October 31, 2010

Trusting your crew

A FRIEND OF A FRIEND is dreaming of crossing the Pacific under sail. He normally holds down a highly technical and well-paid job, but he’s out of work right now and not likely to be hired again until the economy improves.

However, he is a frugal man and has husbanded his resources. So now he’s thinking that this might not a bad time to turn his dream into reality.

His loyal wife, who crews for him on their 32-foot cruising sloop, is happy to go along with him, but he is worried about his two daughters, aged 16 and 14.

“If they were boys I wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation,” he says, “but I’m not sure girls will be able to handle the hardships.”

Well, I don’t know these daughters of his, of course, but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit old-fashioned to regard girls as lacking in the ability to handle crew duties aboard yachts. What they might lack in brute strength they surely make up for in ingenuity. You only have to be able to read to know that girls of 15 and 16 are sailing bigger yachts than his around the world on their own these days.

Besides, boys don’t always make ideal crews anyway. The last time I crossed an ocean with a son, who was then 17 years old, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about him.

As we were the only two watchkeepers, he had specific orders to call me if he spotted another vessel at night. He had specific orders to call me if he thought a sail change was necessary. He had specific orders to wear a harness and tether when he was alone in the cockpit at night.

But he was 17. He was becoming a man. He couldn’t help himself. Nature was pumping testosterone through his tissues. He didn’t obey any of those orders. Although he was color blind, he guided us through a fleet of fishing boats one dark night way out in the South Atlantic while my wife and I slept below. I nearly had a fit when I found out.

And when we were running fast in the southeast trades I was woken up one night by the thud of footsteps running forward along the cabintop. My untethered son was jibing the foresail singlehanded, shifting the pole from one side to the other. I lay awake, staring into the darkness, listening to the noises, waiting for the thuds that would indicate he was returning to the safety of the cockpit. But they never came. Had he gone overboard? I reasoned — I hoped — that he had returned along the side deck. I wanted to get up and peek out of the companionway hatch, but I didn’t want him to know that I had caught him in an act of disobedience because that would have forced me to impose disciplinary punishment or else lose my power of authority over him, such as it was. So I lay there fretting for another half hour until it was time to go on watch and I could decently make an appearance. And there he was, sitting in the cockpit, neatly buckled up and looking the picture of innocence in the moonlight. I could have bitten him. But I didn’t ask him why the jib pole was suddenly on the other side.

I don’t think a girl would have disobeyed her father/skipper like that. Girls don’t have the same impulse to prove they’re macho.

Or do they? Maybe now I’m the one who’s acting old-fashioned. Well, if I am, I can’t help it. Old-fashioned is what I am. Like it or lump it. But my advice to the friend of a friend is simple: Go for it. Invest some trust in those daughters of yours. I’m sure it will be amply repaid.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #114
Size of keel bolts. If your keel is held in place by bronze bolts, those bolts should have a cross-sectional area of not less than 1 square inch in total for every 1,500 pounds of outside ballast. This is valid for bolt material with a tensile strength of at least 60,000 pounds per square inch. Bolts made of stronger metal such as Monel or stainless steel can be correspondingly smaller.

Did you hear about the short-sighted moth who blundered into a 2-year-old’s birthday party? He burned his end at both candles.

October 28, 2010

Message from the foredeck

SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS is a wonderful thing. We now have small radio headsets that send and receive voice messages over short distances, presumably to save people the trouble of raising their voices.

I first became aware of them in a quiet anchorage on the west side of Vancouver Island a few years back. They were on the heads of an elderly couple who were preparing to raise the anchor of their chunky 35-foot, full-keel sloop. He was on the foredeck managing the ground tackle, a balding man in blue jeans. She was in the cockpit, behind the wheel, managing the engine controls, a large lady in pink shorts.

I don’t know why they needed headsets. I could hear every word.

“Come to port, Martha,” he said.


“Port, Martha, port. Left, dammit. Ring finger, Martha, ring finger.”

“Okay. Don’t shout.”

“I’m NOT shouting . . . MARTHA! You’re going RIGHT. Come LEFT.”

“I AM coming left.”

“MARTHA, for chrissake face FORWARD when you want to come left. Left, dammit, quickly, LEFT!”

To avoid that kind of debacle, my wife and I worked out a simple system of hand signals for anchor raising. For example, when I wanted her to turn to port, I simply held out my port hand. It worked fine for us but it occurred to me recently that we always overlook one of the most ancient and effective methods of conveying messages on board ship, one that cuts through raging storms, engine din, and even cannons blasting. I’m talking about the bosun’s pipe.

Furnished with a pipe up there on the foredeck, old baldy could have whistled up a storm of explicit instructions. In the old days, the bosun and his mates used to issue about 50 different commands from this shrill whistle with its two basic notes and its three distinctive tones (straight whistle, warble, and trill).

