May 31, 2011

Barnacles and retirement plans

SOMETIMES I REALLY REGRET that I find myself writing books and articles and columns about boats. The market for this kind of stuff is so small. I mean, if I had concentrated on writing about gardening or the bad habits of movie stars, things that fascinate almost everybody, I’d be rich and famous by now. I’d be lolling on the beach outside one of those $1,000-a-night cabins at the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands. Sigh.

It’s hard to underestimate the intelligence of average Americans, which makes them prefer gardening and wicked movie stars to sailing, but it’s a fact of life that I have to live with.

And talking about gardening, it has not escaped my attention that I would be far better off if I were selling stuff instead of writing stuff, and in particular selling stuff to stop the goddam deer eating my one and only rose bush. I don’t believe deer should be roaming the gardens of this busy city of 80,000 people, eating the rose bushes of honest citizens and acting with all the impunity of royal game. I am not in favor of it. I believe deer who act badly should be turned into jerky, and I have a good recipe for that. But our city fathers are a wimpish lot and have kowtowed to the loud and troublesome anti-jerky faction, so that it is now illegal to kill a deer in cold blood, even if you catch him in flagrante delicto with your only rose bush halfway down his greedy gizzard.

Anyway, the best stuff I know for stopping deer eating your roses is cougar urine. If I had any business sense I would be selling bottles of cougar urine for all those millions of keen rose gardeners to spray on their bushes now and then. Not real cougar urine, of course, because it’s tricky to get a cougar to pee into a bottle. Just ordinary tap water with a dash of yellow food coloring. Enough to fool most of the people most of the time, until you can catch the plane to the Virgin Islands.

However, because I’m stuck in the boating niche, and therefore by definition don’t have much sense, perhaps I should stick to the boating equivalent of pestiferous deer, i.e., barnacles — particularly those barnacles that infest propellers. There’s a fortune to be made for somebody who discovers a way to discourage barnacles from making themselves at home on props.

Surely there must be some sort of creepy-crawly crustacean whose presence turns your average barnacle white with fright and sends him scuttling off in a panic. There must be something, the mere smell of which would discourage a barnacle from adhering himself to your prop. All we have to do is find this creature and make him pee in a bottle so we can sell the spray and retire to the Bitter End Yacht Club. It’s not too much to ask, surely?

Today’s Thought
An idea can turn into dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.
— William Bernbach.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #206
In general, two engines are not twice as good as one, whether they’re inboards or outboards. Added weight, added friction in drive trains, and added underwater drag are formidable prices to pay. Thus, the rule of thumb is that a twin-screw installation wastes about 20 percent of the power available, compared with a single engine of comparable horsepower.

Milestone 400
WE REACHED another little milestone today. This is the 400th Mainly about Boats column. You’ll find every one of them over there on the right if you click on the little arrows. Go right ahead. Explore this fascinating little treasure trove of nautical knowledge before a new Judgment Day comes along and whisks them all off for burning in the fires of Hell. Read ’em quick while you still have a chance. No advertisements, you’ll notice, no begging for money, no misspelled words, no hanging participles or split infinitives. Only good pure grammar, and every one guaranteed to bring you rapture.

A young woman went to the doctor complaining of aches and pains. “I think I’ve got the swine flu,” she said.
“Swine flu nothing,” the doctor said. “That’s not swine flu. That’s Egyptian flu — you’re going to be a mummy.”

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

May 29, 2011

Can you be found?

 SOMETIMES, when I see a young family heading out for a day’s sailing with the dog barking excitedly and the kids running up and down the sidedecks, I wonder how many people on board would be capable of calling for help in an emergency.

By that, I mean specifically: if the skipper had a heart attack, who on board would be able to tell the Coast Guard where to find the boat? I presume, of course, that someone would be able to figure out how to work the VHF radio and find Channel 16. But what the Coasties want to know first and foremost is: Where are you, exactly?

That question very seldom occurs to us when we’re out sailing. We kind of know we’re out in the bay and it should be pretty easy to find us. But when the whitecaps are breaking all around, and your boat, like most, is white, it can take a long time to find you if you can’t give an exact position.

It’s the navigator’s job to keep tabs on where you are, but few family yachts have dedicated navigators, and not many of us can say with any veracity on the spur of the moment that we are 2.75 miles south-south-east of buoy E16. Mostly, the best we can do is: “Uh, I think we’re about three miles offshore and, um, I can see a horse running on the beach.”

It would make the Coasties’ life a lot easier if someone could give them the exact chart coordinates from a GPS receiver or a fancy phone with a GPS application. Pressing the button on an EPIRB would have the same effect, even if the family dog did it accidentally in his excitement, but once again, how many family yachts carry EPIRBs?

The clever thing about digital selective calling (DSC) VHF radios is that they will send out a Mayday at the push of a button, but that’s not much use unless you tie your DSC in with a GPS receiver, so that the message also contains your position — and that can get a bit complicated because not all electronics are on good speaking terms. As a result, most DSC radios on small yachts don’t broadcast their positions, which is what they were designed for in the first place.

