November 29, 2009

A plea for help

Dear John:
My wife is threatening to divorce me if I spend any more money on the boat. Can you help?
--Desperate Dan, San Diego

Well, Dan, I’m sorry but I don’t think I can help. There are too many unknowns. How much work does your boat need? How much money have you spent already, to make your wife so mad? Has she made this threat before? Did it worry you? Did she back down? Will she back down next time?

Political correctness demands that I advise you to quit spending money on the boat and start patching up your marriage. But logically, the first question should be — which is more important to you, wife or boat? If you can’t have both in good working order, which one would you choose to spend the rest of your life with? Only you can answer that. (Hint — Whose picture do you have in your wallet next to the West Marine card?)

Have you considered taking your problem to Dr. Phil? His national audience of voyeuristic landlubbers might be fascinated to know how much it takes to outfit a boat in a half-decent wardrobe of sails and running rigging. Yachtsmen are all too often portrayed as filthy rich and incurably snobbish but you could make the case for the rest of us, the great majority of male sailors whose financial states compel them to hide from their wives the bills from the boatyard, the sailmaker, and the engine repair man.

Meanwhile, the only advice I can offer is that you should bone up on stuff like cooking supper, washing clothes, darning socks, and fixing buttons. Just in case.

Today’s Thought
What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.
— George Levinger

“I see Old Moneybags finally got hitched to that chorus girl he’s been chasing for so long.”
“Yeah, he spent a fortune on her, so he had to marry her for his money.”

November 26, 2009

Propellers made easy

A FEW DAYS AGO I was editing an article for a forthcoming issue of Good Old Boat magazine. It said:

“When you select a propeller, you should match every dimension of that propeller to the hull and the engine driving it to attain maximum efficiency. This makes propeller selection and calculation very difficult for those of us who are not naval architects.”

Well, that’s not completely true in my opinion. The experts in too many fields, such as navigation and splicing rope, like to spread the word that it’s more complicated than it really is.

There are two ways of selecting a propeller: theory and practice. And even naval architects often have to resort to trial-and-error after they’ve tried their best with theory.

Let’s say you’re not satisfied with your boat’s performance under power, and you suspect the propeller is the wrong size. First check the diameter. Go to page 45 of my book, The Boatowner’s Handbook, where there’s a handy little graph. Lay a ruler between horsepower and prop shaft revolutions, and see where it crosses the column marked “Propeller diameter.”

On page 47 you’ll find another graph that shows you the pitch you need. This points you in the right direction for your prop. It’s about as good a result as the naval architect will get with all his complicated calculations.

So much for theory. Now we come to the practice. This doesn’t hardly need any brains at all.

Make sure your boat’s propeller is free of barnacles and the hull is reasonably clean. Take her for a run in calm weather. The ideal propeller will allow the engine to reach the manufacturer’s top-rated revolutions per minute (and therefore full power) with the throttle opened fully. And at this stage, your boat should be achieving full hull speed.

Now, if your engine starts to lug, or emit black diesel smoke, before it reaches top-rated rpm, you’ve probably got too much pitch. It’s like trying to ride a bike uphill in top gear.

On the other hand, if your engine reaches top revs too easily — that is, before your boat reaches hull speed — you probably need to increase the pitch. You’re riding downhill in low gear and your little legs are whizzing around but you’re not going very fast.

A propeller shop can alter the pitch of most auxiliary sailboat props a couple of inches, at a fraction of the cost of a new propeller. For boats with the usual 2-to-1 reduction gearbox, a decrease in prop pitch of 2 inches will increase engine revs per minute by about 300 to 400.

It’s unlikely that you’ll need to change the prop diameter, but you might like to know that for roughly equivalent performance, if you decrease the diameter 1 inch, you should increase its pitch 2 inches.

You don’t need to be a naval architect to check your propeller’s actual performance this way. It’s as much art as science — plus a bit of grunt work to get the damn prop off the shaft to which it clings so determinedly.

Today’s Thought
An expert is somebody who is more than 50 miles from home, has no responsibility for implementing the advice he gives, and shows slides.
— Edwin Meese 3rd, White House counsel

A pessimist is a person who builds a castle in the air and then locks himself in the dungeon.
An optimist, on the other hand, is a person who fixes your eyes.

