December 30, 2008
Well, as it turns out, the story is bunk. It was a hoax, and Oprah fell for it. This isn’t the first time she has been caught in this way, but I can’t bring myself to feel sorry for her. We have a comfortable arrangement, Oprah and I. She ignores me and I ignore her.
This ignoring business started last year after I wrote a book—a wonderful book and a true book, I might add—about the fascinating South Atlantic island of St. Helena, and its famous prisoner, Napoleon Bonaparte. I thought to myself, now all I need is to get this marvelous book mentioned on Oprah’s show and I’ll make a million. I can retire and never have to write another goddam book in my life. (You won’t credit the amount of actual work it takes to write a book.)
So I e-mailed Oprah, thinking she would want to seize this wonderful opportunity to make me rich, and she ignored me. Never heard a word from her. Never managed to sell the blasted book, either. God, publishers are so stupid. Anyway, without in any way feeling bitter and twisted, I ignored Oprah right back. And serve her right, I said.
But now it occurs to me that the way to get publicity from Oprah is to spin a web of deceit, to tell her the most monstrous lies about yourself and your book, specially if love and sex are involved. That’s how Ms. Oprah turns into Ms. Suckah.
So, okay, now cross my heart and may I die if I should dare to tell a lie, but there are certain facts about my St. Helena book, Walking with Napoleon, that were previously suppressed in the interests of common decency. I have now decided to reveal them. Among them was the fact (are you paying attention, Oprah?) that I am the illegitimate son of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy.
Shortly after birth I was farmed out to a surrogate grandmother in Alabama, some kind of relation of President Clinton’s, I believe. She kept me locked up in a cellar and fed me hominy grits through a crack in the door until I was 11, when I managed to escape and join the Ku Klux Klan. I rose through the ranks, thanks to my skill in arranging the early demise of certain people in novel and interesting ways, but by the time I was 20 I was a lawyer for the Mafia in Chicago, where I met the most gorgeous and entirely voluptuous pole dancer who slipped me free cocktails at my table until I was 26, when I married her and we had a baby called Barack. I shall say no more. The FBI has advised me to keep my big trap shut and is spreading a decoy tale about some black guy from Kenya who conveniently disappeared. Yeah, right.
Nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves. They appear, at face value anyhow, to be just the kind of facts Oprah likes to publicize in that dear, sweet, naive way of hers. I look forward to the early discontinuation of our relationship of mutual ignoration. I am enormously excited at the prospect of being summoned to the Oprah show and never having to put another finger to the bloody keyboard for the rest of my life.
A good portion of speaking well consists in knowing how to lie. —Erasmus, Philetymus et Pseudocheus.
The little wren of tender mind
To every other bird is kind.
It ne’er to mischief bends its will …
(So good. So dull. It makes me ill.)
December 28, 2008
Of course, it’s not always easy to tell if you love your boat. There are varying degrees of love. You can be ecstatically in love with a new prom dress, or staidly and comfortably in love with an old pair of hiking socks. There are different phases of love, from hot boil to low simmer. Love is temporary insanity. Love is hormones out of control. But above all, love is giving. Giving everything you can. In normal human beings, that includes giving your body. In the case of boat owners, it means new sails, new winches, new electronics, a new engine, new everything you can imagine to make your boat happy and love you back. Love is Nature’s way of separating a yachtsman from his money.
Whoa! In these hard economic times, love is madness. You have to stop maxing out your cards with gifts for your boat. You must pull yourself toward yourself and become a calm, rational human being again, otherwise you’ll end up in debtor’s prison where no boats are allowed.
Easy for me to say? Well, hold on, I can help you here. I can tell you how to fall out of love with your boat until the economy improves. It’s all to do with remembering.
—Remember the time she wouldn’t tack, got into stays and embarrassed you in front of the yacht club that wouldn’t accept you as a member?
—Remember when the engine quit just as you were about to pick up the mooring buoy and the cover was still on the mainsail and you hit three boats sideways on before you could get the anchor overboard?
—Remember when you got seasick and your mother-in-law didn’t? Remember how she laughed?
—Remember when you came last in the Wednesday evening race because your boat ran into a big submerged plastic bag and deliberately wrapped it around the keel?
—Remember when the oil pipe split and spewed hot oil all over the engine compartment?
—Remember when the alcohol stove flared up, removed your eyebrows, and burned the galley curtains?
—Remember when your cousin with diarrhea blocked the head with wodges of toilet paper?
Think on these things. Remember the bad times. Ask yourself why you’re in love. Ask yourself if you really should be. And stop buying presents. Enough already. It’s not a comfortable old hiking sock. It’s only a boat.
But he who stems a stream with sand,
And fetters flame with flaxen band,
Has yet a harder task to prove—
By firm resolve to conquer love! —Scott, The Lady of the Lake
I believe it was Kierkegaard who once remarked that the trouble with life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Nevertheless, some people do live in the past and they tell me it has one great advantage – it’s a lot cheaper.
December 26, 2008
I haven’t yet managed to find out why he became our patron saint, or why nobody except Alex Trebek knows that he is. But I did discover that this bashful saint was a Benedictine monk, born in France in the late 11th century. In 1095 he caught the travel bug and joined some Norman knights on the First Crusade, an expedition that was attended by many miraculous occurrences. He ended up in a Moslem jail, escaped, and, safely back in France, developed a reputation for sanctity at the Abbey of Tiron.
From a sailor’s point of view he had a few flaws—piety, compassion, and charity, mainly—but they served only to make him more respected, and when he died on April 30, 1131, he was quite famous.
And now it’s good to know there’s a saint keeping a special watch over yachts in trouble. In the past we’ve had to share a patron saint with commercial sailors. He’s St. Elmo, the saint of the fiery balls—those glowing globular discharges of static electricity sometimes seen around mastheads.
But now St. Adjutor is ours exclusively. So give him a big hand, willya? Let’s hear it for good old Adjie.
There is a pirate in all of us. There must be, else how could such a bunch of foul, rotten, murdering, thieving bastards have gained such a romantic attraction in the psyches of our artists and children? —George Putz
Miss Beatrice, the church organist, was in her eighties and had never been married. She was admired for her sweetness and kindness to all. One afternoon the pastor came to call on her and she showed him into her quaint sitting room.
She invited him to have a seat while she prepared tea. As he sat facing her old Hammond organ, the young minister noticed a cute glass bowl sitting on top of it. The bowl was filled with water, and in the water floated, of all things, a condom.
When she returned with tea and scones the pastor said, "I wonder if you would tell me about this?" He pointed to the bowl.
"Oh, yes," she replied, "Isn't it wonderful? I was walking through the park a few months ago and I found this little package on the ground. The directions said if you place it on the organ and keep it wet, it will prevent the spread of disease. Do you know I haven't had the flu all winter."
December 23, 2008
For a start, it can’t spell its name. It should be Rhino, not Rino. It has two antennas that look vaguely like the horns of a rhinoceros. In Africa, game poachers often saw off a rhino’s horns and sell them to customers in the Far East, who grind them down into a powder that reputedly has aphrodisiacal powers.
Frankly, I’ve never understood how that works. You swallow some powder and suddenly women look attractive to you? What? Who needs rhino powder? Didn’t they always look attractive to you? But wait … I’m getting carried away here. Sorry. Back to the Rino: It probably isn’t a good idea to saw off the Rino’s antennas, no matter how much of a boost your testosterone needs. I suspect something won’t work if you do that. Something on the Rino, that is.
The interesting new direction this hand-held GPS is taking is evident from its attributes, as listed in the advertisement. Besides a color screen that shows where you are on a chart, there are two built-in radios. One is a Family Service Radio, a glorified walkie-talkie. The other is a General Mobile Radio Service radio, a rather more sophisticated mobile transceiver for which you need an $85 license.
In addition to GPS and two radios, the Rino has a barometric altimeter. This tells you how high you are getting, which is very useful in this season of multiple Christmas parties. There is also an electronic compass so you can find your way home if you are too high to read the GPS screen. In addition, there is a built-in weather radio that informs you what kind of storm you just got stuck in on the way home.
There’s more, but I’m sure you can see which way the new generation of electronic gadgets is headed. One GPS does it all. I can’t wait to see what they add to the next generation of GPSs, but just in case any Garmin people read this column, I’d like to suggest some additions to the new “omnibus” Rino GPS.
It would be real nice, guys, if you could add a night telescope so I can find my slip after dark. And how about a few rocket flares to help the search-and-rescue people find me? A small bar would be very welcome, just a little one, perhaps with miniature French maids dispensing cocktails etc., to the shivering bodies in the cockpit on the midnight watch.
I suppose it would be too much to expect a modest galley with a European chef skilled in confiture and baguettes. No matter. I’m not greedy. I’d settle for a GPS with a fish-and-chips dispenser.
