December 30, 2010

Punishment for resolutions

I HATE PEOPLE who publish lists of New Year resolutions. So, to punish them, here are mine:

► I resolve never to varnish again. I will commit to memory the John Keats Varnish Rule: A Thing of Beauty Is a Job Forever.

► I resolve to wear a harness and safety tether whenever my wife is looking.

► I resolve never to pee over the side again while we’re sailing, unless:

(a) The head is blocked again, or

(b) The holding tank is full again, or

(c) I think nobody’s watching.

► I resolve not to take along a gallon of wine every time we go for a sail, on account of what happened last time. (However, the cat did recover quite well.)

► I promise, when on a cruise, not to eat all the chocolate before we broach any other supplies. The bitter recriminations are not worth it.

► I resolve not to sail rings around other slower boats, unless severely provoked.

► I resolve never again to race people who don’t know we’re racing.

► I resolve (rather unwillingly) not to get testy and shout a little when my wife refuses to jump a mere 6 feet to the dock with a boathook in one hand and the mooring line in the other. Sheesh, people can easily jump 18 feet these days. Grumble, grumble.

The end.

Today’s Thought
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #140
The basic requirements for an oceangoing yacht are these, in order of importance: seaworthiness, comfort, self-steering ability, and speed. Seaworthiness includes stability and self-righting as well as brute strength. It also supposes the ability to claw off a lee shore in heavy weather and the ability to lie a-hull or heave-to safely when unattended.

“Mom,” said the baby ear of corn, “where did I come from?”
“Why, dear,” said Mom, “the stalk brought you, of course.”

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December 28, 2010

VigorLeaks reveals job distress

IN THE INTERESTS OF FREE SPEECH, VigorLeaks today publishes a recent letter to a Washington state department that was intercepted by a freelance whistleblower:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to apply for Social Security disability benefits. This is what happened.

I was employed as a yard hand at the local marina. My boss told me to replace a burned-out light bulb at the top of a mast on a 45-foot cutter. Having drawn a suitable bulb from Stores Dept. I proceeded to boat. I had no help to get up mast but hit upon idea of filling two large plastic buckets with water. I tied them together and winched them to the top of the mast on main halyard.

I then secured my bosun’s chair to the halyard with the thought that the weight of the buckets would help me ascend mast.

Unfortunately, as I cast off halyard, I discovered that the weight of water in the buckets was considerably more than my weight. I therefore shot up the mast at high speed.

Unfortunately, my right shoulder crashed into the spreaders and became dislocated and heavily bruised. At the same time, descending buckets hit my left shoulder, cracking the bone and causing considerable pain.

Upon my arrival at masthead, two fingers of my right hand got jammed in the pulley, causing one to be broken and the other to be badly squashed. I had no time to install new bulb because the buckets, having hit the cabin top, fell over on their sides and emptied themselves. I was now considerably heavier than buckets, and began descending at a rapid pace.

Unfortunately, on my way down I met buckets coming up at high speed, causing severe contusions and bruising, and fracturing two ribs. I slammed heavily onto the cabin top, breaking a toe on my right foot. And then I must have lost control of my senses because I let go of the halyard.

The buckets now descended from top of the mast at high speed, one delivering a blow to my cheek, which was badly cut, and the other hitting me squarely on top of the head, which rendered me unconscious until a nice lady from one of the other yachts, having seen me bleeding and heard my screams, gave me first aid and called 911.

My boss says he doesn’t think I will be fit to work on boats again, at least not for his boatyard. I would therefore like to apply for disability and look forward to hearing from you.

[Name withheld to avoid embarrassment. -- Ed.]

Today’s Thought
There is no person who is not dangerous for someone.
— Madame de Sévigné, Letters

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #139
Ever wondered what’s in seawater? Well, here’s a list showing the number of grams of various chemicals in every 1 kilogram of seawater at a salinity of 35 percent:
Chloride 19.4; Sodium 10.8; Sulphate 2.7; Magnesium 1.3; Calcium 0.4; Potassium 0.4; Bicarbonate 0.1; Bromide 0.067; Strontium 0.008; Boron 0.004; Fluoride 0.001.

“Where’ve you been?”
“Yeah, half an hour ago, they tell me.”

