May 31, 2016

Are you content to dawdle?

I SOMETIMES WONDER how many sailors are content to dawdle along at a couple of knots when the wind goes light. Not that many, I’m thinking. But I reckon the late Hal Roth was a kindred spirit. Like me, he wasn’t one to start the engine when his speed dropped below 5 knots, as so many sailors do today. When he was sailing around the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean in the wake of Ulysses, he once took 6 hours to cover 15 miles in Greece — an average of 2 1/2 knots.

Like him, I grew up in an era when sailors actually sailed. The grumpy old salts I learned from frowned upon anybody who switched on an auxiliary engine just because there was no wind. I was actually quite shocked when an American yacht came past me once on a passage around the bottom of Africa. He was actually motor-sailing, and he didn’t look at all guilty about it. We were making a knot-and-a-half and he was making six. Such bad taste, I thought.

On another occasion I was sailing from the British Virgin Islands to Fort Lauderdale when two American sailboats, Pendragon and Escudo, came motoring past our 30-footer in mid-ocean. They were talking about us on VHF. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t motoring in the very light air. There was a lot of discussion about how much ice their freezers were making, with their engines running all the time.

When the wind hauled aft we were able to raise our twin running jibs. “Well, whaddya know?” said the radio. “The guy’s got his spinnaker up at last.”

“Yeah, slow thinker,” came the reply.

We thought they were very rude. I contemplated hitting back at them on the VHF with some powerful invective or some scornful, withering sarcasm, but in the end we held our tongues and slid over the calm waters leading to the Bahamas in stately silence, as all decent sailors should. Motors be damned.

Today’s Thought
One of the greatest sounds of them all—and to me it is a sound—is utter, complete silence.
— AndrĂ© Kostelanetz

“What’s Monica’s last name?”
“Monica who?”

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

May 29, 2016

Uniform tips for high fliers

THERE WILL BE THOSE among us who aspire to high office in sailing associations and yacht clubs. It is to these worthies that I dedicate today’s column

I can imagine how difficult it must be to maintain a smart appearance in one’s best club blazer and pants while confronted with the rigorous requirements of running a small yacht, such as servicing the engine or unplugging the blocked head.  Neverthless, one needs to set an example at all times, convenient or not,  for other boaters to follow; and one also needs to be prepared at all times to appear on the foredeck at short notice in the appropriate attire, should the club commodore happen to cruise by and require  the customary salutes and obeisances.

It is with this in mind that I quote some helpful advice from a book named The Naval Officer’s Guide, by Commander Arthur A. Ageton,, U.S. Navy. It is readily apparent from the book that naval personnel experience exactly the same difficulties as amateur sailors  do in keeping their uniforms neat and tidy.

Here, for a start, is how to look after some important components of your uniform:

“Care of Gold Lace — Gold lace will rapidly tarnish and deteriorate if in contact with, or hung near, any substance containing sulphur, such as rubber or ordinary manila and kraft wrapping paper.

“To Remove Tarnish from Gold Lace — Gold lace may be cleaned by dipping it in a solution of potassium cyanide and rinsing it thoroughly with water. The use of potassium cyanide is very dangerous, as it is a powerful poison, and extreme care must be exercised. Never under any consideration use it when hands bear cuts or scratches. In any case it is far safer to have an experienced tailor clean gold lace.”

Once you have your gold lace under control, it’s time to turn an eye to your uniform buttons. Here what Commander Ageton has to say:

“To Clean Buttons That Have Turned Green — Buttons sometimes turn green when the gold plating is worn off and the copper base becomes covered with green copper carbonate due to exposure to moist air. This can be removed by rubbing gently with acetic acid or any substance containing this acid, such as vinegar or Worcestershire sauce, followed by a thorough washing in fresh water and drying.”

The book contains similarly helpful advice on how to remove many other substances likely to soil or disfigure maritime uniforms, including oil, grease, kerosene, paint, wax, iodine, fruit, and chocolate. If you should be interested in the details of how to deal with any of these problems, simply let me know.

Meanwhile, here is a final piece of advice from the book that will prove most useful to those whose uniforms are showing embarrassing signs of age, especially in the nether regions:

“To Remove Shine from Serge Uniforms —  The spot to be treated should be steamed by laying a wet cloth over it and pressing with a hot iron and then rubbing it very gently with a piece of ‘00’ sandpaper or emery cloth. This should be done by a regular tailor.”