I find the sea-life an acquired taste, like that for tomatoes and olives. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wish you all a merry Christmas, a happy Hannukah, and best wishes for whatever celebration you choose to observe at this time of year. I wish you peace and tranquility to calm your soul; I wish you fortitude to face difficult times in the New Year; and I wish you the patience to await the brighter times that surely lie ahead.
“Good grief, what happened to your face?”
“But you don’t get your teeth knocked out if you cough.”
“You do if you cough in your friend’s wife’s wardrobe.”
December 21, 2008
The tactics of more than a quarter million skippers participating in the Virtual Vendée were thrown into confusion last week when the French organizers' computers were overwhelmed. The Virtual Vendée is an Internet computer game that mimics the real Vendée, a non-stop race around the world for singlehanders sailing 60-foot sloops.
The overwhelming number of free entries for the virtual game — which offers prizes worth 10,000 euros — obviously caught the race committee by surprise. At first they were ecstatic that 100,000 virtual skippers were competing. Then the tally went up to 200,000. Now it's way over 270,000.
Entrants are able to choose the best course for their boats and select the most efficient suit of sails for prevailing wind conditions, which change every 12 hours at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST.
In addition, those with money to spare can buy "advantages" such as automatic sail changes and autopilots to aid their progress toward the finish line in France's Bay of Biscay.
But last week's computer failures sewed doubt and confusion about the rankings and performance of all the boats participating in the race. The organizers say they will need two weeks to put things right.
One American skipper claims to have lost 6,000 places because he thought he had missed a mark of the course and had to double back to validate it. The next day he discovered that he had, in fact, passed the mark correctly in the first place. The position of the mark had been incorrectly changed by the computer.
Another American claimed to have lost 1,000 places in the ranking while maintaining "a pretty good average speed toward the goals. Unless thousands of boats ahead of me are doing 25 knots, I should have been able to keep up." In almost all cases, incorrect winds were shown for the areas in which skippers were operating.
I took part in the race for two weeks, during which I advanced 18,867 places in the rankings, but I abandoned my boat and hopped ashore when, last week, I became skeptical of the ability of the race committee to cope with the heavy data flow. For instance, I lost 80 places in 10 minutes while I was doing 21 knots to the southeast — a very doubtful scenario. Furthermore, as I approached a mark of the course, the computer showed me 9 miles behind a French boat I'd been competing with fiercely day and night for nearly two weeks. Ten minutes later, when the screen automatically refreshed itself, I was 50 miles behind.
The thought comes unbidden to the mind: do skippers who sign on to the French-language game get better treatment than those who join its English-speaking counterpart? Unbidden or not, there is some evidence to support this theory. A French "professional" called Destremau, equipped with all the advantage-giving gimmicks, was depicted on screen as being quite a way behind an American amateur, but was still ranked several hundred places higher.
Apart from my mistrust of the fairness of this competition, and the disturbing aspect of being able to win places for cash down payments, I am totally amazed that so many people chose to take part. I had no idea there were so many sailors were out there. You don't have to be a sailor to take part in the Virtual Vendée, of course — I'm sure that many of the thousands who get passed in the night are landlubbers obsessed with computer games — but even so it's an astonishing number.
I mean, this has to be the slowest, dullest computer game ever invented. It takes from November to April, for goodness' sake, and you can't even see your boat move on the screen in real time.
Come to think of it, it's more of a mind game than anything else. Who knew that so many people had minds?
Fickle in everything else, the French have been faithful in one thing only,—their love of change. —Sir Archibald Alison, History of Europe.
I was talking to a sailing doctor about boat names the other day, and how difficult it is to get exactly the right one. He told me that the medical profession has a similar problem with new drugs.
In pharmacology, all drugs have a generic name. Advil, for example, is ibuprofen. Tylenol is acetaminophen. Aleve is naproxen, and so on.
Apparently the FDA has been looking for a generic name for Viagra. After a long search, they have settled on Mycoxafloppin. Also considered were Mydixadrupin and Mydixadud.
December 18, 2008
1. Too large a boat.
2. Not enough money.
I’d like to add a fourth:
4. Lack of a goal.
Most people cruise to find happiness, or at least contentment, but happiness itself can’t be the goal. Happiness is the byproduct of working toward a goal. Happiness is serendipitous. It ambushes you while your attention is focused on your goal. Chase happiness and it runs away. Chase your goal and happiness sneaks back.
So what should a cruiser’s goal be? Almost anything you decide in advance to achieve through thick and thin. To sail around the world is a goal, but rather a grand one. Your goal doesn’t need to be that grand. It could be to collect certain rare shells from far-flung islands. To photograph six different kinds of whales in six oceans. To make a video or write a book. To retrace Slocum’s route and collect postage stamps from every country he visited. To climb certain mountains on certain islands. To take mid-ocean temperatures for the Scripps Institute. You're limited only by your imagination.
Having a long-term goal, a definite objective, gives purpose to a voyage, removes uncertainties, and resolves many decisions that otherwise become burdensome, contentious, and, in the end, lethal to congenial relationships.
So if you want a successful cruise, set a goal—and firmly never budge.
A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important. —Stephen Crane
My correspondent in Djibouti reports that the Somali government has created a special website for victims of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The address of the new site is www.pirates.aargh!
December 16, 2008
I found myself in a narrow inlet in Wallace Island and watched with smug amusement while the six crewmembers of a 30-footer struggled to get a line ashore to the steep bank lining the inlet.
With two women aboard the boat, and four men in the rubber dinghy, they roared back and forth in total confusion, slipping and sliding and tugging and cursing until finally, finally, they found a large rock to tie their line around and fumbled their way back to the cockpit where they flopped back in apparent exhaustion.
Right. Now it’s my turn. Here comes the experienced old salt. I’m gonna show them how to do it. On my own.
I motored in slowly alongside them, dropped my stern anchor, and payed out the rode until I judged I was close enough to get a line ashore. I cleated the stern anchor line, put the engine in neutral, dropped neatly into my dinghy, and wended my way to the bow where, with commendable foresight, I had prepared a shore line.
I took one end of the line in my left hand and with my right hand I sculled ashore. From the looks on their faces, I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone scull a dinghy with one oar over the transom before. So I sculled neat and fast and powerful to impress them even more, especially the tall blonde lady.
I rammed the dinghy up onto the rocky ledge, sprinted up the bank, passed my line around the trunk of a small tree, and leaped back down to the dinghy.
With the line in my left hand again, I sculled back to the boat in my most manly fashion. Speed was of the essence because the 25D was secured only by the stern anchor, and was free to drift sideways at the mercy of any puff of wind that might come along.
Just as I reached the bow of the 25D, with the crew of the boat next door watching intently, the bitter end of the line I was tugging on flipped out of the foredeck anchor locker and dived overboard.
I had forgotten to secure the stupid bow line to the boat.
By reflex, I dropped my sculling oar, and, by a wonderful stroke of luck, managed to grab the sinking line in the water. But even so, things had taken a nasty turn.
The position was this: I was standing in my dinghy with a line that reached from my right hand to the shore, around a tree, and back to my left hand. The 25D was now out of reach and drifting slowly astern. I couldn’t drop the line because I’d no way to recover it. I couldn’t scull the dinghy because I couldn’t drop the line. My mind had gone blank and my muscles were frozen. The blonde was regarding me quizzically.
Just then a large powerboat came past, dragging the usual wake. The wake hit the 25D's transom and pushed the boat toward the shore, toward me, just enough for me to reach the bow. I transferred both ends of the line to one hand and gripped the forestay with the other. The line wasn’t long enough to reach the bow, but a sudden spurt of adrenaline allowed me to exert the power needed to bring my arms together across my chest, and by some miracle I managed to tie the two ends of the line together behind the forestay. It was a granny knot, but the blonde couldn’t see that.
I got my breath back, and sculled expertly to the cockpit. I hopped aboard nimbly and smiled in friendly fashion at the slack-jawed crew next door. Then I went below and helped myself to a large tot of rum. I think it was a tot. I drank it straight from the bottle. It might have been more.
I guess the moral of the story is that we’re all lubbers sometimes, but if you have a few points in the black box you can get away with it occasionally.
Seamanship … is not learned in a day, nor many days; it requires years. —Jack London.
“You’ve got to lose weight. “I’m putting you on lettuce, carrots and green onions for a week.”
“OK, doc. Before or after meals?”
December 14, 2008
I've had it about 12 years now. In its heyday it was Practical Sailor's overwhelming best choice in hand bearing compasses. That's because it has "deadly accuracy and long-term reliability." It also has something else that Practical Sailor didn't bother to mention. It has tritium.
Now some of you may recall that way back in the Dark Ages they had X-ray machines that you could peer into when you bought a new pair of shoes. If you wiggled your toes, your bare bones showed how much room there was in the shoes for your feet.