There are other ways to call for help. You can use a cell phone to call the Coast Guard if you’re within range, and they may be able to triangulate your position roughly, and you can buy the Spot service, which acts like an EPIRB; but on the whole it’s a very rare Mayday call that contains the information your potential rescuers want most to hear. As with house sales, it’s position, position, position that counts.

Today’s Thought
After the verb “To Love,” “To Help” is the most beautiful verb in the world.
— Baroness von Suttner, Ground Arms.

Boat-launch blues
HERE’S SOMETHING a reader called Steve wants to get off his chest:

These are two of the many tips I gathered from observing expert boaters launch their trailerables:

1. Many of the experts seem to agree that the popular “quick-brake-to-jettison-the-vessel-from-its-trailer” technique is most effectively executed when their under-6-year-old children are standing hands-free on the coaming.

2. Apparently the most efficient way of preparing for the launch is to wait to take care of all the details, such as deploying mooring lines and fenders, until it is your turn to launch. I guess this is more prudent than doing all that during the 50 minutes you are waiting in line for your turn, as it gives you more opportunity get drunk and belligerent.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #205
A storm trysail is a very handy thing to have if you’re planning offshore work because is brings the sailplan’s center of effort farther aft than a reefed mainsail can — which helps to keep the bow into the wind when hove-to without a foresail. The old rule is that the area of a trysail should be slightly less than that of the close-reefed mainsail.

“My uncle had an accident the other day and now he’s got a wooden leg.”
“That’s nothing. My sister got engaged the other day and now she’s got a cedar chest.”

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

May 26, 2011

The benefit of books

OLD WOTSISNAME was holding forth the other day, to anyone who would stop and listen, on the subject of learning to sail. His theory is that you can’t learn sailing from books; that the only worthwhile teacher is experience, often bitter experience.

I don’t think this is entirely true, but I didn’t waste my time arguing with OW, who has never been known to change his opinion as the result of a reasoned conversation. I have always placed OW in the “electric fence” category of sailing pundits.

It was the irrepressible Will Rogers who opined: “There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.”

I believe that books provide the knowledge you need to experiment with your boat in all kinds of weather conditions. Books tell you what your options are, and how certain arrangements of sails and rudder worked for other people in light air and heavy. Without books, our knowledge of sailing would be limited to conversations with a few close associates such as OW, and we would never be able to break free from their near-sighted biased experience.

In any case, as an author myself, I’m very much in favor of people buying books to increase their knowledge of sailing and widen their skills. Reading is not a waste of time, despite what OW might tell you. Remembering something you once read may make life easier for you one day. It might even save your life. So go ahead, read a book, and let some other silly bugger pee on the fence.

Today’s Thought
You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
— Theodore Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”)

Negative impact
SOME TIME AGO I was bewailing the fact that owners of small boats get a raw deal from marinas because slips are billed by length, not displacement.

Now a reader called Matt Marsh has weighed in on the subject:

“Unfortunately, the negative impact of billing purely by length extends beyond simply making small-craft folk mad,” he says. “It forces designers and manufacturers to use much shorter, deeper, and beamier hulls than would be ideal. There are a lot of 10-ton, 35-foot powerboats that really should be 10 tons and 46 feet, but are crammed into a smaller, less efficient, and far less seaworthy package so they can fit in a 35-foot slip.

“The logic behind length-based billing is hard to deny — the marina has to build and maintain X feet of dock to handle an X-foot boat, however wide or heavy she may be — catamarans excepted of course, since you can double-bill them — but it leads to so many bad side-effects ...”

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #204
If you ever need a tow in an emergency you may find that few skippers of larger boats know how dangerous it is to tow your boat faster than her normal hull speed. If you think there’s a chance they might ignore your pleas to keep the speed down, the rule is to make fast the towline at your end so that it can be cast off at a moment’s notice from your position at the helm.

“Where did you get that black eye?”
“At a night club. I was struck by the beauty of the place.”

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

May 24, 2011

Heavy-weather tactics

A COMMENT FROM David Browne says:

“I have read your analysis of sea anchors in The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat, and your comments concerning the Pardeys’ technique, and have read the Pardeys’ book on storm tactics many times, trying to find something to support my skepticism of what sounds like overly simplistic generalizations (i.e., carrying a trysail in 70-plus knots of wind while lying peacefully to a sea anchor) and their statement that a sea anchor off the bow is the last resort needed to survive basically any storm. I think both drogues and sea anchors have their usefulness but neither is a blanket tool of last resort. Any thoughts?”

Plenty of thoughts, David, but few specific answers, for the reason that every boat handles differently and every storm’s wave pattern is different. You’re right, there are no simple generalizations. You can’t be dogmatic about one particular method being the right one for every boat in every storm.