Today’s Thought
We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference.
— Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia. No. 5425

Ever wonder why the average man prefers women with beauty to women with brains?
It’s because the average man can see better than he can think.

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

May 26, 2016

The graveyard of toilets

SOMEONE ASKED ME the other day how much a used marine toilet is worth. I was able to tell him that a used marine toilet is worth about as much as an ice cube in Alaska. I know this because there was a time when I, too, threw the plumbed head off my 22-foot race boat in favor of the much lighter bucket-and-bag-it system.

I took it down the road to the local marine consignment store.

“I have a porcelain head,” I told the man. “Good working condition.”

He sighed. “Let’s see it,” he said warily.

I led him outside and threw open the trunk of my car. The head crouched there innocently on a piece of blue tarpaulin, clean and bright and trying to look hygienic and attractive.

“OK,” said the man. “Bring it in.”

He guided me through the store and down some stairs to a basement room. And there, to my astonishment, stood rows and rows of pre-owned white porcelain toilets, wall-to-wall as far as the eye could see. It was like the Arlington National of boating bathrooms.

“This is where marine toilets come to die,” said the man, waving an arm at a veritable elephant’s graveyard of maritime plumbing. “Yours might take a while to sell,” he added unnecessarily.

I’ll never know whether it sold or not. That was 16 years ago. The consignment store is no longer in business. I don’t know what happened to my old loo. But I’m sure that wherever it is now, it’s not lonely.

Today’s Thought
Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail.
— Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium

A VA doctor was examining a man back from a long spell in Iraq.
“Do you pee normally?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.”
“Don’t go more than usual?”
“Um — no, sir.”
“When you pee, does it burn at all?”
“Don’t know, sir. Never tried to light it.”

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

May 24, 2016

How to be a benevolent dictator

I HAVE ALWAYS maintained that the skipper of a yacht must of necessity be a dictator, preferably a benevolent dictator. In my opinion there is no place on a sailing vessel for a captain who is unable or unwilling to make a decision without the comfort of consulting his crew and passengers, and gaining their approval.  There is no time to form a committee and seek consensus about whether to tack or not when you suddenly find yourself on a collision course with a large freighter.

Dictatorship  is not a particularly popular stance to adopt these days, when the American citizenry seems obsessed with human rights and the privileges bestowed by a generous Constitution; so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that the U.S. Navy agrees with me.  Or, at least, it used to, back in the wartime 1940s when a book named The Naval Officer’s Guide was published. The author was Arthur A. Ageton, then a Commander in the Navy. Here’s what he said:

“A navy is essentially and necessarily aristocratic. True as may be the political principles for which we are now contending, they can never be practically applied or even admitted on board ship, out of port or off soundings. This may seem a hardship, but it is nevertheless the simplest of truths.

“While the ships sent forth by Congress may and must fight for the principles of human rights and republican freedom, the ships themselves must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system of absolute despotism.”

I agree. In fact, these truths are self-evident. And they apply to recreational boats as much as they do to the ships of the navy, except perhaps in minor matters such as the commissary, for which it might be wise, if you have any sense at all,  to consult the cook in advance about what stores and  menus might best be procured for a long trip.

But how can you tell if you qualify to be a benevolent dictator aboard your own craft, rather than the despot your wife claims you to be? Well, Commander Ageton explains it all under the heading “Attributes of a Naval Officer:”

“An enumeration of the best attributes in character and personality of all the great leaders would include — simplicity, earnestness, self-control, assiduity, common sense, judgment, justice, enthusiasm, perseverance, tact, courage, faith, loyalty, acumen, truthfulness, and honor. These might well be called the sixteen points of leadership.”

Yeah well . . . tall order, hey? Let’s face it, some of us will never qualify. Some of us don’t even know what assiduity is.

Today’s Thought
Nature has left this tincture in the blood,
That all men would be tyrants if they could.
— Daniel Defoe, The Kentish Petition: Addenda

“Basil, have you been drinking beer again!”
“No my love, not a drop of booze has passed my lips.”
“What have you been up to, then?”
“I was at a French restaurant eating frogs’ legs.”
“Oh, sorry, it must be the hops I can smell.”

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

May 22, 2016

Bad things happen at sea

WHAT’S THE WORST THING that can happen to a sailor at sea? Here are some of the answers you’ll get if you ask around:

Mast failure. Nothing makes your heart beat faster than the sight of your mast going overboard, or so I’m told. The seriousness of the situation depends on many things, of course, especially how far away you are from land and rescue services.

