March 31, 2011

Little fleas and lesser fleas

I DON’T KNOW who Augustus de Morgan was, but every time I think about dinghies for yachts I am reminded of something he wrote:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

It’s the little fleas of the yacht world that I think about, the tiny fellers I see outboard motoring up the Inside Passageway to Alaska, towing their lesser fleas behind them.

Big yachts have problems enough with their tenders, but it’s the little ones that really suffer. Any boat of 25 feet or under that cannot be beached is going to have to spend time in anchorages, and the question is: How do we get ashore? Hard dinghy? Nesting? Inflatable? Kayak? Folding boat?

Folding boats need space on the side-deck, and not many small yachts can afford it. Kayaks must be towed, but they flip and fill too easily. Inflatables are safe and reliable, but they tow badly. They stick to the water. And deflating them, stowing them, and re-inflating them again at your destination is a pain in the cockpit – or on the foredeck, or wherever you do it.

Hard dinghies tow well, and are the most barnacle-resistant when you drag them ashore, but they’re usually cranky and heavy. They’re also likely to fill with spray or green water in rough seas, although I have towed one 10-footer hundreds of miles in the open Pacific without problems. The secret was to use a 75-foot painter and to weigh down the stern to prevent her from taking a sheer on the front of swells. Furthermore, we had an understanding, that dinghy and I: if ever she gave me trouble, if ever she started running down and ramming my counter, I would cut her free and leave her to fend for herself. That threat was enough, apparently. I never had to carry it out.

L. Francis Herreshoff listed five features for his “ideal tender.” She would:

► Row easily, light or loaded
► Be light enough to be hoisted aboard easily
► Be stiff enough to get into and out of easily
► Be strong enough not to leak, and able to take some abuse
► Tow steadily, always holding back on her painter and never yawing around.

I firmly believe there is no ideal tender, and the smaller the mother yacht the greater the compromises that have to be made. I once used to tow a 10-foot dinghy behind a 22-foot Santana, and I’m sure it looked quite ludicrously out of proportion. But that was the dinghy I had and that was the sacrifice I made. We all have to come to terms with the dinghy problem somehow, and if some people managed it more elegantly than I did, good luck to them. At least the flea upon my back was a nice big fat one.

Today’s Thought
When eager bites the thirsty flea,
Clouds and rain you sure shall see.
— Inwards, Weather Lore.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #179
Next time you break an oar or a rudder in your dinghy, you’ll be glad for a sculling notch in the transom. The usual size for a yacht tender is 1 7/8 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches deep. It should be egg-shaped, slightly narrower at the top than the bottom, and all edges should be well rounded.

“How did you enjoy the bridge party the other night?”
“It was great — until the cops looked under the bridge”

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

March 29, 2011

Where is the magic?

SOMETIMES I WONDER about the magic of sailing. Just what is it about sailboats that draws us back to the water time and time again? What possesses us to spend so much time and money getting cold, wet, frightened, and seasick?

For years people have been telling me that Maurice Griffiths had the answer. He wrote a book in 1932 called The Magic of the Swatchways. It’s all about sailing in the Thames Estuary, off London, an area of wicked tides and nasty sandbanks, bordered by rivers and the tiny rivulets and creeks that I believe they call swatchways. These swatchways dry out at low tide, revealing acres of hissing, smelly mud.

I know this because I have at long last got around to reading Mr. Griffiths’ book about his venturesome voyages in and around the swatchways, and I am as puzzled as ever about the magic of it.

He sails, often at night, in small, full-keeled gaff-riggers with topsails and 15-foot bowsprits; and he seeks solitude. He doesn’t want to be where other boats are. So he sails in gales and takes desperate chances. He sails on Christmas Day and he sails in the snow. No lifelines on his boats, of course. No tethers or lifejackets. Nothing sissy like that. He gets cold, wet, and seasick, and when the wind frustrates him once too often, he makes a downwind dash at dusk for a harbor whose bar is awash in breakers. He is saved at the last minute from certain shipwreck by flagged directions from a shorebound pilot who takes pity on him.

Why does he do it? Well, he’s obviously in love with sailing. Terribly in love. And love, as we all know, is temporary madness. There’s nothing rational about love. Unfortunately, Mr. Griffiths’ problem seems to be that his ailment isn’t temporary. He’s doomed to suffer all his life.

He was, of course, a yacht designer and editor of Yachting Monthly from 1927 to 1967, and he used that vehicle to spread his madness through articles, written with great charm and dignity, thereby inducing thousands of innocent readers to take up the sport of sailing and infecting their lives forever.

I doubt that I have ever read such beautiful descriptions of wind and wave as are contained in his book. I doubt that anyone has managed to describe so delicately and so accurately the way of a ship in the sea. The magic in this book is the magic of language, the magic of words strung together in such a way as to stir the heart and soul of anyone capable of finer feelings.

But I’m afraid Mr. Griffiths doesn’t explain for me the magic of sailing. It is simple madness to expose oneself voluntarily to the rigors and dangers that his kind of sailing entails. No, the magic must lie somewhere else. I don’t know where, but it must surely be very powerful magic to overwhelm all the misery, and keep us coming back for more.

