September 29, 2009

A self-cleaning hull

IN A COLUMN LAST MAY I was bemoaning the fact that boats have to be taken out of the water for antifouling at regular intervals. I asked: “Why can’t we make a bottom paint that acts like a fish’s scales or a dolphin’s skin? There must surely be a fortune waiting for someone who can invent a paint or some kind of skin like that, not only for yachts, of course, but also for large ships.”

Well, guess what. A reader who signs himself simply as “Dave” has now pointed me to a current article in the magazine New Scientist, issue 2727. It says that Rahul Ganguli, of Teledyne Scientific, in Thousand Oaks, California, is working on exactly that theory.

Ganguli’s idea is to cover the ship’s bottom with a layer of fine metal mesh. Underneath the mesh is a pattern of holes that exude a sticky sort of slime. The slime pools outside the mesh, making a viscous coating that steadily wears away, taking with it any kind of sea life that has managed to attach itself. The slime is constantly replaced by new secretions, apparently, though the article doesn’t say how.

Early tests in seawater tanks showed that after 11 days there was “a 100-fold cut” in the amount of bottom growth. I presume that means there was only one-hundredth of the normal marine growth you might expect in that time.

Ganguli apparently was inspired by a study of the skin of the long-finned pilot whale. That study was undertaken by Christoph Baum at the Hannover School of Veterinary Medicine in Germany. Baum’s team reported that the whale’s skin was criss-crossed with tiny canals filled with a gel that destroys proteins on the microscopic bacteria and algae which act as hosts to barnacles and other marine growth.

There is also some speculation that the proposed new coating will reduce drag, compared with that of a clean, smooth hull, so I guess the racers will be keen to try it out — at whatever cost — when Ganguli eventually gets all his ducks in a row.

Today’s Thought
We manipulate nature as if we were stuffing an Alsatian goose. We create new forms of energy; we make new elements; we kill crops; we wash brains. I can hear them in the dark sharpening their lasers.
— Erwin Chargaff, professor of biological chemistry, Columbia University

“Does your dog have a pedigree?”
“Sure does. If he could talk he wouldn’t be seen talking to either of us.”

September 27, 2009

Teenage circumnavigators

A READER CALLED BOB, who sails a Sabre 28 on the Great Lakes, asks what I think of young teenagers sailing around the world alone.

Well, to tell the truth Bob, I haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought. Almost no thought, actually. Frankly, I don't know what to think about teenage circumnavigators. I don't doubt they can do it physically -- several have already done it, of course -- but as they get ever younger I begin to wonder if they’re up to it mentally. I wonder if they aren't doing it more for the vicarious glorification of a parent than for their own pleasure or education.

I can't see them doing much harm to others, unless hundreds of them suddenly take up the challenge, which seems unlikely. So maybe if a few disappear along the way, the variant genes will be removed from the human gene pool and the problem will solve itself.

I must say that if I were the father of a 13-year-old girl I would put my foot down with a firm hand if she came home after school and said: “Daddy, I want to borrow your boat and sail it around the world.” It is surely the duty of any dedicated parent to talk their offspring out of a crazy scheme like that. Somebody else’s boat, okay, but my boat, hell no.

Seriously, young teenagers are still children in many ways and need to be protected from themselves until they’re adults. I know children went to sea in the old days, even on naval vessels. Patrick O’Brian tells us about that. But they weren’t in sole command. They didn’t have to take life-and-death decisions or shoulder the heavy burden that a skipper bears for the safety of his ship and crew.

It’s easier to sail a yacht around the world these days, admittedly, with the aid of GPS, Epirbs, AIS, radar, satellite phones, and autopilots. But it’s still a lot more dangerous than catching the bus to school, which is what a 13-year-old should be doing.

