February 28, 2010

Sailing simply

(Drop by here Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

A COMMENT FROM Nikolay R., who sails a Tartan T30, in Toronto, Canada, says:

I realize this might not be entirely related to the topic ... as much related say, as a pig and a dodo.

But could you write a few entries on using such devices on board as oil-lamps, wind vanes, and foot-operated freshwater pumps? Things that let you be free of using electricity constantly. Tidbits perhaps on how to select the most appropriate ones, what to look for, and any sound advice on installation, usage, and maintenance.

Well, Nikolay, you are preaching to the choir. I have always favored simplicity in sailboats and I have always been parsimonious with electricity. In all my cruising experience, including crossing oceans, I have never felt the need for a wind generator or solar panels or (gawdelpus) a dedicated motor generator. That’s because I’ve never had a boat with a fridge or a fan-driven heater or a watermaker or a microwave or a computer or an anchor winch or pressure water or a macerator or any other of the myriad accessories that suck so many amps from the battery bank.

Every cruising boat I’ve owned has had two normal-sized batteries that were charged by the auxiliary diesel engine and its standard alternator alone. And during ocean crossings, that meant running the engine for about 30 to 45 minutes every second day. I rarely switched on the running lights at night, not only to save electricity but because we always had a person on watch in the cockpit at all times and we preferred to change course ourselves to keep out of the way of ships and fishing boats, even if we had the right of way.

I have no quibble with the vast majority of cruisers who prefer to equip their boats with all kinds of comforts that call for electricity, but I, personally, feel much more at ease without complicated accessories that I can’t repair myself.

It’s a matter of common sense to use things like a self-steering wind vane, an oil lamp, and a hand or foot pump for your fresh water. Especially if your object is passagemaking and efficient sailing, rather than using a yacht as a deluxe mobile condo, you do not need all the comforts of a land-based home. Yachting literature is replete with tales of adventurous circumnavigators whose boats lacked electricity entirely.

There is something elemental about sailboats that favors simplicity in place of fussiness. Many of the legendary yacht designers were known for advocating simplicity and its working partner, economy. William Garden, for example, said:

“In building a small yacht the absence of mechanical items can cut costs substantially, working on the premise that the first rule of economy is deletion and the second rule is substitution.

“Substitution often can be accomplished by using a more primitive wooden component — perhaps one cobbled together at home — rather than a more sophisticated part that carries profits for manufacturing and distribution with tax on top.”

Most modern sailors do not come easily to simplicity. Like jackdaws, they are mesmerized by the glitter. Only later, when they’re cruising on the wilderness of the ocean, do they realize the price they pay for that glitter. If they’re lucky, that’s when simplicity sets in. If they’re not, that’s when they give up cruising and start kicking the tires of those hulking great RVs loaded “with everything” and checking their GPS sets for Wal-Mart parking lots to camp in.

Today’s Thought
Often ornateness goes with greatness;
Oftener felicity comes of simplicity.
— William Watson, Art Maxims

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #20
Choosing a boat. The basic rule of thumb for choosing a boat is that you must first decide what you want the boat for. If you aim is to entertain bikini girls on the sun deck while popping champagne corks alongside the yacht club jetty, you’ll be disappointed with a tubby, full-keeled, 32-foot sloop designed to be singlehanded across oceans. So choose a boat that honestly suits your needs and pleases you most of the time.

I asked her what her lips were for,
While lying by the hedge.
She said she guessed they kept her mouth
From fraying at the edge.

February 25, 2010

Lifesaving plankton

(The Mainly about Boats column — Monday, Wednesday, Friday.)

EVERY NOW AND THEN, mostly after a particularly acute attack of conscience, we try to think of something substantial to write that might possibly be of use to our sailboat-loving readers, rather than the pithy nonsense that all too often slithers across these pages. And mostly we fail.

But today we are pleased to be able to offer good solid advice on how to survive a shipwreck far out at sea — something, we fondly imagine, that must occupy a fairly large portion of our readers’ everyday thoughts. The situation we have in mind, one that obviously could occur to any one of us at any time, is that our sailboat has suddenly sunk and stranded us in an open rubber dinghy.

While we are out there, heaving gently in long threatening swells, it behooves us to recall the words of ocean scientist William Beebe. It was in 1927 that he declared: “Shipwrecked men in an open boat, if their lot is cast on waters rich in plankton, need never starve to death.” (In the interests of fending off vicious feminist attacks, we add rather hastily that we have reason to believe that this lucky happenstance applies equally to shipwrecked women as well, should they find themselves stranded in an open boat.)