The Pardeys have made a lot of noise about the benefits of a sea anchor, but they themselves survived a typhoon (just 80 miles from its center) by heaving to under a reefed mainsail only, with the helm lashed a-lee. No sea anchor was involved. They seem to have used the sea anchor occasionally to stop forward motion while hove-to under a reefed mainsail only, thus keeping the boat directly downwind of the beneficial “slick” caused by the keel’s being dragged sideways through the water, a turbulence that apparently causes waves to break farther to windward and expend their energy before they meet the boat. Incidentally, their nylon “sea anchor” is 8-feet in diameter and porous. It’s far smaller than a true sea anchor would be for their size of yacht, so I regard it as more of a large drogue than a proper sea anchor. See here:

The late Adlard Coles, a small-boat racer with extensive experience of sailing in storms, experimented with a sea anchor on 30 fathoms of nylon line in the famous Santander Race storm. He streamed it from the bow and it did no good. His boat, the well-known Cohoe, continued to lie broadside on. So he took the line to the stern and it “seemed to have steadying effect.” With no sails up, though, the motion was still “wild in the extreme” while she ran before the seas. The sea was violent and large, and the cockpit was often a foot or two under water from heads of seas and driving spray, but Cohoe behaved very well. When the wind dropped slightly and they decided to make sail, two crew heaved on the long warp leading to the sea anchor. “With the final heave they discovered the truth: there was nothing at its end. The sea anchor had gone in the night and no one noticed any difference.”

Many, many small sailboats have endured “ordinary” gales safely by heaving-to, that is getting the boat to lie at an angle of between 45 and 60 degrees bows-on to the waves. Even more, I suspect, simply lie a-hull, that is, they take in all sail, lash the helm a-lee and leave her to her own devices. In building winds, though, there comes a time when waves will start to pick her up and throw her sideways, down onto her lee side. Then it’s time to run before the wind.

Adlard Coles, in his book Heavy Weather Sailing, advises: “For those who are in doubt, especially when caught out in ordinary gales, I recommend the well-tried expedient of streaming warps ... What I think is clear is that you must either run fast enough to give absolute control so that the boat will respond to a flick of the wheel or tiller, or else slow down, when warps will have to be streamed to steady the stern to the seas.”

If that doesn’t work and the wind is still building, you may have to resort to Moitessier’s trick of taking large breakers 20 degrees on the stern and running free without warps. He felt that the warps were holding him back so much that he couldn’t maneuver out of the way of the biggest waves. He also pointed out that a boat held back by warps or drogues will be punished more severely by plunging breakers than one that can respond by fleeing forward and relieving much of the pressure.

But in the end everything depends on the design of the boat, above and below the water. Multihulls and other shallow-bodied sailboats and powerboats might lie quietly to a sea anchor bows-on to the waves, but most sea-going sailboats will not.

It’s extremely difficult to find good simple advice on this subject because very few people actually encounter survival storms, and what worked for their boats might not work for yours. So the real answer is to read as much as you can of other people’s adventures while keeping an open mind and watching for their natural bias with a healthy skepticism. Be aware of the many possibilities, gain experience by experimenting in your own boat, and work out for yourself a set of general principles to apply when the time comes.

Today’s Thought
No one can with safety expose himself often to danger: The man who has often escaped is caught at last.
— Seneca, Hercules Furens.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #203
A long-established rule of thumb is that a sailboat’s tiller shouldn’t break if a 200-pound sailor falls on it. I have never seen any indication of the maximum height from which that sailor should fall, though. Perhaps it would be wise to request any crewmember heavier than 200 pounds to keep well clear of the tiller when he or she is likely to fall down.

“Darling, will you still love me after we’re married?”
“Sure, why not? I’ve always been partial to married women.”

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

May 22, 2011

Picture-perfect pitchpole

A FEW YEARS AGO I was fishing off the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena aboard a Boston Whaler of about 16 feet or so. The skipper, a city man, began running down the faces of the long swells at a speed that made me wonder how long it would be before we dug our bows into the back of the swell ahead and flipped end over end. We didn’t, luckily, because even he recognized the danger after a while, and slowed down. But in thinking about this recently I was reminded that capsizing lengthways, that is stern-over-stem, is always a possibility for yachts in a gale.

One of the classic recorded examples is that of Tzu Hang, of course. Miles and Beryl Smeeton’s 46-foot double-ended ketch was attempting to round Cape Horn in a storm, running before the wind and dragging 60 fathoms of hawser, when she was pitchpoled. The story of how the two of them, and their only other crew, John Guzzwell, not only survived but also made a jury rig to get them to South America, is told in Miles’s excellent book, Once is Enough.

I seem to remember that another double-ender pitchpoled, too, this time a similarly-sized Colin Archer on her way from Europe to South Africa. She was the 47-foot gaff-rigged ketch Sandefjord, owned by Erling Tambs. She survived the accident but lost a crewmember and her mizzenmast.

But the most spectacular pitchpole I know of that was captured on film was that of Silk II, a 41-foot ocean racer running under spinnaker before gale-force winds off Calshot on the south coast of England. When she tripped up on a wave and dug her bows in up to the mast, leaving the crew hanging on at the stern 20 feet above the water, veteran photographer Keith Beken, (82), of Cowes, was there clicking his shutter. (See picture above.)

