November 30, 2010

Don’t let blisters bug you

“SHOULD I BUY a boat with blisters?” That’s the query from a reader in San Diego. “Cautious” has fallen in love with a 10-year old, 30-foot sloop, but he’s scared to tie the knot. He’s afraid to commit, because when he had her surveyed he found she had “a whole lot of dime-sized blisters on her bottom.”

Well “Cautious,” my advice is to grit your teeth and buy her. Nobody’s perfect, and no boat is, either. Although fiberglass boats have been around for more than 50 years, there’s still a lot of misinformation doing the rounds, especially regarding the dreaded boat pox.

It’s reassuring, therefore, to hear the experience of David Pascoe, a marine surveyor based in Destin, Fla., who says that in 30 years of surveying and examining 4,000 hulls, he has seen fewer than 10 cases where blisters have resulted in serious structural degradation of a hull.[1]

We’re talking here of dime-sized blisters. In 99 percent of the boats Pascoe has surveyed, blistering involved only the gel coat and the surface mat — neither of which is a structural part of the hull laminate.

Pascoe says that even boats with numerous blisters up to about 1-inch in diameter usually show no significant weakening of the plastic. As a result, “moderate blistering on an older boat rarely impedes the sale.”

As a matter of fact, Pascoe reckons that by the time a boat is 8 or 10 years old, “whatever is going to happen to the hull has probably already happened.” That means if she hasn’t developed blisters yet, she’s not ever likely to, so don’t be tempted to apply a barrier coat.

It’s quite another matter if a new boat develops blisters, of course. On a boat that’s been afloat for only two or three years, it’s likely that blistering is just the beginning. That’s not good news. But one that’s been afloat for eight years or more without developing blisters is a pretty safe bet.

Interestingly, Pascoe doesn’t even think it’s necessary to do anything about small blisters. Admittedly, they make the hull more difficult to paint and they will slow the boat down slightly, but: “If blisters cannot be shown to be causing significant damage, then repair is certainly not mandatory, despite the many horror stories you may hear from people trying to sell you a costly repair job ... Bear in mind that blister repair jobs are now big business for boat yards, so that taking advice from yard managers may not be a good idea.”

He makes another good point, too: “Further, you should be aware that the number of failed blister repair jobs that surveyors find is very high. No one’s ever going to know why blister repairs fail because no one is going to spend the money to find out.”

So go ahead, “Cautious.” Be brave. Put your money where your heart is. Who else is going to see your new girl-friend’s bottom anyhow?


Today’s Thought
The desire of perfection is the worst disease that ever afflicted the human mind.
— Fontanes, Address to Napoleon, in behalf of the French Senate, 1804

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #127
Locating faint lights. To find a faint light, such as a star, at night, look a little to one side, or above or below where you might expect to find it. If you look straight at an object, the light rays fall on an area inside the eye that is not as sensitive as the surrounding areas. So faint lights are often first seen in or toward the corner of the eye.

”Why do you call it love at second sight?”
“I didn’t know she was rich when I first saw her.”

November 28, 2010

Mobile hair factories

ANYONE WHO HAS LIVED ON A BOAT for any length of time knows about hair. Hair is everywhere, inside and out. It’s all over the saloon floor. It gets stuck in your toes as you walk. Long strands of hair drape themselves with casual cockiness over your saucepans and newly washed plates in the galley. You’ll find it on faucets, mirrors, the toilet seat, in the bilge, everywhere. Hair is even a safety issue because it clogs drains and bilge pumps, and it never seems to rot or fade away into dust.

Let’s face it, people are mobile hair factories. The stuff just keeps growing, and as fast as it grows it falls out. Frankly, I have never understood why humans grow hair in the first place. It must be a manufacturing defect. I mean, what use is it? Why do we have pubic hair, for instance? Surely our pubes can survive well enough without hair? What use is underarm hair? It’s hot and sweaty enough already under there. Why do I have hair on the back of my knuckles, for goodness’ sake? Yes, I can understand the need for hair on the head to prevent sunburn, but how do you account for the fact that as we age (and need even more sunburn protection) the damned hair falls off our heads and starts growing out of our ears and nostrils. Whaaat?

I can remember looking at the compass one dark night in mid-ocean and thinking I was hallucinating. It was a domed compass, saltwater-damp and glowing faint red, but with puzzling streaks all over, so that the white lubber line looked like a jagged thunderbolt. I ran a finger over it and the streaks gathered together into a thick string of hair.