Plankton is made up of minute forms of animal and plant life, a sort of soggy grey-green-brown sludge. You catch it by dragging a fine sieve behind the boat at night. Don’t try it during the day, because plankton don’t like the hot sun. They sink to avoid sunlight and even strong moonlight.
An old shirt will work quite well for a sieve, since you’re unlikely to have a fine-mesh net handy, and a towing speed of 2 knots or so is about right.

You wouldn’t believe it to look at it, but a large proportion of plankton consists of crabs and other crustaceans, so it makes a rich and nourishing food, even raw. You may recall that the Frenchman Dr. Alain Bombard proved Beebe’s theory in 1952, when he drifted across the Atlantic in a rubber life raft without food or water, existing on fish that he caught, and plankton.

There is one rather important caveat to bear in mind. If the plankton is red it may have an unfortunate side-effect known as death. So don’t mess with the red tide. Otherwise, slurp away sans peur. You’re fine to go.

Today’s Thought
Fish should smell like the tide. Once they smell like fish, it’s too late. --Oscar Gizelt

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #19
Boarding ladder. The old rules of etiquette required that important visitors be brought aboard on the starboard side of your boat. You will already be familiar, naturally, with the fact that provisions, fuel, and crew come aboard over the port side.

Does your dog have fleas? Simply rub him with raw alcohol and let him roll in sand.
The fleas get drunk and kill each other throwing rocks.

February 23, 2010

Toyota Syndrome, Part II

(Remember Monday, Wednesday, Friday: new columns by John Vigor.)

WE’VE ALREADY DISCUSSED what to do about the Toyota Syndrome when it affects your sailboat engine. Yes we have. You really must learn to concentrate. When your engine accelerates out of control, you have to kill it with a carbon-dioxide extinguisher. You don’t remember that? Sheesh, I sometimes wonder why I waste my time here.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was that it’s now time to deal with the Toyota Syndrome Part II — faulty brakes. This is a problem to which sailboats are particularly prone.

Braking a sailboat under sail is accomplished by turning the boat dead into the wind. After a distance that no normal person can estimate in advance, the boat will stop. That is, it will stop very briefly before the bow blows off to leeward and she goes charging off again on a new tack. If, at that exact aforementioned moment when she comes to a standstill, there is someone standing on a dock within arm’s length, and if you can pass him or her your bow line, and if he or she has the sense to take a turn with it around a cleat, your attempt to stop the boat will have been successful. Unfortunately, this doesn’t often happen.

Old Wotsisname, who moors down the row from me, has been caught short too many times. That is, he has all too often luffed up into the wind too soon, so that his great concrete monstrosity stopped short of his goal. The bow blew off and mayhem reigned. So now he just comes in at full speed, rams the jetty, and knocks another chip out of his bow. “It’s easy to fill the holes with a bit of concrete,” he says.

He only does this because his old diesel engine usually won’t start when he needs it most. Almost all of the rest of us prefer to come in under power. It’s wimpish, but it’s safer because you can use the engine in reverse to brake the boat. Well … sometimes, anyway. I once rammed the dock mightily when the cable to my gearbox fell off and the gear was stuck in forward. I put her in astern gear and gave her full throttle to stop her, and she leaped forward even faster to smite the concrete at the head of my slip. Luckily (perhaps) my fiberglass dinghy was in the way, so we smote that instead, which was kinder for my boat but almost lethal for the dinghy, which leaks to this day.

Most sailboats will swerve one way or the other when you use the engine as a brake. With a right-hand prop, the stern will swing to port as soon as you put it in reverse gear. Thus, if you are trying to come alongside a dock to starboard, you’ll find the back half of the boat is suddenly too far away from dry land for anyone to leap ashore. I personally never rely on reverse gear any more. I rely on very slow speed and heavy doses of prayer.

