January 29, 2015

The fish that really flies

ONE THING that has niggled at me for a long time is the fact that so many marine biologists say that flying fish don’t fly. These supposed experts maintain that flying fish simply extend their fins and glide. And I have always maintained that they do fly.  I have seen them from the close and low vantage point of a small yacht as they burst out of a swell, glide for a certain distance, then waggle their tails in the water as they descend, gather speed again, and then flap their “wings” strongly before starting another glide.

I am glad to say I have now found a supporting voice. And a famous one, at that. Last night I was re-reading Conor O’Brien’s book, Across Three Oceans, and he agrees with me. O’Brien was an Irish master mariner who sailed his 42-foot ketch Saoirse around the world in 1923. This is what he had to say about flying fish:

“I am prepared to swear that they can and do fly, all the statements of the anatomists notwithstanding. At least I say that by vibrating their wings they can increase their height and their speed and make abrupt turns in circumstances which preclude the hypothesis of an ascending puff of wind under them. But they cannot rise from the deck, and they are very good eating.”

Thank you, Captain O’Brien. I needed that. I’ll sleep more soundly now.

Today’s Thought

 An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home, has no responsibility for implementing the advice he gives, and shows slides.

— Edwin Meese III, White House counsel


  “O’Flaherty, what are you doing here? Your brother called and said you were sick and wouldn’t be coming to work today.”

“Ah begorrah, the joke’s on him. He’s not supposed to phone until tomorrow.”

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

January 27, 2015

Sleep -- the forgotten factor

ONE THING that people seldom think about when they’re planning an ocean passage in a small boat is how they’re going to get enough sleep. But sleep is actually very important — and sometimes it’s not as easy to come by as you might imagine.

Without sound sleep, the crew will soon start showing signs of frayed tempers. Arguments will spring up out of nowhere. They will start losing interest in food. They will have difficulty concentrating on their jobs and they may place everyone in danger by dozing off while on watch. In short, they will become very inefficient, and if the deprivation lasts long enough they may experience illusions.

The problem is that it’s often not possible to enjoy a long, undisturbed sleep on a boat that’s being driven hard in a brisk breeze. If you haven’t been to sea on a small sailboat, you can’t begin to imagine the noises that emanate from blocks and winches, the slapping of halyards and sheets against the mast or deck, waves thumping against the hull, and pots, pans, and cans of food sliding around in the galley lockers.

Furthermore, in short-handed boats the crew’s sleep is often disturbed by calls to appear on deck to make or shorten sail; and, of course, we haven’t even mentioned the physical problem of sleeping on a boat that’s being tossed around in  head seas or rolling excessively in a following trade wind.

There may well be some sailors who can come off watch, crumple up in a bunk, and fall sound asleep in minutes, no matter how the boat is performing, but I always found it difficult to get any sleep at all during a gale, even if I were in my berth, safely tucked in behind the lee cloth. In the first place, there’s the noise. Few landlubbers would believe the volume of the noise that’s made by a gale-force wind howling through the rigging, or the way it can make the whole boat vibrate as a terrier shakes a rat.  You never get used to the pitch of the wind, because the low-down thrum of a wind blowing against boat a boat lying ahull rises several octaves as the boat rolls to windward; and the fear factor rises with it.

I would guess that those lucky souls who can fall asleep with no problem are likely to be crew members and not skippers. When you see a skipper lying wide-eyed in his bunk during a storm, unable to get a wink of sleep, it’s his responsibilities that are propping his eyelids open, not just the noise or the motion. He, or she, is suffering from an anxiety that won’t abate until decent weather returns and the wind stops its infernal howling.

What’s to do about it? Well, in normal weather, the crew on watch should try to keep the noise down as much as possible when others are resting below. Take up the slack in that sheet that’s slapping the deck. Ditch that empty can that’s rolling around the cockpit floor. Try to make sail changes and reefs only at the change of watch, and generally have sympathy for those engaged in the difficult task of grabbing 40 winks. The world voyager Eric Hiscock even went so far as to block the sunlight from the cabin when his wife Susan was trying to sleep down below. “During the afternoon sleep, which is a necessary part of the routine when night watches are kept, bright light should be subdued as much as possible, and the tinkerbell, caused by a shaft of sunlight from a deck- or port-light, flashing to and fro across the cabin as the yacht rolls, should be extinguished,” he wrote.