I don't know what alerted the shoe stores – probably people's feet falling off, I guess – but suddenly all those X-ray machines disappeared. We began to understand that it wasn't such a good thing to expose human feet to so much radiation.
Now, my compass is a far fetch from those old X-ray machines, but it does have similar properties. It uses tritium to make it glow at night. I wouldn't have known that important fact if it weren't for a flea-sized notice of the back that says: "Contains tritium H3."
My curiosity changed to alarm after I got out the dictionary -- "tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen … decays by beta-particle emission and is used in thermonuclear bombs."
So now I'm very nervous when I take a bearing with my nuclear-powered compass. I don't hang about. I can take bearings with lightning speed. Every time I raise that compass to my eye, I can just feel those radioactive beta particles cruising along my optic nerve to my brain.
One day, when enough of them have gathered, there's going to be a nuclear explosion in my head. I can only hope, when that happens, that I'm standing very close to Practical Sailor's compass evaluator.
We only part to meet again.
Change, as ye list, ye winds; my heart shall be
The faithful compass that still points to thee.
--John Gay, from "Sweet William's Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan."
“Jeez, my wife gets historical every time we have an argument.”
“Historical? Don’t you mean hysterical?”
“No she keeps dragging up my past.”
December 11, 2008
When I was managing editor of a boating magazine, I received an anguished letter from the owner of a Hans Christian 38 who almost lost his boat on a lee shore because his anchor chain kept slipping on the windlass.
It was blowing 50 knots and high seas were breaking in 50 feet of water off Isla Isabella, in Mexico's Gulf of California. A reef lay dangerously close aft.
When the skipper tried to raise his 45-pound anchor, and motor out of there, the chain just kept flying off the gypsy when the strain came on it, and even more chain would run out.
Eventually, in appalling conditions, submerged by waves sweeping over the bows, he managed to sever the chain with bolt cutters and power away to safety offshore.
What went wrong? Well, he shouldn't have been there in the first place, of course, with just himself and his wife. He had time to weigh anchor and put to sea when the wind first started blowing onshore. But it was nighttime, and he procrastinated, as most of us would have done, until the situation became pretty desperate.
In the second place, he shouldn't have expected his windlass to take the strain of a heavy boat plunging in rough seas. Windlasses are designed to break out and weigh the anchor and chain. Period.
Most anchor chains contact only one quarter of the circumference of most windlasses, so no matter how well the chain and gypsy are matched, excessive tension will strip the chain off the windlass.
The answer is a simple chain pawl or stopper. They're designed to take the enormous strain an anchor rode experiences when a boat is rearing and plunging in an unprotected anchorage. The pawl is a one-way valve, allowing chain to come inboard but not fly out again. Some pawls will fit right on the jaws of your bow roller and simply flip over when you want the chain to run out.
Chain stoppers are heavily bolted down to the foredeck in a straight line between the bow roller and the windlass.
As a matter of interest, a chain pawl can often make a windlass redundant on a boat of 30 feet in length or less. You gather the chain only when it goes slack. You don't have to bust a gut trying to hang on it when the bow rises.
This way, a reasonably fit person should be able to handle a 35-pound anchor with 5/16th inch chain in 90 feet of water without a winch.
Oh hark! what means these yells and cries?
His chain some furious madman breaks —Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Maniac
“How was the movie?”
“Didn’t see it. There was a notice that said 'Under 14 not admitted.'”
“But you’re 35.”
“Yeah, I know, but I couldn’t find 13 others to go in with me.”
December 9, 2008
Now, if you're like me, you have a hard time imagining how algae can produce oil. After all, algae is the brown scum on top of a pond or the green film on the inside of your fish tank. Or, in my case, the sticky blobs of goo that thrive in my diesel tank and keep clogging my fuel filters. But this is how it works:
In the normal world, when one alga meets another alga, it politely takes off its little hat and suggests that they get to know each other better over drinks in a cozy bar. One thing leads to another and it's off to a warm dark corner to practice vegetative procreation.
Yes, I know, it seems very sudden, but this Nature in the raw. They don't bother with rings and special dresses and wedding ceremonies. They don't have time for all that.
Pretty soon they're the proud parents of a lovely little bundle of sludge. And this sludge consists mainly of what scientists call lipids--fat or oil, from which springs diesel fuel.
Now, Mr. and Mrs. Alga don't rest on their laurels. They go straight back to the bar, knock back some more cocktails, and make immediate plans for another little bucket of sludge. Algae are very small, of course, but there are thousands and millions of them at it at the same time. It raises the temperature quite a bit, and it produces lots of valuable sludge.
Now, for the abnormal world: What's going on in my diesel tank? I suspect I have developmentally handicapped algae. They've got it back to front. In my tank, algae don't turn into diesel; diesel turns into algae. I guess their mommies never told them the true facts of life. They probably still think the stork brings buckets of sludge.
My algae don't practice procreation. They just hang around there looking morbid and waiting to achieve their life's ambition, which is to suck up to my primary filter and clog its little pores.
I don't know how my algae got so turned around. It would be wonderful if they learned a lesson from the world's scum ponds and fish tanks, and turned themselves into diesel right there in my fuel tank. But I can't see that happening. Maybe I need to figure out how to make a cocktail bar small enough to fit in my tank. Sometimes it takes a little liquor to spark romance.
The study of Nature is intercourse with the Highest Mind. You should never trifle with Nature. —Jan Louis Agassiz, Agassiz at Penikese.
“Are you crazy? You tipped the parking attendant 50 bucks?”
“Sure. But look at this nice new Jaguar he’s given us.”
December 7, 2008
Now this has worried me for years. If each of the side pieces has a breaking strain of 500 pounds, then the two together can withstand a strain of 1,000 pounds.
But what about the places where the chain bends around the top and bottom? As I said, they're single pieces of rod there, not double. And each piece has a breaking strain of only 500 pounds. So why don't they break when a strain of 1,000 pounds comes on the chain? Is there some sort of magic in play here?
The same principle applies to a length of line going up, through a block, and down again. There are two pieces of line on the sides to take the load, but only one piece running across the top. And yet the line won't break until the strain equals the capacity of the other two lengths of line down the sides.
Now I appreciate that some of you are not in the mood for a puzzle concerning applied physics. Others of you probably dozed off before you got to this paragraph. But, as concerned sailors, shouldn't we be wondering how the heck this works?
I haven't yet found an engineer who can explain this to me in plain simple words of less than four syllables. But over the years I have formed a sort of area of understanding in my brain. From this grey fog of near-comprehension a notion has emerged. And it is this:
The bits of chain or line that run up and down along the sides are under tension when a load is applied. And the single bit on the top is under compression. Not tension, you note. Compression. It's being squeezed down, not pulled apart. And you can squeeze something until it's blue in the face and it won't cry uncle.
According to this notion of mine, the chain or line gradually changes from tension to compression as it goes around the bend. Thus, as it turns, it gets stronger. Yes, each humble, mundane link of chain actually doubles its strength as it curves.
Think about that for a moment. It's one of those little magical mysteries of science that people don't write about or even talk about much because it smacks of the supernatural, and psychic phenomena, and other frightening things.
But on those nights when a howling southeaster is doing its best to snap my anchor chain, I'm always very glad its little links are bewitched.
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.
Words of wisdom from Scotland:
“A weel-bred dog gaes oot when he sees them preparing to tae kick him oot.”
December 4, 2008
I'm sure you remember the incident in the Gulf of Aden the other day when the 30,000-ton Oceana Nautica was fired on by Somali pirates in two speedboats. What got O.W. all riled up was the news that the Nautica actually anticipated an attack. Before she left port, passengers were informed of the ship's two secret weapons against piracy: high-pressure water hoses and a long-range acoustic device that blasts a painful wave of sound toward attackers.
Now, it's an open secret on our dock that O.W. has been working on an acoustic blaster for months. It all started when he slipped and fell on his concrete deck one day. The deck was generously spattered with guano from the seagulls, crows, and cormorants that perch in his tangled rigging. He wasn't badly hurt, but O.W. decided that the slippery poop had to go. So the birds had to go, too.
In his spare moments, when he wasn't chipping rust off his chainplates, he experimented with one of those little aerosol cans that people use for fog horns. Remembering how he could make a loud screech by blowing on a piece of grass held between his thumbs, O.W. modified his fog horn with a small piece of plastic sheeting.
To everyone's surprise, when he aimed it at a gull perched on the spreaders, and pushed the button, no noise came out. But the startled gull leaped into the air as if it had been bitten on the backside. At the same time, everyone within 50 yards experienced a sharp pain in the ear.
O.W. was beside himself with excitement. "I've invented the acoustic gun," he shouted, "I'm gonna make a fortune."
He was thinking, of course, that small cruising sailboats could use this surprise weapon to ward off pirates. But his enthusiasm grew daily as reports came in of daring attacks on big tankers, cruise ships, and freighters in the Gulf of Aden. "They all need my acoustic gun," he declared.
