March 31, 2013

Tough times for magazines

THINGS SEEM TO BE RATHER TOUGH for yachting magazines these days. I’ve noticed a couple of them lately that have been begging for help from their readers. They’re conducting “surveys” in which they ask people what articles they would like to see more of, what different things they might like to see emphasized, what changes would induce them to like the magazine more, and so on.

I hate to see these surveys. They are nothing more than disguised pleas for help. Long experience has taught me that there is no point in asking people what they want. It all evens out in the end and comes to nothing. Some will say this, some will say that, some will have no opinion — and the worst part is that the magazine owners are pleading for help from people who already read their publications, not the people who don’t — the latter being the ones they’re supposed to attract. They’re preaching to the converted, not to the great unwashed hoi polloi with money to spend on magazines.

Every time I see one of these surveys I’m reminded of what the 19th-century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin is reputed to have said:  “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

A knowing editor doesn’t ask people what to put in the magazine.  He or she tells them what they need, offers it up, and refuses to go down on his knees to get them to read it  It was Harold Evans, a famous editor himself, said some of the attributes of a good editor were keenness, conscientiousness, and ruthlessness — rightly used.  You may notice that these, possibly not coincidentally, are also the attributes of a good skipper.

In the same way that a good skipper does not seek democratic opinion on a boat, a good editor should never be wishy-washy. Most of us are pretty wishy-washy already, even-handed and ready to listen to a reasoned argument from the opposition. But deep down, being pack animals at heart,  what we really crave is a firm leader, a despotic leader if necessary, a benevolent dictator.  We’ll always follow a charismatic leader who exhibits a definite direction, so we don’t have to guess where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. 

Democracy is by definition wishy-washy and at odds with nature, which demands the survival of the fittest by any means.  Democracy is also full of compromises and concessions to the weak of mind and muscle. It’s the domination of the household by the nursery. That’s why we have such trouble getting any political work done in America.  Our so called leaders are being too nice to the bunch of gun-toting nasties they’re trying to govern.

A good editor needs to be a “character” and to have strongly felt opinions (based on thorough knowledge, both practical and theoretical) and not be shy about espousing them.

Tom Day, former editor of The Rudder, was a good example. He was outspoken, pragmatic, and firm of opinion. He admitted he could be wrong — but that wouldn’t necessarily change his mind. He wasn’t scared of offending people — and he turned The Rudder into one of the most successful sailing magazines this country has ever known.

If you were starting a new magazine or trying to prop up an ailing one, what would you need to think about? Two things spring to mind.

1. What vacant niche are you trying to fill?  What audience are you aiming at?  What kind of boater? You can’t interest them all. You have to make choices right from the beginning, and stick to your guns.  What niche do you want to compete in? DIY? Sailboats? Flashy big new ones, or small shabby old ones? Powerboats? River boats? Fishing boats? Or any of a dozen other categories.  You should become the expert in this restricted field.

 2. What is your advertising policy? The editorial niche you’re trying to fill will, to a large extent, determine what kind of advertisements you can attract. Will you lure advertisers with promises of editorial write-ups? Or will you treat advertising and editorial as completely separate entities? There are serious ethics involved here, and too many  magazines ignore them. But I have always believed that intelligent readers know when they’re being conned with effusive, over-enthusiastic editorial tied to paid advertising. 

There is lots more I could say on this subject, but let us dwell a moment on this final thought: Did the author of the Ten Commandments ever conduct a survey to establish what the people wanted?   And in this same vein it is well to remember that the Pope, unchallenged leader of a billion Catholics, never pretends to espouse democracy.  He’d probably make a good editor.

Today’s Thought
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
— George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutions

“Did you hear about Bob’s terrible operation?”
“No, what happened?”
“His father cut off his allowance.”

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

March 28, 2013

It's the unvarnished truth

IT’S SPRING TIME around here, and in the spring a sailor’s thoughts lightly turn to thoughts of varnish.

