September 29, 2011

The Concordia capsize

The ill-fated Concordia
 THE OFFICER OF THE WATCH simply didn’t know enough to avoid a capsize. That’s the conclusion of an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada into the loss of the 189-foot barquentine Concordia off the coast of Brazil last February.

The tall ship was part of an elite private-school program called Class Afloat, based in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was carrying 48 students, eight teachers, and eight crewmembers. The steel-hulled ship was built in 1992. All 64 people aboard were rescued from liferafts after two days adrift.

The investigation report says: “Despite changes in the wind conditions in the 60 to 75 minutes preceding the occurrence, and the fact that several squalls were being tracked, both visually and on the radar, the second officer did not perceive any threat to the vessel.

“As the apparent wind speed increased with the onset of the squall, the vessel’s heel angle reached roughly 23 degrees for approximately two to three minutes without mitigating action being taken.

“The forward and aft deckhouses had not been fully secured weathertight and, therefore, the vessel’s righting ability at large angles was reduced and protection against the ingress of water was compromised. As a result, downflooding progressed until the vessel lost all stability and capsized.”

The report added that while the second officer had the proper Canadian certification, his training “didn’t include sufficient information about stability guidance.”

In a radio interview, the ship’s master, Captain Bill Curry, who was below in his cabin at the time, said she suffered a 100-degree knockdown within 15 seconds and her masts were in the water. She sank in minutes.

The board of enquiry is now recommending that officers who have been certified to sail are trained in “stability guidance information.” Presumably that means knowing that a sailing ship can capsize.

Talk about bolting the stable door . . . is it possible that an officer on a square-rigger did not know his ship could capsize in a squall? Is it really possible that he just stood there and watched squalls approaching? Didn’t he know enough to reduce sail, close the doors in those ungainly deckhouses, and maybe change course to run downwind? Was the Concordia properly ballasted? Was she designed to recover from a knockdown, like any decent yacht?

So many questions, but the mainstream Press doesn’t know enough to ask them. But no matter what conclusions the board of enquiry came to, I’d like to hear the second officer’s story for myself.

Today’s Thought
Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it.
— Washington Irvine, Sketch Book: Philip of Pokanoket.

“Are you sure your wife knows you’ve invited me home for dinner?”
“Of course, yes — we were still arguing bitterly about it when I left the house this morning.”

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

September 27, 2011

Quizzing your skipper

SOMETIMES PEOPLE NEW TO SAILING ask me: “How can I tell if the skipper I sail with knows his stuff? Is it safe to be with him? Will he teach me the right way to do things?”

Well, it’s not always easy to tell. Skippers are, by necessity, dictators. There can be no democracy on a sailboat, or very little anyhow. And dictators are very hard to read. But all the same, you may gather some clues about your skipper’s competence if you keep your eyes and ears open. Here are six ways for a neophyte crew to evaluate a skipper:

1. The spinnaker won’t come down. There’s a sandbar ahead. The foredeck hand just fell overboard. What does your skipper do?

► Give incomprehensible orders in short, sharp screams.[3]

► Shout “Hang on tight. We’re going aground!”[0]

► Panic and faint.[3]

2. You point out politely to the skipper that he’s passing the wrong side of a channel buoy. Does he:

► Ignore you?[3]

► Laugh hysterically?[2]

► Check the depth sounder?[0]

3. The engine turns over but won’t start. Does the skipper:

► Mouth foul oaths about his diesel mechanic?[2]

► Fall on his knees and pray?[3]

► Check if the engine stop knob is still out?[0]

4. Someone anchors too close. Does your skipper:

► Shrug and pour himself another rum?[2]

► Scream at them to go away?[3]

► Move quietly away and anchor somewhere else?[0]

5. You’re caught in stays while tacking in a narrow channel. A container ship approaches from ahead at 15 knots. Does your skipper:

► Call for engine power?[2]

► Back the jib?[0]

► Stand paralyzed with his mouth open?[3]

6. You’re caught in sudden heavy fog while nearing a busy harbor entrance. Does your skipper:

► Reverse course and go back the way you came at top speed?[3]

► Reduce speed and call all ships on Channel 16 giving his position and course?[0]

► Put out a Mayday call on Channel 16?[3]

7. The galley is on fire, the holding tank is overflowing, the cockpit crew has just jammed her finger in a winch and . . . but enough is enough.