Anchor dragging onto a lee shore. Naturally, this only happens in the worst weather when it will cause maximum harm. Depending on the forecast, and how fast the anchor is moving, and how far offshore you are, it can be white-knuckle time. The answer is to retrieve your anchor and put out to sea as soon as the wind starts blowing hard onshore.

Engine failure while entering a strange marina. It happens with puzzling frequency. It’s as if engines know when best to punish you. One answer is to have a stern anchor set up and ready to hurl overboard within seconds.

A leak in the water tank at sea. It really gets your attention when you wake up to find your floorboards awash in fresh water. Whether you die of thirst or not depends on your knowledge of extracting lymphatic fluid from fish, as Dr. Alain Bombard did, and how much moisture there is in those cans of baked beans in the galley. 

Seasickness. For those afflicted, nothing is worse, even death itself. In fact, some in the deepest throes of this maritime misery have been known to beg to be allowed to die. Don’t let them. Force-feed them with dry crackers, keep them hydrated, and give them a steady supply of brown paper bags. And don’t expect any thanks.

Some other suggestions I’ve come across::

— Going hard aground at high spring tide in front of the yacht club.

— Turning turtle at sea; and, poignantly,

— Getting too old to sail.

Today’s Thought
The true test of seamanship is how a sailor reacts when things go wrong.
— John Vigor

“You quite sure you captured this gator yourself?”
“Howcome it’s all dirty along one side?”
“Hit the mud when it fell out of the tree.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another  Mainly about Boats column.)

May 19, 2016

Why hulls are not symmetrical

THE OWNER of a 28-foot Cape Dory sloop was once upset because his rudder post did not come up through his cockpit on the exact centerline. It was, in fact, offset by about an inch or so to one side. Was this normal? he wanted to know.

But what he was really asking was: Is it okay for this not to be symmetrical? The human brain loves symmetry to the extent that it will forgive all kinds of mistakes. If something’s wrong it doesn’t matter — as long as it’s equally wrong on both sides. It’s more important that mistakes should match.

Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out the way the brain would prefer them to, as demonstrated by the Cape Dory’s rudder post. In fact, there are many, many boats that emerge from the manufacturing process rather differently from what the yacht architect so painstakingly designed. In the heyday of one-off wooden yachts, a naval architect was well pleased when a 35-footer came within 6 inches of its designed overall length.

Even today, in this era of improved precision, it’s not always possible to match a finished boat to those beautifully faired lines on the designer’s drawing board. For example, one experienced contributor to the Cape Dory bulletin board confirmed that when he worked for Sam Morse, building the famous Bristol Channel Cutters, it was quite obvious that the hull mold was asymmetrical.

Now, Sam Morse boats are renowned for the quality of their build and finish, and BCCs have always been top-of-the-line cruisers. Even so, “One had only to stand behind the boat and look forward along the garboards (where the lower part of the hull joins the keel) to see the difference between the port and starboard side of the boat,” he wrote.
“I noticed this difference quite readily when installing the ballast. The lead castings for the ballast reflected the hull’s asymmetry.”

Sam Morse is not alone. BoatU.S. Magazine quoted the owner of a 2007 C&C 115 who discovered his deck was off-center by 1 1/2 inches. The builder responded: “One of the norms of the industry is that no builder guarantees symmetry. Even in strict one-design classes there are variations ...”

A hull that is not symmetrical will probably list to one side, of course. That fact, combined with an offset rudder and a mast that is not quite on centerline, might make a boat a race-winner on starboard tack and an absolute dog on port. On the other hand, the mistakes might tend to cancel each other out so that you end up with a reasonably normal boat on both tacks.

It is difficult to predict in advance what the overall effect of an asymmetrical hull might be. We are dealing here with changed centers of buoyancy and gravity, and possibly with the center of lateral resistance, too.

But, to get back to the Cape Dory man’s question, does a little asymmetry really matter? Not in most cases, I venture to suggest. I learned this from personal experience. One morning I was happily cleaning my teeth when I noticed to my horror that the middle of my top teeth did not line up with the tip of my nose. In other words, my center of sniffing was displaced to starboard of my center of chewing by about one-half tooth.

It was rather a shock to me to discover after decades of looking at myself in the shaving mirror that I had an asymmetrical face. I immediately took action to disguise my disfigurement. I learned to smile infrequently; and on the rare occasion when a smile was essential I learned to open the outer ends of my lips in light-hearted happiness and keep the middle parts firmly clamped shut.

