January 31, 2016

Port and starboard poppycock

AMERICA’S largest-circulation boating magazine is trying to educate landlubbers. The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine tries to explain why we sailors refer to port and starboard instead of left and right.

The answer, says BoatU.S., “is that the starboard side is ALWAYS the starboard side, no matter which way you, or anyone else, is facing on board.”

Now I have heard this explanation many times before, and the lack of logic has always offended me. Who in his right mind would suggest that the right side of a boat becomes the left side if you’re facing backward? 

What about the bow and the stern? Do we call the front part the bow because it’s always in the front, no matter which way we’re facing? Of course not. We refer to such things as port and starboard to confuse landlubbers. We call the front part the bows and the back part the stern because it makes us seem smarter. It’s sailor talk and obviously too difficult for mere landlubbers to master.

I cringe when I read the false explanations in magazines. “Imagine that you’re on a boat and the captain asks you to quickly put fenders over the right side,” says BoatU.S. “If you were facing one another, would that be your right or his?”

Well, for Pete’s sake, does your right arm become your left arm if you turn around and face the other way?  Why should the right side of a boat suddenly become the left side because a human being turned around?

“Imagine it’s getting dark, or heavy weather is upon you, and you can’t see which way people are facing on the boat. Saying ‘It’s to your left!’ or ‘Look to the right!’ would make no sense to anyone and would create confusion that could threaten the crew and the boat,” says the magazine.

What poppycock. It sure makes you wonder how people get along when they’re ashore on dark nights. How the heck do they manage to get anything done without running into each other?

The truth is the there is no reason why we shouldn’t use left and right instead of port and starboard. The U.S. Navy uses left and right for steering instructions. The U.S. Coast Guard uses left and right in place of port and starboard. “HARD RIGHT (LEFT) RUDDER means put the rudder over to the right the maximum degrees allowed by that class of ship,” says the book.  If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for readers of BoatU.S. magazine.

The real reason we use port and starboard, and the rest of the nautical nomenclature, is that we simply continue to use the words that have evolved over the ages as ships have evolved. We didn’t deliberately invent the word starboard so dumb sailors wouldn’t get dizzy trying to find their right hands at night. It derived from the old words for steering board, the side over which the steering oar was traditionally placed.  And the port side was the side you placed against the quay in port, so you didn’t damage your steering oar.

But there’s no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t talk about the front end, the back end, the right side and the left side, if we wanted to, so that anybody, even dumb sailors, could understand. And, come to think of it, one of the things I love about Washington State car ferries, which have front ends at both ends, is that they label them End No. 1 and End No. 2.  No confusion there, no matter which way you’re facing.

Today’s Thought
Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Doctor, I think I’ve got water on the knee.”
“No problem, I’ll just give it a little tap.”

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

January 28, 2016

Sad sailor soils his salopettes

HANDS UP those of you who know what salopettes are.

Yeah, well, okay, I should have known there would be some smart-asses among you. Salopettes, for the rest of us, are sailing trousers and tops combined, a sort of Frenchified, adult onesie. You might say they’re a fancy kind of waterproof bib and trousers — sleeker, cooler, and much hauter in the ranks of nautical haute couture. And, naturally, correspondingly more expensive.

I mention this because someone called Torp has been writing about them on Yachting Monthly’s “Scuttlebutt” forum. Salopettes have been giving Torp problems:

“I have a pair of enthusiastically bright yellow salopettes,” he writes. “They are my pride and joy. However, I used to race on an old boat with blue ‘grippy’ stuff all over the deck. Courtesy of a good few sea hours buttock-down on the windward rail, I have found that this stuff has transferred itself to the seat of my trousers and no amount of scrubbing has made a dent in. So, long ago, I stopped trying.

“I don't mind, and the clothes are still waterproof so I'm not planning on forking out for a new set. However, I've been sailing on a different boat recently. This is one of those posh icebergs with gleaming gelcoat and fixtures and fittings pretty much still in their shrink-wrap.

“The skipper is fiercely boat-proud  and ALWAYS well turned-out in the latest, freshest kit in a sleek pale grey (a color that wouldn't last five minutes on me). Today I received several vibes that my dirty bottom and I are not quite up to the required standard. Remarks were directed towards my dulled posterior 'letting the side down', and I did observe the skipper later checking the spot I had just quit, presumably to make sure that none of my ancient arsegrime had contaminated his treasured decks. A further subtle hint I picked up on was that whenever we passed another crew at close quarters I was hastily bundled into the cockpit.