The funniest pitchpole I ever saw involved a Hobie 14 catamaran running at full tilt onto a yacht club launch ramp in a high wind. A sudden gust from aft depressed the bows, which slid under water, bringing the boat to a sudden stop. As the stern flew upward, the skipper was launched high into the air and landed in the water ahead of the boat. Then the boat slowly backed up. The bows came out. The Hobie resumed her forward sprint, straddling the man in the water. He grabbed the bow cross-bar as she charged over him and was dragged up the launch ramp on his back until she ground to a stop. He wasn’t hurt. Just humiliated by the roars of laughter from the yacht club pub, which overlooked the launch ramp.

Today’s Thought
How slight a chance may raise or sink a soul!
— P. J. Bailey, Festus: A Country Town.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #202
Something you may need to know sometime: The average strength of a six-hour tidal stream is two-thirds of the maximum. The total drift in nautical miles is two-thirds of the maximum rate in knots, multiplied by 6.

“I followed your advice and went to the doctor, and he told me to drink a glass of carrot juice after a hot bath.”
“That’s good. And did the carrot juice make you feel better?”
“Haven’t drunk it yet. I’m still drinking the hot bath.”

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

May 19, 2011

High-performance flip-flops

WEST MARINE, the nation-wide boating-gear store, is advertising “Men’s Performance Flip-Flops” for sailors at $39.99 a pair. I mention this because I fail to see how men’s performance is tied up with flip-flops. I regularly see advertisements on television and in the AARP magazine for drugs (and even vacuum devices) that claim to improve a man’s performance, but never before have I heard that better performance had anything to do with his choice of flip-flops.

The other reason I mention this is because of the price. Gasp. I can remember buying my first pair of flip-flops in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, from an itinerant vendor standing on the harbor wharf. I was, at the time, working my passage to England as a greaser’s peggy, the lowest form of life on a Union-Castle passenger liner. The flops cost me 2/6, or half-a-crown in British money as it was then. That is about 20 cents U.S.

So, if West Marine is now asking 4,000 cents for a pair of flip-flops, it means that the price has risen by 20,000 percent in my lifetime. Twenty-thousand percent. If you don’t find this staggering, you should. It is, without doubt, staggering.

Now, before they were made de rigueur by the French pedi-couturier Phillipe Phillope, we used to call them thongs. These days, however, that word is used for a rather different garment, but perhaps one also intended to improve a man’s performance.

If you really want the very best in flip-flops, you have to go to Africa, where I grew up. They’re made by Zulus from old truck tires. Now there’s performance to boast about. You gain an inch in height to start with. And then you’re the proud owner of all-weather, mega-traction flip-flops, rated for rain, snow, mud, three-inch thorns, multiple green-mamba bites, speeds up to 85 mph on the freeway, and the option of white sidewalls.

Can’t beat that for performance — especially at one-tenth of the West Marine price.

Today’s Thought
’Tis the same to him who wears a shoe, as if the whole earth were covered with leather.
— Emerson.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #201
The ideal yacht tender exists only in dreams. She should be small enough to stow on deck but large enough to carry heavy crew and provisions in a reasonable chop. She should be light to handle but heavy enough to ride the seas. She should be wide for stability but narrow for easy rowing. She should tow well but not swamp in rough seas. All I can say is: good luck.

After they discovered oil in the Congo, the newly rich cannibal chief walked into the restaurant of a swish hotel.
“Good evening, sir,” said the waiter, “would you like to see the menu?”
“No thank you,” said the chief. “Just bring the guest register.”

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

May 17, 2011

When not to get mad

ONE OF THE GREATEST VIRTUES connected with sailing is not getting mad when another sailboat overtakes you. It’s not easy to remain calm and let that little smile of insouciance play on your lips. It’s not easy to keep the knuckles from going white while gripping the helm, or the teeth from grinding themselves down to the gums.

But the sailors who can do this most successfully are those who have come to an agreement with themselves about what they expect from a boat. Most often, they are cruising sailors who, knowing that all boats are compromises, have decided that seaworthiness, interior space, ease of handling and seakindliness are more important to them than speed and the ability to point higher than anybody else.

This is not to say that all cruising sailors have the steely self-control not to hurl insults at the boat that overtakes to windward, but on the whole they are more even-tempered than the excitable racing types who, having spent large fortunes on boats and gear with the express aim of going faster than anyone else, may be excused for getting their wimmies in a froth when some rotten so-and-so comes past them.

The point of all this is to know before you buy a boat exactly what you want to do with it, and then to find out what kind of boat will fulfill your requirements. If you omit these vital steps in successful boat purchase you will surely be disappointed, and your boat will join the thousands that sit in their slips week in and week out.

Modern wide, shallow boats with fin keels go fast and have bountiful accommodation. Old fashioned skinny boats with low profiles, pretty sheerlines, and modified full keels, will look after you in a storm at sea.

