December 30, 2014

Catching fish while sailing

TONIGHT I SHALL MAKE GRAVLOX for our annual party on the day after New Year’s Day. I shall pour coarse salt and new-ground pepper onto filets of local salmon and smother it all with bunches of dill. And then, while it matures in the fridge for two days I shall think about all the fish I’ve caught in my sailing career.

I make no claim to be an angler, although I’ve always wanted to be one. I’ve always admired people who can cast a line back and forth, flashing through the air, and  land the fly gently on the water in some shady pool. But my method of fishing is much cruder than that. For many hundreds of miles under sail I have simply towed a shiny lure astern, inviting anything in the sea to take a bite. I keep it all very simple. No rod to get in the way of everything. Just a simple Penn reel clamped to the pushpit rail. No gaff. No net. And no sportsmanship involved. Everything is so strong and simple that anything I catch can be hauled straight into the cockpit.

When I was a kid we lived in a house close to the sea, and every year the mackerel would swim into our little bay. Great shoals of them. I would row out in a small dinghy and catch one on my hand line. I’d cut him up for bait and catch a dozen more. They were always ravenous. When I had a fair load, I’d row down to the little fish market in town and offer my catch for sale.

I never sold any because everybody and his aunt was out there catching mackerel. The market was flooded with mackerel. You could almost persuade some fishmonger to pay you to take your catch away, because the glut of mackerel was forcing prices down. So, every year, I would row back home and dispose of my cargo on the way, saving only a few fishes for the cats, and perhaps a supper or two for our family. It was a lesson in retail economics that shouldn’t have taken long to learn, but I was never disappointed by my failure to make a fortune from mackerel . It was the thrill of catching each one on a hand line that kept me at it.

In later years I fished as I crossed oceans. I lost quite a few spinners to sharks, but still managed to drag aboard bonito, dorado, barracuda, and salmon, all of which made fine eating, and one notable puffer fish, which I knew to be poisonous. I was saved the bother of taking him off the hook by a shark, which swallowed him whole along with my lure and hook and six inches of stainless-steel trace wire.  I have often wondered whether puffer fish are as poisonous for sharks as they are for humans.

In any case, tonight I shall be thinking of Burl and Abigail Romick. We met them in 1999, when my wife June and I were exploring the wilderness of British Columbia in our 25-foot sailboat. They were sailing a C&C 35-footer, a Landfall, called Wind Song.

We came across them near the northern end of Vancouver Island while we were sheltering from a northwesterly gale in Bull Harbor, an area described with some accuracy in the Sailing Directions as “remote.” And very windy, as it turned out, even in summer.

We linked up with Wind Song again down south in Barkley Sound. And there the Romicks treated us to a gourmet meal built around a delicious dish they called gravlox.

They made it from a salmon they had caught. It was soft, sweet, salty, peppery, and tangy with dill. After five weeks of canned food and cruising rations, it was a sensation. Our jaded tastebuds were clapping their little hands and yelling with delight.

Every year since, we’ve made a gravlox lunch on the day after New Year, and invited a few close friends around to share the delights we experienced in Barkley Sound. There will be champagne, of course. And the toast is always the same: “To Burl and Abigail.”

Today’s Thought
Fishing is much more than fish . . . It is the great occasion when we may return to the free simplicity of our forefathers.
— Herbert Hoover, 31st U.S. President

“Psychoanalysis is a lot of hokum.”
“What makes you say that?”
"Well, I’ve been having analysis for six weeks and my shrink says I’m in love with my umbrella.”
“That’s just nuts.”
“That’s what I told him. Admiration, possibly — and I must admit we have built up a sincere affection for each other — but love? That’s crazy.”

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

December 28, 2014

The madness of war

OBSERVANT READERS will have noticed that this column is called Mainly about Boats. It was given that name because people interested in boats are normally highly intelligent, and such people occasionally show interest in things other than boats.

Which brings me to the point. The news sources lately have been full of stories about the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and many have mentioned the strange situation in the front-line trenches in Europe, where fighting temporarily ceased during the Christmas and New Year holidays. There is one oft-repeated but apocryphal story about the Germans and the British arranging a soccer match in No Man’s Land in the middle of the war.

