October 29, 2015

Cursing those big wakes

LIKE MOST PEOPLE who have gotten used to traveling slowly in sailboats, I have often been angered by the irresponsibility of powerboaters who drag large, dangerous wakes behind them.

Let me say straight away that this is not a rant against powerboaters per se. There are considerate powerboaters and inconsiderate ones, and while I’m quite sure the former vastly outnumber the latter, the memories of the latter are what stick in my mind.

I’ll never forget something Robert Hale, of Seattle, once wrote. He was the former respected publisher of the annual Waggoner Cruising Guide for the waters of the Pacific Northwest of the USA. In the 2003 edition he wrote:

“Shortly after going from sail to power, I came to understand what I call the First Rule of Powerboating: Never Look Back.

“Because, if we powerboat skippers would look back, we would be appalled at what we do to other boats.”

Coming from a powerboater, that was a very honest and refreshing statement. It actually inspired me to invent a curse for sailors to use when faced with enormous wakes that inconvenience other boats and even threaten to capsize or swamp smaller vessels.

It’s a curse that might help you to vent your fury harmlessly in circumstances where you might otherwise be tempted to reach for your rifle and let Nature take its course. This, in fact, is one of four examples in a chapter devoted to curses in my book How to Rename your Boat — and 19 Other Useful Ceremonies, Superstitions, Prayers, Rituals, and Curses.

This is what I wish for the powerboat wash-hogs, or PAFIs as I call them.*


Woe to you, thou beslubbering speedhog!

May your filters choke and your injectors freeze.

May every ill befalling a boat bring you to your knees.

May you run out of whisky, and ice cubes, too.

May there be no more pleasure for you or your crew.

May all your bronze tarnish and your varnish all flake.

May your batteries die and your propellers shake.

May your anchors drag and your bilges overflow.

May you rot in a hell where they make you go slow.

Curse you! Curse you! My curse be upon you wherever you go!

*Power Assisted F...ing Idiots 

Today’s Thought

I sent down to the rum mill on the corner and hired an artist by the week to sit up nights and curse that stranger.

— Mark Twain, A Mysterious Visit


It’s too bad that by the time we get old enough not to care what anybody says about us, nobody’s saying anything about us.

October 27, 2015

Do cruising men ever wash?

A READER IN OHIO is having wife trouble. “Old Salt” says his wife complains that cruising on their sailboat is hazardous to their health because Old Salt never washes, and he wears the same clothes day in and day out. “But I remember that you once wrote a column about sailing hygiene,” says Old Salt. “Would it be a good idea to repeat it, for my wife’s benefit?”

Oh my goodness yes, Old Salt. It would be a wonderful idea. It saves me having to think of a new idea.

So here it is, five years old now, but still pretty much up-to-date, I believe:

Cruising hygiene

DO MEN CHANGE THEIR UNDERPANTS while cruising? A young woman reader in Dade County, Florida, wants to know. Geraldine says her new boyfriend has invited her on a six-week cruise to the Bahamas on his Cape Dory 25D sailboat. She has not sailed before, but she is fine with everything — except what she suspects might be a hygiene problem.

Do men on small boats change their socks? she asks.

Do they EVER wash ANY clothes?

Do they wash their hands after going to the head?

Do men brush their teeth morning and night?

Do they ever change the bed sheets?

Do they even HAVE bed sheets?

Well, Geraldine, you have poked your little stick into a big hornets’ nest here. Obviously I can’t answer for all cruising men, and as far as I know nobody has conducted research into this subject. But if it’s any comfort, as far as I know, not many cruising men die from bubonic plague or big bad germs in the gut.

I can only tell you of my own experience of long-term cruising and the answer to your first question is yes, men do change their underpants every day, one pair a day for seven days. Then, on the eighth day they start over. The theory is that the underpants have aired for a whole week, which is plenty of time for any germs to jump off and go somewhere else.   

Socks? Mostly we don’t wear socks, but even if we do, we only have two pairs. They’re good for seven days before rotation. We don’t walk anywhere, you see, so there’s no sweat or anything objectionable. You’ll notice that no men ever complain about other men’s socks.

Washing clothes? Well that depends on the availability of fresh water (very rare) and a place to do the washing (also rare). It depends on the weather and the amount of rail space available for drying. It depends when you can find the time, when you have a whole lot of other things to do (such as steering around rocks and anchoring and reefing and navigation) that are a lot more important than washing clothes. So, in short, the answer is ... well I have known one or two men who have washed some cruising clothes, so it’s not completely unknown.

As for washing hands after using the head, I have to assure you that it’s a distinct possibility in a boat like yours that has a wash basin in the head. Of course, most men won’t use it for fear of running out of fresh water, but at least there is a definite possibility; and that surely must cut down on the odds of disease erupting.

