September 30, 2012

What kind of lifejacket?

HOW FAR DO YOU THINK you could swim in cold water with a lifejacket on?  If you capsized the dinghy, for example, could you swim back to your boat?

I ask because the kind of cold water we experience year-round here in the Pacific Northwest has to be taken into consideration when you choose a type of lifejacket.

Many people find it almost impossible to swim in the normal position, that is, face downward, when they’re wearing a lifejacket. This is especially so when you’re wearing an inflatable device that provides maximum flotation, but at the expense of turning you into the Michelin Man. It is usually possible to swim on your back by flailing your arms a bit but it isn’t easy and you won’t get anywhere fast, especially if you’re trying to make way against a stiff wind. You’ll also find it very difficult to board a boat while wearing an inflated lifejacket.

The point to take note of here is that experts claim most people who fall into our waters have only 10 minutes to swim anywhere in any case. After that, the cold starts affecting you so that you mostly lose control of your fingers, arms and legs.

Inflatable and other lifejackets are designed to roll you face-upward and keep your head clear of waves so you can breathe even if you’re unconscious. They weren’t designed for ease of swimming — just to keep you afloat until rescue comes.

There are buoyancy aids shaped like vests, and lacking collars, that offer you more freedom of movement for swimming. But if you choose one of these you should be aware that if the boom hits you on the head and sends you overboard unconscious, a so-called buoyancy aid won’t turn you onto your back and it won’t have as much flotation as a full-blown lifejacket.

If you are conscious, and a reasonably good swimmer, you can partially deflate an inflated lifejacket so that you can turn onto your stomach and use your arms to swim, after a fashion, which you might want to do if you are very close to shore or your yacht. And I mean very close, certainly within 50 yards. You can always inflate the bladders by mouth if you run out of steam and need to rest on your back. If you’re farther away from safety, you should await rescue and conserve heat and energy by curling in a tight ball.

Cold water of the kind we sail in, usually about 45 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, is a sure killer, so it’s important to give a lot of thought to the kind of boating you do and the best kind of lifejacket to go with it.

Float coats make a lot of sense when it comes to conserving body heat in and out of the water, but they’re expensive and not ideal to swim in. The best defense against drowning or hypothermia is not to fall overboard in the first place, which calls for harnesses and tethers, but even sailors who have them don’t always wear them. What’s not always appreciated is that people also fall overboard in calm weather when there doesn’t seem to be any threat, or any need for a lifejacket. If the water’s cold, there definitely is a threat, a constant threat.

So give it some thought and decide what kind of lifejacket is best for the kind of boating you do. And if you need some facts and figures to help you, and maybe frighten you into action, here’s a very good website to visit:

Today’s Thought
Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.
— Shakespeare, Henry VI

“What happened to Gloria?”
“She swallowed some coins and had to go to the hospital.”
“Wow. How’s she doing?”
“The doctor says there’s no change yet.”

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

September 27, 2012

Displacement vs. Planing Hulls

IT’S BEEN MY EXPERIENCE that newcomers to boating often find it difficult to understand the difference between a displacement hull and a planing hull. It’s also been my experience that it’s not very easy to explain the design characteristics that cause some boats to plow through the water while others fly along on the surface, hardly touching the water at all.

As anyone who has been around boats for a while knows, a displacement hull is one that pushes water down and around itself as it makes progress, as opposed to a planing hull that skims along on top with much of its body clear of the water.

A displacement hull at full speed fits tightly into a large, self-made wave that has its crests at the bow and stern. Now, the speed of a wave in water is 1.34 times the square root of its length between crests, measured in knots and feet. Thus, the maximum speed of a displacement hull is often said to be the same as that of the wave it creates.

For example, you’ll often hear that a sailboat with a 25-foot waterline will have a maximum speed of 6.7 knots (square root of 25 = 5 x 1.34 = 6.7). But that’s not quite true because a boat can sometimes exceed the speed of the wave it’s trapped in, at least for brief periods such as when it’s surfing down the face of a big swell. What is true is that the hull-speed formula tells you the maximum speed that your boat can reach reasonably easily. Any attempt to go faster — to push a displacement boat up the back of the wave she’s sitting in — requires an extraordinary extra amount of power and a very flat run aft to provide dynamic lift.

