February 27, 2011

In the dark of the night

THE BIRDS OUT BACK are fluffed up to about twice their normal size as they feed from the seed bowl. The cat sits inside, jaws quivering but resigned, as she watches the jaunty little juncos and the handsome towhees digging their tiny toes into the wooden deck rail to avoid being blown away in the howling wind.

It has been snowing on and off for four days, and we inside the house are not pleased. We are quite fed up, in fact. This is unusual weather for us. Just 50 miles inland, up at the Mt. Baker ski resort, they get about 100 feet of snow a year. We’re supposed to get only about 1 foot a year, but this winter has been the coldest I can remember in the 10 years I’ve lived here in Bellingham.

Only the arrival of the indomitable U.S. Mailman, in his little square truck, all chained up for the icy roads, has prevented a serious outbreak of cabin fever at our house. The Defender catalogue has arrived from Waterford, Connecticut.

It’s the Sears-Roebuck calendar for the nautically minded, 320 pages of glorious stuff we’d like to have, tomorrow if possible. Lovely pictures of self-tailing winches, lightweight blocks, imported tung varnishes, and shining brass kerosene lamps imported from Holland.

Oh, and in case you missed it, a new thermal night-vision camera on page 258, the T-series, introduced to the catalogue for the first time. It looks remarkably like a robot Cyclops, a stubby one-eyed pod, and I learn with fascination that it is “the first thermal imaging system to be fully integrated with Raymarine multifunction displays.”

Now I don’t really know what this means. Neither do I understand the function of a thermal night-vision camera on a small boat. It sounds as though it’s meant to take pictures of warm objects in the dark, doesn’t it? But it seems that the objects don’t need to be warm after all:

“The T300 and T400 series cameras allow captains to navigate safely and confidently in total darkness.”

Well, I am stunned. Not being a captain myself — I have never claimed that fancy title – I can’t imagine navigating safely and confidently in total darkness. In fact I can remember only one occasion when I have been sailing in truly total darkness and that was one murky night in the tropics when I was on watch and someone came up to join me in the cockpit.

I didn’t know who it was at first. It was as dark as the inside of a cow. I couldn’t see anyone, I could only sense their presence. It had to be either my son Kevin or my wife June because they were the only other people on board. But just in case it was a visiting mermaid, I extended an exploratory hand and encountered a bare leg which, from its smooth texture, lack of hairiness and generally pleasing shape, I recognized as June’s.

She said: “Hello, how are you doing?”

“OK, I guess,” I said, “we’re doing 5 knots on a northwesterly course and it’s like driving blindfolded down the main street of a busy city.”

“Except this isn’t a busy city.”

“Yeah, well, it might as well be,” I said, “because if there’s a shipping container floating half-submerged 50 yards ahead of us we’re going to hit it.”

We sat, blind, silent, and thoughtful, while the boat surged ahead in the trade-wind swells.

“Is it 50 yards yet?” June asked eventually.

“I guess so. We were lucky that time,” I said.

But that didn’t alleviate my edgy nervousness. I literally couldn’t see my wife sitting right beside me. And I mean literally in the true meaning of the word — not as mere corroborative detail, intended only to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Now, getting back to the Defender catalogue, I honestly can’t see how they can make a claim that their stubby Cyclops will allow you to navigate safely and confidently in total darkness, even if you are a captain. I wonder if they even know what total darkness is. I think it’s very rare, because the light of the stars alone will cast a faint shadow on a light-colored deck.

However, there must be some truth to the claim, I suppose. After all, they wouldn’t dare charge $12,899.99 for a one-eyed electronic monster that didn’t live up to their claims, would they? Would they?

Today’s Thought
It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises — but only performance is reality.
— Harold S. Geenen, former chairman, International Telephone and Telegraph.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #165
A single mast spreader should be positioned between 50 and 52 percent of the way up the mast from the deck. In a double-spreader rig, the lower spreader should be 37 to 39 percent of the way up the mast, and the upper spreader should be 68 to 70 percent of the way up.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
— Julius Henry (“Groucho”) Marx.

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

February 24, 2011

Go young, go small

ONE OF THE BOATS I chose to review for my book Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere was the popular little Cal 20. Although at least two of these overgrown dinghies have sailed from the West Coast to Hawaii, I came in for a fair amount of criticism for suggesting that such a small boat was suitable for crossing oceans.

I was therefore very interested to run across an old thread on the SailNet forum in which a young and inexperienced man was asking if a Cal 20 was good enough to take him from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico. General opinion was that it was foolhardy, too dangerous, quite unthinkable. But then Robert Gainer stepped up to the podium. Robert Gainer, as you will gather, was a highly experienced deep-sea sailor and a talented writer. This is some of what he had to say in 2006, two years or so before he died:

“IT WAS CLEAR TO ME [as a teenager] that if I did the conventional thing and worked first, and then sailed after retirement, I would be, as I am today, old and tired when I started doing long-distance sailing, so I wanted to sail first and then retire from the world of professional sailing into a sailing-related job and settle down. I never quite got the settle-down part right but I did get into the boat design/build/repair business.

