July 31, 2015

Finding the right balance

A READER in Anchorage, Alaska, who calls himself or herself “Iceberg” asks if I could repeat a column I recently wrote about balance in sailboats. Well, I don’t remember writing about that subject recently, but I did write about it many years ago. So here’s hoping that this is what you’re after, Iceberg:


THERE ARE MANY DESIGN FAULTS that sailboat owners will admit to, but unseaworthiness is not one of them. A skipper might well shrug off a lack of accommodation. He or she might well agree the boat is slow, or hard on the helm. But nobody wants to own an unseaworthy boat.

Seaworthiness is the happy result of a lot of factors but there is one that is often overlooked. It’s called balance.

According to Tony Marchaj, a sailor, pilot, naval architect, and research scientist, “Almost by definition, seaworthiness cannot be achieved if the boat is badly balanced.”

So what do we mean by balance? That question was answered by a famous British designer, J. Laurent Giles. He said good balance is “freedom from objectionable tendencies to gripe or fall off the wind, regardless of angle of heel, speed or direction of wind.”

He added that a well balanced boat had an easy motion in a seaway, that is, she passed easily over the waves, neither tending to plunge the bow deeply into the next wave ahead, nor throwing her nose high in the air as a wave passed the fore body. She would also unfailingly lift her stern to a following sea.

“One requires of the balanced yacht that she should retain the utmost docility and sureness of movement in manoeuvering at sea, in good or bad weather,” he added. “She must maintain a steady course when left to herself, but must be instantly responsive to her helm so that the heavier seas may be dodged if circumstances permit. She must be capable of being left to her own devices, sailing, hove-to, or under bare poles.”

That sounds like a very tall order to me. What sort of hull has this wondrous quality of balance? Here’s Marchaj again:

“In a narrower sense, this means that the inherently balanced hull does not substantially alter its longitudinal trim, and does not alter its course during the process of heeling and rolling.” In other words, to be well balanced, a hull, when heeled, should immerse about the same volume of topsides forward and aft.

Marchaj points out that many of the good old boats still sailing now were either designed for, or affected by, the old International Offshore Rule, which produced shallow, beamy hulls with pinched bows. “Usually, when they heel, the stern is lifted and the bow falls. Consequently, these boats are difficult to control by rudder and are unseaworthy.”

If the bow digs in as the boat heels, a boat will try to round up into the wind, of course, not only because of the wedge effect of the forward sections but also because the center of lateral resistance has moved forward while, at the same time, the center of effort of the sails has moved outward and gains more leverage. This is when the person at the helm suddenly finds the tiller up under his chin. Not that it does much good if the boat heels too far and the rudder comes out of the water.

Luckily, most of us don’t often sail in sea conditions that challenge the full seaworthiness of our boats. But if you should be of a mind to cross an ocean or sail around Cape Horn, balance might be a good thing to keep in mind as you search for the right boat.

Today’s Thought

Everything splendid is rare, and nothing is harder to find than perfection.

— Cicero


“Are you allowed to smoke at school?”


“Are you allowed to drink at school?”

“Of course not.”

“How about dates?”

“Oh, dates are fine, as long as you don’t eat too many.”

July 29, 2015

Where are the anchor 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 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 $100 to $200 with shipping. And then you have all the fun of fitting it yourself.

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 was 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 health care for the moment. Never mind ISIS and Afghanistan. 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 realize that old Joe survived mustard gas and pepper spray?”
“No. How’s he doing?”
“Oh he’s now a seasoned veteran.”

July 26, 2015

What the boat ads really mean

IF YOU’VE EVER tried to buy a boat on Craigslist you’ll know that sometimes the description of the boat does not quite accord with reality.  It’s not that people selling boats actually tell lies in their advertisements, but as Poo-Bah said in The Mikado, their descriptions are often “merely corroborative detail, intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

What is needed, of course, is a translator, someone who can interpret the meaning of a boat advertisement into language the man on the dock can understand. Well, here I am. And here are phrases that you will often read on Craigslist, coupled with their hidden meanings:

— Perfect for liveaboards . . . If you dare set foot ashore, she’ll sink.

— A cockpit designed for blue-water voyaging . . . Room for just one person.
— Original sails . . . Has needed new main and jib for years.
  Survey report from 2014 available . . . Just before the Travelift dropped her on the hard.