On the other hand, the speed of a planing hull is governed almost exclusively by the power-to-weight ratio. If you can keep total weight down to 40 pounds for every 1 horsepower available, you’ll do 25 knots or so. And if you can keep the weight down to 10 pounds per horsepower, you’ll do 50 knots.

Sailboats can plane, too, of course, given enough sail area, but in the usual course of events they have to make sacrifices in other areas, usually seaworthiness and accommodation.

Displacement hulls have midship sections shaped like wine glasses, and often have more deadrise, or V shape, at the bow and stern. This makes them more seakindly and allows them to recover more easily from a 180-degree capsize. Planing hulls tend to be more flat-bottomed for a greater length, which causes them to pound to windward. They carry lots of beam aft to allow them to stand up to a greater sail area, but that also makes them liable to remain upside down if they are capsized by a wave.

But I think that all a beginning sailor really needs to understand at first is that displacement hulls, in general, offer a safer, more sedate ride, roomier accommodation, and more seaworthiness. Planing hulls offer the ultimate in speed, thrills, and excitement for strong, skilled crews.

Today’s Thought
The sea is only safe and harmless so long as the ship is safe and seaworthy and ably handled.
— Felix Riesenberg

The pessimist gripes about the wind. The optimist hopes it will change. The realist trims the sails.

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

September 25, 2012

The miracle of walking

WITHOUT DOUBT, the way a sailor walks on a rolling deck is one of the greatest achievements of human evolution. Few of us pause to consider the magic behind that simple-looking act, but it is, in fact, one of the great wonders of Nature.

There was a time many years ago when I became fascinated by the way people walk in ordinary circumstances, that is, on flat, stable ground.  Something that we take for granted, and what appears to be absolutely simple, is actually absurdly complicated.  Lifting one foot, moving it forward, and placing it down in synchronicity with another foot doing exactly the opposite is a triumph of muscular control and planning.

And then there’s the business of turning. Human perambulation performed in a straight line ahead is difficult enough, but the act of turning corners simply boggles the mind. Have you ever thought how you turn corners with such apparent ease? Just think about how many muscles have to be moved in the correct order, and the balance that has to be kept, and the furniture that has to be missed.

Going around corners is theoretically impossible. I mean, say you wish to turn to the right. The computer that are you pleased to call your brain immediately goes into panic mode. It can hardly get the orders out fast enough.

What you have to do is (a) take longer strides with your left leg than your right leg, or (b) take shorter strides with your right leg than your left leg. This makes the two legs move at different speeds. The left leg, in fact, tries to overtake the right leg, quite forgetting that it is joined to the right leg at the trunk. If it were allowed to continue in this foolish way it would eventually sever itself from your body and you would fall over for want of a prop on the left side; but fortunately we have in our trunks nerves that sense pain.

It is the feeling of pain that makes us jump slightly into the air during a turn, to even the pressure building up on the legs and trunk, and in the situation I’ve been describing, a jump to the right is indicated.

A jump to the left would bring instant disaster in the form of the severance of both legs from the trunk, thus leaving nothing to separate the buttocks from the ground.

The brain never makes this mistake, of course, and this in itself is quite surprising, for the movements of the muscles of the left leg are controlled by the right side of the brain, and the movements of the right leg by the left side of the brain.

Thus, before any turn can even be contemplated, the brain has to sit down and ask itself which side of itself it has to use to move which leg.

And not only that. It has to work out which muscle to move in which foot, and I surely don’t need to tell you how complicated that can be. You’ve got real trouble if you send a message rushing down the spinal cord, addressed to the short flexor of the great toe, telling it to contract quickly, when in fact you meant to send it to gastrocnemius muscle in the calf. If you don’t fall flat on your face it will be a miracle.