Add up the points at the end of the answers you chose, and if they come to more than 5, find yourself a new skipper. This one’s going to do you no good at all.

Today’s Thought
We learn from experience that men never learn anything from experience.
— George Bernard Shaw

I hear the circus had to drop the human cannon-ball act because their ammunition ran away with the trapeze artist and they couldn’t find another performer of his caliber.

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

September 25, 2011

The need to dream

IT’S NOT SOMETHING you hear much about, but a surprising number of sailors undertaking long voyages suffer from hallucinations caused by fatigue. Psychologist Dr. Glin Bennet, who interviewed competitors in a singlehanded race across the North Atlantic, discovered that 50 percent of them experienced one or more illusions or hallucinations.

I remember Frank Robb telling me of his experience one day in my office at the Natal Mercury newspaper in Durban, South Africa. Frank was an intrepid seaman, a fisherman and a sailboat owner who learned his lessons in the stormy waters of the Cape of Good Hope, and who sometimes voyaged rather farther afield.

He was singlehanding in his old gaffer when he encountered four days of rough weather in the Caribbean. As usual, he was deprived of wholesome sleep during that time, and when the storm subsided he wasn’t too sure of his position. But soon he spotted a fishing boat, and, in the distance, an island with a protected harbor.

He sailed in, waving to a launch crowded with sightseers, and found a good anchorage. With the last of his energy he lowered his anchor and went down below, where he passed out in the saloon floor.

Twelve hours later he woke up and went on deck. There was no land in sight, There were no boats around. Nothing but sea. The anchor was down, however, dangling uselessly at the end of eight fathoms of rode.

Luckily, he felt no anxiety about his hallucination. He realized that sleep deprivation had affected his judgment, and that his overtired mind had invented the island to relieve him of the anxiety that was preventing him from getting healing sleep.

We now know that dreams are important for mental health, and if storms prevent you from dreaming, your mind will eventually compensate with a parade of waking dreams called hallucinations. The good news is that hallucinations leave no bad effects on the mind, so there is nothing to be frightened of.

Today’s Thought
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
— Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism.

“Boy we had some excitement at our place last night. We had a burglar in the house. You should have seen my husband coming down the stairs three at a time!”
“Did he catch the burglar?”
“Hell no, the burglar was upstairs.”

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

September 22, 2011

A critical choice

LAURA DEKKER is about to make one of the most important decisions of her young life. She is the sturdy little Dutch girl who is aiming to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone. Having just turned 16 on September 20, she is about to leave Darwin, Australia, on her 38-foot Jeanneau ketch, Guppy, on the return trip to Gibraltar, whence she started her record bid.

But which route is she going to take? North into the pirate-infested waters of North Africa and Arabia, up the Red Sea and into the Med? Or south, down around the Cape of Good Hope and straight up the Atlantic?

Laura herself refuses to say which way she’s going. Pirates can also read her blog,[1] she points out.

She’s about half-way around the world now, maybe a little more, and she has most of a year in which to claim the title from the Australian Jessica Watson, who scraped home to Sydney just before her 17th birthday.

Of course, there is no comparison between the two voyages because Watson’s was not only singlehanded, but non-stop and without any physical outside aid. And, significantly, she sailed via the world’s great capes, including Cape Horn.

Dekker, by comparison has been island-hopping and enjoying the local amenities on shore. Her father has joined her at crucial ports during the voyage to help her with repairs and general maintenance. And she’s taken the “easy” way around the world, via the Panama Canal.

Frankly, I don’t know what to think about young Laura. Her record, if she succeeds, will not be recognized by any official authority, and it will in any case be far less of an achievement than Jessica Watson’s.

But she is certainly an exceptionally capable young woman, no doubt of that. She is naturally very mature for her age, and she shows no fear of the sea. She only seems to be happy when her poor light-displacement fin-keeler is doing 7 knots with its foredeck submerged under cresting waves, and she arrived in Darwin with her sails in tatters and her steering gear on its last legs. She holds nothing back from herself, and she expects her boat to perform with the same sense of obedience. Luckily for her, Guppy has not yet experienced the extreme weather that Watson’s boat met up with several times.