I can just imagine a father receiving a satellite call from mid-Pacific:

“Yeah, is that you, Chubbycheeks?”
“Daddy, can you come and get me? This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.”
“Aw, geez honey, we talked about this, remember?”
“Yeah, but Daddy, I ran out of chocolate yesterday,”
“Well, dang ...”
“And my braces are going rusty. Daddy, I need a big hug.”
“You can hug your teddy.”
“Can’t. He fell overboard last night. I’m lonely. Send a helicopter for me, okay?”

Now, none of this would happen if parents acted responsibly. If your teenager wants to sail a boat alone around the world, take a deep breath and remember what parents are for. Just say no. Hell no.

Today’s Thought
Oh, how very thankful I always should be,
That I have kind parents to watch over me,
Who teach me from wickedness ever to flee!
— Ann and Jane Taylor, Poor Children

“What did you get your girl friend for her birthday?”
“I gave her a bikini.”
“Why a bikini?”
“I’m hoping to see her beam with delight.”

September 24, 2009

The sailor’s virtue

I MAY HAVE MENTIONED this before but you probably don’t remember it. Besides, it bears repeating: One of the most valuable assets a sailor can cultivate is patience, followed closely by serenity.

Imagine that you’re nicely tucked into a snug anchorage on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. You got in just before the wind really started howling, and now the rain is starting to pelt down.

The VHF, tuned to the British Columbian weather forecast, is relaying a doleful message:
“ ... mostly awful with occasional ghastliness ... periods of low depression followed by unremitting rain ... wind from the southeast at umpteen knots ... large-boat advisory for tonight and all day tomorrow ... wind-waves 15 feet ...”

Your course is southeast, of course. So, if you have any sense, you’re stuck.

Well, then, what did sailors do with themselves in the Great Age of Sail when they were anchored in open roadsteads waiting for the wind to change? How did they pass the time? If they were in the navy, I expect they painted the anchor cable and holystoned the deck. But how do people stop themselves from going crazy on smaller boats? What would you do with yourself while waiting out bad weather, especially in places where you can’t get cell phone service or browse the Internet?

You can only sleep or play Patience for so long before you go nuts. You might take the opportunity to change the engine oil or do some all-day job like grinding the valves – but what if the forecast is wrong? You wouldn’t want to miss a good sailing day with bits of engine spread all over the cabin.

You can’t spend days at a time doing nothing but listening to Beethoven or the Beatles, and if you spend all day cooking you’ll have to eat it all and you know what that’s going to do to your waistline.

I guess you could call the Coasties on Channel 16 but I suspect that even the nice, friendly Canadian Coast Guards would get kinda grumpy if you just want to chat and tell them how depressed you are.

You could make love, I suppose, given the right circumstances, but I’m told that the average is eight minutes, which doesn’t take up an awful lot of the day.

For these reasons, yachtsmen cooped up in port -- and fearful of being criticized for wimpishness -- often try to make a break for it despite the bad weather. And all too often that’s a very bad idea unless you have an exceptional boat and an exceptional crew. If you do that, you might find yourself talking to the Coasties again pretty soon, and not just for fun.

If ignorance and ill preparation are the parents of adventure, then patience and serenity are the parents of safe cruising. They don’t come easily. They have to be cultivated, like most other sailorly pursuits. Learning how to extend your love life might be a good way to start.

Today’s Thought
Patience, n. A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Mr. Smith, your work during your trial period indicates a standard of mediocrity, inadequacy, and chronic incompetence.”
“Oh thank goodness. I had a silly feeling you weren’t satisfied with me.”

September 22, 2009

The equinox and the compass

(Enjoy a new Mainly About Boats column here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.)

IT’S THE EQUINOX TODAY, one of those gorgeous, calm, sunny days that Puget Sound so often enjoys in September, and I’m thinking of a warm grassy slope on Whidbey Island.

For several years we lived on the island, which lies at the end of the 80-mile long Strait of Juan de Fuca, the restless marine highway that leads directly to the open Pacific Ocean.

Because the strait runs due west from Whidbey Island, the sun sets on the sea horizon on the days of the equinox.

So, in the early evening we would make ourselves comfortable on that warm grassy slope, with a blanket, a bottle of wine, some picnic treats, and my hand bearing compass. And we’d watch the sun.