But yesterday he learned that the Nautica already had a long-range acoustic device. "They stole my idea," he raged. "I'm gonna sue."
I was about to tell him that the Nautica didn't escape the pirates because of their ghetto blaster. The Nautica escaped because the captain revved up the engines, and the pirates couldn't keep up. But before I could get a word out, a crafty look spread slowly over O.W's face.
"It doesn't matter," he said, grinning widely.
"What doesn't matter?" I asked.
"About the acoustic gun. I have a better idea."
"I'm gonna strike a deal with the pirates. Sell them a secret counter weapon."
"Earplugs," he said. "And maybe waterproof jackets also."
If the thief has no opportunity, he thinks himself honorable. —The Talmud.
The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.
--Charles Synge Christopher Bowen
December 2, 2008
This is one of the roughest, most remote, and most desolate regions on earth. Several entrants have dropped out already. And the racing rules state that no one can accept outside help, even if it were possible to get aid to them. This is the Vendée Globe.
There is no greater challenge in the sailing world; perhaps none in the human world. It takes physical fitness, mental toughness, superhuman tenacity, and sheer guts, lots of guts, just to take part in this race, never mind to win. And where do nearly all of these sailing superstars come from? France.
There was one lone American among the 30 starters, several Brits, and a handful of other assorted nationalities. The great majority are French. The whole thing is organized by the French.
Why should this be? What has happened to the great nation that won the America's Cup for the first time all those years ago and beat off all competition for so long? Why is there only one U.S. entry in this most challenging and prestigious of all sailing contests?
I posed that question recently on a bulletin board run by owners of Cape Dory yachts, one of the most intelligent and most useful of all the Internet sailing forums. It drew the following response from John Ring, an accountant living in Beverly, Mass.
"I'm afraid you have it all wrong … There are, in fact, many Americans in the Vendée Globe, albeit in a form we may not be accustomed to.
"You must understand the sailing environment for Americans has changed tremendously over the years. American sailors are under pressures the great sailors of old could never imagine, let alone shape a course for. With expensive yacht insurance policies terminating beyond 50 miles off the coast, priceless medical insurance terminating beyond 50 aspirin, and enough lawyers in the water to drive the largest sharks away, certain change has to come to sailing. The icecaps are melting, sea levels are rising, and zebra mussels are clogging our intellectual uptake.
"Gone are the days when sailors would meet at the local yacht club and discuss the day’s watery action with a glistening of salt on their brow. This much needed social recap has been replaced by fine message boards … Chart and compass have been replaced by a black box, and the word 'sextant' is no longer appropriate in mixed company.
"Actual marinas and mooring fields have been replaced by cyber slips, and the America’s Cup is held by a landlocked nation. We now live in a world where cruising rallies sail into the paths of hurricanes knowing S.A.R. is just one beep of an EPIRB away. It’s enough to make Captain Slocum roll in his watery grave.
"Call it the heart of digital darkness if you like, but amid this bold new future of sailing, American sailors are adapting. And, in this world that is not real, the Vendée Globe now has well over 100,000 skippers thrashing through a winedark virtual sea. Yes, the Vendée Globe has joined the ranks of video poker and fantasy football, and gone virtual. Now each and every one of us can skipper an Open 60 past the great capes and dodge the icebergs of Antarctica without fear of medical emergencies, navigational errors, catastrophic mechanical failures, lawsuits, or running out of coffee."
Well, John, I don't want to believe we've become a nation of pasty-faced, flabby-gutted, bug-eyed couch potatoes staring at computer screens. But if our pathetic participation in the Vendée Globe is anything to judge by, I guess that description is not far off the mark. I sure hope Mr. Obama is going to do something about it.
The real Vendée Globe: http://tracking.vendeeglobe.org/en/
The Cape Dory board: http://www.capedory.org/
The virtual Vendée Globe online: http://www.virtualregatta.com/index_vendee.php
Observe the prudent; they in silence sit,
Display no learning, and affect no wit;
They hazard nothing, nothing they assume,
But know the useful art of acting dumb.
--George Crabbe, Tales: The Patron, 1. 315.
Did you hear about the poor clergyman who bought a very old used car?
It was such a pity — he just didn’t have the vocabulary to run it.
November 30, 2008
If you know anything at all about diesel engines — say, enough to turn the key to start one – you’ll know that they work by compressing air in the cylinders until it’s red-hot. Into these ruddy infernos, a high-pressure pump squirts a mist of diesel fuel.
The mighty explosion that follows drives the piston down in the cylinder and turns a big heavy thingummy round and round. This big thingummy is attached to a box of gears at the back that turns the propeller shaft. And then the shaft turns the propeller and makes the boat go forward. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
You will appreciate, therefore, that a working diesel engine is a ferocious box of tricks, noisy, vibrating, smelly, and husky as all get-go – a real macho piece of work.
So how can this monster be halted in its tracks by a tiny, girly, bubble of air? Well, it turns out that air is compressible. Let us pause here for a moment to reflect upon the significance of that last sentence. Maybe we need to backtrack a bit.
When the fuel pump sends diesel to the cylinder, the fuel pressure obviously has to be high enough to counter the pressure of the air that has been compressed in the cylinder. I mean, if the fuel pump pressure were less than the cylinder pressure, the cylinder would blow fuel back along the line to the pump, which would be just plain silly, not to mention stupid.
Now, to make sure this kind of blow-back can’t happen, there’s a little sort of check-valve thing that will only let fuel through to the cylinder if it’s highly pressurized. If it isn’t, the little valve thing simply won’t open. And that’s exactly what happens if air gets into the fuel stream. Diesel fuel is a liquid and is not compressible; so when it’s under pressure it’s forced to squeeze past the valve thing. But air is compressible. You can pressurize it, but it won’t expand enough to open the valve thing (which some people call an injector, I believe).
That means you can turn the key and let the engine go whumpa-whumpa-whumpa for as long as you like, but no diesel fuel is going to reach the cylinders as long as there’s air in front of the injectors.
To cure this problem, you have to bleed the engine. Bleeding a diesel is like burping a baby. Air has somehow got into its insides and has to be wheedled out. In both cases, it can be a tedious, messy job. First, you have to know which end to start at. In the case of a diesel, it’s usually the nether regions because diesel burps mostly travel from bottom to top.
Here is what they teach you in Bleeding 101 in auxiliary diesel college:
• Make certain there’s fuel in the tank and that the shutoff valve is open.
• If you suspect your fuel pump has a solenoid, switch the “ignition” key on.
• Undo the bleed fitting on top of the fuel filters and operate the priming lever on the fuel lift pump. When pure fuel is oozing out (no bubbles) tighten the fittings again.
• Loosen the bleed fitting on the body of the fuel injection pump and do the same.
Now, if that doesn’t cure the problem, you’ll have to take the advanced course:
• Open the throttle wide and switch on the “ignition” key.
• Partially undo the high-pressure fuel line nuts at the injectors.
• Turn the engine over slowly — use the decompresser valve if you have one — until clear fuel comes out of the fittings.
• Tighten the nuts again.
• Locate the clean rags and clean up the mess.
I’m happy to say that some engines, such as my Westerbeast 13, are self-bleeding. Cynical as I am, I have not yet been given reason to doubt that claim, and I am very grateful.
If your bleeding problem is chronic, you might want to check all the hose clamps and nuts in the fuel line for slackness before you get into the more serious stuff. You might just luck out and find the cause of the problem.
Meanwhile, here are five reasons why there’s air in your fuel lines:
--You’re out of fuel.
--Fuel is very low, and the pipe is sucking air as your boat rolls.
--The fuel tank shutoff valve is closed.
--There’s a leak in the piping, or connections are loose.
--You just changed a fuel filter and air got in the line.
Finally, if nothing has worked, get out the darned owner’s manual and read it. I know, I know, it’s tough -- but you’re out of options now. Be brave. Open it at Page 1 and start reading. Good luck.
A solemn, strange, and mingled air
’Twas sad by fits, by starts ’t was wild.
--William Collins, The Passions, 1.25.
The Central Office of Statistics has uncovered the following fascinating fact:
Four out of every five woman-haters are women.
November 27, 2008
It’s a challenging trip--more difficult, many say, than the Inside Passage to Alaska--because of its exposure to the vast uneasy reaches of the north Pacific Ocean in addition to the many narrow passages and races where the tidal current rips through at 8 knots or more. On the seaward side it’s 200 miles or more of wilderness heaven, of bears, eagles, whales, orcas, seals, and sea otters, with precious few marinas or places of refuge scattered among the surf-flecked rocks and islands.
So, belatedly, I’d like to give my thanks this day after Thanksgiving.