November 24, 2009

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

(Hop aboard every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor)

DAMN. IT’S COMING UP THANKSGIVING. Gotta write a blog, and it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. What has Thanksgiving got to do with boats, for Pete’s sake? Think, man, think. What’s the connection? Scratch head. Pull finger out of earhole and type, dammit.

Well, okay, I suppose some of us should be grateful for boats. If it weren’t for boats I couldn’t have written articles and books about boats and got paid for it. On the other hand, if there were no such things as boats I might be better off. I might have been a plumber, as my mother suggested, instead of a pretend writer, and I might have earned a fortune instead of a pittance.

I could be sitting in my villa in Nice or Monte Carlo right now with my own plumbing all done in pure 22-carat gold, drinking pink Moët de Grand Excellence champagne out of chorus girls’ slippers and tossing euro coins to the dull-witted writers begging in the street below.

So I don’t know that I’m very grateful for boats.

Mind you, I suppose there’s a fair chance that if it weren’t for boats there would not be any white folks in this country. We’d all still be in freezing-cold Merrie Bloodie Englande painting ourselves blue and trying to invent fire and Oprah Winfrey. There’d be no Thanksgiving, either, of course, and this country would be overrun with swaggering, cocksure turkeys. Ugly buggers that they are.

It’s true that Christopher Columbus used a boat — but he didn’t land in North America, even though most Americans think he did. So there’s no reason to be grateful to Christopher Columbus. If he had found America we’d all be speaking Spanish with bad accents by now and I wouldn’t be able to earn a living because I speak only English. Well, and Afrikaans. And a bit of Zulu and Fanagalo. And a smattering of French and German. And two years of Latin, with several canings for not doing homework. And nine months of lispy Castellano, which I don’t remember any more. Oh, and one sentence in Polish. Don’t know any Greek, though, apart from alpha and omega and ouzo.

But I digress. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, remember? Okay, well, despite everything, I guess I have to be thankful for boats. One brought me safely thousands of miles across the oceans to my nice new home in America and others continue to fascinate me and brighten my life. So I take it back. I am grateful to boats.

Here’s to boats: I’ll drink to that. Kindly hand me my bottle of Moët de Cheapskate.

Today’s Thought
Maybe the only thing worse than having to give gratitude constantly … is having to accept it.
— William Faulkner

“How much is a bottle of brandy? It’s my nephew’s birthday and he likes brandy.”
“Well, madam, it depends on the age. Seven-year-old is quite reasonably priced. Ten-year-old costs a bit more. Twelve-year-old can be quite expensive.”
“Gee, that’s terrible. My nephew is 25.”

November 22, 2009

The perfect sailing hat

I HAVE BEEN SEARCHING for the perfect sailing hat for years. Still haven’t found it, but I’ve come close.

I lost my hat the very first time I sailed in a keelboat. I was just a kid, a cabin boy, standing up in the forward hatch of a beautiful Knut Reimers wooden racing sloop called Viking, owned by Fred Smithers, a lawyer who lived in Cape Town. We were crashing into a black southeaster near Cape Point when the afterguard decided to tack. The jib swept over the deck, brushed against my head, and wiped my hat off. I saw it floating away to leeward and knew instinctively that no-one was going to offer to go back for it.

Since then, I’ve tried many different hats, from knitted black watch caps to a bright red fisherman’s sou’wester, but none of them has fully met my requirements, namely the need to be lightweight, waterproof, windproof, and irresistibly attractive to ladies.

I notice that some famous cruisers such as Larry Pardey let themselves be photographed in wide, shady, straw hats that look pleasantly goofy but I know for a fact they can’t wear them when they go up forward to douse the jib in anything over 10 knots of wind.

I rather like the look of some European yachting hats, the kind you see them wearing at Cowes Week or when the Queen comes to inspect the fleet or say howdy to the members of the Royal Yachting Association or whatever. And those Greek skipper’s caps, which look so very dashing, have undoubtedly helped lure many an innocent maiden into the nether regions of floating gin palaces; but the trouble with all of them is that they won’t stay put in any decent wind. Besides, you need a lot more chutzpah than I’ve got to wear a cap adorned with captain’s gold braid when you’re only the skipper of a 26-year-old, 27-foot sloop like mine. The hat should fit the vessel as well as the man.

