May 31, 2012

It might also be contagious

A VOICE AT THE GARAGE DOOR says accusingly: “You’re sanding again. Dust everywhere.”
“That means you’re going to varnish.”
“You said you were never going to varnish again. You swore if there was any wood, you’d paint it. You said varnishing is dumb.”
“Yes, but this is a tiller. Laminated ash and mahogany. It’s beautiful. You can’t paint laminated ash and mahogany.”
“It’s always the same when you get a new boat. Sand, sand, sand.  Varnish, varnish, varnish. Ten coats minimum you always say. I know what that means.”
“The kitchen table.  You won’t varnish in the garage because it’s too dusty. So there’s going to be a tiller on the kitchen table for the next two weeks. And cans with dribbles of varnish. And old rags. And paint thinner.”
“Well, it’s only two weeks.”
“You said that last time. And the time before. And the time before that. Then you started sanding some hatch boards.  And that teak flag pole.  Then you made a door for the toilet. And naturally that had to be sanded and varnished, too.”
“I would have painted it, but . . .”
“But what?”
“Well, it was teak-faced plywood. Beautiful stuff. You can’t paint teak-faced plywood.”
“It never stops. I think you’re an addict. It’s a disease with you. You’re a compulsive varnisher. You dream of spar varnish. The objects of your affection are Captain’s Varnish and Epifanes.”
“Well, it keeps me off the streets and out of the pubs.”
“But not out of my kitchen.”
“But it looks so nice.”
“What? My kitchen?”
“No. Varnished wood.”
“That’s the same silly argument that compels people to plant lawns and work themselves to death keeping them looking nice. It’s illogical. Paint the darned wood already.”
“I can’t. It’s impossible.”
“You know something? You need help.”
 “Yeah, thanks, I do. So, okay, if you wouldn’t mind just grabbing that end of the tiller while I sand this bit.”

Today’s Thought
A thing of beauty is a job forever.
— The John Keats Rule of Varnishing.

“Why have I been dragged into this police station?”
“Sir, you smashed your car. You’ve been brought in for heavy drinking.”
“Oh good. Let’s get started then, shall we?”

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

May 29, 2012

Conquering the Atlantic

WHO KNOWS HOW MANY extraordinary ocean voyages have been made in small boats, voyages that achieved no fame for the sailors involved, voyages that never received publicity or recognition in the nautical press, or any other medium for that matter?

Yesterday I stumbled across the little-known story of the Abiel Abbot Low, a 38-foot motor boat that crossed the Atlantic from New York to England in the summer of 1902. She was then the smallest boat ever to cross that ocean on her own bottom under power.

The Abiel Abbot Low was a wooden double-ender. She had high freeboard and a low cabintop. Her cockpit was reasonably small, but completely open. She carried two short masts and enough sail to enable her to make port downwind if necessary.

She was manned by Captain William C. Newman and his 16-year-old son, C. E. Newman. They were 37 days at sea before they spotted England, and what a remarkable passage it was, considering that their single engine in the cabin generated only 10 horsepower, running on kerosene.

With such little power they could not buck headwinds, and had to lie to a sea anchor in the several storms they encountered. She carried 800 gallons of kerosene, but the pounding she suffered in bad weather opened up significant leaks in her fuel tanks, and for much of the voyage her crew was kept busy pumping kerosene back into the tanks.

On the 11th day out, for instance, Capt. Newman noted in the log: “I have five inches of kerosene in my bilge.”  After 23 days, he noted that the tanks were leaking about 10 gallons a day “which causes hard work to put back in tanks.”  On day 25 the log records “the wind changed to northwest and it makes a very rough sea; inside we are swimming in kerosene, the tanks leak so; the man that made them ought to be with me.”  And the next day, still in heavy weather: “We are still laboring in high seas, our clothing is all saturated with kerosene, and we have not tasted food in 30 hours.”

On several occasions the motor was stopped “to pack the pumps,” and 30 days out they worked on the engine for four hours “to clean valves.”

Capt. Newman recorded that they were “well received” in the English ports they visited, and in  London, where the passage ended. In those days, when the technology of marine engines was still in its infancy, this was a marvelous feat.  And, as so often happens, so little of the credit went to the modest, capable captain and his teenage son who caused it all to happen.