There is one good way to stop a sail boat in the congested quarters of a marina, though, and that is to throw an anchor over the stern. You shouldn’t do it too far away from your slip, of course, otherwise you’ll run out of anchor line. And you shouldn’t do it too close, otherwise the anchor won’t have time to bury itself. Nevertheless, apart from the fact that it’s almost impossible to get the distance right, this is the best way to stop the boat — unless the sea bottom is foul with mooring chains and stuff, in which case you’ll never get the anchor back unless you hire a diver, which might not be worth it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Toyota owners think they have a brake problem, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Today’s Thought
To avoid all mistakes in the conduct of great enterprises is beyond man’s powers.
— Fabius Maximus

Boaters’ Rules of thumb #18
Blocks. If you’re using fiber rope, the diameter of the sheave in your block should be at least eight times the diameter of the rope. For wire rope you need a much larger sheave – at least 20 times the wire diameter, and preferably 40 times.

Was sick.
In his delirium
He mentioned Miriam,
Which was an error
For his wife was a terror
With the name
Of Jane.

February 21, 2010

Some exceptional books

(See this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

A LETTER FROM BOB, who sails a Sabre 28 on Lake Michigan, says:

Dear John,
As a past member of your Silent Fan Club (having been expunged from the roster by you last year) I feel empowered now to comment at will . . .

So, I was just reading the latest copy of Good Old Boat and pondering the article by Perry on Cruising Design and the nature of keels. It suddenly struck me that if I had to leave the house in an emergency and could only take two sailing books with me (in addition to other essential non-sailing items) which ones would I take? Now my modest sailing library is about 100 titles. Of them all, it just as suddenly occurred to me that if I had to dash to safety I would take Yacht Design According to Perry, and your book, Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere.

That left me wondering — what two you would take?

► Well, Bob, first off, I’m not sure that being kicked out of the Silent Fan Club entitles you to comment at will. I know about the First Amendment and all that, but the club has rules, you know. I shall have to consult the chairman on this and ask for a ruling.

Meanwhile, because I am such a just and principled person, and being fair of mind as well as fair of visage, I will tell you what popped into my mind when I read your final question.

I would grab Swallows and Amazons and Four Winds of Adventure.

This is straight off the top of my head, of course, my very first instinct, because there are literally hundreds of boating books out there, and scores of them are excellent enough to be grabbed in an emergency.

Swallows and Amazons was the first of a phenomenally successful series of children’s sailing books by Arthur Ransome, written in the 1930s. It has never been out of print since. Like all the really good classical kids’ books, it appeals to adults, too. I love it dearly and it brings me great joy every time I re-read it.

Four Winds of Adventure, by Marcel Bardiaux, is a wonderful book about one of the greatest voyages in the history of small-boat sailing. Bardiaux built his wooden 30-foot cutter, Les 4 Vents, in France, in a workshop some 20 yards from a railway bridge being blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945.

He spent eight years sailing singlehanded across five oceans and rounded Cape Horn the wrong way in mid-winter. His book is an extraordinary chronicle of hardships overcome by a man who should really be known as the Superman of the Sea.

I remember seeing Bardiaux and his boat as a teenager, but I never spoke to him. He was a very modest man, and to this day he’s almost unheard of in English-speaking countries. He wrote in French, of course, but luckily the book has been well translated.

Today’s Thought
Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.
— Cyril Connolly

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #17
Blistering. One in four sailboat hulls can be expected to blister in its lifetime. New boats are experiencing fewer problems with osmosis as our knowledge of blister prevention grows, but the basic rule is this: as soon as you notice blistering, seek expert advice. It will only get worse. Don’t panic, though. A slight case might need nothing more than sanding down and recoating. With better ways now available to fix the problem, we no longer regard blisters as a death sentence.

“Dad, a boy at school said I look just like you.”
“Great, what did you say?”
“Nothing — he was bigger than me.”

February 18, 2010

The Toyota Syndrome

(Stop by here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

WHILE TOYOTA RECALLS millions of cars to fix a problem with engines racing out of control, the makers of diesel engines for boats are purposefully keeping very mum and looking the other way.

You might be interested to know what’s going through their minds. It’s the fact that it’s possible for most of your engines to develop the Toyota Syndrome, too. And there’s little more frightening than a runaway diesel on a boat.

As is the case with Toyota cars, the problem is comparatively rare. Well, all right, extremely rare. But if it can happen at all, a good skipper like you ought to be aware of the possibility and what to do about it.

The first thing to understand is that a runaway diesel is running on oil, not diesel fuel, so you can wiggle the throttle and pull the stop button all you like and it won’t make any difference. The oil comes from an overfilled sump pan, or a seal that’s no longer doing its job, or oil somehow getting into the air intake.