Dekker’s parents are divorced and her father is the one who provides the greatest physical support. But I can’t imagine how he can let his little daughter go off around the world on her own on a sailboat at a time in her life when emotional support and a steady home life are of such great importance.

I’ve never had a daughter, but I’d cringe at the thought of abandoning my little girl among those predatory Aussie hunks in Darwin, never mind the pirates of the Arabian Gulf. No matter how competent she was, I don’t think I could bring myself to do it.

Anyway, I hope she chooses the Cape route. I’ve done it twice myself in small sailboats and I know I’d rather face a southwesterly buster than a Somali pirate.


Today’s Thought

The talent of success is nothing more than doing what you can do well; and doing well whatever you do, without a thought of fame.
— Longfellow, Hyperion.

“Darling Rose, will you marry me?”
“No I won’t, but I have to admit I admire your choice.”

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

September 20, 2011

Word to the wise

A LETTER cunningly scratched on toilet paper with a burned stick says:

O wise and wonderful one, O great font of wisdom and truth, O shining example of grace and goodness, I humbly bid you good day on behalf of the millions — nay, billions — of members of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club.

As everybody knows, members are forbidden to contact you, or praise in any way your unmatched wisdom, your gracious manners, and your unrivalled literary skills. Because membership is automatic until a member is expelled for overtly admiring you, you have the biggest fan club the world has ever known.

Unfortunately, however, and despite my best efforts, the number of your so-called Followers has steadily increased over the years until it now stands at nearly 60. And, by the rules of the club, Followers may be expelled for the implicit admiration they display.

If I may say so without appearing unduly immodest, I have done exceedingly well to keep the number of Followers down.

Early on, I took the precaution of removing the Followers widget from your blog page. I have made it as difficult as possible for anyone even to know what a Follower is, let alone become one. But your popularity is overwhelming. Despite all the odds, a few determined fans — bursting with admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit and charm, the subtle thrust-and-parry of your sparkling repartee, and the wisdom, Solomon-like, that graces your princely brow — somehow still manage to sign themselves on as Followers.

O Wise One, the time has come for action,

Apparently, these misguided creatures are heedless of the fact that their actions could result in instant expulsion from Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, a misfortune almost beyond contemplation. They will never learn the secret handshake, the shortcut to Nirvana, or the one and only guaranteed way to cure weather helm.

In the past I have appealed to you, Honorable Sir, to lower your standards a little, to tone it down a bit, lest a further sudden onrush of Followers should ensue. I surmised that perhaps a little more mediocrity would help. Some spelling mistakes, maybe. Less brilliant discourse and more fuddy-duddy boredom might be the answer. It seemed to me that if you could just deliberately dim your shining talent, it would serve to fend off would-be Followers and keep up the all-important numbers of your magnificent Silent Fan Club whose conscientious members never dream of praising you, fawning upon you, or even mentioning your name.

But you have not been able to dim your talent sufficiently. Nothing has worked. The number of Followers still increases. I therefore officially give up. I have enabled the Followers widget and now display for public shame their names, and many of their faces. These, Sir, are the renegades, the law-breakers, the turncoats whose peppercorn contribution to society deems them ill equipped to be members of your venerable club. They, Sir, are not fit to kiss your little finger, and I hope they will serve as examples to other would-be miscreants fired with thoughts of offering you praise or any form of recognition.

Yours Humbly and Obediently,


(Chairman, Vigor’s Silent Fan Club)

PS: Please excuse my writing. Very hurried. They only undo the strait jacket for 10 minutes a day.

Today’s Thought
Of every noble work the silent part is best
Of all expression that which cannot be expressed.
— W. W. Story, The Unexpressed

“Did you hear that Mary got dressed up as a boy and joined the army?”
“But she can’t get away with that ... wait till she her first shower with the men.”
“Yeah ... but who’s going to tell?”

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

September 18, 2011

Pursuing cruising happiness

ONE OF MY RECENT COLUMNS has made a reader very unhappy. “I’m about to retire from a very stressful career,” writes someone who signs himself Disillusioned. “For more than 20 years I have been kept going by my dream of finally taking off into the blue on my yacht, of finding the happiness I have dreamed of for so long. Now you tell me that the success rate among people who plan to go long-term cruising is only 35 to 40 percent. I can’t stand the thought that I’ve been waiting and preparing in vain. Why is the cruiser drop-out rate 60 percent? What makes them unhappy?”

