January 30, 2011

Inertia and seaworthiness

IT COMES AS A SURPRISE to many boaters to learn that inertia is of great importance to seaworthiness. It is one of the principal ways by which a boat resists being capsized by waves.

Inertia sounds like the feeling that afflicts you when you settle down on the sofa to read a good book or watch a movie on television. It sounds like the feeling you get when you know the lawn needs to be trimmed, or the dishes need to be washed. It is, of course, the full-blood mother of procrastination.

But in physical terms, inertia is the property of matter that makes it want to keep moving when it’s already moving. And it makes it want to keep still when it’s still. In other words, inertia resists change.

Therefore, if a wave breaks against the side of a boat that has significant inertia, it will not immediately throw her over on her beam ends. The boat’s inertia will resist any sudden change, and the more inertia the boat has, the more it will resist.

Deep, heavy boats have a lot of inertia. Heavy-displacement boats have as much as five times the resistance to being rolled over that ultra-light boats of the same length have, according to research scientist and naval architect Tony Marchaj.

A heavy mast on a sailboat or a tall tuna tower on a sportfisher provides considerable inertia via leverage, and takes a lot of jerkiness out of rolling. At the same time, it tends to prolong the roll and perhaps exaggerate it. You always have to be careful about adding weight too high up.

Inertia also affects hobbyhorsing. It makes a boat press her bows deeper in the water as a wave arrives, and throw them higher in the air as the wave passes by. This detrimental effect may be mitigated substantially, if not completely cured, by moving heavy weights away from the ends of the boat and placing them more toward the center. Now, you might think that this is counter-intuitive; that the bow will rise quicker and higher if it’s light and free to rise to waves. Well, that’s certainly true, but the fact is that the bow won’t be fighting the waves by being forced through them. It’s riding buoyantly over them. Your ride will be jerkier, but your speed will improve, and you won’t suffer that very frustrating business of standing dead still while the bow rears and plunges in the same darned hole in the water.

Today’s Thought
Change doth unknit the tranquil strength of men.
— Matthew Arnold, A Question

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #153
On a long cruise of, say, a week or more, every crewmember needs a place on board where he or she is guaranteed privacy. A bunk is the most suitable spot and a curtained-off pilot berth is a sailor’s dream of heaven. It’s important that crewmembers respect and preserve each other’s private retreats. Even a special drawer or cubby-hole allocated to one person alone can make a big difference.

“Grief, who’s that ugly girl in the corner over there?”
“That’s no girl, that’s my son.”
“Oh geez, I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t know you were his mother.”
“I’m not. I’m his father.”

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

January 27, 2011

Is a third reef necessary?

EVERY NOW AND THEN some cruising sailor gets caught out in a gale and comes home wondering out loud if the mainsail should have a third reef. The advice comes pouring in from all sides, and it’s usually contradictory and confusing.

Racing skippers will tell you they never reef. Well, hardly ever. But it’s different for them. They don’t care if their mainsails flog themselves to bits on the beat. They’re going to buy new sails next season anyhow. And they’ve got large muscular crews with highly developed clinging powers, so they won’t fall overboard when the boat broaches and the mast hits the water.

Some sailmakers aren’t much use, either. A contributor to one bulletin board I read recently said his sailmaker simply refused to put a third reef in the mainsail for his 26-foot full-keeler. “He said the extra sailcloth and grommets involved would screw up my main's light-air performance. I would add too much ‘stuff’ (weight, hardware, etc.) up high, where I don't want it. And would not let the leech open up properly in light air.” Well, to put it delicately, this is pure poppycock, of course. That sailmaker has been brain-washed by racing skippers.

However, I personally don’t believe a boat of average displacement under 35 feet in length is going to benefit from a third reef in storm conditions in the open ocean. Perhaps that reef might help in calm water near shore, but it’s not going to generate enough power to push a boat to windward in the big seas a storm generates.

My preference is for two oversized reefs on a boat of that size, and when things become too hectic for the second reef you have three choices: lie a-hull, heave to under a main trysail, or run off, either under a storm jib or under bare poles.

Now when it comes to bigger boats, a third reef can make sense. The difference here is that a big boat not only finds it easier to carry its way against big waves, but it also can carry comparatively more sail to drive it to windward. That’s because stability (hence the power to carry sail) increases as a cube of the boat’s length, while the force of the wind increases only as a square of its speed.

So, while a 40-footer is only 62 percent longer than a 25-footer, it can carry 410 percent more sail for the same degree of stability. That means a third reef in a 40-footer is comparatively much bigger than a third reef in a 25-footer, and is thus able to generate a comparatively greater amount of power.

I once had a third reef added to my main on a 31-foot heavy displacement sloop. I went through seven gales with that boat and never used my third reef once. I thought it would substitute for a main trysail, but by the time the third reef was down, the center of effort had moved too far forward. The heavy wind against the mast and rigging simply blew the bows off and she wouldn’t heave to. That’s what a trysail is all about. It gets sail area well aft, so the stern will blow to leeward and the boat will end up lying pointing at an angle of 60 or 70 degrees off the oncoming wind and waves. That’s the safest, most comfortable position until the boat starts to be picked up bodily and hurled down sideways.

Finally, let me repeat the three basic rules of thumb about the timing of reefing:
1. Reef before you have to.
2. When sailing downwind, reef in the same wind speed you would if you were beating. (Not easy either to judge or to do, but very necessary.)
3. When in doubt, go straight to the double reef.

