November 1, 2016

One last word

IT’S AN AUSPICIOUS DAY. This blog has just notched up a million page views since its inception on October 20, 2008. Actually 1,000,116 page views as I write this, according to my Blogger statistics page. More than 1,230 columns altogether.

My grateful thanks are due to you, my loyal readers.  I don’t know what makes you choose this blog from all the hundreds or thousands that now inhabit the boating blogosphere, although I have to admit it is unusual  in some ways. It appears three times a week. There are no ads flashing for your attention. There is no begging for beers. It’s  not larded with bling or eye candy for entertainment. It’s just for sensible people who love boats and who are content  to read plain words.

One strange thing I might mention is that  the name of the column is Mainly about Boats but nobody calls it that. It’s just known as John Vigor’s Blog, a name I wouldn’t have chosen myself because few people know how to pronounce Vigor. It’s not your fault, or even mine.  I wasn’t around when that pronunciation was first decided upon and passed down through the ages. For the record, it’s VIGH-gore. but I have learned to respond amiably to anything from VEE-gore to Vigger.

That millionth page view has come just in time. I fear I am about written out. Almost everything I know about boats has been discussed in this column, but I’ve always been concerned about being boring or appearing to be a know-all. Meanwhile, I am getting long in the tooth, so my thoughts now are turning toward quitting while the going is good; that is, before WikiLeaks releases my secret e-mails and I find myself accused  of sexting  pictures of boats rather than girls. 

How will you live without me, you ask? (Yes you did. I distinctly heard you.) Well, there are archives over there on the right, of course. More than twelve hundred columns preserved for posterity. Unfortunately, I have no idea how long posterity might be, according to Blogger. I’m sure they need the space for other bloggers, so if you want to riffle through the assembled collection, now’s your chance.

Once again,  my heartfelt gratitude to all of you who have accompanied me on my little blogging adventure over the years; and a special word of thanks to the billions of members of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club who have so faithfully kept their promise never to praise me. Your task will be much easier now.

Fair winds and good landfalls,

John V.

Cogito, ergo sum
Sum, ergo velo
Velo, ergo nutso

October 31, 2016

The nose always remembers

I WELL REMEMBER the first time I smelled a yacht. I was 14, and because of a lucky meeting on the beach beneath our small-town home, I was the caretaker of a 28-foot, hard-chine wooden sloop called Albatross. (Rich people from the big city 30 miles to the north. Weekenders.) I had Albatross to myself after school all week.
Every afternoon I'd row out to the moorings in the dinghy and just sit in wonderment in the cramped cabin. It was all new to me, the teak-and-holly sole, the mysterious quarterberths, the V-berth in the forepeak, and the gasoline engine hidden under the companionway ladder.

But it's the smells I remember now, many decades later. It's the smells that jar my memory of that sweet little boat bobbing on her mooring in the hot sunshine.

Tarred hemp from the forecastle, kerosene from the galley, along with denatured alcohol. The subtle aroma of teak bulkheads and old white paint overhead. Faint smells of gasoline from the engine compartment, and that peculiar smell of damp sailcloth that no sailor will ever forget, coming from the V-berth where the spinnaker was stored in its bag. Coffee from the food locker, and a metallic tang from the galvanized anchor chain. And if you pressed your nose to the bronze portholes you recognized a link back through the centuries to the Vikings and beyond.

All these scents mingled with salt-laden sea air in Albatross's cabin and I was entranced and bewitched. It was sheer magic, and I was never to forget it.

And just the other day I was reading Maurice Griffiths, the well-known British sailor and author. He, too, knew about the smell of a yacht:

"There is indeed something about the smell of ship that stirs a man's blood, a seductive, persuasive odor of oak and tarred rope and canvas and paint, of varnish and oil and galley smoke and rust, that exciting scent that clings like an aura to every shapely little schooner with her jib-boom steeved above the quays, and drifts on the breeze from every fishing smack that puts to sea; a haunting smell that goes to a man's head like wine and makes him yearn for a free life, open air and a wide horizon, and above all for the kick of a tiller under his arm and the scend of a stout little ship beneath his feet . . . Oh, I know." 

Today's Thought
There is nothing like an odor to stir memories.
— William McFee, The Market

“You need glasses.”
“How do you know?”
“I could tell as soon as you walked through the window.”

October 27, 2016

Lack of sleep -- the danger

CRUISING SAILORS undertaking long voyages need to be aware of the dangers of sleep loss. Apparently, a surprising number of sailors suffer from hallucinations caused by fatigue. And fatigue comes about when you don’t get a long enough stretch of deep, dreaming sleep.
Now I know that many long-distance sailors, particularly singlehanders, somehow manage to get by with many short snatches of sleep. Often they sleep for only 20 minutes and then get up to have a look around the horizon.  

But psychologist Dr. Glin Bennet, who interviewed competitors in a singlehanded race across the North Atlantic, discovered that 50 percent of them experienced one or more illusions or hallucinations.

