December 29, 2015

The joy of small, simple boats

SAILING, FOR MANY GOOD REASONS, tends to be regarded by the general public as a complicated and expensive pastime. But it needn’t be. Small simple boats can afford pleasure and gratification out of all proportion to their cost. And small gentle voyages can generate as much joy and satisfaction as long adventurous ones.

The man or woman who gingerly sails a dinghy along a friendly shore is no less worthy of our respect than the sailor who braves the mighty ocean. 

We all have our own areas of anxiety and doubt in our own abilities, and when we conquer our fears it is just as much a triumph to cross the bay as it is for someone of sterner nature to cross an ocean.

And yet, human nature being what it is, we tend to judge other sailors by the size of their boats and how far they’ve traveled: their most distant ports, and the length of their voyages.

Now it is true that sailors who cross oceans in small boats perform prodigious feats of seamanship because they sail the same seas as big ships that have large crews specializing in the various skills needed to move people and cargoes across oceans. Sailboat sailors are their own cooks and navigators. They are their own engineers and riggers. They handle the sails and anchors and electrical circuits. And they face exactly the same hazards as large ships, including the storms, the rocks, and even pirates.

Yet, at the same time, to take a small boat across a body of water of any size is no small feat. To each his own goals and ambitions. We all set our own limits, and who can gainsay our individual achievements? What we all seek deep down is a feeling of ability, of achievement, of confidence. And sailing a small boat on a small voyage often does generate the confidence we need to deal with the greater troubles the world constantly throws at us.

Seamanship is as much a set of the mind as anything else. You are the only judge of your seamanship. We challenge ourselves, we feel fear, and sometimes we get more fear than we bargained for, but we learn and we gain confidence, and are not as frightened quite as much the next time. And there always is a next time for those who challenge themselves.

Today’s Thought

Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage.

— R. L. Stevenson

Mary had a little lamb

That leaped around in hops

It hopped into the road one day

And ended up as chops.

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

December 27, 2015

Idle thoughts on electricity

SOMETIMES I just sits and thinks. And sometimes I just sits. But on those rare occasions when I think, I think there are two major problems for the world to solve. The first is how to store electricity more efficiently. The second is how to transmit large amounts of electricity without wires.
Solving the second problem would make the first problem moot, of course, but since neither is anywhere near solution, it doesn’t really matter.
At present we hobble along by storing electricity in batteries. They aren’t very efficient. Think how often people have to charge their cell phones. They aren’t even safe. Think how many lithium-ion batteries overheat and catch fire in cell phones and Boeing 787s.
As far as transmitting electricity without wires goes, Tesla, the Great Electrician, was demonstrating 100 or more years ago that he could do it over short distances. And that is how radio works, too, of course. But what we need is a method of transmitting much larger amounts of electricity directly through space to the appliances or motors that need it, without frying up any soft-fleshed human beings who get in its way.
Imagine how the world would change if cars and trucks could drive endlessly on electric power. Better yet, imagine how it would change boats. No more smelly, heavy, complicated internal combustion engines. Think how the mammals of the sea would appreciate that.
But then, I think, if boats could use electricity to go anywhere in the world they liked, with power transmitted from satellites, or reflected by satellites, would anybody bother to sail any more?
Most small powerboats can’t carry enough fuel to cross oceans. You need a sailboat to do that. But if you could use clean quiet electricity to explore the glories of the South Seas, or cruise your own coastline, and go directly where you wanted, even if it were against the wind, why would anyone want a sailboat?
Of course, there is a glamour to sailing, a direct connection to the old days of the sailing ships and the mysteries and customs of the sea, which itself hasn’t changed in all the centuries we’ve known it.
We all know and understand that sailboats are largely impractical, but there is something about them that touches the human heart.
So when I thinks that it’s pretty certain that sooner or later mankind will invent a better battery or learn to transmit electricity, I also wonders if it will mean the days of sailboats are over, and how soon that might happen.
Today’s Thought
Indebtedness to oxygen
The chemist may repay,
But not the obligation
To electricity.
— Emily Dickinson, Poems
“Angela darling, the bank has returned your check.”
“Oh, wow, that’s great. What shall we buy with it this time?”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 24, 2015

En route to the GPS of all trades

I WAS WONDERING what people might be giving their boats for Christmas when my eye fell upon an old 2008 advertisement for a Garmin Rino 530HCx. I have never seen one, but the Garmin company is famous for GPS navigation instruments and the Rino seems to be a departure from the norm.

For a start, it can’t spell its name. It should be Rhino, not Rino. It has two antennas that look vaguely like the horns of a rhinoceros. In Africa, game poachers often saw off a rhino’s horns and sell them to customers in the Far East, who grind them down into a powder that reputedly has aphrodisiacal powers.

Frankly, I’ve never understood how that works. You swallow some powder and suddenly women look attractive to you? What? Who needs rhino powder? Didn’t they always look attractive to you? But wait . . . I’m getting carried away here. Sorry. Back to the Rino:

It probably isn’t a good idea to saw off the Rino’s antennas, no matter how much of a boost your testosterone needs. I suspect something won’t work if you do that. Something on the Rino, that is.