Fin-keel boats will be faster in light weather, because at low speeds, the majority of resistance comes from skin friction, and they don’t have much skin down there. But at higher speeds, when the wind pipes up, the main resistance comes from making waves, so old fashioned designs are at less of a disadvantage, and in fact will often outperform beamy shallow boats to windward in choppy seas. The skinny oldsters can carry more sail and they can slither snake-like through the chop, while the fin-keelers bang and slam and pound their speed away.

One of the most experienced small-boat seamen was the British ocean racer and publisher, K. Adlard Coles, who said: “A good heavy-displacement yacht is at least as equally able as a light one at sea. I used to be a light-displacement fan, but I have been converted to heavier displacement by Cohoe III, which I have found to be a better sea boat ... the principal difference is the immeasurably improved windward performance in really heavy weather. She can stand up to much higher winds.”

Today’s Thought
The race by vigor, not by vaunts, is won.
— Pope, The Dunciad.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #200
On average, tacking to a windward destination increases the distance traveled by 40 percent of the straight-line distance. In heavy weather, it also means a decrease in speed of 33 1/3 percent and an increase in crew discomfort of 66 2/3 percent.

“Basil, you’ve been drinking beer again!”
“No my love, not a drop of booze has passed my lips.”
“What have you been up to, then?”
“I’ve been eating frogs’ legs at the club.”
“Oh, sorry, it must be the hops I can smell.”

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

May 15, 2011

It’s always October here

SOMEONE COMMENTING the other day on the weather in my home town said: “It’s always October in Bellingham.”

It’s true. We’ve had record wet and cold weather this whole season. Not since last October have I been tempted to go sailing

However, one should not be gloomy. The wonderful thing about Bellingham weather is that it’s easy to choose a vacation destination. Anywhere you go, anywhere, it’s better than Bellingham.

I mean, if you lived in Florida or Hawaii or the Virgin Islands where would you go on vacation? What would there be to look forward to?

But we in Bellingham, why, we have the whole wide world open to us.

I mean, last year we found ourselves in Westport, an undistinguished, humdrum little fishing town down the coast a bit, a place you wouldn’t normally recommend for a holiday, not even to your mother-in-law.

One afternoon while we were there, peeking at the dripping town sights out of our hooded slickers, the town experienced what we later learned is called a “sun-break.”

For the sake of my fellow Bellingham readers who may never have seen this phenomenon, let me explain what happened. Our attention was drawn to a small hole that appeared in the heavens overhead, the center of which assumed a color we Bellinghamsters don’t normally associate with the sky. To our astonishment it was blue, matching the color of our fingers back home when we’re out sailing. From this azure ring in the sky a harsh yellow beam of light splashed down, dazzling our eyes. The buildings suddenly had shadows and sharp edges, and wisps of steam started rising from roads and sidewalks. You can imagine our alarm. My wife, who thought it might be an alien invasion, wanted to call 911, but as luck would have it a police cruiser came along the road and we flagged it down.

The officer was very nice. He explained that everything was quite normal. “This kind of thing often happens in mid-summer in Westport,” he said, “and it is nothing to worry about. It will go away of its own accord in five minutes.”

And he was proved right. The blue hole disappeared as quickly as it had come, and we were once more covered by comforting gray nimbus clouds leaking rain as they scurried north to Bellingham.

Once we had calmed down, we decided to write a letter to the local council, urging them to erect a large sign on the outskirts of the town, warning vacation visitors about this phenomenon called “sun-breaks,” lest they, too, should be taken aback and alarmed as we were. People like us need to be prepared well in advance for such unusual and disturbing weather behavior.

Today’s Thought
The rain, it falls upon the just
And on the unjust fella —
But mainly on the just because
The unjust stole the just’s umbrella.
— Anon.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #199
With displacement hulls it pays to tack downwind in light or medium weather. In heavy weather there’s no advantage over running dead downwind. Sailing 20 degrees off the wind and then 20 degrees back to the rhumb line, adds about 6 percent to the distance covered. But you only have to increase your speed by more than 6 percent (by keeping the jib filled, for example), say from 4 knots to 4.25 knots, to get there sooner.

“Okay buster, we’re going to have to lock you up for the night.”
“But officer, what’s the charge?”
“No charge, sir, it’s all part of the service.”

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

May 13, 2011

Taming the mast

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES when the behavior of my boat’s mast has puzzled and even alarmed me. While lying quietly in a sheltered marina slip, with a gentle breeze from abeam, my mast has started to shake back and forth, as if the shrouds and stays had all completely abdicated their dedicated duty.

It took me quite a while to learn that any mast may vibrate in winds of moderate speeds (5 to 14 miles an hour), and the vibrations may become severe when the natural frequency of the mast coincides with the frequency of vibration.

Alternate sideways movement occurs when wind eddies shed from one side then the other. In theory, it’s possible for the mast to vibrate back and forth in any direction perpendicular to the wind direction. Almost always, however, the movement is fore-and-aft, with the wind coming from abeam, or nearly so.