Today’s Thought
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine.
— Burns, Winter: A Dirge

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #152
WHEN to reef? Before you lose control. On the wind, the signs are pretty obvious: sidedecks awash, dreadful weather helm, and lack of response to the helm. Downwind, watch for prolonged surfing and a sloppy, dead feeling to the helm when a waves passes underneath the stern. Time to slow down.

Après moi, le déluge
I’M PLEASED and astonished to report that new Followers have been flocking around in hordes to compensate for the fickle Follower who left me for greener pastures (long may he rot). The Follower count is now up to a record 37. I am a happy man.

“Hey, do me a favor, willya? Stick your head out the window and see if my turn signals are working.”
“Well, are they working?”
“Yes — no — yes — no — yes — no —”

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

January 25, 2011

The sleep-killing mast

WHEN YOU’RE THINKING about buying a boat there’s always something you think of too late. Something that will keep you awake all night the very first time you drop the hook in a beautiful anchorage.

Slap! Clang! Slap! It’s the noise of the loose wires in the mast. The incessant noise of the loose wires in the mast. The noise that drives you mad with frustration as you lie wide awake at 3 a.m. in your nice cozy bunk wanting to tear the mast open with your bare hands and strangle those damn wires that go clang with every little movement of the boat.

I have seen instructions from the experts showing how to pop-rivet a small-diameter plastic pipe inside the mast. Apparently, if you thread all the wires and cables through that pipe they can’t move around enough to make a noise.

The other way, which is a whole lot easier, is to fit those nylon zip ties used to bundle up electrical wiring. You’re supposed to use extra-long ones, so that the stiff ends protrude, and place groups of four of them together so they stick out at right angles to each other. The ends should protrude more than the diameter of the mast, so they will bend in place with enough spring to hold the wires in the middle of the mast. The groups of four need to be about 6 inches apart all the way up the bundle. You then haul the wires up through the mast on your messenger line, fix them in place, and hope for the best.

I don’t know how long this arrangement will last. I can’t guarantee that the stiff nylon ends won’t make dozens of squeaky little scritching noises in the middle of the night, which might be more annoying than a few honest-to-god hearty slaps, but people who’ve done it assure me they’ve enjoyed nothing but silence.

On a long cruise, I find that I don’t notice the slapping noises after the second or third night. My brain just tunes them out. But the first night is always hell, no matter how calm the anchorage seems, and no matter how many Dark ’n Stormies I have taken as a medicinal aid to sleep.

So before you buy your next boat, put an ear to the mast and get someone to rock the boat from side to side. Then get a quote for dropping the mast and fixing the slap. Subtract it from the purchase price. No seller with the faintest modicum of conscience will object.

More strangeness
ANOTHER strange thing happened. The number of my Followers has jumped from 29 to 36 virtually overnight. My fickle Follower who jumped ship has been replaced by seven new faithful Followers.

People ask me why I don’t show my Followers on this page, and I tell them that if I reveal my Followers then my readers may find them more interesting than me and desert me. For instance, I happen to know that one very interesting Follower has a Ph.D. in geology and sails one of my very favorite small boats, a Drascombe Lugger. I don’t doubt she’s more fascinating than me, and I know for sure she writes better than wot I can, so I’m not telling you who she is.

There is also a philosophical question concerning Vigor’s Silent Fan Club. If the chairman, Ivor Tungin-Cheaque, finds out about my Followers, and decides they are Following me as a crafty way of expressing praise for my writing, they will all be expelled from the club. As you know, members of this, the world’s largest fan club, are forbidden to acknowledge me or praise me in any way, in writing or by word of mouth. Old Medvedev has been very good about obeying this rule, and so has Mr. Obama, not to mention Queen Elizabeth, bless her little heart.

So I am playing it very cool for the moment, hoping that Mr. Tungin-Cheaque is looking the other way. I fear that a time may come when I shall have to reveal my Followers, but I leave that to Fate. The time is not now.

Today’s Thought
I never take a nap after dinner but when I have had a bad night, and then the nap takes me.
-- Samuel Johnson, (Boswell, Life, 1775)

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #151
Preparing a new boat for extended cruising costs about an additional 25 percent of the purchase price. A second-hand boat that has already been used for cruising will cost you only about 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price to be ready for cruising again.

“I find you guilty and sentence you to a fine of $250 and 30 days in jail.”
“Oh, please Your Honor, please I beg of you, please reverse my sentence.”
“Very well. I sentence you to a fine of $30 and 250 days in jail.”

January 23, 2011

A Follower goes astray

SOMETHING STRANGE and disconcerting has happened. Last Thursday I had 30 Followers. Last Saturday I had 29 Followers. Where is my missing Follower? Who has deserted the pack? What rat has fled the sinking ship?

It has taken me about two-and-a-half years to build up my Following of Followers — mainly, I suppose, because I have kept their existence secret — and I am not going to take it lightly if Followers suddenly stop Following.

I have not publicized my Followers because I was going to wait until I had a reasonably decent number of them to boast about, say a couple of hundred, before I revealed their existence. But now my hand has been forced and I have had to humiliate myself in public, revealing such a weensy band of Followers. I bet Oprah has 29 million Followers, not just 29 — though I imagine they would be of much lower class than my Followers. Volume is not everything, you know. Quality of Followership counts, too.