But nobody with any sense scrapes down and revarnishes unless absolutely necessary. For a while, you can get away with patching, or rubbing down a small area and varnishing over it to disguise the injury. Specifically, you can do this for shallow scratches and abrasions—perhaps even for deeper scratches—but you must do it before water, fresh or salt, soaks into the wood.

In the passage of time, you’ll notice darker patches where water has discolored the wood and lighter patches where the varnish has lifted away from the wood because of the action of the sun or the impact of some piece of equipment on deck.

Some defiant owners try to treat dark patches with a mild bleach such as oxalic acid. They sand the white patches down to bare wood and build up several coats. But they know in their hearts that they’re fighting a rearguard action.

Personal conscience is the best guide to when it’s time to scrape the whole darned lot down to bare wood and start from scratch. When your brightwork is suffering from the pox and you can’t live with it a minute longer, your conscience will nag you into action.

Incidentally. here’s an old rule for telling when you need to sand down and apply a couple of coats of varnish to freshen your brightwork for the season:

Wash the work thoroughly to get rid of all grime. Wet a piece of old toweling cloth and drag it, dripping across the surface of the varnish.

If the water left behind forms beads, the varnish is still in good condition. If the water sheets, or lies in flattish streaks, the brightwork needs attention. So get to it, and remember the prophetic words of the poet John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a job forever.”

Today’s Thought
Beauty . . . is merciless. You do not look at it, it looks at you and does not forgive.
— Nikos Kazantzikas, Report to Greco

Other people think you’re dumb only because you don’t know they things they know.

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

March 26, 2013

Thoughts to avoid sanding

INTERESTING THOUGHTS come to a man sitting in a cockpit looking for an excuse not to start sanding down the curling varnish on the teak. For instance, I read just the other day that the catamaran Playstation posted a day’s run of 580.23 miles in the Pacific Ocean off New Zealand in 1999.

This got me wondering how fast the actual wind blows around the world — how long, for example, it would take for a molecule of air contaminated with nuclear radiation to travel from Fukushima, Japan, to Seattle Washington. Not that long, if you think about it.

And as the mind wanders along happily, it comes to grips with the word molecule and it remembers once having read that we’re breathing the same atoms of oxygen once breathed by Julius Caesar and the dinosaurs. And then comes the heart-stopping thought that an atom of oxygen I breathed a minute ago might very well have done the grand tour of Marilyn Monroe’s lungs.  I would have liked warning of that to appreciate it more fully.

And then there’s the fact that at least one of the molecules of air filling your sails might also have given Columbus’s flagship a little push across the Atlantic in 1492, or maybe it helped Erik The Red’s Viking longship on its way to the New World even before that. It’s a fascinating thought.

Is this really possible? Well yes it is, according to Dr. Martin St. Maurice, assistant professor of biological sciences at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

“There is some truth to this possibility,” he says cautiously. “The air we breathe is composed primarily of nitrogen gas and oxygen gas with a small amount of other gases, including carbon dioxide. All of these individual molecules are constantly rearranged and recycled through biochemical and geochemical processes, so you aren’t breathing in the exact same gas molecules that dinosaurs and Julius Caesar once breathed.

"The individual atoms making up those molecules, however, have been on earth for a long time – very little carbon, oxygen or nitrogen is lost to outer space, and only the occasional meteor brings a small extraterrestrial source of new carbon or oxygen to this planet. So, every breath you take and every bite you swallow is composed of atoms that have been here for a long time.

"You don’t have to be a stats whiz to see that the chances of you and Julius Caesar sharing an identical atom of oxygen are extremely slim. There’s much less carbon than oxygen on earth and it’s contained over a much smaller volume, so I think you have a slightly better chance of eating a snack that was once a part of Caesar’s toenail (though these chances are still extremely slim).

"Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, there was no oxygen gas in the atmosphere; it developed in our atmosphere thanks to ancient photosynthetic microorganisms. So, while you aren’t likely to ever share exactly the same atom of oxygen as Brad Pitt or eat a cupcake that was once a part of Caesar’s toenail, every breath you take has, at one time or another, been associated with another living organism."