But the saddest story I know about that time comes from a book called Leaves in the Wind, by Alpha of the Plough — a collection of columns from The Star newspaper, London, published in 1919. This particular column was called ’Appy ’Einrich. It described an incident in France where the two lines of enemy trenches were only 40 yards apart. It was at a time when there was very little military activity, according to a British soldier who was there:

“We got rather chummy with the [German] fellows over the way. We’d put up a target for them and they’d do the same for us. Yes, we got quite friendly and one morning one of their men got up on the parapet over the way, bowed very low, and shouted ‘Goot morning.’ Our men answered, ‘Morgen, Fritz. How goes it?’ and so on.

“He was a big, fat fellow, with glasses, and a good-humored face, and to our great joy he began to sing a song in broken English. And after he had finished we called for more and he gave us more. He had a real gift for comedy; seemed one of those fellows who are sent into the world with their happiness ready made. He laughed a great gurgling laugh that made you laugh to hear it. Our chaps gave him no end of applause, and called for his name. He beamed and bowed, said ‘Thank you, genteel men,’ and said that his name was Heinrich something or other.

“So we called him ’Appy ’Einrich, and whenever our men were bored and things had gone to sleep someone would sing out ‘We want ’Einrich. Send us ’Appy ’Einrich to give us a song.’ And up would come Heinrich on to the parapet, red and smiling and bowing like a prima donna. And off he would start with his program.

“This went on for some time and then one day we got news that we were to be relieved at once. We were to clear out and our place was to be taken by a Scotch regiment.

“Some weeks afterwards I ran across a man in the Scotch regiment which had followed us in the trenches. ‘And how did you get one with Heinrich?’ I asked.

“’Never heard of him,’ he said. Then, after a pause, he added, ‘There was an incident the morning after we took over the line. Some of our fellows saw a bulky Boche climbing onto the parapet just across the way and had a little target practice, and he went down in a heap.’

“’That was him,’ I said, ‘that was ’Appy ’Einrich.’”

Today’s Thought
In war, you win or lose, live or die — and the difference is just an eyelash.
— General Douglas MacArthur, U. S. Army

A cynical woman author describes a platonic relationship as “the interval between the introduction and the first grope.”

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

December 26, 2014

Wooden boats and iron men

NOW AND THEN I think uncharitable thoughts about the U. S. Coast Guard. That’s because each member swears an oath to protect the U. S. Constitution and then promptly goes out and boards private boats, by force if necessary, without the due cause that the Constitution mandates. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that our maritime lifeboat service eventually became a branch of the military, with full powers of unconstitutional search and arrest.

On the other hand I have to concede rather reluctantly that when the Coasties on potty patrol are not busily poking their noses into boaters’ heads they do a magnificent job of rescuing people in trouble at sea. They are well trained in search and rescue and they coordinate boats and aircraft in exemplary fashion.

We are lucky, I guess, that things have changed so much in little more than a man’s lifespan. For example, let me quote from a book called Olson’s Small Boat Seamanship, by Louis B. Olson (Van Nostrand Company, Inc.). Here is a vivid description of an inshore rescue by the Atlantic City station of the Life Saving Service (later, the Coast Guard). It took place on July 21, 1907, and is the official report written by the anonymous keeper of the station:

“At about 630 PM Mr. Gimbel came to Station and reported a Gasolene Launch capsized on the bar. Harry Smith and I ran down to the boat pavilian got the boat ready and call for volunteers. 6 men got in the boat and we started out. I soon found out most of the men was not used to rough water. The sea was very high and the men [those to be rescued — JV] was on the bottom of their boat. So I took chances and won out: My crew done all that any unskilled men could do: At last after the lost of three oars we got over the bar and was rowing for the boat when I heard a call from the water. I looked and saw a man (Mr. Sturgis) clinging to an ice chest: he had lost his hold just as one of the men got hold of his coat we got him in then rowed down to the Launch and got the other three men: Then we started for the Shore: As the sea was so heavy and the tide running out so strong and my crew almost plaid out from their hard row I made up my mind to go down the beach and land near the ocean pier. After I reached the end of the pier  I drilled the men in what I wanted them to do. We then started for the shore and by watching my chance I made the shore without mishap: We got the rescued men ashore and they walked to their homes: Not one of my crew showed the white feather although it was the first time some of them had been in rough water and they deserve lots of praze. Arrived at station at 11 PM changed my wet clothes. Then went back to boat and looked out for him till Sunrise. Then got an express co. to cart the boat up to the Boardwalk and Atlantic Ave.”