Today’s Thought
The masterless man ... afflicted with the magic of the necessary words ... Words that may become alive and walk up and down in the hearts of the hearers.
— Rudyard Kipling.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #178
What screw to use in wood? The old rule of thumb used by boatbuilders was that a screw should have a thread depth at least six times its shank diameter near the head, to obtain maximum grip in hardwood. For softwood that ratio was increased to 8:1.

“Whatcha want?”
“Two eggs easy over, hash browns, coffee, and a kind word.”
The waitress brought his order and was about to move away when he said:
“Hey, how about that kind word?”
“Okay,” she whispered. “Don’t eat them eggs.”

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

March 27, 2011

No need for special glasses

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

Sir, — I recently read an article by some fancy schmancy sports doctor type. He says if you go skiing or yachting, you need special glasses or else you’ll eventually go blind. Something to do with ultraviolent rays.

I understand that small sailboats bounce around a lot at sea but I still don’t understand why you need special glasses. What’s wrong with ordinary glasses?

— Armpit Leftwich,

Block 5 Row 3 cell 14

► Well, I have to agree with Armpit. There is no need for special glasses since most sailors drink their beer straight from the can or bottle when they’re at sea. Some of them will use glasses when the boat is in port, to convince young ladies that they have been house trained and can therefore be trusted when they invite you on an after-dinner tour of the fo’c’s’le. They can’t be, of course, but that’s beside the point.

I have noticed that most of them use square tumblers, the kind whisky drinkers prefer. These glasses are squat and, like the best crew members, have a low center of gravity, which is desirable on a boat, especially when some low-life comes speeding past in a powerboat and sets the boat rocking ultraviolently.

Personally, I don’t see how your choice of glasses can make you blind unless you drink raw ouzo or absinthe. I know that stove alcohol, strained through a loaf of bread, also can make you blind, but most people don’t bother with glasses when they do that.

Perhaps that sports doctor doesn’t realize that sailors can go blind in other ways besides drinking out of glasses, at least one of which actually causes you to grow hair on your palms as well, and he needs to sort out those who only drink beer from those with multiple vices.

In the meantime, Armpit, if I were you I wouldn’t worry my pretty little head about it. I mean, hell, glasses are cheap. Ten cents a throw at my local thrift store, although I guess there’s no guarantee that they didn’t already make somebody blind.

Today’s Thought
For drink, there was beer which was very strong when not mingled with water, but was agreeable to those who were used to it. They drank this with a reed, out of the vessel that held the beer, upon which they saw the barley swim.
— Xenophon, Anabasis

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #177
How much sail can you manage alone? A sail of about 400 square feet is about as much as the average person working alone would want to handle with any regularity. Interestingly, though, a larger hull, one that provides a more stable working platform, might ease the handling of a larger sail.

“Hey gorgeous, I hear you collect stamps. How about inviting me in to see your collection some time?”
“Down boy, down. Philately will get you nowhere.”

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

March 24, 2011

The right size boat for you

HOW BIG A BOAT do you need for long-distance cruising in reasonable comfort? I say reasonable comfort because there are those among us, usually the young and adventurous, who will go to sea in almost anything that floats, no matter how small and rudimentary. And good luck to them. I salute them. But them are not me. And I are not they. Not any longer.

To answer the question, though: it depends on three factors: the number of crew, the weight of the stores they need, and the number of days between provisioning stops.

So, to find the minimum required displacement of a cruising sailboat (within 10 percent) start by multiplying the combined weight of crew and stores (including water) by 7.

For planning purposes, use these guidelines:

Crew: Multiply number of crew by 160 pounds.

Stores: Allow 6 pounds per person per day.

Water: Allow 8.5 pounds per person per day.

Safety reserve: Multiply the total of stores and water by 1.5.

Personal gear: Allow 5 pounds per days or a maximum of 120 pounds per person. (For permanent liveaboards, a maximum of 500 to 1,000 pounds is more appropriate.)

Here’s an example:

1. Find the minimum boat displacement for two people with water and provisions for 42 days.

2. Displacement (within 10 percent) = (weight of crew and stores) times 7.

3. Longest time between provisionings = 42 days.

4. Number of crew = 2. Crew weight = 2 times 160 = 320 pounds.

5. Daily stores = 6 pounds times 2 crew times 42 days = 504 pounds.

6. Water = 8.5 pounds times 2 crew times 42 days = 714 pounds.

7. Safety reserve = 504 (stores) + 714 (water) = 1,218; times 1.5 = 1,827.

8. Personal gear = 120 pounds times 2 = 240 pounds.

9. Total weight of stores, water, safety reserve and personal gear = 1,827 + 240 = 2,067 pounds.

10. Displacement = 2,067 times 7 = 14,469 pounds or 6.5 tons.

11. Displacement within 10 percent = 13,000 pounds to 16,000 pounds (5.8 tons to 7 tons.)

A heavy displacement 30-footer, such as circumnavigators Eric and Susan Hiscock’s Wanderer III weighs in at 16,000 pounds but more modern designs could get that displacement down to 12,500 to 13,000 pounds and produce a faster hull with more room down below. And in each case, the boat could easily be handled by a crew of two.

