July 29, 2010

Sorry to be a PITA

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

THIS JUST IN via USPS snailmail:

Dear Sir or Madman:

I write on behalf of the Federal Blogger Police (FBP). UR hereby charged with using language unsuitable for blog. In the past week, we have received 3 separ8 complaints.

For a start, UR accused of always putting in all the correct hyphens and apostrophes. A true blogger has no idea what 2 do with an apostrophe and can’t even pronounce it. And in any case WGARA* for apostrophes anyway?

And where are the smilies, man, the smilies? Just cuz UR a WOG it doesn’t mean you can ignore smilies. Wuzup wid U, dude? Everybody likes a smilie to help them ROTFL.

And then there’s all these big words U use. We gotta give it 2 U str8t — URAPITA with the jawbreakers, man. And Latin, fer gawd’s sake. All that i.e. stuff and etc. stuff. Fugedaboudit willya? Loosen up, OK, cuz otherwise UR blogger license will be revoked 4thwith (if not 5thwith) for masquerading as a blogger when in fact UR a columnist.

URs sincerely,

Ben Touta Shape, Chief Watchdog, U.S. Federal Blogger Patrol

Omigod, Ben, I’m so sorry. I plead guilty. I did use an i.e. the other day. It just slipped out, honest. It was just sitting there, balancing on the edge of my brain while I wrote, and it fell straight into my column — er, blog. But it isn’t rude or anything. Id est (i.e.) is just a short way of saying “that is,” just as viz. is short for namely. That comes from videlicet. You see, Latin was centuries ahead of blogger English with its abbreviations, and the “z” is an old form of shortening. We still use it today in words like oz.

You must have seen oz. in recipes or on your Wheaties box, Ben. Five oz. and 500 calories, right? And you must surely have heard of that famous Judy Garland movie, The Wizard of Ounces. Or was it The Wizard of Australia? I forget.

Never mind. I just wish those complaining bloggers would mind their own business and not bring their complaints to you. If I had my way I’d tell them to blogger off before I set my big bad blogdog on them.

Okay, now IGGP :(, so HAGO and TTFN.

* Click here for translation: http://www.netlingo.com/acronyms.php

Today’s Thought
One attraction of Latin is that you can immerse yourself in the poems of Horace and Catullus without fretting over how to say, “Have a nice day.”
— Peter Brodie

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #76
First aid. The basic rule of thumb is: Don’t panic. Make haste slowly.

There are only three situations when really fast action is called for: starting breathing, stopping bleeding, and snakebite. Luckily, snakebite is rare on yachts.

In other cases you’ll have more time than medical knowledge at your disposal, so follow Rule #2: Take first aid to the victim, not vice versa.

The weaker sex is the stronger sex only because of the weakness of the stronger sex for the weaker sex.

July 27, 2010

The smelly little fellas

A WOMAN READER IN DENMARK asks for my help. “My bilge smells,” she says, “I keep it clean and wash it out regularly but it always smells. Is there an answer?”

Well, Gertruda, this is something most sailors don’t talk about in public. It’s one of those little secrets: most sailboat bilges smell. It’s the micro-organisms, you see — the really little fellas. The really feisty little bugs.

You actually need a microscope to see what’s going on in your bilge. There are literally billions of crude forms of life down there, all too small for the human eye to see, and all enjoying a non-stop, uninhibited, riotous party.

You might well think that your efforts at cleaning the bilge would rob them of their food, that they would just dry up and fade away, but alas, the mere presence of human beings is sustenance enough for them, especially as they’re not particularly fussy about their diet.

We purposely don’t think about this much, but human beings are self-shucking. Every time a human body moves it sheds millions of tiny particles of old skin. It’s called scurf — little dry scales that pop off as new skin grows underneath. As far as the little fellas are concerned, we are walking clouds of wholesome food that eventually float down to the bilge. It’s followed closely by those minute particle of skin, feathers, and flesh that we call dander.

All this is like steak and potatoes to the little fellas but they get plenty of dessert, too. Sweat and dirt from human body parts flow into the bilge after showers. Slimy water from the ice-box drains into the bilge. There are delicious drips of diesel fuel and engine oil. There is spilled beer that starts yummy yeast plants growing, bits of gloriously rotted hamburger, marvelous mixed grills from under your toenails, tasty gobs of fish bait that got stuck to your shoes, and a host of other toothsome morsels — thanks to gravity, it all ends up in the bilge. And if you mix in a little water, you have a real witches’ brew.

