December 31, 2013

On with the self-promotion

IN FOR A PENNY, in for a pound. Having given you the background to my book, Small Boat to Freedom, I thought I might as well continue the orgy of shameless self-promotion, and spill the beans about how a few others got written.

This time it’s the turn of The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge, Second Expanded Edition (International Marine).

Even after more than 20 years, this book is still one of my best sellers. It began when a man I was teaching to sail in San Diego told me he was going to make a fortune by writing a book of rules of thumb for housewives: rules about ironing and cooking; rules about bringing up children; rules about keeping a slim figure to keep hubby happy; and so on.

I don’t know if he ever did write that book, but after he learned to sail I stole his idea and wrote a book of rules about something I knew quite well because I had a box full of clippings collected over the years from boating magazines: hints and tips about how to do all sorts of nautical things better, quicker, and/or cheaper.  The result is a book with a waterproof cover that modestly proclaims it contains 460 sea-tested rules of thumb for almost every boating situation. 

To quote my publisher: “This is either the most useful book ever designed to entertain, or the most entertaining book ever designed to be useful.” In between the whimsy, however, this book contains the essence of centuries of seafaring experience distilled into a concise reference for sailors and powerboaters.

If I may say so, it makes an appropriate gift for fellow mariners.

Here’s a review by Bernadette Bernon, then editor of Cruising World magazine:    

“John knows well about earning points at sea to put in a black box of experiences, for he has had more than most. His gift as a writer is in being able to translate those experiences for the reader with intelligence, humor, and warmth of spirit. This engaging collection is a testament to that gift, and to one of the finest boating writers at work today.”

Happy New Year
I WISH one and all the very happiest of New Years. Join me in lifting a glass to health, peace, and prosperity for 2014!

Today’s Thought
The writer does the most, who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time.
— C. C. Colton, Lacon: Preface

“Gloria, did I see you sneak a gentleman into your dorm last night?”
“No, sir, you didn’t. He turned out to be no gentleman.”

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

December 29, 2013

A look behind the scenes

IT HAS BEEN YEARS since the hard-cover version of my book, Small Boat to Freedom, was published, and more than a year since the paperback version came out.  But during that time people have occasionally asked for more details about me, the man behind the book. I have ignored those requests because I am not much of a glory seeker; but one of my publishers recently asked for a fuller resume from me, and I thought I might as well use it here as well, for no better reason than to save me from having to write a new column when I need to be cheering on the Seattle Seahawks on television. (Yeah, they’re beating the Rams into the dust.) 

So let me tell you that there was a time when I had it all: a loving family, a successful career as a newspaper columnist and a comfortable home in Durban, one of South Africa’s loveliest cities. But a repressive apartheid regime and a clampdown by government forces on people’s freedom of expression made me decide to leave the country I loved.

With my wife and seventeen-year-old son, I gave up my life of contentment and security and set sail on a long voyage to America aboard my 31-foot sloop, Freelance. Everything I owned was on that little sloop as we battled our way around the aptly named Cape of Storms and wondered how we were going to smuggle our meager supply of gold Krugerrands out of South Africa and into the United States. And then, when we were stopped in mid-ocean by a U.S. warship, there was the question of my expired visa . . . this is the book that explains it all.

To save myself the shame of praising my own wares, I repeat here a review of Small Boat written by Duncan Spencer and published in the Washington Times: 

“NOT SINCE Robert Manry's "Tinkerbelle" in 1965 has there been a true sailing story as fresh and authentic as John Vigor's Small Boat to Freedom.  A middle-aged man can no longer abide life in South Africa, so he quietly prepares and embarks in secret with wife and son on a tiny sailboat for a new life in America.

“Manry wrote his bestseller after he threw over his safe newspaper job in Ohio and fitted up a tiny sloop vowing to sail the Atlantic. He made it to huge acclaim, carrying the banner for millions of men tied to desks and to tedium while life slips past.

“Mr. Vigor is the worthy successor to that great story. The man is a newspaper reporter and photographer, a sailor and writer of gritty resource, not one of the nabobs of the media. It is his gift to see the world always in the direct bright light of reality, not fogged with egotism or anchored to rank; though an intellectual, he manages to sail, write and work almost completely within the life of physical action. It is no surprise to read that Mr. Vigor's other passion, besides sailing, is bricklaying.

“Which is the secret of his escape and his success in the remarkable small boat voyage he undertook in 1987. Why did he wait so long to write of it?

“Because, he says, the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11 spurred him into action lest Americans "give away their hard won individual rights and freedoms almost as easily as they distribute candy at Halloween."

“Mr. Vigor reveals the strange burdens borne by the white South African, despised and feared by black Africans, simply despised by Europeans (and most Americans), and thwarted in the normal transactions of life by numerous sanctions put in place to "punish" the apartheid regime of his first adopted land.