Do men brush their teeth morning and night? Geraldine, I think it is a scientifically accepted fact that as long as you break up the plaque every 24 hours, one brushing a day is sufficient. And, by happy discovery, a large body of cruising men has found that swilling the mouth with gin just before bed is equally as efficient in the prevention of tooth decay as is brushing with toothpaste.

As for bed sheets, well that depends on the sissy factor. Real men don’t use bed sheets. They use rough, hairy, woolen blankets or sleeping bags designed for Mt. Everest. I confess that I have a sort of sheet for my sleeping bag, a removable cotton liner, but after you’ve slept in it for two months straight I’ve noticed that it seems to grow little lumps inside like a real woolen blanket, so it’s really quite macho and not as pooftah as you might think.

Geraldine, you can spend too much time worrying about hygiene. There are places in Europe where they only take a bath once a week. There are places in the Sahara where they never bathe. It’s true that their average lifespan is 23 years, but nobody has ever actually proved it’s because of lack of bathing.

On the whole, you will find that the cruising life is very healthy. Strong sunshine and salt water are very good at killing germs. And those few germs that don’t die immediately will surely succumb when they eventually drift down and get swallowed up by that seething, squirming mass of micro-wildlife in your bilge.

Go for it, Geraldine. Go for the beautiful beaches and the glorious crystal-clear water; go for the romantic tropical nights and the soft trade winds brushing the coconut palms in silver moonshine. And let hygiene take its chance, as Nature intended.

Today’s Thought
A man’s own observation, what he finds good of and what he finds hurt of, is the best physic to preserve health.
— Bacon, Essays: Of Regimen of Health

A yacht club barman I know has invented a drink called the Block and Tackle. It’s one third whiskey, one third brandy, and one third vodka. After two of those you’re ready to run around the block and tackle anything.

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

October 25, 2015

Small voyage, big accomplishment

I WAS ONCE introduced to a man who sailed a Wayfarer 16-foot dinghy among the islands of the Salish Sea, here in the Pacific Northwest. He was very modest when he learned I’d crossed oceans. “I only take little voyages, and never out of sight of land,” he said.

I assured him that 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 open 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 impressive feats of seamanship because they sail the same seas as big commercial 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. And small, simple boats can afford pleasure and gratification out of all proportion to their cost. We are the only ones fit to judge our 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

The greatest area of unemployment in the world today is the region just north of the ear.

October 22, 2015

When boatyards built engines

IT’S ALMOST EXACTLY 100 years since one of the most famous American small-boat architects designed and built a wooden boat called  Cabrilla. William Atkin and his boyhood friend Cottrell Wheeler were the owners of a small boatyard on Long Island, New York, and Cabrilla was the largest boat they built there. She was a high-speed express cruiser, 115 feet in overall length.

But one of the most interesting things about her was the fact that young Atkin and Wheeler themselves designed the twin V-8 gasoline engines that powered her. Not only that: they built the engines, too, and installed them of course.

Atkin said later in his book Of Yachts and Men:  “Reviewing those days . . . I am astonished at the work we undertook and produced. The design work on Cabrilla was no small item.” This, naturally, was long before the days of computers, or even calculators, and all the work was done with pencil, paper, drafting ink, and the human brain.

Atkin described those engines as “big fellows of more than usual interest.” Each was of V-type with eight cylinders. The cylinder bore was 8 inches and the stroke 14 inches. Each bank of four cylinders was cast en bloc and, to insure perfectly even cylinder walls, was cast without the water-cooling jackets; the jackets were fitted to the cylinder blocks after all the machine work was completed.

In his book Atkin says: “The crankshaft was a steel casting and turned on Hess-Bright ball bearings, three bearings to each engine. To give some idea of the size of the crankshaft: the races of the bearings ran on balls having a diameter of 2 3/4 inches. The inlet and exhaust valve sets were made of heat-treated steel and were removable. The exhaust-valve stems were cooled with sodium. All the reciprocating valves were closed by positive cams rather than by compression springs. The crankcase was of skeleton form, cast of vanadium bronze and had 1/16th-inch-thick Tobin bronze plates to cover the openings.”

Atkin used outside contractors to manufacture several parts of the engine to his designs, but hundreds of other parts were made and assembled in his own boatyard basement.

“Yes, shipmates, Cabrilla’s engines were big fellows,” Atkin reflects, “and when, in these later years, Cottrell and I contemplate the fading past, we marvel at our youthful courage in tackling this job, which then seemed very simple, but which if attempted now would embarrass the engineering department of a large corporation.