Well, that’s good enough for me, professor. At least I know it’s possible. Me and Marilyn. It’s possible. Which is more than I can say about the chance that the teak is going to get sanded today.

Today’s Thought
Sooner or later every one of us breathes an atom that has been breathed before by anyone you can think of who has lived before us — Michelangelo or George Washington or Moses.
— Jacob Bronowski, “Biography of an Atom—And the Universe,” NYT, 13 Oct 68

Did you hear about the Scot who felt embarrassed in national dress?
It seems he suffered from a kilt complex.

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March 24, 2013

Don't forget your hacksaws

FEW YACHTS LOSE their masts at sea. But when it does happen, it’s usually because of a rollover, a 180-degree capsize. It’s serious, of course, but losing your stick is not the end of the world.

In fact, it always astonishes me that more masts don’t go overboard, considering their narrow support base. I can see why ocean-going sailors were suspicious for many years of the tall masts needed for Bermuda rigs. Shorter, more rugged masts on gaff-rigged yachts could be stayed more efficiently and were far less likely to be lost in a capsize.

That being said, modern masts do fall down from time to time, but crews inevitably bring their boats home under jury rigs concocted from the spars they can salvage, and sails trimmed to fit. A keel-stepped mast most often breaks several feet above deck, so there’s a handy stump left to work with. A deck-stepped mast, on the other hand, might even be recovered whole, but raising it at sea will probably prove impossible because of the boat’s jerkier movement when it is deprived of the inertia of a tall mast. So makeshift jury rigs usually use booms, spinnaker poles, boathooks and other odds and ends to make a mast one-third to one-half the height of the old one. Sails such as jibs are usually set sideways and are surprisingly efficient.

The first and often most difficult task involved with a dismasting is disconnecting the rigging wire attached to the spar. The old advice is always to carry a pair of heavy-duty wire cutters, but in practice there are very few that will do the job efficiently on a violently rolling hull, and those are likely to be very bulky to stow and expensive to buy.

You’d think it would be easy to do without mechanical or hydraulic cutters altogether by merely unpinning the rigging wires where they join the mast tangs and the chainplates. But I’m told there will always be at least a couple of shrouds or stays whose end fittings bend so badly that they won’t come apart.

I have read of several cases where wire cutters (and even heftier bolt cutters) failed to do the job for one reason or another, and I also know of a couple of dismastings where the crew had to fall back on ordinary hacksaws to cut through the stainless steel wires.

So even if you insist on taking along long-handled wire cutters, I’d advise you to also carry a few hacksaws and a good handful of high-quality blades along with some spare wire, heavy gloves, and plenty of wire clamps for the jury rig.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

An intellectual is someone who reads even when he’s not in the toilet.

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

March 21, 2013

Learning to delegate

I DON’T SUPPOSE it often occurs to you, but if you’re the skipper of a sailboat or powerboat, you’re actually the chief executive officer of a small corporation.  Now, the position of CEO calls for many talents, among them great tact, the ability to make quick decisions, and the courage to delegate responsibility to people you know to be your lessers.

Dr. Michael Stadler says in The Psychology of Sailing: “In many respects the situation at sea does not differ in principle from the situation in a prison or cloister. Sociologists have described such living conditions as ‘total institutions.’” That means all activities are carried out in the same living space, with the same objective, under one authority.

As the skipper of a boat at sea, you are that authority, you are the CEO—and thus the target of every gripe and resentment. As skipper, the law requires that you accept full responsibility for what happens on your boat, but you shouldn’t keep to yourself all the difficult tasks that require a high degree of skill, such as steering in bad weather, navigation, docking maneuvers, sail changes, and so on.

It’s smarter, for your good and theirs, to teach and delegate. Offer your crew the opportunity to learn and develop their own skills. Give them responsibility in the day-to-day running of the ship. In this way, you’ll instill a sense of team spirit and the satisfying feeling that they’re making valuable contributions to the welfare of the group. And (not coincidentally) it also keeps them too busy to think about mutiny.