Then, after considerable research, I learned that many people, if not most, are asymmetrical in one way or another. The length of legs can differ. One eye can be slightly higher than another. Women’s individual breasts frequently differ in size and pointiness. And I finally noticed that one of our most famous national TV newscasters has a nose running northeast and a jaw sloping southwest — and it does not impinge one whit upon his pomposity.

So I don’t worry about my nasal/dental asymmetry any more. Well, not most of the time, anyhow. I have found, though, that on meeting an interesting person of the opposite sex, my nose now bends itself slightly half a tooth to port to line up with my top teeth. It does this quite automatically without any urging from me and I take this as a happy sign of how Nature compensates for all our inadequacies. Which means that you shouldn’t really worry too much if your rudder post is offset, your center of buoyancy is skewed, or one ear sticks out more than the other.

Today’s Thought
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
— Francis Bacon

Commander: “What blankety-blank put these goddam flowers on the navigation desk fer chrissake?”
Lieutenant: “The Admiral did, Sir.”
Commander: “Purdy, ain’t they?”   

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

May 17, 2016

Are blisters over-rated?

“SHOULD I BUY a boat with blisters?” That’s the query I once received from a reader in San Diego. “Cautious” had fallen in love with a 10-year old, 30-foot sloop, but he was scared to tie the knot. He was afraid to commit, because when he had her surveyed he found she had “a whole lot of dime-sized blisters on her bottom.”

Well, my advice to “Cautious” was simply: Grit your teeth and buy her. Nobody’s perfect, and no boat is either. Although fiberglass boats have been around for more than 50 years, there’s still a lot of misinformation doing the rounds, especially regarding the dreaded boat pox.

It’s reassuring, therefore, to hear the experience of David Pascoe, a marine surveyor based in Destin, Fla., who says that in more than 30 years of surveying and examining 4,000 hulls, he has seen fewer than 10 cases where blisters have resulted in serious structural degradation of a hull.[1]

We’re talking here of dime-sized blisters. In 99 percent of the boats Pascoe has surveyed, blistering involved only the gel coat and the surface mat — neither of which is a structural part of the hull laminate.

Pascoe says that even boats with numerous blisters up to about 1-inch in diameter usually show no significant weakening of the plastic. As a result, “moderate blistering on an older boat rarely impedes the sale.”

As a matter of fact, Pascoe reckons that by the time a boat is 8 or 10 years old, “whatever is going to happen to the hull has probably already happened.” That means if she hasn’t developed blisters yet, she’s not ever likely to, so don’t be tempted to apply a barrier coat.

It’s quite another matter if a new boat develops blisters, of course. On a boat that’s been afloat for only two or three years, it’s likely that blistering is just the beginning. That’s not good news. But one that’s been afloat for eight years or more without developing blisters is  pretty safe bet.

Interestingly, Pascoe doesn’t even think it’s necessary to do anything about small blisters. Admittedly, they make the hull more difficult to paint and they will slow the boat down slightly, but: “If blisters cannot be shown to be causing significant damage, then repair is certainly not mandatory, despite the many horror stories you may hear from people trying to sell you a costly repair job ... Bear in mind that blister repair jobs are now big business for boat yards, so that taking advice from yard managers may not be a good idea.”

He makes another good point, too: “Further, you should be aware that the number of failed blister repair jobs that surveyors find is very high. No one’s ever going to know why blister repairs fail because no one is going to spend the money to find out.”

So go ahead, I told “Cautious.” Be brave. Put your money where your heart is. Who else is going to see your new girl-friend’s bottom anyhow?

Today’s Thought
The desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.
— Fontanes, Address to Napoleon, on behalf of the French Senate, 1804

”Why do you call it love at second sight?”
“I didn’t know she was rich when I first saw her.”

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

May 15, 2016

A knife could save your life

I HAVE LONG BELIEVED that people whose lives depend on rope should always have a sharp knife at hand. The more you sail, the more you realize the need for a knife. That need doesn’t arise often, thank goodness, but the occasions when it does are usually characterized by strong winds, heavy seas, threatening rocks, and a crew paralyzed with panic.

The kind of knife I’m referring to must be capable of slicing quickly through the largest rope on your boat. That may be the anchor line, a halyard, a sheet, or even the dinghy painter. If you have ever seen a crewmember pinned against the cockpit bulkhead by a mainsheet across the neck after a sudden jibe, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve ever gotten a finger caught around a winch while trying to free an override in the genoa sheet in a surprise squall, you’ll appreciate the need for fast relief.