“Cottrell designed all the mechanical and electric fittings for the hull, the disk clutches and reverse gears, and supervised their construction. The design of the engines was my contribution to the work then in hand. All this we accomplished within nine months and without the assistance of draftsmen or additional help.

“Fortunately, Cabrilla was designed before the days of expeditors, industrial efficiency, inspectors, personnel managers, safety engineers and all the other complicated and expensive claptrap of present-day production confusion. If we had had the fellowship of today’s industrial top-heaviness and discord, the yacht might never have been launched at all.”

Today’s Thought

Often ornateness goes with greatness;

Oftener felicity comes of simplicity.

William Watson, Art Maxims


“Man, I never realized how short of living space the world has become.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, I came home early last evening and found a strange man living in my wife’s wardrobe.”

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

October 20, 2015

Watch out for the crest

I SUPPOSE it’s pretty natural for sailors to ask themselves just how seaworthy their boats are, compared with others. One thing they worry about in this connection is stability, but I wonder how many of them know the difference between static and dynamic stability.

In other words, I wonder if they know the difference between how stable their boats might be (that is, how resistant to capsize) in calm water (static) and how unstable they might be at sea in big waves (dynamic).

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 tendency 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 degree of weightlessness.

At that stage, the boat is virtually in free fall. And thus, Froude found, a boat’s stability momentarily vanishes completely as she floats over the crest. At that moment there is no resistance from the water to stop her from being blown over by the wind.

This rather scary theory is well borne out in practice. The phenomenon of ocean-going sailboats and small racing dinghies capsizing on the crests of waves, even non-breaking waves, is well documented. 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. Alternatively, they try to aim the boat off 20 degrees or so to one side or the other, to avoid surfing dead downwind, and to get the rudder out of the foam, where it can’t work properly. 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

“I see that restaurant on Main Street is hiring a gypsy band from Romania, and waiters 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.)

October 18, 2015

Searching for nautical humility

STIRRING TIMES. Strange things happening. A Pope rides around America in a Fiat 500. Somehow I never imagined I’d ever see a Spanish-speaking Argentinean man in a funny hat and a long dress parading his religious wares in an Italian mini-car in the USA. Some people wondered why he didn’t appear in a bullet-proof limousine like everybody else does, but it was explained that this Pope was a very humble man and this was his way of connecting with the humbler and poorer masses who, his staffers assured him, have to be content with tiny Fiats.

There were, inevitably, the voices of skeptics who wondered why — if he was so humble — why he didn’t fly around in a modest Cessna instead of a palatial Alitalia Boeing, but they were quickly dismissed. Others surmised that lagging sales of Fiat 500s called for some helpful Papal advertising. Some suggested that if he really wanted to be ultra-humble he could have searched the junkyards for a used Yugo instead of a brand-new Fiat 500, but it was generally acknowledged that the man certainly has guts. Not everybody is willing to take the chance that a Fiat 500 will get you where you want to go. And if you think this is too harsh a criticism, I plead in mitigation that a girl friend of mine had a Fiat 500 that broke down in an isolated spot in Africa and left us stranded in the midst of black tribesmen who weren’t behaving very humbly. We survived, but this has affected my thinking about Fiat 500s ever since.

No matter. What I really wanted to ask was this: If the Pope were a boating man, what kind of boat would he choose to be humble in?

What about a Catalina 27? It’s one of a bunch of Belly-Button Boats (everybody has one) but it’s probably the best-selling 27-foot sailboat ever made.  And yet, while it’s modest, and largely non-polluting, it rather lacks a certain humility. This is not its own fault. The problem is that, as soon as you acquire what the hoi polloi perceives to be a “yacht,” you move into a different, less-humble social category.

Okay, how about a MacGregor26, then? It’s a boat for sailing newbies. But no, wait a minute. That 80 hp outboard motor doesn’t look too humble, does it? What you need for true humility is a 2 hp aircooled Honda. Ah, but then the nautical Pope would be even slower than a Fiat 500, so that wouldn’t do.

A Laser, maybe? Nah, he’d probably lose all his security men in one of those famous weather rolls while running dead downwind. And definitely no Hinckleys, of course. They’re modest-looking and understated, admittedly, but you could buy half-a-dozen Fiat 500s for the price of one decent Hinckley. Well, what about a Sunfish, then? Now there’s a real BBB for you. It has a nice old-fashioned rig, just like the Pope has. But wait, isn’t that a lateen sail? Wasn’t that rig introduced by ancient Muslim sailors? Good grief, they might have been Al Qaeda or ISIS. Whoa! Can’t go there. Not with a Pope in tow, anyway.  