I remember Frank Robb telling me of his experience. Frank was an intrepid seaman, a fisherman and a sailboat owner who learned his lessons in the stormy waters of the Cape of Good Hope, and who sometimes voyaged rather farther afield.

He was once singlehanding in his old gaffer when he encountered four days of rough weather in the Caribbean. As usual, he was deprived of wholesome sleep during that time, and when the storm subsided he wasn’t too sure of his position. But soon he spotted a fishing boat, and, in the distance, an island with a protected harbor.

He sailed in, waving to a launch crowded with sightseers, and found a good anchorage. With the last of his energy he lowered his anchor and went down below, where he passed out on the saloon floor.

Twelve hours later he woke up and went on deck. There was no land in sight, There were no boats around. Nothing but sea. The anchor was down, however, dangling uselessly at the end of a mere eight fathoms of rode.

Luckily, he felt no anxiety about his hallucination. He realized that sleep deprivation had affected his judgment, and that his overtired mind had invented the island to relieve him of the anxiety that was preventing him from getting healing sleep.

We now know that dreams are important. Fatigue affects you mentally as well as physically. It’s dangerous. And if storms prevent you from dreaming, your mind will eventually compensate with a parade of waking dreams called hallucinations. The good news is that hallucinations leave no permanent bad effects on the mind, so there is nothing to be frightened of.  To prevent hallucinations, it seems, you need an occasional uninterrupted sleep of six hours or more. And that’s not something that can ever be guaranteed for a singlehander. 

Today’s Thought
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
— Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism

“Boy we had some excitement at our place last night. We had a burglar in the house. You should have seen my husband coming down the stairs three at a time!”
“Did he catch the burglar?”
“Hell no, the burglar was upstairs.”

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

October 25, 2016

What about hand tools?

SOMETIMES I FEEL VERY UNEASY when I see how dependent we have become on machines. Have we lost the art of working on boats with hand tools, or have we simply lost the will?

I mention this because I watched with fascination a discussion on a boating bulletin board. A poster wanted to know how best to cut through a small stainless-steel pin, one that looked about 3/16-inch in diameter. “Get an abrasive wheel,” someone advised him. “Or get a large bolt cutter with hardened steel jaws.”

“No, no, said another. Get a 4 1/2-inch angle grinder.”

I shoved my oar in: “Use a hacksaw,” I said. “It’s simple. It’s easy.”

Big mistake. A quick rebuttal followed: Cutting 416 stainless steel with a hacksaw would be incredibly difficult, said a boat owner who appears to be speaking more from hearsay than experience, and who has apparently invented a new grade of stainless steel. “Get a cheap 4-inch angle grinder and some metal-cutting blades. And safety goggles, of course.”

“No, no,” said the next poster in line. “An angle grinder can cause a lot of collateral damage. Use bolt cutters.”

“No, no,” came the follow-up. “Bolt cutters will crush the pin and you may not be able to get it out of the hole.”

And so it went on. The collective wisdom of the bulletin board ground away, taking longer than it would have taken me to cut the damn pin with my little hacksaw.

I grew up in an era when boat people used hand tools not only because they were cheaper and simpler but because they would work on boats in mid-ocean as well as they would on boats with umbilical cords plugged in to shore power. It is revealing to me that the first reaction now is to rush out and buy a power tool.

I built a wooden one-design racing dinghy with no power tools whatsoever. I had a beautifully made Stanley hand drill, which I loved dearly, and still have. And I had screwdrivers, saws and planes, files and sandpaper, and a large supply of elbow grease. I’m no shipwright, nor even a good carpenter, but it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to work simply and quietly with my bare hands; so much pleasure, in fact that I went on to build another three dinghies of the same design — only for those I used just one power tool, an electric drill. I still have that, too.

When I lived in San Diego, I bought a wreck of an International Mirror dinghy that needed a lot of work. The only place I had to work on it was in a garage I rented under an occupied apartment. I rebuilt that boat with hand tools in almost complete silence so that the occupants of the apartment wouldn’t hear me and have me thrown out. I secretly sawed and sanded and repainted and glued and screwed while listening to the noise of the television above, and they never found out.

The famous American round-the-worlder Jean Gau, the Waldorf-Astoria chef, used a hacksaw to clear his stainless-steel rigging after he lost his bolt cutter overboard when his 30-foot Tahiti ketch, Atom, was dismasted while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

My boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, built himself a small ocean-going yacht, a Thuella design by Harrison-Butler, without any power tools at all. He was working out in the open, in the bush.

There is great pleasure to be had in working slowly but effectively. There is deep satisfaction in developing the skills and patience to work with hand planes knives, saws and (if you have some toes left) the adze. The smell of curly new wood shavings thrills me still, as does the lack of noise, that infernal, unnecessary noise. It’s sad that too many people are now scared to do anything by hand, scared even to contemplate cutting a thin rod of stainless steel with a hacksaw. I can only hope this is a passing phase and that sailors will one day learn to use their hands again, just as their ancestors did.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

“Does your husband always speak to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for another Mainly about Boats column.)

