April 30, 2009

Gas by the bucketful

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT, the best stuff to cook on is gas. It has problems, though. Liquid petroleum gas is heavier than air and it’s explosive.

I remember smelling gas when I woke up one morning on a 72-foot ketch in Ramsgate, England. It was during the dog days of summer, dead calm. We fixed the gas leak and tip-toed around softly so as to cause no sparks, and waited for a breeze to ventilate the bilges.

We had a 12-volt bilge blower, but neither Gary, the skipper, nor I, the mate, wanted to risk switching it on.

“They’re supposed to be spark-free,” said Gary, “but …”

“Yeah, it only takes one spark,” I said.

Eventually, after considering everything, we decided to bail the gas out. Soon the residents of Ramsgate were treated to a strange spectacle. The crew of Thelma II would appear on deck one after another and solemnly pour seemingly empty buckets into the harbor. In true British fashion, the locals were too polite to enquire about this lunatic ritual.

After 45 minutes we figured it was good enough. We all went ashore except for Gary, who bravely flipped the switch for the blower. We saw his hand move. There was no explosion. He grinned widely.

“All r-i-g-h-t!” We cheered and yelled from the dockside.

The locals shook their heads and pretended to be watching seagulls.

Today’s Thought
I adore life but I don’t fear death. I just prefer to die as late as possible.
—(the late) Georges Simenon, International Herald Tribune

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
“Sorry, sir, the chef used to be a tailor.”

April 28, 2009

Duct tape to the rescue

IT’S A MINOR MIRACLE, I admit, but only twice in my life have I punctured an inflatable dinghy. The first time, I sat down heavily and unexpectedly on the side float with a forgotten screwdriver in the back pocket of my jeans. Ruined the jeans, too.

The second time, my borrowed sloop was moored to a buoy off Hope Island, a state park in Puget Sound. I noticed that the current had gathered a large clump of seaweed around the mooring line, so I jumped into the inflatable with a sharp knife to cut the weed loose. I stabbed the dinghy instead.

In both cases it was duct tape that saved the day until permanent repairs could be made. Professionals frown on duct tape, as they frown on Vise-Grips and adjustable wrenches, but for amateurs like me it’s a godsend.

I read somewhere that duct tape was developed in the 1930s to seal ammunition boxes, but I have my doubts about that. I think it’s more likely that it was invented to seal metal ventilation ducts, and, having been invented, quickly found a million other uses.

On boats it does everything from repairing book covers to patching split sails. It fixes holes in water pipes and it makes an effective gag for garrulous crewmembers.

Of course, repairs with duct tape are meant to be purely temporary. But temporary, when you think about it, is just a state of mind, not a period of time. So relax. That's why we all like duct tape. You don’t need to replace your old duct tape with new duct tape until the old duct tape actually falls off.

Today’s Thought
Humans can learn to like anything, that’s why we are such a successful species.
—Jeanette Desor

“I see you’ve stopped playing poker with Fred on Friday nights.”
“Yeah, well, would you play with a guy who hides aces up his sleeve and refuses to pay his debts?”
“Certainly not.”
“Neither will Fred.”

April 26, 2009

The battle of the polys

THERE’S ALWAYS SOMEONE who knows better than the experts. My friend Sam Psmythe (silent P, as in bath) is one such man. He read on some bulletin board that the best sealant for deck fittings is butyl rubber. Despite my protests, he is going to re-bed all his lifeline stanchions in butyl rubber tape, gawd help us.

Now butyl rubber is actually polyisobutylene, very good stuff when you use it in the right applications. It would make a good sealant if the stanchion base didn’t move relative to the deck. But you know what people are like. Always flopping around on deck, falling against the lifelines and straining the stanchion bases. Now, butyl tape lacks the necessary adhesive power, so, as soon as a gap appears between the base and the deck, water will gallop in and trouble will soon follow it.

What you need for most deck fittings is a bedding that not only remains flexible, but also has tenacious adhesive qualities, so that it sticks to both the stanchion base and the deck like sh*t to a blanket, as those rude Australians say. Then, as the base moves under stain, the bedding sealant simply stretches momentarily without letting any water underneath.

The expert I have in mind in these matters is an acquaintance of mine called Don Casey, the man who wrote This Old Boat, the boat repairer’s bible.