Thanks to my dear wife June, for sharing with me the task of sailing our 27-foot sloop, Sangoma, from Bellingham, Wash., to Port Hardy, at the northern end of Vancouver Island. (There she left me while I sailed back home alone down the outside.) And thanks for filling the boat with enough easy-to-fix food for the whole trip (and at least six weeks more).
Thank you, rusty (but trusty) old Westerbeke 13 engine. Thanks for starting every time without fail, despite the way I have neglected and abused you these past years. Thanks for helping me tow to safety another sailor who was in trouble at sea.
Thank you Battery Number 2 for holding a charge, despite your 10 years of age. I had the faith. You delivered the current.
Thank you sails, mast, and rigging, for not failing in that storm south of Brooks Peninsula or those frightening hours in Johnstone Strait. I know I should have replaced those stays and shrouds years ago. Thank you for giving me another chance.
Thank you autopilot for steering in some atrocious weather. I wasn’t sure you could handle those huge rolling swells from astern, but you showed me.
Thank you little fiberglass dinghy for behaving yourself. For not ramming me at sea, for not filling with spray and sinking, for not getting your painter wrapped around the propeller. You weren’t always this good, I seem to remember. Thanks for trying harder.
Thank you dear porcelain toilet for not getting stopped up. I knew I could trust you. I’m going to give you some extra virgin olive soon to keep your little valves soft and pliable. I am, honest.
Thank you warm and cosy sleeping bag for putting up with me every night for 44 nights in a row. I am going to get you dry-cleaned and de-odorized soon, I promise. A real de-luxe dry-cleaning. June has threatened to burn you, but don’t worry, I won’t let her.
Thank you little pressure alcohol stove for never giving any trouble and never setting the galley curtains on fire. That was very much appreciated.
Thank you paper charts, all 100 of you. What can I say, except that I couldn’t have done it without you, and probably shouldn’t have done it with you, considering you’re 10 years old and have never been updated. Luckily, rocks and islands don’t move much between updatings.
Thank you GPS for finding the complicated way into Sea Otter Cove and guiding me in thick fog all day from Port Susan to Sooke. Your appetite for batteries was moderate, your contribution to safe navigation was inestimable.
Thank you CQR and Bruce anchors for never once dragging. I love you.
Thank you rudder for not falling off; compass for not deviating or variating; boom for not cracking me over the head; coamings for only crunching my shins twice; and Canadian weather forecasters for trying very hard against great odds.
Thank you Carl Alberg for designing a tough little Cape Dory that looked after me, gave me great pleasure and satisfaction, and brought me safely back home.
Finally, thank you Neptune and Aeolus, gods of the wind and the sea. I saved some champagne to give you a special toast for looking after me so well … Cheers!
Thanksgiving-day, I fear
If one the solemn truth must touch,
Is celebrated, not so much
To thank the Lord for blessings o’er,
As for the sake of getting more!
--Will Carleton, Captain Young’s Thanksgiving.
It’s just such a pity, I always think, that life’s major problems don’t all hit us when we’re 16 and know the answers to everything.
November 25, 2008
They have Fresnel lenses, bails top and bottom, and safety guards. They’re thorough seagoing lamps, fit to make any sailor swoon.
But, the last time I looked, there was a line in the catalog that made me grind my teeth: “Not Coast Guard approved to mark a boat at anchor.”
Well now, so what? Who needs Coast Guard approval?
According to the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (the Colregs), if you have a boat less than 164 feet in length and you put out an all-round white light that can be seen for two miles, it’s a legal anchor light.
It doesn’t have to be electric. The Colregs say so. A flame from a kerosene lantern with a wick half-an-inch wide and a half-inch high will do the trick.
To be visible for one nautical mile, a light needs a brightness of just under one candela.
Here are other distances and the brightness required:
And what, you say, is a candela? Hell, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. It’s kinda boring. But if you must know, read on.
The candela is the metric system’s base unit of luminous intensity. You can think of it as one candle-power. It’s pretty close. So you’d need an oil lantern the equivalent of 4.3 candles to be seen two miles away. Or five candles in a glass jar, for that matter.
Meanwhile, you might want to memorize the official definition of a candela, so you can blurt it out through gritted teeth when the Coast Guard sits you down in front of the spotlight and grills you about your “non-approved” anchor light:
“The candela is the luminous intensity, in the perpendicular direction, of a surface of 1/600,000 of a square meter of a black body at the temperature of freezing platinum under a pressure of 101,325 pascals.”
The Coasties will be astonished at your knowledge, not to mention humbled and amazed, so now is your opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Tell them to move off a distance of two miles to confirm that they can indeed see your anchor light.
As soon as they leave, blow out your lantern and slip away into the darkness.
(PS: Don’t mention my name in connection with any of this, or there will be serious consequences.)
And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
--New Testament: John i, 5
“Where did you get that nice new anchor?”
“Well, I was going to my boat yesterday when this beautiful blonde came along carrying a 25-pound CQR. When she saw me, she threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes, and said: ‘Take what you want.’”
“Ah, good choice. The clothes probably wouldn’t have fit you anyway.”
November 23, 2008
Well, one way to save money is to pay your mooring fees in advance. For instance, at my marina they’re offering 10 percent off if you pay for a year in advance.
Now, compared with the 4 percent you’d earn from a bank certificate of deposit, that’s a good deal. But it does mean you have to have the cash already saved up. For example, if your monthly slip fee is $300, you’d need $3,600 in hard cash right now. Most of us won’t find that much by searching under the bunk cushions.
Don’t be tempted to put it on a credit card. They’ll charge you 18 or 20 percent, so you’re actually losing 8 or 10 percent. And if losing money is your object, why not invest in the stock market? Now seems an excellent time for it and you can lose money much quicker there.
For those of us who only pretend to be rich yacht owners, finding that much ready cash is not easy. Luckily, however, there are ways to make money if you have even a modestly sized boat.
Some time ago I read in one of the West Coast magazines an article about a liveaboard yachtsman who was using his boat to farm chickens. They even went sailing with him. They roosted on the main boom, and he trained them to jump into the air and fly around for a bit when he jibed. Then they settled down on the boom again on the opposite tack.
He never lacked a bird for the pot, but he did have to react quickly when he spotted a fowl about to lay an egg. He got very good at snatching them up before they hit the deck. Some marina owners, the hoity-toity kind, will undoubtedly object to nautical chicken farming and find ways to prevent it. But don’t be dismayed. There are other things you can do that they won’t even know about.
You could farm mussels, for a start. The way the professionals do it around here is simply to moor barges and drop lots of nylon lines overboard. Baby mussels, all unsuspecting, very obligingly attach themselves to these string lines and grow big, fat, and delicious. All you have to do is pull in the line, sell your fresh mussels to the restaurant chefs lined up outside, and count your loot.
And another thing: you could rent out your boat as locker space. Boaters never have enough room on their own boats for all their boating stuff. So let them keep their spare stuff on your boat, for a small remuneration. I can see a great demand for this community service.
There’s probably also a need for a smokers’ den. Smokers probably suffer more discrimination than any other group of Americans these days. I feel sorry when I see them standing in soggy heaps in the pouring rain and cold outside office blocks and retail stores, maintaining the statutory 20 feet from the comfort and shelter of any building. Think how happy you would make them by providing a warm and cosy place in which to meet other smokers and share their tales of blight and misery.
And while we’re on the subject of renting out space, my instinct tells me that there are couples everywhere seeking a discreet place in which to rendezvous for lunchtime assignations. You could provide a secret parlor d’amour for which they would be willing to pay handsomely. And for heaven’s sake don’t worry about the morality of it. Morals take second place when a depression is staring us in the face. Survival is what counts.
More mundanely, you could cut off your bowsprit and boomkin to reduce the overall length of your boat, which is how dock charges are usually assessed. Or you could use your boat as your business office, and deduct the expenses from your income for tax purposes. You could set up a floating hospice for the terminally seasick and if you have a really tall mast you could rent it out to digital telephone companies.
But for the best returns on your boating investment you should investigate the possibility of distilling hooch. Any passing hillbilly will tell you how.
I once had a friend who did it on a 25-footer. He used the coils from an old fridge. He marketed his “white lightning” to fellow boaters with great success. A few went blind, admittedly, but this was forgiven (and his reputation assured) when others discovered that it would remove old varnish and Cetol with one stroke of the brush. He sold the recipe to a chemical company in Illinois and retired with his fortune to an island in the South Pacific.
So don’t sit around and mope about how marina charges are going up all the time. Do something about it. You, too, might hit the jackpot.
Make money, money by fair means if you can; if not, by any means money. --Horace.
* * *
“I hear your wife is exercising regularly.”
“Yes, three months ago she started walking five miles a day.”
“That’s great. Is it helping?”
“It’s wonderful. She must be in North Dakota by now.”
* * *
November 20, 2008
I have a little boat. I could do with $25 million.