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December 26, 2010

Small boats, simple voyages

SAILING, FOR MANY GOOD REASONS, tends to be regarded by many as a complicated and expensive pastime. But it needn’t be. Small simple boats can afford pleasure and gratification out of all proportion to their cost. And small gentle voyages can generate as much joy and satisfaction as long adventurous ones.

The man or woman who gingerly sails a dinghy along a friendly shore is no less worthy of our respect than the sailor who braves the mighty ocean. We all have our own areas of anxiety and doubt in our own abilities, and when we conquer our fears it is just as much a triumph to cross the bay as it is for someone of sterner nature to cross an ocean. And yet, human nature being what it is, we tend to judge other sailors by the size of their boats and how far they’ve traveled: their most distant ports, and the length of their voyages.

Now it is true that sailors who cross oceans in small boats perform prodigious feats of seamanship because they sail the same seas as big ships that have large crews specializing in the various skills needed to move people and cargoes across oceans. Sailboat sailors are their own cooks and navigators. They are their own engineers and riggers. They handle the sails and anchors and electrical circuits. And they face exactly the same hazards as large ships, including the storms, the rocks, and even pirates.

Yet, at the same time, to take a small boat across a body of water of any size is no small feat. To each his own goals and ambitions. We all set our own limits, and who can gainsay our individual achievements? What we all seek deep down is a feeling of ability, of achievement, of confidence. And sailing a small boat on a small voyage often does generate the confidence we need to deal with the greater troubles the world constantly throws at us.

Seamanship is as much a set of the mind as anything else. You are the only judge of your seamanship. We challenge ourselves, we feel fear, and sometimes we get more fear than we bargained for, but we learn and we gain confidence, and are not as frightened quite as much the next time. And there always is a next time for those who challenge themselves.

Today’s Thought
Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage.
— R. L. Stevenson

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #138
Oars for a yacht tender often benefit from being a little shorter than those designed for serious long-distance rowing in a special, light craft. The simple rule of thumb for tenders is that the overall length of each oar should be about 1 1/2 times the distance between the oarlocks. Thus, for a tender with a 4-foot beam, the oars should be 6 feet long.

Mary had a little lamb
That leaped around in hops
It hopped into the road one day
And ended up as chops.

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December 23, 2010

Presents you need for the boat

I HAVE HEARD IT SAID by both sexes that it’s very difficult to buy Christmas presents for men. That being the case, perhaps we men should do our bit to make this task easier, and, incidentally, thereby help the economy to get up off its knees.

One way to do this would be to make up a list of the Christmas presents we’d like to receive, and hand it out to friends, relatives, co-workers, and passers-by. I have heard this idea expressed often enough, but quite frankly it doesn’t appeal to me. I find it a little crass, a little indelicate, a little too much like begging. I would certainly be inhibited about asking for big-ticket items. And it is pre-loaded with the inherent danger that potential present-givers will reward your presumptuous requests by ignoring them completely, so that you receive nothing at all from your list. Such a deliberate kick in the teeth would be highly damaging to your self-esteem, which, I understand, can lead to destructive behavior on your part. That is not the kind of spirit Christmas is supposed to engender.

It has occurred to me, however, that a wish-list of this sort would be completely acceptable if it were presented in the form of a request for items for your boat.

You might think this a little strange at first, but it’s not really. It moves the guilt factor away from you to a third party. And people (even landlubbers) know instinctively that boats have souls. They realize that there are strong emotional ties between sailors and their boats that stop short only of kissing and hugging. Well, in most cases, anyway.

So, the point is that a present-list for your boat would be welcomed by those of your family and friends who are being driven to a frenzy by not having any idea of what might bring you joy this Christmas.

Now, you may already have been infected by the negative attitude that commonly assaults all brilliant new ideas like this. You may be saying, “But people will surely query why a boat would need a new flat-screen, Internet-ready, 72-inch, plasma TV with icemaker.  Or a case of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky; or a five-year subscription to Playboy. How do you answer them?”

Well, good heavens, it’s not difficult. Use your common sense. Close your eyes slightly. Look wise and mysterious. Say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Explain that the bond between a man and his boat is intimate and very private. Tell them you have this intuitive, exclusive insight into your boat’s true needs and desires. And make sure they realize that every boat knows the difference between real Johnny Walker and the cheap hooch they distill up in those scruffy hills in Arkansas.

