June 30, 2011

Captain Nat and the cat

NOW THAT CATAMARANS are the chosen weapons for the America’s Cup skirmish, there seems to be a general impression that multihulls are new to the yachting scene, and especially to the racing scene. I don’t know much about multihulls, not half as much as I probably should, but I do know that’s wrong. They’ve been around an awfully long time.

My own experience with reasonably large cats is limited to a Caribbean cruise I did from Grenada a few years back, on a freelance assignment for Cruising World magazine. She was a 38-foot Lagoon, and wonderfully luxurious compared with anything I’ve ever owned; but I wasn’t taken with her performance under sail.

I readily admit I am biased. I grew up with small monohulls and I like the way they feel, the way they can tack on a dime, the way they respond to the helm when your jib starts telling you you’re pointing too high. In half a second the jib is quiet again and doing the work it is paid to do. I didn’t get that feeling on the Lagoon, which responded much more slowly. I also found it very strange that when a sudden gust came along, the Lagoon would simply sprint forward and not heel. Heeling is one of the parameters I use to judge when spilling wind, or reefing, is necessary. I get a very uneasy feeling when that parameter is removed. And I guess I was put off multihulls at an early age when I learned that they were building escape hatches in the bottom of the boats as a matter of course, so you could scramble out and wave your arms for help when you capsized.

As for racing cats, it was way back in 1870s that Nat Herreshoff designed, built, and raced a catamaran called Amaryllis. She easily won the second race of the 1876 Centennial Series against some of the fastest boats in the country. She had at least one of the faults still causing trouble for today’s America’s Cup contenders, though. In June, 1877, the Amaryllis drove her bows under at high speed, and pitchpoled during a match race.

Monohulls do that sometimes, too, of course, but perhaps not as often. And in any case an outside-ballasted monohull will tend to right herself promptly, whereas a multihull is more stable upside down than she is the right way up.

The multihull’s advantage is that, lacking the heavy keel, she will float until the cows come home, or at least at until some keen-eyed rescuer comes along. I personally wouldn’t like to try living in or on an inverted multihull. I was very glad I didn’t capsize the Lagoon, though I suppose Cruising World would have missed me after a few weeks and sent out the search-and-rescue troops. That’s what I like to think, anyhow — though I may be sadly misguided.

Today’s Thought
For the actual sailing, I enjoyed these craft more than any I ever owned.
— Nathanael C. Herreshoff
(He was talking about catamarans. But I can't believe he meant it. --JV)

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #216
Need to sterilize your drinking water? The old rule of thumb is to add ordinary household liquid chlorine bleach. Add one teaspoonful of 5.25 percent bleach to every 15 gallons of water. Wait for at least 30 minutes before drinking the water, which should be exposed to the air for that time.

“Hey I just realized why I keep winning at poker and losing on the horses.”
“So why is it?”
“They won’t let me shuffle the horses.”

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

June 28, 2011

The clipper-ship myth

IN THE GOLDEN AGE of clipper ships there was a lot of boasting about their speed. Indeed, even today those of us who have habitually plodded around at 5 knots under sail are impressed by the numbers.

Under perfect circumstances, the clippers recorded some remarkable speeds, ranging from 18 knots by the Donald McKay to 22 knots by the Sovereign of the Seas in 1854.

But when we’re sitting in the cockpit, sawing away at the tiller to keep her going straight before a fresh following breeze and thinking what it would be like to be splitting the sea at 22 knots, there is something to take into consideration: those clipper speeds were not the norm. They achieved them only for short times in exceptional conditions.

You and I can maintain 5 knots until the seacows come home, but a clipper needed to be lightly loaded, for a start, to achieve record speeds. Her bottom had to be smooth and clean, and she needed special conditions.

Ideally, the wind was strong from aft, a wind that would create long, fast swells to power her on her way, and it’s not often that this happens, because of a host of factors including land nearby and contrary currents.

The oldtimers knew that a clipper captain might spend a lifetime at sea without experiencing all the perfect conditions needed for his ship to reach her best speed for a short period.

In fact, if you look at some of the times the clippers took to sail from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn, some 15,000 miles, you’ll note that their average speeds were nothing like the fastest speeds their passenger agents boasted about.

Most of them took about 200 days over this passage, but the Flying Cloud held the record for more than 100 years, from 1854 to 1989, with a time of 89 days and 8 hours.