In a storm there’s nothing much you can do about the noise or the motion, but the skipper may help things along by projecting an air of calmness and confidence, even if he or she doesn’t feel it. In storm conditions, incidentally, I have found that merely lying down with your eyes closed is almost as good as the sleep it’s impossible to get, particularly if you can calm your mind and stop imagining all the horrible things that could happen at any moment.

You might think that there would come a time when the lack of sleep would catch up with you and you’d simply fall into a deep slumber, no matter what. But experience has shown that most people deprived of sleep by physical conditions will experience mental problems, have trouble making decisions and concentrating on even the simplest tasks of navigation, and often will suffer from illusions.

In the case of singlehanders who try to maintain a constant look-out, all these problems are exacerbated, of course. Many of the long-distance racers train themselves to sleep for 20 minutes at a time day and night, and they keep this up for months on end. I doubt that I could do that. But then, I no longer have the desire to race. Well, not unless I can find another smaller, slower boat to annihilate, anyway.

Today’s Thought
It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.
— John Steinbeck

“Do you know a man with one eye called Falconetti?”
“Dunno. What’s his other eye called?”

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

January 25, 2015

Backward nuts to beware of

MOST BOATS with inboard engines have two nuts holding the propeller in place. And most propeller nuts are installed backwards.

I didn’t make this up. This is the word from Dave Gerr, a top U.S. boat designer. In his book, The Nature of Boats, Gerr says:

“There should always be two propeller nuts: a jam or lock nut and the main or load nut. Because it seems natural that the nut directly in contact with the prop is the one that ought to be doing most of the work, many boatyards install the full size nut here [against the prop hub]. This is the wrong way around!

“The correct procedure . . . is to install the small, half-height jam-nut first — against the hub. Tighten it up as hard as you comfortably can, by hand with a standard wrench. Then screw on the full-sized nut and tighten that down independently — again, as hard as you comfortably can, by hand with a standard wrench. Finally, fit the cotter pin, and you’re ready to go.”

Well, this obviously isn’t intuitive. It just doesn’t seem right. But here’s the expert’s explanation: As the second nut (the outside one) is tightened down, it rotates the smaller nut slightly, just a fraction of a turn. This relieves pressure on the nut against the hub, so that all the load is taken by the bigger outside nut.

“Since the top nut thus does the brunt of the work, it should be the nut with the most threads — the full-sized nut,” says Gerr.

Well, don’t just stand there. Get that boat out of the water and swop those nuts around immediately.

Today’s Thought

The bad workmen, who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry, are decidedly of opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good.

— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

 “Why so gloomy?”
“I got married three days ago.”
“So why is that making you gloomy?”
“Well, I gave all my life savings to my new husband.”
“And where is he now?”
“Dunno. I’m still waiting for him to come back from his honeymoon.”

January 23, 2015

Real food for real sailors

LAST NIGHT we had one of my favorite meals, Jolie Brise soup. It’s a seagoing soup, of course, named after the world-famous, wooden, gaff-rigged pilot cutter that, even in its dotage, is still a force to be reckoned with. In 2011 she was first in class and overall winner of the Tall Ships Race — and not for the first time.

Jolie Brise started life in France in 1913, as a working pilot cutter in Le Havre, but she was bought for private use in 1923 by an Englishman, Commander E. G. Martin. He sailed her to a win in  the first Fastnet Race in 1925 and became famous for more ocean-going exploits in other yachts in later years.

Commander Martin sailed with a hefty, hardworking crew in Jolie Brise and they brought with them some hefty appetites, so it’s not surprising that one of his favorite meals was onion soup. It’s just what a hungry crew needs on a brisk night at sea, hot, tasty, and chock-full of energy. It’s quick and easy to prepare and handy because onions keep well on a boat.

You should try it sometime. Here’s the original recipe from Commander Martin:

Place four medium-large onions, peeled and cut into quarters, into a covered saucepan with 3 to 4 cups cold water.

