December 30, 2008

Oprah, lies, and me

ONCE AGAIN, Ms. Oprah has been turned into Ms. Suckah. This time it was Herman Rosenblat who left Oprah with egg on her face. He wrote a book called Angel at the Fence, a poignant tale of a Jewish girl who threw him apples and bread over the fence of a Nazi concentration camp. Oprah invited Rosenblat and his wife to her show twice, and called his book the “single greatest love story … we’ve ever told on the air.”

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.

Today’s Thought
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

Do you love your boat?

ARE YOU IN LOVE with your boat? I ask not out of any mawkish desire to pry into your private affairs, but for a very practical reason. If you are in love with your boat, you need to snap out of it. You need to fall out of love with your boat. At least until the economy improves.

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.

Today’s Thought
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

Meet your special protector

According to the TV quiz show “Jeopardy,” the patron saint of yachtsmen is St. Adjutor. I’ll say that again in case you weren’t concentrating: St. Adjutor.

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.

Today’s Thought
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

GPS of all trades

I WAS WONDERING what my boat might like for Christmas when my eye fell upon an advertisement for a Garmin Rino 530HCx. The Garmin company is famous for GPS navigation instruments, of course, but the Rino seems to be a departure from the norm.

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.

Today’s Thought
I find the sea-life an acquired taste, like that for tomatoes and olives. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Season’s greetings
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?”
“I coughed.”
“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 Virtual Vendée farce

ONE OF THE of the biggest yacht races in the world has turned into a French farce.

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?

Today's Thought
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

In Pursuit of Happiness

THOSE MOST prodigious of cruisers, Lin and Larry Pardey, say there are three main reasons why long-distance cruises are so often unsuccessful:

1. Too large a boat.
2. Not enough money.
3. Overplanning.

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.

Today's Thought
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

Rum always helps

A FEW YEARS AGO I was singlehanding in my Cape Dory 25D through the Gulf Islands, in British Columbia, Canada, where tight anchorages often make it necessary to take a line ashore.
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.

Today's Thought
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

Tritium on my mind

I AM VERY good friends with my old hand bearing compass. I use it constantly when I'm out cruising. It lets me know if I'm going to hit an island, drag anchor, or run into a tug. But like most friends, it's not perfect. In fact, it worries me sometimes when I think about it.

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.

Today's Thought
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

Stopping that chain

EVER HEARD OF a chain stopper? Not enough boaters have, apparently.

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.

Today's Thought
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

My unromantic algae

THERE IS A LOT of talk these days about making diesel fuel out of algae. Scientists point out that algae can produce more oil in an area the size of a two-car garage than can an entire football field of soybeans.

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.

Today's Thought
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

Magic of the links

I WANT YOU to think about your anchor chain for moment. Think about the links. Each link consists of two pieces of rod down the sides, but only one piece going around the top and the bottom.

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.

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

Words of wisdom from Scotland:

“A weel-bred dog gaes oot when he sees them preparing to tae kick him oot.”

December 4, 2008

When you can't beat 'em . . .

OLD WOTISNAME down the row from me was in a fine old rage yesterday. He had just heard about the cruise ship that was attacked by pirates — the cruise ship that got away.

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."

"What's that?"

"I'm gonna strike a deal with the pirates. Sell them a secret counter weapon."

"What's that?"

"Earplugs," he said. "And maybe waterproof jackets also."

Today's Thought
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

Couch-potato sailors

AT THIS VERY moment more than 20 singlehanded sailboats are plunging hell-for-leather into the wild Southern Ocean. In one of the world's toughest and most enduring competitions, they're racing non-stop around the globe. Each skipper is alone, crashing through huge frigid swells at speeds of 15 knots or more, in a 60-foot sloop.

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[1].

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[2], 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[3]. 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.

[1]The real Vendée Globe:
[2]The Cape Dory board:
[3]The virtual Vendée Globe online:

Today's Thought
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.