Today’s Thought
Ever since Eve gave Adam the apple, there has been a misunderstanding between the sexes about gifts.
— Nan Robertson

The need to de-name first
Incidentally, here’s what can happen if you don’t use Vigor’s famous de-naming ceremony before you rename your boat:

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #137
How far away are your navigation lights visible? Well, with a 12-volt system and lights showing through clear glass or plastic in the most favorable weather conditions, a 24-watt bulb is visible at about three miles. A 12-watt bulb is visible at about two miles. Through red or green glass or plastic, a 24-watt bulb can be seen at a little over 1 mile. Incidentally, to increase visibility from three to four miles, you have to double the brightness.

He asked her for a burning kiss;
She said in accents cruel:
“I may be called a red-hot babe
“But I’m still nobody’s fuel.”

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December 21, 2010

Women who go to sea

NOT ALL WOMEN believe they were meant to go to sea. That’s the view of Karen Larson, founder and editor of Good Old Boat magazine. In her editorial article in the January/February 2011 issue she adds: “I’m convinced, in fact, that the vast majority are sure that women are not meant to travel on boats of any kind. Historically, it hasn’t been our role.”

Well, er, I’m sorry. Karen, but I have to disagree. I have just been dipping into Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, the Year China Discovered America. And he details the interesting historical role that woman played on the 15th-century treasure fleets that China sent around the world.

Aboard all of these ships were hundreds of concubines, recruited from the floating brothels of Canton. They were not allowed to go ashore at any port of call, and they were not allowed to marry Chinese men. It was their job to attend grand banquets aboard the treasure ships, where they ate and drank with ambassadors and envoys, and thereafter satisfied some other appetites. They were well educated, played cards and chess, sang, acted, and danced.

They were “not viewed with contempt because of their profession; they were regarded as a long-established, legitimate and necessary part of society,” Menzies argues.

Well, the world has changed a lot since those days, I guess, and not always for the better. I don’t recall seeing any concubines tucked away on today’s round-the-world yachts, and I’m not sure they would be received with joy and loud handclaps by today’s puritanical society in any case.

Nevertheless, it just shows that you have to be careful when you talk about women’s historical roles on ships and boats. There are many women serving in the U.S. Navy these days in all kinds of capacities, and just recently they started appearing aboard submarines. I know a woman master mariner who pilots big ships across the bar where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, and another who captains large passenger/vehicle ferries in the Pacific Northwest. And let’s not forget the dozens of documented women pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read who struck terror into men’s hearts between 600 BC and the 19th century. And the women who still race small sailboats non-stop around the world. Women are out there carving roles for themselves if you look for them, lots and lots of them, and always have been. And while it’s true that the vast majority prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on shore, that’s also true for men. And if you say, well, what I really mean is that many more men than women go to sea on small boats, that can only be because the women have more sense.

Today’s Thought
Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.
— Charlotte Whitton, Mayor of Ottawa

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #136
No matter what the professionals say, celestial navigation is neither difficult nor mysterious. As three-time circumnavigator Eric Hiscock put it: “Setting the course, keeping the dead reckoning up to date, and fixing the position by observations of the celestial bodies, call for nothing more than simple arithmetic, a little geometry, and some dexterity in handling a sextant.”

A lady is a woman who never shows her underwear unintentionally.

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

December 19, 2010

The old Christmas dilemma

I’VE BEEN WONDERING if my wife would like a new anchor rope for Christmas. She got the old one quite dirty with mud last year when we anchored at Sucia Island. But of course nothing is straightforward about buying a Christmas present for your wife. There are always those nagging questions. Would she like traditional three-strand nylon, or would she prefer nylon double-braid? Which would be kinder on her hands? And — very important this — which would surprise and delight her more on Christmas morning?

Perhaps I could throw in a decent pair of canvas gloves, so she doesn’t add to the number of calluses she seems to be collecting, but if I do that I can only hope she reciprocates by buying something nice for the boat.

On the other hand, a really nice present for her would be a new GPS chart plotter, not one of those cheapo Chinese knock-offs, but a really deluxe Garmin color plotter with interfacing capabilities to link up with the radar and depth-sounder I think she might like for her next birthday. I can justify the cost. She is my darling and deserves nothing but the best.