Here are ways to cure, or at least lessen, vibration:

1. First tighten the stays; then tighten the shrouds if necessary.

2. Add a wire or rod inner forestay.

3. For mast with luff-grooves, hoist a stiff narrow strip of heavy sailcloth in the groove to separate wind eddies. The strip needs to be at least 4 inches wide.

4. Turn the boat so the wind is striking the bare mast less from the side, and more from fore or aft.

5. For temporary relief on smaller boats, lead a non-stretch line from a strong point forward, such as a Samson post or an anchor cleat, clove-hitch it securely around the mast as high as you can reach, take it to a winch aft, and tighten as much as you can.

Today’s Thought
The way of the Wind is a strange, wild way.
— Ingram Crockett, The Wind

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #198
If you boat has the kind of stern gland that drips water to lubricate the packing, the rule of thumb is to err on the side of too many drips rather than too few. The water flow is needed not only to lubricate the gland, but also to prevent an excessive build-up of heat. About one of two drops a minute is about right when the shaft is not turning. When you’re under power, the rate will naturally be somewhat greater. A flow of water containing oxygen is also needed to protect a stainless-steel propeller shaft from pitting corrosion in the stern gland.

“Tell me, Vicar, do you believe in sex before marriage?”
“Not if it delays the ceremony.”

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

May 10, 2011

A look into the future

IT’S MY GUESS that powerboats and auxiliary sailing yachts will be powered by electric motors within 50 years. Some are at the moment, of course, but what I mean is that diesel and gasoline engines will cease to be the primary motive force for small boats. And what a pleasure that will be, when you think how quiet, reliable, and maintenance-free electric motors are.

Right now, our major problems have to do with batteries and the way we charge them. Batteries will have to become cheaper, lighter, and more efficient. Solar panels, to charge them, will have to become smaller, lighter, more flexible and more productive to put energy into those batteries. And I believe they will.

History tells us that we should believe the unlikely, if not the impossible. For example, according to the eminent engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe, there was no way that a steam engine could be used to propel boats. In a paper delivered to the American Philosophical Society in 1803, he listed the reasons why:

1. The weight of the engine and the fuel.
2. The large space it occupies.
3. The tendency of its action to rack the vessel and render it leaky.
4. The expense of maintenance.
5. The irregularity of its motion, and the motion of the water in the boiler and the cistern, and of the fuel-vessel in rough water.
6. The difficulty arising from the liability of the paddles to break, if light, and from the weight if made strong.

Well, Latrobe might have been eminent, but he was also spectacularly wrong. He lacked foresight and he lacked faith.

I don’t have good foresight, but I have lots of faith, which is why I say diesel and gasoline are on the way out. It will take a while, certainly, but the writing is on the wall and the electric motor is coming to the bilge.

Today’s Thought
The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance — the idea that anything is possible.
— Ray Bradbury

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #197
The best wire for a moveable staysail stay, or baby stay, is 7 x 7 stainless steel. It’s more flexible and less likely to work harden than the 1 x 19 rigging wire.

My Mistake
From a reader called Steve:

Here are two of the many tips I gathered from observing expert boaters launch their trailerables:

1. Many of the experts seem to agree that the popular “quick brake to jettison the vessel from its trailer” technique is most effectively executed when their under 6-year-old children are standing hands-free on the coaming.

2. Apparently the most efficient way of preparing for the launch is to wait to take care of all the details such as deploying mooring lines and fenders until it is your turn to launch. I guess this is more prudent than doing all that during the 50 minutes you are waiting in line for your turn, as it gives you more opportunity get drunk and belligerent.

“You look lonely.”
“Yeah, my wife’s gone to the West Indies.”
“No, it was her own idea.”

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

May 8, 2011

Don’t Make My Mistake

I THINK ONE CAN SAFELY SAY that people who sail are smart, sensitive, and more than normally cautious. But that doesn’t stop them from making embarrassing mistakes now and then. A British boating website has been having some fun with confessions from readers. Here are some of the gems of advice being offered on the Yachting and Boating World website’s Scuttlebutt forum.*

You will notice how each one rings with the true voice of embittered experience:

Twister Ken: If you're changing a faulty bulb in a nav light, don't throw away the NEW one and refit the OLD one. The nav light won't work.

Little Five: Don't forget to remove the oily rag from the air intake when first starting the engine after the winter.

prv: Sounds like the classic one of disconnecting a sink waste, carefully catching all the water in a bucket, and being very smug that not a drop has spilled. Then emptying the bucket into the sink.

emsworthy: Or possibly feeling smug that you have drained the sump and removed the old oil filter without a drop touching the bilges — and then you fill her up again ... Don't ask how I know!

doug748: If you ever fit a new paddle-wheel for your speed log, you will find it less trouble to replace it into the hole BEFORE you launch.

Pleiades: When the lady of your life is starting the Seagull [outboard motor] for her first time tell her not to throw the starting cord overboard in her excitement when the engine starts ...