“Anyway, it's a great boat and I'd like to continue sailing on it, but I'm fairly sure I'm soon to receive an ultimatum from the owner — he's going to tell me that my smutted cheeks are making the boat look bad. So please, can anyone recommend a product that will get rid of him?”

A little later, Torp, returned to the forum with an update on his unfortunate problem:

“Following hours of fruitless scrubbing and sluicing over the past few years, for no apparent reason some of the seemingly-unshiftable filth started to come off in last weekend's dreadful weather.

“When we got back the skipper watched, stoney-faced and silent, as I had to hose all the buttock-width streaks off his gleaming gelcoat.

“The weird thing is, though, the salopettes don't even look any cleaner! And judging by the state of the boat afterward, LOADS came off. LOADS did. What the hell is that stuff?!

“Also! Does anyone else need crew?”

Well, as you can imagine, Torp received many suggestions from fellow forum members concerning what to do about his dirty bottom, most of them more humorous than practical. There was one that caught my eye, however. It suggested that if the skipper wanted his crew to match his own splendid outfit, he should provide them all with the appropriate uniforms, as all the top racing owners do. Absolutely right.

Meanwhile, as the owner of nice comfortable 20-year-old foul-weather gear, I have no plans to replace it with fancy salopettes. I fear it will take more than new duds to make me acceptable on gin-palace racing boats.

Today’s Thought
It is possible in England to dress up by dressing down, but it’s a good idea to be a duke before you try it.
— John Russell, NY Times, 9 Mar 86

“Sara says she ran into you at the vegetarian club.”
“That’s a lie. I’ve never met herbivore.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 26, 2016

Tricky question from lame brain

MY BRAIN HAD A QUESTION for me in the middle of the night: How does a rudder rud?

“We know how a writer writes and how a singer sings,” it said, “but how does a rudder rud?”

My brain thinks it’s quite funny on the quiet but in fact its sense of humor is quite warped. Nevertheless, as I had the rest of the disturbed night to think about it, I did start considering the question.

I seem to remember learning that it’s not the rudder alone that steers a sailboat. It’s all very vague now, but apparently the rudder just starts the boat turning, and the hull, now being at an oblique angle to the boat’s forward progress, is forced off to one side or the other. So I’m not exactly sure how the rudder ruds, except that it’s a hydrofoil that generates lift in either direction, according to how you turn it.

Nevertheless, it’s the action of the rudder that you feel when you’re slicing along to windward on a lovely day in a calm sea and all is wonderful around you. A couple of fingers on the tiller is all that’s need to keep your little beauty running straight and true — until a sudden gust of wind comes along, and you find yourself tugging the tiller up under your chin. It’s the dreaded weather helm, of course. Even on boats where the sail plan is nicely balanced with the keel plan, weather helm will show its ugly face, and it’s not hard to see why.

If you take a model yacht, place it in water (your bath will do), and use a finger behind the mast to push it forward, the boat will tend to go straight as long as the mast is upright. But if you heel the yacht over and push in the same place in the same direction with the same finger, you’ll find that your finger, the source of forward power, is now out to the side of the boat. You’re creating an off-balance push from one side of the boat. Naturally, the boat will try to turn toward the opposite side. You will have to counteract that tendency to round up into the wind by turning the rudder.

Now the rudder is a very effective brake. On sailboats it needs to be a large hydrofoil because it moves through the water comparatively slowly. Various designs of rudder make brakes of greater or lesser efficiency, but they all slow the boat down, some considerably, when they are turned. That is why it pays to reef the sails when the boat is heeling too much. The mast, being more upright now, creates less weather helm for the rudder to deal with.

This is all very simplistic, of course, suitable for a lower-class brain to absorb. It’s presuming that the driving force is transmitted at one point through the mast, which is convenient but not true. You can tell that because of how the mainsheet pulls when you’re on the run. There are forces on the shrouds and stays, too, all driving the boat forward.

It’s also presuming that the rudder is working upright in optimum conditions in calm water, which is not always the case. We all know that a rudder is less effective the more the boat heels, and hardly works at all in the foaming water left by a wave breaking under the stern. So it’s all really highly complicated and, I regret to say, too esoteric for a brain like mine.

Today’s Thought
He who will not be ruled by the rudder, must be ruled by the rock.
— Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature

Words of wisdom from Scotland:
“A weel-bred dog gaes oot when he sees them preparing tae kick him oot.”