Well, Disillusioned, two things, basically. The first thing is that most people need a goal when they go cruising. They need to feel they have a plan, that they are making progress, and that they will eventually accomplish something worth-while. But too many people don’t put enough thought into creating a goal. They believe that they can just take off into the sunset with a champagne glass in hand and find happiness on the way. They can’t.

The second thing is that they don’t understand what happiness is. It’s not the evanescent feeling of joy and laughter you get from watching the clowns. It’s not nonstop smiles and jokes. It’s far deeper and longer-lasting than that.

Democritus, one of the leading Greek philosophers, taught that the goal of life is happiness. He said that at all times man should seek happiness. And, of course, you probably remember that the pursuit of Happiness is part of one of the most famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence.

So what is happiness, then? Democritus described it as a state of mind, an inner condition of tranquility, a harmony of the soul, a combination of reflection and reason ... in fact, what amounts to serenity.

My own theory is that happiness is serendipitous. It sneaks up on you and ambushes you when you’re quietly going about your normal day-to-day cruising activities. If you set out purposely to pursue happiness, it flees in front of you and you can never catch it. But ignore it, and it will creep back and embrace you.

So, before you go, Disillusioned, make sure you understand what happiness is. Make sure, too, that your cruising plan is based on a solid goal. And then, if you have a good number of points in the Black Box, happiness will wrap its welcome cloak around you and you will be Disillusioned no more.

Today’s Thought
Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman—or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle.
— George Burns, NBC TV, 16 Oct 84

“Why don’t you play bridge with Jim any more?”
“Well, would you play with a man who keeps aces up his sleeve and cheats every time he writes the score down?”
“Of course not.”
“Neither will Jim.”

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

September 15, 2011

Lost Norse magic


I’VE ALWAYS FELT A GREAT AWE for the Viking longship. It undertook some very ambitious trading voyages between Scandinavia and Constantinople; and, of course, it carried abroad fierce warriors bent on plunder and conquering. It enabled great voyages of exploration, and crossed the ocean to the North American continent long before Christopher Columbus came along and missed it.

In addition, apart from all its practical applications, the lapstrake-hulled Viking longship was one of mankind’s most beautiful creations, and technically one of his most complex at that time.

Even so, the Viking ship was very simple at heart. It was really just a big rowing boat. Admittedly, it did have a squaresail that could be used when the wind was favorable, but basically it relied for power on men’s muscles. The fact that it achieved so much in so many different ways almost puts it in the realm of magic. But that description really belongs to the Skidbladnir.

She really was magic. In Scandinavian mythology, Skidbladnir was the ship belonging to Freyr, one of the most important of the pagan Norse gods. Freyr was the god of farming and fruitfulness. His portfolio also included the sun, the wind and the rain. And, just to add to his burden, Freyr was the Norse god of fertility and phallic worship, with a brief to bestow peace and pleasure on mortal beings. A tough gig, as they say.

Now it so happened that the sons of Ivaldi, who were dwarfs, built a very special boat for Freyr. It was big enough to accommodate all 12 of the most important Norse gods, with all their gear and weapons. It could also sail through both air and water, and it would go directly to its destination as soon as the sail was raised.

But here’s the even more magical part: it could be folded like a cloth and carried by Freyr in his pouch when it wasn’t needed.

Somehow, that particular marvel of Viking technology has been lost to us over the ages. Would that we could track down the sons of Ivaldi and put them to work for us now. Even working on a small scale, just think how many thousands of yacht owners would appreciate the convenience of tucking the ship’s tender into a pocket when it wasn’t needed.

There are times when I’m convinced that science is retrogressing. We can walk on the moon if we want to, but we can’t do a simple thing like making a fold-up Viking ship any longer. What’s the world coming to? I ask.

Today’s Thought
But beyond the bright searchlights of science,
Out of sight of the windows of sense,
Old riddles still bid us defiance,
Old questions of Why and of Whence.
— W. C. D. Whetham, Recent Developments of Physical Science.

“Paddy, you should be more careful about pulling your drapes at home. When I drove past your house last night I distinctly saw you kissing your wife.”
“Ha, well, then the joke’s on you, O’Riordan. I wasn’t home last night.”