Now all this simply concerns making a turn left or right.  Consider the added difficulty caused to a sailor’s brain by a rolling deck, where it’s necessary to walk with one leg higher than the other at one moment, and that same leg lower than the other at the next.  Finally, try to imagine what’s going on in  that poor brain  when a sailor walking along a rolling deck suddenly decides to make a turn.

On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t try to imagine it.  There’s only so much a human brain can take.

Today’s Thought
They wha canna walk right are sure to come to wrang,
Creep awa’, my bairnie, creep afore ye gang.
— James Ballentine, Creep Afore Ye Gang.

A cute blond entered the animal rescue center. She said to the young man behind the counter, “I want a pet.”
“Me, too,” said the man, “but the boss is awfully strict. How about we meet after work?”

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

September 23, 2012

Blowing scientific bubbles

 I GET WORRIED when someone comes along and turns upside down what few scraps of scientific knowledge I possess. (Or thought I possessed.) It makes me wonder how wrong I’ve been about a whole lot of other things I’ve believed all my life

The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine insists that a boat can float on air.  Well, I can only say that no boat I’ve ever owned was able to float on air, although I can see several advantages straight away.  You wouldn’t need anti-fouling paint for a start, and you wouldn’t have to keep it in water, which would save you a bundle. And you wouldn’t need a trailer to tow it anywhere.

But apparently some boats really do float on air. According to the magazine article, Michael Peters Yacht Design has produced a powerboat hull with what they call a Stepped-Vee Ventilated Tunnel.

This tunnel traps air under the boat and channels it to the stern. This, they claim, reduces friction, and therefore drag.  These hulls can reach 60 mph with two outboard motors, and average better than 1.5 miles per gallon while “cruising” at 45 mph.  That compares with a top speed of 55 mph for a Boston Whaler 37 (which doesn’t have a fancy cushion of underhull air) and fuel consumption of about twice as much. Beneteau also recently introduced a powerboat technology they call AirStep, which draws air in from the hull sides and blows it out under the center of the hull.

The BoatU.S. article says: “Addition of air under the hull at low speeds adds lift to the stern, reducing the displacement of the boat, which flattens the bow wave. The result is a boat that rises on plane sooner . . .”

Now I have always understood that aerated water is less dense than normal water, and therefore less able to support a floating body. If you’ve ever body-surfed, you’ll surely agree with me.  What’s more, adding air under a boat cannot possibly reduce its displacement, which is its weight.

I know we live in exciting times, when colliding particles are producing Higgs’ Bosons all over the place and McDonalds is producing vegetable burgers, but it’s really, really hard to believe that bubbles in the water will lift a boat and hold it up higher so that its bow wave is flattened.

So far this principle is not being touted for sailboats, but I don’t doubt the day will come, probably among America’s Cup racers or the Open 60 class.  Between now and then I am going to have to do some hard thinking, and possibly some rearranging of my scientific prejudices. 

Today’s Thought
True science teaches, above all, to doubt, and to be ignorant.
— Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life.

“What do you want to be when you finish college?”
“You know, I’ve half a mind to go into politics.”
“Great, then you’ll be better equipped than most of them.”

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

September 20, 2012

Why don't they want to stop?

WHEN ELLEN MACARTHUR was approaching the finish line, coming second in a singlehanded non-stop race around the world, her mind was in a whirl.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to finish. 

After living for three months in accommodation that authorities would universally condemn as unfit for human habitation, the petite British sailor was not looking forward to the comforts of civilization. “Part of me quite definitely wanted to stay out there forever,” she recalled later in her book, Taking on the World.

When I read that book recently I was astonished at that remark. She was coming home to the acclamation of 250,000 well-wishers gathered in the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne.  She got a congratulatory call from British Prime minister Tony Blair, and later she was made a Dame of the British Empire. The five-foot-two skipper was in fact the darling of all Europe for her gutsy performance against the cream of the world’s singlehanders, giants of the racing world who dared to sail their 60-foot sloops through the hellish Southern Ocean at speed of 25 knots and more.

