January 31, 2010

The madness of love

SOMEONE WHO SIGNS HIMSELF “Another John” writes from Oswego, N.Y.:

“I own a Cape Dory Typhoon sailboat. My wife says I love it more than I love her. I don’t know how to compare different kinds of love, but I admit that I love my boat and I love it quite a lot. Is this so very wrong?”

Hell no, AJ. You don’t lose your manhood if you love a boat. You might lose your wife, but that’s another matter.

I loved the very first boat I owned. It was an International sliding-seat canoe that I bought in a moment of love-induced madness. I didn’t realize at that moment that I wasn’t man enough for this little beauty. I was a scrawny youth, weighing all of 125 pounds, and 125 pounds was just not heavy enough. After repeated dunkings I came to the conclusion that this was unrequited love, the kind I already felt for my high-school English teacher, who had wonderful legs and magnificent pair of … but no, I digress.

The boat was a singlehander about 16 or 17 feet long and about 3 feet 6 inches wide. She had no stability of her own. You kept her upright by flinging yourself out onto what looked like a seesaw sticking out from the side. She was very pretty, very fast and very demanding. She had a tiller extension as long as an elephant’s trunk and when you went about you had to handle the extension, the mainsheet, the jib sheet, and the sliding seat all at once, and sometimes the centerboard, too. You really needed to be a 200-pound, eight-armed, lightning-fast octopus to handle that boat. But what a thrill it was (for those few brief moments before she capsized) when she flew up onto a plane and went skimming over the bay in a cloud of spray.

While I’m in confessional mood, I might as well admit that I had a previous love. A steamroller. A lovely green-and-black steamroller came along one day to make a new road near our house and I fell head over heels in love. I used to come running home from school to spend my afternoons with it. And I was heartbroken when its job was done and it just clanked away without a backward glance at me. I think maybe the sliding seat canoe caught me on the rebound.

Anyway, AJ, my advice to you is to go ahead and love your boat. Wives come and wives go. There seem to be plenty of them around. But Typhoons are not made any more. Those little beauties are getting rarer by the day. Do your duty, AJ. Love it, come what may.

Today’s Thought
Loving can cost a lot but not loving always costs more, and those who fear to love often find that want of love is an emptiness that robs the joy from life.
— Merle Shain, Some Men Are More Perfect Than Others

Readers’ comments
Bob K7ZB said ...
Keep 'em coming, John! I have been sailing only a few years now on my own boat and have found your columns very useful. For example, last summer sailing on Lake Michigan I found that I was experiencing things you would write about the following week. So, I do think you might work on the synchronization of your columns as we get closer to the season — it would help to know what's going to happen to me BEFORE it occurs for a change!
Sabre 28

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #8
The first boat to anchor has the right to ask others not only to give her room to swing freely but also not to hinder her maneuvering room when she wishes to depart. But the first yacht MUST inform the newcomer of the possibility of fouling. (U.S. Admiralty Court decision number 124-5861 of 1956.)

“Your name?”
“Sparks, Your Honor.”
“What’s the charge?”
“Officer, place this man in a dry cell.”

January 28, 2010

Disappointment and stability

ANOTHER State of the Nation speech. Another evening of disappointment. No tax breaks for sailboat owners. No bailout for those behind with their marina fees. No $8,000 discount for buyers of new boats. Sheesh.

I turn to my inbox for consolation. A message from Sam Psmythe (silent P as in bath) says:

“I saw your piece about how sailboats capsize more easily on the crest of a wave. Well, duh. Surely everybody knows that. What other banalities masquerading as gems of wisdom are you going to parade for us?”

Well, just between you and me, old Sam is pretty nifty with words, but he’s a bit of a know-all. I think he has forgotten that new generations keep coming along, generations that have to learn all the same old things all over again, because humans don’t seem to be able to pass on the seeds of experience to the fruit of their loins.

So while Sam may think he’s heard it all before, I cater to the newbies, the neophytes who are anxious to learn how not to kill themselves at sea. And interesting things happen at sea, believe me. Your boat loses stability in broken water, for a start. Yes, we’ve been there, done that. Thanks, Sam.

But do you know why boats so often broach, roll broadside on, and capsize when they’re running before the wind in large waves? It’s because when a wave breaks under your stern you have practically no steering power to keep her running straight. The rudder is suspended in foam, not water, and it can’t do its job. If you’ve ever been dumped by a big breaker while body surfing you’ll know the feeling of not being able to float high enough to get your head above water.