Today’s Thought
The life of an adventurer is the practice of the art of the impossible.
— William Bolitho, Twelve Against the Gods

A girl who knows all the answers must have been out with a lot of questionable characters.

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

May 27, 2012

Ships worked to death

LANDLUBBERS OR SAILORS, most of us harbor romantic notions about the era of the clipper ships. They were the greyhounds of the sea in the age of sail, built for the ever-increasing speed that commerce and the industrial revolution were demanding. They were slim, light, beautiful ships racing under great clouds of sail. But I wonder how many people realize that every American clipper ship, almost without exception, was either completely or partially dismasted.

I happened on this fact in an article written in 1940 by Richard Maury, who blamed it on the rigors to which they were exposed.  “They were frantically bullied,” said Maury, “and, with all due respect to their masters, were beaten to death — as an old-timer might say — so much so that, after half a dozen voyages, they were usually in need of rebuilding.”

They were worked so hard, apparently, that “they were strained and buckled out of shape to reach the pots of gold in California and Australia. They were severely worked and their backs were broken until they had to be held in shape with chains secured around their side.”

Clippers were old ships in five years, and by the time they reached 10 they were no longer greyhounds but more like tortoises.  The very mania for speed that brought their beauty into existence turned out to be their death knell.

Chains around their sides, indeed. What an ignoble end for such elegant ships, surely some of the loveliest creations mankind was ever responsible for.

Today’s Thought
Allow time and moderate delay; haste manages all things badly.
— Statius, Thebais

What's the difference between a bankrupt attorney and a homing pigeon?
The pigeon can still make a deposit on a Mercedes.

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

May 24, 2012

The outboard revealed

ANYONE WHO HAS owned, driven, or perhaps even looked at an outboard motor must agree that there is no finer or truer description of this cantankerous piece of machinery than that written by John Steinbeck.

In that most excellent book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck says:

“We come now to a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts and, we hope, some venom to our pen.

“We shall call this contraption, for the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow—a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart.

“In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred, A soul and a malignant mind have been born. Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing, but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful, living thing.

“We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:

“1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.

“2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.

“3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.

“4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in a simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.

“5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.

“6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm sunny days, when the weather was calm and the white beach was close by—in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row—the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.

“7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.

“Perhaps toward the end, our observations were a little warped by emotion. Time and again as it sat on the stern with its pretty little propeller lying idly in the water, it was very close to death. And in the end, even we were infected with its malignancy  and its dishonesty. We should have destroyed it, but we did not. Arriving home, we gave it a new coat of aluminum paint, spotted it at points with new red enamel, and sold it. And we might have rid the world of this mechanical cancer!”

Today’s Thought
It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.
— J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy.

“Sara says she ran into you for a second time at the vegetarian club.”
“That’s a lie. I’d never met herbivore.”

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

May 22, 2012

Can your pumps cope?

IT’S A SAD FACT, but most bilge pumps cannot keep up with the inflow of water from a reasonably small hole in your hull. So, if you hit a rock, the first thing to do is try to stop the flow of water somehow, either by stuffing cushions or towels in the hole, or by covering the hole from the outside with a collision mat.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get to the bare hull on many boats because of built-in furniture and liners, so you should also have at hand a suitable ax with which you can hack away the beautiful varnished teak.  Don’t worry, you won’t feel a single twinge of remorse while you;re hacking to save your life.

Stuffing things in the hole should slow down the flow enough to enable your pumps to cope while you make more permanent repairs, but it’s as well to bear in mind that a suprisingly small hole will sink your boat in short order, and the smaller the boat the bigger the pumps you need.

This is the formula that gives you the rate of flooding from an underwater hole:

Incoming gallons per minute = D x square root of H x 20, where D = the diameter of the hole in inches and H = the height in feet to which water must rise to reach the outside level — in other words, the depth of the hole below outside water level.

If I haven’t frightened you enough already, take note that a mere 2-inch diameter hole 3 feet below the waterline will let in 69 gallons a minute, or more than 4,000 gallons an hour. A high-capacity power pump is rated at 3,000 gallons per hour.

Today’s Thought
Great floods have flown from simple sources.
— Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well.