It was a time of wooden boats and iron men. Brave, brave men.

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

If an S and an I and an O and a U
With an X at the end spell Su,
And an E and a Y and an E spell I,
Pray what is a speller to do?
Then if, also, an S and an I and G
And H E D spell side,
There's nothing much else for one to do
But go and commit sioux-eyesighed.

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

December 23, 2014

The Christmas present dilemma

FINDING A CHRISTMAS PRESENT for my wife has become more difficult now that we don't have a boat. It used to be simple when we had a boat. I always got her something that would be practical as well as delightful.

For instance, a few years ago I was wondering if June would like a new anchor rope for Christmas. She had got the old one quite dirty with mud when we anchored at Sucia Island. But of course, even then nothing was straightforward about buying a Christmas present for your wife. There were always those nagging questions. Would she like traditional three-strand nylon, or would she prefer nylon double-braid? Which would be kinder on her hands? And — very important this — which would surprise and delight her more on Christmas morning?
Perhaps, I thought,  I could throw in a decent pair of canvas gloves, so she doesn’t add to the number of calluses she seems to be collecting. On the other hand, a really nice present for her would be a new GPS chart plotter, not one of those cheapo Chinese knock-offs, but a really deluxe Garmin color plotter with interfacing capabilities to link up with the radar and depth-sounder I thought she might like for her next birthday. I could justify the cost. She is my darling and deserves nothing but the best.
I already had her stocking stuffer. It was the cutest, top-of-the-range iridium oxide scraper, to help her get the old antifouling paint off, next time we hauled. The expense was nothing. The point is, you’ve got to let your wife know how much you love her. And you want her to be cheerful in the sport she loves so much. I had to work hard at it, but it did give me great pleasure to make her happy.

Now it's even more difficult, and I have to confess I still haven't found a suitable gift. There's still time, of course. Hours and hours. Well, minutes, anyway. It seems a lot better if you think in seconds.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the finest greetings of the holiday season.  I hope Santa brings you nice new anchor ropes and fresh cans of antifouling paint and some of those fancy yachting shoes with the non-skid treads and the designer logo. It's so nice when you get presents you can really enjoy.  
Today’s Thought
God loveth a cheerful giver.
--New Testament: II Corinthians, ix, 7
“Why do giraffes have such long necks?”
“Boy, but you ask some dumb questions. So they can eat from tall trees, of course.”
“Okay, so why do the trees have to be so tall?”
“So the giraffes won’t have to bend their necks, naturally.”

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

December 21, 2014

Here's to singlehanders

ONCE AGAIN we seem somehow to have halted the sun’s flight to the south. Yesterday he came to the end of his tether and we in the north can now start dragging him back to our hemisphere.

It means we can start looking forward to summer. Oh, I know that this is actually the beginning of the northern winter, but it also means the days will be getting longer and, eventually, warmer. It gives us hope that another summer of blue skies and warm winds will come our way — and prompt another crop of amateur sailors to set off across oceans.

Some  of those footloose adventurers will be singlehanders. Not many, but some. There are always a few every year, and they choose to sail alone for a host of different reasons.