The interesting new direction this hand-held GPS was taking was evident from its attributes as listed in the advertisement. Besides a color screen that shows where you are on a chart, there are two built-in radios. One is a Family Service Radio, a glorified walkie-talkie. The other is a General Mobile Radio Service radio, a rather more sophisticated mobile transceiver for which you need an $85 license.

In addition to GPS and two radios, the Rino has a barometric altimeter. This tells you how high you are getting, which is very useful in a season of sequential Christmas parties. There is also an electronic compass so you can find your way home if you are too high to read the GPS screen. In addition, there is a built-in weather radio that informs you what kind of storm struck you on the way home.

There’s more, but I’m sure you can see which way the new generation of electronic gadgets is headed: One GPS does it all. I can’t wait to see what they add to the next generation of GPSs, but in case any Garmin people read this column, I’d like to suggest some additions to the new “omnibus” Rino GPS.

It would be real nice, guys, if you could add a night telescope so people can find their slips after dark. And how about a few rocket flares to help the search-and-rescue people find lost sailors? A small bar would be very welcome, just a little one, of course, perhaps with miniature French maids dispensing cocktails etc., to the shivering bodies in the cockpit on the midnight watch.

I suppose it would be too much to expect a modest galley with a European chef skilled in confiture and baguettes. No matter. Most sailors I know would settle for a GPS with a fish-and-chips dispenser.

Today’s Thought

I find the sea-life an acquired taste, like that for tomatoes and olives.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Season’s greetings

I wish you all a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukah, and best wishes for whatever celebration you choose to observe at this time of year. I wish you peace and tranquility to calm your soul, and I wish you fortitude to face life as she presents herself in the New Year.


“Good grief, what happened to your face?”

“I coughed.”

“But you don’t get your teeth knocked out if you cough.”

“You do if you cough in your friend’s wife’s wardrobe.”

December 22, 2015

On boat neglect and boat fever

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. 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 had been Christmas, it has been thus. In fact, 100 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."

 u  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 20, 2015

Here's what to give a sailor

A few years ago some of my landlubber acquaintances asked me what they should give for Christmas to their friends who own boats. I responded with a column of advice. I’m not sure that it did any good, but I’m thinking there’s no harm in repeating it now. So here goes: 

TINKLE-TINKLE, TINKLE-TINKLE. The man with the kettle is reminding us to give, and give generously. This week there will be sailors all over the world who are receiving Christmas gifts from non-sailors. And it is to the non-sailors that this column is directed.

All right . . .  listen up now, you lot. What are the traditional gifts a non-sailor like you gives a sailor? I’ll tell you: a couple of battens for the mainsail. A stainless shackle or two for the bosun’s bag. A woolly watch cap for cold weather . . . let’s face it folks, I’m sorry, but this is not generous giving. The sailor in your life deserves better.

Now, heavens above, before you protest, let it not be thought that I am a purveyor of ingratitude. I believe as much as the next man that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I, too, believe it’s the thought that counts. I also believe that you should give according to your means and I am an ardent admirer of fiscal responsibility, thrift, frugality, prudence, parsimony and similar human traits that Mr. Roget reminds me of in his thoughtful Thesaurus.

On the other hand, the problem facing us today is that your average sailor does not want a silly hat or another mainsail batten to add to the pile of spares already cluttering the cockpit locker. What he really wants is a couple of gallons of anti-fouling paint at $150 a gallon. Or a 35-pound CQR anchor for $600. Or a new color GPS chartplotter for $800. Or a jib furling system for $2,000. Or a new diesel engine.

Yeah, wow, a new engine. That would please him no end. That would make a really good Christmas present. Ten thousand ought to do it. Fifteen, maybe if they have to build new engine beds as well. It sounds like a lot but it’s not really, honestly it’s not, when you consider the huge amount of joy it will bring. A really huge amount of joy. Honest.

It’s not too late to correct your Christmas mistakes. If you haven’t been generous before, you can be generous now. Tinkle-tinkle. Do your bit to make a sailor happy. Truly happy. Tinkle-tinkle. Give till it hurts. Tinkle-tinkle. I mean, really hurts. Tinkle-tinkle. On behalf of sailors everywhere, I thank you and wish you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. 

Today’s Thought
Money-giving is a very good criterion . . . of a person’s mental health. Generous people are rarely mentally ill people.
— Dr. Karl A. Menninger
“What’s that you’re burying?”
“Oh, just one of my chickens.”
“Chicken be darned. That looks like my dog.”
“Yeah, right, the chicken’s inside.”

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

December 17, 2015

Learning about boat design

MANY BOATERS eventually become interested in yacht design — but how do you learn about it? Veteran designer Ted Brewer suggests three methods in his book Understanding Boat Design (International Marine).