“I don’t understand where most people get the impression that small boat sailing is tough or dangerous. At one time, long-distance cruising in decked sailing canoes was normal and trips of over a thousand miles were not uncommon. The British still have a yearly trip from England to Iceland by kayak. There is a class of 17-foot boats that used to race trans-Atlantic on a regular basis and of course a lot of small boats are out there doing long trips without any fanfare at all and most of you just don’t hear of them. Sometimes I think the most vocal opponents of small-boat voyaging are the people with the least experience with, or knowledge about, the subject.

“I have cruised in boats as small as 13 feet and most of my long trips were done on boats without engines or electrical systems. In fact my first crossing was on a boat that was a real sailboat and she didn’t have an engine. And let’s not get started on the subject of GPS instead of sextant. Today you don’t need to know a third of what you needed to know before modern gear and GPS became popular. Long-distance sailing has become safer and simpler than ever before. And in a strange twist I think that may spell the end of long-distance sailing as we know it today. As more people try it without proper preparations, and using larger boats that they can’t handle in an emergency, the governments have taken notice and started to think about regulation because of the increase in accidents and problems that go with inexperience and ignorance offshore.

“If you have decided to base your plans on a light-displacement boat, the Cal 20 is an excellent choice for offshore work. She can be made ready with a minimum amount of work and I think if you do your homework and prepare properly you will have a great time. Not my style in boats but still a great choice. Each boat is different and requires a plan written for the trip/boat combination. I like to sail in CCA-style boats but have enough experience in light boats to understand the attraction they have for some people. A light boat requires a different mindset for stores and storm tactics and definitely will not be able to sail on the same routes that a heaver boat could sail. But there are no problems about the Cal 20, and the trip this man is considering, that good planning couldn’t overcome.

“After everything is said and done, as far as the boat goes the biggest question becomes one about the person himself. Some people don’t ever get comfortable in a small boat and some find that being alone and out of sight of land is not as much fun as they expected. Small-boat sailing isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. Build up to it and make sure you really want to do it before committing to a long trip you might not enjoy. But as someone else said, go small go now, and I think he was right because you are young and capable only once and having money and larger boats comes with age. And age dulls the sense of adventure and kills the spirit. I have never regretted for a moment the sailing I did as a kid but would not do any of it today. I sail a Tartan 34C now and want a dry, warm bunk these days.

“Good luck and all the best,

“Robert Gainer”


Today’s Thought
Then hey, for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.
— Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies: Song

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #164
The standard rule of thumb for a cruising boat’s rigging is that the total breaking strength of all shrouds on one side of the boat should equal about 1.2 times the vessel’s displacement. Serious offshore cruisers should make that 1.4 times displacement. And displacement means taking into account the weight of everything on board when leaving port, including fuel, water, provisions and crew.

“Hey Fred, what did you do to your hair? Looks like a wig.”
“Yeah. It IS a wig.”
“Oh really? Jeez, I would never have guessed it.”

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

February 22, 2011

When north turns to south

SCIENTISTS ARE BEGINNING TO WORRY that the Earth is about to reverse its magnetic field. I learned this remarkable fact from a news item published last week in the Falkland Islands.

Those islands are the nearest civilized neighbors to South Georgia Island, deep down in the South Atlantic, where a magnetic observatory is being established to find out when the North Pole is suddenly going to become the South Pole.

According to the British Geological Survey, a world-renowned geoscience center, “The Earth’s magnetic field has had many highs, lows, and reversals in its past. The last reversal was around 800,000 years ago. So the Earth is known to be able to re-generate its field and has done so during human pre-history.”

South Georgia sits within a weak spot in the Earth's magnetic field known as the “South Atlantic Anomaly” (SAA). In this area, radiation from space penetrates deeper into the atmosphere.

“The SAA is growing and spreading westwards from South Africa as the Earth’s internal magnetic field rapidly weakens in this region. Scientist believe this may be evidence of a coming reversal in the direction of the Earth’s internal magnetic field,” says the report.

Well, I knew that scientists had examined ancient rocks whose construction revealed that the magnetic field was once reversed, but I never realized it had happened several times, and I never thought it would occur again in my lifetime. Can you imagine what’s going to happen?

All our maps, charts, and atlases will have to be redrawn with a new north at the top, a north that we call the south at the moment. Geographic globes will have to be remade upside down. You can throw away your GPS and compasses because the sun will rise in the west and set in the east. The blue bits on bar magnets will have to be painted over with red, and vice versa.