It took a French maxi-catamaran to show how it’s done these days. The Gitana did the trip in 43 days at an average speed of 15.88 knots (including a five-day wait to round Cape Horn). That’s less than half the time it took the fastest clipper ship, so the Flying Cloud couldn’t have averaged much more than 7 or 8 knots.

Therefore, next time you’re bowling along at 5 or 6 knots in your Tupperware cruiser you needn’t in any way feel inferior. No matter what they said, no matter what claims they made, a clipper ship would only be going a couple of knots faster than you. You might want to raise a glass of good cheer as she crawls past.

Today’s Thought
Three things only are well done in haste: flying from the plague, escaping quarrels, and catching flies.
— H. G. Bohn, Handbook of Proverbs

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #215
Because of the difficulty of measuring wave heights from a small sailboat at sea, the rule of thumb is that the real sea is probably not much more than half as high, or as steep, as it looks at its worst moment. The only reasonable way to estimate the height of the waves is to wait until you are truly in the trough, midway between crests. Then most crests will be even with the horizon in all directions. Your perception of sea height at that brief moment will be untainted by illusion.

Two cannibals were chatting over lunch.
“You know,” said the first one, “I can’t stand my mother-in-law.”
“Gee, no problem,” said the second, “just eat the noodles then.”

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

June 26, 2011

Dreams of Bora Bora

I SEE THAT 16-year-old Laura Dekker has reached Bora Bora in the 38-foot ketch she calls Guppy. The Dutch girl is attempting to be the youngest person to sail around the world singlehanded.

I don’t know why she’s doing this. Jessica Watson, of Australia, was 16 when she sailed around the world, so Laura will just be a younger 16, no better. And her voyage will be nothing like that undertaken by Jessica, who sailed singlehanded and non-stop around the five great capes, including, of course, Cape Horn, with no outside assistance.

By comparison, Laura has been on a vacation cruise, flitting from port to port from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Panama Canal (where, technically, she had several people helping on board for the canal transit and wasn’t singlehanded) and having a wonderful time.

On her website there are pleas for financial donations to help Laura Dekker swan her way around the world. It seems to me that what I need is a similar website with pleas for donations to help me spend a vacation in Bora Bora, reputedly one of the most beautiful of all the Pacific islands.

It’s French territory, of course, and thus everything is very expensive for those of us who have to pay in dollars. I would have chosen the Club Med site for the best value on Bora Bora and also for nostalgic reasons. I once had a Club Med vacation on the Greek island of Corfu and it made a lasting impression on me because it was the first place that confirmed the rumor that French women go around topless on public beaches.

Anyway, according to the Internet, the Club Med on Bora Bora has closed down because of hard times so I won’t be going to Bora Bora any time soon unless the euro crashes and the American dollar rises phoenix-like from the ashes. Too bad. Everybody ought to see Bora Bora and feed the black-finned reef sharks by hand, as Laura did — and preferably arrive by yacht, as she did.

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

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #214
To find out how much your boat will sink in the water when you add weight, multiply her waterplane area in square feet by 5.34. The answer is the number of pounds needed to sink her 1 inch.
Waterplane area? For a close approximation, multiply waterline length by waterline beam in feet and multiply the result by 0.76.

At a farewell dinner for a clergyman who was being transferred to another city, a frail old lady went up to his table to say goodbye.
“I’m so sorry you’re going,” she said.
“That’s very kind of you,” said the clergyman.
“Yes,” said the lady, “Until you came here I never really knew what sin was.”

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

June 23, 2011

Help spread the news

THE DAILY BUNGLE informs me that the birds are arriving again. The tufted puffins are back. And if the tufted puffins are back, can the others be far behind? I refer to the burled dimwitts, the ring-necked godsends, the pink-cheeked, bandy-legged snowbirds, the unbridled waterworts, and the wungood terns, each one of whom deserves another.

Yes, the birds are back. That means we can sail without having to de-ice the cockpit. It means the engine will start before the battery goes flat. It means we can have the odd naked arm or leg sticking out from under our bundle of clothes and we can throw our balaclavas in the wash at long last. Oh joy.

For a few months of the year our weather is going to be perfect. The northwester is going to set in and bring us clear skies and long full days of warm sunshine. The Pacific High will guard us against those nasty Alaskan lows that come screaming down the Strait of Juan de Fuca all winter, and the islands will be surrounded by white sails flying every which way. Little boats will be headed for pristine anchorages, towing dinghies with smiling white teeth.