October 23, 2016

Driving designers crazy

NAVAL ARCHITECTS tell me that nothing drives them crazy more than a client who wants “small changes” made to an existing design. “Just another three feet in length,” some hopeful says, “and she’d be perfect for me.”

“Just six inches less draft and I’d be able to get across the sandbar.”

I understand that yacht designers receive special counseling about this. They’re taught not to pull their hair out, or strangle the potential customer, even if the latter move would improve the human gene pool. They have to explain, as gently as they can, that changes like that mean starting all over from the very beginning.

People who want to build their own boats are especially vexing. Because venturesome sailors have such individual requirements and are usually close to broke, they are often tempted to buy stock plans that a designer has drawn up for a small boat and enlarge them on a photocopier. And when disaster looms, as it will sooner or later, they blame the designer. What they don’t know about is the law of mechanical similitude, a very interesting law that applies to boats of similar shape. Interesting things happen when you alter the size of a boat.

Let’s say you double the size of a vessel evenly all around. Here’s what happens:
— Length, beam and draft increase 2 times.
— Wetted surface area increases by 4 times.
— Interior volume increases by 8 times.
— Weight increases by 8 times.
— Stability increases by 16 times.

Now think about that. The new boat would be 41 per cent faster and could carry four times as much sail. But the point is that even small changes in proportion cause large changes in stability, buoyancy, maneuverability, accommodation, handling, and seaworthiness.

So if you want a boat that’s five feet longer, remember the law of mechanical similitude. Find a boat that was designed from scratch to be five feet longer in the first place. Don’t be tempted to economize with the stretch of doom.

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

“My neighbor’s dog keeps barking all night. I can’t sleep. I’m at my wits’ end. What can I do?”
“Buy it from him. Then HE won’t be able to sleep.”

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

October 20, 2016

Not always a sailor's delight

I BELIEVE IT WAS JESUS who spread the unconvincing rumor about a red sky at night being a sailor’s delight. In the Bible, (Matthew XVI: 2-3,) Jesus said, “When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.” Ever since, His followers have done their best to make a convincing case for this meteorological mythology. But they haven’t convinced me. Like most met. forecasts, even those from the highest and most impeccable sources in Heaven, this one is as likely to be wrong as right.

I mean, just think about it. Why should a red sky at night mean good weather the next day? What if there’s a cold front lurking just over the western horizon and it comes screaming through at 5 a.m.? Is that would you’d call a sailor’s delight?

And yet this old canard is quoted as gospel in all kinds of sailing circles. Wikipedia, the self-professed font all knowledge says: “In order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east.” So what? What about the new storm system roaring in from the west overnight?

“Weather systems typically move from west to east,” says Wiki. Yeah, right. Tell that to anyone in the path of a hurricane racing from Africa to America. Tell that to anyone cruising in the northeast or southeast trades. Typically, Wiki? Typically? Hardly. Only in a few places.

The same kind of brainless forecasting results from a red sky in the morning being a sailor’s warning, of course. And why always a red sky? I’m sure most of us have seen sunrises and sunsets where clouds were reflected in all kinds of gaudy colors.

Pink sky at night,
Gay sailors’ delight.
Orange sky at night,
Fruit-lover’s delight.

Almost any color of sky at night would be somebody’s delight. But not necessarily a sailor’s, no matter what the Bible says and Wiki regurgitates.

Today’s Thought
To talk of the weather, it’s nothing but folly,
For when it rains on the hill, it shines in the valley.
— R. H. Barham, The Nurse’s Story

“How do you like your new doctor, Ethel?”
“He’s great. So sympathetic. He makes you feel really ill.”

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

October 18, 2016

When a mast drives you mad

WHEN YOU’RE THINKING about buying a boat there’s always something you think of too late. Something that will keep you awake all night the very first time you drop the hook in a beautiful anchorage.
Slap! Clang! Slap! It’s the noise of the loose wires in the mast. The incessant noise of the loose wires in the mast. The noise that drives you mad with frustration as you lie wide awake at 3 a.m. in your nice cozy bunk wanting to tear the mast open with your bare hands and strangle those damn wires that go clang with every little movement of the boat.

I have seen instructions from the experts showing how to pop-rivet a small-diameter plastic pipe along one side of the mast. Apparently, if you thread all the wires and cables through that pipe they can’t move around enough to make a noise.

The other way, which is a whole lot easier, is to fit those nylon zip ties used to bundle up electrical wiring. You’re supposed to use extra-long ones, so that the stiff ends protrude, and place groups of four of them together so they stick out at right angles to each other. The ends should protrude more than the diameter of the mast, so they will bend in place with enough spring to hold the wires in the middle of the mast. The groups of four need to be about 6 inches apart all the way up the bundle. You then haul the wires up through the mast on your messenger line, fix them in place, and hope for the best.