Here are the three main bedding sealants according to Casey:

►Polysulphide is what he’d use for deck fittings. It’s available in single and double packs. Twin packs cure more quickly. Use it for all kinds of sealing and bedding except for plastics. It will melt plastics. Polysulphide remains pliant and adheres very nicely to each side of the joint, although you can remove the fitting without too much trouble when necessary. It’s good for caulking wooden deck seams, and you can paint or varnish over it.
►Polyurethane is another good sealant, but it’s also a very strong glue. So use it for permanent joints only. Don’t use urethane on fittings you might want to remove later. Don’t use it on plastics such as Lexan or ABS, either. You might be able to paint over some polyurethanes, but not most of them. Check the instructions.
►Silcone is a good bedding compound and sealant that you can use on almost anything, including plastics. Most silicones are not particularly good adhesives. Better than butyl, though. Some new silicone formulations have better sticking power and might be difficult to remove at some later stage. It makes good gaskets, but you can’t paint or varnish over it.

So there you have it. If you trust Mr Casey more than Mr. Psmythe, as you should, your course is clear. Forget the butyl. Grab the polysulphide.

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

“What’s the penalty for bigamy in Utah?”
“Multiple mothers-in-law.”

April 23, 2009

Cooking under way

THE NEW KID on the block came back from a weekend cruise in the islands with a burning question: how do you cook under way? He has a 26-foot sailboat, with an alcohol-fueled double-burner stove, but no gimbals. One chilly day, he had to beat for eight hours in heavy winds and a contrary current. “I could have killed for a hot cup of soup,” he said, “but we couldn’t keep anything on the stove with any degree of safety.”

Most small sailboats don’t have swinging room for a properly gimbaled stove, of course, so cooking is limited to calm water in anchorages. And even there it’s possible to have a nasty accident when an unthinking powerboater comes past dragging a huge wake.

The answer to this dilemma is to invest in one of those single-burner stoves in gimbals that fastens to a bulkhead. You might find it difficult to find one of the original Sea Swing stoves, the aluminum ones that had a place for a kerosene Primus stove to hang underneath, but you can still buy a new Seacook made by Kuuma/Force10.

The Seacooks use the ubiquituous 16.4-ounce propane canisters and stow out of the way until you fit them to a low-profile bulkhead mount. They’ll take a 7-inch-diameter cooking pot. Forespar makes a similar Mini Galley 2000 stove, and both will give you about 3 1/2 hours of very convenient cooking at full blast.

These swinging single-burners are very welcome aboard small ocean cruising yachts, of course, but the cook will need either lessons in one-pot cooking or a large stock of those ready-to-eat entrées that need only be immersed in boiling water.

Meanwhile, here’s a simple, classic, one-pot recipe for onion soup. It came from British naval Commander E. G. Martin whose soup was the object of frequent praise aboard his famous cutter, Jolie Brise, which won the first Fastnet Race in 1925:

“Place four medium-large onions, peeled and cut into quarters, into a covered saucepan with 3 to 4 cups cold water. Add 2 tablespoons Bovril (or other strong beef stock) 4 ounces butter, a dessertspoonful of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, a little black pepper, and (when the cooking is nearly done) a small glass of sherry or rather more white wine. Boil gently for 30 minutes or until the onions have fallen to pieces and are soft, stirring occasionally.”

This recipe makes enough for four to six people but it may be rather too glutinous for modern arteries, so I reduce the butter to 2 ounces and substitute 5 beef stock (bouillon) cubes for the Bovril. It’s still delicious and highly comforting on a cold stormy day.

►Sea Swing stoves: Check Craig’s list or eBay for used models. Google “Classic Camp Stoves” for a forum on traditional old stoves and spare parts.
►Kuuma/Force 10 Seacook stoves and Forespar Mini Galley 2000 stoves: Google for list of current suppliers and prices.

Today’s Thought
I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.
—Jean Marie Amat

“Doctor is it true that if you never drink, smoke, or run around after women, you’ll live longer?”
“I’m afraid we’ll never know until someone tries it.”

April 21, 2009

How to heave to

I HEAR SOME GRUMBLING among the groundlings. They’re complaining that my recent offerings have been too flighty, too airy-fairy. They want more meat and less gravy. Very well, then. Here in plain simple language devoid of all literary merit, apt metaphor, or clever allusion, is the straight dope about how to heave to.

First, though, we should ask WHEN you need to heave to. The answer is that you should heave to whenever you want to slow or stop your sailboat in such a manner that she will look after herself quietly and competently while you reef the mainsail, pump the bilges, take compass bearings, prepare some food on the stove, or catch a nap down below.