Today’s Thought
It is a pleasure for to sit at ease
Upon the land, and safely for to see
How other folks are tossèd on the seas
That with the blustering winds turmoilèd be.
— Lucretius.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #176
To estimate the sail area a boat needs, take three quarters of the square of the waterline length in feet — that is, multiply the waterline length by itself and take 75 percent of the result. The answer is in square feet. Some boats will vary considerably, of course, but this will give you a general idea.

“Sorry to hear about your husband. What happened?”
“Well, I asked him to pick a cabbage for supper and he went into the garden and keeled over suddenly and that was that.”
“Wow. What did you do then?”
“Oh, I opened a can of peas instead.”

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

March 22, 2011

Alarming lack of hyphen power

A HEADLINE in a local boating magazine reads: “Calling All Wooden Boat Owners.” The story concerns sailboat racing in Port Townsend, Washington, which is apparently starting up again for “wooden boat owners.”

I fear there cannot be many of those around. But one never knows. Are you, perchance, a wooden boat owner? That is, are you wooden? Do you own a boat? Are you a chip off the old block, maybe, with a heart of oak? Do you creak when the wind blows? Do you splinter easily? If so, you may be able to enter your boat for the Balsa Bowl, the Cedar Cup, the Mahogany Mug, the Plywood Plaque, and who knows what all else?

Okay, enough already. Yes, I know, it gets tiresome. The real story, of course, concerns the power of the hyphen and the lack of knowledge of boating headline writers. The tiny hyphen has it within its power to change a wooden boat owner into a wooden-boat owner, a vastly different thing. You may think this is splitting hairs, a semantic silliness, but it’s not.

Take, for instance, the headline on a pack of milk in my fridge. It says Fat Free Milk. Fat milk and free milk. And yet, by golly, it has no fat and it’s not free. It’s saying exactly the opposite of what it means to say because it has ignored the humble hyphen in Fat-Free Milk.

Of course, I don’t mean to denigrate any of you who actually happen to be wooden boat owners. Good luck to you, I say, and no doubt the Coasties will excuse you from wearing life jackets — all except those of you made of lignum vitae, which, I believe, sinks rather than floats. But there, you can’t have everything. Not even a hyphen, it seems.

Today’s Thought
When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, ... I think—
Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.
— H. D. Thoreau.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #175
No matter what your instincts are, do not cut down the size or height of your rig to go ocean voyaging. That’s the rule of thumb from experienced cruisers Lin and Larry Pardey. “Cruising boats need power to keep them moving,” they say, “since they are almost always heavily laden.”

An old lady approached the boy who was sitting on the curb with a cigarette in one hand and a hip-flask in the other.
“Sonny,” she said, “why aren’t you in school?”
“Jeez, have a heart, lady,” he said. “I’m only three.”

March 20, 2011

Sea anchors versus drogues

TWO PEOPLE have asked me recently: “What is the difference between a drogue and a sea anchor?”

Well now, because two is a significant percentage of my readership, I feel compelled to offer an explanation.

A sea anchor is anything designed to hold a boat almost stationary in the water, anything that is not attached to the bottom. It usually takes the form of a heavy-duty parachute or a large conical canvas bucket with a wide mouth and a small hole in the bottom, such as the one Captain Voss made popular.

In really heavy weather, a sea anchor streamed from the bow will keep a shallow-draft powerboat or a sailing multihull pointing into the waves and making slow sternway, which is probably the safest way to lie.

But sea anchors don’t work very well on most deep-keel sailboats. The windage on the mast, which lies a long way forward, causes the bow to blow off and jerk the line constantly. The result is that most of the time the boat will lie almost broadside on to the waves, which is not always the best position, depending on the boat’s underwater shape.

Then there is the difficulty of streaming a sea anchor, with its mess of canopy lines, in a gale of wind. The makers of sea anchors don’t list this among the selling points.

A drogue on the other hand, is anything dragged in the water behind the boat to slow it down, rather than to bring it to a halt. A drogue is useful when a boat is running before the wind and starts to get out of control. In combination with a scrap of sail up forward, or even under bare poles, a drogue over the stern will help prevent a boat from slewing broadside on to the swells and being laid over on her side, vulnerable to complete capsize on the next wave.

The time to stream a drogue is when your boat starts to get out of control as you race along almost at the same speed as the overtaking waves and the helm goes slack while you wallow in foam-filled water. The drogue slows you down so that the wave will pass under your transom quickly, and restore control to the rudder once more.

Some deep-sea sailors use car tires as drogues. Others use fancier drogues made for the purpose, including one with scores of small conical pockets on a long line that evens out the strain. But the principle is the same. The drogue just slows the boat down. It’s also very useful when running an inlet with a shallow bar, to keep the boat lined up at right angles to the surf.

Today’s Thought
He that mounts him on the swiftest hope
Shall often run his courser to a stand.
— Colley Cibber, Richard III

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #174
To estimate the sail area your boat needs, take three quarters of the square of her waterline length in feet. That is, multiply the waterline length in feet by itself, and take 75 percent of the result. The answer is in square feet.

