doesn’t fade in the sun, either, like red and blue. White is good. White is the industry standard.

Nevertheless, if you’re determined to go against the sagest advice and paint your hull dark blue, you should at least make the undercoat grey, not white. The dark blue on the young man’s boat came out blotchy blue because, where the new paint was scratched on thinner in some places, the white undercoat grinned through.

But the biggest crime, and the one that had me gritting my teeth, was that the young woman, coming along behind the roller, was tipping off the wet polyurethane in an up-and-down direction, instead of sweeping lightly in a horizontal direction. When you brush from side to side, gravity helps the paint to level itself better. It spreads itself out more evenly. When you paint up and down, gravity helps the paint to run down and collect at the bottom of the stroke. So they ended up with a blotchy blue bunch of blobs on their boat.

My boat was launched the next day and I’m glad to say none of the seacocks leaked. But I didn’t get to see the end of the blue-boat saga. I hope someone told the young lady she was doing it all wrong. I’m glad it wasn’t me, though. I don’t think I’m brave enough for that any more.

Today’s Thought
Perfection irritates as well as it attracts, in fiction as in life.
—Louis Auchincloss

A few years ago, before President Obama even thought about going to Ghana, a touring Brit entered a restaurant in deepest, darkest Africa with great caution. He found a table without fuss and sat down quietly.

When the waiter came, he asked timidly: “Do you still serve Englishmen here?”

“Yes sah,” said the waiter enthusiastically. “Rare, medium, or well done?”

July 9, 2009

Preparing a boat for sale

(Watch this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor.)

IF YOU’VE BEEN TRYING to sell a boat recently you’ll know that you have a lot of competition. The question then, is this: What can I do to make my boat stand out from the herd?

Well, if you’ve put it in the hands of a broker, move your boat as close to the broker’s office as possible. Brokers are human. They like to take the easy way out, too.

But whether you’re selling your boat through a broker or on your own, there are certain things that will make it more attractive to a potential buyer. Perhaps the most important is to clean and scrub the boat to within an inch of its life. Pay a professional detailer to do it if you can’t. It’s money well spent.

And always be aware of what I call the anathema list — things that will send buyers fleeing with muffled screams. These include:

Rust anywhere
Dirty, oily bilges
Leaky, mossy seacocks
Bad smells
Mildew or mold anywhere
Peeling varnish/flaking paint
Frayed wires
Torn sails
Torn or stained upholstery, and
Stiff, dirty running rigging

If you’re including a lot of gear in the sale, get most of it off the boat and present it somewhere else — in your garage, for example — as a bonus. A broker once told me that buyers don’t like to see your stuff on the boat. They want to imagine their own things there. So strip it down to the bare bones.

Another thing that impresses buyers is paperwork. Make up a loose-leaf binder with specs, records, and instructions such as how to tell when the holding tank is getting full, or how to start the engine. Note the kind of oil filter your engine needs and list helpful websites. Get the original owner’s manual. And, if you’ve got them, include records of engine services and repairs; if not, make up something reasonable that can’t be challenged. Buyers like the reassurance even if it guarantees nothing.

If you’re really serious, you might want to have your own survey done before you list the boat for sale. If you tell the surveyor you’re selling the boat, he or she might just be a bit more lenient. If not, you’ll have a good idea of where the trouble spots are, and you can either fix them now or start thinking of good arguments as to why they don’t affect the integrity of the boat.

A simple, basic tool kit and a few spare light bulbs is a nice touch. It gives buyers the impression that you’re a thoughtful owner who has taken good care of the boat. You might have to dirty up the tools a bit, though, to make them look at least a little used.

As for pricing — be reasonable. Go to http://www.yachtworld.com/ and see what other people are actually wanting for comparable boats. Ask for about 10 percent more than you want and let the buyer beat you down. He’ll feel clever and you’ll feel smug. But don’t ever feel hopeful about getting back all the money you’ve spent on your boat. Spending money on a boat is like spending money on a mistress. Kiss it goodbye, be thankful for the enjoyment it gave you, and move on.

Today’s Thought
Inequality of knowledge is the key to a sale.
—Deil O. Gustafson (real estate executive), Newsweek, 20 May 74

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.”