Your first clue comes when the engine runs faster and faster until it is a bomb ready to explode. It roars and vibrates and tries to blow a piston through the cylinder head with the force of a landmine. None of the usual controls will stop it.

Now, before this happens to you, think about the three basic things a diesel engine needs to operate. It needs fuel. It needs air. And it needs compression, lots of compression. If you can deprive it of any one of these three things, it will cease to run.

Well, there’s not much you can do about the fuel since it’s stealing its own from the engine’s lubrication system, not the fuel tank. As for compression, some engines have little levers that release the compression in the cylinders, but if you release the compression at runaway speeds you’re likely to do serious damage to the engine, and possibly to yourself. Some engines have glow-plugs, and if you unscrew each glow plug you may be able to decompress the engine completely, but at the cost of the plugs being shot out at lightning speed with lethal force.

So we come down to air. Now some engine manufacturers, knowing full well the possibility that their engines might some day suffer the Toyota Syndrome, even before Toyota thought of it, provide metal plates, flaps, or sliding gates that can be moved to cover the air intake and starve the engine of the oxygen it needs to run. Most manufacturers do not.

Nevertheless, you can achieve the same result by blocking your engine’s air intake with a piece of plywood, or plastic, a big towel, or a small cat. (This is, after all, an extreme emergency.)

This could be much more difficult than it sounds. A roaring engine is a very frightening thing to be in close contact with. But there is an easier way to calm the roaring beast. What you need is a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher. Aim it at the air intake and keep firing until the runaway engine gasps and dies. Which it will, fairly rapidly.

So now all you have to do is: 1. Buy a carbon-dioxide extinguisher, and 2. Find out where to squirt it. It’s probable that your air intake, like mine, is on the aft end of the engine hidden from view, squeezed under the cockpit, and almost inaccessible to a normal-sized human being, certainly one paralyzed with fear.

So get out the manual or make the calls, and be sure you know where your engine sucks in air. Then you can sigh with relief as the Toyota Syndrome becomes just one more item you can scratch off your list of possible boating disasters. Now you have the time to worry about the rest.

Today’s Thought
The misfortunes hardest to bear are those which never come.
— J. R. Lowell, Democracy: Address

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #16
Bilge pumps. No matter how many electrical or mechanical bilge pumps are installed, you still need at least two manual pumps. One must be accessible from the helm and both must be fitted with easily reached strum boxes perforated with small holes.

The treasurer of the British Royal Academy at one time was a very polite architect named Sir Edward Maufe.

One evening he arrived late for a dinner. He quietly took his vacant seat, turned to his neighbor, and introduced himself, saying “I’m Maufe.”

The neighbor was astonished. “But you’ve only just arrived,” he said.

February 16, 2010

An underwhelming Cup

(Stop by here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

THE AMERICA’S CUP MATCH between Switzerland and America has come and gone with hardly anybody noticing. Nobody should be surprised. It wasn’t really between Switzerland and America. It was a grudge match between two grumpy men with too much money on their hands, billionaires Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli.

Their boats weren’t crewed by Americans and Swiss respectively. Like pirate ships of yore, they were crewed by mercenaries of sundry nationalities who were attracted by treasure chests of loot rather than national pride.

The 2010 series will be remembered not so much as a test of sailing skill or all-round seamanship as a showcase for highly advanced design and technology in two sailing vehicles with little in common except their unseaworthiness and their huge irrelevance.

Nevertheless, what the big boys do with their money is their own business. Ellison, the challenger, must be grinning like a Cheshire cat now, not only because he won both races by embarrassingly large margins but also because he now controls future Cup races. And that, handled correctly, means more fame and fortune. He has said the next Cup series will be sailed in the U.S.A. but no decision has been taken yet on what kind of boats will be raced.

Irrelevant or not, I couldn’t help watching the Internet reruns of both races. The spectacle of a space-age trimaran sizzling along on one ama at 33 knots in 8 knots of breeze, with the helmsman isolated in a pod 40 feet above the water, is quite one to behold.

It’s nothing like the racing I used to know, although I must admit we had our cut-throat moments. After coming consistently last in a series of dinghy races, I bought new sails that made the boat much faster. But to fool the opposition I plastered Band-Aids all over the new mainsail to make it look old and blown-out. They couldn’t believe their eyes when I unexpectedly flew past them on the beat and they just went to bits thereafter. It’s surprising how great a part psychology plays in sailboat racing.