Now I’m thinking Wharram Tiki 21. But there’s always the danger that a 79-year-old Pope could miss his step and fall into the drink between the two hulls. Did somebody say West Wight Potter 15? I’m afraid the sight of His Eminence perched in that tiny cockpit with a West Marine inflatable life preserver covering the papal robes is not one I care to imagine.

So I guess the answer is a gondola. I should have thought of that before. After all, it’s the Fiat 500 of the Venetian waterways. Small and slow and strangely shaped, but not so bad if your gondolier is trained to sing your kind of hymns and vespers and matins and things. Nothing makes you humbler than a gondolier who doesn’t know how or when to shut up. If you can manage not to strangle him, you must know the true meaning of humility.

Today’s Thought
Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.
— Frank Lloyd Wright (Recalled on his death, 8 Apr 59)

“I hear you’re related to European royalty.”
“Not quite, but I had a British uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.”

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

October 15, 2015

Excellent taste in boats

CAMPION MARINE is a Canadian boat manufacturer that seems to be doing just fine in a difficult market. Campion has been making recreational boats for more than 40 years in Kelowna, British Columbia, and now sells its products practically all over the world, even in China.

But what interests me most about Campion (which, incidentally is Canada’s biggest fiberglass boatbuilder) is the fact that its boats are edible. At least I think they are. In a press release the company proclaimed:

Campion Marine Inc., Canada's largest fiberglass boat builder, is proud to announce that it will become the first boat builder in the world to manufacture all of its boats with Envirez®, a renewably sourced bio-derived resin from Ashland Performance Materials.
Envirez® resin is the first resin that uses a substantial amount of soybean oil and corn derived ethanol in its formulation.
So now, if you run out of food in mid-ocean, you can eat your boat. You’ll have to spit out the fiberglass strands, of course, otherwise they’ll get stuck in your teeth; and the diet of soybean and ethanol may start to pale after a week or two; but at least you won’t starve.
The only decision left to make is: Where do you start eating? Somewhere above the waterline, obviously. Not the cockpit floor, but maybe the coamings. Or perhaps the toerails if your crew wash their feet regularly.
The edible boat ushers in a new era of yachting and I look forward to the first book of recipes. Transom stew. Corn à la Cockpit. Poopdeck Purée. Pintle and Gudgeon Potage. It all sounds so delicious I can hardly wait to buy an old wreck of a Campion and invite my friends to a boat tasting.
Today’s Thought
This has got to be the most expensive food ever laminated.
— Bryan Miller, NY Times, (on Manhattan’s Casual Quilted Giraffe restaurant)
“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.)

October 13, 2015

An explosive tale from Down Under

STAND BY for a long, long story. It comes from a reader in New Zealand who saw my previous column about automated ships. It reminded him of an incident that happened some years ago, and which seemed to be worth relating in print. He doesn’t want his name used so I have taken advantage of his anonymity to change some of his prose from New Zealandish to American — mostly harbour to harbor, even where harbor is actually wrong.

So I recommend that you fortify yourself with a six-pack of your favorite beverage and settle down for the longest read this column has ever produced:


The following is a story that while seemingly unlikely, is true.  It occurred sometime in the late 1980s or possibly the earlier part of the 1990s, however I cannot recall the actual year. I read about it in an obscure magazine in the 1990s.  I believe very few people actually know the tale.  Just a few years ago I happened to mention it to an acquaintance with a long history in the navy, whom, it transpired, had been directly involved in the issue at the time (New Zealand has a small navy). 

I related the story to him as I remembered it, he told me that I had a good memory and whoever had written the article had known what they were talking about.  He assured me it was completely correct.

To fully understand the saga it is firstly necessary to provide a background to the harbors of Auckland and the navy of New Zealand at the time.  The main North Island city of Auckland has two coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast and two harbors, one on each of these coasts.  The East Coast is generally reasonably calm.  The main harbor is the Waitemata Harbor and the city was originally started around it.  Within it is the main commercial port for the city, directly in front of the central business district on the Southern shore and the naval base opposite on the Northern Shore, known as Devonport. The Waitemata is very well protected and opens into the Hauraki Gulf, a large body of water itself quite protected, surrounded on three sides by land and containing hundreds of islands big and small, truly one of the best small-boat cruising grounds in the world, as people like John Welsford attest to.