In the first place, he says, the hobbyist can simply read about yacht design. That sounds simple enough but it can be confusing because of conflicting theories.  Brewer says that designers “including me, may push their own concept of the perfect hull, layout, or rig. It is important to develop your own ideas based on facts and experience, rather than to accept someone else’s theories.”

In the second place, he recommends the home-study course. “The cost is moderate, but large enough to keep the student working hard at it. “The Westlawn course is good if it is done properly without taking all the easiest options. The Westlawn course requires serious commitment to time and effort, but provides a thorough grounding in small-boat design.”

In the third place is the time-honored college degree from the Webb Institute, M.I.T., Michigan, or another university offering a degree in naval architecture. This is for the serious student only, of course. “Since the emphasis of the university course is on large-ship design, it is not ideal for students of small-boat design, but it does work. Many famous yacht designers have gone that route. The Maine Maritime Academy offers a course in small-craft design that is worth serious consideration as well.”

Finally, Brewer offers this piece of advice:

“Anyone going into the yacht design business should work as a draftsman or assistant for a reputable naval architect for several years to gain practical experience. This is true for university and home-study graduates. Indeed, it is best if the budding designer works for several different architects or builders before he hangs out his shingle because he will gain invaluable experience and practical knowledge from each.”

Today’s Thought
Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.
— Philip Johnson, Esquire, Dec 80

Four-year-old Janie had been put to bed for the night when her little brother wandered along and tried to enter her room.
“You can’t come in, Jimmy,” she said, “cos Mom says little boys mustn’t see little girls in their nighties.”
Jimmy went outside, closed the door, and was puzzling about this when the door opened again. “It’s aw wight Jimmy, you can come in now,” said Janie. “I’se tooked my nightie off.”

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

December 15, 2015

What real sailors do in winter

I WAS ONCE ASKED by someone who had spent a long time in the sub-tropics: “What do northern sailors do in winter?”

Well, some go skiing. Some flee south in RVs. Some go away on cruise ships. These are the dilettantes, the dabblers, the amateurs, the superficial tire-kickers.

And before you accuse me of using big words you can’t understand, let me explain that a dilettante is someone (especially someone French) who follows sailing for an amusement, a diversion. Someone who doesn’t take sailing half seriously enough.

The real sailors are reading books of ocean adventures. They’re studying boat plans and looking at ads for Herreshoff 28 ketches. They’re making plans to get time off from their partners, and continue their clandestine affairs with their boats.

They’re poking holes in the shrink-wrap so they can get inside and sit on the saloon couch for a bit, maybe making a cup of coffee on the stove and searching for the half-bottle of rum they hid in the cabinet for medical emergencies.

They check the bilges for water and crank the motor over half a turn by hand, so the impeller doesn’t take a fatal set. They check that there’s air circulating through the cabin, to deter mold. They switch on the VHF, listen to forecasts of raging storms, and grin to themselves, snug in their winter refuge.

They read with delight the logs of their past year’s cruising, and dream of those lovely lazy breezes and warm seas. They play back in their minds, time and time again, the peaceful nights at anchor, the early-morning call of the loon, and the shrill cry of a kingfisher carrying breakfast back to a forest of open beaks.

The thing about serious sailors, as opposed to those dilettantes, is that they are in love with their boats. They can hardly bear to be parted from them. They tend and care for them. They talk to them as if they were flesh and blood. They nurture them. They praise their good qualities and pardon their faults.

And in that definitive demonstration of ardor, they look back, long and hard, when they part. That’s what real sailors do in winter.

Today’s Thought

A man nearly always loves for other reasons than he thinks. A lover is apt to be as full of secrets from himself as is the object of his love from him.

— Ben Hecht


“What’s the special today?”

“Ve got fine zoop today, sir. You like some zoop, mebbe?”

“Zoop? What’s zoop?”

“You don’t know what is zoop? You know what is stew, yes? Vell, zoop is same ting, only looser.”

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

December 13, 2015

A thing of beauty is a job forever

WHEN I LIVED in South Africa I once owned a 30-foot boat that had bulwarks, a caprail, and a rubrail made of beautiful hardwood. I couldn’t help myself, I varnished it. And varnished it. And varnished it.  That hot sub-tropical sun burned through the varnish as if it were melting butter. Every six months I rubbed it all down and put on another two coats of varnish. But, man, it looked beautiful. People walking past in the marina used to come to a sudden halt and stare at it in awe.

Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. I got sick and tired of varnishing. I was also intending to sail that boat to America and I had plenty of other preparations to attend to. I had just about decided to paint all that nice wood a suitable buff color that looked almost like varnish from 20 feet away when I noticed the brightwork on another similar boat a few berths away. It was a lovely shade of honey teak, a transparent matte finish that always looked as if it had just been applied.

I saw the owner on board one day and asked him what kind of varnish he used.

“It’s not varnish, it’s Deks Olje,” he said. “It’s Norwegian magic. You just wipe it on with a rag. Rub it well in, all over, and you’re done. Just let it soak into the wood and dry. You don’t have to bother with fancy brushes and there’s no trouble with wind or dust.”