Add 2 tablespoons Bovril (or other strong beef stock), 4 ounces butter, a dessertspoonful Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce, a little black pepper, and (when the cooking is nearly done) a small glass of sherry or rather more white wine.

Boil gently for 30 minutes or until the onions have fallen to pieces and are soft, stirring occasionally.

Now, you might be a little taken aback at the amount of butter in this recipe, but you must remember that it was meant to satisfy the energy needs of hardworking men in a cold climate. And anything with that much butter in it is bound to be delicious. But now I cut the butter ration in half, to 2 ounces, and still find it very tasty and satisfying. I tried a vegetable spread substitute once and it was a disaster. Stick to butter.

We can find Bovril occasionally in the British section of our local supermarket, but I more often use beef stock cubes instead — enough to make 5 cups of bouillon.

So give it a go, and save some of that sherry or white wine for a small toast to a real sailor and a wonderful boat: Commander Martin and Jolie Brise!

Today’s Thought

Onion soup sustains. The process of making it is somewhat like the process of learning to love. It requires commitment, extraordinary effort, time, and will make you cry.

— Ronni Lundy, “The Seasoned Cook,” Esquire, Mar 84


Notice on a thermostat in a hotel room in Kobe, Japan:
“You do not have to get yourself hot in this room. Please control yourself.”

January 20, 2015

If it's not broke . . .

EVERY TIME I SEE an advertisement for an epoxy barrier coat, I flinch. I am reminded of a terrible mistake I made while trying to waterproof the bottom of my boat. It was an attempt to make sure that my 26-year-old Cape Dory would never fall victim to the dreaded boat box, the blisters that knowledgeable people call osmosis. But it turned out to be a big waste of time, labor, and money.

It occurred to me one day that I should remove the great wodge of bottom paint that had built up over 26 years. None of my boat’s previous owners had bothered to scrape the bottom down to bare fiberglass. So, at the next haul-out, I set to. It took me weeks, working on my own, to remove all the old modified epoxy antifouling paint, and when it was all done I was very glad to see that underneath it all the  gel coat was as good as new.

But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. The devil came to me during the night and whispered: “Now that you’ve got all the paint off, why don’t you apply a good barrier coat to prevent osmosis?”

“But she hasn’t got osmosis,” I pointed out. “Her bottom is perfect.”

“Ah, but she could get it at any time — especially now that you’ve removed those thick layers of paint. And besides, when would there be a better opportunity to barrier-coat the bottom? Everybody’s doing it, you know. You’ve seen the advertisements, haven’t you? Osmosis is a dreadful thing. You don’t want osmosis,”

Yes, I had seen the advertisements. And yes, the devil had his wicked way with me. I applied two coats of epoxy barrier coat, following the instructions meticulously. On top of that I applied two coats of modified epoxy antifouling paint. And so I went about my daily tasks smiling and whistling happily and thinking to myself that however my good old Cape Dory might deteriorate in the coming years, she would at least never catch the boat pox. Yeah, right.

Two years later, when she was hauled out for new antifouling paint, her bottom was covered in tiny blisters. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I called in a surveyor. He laughed. “Why did you put on a barrier coat if there wasn’t any osmosis?” he asked. “If a boat has been in the water for 26 years without blistering, there’s not much chance she’s going to get blisters now. What made you do it?”

“The devil made me do it,” I said.

“Well, you’d better send the bill to the devil because you’re going to have to remove the barrier coat,” he said. “It’s not a big problem — the blistering is between the gel coat and the barrier coat; it’s just cosmetic, not a structural problem — but all those pimples will slow you down terribly in light weather. Take her down to bare gel coat again, and just apply straight antifouling.”

Thus, I learned the hard way that you must never give a fiberglass hull a barrier coat unless the hull is absolutely dry. And I don’t mean surface dry, but dry right through. It can take many months for a hull to dry out, even if you use hot air to help it along.  And you’ll need a moisture meter to find out if there’s still any water present in the layup. If there is, your barrier coat will simply seal it in.