And then, when I first got my Cape Dory 27, she had a beautiful cockpit grating made of teak. It was first-class workmanship, a wonderful piece of furniture, and probably worth as much as many boats. But the first time I lifted it up (because the cockpit drains didn’t seem to be working fast enough) I was astonished at what was trapped underneath. The bottom of each little hole was matted with clumps of hair — hair that had trapped and nurtured foul-smelling globs of gelatinous goo of such a virulent nature that it almost snarled at me.

So if I had my way (at least until there is a general recall of humans to redress our tonsorial defect) anyone coming aboard a boat of mine would either have to wear a hairnet or be shaved all over. Long hair, short hair, all gone, if you please. Some supporters of hirsuteness may well believe that hair has its place, but that place isn’t on any boat of mine.

Today’s Thought
Interest in hair today has grown to the proportions of a fetish. Think of the many loving ways in which advertisements refer to scalp hair—satiny, glowing, shimmering, breathing, living. Living, indeed! It is as dead as rope.
— Dr. William Montagna, Brown University

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #126
The jumping light. Most people who have sailed at night have experienced the phenomenon of a fixed or flashing point of light that appears to jump around the horizon. Psychologists call it the autokinetic illusion. After we stare fixedly at one point for too long, the light reappears some distance left or right of where we expect it. Some say it comes about through imperceptible movements or strain in the eye muscles. The rest of us just accept it as a fact of life afloat, and sweep our eyes from side to side while waiting for the light to appear again.

“And how’s the patient this morning, nurse?”
“Much better, doctor. He tried to blow the foam off his medicine.”

November 25, 2010

Royal wedding disaster

GOOD GRIEF, what was he thinking? Prince William has chosen to get married on April 29 — the day of the Boat Show.

Those poor British yachtsmen now have to choose between what’s going on at Westminster Abbey and what’s going on where they’d really like to be — at the inaugural Liverpool Boat Show. What a terrible choice to have to make.

And what an extraordinary reflection on Prince William. Has he forgotten his Royal Navy heritage? Sailors all. What must his dad and granddad be thinking? Would either of them have even so much as dreamed of getting married on the day of the Boat Show? Of course not.

If you HAD to get married on the day of the Boat Show for some reason of international diplomacy or internal family peace, then you’d obviously get married AT the Boat Show, where the Royal Yacht would be waiting to waft you off for your Royal Nuptials immediately afterward.

I can only imagine how forlorn and disappointed those sailing Brits must be, how they must be wondering about the relationship between their future king and his bride as regards attendance at future Boat Shows. In the old days, a monarch would put his foot down with a firm hand and insist on getting married on a day that didn’t interfere with the yacht club prizegiving. And his bride, recognizing the coziness of her situation, would naturally fall in with his wishes lest she be cast into a dungeon or be sent to the Tower for beheading.

But times have obviously changed quite drastically, even for princes. The Pankhurst era is over. Women don’t chain themselves to railings any more. They actually have the vote. (And perhaps one should note here that no male member of the Royal Family ever stepped in to prevent that while it was still possible.) So it’s the old story. Give them an inch and they’ll take an ell. And having taken an ell, it’s hello Westminster and to ell with the Boat Show. Sob. Only time will soften this blow.

Today’s Thought
Kings are not born; they are made by universal hallucination.
— Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #125
Survival in a liferaft. You’re far more likely to survive in a liferaft or lifeboat that can be sailed and steered. Dr. Michael Stadler, a German professor of psychology, says that waiting passively to be rescued in a helplessly drifting lifeboat is a prime cause of despair and hopelessness.
“Even the most desperate situation is bearable . . . provided they have some sense of having their position and environment under control.”

“Oi was niver drunk, Yer Honor, and Oi tried to tell the officer so.”
“And wouldn’t he listen?”
“Oh, he was listenin’ all roight, Yer Honor; ’twas moiself that couldn’t say it.”

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

November 23, 2010

Symmetry, where art thou?

IT OCCURRED TO ME RECENTLY that human beings value symmetry more than precision. Now this is not as deep a thought as you might imagine. It crept up on me after I read a question on the Cape Dory bulletin board from the owner of a 28-foot Cape Dory sloop. He had discovered that his rudder post did not come up through his cockpit on the exact centerline, but was in fact offset by about an inch or so to one side. Was this normal? he wanted to know.

But what we all understood him to ask was: Is it okay for this not to be symmetrical? The human brain loves symmetry to the extent that it will forgive all kinds of mistakes. If something’s wrong it doesn’t matter — as long as it’s equally wrong on both sides. It’s more important that mistakes should match.

Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out the way the brain would prefer them to, as demonstrated by the Cape Dory’s rudder post. In fact, there are many, many boats that emerge from the manufacturing process rather differently from what the yacht architect so painstakingly designed. In the heyday of one-off wooden yachts, a naval architect was well pleased when a 35-footer came within 6 inches of its designed overall length.

Even today, in this era of improved precision, it’s not always possible to match a finished boat to those beautifully faired lines on the designer’s drawing board. For example, one experienced contributor to the Cape Dory board confirmed that when he worked for Sam Morse, building the famous Bristol Channel Cutters, it was quite obvious that the hull mold was asymmetrical.

Now, Sam Morse boats are renowned for the quality of their build and finish, and BCCs have always been top-of-the-line cruisers. Even so, “One had only to stand behind the boat and look forward along the garboards (where the lower part of the hull joins the keel) to see the difference between the port and starboard side of the boat,” he wrote.

“I noticed this difference quite readily when installing the ballast. The lead castings for the ballast reflected the hull’s asymmetry.”

Sam Morse is not alone. The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine quotes the owner of a 2007 C&C 115 who discovered his deck was off-center by 1 1/2 inches. The builder responded: “One of the norms of the industry is that no builder guarantees symmetry. Even in strict one-design classes there are variations ...”

A hull that is not symmetrical will probably list to one side, of course. That fact, combined with an offset rudder and a mast that is not quite on centerline, might make a boat a race-winner on starboard tack and an absolute dog on port. On the other hand, the mistakes might tend to cancel each other out so that you end up with a reasonably normal boat on both tacks.

It is difficult to predict in advance what the overall effect of an asymmetrical hull might be. We are dealing here with changed centers of buoyancy and gravity, and possibly with the center of lateral resistance, too.

But, to get back to the Cape Dory man’s question, does a little asymmetry really matter? Not in most cases, I venture to suggest. I learned this from personal experience. One morning I was happily cleaning my teeth when I noticed to my horror that the middle of my top teeth did not line up with the tip of my nose. In other words, my center of sniffing was displaced to starboard of my center of chewing by about one-half tooth.

It was rather a shock to me to discover after decades of looking at myself in the shaving mirror that I had an asymmetrical face. I immediately took action to disguise my disfigurement. I learned to smile infrequently; and on the rare occasion when a smile was essential I learned to open the outer ends of my lips in light-hearted happiness and keep the middle parts firmly clamped shut.

Then, after considerable research, I learned that many people, if not most, are asymmetrical in one way or another. The length of legs can differ. One eye can be slightly higher than another. Women’s individual breasts frequently differ in size and pointiness. And I finally noticed that one of our most famous national TV newscasters has a nose running northeast and a jaw sloping southwest — and it does not impinge one whit upon his pomposity.

So I don’t worry about my nasal/dental asymmetry any more. Well, not most of the time, anyhow. I have found, though, that on meeting an interesting person of the opposite sex, my nose now bends itself slightly half a tooth to port to line up with my top teeth. It does this quite automatically without any urging from me and I take this as a happy sign of how Nature compensates for all our inadequacies. Which means that you shouldn’t really worry too much if your rudder post is offset, your center of buoyancy is skewed, or one ear sticks out more than the other.

Today’s Thought
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
— Francis Bacon

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #124
Height of lifelines. The rule is that lifelines should be no less than 30 inches above deck. Anything much lower is good only for catapulting you overboard, and higher is better.

Commander: “What blankety-blank put these goddam flowers on the navigation desk fer chrissake?”
Lieutenant: “The Admiral did, Sir.”
Commander: “Purdy, ain’t they?”

November 21, 2010

Ready to charter? (5)

HERE’S THE LAST installment of our 10-question quiz for would-be charterers.


Question 9. You notice the engine temperature gauge shoot into the red. What is your very first action? Should you:

(a) Call the charter company on VHF radio?

(b) Turn the motor off immediately?

(c) Look over the stern to see if water is coming out of the exhaust?

Taking a bearing

Question 10. You know full well that one compass bearing on its own can’t give you a position fix. So why, when you’ve been on other boats, has the skipper often put a hand bearing compass to his eye after spotting an approaching ship? Was it:

(a) To practice taking bearings without a distracting background?

(b) To check if you’re going to collide with the ship?