I couldn’t get to the boat store fast enough. I bought a large can of Deks Olje, which, lacking any knowledge of Norwegian,  I confidently translated as Deck Oil. The instructions claimed it was the “easiest maintenance system afloat,” a protective traditional wood oil, an alkyd-urethane resin. I was thrilled to have discovered it. 

I spent a week removing all the old varnish from my woodwork and sanded it smooth. It was a lot of work. I then applied three coats of Deks Olje with a clean rag. Nothing could have been simpler. Sure enough, it looked magnificent. It wasn’t shiny like the old varnish, but it had a deep, warm luster that enhanced the color and grain of the wood.

We went sailing offshore on day trials shortly afterward, and within two weeks the combined efforts of hot sun and warm salt water had devastated my Deks Olje. It looked terrible. Half of it appeared simply to have been washed away, leaving bare wood already going grey. Much of the rest had turned white, as if it were encrusted with some kind of chemical salt.  Needless to say, I was spitting mad.

I went back to the owner of the boat down the way. “My Deks Olje is a disaster,” I said. “How does yours stay so nice?”

“Oh, my Zulu house servant does it,” he said. “He comes down once a week and just applies a fresh coat. It’s the simplest thing. Takes him half an hour.”

”Once a week?” I said. “You mean, every week?”

“Yes,” he said. “Surely you have a servant?”

We sailed for the USA shortly afterward. I gritted my teeth and let the sun and waves remove the rest of the Deks Olje, which they did with remarkable efficiency. The brightwork weathered to a dignified silver grey and needed no attention at all.

Six months later I bought a can of good old-fashioned tung-oil varnish when we got to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and treated the wood to the old familiar routine. Once again, it looked magnificent and I sold the boat a few weeks later. I didn’t tell the new owner how soon he would have to re-varnish. I figured he was just lucky I hadn’t slapped on another few coats of Deks Olje.

Today’s Thought
 I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.
— Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pleasure

“Your wife tells me she found out you dated an eye doctor in Alaska.”
“No, no, that was no eye doctor. She was an optical Aleutian.”

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

December 10, 2015

Excuses for not washing dishes

MODERN BOATS come complete with many of the household appliances landlubbers take for granted these days, including microwave ovens, but only the very biggest and most luxurious boats have dishwashers. That leaves the rest of us to wash the dishes by hand, often in cold salt water.

It’s not a pleasant task, especially when it follows a satisfying meal and a mellowing beer or two, so it’s little wonder that people try all sorts of tricks to avoid taking their turn at washing up.

John Steinbeck knew all about it. In 1940 the famous author sailed in a sardine boat with a small crew to collect marine invertebrates down south of San Diego in the Gulf of California. In his book, The Log from The Sea of Cortez, he tells this delightful little tale:

“We carried no cook and dishwasher; it had been understood that we would all help. But for some time Tex had been secretly mutinous about washing dishes. At the proper times he had things to do in the engine-room. He might have succeeded in this crime if he had ever varied his routine, but gradually a suspicion grew on us that Tex did not like to wash dishes.

“He denied this vigorously. He said he liked very much to wash dishes. He appealed to our reason. How would we like it, he argued, if we were forever in the engine-room, getting our hands dirty? There was danger down there too, he said. Men had been killed by engines. He was not willing to see us take the risk.

“We met his arguments with a silence that made him nervous. He protested then that he had once washed dishes from west Texas to San Diego without stopping, and that he had learned to love it so much that he didn’t want to be selfish about it now.

“A circle of cold eyes surrounded him. He began to sweat. He said that later (he didn’t say how much later) he was going to ask us for the privilege of washing all the dishes, but right now he had a little job to do in the engine room. It was for the safety of the ship, he said. No one answered him. Then he cried, ‘My God, are you going to hang me?’

“At last Sparky spoke up, not unkindly but inexorably. ‘Tex,’ he said, ‘you’re going to wash ’em  or you’re going to sleep with ’em.’

“Tex said, ‘Now just as soon as I do one little job there’s nothing I’d rather do than wash four or five thousand dishes.’

“Each of us picked up a load of dishes, carried them in, and laid them gently on Tex’s  bunk. He got up resignedly then and carried them back and washed them. He didn’t grumble, but he was broken. Some joyous light had gone out of him, and he never did get the catsup out of his blankets.”

Today’s Thought
Let us be grateful to Adam, our benefactor. He cut us out of the “blessing” of idleness and won for us the “curse” of labor.
— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

A woman who heard a 5-year-old girl swearing like a trooper in a city park  reported her to the park keeper. He went up to the little girl and said:  “I hear there’s someone in the park who’s using very naughty language.”
“Who told you that?” demanded the girl sharply.
“A bird whispered it in my ear,” said the park keeper.
“I’ll be damned,” said the girl. “And to think I’ve been feeding the ungrateful little bastards.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

December 8, 2015

An appeal for bow rollers

WHEN I WALK AROUND our local marina I can hardly believe how many boats lack anchor rollers. What were the manufacturers thinking? Thirty footers and bigger, without any proper means of retrieving the anchor and its rode. Did they imagine their boats would never ever anchor, from choice or necessity?