Two pink elephants, a mauve spider, and two yellow snakes strolled into a local bar.
“Sorry, guys,” said the bartender. “You’re a bit early. John Vigor isn’t here yet.”

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

March 17, 2011

Capsizing on the wavetops

ONE ASPECT OF SEAWORTHINESS that has interested me for years is rarely discussed in the technical press and probably little understood by the experts. It’s the fact that a sailboat is very prone to capsize on the top of a big wave or swell attacking from the side.

I have seen a video of this phenomenon in which a Star-class dinghy simply gets blown flat on her side after rising to the very top of a swell, and it’s my guess that keelboats are just as vulnerable. It’s not the water hitting the hull that causes the capsize. It’s an interesting physical phenomenon.

When a boat of any kind is lifted by a broadside swell, there comes a moment at the top when she is almost weightless. It’s the feeling you get when an elevator starts to descend, and your stomach rises to your chin. Because the boat is weightless, almost all of her stability disappears. Both form stability, from her beam, and gravitational stability, from her heavy fixed keel, are reduced to nil in the moment when the upward movement stops and the downward movement begins.

In that moment, there is nothing to counteract the wind pressure in the sails. She simply gets blown flat on her side in a second.

Most of us have recognized that moment without realizing its import. It’s a strange feeling at first, and highly conducive to seasickness until you get used to it. Even in light winds it often results in an awkward lurch to leeward, and in heavy winds, as I’ve said, there’s every chance of a lightning 90-degree capsize.

I have never seen any studies on this phenomenon and I don’t know what you can do to lessen the chance of capsize, except to change course just before the critical moment, so that the hull is no longer on a beam reach. That’s my intuitive reaction. Either pulling off or heading up for a few seconds would probably help but I can’t explain why; and maybe I’ve got it quite wrong. Maybe it wouldn’t help at all. Weightless is weightless, no matter which way you turn. In any case, I offer this as food for thought. Actually, more like food for sober reflection next time you find yourself bobbing up and down among big swells in a capful of wind.

Today’s Thought

He who has suffered shipwreck fears to sail
Upon the seas, though with a gentle gale.
— Robert Herrick, Shipwreck

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #173
After running aground, your first action in a sailboat should be to try to spin the boat about to face deep water. In a powerboat, it usually makes more sense to keep the propellers in deeper water astern, and apply full power astern.

I hear that the fastest growing organization in the States is Athletics Anonymous. When you get the urge to hike or jog or work out at the gym, they send a man over to drink with you until the feeling passes.

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

March 15, 2011

Enough is enough already

EVERY NOW AND THEN I glance through Bowditch and think, “Grief, I really MUST learn more about navigation.”

This particular copy of The American Practical Navigator was sent to me by my California publisher, who obviously thought I needed a little help. It’s an enormous book, large in format and hefty in size: 879 pages to be exact, enough to instill fear into any potential navigator’s heart.

But then, when my nerves have calmed down, I think to myself: “Sailing is knowing a little about a whole slew of different disciplines, from cooking, through aerodynamics, to engineering and helmsmanship. So what I really need from Bowditch, and everything else, is just sufficient to get me by. There simply isn’t enough time in anyone’s life to be a complete expert on every single aspect of sailing.

I often think about ships’ captains or airline pilots. They never have to do research into what kind of antifouling paint is best in their area. They never have to cook a meal in a storm when you can’t even put a pot down on a work surface. They don’t have to know how to change the oil in the engine or find a place to empty the Porta Potti.

So I comfort myself with the thought that I can rule a course on a chart and keep an account of the dead reckoning. I can take and plot a bearing and I can read a tide table. For the kind of sailing I’m likely to do, it seems enough. I used to be able to find my position at sea with a sextant, and I guess that if I tried really hard it would all come back to me again.

So when Bowditch tells me that “an oblique spherical triangle can be solved by dropping a perpendicular from one of the apexes to the opposite side, subtended if necessary,” I smile a little smile and say, “Bowditch is Bowditch but enough is enough.”

Today’s Thought
It is better not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.
— Josh Billings

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #172
The traditional recipe for Caribbean rum punch is “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” It’s not for the faint of heart. Planter’s Punch comprises the juice of one lime or lemon, two heaped teaspoons of sugar, three ounces of best Jamaica rum, and four ounces of dry gin. (Why is the gin described as “weak?” Don’t ask me. I’m just the messenger.)

Experience is the wonderful knowledge that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

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

March 13, 2011

The art of anchoring

ALMOST EVERY TIME I’ve wandered into the beautiful anchorages of the San Juan Islands the same thing has happened. It’s kick-back time in the cockpit. The ice is tinkling merrily in my glass, the sun is spreading glorious color all over the western horizon and there are pleasant sounds of supper preparation coming from the galley. It’s bliss.

And then there’s that dreaded sound, the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of a diesel engine. Some boat full of happy idiots has just arrived and is frantically looking for a space to anchor before nightfall. Oh god, they’re looking my way. Oh god, they’re going to drop their 5-pound mushroom anchor right in front of me.