And it should fit the weather, of course. For example, around here last week it was blowing 60 and gusting 80 miles an hour. Just a few miles up State Route 20, in the Cascades, they were expecting 20 inches of snow overnight. And down here on the coastal plain of Puget Sound, it was all solid rain and inside-out umbrellas.

We hear a lot about hurricanes on the East Coast but they don’t even know we have hurricane-force winds on the coast here every winter, regular as clockwork. We don’t whine about it. We just tie our hat strings tighter around our chins.

Anyway, to cut it short, I eventually found that the most practical headgear for my part of the world was a good old baseball cap underneath a hood attached to an anorak or a foul-weather jacket. The hood should have strings under the chin, of course, so you can adjust its tightness and prevent the baseball cap from escaping.

Now you have a waterproof, windproof hat with a peak that keeps the spray off your glasses and the sun out of your eyes; a hat that won’t get knocked off when you lurch against the shrouds; a hat that can’t be brushed off by the jib when some fool decides to tack without warning.

It’s almost ideal. It certainly fits the vessel. The only problem is that it conveys a sort of rumpled homeless appearance, which seems not to appeal to nice ladies, even without the plastic bags around my feet. My aim for next season is to improve the look of this arrangement so as to convey more of a feeling of dashing nautical nerdiness. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

Today’s Thought
Ignorant people in preppy clothes are more dangerous to America than oil embargoes.
— V. S. Naipaul

“My husband is so careless about his appearance. He just can’t seem to keep buttons on his clothes.”
“Maybe the buttons weren’t sewn on properly in the first place.”
“Oh, you may have a point there. He’s terribly careless with his sewing, too.”

November 19, 2009

Getting the tension right

OLD WOTSISNAME IS WORRIED about the rigging that holds his mast up. “It’s tight now,” he said, twanging a wire, “but when I go sailing, the leeward shrouds always feel loose.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Well, last time I just tightened up the leeward turnbuckle to take up the slack. And when I went about onto the other tack, I tightened that turnbuckle up, too.”

“And what happened?”

“Nothing. The leeward shroud is still slack. Always.”

I plucked one of OW’s shrouds. It was as tight as a violin string. “You could play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto on this wire,” I said. “But that’s the good news.”

“What’s the bad news?”

“You’re driving your mast down through your deck,” I said. “The rigging is far too tight. A few more turns on the turnbuckles and your cabintop is going to end up on your cabin floor.”

What OW didn’t realize was just how powerful the turnbuckles are. And how he could overstrain the rig by trying to eliminate the slackness in his leeward shroud.

That slackness is always going to be there. The old rule of thumb is that the leeward shroud should feel slack, but not look slack, when you’re beating in a medium-strength wind.

The reason is that stainless-steel wire stretches. There’s construction stretch for a start, which results from the strands settling into place when the first load is applied. That’s a once-only, permanent stretch. And then there’s elastic stretch, which is temporary, allowing the wire to return to its original length each time the load is removed.

Now the elastic stretch may be greater than you imagined. For example, when a 33-foot stainless-steel 1 x 19 wire (of ANY thickness) is loaded to half its breaking strength, it will stretch 2 inches. That’s why the leeward shroud goes slack. It’s fine. It’s meant to.

“So what should I do now?” said OW.

“Loosen it all and start again,” I said. “I’ll lend you my tension gauges.”

The first thing to do in tuning a rig is to find out the displacement of your boat. Then give the upper shrouds and the backstay a tension of approximately 10 percent of the boat’s displacement. A higher tension will automatically be induced in the forestay because it makes a narrower angle to the mast than does the backstay.

Then tighten the forward lower shrouds or babystay until the mast bows forward slightly, but noticeably, at the spreaders.

Tighten the aft lowers to straighten the mast again.

When you’re out sailing in a moderate breeze, check that the mast is straight and adjust the upper or lower shrouds with equal turns of the turnbuckles on both sides, slackening the port side if you tighten the starboard side, and so on.

That’s all there is to it.

Now, if you’re still awake and you’ve been concentrating hard, you may think that 10 percent is quite a lot of tension to preload into the topmast shrouds, and it is; but it’s about right.

The breaking strengths of all the shrouds on one side of the boat should equal a little more than the boat’s displacement, say displacement times 1.4 for offshore cruisers, times 1.2 for inshore cruisers, and times 1.0 for racing boats and daysailers. When you have double lower shrouds, however, (that is, forward lowers and aft lowers) then you should use only one shroud for this calculation, the thinking being that only one lower at a time carries the load.