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

September 13, 2011

Bargain Post Office art

"The Long Leg," Edward Hopper, 1935

SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED returned from the post office the other day with some rather nice pictures of a sailboat. Twenty pictures, actually, at a cost of 44 cents each.

The panel of postage stamps was captioned “American Treasures, Edward Hopper” and each stamp showed a painting of a small gaff-rigged sloop sailing full and by, parallel to a sandy coastline with a squat lighthouse and adjacent buildings in the background.

I didn’t realize that Edward Hopper had painted pictures of sailboats. He is best known for his bleak cityscapes and landscapes, his very realistic portrayal of the loneliness of individual human beings and indeed their hopelessness, particularly during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Nevertheless, he must have known something about sailing, because this painting, done in 1935, is titled “The Long Leg,” which would be unintelligible to a landlubber, considering that sailboats don’t have legs (as landlubbers know them). In high school, Hopper dreamed of being a naval architect, and in fact he later became an enthusiastic amateur sailor.

I don’t know what possessed the Post Office to issue this stamp at this time. Perhaps the mood of the country is similar to that of the Great Depression, or at least headed that way. While it does express the isolation of a small vessel at sea, it better articulates the independence concomitant with sailing.

Frankly, this painting doesn’t disturb me or fill me with melancholy and dismay, as much of Hopper’s work was meant to do. Here we have two man-made objects near Provincetown, Mass., the lighthouse strongly angular, the sailboat, by contrast, full of soft curves and grace. The breeze seems just right, the water is calm, the sun is shining. There is peace here, as well as order, enjoyment, and hope. This is Hopper at his most optimistic. How was he to know that the world’s most dreadful war was just four years away?

Today’s Thought
The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist fears this is true.
— James Branch Cabell

“What would you be after having there in that bag, O’Flaherty?”
“How many?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Well then I’ll guess how many — and you can give me a prize if I’m right.”
“I don’t have a prize. But I tell you what — if you get it right you can have both of them.”

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

September 11, 2011

How do they survive?

SOMETIMES I WONDER at the bravery of people such as Richard Crawford and Kun Poi Chin, both of whom have sailed Cal 20 sloops from California to Hawaii. Now the Cal 20, as you probably know, was designed by Bill Lapworth as a rudimentary day sailer for people graduating from dinghy sailing. She has a ballasted keel and a cockpit 8 feet long.

But who would go to sea in a 20-footer with a cockpit 8 feet long? One big wave over the transom and you’re gone, surely? One decent pooping, and it’s goodbye cruel world. I mean, a Westsail 32, like many yachts designed for deep-sea work, has a much smaller cockpit than a Cal 20.

And yet, when you come to think about, it’s amazing how many long ocean voyages have been made by small, completely open boats — boats that are ALL cockpit — from Captain Bligh to Frank Dye.

So how do they survive? My first thought is that when the weather gets really bad they lie to a sea anchor set from the bows. That keeps them head-on to big seas, which are parted and shouldered aside, rather than slopping up against a flat transom and tumbling over into the boat.

But my second thought was that any wave big enough to threaten the boat would simply curl over and dump itself into the boat clean over the bow, just as easily as it would come over the transom. I don’t know how Captain Bligh managed, but Frank Dye’s 16-foot Wayfarer had a plywood foredeck running aft as far as the mast. And, of course, the Cal 20 also has a foredeck, running even farther aft.

But the Wayfarer is a centerboarder, and she can lie downwind of a sea anchor fairly quietly with the board up and the mast lowered. I’m not so sure that same applies to a Cal 20, with its keel and mast fixed in place. Most keelboats refuse to lie quietly to a sea anchor streamed from the bow, mostly because of the windage on the mast and rigging, which lies forward of the center of lateral resistance, the theoretical point around which the hull pivots.

To get a Cal 20 to lie reasonably close to wind and wave in heavy weather, I think you’d probably want to show a scrap of sail as far aft as possible. Maybe a small storm jib set from the backstay would do the trick. I doubt that a normal main trysail would get the necessary sail area far back enough.

Chidiock Tichborne, an open 18-foot Drascombe Lugger, had no foredeck when she sailed almost all the way around the world, but she had flotation that made her unsinkable, and that fearless mariner Webb Chiles seems to have spent quite some time sitting up to his waist in seawater before he could bail her out.