The other thing I learned is that you shouldn’t barrier coat a hull that’s spend 10 years or more in the water without developing blisters. I would have saved myself a whole lot of time, labor and money if only I had remembered the wise old saying: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

Today’s Thought
What cannot be cured must be endured.
— Rabelais, Works  

“Darling, will you still love me after we’re married?”
“Sure, why not? I’ve always been partial to married women.”

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

January 19, 2015

Another Dear John letter

I’VE RECEIVED a lot of Dear John letters in my lifetime. Luckily, they mostly don’t say “Sorry, but I’ve run off with a sailor man.” Mostly they just ask for advice. The latest one comes from Lucy, of Seattle, who says she is a rower.

She was having an argument recently with her cox about how much horsepower human beings generate in a boat. She says she remembers a column I wrote years ago about this very subject, and could I dig it out for her?   

Well Lucy, you’re in luck. The Blogger people are so organized that I was able to find it in their archives. So here it is, from way back in 2009:

Dear John:
I have a question for you. There’s a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum riding on the answer. It’s like this: I was having an argument with the yacht club know-all in the bar last weekend. We were talking about inflatable yacht tenders, and how hard they are to row when your outboard motor breaks down. He said he didn’t think a human being could produce much more than 2 horsepower with a pair of oars.
I laughed in his face and said: “Only Superman could produce 2 horsepower. A normal man can’t even produce half a horsepower for any length of time.”
He then gripped me warmly by the throat. The bar tender intervened and suggested we make a bet of it with a bottle of the basic ingredient for a Dark ’n Stormy. So can you help?
— Manny in Minnesota
Dear Manny:
Jeez, if only you people would buy my books instead of fighting in the bar you’d save yourselves a lot of trouble. Probably a lot of money, too. On page 158 of the Boatowner’s Handbook you’ll find these enlightening facts:
“Human Power
“The average man in good condition can produce about 1/4 horsepower for about 40 minutes. He can produce between 1/6 and 1/7 horsepower for several hours at a time. This is sufficient to row a hard dinghy at a reasonable clip—say 3 to 4 knots—in calm water and no wind.
“The maximum power from a highly trained male athlete for a burst of a few seconds is a little less than 2 horsepower.”
So, Manny, I guess you’re both right, but you’re a bit righter than the club know-all because a burst of a few seconds doesn’t really count. It’s not going to get you very far in your inflatable. So the best thing to do is to sit down, get his hands off your neck, split the bottle, and make friends again. Maybe if you bought my book, Manny, YOU could be the club know-all.

Today’s Thought
Sport begets tumultuous strife and wrath, and wrath begets fierce quarrels and war to the death.
— Horace, Epistles

"How's that book on gravity?"
"It's okay, but it’s not very uplifting"

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

January 15, 2015

Slow boats have compensations

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES, I must admit, when I have envied the ability of a powerboat to plane at 25 knots. Speed, sheer speed, is an exciting component of the boating experience, and you don’t get much in the way of sheer speed from a small, full-keel displacement sailboat.

On the other hand, there have been occasions when I have grinned to see the inhabitants of a powerboat being shaken around like peas in a pod as the hull slams and crashes and bashes through choppy seas.

I have ridden in a powerboat doing 70 miles an hour, and not only my kidneys knew how uncomfortable that was. My knees did, too, and so did my spine. Seventy miles an hour on water is a not a reasonable speed for human beings to endure.

Few powerboats can match the comfort of a sailboat in a seaway. The mast and keel ensure slower accelerations and attenuated rolls; and simply knowing that a sailboat will safely recover from a knock-down position frees you from the ghastly feeling you get in your stomach when a powerboat’s rolls fall into resonance with beam seas, gradually gaining in amplitude until you have to scream at the helmsman to head up or bear away before the final death roll sends you into capsize.

When I’m happily trundling along at five knots with the tiller in my hand, and all’s well with the world, it always makes me grin to see a passing powerboat porpoising, while it’s white-knuckled occupants hang on for dear life.

Porpoising is an interesting facet of powerboating. Eric Sorensen describes it in his book, Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats, as “an oscillation in pitch and heave, with the bow alternately rising and falling.”  In other words, the front end of the boat at speed on a plane is jerking up into the air and slamming back down again, time after time without end. Porpoising happens when the center of lift under a planing hull constantly moves forward and aft. It always reminds me of a panicked rabbit fleeing from a wolf.

