July 31, 2012

Jail under sail

HAVE YOU EVER thought that being on a sailboat at sea is like being in a prison? Dr. Michael Stadler says in The Psychology of Sailing: “In many respects the situation at sea does not differ in principle from the situation in a prison or cloister. Sociologists have described such living conditions as ‘total institutions.’” That means all activities are carried out in the same living space, with the same objective, under one authority.

As the skipper of a boat at sea, you are that authority — and thus the target of every gripe and resentment. As skipper, the law requires that you accept full responsibility for what happens on your boat, but you shouldn’t keep to yourself all the difficult tasks that require a high degree of skill, such as steering in bad weather, navigation, docking maneuvers, sail changes, and so on.

It’s smarter, for your good and theirs, to teach and delegate. Offer your crew the opportunity to learn and develop their own skills. Give them responsibility in the day-to-day running of the ship. In this way, you’ll instill a sense of team spirit and the satisfying feeling that they’re making valuable contributions to the welfare of the group. And (not coincidentally) it also keeps them too busy to think about mutiny.

Today’s Thought
Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
— Samuel Johnson
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(20) “Yes, sir, is it done the way you like it?”

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

July 29, 2012

Sailing at night

I FORGET NOW what brought it up, but my wife reminded me the other night of what it’s like to sail at night. She recalled a night in mid-South Atlantic when she was sitting next to me in the cockpit of our 31-footer. It was a cloudy, moonless night, a night of complete and utter darkness — so much so that we couldn’t even see a trace of each other. No faces, no arms, no legs, no nothing. I could have been sitting next to Angelina Jolie.

Sailing at night can be a wonderful experience in more normal times, especially in warm waters where phosphorescence swirls in your wake and the trade wind sighs gently in the rigging. Brittle stars prick through the velvet canopy of night and the moon floods the decks with a silver glow.

But sailing at night can also be quite frightening, something like driving down the freeway blindfolded. Even on the best of nights it’s almost impossible to see anything in the water close ahead of you, and we all know that containers are washed off ships regularly, and that debris from continental shorelines is floating out there along with those half-submerged containers, timber deadheads, fishing nets, unlit weather buoys, sleeping whales, and other yachts.

The land looks quite different at night, too.  Even a harbor entrance you know well by daylight is confusing at night until you learn to separate the lighted buoys from the traffic lights on shore and the searchlights on the used-car lots.

It takes practice to steer by the compass only, to reef, handle sails, and work on deck in the pitch dark.  It’s best to start gradually and gain experience by going out for a couple of hours at dusk.  You’ll notice then how difficult it is to judge distance in the dark, and how confusing ships’ lights can be.

And if you’re not sure who’s sitting next to you in the cockpit, I advise you to experiment by gentle touch.  You’ll know soon enough if it’s Angelina Jolie.

Today’s Thought
Observe her flame,
That placid dame,
The moon's Celestial Highness;
There's not a trace
Upon her face
Of diffidence or shyness:
She borrows light
That, through the night,
Mankind may all acclaim her!
And, truth to tell,
She lights up well,
So I, for one, don't blame her!

— W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(19) “Oh, really? So that’s where they go in summer, is it?”

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

July 26, 2012

Lucky Bernard

EVERY NOW AND THEN I hear somebody praising the late Bernard Moitessier for his wonderful seamanship. They’ve usually just read one of his books and are smitten by his wonderfully carefree attitude toward life combined with his renowned boat-handling skill in heavy weather.

But it wasn’t always like this. I knew Bernard quite well when I was a schoolboy. I used to practice my schoolboy French on him, and he practiced his schoolboy English on me.

Although he became world-famous for his sailing exploits, he was a lousy sailor in some respects. He lost two of his boats on reefs after falling asleep, and he abandoned the most famous one of all, Joshua, on a beach in Mexico after he anchored too close inshore.

One of his favorite stories, told in his book The Long Way (Sheridan House), involves a large dose of sheer luck that was presented to him by a pod of porpoises.