In my book, The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge, I list 10 reasons that motivate people to disappear over the horizon on their own. The list was originally compiled by Richard Henderson, a sailor and author with a profound knowledge of the singlehanded psyche. Here it is:
1. Practical purposes: To test a theory or to gather research material for a book. To earn money. To win a race. (Sometimes the practical reason is that the boat isn’t big enough for two.)
2. Self-significance: To find one’s place in the pecking order and acquire a sense of belonging.
3. Curiosity and fulfillment: A desire to see and experience things for oneself.
4. Recognition: Allied to self-significance, this takes things a stage further and involves a desire for fame.
5. Independence: The need for the greatest possible freedom and control over one’s destiny.
6. Escapism: Closely allied to independence. A rebellion against routine and flight from personal and societal problems.
7. Adventurousness: Pandering to the restless spirit, the desire for novelty, travel, and excitement.
8. Competitiveness: This takes many forms, including personal competition with the ocean and one’s inner fears as well as the desire to win races and set records.
9. Solitude: Some people are natural introverts. They like being alone. Others experience a spiritual cleansing that makes them more appreciative of subsequent human contact.
10. The Mother Sea: All life came from the sea. Some deep instinct, some unsummoned fascination, draws many people back.
Ø Well, there you are. I’m sure a great many of us have felt that inner urge to set sail alone, free of all the problems that most crews present, and free of the need to take anybody else’s feelings (or their safety) into account before making decisions, big or small.

But most of us would never dare to rely entirely on ourselves to cross an ocean. It takes a lot of guts to do that. We will say we can’t find the find the time or the opportunity; but if we examine our consciences we will find that we could, in fact, make the time and the opportunity, if only we were prepared to change our lives completely.

Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing the best to all those sailors who are preparing for long solo voyages in 2015.  Good luck to you, guys and gals. May you enjoy fair winds and good landfalls.

 Today’s Thought There is a need to find and sing our own song, to stretch our limbs and shake them in a dance so wild that nothing can roost there, that stirs the yearning for solitary voyage. — Barbara Lazear Ascher, Playing after Dark

“Is there someone in the class who can tell me what steps you would take to determine the height of a ship’s mast using only an aneroid barometer?”
“Yes, sir. I would lower the barometer on a piece of string and then measure the string.”

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

December 18, 2014

Waiting for boat fever to return

CHRISTMAS ISN'T EVEN HERE YET but a lot of northern sailors are already looking forward to spring and a new sailing season. Our weather hasn't been too good lately, what with all the wind and rain and frost. And all this mad running around to find Christmas trees and presents for ungrateful recipients has made a whole lot of owners neglect a whole lot of boats. Those poor boats sit there, abandoned in the marina, wincing as the drops of rain seep through the deck and drip onto burgeoning beds of mold and mildew.

Spring can't come quick enough. It has always been thus, it seems. This is what Thomas Fleming Day, editor of The Rudder, had to say about it more than 100 years ago:

"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."

* 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.

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 16, 2014

Barnacles on my mind

THE AUTHORITIES IN CHARGE of all living things in the water have banned the use of certain bottom paints for yachts because they are toxic to sea life. Probably the most effective of these anti-fouling paints was based on tin, and that is almost completely forbidden now unless you have an aluminum boat, which is allergic to the ubiquitous copper-based anti-fouling paint.

The latest news I hear is that the bottom-paint police are now considering banning copper paint, too. I don’t know of any viable alternative to copper paint for most of us — and by viable I mean compatibly priced and easy to apply — so it appears our underwater hulls are doomed to play host to great colonies of barnacles. Any hull roughened in that way creates a great deal of resistance to movement through water. Those barnacles will slow our boats drastically under sail, and send fuel bills skyrocketing under power.

Now, there is a point here that the bottom-paint police seem to have overlooked. These sea creatures they’re so concerned about are not helpless. They have a choice. They are not forced to attach themselves to my hull. Nobody tells them they have to live there. They have the whole sea to choose from, billions of welcoming rocks and sunny beaches, concrete seawalls, and lovely wooden piles; and if they have any of the sense of survival that Nature is supposed to have instilled in them, they will carefully avoid the comparatively tiny number of boat bottoms painted with copper paint. Those without that sense of survival (and there do seem to be some) surely deserve what they get, and their suicidal genes should not be passed on to future generations.

It is difficult to perceive what part is played in the great business of life on earth by barnacles, and their cousins, limpets, and their low-life relations, brown and green slime. I seem to remember a hymn about all things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small, but the voice of experience tells me that not all creatures great and small are wise and wonderful. And that applies especially to the barnacles and slime that attempt to fasten their useless, loathsome, parasitic selves to boats.