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

January 24, 2016

The suicidal barnacle problem

I HAVE ANTI-FOULING PAINT on my mind. The authorities in charge of all living things in the water have banned the use of certain bottom paints for yachts because they are toxic to sea life. Probably the most effective of these anti-fouling paints was based on tin, and that is almost completely forbidden now unless you have an aluminum boat.

 You may well ask where the logic is in banning copper paint because it’s toxic. Lots of things are toxic. Handguns are toxic to human beings, for example, but we don’t ban them. Not in this country, anyway.

But more is to come. The bottom-paint police are now considering banning copper paint, too. I don’t know of any viable alternative to copper paint for most of us — and by viable I mean compatibly priced and easy to apply — so it appears our underwater hulls are doomed to play host to great colonies of barnacles.

Now, there is a point that the bottom-paint police seem to have overlooked. These sea creatures they’re so concerned about are not helpless. They have a choice. They are not forced to attach themselves to your hull. Nobody tells them they have to live there. They have the whole sea to choose from, billions of welcoming rocks and sunny beaches, concrete seawalls, and lovely wooden piles; and if they have any of the sense of survival that Nature is supposed to have instilled in them, they will carefully avoid the comparatively tiny number of boat bottoms painted with copper paint. Those creatures without that sense of survival (and there do seem to be some) surely deserve what they get, and their suicidal genes should not be passed on to future generations.

It is difficult to perceive what part is played in the great business of life on earth by barnacles, and their cousins, limpets, and their low-life relations, brown and green slime. I seem to remember a hymn about all things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small, but the voice of experience tells me that not all creatures great and small are wise and wonderful. And that applies especially to the barnacles and slime that attempt to fasten their useless selves to boats.

Let us not forget that Whoever or Whatever created barnacles also created copper, and nowhere in the good book does it say the twain shall never meet. Let Nature take its course, I say. Let copper keep boat bottoms clean. Let all wise and wonderful barnacles go and live somewhere else, and let Nature remove the dumb and unwonderful ones in the old approved manner.

Today’s Thought
Nature is that lovely lady to whom we owe polio, leprosy, smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cancer.
—Dr. Stanley N. Cohen, geneticist, Stanford

(He forgot barnacles. —JV)

“You in trouble with the IRS again?”
“Yeah, they disallowed my medical expenses.”
“What medical expenses?”
“Five hundred dollars for the tooth fairy.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 21, 2016

Smoke without the mirrors

IF IT LOOKED like you had drowned in Massachusetts in the 18th century, someone was certain to come along and blow smoke up your ass. That was the published instruction, although more politely expressed. The official version was that victims of drowning were to be revived by blowing tobacco smoke up the victim’s rectum while bathing the victim’s chest with hot rum.
You may well wonder how the smoke inflation was accomplished. I can only tell you that it wasn’t done cheek-to-cheek. Special machines were built for this purpose. I have never seen a picture of one, so I can’t tell you what they looked like, or how they worked. All I know is that it wasn’t an original New England practice. The idea apparently came from The Netherlands.

Dutch people were always falling into the canals and drowning, apparently, so, in 1767, they founded the Amsterdam Society for the Rescue of Drowning Persons. These poor souls were to be taken into a house where their airways could be inspected. Their wet clothes would be removed and they would be warmed up by being rubbed with woolen clothes, after which “tobacco smoke fumigation” was administered per rectum.

More was to come. Moderate bleeding could be performed from the arm or neck, and if signs of swallowing were observed (not earlier) some hard liquor could be poured into the mouth. Spirits of ammonia could be held under the nose.

If all this brought no  results, the society advised that the victim should be laid in a warm bed accompanied by a naked person to provide natural heat. 

In 1787, The Institution of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was founded, and the Dutch smoke-blowing trick was adopted in the New World.

Because boaters are more likely than ordinary landlubbers to come across drowning people, it might pay them to invest in a pack of cigarettes and a reliable lighter. (I’m not sure that nicotine vaping would do the trick.) But I leave it to you to figure out how to transfer the smoke from your mouth to the victim’s wotsit. It might need some thinking about.

Today’s Thought
The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.
— Dr. Lewis Thomas, President, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, NY Times, 4 Jul 76

A game park in Texas has reported an extraordinary cross between a lion and a parrot. A park spokesman admitted yesterday that they’re not quite sure yet what they’ve got, but when it talks everybody sure sits up and listens.

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

January 19, 2016

Words will never hurt you

IT STRUCK ME RECENTLY that we sometimes go too far with this business of political correctness. I mean, this business of shouting at the crew. It has somehow become politically incorrect to shout at one’s crewmembers, no matter how imbecilic their actions, no matter how little attention they pay to their duties. No matter, in other words, how much they deserve it.