And if your boat heels to 45 degrees, you don’t have much steering ability, either. Think about it. The rudder is trying to lift the stern toward the sky as much as it is trying to turn the boat sideways. And, of course, if you do a 90-degree capsize you can’t steer at all. If the rudder isn’t totally out of the water, as it would be on a tubby light-displacement boat, it will be horizontal and unable to turn the stern either way.

Stability at sea is always a fascinating subject for sailors, whether they actually get away from the sight of land or not, and one of the very basic facts about boats is that stability comes as a cube of the length, other things being more or less equal. This means that a 30-footer is 72 percent more stable than a 25-footer, which explains why a 30-footer can stand up to its canvas so much better. It also explains why a 30-footer costs so much more than a 25-footer. But that’s another subject for Sam to get enraged about. Some other day, perhaps.

Today’s Thought
It hath been an opinion that the French are wiser than they seem, and the Spaniards seem wiser than they are; but howsoever it be between nations, certainly it is so between man and man.
—Bacon, Essays

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #7
Statistics from cruiser in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific show that the average yacht spends 10 percent of the time at sea, 5 percent tied to docks, and 85 percent at anchor. This emphasizes the importance of good and easily handled ground tackle, and an efficient dinghy.

Golfer: “You must be the worst caddie in the world.”
Caddie: “Oh come now — that would be far too much of a coincidence.”

January 27, 2010

Cresting and capsizing

EVERY TIME I HEAR some sailor boasting about the alleged seaworthiness of his dear sailboat I wonder if he knows the difference between static and dynamic stability.

In other words, I wonder if he knows the difference between how stable his boat might be in calm water (static) and how unstable it might be at sea in big waves (dynamic).

It’s an established fact that no amount of static testing will reveal how much more vulnerable a boat is to capsize when it is weaving its way through heavy swells.

This phenomenon was investigated in the late 1800s by William Froude, an eminent British naval engineer who was well versed in fluid dynamics. Froude did many experiments for the British navy, including his most famous, which determined the amount of force that water exerts on a body passing through it. But the experiment that should concern all small-boat sailors dealt with the inclination of a sailboat to capsize on the crest of a wave.

As you have probably noticed, you get a strange feeling in the pit of your stomach when your boat heaves upward suddenly on the face of a steep wave and then drops off suddenly. Froude discovered that at the top of the heave your boat experiences a degree of weightlessness.

At that stage, the boat is virtually in free fall. And thus, Froude found, a boat’s stability vanishes completely as she floats over the crest. There is no resistance from the water to stop her from being blown over by the wind.

This rather scary theory is well borne out in practice. The phenomenon of ocean-going sailboats and small racing dinghies capsizing on the crests of even non-breaking waves is well documented. The degree of danger depends, among other things, on the height and steepness of the swells as well as the design of your boat.

Froude also found that the presence of a wave crest near amidships resulted in a decreased righting moment. On the other hand, a wave trough amidships increased the righting moment, compared with the static stability.

If this all seems highly scientific to you, be aware that good sailors know intuitively that when they’re running in heavy seas in a displacement hull they shouldn’t spend too much time on the crest of a wave. That’s why they try to slow the boat with a drogue, to let the wave crest pass underneath quickly. Sitting on top of a wave, especially a breaking wave, is never where you want to be.

Today’s Thought
The sea thinks for me as a listen and ponder; the sea thinks, and every boom of the wave repeats my prayer.
— Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #7
Statistics from cruisers in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific show that the average yacht spends 10 percent of the time at sea, 5 percent tied to docks, and 85 percent at anchor. This emphasizes the importance of good and easily handled ground tackle, and an efficient dinghy.

“I see that restaurant on Main Street is hiring a gypsy band from Romania, and waiters dressed as bandits.”
“That’ll make a nice change. Last time I was there they had bandits dressed as waiters.”