Frankly I have no idea how my small but gallant band of Followers came about in the first place. There is nothing on my blog or website that invites readers to Follow me. I was always rather nervous about being Followed in any case. It sounds too much like Stalking, and a man of great sensitivity like me soon begins to see Followers lurking on every dark street corner, and begins to wonder if he should buy a large semi-automatic pistol to protect himself and his family.

At first, when I discovered their clandestine presence, I imagined there had been an outbreak of spontaneous Self-Following. But throughout my months and years of blogging the number of Followers has gradually increased. One here, one there. Long period of nothing. One more. And so on. But always in an upward direction, always increasing.

So now, having reached 30, we suddenly slide back to 29. Who is this backslider? Where are you now? I will not tolerate this nonsense. What insubordination is this? Either you Follow or you don’t join in the first place, dammit. Are you some ignorant foreigner who over-estimated his ability to read good plain English presented with immaculate style and wondrous phrasing? Or have you simply taken leave of your senses?

I demand answers. Return to Followship immediately, whoever you are, rotten ex-Follower. I am not to be trifled with. I am der Leader of der Followers. Und I vant 30, not 29. Remember, I haf vays to make you Follow. Even if it means jumping out ahead of you.

Today’s Thought
He who betrays his friend shall never be
Under one roof, or in one ship with me.
— Swift, Imitations of Horace: Odes

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #150
How often have you seen the word “portal” on a boating bulletin board? The correct word is porthole, which is an opening in the hull or cabintop to admit light and air. It’s also known as a port. The framed glass that makes the hole watertight has two names. If it can be opened, it’s a portlight. If not, it’s a deadlight.

“What are you so excited about, Clara?”
“My Daddy’s got a new car.”
“Great. Is he excited, too?”
“Yeah, he spent all last night painting it and changing the license plates.”

January 20, 2011

The nose remembers

I WAS PASSING BY Old Wotsisname’s boat the other day when the smell of burning alcohol fuel came wafting out of his cabin. I was immediately transported back many years to a host of beautiful sunsets in the South Atlantic.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot. The world of boats is filled with specific smells that remind me strongly of past adventures.

We were running before the southeast trades all those years ago, and sunset was the time when my wife June lit the kerosene stove for supper while I was on watch in the cockpit.

If you’ve ever made a long passage on a small sailboat, you’ll appreciate how important mealtimes become in the daily scheme of things. June first had to pre-heat the kerosene burner with denatured alcohol, and it wasn’t long before the smell of burning stove alcohol had me salivating in anticipation of that much-anticipated meal, just like Pavlov’s dog.

Today, the smell takes me back to rolling, deep-blue swells and white crests fringed with the orange of the setting sun, and my sweet little boat surging buoyantly ahead under twin staysails toward the tiny island of St. Helena.

And then, on the other hand, there’s rubber glue. The sharp, eye-watering fumes remind me of the time in my teen years when I tried to repair an old wooden racing dinghy with Pliobond slathered over the inside to seal the leaky seams. It didn’t work. The boat sank and I had to swim for my life. Rubber glue still gives me the shivers.

I had a much better experience when I visited Portland Island in British Columbia a few years back. We moored stern-to the shore in the little anchorage and settled back in the cockpit for a rest. It was a hot day, one in a long spell of fine weather, and everything was bone dry, including the pine trees all around us. We sniffed deeply and savored the rich resinous odor of warm pine branches while a small otter perched on the rocky shore nearby and crunched away at his newly caught lunch.

There are many other evocative smells connected to boats, including those of newly applied varnish and (another of my favorites) tarred twine, but one I hope never to experience again is gas in the bilge. I was the mate aboard a 72-foot ketch when we woke up in a little English harbor to find our bilges reeking of cooking gas. We had a bilge blower, but we weren’t sure it wouldn’t spark if we turned it on, so three of us bailed the gas out of the bilges with plastic buckets. To the astonishment of the local onlookers, we solemnly poured our buckets of invisible gas overboard one by one, and went back for more. They must have thought we were mad. It took quite a while but it worked. We fixed the leak and we didn’t explode. But now every time I smell gas I go straight back to Thelma II and Ramsgate.

There’s another smell I hope never to smell again, too. The only time it ever happened was when we got caught in a bad gale off the Cape of Storms at the bottom of Africa. We were lying a-hull in 50 knots or so and I was on watch in the cockpit. Every time a plunging breaker came crashing down against the side of the boat I crouched over, and little puffs of acrid warm air spurted up from inside my oilskins. It was the rank smell of fear. I’ve never smelled it again and I never want to.

Luckily, there are many much nicer smells that have accompanied my sailing experiences, including the wonderful aroma of my wife’s freshly washed hair on the pillow next to mine in the V-berth. I am also somewhat attached to the rather strange and pungent smell of wet spinnaker nylon, and very much attached to the crisp smell of new wood shavings in the workshop, and the smell of blue wood smoke curling lazily out of a cabintop Charlie Noble on a frosty morning.

People who have been at sea for a long time, and whose olfactory senses have therefore been deprived of stimulation, swear they can smell land before it comes over the horizon. That has never happened to me, perhaps because I find the sea itself has a smell if you sniff hard enough. It’s a faint version of the smell that lightning leaves in the air, a kind of fresh, invigorating ozone smell that bursts out of those millions of tiny hissing bubbles in the wake.

But I do remember the smell of the tropical island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil. We came up to it from leeward in mid-morning when the burning sun had begun its work. I can’t begin to describe how sweet it smelled when we got within a mile or so. The wind wafted toward us the scent of wet, warm, fecund earth mixed with gusts of sweet frangipani and other fragrant tropical flowers whose names and faces we could only guess at. For sailors coming in from the deep sea it was Nature’s pouncet-box, a heavenly welcome, and one that my nose will never forget.