For the man on the foredeck, the advantages are many; perhaps the greatest of which is that the person in the cockpit can’t answer back. Then, also, there’s the fact that nobody else in the anchorage will understand what you’re talking about. As long as the person at the wheel knows that phweet-phwip-phwip means “You’re a congenital idiot,” that’s all that matters.

And, of course, a pipe needs no batteries. You don’t have to memorize an instruction manual. It’s cheap. It’s practically indestructible, and it has a romantic connection to the history of the sea stretching back centuries.

If you’d like to hear a couple of traditional commands and learn more about the bosun’s pipe, or bosun's call as it's also known, just click here:


Today’s Thought
Evil communications corrupt good character.
— Menander, Thais: Fragment

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #113
Strain on jib sheet. To find the force applied to the sheet by a jib or forestaysail, multiply the sail area in square feet by the wind speed in knots squared. Then divide the answer by 232. This will give you the approximate pull on the sheet in pounds.

President Obama is punting his new family budget plan. It makes sure you can pay as you go — as long as you don’t go anywhere.

October 26, 2010

A noteworthy turning point

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY is the most unappreciated part of a sailboat, the one that’s invariably overlooked and neglected, but without which the boat simply cannot function? Yes, that’s right, it’s the rudder.

It’s out of sight (apart from the few stern-hung rudders still around) and it’s largely out of mind. It’s a truly modest and uncomplaining piece of equipment, one that doesn’t need to be fed constantly with expensive diesel fuel, one that never goes flat and needs charging, one that never has to be taken to the sewage pump-out every week, or varnished every six months.

It is a marvel of efficiency; and also a marvel of such simplicity that you have to wonder why it took so many hundreds of years to make an appearance on sea-going ships.

The ancient Phoenicians, the Romans, and even the Vikings, used steering boards — oars or paddles, usually hung from the right-hand quarter. (Hence the starboard -- steerboard -- side. The other side was the side that rested against the port, so the steerboard wouldn’t be damaged.)

It wasn’t until 1242 A.D. that pictorial evidence appeared of a centerline rudder on a ship in Europe. It was, if you’ll forgive me, a turning point in marine design. Apparently this new-fangled invention was received with such enthusiasm that it was quickly adopted by shipbuilders all over the world. Pintles and gudgeons suddenly became household words.

How does the rudder work? Well, in the crudest of terms, if you push it to one side, the water flowing past strikes that side with more force than it strikes the other, so the rudder tends to be pushed sideways, taking the stern with it.

I often marvel at the way a tiny rudder can turn a 250,000-ton oil tanker; although, lurking in the back of my mind somewhere is something vague I once read about the rudder only initiating the turn, and the ship’s hull itself acting to reinforce the turning moment, as might a wedge driven through the water.

While most rudders lurk quietly and invisibly beneath their mother ships, the importance of their roles has not been lost on naval architects, physicists, and engineers. The design and performance of rudders is the subject of countless scientific papers and even whole books. In this respect, if you should wish to develop your latent rudder fetish, get hold of a book called The Development of the Rudder, by Lawrence V. Mott. It’s a fascinating and lavishly illustrated volume of nautical archaeology that digs deep into the conception of the modern rudder, starting with its crude but rather interesting parents in various parts of the world.

Even if you don’t find yourself entirely enthralled by rudders, it will help while away large parts of the cold and soggy winter we’re expecting around here, thanks to La blasted Niña.

Red faces over snakes
THERE was some editorial embarrassment at the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) this week. You’ll recall that an inmate was asking for help in finding a book called The Tactics of Small Boa Tracing.

Well, it turns out that either his handwriting was illegible, or his contact down the row doesn’t read too well. The book in question is actually The Tactics of Small Boat Racing, by Stuart H. Walker, MD. It’s still available, and any decent bookstore can order it for you.

Today’s Thought
The ancient sailor said this to Neptune in a great storm, “O God, thou shalt save me if thou please, if not, thou shalt lose me; yet will I keep my rudder true.”
— Montaigne, Essays

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #112
Rudder efficiency. The average sailboat rudder will stall and lose efficiency if it is put over more than 35 degrees from dead ahead. In fact, it will act as a good brake if you are approaching a dock too fast and you can put it over to 90 degrees, first one side and then the other.

“And you, madam, what’s your husband’s average income?”
“Oh, usually well after midnight.”

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

October 24, 2010

Snake tracing request

A LETTER TO THE EDITOR of the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) says:

Dear Editor:

Yesterday I received a message from a cell just down the row from me. This guy is new and I don’t know him yet, but he heard I was familiar with the way to get a letter in the Gazeout. (Which I should be, seeing as how I was a newspaper reporter before I was let go and had to turn to bank robbery as a way of retrieving my taxes from the government.)

Anyway, to cut it short, this guy is looking for a certain book to help him improve his favorite pastime. Or what used to be his favorite pastime before.

He says this book is called The Tactics of Small Boa Tracing, by Stuart H. Walker, MD. If anyone knows where he can lay hands on a copy, please get in touch with me and I will pass on the message.