I already have her stocking stuffer. It’s the cutest, top-of-the-range iridium oxide scraper, to help her get the old antifouling paint off, next time we haul. The expense was nothing. You’ve got to let your wife know how much you love her. And you want her to be cheerful in the sport she loves so much. I work hard at it, but it does give me pleasure to make her happy.

Today’s Thought
God loveth a cheerful giver.
--New Testament: II Corinthians, ix, 7

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #135
The old superstition is that a boat with too presumptuous a name will attract bad luck. To call a boat Sea Conqueror or Wind Tamer is to tempt the Fates. The gods like boat names to be humble, or at least non-confrontational. If you inherit a boat with a name that challenges the gods, change it — but first use Vigor’s famous interdenominational de-naming ceremony.

“Why do giraffes have such long necks?”
“Boy, but you ask some dumb questions. So they can eat from tall trees, of course.”
“Okay, so why do the trees have to be so tall?”
“So the giraffes won’t have to bend their necks, naturally.”

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

December 16, 2010

Bring it on, Al

HAVE YOU NOTICED how little we’re hearing about global warming recently? I wonder why that should be? Could it be because the whole country is registering record-low temperatures; because even way down south in Florida they’re going to the beach in their overcoats?

I have never been sure how much to believe about global warming. I do believe the earth has warmed up and cooled down many times over the centuries. There’s plenty of good solid evidence for that. But I have no idea if any of the previous warmings were influenced in any way by the presence of mankind and his infernal combustion machines on the face of the earth.

Al Gore and his ilk assure us that the earth is warming right now and that mankind is to blame. And he thinks it’s wrong. He wants to stop it. Well, I’m sorry Mr. Gore, but a great many of us who live north of 40 degrees in latitude can hardly wait for it to arrive.

Can you imagine what Puget Sound, the San Juans, and the Canadian Gulf Islands would be like if we suddenly inherited the climate now enjoyed by Southern California? Sunshine, warm winds, and warm seas are the only ingredients missing from this paradise for cruising boaters.

A little global warming around here would transform our lives. Boating people from all over the world would flock to our palm-fringed shores, white beaches, and warm turquoise water. The yacht charter business would boom beyond belief, creating jobs and prosperity that would surge right through our economy. Western Washington’s families would flourish in a brand-new American dream. The color would return to children’s faces. Their little bellies would be full, and their happy laughter would become a hallmark of the new, beloved global warming. Tourist dollars would overflow our coffers, and no longer would our poor State Governor have to sob her eyes out over drastic cuts in essential services.

So c’mon Mr. Gore, pony up. You promised us global warming. Where the hell is it?

Today’s Thought
Global warming — at least the modern nightmare vision — is a myth. I am sure of it and so are a growing number of scientists. But what is really worrying is that the world's politicians and policy makers are not.
— David Bellamy

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #134
What exactly is a motor-sailer? Well, here’s the rule of thumb. Imagine a hefty headwind of Force 6 (22 to 27 knots) and a short, choppy sea. If a sailboat could make way to windward more efficiently under shortened sail than under her motor alone, she is an auxiliary sailing yacht. If she could reach her windward destination quicker under power alone, she is a motor-sailer.

Don’t worry if your job is small
And your successes few ...
Remember that the mighty oak
Was once a nut like you.

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December 14, 2010

Where have all the sailboats gone?

MARINAS ALL OVER PUGET SOUND are advertising vacant berths — the same marinas that not so long ago were telling people they’d have to wait years for a slip. So the question occurs to me: Where have all the boats gone?

Our local marina in Bellingham, one of the biggest in the Sound area, now has scores of empty berths. The recession is hitting closer to home at last. I expect that some of the smaller boats have gone home on newly purchased trailers, and some of the larger ones may have been hauled out for cheaper long-term storage, but an awful lot have now left the safety and convenience of the marina for exposed anchorages along the shores of Bellingham Bay. There they will take their chances with winter storms from the southeast and the occasional blast from the northwest, which can raise a nasty chop with a fetch to windward of five or six uncluttered miles.

These boats are refugees from the national economic storm, of course, huddling together in their discomfort and uncertainty, and disconnected from the marina’s umbilical cord. But sooner or later they will have more than storms to contend with. Sooner or later people are going to object to their growing presence off the opulent shores where they have clustered, where million-dollar condominiums overlook their peeling varnish and flapping canvas. Sooner or later the people who own the rock-strewn land where they park their tenders are going to object.