In my humble opinion, no boat over 20 feet in length should be allowed to leave the factory without a proper anchor roller at the bow.

Anyone who has ever tried to weigh anchor by hand in a boat without a bow roller knows how awkward and difficult it is. Consequently, you’ll notice that all sorts of after-market rollers get bolted on by boat owners seeking to ease the pain of retrieving the anchor. Some of them look far too flimsy for the job. Some stick out from behind the forestay at an odd angle. Others have to be bolted on top of a bed of teak to bring them to the correct level. And they’re not cheap, either. A reasonably sized one that will house the anchor costs in the region of $200 with shipping. And then you have all the fun of fitting it yourself.

I was lucky enough to own a boat that was designed from the beginning to have an anchor roller. It was part of a simple bronze fitting that incorporated the bow chainplate, a bow roller, and the stemhead fitting to which the forestay attached. I blessed its little heart every time I weighed anchor, which I was able to do sitting down on deck behind it and bracing my feet in the anchor well.

In the days of my youth I used to be able to raise that way a 35-pound CQR on an all-chain 5/16-inch rode in 90 feet of water. But when I later bought a 27-foot Cape Dory with a built-in roller, my anchor weighed only 25 pounds and there was only 30 feet of 1/4-inch chain; the rest was nylon line. So I had it a lot easier and I was very grateful.

I can only imagine that unscrupulous boat manufacturers deliberately omit a bow roller in an effort to keep the selling price down a few bucks. It’s a wicked practice, like selling a new car without a horn, or without a spare tire. If I were in charge of the boat-manufacturing industry I would make it a federal crime to sell a boat without an anchor roller. But since they’re never likely to elect me to that position, the situation is unlikely to change unless we all start complaining to our representatives in Congress.

Never mind Obamacare for the moment. Never mind Trump and Isis and Iran and North Korea. Forget all that for now. Surprise your elected U.S. representative. Ask him or her to sponsor legislation about bow rollers. You never know. It might be such a refreshing change from the same-old, same-old, that Washington DC could catch fire with enthusiasm for compulsory bow rollers. And if that means some boat manufacturers will end up behind bars, so be it. They deserve it.

Today’s Thought
The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public.
—Samuel Johnson, Miscellanies

“Did you know old Joe survived mustard gas and pepper spray?”
“No. How’s he doing?”
“Oh he’s a seasoned veteran now.”

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

December 6, 2015

Why horror is sometimes rife

IT OCCURS TO ME now and then that I’ve written and repeated just about everything I know about boats and the sea, and that my readers must be getting just a tad bored with it all. But then I remember that new generations keep coming along, generations that have to learn all the same old things all over again, because humans don’t seem to be able to pass on the seeds of experience to the fruit of their loins.

So I console myself by catering to the newbies, the neophytes who are anxious to learn how not to kill themselves at sea, the ones who have not yet been bored by my ravings. And interesting things happen at sea, believe me.

So, in this vein of dispensing help for the unwitting, I ask: Do you know why boats so often broach, roll broadside on, and capsize when they’re running before the wind in large waves? It’s because when a wave breaks under your stern you have practically no steering power to keep her running straight. The rudder is suspended in foam, not water, and it can’t do its job. If you’ve ever been dumped by a big breaker while body surfing you’ll know the awful feeling of not being able to float high enough to get your head above water.

And if your boat heels to 45 degrees, you don’t have much steering ability, in any case. Think about it. The rudder is trying to lift the stern toward the sky as much as it is trying to turn the stern sideways. And, of course, if you do a 90-degree capsize you can’t steer at all. If the rudder isn’t totally out of the water, as it would be on a tubby light-displacement boat, it will be horizontal and unable to turn the stern either way.

Stability at sea is always a fascinating subject for sailors, whether they actually get away from the sight of land or not, and one of the very basic facts about boats is that stability comes as a cube of the length, other things being more or less equal. This means that a 30-footer is 72 percent more stable than a 25-footer, which explains why a 30-footer can stand up to its canvas so much better. It also explains why a 30-footer costs so much more than a 25-footer. But that’s another subject for neophytes to learn about. Some other day, perhaps. Class dismissed.

Today’s Thought
It hath been an opinion that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are; but howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man and man.
—Bacon, Essays

Golfer: “You must be the worst caddie in the world.”
Caddie: “Oh come now — that would be far too much of a coincidence.”

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

December 3, 2015

Dealing with heavy weather

THE WAY OF A SHIP in the sea is not as great a mystery as the Bible makes it out to be. Most of us can understand that a boat left to its own resources in heavy seas will tend to adopt a position that’s roughly broadside on to the wind.