Obviously, the ability to heave to will be more useful if you regularly singlehand your boat. It’s especially useful when the wind pipes up. In a moderate gale of 30 knots or so, your boat will usually lie quite safely, riding the seas like a duck with her head tucked under her wing, pointing about 50 or 60 degrees away from the wind direction.

The amount of sail you should carry when heaving to depends on the wind strength. You can heave to under all plain sail in 15 to 18 knots but in a moderate gale a sloop would be down to a storm jib and a close-reefed mainsail.

To heave to, you need to get the foresail counterbalancing the mainsail. To achieve that, you can trim the sails for a beat and simply pull the jib sheet to weather until the sail is backed. An easier way to do it is to sail on the port tack and then go about without touching the foresail sheet. As soon as the bow has passed through the eye of the wind and way is off the boat, push the tiller down to leeward and lash it there, or turn the wheel as if you were about to tack once more. At the same time, give the mainsheet generous slack. You will now be hove to on the starboard tack and have the right of way.

If you’ve previously been crashing and bashing through fierce head seas you’ll now be astonished at how quietly and obediently she lies. You’ll be drifting sideways and moving forward at between one and two knots, but your average course over the ground will be more-or-less at right angles to the wind direction.

When you first heave to, you should experiment with the sheeting position of the mainsail. Find where it lies quietly in the lee of the foresail without driving the boat forward too much. You can point up into the wind more by trimming the mainsail in toward the center of the boat and/or by giving the foresail sheet a little slack. Conversely, you can get her to lie farther off the wind by slacking the main sheet and/or pulling the foresail farther to weather of the mast.

Incidentally, it doesn’t help much to practice heaving to in very light weather. Few boats will behave with any decency under those conditions and you will unnecessarily frustrated. Try it first with a full-sail breeze, and if you have a roller-reefing foresail, roll it up to 100 percent fore-triangle area before you heave to. Most boats that are hove to properly will move forward in little scallops, alternately pointing up slightly and falling off slightly.

You should be aware that some fin-keel boats, especially ultralight fin-keelers, are more difficult to heave to. They can be very finicky about the areas of sail drawing before and behind the mast, which have to balance each other, and they often require frequent adjustments. When the fin keel is not moving forward through the water it is basically stalled, which allows the boat to slip sideways at a great rate. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it leaves a smooth slick to windward that tends to break up big seas before they reach the boat, but it’s something to be aware of if there is land to leeward.

That’s about as much help as I can give you. Every boat is different, and you need to experiment to find out how your particular boat handles best. But if you follow the principles given above you will have a good head-start. It’s worth your effort. Heaving to is a basic requirement of good seamanship. It’s also a very satisfying trick to know.

Today’s Thought
He who commands the sea has command of everything.

“What do you want to be when you finish college?”
“I’ve half a mind to become a politician.”
“Well, you’ll be better equipped than most of them.”

April 19, 2009

A boat in need of escape

WORD HAS REACHED ME from the State penitentiary in Walnut Street. Someone has sent me a copy of the prison’s secret underground newspaper, the Walnut Street Gazeout. I believe it should be Gazette, but Gazeout is also quite appropriate if you think about it.

According to the April issue of the Gazeout (should be Gazette), six inmates are seeking advice. Over a period of three years, they have quietly built a 10-foot sailing dinghy from plywood snaffled from an in-house remodeling project.

An article jointly authored by “Burglaroo” and “Innocent Victim” claims this is no ordinary sailing dinghy. It’s designed like those 10-footers that are racing around the world. This is a sea-going 10-footer, a proper escape vessel.

It was an appealing project, apparently, one that dovetailed with their dreams of escape and fed on their craving for freedom. Now that it’s finished, the six builders are planning to draw lots to establish ownership.

However, because they plunged into this scheme in a frenzy of unbridled enthusiasm they overlooked a very important point: how to smuggle it out of the pen. At present it’s in the laundry behind a row of boilers.

Apparently it was my book, Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere, that sparked this whole idea, which is why I was sent a copy of the Gazeout (should be Gazette) with a request for advice. Not that they’re in any tearing hurry about this, you understand. None of the six is going to be freed within 18 months. But they’re now belatedly starting to plan ahead.