January 24, 2010

Sailing commandments

FOR THE FAITHFUL FOLLOWERS of the Simple Sailors’ Club (Motto: If it ain’t broke, break it before you fix it), here followeth Vigor’s First Ten Commandments of Sailing:

1. Thou shalt not secretly race another boat when cruising, save that the other skipper knoweth thou racest.
2. Thou shalt refrain from loosing foulsome invective in the direction of thine crew, notwithstanding their gross incompetence in handling the spinnaker.
3. Thou shalt not anchor too close to any boat with a bikini-clad crew, lest thy faithful spouse smite thee.
4. Thou shalt not run thy generator all night, whence cometh great grief for thine neighbors, and much rending of hair and beating of breasts.
5. Thou shalt decline to laugh out loud at he who runneth aground, yea, though the idiot listeneth not to your advice.
6. Thou shalt confine thine peeing overboard to the side of the boat away from which the wind bloweth.
7. Thou shalt resist the impulse to hire a witch to place a spell on the boatyard manager whose bill maketh thee unhappy and broke.
8. Thou shalt not grab the free reciprocity berth if thou hath not paid thine yacht-club dues.
9. Thou shalt not conveniently forget to include the bowsprit when paying thine marina fees by the foot.
10. Thou shalt promptly retire from the race or do thine penalty turns without whining if thou touchest the windward mark, yea verily, even if no-one observeth your touching.

Today’s Thought
We never waste space saying, “On the one hand.” We just state an opinion in a Godlike voice.
— Arthur Christiansen, Editor, London Daily Express

Readers’ Comments
Following last week’s column on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), my friend Jennifer Moran writes from Australia:

Hello John,

As an interim measure (and a much cheaper one), if you have an iPhone, you can download the receive version of AIS from the App Store for a very small amount of money. Alternatively, if you have a laptop with wireless broadband or some other way of accessing the internet on your boat, you can go to:


It's fantastic!

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #6
Anchor weight. Good design is what helps anchors hold, but weight is what helps them dig into the sea bed in the first place. A good rule of thumb for plow anchors is to allow one pound of anchor weight for every foot of your boat’s length on deck.

“Any hint of a proposal yet, dear?”
“Yes, mother, several. But he just ignores them.”

January 21, 2010

Small-boat AIS

EVERY NOW AND THEN I try to contact an ocean-going ship that seems determined to run me down. But I always have to think long and hard about how to do it. The trouble is that I don’t know the name of the ship, so I switch on the VHF to Channel 13, which he is supposed to be monitoring, and I say: “Ocean-going vessel proceeding south past Migley Point, this is the sailboat Sangoma dead ahead of you. What are your intentions, please?” Or something like that — long, wordy, boring, and ineffective. It rarely brings results, probably because they know only too well that if it comes to the worst, I’ll switch on my engine and scoot out of their way.

Now I see there is an answer to my problem. They’re making a yacht-sized, receive-only version of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that big ships must carry. I first saw AIS in action about three years ago, when I was traveling by Royal Mail Ship to the island of St. Helena. Out there in the middle of the lonely South Atlantic, I was on the bridge when a ship appeared on the horizon. I glanced at the officer of the watch. He turned to the AIS. “We’ll miss her,” he said reassuringly, “plenty of room.” Then he told me her name, her call sign, her speed, her heading, and even her cargo. All that, and a lot more, was on the AIS screen. At the same time, our ship was automatically broadcasting its own information for the other ship to pick up. There are no longer any secrets on the ocean deep. Here are just some of the pieces of information AIS provides:

IMO ship identification number - a seven digit number that remains unchanged upon transfer of the ship's registration to another country;
Radio call sign - international radio call sign, up to seven characters, assigned to the vessel by its country of registry;
Name - 20 characters to represent the name of the vessel;
Type of ship/cargo;
Dimensions of ship - to nearest meter;
Location of positioning system's (eg. GPS) antenna onboard the vessel;
Type of positioning system - such as GPS, DGPS or LORAN-C
Draft of ship - 0.1 meter to 25.5 meters;
Destination - maximum 20 characters; and
ETA (estimated time of arrival) at destination - UTC month/date hour:minute

You can get two versions in yacht sizes now, a receive-only set for about $500 and a send-and-receive set for about double that. It’s still expensive, and left to myself I don’t think I’d be getting an AIS set for my 27-footer any time soon but I have a nervous First Mate and I know she’d just love it if I could switch on Channel 13 and make definite voice contact by saying: “Ocean Monster, Ocean Monster, for gawd’s sake look where you’re going! That little speck in front of you is me.”