As you know, it’s only on the day of the equinox that the sun actually sets in the true west. All summer, it’s been setting to the north of west, and all winter it will be setting to the south of west, but on the actual day of the equinox it sets plumb due west. And thus you can test the accuracy of your hand bearing compass.

Our ritual was to start watching when the sun’s lower limb kissed the sea horizon. I took its bearing with the compass when only half the flaming red disk was left showing. The bearing was never 270 degrees, of course, because of magnetic variation. The variation was about 20 degrees east in Oak Harbor at that time, and, as they teach the neophytes in navigation kindergarten, “variation east, magnetic least.” So I subtracted 20 from 270 and got 250 degrees magnetic, which, lo and behold, it always was.

And then, with renewed confidence in my little hand bearing compass, I would go sailing and point it at ships on a collision course, and use it to check the main steering compass, and take beam bearings to make sure the anchor wasn’t dragging.

I don’t live in Oak Harbor any longer, but they tell me that if you sit on that beautiful grassy slope at West Beach, the sun still goes down in exactly the same place on exactly the same date. Just plain habit, I guess.

Today’s Thought
I have a horror of sunsets, they’re so romantic, so operatic.
— Marcel Proust

A little boy and girl came across a high fence surrounding a nudist colony. The girl peeked through a knothole.
“What are dey, den?” asked the boy. “Men or women?”
“Dunno,” said the little girl. “Dey hasn’t got deir clothes on.”

September 20, 2009

It's that time once more

TIME FOR THE LEMON OIL AGAIN. Every year, round about now, I sigh heartily and rub some lemon oil on the dry teak woodwork down below. I sigh because I actually know how pointless this procedure is.

Lemon oil cleans the teak, darkens it, and makes it look quite acceptable for a week or two. And then it’s back to square one. It’s recommended by many sailors for its alleged ability to prevent mold in the damp cold months ahead, but that might just be another of the myths about lemon oil.

The greatest myth is that it has anything to do with lemons. Or oil. If you look up the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for a brand of lemon oil, you’ll find that it’s mostly paint thinner. Good old mineral oil, with lemon flavor added.

The MSDS for one of the best-known brands, Old English Furniture Polish Oil, Lemon, says it’s between 90 percent and 100 percent white mineral oil by weight. You might as well use paint thinner or kerosene. The result will be about the same, for considerably less money. Lemon oil doesn’t oil the wood. If anything, it removes surface oil. Teak is naturally oily in any case.

There’s little argument about the fact that the best treatment for fine furniture like the inside of your boat is a high-quality wax. So why do I keep using lemon oil? Well, first, because it’s easy to apply. Second, because it smells good, and third, because it disappears in a week or two without having done any harm.

I guess it’s confession time. For years I have meant to varnish the woodwork down below. In fact, I even got some of it done this summer. Once it’s varnished you never have to do anything to it again. I want it to have that nice satiny, hand-rubbed-varnish look that Epifanes varnish produces. But most of it is still waiting for attention.

So I dare not wax it, and I dare not apply any polish containing silicone, because of the problem of removing these finishes completely before I can slap on my varnish.

Okay, but then why do I pay a small fortune for a bottle of Old English lemon oil when I could be using cheaper paint thinner or kerosene? It’s because I am a victim of advertising. I can’t help myself. Despite my resistance to advertisements, cultivated deliberately as part of my training as a skeptical journalist, there is something deep down inside me, or maybe up there in the dimmer and less developed regions of my brainbox, that wants to believe that Old English lemon oil is good for my teak.

It’s pathetic, I know. It only demonstrates the weakness of my will. That’s why I sigh.

Today’s Thought
Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is.
—Fairfax Cone, Christian Science Monitor, 20 Mar 63

“Boy, she looks as if she was made for that coat.”
“Yeah, but I still figure she could have held out for a mink.”