Well, I must point out that I have never advocated going to sea in a 10-footer. I thought I was being very brave by making the smallest boat in my book just 20 feet. But when pent-up enthusiasm turns into passion and then into uncontained zeal, anything can happen. And it has.

Unfortunately, I’ve had no experience of smuggling a 10-foot sailing dinghy out of a prison, so I guess I’m not much help. All I can say is that if any you readers have any brilliant ideas, I’d be glad to pass them on.

Today’s Thought
Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.
—Cicero, De Officiis

“Do you file your nails after you’ve cut them?”
“Heavens, no, I just throw them in the waste-paper basket.”

April 16, 2009

Conquering dangerous love

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz/How beautiful my sailboat is.

AFTER A LONG COLD winter deprived of sailing, the time for renewal and reaquaintance has arrived. Time to take up again with the old flame.

Have you caught yourself marveling at how beautiful your boat is? Are you constantly planning to make it even prettier? Does it make you sigh and bring on that deep feeling of joy when you close your eyes at night and remember what it looks like? Do you show pictures of it to your friends?

Be careful, my friend, you may be in love. Love is dangerous. Love is temporary insanity, a mind, soul, and body out of control. Love is blind to all faults. It lives only in the present, ignoring the lessons of the past and warnings about the future. Love has no strings on its purse; it never balances its checkbook. This is a recipe for several disasters — definitely financial, possibly mental, probably social.

What to do about it? Well, this is serious. The usual advice won’t suffice. Deep breaths and cold showers don’t make it.

The answer is Controlled Love, Restrained Affection. You must act like a Brit with a stiff upper lip. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve. Conceal them. Stay away from booze, which loosens inhibitions; reject the glittering temptations of West Marine; ignore yachting magazines whose airbrushed pictures and panting descriptions are calculated to incite unbridled lust and take wicked advantage of the love-lorn.

When you can regard your boat purely as a form of transport, as a faithful dog without legs, as a means of keeping you dry when you venture out into the restless wet, you will be cured.

How soon will this be? Frankly, nobody knows. It hasn’t happened yet.

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

“Doc, I need help.”
“What’s up?”
“I’m 88 and still chasing women.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I can’t remember why.”

April 14, 2009

Deep-sixing the keel

OWNERS OF J/80 SAILBOATS must be feeling a little shaky these days. They’re wondering if their keels will fall off. And with good reason, because one actually did fall off a J/80 in the recent Farallones Doublehanded Race at sea off San Francisco. The boat turned turtle immediately, and the two-man crew was lucky to be rescued by the Coast Guard after an hour in the cold water — and then only because one of them dived under the boat to retrieve a hand-held radio and transmit a Mayday.

The J/80 is one of Rod Johnstone’s metric designs, of course. It’s 8 meters long. That’s 26.3 feet in real money. And there are more than 1,000 of them in various parts of the world. It has a 1,400-pound lead fin keel with a bulb, attached to the hull stub with seven 3/4-inch stainless steel bolts. But it wasn’t the keel bolts that let go, apparently. It seems the bottom tore out of the fiberglass hull.

The manufacturer describes the J/80 as a “family rocketship.” All I can say is that it’s a good job the whole family wasn’t on board when this ship went rocketing toward the sea bottom. This wasn’t the first time a J/80 has lost its keel.

Ironically, because it’s advertised as a family daysailer/weekender, the company places great emphasis on safety. It boasts: “The J/80 is certified for Design Category B of the EU Recreational Craft Directive which states that qualifying boats are designed for waves up to 13 feet high with winds to 41 knots, or conditions which may be encountered on offshore voyages of sufficient length or on coasts where shelter may not always be immediately available.”

The yachting Press apparently believed them. Sailing World’s reviewer, quoting Carl Schumacher, said: “ ... you could actually think about taking it in a race offshore.” The reviewer added that it was “safer and better suited for sailing offshore than other modern sport boats tested.” Practical Sailor said in a review: “We wouldn’t be afraid to take the boat into the ocean.” Well, gentlemen, maybe you should be afraid.

The manufacturer’s response to this accident, which could so easily have ended in tragedy, was blunt and uncompromising:

“No sailboat is going to last forever without some updating and repairs, particularly if campaigned hard. We do not know what factors over its 15 year life may have led to the failure on J/80 hull #45. But we strongly urge all J/80 owners, indeed all J/Boat owners, to routinely inspect keel stringers and keel sump areas, both internally and externally with frequency and most importantly prior to entering an offshore race.”