One final thought: A wise skipper checks on the crew’s work without their being aware of it, and intervenes only if need be.
Spam invasion
I’M SORRY to say I’ve had to institute word verification in the comments section of this blog.  I don’t get a lot of comments because commenting is already quite difficult. It doesn’t seem like a particularly easy or intuitive operation to carry out; but word verification just adds another unfortunate layer of difficulty and obfuscation.

For some reason, after four or five years of jogging along merrily without problems, this blog has suddenly become inundated with anonymous spam messages, many of them pornographic and none of them helpful to readers.  The idea, usually, is to induce readers to visit their websites.

They are mostly worded very cunningly to get past Blogger’s spam filters, and often full of praise for the high standards of my blog.  I may be flattered but I’m not fooled.

I don’t know why I have been designated as a target.  I don’t allow advertising, and this column attracts only about 18,000 page views a month, a laughable amount if your name is Oprah.

But life is too short to spend valuable beer-drinking time sorting out the wretched spam comments from the genuine articles, so I have taken the drastic step required and placed a check mark in the word verification box on my dashboard.

Today’s Thought
 Authority intoxicates,
And makes mere sots of magistrates;
The fumes of it invade the brain,
And make men giddy, proud, and vain.
— Samuel Butler

Notice on a thermostat in a hotel room in Kobe, Japan:
“You do not have to get yourself hot in this room. Please control yourself.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

March 19, 2013

Studying bubbles of air

WEATHER FORECASTING is an inexact science. Forecasters don’t often admit it, but few forecasts are accurate for more than three days ahead. And no wonder.

Weather is just great spheres of air, huge warm and cold bubbles hundreds or thousands of miles across, jostling fiercely against each other, moving up and down. Who knows where they might go next?

If you find yourself at the meeting point of two bubbles (what the experts call a front) you can expect some very interesting weather as they try to beat each other up.

Your barometer measures the atmospheric pressure inside these bubbles. High pressure means a good steady bubble and nice weather. Low pressure signifies a bad boisterous bubble and rotten weather.

So if your barometer is steady, you can expect tomorrow’s weather to be much more like today’s than anything else. If it’s falling, you can expect worse weather. The faster the fall, the sooner it will arrive. If the glass is rising, a good bubble has arrived and fine weather will follow.

You’ll find your barometer just as reliable as a weatherfax once you’ve learnt to interpret it, and a lot cheaper.

Incidentally, it’s the speed of the barometer’s rise or fall that determines how quickly and how drastically the weather will change.

Today’s Thought
To talk of the weather, it’s nothing but folly,
For when it rains on the hill, it shines in the valley.
—Denham, Proverbs

Patience is most admirable when it’s in the driver behind you, but quite unacceptable when it’s in the driver in front.

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

March 17, 2013

Who were the lost heroes?

MOST SMALL-BOAT CRUISERS have a pretty good selection of heroes to choose from — I mean the heroes reasonably close to our own time who made noteworthy voyages and pioneered the round-the-world routes so well known today, from Slocum via the Hiscocks, the Pardeys, and Moitessier to Hal Roth.

But it often strikes me that we know next to nothing of the sailing heroes of yesteryear; and by that I mean the actual personalities who first dared cross the oceans centuries before modern technology made it so much safer and easier.  Those heroes must have existed. There is always some daredevil in a group of people who will venture farther than the rest and blaze a trail for the herd to follow.

Who, for instance, was the South Sea hero who first navigated from one tiny island to another over the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean?  Hundreds of years before white men explored the Pacific, the ancient navigators were making regular voyages across the Pacific basin, from Tonga to Tahiti and Hawaii, an area totaling one-third of the earth’s surface. They had no sextants or compasses, only the stars, the planets and an extraordinary understanding of the sea and the weather in all its moods.

Many of their secrets were recorded by Dr. David Lewis, a New-Zealand-born physician and small-boat sailor, in his book, We, the Navigators.

Lewis maintained, for instance, that these Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian navigators could detect the presence of a low island from as far as 35 miles away by a change of patterns in the sea swells.  A boat running downwind toward an island, for example, could expect to feel swells rebounding straight back toward the boat from the land.