Now, I know this is a delicate subject, Gertruda, but none of these little fellas uses underarm deodorant. None of them knows where the bathroom is. None of them cares. They just do it right where they are. None of them uses mouthwash and all have halitosis. They constantly burp and pass wind. No wonder the bilge smells.

Gertruda, the only way to prevent odors is to keep the bilge perfectly dry. In drought mode, the little fellas hibernate and don’t cause any trouble. The problem is that it’s not possible to keep the bilge absolutely dry on most boats. There’s always a little moisture down there somewhere. So the bilge will always smell, and in polite company nobody will mention it. And that includes you, Gertruda, okay?

Today’s Thought
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
— Shakespeare, Macbeth. Act v, sc. 1

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #75
Extinguishing fire. Fire at sea is a fearsome thing. Here are three basic ways to put out a fire:
--Starve it of oxygen;
--Remove the material it’s feeding on; or
--Cool the burning material below its combustion point.
As a general rule always aim an extinguisher at the base of the fire, not at the top or middle of the flames. It also makes sense to keep extinguishers near, but not exactly at, places where fire is most likely to break out, such as the galley and the engine.

“Anything to declare, Mr. MacTavish?”
“Och, I dinna think so. It’s all clothing.”
“Aha — and what’s this bottle of whisky, then?”
“Hoots mon, that’s ma nightcap.”

July 25, 2010

My purpose on Earth

(See this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for another Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor)

BEING OF A HUMBLE NATURE I don’t mention this often, but some people think I’m perfect.

Yes, they do. Perfect. Some. I didn’t say all. Ivor Tungin-Cheaque is one for a start. He’s chairman of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club and he’s my biggest fan.

But sad to say, I’m not perfect. Sorry Ivor. There is one minor flaw in my character that I recognize as an imperfection. I confess that I like to sail rings around other yachts. And “like” might be a small understatement. Take a great delight in, actually.

I did it again yesterday. Took the little Mirror for a singlehanded spin, the first time in years. Beautiful warm 10-knot breeze, cloudless sky, snow-capped Mt. Baker hovering in the background.

Bellingham Bay is six miles across and crossing it in a small dinghy can get boring, so the kayaks and speed rowers and small centerboard sailboats mostly stick reasonably close to shore where they can shout rude things at landlubbers but still be out of range of thrown stones. But I felt the need to get away from everything so I headed offshore, perched on the gunwale and bashing along beautifully.

And then, when I was about two miles out, I spied a sailboat of about 26 feet sailing under full main and a 150 genoa. And something came over me. The old thing. The bad thing.

I watched him for a minute or two and it seemed I was gaining on him. That’s very important. I’m not in this for fun. I have to be faster, or it’s no contest. I’m not stupid, thank you very much.

So I trimmed the jib for a best beat and started concentrating on the telltales. The bottom two were fine, alternately lifting and lying flat in unison like a well disciplined pair of twins. But the top one was a little off. The head wasn’t twisting enough. Well, we know what to do. We have to move the jib fairlead aft to cure that. But you can’t do that on a Mirror. The fairlead is fixed. On a Mirror you cure that by moving the whole jib up or down the forestay. But it’s so long since I raced a Mirror I couldn’t remember whether I should move it up or down, and in any case I could only move it up because it was already down as far as it could get, and changing it would mean heaving to and losing time so I thought to myself “Bugger it,” I thought, “Bugger it, I will still sail rings around him even though I am handicapped.”

Now all this thinking took some time and when I looked up again I could see that we were much closer to the quarry, and not only closer but pointing higher, to boot. I don’t know what kind of boat it was, but it was a plastic sloop, with a big V on the mainsail with one man in the cockpit, looking back at me with what I imagined to be a mild form of alarm on his face.

I ignored him of course. I always do that. It’s not nice to jeer. Not out loud, anyway. I zipped past him well to windward and then gradually fell off onto a broad reach, making lots of foam. I crossed his bow, jibed, and headed back the way I’d come. Then I hardened up and crossed his wake. It’s always hard not to look at the victim at this stage. I always imagine he’s jumping up and down and shaking his fist and mouthing obscenities. But I was brave and didn’t look. I bit my lip and stared straight ahead at the jib telltales.