But, to quote a line from one of my favorite poems, life takes from us, alas, our joys and robs us of our blisses. The onrush of ecstasy we experience every June is tempered by the notion that others, dreaded outsiders, will discover our little secret. Most of the outside world knows of the Puget Sound area’s reputation for grey skies, cool temperatures, and persistent rain. It’s a description we all foster very carefully and repeat as often as we can because if outsiders knew how extremely pleasant the Puget Sound was for large parts of the year they would all come flocking to live here, bringing with them their strange customs, their irritating accents, and their ill-gained fortunes. They’d throw their money around, forcing up the prices of everything so that ordinary, common, decent Northwestern folk couldn’t hardly buy nothing at all, let alone a home to live in.

So every year, when the Bungle announces the arrival of the birds, I feel a chill in my heart alongside the joy. The sailing around here is the best in the lower 48. No other cruising grounds compare with the San Juans, the Gulf Islands, and the Inside Passage to Alaska.

I’m always so scared the Californians will find out and rush up here in great waves of immigration. You can’t trust them, you know. Too many of them are weird people. They’re unpredictable. You never know what they’ll do next. And there are so many of them. Years ago, they fired their talented governor, Gray Davis, because he warned them they had to rein in their fiscal irresponsibility. That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted big SUVs and huge televisions and garages full of stuff. They elected in his stead a body-builder cum actor who cheated on his wife and happily let them continue with their spending spree. Then they went broke. Big surprise.

If you’d like to do me a favor (and I know many of you would, even if it never occurs to you consciously) please tell everybody you know how awful, how desperately dreadful, the weather is in Seattle and the Sound. You can easily do it in a Tweet of 140 words or a longer e-mail. Just spread the message around, will you?

Today’s Thought
California is where you can’t run any farther without getting wet.
— Neil Morgan.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #213
The rule of thumb is to provide one gallon of water per person per day on an ocean crossing. But half a gallon is adequate (for drinking and cooking only) if it’s supplemented by soft drinks and canned juices.

They held a motorcycle race in Moscow recently. There were just two entries, an American bike and a Russian bike. The American bike won easily.

Next day, the newspaper Pravda reported:

“The Russian bike came second in yesterday’s race. The American bike was next to last.”

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

June 21, 2011

Miss Maritime Manners

A TEXAS READER, Frank Barthwell, wants to know how to kiss a girl with a boat. “I seek your advice on a personal matter,” he writes. “This is the situation: I have met a charming girl and have invited her out on a first date. But she is a keen sailor and lives on her own boat in a marina. I have never sailed so I’m not sure of the protocol here.

“Firstly, where do I kiss her goodnight? At the head of the gangway leading down to the concrete walkways? At the locked gate at the beginning of the walkways? At (but not on) her boat? Or in the cockpit? (I think it’s the cockpit. That hole at the back.)

“Secondly, do girl sailors kiss any different from ordinary girls? I mean, will she expect a peck on the cheek, a brush on the lips, a straight full-court press, or vigorous osculation with labial intrusion?

“Any help in advance would be appreciated.”

► Well, Frank, I’m no expert on these things. (And I say that not only because my wife might read this, but also because it’s true. Honestly, dear.) Nevertheless, I have met a few woman sailors in my time and one thing they had in common was that they knew what they wanted and were pretty good at getting it.

So I think you should just relax and be yourself and let her do the leading, which I’m sure she will do. She must have dealt with landlubbers before. You won’t be the first. So if she pauses at the head of the gangway, cocks her head toward you archly, and pushes her lips into a kiss shape, that’s your goodnight signal. She’ll see herself home from there.

On the other hand, if she keeps going all the way to the boat without stopping, don’t get left behind. Stay close. Wait for the pause and the cocked head just before she steps aboard. That’s goodnight. But ... if she disappears down below without pausing, follow her quickly. That’s an invitation to stay for coffee, after which she’ll undoubtedly offer to show you the Golden Rivet[1]. Lucky you.

PS: I would imagine that kissing choices vary from woman to woman, but I think it’s safe (according to books I’ve read, dear, not personal experience) to assume she’ll be happy to start with normal, gentle, lip-to-lip contact, and if she wants something more hectic than that, she will show you how to do it.