Today’s Thought
They that smell least, smell best.
Unknown, New Help to Discourse (1669)

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #149
When does a suitably shaped hull begin to plane? The rule of thumb is that planing starts when the speed in miles per hour, divided by the square root of the waterline length in feet, equals 2 or more. Thus, a 25-foot waterline hull theoretically begins planing at 10 miles an hour.

“Every night when I switch off the light I see little green and yellow flashing lights before my eyes.”
“Good grief, have you seen a doctor?”
“No, just little green and yellow flashing lights.”

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

January 18, 2011

What happened to hand tools?

I GET AN UNEASY FEELING when I see how dependent we have become on machines. Have we lost the art of working on boats with hand tools, or have we simply lost the will?

I mention this because I watched with fascination a recent discussion on the Cape Dory bulletin board. A poster wanted to know how best to cut through a small stainless-steel pin, one that looked about 3/16-inch in diameter. Get an abrasive wheel, a fellow Cape Dory owner advised him. Or get a large bolt cutter with hardened steel jaws.

No, no, said another. Get a 4 1/2-inch angle grinder.

I shoved my oar in: Use a hacksaw, I said. It’s simple. It’s easy.

Big mistake. A quick rebuttal followed: Cutting 416 stainless steel with a hacksaw should be incredibly difficult, said a CD owner who appeared to be speaking more from hearsay than experience, and who has apparently invented a new grade of stainless steel. Get a cheap 4-inch angle grinder and some metal-cutting blades. And safety goggles, of course.

No, no, said the next poster in line. An angle grinder can cause a lot of collateral damage. Use bolt cutters.

No, no, came the follow-up. Bold cutters will crush the pin and you may not be able to get it out of the hole.

And so it went on. The collective wisdom of the Cape Dory board grinding away, taking longer than it would have taken me to cut the damn pin with my little hacksaw.

I grew up in an era when boat people used hand tools not only because they were cheaper and simpler but because they would work on boats in mid-ocean as well as they would on boats with umbilical cords plugged in to shore power. It is revealing to me that the first reaction now is to rush out and buy a power tool.

I built a wooden one-design racing dinghy with no power tools whatsoever. I had a beautifully made Stanley hand drill, which I loved dearly, and still have. And I had screwdrivers, saws and planes, files and sandpaper, and a large supply of elbow grease. I’m no shipwright, nor even a good carpenter, but it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to work simply and quietly with my bare hands; so much pleasure, in fact that I went on to build another three dinghies of the same design — only for those I used just one power tool, an electric drill. I still have that, too.

When I lived in San Diego, I bought a wreck of an International Mirror dinghy that needed a lot of work. The only place I had to work on it was in a garage I rented under an occupied apartment. I rebuilt that boat with hand tools in almost complete silence so that the occupants of the apartment wouldn’t hear me and have me thrown out. I secretly sawed and sanded and repainted and glued and screwed while listening to the noise of the television above, and they never found out.

The famous American round-the-worlder Jean Gau, the Waldorf-Astoria chef, used a hacksaw to clear his stainless-steel rigging after he lost his bolt cutter overboard when his 30-foot Tahiti ketch, Atom, was dismasted while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

My boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, built himself a small ocean-going yacht, a Thuella design by Harrison-Butler, without any power tools at all. He was working out in the open, in the bush.

More recently, a friend came aboard while I was cutting a large hole in a solid fiberglass bulkhead for a new access hatch. He was almost struck dumb when he saw me using my old Stanley hand drill to bore about 200 1/8-inch holes around the perimeter, each slightly overlapping the last.

“Why not use a power saw?” he asked.

“I’m practicing for one day when I have to do it in an emergency at sea,” I told him.

There is great pleasure to be had in working slowly but effectively. There is deep satisfaction in developing the skills and patience to work with hand planes, knives, saws, and (if you have some toes left) the adze. The smell of curly new wood shavings thrills me still, as does the lack of noise, that infernal, unnecessary noise.

It’s sad that too many people are now scared to do anything by hand, scared even to contemplate cutting a thin rod of stainless steel with a hacksaw. I can only hope this is a passing phase and that sailors will one day learn to use their hands again, just as their ancestors did.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #148
Scientists have discovered that human performance levels drop steeply between midnight and 3 a.m. They peak between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and then taper off again until 3 p.m., after which there is a gradual improvement to average levels at 5 p.m. The rule of thumb, therefore is to make night watches as short as possible between midnight and 4 a.m.

“Does your husband always speak to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”

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

January 16, 2011

Size and seaworthiness

The Cal 20
IF I REMEMBER RIGHTLY it was the late Eric Hiscock who defined the ideal ocean-going sailboat for a singlehander as the biggest boat he or she could comfortably manage alone. And by “manage” Hiscock meant reef and hand the biggest sail, and safely manhandle the biggest anchor on board.

Hiscock, like C. A. Marchaj and other experts, believed in the dictum that the larger the boat, the more seaworthy — all else being equal. On other words, a good big boat should be safer than a good small boat.

I believe that, too, but the fly in the ointment here is that all else is never equal, including, most importantly, the experience and skill of the skipper. Furthermore, if the definition of seaworthiness is the ability to stay afloat and undamaged no matter how severe the weather, then the cork stopper from your last bottle of wine would win the prize, followed closely by a burned-out light bulb.