We live in a forgiving and understanding town that has few pretensions to grandeur. It’s known as the City of Subdued Excitement and although it has a university, a large hospital, and some high-tech industries, its background is in logging, fishing, and coal-mining. So there will be a lot of sympathy and understanding for those refugee boats bobbing up and down in the chop just offshore.

But at the same time there are always major forces at work that will want them removed. What is their legal position? Are they legally entitled to anchor there permanently and disturb the eelgrass, or whatever it is down below there that seems more important than human beings and their desires? If there are any liveaboards, how will they get rid of their waste without polluting the bay in the way it was polluted by the oldtimers without a thought for Nature’s health?

And what about the marina authorities? Are they going to stand idly by and watch their source of income flee, or will they use their hefty legal and political muscle to herd those deserters back inside and make them pay their dues once more?

I am all in favor of freedom of anchoring, because I don’t have a million-dollar condo overlooking a fleet of refugee yachts. I have always taken the part of the little man because I’m a little man myself. But if you look at what has happened to little sailors all over this country, the omens are not good. There is a heavy ground-swell of conviction that the free spirits among us must be corralled. They must be regulated and herded and taxed because they are different and therefore dangerous and — most of all — because they have the guts to take the risks in life that we would like to take if only we had the guts to take them.

I think I know where all the boats have gone, but how long they’ll be able to stay there is another matter.

Today’s Thought
Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
— Samuel Johnson.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #133
The exact length of a nautical mile has varied with our ability to measure the earth. It is the equivalent of one sixtieth of one degree, which is in itself one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the distance around the earth. For all practical purposes, one degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles. And therefore one minute of latitude equals one nautical mile. For many years the nautical mile was reckoned to be 6,080 feet, but now it’s officially 6,076.1 feet or 2,025.4 yards. For small-boat navigation, you can presume the nautical mile to be 2,000 yards. Unless you’re on fresh water, of course. There the mile is still the landlubber measure of 1,760 yards.

Mary has a cool, cool gown,
It’s almost slit to bits.
Who gives a damn for Mary’s lamb
When we can see her calf?

December 12, 2010

A curse on big wakes

LIKE MOST PEOPLE who travel slowly in sailboats, I have often been angered by the irresponsibility of powerboaters who drag large, dangerous wakes behind them.

Let me say straight away that this is not a rant against powerboaters per se. There are considerate powerboaters and inconsiderate ones, and while I’m quite sure the former vastly outnumber the latter, the memories of the latter are what stick in my mind.

I’ll never forget something Robert Hale of Seattle once wrote. He is the well-known and respected publisher of the annual Waggoner Cruising Guide for the waters of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. In the 2003 edition he wrote:

“Shortly after going from sail to power, I came to understand what I call the First Rule of Powerboating: Never Look Back. Because, if we powerboat skippers would look back, we would be appalled at what we do to other boats.”

Coming from a powerboater, that was a very honest and refreshing statement. It actually inspired me to invent a curse for sailors to use when faced with enormous wakes that inconvenience other boats and even threaten to capsize or swamp smaller vessels.

It’s a curse that might help you to vent your fury harmlessly in circumstances where you might otherwise be tempted to reach for your rifle and let Nature take its course. This, in fact, is one of four examples in a chapter devoted to curses in my book How to Rename your Boat — and 19 Other Useful Ceremonies, Superstitions, Prayers, Rituals, and Curses.

By the way, I do understand that this is not the best season for serious cursing. I do understand that I should be spreading bonhomie and the warmest of Christmas greetings in a touchy-feely sort of way, but I’m not quite that much of a hypocrite yet. I don’t wish a Happy Christmas to obnoxious creators of dangerous wakes, or a happy anything else for that matter. This what I wish for them:

Woe to you, thou beslubbering speedhog!
May your filters choke and your injectors freeze.
May every ill befalling a boat bring you to your knees.
May you run out of whisky, and ice cubes, too.
May there be no more pleasure for you or your crew.
May all your bronze tarnish and your varnish all flake.
May your batteries die and your propellers shake.
May your anchors drag and your bilges overflow.
May you rot in a hell where they make you go slow.
Curse you! Curse you! My curse be upon you wherever you go!