I don’t know how much extra load OW was placing on his deck, but I can tell you that the normal compression load on a mast step while you’re sailing is as much as 2.5 times the displacement. Now OW’s concrete barge must weigh 15,000 pounds, so his mast is thrusting downward with a force of 37,500 pounds or nearly 17 tons.

Frankly, I’ve never quite understood how thin-walled aluminum tubes can withstand loads as high as that, but they do it all the time. To me, it’s just another of those bits of magic that make sailing so interesting.

Today’s Thought
Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
— Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress

Four-year-old Janie had been put to bed for the night when her little brother wandered along and tried to enter her room.
“You can’t come in, Jimmy,” she said, “cos Mom says little boys mustn’t see little girls in their nighties.”
Jimmy went outside, closed the door, and was puzzling about this when the door opened again.
“It’s aw wight Jimmy, you can come in now,” said Janie. “I’se tooked my nightie off.”

November 17, 2009

Northern love affair

I WAS ASKED the other day by someone who has spent a long time in the sub-tropics: “What do northern sailors do in winter?”

Well, some go skiing. Some flee south in RVs. Some go away on cruise ships. These are the dilettantes, the dabblers, the amateurs, the superficial tire-kickers.

And before you accuse me of using big words you can’t understand, let me explain that a dilettante is someone who follows sailing for an amusement, a diversion. Someone who doesn’t take sailing half seriously enough.

The real sailors are reading books of ocean adventures. They’re studying boat plans and looking at ads for Herreshoff 28 ketches. They’re making plans to get time off from their partners, and continue their clandestine affairs with their boats.

They’re poking holes in the shrink-wrap so they can get inside and sit on the saloon couch for a bit, maybe making a cup of coffee on the stove and searching for the half-bottle of rum they hid in the medicine cabinet. Just to fortify the coffee, of course.

They check the bilges for water and crank the motor over half a turn by hand, so the impeller doesn’t take a fatal set. They check that there’s air circulating, to deter mold. They switch on the VHF, listen to forecasts of raging storms, and grin to themselves, snug in their winter refuge.

They read with delight the logs of their past year’s cruising, and dream of those lovely lazy breezes and warm seas. They play back in their minds, time and time again, the peaceful nights at anchor, the early-morning call of the loon, and the shrill cry of a kingfisher carrying breakfast back to a forest of open beaks.

The thing about serious sailors, as opposed to those dilettantes, is that they are in love with their boats. They can hardly bear to be parted from them. They tend and care for them. They talk to them as if they were flesh and blood. They nurture them. They praise their good qualities and pardon their faults.

And in that definitive demonstration of ardour, they look back, long and hard, when they part. That’s what real sailors do in winter.

Today’s Thought
A man nearly always loves for other reasons than he thinks. A lover is apt to be as full of secrets from himself as is the object of his love from him.
— Ben Hecht

“What’s the special today?”
“Ve got fine zoop today, sir. You like some zoop, mebbe?”
“Zoop? What’s zoop?”
“You don’t know what is zoop? You know what is stew, yes? Vell, zoop is same ting, only looser.”

November 15, 2009

Beware of lifelines

I’M NOT A GREAT FAN of lifelines. I suppose they may stop someone going overboard now and then, but mostly they just stand there doing nothing, interfering with the foresail sheets and chafing the mainsheet.

They have to be strung through upright stanchions that landlubbers instinctively grab when they think you’re coming into your berth too fast. And nothing could be better designed than a stanchion to lever the deck loose and open up holes around the fasteners where water can penetrate.

Lifelines inevitably stretch and droop with age because people hang their fenders from them and use them as clotheslines when they’re out cruising. They make it difficult to board the boat without doing a Nazi goose-step unless you add special hardware to make gate openings near the cockpit, and worst of all, they all too often come with a plastic coating that traps moisture inside and hides from view the subsequent corrosion of the wire.

All boats with cabins and sidedecks seem to come with lifelines these days, probably because society is currently so obsessed with the safety of others and so consumed with doubt that ordinary sailors like you and me are capable of sailing a boat without falling overboard. So if you must have lifelines, and it seems you must, even if only to placate the misplaced concern of the do-gooders, then let them be good, honest, plain stainless steel with no plastic covering.