The West Coast Manukau Harbor is several times larger than the Waitemata, and consists mostly of shallow sand and mudflats.  A 15-mile-long tidal channel from the entrance to the city provides access to a small commercial wharf that hosts fishing boats and very small coastal container ships.  As with most West-Coast harbors, there is a narrow entrance with a highly dangerous shifting bar (of the sand variety, not the alcohol type).  Tidal currents here push well over 5 knots with seas of 2–3 meters on a good day. In bad weather seas can be in excess of 10 meters. There is a harbor station on the remote southern head where signals indicate the state of the bar and whether the entrance is open or closed due to dangerous conditions. Once outside the harbor you are in the often stormy Tasman Sea, the coastline inhospitable, the next land Australia. Whereas the Waitemata and Hauraki Gulf are packed with cruising boats, virtually no one cruises the Manukau Harbor, though a smallish number of recreational fishing boats do use it.

The two harbors back onto each other and almost cut the North Island into two separate pieces.  At the narrowest point, only about a mile separates a muddy mangrove lined upper Waitemata creek from a muddy mangrove-lined upper Manukau one. A long time ago there was talk of a canal to link the two harbors. But the reality is if a boat in one harbor wants to become a boat in the other harbor, then (short of a trailer), the vessel must voyage up to and around the top of the North Island and back down the other side, a distance of around 400 nm, or a journey of twice that distance around the bottom of the Island and back.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, NZ’s Navy consisted primarily of four elderly frigates —  in size and capability Americans would probably consider them a light destroyer.  They were of the Leander Class, a British design from the late 1950s/early ’60s with a twin-barrel 4.5 inch turret gun, a small first-generation surface-to-air missile system known as Seakat and an antisubmarine mortar. A small torpedo-carrying helicopter known as a Wasp was carried in a hangar on the rear deck.

Live ordinance for weapons is not stored at the main naval base due to the proximity of residential housing and the commercial port. Instead there is a small base for this in the upper Waitemata known as Kauri Point. Naval vessels requiring ordinance provisioning are towed up the narrow channel to Kauri Point and loaded there. When supplies were needed, they had to be ordered from Europe – I assume England, due to the origin of the vessels and weapons systems. These would be sent via a charted freighter which would arrive in a designated ‘safe’ area for explosive-carrying vessels behind Browns Island just outside the port, whence the navy would meet the vessel and take it through the main port and up to Kauri Point to unload. As the navy had not seen any live action for at least several decades, ordinance usage was limited to training and quite minimal. I am not sure, but I suspect resupplying only occurred every few years at most.

And so it came to pass at this time that new supplies were needed. An order was sent and someone got hold of a small Danish-registered freighter. This was loaded with all manner of the above weaponry and away it sailed from Europe to New Zealand. An expected date of arrival behind Browns Island in the Waitemata was noted. The weeks passed. The expected arrival date came. And went. Every morning the navy would literally look out of their office windows in Devonport and check behind Browns Island. No ship. They began sending out radio calls and asking arriving vessels for sightings. Nothing. Over a week went by. Just as people were starting to get a little nervous, the navy received a call from the Manukau Harbor Master at remote South Head.  The harbor was closed due to poor conditions at the entrance, but a strange foreign ship had appeared off the bar requesting assistance to enter ‘Auckland Harbor.’ The Harbor Master had heard the navy trying to locate a ship.  Might this be the boat in question? The navy despatched a car to the site. Trusty binoculars confirmed the identity of the vessel.  Communication was established. The conversation with the Danish Master went something like this.  You’ll have to make up your own accents.  I imagine something like the Swedish Chef of the Muppets on one side and a toned down Crocodile Dundee on the other (New Zealanders sound like cultured, polite Australians, though I realize this is something of an oxymoron):

Ship: “’Ullo ‘ullo. Ve are trying to vind Auckland Harbor and zee navy. Ve haf a delivery.  Lots of boom bang stuff?”

Navy: “Gidday Mate. Well this is Auckland and the navy, but you’ve got the wrong blinkin’ harbor. You need to be in the other harbor.”

Ship: “Vich ozer harbor?  Can ve not cume into zis one?”

Navy: “No way hozay.”

Ship: “Vere is zis ozer harbor?”

Navy: “On the other coast mate. When you came across the Pacific, you should have come through into the Waitemata Harbor. Crikey, you’ve gone round the block and come to the Manukau Harbor.”

Ship: “Blast and damn. How do ve get to zis ozer harbor?”

Navy: “Shake out your chart mate.  Feast your eyes on that and you’ll see you need to turn around and go back around the North Island and come down the East Coast.”

Ship: “Um. Er. Uh. Can you gif me directions pleaz?”

Navy: “Hang a 180. Steam North for about 200 miles. When you run out of land, hang a right. About twenty miles on you’ll run out of dirt again.  Hang another right. Trundle on about 200 miles. Keep close to the coast and you’ll enter the Hauraki Gulf. The Waitemata Harbor is on the right when you run out of sea. Ah, watch out for Islands, rocks, and reefs and she’ll be right.”