Antarctica and the penguins will be at the North Pole and all the polar bears will have to move to the South Pole. The South Pacific will swop names with the North Atlantic. The Northwest Passage will become the Southeast Passage and the trade winds will blow northwest and southwest.

South Carolina and North Dakota will have to change to North Carolina and South Dakota. Google Earth will have to turn upside down and have all its lettering changed. And lord knows what-all else.

Gawd, what a mess. I can’t believe those secretive scientists are springing this on us at the last moment. I’m having a hard enough time coping with the concept of global warming. The idea of turning the whole world on its magnetic head is overwhelming. I think I need to lie down for a while. Either that or drink a beer. I think I’ll try the beer first.

Today’s Thought
The more science learns what life is, the more reluctant scientists are to define it.
Leila M. Coyne, San Jose State University

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #163
How far does your VHF radio reach? Well, the transmission is line-of-sight, so it depends on the height of the transmitting and receiving antennas. The maximum range between boats is about 25 miles. The range between a boat and a high land station can be up to 50 miles. A high-flying aircraft might be contacted at 300 miles. This all presupposes mast-top antennas and 25-watt transmission power. For weaker hand-held to hand-held VHF radios operated from the cockpit, the average range is about three miles.

An Italian immigrant was having trouble with English irregular verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt any more,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation. “I putted on weight.”

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

February 20, 2011

Lashing Bob to the mast

SOMEONE IN A YACHT CLUB BAR once asked me if I’d ever lashed myself to the mast in a storm.

“Not exactly,” I said, “and not me. But close. If you’ll buy me a drink I’ll tell you the story.”

He bought, and this is how it went.

When I was young I did a walkabout in Europe. I had a temporary job teaching English in Madrid when my old friend Bob Stephen passed through. “Why don’t we buy a boat and cruise the French canals?” he said.

“Because I don’t have any money,” I said.

“I have 100 pounds,” said Bob. “Can we get a boat for that in England?”

Well, we could and we did. It was a small sailboat, a 17-foot wooden centerboarder with a cuddy cabin, and as old as the hills. We sailed it around the English coast to Dover and set out to cross the English Channel to Calais, France.

Halfway across it started to blow and I became concerned about Bob. First, he had never sailed before. Second, he was very clumsy. I was concerned he might fall overboard. So, after I had reefed the mainsail I began to wonder how best to keep Bob and boat together in one place.

We didn’t have much in the way of safety equipment. No lifelines, no harnesses, no tethers. I did indeed think of lashing him to the mast to keep keep him out of harm’s way, but I compromised. I made him sit in the cockpit with a bowline under his armpits and a length of rope tied to the mast.

We arrived safely in Calais, but it wasn’t until a while later that the irony of that situation struck me.

Bob was a good few years older than me. He was a quiet, very modest sort of bloke, a librarian by profession, generous and helpful. Because he had a university degree, he was offered an officer’s commission during World War II but he turned it down. He elected instead to carry his rifle with the troops in the front lines fighting Rommel in the Western desert.

And here I was, a brash, young, uneducated knowall, lording it over him and lashing him to the mast. We laughed about it years later, but Bob, a true gentleman, insisted I had done the right thing.

And he reminded me that in perfectly calm water, while we were later tied up in the inland port of Eindhoven, in Holland, he did indeed fall overboard, nattily dressed in a suit and tie, when his foot got caught in the mooring line. “I was an accident waiting to happen,” he admitted. “And I did. I’m just thankful I didn’t happen in the middle of the English Channel.”

Today’s Thought
He that leaveth nothing to Chance will do few things ill, but he will do very few things.
— Lord Halifax, Works

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #162
If you double the size of your radar reflector, you increase its effectiveness 16 times. That’s because reflective performance is proportional to the fourth power of linear dimension. So, if we take a 12-inch reflector as standard, a 15-inch reflector will be about 250 percent more effective. Amazing, isn't it?

At long last the inventor of The Pill is going to be suitably honored. They’re going to award him the Nobelly prize.

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

February 17, 2011

OW’s engine plan

OOL WOTSINAME IS THINKING of selling his boat. He thinks that same thought every year round about this time, when the marina announces its annual rate increase.

“But this year I have a 10-point plan,” he told me.

“You mean about the engine?” I asked.

OW’s old diesel engine is always breaking down, and because it was born about the same year as him, he’s the only one who knows how to keep it going. So if he’s ever going to sell the boat, he’s going to have to persuade a prospective buyer that there’s nothing wrong with the engine, especially on the sea trials.

Here is his plan of action:

1. Stick starter motor wire firmly on its little peg so it doesn’t come off any more.

2. Wipe diesel mustache off transom around exhaust pipe.

3. Remove Vise-Grips from throttle and replace with some kind of handle from consignment store.

4. Put some strong penetrating oil down gear-lever cable to stop it sticking.

5. Get engine-hour meter hooked up again, if can remember how after 10 years.

6. Put another half-pint sawdust in reduction gearbox to quieten noise.

7. Buy official looking notebook and invent some engine maintenance notes for past few years. Zinc replacements, oil changes, filters, etc. Make look convincing.