Seems to me like he has a peculiar pastime; but who am I to judge, I always say. Tracing small boas sounds like dangerous work, and if you catch one what do you do with it? Is this just practice for catching bigger boas or what?

Yours in carceration,

Stompie Fagend,
Block 4, Cell 35a

Today’s Thought
I’m in favor of every religion, with the possible exception of snake-chunking. Anybody that so presumes on how he stands with Providence that he will let a snake bite him, I say he deserves what he’s got coming to him.
— Earl Long, former governor of Louisiana

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #111
Inverter size. If you use an inverter to bump up your battery’s 12 volts to the 120 volts you need for a TV, computer, microwave etc., here’s the way to figure out the correct size. Just multiply your battery bank’s maximum number of amp-hours by 5 to get the inverter’s maximum output in watts.

Things of beauty
Often shake up
Men who view them
Minus make-up.

(Watch out every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

October 21, 2010

Cruising hygiene

DO MEN CHANGE THEIR UNDERPANTS while cruising? A young woman reader in Dade County, Florida, wants to know. Geraldine says her new boyfriend has invited her on a six-week cruise to the Bahamas on his Cape Dory 25D sailboat. She has not sailed before, but she is fine with everything — except what she suspects might be a hygiene problem.

Do men on small boats change their socks? she asks.

Do they EVER wash ANY clothes?

Do they wash their hands after going to the head?

Do men brush their teeth morning and night?

Do they ever change the bed sheets?

Do they even HAVE bed sheets?

Well, Geraldine, you have poked your little stick into a big hornets’ nest here. Obviously I can’t answer for all cruising men, and as far as I know nobody has conducted research into this subject. But if it’s any comfort, as far as I know, not many cruising men die from bubonic plague or big bad germs in the gut.

I can only tell you of my own experience of long-term cruising and the answer to your first question is yes, men do change their underpants every day, one pair a day for seven days. Then, on the eight day they start over. The theory is that the underpants have aired for a whole week, which is plenty of time for any germs to jump off and go somewhere else.

Socks? Mostly we don’t wear socks, but even if we do, we only have two pairs. They’re good for seven days before rotation. We don’t walk anywhere, you see, so there’s no sweat or anything objectionable. You’ll notice that no men ever complain about other men’s socks.

Washing clothes? Well that depends on the availability of fresh water (very rare) and a place to do the washing (also rare). It depends on the weather and the amount of rail space available for drying. It depends when you can find the time, when you have a whole lot of other things to do (such as steering around rocks and anchoring and reefing and navigation) that are a lot more important than washing clothes. So, in short, the answer is . . . well I have known one or two men who have washed some cruising clothes, so it’s not completely unknown.

As for washing hands after using the head, I have to assure you that it’s a distinct possibility in a boat like yours that has a wash basin in the head. Of course, most men won’t use it for fear of running out of fresh water, but at least there is a definite possibility; and that surely must cut down on the odds of disease erupting.

Do men brush their teeth morning and night? Geraldine, I think it is a scientifically accepted fact that as long as you break up the plaque every 24 hours, one brushing a day is sufficient. And, by happy discovery, a large body of cruising men has confirmed that swilling the mouth with gin just before bed is equally as efficient in the prevention of caries as is brushing with toothpaste.

As for bed sheets, well that depends on the sissy factor. Real men don’t use bed sheets. They use rough, hairy, woollen blankets or sleeping bags designed for Mt. Everest. I confess that I have a sort of sheet for my sleeping bag, a removable cotton liner, but after you’ve slept in it for two months straight I’ve noticed that it seems to grow little lumps inside like a real woollen blanket, so it’s really quite macho and not as pooftah as you might think.

Geraldine, you can spend too much time worrying about hygiene. There are places in Europe where they only bath once a week. There are places in the Sahara where they never bath, and never shower either. It’s true that their average lifespan is 23 years, but nobody has ever actually proved it’s because of lack of hygiene.

On the whole, you will find that the cruising life is very healthy. Strong sunshine and salt water are very good at killing germs. And those few germs that don’t die immediately will surely succumb when they eventually drift down and get swallowed up by that seething, squirming mass of micro-wildlife in your bilge.

Go for it, Geraldine. Go for the beautiful beaches and the glorious crystal-clear water; go for the romantic tropical nights and the soft trade winds brushing the coconut palms with silver moonshine. And let hygiene take its chance.

Today’s Thought
A man’s own observation, what he finds good of and what he finds hurt of, is the best physic to preserve health.
— Bacon, Essays: Of Regimen of Health

Rules of Thumb, #110
Hurricane survival at sea. If you should ever be caught out in a small sailboat, remember that you can increase your odds of survival by following certain rules. Hurricanes have two sides, known as the dangerous semicircle and the navigable semicircle — navigable being a comparative term, of course.
In the dangerous semicircle, the whole system’s forward speed of movement is being added to the wind force. In the navigable semicircle, it is subtracted, which makes a large difference.
The dangerous semicircle lies on the right-hand side of the storm track in the Northern hemisphere, facing forward along the track, and the left side in the Southern Hemisphere. So, at the approach of a hurricane, make all possible speed toward the navigable semicircle, and hope for the best.