The great pity about the late lamented America’s Cup is that it featured nothing most of us can relate to in our own sailing experience. It was far removed from the kind of sailing familiar to amateur sailors and their landlubber friends.

We can only hope that in the next series Ellison will widen the public appeal by racing in boats closer in nature to those owned by Joe the Plumber than those only Wall Street CEOs can afford. I wouldn’t be too hopeful, though. I suspect he’s too attached to that fancy, high-tech, 220-foot-high, wing sail to go back to ordinary soft sails.

Today’s Thought
If millionaires and corporations want to spend their money trying to drown one another — the movers and shakers are still millionaires and corporations at that level, and the rest of them are glorified galley slaves — then who am I to try to stop them?
— Ira Berkow, NY Times, 10 Feb 87

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #15
Binoculars. Every boat should carry two pairs of binoculars, a good pair of 7 x 50 night glasses for the skipper’s use only, and any cheap pair for visitors who keep changing the damn focus and won’t use the strap.

“How was the movie?”
“Terrible. I had to change my seat four times.”
“Some man bothering you?”
“Yeah — finally.”

February 14, 2010

St. Anon of B’ham

(Drop anchor here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

A LETTER FROM Ivor Tungin-Cheaque, Chairman of John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, says:

Honorable Sir,
A dilemma of considerable proportions has raised itself in regard to membership of your Silent Fan Club. As you well know, members are forbidden to contact you or praise in any way your unmatched wisdom and unrivalled literary skills. Because membership is automatic until a member is expelled, you have the biggest fan club the world has ever known.

It distresses me, however, to have to inform you that the Pope, a loyal fan who has rigidly complied with the rule never to contact you, is considering putting your name forward for sainthood.

Normally, this would be a reward befitting of your magnificent talents, but in so doing he would have to divulge his identity and lavish praise on you – which, by the rules, would result in the expulsion from your Silent Fan Club of His Holiness and more than one billion members of the Catholic Church, or one-sixth of your total fan base. This is a loss not to be contemplated.

A Papal Emissary with whom I was recently in contact forcefully informed me that that the Pope would rather become an Episcopalian than lose his membership in your club. We therefore discussed the possibility of your being made a saint without revealing who you are. We will now ask the Pope if he would consider issuing a Papal Bull (with metal seal) that would begin the long process of creating St. Anon of Bellingham, WA.

I shall, of course, keep you informed of developments.

I close with admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit and charm, the subtle thrust and parry of your sparkling repartee, and the wisdom, Solomon-like, that graces your princely brow.

Yours Humbly and Obediently,

IVOR TUNGIN-CHEAQUE (Chairman, John Vigor’s Silent Fan Club)

PS: Please excuse the writing. They do the strait-jacket up really tight sometimes.

Today’s Thought
Fame always brings loneliness. Success is as ice cold and lonely as the north pole.
— Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #14
Sleeping berths. The minimum length for a sleeping berth is 6 feet 4 inches. The width should not be less than 20 inches. It cannot be too wide for sleeping comfort in harbor, but at sea a narrow bunk stops you rolling around too much. The mattress for a double berth should be split down the middle, with a lee-cloth brought up through the middle for use at sea.

Just as the cruise ship was approaching Athens a woman passenger buttonholed the captain. “What’s that white stuff on those hills in the distance?” she asked.
“It’s snow madam.”
“Yeah, I thought so, but that darn fool of a First Officer told me it was grease.”

February 11, 2010

Boats, not shoes

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

ON TELEVISION the other night I saw a man begging for shoes. Not for himself, but for the suffering victims of the Haiti earthquake. He had already collected thousands of shoes of all sizes, but he needed more, he said, because only one in every 10 Haitians owns a pair of shoes.

Regrettably, as is usual with the modern media, nobody challenged him. Nobody asked him for the source of his information. I, for one, would like to know where he got that figure from because I seriously doubt it.

But that’s not the main point. I’m sure this man was very well intentioned and acting out of the goodness of his heart, but frankly, shoes are not the things that Haitians need most right now.

I grew up in Africa and, like kids of all colors, I didn’t wear shoes all of the time. Not because my parents couldn’t afford them but because I didn’t need them. The weather was warm and our feet quickly toughened up. It felt nice to splash through the rain barefooted and let the red mud squish up between your toes.

When Shaka was the legendary king of the Zulus, not one of his warriors wore shoes. Shaka trained them to run barefooted over thorns to toughen them up for their many wars against other African tribes. To this day, Zulu kids and white kids run round South Africa all day without shoes. And so it is in Haiti, I bet.