We all know that speed in sailboats comes at the expense of something else: sometimes comfort, sometimes seaworthiness, usually accommodation, often all three. I have no argument with this, but what does worry me is that a boat like the J/80 should be presented as a safe family boat. No boat should have its keel fall off at any stage of its life, but racers knowingly accept risks that families shouldn’t even have to consider.

I’m very thankful that my slow and old-fashioned 25-year-old cruising boat has its ballast keel encapsulated in the hull. It brings peace of mind that must now be quite rare among J/80 sailors.

Today’s Thought
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
—John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic

“Barman! Barman! Do your lemons have legs?”
“No, sir, of course not.”
“Too bad. I guess I just squeezed your canary into my drink.”

April 12, 2009

It’s for good uck

I ONCE ASKED my wife what kind of coin we should place under the mast of an old sailboat we were refitting. “Don’t ask me,” she said, “I don’t believe in it.”

She maintains that placing coins under masts perpetuates a despicable ancient tradition of payola and subservience to petty tyrants—the gods of the wind and sea. She accuses me of being hopelessly superstitious.

Superstitious? Hah! Not me. At least, not compared with some. I once knew a sailor so superstitious that he wouldn’t even pronounce a four-letter word ending in “uck.” In a Rotary Club speech about his ocean crossings, Dr. Earle Reynolds listed the essential requirements for safe passages as: 1. A well-found ship; 2. A good crew; 3. Adequate preparation and maintenance; 4. Seamanship; 5. the Fifth Essential.

He never disclosed what the fifth essential was. He just gave examples of how, er, fortunate some famous round-the-worlders had been. Harry Pidgeon, for example, fell asleep and grounded his boat on the only soft sandy beach in miles of rock-strewn shoreline. Joshua Slocum escaped from pirates when their mast fell down in a squall. And so on.

The smarter Rotarians soon figured out that the fifth essential was the “uck” word, which you never say out loud for fear it will desert you.

Quite right. That’s why, despite scoffing from the vice-admiral, we always have a coin under our mast. It’s for good uck. And so far, knock on wood, we’ve been very ucky.

Today’s Thought
We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?
—Jean Cocteau

“Don’t you think George dresses nattily?”
“Natalie who?”

April 9, 2009

All about rudders

THE SUBJECT OF today’s lecture is rudders. Like teeth, rudders are very nice to have. Rudders allow you to steer the boat, something that is so highly desirable that it makes you wonder why Western “civilization” didn’t adopt them until the year 1200 or so. Before that, Western vessels were steered with paddles or oars, usually slung over the starboard (steer-board) quarter.

In passing it should be noted that the Chinese are known to have had proper rudders in about 200 BC – 1,400 years before the idea occurred to Europe’s brightest spark.

Of course, the subject of rudders is not very exciting for most people. Rudders are usually hidden underneath the boat somewhere, and only warrant scrutiny if the boat is hauled out for bottom painting or repairs. Even when you can see a rudder (or part of it) hanging off the stern of a boat, it doesn’t arouse much excitement or passion.

Neverthless, the subject of today’s lecture is rudders, so we shall press on.

Rudders are quite large in sailboats, compared with those of powerboats, for better control at slow speed. But even though they’re big, they won’t work if you turn them more than 35 degrees away from dead center. More than 35 degrees and the whole rudder blade will stall.

If you have a tiller, it’s easy enough to see when the rudder is being pushed over too far. On a boat with wheel steering, however, it’s a good idea to fit rudder stops to prevent the rudder from turning more than 35 degrees either way.

The rule when you’re using a sailboat’s auxiliary engine in reverse is to hang on tight to the tiller, because if you give it half a chance the rudder will slam over hard one way or the other. Even if the spinning propeller doesn’t chew a big hole in it, the tiller might thump you in the ribs.

It doesn’t need much brain power to figure it out, of course, but the farther aft a rudder is, the more leverage it has to turn the boat. That’s why a transom-hung rudder is more efficient than one whose stock comes up through the cockpit floor. I prefer rudders fixed to the transom, not only for their better turning power but also because if something goes wrong, they’re easier to fix, with their readily accessible pintles and gudgeons. I used to like to talk about pintles and gudgeons around the office water cooler when I was younger. It made me sound like I knew something and the girls would flutter their eyelashes at me.