Today’s Thought
I sent down to the rum mill on the corner and hired an artist by the week to sit up nights and curse that stranger.
— Mark Twain, A Mysterious Visit.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #132
Boats are not tied up. They are made fast to the shore. The old rule of thumb states that a boat makes fast alongside a jetty, pier, or wharf. She makes fast in a slip, and to a buoy or pile.

It’s too bad that by the time we get old enough not to care what anybody says about us, nobody’s saying anything about us.

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

December 9, 2010

A ketch called Guppy

AMONG THE HUNDREDS of cruising sailboats plowing across the North Atlantic right now there is one rather special 38-foot ketch called Guppy. Most of the boats are taking part in the annual lemming run known as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) but aboard the Guppy is a lone 15-year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker who is trying to become the youngest person to sail alone around the world.

She started officially from Gibraltar and then spent some time in the Canary Islands and the Cape Verdes, waiting for the hurricane season to end. Now she is deep into the Atlantic with more than 1,000 miles to go to the Caribbean island of St. Martin, but making good progress.

When she gets there it will be a homecoming of sorts, because once upon a time, before she started her record attempt, she ran away from Holland and ended up in St. Martin. The police found her and sent her back home. As you might gather, she is a feisty, well-developed, and very determined 15-year-old who was formerly the subject of a court battle when authorities tried to prevent her father from allowing her to set sail on her own. But a Dutch court eventually ruled that she was competent to handle a yacht,  and so she is now well on her way in the northeast trades.

But I’m afraid I’m not terribly sure why she’s doing this. After all, she will be 16 by the time she finishes, because she’s going to be visiting a whole lot of ports of call on the way. The present holder of the record, the Australian Jessica Watson, was also 16 when she finished at Sydney — but only just. She scraped in a little while before her 17th birthday. So in theory, Laura Dekker could complete her voyage as a younger 16 than Jessica Watson’s 16. But that would surely be a hollow victory because Jessica not only sailed alone around the world, she also sailed non-stop and without any outside assistance via Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Southern Ocean — a far more venturesome voyage than the one Laura is apparently contemplating.

Frankly, if I had a 15-year-old daughter I wouldn’t let her sail off on her own no matter how accomplished a sailor she was. My conscience wouldn’t let me. In my book, parents are supposed to protect their kids. My fear would be that there is more danger in the ports she’s going to visit than there is at sea, which is bad enough.

Nevertheless, I wish her lots of good luck on her long voyage. I admire her guts and tenacity. And as she matures she will learn that good judgment comes from experience. And experience (alas) comes from bad judgment.

Today’s Thought
The real meaning of travel, like that of a conversation by the fireside, is the discovery of oneself through contact with other people, and its condition is self-commitment in the dialogue.
— Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #131
Mainsail slides tend to jam in the mast track if they’re seized too firmly to their cringles (as many sailmakers tend to do, unfortunately). When the sail is being hoisted, the fastening should be free to move to the top of the slide, where the pull comes from. When you’re striking the sail, the seizing, or shackle, should be free to move to the bottom of the slide.

Many a good man gone wrong is just a bad man finally found out.

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

December 7, 2010

Normal and natural errors

ONE OF THE THINGS that small-boat navigation teaches you is that nothing is precise. The best navigators make allowances for the unknown factors that always affect small boats, especially sailboats. They plot their positions within a circle of uncertainty and if they’re seeking landfall at a particular spot on a coastline, they aim way off to one side or the other, so they know which way to turn when they sight land.

When I was a lot younger I thought I knew how to navigate with precision. This misconception was confirmed when I sailed a 17-foot dinghy across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. I studied the tide tables and figured out the speed and direction of the tidal stream (or the set and drift as I used to call it then) for every hour. I then drew my course on the chart and adjusted the compass heading to account for the distance the tide was pushing me sideways in each hour. And thus, with a great sense of triumph, I arrived off the rather featureless French coast exactly at Calais.

It was beginner’s luck, of course. Nobody can forecast the exact speed of the current, or its exact direction. Nobody can tell you how much leeway your boat will make. Nobody can forecast your exact speed or distance covered during any one-hour period, and so the detailed markings you make so carefully on the chart turn out to be impractical nonsense. In my case, it was probably a matter of all the errors canceling each other out — a minor miracle in other words.