I don’t know how long this arrangement will last. I can’t guarantee that the stiff nylon ends won’t make squeaky dozens of little scritching noises in the middle of the night, which might be more annoying than a few honest-to-god hearty slaps, but people who’ve done it assure me they’ve enjoyed nothing but silence.

On a long cruise, you’ll probably find that you don’t notice the slapping noises after the second or third night. Your brain just tunes them out. But the first night is always hell, no matter how calm the anchorage seems, and no matter how many Dark ’n Stormies you’ve taken as a medicinal aid to sleep.

So before you buy your next boat, put an ear to the mast and get someone to rock the boat from side to side. Then get a quote for dropping the mast and fixing the slap. Subtract it from the purchase price. No seller with the faintest modicum of conscience will object.

Today’s Thought
I never take a nap after dinner but when I have had a bad night, and then the nap takes me.
— Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Life, 1775

“I find you guilty and sentence you to a fine of $250 and 30 days in jail.”
“Oh, please Your Honor, please I beg of you, please reverse my sentence.”
“Very well. I sentence you to a fine of $30 and 250 days in jail.”

October 17, 2016

Reversing magnetic north and south

DEEP DOWN in the southern hemisphere scientists are trying to find out when the North Pole is suddenly going to become the South Pole.
According to the British Geological Survey, a world-renowned geoscience center, “The Earth’s magnetic field has had many highs, lows, and reversals in its past. The last reversal was around 800,000 years ago. So the Earth is known to be able to re-generate its field and has done so during human pre-history.”

A report from the scientific body says that South Georgia sits within a weak spot in the Earth's magnetic field known as the “South Atlantic Anomaly” (SAA). In this area, radiation from space penetrates deeper into the atmosphere.

“The SAA is growing and spreading westwards from South Africa as the Earth’s internal magnetic field rapidly weakens in this region. Scientist believe this may be evidence of a coming reversal in the direction of the Earth’s internal magnetic field,” says the report.

Well, I knew that scientists had examined ancient rocks whose construction revealed that the magnetic field was once reversed, but I never realized it had happened several times, and I never thought it would occur again in my lifetime. Can you imagine what’s going to happen?

All our maps, charts, and  atlases will have to be redrawn with a new north at the top, a north that we call the south at the moment. Geographic globes will have to be remade upside down. You can throw away your GPS and compasses  because the sun will rise in the west and set in the east. The blue bits on bar magnets will have to be painted over with red, and vice versa.

Antarctica and the penguins will be at the North Pole and all the polar bears will have to move to the South Pole. The South Pacific will swop names with the North Atlantic. The Northwest Passage will become the Southeast Passage and the trade winds will blow northwest and southwest.

South Carolina and North Dakota will have to change to North Carolina and South Dakota. Google Earth will have to turn upside down and have all its lettering changed. And lord knows what-all else.

Gawd, what a mess. I can’t believe those secretive scientists are springing this on us at the last moment. I’m having a hard enough time coping with the concept of global warming. The idea of turning the whole world on its magnetic head is overwhelming. I think I need to lie down for a while. Either that or drink a beer. I think I’ll try the beer first.

Today’s Thought
The more science learns what life is , the more reluctant scientists are to define it.
— Leila M. Coyne, San Jose State University

An Italian immigrant was having trouble with English irregular verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt anymore,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation. “I putted on weight.”

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

October 14, 2016

Sinning and loving it

SOME OF MY BEST memories of cruising under sail go back to times when I woke up well after dawn and let my eyes dwell on the moving light show overhead.
The water is sparkling this sunny morning in this quiet cove. It throws its dazzling reflections onto the white fiberglass over my head in the V-berth. And a deep feeling of bliss suffuses my body. There is simply nothing more luxurious or blissful than lying late in bed on a small boat, knowing that people on other boats in the anchorage are dutifully scrubbing their decks, wiping the dew off their varnish, and generally hopping around attending to the tasks of the day.

But it wasn’t always thus. I was brought up by proverb, idiom, maxim, and commandment, both Biblical and parental. (“Thou shalt not question the hour of bedtime.”) It was a time and place when Puritan virtues were esteemed. I never took too much food and I always cleaned my plate. I never talked to an adult until spoken to. I was taught to submerge myself in the team, never to stand out from the crowd. I washed behind my ears because cleanliness was next to godliness. I always went to bed on time. I never argued back. I would never have dreamed of having my nose pierced or my navel tattooed. Punctuality was the courtesy of kings, of course, and lying abed in the morning equated to sloth, one of the deadly sins. Early to bed, early to rise, on the other hand, made a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Actually, I couldn’t tell if it made me healthy, but I certainly became suspicious, years later, when it failed to make me wealthy or wise. I eventually had a serious talk with my conscience, which agreed (though rather reluctantly) that lying abed in the morning, though possibly sluggish, unproductive, and anti-social, should not be classified as one of the seven deadly sins.