  Engine regularly and meticulously serviced . . . That is, once every seven years, coinciding with every major breakdown.

— This one could do with a little TLC . . . Fell out of her cradle in the last hurricane.

— One owner from new . . . Hasn’t been able to sell her all these years.
— An early design by this famous naval architect  . . . The one from which he learned how not to design boats.
— Charming cabin with delightful decor . . . No room to swing a cat.

— Drifter rarely used . . . Not since the ship’s cat ripped a great tear in it, anyway.

— Built like a brick outhouse . . .  And makes comparable progress through the water.

— Excellent family cruiser . . . Kiddy goo everywhere. Two teddy bears and one plastic elephant blocking the head.
— Lovingly maintained and regularly  upgraded by owner . . . Owned by a chronic fiddler whose imprudent meddling has substantially lessened the boat’s value.
— Proven blue-water boat . . . Has lots of useless worn-out blue-water gear that needs replacing.

— Awesome finish . . . The owner has power-polished his way right through the gelcoat.

Today’s Thought

Truth-telling, I have found, is the key to responsible citizenship. The thousands of criminals I have seen in 40 years of law enforcement have had one thing in common: Every single one was a liar.

— J. Edgar Hoover, “What Would I Tell a Son,” Family Weekly, 14 Jul 63

“Why are you stopping here?”
“This is Lovers’ Lane.”
“I suppose this is your ‘out of gas’ routine.”
“No, no, this is my ‘hereafter’ routine.”
“What’s that?”
“Well, if you’re not here after what I’m here after, you’ll be here after I’m gone.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 23, 2015

A better way to start the engine

I’VE SAID IT several times before, but nobody seems to take any notice, so I’ll say it again:  It’s high time all inboard engines for pleasure boats were fitted with starters that don’t rely on electricity. There are other ways. There are hydraulic starters, compressed-air starters, and even a wind-up spring starter — but have you ever seen one fitted in a yacht?

It’s quite wrong that we’re so dependent on electrical batteries for starting our motors. I guess it’s a hang-over from the automobile industry, where there is usually no safety concern if a battery goes flat.

But things are different on the water. A fully discharged battery can be a much more serious matter, particularly on a single-engined boat. A flat battery can involve discomfort, embarrassment, expense, and even danger.

Hydraulic starters are used on some commercial craft. Hand-pumping an accumulator tank for five to ten minutes will spin a big diesel for two minutes or so. Some fishing boats used similar compressed-air starters.  There used to be a British company that made a spring starter, maybe still does. It fit on your engine like a regular starter, only it had a crank like a winch handle sticking out. Twelve turns of the handle would give you enough spring power to start a six-cylinder diesel.

Haven’t there been times when you’d have given a back tooth for a system like that?

I once owned a single-lung, 12 h.p. BMW diesel which had a valve lifter that automatically snapped shut after you had spun the engine with a crank handle about four times. Without compression it was quite easy, using both hands, to crank the engine up to a fair speed in four revolutions. It is a great emergency back-up system for engines up to about 15 horsepower. Won’t someone please whisper this fact in the shell-like ear of a marine engine manufacturer?

Today’s Thought
You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God: you shall not have both.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Power,” The Conduct of Life

The maitre d’ of a New York hotel watched in amazement as an Ohio tourist carefully washed his dessert spoon in the finger bowl.
He rushed up apologetically, saying: “There’s no need to do that sir.”
“Oh no?” said the tourist. “This is a new suit, buster. You think I want ice-cream all over my pocket?”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 19, 2015

Never ask to pass the port

THOSE OF YOU who have experienced civilized upbringings must sometimes wonder why we always pass the decanter of port to the left after dinner in the main saloon. Well, the fact is that we don’t always pass it to the left, or clockwise.
We only pass it to the left in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere the decanter goes counter-clockwise. If you are ever in any doubt about which way it should go, just flush some water down the galley sink and see which way it revolves as it gurgles out. In the northern hemisphere it will revolve clockwise. In the southern hemisphere it will gurgle counter-clockwise. And those of you who paid attention in science class at school will know that this is due to the Coriolis effect, so named after the Italian plumber who first noticed it.