September 17, 2009

How not to start a race

I WAS THINKING the other day of how, in the world of sailboats, racing helps with cruising. Racing helps you develop a sense of when a cruising boat is sailing most efficiently — what the current is doing, how the wind is switching, what the most favorable tack is, and how to trim the sails.

I haven’t raced in a long time now, but when I’m out cruising I often think back on my racing days with gratitude. Not all of my racing days, of course. Some of them were pretty fraught with anxiety. Like the time I nearly blew my foot off with the starter’s shotgun.

I was the sole organizer of a Sunday afternoon race in Durban harbor, where the race course was a channel between sandbanks about 200 yards apart. Durban was a busy port and this channel was used by large ocean-going ships.

As secretary of a new class of 11-foot wooden sailboats called Mirrors, I had sent out invitations to 80 local owners, most of whom were beginners who had never raced in their lives.

Seventy eight turned up at the yacht club and started bumbling down to the start line, completely filling the channel with their bright red sails. One end of the line was on a sandbank where I was waiting with a shotgun I’d borrowed from the Royal Natal Yacht Club.

As I was getting ready to fire off the starting signal I was stricken by the thought of what might happen if a big ship came down the channel. Ships had no room to maneuver in this narrow strait. They couldn’t slow down, otherwise they’d lose steerage way and drift sideways onto a sandbank. I didn’t have any rescue boats to shepherd my little ducklings out of the way. And I naturally hadn’t thought to get the permission of the harbormaster to hold this race.

And so, four minutes before the starting time, mental stress caused my finger to twitch and I pulled the trigger. It was a blank, of course, and the gun was facing down. There was a loud BOOM! A large hole appeared in the sand an inch from my right foot. And half the fleet started. The other half wandered around in circles looking puzzled, shaking their watches, and watching me hopping around on the sandbank. Confusion reigned.

I waved them on as best I could, and eventually everybody started. By some miracle no big ship came through the fleet, and everybody finished. There was no point in trying to list the finishers in order, of course, and there were no results, just a lot of recrimination in the yacht club that evening. And a lot of laughs and a lot of beers, both at my expense.

Today’s Thought
The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

A limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

September 15, 2009

Time will tell

I USED TO HAVE TO WIND my Rolex manually every day. It was supposed to be self-winding, but, like me, it was showing the scars of life. I realized that having to wind a watch for a few seconds every day wasn’t a big deal compared with some people’s problems, but Rolexes aren’t supposed to break down.

To tell the truth, my Rolex doesn’t actually look like a Rolex. No gold. No jewels. Nobody has ever admired it. No thug has tried to rip it off my arm. It’s a strictly utilitarian stainless-steel model that my wife generously bought for me when I needed a chronometer to navigate a yacht from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. It has logged thousands of miles under sail since.

It hasn’t taken a day off since 1970, but the self-winder stopped working a year or two ago, and I had to wind it by hand every damn day. Sigh.

Then the stem went wrong, and I could only turn the hands backward. And then it needed new gaskets and a crystal. So I sought out the official Rolex agents in my home town, a large chain of posh jewelers, knowing full well what to expect. And yes, I was right.

“It will take six weeks to get a quote,” the bejeweled lady behind the counter sniffed, holding it at arm’s length. She had no idea what the price of repairs might be. “But whatever you do, don’t let anyone but our people service it,” she warned.

I snorted indignantly. “The last person to service it was my barber,” I said, “and it’s lasted 20 years since.” (It’s true. He was an amateur horologist.) So I walked out, determined never to send my Rolex to the agents.

There was a watchmaker’s exhibition in the local museum, so I went along to ask if there was anyone local who could repair Rolexes. Apparently not. But the chief horologist gave me the telephone number of a German living in Vancouver, Canada, about 50 miles north of here, who was reputedly very good at it. “He’s got a place in a little alley downtown,” my informant said, “and you can telephone him between 10 and 12 every other Saturday.”

Yeah, right, I thought, and I’m still very glad I bought the Golden Gate bridge for 50 bucks.

