June 10, 2010

Motors be damned

(NOW HEAR THIS: They’re letting John Vigor out of his cage for three whole weeks. This is his last column until Monday July 5. Meanwhile, this is your chance to browse through 259 past columns listed over there on the right. Good stuff, believe me. Ration yourself to 10 a day.)

I OFTEN THINK of the late Hal Roth as a kindred spirit. Like me, he was always content to dawdle along at a couple of knots if the wind went light. He wasn’t one to start the engine when his speed dropped below 5 knots, as so many sailors do today. When he was sailing around the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean in the wake of Ulysses, he once took 6 hours to cover 15 miles in Greece — an average of 2 1/2 knots.

Like him, I grew up in an era when sailors actually sailed. The grumpy old salts I learned from frowned upon anybody who switched on an auxiliary engine just because there was no wind. I was actually quite shocked when an American yacht came past me once on a passage around the bottom of Africa. He was actually motor-sailing, and he didn’t look at all guilty about it. We were making a knot-and-a-half and he was making six. Such bad taste, I thought.

On another occasion I was sailing from the British Virgin Islands to Fort Lauderdale when two American sailboats, Pendragon and Escudo, came motoring past our 30-footer in mid-ocean. They were talking about us on VHF. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t motoring in the very light air. There was a lot of discussion about how much ice their freezers were making, with their engines running all the time.

When the wind hauled aft we were able to raise our twin running jibs. “Well, whaddya know?” said the radio. “The guy’s got his spinnaker up at last.”

“Yeah, slow thinker,” came the reply.

We thought they were very rude. I contemplated hitting back at them on the VHF with some powerful invective or some scornful, withering sarcasm, but in the end we held our tongues and slid over the calm waters leading to the Bahamas in stately silence, as all decent sailors should. Motors be damned.

Today’s Thought
One of the greatest sounds of them all—and to me it is a sound—is utter, complete silence.
— AndrĂ© Kostelanetz

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #63
Electrical wiring. In general, electrical wiring for boats should be tinned and should have at least 20 strands in each wire to absorb flexing and vibration. The insulation should contain no paper or fabric.

“What’s Monica’s last name?”
“Monica who?”

June 8, 2010

Keep turning left

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new column.)

PERHAPS I HAVE BEEN slower than most to realize how far the long arm of the Internet reaches. I have always felt I’m writing for an intimate group of friends. And when I say intimate, I don’t mean nudge-nudge, wink-wink intimate. I mean physically close. In my newspaper days I used to have a readership of a quarter million daily, but it was a big city and they were almost all within a 30-minute drive.

How times have changed. Now I have about 30 readers and they’re a quarter million miles away. Well, spread over thousands of miles, anyway.

In the last few days I have been truly astonished to receive messages from readers in Australia and England. Astonished, because I thought I was safe just writing for my intimate group of friends — not dreaming there was a commodore in Australia who read what I wrote about him and felt compelled to reply.

You can’t get away with anything these days. In the old days, if I wrote something wittily spiteful about a bloke in Australia it would take years for the news to reach him on the packet boat, if it ever got there at all, and the passage of time would render everything irrelevant. That is, I wouldn’t have to apologize.

And it’s not only Australia. I’ve just received a message from England. It’s from Dylan Winter. Yes, THE Dylan Winter, the one you can see any day on YouTube, sailing around Britain on a shallow-draft 19-footer called The Slug, and producing the most fascinating video documentaries about places where other more conventional boats cannot, or will not, go.

He says his Van de Stadt-designed Mirror Offshore is easily the ugliest boat he has ever owned – “but the view from the cockpit is as good as from a boat costing ten times as much.” Good point.

Dylan started off as an agricultural engineer, then worked for Farmers Weekly magazine and the BBC, on radio and television, before risking everything to go freelance and become a professional documentary maker and author.