“Aha!” I thought to myself. “Another notch in my belt. And with a bad jib, too.”

And total peace descended over me. A great contentment flooded my soul. “How often,” I thought, “do we humans question why we were put on Earth? I don’t question. I know. I was put on Earth to sail rings around other boats. It doesn’t make me perfect. But believe me, it’s wonderful, just wonderful.

Today’s Thought
So who’s perfect? ... Washington had false teeth. Franklin was nearsighted. Mussolini had syphilis. Unpleasant things have been said about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Tchaikovsky had his problems, too. And Lincoln was constipated.
— John O’Hara, Carte Blanche, Fall 65

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #74
Figureheads. The old rule of thumb was that a real human head should be placed on the bowsprit of a vessel starting her first voyage. Often, the head was that of a beautiful maiden. Hence, the term maiden voyage. The head was supposed to provide the ship with a soul.

Today, in the age of female emancipation, mariners no longer dare use live maidens for figureheads, which may explain the glut of soulless look-alike vessels that fill our marinas today.

“Do you really believe kissing is unhealthy?”
“Definitely. Your husband is watching.”

July 22, 2010

A whale of a tale

(Check in every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

TOO MANY PEOPLE talk too much rubbish about sailing. Columnist Jean Howard recently commented on that extraordinary incident off Cape Town, when a young Southern Right Whale leaped out of the water and crashed into a 33-foot steel yacht under sail, bringing down its mast.

Howard said: “When you are around a whale or shark, you have to realize the immediate danger and potential risk you are taking, whether you are a trained professional or not.”

Well duh! And how does Ms Howard think a sailboat can keep out of the way of a whale? It’s all very well to say that you have to keep at least 1,000 yards away from whales, but how the heck do you know if you’re 1,000 yards away from a whale? I wonder if Ms Howard has ever considered that whales under water are invisible to humans on the surface.

If I see a whale blowing, I do my best to determine which way it is traveling, and maneuver to keep well away, because I am dead scared of whales and have no wish to see one close-up. But it’s not often easy to estimate a whale’s track from the low vantage point of a sailboat, especially if there’s any kind of swell running.

Just last year, in my 27-foot Cape Dory, I found myself running into a pod of killer whales on a reciprocal course. They were slightly off to starboard, so I cut the engine and steered to port – only to find two more ahead, coming my way, on the port side. I held my breath while they flashed by on either side. What would an expert like Ms Howard have done, I wonder? Maybe, with the help of her angel wings, she would have levitated.

It was this sort of whale that knocked the fin keel off a 30-foot boat in the first Cape to Rio Race in 1971 and sank it a thousand miles from land. I didn’t need to be reminded by a landlubber how dangerous they are.

When I first saw the picture of the Cape Town whale, I was skeptical. I thought the major miracle was the fact that someone somehow managed to get a picture of the action. I naturally thought the photo was falsified. Photoshop has a lot to answer for. There’s no knowing these days if a picture is genuine or not. But it turned out that several boats were out whale-watching, and the tourists had their cameras to their eyes.

Luckily, no one was hurt and the damage to that tough steel boat was less than you might expect. The couple on board managed to motor home, badly shaken but with one humdinger of a story to tell — and pictures to prove it.

Today’s Thought
If the danger seems slight, then truly it is not slight.
— Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientarium: Principiis Obstare

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #73
Height of fiddles. All seagoing yachts need fiddles. The old rule of thumb was that a yacht’s saloon table should be fitted with fiddles 1 1/2 inches high. Such fiddles, correctly spaced according to the size of plates, will keep a meal securely in place at quite steep angle of heel. They should fold down or be removable to allow other work, especially in port.

“Your car holds the road very firmly. Special suspension?”
“Nah, it’s the heavy installments.”

July 20, 2010

Boatless and joyful

ONE OF MY MOST enjoyable pastimes at the moment is reading the boating bulletin boards. You know, the ones where people ask each other for help about bilge pumps that don’t work, and engines that won’t start, and leaks they can’t plug.