A yacht club barman I know has invented a drink called the Block and Tackle. It’s one third whiskey, one third brandy, and one third vodka. After one drink you’re ready to run around the block and tackle anything.

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

October 19, 2010

Trafalgar modernized

Thomas Whitcombe

I DON’T OFTEN STEAL other people’s copy. But I did today. There was no credit line on the story I have for you today, so I don’t know who to thank, and in theory I shouldn’t use it, and I’m sorry in advance, and it’s very naughty of me, and I’m a bad boy and all that ... but what the hell, enough whining and kowtowing. Let’s get straight to it:

The Battle of Trafalgar Updated

Nelson: "Order the signal, Hardy."

Hardy: "Aye, aye sir."

Nelson: "Hold on, this isn't what I dictated to Flags. What's the meaning of this?"

Hardy: "Sorry sir?"

Nelson (reading aloud): "’England expects every person to do his or her duty, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious persuasion, or disability.’ What gobbledegook is this for God's sake?"

Hardy: "Admiralty policy, I'm afraid, sir. We're an equal opportunities employer now. We had the devil's own job getting 'England' past the censors, lest it be considered racist."

Nelson: "Gadzooks, Hardy. Hand me my pipe and tobacco."

Hardy: "Sorry sir. All naval vessels have now been designated smoke-free working environments."

Nelson: "In that case, break open the rum ration. Let us splice the mainbrace to steel the men before battle."

Hardy: "The rum ration has been abolished, Admiral. It’s part of the Government's policy on binge drinking."

Nelson: "Good heavens, Hardy. I suppose we'd better get on with it ... full speed ahead."

Hardy: "I think you'll find that there's a 4-knot speed limit in this stretch of water."

Nelson: "Damn it man! We are on the eve of the greatest sea battle in history. We must advance with all dispatch. Report from the crow's nest please."

Hardy: "That won't be possible, sir."

Nelson: "What?"

Hardy: "Health and Safety have closed the crow's nest, sir. No harness; and they said that rope ladders don't meet regulations. They won't let anyone up there until a proper scaffolding can be erected."

Nelson: "Then get me the ship's carpenter without delay, Hardy."

Hardy: "He's busy knocking up a wheelchair access to the foredeck Admiral."

Nelson: "Wheelchair access? I've never heard anything so absurd."

Hardy: "Health and safety again, sir. We have to provide a barrier-free environment for the differently abled."

Nelson: "Differently abled? I've only one arm and one eye and I refuse even to hear mention of the word. I didn't rise to the rank of admiral by playing the disability card."

Hardy: "Actually, sir, you did. The Royal Navy is under-represented in the areas of visual impairment and limb deficiency."

Nelson: "Whatever next? Give me full sail. The salt spray beckons."

Hardy: "A couple of problems there too, sir. Health and Safety won't let the crew up the rigging without hard hats. And they don't want anyone breathing in too much salt - haven't you seen the adverts ?"

Nelson: "I've never heard such infamy. Break out the cannon and tell the men to stand by to engage the enemy."

Hardy: "The men are a bit worried about shooting at anyone, Admiral."

Nelson: "What? This is mutiny!"

Hardy: "It's not that, sir. It's just that they're afraid of being charged with murder if they actually kill anyone. There's a couple of legal-aid lawyers on board, watching everyone like hawks."

Nelson: "Then how are we to sink the Frenchies and the Spanish?"

Hardy: "Actually, sir, we're not."

Nelson: "We're not?"

Hardy: "No, sir. The French and the Spanish are our European partners now. According to the Common Fisheries Policy, we shouldn't even be in this stretch of water. We could get hit with a claim for compensation."

Nelson: "But you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."

Hardy: "I wouldn't let the ship's diversity co-ordinator hear you saying that, sir. You'll be up on disciplinary report."

Nelson: "You must consider every man an enemy who speaks ill of your King."

Hardy: "Not any more, sir. We must be inclusive in this multicultural age. Now put on your Kevlar vest; it's the rules. It could save your life"

Nelson: "Don't tell me - Health and Safety. Whatever happened to rum, sodomy, and the lash?"

Hardy: “As I explained, sir, rum is off the menu! And there's a ban on corporal punishment."

Nelson: "What about sodomy?"

Hardy: "I believe that is now legal, sir."

Nelson: "In that case ... kiss me, Hardy."

Today’s Thought

There is no greater disloyalty to the great pioneers of human progress than to refuse to budge an inch from where they stood.
— Dean W. R. Inge

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #109
Wind strengths. A tropical depression has winds of less than 33 knots. When the speed rises above 33 knots it becomes a tropical storm. When the wind speed tops 64 knots, it becomes a hurricane. Why 33 instead of 35? Why 64 instead of 65? Don’t ask me. I don’t make the rules. I just work here.