Todays’ Thought
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
— New Testament, Matthew xii, 34

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #5
Anchor scope: Under favorable weather conditions, minimum scope should be five times the depth of the water, measuring “depth” from the anchor roller down to the sea bed. In strong winds and/or currents, a scope ratio of 7:1 is preferable, or even 10:1 if you can find the swinging room. (“Scope” consists of the total anchor line, including both chain and nylon line.)

“Is my face dirty or is it my imagination?”
”Your face is clean. I don’t know about your imagination.”

January 19, 2010

Strobe lights at sea

MASTHEAD NAVIGATION LIGHTS have become taller and more complicated over the years. Now you can buy a triple-decker that shows, in layers, port, starboard, and stern running lights; an all-round white anchor light; and a white all-round strobe light.

The big question is this: if a strobe light is illegal up there, why should a sea-going yacht carry one?

Oh, yes, it’s illegal all right. Here’s Rule 36 of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea:

Signals to attract attention
If necessary to attract the attention of another vessel any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel. Any light to attract the attention of another vessel shall be such that it cannot be mistaken for any aid to navigation. For the purpose of this Rule the use of high intensity intermittent or revolving lights, such as strobe lights, shall be avoided.

Well, maybe it’s just sort of illegal. You’ll note that this rule talks about “avoiding” strobe lights, rather than specifically banning them outright. I take that to mean you shouldn’t do it all the time, but it’s OK to use a strobe in an emergency. In fact, in U.S. inland waters, the white strobe is a recognized Mayday signal, one that will summon help to you.

I read just the other day of a sailboat that came across a large fishing boat on a dark night and altered course to avoid it. Just as they changed course, the fishing boat also altered course – toward them. There was no response to the sailboat’s VHF radio calls, so they switched on their masthead strobe. That finally got the fishing boat’s attention, and they altered course again to miss the sailboat, admitting on VHF that they hadn’t noticed her until the strobe came on.

Legal or not, I, too, would use a strobe under those circumstances. If it frightens the fishing boat into thinking it’s about to go aground or run smack into a weather buoy, and gives the helmsman a heart attack (just a mild one) that’s too bad. They should keep a better watch.

I seem to remember the Pardeys advocating the use of portable strobe lights in one of their books. They fastened one to a long burgee stick and hauled it up to the masthead when they were hove to in heavy weather and both of them were down below.

Since then I have always carried a couple of those waterproof strobes that fasten around your arm with Velcro, so you can be seen at night if you fall overboard, and I wouldn’t hesitate to switch both of them on if I were being run down by a larger vessel.

Nothing attracts your attention like a bright strobe on a dark night. It is visible much farther away and more readily than a steady white or colored light, and when all is said and done it is the aim of all practical seamen, apart from those manning warships, to avoid collision and loss of life at sea. I can’t imagine any legal action being taken against a yacht that used a strobe to avoid being run down. So, OK, go ahead and buy one of those triple-deckers. It might help you sleep more easily at night.

Today’s Thought
Necessity knows no law.
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #4
Alternator size: Lacking a multi-step regulator, the rule for long battery life is that you should limit the charging rate in amps to 10 percent of available amp-hours. With a modern multi-step regulator, you can charge at between 25 and 40 percent of the total amp-hours in your battery bank.

“I think your wife has had enough to drink.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
“She’s all blurred around the edges already.”

January 17, 2010

Edible boats, everlasting planes

INTERESTING THINGS ARE HAPPENING in the world of plastic technology. The Boeing airplane company, against my advice, is now using carbon-fiber-and-resin laminates to build the new 787 Dreamliner. I wonder if they know what they’re doing.

For many decades, aluminum has been the material of choice for airplane bodies. Aluminum is predictable. It’s nice and shiny, it’s ductile, and it’s very light. And at the end of its life, you can melt it down and make beer cans out of it. Very important. Can’t do that with carbon fiber. But the main thing about aluminum is that long experience has taught us there is a limit to how many times you can flex the wings before they fall off and you have to throw the plane away.

Unfortunately, nobody but me has told the Boeing people how long plastic planes will last. Someone in authority should have informed them about fiberglass boats. Sixty years or so after boatbuilders went over from wood to fiberglass, those good old boats are still going strong. They’re slow, cramped, and unfashionable — and you can’t get rid of them. They’re everywhere, they’re cheap, and they’re here forever. They’re depressing the new-boat market so badly that dispirited yacht brokers are hurling themselves off tall docks all over the country every day.