8. Get to boat early day of survey. Polish gear lever knob. Pray to Thor and Hephaistos that engine will start. (Not religious gods, just mechanical gods. Wouldn’t be right to ask religious gods to start engine. Too busy with holy wars, intifadas, and inquisitions.) Warm up engine.

9. On sea trials, be careful set throttle just below spot where black smoke belches out exhaust. Fasten down cockpit grating and hatches so don’t rattle when engine revs above 1,000 rpm.

10. Remove white fur from around seawater cooling pump and place where engine sacrificial zinc used to be.

I can only say good luck, OW. The world is full of suckers. You might just hook one who doesn’t read this column.

Today’s Thought
There are times when God honoreth the season for untruth.
— Æschylus, Fragments

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #161
When you’re on a collision course with another vessel, and want to be noticed on that vessel’s radar screen, you must charge course by at least 60 degrees. Small changes of course are almost unnoticeable on a radar screen, even by experienced operators. So make a change of course of between 60 and 90 degrees as soon as possible.

“But it’s my first date. What should I do if he tries to kiss me?”
“I guess you could always whisper for help.”

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

February 15, 2011

Into the wild blue yonder

THE INMATES up at the Walnut Street pen have started wondering about the Rule of the Road at sea. You may recall that half a dozen of them are planning to steal boats when their time is up, and sail off into the wild blue yonder, where they won’t have to sleep behind bars any more.

A letter to the editor in the latest issue of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) says:

Does anyone know the code for avoiding collisions on the water? Do they drive on the right like us? How about at night?
--Lefty Foreshanks, Level 4, Row E, Cell 45

► Well Lefty, I think I can help you. Here’s bit of poetry to lift your soul and keep you out of trouble when you’re motoring in the dark, as I don’t doubt you will be, at least until you’re well clear of land. Commit it to memory. I didn’t write it and I don’t know who did. It’s as old as the hills, but it’s still valid advice:

Meeting steamers do not dread;
When you see three lights ahead
Starboard wheel and show your red.

Green to green or red to red,
Perfect safety, go ahead.

If to starboard red appear,
’Tis your duty to keep clear;
Act as judgment says is proper:
Port—or starboard—back or stop her.

But when upon your port is seen
A steamer’s starboard light of green,
There’s not so much for you to do,
For green to port keeps clear of you.

Both in safety and in doubt
Always keep a good look-out;
In danger with no room to turn,
Ease her—Stop her—Go astern.

PS: Lefty, in case you’re wondering, the red (port) light goes on the left side of the boat, facing forward. The green (starboard) light goes on the other side. And the word “steamer” means all kinds of boats being moved by power, including yachts that also have sails up.

Today’s Thought
America has the longest prison sentences in the West, yet the only condition long sentences demonstrably cure is heterosexuality.
— Bruce Jackson, Professor of Law and Jurisprudence, State University of NY, Buffalo

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #160
The “purchase” or power gained by a tackle, is equal to the number of lines leading into and out of the moving block only, including a line attached to its becket, but excluding a line attached to the load.

“Where’s John these days?”
“Got six months for stealing a car.”
“Jeez, what a dummy. Why didn’t he buy a new one and just not pay for it, like the rest of us?”

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

February 13, 2011

The joy of being sinful

I WAKE UP well after dawn and let my eyes dwell on the moving light show overhead. The water is sparkling this sunny morning in this quiet cove. It throws its dazzling reflections onto the white fiberglass over my head in the V-berth. And a deep feeling of bliss suffuses my body. There is simply nothing more luxurious or blissful than lying late in bed on a small boat, knowing that people on other boats in the anchorage are dutifully scrubbing their decks, wiping the dew off their varnish, and generally hopping around attending to the tasks of the day.

But it wasn’t always thus. I was brought up by proverb, idiom, maxim, and commandment, both Biblical and parental. (“Thou shalt not question the hour of bedtime.”) It was a time and place when Puritan virtues were esteemed. I never took too much food and I always cleaned my plate. I never talked to an adult until spoken to. I was taught to submerge myself in the team, never to stand out from the crowd. I washed behind my ears because cleanliness was next to godliness. I always went to bed on time. I never argued back. I would never have dreamed of having my nose pierced or my navel tattooed. Punctuality was the courtesy of kings, of course, and lying abed in the morning equated to sloth, one of the deadly sins. Early to bed, early to rise, on the other hand, made a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Actually, I couldn’t tell if it made me healthy, but I certainly became suspicious, years later, when it failed to make me wealthy or wise. I eventually had a serious talk with my conscience, which agreed (though rather reluctantly) that lying abed in the morning, though possibly sluggish, unproductive, and anti-social, should not be classified as one of the seven deadly sins.