“I hear old Bill got addicted to brake fluid.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“How’s he doing?”
“Oh, he’s okay. He says he can stop any time.”

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

May 20, 2012

Polishing non-stainless steel

ONE OF THE FIRST TASKS that falls to boat owners each spring is to polish the stainless steel of pulpits, pushpits, and stanchions. The truth is that a lot of stainless steel isn't stainless at all. It often acquires a veneer of rust in the cold salty air of winter, a light brown stain that offends the mind as much as the eye because of its inherent promise to remain shiny and free of unsightly stains.

But even worse things happen to allegedly indestructible stainless steel under certain quite common conditions on boats. It can corrode and waste away as badly as any ordinary piece of mild steel. It seems almost paradoxical, but most types of stainless steel rely on a constant supply of oxygen to avoid corrosion.

On deck, or under water, uncovered stainless steel receives sufficient oxygen and stays bright. But if it's enclosed in a stern tube, covered with marine growth, or surrounded by wood, stagnant water or other material, it can be deprived of the oxygen it needs, and suffer from pitting. That's one good reason why regular stern glands should drip a little — to feed dissolved oxygen to the stainless steel propeller shaft — and that's also why it isn't always clever to use stainless steel for keel bolts if they're buried in long sections of damp wood.

According to marine author Nigel Calder, stainless steel is an alloy of several metals, one of which is chromium. When chromium is exposed to oxygen in air or water it forms an inert layer that protects the underlying metal.

Calder adds: "But if taken away from oxygen and surrounded by moisture, particularly salt water, the oxidized layer of chromium breaks down, leaving the stainless steel to rust and corrode much like ordinary steel — a situation commonly referred to as crevice corrosion."

That's why prudent mariners like you should look around with suspicion when polishing the pulpits and stanchions. Check the  stainless rigging screws, where salt water might wick down threads,  and the plastic-covered lifelines. Inspect swaged terminals and many other important stainless steel fittings, and watch them regularly for signs of corrosion. Unfortunately, all too often stainless doesn't mean stainless on a boat.

Today's Thought
Distrust justifies deceit.
— La Rochefoucauld, Maximes

As an airplane is about to crash, a female passenger jumps up frantically and yells: "If I'm going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman."
She removes all her clothing and cries: "Is there someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?"
The guy in front of her stands up and removes his pants. "Sure honey," he says. "Here, iron these!"

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

May 17, 2012

Fathoming the way to land

SOMEONE IN RATHER A HURRY to get away and sail south before the start of the winter storms once asked me if he should make time to study emergency navigation. A friend had given him a copy of David Burch's [1] excellent book named (appropriately enough) Emergency Navigation, but it was rather long, and while some of it was simple and obvious, other parts required a fairly deep knowledge of physical science and the movements of the heavens.

The best advice I could give him was to read through the book, simply to know what was possible, and to stop worrying about emergency navigation until it happened.

Like most sailors who have ventured over the sea horizon, I have read books on emergency navigation with great fascination. But I came to the conclusion that much of it was plain common sense and some of it depended entirely on luck (what charts, instruments and tables were left available to you). The rest was rooted too deeply in the actual science of navigation for my liking and, indeed, my capabilities.

It is indeed fascinating to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies and to use simple mathematical formulas to make them divulge information of use to you, but it requires more study than I was prepared to devote to it.

As I pointed out in one of my books, deep-sea voyaging covers so many different disciplines, from medicine and aerodynamics to culinary arts and mechanical engineering, that there just isn't time in one human lifespan to plunge headlong into the depths of each and every one.

Anyone with common sense, a reasonable amount of reading, a broad-based education in the arts and sciences, and enough guts to attempt an ocean crossing, should be able to fathom a way back to land if it's at all possible.

If I were forced to make a choice, I would rather devote time to studying survival techniques than to emergency navigation. The ability to catch fish, find plankton, and gather fresh water might be worth far more to a sailor than a deep knowledge of navigation.

This is purely a personal observation, of course, and in no way diminishes the value of reading books like David Burch's (which I urge every deep-sea sailor to do) nor the added pleasure, interest, and satisfaction such books can bring to a voyage.