And then, resigned to winding my watch every day for the few remaining days of its life, I met a man from Wichita, Kansas. He was the brother of my wife’s boss. We met him at supper at the boss’s house.

He was surprised that I was wearing a Rolex. Apparently not many people as scruffy as me wear Rolexes. But he collects Rolexes and has a dozen of them. “I have a friend who works on them,” he said. “Would you like me to take it back to Wichita with me and get him to have a look at it?”

I handed it over then and there and the short story is that his friend, a Vietnamese immigrant, fixed it and mailed it back to me for a little over $100. I estimate that’s about one sixth of what the Rolex agents would have charged. But I could be wrong. Maybe they charge you even more if you’re a scruffy sailor and obviously unworthy of a Rolex.

Today’s Thought
He that hath time and looketh for a better time, loseth time. Time comes that he repents himself of time.
— George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum

“Why were you running away from that car in Lovers’ Lane the other night?”
“Because I was being chaste.”

September 13, 2009

Mouse-proofing the dinghy

ONE OF THE ASPECTS of sailing that has always fascinated me is the wide range of disciplines involved. Sailing as a sport touches on so many other facets of social and scientific life that it’s almost impossible to list them all.

Perhaps that’s why sailing has always fit in with my former calling as a newspaperman. Competent journalists must know at least a little about a very wide range of subjects, and a whole lot about at least a few. The same goes for amateur sailors.

We need to know (in greater or lesser degrees, depending upon the kind of sailing we do) about meteorology, aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, nutrition, cooking, engine maintenance and repairs, first aid, navigation in all its guises, anchoring, fishing, flag etiquette, the Rule of the Road, the restrictions on dumping refuse overboard, boat design, seaworthiness, tidal movements, ocean currents, ventilation, plumbing, knots and splices, painting and varnishing, electrical systems, sail design and repair, the situation of the nearest cold beer, and … I could go on for hours. It takes years to know even a little about the many subjects connected to sailing. That’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating.

And now we have to know how to thwart mice.

New Englander Carl Thunberg sails a Cape Dory 30 called Leona Pearl. He wrote an impassioned plea on the Cape Dory bulletin board the other day, saying:

“Our very expensive 11-foot rigid inflatable boat is riddled with mouse holes. Does anyone know of a reputable business that repairs holes in inflatable dinghies within a reasonable driving distance of Portsmouth, New Hampshire?”

And how do mice come to eat holes in a rubber dinghy, you ask? Well, many sailors in the Northeast haul their boats out of the water for winter. They deflate their dinghies and store them in garages or barns.

This doesn’t exactly explain why mice would want to chomp holes in them, but believe me, they do. Exactly the same thing happened to Carl’s previous rubber dinghy.

Perhaps Carl’s mice have discovered a new form of winter entertainment, sort of like a spooky fairground haunted house, in which you eat a hole through a layer of rubber dinghy, squeeze through, and run around inside the pitch-dark chamber until you have scared yourself out of your little mousey wits, and then you quickly eat your way out again.

Perhaps they have developed a genuine epicurean liking for salted inflatable fabric, or maybe the dumb critters are hoping that by creating the holes the boat will magically turn into a giant Swiss cheese.

In any case, Carl’s experience is not unique. Other Cape Dory owners offered suggestions from their own experience, the main one of which is to strew the dinghy liberally with a fragrant fabric softener known as Bounce. Rubber dinghies that have been Bounced seem to be immune to rodent chomps.

There are other methods to protect stored rubber dinghies, of course, including barn cats, mouse-proof steel boxes, and, failing all else, the use of hard dinghies instead of rubber ones. But nothing is as cheap and easy as Bounce.

I must make a note of it. I wonder if it works on seagulls?

Today’s Thought
Consider the little mouse, how sagacious an animal it is which never entrusts his life to one hole only.
— Plautus, Truculentus

“And where have you two been all day?”
“Hi Mom. Daddy took me to the zoo and one of the animals had a full house and made Daddy pay $50 over the table.”