Nevertheless, deep in the folds of my grey matter there still lurks a primeval suspicion that my parents were right. And that’s what makes things so delightful. There is simply no bliss greater, no pleasure more profound, than that which springs from sin.

I draw the sleeping bag up around my chin and shut my eyes. A happy smile parts my lips. It’s morning. It’s late. I’m still in bed. It’s wonderful. I’m probably sinning, and will be for another half-hour at least. And I don’t give a damn.

Today’s Thought
The avenues in my neighborhood are Pride, Covetousness and Lust; the cross streets are Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. I live over on Sloth, and the style on our street is to avoid the other thoroughfares.
— John Chancellor, New York, 24 Dec 84

“Please tell His Honor what the man said when you opened the door.”
“Your Honor, he said he hadn’t had a bite for five days.”
“And what did you do?”
“I bit him.”

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

October 11, 2016

How to write a best-seller

WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME how to write a best-seller, I usually point them at E. Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994 for her novel The Shipping News.
This book deals with the two subjects I know best, boats and newspapers. Here’s what I learned from E. Annie:

First you have to look up a lot of obscure little words that will impress the Pulitzer Prize committee with your knowledge of obscure little words. Here are some examples that E. Annie scattered around in her book: Ruvid, plangent, nacre, vetrid, thunge, drenty, sadiron, pelm, caliginous, strigil, and ichor. That’s just for starters. You need lots more than that.

Next you have to persuade your readers to suspend disbelief. There are those of us cynics who find it very hard to believe that the main character, a non-swimmer, learned to swim in 15 seconds after his dinghy capsized in the remote freezing waters of Newfoundland and was rescued six hours later by his boss who just happened to be out fishing in his own skiff.

Equally, it would be hard to persuade us that another man, who was drowned, found, declared dead, and later placed in his coffin for the wake, woke up when his wife accidently stuck him with a pin, started coughing up water and came back to life.

And then there was the man who had a farewell party that got so out of hand that a mob of his drunken friends took axes to his seagoing yacht in the harbor and actually sank it — and he didn’t mind. Didn’t mind. I ask you.

Furthermore, there’s this thing about knots that goes through the whole book. I have to admit that I believe Turk’s Heads bring good luck, but I simply can’t swallow the notion that knotted strings can cast witching spells, influence events, and foment bad occurrences.

So how you make your readers believe these things — or, at least not mind being told such big fibs? Well, it seems that you have to bombard them with facts.

E. Annie obviously did extensive research into Newfoundland fisheries, boatbuilding, weather, weak jokes, and the staggering incidence of incest and sexual assault in the region. And she never leaves out a fact she researched. Line after line of facts, real facts, whether they have anything to do with the plot or not. Well researched facts are plainly the things that earn Brownie points for pusillanimous Pulitzer wannabees. They cover up the pusillanimity, if you see what I mean. As far as the author is concerned, such lists of boring facts may well be no more than corroborative detail, intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (as Mr. Gilbert put it) but they do serve very well the task of pulling the wool over the eyes of the Pulitzer prize committee, and I commend this strategy to you.

But wait. There is more. If you are writing a love story, as this is, you must be careful not to make your main characters too lovable. I presume the Pulitzer people must have become too jaded after reading so many love stories about curvaceous blonde bombshells and handsome, dashing, muscle men. E. Annie must have known this because she was careful to describe her hero (um, well, main character, anyway) as fat and disheveled, with a hideous prognathous jaw — a man, moreover, of “cringing hesitancy.” And who was attracted to this timid tub of lard? A middle-aged woman with calloused hands, gray, mended dresses, and “taut thighs like Chinese bridges.” Holy cow. Chinese bridges?

Finally, here’s a hot tip from E. Annie: learn to write shorthand, diary style, in between the long lists of facts and lengthy paragraphs of dialogue. Leave out verbs and other important words, and let your readers make up their own sentences. Here’s what I mean:

“Saw her. The tall woman in the green slicker. Marching along ... A calm almost handsome face, ruddy hair ... Looked right at him.”

Well, that’s the most of it. That’s how you write a Pulitzer winner. There’s only one more thing. You also need to be a genius like Ms. Proulx. You have to understand human nature and the subtle relationships between people; and you need the skill to convey their emotions to your readers, especially the PP committee members who are struggling to see through the wool.

I’ll never win a Pulitzer prize, that’s quite certain, but there may be some of you out there who will benefit from the advice here, and that is sufficient reward for me. I wish you the best of luck.

Today’s Thought
Excellence is the perfect excuse. Do it well, and it little matters what.
— R. W. Emerson

“What’s that mark on your nose?”
“It’s from my glasses.”
“Why don’t you try contacts?”
“They don’t hold enough beer.”

October 10, 2016

Knowing when to give way

EVERY NOW AND THEN we come across a situation under sail where someone has to give way to someone else, but nobody really knows who has to do what.

Imagine, for example, if you are sailing on port tack when you spot another sailboat way up to windward. The only sail he has up is a spinnaker, and it’s obvious from your angles of approach that if you each hold your course you will be in a collision situation.  In a situation like this, how do you tell who has right of way?