Today’s Thought
A kiss can be a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #212
What defines a voyage, as opposed to a passage? Well, the old Cape Horners regarded a voyage as the full journey, out and back. A trip between any two ports was not a voyage but a passage.

“As I’ve known you for so long, doctor, I won’t insult you by paying you a fee. Instead, I’ve made generous provision for you in my will.”
“Really? That’s very kind of you – and may I glance at the prescription again? There’s a small alteration I’d like to make.”

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

June 19, 2011

On sailboats and typewriters

THE NEWS FROM THE INTERNET is depressing. Government departments are getting hacked. Airline computer systems are falling down dead. Banks, whose greatest responsibility is keeping your money safe, are putting you at risk because their defenses against hackers simply aren’t good enough.

What we need is fewer computers and more typewriters. I mention this because most of my readers are sailors, and you will appreciate that sailboats are the typewriters of modern transportation systems.

Sailboats, like typewriters, don’t need silicon chips and intricate circuits to make them work. They don’t need gasoline or steam. They don’t even need electricity. You can circumnavigate the Earth under sail alone. It has been done many times. Some sailboats have auxiliary engines, to be sure, but you don’t actually need an engine to cross an ocean.

It’s a fallacy of modern thinking that computers are needed to run airlines. I can remember the days before computers, when airline offices (and all major businesses) had typists’ pools instead of keyboards and monitors. Typists had nice legs clad in silk stockings in those days, which made it a particular pleasure to take your notes into the typists’ pool to be typed up.

Those old airlines ran just fine without computers. They never came to a standstill because the stupid computers had broken down. And when you think of all the Allied bombers that made combined runs over Europe in World War II, hundreds and hundreds of them wing-tip to wing-tip, and all organized by typewriters, you have to wonder about the alleged advantages of computers.

And just imagine if the Allied landings in France on D-Day had been scheduled on a computer whose hard-drive had crashed at D minus two hours, because one of Herr Hitler’s hackers had penetrated the firewall.

I like simple boats and simple systems. And there’s very little that’s simpler and purer than a nicely designed sailboat. All it needs is a rudder, a keel, a mast, a couple of sails, and some sort of shelter to sleep and cook in, and you’re in business. And if anything does wrong, you can fix it yourself. That’s one of the most marvelous things about sailboats. Just like typewriters. You can spill a whole cup of coffee over a typewriter and it will still work. You can dig the gunk out of the keys with the end of a paper clip and it will perform like new. The greatest technological challenge in keeping a typewriter working is changing the ribbon, just as the greatest challenge in a keeping a sailboat working is finding money for the marina fees.

Airlines and banks who really care about their customers, rather than their own bottom lines, would do well to study the simplicity, efficiency, and reliability of sailboats and typewriters. But that won’t happen, of course, because no matter what they say, money is more important to them than people.

Today’s Thought
Blissful are the simple, for they shall have much peace.
Thomas à Kempis, De Imitatione Christi.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #211
If you want to improve ventilation of your boat, remember that a 4-inch ventilation cowl passes almost twice as much air as one with a diameter of 3 inches.

A friend of mine thinks he’s going to make a fortune. He’s working on a dog food that tastes like a mailman’s leg.

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — a new Mainly about Boats column.)

June 16, 2011

Clocks for small sailboats

MY FRIEND Lynn Israel, a former journalist, has become a collector and fixer of clocks and watches. He’s also a prospective sailboat owner, so he’s wondering if it’s okay to have a ship’s clock aboard a small boat. Or is that just too gauche, or too swanky for words?

“Being a lover of marine clocks, watches and other things that tend to break down on a regular basis, I wonder if you would address the notion of having a marine clock on board a small sailing craft,” he writes. “I have a nice Chelsea ship's clock with a quartz movement (boring but perhaps wonderfully more suitable to a rocking craft) and a number of Schatz marine clocks that use a key-wind mechanical movement (far more interesting but maybe a bit delicate at times). And then there is the aesthetic issue of having a large clock on a small bulkhead. Could you share your thoughts on these issues?”

Well, I have to say I just love brass clocks on boats of any size. I’ve always had matching clock-and-barometer sets on my sailboats. I think they’re very salty, extremely practical, and not at all show-offish. And you don’t have to restrict them to boats. I have a spring-powered, chiming, German marine clock on my wall at home right now, as a matter of fact. It’s a bit scarred and battered, and it doesn’t keep particularly good time, but I love it dearly because it crossed the Atlantic with me 24 years ago. And, like me, it suffered.