Nevertheless, deep in the folds of my grey matter there still lurks a primeval suspicion that my parents were right. And that’s what makes things so delightful. There is simply no bliss greater, no pleasure more profound, than that which springs from sin.

I draw the sleeping bag up around my chin and shut my eyes. A happy smile parts my lips. It’s morning. It’s late. I’m still in bed. It’s wonderful. I’m probably sinning, and will be for another half-hour at least. And I don’t give a damn.

Today’s Thought
The avenues in my neighborhood are Pride, Covetousness and Lust; the cross streets are Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. I live over on Sloth, and the style on our street is to avoid the other thoroughfares.
— John Chancellor, New York, 24 Dec 84

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #159
Extensive research has revealed that a radar operator’s attention drops off sharply after 30 minutes. More than 50 percent of all vessel sightings are made in the first half-hour of radar watches lasting two hours or more. So, if you have radar aboard and are relying on it in conditions of bad visibility, try to relieve the watch every 30 minutes.

“Please tell His Honor what the man said when you opened the door.”
“Your Honor, he said he hadn’t had a bite for five days.”
“And what did you do?”
“I bit him.”

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

February 10, 2011

The stretch of doom

NAVAL ARCHITECTS ARE DRIVEN MAD by people who want “small changes” made to existing designs.

“Just another three feet in length,” some hopeful says, “and she’d be perfect for me.”

“Just six inches less draft and I’d be able to get across the sandbar.”

I believe yacht designers receive special counseling for this. They’re taught not to pull their hair out, or strangle the potential customer, even if the latter move would improve the human gene pool. They have to explain, as gently as they can, that changes like that mean starting all over from the very beginning.

People who want to build their own boats are especially vexing. Because venturesome sailors have such individual requirements and are usually close to broke, they are often tempted to buy stock plans that a designer has drawn up for a small boat and enlarge them on a photocopier. And when disaster looms, as it will sooner or later, they blame the designer. What they don’t know about is the law of mechanical similitude, a very interesting law that applies to boats of similar shape. Interesting things happen when you alter the size of a boat.

Let’s say you double the size of a vessel evenly all around. Here’s what happens:

— Length, beam and draft increase 2 times.

— Wetted surface area increases by 4 times.

— Interior volume increases by 8 times.

— Weight increases by 8 times.

— Stability increases by 16 times.

Now think about that. The new boat would be 41 per cent faster and could carry four times as much sail. But the point is that even small changes in proportion cause large changes in stability, buoyancy, maneuverability, accommodation, handling, and seaworthiness.

So if you want a boat that’s five feet longer, remember the law of mechanical similitude. Find a boat that was designed from scratch to be five feet longer in the first place. Don’t be tempted to economize with the stretch of doom.

Today’s Thought
Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.
— Philip Johnson, Esquire Dec 80

Boaters' Rules of Thumb, #158
It’s been established as a rule of thumb over the years that the maximum horizontal pull a person can exert on a line, given a good foothold, is about 150 pounds. If you’re pulling down, then your maximum pull equals your own weight, of course.

“My neighbor’s dog keeps barking all night. I can’t sleep. I’m at my wits’ end. What can I do?”
“Buy it from him. Then HE won’t be able to sleep.”

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

February 8, 2011

Red sky baloney

I BELIEVE IT WAS JESUS who spread the unconvincing rumor about a red sky at night being a sailor’s delight. In the Bible, (Matthew XVI: 2-3,) Jesus said, “When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.” Ever since, His followers have done their best to make a convincing case for this meteorological mythology. But they haven’t convinced me. Like most met forecasts, even those from the highest and most impeccable sources in Heaven, this one is as likely to be wrong as right.

I mean, just think about it. Why should a red sky at night mean good weather the next day? What if there’s a cold front lurking just over the western horizon and it comes screaming through at 5 a.m.? Is that what you’d call a sailor’s delight?

And yet this old canard is quoted as gospel in all kinds of circles. Wikipedia, the self-professed font all knowledge says: “In order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east.” So what? What about the new storm system roaring in from the west overnight?

“Weather systems typically move from west to east,” says Wiki. Yeah, right. Tell that to anyone in the path of a hurricane racing from Africa to America. Tell that to anyone cruising in the northeast or southeast trades. Typically, Wiki? Typically? Hardly. Only in a few places.

The same kind of brainless forecasting results from a red sky in the morning being a sailor’s warning, of course. And why always a red sky? I’m sure most of us have seen sunrises and sunsets where clouds were reflected in all kinds of gaudy colors.

Pink sky at night
Gay sailors’ delight

Orange sky at night
Fruit-lover’s delight

Almost any color of sky at night would be somebody’s delight. But not necessarily a sailor’s, no matter what the Bible says and Wiki regurgitates.