Unbeknown to him, because he hadn’t checked his compass course, Joshua was being carried at 7 knots toward the rocks off mist-shrouded Stewart Island in the South Pacific.

Suddenly “a tight line of 25 porpoises swimming abreast goes from stern to stem on the starboard side, in three breaths, then the whole group veers right and rushes off at right angles, all the fins cutting through the water together and in the same breath taken on the fly.”

They did this more than 10 times before Moitessier understood their message, checked his compass, and turned Joshua to starboard onto a safe course.

Then something wonderful happened, he said.  A big black-and-white porpoise jumped high into the air and did a double forward somersault. “Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right ... you understood ... you understood ... keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’”    

Moitessier seemed to have as much luck as skill, but I dare say he earned his luck one way or another and always had enough points piled up in his black box.

Today’s Thought
Diligence is the mother of good luck.
— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(18) “Just leave it there, sir, and I’ll fetch the goldfish.”

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

July 24, 2012

Whistling for the wind

WE ARE FAST APPROACHING the calm season around here, the dog days of summer when the wind disappears and the tidal streams snatch you and fling you in exactly the wrong direction. Some of us talented whistlers come into our own on these days. Whistling for the wind is something sailors have done since the very earliest days of sail.

According to The Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press) the ritual was one of “plaintively entreating the winds for a breeze by whistling with the lips in a variety of soft continuous notes while facing the direction from which it was desired that the wind would increase or spring up. Earlier custom required that a group of men occupy a more prominent position, such as the poop, when thus engaged, especially during a lengthy spell of light airs and calms.”

Now that you know how to whistle for the wind correctly, there’s something else you should know. You should do it only in calms. If you whistle when you’re on watch, and the wind is already blowing, you invite bad weather.

Old-timers believed that you could whistle with impunity during your off-watch, but if you whistled during your working hours it showed that you didn’t have enough to do. The gods therefore found something for you to do. They sent stormy weather, which meant extra work for all hands.

The only crew member who could whistle while he worked was the bosun’s mate, the man who wielded the cat-o’-nine-tails when punishment was meted out. His whistling wouldn’t bring gales because the gods of the wind and sea ignored him, judging him to be an agent of the devil — which is exactly what the rest of the crew thought, too, of course.

Today’s Thought
Nothing is so aggravating as calmness.
— Oscar Wilde.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(17) “Don’t be alarmed, sir — that sort isn’t poisonous.”

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

July 22, 2012

A kill-switch question

HAVING SEARCHED the advertisements in vain for an extra-long-shaft 6-horsepower outboard motor, I broke down the other day and bought a brand new one from the registered dealer.  I wasn’t impressed with the service. Among other things, I asked him two questions.

The first was: “Is there a fuel filter on this engine?”

“No,” he said.

There was, of course, as I discovered when I got home and looked in the owner’s manual.

The second question was this:

“How do I start the engine if the man driving the dinghy falls overboard, taking the emergency kill-switch lanyard with him?  How do I start the motor to get back to him?”

“Don’t know,” said the dealer. “I’ve never been asked that question before.”

It’s hard to believe that a man who sells new outboards for a living had never thought of that question for himself.

As you probably know, the coiled, red, kill-switch lanyard is meant to be attached to your wrist or clothing.  If you fall overboard it jerks a small semi-circular disk out of a switch on the front of the engine. That allows a spring-loaded button to close inward and stop the motor immediately.

But you can’t start the motor unless that little disk is replaced.  And there it is, dangling on the end of a cord attached to your driver floating 50 yards astern.

Now, if you look inside the engine cover you’ll see two thin wires leading to the kill switch. My bet is that the act of pushing in the switch, which happens when the disk is removed, either completes a circuit, grounding the spark plug so that it won’t fire, or it breaks the hot-wire circuit to the spark plug, thus preventing it from firing.

In the second case, I suspect there is a good chance that if you simply cut the circuit between the magneto and the spark plug, you’re likely to blow a diode or do some other permanent damage  to the engine.  So my guess is that the safety switch simply grounds the circuit to the spark plug and stops it firing.