Lord help me. Shall I glower at them and make a fuss and wave them off now, or wait until the middle of the night when they actually drag down onto me? Either way, my blood pressure is up and my heart rate is skyrocketing. The evening is ruined.

It’s little wonder that the sailors’ bulletin boards are always filled with discussions about anchoring. You’ll notice that people have very strong views about which anchors are best. They will also produce very scientific reasons for their views.

I tend to shy away from those discussions because anchoring is not a precise science. It’s an art. It’s an art that comes naturally to some lucky people and it’s an art that has to be learned, often the hard way, by the rest of us.

Hardly any two “official” tests of anchors have come up with the same results because none of the factors affecting an anchor’s efficiency are the same. There are some simple rules of thumb concerning the weight of a suitable anchor, the composition of its rode, and the amount of scope needed. But after that, you’re on your own.

For example, if you’re a wise anchorer, upon entering an anchorage, you have a good, slow, look around. You take your time and watch the depths. You see how the others are anchored. Do they all have one line ashore? Two anchors out? All-chain, or nylon? How are they lying in relation to the wind? Is the current holding them against the wind? Can you estimate where their anchors are lying by looking at their rodes as they fall away from their bows? Can you estimate distance well enough to see if you’ll clear them when you swing in a circle? Can you see the spot where you want to drop your anchor? Are you prepared to reassure someone who complains you’re dropping your anchor right on his stern?

As with any other art, your background knowledge will show when it comes to selecting and dropping an anchor in the right place. For instance, you will know, by instinct, by experience, or by study, that an anchor’s effectiveness depends on:

--The firmness of bottom and the amount of debris down there.

--The ease of penetration.

--The weight of the anchor.

--Its ability to reset itself without fouling.

--The surface area of the anchor.

--The amount of scope provided now, and for higher tides.

--The angle of pull on the anchor and how to change it.

--Your ability to detect dragging.

--The makeup of the rode.

--When two anchors are used, if they should be set in a V or in series.

--And so on.

There’s more, plenty more, but this should demonstrate why anchoring is a difference experience every time. It’s a dark art, a sixth sense laced with cunning and boldness and a readiness to try again, maybe with a different anchor, if it doesn’t work the first time.

A large proportion of world cruisers depend mainly on three or four rather old-fashioned types of anchors, chosen not because they have scored top marks in the latest tests for one particular type of bottom, but because they work reasonably well in a reasonably wide variety of bottoms. Among them are the CQR, the genuine Bruce, the Delta, the Danforth and the Luke or Herreshoff. But in the end you have to remember that no anchor is best for all bottoms and it’s a wise anchorer who checks the chart to see what the bottom consists of before he commits an anchor to it.

Today’s Thought
In all things, success depends on previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.
— Confucius, Analects

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #171
Some of the rules of the road at sea are known as “overriding rules.” They override all other rules. For instance, Rule 13 says that the overtaking vessel shall keep clear. That overrides the rule that says power gives way to sail. If you, in a sailboat, under sail power only, start to overtake a powerboat, it’s your duty to keep clear.

“A cat burglar robbed my place last night.”
“How you do know it was a car burglar?”
“He only stole the parakeet, a can of tuna, and a pint of milk.”

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

March 10, 2011

The virtues of traditional keels

TOO MANY PEOPLE have the wrong idea about “traditional” cruising boats. They believe they’re slow, poor to windward, heavy to handle, and generally inferior to the modern breed of lightweight fin-keelers.

These people are misinformed.

A properly designed and constructed medium- or heavy-displacement cruiser is not the poor relative of the family, even in speed. As the renowned cruising designer Bill Crealock once told me: “A racing boat accelerates quicker, but there’s no reason why cruising hulls can’t be just as fast over long distances.”

He was right, of course, you only had to look at Saraband’s record for that to make sense. She was a flat-out cruiser, a deep heavy, tubby cruiser, a Westsail 32 in fact — and she won the Pacific Cup race from San Francisco to Hawaii on corrected time.

The Pacific Cup website has this to say about it:

“In 1988, winds were lighter than usual at 15 to 22 knots, and the seas were smooth. With the Pacific high pressure stretched out in an east-west oval, boats that started out on the rhumb line soon began to fear that they were too close to the high, and by fourth day most boats had turned more to the south. The winner on corrected time was Saraband, a Westsail 32 that had sailed a consistent pace for 14 days, 17 hours elapsed time, an amazing feat in relatively light winds.”

An amazing feat? Not really. Fast average speeds at sea depend on how easily a hull reaches a high proportion of her full hull speed. The Pardeys have put up some pretty impressive times with Lyle Hess’s traditional design Taleisin, too, and they found that she would point along with the best racers when her big genoa was set from the bowsprit in a seaway.

Many traditional cruisers are mom-’n-pop boats, of course, and they don’t push their boats particularly hard, especially at night, so this might have started the canard that cruising boats are slow and cumbersome. They don’t need to be.

I know I must sound like Methuselah in these days of fin keels and lightweight construction when I sing the praises of the old traditional full-keel designs for deep-sea work but I honestly believe they have virtues that are little appreciated until you have experienced a storm at sea in one.