So Boeing now finds itself faced with the specter of 50-year-old Dreamliners lumbering around our skies, and no new orders for planes because the old ones never wear out. Just as boatbuilders have gone out of business by the score because of indestructible fiberglass boats, so Boeing is going to find itself hoist with its own petard. Well, maybe they deserve it. They are a headstrong lot and they can’t say I didn’t warn them.

The other interesting development concerns boatbuilding. A press handout from Canada says:

Campion Marine Inc., Canada's largest fiberglass boat builder, is proud to announce that it will become the first boat builder in the world to manufacture all of its boats with Envirez®, a renewably sourced bio-derived resin from Ashland Performance Materials.

Envirez® resin is the first resin that uses a substantial amount of soybean oil and corn derived ethanol in its formulation.

So now, if you run out of food in mid-ocean, you can eat your boat. You’ll have to spit out the fiberglass strands, of course, otherwise they’ll get stuck in your teeth, and the diet of soybean and ethanol may start to pale after a week or two, but at least you won’t starve.

The only decision left to make is: Where do you start eating? Somewhere above the waterline, obviously. Not the cockpit floor, but maybe the coamings. Or perhaps the toerails if your crew wash their feet regularly.

The edible boat ushers in a new era of yachting and I look forward to the first book of recipes. Transom stew. Corn à la Cockpit. Poopdeck Purée. It all sounds so delicious I can hardly wait.

Today’s Thought
This has got to be the most expensive food ever laminated.
— Bryan Miller, NY Times, (on Manhattan’s Casual Quilted Giraffe restaurant)

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #3
The force of the wind increases as a square of its speed. Thus, if the wind speed doubles, its force increases four times. And if it trebles – say from 5 knots to 15 knots, its force increases 9 times.

Homeland Security officials hired to find Tiger Woods believe they are in hot pursuit. They are following a trail of exploding underpants.

January 14, 2010

Marine cloud computing

I CAME ACROSS A REFERENCE to cloud computing the other day. I had never heard of it, but I used my mighty brain and looked it up on Wikipedia. I thought it might be of some benefit to sailors needing better marine weather forecasts. This is how Wikipedia explained cloud computing:

Cloud computing is Internet- ("cloud-") based development and use of computer technology ("computing").[1] In concept, it is a paradigm shift whereby details are abstracted from the users who no longer need knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure "in the cloud" that supports them.[2] Cloud computing describes a new supplement, consumption and delivery model for IT services based on Internet, and it typically involves the provision of dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources as a service over the Internet.[3][4]

Um, yes, well, thank you Wiki. I think.

And now by absolute, sheer, utter coincidence — would you believe it? — I have just received an e-mail query from a reader in the tiny village of Gamadoolas, in the middle of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. Xabba Verlore wants to know: “What is sailing?”

Ah, Xabba, thanks to Wikipedia I can explain it to you and other deprived desert-dwellers:

Sailing is a non-mechanized form of motion that takes place at the interface of the earth’s atmosphere and an aquatic body[1] whereby a device designed for the conveyance of goods or living organisms derives kinetic energy from the molecular movement of air (nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, et al).

H2O molecules are deliberately excluded from the hollow interior of the device for reasons of safety, comfort, and the necessity to avoid sinking.

Kinetic energy (in which e = 1/2 mass x speed squared) is extracted from the air movement by large triangular surfaces ingeniously constructed from polyester filaments elevated on a vertical elongation of aluminum tube.

Pressure on these triangular surfaces, which might otherwise occasion instability and cause a 90-degree paradigm shift, is counterbalanced by metallic lead of considerable density and volume, situated at the fundamental extremity of a fin-like appendage protruding down into the aquatic body.

In cognizance of the necessity for directional stability and/or change, the device is subject to biaxial direction control on the antiquated “Gudgeon-Pintle” principle, effected with the assistance of a wooden lever or wheel, manipulated from the cockpit.

Finally, Xabba, should the kinetic energy fail due to absence of air movement, we simply switch on the engine. That’s what we call Sailing.

[1] Aquatic body: Two atoms hydrogen with one atom oxygen, repeated many times.