That being the case, you ought to be able to get the engine going again by fiddling with the two wires inside the engine cover.  You’ve either got to cut one or the other, or maybe you should cut both and twist them together.

Does anyone a little better informed than my dealer know how to get the motor going again? Does anyone understand the actual function of the emergency kill switch?

Today’s Thought
There’s lots of people—this town wouldn’t hold them—
Who don’t know much excepting what’s told them.
— Will Carleton, City Ballads.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(16) “Ah, thank you, sir, the dog must have missed it.”

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

July 19, 2012

Lost in the fog

FOG IS PROBABLY the greatest challenge most coastal cruisers will ever face. The statistics show that the chances of being run down in fog by a larger vessel are quite slim; it doesn’t happen that often. But what the statistics don’t show are the hours of tension, stress, and even stark fear that result from the disorientation of being wrapped in a cloak of mist that robs you of your sense of sight.

      On America’s east and west coasts, particularly, fog may occur almost any time of the year, and it can occur with startling suddenness. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of it, wandering blindly through swirling mist with a rising sense of panic and vulnerability.

      Your thoughts turn immediately to what can happen now:

      Ø  You’re going to get lost.

Ø  You’re going to reach port late and miss your plane.

Ø  You’re to hit the rocks or run aground.

Ø  You’re going to get run down by a large ship.

Ø  You’re going to die.

      If you think this sounds melodramatic, you’ve never been caught in fog. Fog does strange things to you. Even seasoned boaters suffer a nervous reaction when the cotton cloud hugs them to its breast and obscures the outside world, when your ears become your eyes because your eyes become useless.

      I can remember listening in astonishment one evening on my little VHF radio to a Mayday call broadcast by a powerboat on San Diego Bay. The local Coast Guard station asked what the problem was.

“We’re lost in the fog,” a man said anxiously.

      “Can you see anything at all?” asked the Coast Guard.

      “We’re circling a flashing red buoy with a 16 on it, but we don’t know where to go.”

      It was a channel buoy a few hundred yards from their home marina, and in ordinary circumstances it would have been ludicrous to put out a Mayday call. But fog is like that. It’s a panic-maker. In any case, the Coasties were very patient. They didn’t sneer or say anything sarcastic, much as they must have been tempted to do. They gave the lost powerboaters a compass course to steer at dead slow speed — something they wouldn’t normally do for fear of being sued if anything went wrong — and the boat made it home safely, to everyone’s relief.

Today’s Thought
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over the harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then, moves on.
Carl Sandburg, Fog

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(15)“He’s just looking for a friend, sir. You haven’t swallowed her by mistake, have you?”

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

July 17, 2012

Unlucky Friday

IF YOU’RE at all superstitious, you will know full well that it’s unlucky to start a voyage on a Friday. And yet the logical part of your mind will tell you that any  number of ships sail on Fridays and never come to any harm.

So what’s going on here? Well, it’s simple, really.  It is unlucky to sail on Friday, but if you have saved up enough points in your black box you can overcome the bad luck.

The superstition is very old and very widespread. It is recognized by sailors of different religions in many different countries, and it’s possible that it started with  the crucifixion of Christ, which occurred on a Friday.

It was, in fact, the early Christians who persuaded people that Friday was unlucky. Before that, Friday was regarded as a lucky day, a particularly auspicious day on which to get married because it was named after the Norse goddess Frigga, who was in charge of love and fertility.

With the downfall of poor Frigga came the theory that Friday was a very unlucky day. It affected sailors all over the world. The reluctance of ships’ crews to sail on Friday did not go unobserved, even in countries with large fighting navies. But war doesn’t wait on Fridays, and, as we know, not every ship that sails on Friday experiences bad luck.

I believe the Black Box Theory is at work here. The ships that don’t come to grief are those that have a lot of points in their black boxes, enough to overcome, or at least to lessen, the bad fortune of sailing on the wrong day.