And as far as I’m concerned, the bigger the clock the better. Size does matter. You ought to be able to read it from the cockpit, for a start. And, as Confucius so cleverly noted: Man with big clock never short of good time.

Today’s Thought
Everything we feel is made of Time. All the beauties of life are shaped by it.
—Peter Shafer, The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #210
Much as we all like to deceive ourselves, there is no shortcut to first-class brightwork. The old rule of thumb is simple: Sand the wood smooth, fill the grain if necessary, and seal. Then apply 10 coats, sanding lightly between each and allowing each to dry completely before applying the next.

“Did you have that man-to-man chat with Jimmy, dear?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Was it successful?”
“Well, I tried to explain about the birds and the bees, but he kept switching the conversation back to girls.”

(More Mainly about Boats every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.)

June 14, 2011

The makings of tafia

SOME PASSING YACHT invited Old Wotsisname on board and gave a him a drink called tafia. Now he’s raving about it and wanting the recipe.

By a stroke of luck I have an old book that describes the makings of tafia, which is the West Indian Creole name for rough rum, often applied to any drink by the crews of old sailing ships.

Here’s the recipe from the French sailor and cook, Florence Herbulot, in that admirable book, Cooking Afloat.

“The first essential is a bottle of good white rum. Next, you need an empty bottle, an attractive-looking bottle, with a really good stopper.

“Each time you open a tin of fruit in syrup, pour any surplus syrup into the bottle. Do not waste a drop! When the bottle is half full of syrup, add the juice of a lemon (or two if they are small) and fill the bottle with rum.

“Do not worry that it will take too long to half-fill the bottle with fruit syrup; it is surprising how much you get out of one tin. The variety of flavors that go to make up a tafia in one of its great merits; it never turns out the same twice, but is always excellent. You will be proud of it, believe me!”

Well, thank you Florence. I suspect that it’s people living aboard yachts, especially passagemakers, who will be opening cans of pears and peaches preserved in syrup, but at least anybody who, like Old Wotsisname, is desperate for tafia now knows how to make it. Cheers!

Today’s Thought
Of all the wimming doubly blest
The sailor’s wife’s the happiest,
For all she does is stay to home
And knit and darn—and let ’im roam.

Of all the husbands on the earth
The sailor has the finest berth,
For in ’is cabin he can sit
And sail and sail—and let ’er knit.
— Wallace Irwin

Bad side effects
WE WERE TALKING the other day about the unfairness (for owners of small boats) of charging marina fees by boat length only, rather than by displacement. Now, reader Matt Marsh weighs in:

“Unfortunately, the negative impact of billing purely by length extends beyond simply making small-craft folk mad. It forces designers and manufacturers to use much shorter, deeper and beamier hulls than would be ideal. There are a lot of 10-ton, 35-foot powerboats that really should be 10 tons and 46 feet, but are crammed into a smaller, less efficient and far less seaworthy package so they can fit in a 35-foot slip. The logic behind length-based billing is hard to deny (the marina has to build and maintain X feet of dock to handle an X-foot boat, however wide or heavy she may be—catamarans excepted of course, since you can double-bill them—but it leads to so many bad side effects ...”

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #209
When to freshen up your varnish? Here’s an old rule of thumb:

Wash the work thoroughly. Wet a piece of old toweling cloth and drag it, dripping, across the surface of the varnish. If the water left behind forms beads, the varnish is still in good condition. If it forms sheets, or lies in flattish streaks, you’d better start looking for your sandpaper and varnish brush.

A man playing at the local golf course hit a magnificent drive smack down the fairway. It went hurtling toward a couple playing ahead, so he yelled “Five!”
“Hey,” said his companion, “don’t you mean Fore?”
“Not at all,” he said, “this is a course of a different holler.”

(A new Mainly about Boats column every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.)

June 12, 2011

Noah and the rest of us

IT IS A SOBERING THOUGHT that you, and all the yachting people you know, are descended from Noah, of biblical fame. Indeed, you and I have a direct line of descent stretching back to the Ark. It was the Ark that saved us from extinction when the deep waters of the Deluge covered the lands of the Earth.

But what do we know about this Ark, this wondrous vessel to which we owe our very existence?

Well, it was big, for a start. Huge for its time. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that mankind managed to build a bigger ship. The dimensions of the Ark, as given by Moses, are 300 cubits overall length, 50 cubits in breadth and 30 cubits in height.