You can probably think of a dozen things that dispossessed Haitians need more than shoes, but I have a suggestion someone might consider.

Instead of shoes, or the money for shoes, why not send them a sailboat? Or money for a boat. I’m thinking of a fishing boat that could help feed them, one that would still be feeding them long after their shoes wore out, one that could land on a beach and easily be hauled out.

I suggest a sailboat, and probably a wooden one, not only because it’s simple, but because they don’t need fuel or fancy spares for an engine, and they can repair wood themselves with simple hand tools.

We’d need to send over a designer, and possibly a practical fisherman, to assess the situation and decide what type of boat to build. Perhaps something like the Arab dhows so prevalent in East Africa.

I can’t help feeling that aid should be practical, that it should be something the Haitians actually need, not just something that will make Americans feel good.

Today’s Thought
To treat a poor wretch with a bottle of Burgundy and fill his snuff box, is like giving a pair of laced ruffles to a man that has never a shirt on his back.
— Goldsmith, The Haunch of Venison

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #13
Bad weather. The average rate of advance of a depression is 17 miles an hour. Two to three days is a common time taken to pass over one spot. Secondary depressions might pass in 24 hours.

A cute blond entered the animal rescue center. She said to the handsome young man behind the counter, “I want a pet.”
“Me, too,” said the man, “but the boss is awfully strict. Why don’t you come back after work?”

February 9, 2010

Wood is good

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor)

IT ALWAYS INTERESTS ME to see how much interest there is in building and sailing wooden boats. After all, our modern age calls for boats to be mass produced from liquid resins and strands of glass. Fiberglass, carbon fiber, and exotic composites are now the materials of choice, along with fancy alloys of aluminum, and sometimes steel, of course.

But good old-fashioned wood is still one of the best boatbuilding materials. In fact it is THE best for one-of-a-kind boats. It is stronger, pound for pound, than fiberglass, aluminum, and even steel. It accepts fasteners well. It’s plentiful. It’s easily repaired with simple, hand-held tools. And, fittingly, it floats.

On top of all that, there’s something about wood that touches the human soul, something warm and welcoming — something completely lacking in plastic or metal.

When I was a teenager I helped a friend called Ray Cruickshank build a beautiful little wooden Harrison-Butler design called Thuella, a 24-foot double ender. The planks were fastened to the ribs with copper clinch nails. Ray worked on the inside with a roove iron and I worked on the outside, holding a heavy iron dolly against the nail head while he clenched the rooves with a ball-peen hammer.

When she was finished we took her out to sea for a trial run. I was the navigator, because Ray knew nothing about it. I didn’t know anything about it either, but Ray didn’t know that until we got completely lost. It took us three days to find our way back to port.

Some years later, another friend, Dave Cox, built a wooden 33-footer in his back garden. She was strip planked, with every plank made concave on one side and convex on the other. They were laid tight against each other on a bed of glue, and then nails were hammered right through the plank, through the plank below, and into the third plank. She was strong and light, tight as a drum, and we sailed her 33 days across the South Atlantic from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. Once again, I was the navigator, but I had learned to handle a sextant by then, and we found Rio and its exciting beaches with no problem.

A few years before that, another friend and I crossed the English Channel in a 17-foot centerboard sailboat called Salty Dog. She was clinker-built of wood and we cruised the canals of France, Belgium, and Holland in her for three months.

When we returned to England, I became the paid mate of a 72-foot wooden ketch called Thelma, but eventually I settled down to a more normal lifestyle (permanent job, wife, kids, cats, garden, and mortgage). I bought a lovely cedar sliding-seat canoe, and after that a plywood 14-foot racing dinghy, and after that I built a series of four 11-foot Mirror-class plywood dinghies, hoping each new one would go faster than the last one. It didn’t, but I enjoyed building them anyway. I still have access to a wooden Mirror, but my big boat, my 27-footer, is plastic now, of course.

If I were rich, she would be wood. I really miss wood. But there’s a problem when your taste tends toward champagne and your budget stipulates beer. In that case, plastic trumps wood, I’m sorry to say.

Today’s Thought
I don't like things that can be reproduced. Wood isn't important in itself but rather in the fact that objects made in it are unique, simple, unpretentious.George Baselitz

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #12
Barometer. In middle latitudes, a high barometer reads about 30.50 inches (1033 millibars. A low barometer reads 29.50 inches (999 millibars). The average reading at sea level is 29.9 inches (1013 millibars).