Years later, when further experience had taught me some humility, I read The Yacht Navigator’s Handbook, by Norman Dahl. [1] In the introduction he says: “When I was first taught navigation (in the Royal Navy) errors were thought of as being rather disgraceful, the sole result of poor technique by the navigator. Whilst I always accepted (and still accept today) that I was not the most brilliant navigator in the world, I was disappointed to find that, however hard I tried, errors never seemed to go away. Navigating a submerged submarine, and later, yachts of many kinds in many situations, eventually made me realize that errors are an integral part of navigation and need to be studied in their own right.”

Dahl said a major purpose of his book was to show that errors in navigation are normal and natural, and that a major skill in navigation lies in your ability to interpret the results in terms of the likely errors. He goes on to show boat navigators how they can actually use the errors to help make sensible decisions about their positions and a future course of action.

As one who had never experienced any difficulty in making errors I found Dahl’s advice very comforting, and I never again tried to do anything as impossibly precise as maintaining a rhumb line from Dover to Calais.

I expect Dahl’s book is out of print now because it was first published in 1983, before the great revolution in navigating that finally did bring near-precision to position-finding. We don’t think of errors now, because GPS doesn’t allow for that. It will tell us our position to within a boatlength in any kind of visibility, day or night.

And yet people have run aground using GPS, often because GPS is more accurate than the charts you plot your position on. There have been many reports of yachts wrecked on rocks, reefs, and islands that were where either GPS or the charts said they weren’t.

So we now all find ourselves in the position that I was in all those years ago, when I knew precisely and without doubt how to cross the English Channel. It’s surely time we started doubting again. It’s time we listened to Mr. Dahl, time we started taking all the possible errors into account. Time to accept that navigation is never precise, even with GPS.

[1] The Yacht Navigator's Handbook, by Norman Dahl (London, 1983, Ward Lock Ltd.)

Today’s Thought
The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
— Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship: The Hero as Prophet.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #130
Lines of position. Two lines of position plotted on a chart should cross as near to 90 degrees as possible. For an acceptable fix, the angle between the two lines should never be less than 60 degrees or more than 120 degrees. But the old rule of thumb is that any bearing is better than none. In practice, a fix from two lines intersecting at an angle as small as 30 degrees can be used if applied with a large dose of caution and common sense about errors. Anything less than 30 degrees or more than 150 degrees is hardly worth plotting, though.

“What made you marry old Bella?”
“She was different from all the other girls I’ve met.”
“In what way?”
“She liked me.”

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

December 5, 2010

Knives save lives

I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that people whose lives depend on rope should always have a sharp knife at hand. The more you sail, the more you realize the need for a knife. That need doesn’t arise often, thank goodness, but the occasions when it does are usually characterized by strong winds, heavy seas, threatening rocks, and a crew paralyzed with panic.

The kind of knife I’m referring to must be capable of slicing quickly through the largest rope on your boat. That may be the anchor line, a halyard, a sheet, or even the dinghy painter. If you have ever seen a crewmember pinned against the cockpit bulkhead by a mainsheet across the neck after a sudden jibe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve ever got a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override of the genoa sheet in a surprise squall, you’ll appreciate the need for fast relief.

The only question, really, is what kind of knife; and where do you keep it?

My preference is for a fixed-blade sheath knife worn on your belt, so that it always goes with you. It can be a nuisance sometimes, I know, when it catches on the lifelines or something, but it’s worth the bother. The blade should be as long as practical, even if it’s illegal ashore, but nothing less than 3 1/2 inches.

I have never figured out whether it’s better to have a plain, hollow-cut edge or a serrated edge. I think the knife manufacturers are still trying to work this one out, too, because many of them offer blades that are partly serrated and part plain knife-edge.

I remember Jerry Powlas, technical editor of Good Old Boat, saying that a serrated edge was good only for bread knives, but there are many who swear by the fast cutting power of a serrated edge. And if you buy a blade that’s half serrated and half plain, how can you go wrong? I believe that Jerry’s main objection was that he found it impossible to sharpen a serrated edge to the same razor sharpness he creates on his ordinary blades.