Now, three months of mental stress and physical fatigue was nearly over.  Soon she would be able to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time.  Soon she would be able to eat a decent meal, cooked by someone else.  Soon she would be able to bask in the glory accorded to heroes.

She had gone through hell. And yet she wanted more of it? She wanted to stay out there forever, worrying her little guts out?

It didn’t make sense until I thought of Bernard Moitessier.  He felt the same way during the first singlehanded round-the-world race when he was leading.  Unable to face what he knew would be a riotous welcome at the finish, he declined to turn left after Cape Horn, abandoned the race, and kept on going around the world until he came to Tahiti. He did it, he said, for the sake of his soul.

Well, Ellen MacArthur did actually finish the 2001 Vendée Globe race, despite her reservations. But on her way to the first press conference,  she asked if she could go to the toilet. “I remember sitting down, putting my head on my knees, and taking several deep breaths,” she said. “I sighed with relief at the momentary quiet I had found, and I smiled at the alarming comfort; it was the first time I’d sat on a toilet seat for three months.”

But the question is: What is it that makes these sailors want to keep on sailing?  Why do they wish to keep on suffering?  Is it masochism, or is simply that the devil you know is better than the  angel you don’t?

There is something in human nature that makes us inured to tough circumstances,  given enough time. There is evidence enough of that in the number of woman maltreated by their menfolk who stay on for more. And they say that prisoners sometimes don’t want to be freed when their sentences are up.    

But sailors?  People who, on the whole, have more than the usual amount of common sense?  Why would they wish to continue the self-imposed misery and deprivation of their floating prisons?    

Ironically, perhaps, Dame Ellen gave up competitive sailboat racing in 2010.  I don’t think she has made the reason particularly clear, but I suspect the money she made from sponsorships may have had something to do with it.  It’s quite a different world when you can afford your own toilet seat.

Today’s Thought
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.
— Swinburne, Laus Veneris

“Did you finally tell Jimmy where babies come from?”
 “Well, I tried to explain about the birds and the bees but he kept changing the subject back to girls.”

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


September 18, 2012

Demystifying celestial navigation

IN THE DAYS before GPS, navigators were much sought-after on deep-sea racing yachts. Many thought themselves to be mighty fine fellows, and strutted around like minor royalty with their charts and sextant boxes tucked under their arms. They maintained a high hedge of mystique around the art of celestial navigation.

Then, in 1950, along came a woman called Mary Blewitt who mowed down their hedges and called their bluff. She wrote a modest 60-page book called Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen that showed everyone how to find their position at sea with no more math than a few simple additions and subtractions.

That book is still in print but I expect sales are down now. There’s not much call for celestial navigation when you can get your position in an instant by pushing a button on a GPS receiver.

But if you want to experience the sheer pleasure and profound satisfaction of handling a precision instrument to measure the sun and the stars and plot your position on the chart like centuries of seamen before you, clutch Mary Blewitt to your heart. Then you, too, will be entitled to strut your stuff.

Incidentally,  you can practice taking sights with your sextant at home by shooting the sun in a tray of old engine oil or an artificial horizon.

Today’s Thought
There is no greater disloyalty to the great pioneers of human progress than to refuse to budge an inch from where they stood.
— Dean W. R. Inge.

“Excuse me waiter, how long how you been working here?”
“Only about a week, sir.”
“Oh, you can’t be the one who took my order, then.”

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

September 16, 2012

The benefit of fiberglass

 BOATBUILDERS in the early days of fiberglass could never have imagined how long their products would last. After 15 or 20 years, an old-time boatbuilder could rely on a wooden boat to do the decent thing and rot away into oblivion. But today, 40- or 50-year-old fiberglass boats are still going strong and depressing sales of new boats.

Consequently, there are many bargains to be found among old-fashioned but sound sailboats capable of sailing around the world. Like aging film stars caught off-guard, they may look slightly seedy and down at heel in the glare of the spotlight, but after a good paint job and little body work they’ll be as good as ever.