Today’s Thought
The short words are best, and the old words are the best of all.
— Winston Churchill

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #2
Abandoning ship. The rule of thumb is that you should have to step UP to your liferaft. Easier said than done, but most boats are found floating long after crews abandon them for liferafts during storms — and liferafts often turn out to be death rafts, as the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race showed.

“And after I got lost in the wilds of the Rockies I lived for a whole week on two bananas.”
“Good grief. Weren’t you afraid of squashing them?”

January 12, 2010

Heartbreaking discovery

ONE OF MY REGULAR correspondents, Sam Psmythe (silent P, as in bath), found this interesting letter in the latest issue of his favorite boating magazine, 48° North, published in Seattle:

Dear Sir,

I’ve never written to you before, but I really need your advice.
I have suspected for some time now that my wife has been cheating on me. There are the usual signs:

► The phone rings, but if I answer, the caller hangs up.
► My wife has been going out with “the girls” a lot recently, although when I ask their names she always says: “Just some friends from work, you don’t know them.”

I have never approached the subject with my wife. I think, deep down, I just didn’t want to know the truth, but last night she went out again and I decided to really check on her.

Around midnight I hid in the garage behind my boat so I could get a good view of the whole street when she arrived home. When she got out of the car she was buttoning up her blouse, and she took her panties out of her purse and slipped them on.

It was at that moment, crouching behind the boat, that I noticed some hairline cracks in my gelcoat, right where the hull meets the transom of the boat.

Is this something I can fix myself or should I take the boat to the yard for repairs?


Concerned Boater.

To which the editor of 48° North, Richard Hazelton, replied:

► What a heartbreaking thing to find out.
If the cracks are just in the gelcoat you can fix them yourself. But why chance it? Take it to the yard.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #1
The Golden Rule: No matter what the rules say, small boats give way to bigger boats.

Today’s Thought
Love is whatever you can still betray … Betrayal can only happen if you love.
— John le Carré, A Perfect Spy

“And what grounds do you have for divorce?”
“Oh, he’s so darned immature. Last night we went to a wife-swapping party and he traded me for a sheath knife and six bits of bubble gum”

January 10, 2010

Grammar for a change

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

SOMEONE CALLED “MYSTIFIED,” of Walla Walla, Wash., wants to know why I’m always writing about boats. “People with boats are as intelligent as anyone else,” he writes, “and even though they can talk for hours about their boats, they can eventually get bored with it. So why don’t you write about something else once in a while.”

Well, I’m not so sure about this, “Mystified.” I personally have never met a boat owner who got bored with talking about his boat. He might bore non-boat-owning landlubbers, for sure. But become bored himself? Never.

However, in the interests of experimentation, and just to prove I’m not stuck in a boating rut, I’m willing to treat you to something a little more athletic for your brain.

Let’s tackle some English grammar for a start. You know about collective nouns, I presume. A cluck of hens, a pod of whales, a sneeze of germs, et cetera. Well, here’s a list of scientific collective nouns I’ve been carrying around for decades, waiting for a chance just like this to publish them. Study them well, “Mystified.” You will be required to pass a small test in less than a week and with your new brain power you might be able to get out of Walla Walla, Wash.

— A grid of electrical engineers.
— A pile of nuclear scientists.
— A set of pure mathematicians.
— A galaxy of cosmologists.
— A cloud of theoretical meteorologists.
— A shower of applied meteorologists.
— A knot of nautical engineers.
— A stack of librarians.
— A chain of security officers, and
— A complex of psychologists.
Now here are some definitions of everyday scientific terms:
Coma — A multi-toothed device used by Italian barbers for parting hair.
Commutator — A kid who drives to school.
Conic section — The funnies page.
Corona — An official who enquires into the cause of death.
Cosine — The reverse of “Stop” sign.
Cusp — To use bad language.
Flux — Past tense of the verb to flex.
Gram — To study intensely for an exam.
Graph — Principal item of a cow’ph diet.
Millimeter — A bug like a centipede, but with more legs.
Orifice — Headquarters of a place of business.
Paradox — Two Ph.Ds.
Spectra — A female ghost.
Torque — Anglo-Saxon for conversation.
Watt — Request to repeat that remark.

Today’s Thought
You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.
— Robert Frost

“Waiter, there’s a button in my soup.”
“Sorry, sir, it must have come off when the salad was being dressed.”