“I’ve taken up freelance journalism as a career.”
“Great. Sold anything yet?”
“Yes — my watch, my camera, my iPod, my car ...”

October 17, 2010

The only way to varnish

THE TROUBLE WITH VARNISHING is that you need a good natural bristle brush to get the best finish. But if you use a good natural bristle brush, you have to spend a lot of time cleaning it afterward because you have invested a small fortune in that brush and you want it to last a long time. There’s a great deal of fussing with rags and baths of mineral spirits. Then you have to figure out how to store the darned thing over the winter, so it doesn’t get contaminated with dust or chewed on by mice.

There are, I regret to say, people who spread varnish with the aid of little slabs of foam stuck onto sticks. They are the sort of people who burp at the dinner table and pick their teeth in public. We try to ignore them, even as we realize it is not their fault They have simply not been brought up properly. They don’t know that nice people apply varnish with natural bristle brushes.

I was still in my teens when I learned this from one of those rugged round-the-world singlehanders who sailed into port one day. He showed me how he stored paint and varnish brushes that he’d had and used for 12 years or more. When they were clean, he soaked them in new 30-grade motor oil and then wrapped them in aluminum foil. He kept them in a bucket with a lid, in a cockpit locker. When he wanted to use them, he squeezed out as much of the oil as he could with paper towels, and then washed them in a tall can of paint thinner — mineral spirits or kerosene.

Coincidentally, there is much the same advice on the current Epifanes website. (Yes, you know Epifanes varnish. You just don’t know how to pronounce it.)

“The best way to store a good brush is to keep it wet, suspended in diesel fuel or kerosene. Yes, diesel,” says the Epifanes site. “Nothing works better as far as we are concerned. Diesel is oily enough to keep the bristles nice and soft while still having enough cutting capability to keep the brush clean. We have a brush that is easily 16 years old. Prior to varnishing, clean the diesel from the brush with mineral spirits, rinsing and spinning several times. Once done repeat the process. Your brush will be as happy as can be in a diesel or kerosene bath. Change the diesel once or twice a year.”

It’s obviously oil that’s good for bristles. Engine oil, diesel, kerosene, and mineral spirits are all close cousins on the catalytic cracker scale at the refinery. Some are just cooked longer than others but they all keep good brushes happy.

So save up your pennies and splurge on a really good varnish brush that will last you many years – and as for foam brushes, fuggetaboudit willya?

Today’s Thought
The wise man ... always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity ...
— Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #108
Resale value, steel hull. If you want to sell a steel hull, you will find that the average price drops by almost one half after it reaches the age of 10 years. There are many exceptions to this general rule, but on the whole it holds good, as any experienced yacht broker will confirm.

“Do you like duckling?”
“I can’t remember. It’s been years since I duckled.”

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

October 14, 2010

So who needs humans?

The Piranha USV

GOOGLE IS EXPERIMENTING in California with cars that drive themselves on public highways and freeways. Predator drones are flying all over Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan without pilots. And now we have a boat cruising around the Puget Sound without human crew of any kind.

It’s a 54-foot unmanned surface vessel known as the Piranha USV and it appears to be equipped with guided missiles, though it could be used for all kinds of clandestine operations according to the manufacturer, Zyvex Technologies, of Columbus, Ohio.

It has twin diesel engines and it’s very fast and if it doesn’t like you, you’re in big trouble. It is, of course fitted with the latest in technology. Understandably, there’s an air of secrecy about this strange-looking camouflaged boat as it takes itself out on test trials off Seattle, and presumably tells itself what’s wrong with itself. But I imagine it will have GPS, AIS, radar, sat-phone, various radio transmitters and receivers, and lord knows what other electronic surveillance equipment I haven’t even heard of, plus a big, red, self-plunging button for launching the missiles.

It is undoubtedly a drug-runner’s dream come true; but it occurs to me that ordinary yachtsmen might also benefit from this extraordinary craft, which represents the very latest advances in science and technology.

Just imagine, if you will, how exciting it would be to send your very own Piranha around the world by remote control. You wouldn’t even have to move from your computer screen as your personal Piranha sends back pictures of where it is and what it’s doing.

You could ogle all those young women in grass skirts and coconut bras in the South Pacific and not get into trouble with your wife. You could double Cape Horn the wrong way in the middle of winter, as close as you like, and get to wear a gold ring in your ear.

Trouble with pirates? Har, har, har. Blast them out of the water with your rocket launcher while you sip a cold beer in your recliner chair.

You’ll never need to worry about hurricanes. You won’t ever fall out of the dinghy and drown. You won’t ever get too hot or too cold or too wet, or drop your last wrench into the bloody bilge. You’ll never need to get into an argument about who’s anchored too goddam close to whom. Just nuke ’em.

And this may be best of all — no seasickness. Imagine that. No seasickness. All the way around the world. Never a nasty twinge from the tum-tum. Never a green tinge to the chops or a mouth like the bottom of a bird cage.