Surely it is not incorrect to flay their skins with words, rather than the cat-o’-nine-tails that would have been used in the old days? Surely there is too much whining from the lower decks about the cruelty of skippers and mates? Have they forgotten about sticks and stones? Have they forgotten that words can never hurt you?

The author Mark Twain, who worked on river boats, knew a thing or two about cursing the crew when they deserved it. Here’s what he had to say about it:

“If the landsman should wish the gang-plank moved a foot farther forward, he would probably say: ‘James, or William, one of you push that plank forward, please.’ But put the mate in his place and he would roar out:

“Here now, start that gang-plank for’ard! Lively, now! What’re you about? Snatch it! Snatch it! There! There! Aft again!  Don’t you hear me? Dash it to dash! Are you going to sleep over it? Vast heaving! Vast heaving, I tell you! Going to heave it clear astern? WHERE are you going with that barrel! For’ard with it ’fore I make you swallow it, you dash-dash-dash-dashed split between a tired mud-turtle and a crippled hearse-horse!”

Of course, Mr. Twain wasn’t able to print the real language the mate used instead of dashes. Mates and skippers usually have much on their minds. They bear grave responsibilities for the safety of the ship and the people on board. A little shouting in the right place at the right time helps them to relax and concentrate on their duties.

I think it’s important for crew to understand this, and not to take verbal reprimands too personally. This is especially important in the case of a male skipper who might on the odd occasion, the very odd occasion, direct a harsh word or two at his wife or girl friend in the heat of the moment. He is not being politically incorrect. He’s just mad at you for doing something specially dumb. I mean, even dumber than usual. But don’t worry. This, too, shall pass.

Today’s Thought
In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.
— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

“Do you plead guilty to shooting your wife with a bow and arrow?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t want to wake the kids, Your Honor.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

January 17, 2016

First voyage of the Clermont

CAN STEAM BE USED to propel boats on a commercial basis? That was the question occupying people’s minds in the early 1800s. No, steam will simply not work, said the eminent engineer Benjamin B. Latrobe in a paper delivered to the American Philosophical Society in 1803. Yes, steam will work, said an inventor called Robert Fulton.

Latrobe maintained that the reasons why steam wouldn’t work were these:

Ø The weight of the engine and fuel

Ø The large space the engine occupies

Ø The tendency of the engine to rack the vessel and cause leaks

Ø The expense of maintenance, and

Ø Problems with the paddles breaking (if light) or from their weight (if made strong).

 Four years later,  Latrobe’s face must have been very red when Fulton launched a ship 133 feet long with two British-made steam engines, a huge smoke stack, and (believe it or not) a huge tiller attached to an outboard rudder.

She was called the Clermont and on August 17, 1807, she chugged all the way from New York to Albany, 150 miles, and back at an average of 5 knots. Here is Fulton’s description of the voyage in a letter to a friend:

“My steamboat voyage to Albany and back has turned out rather more favorable than I had calculated. The distance from New York to Albany is 150 miles. I ran it up in 32 hours and down in 30. I had a light breeze against me the whole way, both going and coming, and the voyage has been performed wholly by the power of the steam engine.

“I overtook many sloops and schooners beating to windward and parted with them as if they had been at anchor. The power of propelling boats by steam is now fully proved. The morning I left New York there were not, perhaps, 30 persons in the city who believed the boat would even move one mile an hour, or be of the least utility; and while we were putting off from the wharf, which was crowded with spectators, I heard a number of sarcastic remarks.

“This is the way in which ignorant men compliment what they call philosophers and projectors.”

Today’s Thought
Steam enginitis is very catching.
— R. D. (“Pete”) Culler, boat designer and builder

“Why so gloomy?”
“I parked my car outside my house and my Seagull outboard was visible on the back seat. I came back just 10 minutes later. I found the car had been broken into — and someone had left another Seagull next to mine.”

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

January 14, 2016

How small boats survive at sea

THIS QUESTION may never have occurred to anyone who grew up with small boats, but it’s one that often puzzles landlubbers: How do small boats survive at sea in storms that sink large ocean liners and freighters?

Winthrop P. Moore gave as good an answer as any in his book Yachts: Their Care and Handling (Dodd Mead, 1936):

“Small boats, offering less obstruction to the action of the waves because of their buoyancy, will float along on the top of everything, while great steamers are hammering into the waves and suffering damage.

“Another important factor is the difference in wave lengths. During a storm the distance from crest to crest of waves may be several hundred feet. This means that the small boat will never straddle waves, nor will she plunge into the trough at the same time that her stern is being pushed up by the passing wave.