Today’s Thought
To talk of the weather, it’s nothing but folly,
For when it rains on the hill, it shines in the valley.
— R. H. Barham, The Nurse’s Story

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #157
More propeller facts:
-- A decrease of one inch in pitch is good for an increase in shaft revolutions of about 200 rpm.
-- By convention, propeller diameter is marked first, then pitch.
-- The colder and denser the water, the smaller a propeller should be. The rule, based on a starting temperature of 70°F, is that prop diameter should be reduced about 1 percent for every 10 degrees drop in water temperature.

“How do you like your new doctor, Ethel?”
“He’s great. So sympathetic. He makes you feel really ill.”

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

February 6, 2011

WAAS at last

I TOOK MY COURAGE in both hands the other day and upgraded my old Garmin 72 GPS.

I’d been putting it off for nearly three years, fearing that messing with its little electronic guts would render it useless for ever. It didn’t strike me for quite a while that the heart of a GPS is just computer program, and when you upgrade it you simply replace the old program with a new program. Well, duh! you might say. All I can say in return is that it wasn’t duh! to me.

This whole business started right after I bought the Garmin 72 brand-new in 2008. I switched it on and it would work fine for a while and then suddenly go blank. No action at all.

When I complained, the Garmin people said Oh yeah, we know about that, what you have to do is disable WAAS.

Right. Of course. Disable WAAS. Naturally.

“What is WAAS?” I said. “How do I disable it?”

It turned out that WAAS was the magic beam from the sky that made corrections to the GPS signal when the military deliberately made it inaccurate, so Osama bin Laden couldn’t send a nuclear missile directly down a Pentagon chimney pot. But WAAS, the wide-area augmentation system, made it accurate again. (Much to Osama’s delight, no doubt.) Only, on the 72, Garmin had got the software program wrong. When WAAS kicked in, the computer went nuts and quit working.

To disable WAAS you had to switch the GPS off, switch it on again, press Page twice, followed by Menu then Enter. Press Menu again twice, scroll down to Set-up, and, under General, scroll down to WAAS, scroll down to Disable and press Enter. Simple. Now I had a GPS that was as inaccurate as the military wanted it to be, despite the fact that I’d paid for increased accuracy.

I pointed out to the Garmin people that they were still selling the faulty 72 model all over the USA, even though they knew it was flawed. They shrugged. You can get a correction online, they said. Or you can send it back and we’ll fix it.

I said: “How’s that going to help the poor bastard who’s trying to find his way into port some dark night in a raging storm and his Garmin 72 goes blank on him?” Garmin shrugged. They don’t take any responsibility. It says so right there on the screen as soon as you fire the thing up.

The next question: How do I download the corrected computer program and stick it in my GPS? Simple, they said. Just log on to our website and download it to your computer. Connect your computer to the GPS and download the new program.

Now, after many hard lessons, I have learned to be wary of instructions like these. How do you connect the GPS to the computer? I asked. “Oh, don’t you have the right cables?” Why would I have the right cables, I asked. What were the right cables? Did I have to buy the right cables, when this was their mistake? I must have sounded either persuasive or pissed off, I don’t know which, but they said oh very well then, they would send me the cables free.

They arrived in quite a large box, labeled “USB to Rs232 Converter Cable,” a box that also contained a PC cable, a six-page USB cable installation manual, and a disc with a USB cable program for use with computers using the Windows 98/2000 operating system. My operating system was Windows XP, of course.

I took one look at the 12 feet of combined cables and the assorted hardware and software, and weighed up the possibilities for disaster. I decided they were many. I also decided that 90 feet of GPS accuracy, the normal sort of average with WAAS disabled, was good enough for me. And then I set off on a six-week trip around Vancouver Island.

But a couple of days ago I got to thinking about how the old Garmin 72 is outdated already, and I probably need a newer GPS now, so what is there to lose if I mess around with the old one?

I dug out the old box of cables and fastened them together. I found the holes in the computer and the GPS to stick them in, and I linked my computer to the Garmin website. I placed the Garmin software disc for the UBS cable in the tray, just in case, and I downloaded one of two software programs. I had no idea which of the two programs was the right one, but I guess I lucked out because I didn’t destroy the computer’s hard disc and the GPS didn't explode.

So now, just when it’s time to throw the darned thing away, I have a Garmin 72 GPS that is working perfectly, WAAS and all.

Today’s Thought
Science is some kind of cosmic apple juice from the Garden of Eden. Those who drink of it are doomed to carry the burden of original sin.
— Lewis M. Branscomb

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #156
Propeller facts:
--A decrease of one inch in diameter is good for an increase of about 300 propeller revolutions per minute.
--On sailboats, minimum clearance between hull and blade tips is 10 percent of propeller diameter. On powerboats, 20 percent or more clearance if usually needed to prevent vibration.
--The thinner lock-nut should be installed on the prop shaft directly against the propeller hub. As the larger, second nut is tightened, it assumes all the load on its own threads.