Ship: “Roger, Wilco. Out” (or the Danish equivalent)

Navy: “Beaut mate. Catch ya in a couple a days.”

The vessel duly appeared in the Waitemata several days later. When the navy went on board it was discovered that although the ship had charts for the Atlantic, it did not have a single nautical chart for the Pacific Ocean. All they had was a school atlas. They had navigated their way across the entire Pacific using nothing more than an A4-sized child’s map. Given that New Zealand was little more than a squiggle in the corner, it was unsurprising they had mistaken which side of the country the correct port was on. Quite how they had managed to avoid the countless islands and atolls across the Pacific, to say nothing of the hazards of the NZ coast was, and probably will always remain, something of a mystery. This was before the days of GPS.

Normally spending most of their days steaming around the Atlantic, they apparently saw little point investing in charts for other places and decided to wing it when they entered the Pacific. Imagine that day on the bridge. “Well, Number One, that’s the Atlantic gone. Roll out the Pacific charts and let’s have a look.” 

“Ah, Captain, there are none.  However I noticed I accidently packed my son’s school book. There’s a map of the Pacific in there somewhere.”  “Jolly good. Pop it down here on the table. How hard can it be? Full steam ahead!”

I suppose you have to admire the fact that they got all this way without serious mishap, while carrying enough high explosive to do some serious damage and start a small war.

Today’s Thought

There is a great deal of unmapped country within us.

— George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

"Dad, what's bigamy?"

"Well, son, it's when two rites make a wrong."

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

October 11, 2015

Remember, boaters are voters

MY FRIENDS, a lot has been said recently about immigration and gun control. Much hot air has been released over who did what in Benghazi, and how to deal with Mr. Putin and ISIS. But what have our elected representatives done to ease the lot of suffering boatowners? Who has spoken a single word in favor of fewer taxes and more amenities for sailors and powerboaters?

Is this not wicked? Is this not discrimination? Is this not un-American behavior of the worst kind?

It’s as if Obama and Mr. Boehner have never heard of decent, hardworking owners of sailboats — people who live honest lives, pay their taxes, and contribute to the economy by consuming large amounts of beer.

A pox on such thoughtless politicians, I say. You can’t trust a presidential candidate who doesn’t sail. Have they never wondered what happens to old shellbacks when they are cruelly deprived of their beloved boats? They tell me that old golfers never die; they merely lose their balls. But what happens to sailors confronted with ever-rising slip fees and haulout charges? They can’t even afford to paint their own bottoms.

My friends, we must use the power of the vote to change this desperate state of affairs. We must let it be known that we want a president who can steer a ketch or at least helm a Sunfish. We want a Vice-President who can hand and reef and splice as well as take over the White House when the President is away playing golf in Hawaii. We want leaders who aren’t afraid to fight for a boat owner’s right to bop a banker on the bean when he tries to repossess a humble sloop or cutter.

My friends, in this present hour we are all gearing up to vote. If your candidates can’t sail, it probably means they have no hearts. Throw the bums out.

My name is John Vigor and I approve this message.

Today’s Thought
I tell you, Folks, all Politics is Apple Sauce.
— Will Rogers, The Illiterate Digest

“She told me you told her the secret I told you not to tell her.”
“Aw gee, I told her not to tell you I told her.”
“You did? Well for goodness’ sake don’t tell her I told you she told me you told her.”

October 8, 2015

Disagreement with the experts

TWO VERY EXPERIENCED ocean racers have agreed that it would be wise to criss-cross the cockpit of a yacht with ropes during a storm at sea.

I am a bit puzzled by this.

At first sight, I’m not sure it’s a good idea at all, but I would be foolish to argue with either of these men.The first is Warren Brown, of Bermuda, who owned a 40-foot ocean racer named Force Seven. She was designed by William Tripp, and she was overtaken by a hurricane between Bermuda and Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1964.

Warren is quoted in a famous book on the danger of deep-sea voyages called Heavy Weather Sailing, by K. Adlard Coles. Here are Warren’s own words:

“By 1700, steering had become extremely difficult, and of concern for the deck watch. We criss-crossed the cockpit completely with rope, giving handholds for every movement in this area as a safety measure additional to safety belts.” Force Seven was knocked down many times, and her cockpit was filled with water on several occasions, but she weathered the hurricane and eventually arrived safely in Newport.

The second experienced ocean racer is Adlard Coles himself, of course. In his book, Coles describes the cockpit lash-up as a “useful tip,”and adds: “It is not uncommon for part of the crew to be swept out of the cockpit if a yacht is knocked down in a heavy gale, and several went overboard in the gale of the Bermuda Race of 1960 . . . the criss-cross of ropes seems a practical idea to help prevent accidents of this sort.”