(c) To take the seamanlike precaution of making the compass will always work when it’s needed to take bearings on lighthouses and flashing buoys?


9(c). If you turn the motor off immediately you won’t know whether water was coming out of the exhaust, which will probably be first question anyone asks you. It takes only a second longer to look over the stern before switching off. Then you’ll have valuable information to pass on when you call the charter company.

10(b). If bearings on an approaching ship don’t change after a few minutes, you’re on a collision course. Make an early and obvious change of course to keep clear of her, even if you have right of way.

Today’s Thought
As far as yachting is concerned, there is not a blasted thing here as good as it used to be.
— L. Francis Herreshoff

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #123
Leeway in sailboats. Many factors affect leeway, but as a general rule it can be assumed that a close-hauled sailboat will make about 3 to 5 degrees of leeway in a 10-knot breeze. In a 20-knotter, she’ll more likely make between 5 and 8 degrees. So beware when you’re at the helm: she’s not going exactly where she’s looking.

“Had a marvelous time in Switzerland. Can’t remember the name of the place, but it was great.”
“Hell no, it was freezing.”

November 18, 2010

Ready to charter? (4)

ARE YOU READY to charter? Here’s Part 4 of our five-part quiz series:

Rules of the Road

Question 7. You are under sail on a northerly course. You need to charge the batteries and cool the fridge, so you have the motor running and in gear. On your port bow, at a relative angle of about 45 degrees, you spot a fishing boat steaming toward you. She’s coming back from the fishing grounds with her catch. Do you:

(a) Change course and/or speed to keep clear of her, because sailboats must keep clear of fishing boats?

(b) Hold your course because, when two power-driven vessels are crossing, the vessel that has the other on its starboard side must keep clear?

(c) Hold your course because power-driven vessels must keep clear of sailing vessels?


Question 8. Where would you most likely hear someone mumble “True virgins make dull companions — add whisky”?

Would it be:

(a) In a disreputable sailors’ bar?

(b) At a meeting of Male Chauvinists Anonymous?

(c) In the wheelhouse of a small and smelly fishing boat?


7(b). Remember, the collision rules don’t talk about fishing boats. They refer to vessels “engaged in fishing.” Fishing boats that aren’t engaged in fishing are regarded as ordinary power-driven vessels (or, though not very likely these days, ordinary sailing vessels). Remember, too, that a sailboat using her auxiliary engine in gear is considered to be a power-driven vessel, whether or not she has any sail up. (If she does have sail up and is also being driven by an engine, she should display a black shape at the bow.)

In any case, in our example we have a simple case of two power-driven vessels crossing.

8(c). You might also hear it at the chart table of a knowledgable charter yacht skipper as he or she uses the traditional navigator’s memory aid for the headings to convert true bearings to compass bearings, or vice versa: True-Variation-Magnetic-Deviation-Compass (Add Westerly).

Today’s Thought
It must not be forgotten even in the finest weather that there is no such thing as “playing at sailors” when at sea.
— C. E. Seth-Smith

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #122
Beware of lee helm. Lee helm not only adds resistance to forward progress (far more than weather helm does) but it is hard on the helmsman. There is something very unsettling about steering a sailboat with lee helm. It’s also dangerous in heavy weather, tending to make the boat constantly fall off the wind until she jibes and jibes again. So the rule is simply this: don’t live with lee helm any longer than you have to.

“Man, but that big guy over there is dumb.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He just failed his blood test.”

November 16, 2010

Ready to charter? (3)

HERE’S PART 3 of the 10-question charter quiz for your amusement and delight. Are you ready to charter yet?

Fuel tank range

Question 5. You’re cruising in your trawler-type power cruiser. Your proven-accurate fuel gauge says your 40-gallon diesel tank is two-thirds full.

You know your 36 hp engine uses 2 gallons an hour at your present cruising speed of 10 knots. In the absence of headwinds, currents, and waves, is it reasonable to assume that you:

(a) Could power non-stop to a port 125 miles away?

(b) Would need to carry 13.3 gallons of extra fuel in containers to make that same port?

(c) Should reduce speed to 5 knots to halve fuel consumption and double your cruising range?

The painter again

Question 6. Despite your very clear and calm orders, your dumb crew has allowed the dinghy painter to become entangled in the propeller as you power astern to set the anchor. What is the first thing you should try to do to untangle it?

(a) Shift gear to forward and give the motor a quick burst.

(b) Shift gear to forward and turn the motor slowly by hand with a crank or with a very short jab at the starter motor after activating the compression release.