Downsman: Just remember that if the safety valve on a pressure cooker is not hissing, it does not mean you can take the lid off ... Baby-wipes are excellent for removing gravy from deckheads and chicken drumsticks can travel from the galley to the forward cabin at really quite impressive speed ... also, half-past broccoli (according to the galley clock) is meaningless as a time-check.

Bellamica: Check the bottom of the washing-up bucket; 19 days of eating with your fingers; take spare cutlery on delivery trips ...

chinita: Avoid scrambling (unsuccessfully) around the colossal Gibraltar Rubbish Dump by making sure you have unpacked all the little boxes of fastenings from your very expensive imported self-steering gear before you throw the 'empty' boxes into the skip.

DanTribe: Wait for your power planer to stop turning before putting it down on the new worktop.

Robwhelton: A related tip: whilst standing on the pontoon, hanging onto the pulpit, in preparation for pushing the boat out and jumping aboard, ensure that you give CLEAR directions to your non-sailing mother to UNTIE THE TILLER. This will avoid a series of fenders being released from the pushpit whilst the tiller remains firmly secured.

LadyInBed: When rolling out a flat hose and walking backwards along the pontoon, ensure that the pontoon is longer than the hose.


► If you have any similar helpful advice, please click on the “Comments” button and send it in. I’ll use it in the main blog.

Today’s Thought
Nobody confines his mistakes to himself; people sprinkle folly among their neighbors and receive it from them in turn.
— Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #196
It still comes as a surprise to some, but most types of stainless steel rely on a constant supply of oxygen to avoid corrosion. Uncovered stainless steel will stay bright on deck or under water, but if it’s deprived of oxygen — enclosed in a stern tube, perhaps, or holding on a keel — it can suffer severely from pitting if it gets wet. That’s one good reason why a stern gland should drip a little — to feed oxygen to the stainless-steel propeller shaft.

How to tell the sex of a hippo: tell it a joke.
If he laughs, it’s male; if she laughs, it’s female.

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

May 5, 2011

Dealing with lightning

A READER IN FLORIDA wants to know how to protect his boat against a lightning strike. “Worried,” of Fort Lauderdale, says a boat in his marina was struck the other afternoon and all its electronics were fried.

“I have a Catalina 27 and I’m concerned that I will be caught out during a day sail. What can I do to prevent damage to my boat or, lord forbid, me?”

Well, the oft-repeated advice is to get close to some boat whose mast is taller than yours, but that won’t work at sea, of course. I personally dangle a length of anchor chain from the backstay a foot or two into the water, more as a sop to the gods than anything based on scientific precepts. It just makes me feel better.

I can tell you that the general principle of lightning protection appears to involve creating a simple pathway for lighting to traverse if it does strike you, thus guiding it harmlessly to “ground” — which, in this case, is the water you’re floating in.

A grounded vertical metal conductor 10 feet high for every 17 feet of boat length will attract and divert lightning flashes, thus providing a cone of protection angled downward at 120 degrees from the top.

A sailboat’s metal mast makes a good conductor, but a wooden mast will need at least #4 AWG stranded copper wire, or a copper strip at least 1/32 inch thick, projecting at least 6 inches above the mast.

This conductor, or the metal mast must be connected as directly as possible to a lightning ground connection — a submerged ground plate at least 1 square foot in area. The whole of the conducting pathway should be as straight as possible: no sharp bends, or else the surging current will be tempted to take shortcuts, and perhaps blast through the hull.

Standing rigging, winches, guardrails, and pulpits, in fact all large metallic objects that are not tied into a bonding system, should be joined to the ground plate with stranded wire of at least #8 AWG.

As for yourself, keep your hands away from anything made of metal during a thunderstorm. If you have a metal wheel, wear rubber gloves. If it’s safe to do so, douse all sail and send all hands down below until it blows over.

Put handheld radios, phones, GPS units and any other sensitive electronics in an enclosed metal box (a primitive Faraday cage) to avoid damage.

Finally, it has to be said that lightning is very tricky stuff to deal with. It doesn’t read the human rule books, and doesn’t always behave as we think it should. But on the principle that some preparation is better than nothing, and that it will at least earn you points in the black box, the advice given above should prove helpful.

Today’s Thought
I saw the lightning’s gleaming rod
Reach forth and write upon the sky
The awful autograph of God.
— Joaquin Miller, The Ship in the Desert.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #195
Spreaders should be higher at their outer tips than they are where they touch the mast. This not only looks more pleasing, it is also structurally stronger. The spreader should bisect the angle formed by the wire shroud as it passes over the spreader tip.

“I can’t quite diagnose your complaint Mr. Brown, but I think it’s drink.”
“That’s okay, doc, I’ll just come back when you’re sober.”

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

May 3, 2011

Goodbye copper bottoms

MY HOME STATE of Washington is close to becoming the first place in the nation to ban copper paint for yachts’ bottoms. This is largely the result of pressure from a group of activists who allege local boatyards are poisoning Puget Sound with the copper they power-wash off yachts.