The only question, really, is what kind of knife; and where do you keep it?

My preference is for a fixed-blade sheath knife worn on your belt, so that it always goes with you. It can be a nuisance sometimes, I know, when it catches on the lifelines or something, but it’s worth the bother. The blade should be as long as practical, even if it’s illegal ashore, but nothing less than 3 1/2 inches.

I have never figured out whether it’s better to have a plain, hollow-cut edge or a serrated edge. I think the knife manufacturers are still trying to work this one out, too, because many of them offer blades that are partly serrated and part plain knife-edge.

I remember Jerry Powlas, technical editor of Good Old Boat magazine, saying that a serrated edge was good only for bread knives, but there are many who swear by the fast cutting power of a serrated edge. And if you buy a blade that’s half serrated and half plain, how can you go wrong? I believe that Jerry’s main objection was that he found it impossible to sharpen a serrated edge to the same razor sharpness he creates on his ordinary blades.

If you can’t wear a sheath knife on your belt for some reason, then find a good place in the cockpit where you can keep a fixed-blade knife, somewhere that is readily accessible day and night.

You might also want to keep in your pocket a small rigger’s or yachtsman’s knife, one of those with a folding knife blade, a marline spike, and (very important) a beer bottle opener. Alternatively, you could have a Leatherman-type multi-tool with a small knife blade and a pair of pliers that can open shackles, as can the spike on the rigger’s knife. But these knife blades are only second-best in an emergency. It takes time to find them and it’s fiddly to open them, and you might have only one hand available anyhow. And even when they’re finally open and ready for business, they really are quite puny for the job, compared with a big robust sheath knife. They are, however, infinitely better than nothing.

There is one fairly frequent situation where a good cutting knife is called for, and that’s when you get a rope or fishing net around the propeller shaft. I would hesitate to use an expensive sheath knife for this because you’re bound to blunt the knife against the metal shaft, and I have often thought that some kind of hacksaw blade with a decent handle, or even a few wraps of duct tape, would be better for the job and a lot cheaper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice present for a sailor, a knife might be a good choice. If you Google the names Gerber, Myerchin, and Spyderco you’ll find some very modern designs made expressly for cutting rope in a hurry. You’ll also notice that the purchase prices of the more exotic models are such that you might well be tempted to investigate my hacksaw blade idea with justifiable fervor.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

“I need a new dipstick for my car, please.”
“But surely the old one is still there, madam.”
“Yes, yes, my good man — but it doesn’t reach the oil any more.”

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

May 12, 2016

Finding a cure for hunting

SOME BOATS MAKE QUITE a menace of themselves at anchor when they continuously “hunt” from port to starboard and back. This hunting habit carries them far and wide across an arc of 20 degrees or so, with the anchor as its center. It wouldn’t matter much if there were plenty of room, but since the plastic revolution every man and his dog seems to be able to afford a boat, so all the nice anchorages are very crowded.

A boat with an all-chain rode usually sits very quietly at anchor, but most day sailors and coastal cruisers choose a rode that starts with a small length of chain next to the anchor, and then nylon rope right to the bitter end.

Now nylon line is nice and springy, so when a puff of wind hits the starboard bow, the boat slides aft until all the nylon line is taken up. Then it stretches a bit and, recovering its elasticity, slings the bow back over to the opposite side. It continues this back-and-forth slingshot motion in a wide arc ad infinitum.

Once again, it wouldn’t matter much if all the boats in a congested anchorage could be induced to indulge in synchronized hunting. If they all went to port at the same time, and all swung back to starboard together, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, neither the yacht designers nor Nature seem to think this problem worthy of investigation and correction, so we poor souls with boats that hunt have to learn to live with it, scrambling for fenders and yelling loud curses when one boat hunting left comes speeding sideways toward its neighbor boat hunting right.

There are three things I know of that can lessen the arc through which a boat will swing at anchor, and I offer them in order of effectiveness:

The bridle

Deploy your rode as usual, lead it through one of the chocks near your bow  and make it fast. Now take a line of suitable size and tie a rolling hitch around the rode just ahead of the chock. Give this line a few feet of slack, pass it through the chock on the opposite side of the bow, and cleat it. Now offer up some rode from your original anchor line until you have a bridle in front of the bow, that is, an inverted V pointing toward the anchor. Make your original rode fast when the two legs of the V are equal in length. Don’t expect too much from this bridle, but it does help a bit.