The rules say that If  you're both on the same tack, the windward boat should keep clear of the leeward vessel.  But if you're on opposite tacks, and he's on starboard, you have to keep clear of him.  And the trouble is, you can't tell if he's on port or starboard.

So let's go back and start from the beginning.  Here are my usual steps:

1. Try to ascertain if he's under power as well as sail.  If he is, he should be exhibiting a black cone, point down, in the bow.  Most amateur sailors ignore this rule, so check for exhaust smoke or engine cooling water instead.

Ø If he's under power (even if he has sails up) he must keep clear of you.

2. If it's another sailboat under sail only, check which tack he's on.

Ø If he's on the opposite tack to you it's simple: port tack gives way to starboard tack.

Ø If he's on the same tack, the windward boat must keep out of the way of the leeward boat.

3. But here's the interesting bit:

Ø If you're on port tack, and you see a sailing vessel to windward and cannot determine with certainty whether the windward vessel has the wind on the port side or the starboard side, you shall keep out of the way of the windward vessel.

The rule doesn't address what happens if the situation becomes clearer to you at the last minute, and you suddenly decide that he is the one who should be keeping clear. But common sense should tell you that if you've already made an obvious move to keep clear of  him, he will expect you to follow through and not create a last-minute emergency.

But the question remains: How were you to know what tack he was on, when he was flying only a spinnaker?

Well, the rules define the windward side as the side opposite that on which the mainsail is carried, OR the side opposite that on which the largest fore-and-aft sail is carried.

But this situation is ambiguous, since no mainsail is being carried by the windward boat.  If the spinnaker was boomed out to port, I would say that the mainsail, if it were being flown, would be deployed to starboard. That would put the windward boat on port tack and he'd have to keep out of your way. 

If a boomless cruising spinnaker were being flown from the starboard side, I'd say the boat was on port tack and the same situation would apply.

Nevertheless, if there's any doubt in your mind about any of this, you must revert to the rule under 3 above.  Play it safe. Presume he is the stand-on vessel and that you should keep out of his way.  Then make an large and obvious course correction so that he, too, knows what's in your mind.

Today's Thought

If a man will begin with certainties, he will end with doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

— Bacon, Advancement of Learning


"Wanna lift home? I like giving rides to experienced girls."

"But I'm not experienced."

"You're not home yet."

October 6, 2016

Rig tuning the cheaper way

HOW DO YOU TUNE your standing rigging if you can’t afford those expensive tension gauges? Well, there is a way.

It just so happens that the elastic stretch of stainless-steel wire increases in rough linear proportion to the load, up to about half the wire's breaking strength. Therefore, stretch is a good indication of load.

Thus, when a 33-foot-long 1 x 19 stainless-steel wire (of any thickness) is loaded to half its breaking strength, it will stretch 2 inches. Little wonder, then, that the leeward shrouds sometimes look a little slack.

Nevertheless, you can use this principle to tune your rig. Here's how:

Take all the load off a wire and mark on it as accurately as possible with tape or a marking pen a length of 1,980 mm.  Do this anywhere along the wire, where it's most convenient.

Now tighten the turnbuckle and measure the length again as you do so. You will find that every extra millimeter of stretch (up and above 1,980 mm) induces a load in the wire of 5 percent of its breaking strength.  In other words, an increase of 2 mm, with a space between your marks now of 1,982 mm, indicates a 10 percent load.

You can find out the breaking strength of the wire from the manufacturer's or retailer's catalog, and from that you can calculate the load in actual pounds or kilograms if you like. But it's just as easy to reckon that a moderate pre-load for the average rig is about 25 percent of the breaking strength.  In which case, you need to stretch your marked length by 5 mm to 1,985 mm.

That's it.  No need for expensive tension gauges. All you need is a tape marked in millimeters and you’re good to go.

Today's Thought
Often ornateness goes with greatness;
Oftener felicity comes of simplicity.
— William Watson, Art Maxims.

“Doctor, I think I’ve got water on the knee.”
“No problem, Mrs Jones, I’ll just give it a tap.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)

October 5, 2016

The puzzle that is leeway

EVER WONDERED WHY it is that the magnetic courses shown by your compass and your GPS never seem to agree? It’s something that has puzzled most of us in the past, but there is a simple answer. It comes about because sailboats slip sideways through the water almost all the time, except when they’re on a dead run.
What we’re talking about here is leeway. Now, leeway is really hard for ordinary mortals to detect. Even if there is land behind the forestay when you look ahead, it’s almost impossible to detect that the boat is slipping sideways while making forward progress.

So, although your compass shows the boat to be on a steady course of 090 degrees, your GPS might be showing your course to be 095 degrees. That’s because your compass shows your magnetic heading, not your course. And your GPS shows your course over the ground, not your magnetic heading.