Let us not forget that Whoever or Whatever created barnacles also created copper, and nowhere in the good book does it say the twain shall never meet. Let Nature take its course, I say. Let copper keep my bottom clean. Let all wise and wonderful barnacles go and live somewhere else, and let Nature remove the dumb and unwonderful ones in her own way.

Today’s Thought
Nature is that lovely lady to whom we owe polio, leprosy, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer.

—Dr. Stanley N. Cohen, geneticist, Stanford.
(He forgot to mention barnacles. —JV)

“You in trouble with the IRS again?”
“Yeah, they disallowed my medical expenses.”
“What medical expenses?”
“Five hundred dollars for the tooth fairy.”

December 14, 2014

Best place for an anchor light

ALMOST EVERY CRUISING SAILBOAT I see has an anchor light perched on top of the mast. What a silly place for an anchor light. What’s wrong with sailboat designers and builders? Have they never crept into a crowded anchorage late at night and nearly run into some yacht whose anchor light is hidden among the stars high overhead, instead of down low at eye level where you can see it?

There is nothing in the rules that says an anchor light must be the highest thing on a yacht. Rule 30 (b) of the international navigation rules says a vessel of less than 50 meters in length may exhibit an all-round white light “where it can best be seen.”

It used to be the fashion in the last century to run an anchor light about one-third of the way up the forestay, and often that light was a kerosene lantern (which is still legal, incidentally). But for some reason boat designers took it upon themselves to place a electric anchor lights atop the mast, about as far away from the battery as it’s possible to get. That meant extra-heavy copper cables running back and forth, cables that slapped against the interior of an aluminum mast at night when you were trying to sleep.  The cables were heavier because it was necessary to avoid the voltage drop occasioned by the long electrical circuit.

My anchor lights have always been suspended over the aft cockpit, slung beneath the boom. This is a more sensible height for the light — right where the eyes of a helmsman approaching at night would be focused. Some of the light splashes over the cockpit coamings and the adjacent cabin top, too, which is useful and also enables you to check on the anchor light from down below.

I don’t know of any official statistics that prove a low anchor light prevents more collisions that an anchor light set on top of the mast, but I can offer the circumstantial evidence that I have anchored in scores of busy places and never been hit. You may say that’s obviously because there’s someone up there looking out for me; but I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that. I don’t think I’ve been good enough to deserve special favors from above.

Today’s Thought
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.
New Testament: John, i, 5.

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

December 11, 2014

The most incompetent sailor

I SEE THAT ONE OF OUR LOCAL LADS is well on his way to claiming the title of the world’s most incompetent sailor. In 2013, Rinas Meleshyus, a Russian-born American,  bought a decrepid old San Juan 24 racer in Oak Harbor, Washington, just down the road from me. Now, despite all the odds, he has arrived in Pago Pago, American Samoa,  to hell and gone across the Pacific Ocean.

And he has maintained his record: he had to be towed into and out of every single port along the way.

His sorry exploits (including wrecking his first boat on the beach in Alaska) have generated about 6,000 responses in the Sailing Anarchy forum pages and split the sailing community in half, between those admire him for his sheer guts (and enable him to continue by sending him financial aid), and those who condemn his foolish persistence in the face of obvious incompetence and, seemingly, an inability or unwillingness to learn better seamanship.


Here is what “TQA,” a contributor to the Sailing Anarchy forum, had to say:


“The unbelieveable story rolls on. Rinas Meleshyus left Oak Harbor, Washington, in an old San Juan 24 he bought for $500 the month before.

“Have you ever wondered how far you could get if you set sail one day and drift out over the horizon? Well, he made it to Hawaii (towed in) with $28 and disintegrating rigging. Got fixed up and towed out.

“Somehow sailed/drifted back to San Francisco (towed in). Set off again (towed out). Sailed/drifted across the Pacific. I keep using the word drifted as the man cannot sail, except down-wind.

“Somehow he avoiding wrecking on any island (no charts) and got within 5 miles of Pago Pago but failed to sail in.