“In other words, a small boat will ride on top of big waves, taking no green water aboard, when a larger vessel is finding the going extremely uncomfortable, and must slow down for safety.”

Those of you with a thorough knowledge of small boats and the sea will no doubt find Mr. Moore’s explanation a little simplistic. Perhaps you’re remembering that bigger waves have smaller waves upon their backs to bite ’em, and smaller waves have lesser waves, and so ad infinitum.

But hey, hold on there. Moore’s explanation is surely good enough for who it’s for.

Today’s Thought
The day will come when I will die. So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time. I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze.
— Richard Bode, First You Have to Row a Little Boat

If your dog has fleas, simply rub him with raw alcohol and let him roll in sand.
The fleas will get drunk and disappear by throwing rocks at each other.

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

January 12, 2016

Yo-ho-ho, and duty to be done

I REMEMBER once sailing past Dead Man’s Chest Island  in the British Virgin Islands, where 15 men are reputed to have been stranded with one bottle of rum. I remember it because I’ve often thought that one bottle of rum wouldn’t have gone far among 15 sailors in the old days. They were mighty topers in those days.

Sailors of the British Royal Navy were first officially supplied with a daily ration of rum in 1655, a privilege that lasted 325 years until the 1970s, and they drank prodigious quantities of it. In fact, a 20th-century British newspaper reporter revealed that Breathalyzer tests had shown that sailors could be legally drunk after drinking their rum rations.

Those rations amounted to 7 or 8 ounces of pure rum a day, the equivalent of about five cocktails for every man jack who claimed it, and I imagine there were very few who didn’t. I can’t imagine scrambling up the rigging, hanging upside down from the futtock shrouds, after five cocktails downed in one gulp. But it was quite normal procedure for them.

It didn’t necessarily make for more efficient ship handling, however, and this fact was not lost on the British Admiralty. But it took until 1740 for something to be done about it. That was when Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the rum be diluted: one quart of water to every half-pint of rum.

Vernon’s nickname among the sailors was Old Grogram because he wore a coat of a material known as grogram,  a sort of waterproof foul-weather outfit.

So the new diluted rum ration became known as grog, and Old Grogram wasn’t too popular among the troops, even though the amount of rum was not reduced. It just didn’t have the same sudden shock value as raw rum.

When naval ships began to be run by computers, and carried missiles with nuclear warheads, it was inevitable that landlubbers would start worrying about the alcohol content of the people with their fingers on the buttons. On July 31, 1970, British navy ships around the globe stopped serving rum to the sailors. The sailors wore black armbands and organized mock funerals.

So it’s up to us, folks, it’s up to us amateur sailors  to resurrect the grand old tradition that will surely be forgotten and lost in the mists of time if we don’t do something about it. We don’t have futtock shrouds to worry about, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Grab your bottle of Pusser’s or Black Seal and do your duty. Cheers.

 Today’s Thought
The great utility of rum has given it the medical name of an antifogmatic. The quantity taken every morning is inexact proportion to the thickness of the fog.
— Unknown, Massachusetts Spy, 12 Nov 1789

“Did you find a good math tutor for your son?”
“Yeah, he’s great. Even his teeth have square roots.”

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

January 11, 2016

Learning to trust your crew

A sailor I know told me the other day that he is hesitating about buying a bigger sailboat because he’s afraid his usual crew — his two teenage daughters — won’t be able, physically, to handle the bigger craft.

Now I am too streetwise to get into an argument about the capabilities of women, but I was reminded that several years ago I wrote a column on this very subject. I dug it out and gave it to the worried sailor; but it struck me that the advice I handed out then is still valid today. Here it is:  

A FRIEND OF A FRIEND is dreaming of crossing the Pacific under sail. He normally holds down a highly technical and well-paid job, but he’s out of work right now and not likely to be hired again until the economy improves.

However, he is a frugal man and has husbanded his resources. So now he’s thinking that this might not a bad time to turn his dream into reality.

His loyal wife, who crews for him on their 32-foot cruising sloop, is happy to go along with him, but he is worried about his two daughters, aged 16 and 14.

“If they were boys I wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation,” he says, “but I’m not sure girls will be able to handle the hardships.”

Well, I don’t know these daughters of his, of course, but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit old-fashioned to regard girls as lacking in the ability to handle crew duties aboard yachts. What they might lack in brute strength they surely make up for in ingenuity. You only have to be able to read to know that girls of 15 and 16 are sailing bigger yachts than his around the world on their own these days.