The riding sail

If you have a yawl or a ketch, set your mizzen and sheet it in tight. You can center it, or tie it off slightly to one side or the other, as seem best. There are times when the stalled sail will flutter and rattle its fittings and drive you mad. You will have to choose between going crazy and being smitten against your neighboring boat. 

If you have a sloop or a cutter you can set a riding sail as far aft as you can get it. The usual arrangement is to hank it to the backstay and lead the sheet forward onto a cockpit winch. It’s often recommended that you use your storm jib for this purpose, but a boat with a full keel normally needs a rather larger spread of sail to be effective. I don’t regard it as a very seamanlike procedure in any case. It always seems wrong to have an unsupported leading edge to a sail that shape. But a lot of people swear by it, and they’re entitled to their own biased opinions.

Set another anchor

You will drastically reduce the arc of your swing if you set a second anchor at an angle of about 45 degrees to the first one. It’s the principle of the bridle again, only reversed and on a much more effective scale. You will have rodes leading off to each side of the bow at just over 20 degrees each and your bow will be snubbed very quickly each time it wickedly attempts to stray from the path of righteousness. Of course, there’s a problem with this arrangement, too. You need room to put out the second anchor, and some ignorant fool is almost surely going to drop his anchor right over yours.

Oh, and there is a fourth method I’ve just remembered.

If you have a cutter or a sloop, simply anchor by the stern. Try it some time. You will be amazed at how quietly she will lie downwind. In fact, this is often the most effective method of all to cure hunting. Its only drawback is that the people all around you will regard you as the village idiot because you’re doing something different from their brand of superior seamanship. No matter. I find that if you return their disapproving looks with a nice, friendly, vacant smile it drives them nuts. You might want to take along some straw to chew at the same time.

Today’s Thought     
Seamanship is the art or skill of handling and maneuvering a vessel in the way that best satisfies the needs of the craft rather than the expectations of critical onlookers.
— John Vigor

“I was swimming in a Florida swamp when three gladiators came straight at me and . . .”
“No, no, not gladiators. Allegories. Things like crocodiles.”
“Well what are gladiators, then?”
“Gladiators? Uh, they’re, like, flowers you grow from bulbs.”

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

May 10, 2016

Waiting for first scratch

LAST TIME I painted a deck it was a major disaster. Because of incompatibility between two lots of epoxy undercoat, my whole twin-pack polyurethane deck peeled off in one piece two weeks after I finished it, and I had to do the whole damn thing again.

Even after I eventually got it right I didn’t experience the inner joy that’s supposed to make you burst with happiness. I was always afraid some fool would drop a winch handle and chip it. Or some landlubber would sit on it with a marker pen in his back pocket. Or some damned seagull would drop his freshly picked mussel on it from a dizzy height to break it open. The suspense was killing me.

In the end, I invented a ceremony that brought me peace of mind. I called it the First Scratch Ceremony and made it a chapter in my book How to Rename Your Boat — And 19 Other Useful Ceremonies.

The essence of the ceremony is that you deliberately put the first scratch on your new paint job in an inconspicuous place. And then, when your gleaming paintwork finally does get ravaged by some thoughtless idiot, you won’t be consumed by a paroxysm of rage. You will be able to control the very natural urge to commit homicide because it won’t be the first scratch.

The ceremony ends with a lovely (even if I say so myself) little prayer to Aphrodite, the guardian of love and beauty, imploring her to bless the first scratch that will spare us the agony of the endless wait, the awful anticipation that keeps honest mortals awake at night, staring into the darkness, wondering when that wonderful new paint finish will first be violated.

I’m not planning to paint a deck any time soon, but when the time does come I will definitely organize a First Scratch Ceremony and party. And I won’t stint on the champagne, either.

Today’s Thought
The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.
—Havelock Ellis

“Why are you puffing so much?”
“Man, I just saved myself a buck. I missed the bus and ran after it the whole way.”
“Jeez, you dummy, why didn’t you run after a taxi and save $10?”

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

May 8, 2016

What to do about fog

EVERY NOW AND THEN I run into some sailor who has just been scared witless by running into fog in the islands somewhere. We don’t get a lot of fog around here, but when the tidal currents are flowing fast and Washington State ferries are blowing their horns all around you, it can be a very frightening situation. I’m often asked: “What’s the best thing to do about it?”