This overweening solicitude for our welfare was not always present. Fifty or a hundred years ago there were lots of boats sailing around the world without lifelines, some of the greatest, such as Slocum and Moitessier, among them. It was obvious, even then, that you couldn’t definitely, positively, rely on lifelines to stop you going overboard, especially when you were working on the cabin top and the boat was heeled well over. They simply couldn’t be made high enough, or sturdy enough. Indeed, many modern lifelines masquerading as safety features are fit only to catapult you overboard. Sensible sailors never trust them, preferring to put their faith in cabin-top handrails, tethers, harnesses, and jacklines.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the U.S. Coast Guard is experimenting with rope lifelines, although the stuff they use hardly qualifies for the term rope these days, being constructed of exotic fibers that are actually stronger than steel. They won’t rust, of course, but they can’t effectively be spliced, so they need mechanical terminal fittings. They’re lighter than stainless steel, and naturally more expensive, so they’re more likely to be found on flat-out racing boats whose owners don’t mind spending money as long as it makes the boat go faster. (Or on vessels for which the U.S. taxpayer foots the bill, of course.)

I’m told that such lifelines don’t abrade easily, and are tougher to cut than you might think, but I am conservative enough not to want them on my boat, thanks. Not yet. Maybe in 50 years, when I’ve got used to the idea. Meanwhile, I think it would be hard to find anything better for lifelines than good old stainless-steel wire rope. Without the plastic cover, of course.

Today’s Thought
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
— Tacitus, Annals XV

“Didn’t you hear me pounding on your wall last night?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t like to complain. We were making quite a bit of noise ourselves.”

November 12, 2009

My barometer speaks Cherman

A BAROMETER IS A SAILOR’S BEST FRIEND. It gives its services freely and constantly; and you never have to buy it a drink. The one on my boat has a case of shiny brass and it’s an aneroid. I believe that means it doesn’t have a sex. A gender, that is.

I’m told that male barometers are boastful and exaggerating, whereas female ones are gentle, calming souls who are not keen to give the bad news. On a female barometer the arm points to “Possible Rain – but Highly Unlikely Dearie” or “Delightful Day – Don’t Forget Your Sunscreen.” Male barometers just list three brutally simple forms of weather, clockwise from the left: “Rain,” “Change,” and “Fair.”

Now my barometer is not only aneroid. It also speaks Cherman. On its face it says: “Regen,” “Veränderlich,” “Schön.” Luckily I learned Cherman from an old girl friend, so I could read the instructions:

“Guten tag, mein Hairies und Damen, das ist der Cherman Weddermasjien, mit der Movink Lever für der Predikshun von Donner und Blitzen, und Sturm und Drang.

“Achtung dumkopf! Nicht upwinden. Gefingerpoken und upwinden ist verboden. Der Weddermasjien ist solo für lookenpeepen. Das ist nicht eine Klockwerken Masjien. Danke schön.”

Surprisingly, der Movink Lever scale is marked in millibars and centimeters. Other barometers may be marked in inches and millimeters, or any combination of these measurements. It’s not necessary to know the precise measures, though, because it’s the trend of the pressure that’s important. High pressure means fair weather. Low pressure means the likelihood of storms. That’s all you need to know. Oh, just one other thing — if the pressure falls at least one millibar per hour for 24 hours, you’re in the path of a weather bomb. Get the heck out of there, and quickly.

Barometers are also used by airplanes and mountain climbers, of course. As you rise above sea level, air pressure drops, so the barometer can tell you your altitude. This is very handy if you ignored my warning about the weather bomb and need to know your height when you get blown out of the water.

Today’s Thought
The best weather instrument yet devised is a pair of human eyes.
— Harold M. Gibson, Chief Meteorologist, NYC Weather Bureau

“Yes, I’ve been very unfortunate with both my husbands.”
“Oh? Why?”
“Well, the first one ran away.”
“And the second?”
“He didn’t.”

November 10, 2009

Lowering the mast

A LOT OF NORTHERN BOATS are having their masts lowered right now in preparation for a winter on the hard. I keep reading of the difficulties of pulling the mast and how you need a small crane, a large fork-lift, or at least an 18-foot-tall A-frame made from 2 x 4s. And as I read, my thoughts drift back to how we did it with such little fuss in the old days.

