April 29, 2012

A useful curse

SOMEONE CALLED "NOSEY" says I once mentioned that I'd written a curse for boats that anchor too close to you. Could I please repeat it? Well, "Nosey," as a matter of fact it's in my much under-appreciated book, How to Rename Your Boat, which contains 19 other useful ceremonies, superstitions, prayers, rituals, and curses.

This particular curse is an essential part of  anyone's anchoring tackle, together with a small plastic bag of modeling clay and a packet of pushpins. When some idiot comes along and spoils the privacy of your pretty little cove by anchoring practically on top of you, form the clay into the rough shape of the offending skipper. While glaring at the little effigy with all the vitriol you can muster, repeat the following curse, inserting a pin into the effigy as often as directed:


A pox upon you, rotten miserable anchor dropper! (Jab.) May you rot in hell. (Jab.)

O frightful scum, let there be no sleep for you. (Jab.) O jerk of the first water, let your dreams be nightmares of osmosis, sludge in your tanks, oil in your bilges, and overflowing holding tanks. (Jab.)

May the Coast Guard constantly board you, and search you, and frighten the very marrow from your bones. (Jab.)
Let the jet-skis find you and plague you with their wakes and deafen you with their exhausts (Jab) and drive you crazy with their banal cries of joy until you cry for mercy; and yea, yet shall your cries go unheeded. (Jab.)

O uncomprehending moron, all this and more I heap upon your empty head, Captain Semi-Brainer, (Jab) and may you suffer the sorrow you so richly deserve. So be it. (Jab.)
Today's Thought
I have heard a good man say that a curse was like a stone flung up to the heavens, and maist like to return on the head that sent it.
— Scott, Old Mortality

"Why are you limping?"
"I went to a seafood disco last night and pulled a mussel."
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

April 25, 2012

No thrill without danger?

HAVE WE MADE our boats so safe that we have deprived ourselves of the tinge of danger that is an essential component of adventure? In fact, is it possible to have a real adventure under sail if there is no possibility whatsoever of danger?
Thomas Fleming Day, author, editor and boat designer, used to think that an auxiliary engine in a yacht was not so much a safety feature as a distraction from adventure. "Its chief drawback," he said, "is that its use tends to make cruising less toilsome and hazardous."
 The effect of the engine, he believed was to discount skill and pluck and to remove from voyaging the uncertainty that is the chief charm of the cruiser's existence. "The fact that you leave port with a certainty of getting to your destination on time, barring accidents, makes somewhat monotonous an event that otherwise containing a large element of chance induces a corresponding degree of excitement."
Day also believed that there was probably no pastime so tiresome to an active man as powerboating, especially in familiar waters. A steam yacht, he said, was "a lazy man's palace and an active man's prison. Except when there is a race or a difficult bit of navigation, I would as soon run a trolley car as a power boat."
He found his pleasure in physical exertion, he added, and in "opposing what skill and knowledge I may possess to the task of getting the better of the elements."
And yet, despite all this brave talk, Day, like most of us, eventually allowed that an engine, just a small one, mind you, might be a handy thing to have, especially when it didn't actually interfere with any adventures. "As age and rheumatism tighten their grip, my heart is gradually weaned from the sail," he confessed, "and I find myself thinking seriously if, after all, it will not be better to have a little power under the deck to fall back on at certain times."
What Day failed to appreciate, perhaps, is that it is not only danger and uncertainty that generate the thrill of adventure. It has long been my contention that inexperience and poor preparation are the true parents of adventure.
And as for auxiliary engines guaranteeing arrival in port on time, I can personally testify to the fallacy of that argument. In fact the yachting literature is replete with accounts of engines that, failing at the wrong moment, actually contributed to adventures filled with more than enough danger, uncertainty, and heart-racing excitement to satisfy the average sailor.
Today's Thought
Without danger the game grows cold.
— Chapman, All Fools.
"Doc I can't stop singing 'The Green, Green Grass of Home.'"
"That sounds like Tom Jones syndrome."
"Is it common?"
"It's not unusual."

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

April 24, 2012

If the cap fits . . .

 THE NAME JOHN G. HANNA will be familiar to anyone who loves old-fashioned sea-going ketches. Hanna was a sailboat designer, famous most of all for designing the Tahiti ketch, a rugged, heavy-displacement  30-footer known for its ease of handling and seaworthiness.