“No matter that he wrote for an anti-apartheid paper; that he foresaw the long and difficult years ahead for white South Africans as the races adapted to a profound shift of power. As he writes, "Whites who left South Africa at that time were treated almost as traitors." Those who stay must accustom themselves to a life of watchfulness and fear; the years of subjugation had made enemies of everyone with a white skin.

“Restrictions led him to sneak out of the country with his meager life savings in gold Krugerrands hidden aboard his tiny 31-foot sailboat. "It was my idea to go in our own boat. I reasoned that when we got to America, we'd have a home to live in and a mobile base from which to start looking for work," he writes.

“While other whites felt trapped in South Africa, Mr. Vigor had less reason to. He was English, one of the thousands who immigrated to South Africa for opportunities. His wife June was an American born far from the sea in Utah. His son Kevin was about to graduate from high school. And neither, though practiced sailors, had ever spent a night offshore in a small boat. Mr. Vigor builds his story like he builds a brick wall, methodically, neatly, logically. There are no literary frills, just straight rather humble reporting.

“Step by step he prepares; selling his house, finding a boat, accumulating the gold coins to thwart currency export restrictions, readying his wife and son. The voyage itself is what you would expect from an extremely competent and cautious seaman with his family as crew. The sea is immense; it is boring and terrifying. Like many small boat voyages, Vigor's is a triumph over storm, frustration and adversity, a severe test of a marriage and a study of father-son relationships in extreme circumstances.

“In this age when some people part saying, ‘be safe,’ Mr. Vigor's book shows what people with skill, energy and expertise can still accomplish in the world with little money and no help. Mr. Vigor and his crew and the little yacht Freelance make it across the South Atlantic - taking over three months - to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The family thrives modestly in America after moving to the Northwest, he as a freelance writer, she as a copy editor. Mr. Vigor never sought publicity, and never got any. This slim book is his story told at last. June Vigor says she never wishes to embark on an ocean voyage again - but the couple still sail together.”

Today’s Thought
We are all sailors on the spaceship Earth.
— Frank Braynard, Newsweek, 4 Jul 76

“Any Royalty in your family?”
“No, but I had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.

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

December 26, 2013

Better to cling like a monkey

IT CAN BE QUITE A SURPRISE to see how much safety gear there is aboard some yachts, and how little aboard others. A lot of it has to do with the owner’s philosophy.

In the middle of the last century, when men such as Marcel Bardiaux and Bernard Moitessier were sailing around the world, they spurned even such elementary safety features as stanchions and lifelines.

“They give you a false sense of security,” Moitessier once told me.  “they catch you below the hip. They can catapult you overboard. Better to learn to cling like a monkey, like me.”

Times have changed, of course,  It’s difficult now to find a yacht that doesn’t have lifelines. But the old spirit hasn’t vanished entirely.  Some of the safest boats afloat have the simplest equipment — but it’s combined with a thorough knowledge of how to use it, should the need arise.  It’s pretty pointless to own thousands of dollars’ worth of lifesaving gear if you and your crew haven’t practiced using it.

So be very careful when choosing safety equipment. Safety is an emotional subject and store clerks know this. Try not to buy anything you can’t imagine yourself attempting to use in pitch darkness on a stormy night.

As for lifelines and tethers, I believe in them thoroughly. Bardiaux and Moitessier were sailing’s heroes, sailing’s supermen. The rest of us need all the help we can get.

Today’s Thought
Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They’re just braver five minutes longer.
— Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. President

Why does a chicken coop have two doors?
Because if it had four doors it would be a chicken sedan.

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

December 24, 2013

I think Christina likes me

A READER IN FLORIDA wants to know how my actinic keratosis is getting on. (That’s the stuff you get on the back of your hands after years of handling the tiller in hot sunshine.) He also wants to know how I knew I had it. Well, I didn’t, actually. I only found out after our nice government decided we should all get a free “wellness” check-up once a year, both mental and physical.

I duly presented myself at the doctor’s office where a nurse asked me to remember three unrelated words — house, car, apple — and made me draw a picture of a clock at 9:45.  She rejected my cunning offer to draw a digital clock and said I had to draw one with hands, which I duly did, although it’s harder than you might think. I was congratulating myself on passing the test when she asked me to repeat the three words she’d asked me to remember.

Well, I didn’t do too badly. I remembered the first one, anyway, and she wrote down on a piece of paper that I could satisfactorily tie my own shoelaces and find my way home. Then she asked when last I had seen a dermatologist for a check-up.  I said I couldn’t remember — not because of memory loss or anything, but because it had been a long time.