“Finally, someone organized a tow when he was 25 miles downwind.”


Meleshyus, 61, who says he wants to round Cape Horn solo, adds: “I want to raise money for children's research cancer and I am sailing under the American flag and I am very very proud to be doing this voyage.” But many accuse him of blatant panhandling.

His proposed route after leaving Oak Harbor, Washington, was, in his own words: “nonstop to Cape Horn-South America. From there 400 miles to the South Georgia Island-UK, Antarctica and stop to plant the American flag there and continue to the Cape Town-South Africa.”

Well, he obviously hasn’t made it to the Horn non-stop. It will be interesting to see how close he comes to completing the rest of his itinerary.

Today’s Thought
Mistakes are at the very base of human thought . . . feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we would never get anything useful done.
— Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail                        

“What’s all that noise in the clubhouse? Are they celebrating?”
“Yes, my wife did it in one.”
“Wow! She got a hole in one?”
“No, she hit the ball in one.”

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

December 9, 2014

Skippers bear all the blame

WE SHALL PROBABLY NEVER KNOW why some of the world’s best sailors ran aground on a large and well-charted reef near Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, last month. The 65-foot ocean racer Vestas Wind, a Danish entrant in the Volvo Ocean Race, hit the reef in the dark of night while she was doing 19 knots. Luckily, no one was injured and the eight-man crew was rescued by the coast guard from a nearby island.

But how is it possible for a million-dollar boat fitted out with the world’s latest and most expensive equipment, to run into a reef that is believed to have been first charted by Arab trading dhows in about 600 A.D?

Skipper Chris Nicholson has accepted responsibility, as he must, but he added plaintively that although the skipper is in charge of everything, and therefore ultimately to blame for everything that goes wrong, “he can’t be everywhere at once.” What he means, but didn’t say, is that the captain of a boat has to trust his crew to do their jobs properly. And, if they don’t, they should bear a share of the blame.

But he’s only partly correct there. It has always seemed unfair to some that the skipper carries all the blame for the mistakes of his crew, but that is the tradition of the sea for very good reasons. It may well be unfair that you have to assume all the responsibility when you can’t possibly oversee all the crew all of the time, but you, as skipper, are presumably in charge of selecting the crew in the first place, and satisfying yourself that they are diligent and competent.

Furthermore, it’s the skipper’s duty to check everything all the time. He or she must make sure that all tasks are being done correctly and on time. It’s the skipper’s job to anticipate all kinds of problems and discuss navigation in advance.

If you’ve ever been to sea as a responsible crew member, you’ll know how irritating it is to work under a skipper who is forever checking on you. You feel you’re not being trusted, as you should be.

But a good skipper is able to do all the checking up surreptitiously. He or she develops a knack for seeing what is done properly and what isn’t, without raising anyone’s hackles. When you come right down to it, the fact is that he doesn’t trust anybody, not even himself, but he doesn’t create resentment among the crew because he is generous with praise, not only for jobs well done, but also (equally importantly) for the mundane routine jobs that ensure the general well-being of the ship.

It’s no easy job to skipper any ordinary boat sailing across an ocean, let alone a highly-tuned thoroughbred racer with a gung-ho crew drowning in testosterone, but it has many rewards when things go right. And when things go wrong, it carries grave responsibilities.

Today’s Thought

To know the pains of power, we must go to those who have it; to know its pleasures, we must go to those who are seeking it: the pains of power are real, its pleasures imaginary.

—C. C. Colton, Lacon

An old bachelor had been visiting an elderly widow every evening for three years. One day a friend said to him: “Since you two get along so well together, why don’t you marry her?”
“I thought of that,” said the bachelor, “but then where would I spend my evenings?”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 7, 2014