None of that affects me now, but I love to read about it (shuddering with Schadenfreude) because I have sold my boat.

I sold it four times, actually. (I may have mentioned before that nothing to do with boats is easy.) The first buyer drove 850 miles from California in a blazing hurry. He looked at the boat, loved it, and offered my full asking price. We had him around to dinner at home, and the next day I took him for a test sail. That evening he called from his hotel room. “I’ve made a dreadful mistake,” he said.

I think he discovered during the test sail that he had no idea how to handle the boat. This little practical matter had been smothered by his vision of cocktails at anchor in a beautiful wooded cove somewhere.

He wrote a touching note of apology and left it, together with $100 in cash, in a drawer on the boat. “I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused,” he said.

I called him as he was driving back to California and said I couldn’t possibly accept his $100, but he was quite adamant. So I thought to myself “Wow, if I get a few more customers like this I can set up a nice new business.” But nobody else ponied up like he did.

The second buyers were two nice ladies who fell in love with the boat but couldn’t raise a loan from their credit union. The third buyer was a man with a wife problem. He badly wanted the boat, but his wife, a rather rotund person, couldn’t manage the gap between the boat and the dock without sitting down and making a public spectacle of herself as she sort of flowed across like a giant amoeba. So after a lot of agonizing, he backed out, too.

Then came a whole slew of tire-kickers, young men looking for a boat to live aboard, and their fathers urging them on. I advised them to buy Catalinas, which have more room and cost half as much as Cape Dories.

Finally, along came a very nice lady who wanted to teach her 11-year-old daughter to sail and explore the wild islands to the north of us. She beat me down $1,500 from my asking price, paid cash, and motored off into the blue.

So now I am boatless in Bellingham and thoroughly enjoying it. How long this euphoria will last, I can’t say. I have been through this stage several times in my life and it always ends up with some boat catching my eye, then filling my heart, then emptying my pocketbook.

Meanwhile, however, I urge all of you boatowners to keep up the whining and complaining on the bulletin boards. You’ve no idea how good it makes me feel.

Today’s Thought
Inequality of knowledge is the key to a sale.
— Deil O. Gustafson, real estate executive

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #72
Hull thickness, fiberglass. The general rule is that skin thickness in inches should equal at least 0.07 plus the waterline length in feet divided by 150.
Thickness usually varies from topsides downward, with about 15 percent less than average hull thickness in the upper topsides, and about 15 percent more at and below the waterline. Incidentally, powerboats should increase thickness by about 1 percent for every knot of boat speed over 10 knots.

Here’s some nice fresh vegetarian verse for you (organic, of course):

The vegetable broccoli,
While not exoccoli,
Is within an inch
Of being spinch.

July 18, 2010

Why cruisers should race

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

THE OTHER DAY I was telling Old Wotsisname how my friend Mike keeps winning sailboat races with a really heavy old boat and well-worn sails. There was a thought in the back of my mind that OW might be persuaded to enter a race or two, and so improve his sailing skills.

But he wasn’t interested. He knows his old concrete barge is slow, but he thinks seaworthiness makes up for it. He has never raced in his life and never intends to.

That’s a great pity because many a die-hard cruising sailor could benefit greatly from racing. Joseph Conrad once said the sailing of yachts is a fine art. And I can add that the racing of yachts is an even finer art.

Whether you’re cruising or racing, you’re deriving power from an invisible source. You can’t see the wind that is interacting with your sails in aerodynamically important ways to move the boat forward. We know some of the theories, admittedly, but we can’t actually see the flow of air, so we have to rely on second-hand information from little flapping tell-tales and the slight lifting of the luff. We sense what is happening to the sails from the way the boat heels in a puff, and the way the tiller pulls.

Racing teaches you to interpret these signs (and to act of them) in a way that cruising rarely does because when you are racing you have other similar boats around you all the time, and you can actually see the immediate result of hardening the mainsail or easing the genoa from the gains or losses you register against your opponents.