So off I went to a dermatologist. She turned out to be a lady dermatologist called Christina. As is only natural before a shy person like me is required to show one’s naked body to a strange female, I looked her up on the internet. She was in her thirties and rather good-looking, but I read with some foreboding that she had done her internship in a military hospital in Texas, so I resolved to be on my best behavior because I know that military doctors have no bedside manners and expect to be obeyed immediately.

Her nurse gave me one of those ridiculous hospital gowns with string ties and told me to get undressed.

When Christina entered the room I saluted and drew myself up mannishly to my full five-foot-whatever inches. 

“You’ve got your gown on back-to-front,” she said. 

“I can’t tie knots behind my back,” I explained. “It’s a man thing.”

She checked me out all over.  Then she took both my hands in hers and looked deep into my eyes. I looked back and blushed.

“You’ve got actinic keratosis,” she said, pointing to little bits of dried skin on the back of my hands.

I’d read about that, and I wanted to impress her with my knowledge. “That’s the stuff that makes jellyfish glow at night, isn’t it?” I said.

“No, it’s a precursor to skin cancer,” she said. “I’ll prescribe some ointment. You can get dressed now. I want to see you again. Come back in six months.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I snapped, reaching for my drawers.

I take this to mean she likes me and I look forward to our next meeting. I am very pleased with Obamacare.

As for my actinic keratosis, it’s gone now.  I’ll have to invent some other excuse if I want to keep seeing Dr. Christina.

Holiday greetings
Happy holidays to all my faithful readers.  And here’s wishing you health, peace, and prosperity throughout the New Year.

Today’s Thought
We are rapidly becoming a land of hypochondriacs, from the ulcer-and-martini executives in the big city to the patent medicine patrons in the sulfur-and-molasses belt.
— Dr. Vincent Askey, former President, American Medical Association

If you can’t fix it with a hammer, you’ve got an electrical problem.

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

December 22, 2013

The busy time of year

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when many are so busy with parties and presents and family and Christmas trees that their boats tend to be neglected. It's not such a bad thing, as long as the neglect is not long-lasting. The solstice is past us now. Old man sun is on the way back. Boating fever can resume with fervor after a refreshing break, and we can all look forward to a new season of sailing in the coming spring.

As long as there has been Christmas, it has been thus. A hundred years ago, this is what Thomas Fleming Day, editor of The Rudder, had to say about it:

"When Winter gets up his hook and stands offshore, the boat fever comes on strong and the itch to be away on the blue again takes hold of us. Sunday finds the boys sidling off towards the yards and wading around in the slush looking over the laid-up craft.

"They walk round and round them, peer at the stern, eye the bow, comment on the spars, find fault with the bottom, and curse the price that makes it not for them. Year after year this is our amusement. Spring after spring we go through the same yards, see the same boats, and express the same opinions regarding their appearance and condition. If those boats have ears, how tired they must get, how weary of the silly comments that the boat-fevered busybody makes each March under their hulls.

“A few weeks after, the yard is almost cleared, except here and there a poor old cripple or rich man's forgotten plaything is left standing surrounded by a raffle of timber and truck. Over by the fence, lying on its side, is a once crack-a-jack racer, too rotten to be moved and going rapidly to punk.

"And we look on her and think of the days when we will be lying up against the fence, dismantled and broken, while our successors are out cleaving the blue and making a mainsheet haul of health and happiness." 

 Ø Well, he ended up a little maudlin, there, didn't he? I guess he was rather depressed after a Christmas that had gone on too long and kept him away from his boat.

But we, as his successors, can look forward happily to cleaving the blue once again. So Happy Christmas. Happy Hanukah. Happy Kwanzaa.
Today's Thought
Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell the government what they want — and their kids pay for it.
— Richard Lamm, former Governor of Colorado.

"My girlfriend thinks I'm a stalker."
"Your girlfriend thinks that?"
"Yeah, well, she's not actually my girlfriend yet."

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

December 19, 2013

Recovering a lost anchor

IF YOU WANT to call yourself a sailor, you really should know how to recover a lost anchor.  Here, in the words of a very old salt, is the way they used to do it in the days before you could effect a quick and painless replacement by flashing a credit card in a West Marine store:

You will need two boats, an oarsman in each. Fasten a weight to the middle of a long, heavy line to keep it down; also, position weights about 10 feet from the middle.

Fasten the ends of the line to the two boats, coiling it loosely in each. Row to windward of the estimated position of the anchor, then row the boats away from each other to run out the line so it will be stretched just off the bottom. Row the boats down toward the estimated position of the anchor.

When the bight of the line catches on the anchor’s fluke, cross the boats to take a round turn around the fluke. Make a running bowline at the end of another line, around the drag line, weight it so it sinks, and slip it down. When the bowline is fast to the fluke, pull up the anchor.