July 7, 2009

The fire that just won’t go out

This is where you’ll find a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can also browse among more than 100 archived columns over on the right.

LONG AGO I READ in one of Eric Hiscock’s fine cruising books that he always started salivating at the smell of burning stove alcohol. It was a signal, relayed to his brain by his nose, that his good wife, Susan, was down below preparing supper while he slaved away at the helm in mid-ocean. I hate to compare the venerable Hiscock with Pavlov’s dog, but I’m sure you can see the similarities.

Denatured alcohol, or methylated spirits as it is known in the rest of the English-speaking world, was used in those days, the middle of the 20th century, to preheat the burners on pressurized kerosene (paraffin) stoves such as the Primus and the Optimus. These pump-up stoves served sailors well for many years, but for the past decade or two a tinge of wimpishness has crept into small-boat galleys. Modern sailors brought up in a culture of instant gratification and enforced safety, where personal risk taking is often illegal, started complaining about the flare-ups that occur when you don’t wait long enough for the burner to get hot enough. Eyebrows and beards were singed. Galley curtains were lost. Fires were not unheard of.

So the manufacturers of boat stoves, responding to the plaintive whines of those untutored and unskilled in the ancient art of lighting a stove, turned away from kerosene and started producing pressurized alcohol stoves instead — much to the delight of the distillers of denatured alcohol whose product is two or three times as expensive as kerosene, despite the fact that it produces less heating energy by volume. The rationale behind this move, gladly accepted by gullible seacooks lacking eyebrows and galley curtains, was that you can put out an alcohol fire with water. That is not always the case, of course. It all depends. Sometimes throwing water on an alcohol fire just swishes the fire to a new location, floating on top of the water, where it can set something else ablaze.

But even with alcohol stoves there was a catch. They still had to be pre-heated, and pre-heated by a generation lacking in pre-heating skills. Flare-ups continued to occur. In some cases they were even more dangerous than kerosene flare-ups. When partially heated kerosene flares up it burns with a lovely orange-yellow flame framed by black, sooty smoke. You can’t miss the fact that it’s flaring up. But partially heated alcohol burns with an almost invisible flame. If you’re not particularly observant, especially in bright daylight, an alcohol flare-up will set your galley overhead ablaze before you’re even aware of it.

So the stove manufacturers put on their thinking caps again and came up with the latest thing in stoves, the non-pressurized alcohol stove. It’s really no more than a glorified version of Sterno’s Canned Heat at about 500 times the price. It takes longer to cook things but it satisfies the craving for safety among those too cowardly to expose themselves to pressurized alcohol or (heaven forfend!) propane gas.

But that’s not the end of the story. As an old kerosene Primus lover and the present owner of a pressurized alcohol stove, I am delighted to report that flare-ups occur among non-pressurized alcohol stoves, too. A letter to the editors of Good Old Boat magazine complains about wind swirling the flame under the stovetop, superheating the metal top and the surrounding wooden counter edging. The editors responded: “We have had our Origo non-pressurized alcohol stove go critical as well. Oddly enough, it always happens to us when the fuel canister is very nearly empty.”

So maybe one of these days the circle will be complete and we’ll get back to pressurized kerosene stoves again. Maybe people will relearn the lost virtue of patience, of waiting an extra minute or two while the burner gets hot. If they want lessons, I can teach them.

Today’s Thought
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
—John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic

“And what is your name, my good man?”
“James, madam.”
“I’m not accustomed to calling my chauffeurs by their first names. What is your last name?”
“Darling, madam.”
“Very well, drive on, James.”

July 5, 2009

Do women like sailing?

Mainly About Boats: Check back here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new column by John Vigor.

DELICATE SUBJECT THIS: Do women really like sailing? It’s a question that occurred to me during a recent meeting of a little committee whose members write and edit articles for our local yacht club’s newsletter.

The editor wanted to know: Are we having enough articles of interest to women members? Recipes, for instance. Or: Where can they get nice nautical fabric for settee cushions? Or: What’s the best detergent for washing up in salt water?

Then it occurred to me that these questions are nonsense. Women sailors are no different from men sailors, except they smell better and seem to stay cleaner longer. Sailors are sailors, and if women are interested in sailing they’ll be learning all the same stuff that men learn.