September 10, 2009

The Black Box revisited

(Check in here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column.)

OLD SCARFACE certainly stirred things up with his comments about John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet, Force 10, in the last column. To my great surprise he elicited a comment from Mr. Rousmaniere himself — or possibly someone purporting to be him. I say surprise, because John Rousmaniere is a national authority on sailing and seamanship, probably America’s best-known marine writer and historian, and the author of 23 books. I am amazed that he would even know about this humble column, let alone read it. I can only presume he has commandeered a small army of Googlebot mercenaries who systematically crawl through the Internet, pouncing on every mention of his name or his books, and dragging them into the spotlight for his attention.

In any case, in his comment he made a good point:

“No storm destroys every boat, a lot of crews do things right (or at least keep their mistakes small), and the most important decision may be the one made long ago — to ignore the rating rule and buy a good boat.”

I agree. I think it can safely be said that the old International Offshore Rule (IOR) that dominated the deadly 1979 Fastnet race 30 years ago did nothing to enhance the seaworthiness of the smaller sailboats.

But there is another factor I’ve always believed in. It explains, for me at least, why some boats survive storms and others don’t. It’s the Black Box Theory. Many of you will know it already, so I won’t bore you with great detail here, but basically it’s a reward system for many small seamanlike acts.

I always imagine that every boat has a secret black box that collects the Brownie points you earn for every seamanlike action you take. Every time you check the oil level on the engine, no matter how awkward it is to reach the dipstick, you get a point. Every time you buy a real paper chart of an area you want to explore, you get a point. Every time you get up in the middle of the night and go on deck in the rain to check your anchor bearing, you get a point. For that matter, you also get a point for even having an anchor bearing to begin with. You get points (quite a few actually) for imagining what would happen on deck and down below if your boat were turned turtle by a large wave, and doing something about it. And so forth, ad infinitum.

Now, it can happen to any boat, no matter how well found and well handled, that a time will come when human skill and effort can do no more to rescue it from a perilous position. But if you have points in the black box you can spend them to ensure that your boat will survive. You don’t have to withdraw the points. They expend themselves automatically as necessary.

Other boats battling the same circumstances as you, but lacking points in their black boxes, are less likely to survive.

Those who don’t understand the mysteries of small boats sailing on big waters will say you were just lucky. And, depending on how you define luck, or good fortune, they may be right. What they don’t know is that you earned your luck the hard way.

When Vergil said fortune favors the bold, he wasn’t thinking about the sea. Good fortune on small sailboats favors the cautious, the organized, and those with enough imagination to wonder what the hell can go wrong next.

Today’s Thought
Shallow men believe in luck. … Strong men believe in cause and effect.
— Emerson, Conduct of Life: Worship

A playboy is a man who summers in Maine, winters in Florida, and springs at blondes.

September 8, 2009

What did they do right?

THE LATEST ISSUE of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) just came my way. A letter to the editor says:

Dear Sir,
My cousin Mick recently sent me a copy of John Rousmaniere’s book, Fastnet, Force 10, which he stole from the library. (Mick, that is, not Rousmaniere.) I read it with great interest, having the ambition (as you know) to sail around the world once I get outta here. (Well, at least to Hawaii, anyhow. Do the girls still wear grass skirts over there?)

The book is all about how 15 guys died on various boats taking part in a sailboat race from Britain to Ireland and back in 1979. (Yeah, I know it’s all a bit stale by now, but Mick is kinda slow at his work.)

Anyway, this guy Rousmaniere goes into great detail about how boats capsized and lost their rudders and their masts and all that in the 65-knot winds. He tells us everything they did wrong, including how they panicked and got into their rubber dinghies when they didn’t really need to.

But I was disappointed that he never interviewed the sailors who got it right, the ones who sailed right through this horrific gale. I mean, c’mon, 85 boats raced through this storm; another 194 retired, but weathered the storm. Only 10 boats out of more than 300 starters were abandoned and recovered, and only five sank.