What is the word for enjoying things through another’s experience? I forget. Is it serendipity? Nope. Ah, wait, it’s coming back. Vicarious. Now you can circumnavigate the globe in your own boat vicariously.

Gawd, I think to myself, science is just too wonderful. What incredible progress we’re making. Where will it all end?

Today’s Thought
A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.
— Macaulay, Essays

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #107
Best color for a boat. If you’re thinking of resale value, then the best color is white. Herreshoff said there are only two colors for a yacht, black and white, and only a fool would paint a boat black.

“Can you give me a description of the man who assaulted you?”
“I was doing that when he knocked me down.”

October 12, 2010

The right one to pray to

IT WAS THE WELSH POET George Herbert (1593 – 1633) who said: "He that will learne to pray, let him goe to Sea." (I know that for sure because I just looked it up.) And Herbert was right, of course, as anyone knows who has been badly frightened in a storm at sea.

But what our savvy Welsh friend doesn’t reveal is probably the most important part: To whom do you pray?

A couple of thousand years ago it was easy. They had gods for every occasion then, so you could go straight to the guy in charge and get things sorted out. Things have certainly changed in 2,000 years, but some of us sailors who carefully avoid walking under ladders or setting sail on Fridays still hanker after a personal and positive connection with the powers that be.

So here’s a handy list you might want to post up in your panic station on board. It details [1] the stuff likely to cause you trouble, and [2] who to pray to.

[1] The engine, gearbox, driveshaft, propeller, galley stove, rudder fittings, anchors, chain, and standing rigging.

[2] Hephaistos, the god of fire. He was also known as Vulcan, a superb blacksmith and craftsman. Wonderful with anything metal.

[1] Storms, calms, sails, and self-steering vanes.

[2] Aeolus, god of the winds.

[1] Big waves, choppy seas, adverse currents, and leaks your bilge pump can’t deal with.

[2] Poseidon, god of the sea. Also known as Neptune. (Always try both names just in case.)

[1] The head, the holding tank, the Porta-Potti and the connecting lines.

[2] Cloacina, goddess of sewers. Yes, I’m not making this up. She’s the one they used back then and I bet she’s still holding her nose.

[1] Consistently losing yacht races.

[2] Nike, the goddess of victory. Buy her shoes and all will come right.

[1] Boredom and excessive sobriety.

[2] Dionysus, the god of inspiration, ecstasy, and wine. (Especially wine, but OK with beer, too, if plentiful enough.) Also known as Bacchus.

[1] Mayhem in general.

[2] Zeus. He is the god of gods. The boss. Ignore him at your peril. But he hates being disturbed for petty problems, so always try the other gods first.

Finally, if it comes to the worst, it might come in useful for you to know that the ruler of the Underworld is called Hades. I understand he meets a lot of sailors.

Today’s Thought
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
— Montaigne, Essays

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #106
Provisions for horses. You never know when somebody might ask you to take a horse somewhere on your boat. In the days when navies transported horses on sailing ships, each horse was allocated 1,350 pounds of stores every five days. Good luck with that.


“I met your girl friend last night. I found her very attractive.”
“I know you did. She says you asked her to marry you.”
“Omigod. Did she accept?”

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

October 10, 2010

About ancient anchors

TUCKED AWAY among my boating books at home is a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1771. Well, it’s only the first volume, to tell the truth, containing words starting with A and B. But among those words is one that interests all boaters: Anchor. And it’s quite interesting to read what they thought about anchors 239 years ago . . .

"ANCHOR, in maritime affairs, an extremely ufeful inftrument, ferving to retain a fhip in its place.

"It is a very large and heavy iron inftrument, with a double hook at one end, and a ring at the other, by which it is faftened to a cable. It is caft into the bottom of the fea, or rivers; when, taking its hold, it keeps fhips from being drawn away by the wind, tide, or currents.

"The parts of an anchor are, 1. The ring to which the cable is faftened. 2. The beam or fhank, which is the longeft part of the anchor. 3. The arm, which is that which runs into the ground. 4. The flouke or fluke, by fome called the palm, the broad and peaked part, with its barbs, like the head of an arrow, which faftens into the ground. 5. The ftock, a piece of wood faftened to the beam near the ring, ferving to guide the fluke, fo that it may fall right and fix in the ground.

"There are feveral kinds of anchors: 1. The fheet-anchor, which is the largeft, and is never ufed but in violent ftorms, to hinder the fhip from being driven a-fhore. 2. The two bowers, which are ufed for fhips to ride in a harbour. 3. The ftream anchor. 4. The grapnel.

"The fhank of an anchor is to be three times the length of one of its flukes; and a fhip of 500 tons hath her fheet-anchor of 2000 weight; and fo proportionably for others, fmaller or greater. The anchor is faid to be a-peak when the cable is perpendicular between the hawfe and the anchor.