There. Ta-da! Nothing to it!

Today’s Thought
The wonder is always new that any sane man can be a sailor.
— Emerson, English Traits

“Waiter, is this tea or coffee? It tastes like turpentine.”
“Oh, it must be the tea, sir. The coffee tastes like kerosene.”

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

December 17, 2013

Why yacht stuff costs more

IT HAS BECOME something of a rite for sailing people to complain that anything labeled as having to do with a yacht automatically costs more. It’s true that some retailers deliberately raise their prices for what they perceive to be rich boating customers. I have been in a hardware store belonging to a large national chain where the identical 3M masking tape cost 10 percent more in the boating aisles than it did in the household paint section a few feet away. People tell the same story about paint, paint stripper, stainless-steel bolts, and many other items.

But that’s not the real reason why yachting gear costs so much. Price-gouging aside, there are two good reasons why it’s more expensive. Firstly, it mostly needs to be of higher quality, since everything on a boat works in the most atrocious conditions of high humidity, salt-laden air, galvanic action, ultra-violet rays, rain, and often snow and ice.

I’d feel much happier about trusting my life to the quality-tested shackle that’s pulling me up the mast than I would the cheap knock-off from the Far East.

Secondly, the boating market is a comparatively small one in which marine manufacturers don’t gain the same benefits of high-quantity production that others enjoy.

So when it comes to masking tape and paint stripper, buy cheap if you must. But when it has to do with safety or longevity, buy only the best yachting quality. Grin and bear it.

Today’s Thought
Cheat me on the price and I shall dislike you; cheat me on the quality and I shall hate you.
— Anonymous boat owner

You wouldn’t worry half as much about what people think of you if you knew how seldom people think of you.

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

December 15, 2013

I smell -- therefore I am

OF ALL THE HUMAN COMFORTS I can think of, a long hot shower must rank among the most satisfying. So it’s rather unfortunate that on any boat I’ve ever been able to afford there has never been a reasonable shower arrangement.

Few boats of modest size have showers, in fact.  We seem to have been able to drag most of the other human comforts aboard, including fridges, indoor toilets, space heaters, music centers, stoves, bright lights, comfortable beds, hot water, and warm women; but warm showers have always been lacking.

I won’t go into the reasons for this.  Anyone who has used a shower on a small boat will know the problems. And there are substitutes if the weather is warm and you can carry enough fresh water.  You can create quite a lot of comfort in the cockpit with a pump-up garden spray and a pan of water heated on the stove.

Eventually, however, it occurs to most sailors that despite your suspicions it is possible for the human body to exist for quite long periods without a shower.  It is not as essential to life as we might have supposed. In fact, I would guess that there are millions of people in the world who don’t shower every day, or even every week.

If you’re on a boat you do, of course, have the option of jumping overboard for a swim.  Most of us who live where the water is perilously close to freezing don’t choose to exercise this option often, if at all.  We have come to realize that most people who shower every day do so to avoid being accused of smelling foul. Now, you would think that it would be only normal to smell like a human if you are a human.  Why would you want to smell like a rose or a twig of lavender when you’re actually a man or a woman?  Who are you trying to fool? What, in short, is wrong with smelling like a human?

That’s how our reasoning goes. And we know something else. We know that when several of us are cooped up on a yacht without a shower, and we all start smelling like humans together, there IS no smell; at least nobody notices any bad smell.

I think the longest I ever went without a shower was close on three months, when my friend Bob Stephen and I were sailing the canals of France, Belgium and Holland in a 17-foot open-cockpit centerboarder we sailed across the English Channel. We both smoked then, and Bob indulged in the occasional cigar as well, and we made other human smells I’m sure, but neither of us complained about body odor.  And neither did any of the other friendly people we met along the way. Perhaps it is a modern fad, probably engineered by the manufacturers of cologne and deodorants, that we worry too much about how we smell to others.

In the old days, a basin of warm water and a soapy washcloth applied to all the vital  areas once a week, made a small-boat sailor feel like a million bucks. Today we have disposable baby wipes, for which may the Lord be praised. But I still think we all worry too much about smelling like humans. Nothing could be more natural.  We have been brainwashed by people whose motives and morals don’t stand up to close scrutiny. 

Lift your arm. Sniff deeply and repeat after me: “To heck with it. Stinko — ergo sum.”

Today’s Thought
Look not for musk in a dog kennel
— H. G. Bohn, Hand-Book of Proverbs        

“Young lady, wouldn’t your mother be angry if she saw you in that skimpy swimsuit?”
“Yeah, I guess so. It’s hers.”