“Have you been offered a job lately?”
“Just once. Apart from that I’ve met with nothing but kindness.”

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

February 3, 2011

Why I don’t start races

I WAS RECENTLY TEMPTED to volunteer for the race-committee boat. Then I remembered that I had been there, done that, and had not exactly distinguished myself.

Many years ago, when I lived in Durban, I started the International Mirror Class Association of South Africa. I was a great organizer, even if I say so myself. At least, I was great at organizing the paperwork that resulted one sunny day in 78 little Mirrors with bright red sails racing in a large clump down a narrow channel in the busiest harbor on the African continent, in terms of cargo handled.

I would have been on the committee boat, but we didn’t have a committee boat, so I was standing on a sandbank near the wharf where the fishing boats tied up, and where the Royal Natal Yacht Club had a flagpole for starting dinghy races.

I had borrowed the club’s shotgun and a handful of blank cartridges for the start, which was divided into three classes 10 minutes apart, depending on the skill of the skippers: Expert, Normal, and Dummy. As we had no rescue boat either, the Experts were delegated to grab any Dummies they found in the water and tow them to the nearest sandbank.

I was rather nervous, because there were rather a lot of Dummies out for their first race, and I hadn’t thought to get permission from the harbor authorities for this race. I wondered what would happen if a large ship came down the channel. Large ships can’t stop or even slow down in the dredged channel. If they lose steerage way they get blown sideways onto the sandbank.

It was seven minutes to the first start when I nearly blew my foot off. I must have twitched the trigger nervously. A large hole appeared in the sand next to my right foot.

I was a little shocked, but the effect on the racing fleet was more dramatic. The Dummies thought the loud bang was their signal to start, so they started. The Normals and Experts, looking at their watches, shouted “No, go back! It can’t be.” But the Dummies weren’t going to be fooled by them. They were off, heeling and flapping their way to the weather mark.

After milling around in a large confused melee for several minutes and consulting each other with furrowed brows, several Normals and Experts sailed over to my edge of the sandbank. I considered reloading and giving them a new 10-minute gun, but I was still in shock and worried about those Dummies galumphing along on their own, so I waved them off. “Go,” I shouted. “Go, go!” And so they took off after the Dummies with a lot of head-shaking and loud mutters.

As it happened, there were no shipping movements scheduled for that Sunday afternoon and none of the Dummies had to be towed to a sandbank, but there was a solemn post-mortem at the club afterwards. There was some tart criticism, and a lot of mild abuse disguised as jocular comment. I had to buy an awful lot of drinks, which I couldn’t charge to the Association because it had no money. Nobody expressed any concern about the fact that I could have shot my foot off. Ingrates.

There were, of course, no official race results, and I dare say I would have been fired if I hadn’t been the boss of the class. In any case, I haven’t started a yacht race since. And nobody has asked me to.

Today’s Thought
Mistakes are at the very base of human thought ... feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.
— Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

A rise in Followers
Deb, of the sailing vessel Nomad, wrote to say:

“I believe you might have quite a few more followers than you realize. I've been following you through my Google Reader which doesn't use the ‘Follow’ button, so you'd never know.

“I did also have pity on you though, and hit the ‘Follow’ button :) Thanks for having the Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat on the Kindle by the way.”

Deb, S/V Nomad http://www.theretirementproject.blogspot.com/

► Yeah, Deb, I did have a faint idea there were more readers than Followers. (Suddenly up to 42 Followers now, by the way!) The Google ’bots assure me there were 4,039 visits to my blog in the past month, and 7,282 page views. That is still a pathetically small audience, of course. On the other hand, there are just so many blogs and websites and bulletin boards out there, so many hundreds of thousands of them, that it’s hard to imagine how anyone at all would end up here, especially as boating is such a niche sport. Now, if I had only concentrated on cooking, football, pop music, movies, or sex, instead of boating, I’d be reaching a far larger readership.

Not that size matters (as they always claim, with nervous hope). I feel that my audience is distinguished more by its excellent taste than its size, and excellent taste is a rare commodity these days.

Oh, and thanks for alerting me to the fact that Seaworthy Offshore is now on Kindle, Deb. I wasn’t aware of it. They never tell me anything.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #155
Here’s what you need to know about the handedness (terrible word) of a propeller. A propeller that screws forward when it revolves clockwise as seen from astern, is known as a right-handed propeller. Most single propellers are right-handed, but twin installations usually have one right-handed and one left-handed prop to neutralize their respective sideways thrusts.

In the revered words of the estimable Harry Stotle:
“Rather a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy.”