But even more importantly, racing teaches you to read the wind the way a good surfer or white-water rafter reads the water. Trimming your sails for the best speed is always a good idea, of course, and knowing whether it’s better to pinch or foot is important, too, but none of this fine-tuning is going to help you recover from a disastrous wind shift. Knowing how to tell if the wind is likely to back or veer in a big way is probably the most important asset a racing skipper can possess. It takes practice and experience with the compass to distinguish between persistent shifts and transient oscillations, but getting on the right side of wind shifts is like finding the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Observation is the key here, and the first skipper to realize that the wind always veers where it hits the deep-water channel after blowing across the sandbanks in a light northeaster is the one who will be adding more silver to his trophy collection at the end of the season.

Racing teaches you to lee-bow a current so that you get squeezed to windward for free. It teaches you to play things safe by not going too far out to the laylines in fluky winds and by always staying between the next mark and your closest competitor.

In other words, racing makes you more keenly aware of your boat’s abilities and your whole environment — and how to take advantage of both. Racing builds up your knowledge and it hones your skills.

When a racing man goes cruising he doesn’t have to react to every wind shift by changing course or sweating in the jib. He doesn’t need to exert himself to squeeze out an extra quarter-knot. But he’s better off for knowing how to do it, if he should suddenly be called upon to do so. Just being more in tune with your boat makes you think, and keeps you alert to the possibilities — which, in turn, makes for safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable cruising.

Today’s Thought
Thou shalt not covet: but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
— Arthur Hugh Clough, The Latest Decalogue

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #71
Cored decks. Foam sandwich or balsa-cored decks (and hulls) are thicker than solid fiberglass, but about eight times stiffer for the same amount of fiberglass. The dimensions of a composite sandwich are:
Core: 2.2 times the thickness of an equivalent fiberglass skin.
Inner fiberglass skin: 0.3 times the single-skin thickness.
Outer fiberglass skin: 0.4 times the single-skin thickness.

“Is it true that a man in your bar swallowed a boomerang?”
“Yup, that’s correct. Had to throw him out 12 times.”

July 15, 2010

The new way to win

YOU REMEMBER my friend Mike, don’t you? Yes, you do. I wrote about him last Monday. He’s the one who keeps winning sailboat races. I warned him that if he keeps on coming first, he’ll soon have no-one to race against.

Here’s what he has to say in his defense:

“Imagine turning to one of my favorite blogs only to see my reputation posted for the world to see ... humiliating, but quite an honor!

“Anyhow, while I do admit to being competitive, I really am not trying to win all the time — and actually we did achieve a second place last week, to break our run of firsts.

“You should know that I race with a 16-kg Bruce anchor on the bow, with 100 feet of chain and 150 feet of rode attached. There are two other anchors with chain and rode in the lazarette. I filled the water tanks recently and the fuel tank stands at 3/4 full. We could eat for weeks with all the food on board and cook it all with the two full CNG tanks.

“Do you need a 1/4-inch, 24-thread, 2-inch-long stainless-steel bolt, with nut and washers? Or a #6 2.5-inch stainless-steel, oval-head machine screw? Yep, they're probably in the spares kit along with the rebuild kits for the head and water pump.

“I guess I shouldn't be concerned that the boat is only 36 years old and the sail inventory only averages 13 years. I added the 8-hp outboard to the lazarette last week, so I guess we finally found a way to slow down. If not, I guess we'll have to start backwards.

“I will chastise the crew next race if we continue to do well and will pass on your comments about too-frequent winning in hopes of not discouraging others to race.”

Well, now I’m not sure what to think. Here we have an old, overloaded boat with well-used sails, and it keeps winning races. Damn. I never thought of that. In my racing days I always tried for the newest, lightest boat and the best sails I could afford. Stupid, stupid. No wonder I never, ever, won six times in a row.

I should have loaded up with spare parts and more food and heavy propane tanks. I should have topped up the water tanks and brought the saloon cushions back on board. I should have bent on my blown-out cruising sails and crammed a few more crewmembers into the cockpit.

Old and heavy and inefficient. That’s the new formula for winning yacht races. And now I can’t help thinking how selfish Mike was to keep it secret for so long.

Today’s Thought
I always turn to the sports page first ... They record people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failure.
— Earl Warren, former Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #70
Fender size. How fat should your boat fenders be? The old rule says they should have a diameter of 1 inch for every 5 feet of boat length. In other words, 5-inch fenders for a 25-footer, 6-inch footers for a 30-footer and gigantic fenders for a 100-footer.