Besides its lack of looks, The Slug isn’t the fastest boat afloat, either. But that suits Dylan’s philosophy. He believes the human brain is wired to travel at three miles an hour, a speed at which it can absorb enough of the passing world to understand and appreciate it.

If you’re not yet hooked on his delightful series, try this free sample:
Or visit his website at http://www.keepturningleft.co.uk/

Today’s Thought
There nis no workman, what-so-ever he be,
That may both worken well and hastily.
— Chaucer, The Marchantes Tale

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #62
Electrical bonding. Should you bond all the metal parts of the hull and superstructure to a common ground? Or should you leave each component to its own devices? The rule of thumb is: all or nothing. The aim of bonding is to connect everything to even out different electrical potentials that could create stray currents and cause corrosion. But it’s a complicated and controversial subject, with little agreement even among experts, so I guess the real answer is to live with what you’ve got, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

Income tax is the fine you pay for reckless thriving.

June 6, 2010

Neither fowl nor fish

A FRIEND OF MINE is writing a science fiction novel. In the opening chapter, aliens in a low-flying spacecraft spot a yacht at sea.

“What is it?” asks 1!@#.
“I don’t know,” says 2$%^. “But it has life. It flies. It swims.”
“It is a bird – it has wings in the air.”
“But it does not fly. It must be a fish — it has fins in the water.”
“But it does not dive,” 1!@# points out.
“Look, it has two large parasites. They have four limbs each. One is in its stomach, devouring something,” says 2$%^. “Another is outside and torturing it by pulling hard on its wings with strong winches. Now he twists its back fin with a large wheel.”
“Don’t get too close,” warns 1!@#. “Those parasites look dangerous to me.”
“Me, too,” says 2$%^. “We’re outta here.”

This is as far as my friend has got with his novel. It’s quite a promising start, I think, though I find those alien names a little difficult to pronounce. I shall be interested to see how he develops his theme. I think he’s going to blame yachtsmen for Earthlings’ lack of contact with aliens, but I’m not sure. Like most writers, he doesn’t care to talk about where he’s going with this book, mostly because he doesn’t know yet.

He was actually going to write a factual book called In the Wake of Ulysses but he was a little slow. He woke up too late, and that great sailor Hal Roth beat him to it with We Followed Odysseus. So he decided to write fiction instead, reckoning that nobody could beat him to that.

And that’s where things stand at the moment. He’s stuck. He’s doing what writers always do, staring at the computer screen and waiting for inspiration. I wish him lots of luck. Been there, done that. Do that regularly, in fact. It’s hell, but somebody has to do it..

Today’s Thought
Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, between it and true art.
— Truman Capote

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #61
Echo pilotage. Next time you’re feeling your way into port in dense fog, trying making a sharp, loud noise. A blank pistol shot is good, but a bell or a horn will also work. Note the time in seconds from the original signal to the return echo from a cliff, wharf, or moored freighter. Every second’s delay indicates a distance off of 1 cable or 200 yards. Every 10 seconds' delay means you’re a mile away. The rule of thumb at work here is that sound travels about one mile in 5 seconds.

“I hear your new car was recalled by the dealer.”
“Yeah, there was a defect in my bank account.”

June 3, 2010

A difficult course

A LETTER to the Editor of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) says:

I understand that a good way to get your loot out of the country is by sailboat. Somebody else’s sailboat, that is.

For the past year I’ve been reading all the sailing books they’ll let me have in here. So now I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to sail a boat. You just pull on the ropes that haul the sails up, and then you pull on the ropes that go to the end of the sails.

But for the life of me I can’t see how a boat sails against the wind. Can someone fill me in?

Lowly Wyrm, Block E, Cell 1505.

Well Lowly, the editor passed your letter on to me, and all I can say is that you’re not alone. A lot of people don’t know how a boat sails against the wind. But the nice thing is that it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that it works.

Next time you’re speeding away from a heist in your getaway car, stick your arm out of the window. Tilt your hand up and feel how it wants to rise. Tilt your hand down and see how it wants to dive.