(c) Shift into neutral and pull like hell on the end of the painter?


5(a). Two-thirds of 40 gallons is 26.6 gallons. So, consuming 2 gallons an hour, you can steam for 13.3 hours at 10 knots. That’s 133 miles. In theory, you’d make it. In practice, you’d want to top up the tank before leaving, or carry 10 gallons of extra fuel in jugs, just to be safe. And just in case you didn’t know, halving your cruising speed will add to your range, but it certainly won’t double it.

6(b) If you’re safely at anchor, this is the recommended method. Yes, it’s tempting to try a reasonably hard tug on the painter but it’s usually in vain and could actually tighten up the snarled line. Speeding the prop in forward gear is almost guaranteed to make matters worse. Even if it does clear, the painter will probably tangle up again immediately. Your last resort, of course, is to dive with a very sharp knife. The dumb crew, I mean, not you.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #121
Lateral plane as a percentage of sail area. Lateral plane area is what stops a sailboat slipping sideways in a beam wind. Sail area is what tries to make it slip sideways. As a general rule, the relationship between the two can be expressed thus:
— The total lateral plane (including the rudder) of full-keeled boats should be between 12 and 16 percent of the sail area.
— The area of a fin keel (only) should be about 7 to 10 percent of the sail area.
— The lateral plane area of a centerboard (only) may be as little as 5 percent of sail area.

“What are those marks on your nose?”
“They’re from my glasses.”
“Well for Pete’s sake why don’t you tilt your head back more?”

November 14, 2010

Ready to charter? (2)

HERE'S PART 2 of the 5-part, 10-question quiz for would-be charterers.


3. You’re on a beam reach under full sail in open water with plenty of sea room when you notice a line of fast-approaching, low, rolling cloud. It looks dark, almost black, but you can see sunshine and calm sea behind it, so you know that whatever it is, it definitely won’t last more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Should you:

(a) Furl the foresail and double-reef the main?

(b) Hold your course and, if it starts to blow, spill wind from the mainsail for the duration of the squall?

(c) Hold your course and run dead downwind for the duration of the squall?


4. In open water you spot a disreputable-looking sailboat about two miles to windward. You can’t make out whether there’s anybody on board, but you think you hear a gunshot. Sure enough, about a minute later, you hear another. And about a minute later (but not exactly a minute) definitely another gunshot.

What’s going on?

(a) They’re drug runners warning you to keep well clear.

(b) It’s a family squabble and you’d do well not to get mixed up in it.

(c) They’re in distress and asking for your immediate assistance.


3(a). This is a line squall, capable of blowing very hard and doing a lot of damage in a short time. Spilling wind could allow the mainsail to flog and rip. Running downwind could result in a wild uncontrolled broach or dangerous jibe. Always play it safe and keep the boat under tight control.

4(c) It’s the very first distress signal listed in the international and inland regulations for preventing collisions: “A gun or other explosive signal fired at intervals of about a minute.” (It could also be a family squabble, of course, depending on the neighborhoods you frequent, so be cautious if you approach to lend help.)

Today’s Thought
After the verb “to love,” “to help” is the most beautiful verb in the world!
— Baroness von Suttner, Ground Arms

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #120
Reading the tropical waters. Dark blue water means deep water, 20 fathoms or more. Vivid blue-green is the color of the coral sand covering a flat expanse of reef with 4 to 6 feet of water over it. Dark brown indicates coral heads. Brown or yellow indicates reefs with 3 or 4 feet of water over them. White means beach sand. You’re probably already aground.

Two inmates of a mental home were strolling in the grounds with a nurse when a passing pigeon dropped something white on the coat of one of the men.
“Wait here a minute,” said the nurse, “and I’ll fetch a tissue.”
The man turned to his friend. “She’s nuts,” he said, “by the time she gets back that pigeon will be miles away.”

November 11, 2010

Ready to charter?

I NOTICE THAT SOME PEOPLE are happy to swop boats with others in distant cruising destinations, so that both parties can have boating vacations at little or no cost. But I couldn’t do that. Sharing my boat would be like sharing my wife. It may be very old-fashioned of me, but I can’t do that.

Like most people, I prefer to charter. Sometimes, however, the charter companies are fussy about your experience of handling boats. So, what do you think? Are YOU ready to charter yet?

Here are the first two questions in a 10-part quiz I prepared to test your skills. The answers are below, so be careful not to peek before you’ve answered the questions.