But I am sure most sailors would find it easier to head toward a large piece of land they can't possibly miss, such as South America or Australia, while surviving indefinitely off the sea. They don't really need to study in any great depth the very fine techniques of emergency navigation that might—or might not—guide them to the safety of a smaller but nearer island.

[1] David Burch is the Director of the Starpath School of Navigation in Seattle.

Today's Thought
The stars above would make thee known,
If men here silent were;
The sun himself cannot forget
His fellow traveller.
— John Owen, Epigram on Sir Francis Drake

I dislike all puns, but jokes about German sausage are truly the wurst.

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

May 15, 2012

Beware the overhang

LONG OVERHANGS look very elegant on a sailboat. Many racing designs used them at one time or another, boats such as the Thirty Square Meter class, which is limited almost entirely by sail area. Designers searching for the fastest hull for given sail area came up with slim, narrow boats with minimum underwater surface, and long, long, overhangs to increase speed when the boat heeled. But these were never ocean racing boats.

Long, low overhangs are dangerous in open water. They pound badly in a head sea and are easily boarded by large breaking waves. It can be very treacherous to work on a long narrow foredeck awash in heavy weather.

In large quartering seas, such a boat is almost uncontrollable. Each passing swell lifts the long aft overhang and tries to screw the boat around to the broadside-on position. The lever-arm provided by the long overhang means that it takes comparatively little power to spin the boat around. If that happens at speed, the boat will broach and probably capsize, with a good chance of losing the mast. For that reason, most seaboats have only a moderate bow overhang and very little stern overhang.

Thirty Square Meters and others of that type are wonderful performers in calm water but don’t be tempted to take them too far out to sea.         

Today's Thought
Danger comes the sooner when despised.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiae

"How's that book on anti-gravity?"
"It's great. I can hardly put it down."

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

May 13, 2012

How to look yachty

 WHAT IS THE well-dressed sailor wearing these days? It's a question that doesn't normally occur to me, but it just so happens that West Marine has sent me a brochure listing all the wonderful boating things they have for sale, including what it pleases them to call "yachting apparel."

I must admit I have never owned any yachting apparel.  My yachting uniform normally comes from the thrift store and usually costs $1 for the top and $3 for the pants. This enables me to take off my tee-shirt and use it to mop up spilled engine oil without experiencing a twinge of conscience or a significant diminishment of my personal fortune. My granddaughter also informs me that the holes in my jeans are absolutely haute couture. She says the holes are  actually supposed to coincide with tattoos on my thighs and calves, so people can see them, but as I'm too old to have tattoos she thinks my hairy legs will do instead.

However, we stray. What I was saying is that I have West Marine's list of what you should be wearing if you wish to be admired and respected at the yacht club and on the racing circuit. Here is what they recommend:

u Tech sailing hat, $19.99.  It looks like any other baseball cap and has a West Marine logo on it, so they should be paying you to wear it because you are advertising West Marine.

u Sailing gloves, $26.99. They look like $5 gardening gloves without the pimples and I dare say you could use them to pull weeds when you're not sailing.

u Shoes. Apparently you need SeaRacer+ Sailing Shoes with GripX3, $119.99 They have an "exoskeleton" that "improves grip and protection for the top of your foot." Huh? The top? Go figure.

u Boots, $79.95. Not your ordinary boots, of course. These are Gills, and "worn by many of the world's top sailors." If you want to look smart, win races, feel like a top-world sailor, and go bankrupt, buy Gills.

u Shirt, $29.99. This short-sleeved, simply styled, classic camp shirt comes in bluestone, ivory, seafoam, and black. Such sweet colors. But it regains macho status from its name: Men's Anchor Shirt. (Not an anchor anywhere to be seen, though.)

u Shorts, $39.99. Real sailors wear jeans, but if you must match the rest of your outfit then you need Men's Admiral Shorts in Driftwood Khaki or Oyster Khaki.  There's a 9-inch inseam from your oysters to your driftwood, which should be long enough for most.

u Offshore jacket and bib, $409.00. Alaskan crab fishermen face the toughest working conditions in the fishing industry. They wear yellow PVC slickers that cost about one-tenth of West Marine's Musto duds. But what do they know?  Musto will keep you looking smarter and smelling fresher than those dumb crabbers.

So if you add it all up it comes to $725.90. Not bad, really, if you're a 1 percenter.  Or pretending to be.