What isn't so well known about Hanna is that he had a thing about hats — the kind of hats amateur sailors wear to impress the hoi polloi and attract witless young ladies.  This is what he had to say about them in that feisty old yachting magazine, The Rudder:

"Anyone who ventures around yacht clubs, public yacht docks, and such places, is bound to see many painful sights. Being a patient old man, I just grin and bear most of them. But one always makes me move to the lee rail. I refer to the hundreds of men you see wearing either work clothes or any old kind of lounging clothes, and also a full-dress formal yachting cap.

"Faugh! It's as disgusting a spectacle as to see a laborer in greasy overalls wearing a silk opera hat. I doubt if a single one of the men misusing the yacht cap would make such an ass of himself as to appear publicly in the overalls-and-silk-hat get-up, yet he blandly goes around day after day in a get-up equally offensive to good taste. I never could figure why.

"Canvas hats are the proper thing to wear when swabbing or painting the old barge. For those hours when you are just loafing around in slacks and any old kind of shirt, sea-duty caps, with small, soft crowns, can be had, if you feel you must look very hotsy totsy salty. Hard as it may be to resist the temptation to show the girls you have the price of a formal yacht cap, if not a yacht, still it is better to put it away until you don the type of coat, trousers, collar and tie accepted as formal yachting dress.

"Mind you, I'm just an old clam digger, and I don't urge anyone to go formal, ever, if he doesn't want to. Point I am making is, there is but one choice for a man of any self-respect: either go all the way, or none. Mismatched rag-bag combinations are definitely out."

Today's Thought
To carry an umbrella without any headgear places a fellow in a social no man's land — in the category of one hurrying round to the corner shop for a bottle of stout on a rainy day at the behest of a nagging landlady.
— John Newton, Chief of the Tailors' and Garment Workers' Union, London.

A yachtsman dressed in a navy-blue blazer and skipper's cap walked into a psychiatrist's office wearing only plastic wrap for trousers.
"Well captain," said the shrink, "I can clearly see you're nuts."

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

April 22, 2012

A fillet to remember

I HAVEN'T FISHED from sailboats as much as I would have liked to.  I have often trailed a spinner, which has caught various kinds of fish from salmon to barracuda, but those catches have been few and far between. All too often I find myself too immersed in the sailing of the boat to bother with fishing. And there's always the thought lurking in the back of my mind that if I do put out a lure and catch a fish, I'd better be prepared for blood, guts, and fish scales everywhere. Mucho messo.

And there's also a story that put me off fishing for a long time. When I was a teenager I met Jean Gau, one of the post-war pioneer singlehanded circumnavigators.  He was taking leave from his job as chef at the Waldorf-Astoria, New York, and he was sailing Atom, a 30-foot Tahiti ketch.  He was famous for having ridden out Hurricane Carrie, which sank the nearby sail-training bark Pamir, with the loss of 80 lives.  Gau said he lashed Atom's tiller to leeward, stripped her of all sail, and left her to her own devices in 120 knot winds while he shut himself below.

But his fishing story concerned his crossing of the Indian Ocean, from Australia to Durban, South Africa.  On this passage he grew interested a  group of fish that followed Atom day after day, in the shade close under her stern.  Every morning he would look for them, and soon began to recognize the bigger ones.  After 10 days or so, with his fresh stores running out, Gau decided to try to catch one of them.  He tempted them with a spinning lure, but none of his faithful band of followers was interested.

Then he tied a small piece of white cloth to a large hook and immediately got a taker.  He hauled in a nice-sized fish and sprang into action straight away with his chef's knife.  There was no point in trying to keep the whole fish because he had no refrigeration, so he expertly cut a large slice from one side and threw the fish overboard. He enjoyed a delicious fish supper that evening.

Next morning he went aft to check on his companions and there amongst them, swimming steadily along,  was a fish with a large white gash where his side should have been.

Gau said that butchered fish continued to swim with Atom for another few days.  "He haunted me," said Gau.  "I was continually aware of him out there, keeping station so faithfully." Then all the fish disappeared together, and Atom was once more alone on the wide ocean.

Today's Thought
Can the fish love the fisherman?
— Martial, Epigrams

Did you hear about the sailor who drowned in a bowl of muesli?  A strong currant pulled him in.