If you’re young and not too concerned with creature comfort, you can even find old fiberglass boats, capable of crossing oceans, that bear price tags with figures lower than those of many used cars. They naturally won’t offer the comfort and style of newer designs, but the sea doesn’t care about that. The sea respects only seaworthiness, and the design aspects of seaworthiness don’t change as the demands of modern styling and accommodations do.

Size is not the main arbiter of seaworthiness, either. Boats of 20 feet and up regularly cross oceans. The smaller and simpler the boat, the less money you’ll need to make your cruising dreams come true.

Go small. Go young. But go.

Today’s Thought
But there are wanderers o’er Eternity
Whose bark drives on and on, and anchor’d ne’er shall be.
Byron, Childe Harold

“How do you like your new babysitter, Johnny?”
“I hate her, Mom. If I was bigger I would grab her and bite her on the back of her neck like Dad does.”

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

September 13, 2012

Lightning is frightening

LIGHTNING IS ONE of the most frightening things I’ve faced at sea. For me, it’s the equivalent of instantaneous death. From the first sight of those ominous cumulus clouds piling up on the windward horizon, it’s all angst and high drama. I know there will be no escaping from screaming wind, high waves, stinging rain, the crash of thunder, and lightning bolts crackling like the furnace of hell. The air will be filled with the smell of ozone. If it’s night--and thunderstorms are frequent at night on the deepsea tradewind routes--the stark outlines of strobe-like flashes will turn everything into blinding whiteness or stygian black in turns, and my night sight will be destroyed. I hate thunderstorms.

There is a lot that we still don’t understand about lightning, but it’s generally agreed that it’s the discharge of static electricity from one part of the thundercloud to another, between different clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth or a terrestrial object.

How does static electricity build up in clouds? They say  it’s just particles rubbing against each other, just as you can build up a static charge by scuffing your socks across an acrylic carpet. Enormous energy is created in cumulus clouds. They rise to great heights, creating areas of positive and negative ions separated by vast distances.

Air normally doesn’t conduct electricity, but when the potential voltage rises high enough, lighting will force its way through. A lightning flash may have an electrical potential of 30 million volts and a current flow of 100,000 amps. It’s hard even to begin imagining the sort of destructive power those figures represent.

Sometimes 100 or more individual discharges may be needed to find a path between areas of opposite polarity, and when this “leader stroke” reaches its destination, the heavy “main stroke” flashes off in the opposite direction--that’s the visible lightning.

When you’re on land, they warn you not to take shelter under a tree during a thunderstorm. That’s a dangerous place to be in, because the tree’s height makes it more likely to be struck. So what are your chances when you’re on the water, with a metal mast sticking up higher than anything else around?

Well, according to claims made to the insurance department of the BoatU.S. organization, an auxiliary sailboat has a 6-in-1,000 chance of being hit by lightning in a thunderstorm in any given year. Here are the odds for other types of boats: multihull sailboats, 5 in 1,000; trawlers, 3 in 1,000; pure sailboats, 2 in 1,000; cruisers, 1 in 1,000; runabouts, 1 in 5,000.

About 100 people are killed by lightning annually in the United States, and many are injured. Lightning starts some 75,000 forest fires a year in this country, and maybe more in this year of extra-dry weather.

Lightning is a weather phenomenon I could well do without.

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.

The luckiest man is the one who has a wife and an outboard motor that both work.

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

September 11, 2012

Are you listening, Virginia?

YES VIRGINIA, there is a Shackle Fairy. She exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Shackle Fairy. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in the Shackle Fairy! You might as well not believe in Santa Claus!

Let me tell you why I know there is a Shackle Fairy. Yesterday I was looking through the stuff in my garage. I was looking for a roll of duct tape I put in a special place so I could find it again. But I couldn’t find it again.  Instead, in a plastic container under the big box of spare cat sand, I found 22 stainless steel shackles.

Now, Virginia, there is nothing that makes a sailor happier than 22 beautiful, smooth, shiny, stainless-steel shackles. Shackles by Schaefer, Harken, and Ronstan. Long D shackles and short twist shackles. Bow shackles and headboard shackles.  Pin shackles and threaded shackles. Cast shackles and stamped shackles. And my very favorites, those Wichart forged shackles,  one of the things the Frenchies do best after champagne and Brigitte Bardot.