Now the word cubit, as you undoubtedly know, comes from the Latin cubitum, the elbow. It was an ancient measure of length, usually taken to be 18 inches — the length of the arm from the end of the middle finger to the elbow.

I don’t know why the ancients used elbows instead of feet, but had they been a bit more thoughtful and used feet to make things easier for future generations of Americans, the Ark would have measured 450 feet by 75 feet by 45 feet. When you think that a football field is 300 feet long, you begin to realize how big Noah’s yacht really was. They could have played one-and-a-half games of football on the top deck alone.

It was built of wood, of course, though nobody is sure what kind — in Hebrew it's called gopher wood. Some translations say cedar, others pine, others box. There is a strong case for cypress, also. In any case, can you imagine how many trees they needed, how many clear-cuts they must have left on the scarred mountain sides?

Aboard the Ark for its maiden cruise were eight persons of Noah's family — no other human beings. Legend has it that Noah’s wife was reluctant to board the Ark. Legend doesn’t say why this family fight erupted but anyone who has owned a yacht can imagine that it probably had something to do with the lack of showers, the primitive toilet arrangements, and the fact that she’d be expected to do all the cooking. But eventually Noah enticed her on board, together with one pair of every species of “unclean” (not fit for food) animals, and seven pairs of every species of “clean” (fit for food) animals, with provisions for all for one year. Presumably, the fish and the whales were left to fend for themselves, and presumably they managed to adapt from salt water to fresh water, and back to salt water again later.

From Moses' description, the Ark appears to have had three decks, each 15 feet high — the lowest for the beasts, the middle one for the provisions, and the upper one for the birds and Noah and his family. Fifteen feet seems awfully high for anyone used to crouching headroom in their own yacht, but remember: Noah had giraffes to deal with.

The bible makes no mention of masts or sails, so we can presume the Ark was simply a giant drifting houseboat, and Noah was an archetypical yachtsman, not knowing where he was going, not knowing where he was when he arrived, and doing it all on borrowed money.

As far as modern scientists can tell, Noah’s cruise ended in eastern Turkey, a popular cruising ground even today, though at much lower sea level now. The Ark went aground in the region of Mt. Ararat (about 17,000 feet), near the border of Armenia and Iran.

The philologists among you will know this already, but I was fascinated to learn that Noah’s family originally named the mountain Mt. Aratarat, because, after Noah released the dove, it came back saying: “I smell a rat, a rat,” which was actually good news in their terms. In any case, as happens with so many words, the spelling changed over the centuries and is now universally accepted as Ararat.

Many clever people have spent an awful lot of time trying to find out more about the Ark and how it was built and exactly where it ended up, but they haven’t made much progress. The trouble is, it all happened so long ago. No matter, the main thing is that we sailors can trace our family trees back to the big gopher houseboat. It’s a nice feeling to know we’re all blood kin.

Today’s Thought
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”
— G. K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #208
What are the most useless articles on a yacht? The old rule of thumb lists these four:
► A cow
► An umbrella
► A wheelbarrow, and
► A naval officer

“Let’s stop here. This look like an ideal place for a picnic.”
“It must be. Fifty million mosquitoes can’t be wrong.”

(Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday — a new Mainly about Boats column.)

June 9, 2011

Evolution of yacht people

YACHTING IS A SPORT or pastime involving about 10,000,000 Americans. They represent the highest form of life: people who love and understand boats and use them for pleasure. Yet, surprisingly, little attention has been paid to the origin and evolution of the Yachting Species.

Charles Robert Darwin, (1809-82), the English naturalist, placed mankind in the class of Mammalia: warm-blooded, usually hairy, vertebrates whose offspring are fed with milk secreted by the female mammary glands. Similarly, man’s order is Primata -- mammals such as man, apes, monkeys, and lemurs, characterized especially by flexible hands and feet, each with five digits.

After the Class, Order, Family, and Genus, comes the Species, of course. And the interesting thing about the species is that its members can breed together, which is what yachting people (especially the younger ones) try to do all the time.

Now Darwin’s great breakthrough was to announce that the earth had not been created in a week, and certainly not in the year 4004 BC, as was commonly bruited about in his day. It was, he held, inconceivably older than this. It had changed out of all recognition and was still changing. All living creatures had changed as well, and man, far from being made in God's image, may have begun as something much more primitive. A primeval yachtsman, perhaps.