The latest statistics reveal that 10 percent of auto accidents are caused by people who drink. Therefore, 90 percent of all auto accidents are caused by people who do not drink.
That being so, non-drinkers have nine times as many accidents as drinkers.
Isn’t it about time we banned non-drinkers from the roads?

July 13, 2010

Democracy afloat

A SAILBOAT AT SEA is the perfect example of a working democracy.

(And what, you might ask, set you off on this tack? Never mind that now. Just listen, if you don’t mind.)

Imagine you are a molecule of fiberglass at the waterline in the bow of a boat. A wave comes along and your natural response is to rise. And naturally, you believe in every atom of your fiber that the whole boat should rise with you.

But back aft, another molecule feels the water falling away from him. His reaction is to drop in obedience to gravity, and take the whole boat with him. But the trouble is that both of you are solidly fixed to other molecules along the whole length of the boat, and neither of you has the power to control the movement of the whole boat.

Now this is not a new discovery. It has been going on for ages. And, to resolve the problem, the fiberglass molecules long ago formed political parties in the ancient Greek tradition of democracy.

When members of the right-wing Fore Party want the whole boat to rise with a swell they threaten the Midships Party with break-up unless it follows suit. But the Fore Party, while rich in rhetoric, lacks political clout. In fact, much to the distress of the other two parties, the middle-of-the-road Midships Party is the real dealmaker here. Naturally, the liberal-leaning Aft Party tries to influence the Midships Party with promises rather than threats, but all these parties merely react to events over which they have no control.

Nevertheless, what happens to the ship as a whole is governed largely by the Midships Party. Occasionally, the Fore Party might win and throw the bows high in the air over a passing crest. Similarly, the Aft Party might score a rare victory by dipping the stern in a deep trough. But in true democratic fashion it’s the middle that wins most of the time, proudly flaunting its election slogan: What’s Best for the Middle is Best for All.

On a quiet night at anchor, you might catch a hint of some of the incessant argument and jockeying for power. You might hear futile requests to stop making waves, and heartfelt pleas to recognize that we’re all in the same boat here. Someone’s wind will be taken out of his sails. Someone else will be taken aback at a new tack proposed by the party leader.

If you listen carefully, you might hear little groans from the hull as the boat rolls gently and the Fore Party slaps its collective forehead at the obduracy of the other stupid idiots to whom it is linked.

I can only hope this democratic movement lasts a long time. It is little understood and little observed but I have no doubt it has its own set of spokesmen, pollsters, and lobbyists. I hope, too, that the lobbyists never gain as much power as those in present-day Washington have. It would be nothing less than a disaster if those troublemakers up forward turned into a breakaway party.

Today’s Thought
The struggle is confused; our knight wins by no clean thrust of lance or sword, but the dragon somehow poops out, and decent democracy is victor.
— Norman Thomas

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #69
Exhaust-line pitch. Engine exhaust piping that is cooled with water must, of course, run downhill. The rule of thumb is that it should have a continuous drop of 1 inch for every two feet of run.

“Have I told you about my latest trip to the North Pole?”
“No, and I much appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

July 11, 2010

Time to throw races

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

I HEAR ON THE GRAPEVINE that a friend of mine has won all six of the last sailboat races he entered.

Oh Mike, how could you? Surely you know better. There is no quicker way to ruin yacht racing. You might think your prowess should encourage other competitors to get better, to become as good as you. But no. They’re only human. They are discouraged. Very discouraged.

Perhaps a sense of entitlement creeps in. I mean, they re-mortgage their houses and borrow all of their kids’ college money to buy a hot boat. They practice, they have their sails recut, and the bottom paint burnished. They get the latest weather forecasts, they drill their crews till they drop, and they learn the racing rules off by heart. Shouldn’t they be entitled to win a race now and then? But no. Week after week that blankety-blank Mike still finishes first. So why should they beat their heads against the wall? Racing entries drop off. Suddenly nobody wants to be on the racing committee. Suddenly nobody is volunteering to man the rescue boat. Suddenly golf is beginning to look very attractive.

There are surely times when an unreasonably consistent winner should deliberately throw races. Get ahead if you have to for your own satisfaction and then do something silly without making it look deliberate.