Now I don’t know how I come to have so many shackles. I recognize one or two from old Freelance, a boat I sold in 1987. But I don’t remember keeping any shackles from Freelance, so somebody must have kept them for me and sneaked them into my garage here.  And we know who, don’t we Virginia? 

I’ve had a few boats since Freelance and they all had shackles, very nice shackles, most of them. I truly believe that shackles are the gems in a sailor’s jewelry box, but it would never occur to me to remove all the good expensive shackles from the boats I was selling, and replace them with cheap galvanized  shackles. Perish the thought. Heavens no. Unthinkable. No, Virginia, something bigger and more mysterious has been at work here, something that knows the things a sailor loves most, something that only those who really believe can know about.

 Did you ever see the Shackle Fairy dancing on the deck? Of course not, but that's no proof that she is not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

So be good, Virginia.  If you say your prayers at night and save your money and buy a nice boat one day, you, too, might find a box of beautiful shackles in your garage.  People will ask you how they got there and you will say you don’t know, because that will be the truth. But the truth is relative, isn’t it Virginia?  It all depends.  And we know the real truth, don’t we? Yes, Virginia, there is a Shackle Fairy.       

Today’s Thought
Believe! No storm harms a man who believes.
— Ovid, Amores.

“So you want to be a ship’s surgeon?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, what would you do if the captain fainted?”
“Bring him to, sir.”
“Very good. And then what?”
“Bring him two more, sir.”

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


September 9, 2012

Cruising with coffee

WHAT WOULD a summer cruise be without coffee?  There is no ambrosia, no manna from heaven, that compares with a steaming cup of coffee sipped first thing in the morning in the cockpit of a yacht in a pretty anchorage.  New life begins each day with the rousing aroma of coffee.

It was John G. Hanna, yacht designer and author, who maintained that you can make good coffee on even the simplest of yachts. “I cheerfully endorse the statement that perfect coffee can be made in a tea kettle, when you let it boil the right way,” he said. “The moment it reaches a full boil, snatch it off the hot spot and let it simmer a moment before you add the cold water.  Reason: continued boiling would carry away in the steam the very volatile oil on which the pleasant aroma of coffee depends; yet the solution must come up to full boiling temperature, at least briefly, to extract the full flavor of the bean.”

When he talks about a tea kettle, Hanna means the old-fashioned standard coffee pot — “a pot, equivalent to a kettle, completely free of all percolators, drippers, or other fancy gadgets. The same thing that is official equipment in many millions of American homes, regardless of the increase in the plethora of complicated coffee concoctors, a shape evolved by experience of generations — a truncated cone, broad on the base, it does not upset easily, takes up the minimum of space and is easier to handle and pour from than a kettle.”

Hanna’s method of coffee-making, presumably, was to add some ground coffee to water in a pot, bring it to the boil, and add a dash of cold water to the top to settle the grounds.  Ever since coffee drinking began, there has been this question of how to separate the grounds from the liquid coffee.  I’ve never tried the cold water trick, but I imagine you’ve got to be careful about how much cold water you use, otherwise you end up with cold coffee also.

I have read that if you simply leave the pot alone, the grounds will settle to the bottom after about five minutes. Another piece of advice I’ve seen is this: “ Just before you are ready to drink, crack a couple of raw eggs and drop them in the pot. Stir it around and pour the coffee into your cup. The egg congeals and collects the coffee grounds! Feed the egg and grounds to your burro so he has the energy to plow your fields!”

I guess you could use a fine-mesh tea-leaf strainer to separate out the grounds, and I know people have tried discarded nylon stocking for the same purpose, but with what success, I don’t know.  Anyway, the point is that the preferred beverage is distilled from freshly ground beans and water that is not allowed to boil for more than an instant.  This ought not to be beyond the capability of sailors with enough gumption to handle a sailboat and navigate it to a safe anchorage, although I do know one who, disdaining what he calls the esoteric mumbo-jumbo of coffee concoction, drinks coffee made from those soluble coffee crystals prepared by Folgers and Nescafe. One small spoon of dried coffee crystals dissolves in seconds in hot water, and you’re done.  Tellingly, though, deep here in Starbucks country, he doesn’t go around boasting about it.  