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

April 19, 2012

The teak cover-up

ONE OF THE STRANGEST of yachting's many affectations is that of covering up varnished teak. It is surely some kind of madness that causes people to spend hours rubbing down cockpit coamings and rubrails, sealing them, diligently applying 10 coats of expensive varnish — and then covering them up to protect them from the elements. All that work and money to make the brightwork look absolutely gorgeous and stop passers-by in their tracks — and then it's hidden from human view, concealed by expensive canvas work, with special cutouts for shrouds and fancy stainless-steel buttons to hold it in place.

I guess it's a question of looks versus utility. Some people are definitley more concerned with looks and don't really care about the finer points of sailing ability or efficiency. There is an interesting comment in the May/June issue of Good Old Boat magazine, comparing an Alberg 35 with the Hinckley Pilot 35.

The name Hinckley is associated with superb quality, of course, but author Dan Spurr comments: "It was very well built — probably no stronger than the Alberg but better finished. Much of the higher cost of a boat from a company like Hinckley is in the man-hours spent on the interior, not in the hull and deck layups. The company liked to say it built a wooden boat inside a fiberglass shell. That's what you pay the Rolls-Royce dollars for — the chassis is essentially Chevy."

So you can have a palace afloat, or you can have an efficient machine that responds enthusiastically to the helm, one that gallops upwind delightfully and flies downwind straight as a die. Every bit of polished teak that adorns the interior of the Hinckley makes it heavier, slower, and more cumbersome to handle. But if it's opulence that floats your boat, there's little to surpass a Hinckley for making you feel like royalty when you're safely at anchor and expecting dukes and duchesses for supper. Just don't complain that an Alberg 35 costing half the price and providing twice the sailing fun, overtook you on the way and pinched the best place to anchor.

Today's Thought
Common sense among men of fortune is rare.
— Juvenal, Satires.

Two blondes walk into a building . . .
Hell, you'd think at least one of them would have seen it.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

April 17, 2012

Childers the rebel

THERE PROBABLY aren't many keen sailors who haven't read a book called The Riddle of the Sands, by Robert Erskine Childers. It's a fictional novel dealing with Germany's preparations for an invasion of England in the event of war, and it enjoyed immense popularity in 1903 when rumors were rife that Germany was about to do just that. It quickly became a yachting classic and hasn't been out of print since. I have to admit I wasn't much taken by it, but I'm obviously out of step because hundreds of thousands of copies of the book have been sold, and continue to sell.

What most people don't know, however, is how Childers met his end. He was born in London and was a clerk in the House of Commons from 1895 to 1910, apart from military service in the Boer War in South Africa in 1899. His chief hobby, as you might have guessed, was sailing. He cruised the North Sea and the Baltic in a 7-ton converted lifeboat called Vixen, and it was this background that enabled him to write The Riddle of the Sands.

When war actually did break out in 1914, his knowledge of the German coast gained him a commission in the British naval reserve. He first served aboard a seaplane carrier but later joined the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty.

He served with some distinction, earning a Distinguished Service Cross, but after the war he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cause of independence for Ireland.  To this end, he joined the Irish Republican Army and was captured while running guns in his yacht, Asgard.

He was shot by Free State soldiers in November 1922 in Wicklow at the age of 52 — a sad, untimely, and undignified end for a very talented sailor and writer.

Today's Thought
Books, like proverbs, receive their chief value from the stamp and esteem of ages through which they have passed.
— Sir William Temple, Ancient and Modern Learning.

Some people are like a Slinky, not really good for anything except to make you smile when you shove them down the stairs.

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

April 15, 2012

The mystery of waves

I SOMETIMES WONDER how different sailing would be if there were no waves. I mean, imagine a surface like sheet of mercury that would just dent slightly when the wind blew on it.  We would just glide serenely everywhere, all over the world. There would be no pounding, no spray flying back to soak the helmsman, and perhaps best of all, no seasickness.

I have a hard time understanding how a wave forms and why the scientists insist that the water in a wave doesn't actually move forward. I have a faint recollection of reading somewhere that a wave starts when a dimple forms on a flat sheet of water.  The wind blows on the back of the dimple and pushes it forward turning it into a wave that grows bigger and longer as the wind blows longer and harder. But what starts the dimple?

The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea says quite categorically that "the water in a wave does not move forward in a horizontal direction but rises and falls below the surface, unless the force of the wind is enough to cause the crest of the wave to overbalance and break, when the water in the crest does move forward."