One of the Polynesian experts Lewis interviewed explained it this way: “I feel sea hit the canoe—shake him, like move him, go back.”

Now it just so happened that I once found myself in a position to check out this theory for myself. I was in a 30-foot sloop heading toward Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.  My son Kevin and I had no trouble detecting a regular swell running in the same direction as the wind, roughly southeast, but it took us an hour or more of close observation to realize that among the breaking waves a smaller but persistent swell was running almost at right angles to it — presumably the remains of waves generated in the Roaring Forties, hundreds of miles to the south.

But no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t detect any sign of a reverse swell coming back toward us from Ascension Island.

We stopped looking and started feeling instead, feeling for the sea to hit us from the front and shake us, move us back. We tried to feel while we were sitting, and we tried to feel while we were standing, but we felt nothing. Our little sloop simply lifted her tail, rushed down the face of the swells, settled back gently into the hollow for a moment, and then did it all over again. Whatever magical senses those old navigators possessed were not passed on to us.

We sighted the island later that afternoon, fine on the port bow, and I was much relieved  to know that what I lacked in the ancient ability to detect reverse swells was at least offset by my more modern proficiency with the sextant.

Today’s Thought
Every man has an aptitude born with him.
— Emerson, Essays, First Series: Spiritual Laws

A developer is somebody who wants to build cabins in the woods.
An environmentalist is someone who already has a cabin there.

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

March 14, 2013

It's the bosuns that float 'em

NO SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION of how metal boats float has ever been satisfactory to me.  I mean, I may not be an expert in hydrodynamic physics, but I’m not stupid. I know how wooden boats float. Wood is lighter than water, right? Naturally it floats. But boats and ships made of steel and aluminum, how to they manage it?

Well, it just so happens that a series of experiments undertaken by European scientists deep inside the mountains of France or Switzerland or somewhere have just discovered that mass is made of Higg’s bisons. Sorry, bosoms. No, bosuns. Yes, bosuns.

Now it also just so happens that water is made of mass, too. I mean, we knew that already but it’s official now.  Water is a mass of droplets, little round squishy fellas, shoving and pushing against each other, and each droplet is filled with Higg’s bosuns.  We have long known, of course, that bosuns have whistles and cats with nine tails but what is really new and exciting is that each Higg’s bosun also has a magnetic head and a magnetic tail.

Now, if you put a steel vessel into water composed of droplets filled with Higg’s bosuns, you get their attention immediately, and each bosun turns his little head toward the vessel just entering his territory.  Now these little fellas are very territorial. They don’t like sharing their space. Conveniently for them, their heads are magnetically positive and their little tail ends are negative, so when they all look up together their combined positive magnetism repels the positively-charged steel vessel. (Like poles repel, remember?)

Now although Higg’s bosuns are pretty powerful for their size, their size is very small.  So they only have enough repelling power to repel the vessel partly out of the water.  But it’s enough for most of our purposes.  At least it’s better than sinking completely.

I’m very thankful to those European scientists. This makes much more sense to me.  It also explains why those cruise ships keep getting into trouble when their generators fail.  They simply can’t generate enough positive magnetism for our jolly little Higg’s bosuns to repel.  The answer, naturally, is to spend a little more money on decent generators, but we’re drifting off the subject here.

Readers often comment on how much they enjoy my occasional forays into the esoteric corners of sailing, and I expect I shall get a lot of praise for today’s column because I am sure there are very many people who, until this moment, have been extremely puzzled about steel’s ability to float when it is shaped like a boat, but not when it is shaped like a flat iron or a bulldozer.

NEXT WEEK:  How Higg’s bosoms (sorry, bisons) turn aluminum into honorary steel for the purposes of magnetic repulsion.

Today’s Thought
If but a beam of sober Reason play,
Lo, Fancy’s fairy frost-work melts away!
­— Samuel Rogers, Pleasures of Memory

A newspaper in Warrington, England reported a follow-up to a break-in at a local school’s science laboratory.
“The skull, the skeleton’s hand and the guitar have been recovered,” said the Warrington Guardian. “However, the invisible man is still missing.”