In the absence of current, the difference between the two is leeway, the sideways slippage of the whole boat, which is at its maximum when you’re sailing against the wind and non-existent when you’re running dead before the wind.

Interestingly, your boat wouldn’t be able to sail to windward if leeway didn’t exist. The keel has to be angled slightly to one side or other of your direction of travel before it can provide “lift.” You can test this next time you’re motoring on the freeway by putting your hand out of the window. Note how it moves up or down as you move it from horizontal toward vertical. The same holds true for an airplane wing, of course. It has to be angled slightly as it moves through the air. 

Many factors affect leeway but the rule of thumb is that a sailboat beating to windward will make between 3 and 5 degrees of leeway in a breeze of 7 knots. As the wind increases, so does leeway, until it reaches about 8 degrees in 20 knots.

Short deep keels, known as fin keels and shaped like airplane wings, are more efficient than old-fashioned, long, shallow keels at providing lift to windward. Fin keels depend on forward motion for their efficiency, however. When starting to sail from a standstill, a fin keel will often allow a boat to slide sideways, providing no lift at all until forward speed is gained. Full-keeled cruisers, with their larger surface area, are more resistant to being pushed sideways at very low speeds, and have other advantages in survival weather on the open ocean, but they are less efficient at sailing against the wind.    

Unless your destination lies dead downwind, it’s usually wise to point up into the wind 5 degrees or so to compensate for leeway. Then you will achieve your planned course over the ground and your GPS will be very happy.

The oldtimers had an expression for it. They said a boat wasn’t going where she was looking. But she’ll go where you want her to if you understand and anticipate the effect of leeway.

Today’s Thought
Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.
And where the land she travels from? Away,
Far, far behind, is all they can say.
—Arthur Hugh Clough

Neil Diamond was once well into his act in a Chicago theater when four women held up a poster reading: “Will you sleep with me tonight?”
Neil didn’t falter. “Ladies,” he announced, “I can perform only once a night — and this is it.”

October 3, 2016

First time coming last

CAN THERE BE ANYTHING WORSE than coming stone last in a sailboat race?

I had finished way down the list before in all sorts of boats from 30 Square Meters to sliding seat canoes,  but never, ever, had I come last.

But there we were on a perfectly normal day, a nice warm northeasterly blowing 10 to 15, no tide to speak of, flat water in the protected bay and a decent start at the windward end of the line — and everybody started to come past us.

It was the brutal simplicity that attracted me to the Mirror class. My boat weighed a little over 100 pounds, and there were hardly any strings to pull, just a gunter-rigged mainsail and a tiny jib with fixed fairleads.

What it boils down to in international one-design classes like this is the skill of the helmsman and crew — basic  human cunning, strategy, and experience.  It's like a cross between chess and poker on water.

We had always done well before. Won the offshore series outright, in fact. Came second in the nationals. Now this.

A boat skippered by a man we all called The Bumbling Idiot came up astern, then pointed up unbelievably high and promptly started to overtake us to windward.  I luffed him immediately, of course. Pure reflex.  He didn't respond. I hit the moron amidships and shouted "Go home!"   He smiled and shouted, "It's OK, John, don't worry about it. Carry on. I won't protest." 

HE wouldn't protest. For God's sake, HE wouldn't protest. I couldn't believe my ears.  I couldn't believe my eyes, either. He was disappearing ahead of us.

They all came past us on that first leg to windward, singly and in groups, going faster and pointing higher. The last one to overtake us was manned by two very large men, 250-pounders at least. Their jib was sheeted so tight it couldn't possibly contribute to forward drive. Their mainsail was backwinding at the mast and flopping all over the place at the leech. And still they came past, foot-by-foot they came past to leeward , two fat men laughing and chatting to each other and drinking beer out of tall cans, and when they hit our lee they simply bore off, gained speed, got ahead of us, and luffed up again to show us their transom.

By now, things were pretty desperate. "Sheet in the jib," I cried to my wide-eye crew. I slacked the mainsail until it, too, was flogging uselessly like the one ahead of us.  But nothing helped. We fell farther back. We finished last, five minutes behind the boat ahead, when the committee boat was already weighing anchor.

To my dismay, I never found out what went wrong that day. We checked the daggerboard and rudder for plastic bags and seaweed. Nothing. The sails looked the same as they always did.  We weren't carrying any excess weight. It was a total mystery.  For a long time I  suspected the intervention of some supernatural power. Maybe someone like The Bumbling Idiot had consulted a witchdoctor and put a spell on us.

But it never happened again, I'm happy to say. We eventually won the nationals, and The Bumbling Idiot became the Class Secretary and learned some of the basic rules, and best of all we never had to luff him again because he was always behind us.

Today's Thought
If you go directly at the heart of a mystery, it ceases to be a mystery, and becomes only a question of drainage.
— Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins.

“I see your husband finally gave up smoking.”
“That’s correct.”
“It must have taken a lot of willpower.”
“Yes, I have a lot of willpower.”