Yesterday I motored out into the channel where the supertankers pass by on their way to the refinery. When a nice fat one came along I called her on Channel 13.
“My name is Abu bin Hijakka,” I said.
“Is this the captain?” I asked. “Avast there! Halt your ship, I’m a pirate.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am.”
“Where are your buccaneers then?”
“There are two possible answers to that. (1) Under me buckin’ hat, and (2) It’s their day off.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re not a pirate, you haven’t got a wooden leg.”
“They don’t make wooden legs these days. They’re all aluminum. You don’t have to varnish them, you see.”
“And where’s your parrot?”
“He drove me mad telling the same joke over and over so I fed him to the cat.”
“What was the joke?”
“Never mind the joke, stop your ship or you’ll be sorry.”
“Very, very sorry.”
“I don’t believe you. Can you say Aaargh?”
“No, you said it with four As. That’s wrong. Real pirates say it with only three As.”
“All right then, Aaarg!”
“No, you left the H off. Sorry, you’re a phoney.”
“I’m a pirate. I know all the words to Eskimo Nell and I’m wearing skull-and-crossbones underpants.”
“No, it’s private.”
“Do you have a union card?”
“A union card?”
“The Pirates’ Union. We only stop the ship for union members. Are you a member?”
“Yes, I’ve got a card.”
“What’s it say on the front?”
“It says National Union of Pirates, Catering Branch.”
“Well, it’s not so much catering as drinking, actually. Rum mostly. Yo–ho-ho and ...”
“Well, I’m very sorry, but we only stop for the Boarding and Fighting Branch, the ones with cutlasses in their teeth and flaming beards.”
“I’ve got a grappling iron under my shirt.”
“What do you mean, what for? Haven’t you ever been grappled?”
“Not really, no. Although once in a pub in Boston, this lady ...”
“Never mind that. Stop your ship immediately.”
“What if I say pretty please?”
“There, I knew you weren’t a pirate. Pirates don’t beg.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Pirates will do anything for $25 million.”
“Twenty-five million? There’s nothing on this old bucket worth twenty-five million.”
“What about all the oil, then? You know, the light sweet crude.”
“There’s no oil here, matey. This is the ferry to Anacortes.”
Well, it was his lucky day. I gave him a severe talking-to and let him off with a warning. The next one won’t get off so easily, specially now I have discovered that you can use Canned Heat gel to set your beard on fire.
We hang little thieves and take off our hats to great ones. --German proverb.
California’s wine growers have listened to pleas from senior boatowners who have to make several trips to the head every night.
November 18, 2008
The bit that stopped me in my tracks was a sentence that said a laptop computer is “essential equipment” on the author’s boat and most other voyaging boats for communications, the Internet, and electronic charting.
Now, as one who advocates smallness and utter simplicity in cruising boats, I found that statement very disturbing. In the course of my editing, I could, of course, have cut that sentence out. I bet nobody would have missed it; even if they did I could have invented a good technical excuse. I’ve had a lot of practice at that. But as it happens I didn’t delete it, despite the great temptation. My ethical record remains unblemished.
So a laptop is “essential” equipment, is it? Baloney. As far as I’m concerned, to cross an ocean you need a boat with a deep keel or a centerboard, a rudder, a pole from which to hang the sails, and a bucket to bail out the bilges. A little stove would be nice to make some hot coffee or a meal now and then, but you can eat cold canned food if you have to. I have.
Let me list a few essentials that the aforementioned author has on his boat, compared with what Captain Joshua Slocum had on his boat when he became the first man to sail singlehanded around the world.
Diesel engine (Slocum, no engine); radar (none); autopilot (none); wind vane (none); Dutchman sail-flaking system (none); watermaker (none); two alternators producing 150 amps (none); refrigerator (none); single-sideband radio (none); Pactor e-mail system (none); towed generator (none); battery monitor (none); 2,000-watt inverter (none); fuel polishing system (none); WiFi (none); laptop computer (none).
I myself am not a greatly experienced voyager, but I have twice crossed the Atlantic in boats of 33 feet and under that lacked the “essential” laptop computer, not to mention radar, autopilot, electronic charts, fridge, single-sideband radio, and a whole lot of other things from that author’s list. I didn’t even have an electric bilge pump.
The strange thing is, now that I know what’s essential, thanks to this experienced author, I suddenly feel deprived. It’s like not having taken advantage of hallucogenic drugs when I was still young enough to recover and save myself. It’s just too late for me to start on the essentials now. And besides, most of the boats I sail don’t have anywhere on board that would be dry enough for a laptop.
I am astonished that I managed to cross the Atlantic twice without all the goodies I really needed. To tell the truth, I’m really rather ashamed of myself. I shall try to do better in future, honest. Pray for me, willya?
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand … Simplify, simplify. --H. D. Thoreau
* * *
“That’s an unusual vase.”
“Yes — my husband’s ashes.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. How long has he been gone?”
“He hasn’t gone. He’s just too lazy to find the ashtray.”
* * *
November 16, 2008
We had a boat, of course, a nice little C&C 28, a Trapper-class fin keeler, fast and pretty. But we wanted something a little bigger and more seaworthy, something that could take us around the Cape of Storms and across the Atlantic to America, my wife’s country.
So whenever we sat on the veranda of the Point Yacht Club in Durban with our sundowners, our eyes would scan the serried ranks of sailboats gleaming before us in the sub-tropical sun.
We were very picky. We had to be able to handle her ourselves, just June and me and our 17-year-old son, Kevin. We’d prefer a ketch, for easy sail handling, but a sloop or cutter would be OK, too. We particularly wanted a boat with wind-vane self-steering. Something between 30 and 35 feet. Four berths. A full keel. Fiberglass or steel or aluminum, no wooden hulls, thank you. Been there, done that. Oh, and a engine that was easy to start, because we probably wouldn’t have the engine key. Definitely wouldn’t have the key.
There were usually two or three contenders, and our current choice would change from time to time as new intelligence came in. Kevin was our main source. “They hide the cabin key in a flap of the dodger,” he’d announce after a sail through the ranks in his dinghy. “They have an Aries vane and a 10-foot Avon dinghy with a Yamaha outboard.” We promised him the best berth in exchange for his information.
Come the revolution, when the streets were dripping with blood, and there was shooting and stabbing and buildings ablaze and all that sort of thing, we would rendezvous at Plan B and make our escape, unnoticed in all the carnage.
OK, nobody’s expecting that same kind of revolution in America right now, but things are getting tougher. If your mortgage has gone toxic and bankers keep yelling at you because you’re overdrawn again and you’re worried sick because it looks like your job is going down the tubes, you might want to start thinking about Plan B.
They tell me it’s a lot cheaper to live in Mexico. Those Caribbean islands look quite nice, too. The weather’s great and the rum is cheap. But first you’ve got to get there. Maybe it’s time you started working on Plan B.
* * *
Men’s plans should be regulated by the circumstances, not circumstances by the plans. --Livy.
* * *
“A cat burglar got into our place last night.”
“How you know it was a cat burglar?”
“Because the only things missing are the parrot and a liter of milk.”
November 14, 2008
“I wouldn’t trust those bowlines,” I said to him one day when the forecast was for 40 knots. “They’ll work loose and you’ll be cast adrift.”
“Won’t hurt me none,” he shrugged.
That’s the trouble with O.W. He’s selfish. Not a considerate neighbor. His old 38-footer is bullet-proof. It’s built of concrete with mild steel reinforcing, and multiple rust streaks to prove it.
“But think of the boat next to you. You’ll mash that nice Jeanneau to bits.”
“Stupid lah-de-dah Froggy boat,” said O.W. “Should build them stronger.”
“C’mon,” I said. “Let me teach you to do an eyesplice. It’s easy – and they can’t come undone.”
O.W. knitted his beetle brows together. “It’s too hard,” he said.
“Nonsense,” I cried, “I can show you.”
I won’t bore you with the details. Everybody knows that the best nylon dock line is a rope made of three strands, known technically as the warp, the woof and the weft. It’s true. You can look it up in a dictionary if you don’t believe me.
For the first tuck there are three simple steps. You tuck the warp under the weft, the woof under the warp, and the weft under the woof.
Now, with the warped weft in your left hand, and the wefted woof in your right, you turn the woofed warp under the newly wefted woof, over the original wefted warp, and under the new warped woof.
In a couple of minutes we had a nice new splice in O.W’s stern line.
“Have you got it?” I asked.
“No,” said O.W. “It’s too complicated.”
One of today’s big problems is that people like O.W. have lost the art of concentrating.
“Nah, it’s not complicated,” I insisted. “Pay attention. Listen up.”
We moved to his bow line, and I did it all over again. Nice splice, even if I say so myself.
“Now you have a go,” I said.
He undid the bowline in his forward spring line and started in with the marline spike. In two minutes he had built a bird’s nest of the first order, an unholy mess.