 Today’s Thought
When we decode a cookbook, every one of us is a practicing chemist. Cooking is the oldest, most basic application of physical and chemical forces to natural materials.
— Arthur E. Grosser, Professor of Chemistry, McGill University.

“What’s the matter with your leg?"
"I went to a seafood buffet last night and pulled a mussel."

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

September 6, 2012

Does sinking suck?

UP TO YESTERDAY, I was one of those many people who believe that you should get well away from a sinking ship as fast as you can. I don’t know where I acquired that knowledge. I expect I just read it a hundred times, and because everybody else seemed to believe it, I believed it, too.

Now I’m not so sure.  Yesterday I was reading articles from the old Rudder magazine when I came across this piece written by the editor, Tom Day. What made it remarkable for me was the fact that Mr. Day claimed to have personal knowledge of the subject. He was speaking from experience, not hearsay.

He dismissed my belief as a “widespread fiction even held by many seamen: that there is a tremendous suction when a vessel sinks. There is nothing of the kind,” he asserted. “As a vessel goes under the surface there is an inrush to close up the vacancy, but there is no suction after the sinking body is under the surface.”

He added:  “If a vessel was drawn down by force there would be a suction; but a sinking form cannot sink faster than the water is displaced by its weight, and therefore, water being a dense medium, the fluid must close in behind simultaneously with its displacement.

“I have stood on the deck of a sinking craft and gone under with it, and instead of suction there is just the opposite — an upward rush that makes it impossible to sink with a vessel unless you cling to her. A lifeboat on the deck of a vessel would float clear if the ship sank under her, so would a cask or a man or anything floatable.”

Well, bang goes another cherished delusion. While I find it hard to accept that I’ve been wrong, dead wrong, all these years, I have to give full credence to a man who has actually stood on the deck of a sinking vessel and observed the lack of suction at first hand.

But then, on the other hand . . . well, he didn’t say what kind of vessel it was.  Perhaps a different kind of vessel would create suction. The little doubts begin to creep back in.  Tom Day was a clever man, a skilled communicator, and very knowledgeable about all things to do with sailboats, but perhaps . . . well, perhaps what I’m trying to say is that if I ever find myself on the deck of a sinking vessel, I’m going to do my best to get the hell out of there as fast as I can.  It’s nothing to do with doubting the veracity of Mr. Day.  It’s just pure reflex, honest.

Today’s Thought
Be wary, then; best safety lies in fear.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet.

“They tell me your mother-in-law has taken up hiking.”
“Yeah, three months ago she started walking 10 miles a day.”
“That’s great. Is it helping?”
“Sure is. She must be in North Dakota by now.”

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


September 4, 2012

The problems of racing

AMATEUR SAILBOAT RACING has always suffered from two problems. The first is a lack of hands willing to do the considerable work of organizing sailboat races.  The second is the problem posed by the skipper who keeps winning all the races and demoralizing his opposition.

Thomas Fleming Day, the feisty editor of The Rudder magazine, recognized these facts in 1911 when he wrote:

“You can’t keep the sport going unless you get to work early and keep at it until the last gun fires. It is no use trying to keep yachting popular and inviting, unless you constantly vary the menu.

“As it is today, we keep the sport moving too much in a circle. It is the dog chasing his tail. Do something different; do something nobody else does, and do it differently. Any pastime, like water, becomes corrupted unless it is kept constantly in motion; but that does not mean to be stirring it always the one way.

“Talking about this reminds me of that Bug Class they are getting up on Long Island Sound. This will be a fleet, and Commodore Newman has come forward with a sensible and happy suggestion that they parcel it into Divisions of Skippers. First division, the crack-a-jack skippers; second division the fairly good timoneer, and third division, the green hands at the stick. When a man in the two lower divisions has won three races, he moves up the class above, until he is in the first division.