There are open ship’s boats in Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels that make remarkable sea voyages, voyages that were simply taken for granted in those days, so in the end it probably all boils down to practical seamanship and good boat handling.

All the same, I was rather relieved to note that Richard Crawford has been experimenting with a large chunk of polystyrene that fills much of the aft end of his cockpit. It not only lessens the amount of water the cockpit can hold, but it also adds a good deal of flotation. Sounds like a very good idea to me.

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

Patrick Murphy brought a pig home.
“Where are you going to keep that thing?” his wife asked.
“Right in here,” said Pat.
“But what about the smell?”
“Ah well, he’ll just have to get used to it.”

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

September 8, 2011

An ounce of preventer

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING that an ounce of preventer is worth a pound of cure. Well, okay, it’s not exactly like that, but you know what I mean. There’s nothing better aboard a boat than a preventer for preventing things that, if they happen, are difficult to cure.

Preventers prevent things that shouldn’t happen, from happening. What is a preventer, exactly, you ask? Well, it can be almost anything that prevents; but on sailboats it’s usually a bit of rope, used with forethought and intelligence to prevent the worst from happening.

For example, a preventer can prevent the mainsail from jibing accidentally and injuring someone or causing the backstay to snap and making the mast fall down. Preventers lash dinghies firmly to the cabintop, so they don’t get washed overboard in storms.

Preventers act as backups to lines under great strain, and minimize any damage that might occur. Preventers turn major catastrophes into minor inconveniences.

Preventers are mostly small lengths of wire or rope, intelligently placed and artfully attached in the right place at the right time to stop something awful from happening.

Some, such as the topping lift, are permanent and known by proper names. Others are temporary and not dignified with permanent names. But the best ships carry the most preventers because wise skippers know preventers are worth points in the Black Box, the best preventer of all. And if you don’t know about the Black Box, you really owe it to yourself to find out.

Today’s Thought
Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.
— Cervantes, Don Quixote

“I hear poor old Fred got run over by a road roller.”
“Yeah, right, he’s in the hospital.”
“Where do I find him?”
“Wards 4, 5 and 6.”

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

September 6, 2011

Buying boaty bits

A FRIEND IN MISSOURI tells me he’s building a boat one bit at a time — a barometer here, a portable bilge pump there. He already has an anchor, which is stored in my garage.

He reminds me of somebody else. Long before I could afford a boat of any size I started collecting boaty bits. Bits that would be useful later on. It was a delicate operation, or rather series of operations, because we were poor and bringing up a family. Each boaty bit needed lots of discussion and lengthy justification on my part. Each boaty bit subtracted something from the fund for diapers or formula or day-care, or something else that should have affected my conscience. But boaty bits always seemed to overrule conscience.

One of the first bits was a Pilot Pal radio, a small portable direction finder and marine-band receiver. A lovely little instrument that enabled you to pin-point the position of your home, by day or night and even in fog. A fascinating little radio, and the very latest in technology. You could also listen to people on boats calling for help on 2.182 MHz.

“But we already know where we live,” June pointed out.

Sigh. No matter how much you love them, it’s hard when they don’t understand. But I justified long and hard, and in the end she agreed on condition I gave up half my beer allowance to the diaper fund. I don’t know whether my little sons suddenly needed fewer diapers; all I know is that after three months or so my beer allowance was back to normal and I had my Pilot Pal safely in my sticky mitts.

Then came a brass clock and barometer set. You needed those to practice on, of course, long before you could afford a boat. And one day I was passing a military surplus store when I saw an old steering compass going cheap. Obviously, a canny purchaser of boaty bits couldn’t pass up a bargain like that.

I was also one of the first in town to own a Barlow-Wadley communications receiver. It’s advantage over the Pilot Pal was that it had upper and lower sideband and I could sit in bed at night and listen to aircraft pilots talking to ground controllers at Cairo airport. Cairo, Egypt, that is. A continent away. Imagine that. Quite fantastic. Just what I would need when I got my boat.

And there was the question of a chronometer for navigation. This question came up after quite a few years of collecting boaty bits, by which time my sweet wife had gradually been brainwashed by constant justification. One day, of her own volition, she went out and spent about six month’s salary on a Rolex wrist watch for me. It wasn’t a fancy gold-and-diamonds edition, just a plain workmanlike stainless steel job, but it kept time beautifully — and crossed the Atlantic under sail three times. I still wear it every day, 40 years later.