The case for simplicity

I WAS LOOKING at a picture of Joshua Slocum’s famous Spray the other day and marveling at the simplicity of it all. My thoughts strayed to an article I once edited for a magazine. The author and his wife had sailed almost halfway around the world in a 42-foot ketch, and the purpose of the article was to tell other amateur sailors how they, too, could do it.
The bit that stopped me in my tracks was a sentence that said a laptop computer was “essential equipment” on the author’s boat (and most other voyaging boats) for communications, the Internet, and electronic charting.
Now, as one who advocates smallness and utter simplicity in cruising boats, I found that statement very disturbing. So a laptop is “essential” equipment, is it? Baloney. As far as I’m concerned, to cross an ocean you need a boat with a keel or a centerboard, a rudder, a pole from which to hang the sails, and a bucket to bail out the bilges. A little stove would be nice to make some hot coffee or a meal now and then, but you can eat cold canned food if you have to. I have.
Let me list a few essentials that the aforementioned author had on his boat, compared with what Captain Joshua Slocum had on his boat when he became the first man to sail singlehanded around the world.
Diesel engine (Slocum, no engine); radar (none); autopilot (none); wind vane (none); Dutchman sail-flaking system (none); watermaker (none); two alternators producing 150 amps (none); refrigerator (none); single-sideband radio (none); Pactor e-mail system (none); towed generator (none); battery monitor (none); 2,000-watt inverter (none); fuel polishing system (none); WiFi (none); laptop computer (none).
I myself am not a greatly experienced voyager, but I have twice crossed the Atlantic in boats of 33 feet and less that lacked the “essential” laptop computer, not to mention radar, autopilot, electronic charts, fridge, single-sideband radio, and a whole lot of other things from that author’s list. I didn’t even have an electric bilge pump.
The strange thing is, now that I know what’s essential, thanks to this experienced author, I suddenly feel deprived. It’s like not having taken advantage of hallucogenic drugs when I was still young enough to recover and save myself. It’s just too late for me to start on the essentials now. Besides, most of the boats I’ve owned had nowhere on board that would be dry enough for a laptop.
I am astonished that I managed to cross the Atlantic twice without all the goodies I really needed. To tell the truth, I’m really rather ashamed of myself. Such a bad example. My only consolation is that Captain Slocum was a bad example, too. And a few thousand others just like him.

Today’s Thought

Often ornateness goes with greatness;

Oftener felicity comes of simplicity.

— William Watson, Art Maxims


California’s wine growers have listened to pleas from senior boatowners who have to make several trips to the head every night.

Vintners in the Napa Valley area, ordinarily producing Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio wines, have now developed a new hybrid grape with anti-diuretic properties that will eliminate the need to visit the head during sleeping hours.

It will be marketed as Pinot More.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 5, 2014

A plea to boat advertisers

EVERY TIME I roam the Internet, surprisingly personal advertisements keep popping up at me. It’s as if somebody has been reading my mail on the quiet, or perhaps reading my mind.

There are ads for all kinds of all kinds of things I’ve been looking at on retailers’ websites, with one exception. There are never any nice boat ads.

Not so long ago most of these advertisements were static. They just appeared and kept good and still while you looked at them or ignored them. I ignored them, having been trained on newspapers where it was obligatory to separate the editorial department from the advertising department.

This was necessary to prevent the well-heeled advertisers from influencing the editorial department’s choice of news and features. Every day there was a tussle between advertisers wanting an editorial report about their product (free advertising), and the editorial department, which devoted a lot of time and energy to fending off these requests without offending the advertisers who, after all, were providing editorial’s salaries. A tricky business.

But it is no longer possible to ignore advertisements on the Internet. They jiggle and wiggle and flash at you. They attract your attention with pictures of smiling girls with long legs and perfect teeth. The technology has evolved in favor of the advertisers and there’e nothing the ignorers can do about it.

If, for example, you should innocently visit a few websites on a quest for the perfect pair of underpants at the cheapest possible price, you will find underpants ads popping up every time you log on to the Internet.

This is very worrying. It feels as if somebody out there is reading everything I type on my keyboard, peeking into my personal diary, or inspecting my underwear drawer. This highly targeted advertising is unique to the Internet. Newspapers eventually managed regional advertising, but could never grab you by the neck and force a personalized ad down your throat.

As I’ve said, this is worrying, not only from the Big Brother aspect, but also because of the rampant discrimination displayed by the fact that there are no boat ads.