I shook my head and sighed. “No, no, in Step 2 you warped the weft instead of woofing the warp,” I pointed out. I undid his tangle, straightened it out, and finished the splice. “Now listen, here’s a mnemonic.”
“Something to help you remember:
“With what will we weft the woof?
“Why, the warp, as always, in truth.”
I told him it was one of those clever little rhymes sailors invent for various eventualities, like:
When in danger or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream and shout.
O.W’s face lit up. “I know that one,” he said.
“I bet you implement it, too,” I said.
The wind was building by this time, and I thought it unwise to undo the bowline on the last line, his aft spring.
“I’ll leave you to practice your woofing, warping, and wefting,” I said.
He never did, of course. But now, at least, every time I walk past O.W’s boat, there’s only one ugly bowline knot left to turn my stomach. If he ever gets around to splicing that last line we’ll have to have a nice little woof-wetting ceremony.
PS: If you feel compelled to have your say, please click on the word ‘comments’ below. (Unless you are a librarian with steel-rimmed glasses who read my last blog, in which case don’t bother. I temporarily discourage comments from enraged librarians.)
* * *
November 11, 2008
Their answer to this drastic state of affairs is to urge people to visit the library. “You can escape to an exotic place through books,” they say, “a delicious break from the daily news.”
Non-librarians might notice a tiny flaw in the logic here. Hiding from the economic downturn is not going to change things for the better, surely? Well of course not. Not if you give it a moment’s thought.
But never mind that. What interests me more than their lack of logic is their lack of concern for us writers, the very people who provide the raw material that fills their libraries.
I mean, you take us boating writers. How do those librarians (hiss!) think we’re going to survive the hard times if people read our books in libraries instead of buying them, as any honest decent person should?
It’s cheating to borrow boating books from the library. We boating writers get nothing from that. We get precious little from books that are sold to nice people (less than 10 percent of the cover price, mostly) but we get absolutely nothing from the people who are seduced into entering libraries. They can suck the marrow from our brain bones without adding a cent to their credit-card debt. I mean, is that fair?
I’ve spent years learning how to write sentences that don’t end in prepositions. I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to sail nicely. I’ve studied which boats are best for crossing oceans and I have qualifications that would almost make a naval architect or a professional captain green with envy. I know hydrodynamics and aerodynamics and which sailboats are babe magnets.
And I write all this good stuff down in books with the aim of selling it to needy people. You have to agree that’s providing information and entertainment to the public and earning an honorable living for me.
Or it would be, if the librarians (hiss!) weren’t white-anting me and giving away all my knowledge for nothing.
They look so harmless, even appealing, as they sit there in their knitted sweaters and sensible shoes, reading fairy tales to groups of ankle-biters whose minds they hope to warp and indoctrinate by luring them into libraries at a very young age. But if you look into their steely eyes you’ll see hate; hate for writers; especial hate for boating writers.
“Don’t buy books,” they tell the kids. “Just come here and read them for free. We’ve got all the Vigor books. You don’t need to subsidize the likes of him.”
Pretty soon, the likes of me will die out. There will be no more writers. We’ll be flipping hamburgers instead of writing. There will be no more books. There will be no more libraries. And, praise the lord, there will be no more cruel librarians (hiss!).
November 9, 2008
“Too funny,” said Scott. “I was reading along and knew something was strange but just read on. To me that's sracy. Maybe I should try sailing backwards.Thanks for the laughs.”
Well, Scott, it certainly is an interesting phenomenon that the well-honed human mind can read words whose letters are all jumbled up just as if they were correctly spelled. Apparently it’s because we tend to read words as a whole, not letter by letter – although I have to tell you there are some people who move their lips when they read, which means they’re sounding out the letters. Even some librarians do it, I’m told.
This makes me wonder why we spend years in school learning to spell, beginning with teh cta sta on teh mta. Why do we bother? And of what practical use to us is Spellcheck? We dno’t ndee no daenmd Spelcchelk.
But aside from that, I was interested in Scott’s remark that perhaps he should sail backwards. This might strike some of you as an off-the-wall statement, something that might have flown out of the mouth of an Alaskan governor during a Katie Couric interview. But no, hang on. Not so fast. There’s sense in what Scott said.
Years ago, when I was an active dinghy racer I learned to sail a Mirror dinghy backwards. It was very simple. You just luff up dead into the wind until all way is off. Then you hold out the main boom to one side and the tiller to the other. Et voila! Suddenly, m’sieur, you are sailing backwards; what’s more, you’ll find that you can steer in any direction normal to a sailboat.
This turned out to be very useful on race days. Just before the start gun, I would luff up close to the line near the committe boat and start sailing backwards, yelling “Starboard!” very loudly and waving my arms. This little tactic sowed panic among the tightly packed Mirror fleet heading for the line. In the heat of the moment, with 10 seconds to the gun, they couldn’t decide whether I was on port tack or starboard.
Assuming that I had right of way, some went about, some jibed, and some lost their heads completely and hit the committee boat. All scattered as if I were flying the bubonic plague flag. And while they did that, I sheeted in the mainsail on the correct side and started sprinting forward toward the line. As the start gun went, I would find myself all alone in a nice big hole, with a clear wind and the next boat five lengths behind.
You might regard this as bad sportsmanship. Well, I didn’t say it was a good thing. I’m not proud of it. I just can’t help it. My character changes when I’m racing. My wife, June, who crewed for me, started off calling me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She ended up calling me Captain Bligh.
I had to give up racing in the end. Illegally luffed too many boats that were overtaking me to windward. But I am unrepentant. They asked for it. Damn fools should have known you don’t overtake John Vigor to windward (even if the rules say you can) without suffering the consequences. Sheesh, who do they think they are?
PS: To leave a comment please click on the word “comments” below.
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November 6, 2008
“The junk was a tank full of ammonia coolant on the international space station that was no longer needed. Astronaut Clayton Anderson threw it overboard during a spacewalk in July 2007.”
Say what? He threw a huge tank of ammonia in the sea? Harmlessly?
Good grief, if I even pee in the sea the Coast Guard will come and get me. Are they going to arrest Anderson? I bet not. These NASA people think they’re above the law, immune to prosecution. They’re in cahoots with the Coast Guard.
By federal law, I have to carry a little placard on my sailboat that says I’m not allowed to throw all kinds of things overboard. There are so many things that I’ve never read to the end of the list, but I bet tanks full of ammonia coolant are there. So how does NASA get away with it?
And another thing – how do they know it landed harmlessly? How do they know it didn’t land on a whale, or, worse yet, on an innocent sailboat minding its own business with nobody even thinking of watching out for a flying fridge full of ammonia aproaching at 760 miles an hour?
If my boat were hit by a speeding, red-hot piece of space junk that big and that toxic there’d be nothing left of it. Nobody would know I had been wiped out for ever, gargling bravely in boiling ammonia and cursing that litter-lout Clayton Anderson. Why do we let these people get away with it?
It’s not as as if this were an isolated incident, either. It happens all the time. NASA is out of control. I can still remember that huge SpaceLab wobbling around in low orbit before it eventually fell on Australia, providentially doing nothing worse than scaring a couple of kangaroos in the desert. NASA sent it into space knowing full well they wouldn’t be able to control where it landed. It could have wiped out a large passenger liner, never mind a small sailboat.
The open ocean is becoming an uncreasingly unsafe place for amateur sailors. Already the seas are full of mile-long fishing nets left unattended for an unwary sailboat to get tangled up in. There are weather buoys and oil derricks and huge steel containers washed off the decks of ships, partially afloat and almost invisible even in daylight.
What all this amounts to is a lack of accountabliity and responsibility. Any ship that loses a container should have to recover it before it can do any harm. NASA shouldn’t be allowed to dump its space junk with a cavalier disregard for lives and property.
Next time I’m boarded by the Coast Guard I shall mention all this to them while they inspect my holding tank to see if I’ve pumped any poop overboard.
“Poop,” I shall say indignantly, “poop, indeed! What if I told you I work for NASA and am pre-cleared to shove a whole tank of boiling ammonia overboard?”
That’ll show them. And I shall rip up my little placard in their faces as they slink back to their cutter.
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To leave a comment, go to Blog Archives at right and click on “Ammonia from heaven”
November 5, 2008
If you don’t have enough synapses, or they’re not feeling well, or they’ve gone on strike because they fear you’re going to outsource their jobs, I’m afraid you don’t have the intelligence to own and operate a boat.