 It also moves forward when a wave reaches a shallowing shoreline, of course, and the bottom of the wave is retarded by friction against the sea bed.  I have no problem understanding that.

Interestingly, the relationship between wind speed, in miles per hour, and the height of the wave it generates, in feet, is approximately 2 to 1.  This ratio from the U.S. Hydrographic Office suggests that a wind of 50 mph should raise a 25-foot sea.

In fact, however, there are many reports of waves 40 and 50 feet high in heavy gales in some oceans , which would require sustained winds of 80 to 100 mph, which seems unlikely outside of hurricane season. Perhaps these rogue waves are formed when one huge wave happens to ride on the back of another huge wave, thereby doubling its height.

The length of a wave, from crest to crest, is reckoned to be about 20 times the height, after the wind has been blowing steadily for some time and when there is no opposing current. Thus, a wave 25 feet high would be about 500 feet long and would race through the water at about 30 knots, because the speed of a wave (in knots) is the square root of the length from crest to crest (in feet) times 1.34.

For the sea to become fully developed, the wind must blow in the same direction for a certain minimum time, and the rule of thumb here is that the time in hours equals the wind speed in knots. In other words, a 20-knot wind will take about 20 hours to form the biggest waves it can.

Another little mystery for me is how a little oil can calm a nasty sea. I always imagine the tiny molecules of seawater swallowing the oil and experiencing the same relaxing effect that a glass of single-malt Scotch brings to a human being, but I'm not sure that's scientifically acceptable. So it will remain for me one of the many mysteries that makes sailing such a fascinating pastime.

Today's Thought
The longest wave is quickly lost in the sea.
— Emerson, Representative Men: Plato.

“You’ve got to lose weight. “I’m putting you on soup and salad for a month.”
“OK, doc. Before or after meals?”

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

April 12, 2012

Thinking ahead

ONE OF THE MOST important elements of seamanship is the ability to think ahead, to imagine dangers before they happen, and to work out plans for dealing with them if they do. This kind of forethought can earn you lots of points in the black box, points you need to get you out of trouble when the chips are down.

Thomas Fleming Day, yachting editor and author, understood this well. In his book, On Yachts and Yacht Handling, published more than 100 years ago, he says:

One day when running down wind, I said to the young fellow at the wheel, who was anxious to learn the seaman's trade, "What would you do if one of us fell overboard?"

"I don't know," he answered.

"Haven't you ever thought, planned out, what you would do in such an emergency?"

No, he hadn't. "Well," I said, "you think it out; put the boat in different positions and under different sail, and plan out what you would do if such an accident happened."

A day or two after, while the same lad was at the wheel, we lost the dingey (sic). Without calling me from down below or hesitating, he wore round and recovered the boat, executing the manoeuvre in so clever a manner as to call praise from all the old hands. When, shortly after, I relieved him at the wheel, he said: "I thought that out the other day after you spoke about what to do if a man falls overboard."

Again, I was on the bridge of a steamer chatting with the mate. "What do you do to pass away the long night watches?" I asked him.

"Well," he answered, "I spend hours thinking and planning out what I would do if certain things happened. I put the ship into every possible danger—fire, collision, shifting cargo, broken shaft, and unexpected land.  I then plan how best to meet the emergency created. I place other ships in every position—green to port, red to starboard, lights dead ahead, lights on the beam, lights everywhere—then plan to work my ship clear of them. I have some run into me, am sinking, lower boats, save my own crew and rescue others. I pick up lame ducks, pass hawsers, make fast and tow them in. Everything that could possibly happen I have happen, and plan the ways and means of meeting them over and over again. That is how I while away my eight hours in the scuppers."

There was a seaman who had prepared himself for an emergency; a commander who had ready for instant use a plan, so, let the occasion demand it, he could stand forth the man of the hour.

Let me advise you who would learn the seaman's art to copy that mate.

Today's Thought
He who is not prepared today will be less so tomorrow.
— Ovid, Remediorum Amoris.

Four pearls of Scottish wisdom to remember:
1. Forgive your enemy but remember the bastard’s name.
2. Help a man when he is in trouble, and he will remember you when he is in trouble again.
3. Many people are alive only because it’s illegal to shoot them.
4. Alcohol does not solve any problem. But then, neither does milk.

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

April 10, 2012

Does your boat hate you?

IF BOATS HAVE SOULS, as many sailors maintain, do they also have emotions? Specifically, can they love or hate their owners?