Well, I can see the sense of providing handholds for the cockpit crew, but how would they be able to move around in the cockpit with ropes strung like spider webs at or about waist level? I can’t imagine trying to move fore or aft by high-stepping over line after line. It would be bad enough with the boat at rest in harbor, but how would you do it at sea with the boat bucking and heeled over?  I also wonder about the chances for getting sheets, other sail controls, and even your own tether snagged and tangled up in this web.

Warren doesn’t give any details of how many ropes were used, or where they were attached, but I presume they’d have to be strung from coaming to coaming, which might even be higher than waist level on some boats. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has ever tried this trick, and how it worked out practically. Meanwhile, I’m highly skeptical, despite the authoritative recommendations.

Today’s Thought
They were suffered to have rope enough till they had haltered themselves.
— Fuller, Holy War

I want to know
How fireflies glow.
Do they carry
Little Exides
Slung beneath
Their tiny bexides?

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

October 6, 2015

Ships of the future

HERE’S A FOLLOW-UP to my last column about automated ships. It comes from a ship’s engineer called Ian who apparently (when he’s ashore) lives in Cornwall, England, with his wife Sue:

Hi John,
Don't worry, unmanned automated ships are not going to happen anytime soon — technically we are not far off, but legislatively . . .
What will happen is, (and has been happening for years already), that the number of crew on board will get ever smaller, so a lot of the hazards you mention (poor or absent lookout, reluctance or inability to communicate or assist, etc.) are here already.
Eventually they will be down to three watchkeepers (and a cook, perhaps!) monitoring the ship’s passage, cargo, engine, and vital systems from a control center on the bridge, together with mountains of checklists, form-filling and report-writing — already keeping the skipper’s eyes from the bridge window!
Navigation, weather routing, and bunkering will all be dictated from head office ashore, who will have live access to all data created on board, including video and audio, and be able to take control of vital systems if necessary. All cargo handling will be done by flying squads and maintenance by manufacturers’ and agency service teams put on board as the ship approaches port.
As a ship’s engineer who first went to sea in the seventies, when even a small cargo ship carried around 12-15 officers and 50 deck and engineroom crew, it took a whole trip to find out who was supposed to do what, and the ship was full of characters and traditions. I finished my career on a large car carrier with just five officers and six crew. Until shore-side management decided that we not allowed even a social beer together (total alcohol ban), life on board was still tolerable; I even had my wife travel with me.
Needless to say, the social and cultural life of the crew pictured above will be effectively zero, yet they will need to be intelligent and self-disciplined individuals to work at their allotted station for weeks or even months at a time; whilst knowing that their speech and every action is being monitored 24/7 by some bored office worker. I will not be signing up!
And yet . . . that young engineer remembers a tiny little water leak from a small-bore pipe to a pressure gauge, that ran down the pipe onto a girder, along the girder onto a cable tray, down a cable to a pressure switch, and eventually penetrated the gland on the pressure switch and filled it up with water . . . at which point the main engine stopped and refused to start again because it thought there was no oil pressure!
Find me a robot to spot and fix that one!
Today’s Thought
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— G. B. Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

“Any hint of a proposal yet, dear?”
“Yes, Mom, several. But so far he’s just ignoring them.”

October 5, 2015

Automated ship nightmare

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER I used to dream of becoming ship’s captain. Actually, to tell the truth, I mostly dreamed about girls, but every now and then the ship captain dream broke through. I wanted to go to a maritime academy to learn how to steer and navigate and bark orders that made seamen run around like ants, but I was never encouraged or sponsored, so I just drifted through my teenage years in the usual casual manner, not knowing where I was going and not caring about how I was going to get there. In any case, I wouldn’t encourage any teenagers to take up professional seafaring these days.

That thought came to me after I watched a TV news piece about self-driving cars. Several high-tech companies and practically all the auto makers are working on producing cars that drive and think for themselves. They’re already on our roads all over the country, and proving to be far better drivers than human beings. So far, I’ve only heard of cars driving themselves, but I don’t doubt that 18-wheelers will soon be doing it also, gawd help us.

And so, how close is the day when boats and ships of all sizes will drive themselves and put ship’s captains out of business? There have been experiments already, of course, and it would appear that sending a vessel across the ocean is comparatively easy, compared with the task of guiding a car safely on a road among hundreds of dumb and unpredictable human drivers.

The thought of oceans filled with unflinching steel freighters makes me very uneasy, though. The risk of collision with small yachts is bad enough already, but how will robotic ships avoid us?  Furthermore, will they feel it their bounden duty to rescue us when we’re in distress? Will they deploy their little lifeboats and come and get us?  And then, who will feed us when they take us aboard?  Will there be any food on board at all, as a matter of fact?  Artificial intelligence doesn’t need milk and cookies.