I’m afraid that was the zenith of my boaty bits collecting career. Nothing thereafter was quite as glorious, although I did somehow acquire fathoms of rope, some great Steiner 7 x 50 binoculars, a couple of good Swedish Silva hand-bearing compasses, a hand-held VHF transceiver, a portable wind-speed indicator, and loads of books and charts.

There came a time when I realized that if I kept buying all the boaty bits I needed, I wouldn’t be able to afford a boat. So I stopped buying boating bits, and by the time I had enough saved for a boat most of the boaty bits were obsolete and I had to start again from scratch.

I expect there’s a lesson there, somewhere, but I don’t care to learn it. If collecting boaty bits is in your DNA, there’s no point in you, or anybody else, fighting it.

Today’s Thought
There is no better ballast for keeping the mind steady on its keel, and saving it from all risk of crankiness, than business.
— J. R. Lowell.

A young girl in a short skirt climbed onto a bus and walked slowly past two gray-haired old men.
“Hey George,” said one. “Remember Vietnam?”
“Yep. I do, I do.”
“Remember those pills they gave us to take our minds off women?”
“I do. I do.”
“Well, I think mine are beginning to wear off.”

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

September 4, 2011

Oregon's siren lure

EVERY YEAR a number of cruising sailboats succumb to the siren lure of the Oregon coast. They don’t mean to go there, but they end up there anyhow.

Usually, their plan is to sail from Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca directly to San Francisco or San Diego, on the first leg of an ambitious cruise. Usually, the crew is just a man and a woman. And usually they’ve been planning this passage for years.

But when they get out to sea they find they’re not prepared for the violent motion of the boat. They discover that an electric autopilot can’t cope with really fierce following seas. They have neglected to fit wind-vane steering that can handle those seas, so they have to steer by hand, and fatigue soon sets in, often compounded by seasickness.

Anxiety builds up, and during the dark storminess of night it becomes impossible to make rational decisions about how best to handle the boat. They haven’t ever practiced heaving to or lying ahull, or running under a small jib only, with or without warps or a drogue astern.

Finally, the skipper, suffering from an overdose of insecurity and responsibility, does what he swore he’d never do. He knows he will lose what little faith his crew has left in him but he can’t help it. He calls the Coast Guard. “Where is the nearest port of refuge?” he wants to know. “Where can we get some rest?”

The Coast Guard people are very polite. They don’t say you should know your position and be able to see from your chart where the nearest port is. They don’t ask why you can’t read your GPS or keep simple dead reckoning. They know this is not an emergency and of course they realize you are not a seaman. But they don’t say so. They tell you to go to Oregon.

Now Oregon is not exactly overflowing with harbors that are safe to approach in bad weather, but you don’t care. In your present state Oregon sounds like heaven and it doesn’t matter if you have to run the risk of broaching-to on a sandbank straddling a harbor mouth. You just want to be close to land, really close to land. You can swim the last bit if you have to. So you turn on the engine and head toward shore.

Most of these cruisers do in fact manage to reach port safely, often because the storm has subsided by the time they get there. And then, after a long, healing sleep and a good meal, they try to work out what the problem was, and wonder if they’ll ever want to go to sea again. They wonder if their life’s ambition to cross oceans under sail has just come to a sticky end.

I can tell them what the problem is. Their major enemies are seasickness, sleeplessness, and lack of heavy-weather boat-handling experience.

Each of these enemies needs to be taken on seriously and extensively before you commit yourself to blue water on a small sailboat. All can be defeated, given determination and common sense, and all must be defeated if you plan to sail directly from Puget Sound to California.

Today’s Thought
Experience is the best of schoolmasters, only the school-fees are heavy.
— Carlyle, Miscellaneous Essays

A guy walks into a bar, pulls out a miniature piano and sets it down on the counter. Then he produces a man about a foot high, who starts to play the piano.

“Hey, that’s fantastic,” says a fellow drinker. “Where did you get them?”

“Oh, there’s an oriental guy just outside the door. He’s granting everybody a wish.”

The second guy rushes outside and comes back a minute later surrounded by hundreds of ducks.