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

December 12, 2013

The mysteries of the deep

I WAS REMINDED the other day of how little we know about the sea.  I don’t mean the surface of the sea, but underneath. We know well enough about waves and currents and tides and hurricanes, but  we know very little, comparatively, about what lurks in the depths.

I think it was the naturalist William Beebe who wrote about the unease he felt out at sea, when he could almost feel millions of little eyes looking upward at him, especially at night. He was probably referring to plankton, which he used to catch in a net trawled from the stern of the boat on moonless nights, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe plankton are too small to have eyes, in which case it must have been shrimps or octopuses or the enormous schools of squid that are attracted to any kind of light at night.

Ordinarily, you’d never know they were down there — along with a host of other sea life we know next to nothing about. I can remember sailing along in a nice breeze one pitch-dark night somewhere between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point when two streaks of light came hurtling toward us amidships from starboard.

To say I was startled is putting it mildly.  They were twin tunnels of light apparently intent on boring into our hull at high speed, and my first irrational thought was “Torpedoes!”  Then I realized that the tubes of submerged light were actually phosphorescence created by some things moving about six feet below the surface on a collision course.

At the last moment, while I was still frozen with inaction and fright, they dived under the boat, came up on the opposite, and raced away into the night. I realized then that they must have been dolphins having a bit of fun scaring the human beings.

And now I wonder how many times this happens during the day when we have no tubes of light to alert us to their presence. How often do the creatures of sea approach us and leave no clue of their presence?  It’s impossible to know, obviously, but one can’t help speculating about how many close calls there have been with whales and (even more frightening) the giant squid known as Architeuthis, whose eyes are as large as automobile hubcaps and who grow to 65 feet or more, and who have large poisonous fangs and hundreds of suckers as big as dinner plates, and who have been known to swarm aboard large sailing ships in the old days and drag them and their crews down to Davy Jones’ locker, and . . . well, perhaps I exaggerate a little, but not much.  

It’s enough to keep a person very alert for any sign of tentacles creeping over the cockpit coaming during the night watches.

Today’s Thought
Ye monsters of the bubbling deep,
Your Maker’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye codlings peep,
And wag your tails about.
— Cotton Mather, Hymn

Confucius, he say that it’s better to have loved and lost than to do homework for six children.

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

December 10, 2013

Science isn't everything

HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED the tendency of your boat to sheer away automatically from shallow water when you’re running parallel to a submerged bank?  The oldtimers used to call it “smelling the land” and regarded it with awe, but it can actually be explained scientifically as a hydrodynamic manifestation of Bernoulli’s law.

Not all hull designs do this equally well, apparently, but those that do are a boon to skilful skippers when they find themselves nosing up a strange narrow channel. They simply let the boat have its head, letting it wander from side to side of its own accord and naturally finding the deepest water.

Science doesn’t explain everything, however.  D. Phillips-Birt, the well-known designer, says there was a lot of scientific thought put into determining the best waterline length of the old J-Class boats.  Some of the best brains in yacht design occupied themselves with the problem of whether it should be 80 feet or 87 feet, to take best advantage of the rule.

“The argument was fought with resistance curves, plotting on logarithmic scales, and treatises of great erudition,” he wrote.  And when the lofty discussion was at its height, it was L. Francis Herreshoff who brought everybody down to earth.

Scorning the scientific approach, he pointed out that it was worth noting that the success of recent J-Class yachts was in exact mathematical proportion to the number of sails delivered to each by the sailmaker.

Whereupon C. P. Burgess, who designed a duralumin mast for Enterprise, admitted:  “ . . . there are a great many variables which influence the speed of yachts. Perhaps one of the most important and least regarded is what the skipper had for dinner the night before.”

Today’s Thought
Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.
— Edwin Powell Hubble, Science

“What’s the celebration in the clubhouse?”
“My husband did it in one.”
“What? A hole in one?”
“No, he managed to hit the ball in one.”

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

December 8, 2013

Go gently on the helm

IT’S OFTEN SAID that anyone able to handle a sailing dinghy well ought to be able to steer a much bigger boat with equal ability, whereas the reverse is not the case. But this idea is pooh-poohed by Douglas Phillips-Birt, the renowned British designer and author in his book Reflections on Yachts (Nautical Publishing Company).

He says the chief feature of the modern dinghy is her extreme lightness.  She loses way in a moment and picks it up again equally quickly. “She can only be handled by rapid and considerable helm movements capable of putting her about before a sea stops her, or of keeping her moving by a process of weaving through seas which she lacks the power to trample down.”

But that situation is reversed in a bigger, ballasted yacht, says the author. “The most effective way of applying the brake is to swing the yacht abruptly from one course to another.”