Besides, boys don’t always make idea crews anyway. The last time I crossed an ocean with a son, who was then 17 years old, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about him.

As we were the only two watchkeepers, he had specific orders to call me if he spotted another vessel at night. He had specific orders to call me if he thought a sail change was necessary. He had specific orders to wear a harness and tether when he was alone in the cockpit at night.

But he was 17. He was becoming a man. He couldn’t help himself. Nature was pumping testosterone through his tissues. He didn’t obey any of those orders. Although he was color blind, he guided us through a fleet of fishing boats one dark night way out in the South Atlantic while my wife and I slept below. I nearly had a fit when I found out.

And when we were running fast in the southeast trades I was woken up one night by the thud of footsteps running forward along the cabintop. My untethered son was jibing the foresail singlehanded, shifting the pole from one side to the other. I lay awake, staring into the darkness, listening to the noises, waiting for the thuds that would indicate he was returning to the safety of the cockpit. But they never came. Had he gone overboard? I reasoned — I hoped — that he had returned along the side deck. I wanted to get up and peek out of the companionway hatch, but I didn’t want him to know that I had caught him in an act of disobedience because that would have forced me to impose disciplinary punishment or else lose my power of authority over him, such as it was. So I lay there fretting for another half hour until it was time to go on watch and I could decently make an appearance. And there he was, sitting in the cockpit, neatly buckled up and looking the picture of innocence in the moonlight. I could have bitten him. But I didn’t ask him why the jib pole was suddenly on the other side.

I don’t think a girl would have disobeyed her father/skipper like that. Girls don’t have the same impulse to prove they’re macho.

Or do they? Maybe now I’m the one who’s acting old-fashioned. Well, if I am, I can’t help it. Old-fashioned is what I am. Like it or lump it. But my advice to the friend of a friend is simple: Go for it. Invest some trust in those daughters of yours. I’m sure it will be amply repaid.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan
Did you hear about the short-sighted moth that blundered into a 2-year-old's birthday party? He burned his end at both candles.

January 7, 2016

An innocent adrift in the soup aisle

THE ADMIRAL having been stricken with a long-term virus disease, it falls to me to forage for provisions. Unaccustomed as I am to grocery shopping, I bravely set sail for the victualling barge, an enormous structure named the Fred Meyer.

Inside, it’s all narrow gangways crammed with people seeking provisions, mainly women. Shelves from floor to ceiling hold all manner of gear from Tuscan melons to plumber’s wrenches.

I launch my little cart due west toward the Soup aisle and find myself passing through terra incognita, an area charted as Ladies’ Underwear. Speeding up, and averting my eyes from the flesh-colored frillies, I bear hard a-port at Cheese and  heave to in the Canned Soup aisle. I consult my sailing instructions from the Admiral:  “2 pkts Andersens pea soup. See lower shelves of soup aisle.” Oh, if only you knew the pathos of it. It’s all she can eat. It’s all she feels like, as she lies propped up in bed. Everything else tastes terrible.

It involves a long search. I reach the end of the aisle, go about, and tack back. Campbell’s everywhere. Thousands of cans of Campbell’s. No Andersens.

A pretty lady comes along. I try my trick of looking helpless, hoping she will take pity on me and lead me by the hand to the Andersens. No such luck. She speeds straight past, avoiding my gaze (deliberately, I believe, and regret to say). She grabs four small cans of Campbell’s, throws them in her cart, and sprints off.  

I drop my sailing instructions, bend down to pick them up, and lo, there on the very bottom shelf, where only a very underdeveloped dwarf would find it,  is a small and lonely collection of Andersens Split Pea Soup. I grab two cans — and feel a surge of relief and triumph.

I consult my instructions again. Fiber One.  Now, I’m not completely helpless. I know it’s a breakfast cereal. It must be with the packets of Cheerios and Cap’n Crunches. I cruise up and down the aisle. It’s crowded, and people get irritable when you drop anchor to inspect the labels and block the traffic.  

I’m on a collision course with a steely-eyed lady of advanced years at the helm of a large trolley. I’m plainly the stand-on shopping cart, being on the starboard tack, but she appears to have no knowledge of the responsibility of a give-way trolley — or, more likely, I fear, she doesn’t give a damn. Rule number two of the International Regulations  comes to mind and at the last moment I throw the helm over. I flash her my number one first-class glare, and draw my breath in with a loud hiss, but she sails past unrelenting.