Many racing sailboats have balanced rudders. They have a small portion of the rudder area in front of the rudder stock to make steering easier, say 15 to 17 percent in front, and the rest behind. I once had a Santana 22 that was like that, but she suffered from lee helm in light weather and the balanced rudder made her wander all over the place. It was very tiring for the helmsman.

Cruising boats don’t need balanced helms. They benefit more from a rudder hung from the end of a full keel, or from a skeg. Such a rudder offers less resistance when it’s turned, and allows for a less disturbed flow of water to the rudder blade.

I see some of you are nodding off already, so I’ll cut this short by saying that the whole subject of how a rudder steers a boat is quite fascinating. It involves a wedging action of the whole length of the hull once the rudder has initiated a turn, and the hydrodynamics are extremely interesting. Well, I, at least, think they are, but I can spot a lost cause as well as anybody. So I’ll just finish by urging you to think good thoughts of your rudder next time you’re sailing. You need your rudder more than it needs you.

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

“Hey, Fred, that cow you sold me dropped dead last night.”
“Gee, that’s too bad. She never did that before.”

April 7, 2009

The Macaroni and other rigs

A LETTER FROM Baggy Wrinkle, currently finishing up a term as the guest of the federal government, says:

Dear John: When I get out of here in a couple of months I’d like to get a boat and cross a couple of oceans. I don’t know anything about cruising yachts, but sailing can’t be half as difficult as selling third-generation bundled derivatives, which is what landed me here. Maybe you could save me some time and trouble by listing the various sailboat rigs available right now.

Okay, Baggy, here’s what you’re likely to come across when you’re shopping for a boat.

► The bark (barque). The bark is a large ship. You don’t want a bark, Baggy, because it’s too big. Not only that, but it’s also worse than its bite.
► The gaffe rig. You don’t want this, either. With its stumpy mast and four-sided mainsail, the gaffe has proved to be an embarrassing mistake.
► The sliding grunter. This is used mainly on fishing boats. It’s not for you.
► The y’all rig is still very popular in the Deep South, but out of fashion most everywhere else.
► The ketchup rig is similar to the y’all but with different mast placement and much saucier.
► The schooner rig was invented after someone had too many schooners of ale and got the masts of a ketchup back-to-front. It’s fine if you swear off the booze.
► The Macaroni rig is probably the best one for you, Baggy. It was invented by Dr. Macaroni, an Italian who sold tall radio masts in Bermuda, hence its other name, Bermuda rig. You can always tell the Macaroni rig because all the lines are led aft to the cockpit, where they turn into spaghetti.

There are many other rigs, such as the lateen, the standing lug, the double-dipping lug, and the Chinese junket, all of which are foreign imports of dubious quality and therefore not worthy of your attention.

Good luck with your search, Baggy, and drop me one of those rude postcards from Tahiti, willya?

Today’s Thought
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

—Pope, Essay on Criticism.

“Waiter, what’s this plate of corn for?”
“Wasn’t it you who ordered the chicken dinner, sir?”

(If you have a comment or a query about sailing, click on the word “comments” below. Write your remarks in the panel on the right of the new page. Click on the “Anonymous” button if you’re not sure which to choose. You can always add your name to your written comment if you wish. After you’ve written your message, click “Submit.” Your message will disappear into thin air without acknowledgment. Do not fret. It will come to me. And I know what to do with it. Trust me.)

April 5, 2009

The loneliness of springtime

SAIL, AND THE WORLD sails with you. Sand, and you sand alone.
The truth of this saying becomes more evident as spring gets under way and boat owners start shopping for varnish, bottom paint, and sandpaper.

It’s a strange thing, but it appears that the persons who crew for you on the Thursday evening races, and who join you for weekend cruises in the islands, always seem to imagine that they’re doing you a big favor. They’re not doing it for their pleasure, you understand. They’re doing it so you can get your old wreck of a boat out onto open water once in a while and boast about it. Thus, when the season arrives for the hard muscle-work of maintenance and repairs, you are on your own. Your faithful crew is nowhere to be seen.

This situation arises from a disconnect between the size of the boat and the plumpness of the pocketbook. Small boats don’t have this problem. They can be sailed singlehanded, and it’s no big deal to paint them. Rich owners don’t have this problem. They can afford the $90-an-hour yard fees and paid crew. In between lie the rest of us, the great majority, with boats too big or too inconvenient to sail or paint singlehanded, and pocketbooks too skinny to pay the professionals.