I think we've all experienced occasions when a boat deliberately seems to behave in a surly, provocative manner. How often do vital irreplaceable parts jump overboard for no good reason? How often does the rudder refuse to respond when you're approaching your berth too fast in a cross-current? How often does the engine fail to start when you really desperately need it? Can incidents like this really be written down to nothing more than coincidence?

A young man discovers, quite early on if he's lucky, that there are three kinds of girls: a few who like you, a whole host who are indifferent to you, and a few who actively dislike you or maybe even hate you.

The trouble is that men are all too often strangely attracted to women who dislike them. So the question is: Are men also attracted to boats who dislike them? Boats with bad souls. Boats that make leeway, won't heave to, won't steer in reverse. Boats with terrible weather helm and bunks too short to sleep in, boats with no room to service the engine, and boats that are unmanageable in bad weather.

Men are attracted to a beautifully curved sheerline, to glitzy paint and varnish, a racy bow, and a callipygian stern. Men who lack experience in this area are attracted to slim, lightweight hulls that are fast to windward and scant on fastenings.

But these meretricious charms also serve to distract a man's attention from a boat's faults: the rotten keel bolts, the case-hardened chainplates, the deck leaks from flexing stanchions, and the blocked breather tube that makes the head holding tank overflow.

The obvious lesson is that you must learn to take a long and very careful look at any boat that attracts you. See how she reacts. Read her soul. Study her emotions. Decide if she flirts with you, ignores you, or bares her teeth at you.

Don't waste time on any boat that doesn't flirt with you. If you ignore this advice, be prepared for a long and bitter road ahead.

Today's Thought
Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it.
— Maurice Chevalier. 

The other day we were talking about the metric system and what a crock it is.
In similar vein, I have discovered a decidedly superior list of definitions for measurements. Here are some you might care to remember:
The ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter: Eskimo Pi.
One thousand kilograms of Chinese soup: Won ton.
The time between slipping on a peel and hitting the sidewalk: One bananosecond.
The weight an evangelist carries with God: One Billigram.
Drinking low-calorie beer for 365.25 days: One lite year.
Half a large intestine: One semi-colon.
Basic unit of laryngitis: One hoarsepower.
One thousand cubic centimeters of wet socks: One literhosen.
One millionth of a fish: One microfiche.
One trillion pins: One terrapin.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

April 8, 2012

Runaway diesels

VERY LITTLE is ever mentioned about runaway diesel engines, despite the fact that most sailboats have diesel auxiliaries these days. I guess that's because runaways are very rare; but it can be a very frightening experience when it does happen.
It's particularly scary because the engine races out of control and you can't shut it down in the normal way. It will rev up and run out of control until it overheats and seizes or, more likely, starts to disintegrate and throw red-hot pieces of shrapnel at you.

The trouble is that it's not burning diesel fuel. It's firing on its own lubricating oil from leaky seals, an overfilled sump, or badly worn piston rings. It is a very traumatic experience and no amount of fiddling with the throttle or cut-off knob will make any difference, since the injectors are not providing the fuel.

Now you have to remember that a diesel requires three things for combustion: very high compression, fuel, and oxygen.  So one answer to the problem is to cut off the air that supplies the oxygen.  Some engine manufacturers, aware of the possibility of a runaway engine and its potentially disastrous consequences, provide slides or flaps over the air intake that can be brought into action in an emergency.  You can do the same thing by holding a piece of plywood or aluminum sheet against the air intake to close it off, or even a pillow or some substantial piece of cloth — but remember, the suction will be terrific.

The best way I know to stop a runaway is to fire a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher at the air intake. It must be large enough to operate continuously until the engine has come to a dead stop, of course.

It's also possible to stop a runaway by operating a valve lifter, which removes the necessary compression from the cylinders.  But not all engines have valve lifters and in any case most authorities warn you not to try it because the unregulated engine will be spinning so fast by the time you think of it that releasing compression might cause great harm, not only to the engine itself but to you, too.

I should add by way of reassurance that the chances of this happening to you are about the same as your chances of winning the jackpot. But it could happen, and a good sailor should be aware of the possibility. And it would be a good idea to have a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher on board in any case.

Today's Thought
It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.
— J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy.