Now I’m desperate for a pilot. I bear off downwind for the check-out counters where there’s a woman in an apron placing batteries on a shelf. She’s obviously a pilot and, just as obviously, she is engaged, but I see no pilot flag so I dive right in.

“Excuse me,” I say politely, “can you tell me where to find Fiber One?”

“Sure,” she says. She sprints off down the aisles, heaves to in the very same Breakfast Cereal aisle that I have just left, and reaches to the very top shelf where a lonely and (I must say) very inconspicuous packet of Fiber One resides.

“Very good for regularity,” she says a little too loudly.

“Thank you,” I say quietly, hoping she will go away now.

“It’s the fiber. My doctor says you don’t need prune juice if you eat Fiber One.”

Traffic in the cereal aisle is coming to a standstill. An interested crowd is gathering. They’re looking at me intently, trying to judge whether my insides are blocked up and whether I need a good dredging.

“Not for me,” I tell my pilot lamely. “Wife . . . Sick . . . No exercise . . .“

I thank her once again and the crowd parts to let me escape. I can tell they’re not buying it. They think it’s me that needs the Fiber One. They can tell. They’re smiling that sneaky smile that says I know you’re lying.

I shall make sure the Admiral is aware of the ignominy I am suffering in the course of revictualling and I shall light a candle for her quick recovery. I can only hope she is better before  she runs out of Fiber One.

Today’s Thought

I never make a trip the United States without visiting a supermarket. To me they are more fascinating than any fashion salon.

— Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, NY Journal-American, 8 Apr 64


You’ve heard of King Arthur’s Round Table, of course. But do you know who was the roundest knight? It was Sir Cumference. And how did he acquire his size? From too much pi, naturally.

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


January 5, 2016

The most wonderful mystery

A READER in Newport Beach, California, says she would like to know what the Bible means when it says:

 "There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
"The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."

Specifically, “Nautigal” wants to know about the way of a ship in the midst of the sea.

Well, ma’am, science has made great progress since those words were written. We can explain an eagle’s flight with aerodynamics. Herpetologists now know how a snake slithers across a rock. Dr. Phil understands all too well the wicked way of a man with a maid (and spares us no details). And that leaves the ship in the midst of the sea, the most wonderful of all the mysteries.

Little ships, and especially little sailing ships, conduct themselves in many different ways in the waves of the sea. You may have experienced them all without giving any particular motion a name or a definition. But one man made a list for us to wonder at.

He is the well-known American naval architect and author, Francis S. Kinney. He held that there were eight motions of a sailboat at sea:

Broaching: Accidentally swinging broadside on to the wind and sea when running free.

Heaving: Rising and falling as a whole with the seas.

Pitching: Plunging and scending, so that the bow and stern rise and fall alternately.

Pitchpoling: Accidentally tumbling stern-over-bow in a half-forward somersault.

Rolling: Inclining rhythmically from side to side.

Surging: Being accelerated and decelerated by overtaking swells.

Swaying: Moving bodily sideways.

Yawing: Lurching and changing direction to either side of a proper course.

I note that the discreet Mr. Kinney refrained from mentioning wallowing and foundering, which has happened in boats I’ve sailed. The foundering was in a small sailing dinghy, luckily, and there was a sandbank nearby. Perhaps Mr. Kinney’s designs never did those things. But he might well have included heeling, which is simply deliberately arrested rolling.

So next time you’re out there, “Nautigal,” take note of what your boat is doing, and at all costs avoid pitchpoling. That’s the most dangerous motion of all.

Today’s Thought

I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.

— Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Mystery of Life,” in Riverside Sermons

A man rushed into the dining car of a train. “A lady just fainted next door,” he cried. “Anyone got any whiskey?”

Several flasks were offered. He grabbed the nearest one and drained it in one gulp.

“Thanks a lot,” he said, “it always upsets me to see a lady faint.”

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

January 3, 2016

These old boats deserve better

I’M ALWAYS AMAZED when people selling boats won’t take the time and effort to clean them up a bit before inviting buyers to look at them. I’ve inspected two boats in the past few months, and quite frankly I was disgusted at the state they were in, despite the glowing descriptions in the advertisements.

Admittedly, I’m searching the cheap and nasty end of the boating spectrum. What I want is an inexpensive daysailer/weekender on which I can teach my grandkids to sail. They know the rudiments already, of course, and they’ve taken a few lessons, but I would like to teach them the real stuff that will keep them interested in sailing for the rest of their lives.

In particular, I’m looking for an old Santana 22, simply because I once restored one from a 28-year-old wreck. I discovered all her weak spots and now know where to look for trouble. Over a period of years, June and I sailed her from one and of the Salish Sea to the other, and we were delighted with her performance as a “sport cruiser,” as I called her.