There are indeed very valid reasons why a smaller boat may be more seaworthy than a larger boat — but let me set some limits here to make more sense of this argument. By “smaller,” in regard to ocean voyaging, I mean about 20 feet on deck, and by “larger” I mean anything between 38 and 50 feet.

In 2008, Californian Robert Crawford raced from San Francisco to Kauai, Hawaii, in a 20-foot, ballast-keel, day-sailer, a Cal 20 named Black Feathers. She wasn’t the first of Bill Lapworth’s Cal 20s to make that crossing, but she was the smallest boat in the 2,200-mile 2008 Singlehanded TransPac and placed 8th on corrected time. Crawford and his wife Jeanne wrote a book entitled Black Feathers[1], which details how he changed his $1,000 Cal 20, with its huge cockpit and tiny cabin, into a seagoing racer. This is a very valuable book for anyone intending to cruise or race across an ocean in a micro-cruiser, singlehanded or crewed.

Crawford lists the advantages and disadvantages of small boats:

► Cost, of course. Everything to do with small boats costs less than everything to do with big boats.
► Maintenance is easier and cheaper.
► You can more easily handle sails, winches, spinnaker poles, anchors, etc.
► Smaller spinnakers make dealing with snafus a lot less traumatic.
► Boat handling under normal conditions is easier and more forgiving because the boat is smaller and lighter.
► Small boats are more responsive and more maneuverable in confined spaces.
► Small boats can be rowed, paddled, or sculled.
► In a singlehanded race, the skipper of a small boat has a better chance of sailing a boat to its potential, thus improving his chances of winning on handicap.
► Smaller boats are less intimidating and easier to understand.
► Because smaller boats respond more quickly to change, you can more readily learn better sailing techniques.
► Because they’re less expensive to start with, you can experiment with gear changes that make holes everywhere, without destroying the value of an expensive boat.
► You have the feeling of being more at one with the water you’re sailing in.
► Because small boats generate small forces, breakage of equipment is not so common.
► If your boat develops a leak, it’s easier to trace and fix in a small boat that has fewer areas of the hull inaccessible.
► You can’t hoard too much heavy “stuff” on a small boat because there’s nowhere to put it.
► Emergency repairs to spars and rudders are more manageable. (Crawford himself had to ship a spare rudder at sea.)
► Erecting a jury mast is much simpler on a small boat.

► Small boats give you a rougher ride in heavy weather.
► You need to reef earlier and discontinue sailing to windward sooner.
► You may have to beef up a small day-sailer for ocean work.
► Small boats often lack headroom and interior space. They won’t offer luxuries such as a full galley with fridge, or a shower, or even a fixed head. (Crawford had a bucket for a head, and ate all his food unheated.)
► Small boats are usually wetter inside and often have no sump for bilge water, which is then free to wash across the cabin and under the bunks.
► They’re not as fast as larger boats — but, let’s face facts: even larger boats are slow, very slow, compared with other forms of transport.

It’s like everything else in life. You have to make compromises, and you pay for everything one way or another. But if you have a sense of adventure and are willing to suffer a little discomfort for a week or two at a time, there is no valid reason concerning seaworthiness why you shouldn’t cross oceans and discover the joys of sailing into exotic harbors in a boat costing less than a used automobile. Quite a lot less, in some cases.

[1]Black Feathers: A Pocket Racer Sails the Singlehanded TransPac, by Robert and Jeanne Crawford, iUniverse, Inc., New York. ISBN 978-1-4401-9196-1.

Today’s Thought
Size is a matter of opinion.
— George Meredith, Richard Feverel

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #147
If you’re thinking of designing a boat, or just changing one, bear in mind that the minimum width for passages and doorways down below is 19 inches. Below the waist you can get away with a cutout 14 inches wide. The waist is taken to be 30 inches above the floor.

More books you won’t find on the library shelves:
The Philanderer, by Rex Holmes
Happy Punter, by Ida Wynne
Postscript, by Adeline Moore
Saving Bus Fares, by Rider Muill
The Spinster, by I. Wanda Mann
The Prevaricator, by Eliza Lott
Cheap French Sandals, by Phillipe Phillope

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

January 13, 2011

A navigational essential

IN MY BOOK, the fixed steering compass is the most important navigational instrument on a boat. I know that GPS has tried to steal this title ever since it was invented, but I don’t think it has earned that honor yet.

The wonderful thing about a compass is that it points the way to go, day and night and in all weathers. GPS can’t point the way to go because it only takes snapshots of where you’ve been in the past, and uses that information to tell you what your course was a few moments ago, and presumably will be in the future, if you keep going straight.

The compass is a beautifully simple piece of equipment that needs no electrical power and has hardly anything to go wrong. It does need to be lit at night, I admit, and an electric bulb is a good way to do this, but they also used small kerosene lanterns on square-riggers, before Mr. Edison came along with his new-fangled light bulb.

Oh, and sometimes, after a lot of exposure to hot sunshine, a compass will develop bubbles. In the old days, when the damping fluid was alcohol, you used to top up the compass with gin, if there was any left after the skipper had been at the bottle. Nowadays they use a petroleum-based fluid that is about 10 times as expensive, but you can get away with using odor-free, water-clear kerosene if the bubbles aren’t too big.