Apart from the discomfort it causes, porpoising just looks so inelegant, so thoroughly out of control. It jars the esthetic sensibilities of ordinary sailing folk as they wend their graceful way across the waterways at a reasonable speed in blissful comfort.

So, on those rare occasions when I feel that envy for speed creep upon me, I console myself with the thought that a non-planing slowcoach of a sailboat has its compensations. It won’t be troubled by porpoising, for a start.

Today’s Thought
She bears her down majestically near,
Speed on her prow, and terror in her tier.
— Byron, The Corsair

"Hey buddy, I thought you had a date with that blonde tonight."
"Yeah, I did."
"What happened?"
"Well, we went to her place and sat around and chatted and then she put on some quiet music and changed into her lingerie and lay down on the sofa. Then she turned down the lights — so I came home. I can take a hint."

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

January 13, 2015

Try to stay off wave tops

I RATHER DOUBT that many people choose stability as their main reason for buying a certain boat. We all like our boats to be stable, I’m sure, but the thing that makes us buy a boat is more likely to be speed, seaworthiness, accommodation, or sheer beauty. The fact is, most of us don’t know very much about stability. For example,  I wonder sometimes how many sailboat owners understand the difference between the two most important kinds of stability, static and dynamic.

In other words, I wonder if we know the difference between how stable a boat might be in calm water (static stability) and how unstable it might be at sea in big waves (dynamic stability).
It’s an established fact that no amount of static testing will reveal how much more vulnerable a boat is to capsize when it is weaving its way through heavy swells.
This phenomenon was investigated in the late 1800s by William Froude, an eminent British naval engineer who was well versed in fluid dynamics. Froude did many experiments for the British navy, including his most famous, which determined the amount of force that water exerts on a body passing through it. But the experiment that should concern all small-boat sailors dealt with the inclination of a sailboat to capsize on the crest of a wave.
As you have probably noticed, you get a strange feeling in the pit of your stomach when your boat heaves upward suddenly on the face of a steep wave and then drops off suddenly. Froude discovered that at the top of the heave your boat experiences a large degree of weightlessness.
At that stage, the boat is virtually in free fall. And thus, Froude found,
a boat’s stability vanishes completely as she floats over the crest. There is no support from from surrounding water to stop her from being blown over by the wind.
This rather scary theory is well borne out in practice. The phenomenon of small racing dinghies capsizing on the crests of waves is well documented. Ocean-going racers do it, too. The degree of danger depends, among other things, on the height and steepness of the swells as well as the design of your boat.
Froude also found that the presence of a wave crest near amidships resulted in a decreased righting moment. On the other hand, a wave trough amidships increased the righting moment, compared with the static stability.
If this all seems highly scientific to you, be aware that good sailors know intuitively that when they’re running in heavy seas in a displacement hull they shouldn’t spend too much time on the crest of a wave. That’s why they try to slow the boat with a drogue, to let the wave crest pass underneath quickly. Sitting on top of a wave, especially a breaking wave, is never where you want to be.
Today’s Thought The sea thinks for me as I listen and ponder; the sea thinks, and every boom of the wave repeats my prayer. — Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart
Tailpiece “I see that restaurant on Main Street is hiring a gypsy band and the waiters are dressed as bandits.” “That’ll make a nice change. Last time I was there they had bandits dressed as waiters.”

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

January 11, 2015

Aiding a damsel in distress

A FRIEND OF MINE is an experienced boater. He owns a sweet 30-foot trawler, a tugboat design, and he’s planning to do some extensive cruising up the Inside Passage to Alaska with his sweetheart. She’s very keen to go, too, but she is not a sailor and she very sensibly worries about what might happen if her skipper became incapacitated while they’re traveling.

To look at him, I wouldn’t say he’s likely to become incapacitated.  I mean, he’s not likely to fall down drunk or anything, and his health is good, but I suppose there is always a chance that the unexpected might happen. And I think this is why a lot of boating couples have a problem with cruising without any other crew on board.