I realize that there are hundreds of people who go to sea in fin keelers. They sail around the world and do just fine. But I’d like them to understand that their full-keel brethren were bred to go to sea, not just to race around the buoys or hop along the coast from port to port. They are in no way inferior. In fact, I’d like to see a modern fin-keeler tow two fishing boats off a lee shore under sail only in a gale, as the legendary Colin Archers were reputed to be able to do.

Cruising is primarily about safety and dependability, comfort and seakindliness, all characteristics inherent in the type of full-keel design that evolved the hard way by trial and error in the sea itself over centuries. But speed was also part of the equation, because fishing boats and pilot cutters not only had to be able to withstand any weather that came their way, but they also competed with each other to be the first back to market, or the first to the incoming ship seeking a pilot. Slow boats just didn’t make it. The process of natural selection left them to disappear from the designers’ drawing boards, so that what we have left today is the fine-honed result of centuries of fine draftsmanship and practical experience, a mixture that fits all the moods of the seven seas — moods, incidentally, that have not changed one iota since mankind started populating the earth.

Today’s Thought
What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?
— Abraham Lincoln

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #170
Singlehanders should note that when they sleep at night they should show the signal for a vessel not under command, that is, a vessel that, through exceptional circumstances, is unable to maneuver to keep clear of another vessel. The signal is two all-round red lights in a vertical line. During the day, two balls or similar shapes in a vertical line should be shown.

“You paint portraits my good man?”
“Yes, madam.”
“Good, I want you to paint me in the nude.”
“Okay, madam — but do you mind if I wear one sock as a place to keep my brushes?”

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

March 8, 2011

Learn faster in a dinghy

NOW AND THEN somebody asks me, “What’s the best way to learn to sail?” I always tell them to start in a small sailing dinghy, something about 14 or 18 feet in length. But they mostly don’t listen to me. They get seduced by the sailing schools who want to teach them on 35-footers so that they’ll come back to charter the same boats next summer.

Nevertheless, it’s my contention that if you learn to master a dinghy, you’re three-quarters of the way to mastering any deep-sea boat. Maybe more.

Even if you have already learned to sail a fixed-keeler, you might like to go back and start from scratch on a dinghy. Take as long as you need, months if necessary, because this part of the learning process is vital. It will teach you how to balance a hull under sail, something that will stand you in good stead all your sailing life.

In your dinghy, do everything under sail. Beat to windward in restricted channels. Luff up to jetties and buoys to see how much way she carries. Steer without touching the tiller while running and beating. Yes, you can, once you know how.

Use telltales on your shrouds to judge wind direction, and use telltales on your sails so you know what happens when you tension the luff, trim a sheet, or move the lead blocks on the genoa track.

Sail her backwards. It’s fun, and it will teach you why you shouldn’t let a bigger yacht make sternway in a gale. Feel how suddenly and drastically the pressure on the tiller changes when you let it get the slightest bit off-center.

Practice anchoring in your dinghy, anchoring from the bows and anchoring from the stern. Try making the anchor rode fast at different points along the gunwale and see how she lies in respect to the wind, or the swells. And then sail off the anchor.

See how the sail balance, leeway, and steering characteristics change when you raise the centerboard partially, and, above all, learn to heave to. Most dinghies will do it quite gracefully. I once used the technique to scoot sideways along the start line in a very competitive field of racers. With the jib backed and the mainsail flapping, they thought I was out of control and kindly kept clear. It wasn’t until the gun went and I got off to a great start by pulling the jib around and trimming the main, that they realized they’d been had. But I knew better than to try a second time.

One very useful aid to learning to sail is to pace yourself against another identical one-design dinghy. One boat sails normally, the other constantly makes adjustments to everything that can be moved, and usually starts to get ahead. Then the one behind starts making the adjustments, and so on, until both of you are going much faster.

On a seagoing yacht of 35 or 40 feet, the principles of handling and seamanship are almost exactly the same as those of a sloop-rigged dinghy, with these modifications:

► Changes of direction will take longer.

► The bigger boat will carry her way much farther.

► The chances of capsize are greatly reduced.

► The food will be a lot better.

Seamanship is largely a matter of keeping the boat under firm control all the time. It consists of your being in charge of the boat, rather than having the boat take charge of you. You can learn these things on a 35-footer through long and hard experience but a dinghy will bring you enlightenment in a fraction of the time, at minimal cost, and twice the fun.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #169
Although most rudders will stall when angled more than about 35 degrees to the water flow, many light displacement boats will accept a greater angle after the stern has started to swing. But that doesn’t mean the angle of incidence has exceeded 35 degrees, of course. The swinging stern has simply changed the angle of attack.

“What have I got, Doc?”
“I’m afraid your disease is hereditary.”
“Great. Send the bill to my grandfather.”

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

March 6, 2011

Bliss is a door on the toilet

LEFTY OFTENSNITCH, currently serving five years in the Walnut Street pen for some crime or other, wants to know if comfort is important on a cruising yacht. Lefty has become used to a rather Spartan existence at his present residence, and feels that the yacht he is going to steal when he is released could with benefit be more seaworthy than comfortable down below.