“Hey,” he says, “that damned oriental guy is deaf. I asked for a thousand bucks, not a thousand ducks.”

“Tell me about it,” says the first guy. “You don’t really think I asked for a 12-inch pianist, do you?”

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

September 1, 2011

Is anything better?

IT’S ONE OF sailboat cruising’s most wonderful feelings. As I open my eyes my first thought is: “We don’t have to go anywhere today.” We’re anchored with a line ashore in a cozy little cove fringed with tall evergreens. It’s an uninhabited island. Just the right-sized island. And we’ve been here before. Much as we enjoy new experiences, we have also come to appreciate the advantages of returning to places we have known and enjoyed.

It’s cool and crisp as I sit in the cockpit with my hands wrapped around a cup of steaming coffee. The sun, already high in the sky, is striking sparks on the calm water and a small river otter is hauled out on a rock nearby, making loud crunching noises as he chews on his breakfast fish. A few puffy white clouds are drifting high overhead, but the barometer is high and we know it will be 75 degrees by mid-afternoon.

One of the wonderful aspects of summer cruising in the Pacific Northwest is that it cools down at night. We can climb into our berths in tracksuits, pull the sleeping bags up around our necks, and get a good night’s sleep. I have spent enough restless nights in sweaty fo’c’s’les in other parts of the world to be very thankful for that.

You wouldn’t guess, by looking at the shore from here, that there is an old apple orchard in the middle of this island. As the otter wipes a paw across his face, I wonder if there are still the golden plains of pale dry grass, smelling of sweet hay, drifting down to the beaches.

I remember one large grassy clearing where an old cast-iron handpump reached down deep into the earth for pure ice-cold well water. Although it wouldn’t have been out of place in a medieval European village, it still worked perfectly, and June and I slaked our thirsts there before heading south along a little-used trail. To our surprise, the trail turned into a newly repaired boardwalk for much of the way, and we enjoyed a wonderful lazy stroll side-by-side in the sunshine. Wild flowers blooming along the trail attracted bees and insects with gossamer wings. The air was laden with a spicy, sun-warmed smell we couldn't identify until suddenly we found ourselves among towering brambles quivering under loads of ripe blackberries.

We ate and walked, ate and walked, until we thought we'd burst. And then we came to the apple trees. Bent and ignored, untended and unpruned for decades, they still produce delicious apples. We had to taste those, too, of course, and keep a couple each to eat on the boat.

And what about the balancing stones? Were they still there? On headlands all around the island someone had built little cairns, piles of balancing stones silhouetted against the bright glitter of the sea.

The geological formations here are perfect for building these intriguing stone cairns. There is an abundance of small dark-gray rocks in the shapes of rectangles and cubes, all with good square edges and flat faces.

The first one we came across was three or four feet high, cleverly constructed on the cantilever principle. But a confirmed meddler like me can always see where a small improvement might turn a merely competent job into a wonderful work of art.

"It needs a small wedge just here to change the fulcrum," I explained to June. "Let's see if we can find ..."

"I wouldn't change it," she said flatly.

"Why not?"

"We don't know who built it. Or when. Or why."

"You think it's a sort of religious shrine?"


The thought that I might evoke the wrath of ancient Indian spirits dampened my ambitions. But not for long. "I'll build one of my own," I said. But the best place had been taken, and I couldn't find another. Besides, the rest of the island was beckoning, smelling of warm resinous pine trees and salt on hot rocks.

"Maybe I'll come back tomorrow," I said.

"Good idea," said June. She knows me well.

So we explored some more, trekking down to a prominent bluff, and finding the rock pools full of exotic purple starfish. There were delicious oysters, too, and I ate one straight off the rocks. I knew I'd probably go to jail if the oyster police ever found out, but at that particular moment I considered the risk justified.

Now, Mr. Otter disturbs the silence with a little splash and swiftly disappears under water. Meanwhile, there's a delicious smell of frying eggs and bacon coming from the galley, and I stretch my legs contently across the cockpit.

What a wonderful day lies ahead. What joyous rediscoveries we will make. Is there anything to beat cruising?

Today’s Thought
The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.
— Ashley Montagu, The American Way of Life.

“If you’re really a police officer, why are you wearing a white suit with little black squares all over it?”
“Oh, this is just a routine check, ma’am.”

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