When this particular lady mentioned her anxiety she told me that she was trying to learn as much about boating — sailing and powerboating — as she possibly could in the shortest possible time. She hoped to become a competent crew that way. But she still wondered whether she’d be able to handle the boat in an emergency, and, worse still, the navigation. “Lots of islands,” she said with furrowed brow. “Lots of rocks. Strong currents.”

While I applaud her efforts to become a proficient sailor, my feeling is that there is a quicker way to ease her mind, especially when they are cruising in areas not too far from land, or where other vessels are likely to be operating. 

I advised her first to concentrate on learning how to broadcast an emergency message on the radio. Forget about trying to handle the boat, unless it appears to be absolutely necessary, I said. Forget about trying to navigate.  Easy as it seems to be with a GPS chart plotter, navigation needs knowhow and practice. Don’t assume these responsibilities yet. Learn how to slow the engine, and put her in neutral. Then let the boat drift while you call for help.

Learn to make a proper Mayday call on Channel 16 VHF. This is preferable to using a cell phone, even if you can get service, because a radio signal goes out to every boat in your immediate area and is likely to be picked up by the Coast Guard also.  They will co-ordinate your rescue and organize help for your skipper. Modern VHF radios linked to a GPS receiver will automatically broadcast your Mayday and your latitude and longitude.

If the Coast Guard doesn’t pick up your call straight away, there’s a good chance that some vessel in the vicinity will hear you and either come to your aid, or alert the Coast Guard with a more powerful radio than yours.

You can call the Coast Guard on a cell phone, I added, or call 911, and they’ll put you through. You can also use a satellite phone, if you have one, and several other devices that will link you to help. But first concentrate on learning to make a VHF call on Channel 16. That won’t take long.

That should ease your anxiety and make cruising much more pleasant.  Oh, and one other thing, possibly. You might also want to learn how to drop the anchor.  That shouldn’t take long, either. Just chuck it overboard along with all the line or chain attached to it. Then you make your call and sit back and wait for the gallant White Knights to come charging along to aid the damsel in distress.

Today’s Thought
All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.
— R. L. Stevenson, Lay Morals

“Don’t you think he looks like me, nurse?”
“Yes, sir, but don’t let it worry you.  All new-born babies look strange for a while.”

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

January 8, 2015

Taking a strange turn

THE OTHER DAY I was reading a book about boating for beginners. The author went to great pains to explain the difference between the way a boat turns and the way a car turns.

He pointed out that a car is steered by its front wheels, and pivots around the rear wheels. A boat, on the other hand, is steered by its rear end and pivots around its front end. Or near enough. What this means is that when you turn a corner in a boat, your rear end swings out and hits the jetty or any other boats nearby.

This might seem a trifle strange to neophyte boaters who, seeing a steering wheel in the cockpit of a sailboat, might be forgiven for presuming that turning it would produce the same physical actions that you get in a road vehicle.

But what interested me more was thinking about how people turn. You don’t have a steering wheel or a tiller. You don’t have wheels or a rudder. So what makes you turn when you want to? I think it has something to do with the brain. At least, that’s where the orders come from. But that doesn’t explain the physical act of turning. Do people steer themselves more like cars, or like boats?

Experimenting in my socks on the vinyl floor in the kitchen, I discovered that my upper body initiated the turn. After I turned my trunk to the left, my legs seemed to follow. But I didn’t pivot on the left foot, as I thought I might. I just sort of shuffled, left foot, right foot, and then I was going off in a new direction.

That didn’t tell me much. I thought of asking my wife to take part in my experiment. I wanted to see if her stern swung out to starboard when she changed course to port, but I thought better of it.  She already suspects that my elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.

I couldn’t see whether my own stern swung out or not, but I think not, because I missed the fridge and cleared the pantry door quite nicely. Of course, I don’t have a particularly prominent stern (and neither does my wife, I add hastily) so it’s really hard to tell, but my feeling is that humans steer more like cars.  In other words, we probably have imaginary steering wheels that somehow make our feet turn.

I wish someone would initiate a study to find out how this all works. Nobody seems to care about how we turn. Most of us just take it for granted. When we want to turn, we just turn. We don’t do anything about it. Mostly we don’t even think about it. We just turn.