"An anchor is faid to come home when it cannot hold the fhip, the cable is hitched about the fluke. To fhoe an anchor is to fit boards upon the flukes, that it may hold the better in foft ground. When the anchor hangs right up and down by the fhip’s fide, it is faid to be a cock-bell, upon the fhip’s coming to an anchor.

"The inhabitants of Ceylon ufe large ftones inftead of anchors; and in fome other places of the Indies the anchors are a kind a wooden machines, loaded with ftones."

-- Well, there you are. Now you not only have encyclopedic knowledge of anchors, but you can read Olde Englishe, too. I guess that makes you quite a fmartafs.

Today’s Thought
In the stormy night it is well that anchors twain be let down from the swift ship.
— Pindar, Olympian Odes

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #105
Wires near the compass. Electricity generates magnetism in the wires it runs through, and if these wires are near the compass it will be adversely affected. So the rule of thumb is to twist the two wires going to the compass light. Twist them around each other in a loose spiral, so that the magnetic effects are canceled out.

“How’s the new Jewish opera singer getting along?”
“I’m not sure. She doesn’t seem to know if she’s Carmen or Cohen because she’s always so Bizet.”

October 7, 2010

Diesel con brio

EVERY NOW AND THEN I see Carter Brey, resplendent in evening dress, on PBS television. He is the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, and internationally acclaimed as a virtuoso. And every time I see him, suave and debonair up on stage, I wonder how he must look when he’s pulling his sailboat engine to bits.

The first thing that amazes me is that he would do it at all. Surely a performing artist’s delicate fingers are his fortune. How would one play the cello if one’s fingers had a nasty accident while trying to remove the starter motor?

Carter Brey seems totally unconcerned about such a possibility.

A while back, knowing that he had the same Westerbeke 13 diesel engine in his Sabre 28 that I had in my Cape Dory 27, I e-mailed him, asking if he knew how to change two hidden fuel filters.

Sure enough, he did. “You’ve come to the right shop,” he said. He kindly sent me detailed instructions on how to get to the lift pump filter and the injector pump filter. And he added:

“It seems unreal that as recently as a couple of years ago I viewed auxiliary diesels with fear and trepidation. A month ago I found myself becalmed in the middle of Block Island Sound, no land in sight, with an overheating engine.

“I tore the entire raw-water circuit apart until I got sea water circulating again. I mean, I even got into the heat exchanger to look for blockages. It not only got me home, I felt like Robert Mitchum and Mr. T combined. Too bad there were no women around to admire my manly skills. Then again, it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to strut in the cockpit of a small sailboat.”

Mr. Brey is, of course, an unusually talented man. Besides sailing his Sabre 28 and performing sublime music, he is fond of ballroom dancing and marathon running. But his willingness to dig into the innards of his ancient diesel engine is a lesson for the great many of us who still experience the fear and trepidation that he once did.

So listen up, now. If a ballroom-dancing New York cellist can summon up the courage to tear a diesel engine apart, so can you.

Today’s Thought
Excellence is the perfect excuse. Do it well, and it matters little what.
— R. W. Emerson, Journal, 1862

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #104
Compass light color. A very low intensity white light on a compass doesn’t affect your night vision very much, but the old rule of thumb is that there is only one color for a compass light, and that is red. It can take up to 20 minutes to develop full night vision, and it’s destroyed in a flash by bright white light. Luckily, red light has almost no effect on night vision. If you’re on watch at night and have to go down below where it’s brightly lit, wear red ski goggles. Or else keep one eye tightly closed all the time you’re down below. The other will retain its full night vision for when you go topside again.

A man e-mailed a country hotel, asking if his dog would be allowed to stay there. He received this reply:
"Thanks for your query. I have been in the hotel business over 30 years. Never yet have I had to call the cops to eject a disorderly dog in the small hours of the morning.
"Not once has a dog set the bed clothes alight through smoking in bed. I have never found a hotel towel in a dog’s suitcase. Your dog is welcome.
"PS: If he will vouch for you, you may come, too.”

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

October 5, 2010

Magnetic north ahoy!

IF YOU'RE EVER LOST in fog with a broken compass, think of Gwen Wittwer. She says all you need is an old metal clothes hanger, and you’ll soon be home and dry.

Wittwer is a pagan. More than that, she is a high priestess, and she recently took part in a workshop during Pagan Pride Week in Bellingham, Washington state.

The local university newspaper, The Western Front, sent a reporter along to Wittwer’s workshop, which “taught people about learning how to find electromagnetic lines in the earth.”

According to the Front, Wittwer invited people to walk around the room holding metal clothes hangers out in front of them. “As they walked around the room the clothes hangers moved to follow the electromagnetic lines,” the newspaper reported.

“It’s an ancient talent we all have that we all forgot we had,” Wittwer said.

Now, as a born-again skeptic, I would normally laugh up my sleeve and scoff quietly at the naiveté of the Front reporter, but I have to admit that Wittwer’s experiment rings bells for me.

Some years ago I was standing on a street on rural Whidbey Island when a man I knew came past holding two pieces of thick copper wire, one in each hand.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Tracing the water pipes,” he said.