The truth is that most people don’t like sailing. It’s a minority sport. But those who do sail aren’t divided into categories by gender. We all know women who have sailed around the world singlehanded and non-stop. Perhaps they weren’t the first to do it because they had a lot of catching up to do after Ms Pankhurst and her women warriors first managed to start the equality ball rolling, but there’s no reason now to think women aren’t the equal of men as sailors.

What may be confusing is that there are probably fewer women than men whose ambition is to sail a boat. And that’s probably very wise of them, considering that sailing a small boat is the slowest, most uncomfortable, and most expensive method of travel known to mankind.

The fact that there are still special sailing schools run by women for women seems to me to be an anachronism. I think they sprang up because of a nasty rumor that men are prone to shout at women who can’t perform a simple action after being shown how to do it a hundred times. Women don’t shout at women, apparently. The teacher just does it for the pupil and keeps the peace. But what worries me is that when they have graduated, those women will have to sail with men again, so they might as well have got shouted at in the first place and have it all over and done with. If it’s true about men shouting, of course, which I’ve never seen proven.

But, anyway, to presume that women sailors want special articles in the club newsletter about how to butter parsnips or sauté mangel-wurzels seems demeaning. Women who like sailing want to know how to tell the difference between variation and deviation and where the deepest chord of the mainsail should lie in heavy weather. And if nice nautical fabric is needed for new cushions, why shouldn’t it be a man who searches for it, rather than a woman? Come to think of it, maybe it’s time for a woman editor for the club newsletter. Then the questions wouldn’t even be asked.

Today’s Thought
If men are always more or less deceived on the subject of women, it is because they forget that they and women do not speak altogether the same language.
—Amiel, Journal, 26 Dec 1868

“Did you visit that spiritualist last night?”
“Was she a good one?”
“Not really, just a medium.”

July 2, 2009

The law is an ass

Watch out for John Vigor’s Mainly About Boats column every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday ... three new columns every week.

I HAVE A CLEAR RECOLLECTION of an incident from my dinghy-racing days when I felt I was unfairly required to give way to another boat. I was sailing an 11-foot International Mirror dinghy, pointing as high as the gunter rig would let me on, the port tack.

Behind me, and to leeward, was a friend of mine in a larger Finn-class dinghy. He was pointing higher than me and going faster. It wasn’t long before he was shouting at me to get out of his way.

My first instinct was to ignore him, but then I thought of the possibility of a collision and a protest that I might lose. I didn’t think it was likely that I would lose, but ... I was in the lead in my class at the time, and I could afford to lose a little time by tacking out of the Finn’s way, which I did with a lot of grumbling.

The rule cited by my friend was a very basic one from the international collision regulations: when two sailboats are on the same tack, the windward boat gives way to the leeward boat. I personally don’t think it was ever meant to be applied in these conditions, where a bigger faster and more close-winded boat is approaching a smaller, slower boat that can’t point as high — which makes it difficult for the smaller boat to get out of his way.

The racing rules apart, I wonder which of the two international rules would count in this situation. The rule that overrides all others is: the overtaking vessel must keep clear of the other vessel. If you in your sailboat start overtaking a Bayliner powerboat, it’s your duty to keep clear of him. So why should a Finn have right of way over a Mirror he’s overtaking? Grumble, grumble.

If you are under sail alone, you must also keep clear of:

► Vessels not under command
► Vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver
► Vessels constrained by their draft, and
► Vessels engaged in a manner of fishing that hampers their ability to maneuver

If you and another sailboat are on opposite tacks, the boat on port tack must give way to the other vessel. And finally, if you’re on port tack and you can see a sailboat to windward, but you can’t figure out which tack she’s on, you must take action to keep clear of the other boat. This could work to your advantage if you’re the windward boat, of course, and running dead downwind. Just keep jibing from port tack to starboard. That should send the other boat fleeing for cover. It’s not in the spirit of the rules, of course, but what the hell, few sailboat racers can claim to be angels, or even want to be.

Todays Thought
I don’t see the use in drawin’ hard and fast rules. You only have to break them.
—John Galsworthy, Eldest Son.

“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Good grief, no.”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“No, no, go away!”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Leave me alone, you’re far too young. Shoo!”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake … alright, how many d’you want?”