I had a 28-foot racing sloop called Trapper in those days. I used to form a raft-up with a couple of 25-footers, one on each side of my boat. And they would lift my mast up with their mainsail halyards, the tail-ends of which were formed into loops with bowlines and allowed to slide up my mast until they were stopped by the spreaders.

I stood by the butt of my mast as they cranked away on their winches, and guided it aft to lie over the stern pulpit. Then my friends lowered away together until the top of the mast rested on the bow pulpit. It was quick and very simple.

Once we’d secured all the rigging and lashed the mast in place, we’d extricate ourselves from the raft-up and motor Trapper to her mooring, where my wife and I would take up our stations, one at each end of the mast, and lower the mast over the side onto an 11-foot wooden dinghy.

I would then scull the dinghy to a nearby jetty and we’d haul it up off the dinghy and march off with it on our shoulders to our car, where we put the mast on the roof rack and drove it a short way to the yacht club’s spar yard to work on it.

When the mast was ready to go up again, we did the same things in reverse order. It seemed such a simple and logical procedure at the time, well within the capabilities of a couple of reasonably fit adult sailors. We didn’t have to pay more than $100 for a crane. We paid our friends in beer or whisky, and performed the same services for them when they wanted to drop their masts.

I sometimes wonder which path the march of progress is taking. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be going forward, despite all the new tools at our disposal.

Today’s Thought
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
— Albert Einstein

“Is that the sound effects department?”
“Good, send me a galloping horse immediately.”
“What for?”
“Well, the script calls for the sound of two coconut shells being clapped together.”

November 8, 2009

Sex on small boats

THIS BEING A FAMILY COLUMN, we do not often talk openly about sex on small boats. Regrettably, this subject is also much neglected by the yachting media in general. It was obviously also neglected by yacht designers in the past. Aboard those narrow-gutted, full-keeled little cruisers there was never room to swing even half a cat, never mind roger a woman. The priority in those days was to make boats efficient at sailing, rather then reproducing the human race. Imagine that.

Nevertheless, to get back to the original point, if we intend to live in a democracy that defends our constitutional right to free speech and plentiful sex, then sex on small boats needs to be discussed with openness, frankness, and dignity. If the kids are offended, just send them off in the dinghy to play on the beach somewhere until we’re through.

It is perhaps not irrelevant to this discussion that the latest revision of Lin and Larry Pardey’s long-running book, The Capable Cruiser, shows Lin topless on the dust-jacket cover. She is perched on the main boom at the mast, pointing to something on the horizon, dressed only in a long wrap-around skirt, the kind known as a Polynesian pareu. I have noticed that Lin is not averse to telling people how much she enjoys sex aboard their small motorless cruiser, Taleisen. (Incidentally, the picture above is not of Lin Pardey but of a young woman in Rimatara, French Polynesia, in 1887. She is wearing a pareu.)

It’s all very well for the Pardeys, of course. They don’t have any kids. How do couples with kids manage on a small boat, I wonder, the kind that doesn’t have a double stateroom aft. You can’t send them off in the dinghy every time you feel the urge.

Traditionally, and in the absence of passion-killing ankle-biters, the V-berth was the passion pit. But most V-berths on small yachts are difficult to get into. You have to back in and fold yourself in half like a pocket knife. By the time you’ve got your limbs sorted out you’ve sprained two sacroiliac tendons, you’re exhausted, and the last thing on your mind is a bit of nookies. When people who live on small boats talk about safe sex, it’s not disease they’re thinking of, it’s broken bones, pulled muscles, and strained backs.

I suppose that if you’ve ever made love in the back of a car, you’ll probably find a V-berth roomy enough. Maybe. I’m not sure. To tell you the truth, I grew up in a country where the back seat of a car had room only for a large grocery bag, so I have never had the pleasure, if it is a pleasure. I now do have a car with a large back seat, but I’m not as flexible as I used to be and my bones are more brittle. I can’t do the athletic contortions that I’m told are necessary. So I guess I’ll never know.

When I was much younger and more flexible I fantasized about sex with those lascivious blonde Swedish girls who (rumor had it) were always cunningly letting themselves be chased through the woods by randy young men waving birch branches. Coincidentally, a male friend with similar dreams bought a 17-foot dinghy in England. It had a small cabin on it. So I met him over there, and we set sail for the woods of Sweden via the English Channel and the continental canals.