After a hard day's work at a Far East Reconciliation Conference in New York, a group consisting of a South Korean, a Vietnamese, a Burmese, a Japanese, and a Cambodian headed off to a nightclub for relaxation. They were halted by the doorman. "Sorry, gentlemen," he said, "but you can't come in here without a Thai."

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

April 5, 2012

Mooching the Inside Passage

SOME OF THE MOST PICTURESQUE cruising waters in the world lie along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska. The problem is that they are often cold and wet. There are few sandy beaches and nary a coconut palm to be seen.

Nevertheless, there are hardy souls who row and sail the length of this coastline each year in mighty small boats. I myself have been tempted by the thought of beach camping, because I have long loved small dinghies such as the Drascombe Lugger and the 16-foot Wayfarer. I even considered doing it in an 11-foot Mirror dinghy, mainly because I happened to have one and because it would be easy to haul out on a beach each night, turn it over, and sleep underneath it.

But on a lugger or a Wayfarer it's a lot of fuss and bother getting your gear ashore in bad weather, setting up camp (if you can find a spot), and pulling the boat up out of the reach of some very high tides. And finding a landing place when you're tired after a day's sailing might not be easy, either, because quite often there is no beach at all and you have to land on rocks or pebbles or even muddy, marshy ground.

Then I did a story for Small Craft Advisor magazine about a local lawyer, Michael Kleps and his very sporting wife, Elizabeth MacDonald, who spent their honeymoon sailing (and rowing) a 15-foot Albacore racing dinghy from Bellingham, at the northern edge of Puget Sound, to Alaska. They camped ashore every night but elected to keep the boat anchored off in deep water because she was heavily loaded, and it would have been a great sweat to haul her out — and then find her high and dry when you wanted to sail next morning.

So it occurred to me that if you're going to keep your boat in deep water, you might as well have something like a Cal 20, which has a small cabin and a fixed keel with a draft of about 3 ft. 6in.  At least you'd have a dry place in which to sit down, cook, and sleep, a sort of floating fiberglass pup tent.  But this means you wouldn't actually be beach camping, of course, and you'd need a small dinghy to get ashore.  It might suit me better, though. Mike and Elizabeth found they could sleep almost anywhere: on rocks, in hammocks, even on bare marina piers. But I'm getting a bit long in the tooth for that sort of thing.

Maybe one of these days I'll go back to the Mirror idea.  I had a cunning thought about that.  I had plans to become a singlehanded Mirror moocher.  I would sail into an anchorage  populated with cruising yachts every night.  I'd come alongside one and offer to buy some matches to light a fire so I could cook supper on shore. I would look fatigued and pathetic and they would ask what I was doing and I would spin great tales of derring-do.  Then they would offer me a bunk for the night.  Yes, they would. A nice warm dry bunk.  And I would be profuse in my thanks, and accept with such grace that they would throw in supper and a couple of beers as well.  It could work, I swear it could. Sailors are such generous people. They just need to be given the chance.

Today's Thought
Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think.
—Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons.

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

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

April 3, 2012

Dreams of cruising

DOWN AT THE BOATYARD YESTERDAY I ran into a man with dreams of cruising.  He has a 36-foot William Garden  cutter, one of those with a bowsprit, a wooden taffrail, and even a figurehead of a naked mermaid.

He'd like to head for the Caribbean, he said.  Had I ever been there? A few times, I said, not as often as I'd like.  Where was my favorite place?  The British Virgin Islands, I said.  I sailed through there once in my own 30-footer, and a few years later I was sent back on assignment for Cruising World magazine. But isn't the BVI too crowded, he wanted to know.

Ah yes, there's the rub. I get the feeling that there's hardly anywhere in the world these days where a cruiser will experience the thrill of finding an island or even an anchorage that hasn't already been explored by hundreds of boats before his. We all seem to be imbued to a certain extent with the old ideals of new discoveries and pristine tropical paradises. There was a time when the anchorage at Suvarov Atoll in the Cook Islands wouldn't see a yacht, or any other vessel for that matter, in six months. But look at it now. Literally rows of yachts anchored out and battling each other for swinging room. It makes you wonder if the game is worth the candle.

The world's population has exploded.  Sailboats have become comparatively cheaper. Navigation has become much easier. Rescue from emergencies has become more certain. Consequently, thousands of people are circumnavigating the globe on sailboats at any one time and to a large degree the old romance has disappeared. No longer are world sailors regarded with awe for daring the dangers of the High Seas. Sixteen-year-old girls are doing it, alone. We're not seeing any new heroes. Just fleets of liveaboards battling for spaces in crowded parking lots.