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

September 29, 2016

The heater that made ice

PEOPLE HAVE TRIED to persuade me that if you have a heater on your boat you can extend your sailing season by six weeks or so at each end. I have never been swayed by that argument. Having spent a great deal of my life in the sub-tropics, I have no love of sailing in the cold. Or the cold-and-rain, as often happens around here.

There was a heater of sorts on a boat I once had, a little Cape Dory 25D. My wife and I found her on an island in north Puget Sound, and sailed her home one bitter-cold day in February, when there was ice on deck. We had an overnight stop in a marina in Anacortes, where we ran into an old sailing friend. He offered us an electric heater because he said a cold night was forecast, but we scoffed and turned him away. “We have a nice Force 10 heater installed,” we said.

After a meal ashore, we came back to the boat and lit the heater. It had started life as a kerosene model, but the previous owner had converted it to gas. A small can of propane screwed onto the bottom.

We soon noticed something strange. It didn’t seem to be producing a lot of heat, and what heat it did produce rose to the top of the cabin and stayed there. What was even stranger was the fact that the can of propane was collecting a coat of ice. If we stood up in the cabin, the air was luke-warm from the belly-button up, and freezing cold from the belly-button down. As the layer of ice on the can grew thicker, we shut the heater off, fearing that it was actually producing more cold than heat on average. Our bunks were below belly-button level, so we spent a very cold night aboard, having brought only light-weight sleeping bags with us, and regretted having turned away the offer of the electric heater.

One of the first jobs I did on that boat was to convert the Force 10 back to kerosene heat.

It was a fairly easy job once I’d bought the right tools for flaring the copper tubing and so on. The new burner put out a lot more heat and never tried to make ice, but the hot air still hung around above belly-button level until we bought a 12-volt fan and mounted it where a reading lamp used to be. That stirred the air up nicely, distributing warmth all over the cabin from head to toe.

But we rarely used that heater because the fan used electricity, and I was scared we might flatten the battery overnight and not be able to start the diesel engine on a cold morning.

I have learned over the years that very little is simple on a boat, and the less you have to go wrong the better off you are. So I’m not overly enthusiastic about heaters on boats in our part of the world. That of course provides me with a very handy excuse for not sailing when the weather gets cold, which is fine with me.   

Today’s Thought

What is true, simple and sincere is most congenial to man’s nature.

— Cicero, De Officiis


“Who gave you that black eye?”

“My wife.”

“I thought she was out of town.”

“So did I.”

September 27, 2016

The importance of a compass

IF I WERE TO GUESS, I’d say the fixed steering compass is the most important navigational instrument on a boat. I know that GPS has tried to steal this title ever since it was invented, but I don’t think it has earned that honor yet.

The wonderful thing about a compass is that it points the way to go, day and night and in all weathers. GPS can’t point the way to go because it only takes snapshots of where you’ve been in the past, and uses that information to tell you what your course was a few moments ago, and presumably will be in the future, if you keep going straight.

The compass is a beautifully simple piece of equipment that needs no electrical power and has hardly anything to go wrong. It does need to be lit at night, I admit, and an electric bulb is a good way to do this, but they also used small kerosene lanterns on square-riggers, before Mr. Edison came along with his new-fangled light bulb.

Oh, and sometimes, after a lot of exposure to hot sunshine, a compass will develop bubbles. In the old days, when the damping fluid was alcohol, you used to top up the compass with gin, if there was any left after the skipper had been at the bottle. Nowadays they use a petroleum-based fluid that is about 10 times as expensive, but you can get away with using odor-free, water-clear kerosene if the bubbles aren’t too big.

With compasses, as with most other things in life, you get what you pay for. If you’re buying a new one, here are two simple tests that will give you an idea of its quality:

The test for pivot friction: Use a small magnet or a piece of ferrous metal to deflect the compass about 5 degrees to one side, then quickly remove the magnet or metal.

The compass should return to the previous position exactly. Do a similar test from the other side.

The damping test: Deflect the compass card again, but this time let the card pivot through about 30 degrees. When it returns, see how far it overshoots the original mark. A quality compass with proper damping has minimum overshoot and will regain its original position with quick authority — that is, without excessive hunting backward and forward. A cheap compass that hunts endlessly will drive a helmsman nuts in a seaway.

Incidentally, don’t think you can cure bad deviation by installing a new compass. The new compass will have exactly the same deviation as the old one because deviation is caused by external factors on the boat around it. And if deviation is more than 5 degrees on any heading, don’t hesitate to call in a professional compass adjuster.

Today’s Thought
Change as ye list, ye winds! my heart shall be
The faithful compass that still points to thee.
— John Gay, Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan

Books I’d like to find in my library:
Mother and Child, by Polly Anderson
The Appointment, by Simeon Mundy
Ceaseless Fall, by Eileen Dover
Shattered Window, by Eva Brick
Front Row of the Stalls, by Seymour Legge
Droopy Drawers, by Lucie l’Astique
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for another Mainly about Boats column.)