I wouldn’t mind if a nice little Folkboat jiggled at me now and and then. I would be quite happy to inspect a flashing Hinckley or a Morris 35 draped in long-legged women. But no, nothing like this ever happens. Only underpants.

I know this whole business of personally targeted advertisements is the surreptitious business of little packs of electronic code called cookies, a deliberately sweet little name for a dastardly concept, but it also seems to me that advertisers of boats for sale have fallen far behind in the electronic advertising race.

So I would like to make a personal plea to boat brokers and private advertisers of boats. Since we can’t beat ’em, let’s join ’em. C’mon lads, get your cookies in a row. Down with underpants. Up with boats.  

Today’s Thought
In good times, people want to advertise; in bad times they have to.
— Sydney Biddle Barrows, Town and Country, Feb 55

“Poor Charlie, he keeps winning at poker but he loses a fortune on the horses.”
“Yeah, that’s because they won’t let him shuffle the horses.”

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

December 2, 2014

It's the journey that counts

IN AN IDLE MOMENT I wondered if there were one particular book I would recommend as a Christmas present for someone interested in sailing. I hit immediately upon Tom Neale’s famous book, An Island to Oneself, the story of how the author spent six years on a desert island in the Pacific, mostly alone.

I thought that book would resonate with anyone who sails. Somewhere in the back of our minds there is a picture of the perfect tropical island, peaceful and serene with its white beaches, turquoise waters, coconut palms and glistening reefs. Tom Neale shows us that this is not just a dream. It’s real. It’s Anchorage Island in Suvarov Atoll, 200 miles from the nearest inhabited island.

But then I glanced around at the boating books lining my little office and I thought, “No, not Neale. Hiscock, for goodness’ sake.” Eric Hiscock, the humble circumnavigator. It’s not a name you hear much of these days, but his beautifully written book, Cruising Under Sail, must have attracted many landlubbers to the wonderful sport of deep-sea cruising.

After a moment or two, reality set it. “How can you possibly mention Hiscock,” I wondered, “if you don’t also mention Tom Day? And, good lord, what about Frank Wightman and Roth, and the Pardeys, and Moitessier and Bardiaux and Slocum and . . .”

I concluded that it’s simply impossible to pick out one book that would fascinate everybody interested in sailing; which is reason enough to go back to my first instinctive choice, Tom Neale, and  the story of how he spent six years alone on an uninhabited coral atoll half a mile long and three hundred yards wide in the South Pacific.

He first went there in October 1952 and remained alone (with only two yachts calling) until June, 1954 when he was taken off ill after a dramatic rescue. He went back in April 1960 and remained alone again until December 1963.

An Island to Oneself (Collins) is a well written and well illustrated peek into the mind of an unusual man, a man with the guts to experience a life that most of us dream about but don’t dare to try. It’s out of print now, I believe, but it’s still available occasionally on the used-book market from sources such as and

There is another reason for sticking with Tom Neale, one that brings at least a glimmer of relief and satisfaction to those of us who  seek, but do not find, paradise. In the end, his perfect island proved not to be perfect after all. He left for two reasons. First, he was afraid of dying a lonely death. “I wasn’t being sentimental about it,” he wrote, “but the time had come to wake up from an exquisite dream before it turned into a nightmare.”

The second reason was more prosaic. “A party of eleven pearl divers descended on Suvarov — and, frankly, turned my heaven into hell . . . I didn’t dislike them, but their untidiness, noise, and close proximity were enough to dispel any wavering doubts I may have had.”

I guess it’s what I’ve always said: Every silver lining has a cloud. Nevertheless, it will do your soul good to read this book. Man can strive for perfection and even achieve it for a time, but most of us eventually learn that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. So enjoy the sailing when you can.

Today’s Thought
To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
— R. L. Stevenson

A local junior-school teacher was trying to teach the concept of distance. She asked whether her pupils throught they lived close to school, or far away.
Nobody was willing to hazard a guess except little Susan, who was quite adamant that she lived very, very close to school.
“How are you certain?” asked the teacher.
“Well, every time I come home my mother says: ‘Hell, are you home already?’”