With compasses, as with most other things in life, you get what you pay for. If you’re buying a new one, here are two simple tests that will give you an idea of its quality:

► The test for pivot friction: Use a small magnet or a piece of ferrous metal to deflect the compass about 5 degrees to one side, then quickly remove the magnet or metal.

The compass should return to the previous position exactly. Do a similar test from the other side.

► The damping test: Deflect the compass card again, but this time let the card pivot through about 30 degrees. When it returns, see how far it overshoots the original mark. A quality compass with proper damping has minimum overshoot and will regain its original position with quick authority — that is, without excessive hunting backward and forward. A cheap compass that hunts endlessly will drive a helmsman nuts in a seaway.

Incidentally, don’t think you can cure bad deviation by installing a new compass. The new compass will have exactly the same deviation as the old one because deviation is caused by external factors on the boat around it. And if deviation is more than 5 degrees on any heading, don’t hesitate to call in a professional compass adjuster.

Today’s Thought
Change as ye list, ye winds! my heart shall be
The faithful compass that still points to thee.
— John Gay, Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #146
The wires carrying direct current from your boat’s batteries to the compass light create magnetic fields that can affect the accuracy of the compass. The rule of thumb is to twist the two wires around each other within a few feet of the compass. In this manner, the magnetic fields cancel each other out.

Books I’d like to find in my library:

Mother and Child, by Polly Anderson
The Appointment, by Simeon Mundy
Ceaseless Fall, by Eileen Dover
Shattered Window, by Eva Brick
Front Row of the Stalls, by Seymour Legge
Droopy Drawers, by Lucie l’Astique

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

January 11, 2011

The venerable Aries

WHEREVER SMALL SAILBOATS GATHER to cross oceans, you’ll find a forest of Aries wind vanes. Well, maybe not a forest but certainly a whole lot of trees.

A self-steering wind vane is worth its weight in gold at sea, specially if you’re a singlehander, but when Nick Franklin started selling his Aries vane in Cowes, England, in 1968, he could hardly have guessed how popular they would become.

By the time he quit making them in 1992, he had sold more than 11,400 of them in various models.

The Aries is a brutally strong piece of engineering, sculpted from stainless steel and aluminum, and even in these days of electronic autohelms it is a prized possession for ocean-going sailboats. It has no batteries to go flat, no fuses to replace, no wires to corrode. It is the Rube Goldberg of steering systems, stealing its guidance from the wind and its power from the passing water. It is a magical, 90-pound replacement for a human crewmember, but it doesn’t need to be fed three meals a day and it never steals the last cold beer. It is also the stuff of legend because of the way it was invented and manufactured.

According to Nick, the Aries was developed on purely practical level with no calculations or theories. “There have never been any drawings used,” he said. “All parts had a 'master sample' nailed to the wall, which worked perfectly and still does.”

Apart from buying castings from foundries, all machining and assembly was done in Nick’s workshop. “Most sales were direct to skippers,” he said, “with large stocks always to hand for same-day dispatch. Ninety-five percent of our sales were exports. No complaints, no records kept whatsoever, no computers, rather crazy customers. Good fun. The exact opposite to how we are told we should run our businesses today.”

Nick eventually quit making his wind vanes because he felt people were no longer prepared to pay the price for exceptional engineering. He also shot himself in the foot by making a product so well that it was good for 40 years (and counting) of rough usage.

New Aries vanes are now being built in Denmark, but Nick’s daughter Helen, in Cornwall, England, is still selling rebuild kits and spare parts for the thousands of old Aries models still working their way around the world.

Nick died in May last year aged 67 but he will long be remembered for widening the horizons of generations of smallboat sailors.


Today’s Thought
A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. And he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind.
— Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit: Business

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #145
Here are a couple of rough rules of thumb for how much paint you need. The measurements are in feet, the answers in square feet:
Topsides: Length on deck, plus beam, times 2 times average freeboard.
Bottom: Load waterline times beam times draft. Full-keel cruising sailboats need 3/4 of this figure. Light-displacement sailboats need only 1/2.

It’s sad for a girl to reach the age
Where men consider her charmless;
But it’s worse for a man when he gets to the stage
Where women consider him harmless.

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

January 9, 2011

Where are the Yugo yachts?

I WAS WATCHING a car review on television the other day when it struck me that there are no bad cars any more. And that made me wonder if there are any bad boats.

The car in question was a smallish family sedan, nothing special, but the reviewer had lots of good things to say about it.

My wife, a former journalist, pointed out the obvious: “They won’t let you drive their cars if you give them bad reviews.”

Well, that explained why there are no bad cars. But if you have an ear attuned to the special language of car reviewers, you can read between the lines. You pick up the subtle hints.

“Car enthusiasts might want a little more feedback in the corners,” he said cautiously. That meant the steering was sloppy, the suspension was soft, and you had no idea how much you could twitch the steering wheel before the darned thing fell over on its side.

“Acceleration is adequate for a car in its class.” That meant it was slow and underpowered. That’s what you call damning faintly, with praise just strong enough to win you another car to review next month.

Now when it comes to sailboats, who can remember when last they read a magazine review panning a new boat? Where does someone, specially someone unfamiliar with boats, go for advice about the virtues and vices of a particular model? Where are the waterborne Edsels lurking these days? Who’s churning out the yachting Yugos? Are there really no bad boats?

Those of us who follow these things know there are new production boats whose keels fall off from time to time. I know of one hull that split right down the middle at sea. I read about one whose engine fell off its mounts when the boat turned turtle in a storm. And we know that there are certain boats with well-known reputations for susceptibility to hull blisters.