1. Anchoring

Your chosen night anchorage is a charming little cove protected from the prevailing wind by a high, steep hill. The holding ground is good but when you arrive there your find it’s crowded with charter yachts.

You notice, however, that there is space enough for you up to windward of everybody else, close in toward the beach and under the hill in about 10 feet of water — plenty for your 5-foot draft, even allowing for the tide.

Should you:

(a) Anchor there?

(b) Anchor to leeward behind everybody else, far away from the beach in 40 feet of water?

(c) Ask someone already anchored if you can raft up alongside them for the night?

2. Maneuvering

At your on-board briefing the charter company representative informs you that you have a right-handed propeller. She asks if you understand this, and you nod wisely. After all, most things are right-handed, right? That’s obviously another word for normal.

So, when you’re backing out of your slip under power, what’s most likely to happen to the stern if the rudder is centered?

(a) The stern will probably tend to swing to port, or your right as you face aft.

(b) It will just go backward in a normal straight line.

(c) It will probably tend to swing to starboard, or your left, facing aft.


1(b). If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll know why the answer isn’t (a). Frequently a steep hill or cliff will create a backwind for a short distance to leeward. You could end up being sucked in toward the beach and going aground.

It pays to be suspicious. There’s usually a good reason why nobody’s already anchored in what looks to be a prime spot. As for (c), even if you found a willing host, most charter companies forbid rafting up — for good seamanlike reasons.

2 (a). Looking from astern, a right-handed propeller turns clockwise when it’s driving forward. In reverse, it turns counter-clockwise. It also tends to “paddle-wheel” the stern one way or the other, particularly at slow speeds.

So think of the propeller as a paddle wheel moving the stern to the left when you’re in reverse, as seen from behind. Correspondingly, a left-handed prop will move the stern to the right in reverse, of course. Different boats behave differently, but this is what a prudent sailor would reasonably expect and be prepared to make allowance for.

Today’s Thought

It takes several years for anyone to learn to handle a yacht reasonably well, and a lifetime to admit how much more there is to learn.

— Maurice Griffiths

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #119
Knots and line strength. All knots (and even tight kinks) reduce the strength of a line. Here’s how much the strength of the line is reduced by:
Anchor bend, 24 percent; round turn and two half hitches, 30 to 35 percent; bowline, 40 percent; clove hitch, 40 percent; sheet bend, 45 percent; reef knot, 55 percent.
Note: None of this should worry you unduly because most modern lines on yachts are far stronger than they need be.

Teacher: “How many times can 2 be subtracted from 10?”
Student: “I have done it 154 times and every time it comes to 5.”

November 10, 2010

Just a slight panic

SAILING A SMALL BOAT introduces many personal feelings and emotions that must be quite alien to the landlubber. When I sail out to sea, for example, there is always a sudden twinge of anxiety when the land disappears and I realize that my boat is alone on a very wide sea. There is always that sudden sense of worry, of disbelief that land exists anywhere.

No matter how many times I do that, the anxiety always appears on schedule. I feel it in the pit of my stomach until the physical routine of running the ship consumes me once again, and all fear is forgotten until the next landfall — when a different breed of concerns takes over.

There’s another feeling the landlubber will never experience either, and that’s the anxiety, verging on controlled panic, you experience when land should appear but doesn’t.

It happened to me once. After 16 days at sea I was approaching the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, specially chosen as my landfall because of its height and therefore its visibility from a great distance.

But when my calculations showed I was within sighting range, there was nothing but blue sea and sky. Hour after hour went by as I fussed with my navigation and did my sums over again and again. My alarm was contagious. My crew started to worry alongside me. Ten miles to go, and no St. Vincent.

With sinking feelings in our stomachs we wondered out loud. Could the compass be wrong? Were we completely lost? Was the sextant giving false readings? Was our chronometer acting up? Were the charts wrong? Did we have enough food and water to find some land somewhere, anywhere?

Five miles to go. Nothing. Had there been an earthquake? Had St. Vincent been blown off the face of the earth? If so, wouldn’t we see some trees and wreckage? Our minds, urged on by partially controlled panic, ran amok with logical reasons for our worrisome situation.

Suddenly there was a flash of light high up to starboard. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was sun reflecting off a car on a mountain road. We were about to run into St. Vincent. I was so startled, I automatically jibed and reversed our course.

In the next few minutes, the whole island revealed itself and we were, in fact, about four miles off, dead on course. Oh, what a relief. You can’t imagine our joy. The island had been hidden by a sea mist that had blended on the horizon to make one seamless view of the blue sea and sky. So much for the pilot books, and their tall tales of how far away St. Vincent is visible.