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

March 12, 2013

The importance of privacy

ORDINARY, likeable people can become very crabby when they’re locked up in the close confines of a yacht with several others for any length of time.

This is a serious business for any skipper to deal with because privacy on a small yacht is about as attainable as silence on a school bus.

On land, we unconsciously preserve our personal spaces but when we’re sailing we have to put up with constant invasions of our privacy for long periods by people we may not even like.

Nevertheless, the skipper must try to ensure that every crewmember has at least a token amount of space which is his or hers alone, and this fact must be well understood by everybody.

A curtained-off pilot berth, separated from the rest of the thundering herd, is the ultimate fantasy, but rarely available. Even a bunk of your own may not be possible if other crewmembers have to sit on it, too.

In this case, a personal drawer or small private locker must suffice as a place where you can hide your last beer or bar of chocolate from the prying eyes and thieving fingers of the hoi polloi.

Incidentally, psychologists offer the advice that you never sail with more crew than there are individual bunks for. Try telling that to the racers.

Today’s Thought

The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedoms.

— William O. Douglas, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court


From a newspaper advertisement in Virginia:

Important Notice — If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our “Easy Sky Diving” book, please make the following correction:

On Page 8, line 7, the words “state zip code” should have read “pull rip cord.”

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March 10, 2013

Some nautical daffynitions

THOSE OF YOU who acquired your knowledge of sailing from Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey-Maturin series of historical nautical novels may sometimes wonder what all those technical terms mean.  It is possible, of course, to read O’Brian without knowing the difference between a binnacle and a barnacle, but you will find it makes much more sense and brings much more pleasure if you actually know what he’s talking about.

Toward this end, I have burgled some helpful definitions from a used book I bought for 20 cents in 1953. It’s called Sailing in a Nutshell. It was written by Patrick Boyle and first published by Methuen, London, in 1938. has now copied it and is selling it for $26.45, which, I think, amply demonstrates the financial advantages of buying your books before Amazon gets its grubby mitts on them.

Anyway, here are a few more or less helpful definitions for you to be going on with:

Capstan — An apparatus for getting up the anchor. It is a round drum with spokes and a man sitting on top playing a fiddle.

Deck— A floor. But in a small boat the deck of the cabin is called the floor and the deck is the roof.*

Barometer — An apparatus for saving you the trouble of going up on deck to see what sort of day it is. A refinement is provided by the barograph, which writes down the weather as soon as it occurs and so saves you the trouble of getting up to look at the barometer.

Truck — A small platform at the top of a mast for the convenience of gulls. Some owners refuse to have them, saying they are not going to have any truck with gulls.

Helmsman — The worried-looking man. Do not speak to him.

Sheets — This is one of the most baffling things about sailing. Sheets are ropes. Sails or not sheets; neither are they made of rope. You will find useful and handy ropes attached to the corners of your sails. These are sheets and the fact should be committed very carefully to memory.

Drawing — What boats do to water. A boat is said to “draw” so many feet of water, meaning that it extends that distance below the surface. Hence the term “draughtsman,” meaning a drawer of water.

Gooseneck — A universal-jointed swivel. The boom is attached to the mast by means of a gooseneck; so is the spinnaker, which also has a boom. It is so called by reason of its resemblance to the neck of the goose that lays the galvanized iron eggs.

Bowsprit — A large wooden shock absorber sticking out over the bows.

Bows — The sharp end. A device for parting the water so that the boat may go through.

Right ascension of the mean sun — The angle, measured eastward in hours and minutes, between an imaginary body traveling at the average velocity of the Sun and the First Point of Aries (i.e. point at which a line drawn from the center of the earth through that of the sun at the vernal equinox intersects the equinoctial, or celestial equator). (Read a second time if necessary.)