In my book called Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere, I list all the faults I could find out about each boat. These faults were mostly to do with sagging cabin tops under deck-stepped masts, rotting plywood or balsa cores in decks, or weak-kneed rudder fittings. But they were all old boats, well used boats, cheap boats, not models straight off the showroom floor. And the reaction from sailors who already owned those boats was interesting.

There were big headlines on the Internet when I aroused the wrath of owners of 20-foot Flickas. "Vigor is an Idiot," they said. It wasn’t because I criticized the boat in my book. In fact, the Flicka got a very favorable review. It was, after all, one of the favored 20 out of the many hundreds of boats I had to choose from. No, they objected because I mentioned that she was tubby and boxy, and because I characterized her as pug-ugly. Love is blind, of course. All boats are sleek and beautiful to their owners, and those who think otherwise are patently idiots.

My wife now suggests I write a book to help newcomers to sailing. She has the title already. Twenty Small Sailboats to Avoid at All Costs. I’m not biting, though. It’s still my opinion that there are Yugo yachts out there, but — and I’m actually ashamed to admit this — it will take a braver man than I am to point them out in print.

Today’s Thought
I have never found, in a long experience of politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.
— Harold Macmillan

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #144
When is your boat overloaded? The average displacement sailboat may safely be allowed to rise above, or sink below, its designed waterline by an amount equal to 1 percent of its waterline length. Thus, a boat with a 30-foot waterline can sink 3.6 inches.

“What happened to that horse you bought?”
“It died.”
“Did you sue the guy you bought it from?”
“Nah, too much fuss and bother. I raffled it.”
“But didn’t people complain when they learned it was dead?”
“Only the winner, and I gave him his money back.”

January 6, 2011

Sail slow, live long

IT WAS AN INTERESTING news day today. First, the Pope says God was behind the Big Bang that created the universe. Well, I don’t know. What happened to the Six-Days-On, One-Day-Off theory about how the world was created? Am I now suddenly expected to believe that we’re just the instantaneous result of a large firecracker gone wrong?

And you’d think God would have mentioned the Big Bang to Moses, wouldn’t you? I mean, it must have been pretty traumatic. I bet He got into big trouble with his mom. And surely He would have added an 11th Commandment:

Thou shalt not play with matches.

And then there was the other big news from the American Medical Association. An important study published in the Journal reveals that your walking speed predicts how long you’re likely to live. Apparently, old codgers who walk fast live an average of 10 years longer than old codgers who walk slowly.

Strangely enough, this directly contradicts an extensive study funded by the Ancient Society of Full-Keel Enthusiasts in Newport, Rhode Island. This study found that people who sail slowly — 6 knots or less — live an average of 12.8 years longer than boaters who habitually travel on the water at speed of between 6 and 20 knots.

According to the study, conducted over a period 10 years, powerboaters and sailors who choose fast, fin-keel boats or multihulls invariably die sooner than sailors who choose classic full-keel designs whose displacement limits them to lower hull speeds.

Dr. Elmer Foldglove, Director of Hydraulic Studies in the College of Science at Newport University admits that nobody understands why the owners of slow boats live longer.

“We were surprised at the results,” he told me. “It wasn’t what we expected.”

I suggested that the faster you go, the greater the chance of damage and injury in a collision.

“That’s true,” he said, “but collisions didn’t come into it. Just sailing on a slow boat seems to be enough to prolong life expectancy. Perhaps it has to do with personality. Perhaps calm, relaxed people — the sort of people who might be expected to live longer in any case — are somehow naturally attracted to full-keel boats. And vice versa.”

Obviously, more study is needed, but meanwhile the Ancient Society of Full-Keel Enthusiasts has welcomed the news. “The price of full-keelers is going up by the day as buyers compete for them,” said secretary Josh Clayburn. “We’ve had a dozen applications to join our society in the past hour, and we’ve had to build an extension onto the clubhouse bar for an expected onslaught of wheelchairs and walkers.”

Today’s Thought
I am too old, and the seas are too long, for me to double the Cape of Good Hope.
— Francis Bacon

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #143
Long overhangs have no place on seagoing sailboats. They cause pounding at the bow and slamming at the stern. In quartering seas, a long counter stern affords an overtaking swell the purchase and leverage to spin the boat broadside-on. Such a sudden broach can be very dangerous. The old rule was: Long overhang, calm water. (And calm water only.)

“I’m afraid I haven’t played golf for a long time,” the sweet young thing confessed to her golf-mad boyfriend. “In fact I’ve even forgotten how to hold the caddy.”

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

January 4, 2011

Just don't fall overboard

AS FAR AS FALLING OVERBOARD is concerned, I have always shown a great deal of respect for lifelines, harnesses, tethers, and jacklines. That is not to say I have always had these safety aids, nor have I always used them when I did have them, but I have always thought a lot about them.

As a result of all this long and deep thinking, I always come to the same conclusion. The best advice is not to fall overboard in the first place. Second best: if you do fall overboard, stay attached to the boat with a harness and short tether. Third best: stay attached with a harness and long tether.

Third best, unfortunately, is not good at all.

Many years ago, the Japanese singlehander Yukio Hasebe explained to me the problem with a long tether. He was sailing toward Australia from the east with his self-steering wind vane engaged when he fell overboard. He was dragged alongside near the stern and couldn’t pull himself back on board against the pull of the water because of the speed of the boat.