Most keelboats will settle that way, and be quite happy, when all sail is taken down. Often, there’s a tendency, especially with sloops, for the bow to drift downwind a bit, which causes the hull to gather way and forereach. You can counteract that by lashing the helm to leeward, so that every time she tries to go forward the rudder will point her up into the wind and stop her in her tracks.  This is known as lying ahull, and works fine until conditions get so bad that your boat is being lifted by large breaking waves and hurled bodily down to leeward.

Most of us can also understand that things would be better if the boat could be made to lie with the pointy end facing the oncoming waves. Then she’d be presenting a much smaller area to the force of breaking waves, and she’d be much more difficult to overturn.

The question is how do you keep her facing that way in heavy weather without the help of an engine?  If you can keep the bow still in the water, then of course she will lie downwind as if she were made fast to a post. The sea anchor, made fast at the bow, is designed to do that, to act as a post, although it’s a post that actually moves very slowly through the water. But while it works well for boats with even, shallow draft, the sea anchor won’t keep a normal keel boat pointed into the waves, no matter whether it’s a fin keeler or a full keeler.

The Pardeys, a well known and very experienced cruising couple, claim to have kept their 29-footer pointing more or less into the waves by setting a sea anchor from a bridle, with one end of the bridle attached to the bow and the other to the stern. By taking up slack on one end of the bridle or the other, you can  of course alter the way the boat lies.

I’ve never tried this, but I have serious doubts whether normal people could manage this trick. For a start, I can’t imagine how I would be able to drag a sea anchor with its mass of small lines and its 25- to 30-foot spread of parachute material across the deck and over the side to windward in a heavy gale.

So I have never tried to lie bow-on to the waves in heavy weather. My method, in a full-keeler, is simply to lie ahull with the tiller lashed to leeward, until things get too dicey, and then to run off downwind under a storm job or bare poles. You need lots of sea room to do that, of course. A fin keeler is best kept moving at all times, but this needs a fit crew.

Some boats will lie about 45 to 60 degrees off the wind with the help of a special storm mainsail. It’s cut so that a lot of its area is aft of the boat’s underwater pivot point, the center of lateral resistance, so that it tries to point her up into the waves all the time.  But most boats these days don’t come equipped with a storm main, and few of us realize that using a third reef in the working mainsail instead doesn’t cut it, because that actually moves the sail’s center of effort farther forward, instead of aft where you want it.

 Anyway, the only real way to sort out this problem is to go out in bad weather and experiment with your own boat. The best way would be to persuade some experienced sailor with a sister ship to take you offshore, hunting for a storm, and watch what he or she does to cope with heavy weather. But I’d say your chances of pulling that off are rather slim.

Today’s Thought
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

— Charles Dudley Warner, Editorial, the Hartford Courant, c. 1890


Overhead at a Boy Scout meeting:

“Did you ever have one of those days when you felt just a little untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, discourteous, cowardly, and antagonistic toward those wretched old women who always wait for suckers to help them across the goddam road?”

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


December 1, 2015

How can they be seaworthy?

SOME YEARS AGO I helped construct a seaworthiness quiz for Small Craft Advisor magazine. The quiz was designed to give the owners of small sailboats a reasonable idea of how seaworthy various designs might be. And, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated for them the desirable qualities that add up to seaworthiness in very small craft.

But now and then someone comes along and says: "What were you thinking? How can such small boats be seaworthy?" Well, they say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s what most of these someones are equipped with.

It’s quite obvious that dinghies and their ilk can’t meet all the qualities necessary to claim seaworthiness for larger vessels, ones that can accommodate people in the shelter of a cabin. But sailing dinghies can indeed provide two of the most important qualities: to stay afloat and to keep their crews alive.

If those someones had done their homework, they’d know that tiny open boats have made remarkable ocean voyages that demonstrate their seaworthiness. I could mention Captain Bligh, for a start, and Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world. And then there was Frank Dye, who sailed his 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy hundreds of miles across the North Sea from Scotland to Iceland, and to Norway.

These sailors provided an element of seaworthiness that their small craft lacked, of course. They were all expert seamen. In fact, when faced with storms at sea, Dye, in his unballasted, centerboard dinghy, would lower the mast, set a sea anchor so that the boat faced into the oncoming seas, and then lie down on the floorboards and go to sleep. “There’s nothing much else to do,” he said. Except pray, perhaps.

In coastal cruising, much of the seaworthiness of a dinghy like the Wayfarer lies in its ability to run for shelter close inshore, to maneuver closely among rocks, and to land on a beach and be pulled up out of harm on inflatable rollers. Larger, less nimble yachts with deep keels would not dare close a shore like that in heavy weather; their only recourse then is to seek deep water offshore, where their seaworthiness will be well tested.

In at least one way, the smaller the sailing dinghy, the more seaworthy it is. That is when the worst happens and the boat capsizes. The smaller the boat, the easier it is for the crew to right her.