Mike, coming second, or even third, is not so bad, especially if it means you’ll have someone to race against in future.

Today’s Thought
To take the measure of oneself by reference to one’s colleagues leads to envy or complacency rather than constructive self-examination.
— Benno C. Schmidt Jr., President, Yale

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #68
Checking oil level. The rule of thumb is that you can’t check the engine oil level too frequently. Do it at least once a day and preferably before every start. And be very suspicious of levels that are higher or lower than normal.

Somerset Maugham was once cornered at a cocktail party by a young writer who couldn’t think of a title for his new novel.
“Are there any drums in it?” asked Maugham.
“No, sir. It’s not that kind of book.”
Are there any bugles in it?”
“Then call it No Drums, No Bugles.”

July 8, 2010

Charting old memories

(Read a new Mainly about Boats column here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

G. K. CHESTERTON the British writer, critic, and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories once described how he evoked the emotions of a vacation by calling a cab, piling it up with luggage, and driving to the railway station. Then, having had his sensation, he drove home again.

Mr. Chesterton’s little eccentricity was harmless enough, certainly, but most sailors I know would get just as much in the way of belated emotional thrills by perusing the old paper charts of their favorite cruising grounds.

(Incidentally, perhaps I should be more careful about labeling Mr. Chesterton as eccentric. I have literally hundreds of paper charts stuffed under my marital bed and a nearby couch for wont of adequate stowage anywhere else in my home, and I find nothing eccentric about that. I have never owned a boat big enough to accommodate them all at one time. I admit that my dear wife has from time to time mentioned her unease with this arrangement, especially with regard to vacuuming under the bed and its attendant difficulties, but so far the word eccentric has not come into the equation.)

The thing is, paper charts, with their hand-drawn course lines, ancient annotations, recommendations, and warnings, are the magic carpets that whisk us away from the banalities of this careworn earth and transport us in the blink of an eyelid to sunny beaches, serene anchorages — and other less enticing places.

Nothing sends a frisson down my spine as quickly as the word “FOG!!” scrawled on the chart of the San Juan Channel, where, I now recall in the warmth and safety of my home, a Washington State ferry on a collision course with us was swallowed up in thick grey mist. I can laugh about it now, of course, smug in the knowledge that I took the right decision to keep out of his way. At the time, however, it was quite another matter and only the deep handprints I crushed into the varnished tiller bear the true testimony of my feelings then.

And there is my salt-stained chart of Cape Agulhas, criss-crossed with penciled bearings from that powerful lighthouse and the shaky words “Rounded at last.” Our joy at doubling Africa’s southernmost cape against storms and contrary winds comes flooding back — perhaps with even greater evocation than that which Mr. Chesterton managed to wrest from his piles of suitcases.

Today’s Thought
Our memories are card indexes—consulted, and then put back in disorder by authorities whom we do not control.
— Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #67
Engine air. Engine compartments need lots of cool, dry, clean air. Without blowers, the very minimum air vent area for natural ventilation is found by dividing engine horsepower by 3.3. The answer is in square inches.

“Doctor, my husband has a dreadful temperature.”
“What is it, exactly?”
“It’s about 150 degrees.”
“Then give him two aspirins and call the fire brigade.”

July 6, 2010

Computers know best

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

IN THE BEGINNING there was flax. And flax begat cotton. And cotton begat a whole bunch of exotic chemical compounds derived from oil. We have entered the Plastic Age of sails.

Laminates of Mylar, Kevlar, Spectra, nylon and Dacron are light, air-tight, and stretch-resistant. Sailmakers now talk of “building” sails instead of “making” them, although they still describe themselves as sailmakers rather than sailbuilders. Computers design sails now. They’re even being fashioned on full-size molds of the exact shape required.

But they’re still the mysterious, magic engines we have always known, although not understood. What we do understand is that small differences in shape make large differences in performance.

Lowell North said in a November 1996 interview in Latitude 38 magazine that computers now designs better sails than humans do. And not even the best intuitive sailmakers can see the difference.

Aha, I hear a cry from the back over there. “Who’s Lowell North?” you say.

Ignoramus. He’s the Olympic gold medalist who founded North Sails and built it into the biggest sailmaking firm in the world before selling out in the 1980s.