Navigation aids such as radar and, especially, AIS, may help to avoid collisions in some places, but congested areas near shore and ports will present their own problems. Those of us who wish to sail for pleasure may find our movements greatly restricted and controlled, but I hope the future will not turn out to be as bleak as it’s looking right now. Meanwhile, I’m glad I’m no longer a teenager with dreams of becoming a ship’s captain. I guess I’ll have to go back to dreaming of girls, much good may it do me.

Today’s Thought                                                               
We do not wish to be better than we are, but more fully what we are.
— V. S. Prichett, The Living Novel and Later Associations

“What jobs are hippies best fit for?”
“Holding on your leggies.”

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

October 1, 2015

Design flaw in small boats

I HAVE TO ADMIT that in this column we don’t often talk about sex in small boats. Regrettably, the subject is also much neglected by the yachting media in general. It was obviously also neglected by yacht designers in the past. Aboard those narrow-gutted, full-keeled little cruisers there was never room to swing even half a cat, never mind roger a woman. The priority in those days was to make boats efficient at sailing, rather than reproducing the human race. Go figure.

Nevertheless, to get back to the original point, if we intend to live in a democracy that defends our constitutional right to free speech and plentiful sex, then sex on small boats needs to be discussed with openness, frankness, dignity, and as few blushes as I can manage. If the kids are offended (as they should be if you brought them up properly) just send them off in the dinghy to play on the beach somewhere until we’re through.

It is perhaps not irrelevant to this discussion to note that Lin and Larry Pardey’s long-running book, The Capable Cruiser, shows Lin topless on the dust-jacket cover. She is perched on the main boom at the mast, pointing to something on the horizon, dressed only in a long wrap-around skirt, the kind known as a Polynesian pareu.

It was all very well for the Pardeys, of course. They don’t have any kids. How do couples with kids manage on a small boat, I wonder, the kind that doesn’t have a double stateroom aft. You can’t send them off in the dinghy every time you feel the urge. 

Traditionally, and in the absence of passion-killing ankle-biters, the V-berth was the passion pit. But most V-berths on small yachts are difficult to get into. You have to back in and fold yourself in half like a pocket knife. By the time you’ve got your limbs sorted out you’ve sprained two sacroiliac tendons, you’re exhausted, and the last thing on your mind is a bit of nookies. When people who live on small boats talk about safe sex, it’s not disease they’re thinking of, it’s broken bones, pulled muscles, and strained backs.

I suppose that if you’ve ever made love in the back of a car, you’ll probably find a V-berth roomy enough. Maybe. I’m not sure. To tell you the truth, I grew up in a country where the back seat of a car had room only for a large grocery bag, so I have never had the pleasure, if it is a pleasure. I now do have a car with a large back seat, but I’m not as flexible as I used to be and my bones are more brittle. I can’t do the athletic contortions that I’m told are necessary. So I guess I’ll never know.

When I was much younger and more flexible I fantasized about those lascivious blonde Swedish girls who (rumor had it) were always cunningly letting themselves be chased through the woods by young men waving birch branches. Coincidentally, a male friend with similar dreams bought a 17-foot dinghy in England. It had a small cabin on it. So I met him over there, and we set sail for the woods of Sweden via the English Channel and the continental canals.

But, alas, because of too much non-sexual dallying on the way, it took us three months to get from France to Holland, and the onset of winter drove us back to England, broke and very frustrated. We never did pause to wonder where we would make love if we actually did catch a couple of those lovely Swedish nymphs. There wasn’t room on our boat for the birch branches, never mind the nymphs.

On really small boats you may have to do it standing up with your head out of the hatch. In a crowded anchorage, that means you have to assume a look of calm nonchalance while you ostensibly scan the horizon for signs of storm clouds or something. In the interests of maintaining this little deception, you should not scream or roll your eyeballs too far back in your head. Other nearby sailors, the crafty devils, are very quick to notice things like that and make their own deductions.

In these modern times, while the hoi polloi are concentrating on safer sex, small-boat sailors are still searching for better sex. It’s a sad reflection on the state of yacht design. The naval architects have failed us. Maybe WE should go ashore in the dinghy, find some friendly bushes, and strand the kids on the boat while we think about the solution.

Today’s Thought
Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.
— William J. Brennan, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 24 Jun 57

“Sorry lady, bad news. I just ran over one of your roosters in the road out there. I feel real bad about it and I’d like to replace him.”
“Well sure, just as you wish, mister. You’ll find the henhouse next to the barn.”