For hours he lay there, helpless, half-drowned, and losing blood from being scraped up and down against barnacles on the hull. Finally, the boat slammed up against the Great Barrier Reef and was pulverized. But Yukio was saved. He was somehow able to drag himself ashore. He lived to buy another boat and keep sailing around the world, only this time with a much shorter harness.

A really short harness should stop you going over the side in the first place, but on a small boat with meager beam, it’s not easy to arrange. A normally short harness should suspend you with your shoulders somewhere around deck level, from which position you have a fair chance of hauling yourself back on board. And a long harness ... well let’s not even think about a long harness.

Bernard Moitessier, who never used a harness, once told me it was better to learn to cling like a monkey. You know the old rule: One hand for the boat, one hand for the banana. But his theory, at least, has always made sense to me. Don’t go overboard. Just don’t. And then you’ll never have to worry about the length of your tether.

Today’s Thought
What matter in what wreck we reached the shore,
So we both reached it?
— Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #142
A single outboard motor is more economical than two outboards motors half the size. A twin rig with the same power as a single motor costs about 30 to 40 percent more and weighs about 50 percent more. Underwater drag is increased and fuel consumption goes up by between 30 and 50 percent.

I wish I was a fairy prince,
And if it came to pass,
I’d climb up all the rocks and trees
And slide down on my hands and knees.

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

January 2, 2011

How to write a best-seller

I’M SURE YOU MUST HAVE WONDERED, as I often have, how to write a book good enough to win a Pulitzer prize. Well, wonder no more. I have the answer.

I have just read E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, published in 1993. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around the reading it, particularly as it deals with the two subjects I know best, boats and newspapers, but I have no reasonable excuse to offer. Anyway, here’s what I learned from E. Annie:

First you have to look up a lot of obscure little words that will impress the Pulitzer Prize committee with your knowledge of obscure little words. Here are some examples that E. Annie scattered around in her book: Ruvid, plangent, nacre, vetrid, thunge, drenty, sadiron, pelm, caliginous, strigil, and ichor. That’s just for starters. You need lots more than that.

Next you have to persuade your readers to suspend disbelief. There are those of us cynics who simply can’t believe that the main character, a non-swimmer, learned to swim in 15 seconds after his dinghy capsized in the remote freezing waters of Newfoundland and was rescued six hours later by his boss who just happened to be out fishing in his own skiff.

Equally, it would be hard to persuade us that another man, who was drowned, found, declared dead, and later placed in his coffin for the wake, woke up when his wife accidently stuck him with a pin, started coughing up water, and came back to life.

And then there was the man who had a farewell party that got so out of hand that a mob of his drunken friends took axes to his uninsured seagoing yacht in the harbor and actually sank it — and he didn’t mind. Didn’t mind. I ask you.

Furthermore, there’s this thing about knots that goes through the whole book. I have to admit that I believe Turk’s Heads bring good luck, but I simply can’t swallow the notion that knotted strings can cast witching spells, influence events, and foment bad occurrences.

So how you make your readers believe these things — or, at least not mind being told such big fibs? Well, it seems that you have to bombard them with facts.

E. Annie obviously did extensive research into Newfoundland fisheries, boatbuilding, weather, weak jokes, and the staggering incidence of incest and sexual assault in the region. And she never leaves out a fact she researched. Line after line of facts, real facts, whether they have anything to do with the plot or not. Well researched facts are plainly the things that earn Brownie points for pusillanimous Pulitzer wannabees. They cover up the pusillanimity, if you see what I mean. As far as the author is concerned, such lists of boring facts may well be no more than corroborative detail, intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (as Mr. Gilbert put it) but they do serve very well the task of pulling the wool over the eyes of the Pulitzer prize committee, and I commend this strategy to you.

But wait. There is more. If you are writing a love story, as this is, you must be careful not to make your main characters too lovable. I presume the Pulitzer people must have become too jaded after reading so many love stories about curvaceous blonde bombshells and handsome, dashing, muscle men. (Oh, yeccchh!) E. Annie must have known this because she was careful to describe her hero (um, well, main character, anyway) as fat and dishevelled, with a hideous prognathous jaw — a man, moreover, of “cringing hesitancy.” And who was attracted to this timid tub of lard? A middle-aged woman with calloused hands, gray, mended dresses, and “taut thighs like Chinese bridges.” Holy cow. Chinese bridges?

Finally, here’s a hot tip from E. Annie: learn to write shorthand, diary style, in between the long lists of facts and lengthy paragraphs of dialogue. Leave out verbs and other important words, and let your readers make up their own sentences. Here’s what I mean:

“Saw her. The tall woman in the green slicker. Marching along ... A calm almost handsome face, ruddy hair ... Looked right at him.”

Well, that’s the most of it. That’s how you write a Pulitzer winner. There’s only one more thing. You also need to be a genius like Ms. Proulx. You have to understand human nature and the subtle relationships between people; and you need the skill to convey their emotions to your readers, especially the PP committee members who are struggling to see through the wool.

I’ll never win a Pulitzer prize, that’s quite certain, but there may be some of you out there who will benefit from my advice here, and that is sufficient reward for me. I wish you the best of luck.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #141
Diesel engine oil. The rule of thumb is that used oil from a diesel engine should be jet black, and no other color. If, after a few hours, it is brown, milky, or some other color, seek expert advice as soon as possible.

“What’s that mark on your nose.”
“I get it from glasses.”
“Why don’t you try contacts?”
“They don’t hold enough beer.”

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