Well, Lefty, strangely enough, comfort can be a contributor to seaworthiness. A warm, dry, happy crew is more efficient than a wet, miserable, fatigued one. Besides which, during an extended overseas cruise such as you’re planning, you’ll spend five or six times as much time at anchor or in port as you do at sea.

Comfort in port or at anchor is affected by such things as pressurized hot and cold water, showers, electric light, a fridge, microwave oven, and a door on the toilet.

Now I don’t know if you’re planning to take a woman with you, Lefty, or whether you’ll pick one up along the way, but I can tell you that women are especially sensitive about doors on toilets. My own dear wife refused to come to sea with me unless I built a hinged door for the head aboard our 31-foot sloop.

It took me six weeks of racking my brains and carving a sheet of half-inch plywood, but I finally managed. It had custom-crafted cut-outs for the toilet seat, the pump handle, and the hand basin, and you had to go through a complicated routine of raising flaps and unhooking eyes before you could get in or out, but my wife June loved it.

We were the only boat in our class with a door to the toilet and June used to give the other ladies conducted tours. They were very envious. Their unthoughtful husbands made them use curtains. I was much admired for my sensitivity and understanding of the feminine nature.

Now, you don’t have to go overboard with the comforts, Lefty. But a proper toilet with a closing door should be the minimum acceptable when you start casing prospective boats. There should be a holding tank, as well, because they won’t let you pump straight into the harbor any more in most countries, let alone dump a bucketful overboard.

We all have to set our own priorities as far as comfort goes, but I agree with June. If you have to choose, go for the door on the toilet before the microwave oven. That’s the (ahem!) bottom line.

Today’s Thought
Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
— H. D. Thoreau, Walden.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #168
The efficiency of a rudder depends on its shape. A narrow, deep rudder is more efficient than a broad shallow rudder. The farther aft the rudder is placed, the greater its turning leverage. For powerboats and racing sailboats, a balanced rudder with about 17 percent of the area forward of the pivoting axis provides a lighter helm and quicker response. For cruising sailboats, an unbalanced rudder hung from a skeg or a full keel benefits from a smoother flow of water and offers less resistance.

“Excuse me, Miss, but do you have a book called Harmony in Marriage?”
“Sure. Look over there. It’s filed under Fiction.”

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

March 3, 2011

No jokes please, we’re yachtsmen

A JOURNALIST FRIEND of mine wants to know if yachtsmen are losing their sense of humor. He has been reading a bulletin board populated mainly by sailboat sailors on the east side of the country. What prompted him to ask the question was a headline on one thread that said: What color is your bottom?

Now for those of us who used to be in the humor business, this is manna from heaven. All sorts of replies spring to mind ranging from risqué to raunchy and back again. But nothing of the sort occurred to our eastern sailor friends. The serious, deadpan replies flooded in:

"Red bottom with a green boot top" ... "Red with the maximum amount of copper" ... "Black — but someone said it might attract trouble from the orcas" ..."Brown, but it’s becoming hard to find" ... "Mix a little black with red to get brown."

And so on. Good Puritan stuff. Not the slightest whiff of anything off-color and not the slightest suggestion of impish wit or clever riposte, either, although one responder was moved to point out: “If the boat’s in the water, what difference does it make?”

And then, when this serious discussion was almost finished one lone wag did pitch up at last. A fellow named Carl Thunberg said:

“It's kinda personal, but I guess we're all friends here. If you must know, the color of my bottom changes with the weather. When it's cold, my bottom is red. When it's really cold my bottom is blue. When I get out of the shower, it's pink. Too much information, you say? Well, you asked . . .

“Oh God, please let spring come!”

Sad to say, nobody followed his lead. He was ignored. Maybe they were all too shocked. Or maybe they were wondering why his bottom is red when it’s cold, when everybody else’s is white, except, of course, for those with naturally non-white bottom skins.

Nobody mentioned teenage spotty botties, or even the blackbottom. Yes, I know it was a dance, but you could work it into a bit of humor somehow if you tried hard enough. So it was rather disappointing to those of us who always associated sailors with rough language, strong drink, tough broads, and bawdy humor. I guess yachting has indeed gotten to be a serious subject.

Today’s Thought
A sense of humour keen enough to show a man his own absurdities will keep him from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those that are worth committing.
— Samuel Butler the Younger, Life and Habit.

Anybody listening?
SOS ... MAYDAY ... If there’s any other form of life out there in the cosmos I’d like you to know I’m stuck on a little blue-and-white planet circling a dying sun in the Milky Way. Hurtling through space, breakneck speed, not knowing where came from or going to. People very fighty, no agreement on anything, weather severe and apparently getting both hotter and colder, jungles and oceans full of creatures that will eat you, and cities full of creatures that will tax you or arrest you just for playing with your willy in public ... Help!

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #167
How much do lines stretch? Here are the old rules of thumb for lines loaded to 30 percent of their breaking strength:
Nylon stretches 10 to 15 percent.
Polyester (Dacron, Terylene, etc.) 3.5 to 5 percent.
Wire rope (stainless steel 7 x 19) 1 to 2 percent.
Kevlar and Spectra 1 to 2 percent.