I have to tell you that we all felt physically drained after the gamut of emotions that had wracked our minds and stomachs for so many hours, so perhaps the landlubbers are, after all, quite happy to be spared that particular experience.

Today’s Thought
“We are lost!” the captain shouted,
As he staggered down the stairs.
-- James Thomas Fields, Ballad of the Tempest

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #118
Knots good and bad. A good knot has three important attributes:
1. It must hold fast under all conditions.
2. It must come apart easily when you want it to.
3. You must be able to make it automatically — that is, your finger muscles should retain a memory of the knot.
In addition, the best of knots can be tied or untied under strain.

“Who’s the gorgeous girl over there?”
“She’s the village belle.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s wringing her hands.”

November 7, 2010

Ocean dinghy sailing

IT WAS ALWAYS a source of regret to me that my seagoing sailboats were never big enough to carry a sailing dinghy. I always thought a small wooden dinghy would make an ideal lifeboat if the yacht sank, and I always thought I could sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary.

By force of circumstance, we always ended up with a rubber duckie that could be deflated and stowed in a cockpit locker; but the problem with an inflatable dinghy (or an inflatable liferaft for that matter) is that most of them are incapable of sailing anywhere, so you just have to sit there and pray that a ship will come your way and rescue you. Nothing deflates morale quicker. People have been known to die in days because they despaired of ever being rescued, whereas others endured long-lasting hardships simply because they were in charge of their own fate, making progress toward land and therefore generating hope.

Because we never had a small wooden sailing dinghy, I never had to do much thinking about the practical aspects of how you survive storms on the open ocean in a small dinghy. It was only years later that I read Frank Dye’s book about his extraordinary voyages from Scotland to Iceland and Norway in his open, wooden, 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy.[1]

On the passage to Norway, Frank and his male crew survived four capsizes in a Force 9 gale in the frigid Norwegian Sea. But ordinary gales never bothered them. The way they dealt with ordinary gales was this:

— They lowered the mast in its tabernacle until the upper end of the mast rested in a boom crutch a few feet above the transom.

— They fastened a cover from gunwale to gunwale over the mast, enclosing all the open cockpit.

— They streamed a parachute drogue from the bows.

— They lay flat on the floorboards to keep their ballast weight low.

The effect of the cover and the drogue was to keep the boat automatically facing into oncoming waves. In fact, the cover, being higher at the stern than near the bows, acted in the same way as a trysail would on a keelboat.

“Under the cover it was difficult to realize that a gale was blowing outside,” Dye remarks in his book with typical British sang froid. The Wayfarer rode well with a slight snatch as the drogue pulled her over each breaking crest. There was a rattle of spray on the cover and an occasional jump sideways as a cross-sea caught her. And in these conditions Dye and his crew even managed to get some rest.

The Wayfarer is a remarkable boat, of course, stable, fast, responsive, and seaworthy. And Frank Dye was an equally remarkable man.

I am grateful to him, because now that I know how to sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary, I fervently hope I never have to.

[1] Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, Second Edition, by Frank and Margaret Dye (Adlard Coles Nautical, London, 2008).

Today’s Thought
Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.
— Billy Graham

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #117
The knots you need. You can do almost everything you need to on a boat with just two knots, one bend and two hitches — five in all. They are the anchor bend, the bowline, the reef knot, the rolling hitch, and the clove hitch.

“Why did they transfer your boy friend from that submarine?”
“He has a habit of sleeping with the window open.”

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

November 4, 2010

Sailors’ worst nightmares

WHAT’S THE WORST THING that can happen to a sailor? That’s what Old Wotsisname and a couple of his pals were trying to figure out the other day as they stood around on the docks dodging rain showers.

OW said the worst thing that ever happened to him was being banned from the yacht club bar for calling the commodore an idiot to his face. But he got his own back. He resigned from the club and moved his boat to another city — yeah, OW really showed them!

However, his pals had other ideas about the worst calamities that can happen to a small-boat sailor, among them:

► Mast failure. Nothing makes your heart beat faster than the sight of your mast going overboard. The seriousness of the situation depends on many things, of course, especially how far away you are from land and rescue services.

► Anchor dragging onto a lee shore. Naturally, this only happens in the worst weather when it will cause maximum harm. Depending on the forecast, and how fast the anchor is moving, and how far offshore you are, it can be white-knuckle time. The answer is to retrieve your anchor and put out to sea as soon as the wind starts blowing hard onshore.