Why should this be? Well, think about what happens when you turn the rudder. “The fact that the rudder is put over to a certain angle when altering course creates a little resistance, but that of the rudder alone is a trifle. The effect of the rudder is to give the whole hull a sheer or angle of yaw — it is analogous to the angle of leeway when sailing to windward. The whole yacht, in fact, starts moving obliquely. The water pressure set up on the hull thereby, and not the rudder, is what ultimately turns the yacht.”

It’s obvious that this sideslipping through the water must entail a large increase in resistance to forward movement.  Phillips-Birt estimates it’s something like an additional 10 percent for each degree of yaw established.

“So, when a few spokes of the wheel are applied, the head swings this way or that only because the hull has first been set into an oblique manner of advance, which is very much more resistful than advance straight ahead.

“You pay a great deal in added resistance for a few degrees of luffing up or bearing away.”

Every time the helm is moved, he adds— easy though the movement may seem, and harmless — it initiates a train of events introducing far bigger forces than those applied by the helmsman, and these tend to stop the ship. “The best helmsman,” he concludes, “is the one who does not seem to be steering.”

Today’s Thought
We spend our lives in learning pilotage,
And grow good steersmen when the vessel’s crank!
George Meredith, The Wisdom of Eld

“The tolerances in this engine are very fine ­— we aim at no more than three thousands of an inch.”
“Wow! How many thousands are there in an inch?”
“Gee, feller, I dunno. There must be millions of them.”

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

December 5, 2013

Keep that outboard warm

IT’S BEEN COLD around here for the past few days.  Down at the marina there’s a thin layer of ice floating on top of the salt water. They let the freshwater faucets run slowly, day and night, to stop the pipes freezing up.

And when I look around I am always surprised to see scores of outboard motors hanging off the sterns of boats. Why, I want to know, why don’t they freeze the water that’s left inside them and suffer damage every time the air temperature drops below 32°F?

I have always been very cautious with my outboards.  I have always taken them home and stored them in the garage for winter. But perhaps I have been making unnecessary work for myself, because no one else seems to bother.  They just let their outboards hang there off their sterns and leave them to their own devices.

I know that some of them will have salt water in their innards, and it takes a lot more to freeze salt water; but then, when we get those icy blasts coming down the Frazier Valley from Canada the temperature can drop down to near zero, which should be enough to inflict damage, even if it is only for a short period.

And some more conscientious owners will have flushed their outboards with fresh water before abandoning them for winter.  That’s to cut down on corrosion on the engine’s insides, but it also means that it’s certain the water that remains will freeze, and expand, and cause enough havoc to bring joy to the lives of the people who repair outboard motors.

I have had owner’s manuals that say you should lower the engine in a saltwater berth when there’s ice around.  They’re never specific about the purpose of this, but I presume it’s because the non-frozen salt water will distribute some warmth (or comparative warmth) up the metal shaft and prevent the innards from freezing up.

If the manufacturers are concerned about the possibility of damage in freezing weather, why are the owners of outboard motors so cavalier in their approach?  I know this is a very rich country, but few people can afford a new outboard every season.  Besides, I feel aggrieved that the ones I see around me don’t seem to suffer winter damage.  By rights, owners who don’t have the nous or the energy to remove their outboards and take them home ought to be made to suffer like the few of us who happen to be blessed with common sense and a mariner’s awareness of thriftiness.

Just wait till spring. It will be very rewarding to see them going red in the face and sweating as they try to start those neglected outboards. Serves them right, I say.

Today’s Thought
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
— Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

“Why so happy?”
“Somebody complimented me on my driving today.”
“That’s nice.”
“Yeah, they left a little note on the windshield. It said, 'Parking Fine.' ”

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

December 3, 2013

Know where your compass points

 BOY SCOUTS WILL TELL YOU that your compass points to magnetic north. When you start sailing a boat, you find out they’re lying. Boat compasses don’t point to magnetic north. They don’t point to true north, either. In fact, there’s hardly any telling where a boat compass might be pointing.

The trouble is deviation. Boy Scouts don’t have deviation but boats do. Boats have engines, electronic instruments, and lumps of metal that attract the magnetic compass and cause it to deviate from magnetic north.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the amount of deviation were consistent, but it never is. Deviation changes with the heading of the boat. That makes the correction of deviation complicated. It involves swinging the compass and drawing up a deviation table for every course you could possibly sail.

Luckily, the maximum amount of deviation is usually small, say 5 degrees or so. That fact, combined with the bother of correcting it, makes most amateur sailors ignore deviation and set it to one side for attention later, as one does with a smelly old uncle at a family reunion.

However, if you’re on a long trip, you must apply the correction for deviation because, even if you’re out by only 5 degrees, you’ll be a whole mile off course for every 11.5 miles run.