“None of us could tell which sail was fastest by just looking at it or looking at 3-D pictures of it,” he admitted. “No way — not one of us had a clue. I had figured I knew exactly what a fast sail should look like. But it wasn’t until we came to accept the fact that we didn’t really know what a fast sail should look like that we really began to make progress.”

Today’s Thought
Men are going to have to learns to be managers in a world where the organization will come close to consisting of all chiefs and one Indian. The Indian, of course, is the computer.
— Thomas L. Whisler, Professor of Business, U of Chicago

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #66
Engine blowers. Two of the most important rules of thumb for engine compartment blowers on gasoline engines:
—They should always be set to blow air out, not in; and
—They should be run for at least five minutes before starting the engine.

“Every time I sneeze I’m overcome with hot passion.”
“Good grief. What do you take for it?”
“Black pepper.”

July 4, 2010

Cruising in perspective

THOSE OF YOU who have read the latest issue of Good Old Boat magazine to the very last page will know that I have just returned from a voyage to Alaska in a cruise ship.

I have to admit that it is something I swore I would never do. I have often looked up from the cockpit of my small sailboat at some passing cruise ship and scoffed at how the passengers are insulated from the sights and sounds of nature in the raw. I have noted with scorn how the occupants of these vast floating castles peer out from behind their facades of glass, cocktails in hand, in air conditioned comfort while we, mere specks down below, experience the full and glorious effects upon our bodies and souls of the winds and waves. And the rain, of course. And the cold. But as I’ve always maintained, a little suffering undoubtedly adds keenness to the experience.

However, all that changed when my sister came to visit us from South Africa and wanted to see Alaska. A cruise ship seemed to be the easy way to do it, and I buckled. By way of compromise, I chose the cheapest cabin on the boat, way down in steerage just clear of the bilge water and next to the steering gear, the propellers, and the noisy stern thruster. I reckoned that seven nights of sleepless hell would provide the suffering so necessary to enjoy fully nature in the raw in the form of icebergs, glaciers, and grand coastal mountain ranges.

It occurred to me early one morning then the stern thruster was grinding away that there is a distinct difference between modern cruise ships and the old ocean liners I have traveled on in the past. The liners were lean, graceful, purposeful ships. Those greyhounds of the sea earned their stature because they had an important job to do, transporting passengers, mail, and goods swiftly across the seven seas.

Cruise ships are mere frivolities. They’re floating Disneylands. If they all sank tomorrow, the world would be no worse off without them. They have no purpose beyond entertainment, over-eating, and many of the excesses that doomed the Roman Empire.

Their patrons remind me of the landlubbers who decide to buy yachts and go cruising around the world, only to find their dreams shattered after a month or two. It’s just not realistic to expect to find happiness by sailing off into the sunset, cocktail in hand.

A successful cruise in a small sailboat is the result of having a purpose, a goal, and a plan to achieve it. The yacht is merely a tool in this great enterprise, and happiness comes as a result of not seeking it directly, but of doing a good honest job of working toward your goal. Happiness is the child of serendipity, and it creeps up on you and ambushes you when your attention is healthily occupied with the working of you boat.

Nevertheless ... I grudgingly admit that the cruise to Alaska was enjoyable, even for those of us down in steerage. Perhaps the glaciers weren’t as impressive as they would have been from the cockpit of my own boat, and perhaps the humpbacks looked a lot less intimidating from a height of 90 feet, but there is a certain amount of consolation in knowing that the steward hovering nearby will bring you a cold beer at the flick of a finger, and that a mountain of fine food awaits you in the dining room down the passage. And best of all, you know that you don’t have to do the washing up in a bucket of that cold, cold Alaskan water while sitting in the rain in the cockpit.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #64
Auxiliary engine. Surprisingly little power is needed to move a boat at a reasonable speed. The problem is that the power needs to be delivered by a large, slow-turning screw. On auxiliary sailboats, a large screw creates too much drag, so a compromise has to be made. The old rule of thumb is that enough power is needed to give at least 2 knots against a Force 5 wind with the weather shore up to 2 miles distant. Three or four horsepower per ton of displacement will do it.

“I hear that hussy in the tiny thong got badly sunburned yesterday.”
“Good, I’m glad. She got what she was basking for.”