Now, as you probably know, intelligence varies from day to day, so some days you may be intelligent enough to own and operate a boat, but on other days, the blah days, you’d be safer if you stayed ashore and let your teenage daughter drive you to the bowling alley. But how will you know if your little synapses are generating enough intelligence? Well, here’s a quick test:
Aer yuo albe to raed tihs? Appernalty olny 55 penrcet of poelpe can. Teh oethr 45 petrcen cna’t. Btu, if yuo can, tehn yuo aer intiegllnet enoguh to own a boat. Yuo may fnid it hrad to bevelie taht yuo can untersadnd waht yuo’re rdanieg, but resechar crriead out at Cmbarigde Unietrsivy in Egnlnad has rveeaeld teh phemnnoeal poewr of teh hmuan mnid. It dosne’t seme to meattr in waht odrer we plcae teh lerttes in a wrod bescuae teh integlleint mnid raeds teh wrod as a wlohe, not one letetr at a tmie. So coninrgaltuatos, you hvae psased teh integlleince tset adn yuo aer fit ot clal yesourlf Citapan.
For those of you who have no idea what’s going on in the last paragraph, I’m sorry to have to say you’re in the 45 percent group. Too bad. Stay on dry land today, will you? Maybe your synapses will be fitter tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep.
“Granny, what’s it called when one person goes into the bedroom and sleeps on top of another?”
“Ah … ahem … well, Johnny … um … it’s actually called sexual intercourse.”
“Huh, that’s strange. My friend Billy told me it was called bunk beds.”
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PS: To leave a comment, go to Archives at right and click on “Are you smart enough?” All criticism will be bravely tolerated.
November 2, 2008
My friends, a lot has been said recently about bailing out homeowners with toxic mortgages. But nothing at all has been said about bailing out sailors whose boats are about to be foreclosed. Nothing at all.
Not one word of comfort has been offered to suffering boat owners who have been forced to swallow the anchor. Not one billionth of the 700-billion-dollar bailout has been set aside to save Joe the Sailor from the avaricious clutches of a predatory bank whose CEO gets to take home a bonus of $7 million this Christmas.
Is this not wicked? Is this not discrimination? Is this not un-American behavior of the worst kind?
It’s as if Obama and McCain have never heard of decent, hardworking owners of sailboats -- people who live good lives, pay their taxes on time, and contribute to the economy by consuming large amounts of beer.
A pox on such thoughtless politicians, I say. You can’t trust a presidential candidate who doesn’t sail. Have they never wondered what happens to old shellbacks when they are cruelly deprived of their beloved boats? They tell me that old golfers never die; they merely lose their balls. But what happens to foreclosed sailors? They can’t even afford to paint their bottoms.
My friends, we must use the power of the vote to change this desperate state of affairs. We must let it be known that we want a President who can steer a ketch as well as fly a plane. We want a Vice-President who can reef and splice as well as field-dress a moose. We want leaders who aren’t afraid to fight for a boat owner’s right to bop a banker on the bean when he tries to repossess a humble sloop or cutter.
My friends, tomorrow we vote. If they can’t sail it means they have no hearts. Throw the bums out.
My name is John Vigor and I (once again) approve this message.
PS: If you'd like to leave a comment, click on "Throw the bums out" under "Archives" over on the right of this page.
October 31, 2008
PEOPLE sometimes ask if I ever get scared when I’m sailing. Do I ever experience actual fear? Well, to borrow a phrase from a well-known Alaskan soccer mom and animal disemboweler, you betcha!
But the issue of fear in sailing is not often discussed in public, says Oded Kishony, of Barboursville, Virginia, in a comment on a previous blog. He’s right. It’s certainly not discussed much in most sailing magazines or even on sailing bulletin boards.
I guess most sailors don’t want to confess to feeling scared for fear of being labeled wimps and wusses. But I got over that particular fear years ago. I have wimped and wussed my way through my entire sailing career, so being scared at sea no longer makes me feel I’ve lost my manhood. For me, frequent anxiety, occasional fright, and rare moments of real fear have become the norm in sailing.
I have a whole array of anxieties and fears, ranging from wondering whether the engine will stop just as I’m entering a marina to how I would get back on board again if I fell over the side. I’ll work up a little sweat on occasion when I try to think how long ago the standing rigging was inspected (too long, of course) or how I would stop a leak if I had actually hit the jagged rock we just missed.
I don’t know what Mr. Kishony’s interest is in fear. I discover he is a master craftsman of violins, violas, and cellos. He also has studied psychology, so that might explain something. But I do know that many would-sailors with dreams of cruising away into the sunset are halted by simple fear of the sea.
What they don’t appreciate is that fear is a normal and indispensable part of ocean voyaging -- and perhaps even of sailing with more modest objectives. Fear, after all, is what keeps you out of trouble. It assists in the avoidance of danger, says Dr. Michael Stadler, author of Psychology of Sailing: The Sea’s Effects on Mind and Body (Adlard Coles, London).
“Fear in ample (though not excessive) degree can mobilize forces which sharpen up the senses and improve one’s capacity to anticipate and assess the risks inherent in certain situations,” he says.
Most landlubbers link gales at sea with fear, but ordinary gales should cause no undue anxiety to a well-found yacht. One of my boyhood heroes, Eric Hiscock, a very experienced circumnavigator, learned that lesson only late in his sailing career. He suffered greatly from anxiety most of his life, fearing that really bad weather might some day overtake his little vessel. Which it eventually did, of course. And when it did, he discovered to his enormous relief that both he and Wanderer III had what it takes to survive.
“Fortunate indeed is the man who, early in his sailing career, encounters and successfully weathers a hard blow,” Hiscock wrote. The message is plain: Don’t let fear of bad weather put you off cruising. Those who cross oceans find that gales account for less than 2 percent of their sailing time.
In any case, I think it’s fairly certain that all sensible sailors do feel at least a little scared from time to time. Sailing is a sport from which it’s impossible to remove all risk, and perhaps it’s the thrill associated with danger that lends excitement and satisfaction to even the tiniest voyage. How dull sailing would be if it were completely safe. How motorboatish. Yecch!
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They didn’t remember
Dr. David Lewis, an experienced singlehander, did a study of fear in collaboration with Britain’s Medical Research Council. He found that four out of five contestants in the 1960 singlehanded transatlantic race experienced “acute fear.”
Interestingly, though, they didn’t remember afterward how frightened they had been. It seems to be part of human nature that we forget, or at least downplay, the bad times and remember only the good times. Most of the sailors recalled that they were scared, but couldn’t recall how bad it was. Their brains had expunged or subdued memories of their bad experiences.
Dr Lewis concluded: “Observations noted at the time are the only valid ones.” He himself honestly forgot that he had been at all frightened during one gale until he consulted his notes.
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Richard Henderson, one of America’s best-known sailing authors, says in his book Singlehanded Sailing (International Marine) that the best weapon against fear is self-confidence.
And how does a wussy wimp like me gain self-confidence?
“This is best assured by careful preparation, attention to one’s health, seeing that the boat is sound and well equipped, learning all one can about the proposed route and weather conditions, preparing for all possible emergencies, and gradually building experience.”
All of which sounds remarkably like my own Black Box Theory. Which see.
Two types of fear
Ocean voyagers apparently experience two types of fear. There are the initial tensions and anxieties that last for a few days after sailing, and there are specific periods of apprehension such as those occasioned by a gale, sudden fog, or a bad-visibility approach to an unknown coast.
I also experience the collywobbles before I set sail. (Do I really know what the hell I’m doing? Will I really be able to pull down the second reef in a 50-knot gale? Will I be seasick and incapacitated … and on, and on.) But I know now, after years of experience, that all these and most of my minor anxieties will disappear as soon as I leave the land behind. It’s as if some part of my mind — the dedicated worry zone — realizes that it’s too late now, and that it might as well cooperate in getting the damn boat to the next port as painlessly as possible.
October 29, 2008
Of course, it’s not pure altruism that moves them. There is a faint chance that someone might visit this site, take leave of their senses, and order one of my books. In that case, Karen and Jerry stand to make a small commission. A very small commission, to tell the truth — just about the same as what I make from the sale of my books, as a matter of fact.
The people who make the real money from my books are the publishers and the retail sellers. I’m talking about the big money, the heavy spondoolicks if you know what I mean. Now I ask you, in all decency, is it fair? Is it right? I do all the work and they get all the … but no, my wife says I must get a grip on myself. Thank you, dear. We seem to have been down this road before. But let me assure you all that I am not resentful. Hell, no. Not really. I always foam at the mouth and grind my teeth like this.
Sorry, I got carried away there for a bit. What I actually wanted to say was that Karen and Jerry have come to be good friends of mine in the decade since they bravely started a new sailing magazine called Good Old Boat. Accordingly, they allow me to indulge in one of mankind’s greatest urges, one even greater than the urge to reproduce, and that is the urge to change other people’s writing.
They made me Good Old Boat’s copy editor and gave me full permission to cross other people’s crooked T’s and dot their naked I’s. It’s wonderful. And to crown it all, they pay me for doing it. It’s heaven. Thanks Karen. Thanks Jerry. I owe you.