Today's Thought
Fond pride of dress is sure a very curse;
Ere fancy you consult, consult your purse.
— Benjamin Franklin.

"How do you like your new beard?"
"I didn't like it at first. Then it grew on me."

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

May 10, 2012

Letting it all hang out

 ANYONE WHO WRITES for the public these days can hardly escape the pressure to reveal everything about himself, "to let it all hang out" as one of my less delicate correspondents puts it.
With Facebook and Twitter setting the pace, bloggers and columnists are falling over themselves to tell the world all about their innermost inhibitions and most heartfelt desires.

Casting every shred of privacy and modesty to the four winds, they regale us with the causes of their emotional breakdowns and the size of their expanding waistbands.

I have fought this pressure all my journalistic life, believing as I do that the things that happen to other people are far more interesting than the kind of life I lead, which strives to fend off mishaps and catastrophes by means of dull caution and thorough preparation. I like to blend in with the background. I feel safer there.  But the less delicate correspondent I may already have mentioned says she wants to know something about me as a person, a person who has written more than 500 columns in a row and who publishes regularly every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday something or other about small boats.

"How do you find things to write about?" she asks. "How much time do you spend doing it? Why don't you have any Google ads?  Why don't you have pictures, just words?" And so on. You'd hardly believe the list of things she wants to know. And she is insistent as well as indelicate. "C'mon, lard-butt," she says, "spill the beans, dammit."

Well, if it will get her off my back, perhaps I can find a few harmless beans to spill. First off, I can tell you that writing columns used to be my full-time business. I have written many thousands of them for big newspapers. Now that I'm a freelancer, and nobody pays me to write this column, I have to be careful how much time I devote to it.  It could take as much time as I care to put into it, polishing the apostrophes and kicking the adjectives into place, so I deliberately allow an hour-and-a-half to find a subject, research it, write it, and edit it. That doesn't leave me any time to steal the pictures or illustrations that readers have come to expect; and that's fine with me because I despise the gratuitous use of eye-candy that adds nothing to the substance of the words. This is a column for readers with active minds, and to hell with the meretricious bling.

How do I find things to write about? I honestly don't know. What I do is sit down at the keyboard, threaten to throttle the cat if she doesn't stop yowling for supper, and squeeze my eyes shut until my cheeks hurt. Somehow that clears a space in my brain and inevitably some or other word will fall into that space, a word such as keel, or mast, or anchor. I then grab that word with both hands and wring its little neck and torture it until it squeals.  And I mean squeals in the way a Chicago hoodlum means it.  I'm talking literary waterboarding.  In a very short time, keel, mast or anchor has revealed its life history and I'm writing it all down and finishing in time to grab a beer and watch the evening news.

As for the quality of writing, I can't tell you about that. All I know is that I write like I think, and I think like I speak, and I speak kinda funny because I have a funny accent. I spent a very formative part of my childhood in a little village called Ashburton on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devonshire, England, where the piskies live. [1] I spoke with a broad Devonshire burr in those days but it turned into the flat-voweled accent of South Africa's English-speaking province, Natal, when I was a young man, and then it got mixed up with Northwest American when I moved to the States. So, wherever I go, I have a foreign accent. Except, perhaps in France.

I was attending a formal dinner in Durban one evening when the woman next to me corrected my pronunciation of laissez faire.  I was naturally offended, and decided to teach her a lesson. I burst out in French, the only French I knew, the first paragraph of the Gallic version of Little Tom Thumb, which I had long ago memorized.  I gargled and nasaled the Rs and vowels in impressive Parisian style at the speed of white lightning. My lips were a positive blur. Then I paused for her reaction, her apology.

She laughed so hard I thought she would choke. It turned out she was a French-speaking Belgian. "You're all accent and no language," she gasped.

Yeah, well, you can't win 'em all.   

Today's Thought
Language is the soul of intellect, and reading is the essential process by which that intellect is cultivated beyond the commonplace experiences of everyday life.
— Charles Scribner Jr., Publishers Weekly, 30 Mar 84

A man takes his dog to the vet. "Doc," he says, "my dog is cross-eyed. Can you can do anything for him?"
"Well," says the vet, "let's have a look at him"
So he picks up the dog and examines his eyes, then he checks his teeth and listens to his heart. Finally, he says, "I'm going to have to put him down."