But to get back to the BVI for a moment. I urged the would-be cruising man not to miss these charming tropical islands with their blazing white beaches, their swaying palm trees, warm turquoise water, and rich history.  I told him how we were anchored alone off a little island there when a large cruise liner appeared and hove to off the point. Her sides opened up and a fleet of small boats sped in toward our "private" beach. Passengers, packed like sardines, spilled out onto "our" island, wearing sunhats and swimming flippers. Beach chairs and sunshades appeared. Scores of strangers frolicked in "our" surf while we skulked quietly up under the shade of the coconut palms, sullen, shocked, dismayed, and wishing them all the worst.

Then, after 45 minutes, they suddenly all scrambled back into their little boats.  The cruise ship swallowed them up again.  Crew members combed the beach and carted off any debris they could find. Then they, too made a run for the ship, which sailed slowly off to the east, no doubt to astonish another sailboat crew on another deserted island.

Just one hour after the initial onslaught, there was no sign of cruise-ship life. We walked the beach and marveled at how clean they had left it. Apart from footprints, there was nothing to indicate that  a crowd of landlubbers had been invading our privacy.

This, I suppose, is the compromise, though I'm not sure it's working that well in many other parts of the world. The BVI, which hosts large charter fleets, has also installed mooring buoys at strategic places where anchors and their chains could harm the ecology. This is smart thinking, a practical way to deal with the new reality that the earth is becoming overcrowded. And it does at least soften the blow for those of us who still linger helplessly in the nostalgia of the past.

Today's Thought
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone.
— Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters

“Where did you get that nice new anchor?”
“Well, I was going to my boat yesterday when this beautiful blonde came along carrying a 25-pound CQR. When she saw me, she threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes, and said: ‘Take what you want.’”
“Ah, good choice. The clothes probably wouldn’t have fit you anyway.”

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

April 1, 2012

Twisted thinking

I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I get skeptical when I read (and quite repeatedly) that when a boat is sailing, the apparent wind direction changes by between 5 and 8 degrees from the bottom of the mast to the top.

The rule of thumb, therefore, is that the leech at the head of the sail should lie farther off the wind than the leech near the clew.  But I have always worked on the assumption that in light to moderate weather at least, the mainsail works better if the leech has little or no twist.  Only when it blows hard should you allow the tops of the sails to twist off and spill wind.

So, between what I've read I should do, and what I think I should do, there is evidently a lot of confusion. The gurus say the need for twist comes about because the wind velocity rises with altitude, where it is less affected by the friction of rubbing against the water. Thus, if the true wind speed is higher up aloft, the apparent wind direction up there is less affected by the boat's forward speed. It is nearer the true wind direction.  So the top of the sail does not need to be sheeted as close to the wind as does the bottom.

They also say you don't have to worry too much about this in practice, because your sailmaker knows all about it and has already built the correct twist and camber into your sail.  Well, I'm sorry to say that I do worry about it because it just doesn't look right to me, and I've often wondered if the wind direction really changes enough from bottom to top in the size of the boats I sail for it to make any difference whatsoever.  Perhaps on a mast 120 feet tall there might be a measurable difference in wind direction alow and aloft, but it's hard to believe it would happen on a mast only 30 or 40 feet tall.

 If my sailmaker has deliberately built twist into my sail, and I deliberately try to take it out all the time, what's the point?  I find it hard to rid myself of the suspicion that this is one of the theoretical aspects of aerodynamics that experts tuck up their sleeves and bring out on occasion to amaze and astonish us gullible groundlings. I wonder if these theories actually work out in practice, and I also wonder if the fact that I'm always trying to get the twist out of the mainsail accounts for the fact that my trophy drawer is astonishingly empty, considering my vast potential for winning races.

Today's Thought
It is folly to complain of the fickleness of the wind.
— Ovid, Heroides

A small-town vicar was asked to lecture the local young girls’ club on Christianity and Sex. But because his wife was very strait-laced, he told her he was going to lecture on sailing.

A few days later, the vicar’s wife met one of the girls in the street. The girl said the vicar’s lecture had been very interesting and informative.

“Huh,” the vicar’s wife snorted, “I can’t imagine what he knows about it. He’s only done it two times. The first time he got sick. The second time his hat blew off.”

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