Well, to tell the truth, there isn’t much advice to give about getting caught in fog that isn’t covered by common sense. If you see a fog bank forming ahead, and you have a chance to turn back to a safe anchorage, do so. It’s the seamanlike action to take.

Fog is treacherous. Go slowly and listen very carefully. If fog catches you out, try to get into shallow water and anchor there. Oftentimes that’s easier said than done, of course.

You should raise a radar reflector as high as you can so other vessels with radar sets will detect you. And you should be meticulous about making the right sound signal every two minutes or less. I have noticed that too many skippers are very lax about this. I have even traveled on a Washington State ferry that made no sound signals in thick fog, presumably relying on radar and clearance from Seattle Traffic Control, which can’t possibly tell the ferry if a small craft, invisible to radar, is in its path.

If you’re sailing, the correct signal is one long blast and two short blasts. That’s also the signal by a vessel not under command, or restricted by her ability to maneuver. The same signal comes from a vessel engaged in fishing, or towing or pushing another vessel.

If you’re under power, the fog signal (and the signal in any kind of restricted visibility, by the way) is one long blast every two minutes or less.

And one last tip – take along a horn that you can blow into. The fog horns that work off cans of compressed air don’t always work. I can vouch for that. I can also tell you that blowing the damn horn as loud as you can every two minutes as you motor along cautiously is a pain in the you-know-what. You can’t go anywhere or do anything that lasts more than one minute and fifty-nine seconds. It puffs your cheeks out and raises your blood pressure. It makes you dizzy and produces black spots before your eyes. But it’s better than being run down at sea. So do it.

Finally, if you’re in an area where authorities such as Seattle Traffic Control are maintaining a radio and radar watch over congested traffic lanes, call them on VHF and ask if there is any ship traffic headed your way. Make sure you know your approximate position first, of course, so they can check to see if they’re picking you up on radar. You’ll find the appropriate VHF channel on the chart or in a cruising guide, but in a pinch you can use Channel 16, either to ask for the correct channel or to broadcast a message to all stations in your area advising them of your name, position, speed and heading.

Finally finally, if you boat is big enough and you are rich enough to afford an AIS transceiver there is very little reason to panic in fog. You will know the position and speed of all nearby vessels over 300 tons, and they will be aware of your position, speed and direction. With any luck, you’ll all miss each other. (Yeah, they said that about radar, of course, until the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm ran into each other, guided by radar. Try Google for the whole story.)   

Today’s Thought
He that bringeth himself into needless dangers dieth the devil’s martyr.
— Thomas Fuller, Holy War

“I’ve found out why production has slowed down since we got that second computer.”
“Good. What’s wrong?”
“The big computer’s shoving all the work on to the little computer.”

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

May 5, 2016

How Friday got unlucky

FRIDAY IS upon us. Frigga’s day. Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, the wife of Odin, the most powerful of all the Northern gods. Also, some people say, the same person as Freyja, or Freya.

In olden times, Frigga’s day was regarded as a lucky day. Northerners held their nuptials on that day. And all was smiles and happiness — until the Christians came along.

As they spread their gospel, they also spread the calumny that Frigga was a witch. Because of this false testimony, Friday became regarded as an unlucky day, a day on which no right-minded sailor would set sail, for fear of bad luck at sea.

That old superstition still holds sway among those intending to set out on long voyages in small boats, and even among those who man the warships of countries with large navies. No-one who depends on the sea for his or her livelihood scoffs at this superstition.

So what to do, if you simply must sail on a Friday? Well, there is a way to set sail on Frigga’s day without attracting bad luck, if you know how. And here’s how:

Start your voyage on a Wednesday or Thursday. Go a mile or two purposefully, and then return to your mooring or slip to attend to some problem that seems to have arisen. Perhaps the cook forgot to buy cooking oil. Perhaps the bosun has discovered a stay starting to strand. Perhaps the skipper left his chronometer on the bedside table at home. There are many convincing causes that would require a prudent crew to return to port.

Now you can set sail on Friday without the burden of bad luck hanging over you, because you are not actually setting sail on Friday, but merely continuing a voyage that started on Wednesday or Thursday.

And if a Christian should challenge you and accuse you of deception, you can say: “You’re a fine one to speak of deception, my man, after what your people did to dear old Frigga.”