But, alas, because of too much non-sexual dallying on the way, it took us three months to get from France to Holland, and the onset of winter drove us back to England, broke and very frustrated. We never did pause to wonder where we would make love if we actually caught one of those lovely Swedish nymphs. There wasn’t room on our boat for the birch branches, never mind the nymphs.

On really small boats you have to do it standing up with your head out of the hatch. In a crowded anchorage, that means you have to assume a look of calm nonchalance while you ostensibly scan the horizon for signs of storm clouds or something. In the interests of maintaining this little deception, you should not scream or roll your eyeballs too far back in your head. Other nearby sailors, the crafty devils, are very quick to notice things like that and make their own deductions.

In these modern times, while the hoi polloi are concentrating on safer sex, small-boat sailors are still searching for better sex. It’s a sad reflection on the state of yacht design. The naval architects have failed us. Maybe WE should go ashore in the dinghy, find some friendly bushes, and strand the kids on the boat while we fumble for the solution.

Today’s Thought
Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.
— William J. Brennan, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 24 Jun 57

“Sorry lady, bad news. I just ran over one of your roosters in the road out there. I feel real bad about it and I’d like to replace him.”
“Well sure, just as you wish, mister. You’ll find the henhouse next to the barn.”

November 5, 2009

Saggy spreader syndrome

OVER-ZEALOUS LEGISLATORS have made various attempts in the past to ban droopy drawers, the kind that hang below the waistline and expose one’s unmentionables to the gaze of the scandalized public. But no attempt that I know of has ever been made to rid sailboats of droopy spreaders. And that’s a pity, because spreader sag is not only unsightly, it could also be dangerous.

Spreaders normally tilt up slightly at their outer edges, giving a boat a look of happiness and confidence. But occasionally you’ll come across a boat whose spreaders are horizontal or even drooping slightly, which promotes a sordid, down-in-the mouth look.

The golden rule is that all spreaders should exactly bisect the angle formed by the shrouds at their tips.

If that doesn’t make immediate sense to you, you might want to go off in a corner for a while and think about it. Meanwhile, the rest of us will proceed backward to find out why we need spreaders in the first place.

Mast designers and riggers try to keep the angle between the shroud and the top of the mast at 10 degrees or more. If you have a tall mast and a narrow boat, that angle will likely be less than 10 degrees. But if you poke the shroud out sideways from the mast with a stick, you can make the shroud join the top of the mast at a better angle.

Why is this important? Well, it’s a question of physics. In rough terms, if you impose a 20-pound sideways load at the masthead, you will induce about 240 pounds of tension in a stay with a joining angle of just 4 degrees. But if you cleverly increase that angle to 12 degrees with a spreader, the tension is reduced to about 80 pounds. I presume you can see why that is desirable. If you can’t, you’d better join that other fellow in the corner over there.

All right, then, but why should the spreader tips be higher than their bases at the mast? It’s because most spreaders are designed as pure compression struts. In bad cases of the droops, the spreaders would tend to slide farther downward, slackening the shroud and robbing the mast of its proper support.

This is why your shrouds should always be captive at the ends of the spreaders. If your spreaders don’t already have built-in clamps, you should seize the shrouds in place with Monel wire, and cover the tips with plastic spreader boots to prevent damage to the sails.

So have a good look at your spreaders. If they’re droopy, please do something about it. And okay, yes, you two can come out of the corner now.

Today’s Thought
It basically was an art before. We’re just starting to scratch it into a science.
— Dennis Conner, on yacht racing

“This a pet shop?”
“Yeah, whatcha want?”
“Gimme 318 cockroaches.”
“Why do you want that many?”
“I just got thrown out of my apartment and they say I have to leave it exactly as I found it.”

November 3, 2009

Inspired by Slocum

I HAVE LONG THOUGHT how lucky we are that the first man to sail around the world alone was also a splendid writer.

I first read Captain Joshua Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World, as an impressionable teenager and what struck me then was his modesty, his humility and his very obvious enthusiasm for the sea, even when it wasn’t being very kind to him. He made single-handed ocean sailing sound … well, if not easy, then at least very manageable and businesslike.

I later learned that my hero Slocum was not exactly an angel. He once shot to death a pirate who threatened him, and in later life he served jail time for indecently exposing himself to a 12-year-old girl.