"Jeez, doc, put him down? What? Because he's cross-eyed?"
"No, because he's really heavy."

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

May 8, 2012

Comparing boats

IF YOU'RE AS FASCINATED as I am by the way different boats behave, even when they look very similar, you should pay a visit to Carl's Sail Calculator.  Carl has listed the statistics of hundreds of different sailboats of all types and set them up on a website for easy access.  There, thanks to the magic of computers, you can study the characteristics of two sail boats side by side. You might even find out why that raggedy-looking little bucket always manages to come sailing past you in light weather.

You'll even be able to find out how comfortable your boat is at sea, compared with other similar boats, because Carl has built in a motion comfort factor, like the one designer Ted Brewer invented for fun years ago.  And, more importantly, you can compare capsize factors (boats with factors under 2.0 are considered safer and less likely to capsize at sea).        

The theoretical speed of each boat is listed, of course, but as it's a formula based on waterline length it can't possibly tell the whole story of how fast a boat will go in differing conditions of wind and sea. Nevertheless, when you compare one boat with another, it gives you a good idea of which is likely to get back home before the pub closes, and which will be stuck out in the bay after dark with a crew complaining that they're dying of thirst.

If you'd like to visit Carl's Sail Calculator, go to

Scroll down to Part 1 and click on one boat in each column, then click on "make a chart" just underneath.

There's lots more information on that site and I leave you to figure it out. Play nicely. Have fun.

Today's Thought
Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question "How?" but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question "Why?"
— Erwin Chargaff, professor of Biological Chemistry, Columbia University.

Police in Detroit arrested two kids yesterday. One was drinking battery acid, and the other was swallowing fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.

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

May 6, 2012

White water perils

ONE OF MY FIRST LESSONS in seamanship came in a rather unexpected way. I was swimming in the surf off an African beach bordering the sub-tropical Indian Ocean when a large breaking swell picked me up, tumbled me over, and whumped me into the swirling, foamy depths deep below.

I fought to regain the surface, but found I couldn't get my head above the white water to breathe. I could feel panic rising until, fortuitously, my feet found bottom, dragged along a bit, and slowed my progress toward the shore. The breaker moved on, and I found myself in solid water once more, able to rise to the surface and breathe.

Some time afterward I realized that things don't float properly in water that is full of air bubbles. And by things, I mean people and boats. I know now why body surfers dive underneath the white water of oncoming breakers and emerge in the solid water behind them. 

The simple fact is that aerated water is not as dense as normal water and will not offer the same support to bodies floating in it. Just as a boat will float lower in fresh water than in salt water, which is denser, that same boat will float lower in aerated water, perhaps even dangerously lower, depending on how much freeboard she has.

But my lesson in seamanship came when it also occurred to me that a boat's rudder is less effective in water that's less dense, which explains why a sailboat's helm goes dead when a wave breaks under the stern and throws her forward.  It's a nasty feeling when she's about to broach and you can't get her to respond to the helm.

The answer, as I found out, is to slow her down with drogues or warps streamed aft, so that she is not carried along for any distance with her rudder in the breaking, foamy water. Let the breakers overtake you as quickly as possible, so that you get your steering control back before she can make mischief by turning broadside-on.

The same rule applies to boats operating in any white water; that is, water filled with bubbles of air, especially if you're coming in to a beach through lines of surf in a dinghy.  If you don't have the engine power to stay safely on the back of a breaker all the way in, you must slow down and let each line of breakers overtake you as quickly as possible.  In a boat powered by oars, it's often best to turn and face out to sea, backing in slowly and then pulling forward just before the next breaking swell arrives.  Sometimes, if you have enough line,  it's possible to drop a light anchor and let the line run, snubbing it as new breaker arrives.

There may be unexpected danger, too, in areas where strong tidal currents clash or run over rippled bottoms, causing the sea surface to bobble and dance.  This can aerate the water so that a boat entering the area floats lower, and loses grip on its rudder and propeller.

So watch out for white water. It's not something we think about often, and it sure looks innocuous, but those pretty little bubbles can spell trouble if you don't know the science behind them.