Today’s Thought
And on Friday fell all this mischance.
— Chaucer, The Nonne Preeste’s Tale
Men don’t make passes
At girls who wear glasses;
Girls who don’t, but should,
Wear glasses,
Will never know
If men make passes.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

May 3, 2016

The propeller's worst friend

IN THE YEARS I have been writing about sailing, I have come across many suggestions for preventing barnacles from attaching themselves to propellers. One friend of mine swore by axle grease that he stole from the marine railway when his boat was hauled out for antifouling. He would smear thick gobs of it on his prop just before launch time.

Other people advise you to use carnauba wax, or zinc paint. I myself have tried two coats of copper antifouling paint. It worked for a while, but eventually wore off. I’m told the backroom boys are working on a way to apply a Teflon coating to a bronze propeller, so barnacles simply won’t be able to stick to it. But so far none of these remedies has worked satisfactorily in all waters. The very action of a propeller working in water quickly abrades whatever coating you apply.

There is one trick that really does work, and that is to tie a black plastic bag around the prop each time you reach your home mooring or slip. Some fanatical racers do that, but I’m sure you can see the problems, not the least of which is to remember to remove the bag before you set off again.

There is a theory that barnacles will not touch a prop that isn’t protected by a sacrificial zinc. Apparently the tiny electric currents generated in the bronze of an unprotected propeller are sufficient to deter them, and convince them to move to the boat next door whose propeller is nice and docile, thanks to its sacrificial zinc.

No doubt you can spot the problem, here, though. The electric currents that keep the barnacles away are also slowly eating the propeller away. Maybe if you can afford a new propeller every couple of years you can live a lovely life free of worry about barnacles. If not, you, like most, will just have to put up with an increasing number of barnacle squatters and a corresponding decrease in motoring speed as time goes by.

You can, of course, dive and scrape off the barnacles from time to time if you sail in warm waters. But if you live in the frigid zone of Puget Sound like me, then grinding your teeth and swearing in a sailorly fashion seems to be all there is to do about it until the next haulout. You might find, though, that the occasional beer or Dark ’n Stormy helps.

Today’s Thought
Though you drive away nature with a pitchfork, she always returns.
— Horace, Epistles, 1, x

“Why has your dog got such a flat nose?”
“He keeps chasing parked cars.”

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

May 2, 2016

Seasickness explained

I SOMETIMES WONDER how much more popular sailing would be if it weren’t for seasickness. It’s a great pity that such a satisfying and enjoyable sport should make people physically ill. It’s not surprising that many people, after experiencing their first bout of seasickness, firmly put aside any thoughts they may have had about taking up yachting, and devote themselves instead to golf, table tennis, and crocheting little socks for newborn babies.

On the other hand, there are many people like me who go sailing despite a tendency to suffer seasickness. We have convinced ourselves (perhaps without much evidence) that the pleasures of sailing overcome the miseries of hanging over the side and puking. 

Although it’s a disease of the mind, rather than the stomach, there should be no shame in suffering seasickness. Almost everyone will become sick if conditions are rough enough. Even in normal weather, 60 percent of people cast adrift in small inflatable liferafts succumb to seasickness. So the rather regrettable fact is that it’s more normal to be seasick than not.

The cause of all this misery is understood to be a conflict between what your eye sees and your inner ear “feels.” The inner ear is the balance organ, of course. When you’re down below, and no horizon is visible, your inner ear senses that your body is dropping through space as the boat falls off a wave. But your eyes say no, hang on, we’re not moving relative to anything we can see in the cabin.

So your confused brain sets up a little boxing ring with Eyes in one corner and Inner Ear in the other and lets them fight it out. Skin, meanwhile, loses pallor and becomes damp and cool. Legs, intuitively fearing the outcome of this fight, become a little wobbly. And finally, Stomach, noting no real progress in the ring, takes things into its own hands, as it were, and says it’s obvious that something’s radically wrong, and if you guys can’t figure it out then maybe I’ve been fed some poison. I don’t want to be the fall guy. I don’t want to be blamed after all this is over, so I’m going to throw up everything I’ve eaten in the last 12 hours. And I’m going to do it now, right now.

As a matter of fact, scientists don’t yet have a logical explanation for the nausea and vomiting. I have considered explaining it to them, but you know how they sneer when an outsider tries to tell them anything. I see no good reason why I should suffer such rejection. Maybe they’ll work it out for themselves in a century or two.

Today’s Thought
Money does not buy happiness but it does allow one to be seasick in finer surroundings.
—Dave Martin 

“Why are you looking so gloomy?”
“My wife just had a baby girl.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I was hoping for a son to help with the washing up.”

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