Try it for yourself. Watch your feet as you make a turn. If you can figure out how we do it, let me know. No steering wheel, no tiller. How is it possible? It seems like black magic to me.

Today’s Thought
Fortune once in the course of our life doth put into our hands the offer of a good turn.
— Sir Geoffrey Fenton, Bandello

Groucho Marx once opened a drawer by mistake in a friend’s home. He found a Colt automatic pistol surrounded by several small pearl-handled revolvers.
“My God,” he said, “This gat has had gittens.”

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

January 6, 2015

All about waves, seas, and swells

I  HAVE NOTICED an appalling ignorance among amateur sailors about what, exactly, constitutes a sea, a wave, and a swell. I shall do my best to rectify this sad situation in words of as few syllables as possible, that is, in language able to be understood by anyone with an IQ exceeding his age.
Let’s start at the beginning. Most waves are created by wind, which develops ripples, then small waves, and finally larger ones as it increases in force and persists in time. But the direction from which winds blow changes quite frequently, so that waves of different heights run in different directions, riding on each other’s backs and forming a complex system of high waves that we call a “sea.”

The characteristic of a sea is that it is irregular, producing crests of varying heights and lengths. The waves have steep surfaces and break frequently, bearing white crests. Scientists have shown that a sea consists of complicated layers of waves of different heights, different periods, and different velocities, although certain heights and periods will be dominant.

What’s interesting about a sea is that it’s impossible to estimate, from the height of the present crest, the height of the next crest likely to come along, because you can’t know whether it will ride on top of a small wave or a big one.

Now, as the wind decreases, the various waves forming the sea will decay and become more rounded. Usually, the steepest and  largest waves will decay the quickest. They are the ones most recently formed in the direction of the prevailing wind. The other, smaller waves, will continue to trundle along in their various directions, as before.

So now the seas’ motion becomes more regular. It loses height in comparison with length. Its surfaces lose their steepness and become smoother and more rounded. And so, finally, we have a swell.

The characteristic of a swell is that you can rely on it for some short-term regularity. Unlike a wave, which is unpredictable, one swell is pretty much like any other swell in the same train. However, it seems to be true that every fifth or ninth swell is a little different from the common herd, either bigger or smaller, and often has a couple of similar companions dragging along behind it. Surfers know this well.

It’s also true that a swell generated by a large storm can run for many hundreds of miles after the storm has blown itself out.  In some large sea areas there is an almost continually present swell. For example, the Cape Rollers, off the southern coast of Africa, come spinning off the Roaring Forties, a world-girdling belt of westerly winds hundreds of miles to the south.

There. Now you know all you need to know about waves, seas, and swells. Class dismissed.     

Today’s Thought
 Great seas have little seas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little seas have lesser seas, and so ad infinitum.
— With apologies to Augustus de Morgan

A news item in the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) says:
“Next Friday night’s concert in the main cell block will be performed by the pop group Heavy Lift, and their supporting group, The Truss.”

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

January 4, 2015

Judging your speed through water

"A LONG TIME AGO you wrote about orange peel as a method of judging a boat's speed," says a message from Lora, of Carlsbad, California. "I made a note of it -- but lost it, of course. Could you please repeat it?"

Sure thing, Lora. Here it is again. Print it out and pin it to your . . . well, something you won't lose this time:

MY FAVORITE distance log was one of those old Walker taffrail logs with the trailing line, the propeller, and the whirring dials. It served me well for thousands of ocean miles. It had only two enemies: seaweed that jammed the propeller and sharks that swallowed the propeller.
In later years, I got my distance run from a tiny GPS that cost less than half the price of a Walker.

It was magic, but it wasn't the same. I missed the ritual of reading the log and streaming it. It took me most of a week to figure out how to bring in that spinning propeller without creating a bird’s nest of twisted line, but in the end I got great satisfaction from doing it right. Somehow, just pressing a button with my thumb doesn’t provide the same pleasure.

However, you don't really need a Walker log or a GPS to find out how many miles you've traveled in a given time. All you need is the number of hours you've been sailing, and (duh) the speed of travel.