“Good news, honey. We don’t have to move to a more expensive apartment any longer.”
“Why not?”
“The landlord has raised the rent on this one.”

February 7, 2010

The vox of the pop

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

MOST OF THE NATION seems to have divided itself quite happily into two social and political groups: elitists and populists. While that might be fine for them, it’s a bit puzzling for those of us who own small boats. I look around at my boating friends and wonder, which is she? Or: Does he look like an elitist?

I’m sure they’re looking at me, and at each other, and wondering, too. In short, we boating folk are a little adrift because in our confusing, watery world the distinction between the aristocracy and the hoi polloi is not as readily discernible as it is on land.

But they don’t call me the Mother Theresa of the Heaving Seas for nothing. Luckily I am here to give my all to those less fortunate than I am at being smart. I am here to help my fellow boaters sort themselves out into their respective groups, so they’ll know when to hiss and when to kiss.

Here is your guide:
Populists buy Bayliners and MacGregors. They wear gold braid on navy-blue caps and call themselves Captain. They like large noisy raft-ups and fancy marinas with 50-amp power and room service. They refer to their boats as “yachts” and have enormous tenders with two 150-hp outboards and a wet bar. Their women are young, blonde, curvaceous, vacuous, and scantily clad. They read Tristan Jones and believe every word.

Elitists buy Hinckleys and Pacific Seacraft. Some own old-fashioned wooden boats with bowsprits and fading pictures down below of President Kennedy out sailing with Jackie. They secretly scorn Bayliners and MacGregors but are too polite to say so. They wear floppy little sun hats spattered with anti-fouling paint and drink Dark ’n Stormies in the cockpit at sundown. They own tiny inflatable dinghies with 2-hp four-stroke engines, and their women are strong, practical, good-looking and mostly smart enough to stay at home.

And now, having helped you sort yourselves out, and having done my good work for the day, I will modestly fade into the sunset just as Mother Theresa would have done, and wish you good luck with all your hissing and kissing.

Today’s Thought
I don't believe in elitism. I don't think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience.
-- Quentin Tarantino

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #11
Sailing boat ballast, ratio to displacement weight:
Cruising boats, from 30 to 40 percent of total displacement.
Racing boats, from 40 to 50 percent of displacement.
Extreme racers, as high as 70 percent of displacement.

“Hello, 911? A man is trying to break into my bedroom.”
“Stay calm, madam, the police will be with you shortly.”
“No, no, not the police. Send the fire brigade. I’m on the third floor and he needs a ladder.”

February 4, 2010

Goodbye Everest

I’M SORRY TO HAVE TO USE a limp and fatigued cliché, but rounding Cape Horn used to be the Mount Everest of sailing. No longer, I’m afraid. Kids of 16 are doing it now. Kids on their own. Girl kids, for Pete’s sake.

I guess most of us who have sailed for any amount of time have fantasized about sailing around Cape Horn. We’ve seen ourselves all grim and bucko, with our ice-frosted beards and squinched-up steely eyes, straining at the helm as we surf down the faces of monster waves in a 50-knot gale while the gray outline of Cape Horn slides by in the murk. And once around the Horn, we could look forward to basking in the admiration of fellow sailors. We'd won the right to wear a gold ring in our ear, and we were accorded the singular privilege of peeing to windward.

Oh, how we are undone. I have just watched the sweet little video that 16-year-old Jessica Watson took of herself as she rounded Cape Horn. She’s down below looking out of a port, happy and snug in 40-knot winds as the boat steers itself, and palpably excited. “Wow!” she says with an impish grin, “Cape Horn!” Wow indeed.

Jessica, an Australian, is now halfway through her quest to be the youngest person to sail around the world alone and non-stop. She’s between South America and the toe of Africa, on her way back to Sydney, Australia, where she started about three months ago.

And behind her there’s another 16-year-old girl, also aiming for Cape Horn and the same title, an American called Abby Sunderland. Like Jessica, Abby had trouble right at the start of her voyage from California, and has had to pull in to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico. But I expect she’ll be hightailing it south for the Horn in a couple of days.

And who knows who might be next? How young can you be and still shatter the dreams and illusions of us oldtimers?