© Copyright John Vigor 2009. All rights reserved. Not to be copied or published without the express permission of the author.

January 7, 2010

Faeces Afloat, Part 2

IN MY LAST COLUMN we were discussing a little bestselling book called How to Shit in the Woods. Well, let me tell you that doing your jobbies in the woods is a piece of cake compared with using the head on a small sailboat.

In the first place, everyone has to sit down to use the head. Men who need only to pee, and think they can aim accurately while standing up at sea are greatly mistaken. On boats where they have tried, the head smells like a month-old cat litter box. The traditional male pee posture is standing at the leeward shrouds, with one arm around the shrouds for safety. Urban legend says more men are lost this way at sea than any other, but I don’t believe it. It is illegal, of course, to pee overboard within three miles of the coast, and completely forbidden in many eco-sensitive areas closer in. Illegal for a human, that is. Legal for a whale, though. Go figure.

But the main trouble with a boat’s sewage system is that you have to carry the poo from your loo with you. It goes into a holding tank that is carefully hidden from delicate human eyes. And how can you tell when the holding tank is full? Well, when you’re pumping out the loo it gets a bit more difficult to move the handle. So you give it an extra-hard pull and suddenly there’s this kind of dull thud noise. A sort of muffled burp, followed by slopping noises as a murky stream slithers from the holding tank into the bilge. And loud screams from the First Mate in the galley. Big-time problem.

You should, of course, have visited a pump-out station, if you could ever have found one. But it’s embarrassing, because people on shore stand around and watch for boats approaching the pump-out berth. They find it kind of amusing to see the skipper and crew trying to figure out how this particular machine works, which switch does what, and which hose goes where. And if they accidentally switch the pump motor to “blow” instead of “suck” will it explode the crap into their cabin? Such fun, as long as you stand upwind.

Another trouble with boat heads is that they are right there in the main living accommodation. There is not a hint of privacy. Using the head is not for people with delicate susceptibilities. Strange noises from the loo have been known to seriously frighten nervous young ladies, and no boat that I have ever owned was able to overcome this sound-proofing problem.

The whole system is susceptible to blockage in the pipes, of course, and putting things right is a terrible problem, especially if you’re at sea and people are standing around with their legs crossed and panic on their faces. To overcome blockages, some head systems incorporate an electric macerator. A macerator works like your kitchen blender. It makes a frothy poo purée, a sort of crap-à-la-crème, that passes smoothly along the tubes into the dreaded holding tank.

On boats without macerators there is often a large notice in the head that warns landlubbers: “Put nothing down the loo that you haven’t eaten first.” I always think that’s silly. I mean, what about the paper?

There is, however, an alternative to the traditional pump-out head. It’s called a Porta Pottie. It’s really just a large modern chamber pot. But, once again, it has its drawbacks on a boat. You can’t simply yell “Gardy loo!” and hurl the contents into the street, as they used to do in the old days. You have to take it off the boat, smuggle it to a public toilet, and try to pour the contents into the porcelain bowl without alarming the man in the cubicle next door when he hears the worryingly prolonged glug-glug-glug, plop-plop-plop noises you’re making.

Some people who don’t like carrying their loaded chamber pots around in public have now gone over to composting toilets. They place them right there in the head compartment. There are no pipes to clog, no holes in the boat to let in flushing water, and no pumps to break down.

Even with all those advantages, I still can’t stomach the thought of living cheek-by-jowl with growing piles of my old poo rotting away in the corner, being chomped on by millions of starving little bugs. I mean, what if their tiny appetites wane one of these days? What if they get tired of the same old crap, day after day? Now, instead of a Porta Pottie to empty ashore, I’ll be stuck with a whole barrel-load of you-know-what right here on the boat with me.

But maybe I’m attacking the problem from the wrong end, as it were. I have just researched a list of foodstuffs on the Internet. It includes ice-cream, cheese, meat, chips, pizza, hard-boiled eggs, and instant mashed potatoes. And what, you ask, do they have in common? Well, they all cause constipation. Next time I go cruising, I shall put the ship’s company strictly on my new diet. I shall call it the Don’t-Do-It Diet, and come back from my cruise two weeks later with an empty, sweet-smelling holding tank. Now that’s something to aim for.