Well, that really has nothing to do with how a sail works, but it sure feels funny, doesn’t it?

Actually, I subscribe to the theory of capillary attraction. That’s when water creeps slowly into tiny little spaces for two reasons: (a) just because it can, and (b) to see what’s there.

Now, air does the same thing. It squeezes into the thin space between the jib and the mainsail. Nobody knows why air does this. They don’t know why water does it, either, for that matter. But it does. And as a result it creates suction on the backside — let me rephrase that — on the rear side of the sails. It creates suction because nature abhors a vacuum. (My cat does, too, incidentally. She flees the room every time.)

Anyway, what with the suction and the vacuum and the wind blowing in your face and hair it’s a really healthy lifestyle, Lowly, especially if you head south into the warmer water, and I hope you’ll be very happy with your new sailing life.

PS: Sooner or later you will hear that gentlemen never sail to windward. Ignore it. This doesn’t apply to you.

Today’s Thought
Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #60
Ear infections. Before you go swimming in tropical waters, put two drops of baby oil in each ear to coat the sensitive skin of the eardrum. This helps prevent ear infections, one of the most common complaints among children living on cruising boats and adults who do a lot of skindiving.

The interesting thing about education is that it replaces cocksure ignorance with thoughtful uncertainty.

June 1, 2010

It’s choice, not luck

A CONTRIBUTOR to the Cape Dory bulletin board was asking for help recently. He wanted to know if other people would sail away into the sunset if, like him, they were offered a retirement lump sum of $525,000, plus an extra distribution of about $28,000 a year for four years.

Those figures just blew my mind. When I think of the pittances some of the great circumnavigators started out with, I just have to laugh. And yet, as the thread developed on the bulletin board, other people warned him to go into it very carefully. Some people obviously believe you simply cannot have too much money if you want to go cruising permanently.

This thread reminded me of a middle-aged Englishman I met a couple of years back on a voyage to St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic aboard a Royal Mail steamer. He somehow found out that June and I had once left behind everything we owned and loved and sailed across the oceans on a 30-footer.

"You were very lucky," he said. "I wish I could have done that."

We laughed. "Luck had nothing to do with it," I said. "It was a choice."

He was offended. "I had no choice," he insisted. "It was expected of me to marry, have children, buy a house, and hold down a responsible job."

"You chose to do what other people expected of you," we pointed out. "You could have chosen instead to sail across an ocean." He got red in the face and very cross. "You don't understand," he said, "the social pressures left me no choice." He didn't speak to us again for the rest of the trip. I'm sure he thought we were very gauche and rude. But maybe he will see the light one day if he improves his ability to think.

We made the choice and we suffered financially, as we have done ever since. And at first we were afraid. Especially me. Very afraid. But the experience enriched our lives beyond all measure. It gave us great confidence in our ability to survive, not only in our dealings with Nature at sea, but also in our dealings with fellow humans on land, no matter what rough waters they might lead us into.

I understand that some people have commitments on land that they feel compelled to fulfill, and I respect their choice. But that's what it is: a choice. Don't let's pretend it's impossible to sail off into the sunset because of social pressure, or an insufficiency of money.

And when other people actually do it, don’t let’s pretend it’s luck. It’s not luck, it’s a choice. It does take guts as well, of course—you need the guts to make the choice.


Today’s Thought
Happiness in the older years of life, like happiness in every year of life, is a matter of choice—your choice for yourself.
— Harold Azine, The House in Webster Groves

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #59
Dock lines. The diameter in the eye splice in a dock line should be at least three times the diameter of the piling or bollard it fits over—preferably four or five times. You might think this very trivial, but in fact the reason for this ancient rule is that a long eye splice lasts longer and is safer than a short one because a short one tends to pull apart at the throat when tension is applied.

Overheard in the ladies’ restroom:
“Would you believe it! A man actually had the nerve to try and pick me up in the middle of the mall yesterday. Boy, oh boy, you should see his luxury apartment.”