Port and cheese is a wonderful way to end a dinner on a boat and it needn’t always be a formal affair. For years we have recommended a small glass of port at sunset when at anchor for the night. Port travels better on boats than most wines do. In fact, I half remember reading somewhere that the Portuguese wine merchants used to ship cargoes of port wine as ballast aboard the Grand Banks fishing fleet so that it was suitably matured by the time they got back home to Portugal.

Cheese and crackers go well with port, and red grapes are good also, but if you’re adventurous you might want to try small bamboo skewers loaded with prosciutto, melon, and cheese. I should warn you that port and potato chips don’t make it.

Now, suppose you’re seated around the cabin table after a fine dinner in the northern hemisphere, and the person on your right neglects to pass the port to you, either by deliberate neglect because he doesn’t like you, or through sheer forgetfulness. What do you do? You would commit a gross breach of etiquette if you said: “Please pass the port.”

By tradition, you must say: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”

Anyone with the civilized kind of upbringing I mentioned earlier will immediately pass the port, along with a suitable apology.  But if your question is met with a blank stare or an answer in the negative, you should say: “He’s a fine fellow, but he always forgets to pass the port.”

This is what is known in civilized circles as a heavy hint. If the guilty party does not respond by passing the port immediately, you are entitled to throw your gauntlet on the table and challenge him to pistols at dawn. Unless you are seated next to a lady, of course. If she looks nonplussed and fails to pass the port, I think you are entitled to grab it from her and help yourself without penalty.

Incidentally, although you may have a glass of port in front of you, obtained in the ordinary, non-combative manner, you should not take a sip until everybody has been served; and it is exceptionally bad form to drink your port before the main toast.

Incidentally, the decanter should be kept circulating until it is empty. This is because even the best ports start to deteriorate within 24 hours if they are exposed to too much oxygen. Most port benefits from an airing for a few hours before being served, to let it “breathe,” and pouring it from bottle to decanter, if done slowly and carefully, will get rid of most of the sediment that tends to collect at the bottom of the bottle. But there’s no point in keeping the remains for tomorrow. Even the ship’s dog wouldn’t look at it then.

Today’s Thought
Wine nourishes, refreshes, and cheers. Wine is the foremost of medicines  . . . whenever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary.
— The Talmud

“Gimme a return ticket.”
“Yes, sir. Where to?”
“Back here, you idiot.”

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

July 16, 2015

Small dinghies on open sea

RECENTLY I MENTIONED that if I had to, by force of circumstance, I could probably sail a small open dinghy across an ocean to safety. That imprudent statement elicited the following comment from Jurriën, who lives in Holland:

Although I know impressive journeys can be made in a dinghy, personally I would not recommend them for intercontinental transport. The two major advantages you mentioned, staying afloat and keeping the crew alive are correct, but a substantial problem is that these small boats must be looked after constantly. This means, one moment of inattention and the cockpit is filled with water. In stormy circumstances, you’ll never be able to drain the cockpit; therefore your boat won’t sail properly anymore. Sailing a dinghy in heavy weather is very tiresome; I do not think many people can stay concentrated perfectly for more than an hour or so in these circumstances (wet, cold, frightened). In my experience (never left the North Sea, so don’t take me too seriously) the best you can do is set your storm jib if you have one (otherwise tie a knot in the genua in order to reduce surface), run downwind and hope for better weather!

No Jurriën, I wouldn’t recommend dinghies for your everyday intercontinental transport either, but sailing at sea in a dinghy is perhaps not as dangerous a business as you might think.

In the first place, a small dinghy is easy to steer. She’s very light on the helm, and dinghies can usually be well balanced because you can move a pivoting centerboard fore or aft to change the center of lateral resistance.  If you were serious about it, and were able to plan in advance, you could get a dinghy to steer herself with twin jibs sheeted back to the tiller, or with a sheet-to-tiller system such as one of those suggested in  Lee Woas’s book Self-Steering Without a Wind Vane.

In the second place, decent dinghies do not capsize all that readily. Most of them will heel a long way over before you have to spill wind to let them recover. They have a lot of reserve stability. Yes, they certainly can capsize, but the smaller the dinghy, the easier she is to right from a capsize.