If you can’t wear a sheath knife on your belt for some reason, then find a good place in the cockpit where you can keep a fixed-blade knife, somewhere that is readily accessible day and night.

You might also want to keep in your pocket a small rigger’s or yachtsman’s knife, one of those with a folding knife blade, a marline spike, and (very important) a beer bottle opener. Alternatively, you could have a Leatherman-type multi-tool with a small knife blade and a pair of pliers that can open shackles, as can the spike on the rigger’s knife. But these knife blades are only second-best in an emergency. It takes time to find them and it’s fiddly to open them, and you might have only one hand available anyhow. And even when they’re finally open and ready for business, they really are quite puny for the job, compared with a big robust sheath knife. They are, however, infinitely better than nothing.

There is one fairly frequent situation where a good cutting knife is called for, and that’s when you get a rope or fishing net around the propeller shaft. I would hesitate to use an expensive sheath knife for this because you’re bound to blunt the knife against the metal shaft, and I have often thought that some kind of hacksaw blade with a decent handle would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice Christmas present for a sailor, a knife might be a good choice. If you Google the names Gerber, Myerchin, and Spyderco you’ll find some very modern designs made expressly for cutting rope in a hurry. You’ll also notice that the purchase prices of the more exotic models are such that you might well be tempted to investigate my hacksaw-blade idea with justifiable fervor.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #129
Cruising drop-outs. The success rate among people who set sail for a planned cruise of 6 to 18 months is only 35 to 40 percent. That’s according to Lin and Larry Pardey, well known cruisers and authors, after they’d been cruising for 14 years. Their definition of “success” was: “Finding satisfaction or enjoyment from what you are doing; having a sense of harmony on board; feeling glad you had the experience; eager to continue or go off again.”

“I need a new dipstick for my car please.”
“But the old one must still be there, madam.”
“Yeah, sure, but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

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

December 2, 2010

Dreams I don’t remember

LIKE MOST COLUMNISTS, I am involved in a perpetual search for subject matter. I rarely know, from day to day, what I’m going to write about next. Some of my best ideas come in dreams, but the frustrating thing is that I very rarely can remember my dreams.

While I’m having my dreams, I think to myself what a marvelous idea this is. How my readers are going to love this one. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s full of useful tips — this is a columnist’s dream column. And then, poof! it disappears as soon as I wake up. Can’t remember a darned thing about it, except that it was astoundingly good.

I once had the idea of keeping a notebook and pen on my bedside table so I could wake up and write down the details of my dream while it was still fresh in my mind. The results were startling. The wonderfully creative thoughts that had passed through my sleeping mind were absolute driveling gibberish when examined next morning in the stark light of day. Nothing made any sense.

Once or twice, toward dawn, I have awakened so gradually that my waking mind was still attached to my sleeping mind, and there was a partial transfer of creative thought that actually made sense. I can’t say either of those dreams was spectacularly helpful in writing a column, but at least they weren’t gibberish.

My intuition tells me that I dream about boats a lot. I’m sure I design brilliant boats and sail them perfectly. I bet I win lots of races and cruise to exotic places and wear smart yacht club blazers and attract the attention and adoration of lovely women wherever I go.

And, talking about women, I don’t know for sure, because I never can remember, but I expect I dream about women just as often as boats. Most men do, I’m told. Nice women, of course, modest, wholesome women equipped with the highest moral standards, clever, interesting women known as much for their brains and character as their looks.

Admittedly, a bad woman may have crept into my dreams now and then. Some kind of wicked hussy. I have no way to confirm or deny it and I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. But if that happened, it’s not my fault. I plead innocent. I’m not in charge of my dreams and I don’t know who is. Furthermore, I am not responsible for my actions in my dreams. Actually I don’t even know what bad women do. Well, to tell the truth, maybe I do have a vague idea of what they do. But I’m not sure, because if they did it, I’ll never know what it was. I’m just not capable of remembering it.

Today’s Thought
Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.
— Dr. William C. Dement

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #128
Distance from lights. Never try to judge your distance from a single point of light at sea at night. It provides no clue by which our perceptions can judge its size and distance with any accuracy. In most cases, when the light becomes visibly nearer, you are in immediate danger of running into it.

“Who was that girl I seen you out with last night?”
“You mean ‘I saw.’”
“Oh, right. Who was that eyesore I seen you out with last night?”

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