The well-found camp-cruising dinghy cannot sink — she has built-in buoyancy. With a sealed mast and boom for flotation, she cannot turn completely turtle, and so the crew can stand on the centerboard to right her. She will also have self-bailers that will draw all the water from the cockpit once she comes upright again and gains way.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that small boats can be seaworthy. They can’t provide the shelter and comfort of a larger vessel, admittedly, but their closeness to the water provides delicate insights and thrills unknown to those lofty someones who batter their way through the seas in their seaborne chariots, carefully insulated from both the sea’s danger and its intimate delights.

Today’s Thought
There are many advantages in sea-voyaging, but security is not one of them.— Sadi (Emerson, English Traits: The Voyage)

“That’s a funny-looking dog you’ve got there.”
“What? I’ll have you know I paid $1,000 for this dog. He’s part terrier and part bull.”
“Which part is bull?”
“The part about the $1,000.”

November 29, 2015

In praise of beautiful overhangs

I FOUND A PROFILE of a Pearson Vanguard in a boating book the other day and I couldn’t help but be struck by how beautiful she was. That man Philip Rhodes could design a mean sheerline. Combined with low freeboard, Vanguards still look gorgeous 50 years or so after they were built.

The bow, in particular, has a cocky sheer and a rounded profile that seems just right for a seagoing boat, while the stern rises just enough to complement the wonderful curve that sweeps from fore to aft as befits a creature intended to live among waves.

By today’s standards, the overhangs are excessive. The bow and the stern overhangs measure more than 10 feet combined on a boat only 32 feet 7 inches overall. But today’s boats have traded beauty for utility and interior space, which is a compromise not necessarily for the better.

Designers tell us that overhangs enable a boat to go faster. They increase the boat’s waterline length as she heels, and waterline length, as we all know, is the major factor affecting the maximum sustained speed of displacement boats. I have never been convinced of this alleged benefit. Not for any good mathematical reason but just because I can’t believe it makes enough difference in waterline length to matter. I’m even suspicious about the very claim that heeling adds to waterline length. Some boats roll buoyantly upward, out of the water, as they heel. I bet they don’t add much, if anything, to the wetted waterline. And besides, when you’re running downwind, and not heeling, there is no gain in waterline length at all.

In any case, I personally don’t think the Vanguard’s overhangs are excessive. Another famous and very handsome design of that period, the Camper & Nicholson 32, had overhangs totaling 9 feet. Furthermore, L. Francis Herreshoff, the great master, designed what he called “sensible cruising boats” with overhangs very much like the Vanguard’s. His famous H-28 ketch, at 28 feet overall, had a waterline of just over 23 feet.

There’s no doubt, though, that very long overhangs are dangerous at sea. They’re very elegant, but on smaller boats they’re suited only to sheltered waters. They cause pounding at the bow and slamming at the stern.

A friend of mine once took his 30-Square Meter to sea. This was a narrow-gutted formula racing class with very long overhangs, because the goal for naval architects was to design the fastest sailboat you could build with a maximum of 30 square meters of sail area. My friend got caught in quartering seas and found that the leverage afforded by the long stern overhang caused each overtaking swell to spin the boat almost broadside on, into a dangerous broach. Those 30 Squares were gorgeous to look at, and extremely satisfying to sail to weather, but they were lousy seaboats in bad weather.

The Vanguard was designed in the days when the Cruising Club of America (CCA) rule applied, of course. When that rule was superseded by the International Offshore Rule (IOR), the rear ends of racing boats suddenly changed from generous, flowing, callipygian sterns to mean and tight pinched-in haunches, often with unsightly reverse-sheer transoms. This did nothing for seaworthiness or looks. It just helped a boat get a better handicap under the IOR formula.

Manufacturers of cruising boats, like lemmings plunging over the cliff, followed the style of the racers, of course, in the hope that prospective clients would be impressed. So we had a very ugly production run of racer/cruisers in the 1970s and early ’80s. Happily, though, there were the occasional standouts, like Pearson and Philip Rhodes.

I feel thankful to them every time I see a Vanguard.

Today’s Thought
Perhaps the greatest difference between the beautiful yacht and the plain one is the way their crews treat them, for the crew of the beautiful yacht usually gives her tender loving care.
—L. Francis Herreshoff

Overheard at the yacht club bar:
“My dirty bottom is really wreaking havoc with my performance.”
“Yeah, just imagine what that would do to your boat.”

November 24, 2015

Many thanks to many boats

BOATS I HAVE OWNED have taught me a lot in my lifetime. I guess I ought to be giving thanks to them right now. So, OK, thanks to:

My International sliding seat canoe whose name I have happily forgotten. She taught me how ancient Roman army catapults worked. Every time a gust came along I was catapulted off the sliding seat and over the boom into the drink.

Shane, a 14-foot Sprog one-design. My thanks to her for teaching me that having a fast boat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win races. It needs cunning and deviousness as well.

M’aidez, an 11-foot International Mirror Class dinghy, for alerting me to the fact that you should never name your boat M’aidez if you ever want to call anybody on VHF radio.