* I regret to have to point out that Patrick Boyle got this wrong.  (Well, what do you expect for 20 cents?) What we walk on in the cabin is the deck. What we walk on on the cabintop, side decks, foredeck, and afterdeck is also the deck.  The inside of the cabin roof is the overhead and the sides of the cabin are the ceiling. The floors are what join the timbers in a wooden boat to the keelson.

Today’s Thought
Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.
— Kingman Brewster, former U.S. Ambassador to Britain

A word of comfort for those of you having a bleak Monday: The sooner you fall behind, the longer you’ll have to catch up.

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

March 7, 2013

A little piece of the USA

IF YOU’RE PLANNING to go foreign from America, most countries you sail to will require you to have a passport. Your boat needs one, too, and the best kind is a documentation certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard.

A U.S.-documented boat has privileges. Under international law, she is a piece of the United States, and therefore not to be trifled with. Documentation affords her the protection of U.S. consular officials anywhere in the world. She also earns the right to fly the special Yacht Ensign in home waters (but, incidentally, not in foreign waters, where Old Glory must be flown).

Federal documentation legally establishes both her ownership and her nationality beyond a doubt. It’s true that plenty of U.S. vessels with nothing more than state registration have sailed around the world, but the recognized and accepted standard (when a boat is big enough) is U.S. Coast Guard documentation. State registration is not legal proof of nationality even though it’s accepted for convenience in America’s neighboring countries.

The minimum volume for documentation is 5 tons net, and for practical purposes in this case the Coast Guard measures net tons as 9/10 of gross tons. That translates to a heavy-displacement vessel of about 25 feet, or a moderate-displacement craft of about 30 feet in length. A Cape Dory 25-footer I once owned just made it for documentation purposes.

If you’re the sort of person who worries about these things, a documented vessel is safer to buy because her certificate must reflect all liens, mortgages, and liabilities against her. And because a vessel’s debts follow  her around the world, not the owner, it’s possible for an unscrupulous seller to saddle you with large unseen and unpaid debts if the boat is not documented. Caveat sailor.

Today’s Thought
The sea finds out everything you did wrong.
— Francis Stokes

An attractive woman playing bridge with three men felt a foot run up and down her calf.
“If that’s my husband,” she said calmly, “I bid three no trumps. If it’s anyone else, I bid you watch out for my husband.”

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

March 5, 2013

The fourteen-dollar reef

PERHAPS THE QUESTION most asked by newcomers to sailing is: “When is it time to reef?”

The best answer was given by Thomas Fleming Day in his book On Yachts and Yacht Handling, published in 1901. Day was then the renowned editor of one of America’s most successful yachting magazines, The Rudder.

So, when is it time to reef?

“It is always time to reef when you think it is,” declared Day. “The moment you would feel easier and your boat handle better by having less sail spread, is the time to shorten down. Never mind what anybody else is doing or what anybody else tells you. It is your boat, not some other boat that is worrying you; and you yourself, and not some other person, who is in charge.

“Never carry sail for the sake of carrying it; the ignorant may praise your recklessness and pluck, but the experienced man will call you either a lubber or a fool.

“Never let the action of another guide you in this particular, unless the action agrees with your own judgment. It is very common for young sailors to reef or not reef as they see some other man, and consequently to carry sail much to the risk of their vessel and lives.

“You must remember that these remarks of mine have nothing to do with racing. In racing, a man cannot reef when he wants to, but when he can; therefore, he frequently carries sail when he would give a good slice of his daily income to have it off, and often keeps in his reefs when he would like to shake them out, but does not for the same reason. Then, again, in racing, boats are always in company, and if an accident happens someone is close aboard to give assistance; but in cruising this is not so, and many a life has been lost for want of a reef in time.

“When I was young and fresh I had an idea that if anyone could carry sail on a boat I could do the same. One day I had a lesson that made me think, and partially cured me of the habit.

“I went with a clever old boatman across the Sound to bring home a new cat. We each took a crew, and, to return, he sailed the new boat, and I the one we had come over in. Halfway across it came on to blow very hard, and it was all I could do to keep my boat on her feet. My crew wanted me to stop and reef, but as the new boat kept on I insisted upon following her, being afraid that the old man would laugh at me. In plain talk, I was afraid of being thought a coward, and for this I jeopardized my own and the lives of the other boys.