As usual, the activists chose the easy target. They’re not going after the thousands of home-owners whose over-applied lawn fertilizer runs into the Sound via our storm-water drains. They’re not even going after large ships with acres of copper paint on their bottoms. The big boys will be allowed to continue to pollute the Sound. They’re only going after the little guys who can’t fight back.

At the moment there is no practical substitute for copper paint as an anti-fouling medium. It’s the most effective thing we have, apart from tin, which was banned years ago on all but a few select boats such as those with aluminum hulls, which would react very badly to copper.

I frankly can’t believe that pleasure yachts using copper do much damage to the wild life. But then, I guess I’m biased. I believe that man is part of Nature, too, and I firmly believe that we’re probably doomed to destroy the Earth sooner or later, in one way or another, despite the best (but irritating) intentions of the “green” mob.

It’s not that I would deliberately foster the demise of sea creatures, even though Nature herself has killed off thousands of different species over the years. Indeed, I have often put in a good word for such creatures as the much maligned barnacle. Barnacles are modest creatures, after all, and don’t wave their tentacles or squirt you in the eye for attention, as some of their underwater cousins do. Their main fault is that they stick to propellers and the bottom of dinghies that stay in the water too long.

The fact that copper might kill them is neither here nor there. You, too, might be killed if you chose to place yourself in the middle of the freeway without a car. The point is that both you and the barnacle have a choice.

The barnacles we would like to see succeed in the world are those with street smarts, the ones who can anticipate danger and stay out of trouble.

There are plenty of nice rocks and wooden pilings where clever barnacles can attach themselves and live long, peaceful and useful lives, contributing to the good of the community as a well-bred crustacean should.

Why would a barnacle cling to the bottom of a yacht clad with copper paint? It doesn’t make sense. And those who DO make their homes on copper surely deserve to be removed from the gene pool for the benefit of barnacles in general.

Today’s Thought
Extensive exhaustive researches
By Darwin and Huxley and Ball
Have conclusively proved that the barnacle
Can scarcely be ravished at all;
While further industrious enquiry
Has incontrovertibly shown
That this state of comparative safety
Is enjoyed by the barnacle alone.
— Anon.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #194
The maximum speed of planing hulls is governed mostly by the power available. With 40 pounds of weight for every horsepower delivered to the propeller, the average planing hull can do about 25 knots. (Weight, of course, includes everything aboard, as well as the hull itself.) With only 10 pounds of weight for every horsepower, she should do 50 knots.

Woman to husband after party: “I’m ashamed of you. You made a thundering great fool of yourself tonight. I only hope nobody realized you were sober.”

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

May 1, 2011

Knowledge and its dangers

I WAS REMINDED recently of how much there is to learn about sailing, and how easy it is to make a fool of oneself. Perhaps, of all mankind’s sporting activities, this is one in which a little knowledge is the most dangerous.

This reminder came to me after I read a post on a sailboat bulletin board from one of those know-all blowhards who irritates beyond distraction.

He said:

“Cat boats develop more lift per square foot of sail area compared to sloops. This is because the (only) sail flies in clean air, as opposed to the downwind sail in a two sail rig flying in dirty air. There is a racing class (which name I can not recall) where (for all practical purposes) the ONLY thing controlled about the sail is TOTAL area. No sloop has been competitive in that class since 1964, only cat boats.”

This man has obviously never heard of the Square Meter classes that originated in Scandinavia and spread all over the world. There are about nine of these classes, also known as Skerry Cruisers, and the basic idea is that the sail area should be limited, but the design of the hull left free. And no designer, to the best of my knowledge, given the complete freedom of designing any boat hull or rig to be the fastest around a normal racing course, ever came up with a cat-boat.

The reason is very simple. A boat with a single mainsail cannot point as high as a boat with a sloop rig. As anyone who has read Arvel Gentry knows, the jib causes a “bend” in the wind ahead of the boat that allows a sloop to point higher than a cat-boat.

I once crewed on a 30-Square Meter in a Lipton Cup contest, and it was fascinating to see the ideas yacht designers came up with to create the fastest boat limited to 323 square feet of sail area, about 20 square feet less than a Catalina 27. All were long (up to 47 feet overall), skinny, and classically beautiful. All had long overhangs and all were sloop-rigged. None were cat-boats.

Today’s Thought
True knowledge is modest and wary; ’tis ignorance that is bold and presuming.
— Joseph Glanvil, Scepsis Scientifica.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #193
The speed of non-planing hulls is governed principally by waterline length. The formula for determining maximum normal speed, in knots, is the square root of the waterline length in feet times 1.34. It is possible to exceed this speed slightly while surfing down the face of a wave, or by installing an overly powerful engine, but for all practical purposes this formula provides the average highest consistent speed for a hull that cannot plane. It is, in fact, the speed of the wave the hull has dug itself into.

“Hey, look at this, I found a green snake.”
“Oh don’t touch it, darling, they’re just as dangerous as ripe ones.”

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