The kind of dinghy I’m thinking of has plenty of built-in buoyancy. The 11-foot Mirror dinghy, for example, has four large flotation tanks. I have seen a Mirror dinghy plowing along nicely through the water, under perfect control, in a gale of wind, with four adults sitting in a cockpit brimming with water after a capsize. They could easily have bailed out that cockpit with a bucket, but they were having too much fun to bother. They sailed her home, right up to the launching ramp, like that with big smiles on their faces.

Frank Dye capsized four times in Force 9 gales in his 16-foot Wayfarer on the way from Scotland to Norway. He had one crewmember, and they managed to right her fairly easily each time. His method of dealing with heavy weather was to hinge the mast down, tie a tarpaulin over it to make a shelter, and lie down on the floorboards to keep the weight low. He unshipped the rudder and let the dinghy lie bows-on to the waves behind a large parachute sea anchor.

That American adventurer Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world, sailed his flooded boat for days on end on one occasion but managed to bail her out eventually when the weather settled down.

The point is, if you have a dinghy with built-in buoyancy, she won’t sink.

Jurriën, I am fairly sure that you, like most of us, are not planning to sail a small dinghy across an ocean any time soon, but for your own interest you might want to read the following books on the subject:

Ø Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, by Frank Dye

Ø The Open Boat: Across the Pacific, by Webb Chiles

Today’s Thought
Seamanship, in its widest sense, is the whole art of taking a ship from one place to another at sea.
— The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea

“Would you like red wine or white wine, sir?”
“Makes no difference to me, my good fellow. I’m color blind.”

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

July 14, 2015

Rescuing a drowned outboard

A FRIEND RECENTLY WROTE:  “I saw your piece about how good sailors always look ahead, and live in the future, not in the moment.  Well, I have to tell you that when I look ahead I see myself one day dropping the outboard in the drink when I’m transferring it from the rubber dink to the transom rail.  What should I do then?”

Well, matey, if you paid proper attention you’d know that I explain all this in my book about sailors’ rules of thumb, the Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge. So here it is again, for your benefit, and read it carefully because I’m not going to repeat it:

The rule of thumb for outboards dropped in seawater is to render first aid immediately, because corrosion sets in within three hours.

If you fear that sand may have been drawn into the cylinder, or if you can hear grating and grinding when you turn the flywheel, you must either disassemble the engine or call for expert help after thoroughly hosing everything down with fresh water.

Otherwise, proceed as follows:

1. Rinse all salt water away with fresh water. Do not be scared to douse everything, including the electrics.

2. Remove and dry the spark plugs.

3. Remove, clean, and dry the carburetor.

4. With the spark plug holes facing downward to drain, turn the engine over several times.

5. Squirt light oil into the cylinders.

6. Replace the carburetor and plugs.

7. Start the engine.

If it doesn’t start straight away, remove the plugs, dry remaining moisture, and try again. Inspect the carburetor once more for water. Keep trying to start it. Be persistent.

When it runs, let it get good and warm to dry out — and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.

If the beast simply refuses to start, try to keep it submerged in fresh water until you can find more skilled help.

Today’s Thought
Water is the driving force of all nature.
— Leonardo da Vinci

“What caused the fire on Fred’s yacht?”
“The investigator said it was spontaneous combustion — a $20,000 policy on a $10,000 boat.”

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

July 13, 2015

Seaworthy small boats

I MENTIONED to a friend that I thought I could sail an 11-foot Mirror dinghy across an ocean if I had to. I mean, if the bigger yacht sank, and I were left with the tender, a Mirror.

You may think me rather boastful, as my friend did, but I have had a lot of experience with Mirrors and I also have a great respect for the seaworthiness of small dinghies in general.

Some time back 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 these 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 take the mast down, 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 secrets.

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.”

July 9, 2015

Briton rues the waves

THERE WAS RECENTLY an interesting message on the Scuttlebutt forum run by the British magazine Yachting Monthly. It was posted by a member called  “jesterchallenger.”  He apparently keeps his boat on a mooring adjacent to a busy waterway, and there is something that drives him mad when he’s on board. It’s not the boat traffic. It’s the damn people. This is what he had to say:

“Sitting on my mooring on a Sunday afternoon, people seem unable to resist the urge to wave at me.

“Now, I'm a polite man, but after about 20 or 30 waves it all gets a bit irritating. Maybe I'm popular, but there's a limit . . . so if I see a potential waver I try and avoid eye contact.