Today’s Thought
To what purpose is this waste?
— New Testament, Matthew, xxvi, 8

“What’s your opinion of my new book?”
“It’s absolute drivel.”
“I’m sure it is, but I’d like to hear it anyway.”

January 5, 2010

A Number Two bestseller

I CAN STILL REMEMBER how shocked I was when I first saw a book called How to Shit in the Woods. I was shocked at the word shit appearing on a book cover, and I was also shocked that anyone would need instructions on how to do a Number Two (as I was taught to call it in childhood) in the woods.

Nevertheless, I overcame my double shock and bought the book. It turned out to be a serious and valuable treatise for hikers and campers on how to avoid polluting our natural water sources. Despite its title, or perhaps because of it, it was a best-seller.

Once I had got used to seeing the bold and honest Anglo-Saxon word shit on a pure white page, my mind naturally turned to plagiarism. I thought of writing a bestseller called How to Shit on a Boat. But my genteel upbringing rebelled at the thought of that title. After a lot of pondering I daringly came up with How to Crap on a Craft. But that was still too vulgar, too plebian, and not half clever enough.

Then I remembered one of my all-time favorite newspaper headlines. After a ship in Durban harbor accidentally discharged thousands of gallons of sewage into the bay, the Sunday Tribune ran a picture of it with the headline caption: THE SHIP THAT LAUNCHED 1,000 FAECES

That was a reverse nod to the classics, of course, and Helen of Troy. So now I had the title of my new book — FAECES AFLOAT — but no ideas about what to put in it, except the fact that nobody but a small-boat sailor knows how difficult it is to do a Number Two at sea when the boat is bouncing up and down and you’re wearing six layers of storm-proof gear and the toilet is in a tiny cabinet the size of a midget’s coffin and you’re feeling seasick.

Only a small-boat sailor understands how profoundly the psyche of sailing is affected by the fact that you have to carry your poo around with you, because you can’t simply pump it overboard any more unless you’re way out on the ocean. You have to hide your Number Twos, along with your Number Ones, in a holding tank. And that holding tank is often furtively situated under your bunk. When you sleep, your head could be six inches from two weeks’-worth of other people’s Number Threes.

There are many other concerns regarding the creation and disposal of human waste on a boat, and decent people mainly don’t talk about them. But now that I’ve got started, I might as well vent my feelings, if you’ll pardon the expression. So watch this space next Friday for Faeces Afloat, Fart 2.
How to Shit in the Woods, Kathleen Meyer (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif.)

Today’s Thought
Waste brings woe.
Robert Greene, Sonnet

“Any Royalty in your family?”
“No, but I had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too."

January 3, 2010

The size of waves

SOMEONE ASKED ME the other day: “How big were the biggest waves you ever saw at sea?” And I had to admit that I didn’t know. As a practical matter, it’s extremely difficult to estimate the height of waves from the cockpit of a small boat in a gale. I was always more concerned with wondering if we would get over a swell before the top of the wave broke and came thundering down on us.

Sailors’ accounts of wave heights are traditionally taken with a pinch of salt because there is a natural tendency to exaggerate, but there are some reliable records that indicate that wave heights of between 40 and 50 feet are not uncommon in heavy gales in some oceans. You need only see those pictures of the surf battering Hawaii, or the Oregon coast in winter, to believe that.

And, because wave trains occasionally coincide so that one wave rides on another’s back, single waves can be much bigger. A wave 80 feet high was observed from the steamship Majestic in the North Atlantic on December 29, 1922. Meteorological authorities consider the sighting authentic.

But if you’re out there in a small boat, it’s not the height of the wave or swell that bothers you, it’s the height of the breaking crests, especially those wicked crests that plunge, rather than spill, down the front of the wave. It’s safe to assume that in a whole gale of 48 to 55 knots in the open sea, many breakers of 6 feet in height will be encountered. Six feet might not sound much, but believe me, 6 feet of plunging breaker contains enough energy to do an awful lot of damage to a small sailboat.

So, did I ever encounter a 6-foot breaker? Heck, I can’t really say yes to that, either. I probably did, more than once, off the Cape of Storms, but the occasion is not one where you get out the tape measure to verify the height. There are other ways to calculate how frightened I was, and they registered 10 out of 10.

Today’s Thought
Let him who knows not how to pray go to sea.
— John Ray, English Proverbs

“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.”