Today's Thought
 "Wouldst thou,"—so the helmsman answered,
"Learn the secret of the sea?
"Only those who brave its dangers
"Comprehend its mystery!"
— Longfellow, The Secret of the Sea

 What do you call a fish with no eyes?
A fsh.

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May 3, 2012

A probable stranding

THE MYSTERY surrounding the sinking of the yacht Aegean during the Newport-Ensenada race appears to have been solved. A satellite tracking system carried by the yacht, which sent GPS position reports every 10 minutes, shows her course line ending abruptly on uninhabited North Coronado Island, Baja California, Mexico, about 15 miles south of San Diego, Calif.

The point of impact at 1.36 a.m. is shown to be where rugged cliffs fall into the Pacific Ocean among jagged rocks to the west of a small peninsula on the very northern tip of the island.  With a six-foot swell running, it is very likely that the 37-foot sailboat would have pounded herself to bits in short order. Pinned up against the precipitous cliffs, and without beach access, the four crew members would have had little chance of survival.

The U.S. Coast Guard still hasn't ruled out collision with a larger vessel as a cause of the accident, but the evidence presented by the SPOT satellite tracking system will be difficult to dispute.

North Coronado Island, well offshore from the Mexican mainland, is not lit and would be difficult to spot at night, even if visibility was good, as it was believed to be on the night of the accident. But we shall probably never know why the Aegean plowed a steady course right into the island, or why the crew on duty failed to react in time to avoid a stranding.     

Today's Thought
Nothing comes to us too soon but sorrow.
— P. J. Bailey, Testus: Home.

'Twas in the tropic latitudes
While we were talking platitudes,
As any sailor might,
We forgot to take our longitude,
Which was a grievous wrongitide,
So we did not reach Hong-Kongitude
'Til very late that night.

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May 1, 2012

Another sad sea mystery

MORE SAD NEWS from California, where Reuters is reporting that two sailors killed in a mysterious accident at sea that reduced their boat to ruins during the Newport-Ensenada race died of blunt-force injuries.  A third crew member drowned, coroners reported on Monday, while  the fourth member of the crew, the owner, is still missing.

What strikes me as very strange is that the wreckage of the 37-foot Aegean was discovered in what appeared to be unusually small pieces.  The Newport Ocean Sailing Association says the Aegean appeared to have been struck by a much larger vessel during the race from California to Mexico.  It was 1.30 a.m. and there was very little wind.  But they're not ruling out anything.

I keep thinking yes, if a large ship rammed them head-on, the propeller(s) could make mincemeat of a yacht. But the yacht would have to be pushed down under the ship's bows for 20 or 30 feet before she could make contact with the propeller. Would that happen?  Normally, the yacht would be lifted by the underwater bulbous bow, then pushed to port or starboard, and scrape down the ship's side.

And would a collision cause fatal blunt-force injuries to two crew members?  It's possible, I guess, especially if they were in the cockpit; but wouldn't they have had at least a few moments' warning of the ship's approach, and prepared themselves somehow? And why couldn't they get out of the ship's way? Obviously they wouldn't want to start the engine while racing, but in an emergency when they were sitting ducks they would certainly be entitled to, and no race committee would penalize them simply for avoiding a collision.

Nobody has yet suggested an explosion on board the yacht as a possible cause, but I have seen yachts that were blown to smithereens by propane gas explosions. And I mean smithereens. Lots of tiny little pieces.

The other thing that bothers me is that, to my knowledge, nobody has suggested a review of the AIS records, which would reveal what large vessels were in the vicinity at the time.  I'm told it's possible for a freighter to run over a yacht without being aware of it, but I'm skeptical.  A yacht the size of the Aegean has a solid ballast keel weighing tons. Surely that would make a lot of noise and leave evidence of a collision?

I hope the Coast Guard is able to pin down some satisfactory answers. Modern science has contributed much to the safety of vessels of all sizes, but the sea still  creates as many mysteries as ever.

Today's Thought
If the danger seems slight, then truly it is not slight.
— Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum: Principiis Obstare.

Apparently, one in five people in the world are Chinese. There are five people in my family, so it must be one of us. It's not me. It's either my Mom or my Dad, or my older brother Fred, or my younger brother Hing-Cho-Cha. But I think it's Fred.

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