► Engine failure while entering a strange marina. It happens with puzzling frequency. It’s as if engines know when best to punish you. One answer is to have a stern anchor set up and ready to hurl overboard within seconds.

► A leak in the water tank at sea. It really gets your attention when you wake up to find your floorboards awash in fresh water. Whether you die of thirst or not depends on your knowledge of extracting lymphatic fluid from fish, as Dr. Alain Bombard did, and how much moisture there is in those cans of baked beans in the galley.

► Seasickness. For those afflicted, nothing is worse, even death itself. In fact, some in the deepest throes of this maritime misery have been known to beg to be allowed to die. Don’t let them. Force-feed them with dry crackers, keep them hydrated, and give them a steady supply of brown paper bags. And don’t expect any thanks.

► Some other suggestions from OW’s consultation group included:
— Going hard aground at high spring tide in front of the yacht club.
— Turning turtle at sea.
— Complete compass failure at sea.
— Getting too old to sail.

And, rather poignantly, one old salt opined that the worst thing that can happen to a sailor is to lose his or her long-time sailing partner. I thought it better not to ask him how he knew.

Today’s Thought
The true test of seamanship is how a sailor reacts when things go wrong, as they surely will.
— John Vigor

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #116
Winged keels. Wings at the bottom of a keel are an advantage only if you have a draft restriction. They get ballast low and help cut down on induced drag, but most boats could be made equally efficient by using deeper ordinary keels.

“You quite sure you shot this gator yourself?”
“Howcome it’s all dirty along one side?”
“Hit the mud when it fell out of the tree.”

November 2, 2010

How Creamer did it

EVER SINCE I READ ABOUT Marvin Creamer’s voyage around the world without navigational instruments of any kind, I’ve been wondering how he actually did it. I mean, how in fact did he deduce his latitude by eyeball only?

His explanation for the great unwashed public was simple. The former East Coast geography professor said he observed when a particular star was directly overhead. At that moment, the star’s declination (published in navigation tables) equaled the observer’s latitude.

If, at the time of observation, the star was not directly overhead but at least passing over his meridian, it must have been on a line either directly north or south of him. Then he simply estimated its angular distance away from directly overhead and converted that to miles, one degree being the equivalent of 60 nautical miles.

Yeah, right. The theory is sound . . . but the practice? Can you imagine standing on the heaving deck of a small sailboat at sea, hanging on for dear life, craning your neck upwards, squinting around the mainsail, and trying to judge when a star’s meridian transit occurs? How did Creamer do that? Well, I found the answer, or some of it, in the appendix to his book.

Apparently he drew an imaginary line from the polar point to the star before its transit. He extended that line in both directions and then he waited until that imaginary line divided the sky into two equal halves.

Okay, that’s the (very) approximate time of meridian passage, but how did he tell if the star was directly overhead or not?

“The observer should fix his shoulders in a north-south direction, stare upward, fix an imaginary zenith point and then make a zenith distance judgment.”

Hmmm. He makes it sound so easy.

“Normally an observer has a bias to his left or right,” Creamer continues, “which will affect where he ‘sees’ the star. By averaging two sights, one facing east and the other west, he can fix a point for the star and estimate his latitude based on the star’s declination.”

Creamer was in his late 60s when he sailed around the world via Cape Horn without even a compass or a watch. All I can say is that he was a very special and very gifted type of navigator. He also had his fair share of good luck. That, he explained, consisted of not having bad luck at dangerous times.

After his voyage was over, he discovered that his latitude estimates were within 100 miles of true latitude 68 percent of the time, and within 200 miles 95 percent of the time.

So, what next? you ask. What act can possibly follow that, to startle and amaze us all?

Why, blindfolded, of course. Yes, now someone needs to sail around the world blindfolded. And alone, naturally. And non-stop. And be under 15 years old.

Nothing less will startle and amaze us now. I’m afraid Creamer has desensitized us.

Today’s Thought
Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will — whatever we may think.
— Lawrence Durrell

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #115
Best keel shape. For the best windward work, a deep narrow keel is more efficient than a wide shallow one. The maximum cross-sectional width should be about 35 to 45 percent of the chord aft of the leading edge and it should be tapered smoothly to a fine edge — then either cut off bluntly at right angles or rounded to a small radius.

“How long did it take your son to learn to drive your car?”
“Oh, three or four.”
“Weeks or months?”