“Worst offenders are husbands and wives — they always wave separately, one after the other. Couldn't they have a confab and have a joint wave? Then I've only got one wave to return, not two.”

Well, I must sympathize, jesterchallenger. It’s hard to contemplate anything more irritating than an undisciplined bunch of wavers, especially if you’re an Englishman and value your privacy.

Isn’t it extraordinary how people will just presume that you want to be waved at? How are they being brought up these days? Why are they not taught manners? How would they like it if strangers just waved at them all day long without being asked? I mean, just waved, with no permission? People you haven’t even been introduced to? Great galloping gastropods, what’s the world coming to?

What gives these blighters the right to think they can wave openly at a respectable boat owner enjoying the peace and quiet of his own little craft?  They’re cads, sir, unlettered and unwashed. They deserve to have their hands permanently bound behind their backs to prevent recurrences of this provocative mischief.

And as for the husbands and wives waving separately, well, I am at a loss for words to convey my disgust. I feel for you, jesterchallenger, old chap.  I don’t know how you keep your sanity when they wave separately, for god’s sake. To require you to wave twice to one passing boat is simply beyond the pale and I, for one, would not blame you if you were to get out the old shotgun and blast away. I mean, how much trouble would it be for them to synchronize their waves, for goodness’ sake? Not that they should be waving in the first place, of course, if they had any sense in their stupid heads, or any vestige of the rules of social propriety. 

It’s hard enough in these days of crowded anchorages and idiot newcomers to find the enjoyment that used to be part and parcel of sailing. Of course, one does one’s best to maintain a stiff upper lip, but surely it’s time that the authorities took notice of the unwarranted distress caused by these thoughtless oafs who can’t keep their arms under control. Unrequested waving should be banned by law. He who waves should pay the price, dammit.  And let it be a steep one.

Today’s Thought

Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther:

and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.

— Old Testament, Job, xxxviii, 11


A touring Brit entered a restaurant in darkest Africa with great caution. He found a table without fuss and sat down quietly.

When the waiter came, he asked timidly: “Do you still serve Englishmen here?”

“Yes sah,” said the waiter enthusiastically. “Rare, medium, or well done?”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

July 7, 2015

Skating over the stormy seas

THOSE OF YOU who pay proper attention to this blog will remember that spiders have learned to sail the oceans just as yachts do. Well, now I have discovered what they live on—tiny bugs called sea skaters, or ocean striders.

These little insects are relatives of the pond skaters or water striders that are able to walk on the surface of the water without breaking through the “skin.” But whereas the pond skaters are basically landlubbers who never stray far from terra firma, your average sea skater is, by comparison, a hairy-chested sailorman who lives in the open ocean, filling his ample belly with plankton.

I have seen these little fellows on a dead-calm day in midocean, with their feet spread out in a roundel of pools as they press down on the surface tension, and I have wondered how on earth they manage to survive out there when the wind starts to blow and the water becomes rough. Very few insects look more fragile than sea skaters, but Nature has obviously equipped them with the means to survive even the largest plunging breaker.

In fact, I read recently that Miriam Goldstein, of the University of California in San Diego, has been studying sea skaters, and she says that they even have a little “life jacket” — a bunch of hairs on their body that trap a bubble of air, so that if they get sunk by a wave, they pop right back up. “They’re amazing,” she says.

I must agree with her. I can’t imagine what kind of social life they live out there, skating away over the world’s oceans, probably hoping to meet up with another interesting sea skater of the opposite sex someplace, sometime. But I expect their little lives are enlivened by the fact that, at any moment, they’re likely to run into one of their mortal enemies, a spider disguised as a little yacht under a silk cloud of spinnaker, and ever ready to gobble them up.

Today’s Thought
Nature is a rag merchant who works up every shred and ort and end into new creations; like a good chemist whom I found, the other day, in his laboratory, converting his old shirts into pure white sugar. — Emerson, Conduct of Life: Considerations by the Way


“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Good grief, no.”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“No, no, go away!”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Leave me alone, you’re far too young. Shoo!”
“Filthy pictures, sir?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake . . . okay, okay . . . how many d’you want?”