The wires were identical, each in the shape of an upside down L (or an F without the middle stroke, if you prefer.) He loosely held the stems of the Fs upright in his hands, shoulder-width apart, with the horizontal leg pointing forward.

And as he spoke the two legs facing forward turned inward in his hands at right angles until they were pointing at each other.

I brought my sleeve up to my mouth, ready to laugh.

“Takes a turn here,” he explained. And, noting my skepticism, he added: “Give it a try.”

So I tried, and it worked for me, too. Astonishingly, the copper wires turned in my hand without any help as I moved over a buried, invisible water pipe. I repeated it successfully several times.

“You also have the gift,” he said. “You’re a dowser. A diviner.”

Sadly, I have never done anything with my gift, such as find water in the desert or discover a fabulously rich oil well, and it certainly never occurred to me that I might also be able to divine magnetism, or that everybody might share this gift if they just knew about it.

But now I am a believer. High Priestess Wittwer has convinced me.

I can’t wait to get on a boat and try my clothes hangers on the water.

Magnetic north, here I come.

Today’s Thought
Let not the conceit of intellect hinder thee from worshipping mystery.
— M F. Tupper, Proverbial Philosophy: Reading

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #103
Horsepower, under sail. In a Force 4 breeze (11 to 16 knots), 500 square feet of sail generates roughly 10 horsepower. That’s about 1 horsepower for every 50 square feet. Thus, a dinghy sail of 75 square feet gives you about 1.5 hp. Interestingly, though, if the wind speed doubles to about 25 knots, that dinghy sail horsepower goes up four times, from 1.5 to 6 hp.

Groucho Marx once opened a drawer by mistake in a friend’s home. He found a Colt automatic pistol surrounded by several small pearl-handled revolvers.
“My God,” he said, “This gat has had gittens.”

October 3, 2010

Aerodynamic perfection

I NOTE WITH INTEREST that Arvel Gentry’s Ranger 23 is for sale. So what, you say? Well, this is no ordinary Ranger 23. This is the Ranger 23 that America’s premier sailing aerodynamicist has owned for about 38 years.

Gentry is the self-styled Seattle weekend sailor who was “interested, amazed, and amused” by attempts in the sailing literature to explain how sailboat sails actually work.

In order to clear up some misconceptions stemming from “some completely false and misleading ideas published in standard sailing references,” he sat down in 1971 to write a landmark 12-page paper named The Aerodynamics of Sail Interaction.

This was an attempt to explain to dummies like me the magic whereby a sail can move a boat against the wind. I have read it several times and am very little the wiser for it, except that the conclusion seems to be that the air pressure on the leeward side of a cambered airfoil is lower than the pressure on the windward side. But I knew that already.

Gentry scoffs at attempts by people less gifted than professional aerodynamicists to explain this phenomenon, and he cringes at theories that have comforted me all my sailing life, such as the one that says the air to windward of the jib takes a short cut across the camber, while the air going around the leeward side of the jib has farther to go, and so must go faster to catch up. And as we all know from kindergarten physics, if you speed up a gas, the pressure drops. Thank you, Dr. Bernoulli.

This is an overly simplistic explanation, of course, and I can see why it makes Gentry shudder; but for people like me it’s a comforting explanation. It explains about as much as I need to know to fit the facts I can see with my own eyes. It’s on a par with the kind of celestial navigation I taught myself from Mary Blewitt’s little book. She espouses the pre-Copernican theory that the sun goes around the earth, and all I can say is that if you can make yourself believe it, celestial navigation becomes a whole lot easier. People like Copernicus and Gentry just make things more difficult when they come along with their new-fangled theories that don’t change anything for practical sailors.

Gentry had a chance to put some sense into my head when Good Old Boat magazine once asked me to interview him for an article. But he refused to meet me and talk sailboat aerodynamicism buddy to buddy. I don’t hold it against him. If it weren’t for Spellchecker I wouldn’t even be able to spell what he does.

Incidentally, if you;re interested in his boat, the advertisement for his Ranger 23 doesn’t give a price. But I can tell you that he paid $28,440 to have it restored in 2001, when it was 29 years old. Aerodynamic people obviously earn good money.

You can get the full details at http://www.arvelgentry.com/

Today’s Thought
The higher we soar on the wings of science, the worse our feet seem to get entangled in the wires.

— Anon, The New Yorker, 7 Feb 31

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #102
Human horsepower. It’s fairly well established that the average man in good condition can produce about one-quarter horsepower for about 40 minutes, and between one-sixth and one-seventh horsepower for several hours at a time. Maximum hp from a highly trained male athlete for a burst of a few seconds is a little less than 2 h.p. Interestingly, you can row a dinghy at a reasonable clip in settled conditions by using just one-sixth horsepower.

“How do you like your new babysitter, Johnny?”
“I hate her, Mom. If I was bigger I would grab her and bite her on the back of her neck like Dad does.”