“I didn’t see you at Mary’s wedding.”
“No, I couldn’t make it. Tell me, who gave the bride away?”
“I could have, but I kept my mouth shut.”

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

March 1, 2011

Modesty, and a book revived

THE TROUBLE WITH BEING MODEST (as I would like to think I am — but I am always subject to correction) is that you cannot claim in public to be modest, for fear of destroying your claim to modesty. Consequently, as you have probably noticed, I tend to refrain from expounding the virtues of the books I have written, in the hope that the more perceptive minds among you will discover these merits for yourselves and, with any luck, recommend my books to others with unbridled enthusiasm.

Today, however, I am throwing modesty to the winds. The thing is, one of my best books, Small Boat to Freedom, is being reprinted after being out of print for several years. Lothar Simon, boss of one of America’s largest nautical publishers, Sheridan House, in New York state, thought Small Boat was worth preserving. So, this month, it was reborn in paperback, and any bookseller can order it for you.

My aforementioned modesty naturally forbids me from telling you how good it is, so I’m going to reproduce an article from The Washington (DC) Times of October 17, 2004 with the fervent wish that they don’t sue me for contravention of copyright. (I have my fingers crossed, so I think it will be all right.)

Small boat voyage

by Duncan Spencer (Special to The Washington Times)

NOT SINCE Robert Manry's Tinkerbelle in 1965 has there been a true sailing story as fresh and authentic as John Vigor's Small Boat to Freedom (288 pages). A middle-aged man can no longer abide life in South Africa, so he quietly prepares and embarks in secret with wife and son on a tiny sailboat for a new life in America.

Manry wrote his bestseller after he threw over his safe newspaper job in Ohio and fitted up a tiny sloop, vowing to sail the Atlantic. He made it to huge acclaim, carrying the banner for millions of men tied to desks and to tedium while life slips past.

Mr. Vigor is the worthy successor to that great story. The man is a 51-year-old newspaper reporter and photographer, a sailor and writer of gritty resource, not one of the nabobs of the media. It is his gift to see the world always in the direct bright light of reality, not fogged with egotism or anchored to rank; though an intellectual, he manages to sail, write and work almost completely within the life of physical action. It is no surprise to read that Mr. Vigor's other passion, besides sailing, is bricklaying.

Which is the secret of his escape and his success in the remarkable small boat voyage he undertook in 1987.

Mr. Vigor reveals the strange burdens borne by the white South African, despised and feared by black Africans, simply despised by Europeans (and most Americans), and thwarted in the normal transactions of life by numerous sanctions put in place to "punish" the apartheid regime of his first adopted land.

No matter that he wrote for an anti-apartheid paper; that he foresaw the long and difficult years ahead for white South Africans as the races adapted to a profound shift of power. As he writes, "Whites who left South Africa at that time were treated almost as traitors." Those who stay must accustom themselves to a life of watchfulness and fear; the years of subjugation had made enemies of everyone with a white skin.

Restrictions led him to sneak out of the country with his meager life savings in gold Krugerrands hidden aboard his tiny 31-foot sailboat. "It was my idea to go in our own boat. I reasoned that when we got to America, we'd have a home to live in and a mobile base from which to start looking for work," he writes.

While other whites felt trapped in South Africa, Mr. Vigor had less reason to. He was English, one of the thousands who immigrated to South Africa for opportunities. His wife June was an American born far from the sea in Utah. His son Kevin was about to graduate from high school. And neither, though practiced sailors, had ever spent a night offshore in a small boat. Mr. Vigor builds his story like he builds a brick wall, methodically, neatly, logically. There are no literary frills, just straight rather humble reporting.

Step by step he prepares; selling his house, finding a boat, accumulating the gold coins to thwart currency export restrictions, readying his wife and son. The voyage itself is what you would expect from an extremely competent and cautious seaman with his family as crew. The sea is immense; it is boring and terrifying. Like many small boat voyages, Vigor's is a triumph over storm, frustration and adversity, a severe test of a marriage and a study of father-son relationships in extreme circumstances.

In this age when some people part saying, "Be safe," Mr. Vigor's book shows what people with skill, energy and expertise can still accomplish in the world with little money and no help. Mr. Vigor and his crew and the little yacht Freelance make it across the South Atlantic - taking six months - to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The family thrives modestly in America after moving to the Northwest, he as a freelance writer, she as a copy editor. Mr. Vigor never sought publicity, and never got any. This slim book is his story told at last.

PS: I don’t know Duncan Spencer, but for a reviewer he’s quite perceptive. The only thing he got wrong was his reference to me as an intellectual. I’m definitely not. --JV

Today’s Thought
Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise.
— Lord Chesterfield, Letters.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #166
Roller furling and reefing on the headsails has become very reliable, but many deep-sea sailors are still wary about jamming (and the weight and windage of a rolled-up foresail) in survival weather. Remember, jibs with hanks always come down when you want them to.

“What is your age, madam?”
“Officer, I’m approaching 40.”
“Yes, but from which direction, madam?”

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