You can get the number of hours from a watch, of course, and you can learn to estimate speed surprisingly accurately, but there is a better way than just estimating. You need nothing but a piece of orange peel and a small timer/calculator.

Multiply the length of your boat, from bow to stern in feet, by 0.59. Note the figure, and keep it handy for future reference. Now throw a piece of orange peel forward of the boat. Start timing when the bow comes abreast of the orange peel.

Now note the time it takes in seconds to reach the stern. Divide the first number by the second to find your speed in knots. If you don't have a good timer, you can simply count the seconds, using the old trick: "one Mississippi, two Mississippi," etc. You'll find it's plenty accurate enough for the speeds at which small sailboats travel.

(Oh, and by the way Lora, you don't have to use orange peel. A piece of crumpled paper or a banana peel will do just as well.)

Today's Thought
Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. 
  --John Steinbeck.

Tailpiece An odd-job man called at a friend’s house the other day.
My friend said, “OK, how much to paint the porch?”
“Fifty dollars,” said the man.
"Done,” said my friend. “Here’s a brush and a bucket of paint.”
Half an hour later the man knocked on the door.
“Finished,” he said.
“Wow, that didn’t take you long,” said my friend.
“Nah, it wasn’t very big,” said the man. “And by the way, it’s not a Porsche, it’s a Mercedes."

January 2, 2015

When to stay ashore

I RATHER SUSPECT that the number of people taking part in the sport of sailing or powerboating would be far greater if it weren’t for one thing — seasickness. Anyone who has been seasick can testify that it is an affliction so horrible that there are hardly words to describe it.

“Seasickness is an unpredictable menace to comfort,” said Rear Admiral Louis B. Olson, U.S. Coast Guard Commander of the Third Coast Guard District, in his book, Small Boat Seamanship, in 1956. He claimed  to know something about seasickness, having suffered from it himself, and having associated with all kinds of seamen for 40 years; and he offered the following observations “for what they are worth:”

“Some very few persons, possibly one in a thousand, are so susceptible that they should remain on terra firma and never go out to sea even on relatively smooth days,” he maintained.

“Others, still few in number, may go out in ordinary weather with little discomfort but should avoid any rough-weather passage.

“The vast majority can go out in any kind of weather with varying degrees of discomfort. This discomfort varies somewhat with the individual but more with the circumstances. For these individuals:

“(1) Discomfort decreases with the passage of time; that is, a person adjusts to the new situation  and finally his system accepts the new conditions without any noticeable ill effects.

“(2) This adjustment is eased and may take place without any appreciable discomfort if the passage begins smoothly and the change to rough weather is gradual.

“(3) Physical health and mental sense of well-being help to decrease susceptibility; avoid excesses of fatigue, loss of sleep, drink, and rich food before a passage.

“(4) Activity and interest in work sometimes help to decrease susceptibility; rest and sleep help in other cases; fresh air and sunshine are good; confinement below decks in poorly ventilated bunk spaces is not good.

“(5) Dramamine and other remedies such as Bonamine help by inducing rest and acting as sedatives.

“(6) Susceptibility varies with conditions: some individuals are more affected by deep pitching; others by rolling; some on small craft with frequent quick ship movements, while others are more affected by the slower movements of large craft with the greater total range of movement.

“Usually this discomfort eases over the years. I know of no case where it became more noticeable with age.”

Well, medicines for the prevention and cure of seasickness have improved since Admiral Olson’s day, of course. For example, the ear patch containing Scopolamine, originally  used by astronauts, has made a world of difference for me.  I get sick very easily, but I do get used to it eventually.

Incidentally,  I think there is one point that Admiral Olson overlooked. It is my firm conviction that people of fine breeding, acute sensibilities, and high intelligence — the sort of men who are better looking and more attractive to women — are also more prone to seasickness. I’m surprised that the Admiral failed to discover this. He should have asked me.

Today’s Thought
There's not a sea the passenger e'er pukes in,
Turns up more dangerous breakers than the Euxine.
-- Lord Byron, Don Juan

“Your car holds the road very firmly. Does it have a special suspension?”
“Nah, it’s the heavy installments.”

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