Today’s Thought
Though pleased to see the dolphins play,
I mind my compass and my way.
— Matthew Green, The Spleen

“Come on, Johnny, be a good boy now. Say ‘Aaah’ for the nice doctor. He wants to get his finger out of your mouth.”

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

December 1, 2013

A 4,500-year-old yacht

THE SPORT OF BOATING goes back a long way — much further than most of us imagine.  According to Scott Cookman’s book about the 1905 yacht race across the Atlantic [1], a royal yacht more than 4,500 years old was discovered in 1954 at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza.

In his book, Cookman says the discovery was made by Hermann Junker, a German archaeologist, in a long tomb sealed with 41 limestone blocks, each weighing 16 tons. After six months of work Junker finally broke through to find a disassembled pleasure yacht built of perfectly preserved cedar. She was 143 feet long, with a beam of 19 1/2 feet, and displaced about 45 tons. The double-ender had a draft of 5 feet.

Apparently the decision to provide Cheops with his yacht in the afterlife was a last-minute one. The burial pit was too small to accept the yacht intact, so it was painstakingly broken down into 1,224 pieces, complete with rigging, deckhouses, and well-worn oars — a pair of steering oars 28 feet long and five pairs of rowing oars 21 1/2 feet long.

Now this was not a ceremonial vessel constructed specially for the occasion. Its hull planking, lashed together with almost 3 miles of hemp cordage, bore deep grooves where the rope had swollen and tightened in place by repeated floatings in the Nile.  This led the archaeologists to conclude that Cheops had used her extensively for pleasure outings.

Cookman describes her as a royal party boat, allowing the second king of the fourth dynasty to “bask in cool Nile breezes, trysting with his concubines, fishing, hunting, or gambling on games of senet.”

There was a wood-paneled cabin 30 feet long and 20 feet wide — 600 square feet of opulent privacy — and forward of this there was a 40-foot long canopy from which linen cloths hung. When these were soaked with water, the evaporation provided an effective rudimentary swamp cooler.

It’s extraordinary to think that it wasn’t until the twentieth century that anyone owned a private yacht to rival Cheops’s vessel (unless you count Noah).  And those of us who thought that yachting was started by an English king who received the present of a boat from the Dutch in the 1600s should feel suitably chastened by Junkers’ discovery.

[1] Atlantic, The Last Great Race of Princes, by Scott Cookman (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)  

Today’s Thought
You can only drink thirty or forty glasses of beer a day, no matter how rich you are.
— Col. Adolphus Busch, Newspaper interview

“You there, Bill?”
“You still got both arms and legs?”
“You don’t feel no pain or nothing?”
“Good. Then I just shot a bear.”

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

November 30, 2013

Racing strategy vs. tactics

IT WAS DINGHY RACING that taught me the difference between strategy and tactics. I started off thinking that the priority was to make the boat go as fast as possible, and I did quite well for a while, won a few races here and there. Raced on the bay in summer and bashed out through the surf in the warm dry winter to race on the Indian Ocean.

But then a man came along who consistently beat me. Peter Ashwell became my nemesis. It was a frustrating thing: he didn’t seem to be sailing any faster than me, but somehow he was always ahead at the finish.

One day, at a barbecue on the beach after a race, he explained my problem.  “You lack disparate attention. You can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time,” he said. “You’re good at tactics but you’re missing out on strategy.” 

I was naturally insulted, and went off in a sulk to think about it. But eventually I discovered he was right. I used to concentrate solely on making the boat go faster. On the beat, I would watch the jib like a hawk. I mean, it was fierce concentration. I actually got to the stage where I could anticipate it was going to flutter at the luff, and react so quickly on the tiller that it never got a chance to luff at all. Meanwhile, I had no idea what the rest of the fleet was doing or what subtle changes were taking place with wind speed and direction. Inevitably, I lost ground when wind switches favored my opponents or I accidentally found myself in a lee-bow position. And then I would have to concentrate even harder to go faster.

Peter and I eventually become good friends.  His diagnosis of my problem would be described today as an inability to multi-task. I’ve never been any good at it.  My poor brain can’t handle more than one task at a time if it’s going to do a decent job.

Peter explained the difference between strategy and tactics. 

“You’re going to out to win the race,” he said. “What’s the strategy? Well, the southwesterly wind looks like it’s dying, and if it does the likelihood is that a new wind will fill in from the east, so we want to position ourselves over toward the eastern side of the course while we can still get there.  Then we’ll be in a position to reach to the next mark, rather than have to beat. That’s the first strategy. There might be others as the race progresses.

“As for tactics:  don’t pinch in this light wind, foot it. Don’t sheet the main in hard. Loosen the mainsail luff until small crinkles appear. Loosen the foot until the deepest chord is well aft. Keep still. Keep the boat upright. Watch the jib.”