February 1, 2011

I blame the Internet

(I guess I have to warn you that this article has nothing to do with boats or boating. But most sailors I know have a reasonably wide range of interests, so the chances are that at least some of you might find it worth reading.)

WHEN I was still quite young and thought I knew everything, I was surprised one day to stumble across a new word in a dictionary. I realized immediately, with all the reptilian cunning of a seven-year-old, that this was a word I wasn’t supposed to see.

So, naturally, I memorized it. I hugged it to me, and practiced pronouncing it in different ways when I was safely in bed at night. For years, many years, it puzzled me, and only yesterday did I realize what it really means.

The word in question is frottage. You won’t find it in all print dictionaries, but the Concise Oxford describes it as “n. 1. (Psych.) abnormal desire for contact between clothed bodies of oneself and another.”

At the time I discovered this word I was not entirely sure what the word “desire” meant, either, but I equated it with a persistent need for Snickers bars and ice cream and cream soda. I found nothing abnormal about that, so I was given furiously to think. But in the end thinking got me nowhere. So, being of a patient disposition, I hid my new word and its description in a secret but easily accessible place at the back of my mind and waited for life to reveal the truth to me at its own pace.

In the meantime, if frottage was “abnormal” contact, I got to wondering what constituted “normal” contact between clothed bodies, and kept my eyes peeled for examples. One warm, sunny day, when I was walking by myself from my home to a large reservoir a mile or two away, I passed through a small wood. There, in a cozy hollow surrounded by leafy trees, I spied a man and a woman on the ground. The man was lying on top of the woman and apparently rubbing his clothes against hers. I was fascinated and froze in mid-step. She was not objecting, as far as I could tell, but she was facing me and became aware of my presence. She said something, and the man, a rather large man, stood up, adjusted his trousers, and shouted at me, upon which I fled.

This was an unsatisfactory encounter; unsatisfactory in that it left me wondering whether I had witnessed frottage, that is, abnormal clothes rubbing, or just plain normal clothes rubbing.

As I grew older, the puzzlement persisted. I watched the television news with great interest when men from helicopters rescued victims from mountains and shipwrecks, fascinated by the way the clothed rescuer hugged the clothed rescuee as they were lifted together, twisting at the end of a thin cable. I noticed also that football players often jumped toward each other and rubbed clothed chest to clothed chest when they were excited after a touchdown. I reasoned, however, that this wouldn’t be shown on family television if it were abnormal; and neither would ballroom dancing, especially the tango, which otherwise seemed to fit the description perfectly.

Years passed, but in all this time I never heard anyone refer to frottage and never read any reference to it. And yet I knew it existed. It was in the Concise Oxford. Somewhere, someone was experiencing an abnormal desire to rub shirt against shirt or, for all I knew, sock against sock. For a while I wondered if washing machines and laundries were part of the conspiracy to commit abnormal contact between clothes, but then I remembered that frottage was all about clothed bodies. There had to be bodies.

By the time I was 15 I had learned a little French at school and I knew that the French wrote bawdy books. Rabelais and Guy de Maupassant came to mind, as did the Marquis de Sade although he made no sense to me. Frottage sounded French, especially if you pronounced it fro-TAZHE, like corsage, rather than FROTT-ij, like cottage. But Monsieur Larousse’s dictionaire was not much help. The verb “frotter” simply meant to rub, or to scrape, and the noun “frottage” wasn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps, I thought, it was only English-speaking people who experienced the abnormal desire.

And so I wandered through life unsatisfied in my quest to solve this mystery, but not really giving it too much thought. And while I was wandering, someone invented the Internet, and the Internet became the source of all the collected knowledge of mankind.

So yesterday, on a whim, I Googled frottage. Wikipedia said it was “consensual sexual rubbing between partners.” Merriam-Webster said it was “the act of obtaining sexual satisfaction by rubbing against a person or object.” About.com didn’t beat about the bush. “Also known as dry humping,” it said.

It’s hard to describe how I feel. More than disappointed. Less than shocked. More than disillusioned. Less than disgusted. But not much less.

It seems to me that after so many years of patient waiting I deserved something grander in the way of a revelation, something more passionate, something more intriguing and satisfying. Certainly something less tacky than dry humping.

I wish they’d asked my advice before inventing the Internet. I would have said no. I could have told them no good would come of it.

Today’s Thought

The words! I collected them in all shapes and sizes and hung them like bangles in my mind.

— Hortense Calisher, Extreme Magic

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #154
All propellers lose efficiency because of slippage in the water. Roughly speaking, the slippage of propellers on certain types of boats is this:
► High-speed powerboats: About 20 percent
► Light power cruisers: About 24 percent
► Heavy power cruisers: About 26 percent
► Auxiliary sailboats: Between 40 and 55 percent

“Hey! How come you kicked your little sister in the stomach like that?”
“It was her fault. She turned round suddenly.”

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