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


July 5, 2015

Stand by for an arachnid invasion

OH DEAR LORD, here we go again. As if sharks and octopuses and giant squid and sea snakes and poisonous puffer fish weren’t enough to scare the pants off us, now scientists are telling us that spiders inhabit the oceans of the world, too.

Worse still, they know how to sail. In a new study published in the journal Evolutionary Biology, researchers claim that spiders use their legs to harness the wind so that they can sail just like a yacht.

“We’ve now found that spiders actively adopt postures that allow them to use the wind direction to control their journey on the water,” explained Morito Hayashi, of the Natural History Museum, in London.

The spiders take on postures described as elaborate and acrobatic, raising and contorting their legs in different directions and angles to take advantage of the breeze. (Sounds an awful lot like my old crew trying to raise the spinnaker.)

What’s more, they even use sea anchors to heave to whenever they want. They simply spin a bundle of silk and pay it out on a long line.

The British researchers conducted their experiments with 325 adult spiders collected from small coastal islands, where they presumably had plenty of time and space to practice their yachting skills. So if you’re out sailing and you hear a tiny voice scream “Starboard!” at you, for goodness’ sake go about at once.

And next time you feel something move on your bare leg during the midnight watch out at sea, check to see if it’s a wolf spider, or a black widow. I don’t want to panic you, but you’d better make your will because you’ve got about half an hour to live.

Today’s Thought
 The mere apprehension of a coming peril has put many into a situation of the utmost danger.
— Lucan, De Bello Civili

“And what is your name, my good man?”
“James, madam.”
“I’m not accustomed to calling my chauffeurs by their first names. What is your last name?”
“Darling, madam.”
“Very well, drive on, James.”

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

July 2, 2015

Do you disclose all her vices?

AS I LOOK THROUGH the advertisements in Craigslist I am struck by how many boats for sale are described as “perfect,” in “turnkey condition,” ready to step into and be sailed away into the glorious sunset.

It makes me want to ask you a personal question: When you sell a boat, do you confess all its sins? Do you tell the prospective buyer about the leaks, the engine problems, the weather helm, the soft spots on the foredeck?

Do you misremember when the rigging was last replaced? When the bottom was last anti-fouled? Do you have a story carefully made up about why you want to sell this boat?

What I’m really asking is whether you should divulge to a prospective buyer everything you know about your boat. Well now, I beg you to humor me for a moment. If you’re a man, try to imagine it’s your wife or girl friend you’re trying to sell.  That’s not hard to imagine. They have a lot in common.

Let’s be honest. Lovers have secrets. Some things are private, intimate, known only to the two of you. Such things should surely stay secret. There is, after all a code of honor even among the meanest thieves.

And there is a line when you are selling a boat, a line that separates not only truth from  lies, but also separates what a buyer needs to know from what he really can’t reasonably expect to know if he has any sense in his head at all.

You alone will know where that line is. Your conscience, of lack of it, will be your guide. Some of us have a more developed conscience than others, of course. But that’s for the buyer to judge. Nobody said buying a boat was easy.

Personally,  when I’m buying a boat, I never ask if she leaks. I have never owned a boat that didn’t leak somewhere at some time. I don’t want to hear the seller telling me she never leaks. I want to be able believe with all my heart what he said about the engine being brand-new and the sails being replaced only last year.

In the end, I guess the boat seller’s creed could be summed up reasonably this way: Don’t ever tell an outright lie. But tell the whole truth only when sorely pressed.

Today’s Thought
Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.
— Marshall McLuan, Advertising Age, 3 Sep 76

A man moves into a new apartment and invites a few friends around for a housewarming drink. One of his friends notices an old hammer hanging on the wall. "What's that dirty old hammer doing there?" he asks.
"Oh, that's not a hammer, it's a talking clock. Look, I'll show you."
He picks up the hammer and starts banging it against the wall.
A voice comes from next door, shouting: "Fer chrissake keep it down in there, it's half-past goddam eleven!"

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

July 1, 2015

Small boats also merit respect

THERE IS A LOT OF TRUTH in the saying that the smaller a boat is, the greater the pleasure it provides. I think we all know what that means, especially with regard to moorage cost and maintenance. Furthermore, small gentle voyages can generate as much joy and satisfaction as long adventurous ones

The man or woman who cautiously 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 noteworthy 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 lamb chops.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boating column.)