Why didn’t the author tell us what the skippers did right, especially the small-boat skippers? That would have been more helpful to us than learning what the others did wrong.

In particular, I would like to know how one of the smallest boats in the Fastnet fleet managed not only to survive, but also to finish. As a matter of interest, a Contessa 32 called Assent, owned by Willy Ker, was the only boat to finish out of the 58 starters in Class V, 28 to 32 feet. You’d think an author writing a book about the race would have smelled a story there, wouldn’t you? But nah, not a mention of this brave Contessa.

I’ve asked Mick to check if this Rousemaniere guy ever wrote anything more about the Fastnet after 1979, but (as this could take some time) I would appreciate any information your readers might have in the meantime.

Your fellow incarceree,
(Floor 3, Row B, Cell 9)

Today’s Thought
We know accurately only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.
— Goethe, Sprüche in Prosa

“What’s you favorite winter sport, doctor?”
“No — I mean apart from business.”

September 7, 2009

The fishboat wars

OUR LOCAL PORT AUTHORITY reports that every year they hear stories of fouled nets, crab pots, and damaged propellers due to encounters with commercial fishing gear. They’re referring to recreational boats encountering fishing gear, of course.

The good news is that new legislation now requires our gillnetters, crabbers, and purse seiners to mark each end of their nets with two large red polyform buoys. Furthermore, they have to place smaller red buoys every 50 fathoms along the lines.

It’s about time. Fishing and sailing don’t mix at the best of times but the commercial fishers – nice as they are on land – can be a menace to those of us who find their nets and lines stretched right across the most direct routes from one place to another.

A few years back I was returning to harbor just after nightfall when I came across dozens of gillnetters blockading the approaches to the marina. They literally had their nets in layers, parallel to each other, so they were almost impenetrable to any yacht attempting to make a normal entrance to the marina.

The nets were unlit except for a little glimmer at the far end, away from the fishboat. I could see dozens of these little glimmers, but had no way to tell to which boats they were attached.

As I approached under power, a frenzy of light-flashing started up on one of the boats. He wasn’t signaling morse. He was simply flashing a very bright light in my eyes. I guessed I was approaching his net but I didn’t care. I was in an ugly mood. What the hell made these people think they had the right to obstruct all traffic for their own commercial benefit? What would we say if people started setting up hotdog stands on our freeways, forcing vehicles to stop and go around them?

I kept a close watch out for his net, intending to cut it if I had to, but I couldn’t spot it in the darkness until it was too late. I had just time to slip the gear into neutral. Thanks to my old-fashioned deep-keel design, his damn net just slid under the keel and up again behind me without hanging up on anything. I went on my way, cursing.

I once saw a gillnetter set his net completely across a busy channel in Puget Sound and drift sideways with the current at two knots. It was winter, and he was probably correct in his assumption that there would not be much traffic, but I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done if I had come beating up to him under sail in my boat. Sometimes I think it’s a good job I don’t carry a gun.

Today’s Thought
Can the fish love the fisherman?
— Martial, Epigrams

“I couldn’t sleep a wink last night with those curtains wide open.”
“Why didn’t you close them?”
“I can’t reach across the street.”

September 3, 2009

Closer my love, to thee

I LIVE 2.6 MILES from my boat. It takes me about 12 minutes by car to get there. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, because I know people who live hours away from their boats. I’ve often wondered how they feel when they arrive at their boats and remember that they’ve left a special tool or something vital at home. Or, worse, when they get home and realize they’ve left the forehatch ajar, or the head seacock open.

I don’t think I could bear it. The farthest I've ever lived from my boat was five miles, and that was bad enough. Five miles of city traffic. Things have improved somewhat since then.

My dream, my fantasy, has always been to have my boat floating on a deepwater mooring in front of my house. It won’t ever happen, I know, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to step aboard and sail anywhere in the world?

I’ve always found it fascinating that the water my boat floats in is actually part of a highway that reaches every port in the world. It leads to every ocean beach and island washed by the great seas, to large cities and tiny island villages in every continent all around the world.