“When at last, after a struggle and half full of water, we reached port, the old man met me with a torrent of invectives, calling me a fool and several other hard names for not reefing.

“’But you didn’t reef,” I protested. ‘Reef!’ he exclaimed. ‘No, for I couldn’t; but I’d have given fourteen dollars if I could have got that sail down. Do you think I was carrying whole sail for fun?’ It seems that the halliards, being new, had jammed, and they could not get the sail down, so had to lug it. This taught me a lesson, one that I have never forgotten; and oftentimes when I see a man struggling along under too much sail, I wonder if he, like the old boatman, wouldn’t give fourteen dollars if he could get that sail down.”

 Today’s Thought
We accomplish more by prudence than  by force.
— Tacitus, Annals

A friend who spotted an attractive woman at a party went up to introduce himself. “Gentlemen prefer blondes,” he said.
The woman blushed. “I have a confession to make,” she told him, “I’m not really a blonde.”
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “I also have a confession to make. I’m not really a gentleman.”

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March 3, 2013

The origin of Little White Lie

IN AN EFFORT to impress the Idaho girl who was to become my bride, I used to carry with me a small white pebble. I told her it was precious to me because it saved my life. I explained that I was swimming one day in a little cove in the sleepy village of Simonstown, the naval base 30 miles south of Cape Town, when I spotted something white on the sandy floor and dived for it. It turned out to be nothing more exotic than a stone, so I dropped it. But as I did so a large shark that had been coming straight toward me lunged down toward the stone instead, and I took the opportunity to scramble out to safety on the rocks.

I went back the next day, made sure the cove was free of sharks, and picked up the white stone. Always thereafter I carried it with me for good luck.

Regrettably, there wasn’t a word of truth in that tale, and it was several years before I confessed.  Meanwhile, the lady concerned had become my wife. She apparently decided I was worth keeping, despite my blatant falsehood, and mentioned casually that she had never been quite convinced that an attack by a large and ferocious shark could be staved off by an insignificant pebble.

Nevertheless, a few years ago I went back to that charming little cove in Simonstown. I wanted to show my wife the place that gave me so many wonderful childhood memories.  To my dismay it no longer existed. It had been filled in, paved over, and incorporated into the adjacent naval dockyard.

It is almost always a mistake to go back to a place you remember from your childhood.  Even if it still exists, it’s always smaller, duller and less exciting than it seemed before.  In some strange way connected with this feeling, I have always wanted to sail my own boat to the Galapagos Islands — and always not wanted to, at the same time.  My fear has always been that they will be spoiled by the time I get there, that nature in its most pristine state as Charles Darwin found it in the 19th century, the timelessness and innocence of the place, will long ago have been sacrificed to Mammon and the gods of tourism. My fear is that after all the effort it takes to get there, I would be disappointed, as I was in Simonstown. Another fear I have harbored is that there is no point in sailing around the world any more.  All the good spots have been despoiled in one way or another.

So I was more than reassured when I read a blog by Aaron and Nicole, a Seattle couple[1] who have just started to cross the Pacific on their 33-foot cutter-rigged Hans Christian sailboat. They have recently arrived in San Cristobal, the former Chatham Island of Darwin’s time, where they are having a wonderful time. Their blog expresses delight in the way the Ecuadorian authorities are managing the natural resources of the islands, and their enthusiasm reminds me that things were not exactly delightful when Darwin was there, and Yankee whalers slaughtered hundreds of whales and giant tortoises with no regard whatsoever to conservation.

Perhaps it is my perception that is at fault. Perhaps there have never been any new places to explore on this earth. Perhaps there are only new and happy ways to perceive them.    

Today’s Thought
It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is of most interest in any locality, than they are hurried from it.
—Charles Darwin

The nice thing about kleptomania is that if you’ve got it, you can always take something for it.

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