I never solved my particular problem. I’m still no good at multi-tasking. I’m still all tactics and no strategy. But I did realize, eventually, the difference between winning a war (strategy) and winning individual battles (tactics).  I also realized that you can give your crew the task of watching for wind shifts and other boats coming toward you on starboard tack while you concentrate like hell on pointing high and making the boat go fast. And after that breakthrough we gave Peter much more of a run for his money.

Today’s Thought
Not to the swift, the race:
Not to the strong, the fight:
Not to the righteous, perfect grace:
Not to the wise, the light.

But often faltering feet
Come surest to the goal;
And they who walk in darkness meet
The sunrise of the soul.

— Henry van Dyke, Reliance

“It’s easy to identify the person who thinks a great deal of himself. His I’s are always too close together.”

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

November 27, 2013

How little fresh water you need

IF YOU’VE EVER spent time in the desert you’ll be aware that most town-dwellers are profligate users of water. It’s a tendency we have to learn to overcome very quickly when we put to sea because sailboats can’t carry much fresh water. It’s simply too bulky and too heavy.

For as long as I can remember, experts on public health have urged us to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, but I can assure you from personal experience that when you go cruising you can get by on far less, even in tropical climates. According to The Captain’s Guide to Liferaft Survival (Sheridan House) you can last indefinitely on a pint a day in temperate climates, two pints in the tropics.

My family and I once averaged just under half a gallon a day each on a six-month voyage in a 31-footer, and that included water for cooking and bathing, though I should add that we bathed in salt water and then used a small garden spray filled with fresh water to wash off the salt.

For planning purposes, though, it’s wise to count on a minimum of one gallon per person per day at a speed (for most medium-sized yachts) of 100 miles a day.

But let’s hope you’ll not suffer from thirst tomorrow:  HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!

Today’s Thought
It’s a miserable business, waiting till thirst has you by the throat before you dig the well.
— Plautus, Mostellaria

“My husband would be lost without me He’s absolutely helpless.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. I even had to find the recipes for him before he could cook the Thanksgiving dinner.”

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

November 24, 2013

What's hidden under water

IT HAS ALWAYS SEEMED a little strange to me that one of the most important parts of a sailboat is usually totally hidden from view. When you look at a traditional cruising sailboat in the water you can’t see what’s below the waterline: that fairly deep keel that extends a long way fore and aft.  Neither can you see what what’s hanging from the bottom of a racing boat, or a modern cruising boat, that deep narrow keel that looks more like an airplane wing than part of a seagoing yacht.

Those people who know boats will have a good idea of what’s under water, of course. Just looking at the shape of the hull will tell them what to expect. But people who are new to the sea won’t know that a long, full keel will make a boat act very differently from one that has a small fin keel.

There are many people who will tell you that a fin keel means speed, while a full, old-fashioned keel means slow going and bad pointing; but the late Bill Crealock, a well respected yacht designer, once told me:  “A racing boat accelerates quicker, but there’s no reason why cruising hulls can’t be just as fast over long distances.”  And indeed, his words were proven when one of his best-known cruising designs, the Westsail 32, came first in class in the regular race across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii.

Few boats are built with traditional keels these days, and some modern cruising designs have evolved keels that are neither fish nor fowl. They’re a compromise between the efficiency of a fin keel and the directional stability provided by a full-length keel.

To help restore the lost tracking ability that is such an advantage in long-distance cruising, they often have a skeg built on the after-end of the hull, to which the rudder is attached. The shortened keel is marginally more efficient in hydrodynamic terms, but the steering is quite a lot more tiring in terms of short-handed amateur crews, particularly the popular mom-and-pop teams.

There seems to be nothing terribly wrong with this compromise arrangement, apart from its propensity to snag stray ropes and lobster pots on the skeg and unprotected propeller, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s really necessary to depart from the traditional full-blooded cruising design that served so well for so many years.

The Westsail 32 I mentioned above is an offshoot of the double-ended Colin Archer type, for example—a Scandinavian lifeboat and pilot vessel.  Their ability to tow two fishing boats off a lee shore in a gale was legendary.

And I can never help smiling when I hear people say fin keels are faster.  If 5 knots is slow, is 6 knots fast?  Aren’t they both slow? Cruising is primarily about safety and dependability, comfort, and seakindliness. Although much faster speeds can be useful in avoiding bad weather, cruising is not primarily about speed. That’s what airplanes are for.

Today’s Thought
There  is more to life than increasing its speed.
— Mahatma Gandhi

“Still got your horse?”
“Nah, he was too polite for me.”
“Yeah, every time we came to a jump he insisted that I go first.”

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