“This will give the learners a chance. Constant defeat through being up against better men is apt to cold-water the enthusiasm of the new hand, whereas a victory now and again will spur him to renewed effort.”

One-design classes are particularly vulnerable to becoming demoralized by skippers who can’t be beaten.  I personally knew one who single-handedly destroyed the Soling Class at one club I belonged to.  Nothing in the way of bribes could persuade him to throw a race now and then.  People on bended knees couldn’t convince him to show a little pity for skippers less talented than he. He was an honorable, talented competitor and deserved his wins, but pretty soon he found himself with no-one to sail against. 

In days gone past, when I was organizing dinghy races, I came to the same conclusion as Thomas Day, and divided skippers into three classes. In my case the most experienced skippers were asked to aid the beginners by giving helpful advice about courses and sail trim while they were under way.

It worked for a while, but soon the young Turks were rising to the top and consistently winning in Division One, which brought us right back to square one.  I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps there isn’t one.

Today’s Thought
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks—not that you won or lost—
But how you played the game.
—Grantland Rice, Alumnus Football

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(30, and last!) “Well, honestly, sir, what do you expect for $3 — a whole pair of trousers?”

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

September 2, 2012

The dreaded British Seagull

I’M STILL RUNNING IN a new outboard motor I bought recently, and every time I pull the starter cord I’m reminded of how much outboard motors have improved over the years.  My Tohatsu 6-hp Sail-Pro single-cylinder four-stroke is not as smooth-running as a silky 1975 6-hp Evinrude twin I once owned but when I compare it with that extraordinary Rube Goldberg device known as the British Seagull, I bless every engineer and designer who contributed in any way to the improvement that is evident on the evolutionary path from Seagull to Sail-Pro.

For those of you lucky enough never to have had the misfortune to own or operate a Seagull, I should explain that it was rudimentary in the extreme —  a single cylinder containing a very sloppy piston, topped by a spinning disc allegedly making electricity for the spark plug.  Tacked on to one side was a simple carburetor.  The float bowl had a small button sticking out of the top that you pressed down with a finger until the whole thing flooded and overflowed with gasoline.  A spreading rainbow sheen on the water around you was your signal to wind the starter cord around the spinning disc on top and pull like mad.

It was a two-stroke, of course, and you had to mix thick, gooey engine oil in with the gasoline so that the clunky bits inside received adequate lubrication.  If I remember right, the ratio of oil to gas was 1 : 25, or about four times as much oil as modern two-strokes used before they were deemed unacceptably polluting.  The Seagull was the ultimate polluting machine.

After you had flooded the carburetor, flicked closed the crude metal slide that served as a choke, and been hit on the back of the neck by the starter cord as it came off the disc on top, there were two ways to tell if the motor had started or not.

The first was a great gurgling roar, a noise fit to wake the dead.  You could hear a Seagull coming from miles away.

The second was a great cloud of blue-white smoke rising from the water astern. That was the exhaust, which consisted of 50 percent burned gasoline and 50 percent lubricating oil just slightly singed by the bronze-age combustion process.  The exhaust added its own smear of oil to the water around the stern, of course, though smear might be too wimpish a word to describe the fearful results of a Seagull’s passage through the water.  It was often said that you couldn’t get lost if you had a Seagull.  You just followed the smoking oil streaks back home.

With that much oil in the gas, the spark plug was bound to oil up and cease functioning every 20 minutes or so. The owners of Seagulls learned to carry spare plugs and they developed heat-proof horny calluses on their finger tips from removing red-hot plugs from the cylinder head.

To be fair, there were some advantages to the Seagull.  It did make other people laugh.  And you could throw it away in a fit of rage without feeling any sorrow.  It made a dandy anchor, with all those bits sticking out.

Today’s Thought
You gentlemen of England
That live at home at ease,
Ah! little do you think upon
The dangers of the seas.
— Martyn Parker

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(29) “Please keep your voice down, sir, or everyone will want one.”

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