When I think of the tales of hardship, derring-do, and heroics concerning Cape Horn — including that iconic 1929 film by Irving Johnson of the barque Peking’s wild ride in ferocious seas — I am simply amazed at how easy the kids make it seem. Hell, it took the Pardeys nearly all their cruising lives to get up the nerve to round the Horn. It took the Smeetons, one of the savviest and most experienced cruising couples, three tries and two capsizes to get around the Horn. Slocum didn’t even try. He ducked through the Magellan Strait.

So what’s changed, the kids or the boats? I can’t believe the sea has changed but something has definitely happened. A myth has been shattered. The Horn is no longer the Mount Everest of sailing. But then, of course, climbing Mount Everest is no longer the Everest of climbing, either. Nothing makes sense any more.

► Jessica Watson — http://youngestround.blogspot.com/
► Abby Sunderland — http://soloround.blogspot.com/

Today’s Thought
Sooner or later … you are going to be looking at God saying, “We’re going to be lucky if we get out of here.” Your life is going to be in front of you and then you are going to realize that you’d rather be grocery shopping.
— Ed Barry, rock climber

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #10
Estimating angles. Hold one hand up at full arm’s length.
► 20 degrees: Full handspan thumb tip to little finher.
► 15 degrees: Closed fist with extended thumb.
► 10 degrees: Closed fist.
► 3 degrees: Thumb’s width.
► 2 degrees: Little finger’s width.

An amoeba called George and his brother
Were sharing a joke with each other.
They laughed till they cried
And both split a side;
Now each of the boys is a mother.

February 2, 2010

Whiffling and fossicking

I WAS WHIFFLING though a dictionary the other day when I happened upon . . .

“Hold it!” I hear someone cry. “What’s whiffling?”

Deep sigh. Don’t they teach English in school any more? Whiffling is like fossicking, only gentler and less agitated. Fossicking is what fairies do when they’re busily searching for fairy dust under toadstools and fallen leaves. But whiffling is calmly flicking through the pages of a book with one thumb. Gottit? OK, good.

Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, as I whiffled through the dictionary I happened upon the word reredorter. Almost pure Latin, of course. It means “behind the dormitory” in a convent or monastery.

In other words, it’s yet another word for a toilet. I was intrigued because I also have a toilet that’s behind the dormitory, but I don’t call it a reredorter. It’s on my boat, and I call it a head. And that got me to thinking about the dozens of words the English language has spawned in place of the simple word toilet — including, I regret, the word john.

In my corner of the Pacific Northwest, when we see someone with his legs crossed and a desperate look on his face, we send him to nearest restroom. Across the border in Canada, they call it the washroom. In England, a gent would approach you with appropriate diffidence and whisper: “I say, old chap, could you possibly direct me to the — er — facilities?”

In Australia and New Zealand they call an outhouse a dunny, which explains their description of a willing girl-friend: “She bangs like a dunny door, mate.”

In South Africa, a man asks where he can point Percy at the porcelain; or sometimes he’ll enquire where he can shake hands with his best friend. Sailors, naturally, want to know where they can pump their bilges.

Behind all these sayings is a virtual lexicon of substitutes for the word toilet, including loo, lavatory (in Britain, the lavatory is the toilet, not the wash basin), Gents’, Ladies’, convenience, comfort station, powder room, pottie, privy, and w.c. (water closet).

The Welsh lower classes seem to regard any reference to the toilet as indelicate. I once was staying in a grand manor in northern Wales when I came across a maid in a passage that led only to the loo.

“Oh, hello Blodwen,” I said, “and where might you be going?”
She replied: “Oh, sir, ’tis been that I have where I was goin’ — ’tis coming back that I am now.”

You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned the French yet. And we’re not going to. Depraved is the word that comes to mind — right after the word pissoir. How a Frenchman can stand on a busy city sidewalk and tilt his hat to passing ladies while he pees into a urinal I don’t know. And don’t want to. If he had any decency at all he'd use the reredorter.

Today’s Thought
It is unthinkable for a Frenchman to arrive at middle age without having syphilis and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
— André Gide

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #9
Your kedge anchor should be about two-thirds of the weight of the bower. (Kedge — Used for hauling a vessel off when she has gone aground; and to prevent her from fouling her bower. Bower — by ancient tradition, a ship’s principal anchor.)

“You there, Bill?”
“Don’t feel no pain or nothin’?”
“Great. Then I guess I just shot a bear.”