There is no doubt that yachting people are descended from a long line of famous sailors, including Gilgamesh (the original ark), Moses (a coracle sailor), Noah (the copycat ark), Jason and his Argonauts, Cleopatra (naked in her barge), Columbus, Erik the Red, Magellan, Drake, Ann Bonnie (the woman pirate), and Captains Cook, Bligh, Vancouver, and Slocum, as well as Darwin himself (on the Beagle).

This is not to mention the Polynesians, Vasco da Gama, the Phoenicians and the Chinese who explored in their junks long before Columbus missed America.

How did sailors evolve over this long period? What were the physical changes through the ages? Well, you may have noticed that successful racing sailors have grown hair on the back of neck, the better to judge wind direction. Dinghy sailors have evolved webbed feet, the better to swim back to their capsized boats. Crack helmsmen now have slimmer heads, and smaller ears and noses, to lessen wind resistance. Sinews in the neck have lengthened to allow a sailor to sit sideways and look straight ahead. Backsides have become heavier to lower a person’s center of gravity while being seasick over the rail. And all owners of yachts have developed deep pockets, not lined with teats to feed their young as marsupials do, but filled with checkbooks and credit cards to pay for gas and boat parts.

All this adds up to an ingenious species. Like the Portuguese man-of-war and other lowly invertebrates, yachting persons have evolved a way to travel away from trouble and toward a more favorable environment by using the wind. Over eons they developed a crude wing akin to a bird's, although neither as cunningly engineered nor as effective. It is, however, unique in the world of natural science in that it is held vertically, conveying advantages unknown to the Portuguese man-of-war, which is destined forever to drift downwind. The yachtsman's wing, like a bird's, develops what aeronautical engineers call "lift" -- a partial vacuum that sucks the boat forward and allows it even to sail against the wind. Thus, wherever the wind blows and the water is warm and sufficiently deep, yachtsmen abound.

The Yachting Species is of abiding interest to scientists because of what seem to be regressive tendencies – yachting, after all, involves going nowhere slowly at great expense while feeling frightened and miserable.

Other groups of humans have designed bikes, cars, buses, trains, aircraft, and luxury liners, all of which will transport a human being more cheaply, more quickly, and in much greater comfort than a sailing yacht does. The dogged insistence of the yachtsman on suffering is of great interest to any naturalist trained in the mold of Darwin.

Is this where the theory of natural selection breaks down? Are yachtsmen a temporary aberration in Nature's scheme of things, doomed to follow the Dodo into extinction? Or could they be living proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong? After all, they do seem to be surviving. A recent investigation of increasing sales of infant cradles shaped like boats, by Rundelfender et al, Cordyne University, indicates that their breeding rate is increasing. Thus a greater proportion of human beings will be genetically disposed to enjoy suffering on the water. Scientists naturally find this puzzling, if not disturbing. It will be interesting to see what Fox News makes of it.

Today’s Thought
When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tides,
We sprawled through the ooze and slime, ...
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.
--Langdon Smith, Evolution.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #207
How much is the upkeep per year? “Not many owners will tell you,” says Francis S. Kinney in Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. “They don’t want their wives to know.” Nevertheless, he offers a couple of well-informed guesses, based on the original cost of the boat:
Wooden and steel boats, 5 to 12 percent;
Aluminum and fiberglass boats, 2 to 5 percent.

“Dad, what’s horse sense?”
“It’s one of Nature’s little safeguards, son. It’s what keeps a horse from betting on people.”

June 8, 2011

Almost there

Had to install a new operating system. Lost all my settings and a bunch of programs, so I'm still up to my neck in muck and bullets.

Thanks for your patience.  Back in business on Friday I hope.

Meanwhile, faithful reader Oded Kishony says:

"Why is it that you never publish my comments? What am I doing wrong?"

* You're not doing anything wrong, Oded. Your comments are published as they're received. The problem is that comments stay with the column that was open when you made your comment.  So, if you opened an old column and left a comment, that comment will be hidden back there and your pearls of wisdom will be wasted.

So if you want to comment on a past column, place your comment on the latest column, and cross-reference it to the past column you're referring to.

Sorry it's so clunky, but that's what we have to work with. It's not worthy of us, but what can we say? 


John V.

June 2, 2011

Computer problems

Sorry folks, but my computer is in the hospital. Your normal excellent service will return next week, probably Wednesday.