The answer, of course, is to scale back. There is often said to be an inverse ratio between the size of your boat and the amount of sailing and pleasure it provides. But under the present economic circumstances it’s very difficult to swap a big boat for a smaller one. The used-boat market is in a terrible state. Nobody wants to buy your big old boat.

So there you are. You’re stuck with it. And you’ll have to sand, paint and varnish on your own. Your crew will come crawling out of the woodwork as soon as you’ve finished and the weather starts warming up again. It’s one of the facts of life the broker never told you about when he sold you the boat. It’s not even in the fine print.

I’m writing to my U.S. Senator about it. I want her to sponsor legislation calling for greater transparency in yacht sales. I want brokers and sellers to be forced to explain to prospective owners exactly who is going to have to do all the work and pay all the bills, and who is going to kick back on the foredeck and get all the thrills and all the pleasure. Maybe I’ll get the unions involved, too, and possibly the ACLU or Mr. Geithner, someone who can stir things up in Washington. And when it’s all over, and you’re all benefiting, kindly remember who went to all this trouble on your behalf. Think nicely of me from time to time. Thank you.

Today’s Thought
Work is of two kinds: first altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matters; second, telling other people to do so.
—Bertrand Russell

Thieves who broke into Robert ("Mad Bob") Mugabe’s private safe over the weekend are reported to have got clean away with the results of Zimbabwe’s next general election.

April 2, 2009

Parking problems

WE WERE TALKING about fear the other day, the kind of anxiety you feel when you’re out sailing and you see a storm approaching, or the feeling you get in your stomach when your auxiliary engine suddenly fails while you’re entering a strange port. These are very common fears, and ones you can overcome with experience and practice, but the most abiding fear for most sailboat owners is fear of docking, especially with a new boat whose charming eccentricities are as yet unknown.

The trouble with this business of parking your boat in a tiny slot in a congested marina is that circumstances are hardly ever the same twice in a row. Sometimes the wind is from ahead, which slows you down and makes steering more difficult. Sometimes the wind is from astern, which speeds you up and raises your heart rate. And sometimes it’s from the side, which always means extra trouble. Add to this the fact that the wind speed always varies, even from minute to minute, and you have a situation that can’t possibly be compensated for by experience or practice. It’s different every time.

On top of this, there’s current. Even well-sheltered marinas can have currents running through them. But the current’s speed is never the same, and its direction varies, too.

Now all these factors affecting the course and speed of the boat are invisible, of course. You can’t see them. They might be there, and they might not. Your only clue to their presence is the erratic movement of the boat, compared with the dock you’re trying to moor alongside.

So now you have a boat on final approach that is almost totally out of control, for no apparent reason that any bystander can see. To cap it all, a boat is a vehicle that really does go completely out of control if you stop it. You can’t steer it if you stop it. A boat has to be moving if you want to change its direction. If you stop, you’re a dead duck.

Nevertheless, it is now your unenviable task to stop the boat; and stop it within its own length, if, by any lucky chance, you should find yourself anywhere near the dock when you’re attempting to moor. You must have steerage way when your bow enters your slip, but you must not have steerage way when your stern enters your slip. You must be quite still after your stern enters the slip for technical reasons we needn’t go into right now, but which involve expensive repairs and painful talks with insurance companies.

Thus, if you have a 30-foot boat, you have 30 feet in which to bring five tons of fiberglass, wood, and metal to a complete rest from a speed of about 2 knots. Anyone clever enough to figure out the math will tell you this is quite impossible, especially if you’re coming in sideways and 20 feet away from the dock.

This is why experienced sailors pray. In my book, How to Rename Your Boat, there’s a chapter on mariners’ prayers for various occasions. Here’s the Prayer for Safe Docking. You might want to commit it to memory:

Yea, though I glide through the valley of the shadow of disaster, I will fear no problem, for thou art with me; my fenders and my docklines, they comfort me still.
Thou preparest a plan before me in the presence of mine smirking neighbors: a plan that will guide me miraculously into my dock as a finger squeezeth into a glove. My cup of joy runneth over.
Surely envy and wonderment shall follow my neighbors all the days of their lives: and I will dwell in the house of Fabulous Boathandlers for ever. Amen.

Today’s Thought
The shore has perils unknown to the deep.
—George Iles, Jottings.

“Wow, did you see old Rita at the tennis-club dance? My word! Talk about décoletté!”
“Really? Only last week she told me she never touched a drop.”