Nevertheless, Slocum made it plain for the first time that it was possible for a small boat with a crew of one to sail clean around the world without the drama and exaggeration normally found in the yachting literature. In this way he inspired many timid souls to follow his example. At any given time today, hundreds of small boats — and by small I mean anything under 40 feet — literally hundreds of small boats are sailing around the world, many of them manned by husband-and-wife teams or families with small children.

Although Slocum’s book was written more than 100 years ago, it retains an enthusiastic freshness that’s wonderfully infectious. To enjoy this book you don’t need to know port from starboard or a pintle from a gudgeon. There are, inevitably, some incidents that have to be explained in technical terms, but they’re few and far between and you can skip over them without losing any of the sense, or urgency. In fact, Slocum writes much more about the land and the ports he visited than he does about his ship and the seas they traveled over.

For me, reading Sailing Alone Around the World as a teenager aroused the feelings of restlessness and adventure so common to youth. I wanted to build my own boat, as Slocum had done, and indulge my curiosity by travel under sail to exotic faraway places. But, like so many others, my plans were long thwarted by a combination of family commitments and cold feet. I did start building my own wooden yacht once, but soon abandoned it when I realized the size of the task I’d set myself. I simply wasn’t up to it.

But Slocum wouldn’t let me rest. He kept me awake year after year with visions of a sailboat running swift and true through the trade winds toward some distant palm-fringed shore. Finally, when I was 50, I crossed an ocean as the skipper of my own boat, with my family as crew.

It was a fiberglass boat, I confess, and one that I bought, not built. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t a circumnavigation, either; but I felt proud enough when it was over, and very grateful to Captain Slocum. Given my limitations, I thought I’d done my best; and a man can’t ask for more than that.

Today’s Thought
Most happy he who is entirely self-reliant, and who centres all his requirements in himself alone.
— Cicero, Paradoxa

“Did I tell you about the cruel blow that fate struck my parents in New York?”
“No — I thought you were born in Seattle.”

November 1, 2009

One thought at a time

YOU CAN’T SEE IT, but I have a special page that my blogmasters call a “dashboard.” It’s where I go to write these columns, and obtain certain technical information that puzzles and mystifies me. It might as well be written in ancient hieroglyphics.

Nevertheless, my dashboard informs me that I have five “followers.” At first I thought they might be stalkers, but I have since deduced that this means I must be winning the race, right? Wait. No. That just means I am no worse than sixth from last. Okay, I’ll take that. I hate being last.

My old friend and racing rival Peter Ashwell always said my greatest handicap was my lack of disparate attention. That was his polite way of describing my inability to think about more than one thing at a time.

For instance, if we were beating, I applied my total attention to watching the jib telltales. Nobody sailed closer to the wind than me. Nobody changed course quicker as the wind switched. My eyes, my brain, my everything was concentrating on keeping the boat in the slot, getting to windward faster than anyone else.

And if I may say so without boasting, I was good at it. The trouble was that I was so immersed in this one vital task that I didn’t notice if the wind had headed me, and I should be on the other tack. I didn’t notice if the wind was blowing harder, or from a better direction, on the far side of the course. I failed to implement the proper strategy of staying between between my closest opponent and the next mark of the course.

I knew that winning sailboat races incorporated many different skills, including an overall strategy and minute-to-minute tactics. It’s like a game of chess on water. The moves that your opponents make dictate an appropriate response from you.

I knew all this, but once I had those little fluttering telltales in my sights I was dead to everything else. And I can tell you now, from long and bitter experience, that being the best helmsman to windward doesn’t mean you’re going to win the race. The winner is the one who is good, on average, at doing all the things required, but not necessarily the best at any particular one of them.

There are probably things I could do to improve my disparate attention. I could try talking to my wife while driving the car, for instance. When I’m driving, I’m driving; and I never talk to her if I can help it, not because I don’t like her or anything, it’s just that I’m driving. I’m concentrating.

I once heard an entrant at a piano-playing competition loftily dismiss the chances of a competitor because “his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing.” I can sympathize with that poor competitor. I know exactly what it feels like. We’re both handicapped. There should be special parking places for people like us.

Today’s Thought
Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.
— R. L. Stevenson, Ethical Studies

“Are you sure this hairnet is invisible?”
“Perfectly sure, lady. We’ve been selling them all morning and we’ve been out of stock for a week.”