But the two Santana 22s I found for sale on Craigslist last year were simply not worth looking at. One, described as “awesome” and well maintained had a keel that was a mass of rust. There were bits and pieces of mysterious boat stuff strewn all over the main cabin and the forepeak, rust streaks on the paint, ripped and deflated upholstery, aluminum chainplates bubbling with a white encrustation, and a mast support beam that was bowed downward. The other boat was much the same, but it had also suffered the “improvements” of a series of owners with their own lubberly ideas of what a small sloop should look and behave like.

I don’t know how many prospective buyers must have been put off by the state of these boats, but I would have been ashamed to put them on the market in that condition. I know we’re talking about boats that are nearly 50 years old, but I can’t understand why they can’t at least have been kept clean and tidy and smelling sweet. Nobody expects an old boat to be perfect, but to present a boat for sale in such a slatternly run-down condition is an affront to the person expecting the “awesome” boat of the advertisement. It actually hurts me to see good, well-designed boats so badly neglected. There are years of life left in them yet. They surely deserve better.

Today’s Thought
I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old wine.
— Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer

“How did you knock this pedestrian down, sir?”
“I didn’t knock him down, officer. I stopped to let him cross the road and he fainted.”

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

January 1, 2016

Navigation is not precise

ONE OF THE THINGS that small-boat navigation teaches you is that nothing is precise. The best navigators make allowances for the unknown factors that always affect small boats, especially sailboats. They plot their positions within a circle of uncertainty and if they’re seeking landfall at a particular spot on a coastline, they aim way off to one side or the other, so they know which way to turn when they sight land.

When I was a lot younger I thought I knew how to navigate with precision. This misconception was confirmed when I sailed a 17-foot dinghy across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. I studied the tide tables and figured out the speed and direction of the tidal stream (or the set and drift as I used to call it then) for every hour. I then drew my course on the chart and adjusted the compass heading to account for the distance the tide was pushing me sideways in each hour. And thus, with a great sense of triumph, I arrived off the rather featureless French coast exactly at Calais.

It was beginner’s luck, of course. Nobody can forecast the exact speed of the current, or its exact direction. Nobody can tell you how much leeway your boat will make. Nobody can forecast your exact speed or distance covered during any one-hour period, and so the detailed markings you make so carefully on the chart turn out to be nonsense. In my case, it was probably a matter of all the errors canceling each other out — a minor miracle in other words.

Years later, when further experience had taught me some humility, I read The Yacht Navigator’s Handbook, by Norman Dahl. In the introduction he says: “When I was first taught navigation (in the Royal Navy) errors were thought of as being rather disgraceful, the sole result of poor technique by the navigator. Whilst I always accepted (and still accept today) that I was not the most brilliant navigator in the world, I was disappointed to find that, however hard I tried, errors never seemed to go away. Navigating a submerged submarine, and later, yachts of many kinds in many situations, eventually made me realize that errors are an integral part of navigation and need to be studied in their own right.”

Dahl said a major purpose of his book was to show that errors in navigation are normal and natural, and that a major skill in navigation lies in your ability to interpret the results in terms of the likely errors. He goes on to show boat navigators how they can actually use the errors to help make sensible decisions about their positions and a future course of action.

As one who had never experienced any difficulty in making errors I found Dahl’s advice very comforting, and I never again tried to do anything as impossibly precise as maintaining a rhumb line from Dover to Calais.

I expect Dahl’s book is out of print now because it was first published in 1983, before the great revolution in navigating that finally did bring near- precision to position-finding. We don’t think of errors now, because GPS doesn’t allow for that. It will tell us our position to within a boatlength in any kind of visibility, day or night.

And yet people have run aground using GPS, often because GPS is more accurate than the charts you plot your position on. There have been many reports of yachts wrecked on rocks, reefs, and islands that were where the GPS said they weren’t.

So we now all find ourselves in the position that I was in all those years ago, when I knew precisely and without doubt how to cross the English Channel. It’s surely time we started doubting again. It’s time we listened to Mr. Dahl, time we started taking all the possible errors into account. Time to accept that navigation is never precise, even with GPS.
Happy New Year
I wish you all health and happiness for the coming year. May 2016 also bring you prosperity in all meanings of the word.
Today’s Thought
The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.
— Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship: The Hero as Prophet

“What made you marry old Bella?”
“She was different from all the other girls I’ve met.”
“In what way?”
"She liked me."