Mother’s Ruin, another Mirror, taught me how to wage  psychological warfare against racing competitors. Old Band-Aids stuck on a brand new mainsail seemed to distract them greatly as I sailed past.

Messy, another Mirror, taught me the valuable lesson that there are various forms of polyester resin, at least one of which will not cure if you don’t exclude air from its surface.  Her taped seams never got hard, never accepted paint, so I deliberately gave her a splodgy paint job and painted her name on her sides with a whitewash brush.

Trapper, a C&C 27, deserves my thanks for raising my social status at the yacht club.  Everybody admired her looks, if not my racing results.  A sweet boat.

Freelance, a Performance 31, by Lavranos, carried me and my family to a new life in America and taught me how to lie ahull in 50-knot winds off the Cape of Storms.

Square One, yet another Mirror, was a wreck I found in Los Angeles. She taught me how to restore a wooden boat in a garage in an apartment block without alerting the tenants directly above.  I learned their habits, and did my banging and sawing while they were showering or listening to loud TV. Nobody reported me to the fierce landlady.

Square One II. Yep, a Mirror again. Another wreck, this time in Seattle. I learned that I could

use an epoxy paste to replace a whole ply of marine plywood that fell off the starboard topsides. I was very proud of that repair job.

Tagati was a Santana 22 that showed us the glories of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Fast, simple and easily handled. I spent 13 months restoring her and should never have sold her.

Jabula, a Cape Dory 25D, took us around Vancouver Island on a six-week trip and allowed us to to meet an Oregonian cruising couple who gave us their recipe for gravlox salmon, which became our most-requested dish ever.

Sangoma, a Cape Dory 27,  took us around Vancouver Island again and taught me that you can  tow a heavy-displacement full-keel sailboat for two miles behind a small dinghy in a calm if you know how to scull with one oar over the transom. Yes, our engine broke down, but I got her into a small port from which a friendly Canadian boat towed us 10 miles to the area’s only mechanic.

Eclipse, a Cal 20, one of Gary Mull’s finest, taught me that I don’t like outboard engines that work in small wells let into the cockpit. She was a champion sailor, but I couldn’t stand the idea of her propeller protruding beneath the hull and causing drag all the time.

And finally, I have to mention Tokoloshe, a 10-foot, narrow-gutted, fiberglass fishing skiff that served as tender for the last four boats I owned. She was an unfinished mongrel of a boat, but without peer for seaworthiness. We towed her for thousands of miles, including hundreds in the open Pacific, and she never gave us a moment’s worry. Perhaps it was because I warned her that if she ever gave us trouble in a heavy following sea, I wouldn’t hesitate to cast her loose. I give thanks that It was a threat I never had to carry out.

Today’s Thought
So once in every year we throng
Upon a day apart,
To praise the Lord with feast and song
In thankfulness of heart.
— Arthur Guiterman, The First Thanksgiving

"Why did that sailor buy drinks for all those girls?"
"He likes to have a port in every sweetheart."




November 23, 2015

Another strange boat dream

QUITE A LOT OF MY DREAMS involve boats, almost as many as involve beer and/or dancing girls. And so it was the other night when I dreamed I was an interested spectator at a small boatyard.

They had a marine railway for hauling boats out of the water for bottom-painting and repairs, and they were just re-launching a full-keel sailboat of about 25 feet.

She slid slowly down the rails, held upright by a wooden cradle, until she reached the water.  Two workmen were aboard to release her from the cradle when she floated free, one in the cockpit and one on the foredeck. But she didn’t float free.  Still tied to the cradle, she started to disappear as the railway extended into deeper water.

The workmen on board started shouting to the man at the head of the slipway, who sat in a small shed with his hands on levers.  But it seemed he couldn’t hear them, or didn’t want to obey their requests to haul the boat back up the inclined railway.

The men on board jumped into the water and swam ashore as the boat finally disappeared under water, blowing huge bubbles of air from the closed companionway hatch and the Dorade box up forward.

Next thing, two scuba divers appeared and swam out to the mast, which was the only thing still sticking out of the water. They dived and obviously cut the boat free from the launching cradle to which she had been tied.

She suddenly popped up to the surface at high speed and flew into the air some 20 or 30 feet, or so it seemed in my dream, and came down stern first. The cockpit filled with water, which rushed below and filled the cabin. This time, she sank like a brick.

The man in the shed said: “Sorry about that. I was texting. Let’s start over and try again.” But he got down and started to run when the scuba divers came out of the water with their knives drawn.

My dream ended there, so I don’t know what happened to the men or the boat, but I can’t help wondering if there is a message here, or possibly a warning.  My wife says I’d better have my tea leaves read, just in case. But I’m not keen on that. I’ll see if I can find someone who reads beer suds. That might make more sense.

Today’s Thought
Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.
— Dr. William C. Dement, Newsweek, 30 Nov 59

After years of toil and research, Eli Whitney emerged from his workshop one night with great news.
“I’ve just invented a cotton gin,” he declared proudly.
“Big deal,” snorted his wife. “So who needs a fluffy martini?”