The exciting thing is not that I would ever do it, but the fact that I could do it if I wanted to. We are not free to do everything we wish in this world, no matter how much our government assures us that we enjoy complete freedom in our great democracy. We don’t have the freedom to drive on the wrong side of the road, for example, or travel in space, or even to fly like a bird, for that matter.

But a boat gently stirring on a mooring in front of your house is a tangible reminder that you do have one of life’s greatest freedoms. And those of us who don’t necessarily want to exercise our right to take advantage of it can still enjoy our dreams, knowing that they are indeed possible.

Today’s Thought
We are not free; it was not intended we should be. A book of rules is placed in our cradle, and we never get rid of it until we reach our graves. Then we are free, and only then.
— E. W. Howe, Howe’s Monthly

“I see you had a date with John.”
“No, I tore my dress on a nail.”

September 1, 2009

An unfair battle

I FEEL QUITE SORRY for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the delights of the San Juan Islands of Washington State and their northern continuation, the Canadian Gulf Islands. For some reason, you don’t hear much about this sleepy, largely undeveloped archipelago of state parks and cozy anchorages. It doesn’t generate the publicity some other parts of the country enjoy, despite the fact that boating is big business here. Some of the largest sailboat charter companies in the country are located in the fascinating inland sea known as the Puget Sound.

Here and there you’ll come across bustling resort harbors such as Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor where you can refuel, reprovision, and indulge in highly civilized gustation, but in the main the mantle that lies over these welcoming islands is one of peace and tranquility. Here the stars actually blaze at night and the moon throws solid black shadows on the deck.

The air that drifts off the islands smells sweetly of pine. The aspect that greets your eye is almost the same, in most cases, as it was hundreds of years ago, when Native Americans plied these waters in their dug-out canoes. They still do, as a matter of fact, but now only occasionally, and for ceremony and pleasure rather than for a living.

The roiling currents provide a fecund, fertile habitat for a host of sea creatures ranging from whales, orcas, porpoises, and seals to geoducks, mussels, and those famous Dungeness crabs.
We have seen ospreys and puffins, eagles by the dozen, seagulls by the thousand, and even the shy, dainty phalarope. I had wanted to see a phalarope ever since the late Alan Paton wrote a novel called, intriguingly, Too Late the Phalarope, and one calm day in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, my wife June and I came across a small tight-knit group of them floating on the water, fluttering and agitated for no reason we could discover, except that they might have been in a feeding frenzy.

But the sight that sticks on our minds right now is that of a tiny sea otter living on the Canadian side of the border, near South Pender Island. A few days ago we cruised up to within a few yards of him before we could make out what was happening. He was lying on his back, clutching to his chest a fair-sized salmon, and trying to take bites out of it. But he was surrounded by half a dozen large seagulls, all floating on the surface, jostling each other, pecking voraciously at his salmon, and trying to wrestle it away from him. Time after time he would submerge with his meal to get rid of the gulls, but he couldn’t stay under for long and as soon as he reappeared the birds would fly over with great squawks of indignation and continue the assault with their strong, sharp beaks.

I don’t know how that particular battle ended, because we soon drifted away, but we couldn’t help feeling sorry for that sweet little otter, outnumbered as he was. It wasn’t a fair fight, but of course Nature knows nothing of fairness, only survival and extinction, so even if we could have weighed in on the side of the otter it probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the Great Scheme of Things.

It makes me wonder about seagulls, though. They’re actually only lowly scavengers; rats with wings, really. How is it that they were given such desirable gifts? They’re beautiful to look at. Their flying skill is wonderful to behold. They can swim in water and walk on land.

Something unfair here, surely? Especially if you’re a decent law-abiding otter just trying to eat a peaceful lunch.

Today’s Thought
For nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal,
The Mayfly is torn by the swallow, the sparrow speared by the shrike,
And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey.
— Tennyson, Maud

“What’s your opinion of bathing beauties?”
“Dunno. My wife’s never let me bathe one.”