There is also a way around this dilemma. You can set sail on a Friday if you know how. The thing is to start your voyage on a Wednesday or Thursday. You must go a mile or two purposefully, and then return to your slip or anchorage to fix some small problem that seems to have arisen. It is the seamanlike thing to do.  Perhaps a turnbuckle has come slightly loose. Perhaps you forgot to top up the water tanks. I’m sure you get the idea.

When Friday comes, you can set sail in earnest without attracting bad luck because you are merely continuing a voyage, not starting one.  I don’t doubt that the gods know exactly what you’re doing, but they rather admire sailors who demonstrate a little constructive cunning, so they’re prepared to turn a blind eye.

Today’s Thought
Alas! you know the cause too well;
The salt is spilt, to me it fell;
Then to contribute to my loss,
My knife and fork were laid across;
On  Friday, too! The day I dread!
Would I were safe at home in bed!
— John Gay, Fables: The Farmer’s Wife and the Raven

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(14) “Yes, sir, the chef ran out of garlic.”

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

July 15, 2012

The scourge of seasickness

ANYONE WHO SUFFERS from seasickness knows that it’s not just a matter of vomiting.  What’s much worse is the feeling of doom and hopelessness, the dreadful despair that floods the brain, the certain knowledge that you will never recover from this vile disease until a slow and painful death releases you.

There is plenty of free advice about how to prevent seasickness, most of which doesn’t work, but the golden rules are to stay away from alcohol, greasy foods, and engine-room smells.  Keep warm and dry, stay on deck, keep busy if possible, and watch the horizon. And also stay away from the ends of the boat.

To which may be added: Take medications before sailing or the occurrence of rough weather. The general rules is to take them three hours in advance. If you wait until you actually feel sick it’s too late for the medicine’s prophylactic properties to take effect. Ginger, in soft drinks or cookies, is often said to help prevent sickness.

If you’d like to try a new drug, check with your doctor first. Different drugs seem to be effective for different people.  And try it out on land first, to see what the side-effects are, if any. 

Seasickness occurs less frequently for most people when they lie down. The second-best position is standing upright, legs slightly apart, without holding on to anything—provided, of course, that you’re not in any danger of going overboard.

What is not so well known is that the very worst position for getting seasick is sitting down, either in the cockpit or down below. There may be some consolation in the fact that if you can survive being seasick for three days, you will have become adapted to the motion, and you are not likely to get sick later during that same trip.  The immunity you build up this way appears to last for six to 10 weeks, even if you spend some of that time on land, between voyages.

It doesn’t work that way for everybody, though.  I have been seasick for nine days in a row with no sign of adaptation and no relief until we reached port.  But two weeks later, when we set off to cross an ocean in very rough weather, I wasn’t seasick at all.

Incidentally, research has shown that women become seasick more frequently than men do. They seem to be more susceptible to motion sickness in general.  People of either gender become less prone to seasickness as they get older, and some authorities link this to a worsening sense of balance. Apparently, the more acute your sense of balance, the more likely you are to be sick. So as you get older, you’re less likely to suffer from seasickness, but more likely to fall overboard and drown.  What Nature giveth with one hand, she snatcheth away with the other.

Today’s Thought
You may be sure that the reason Ulysses was shipwrecked on every possible occasion was not because of the anger of the sea-god; he was simply subject to seasickness.
— Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(13) “No problem, sir, all our soup is treated with fly poison.”

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

July 13, 2012

The horror of hobbyhorsing

WHEN I WAS 15 or 16, I used to crew for an elderly gentleman on a 25-foot gaff-rigged sloop. He used to lure me aboard every weekend with what I thought was a fine lunch. It consisted mainly of egg-and-onion brown bread sandwiches. Same thing every week, made by his housekeeper.

We used to take the sloop out to sea, where she romped along beautifully when the wind was free, but when it came to beating, she had one very irritating habit.  She used to hobbyhorse.

Those of you who have experienced hobbyhorsing will know just how it drives you mad. The boat just seems to rear and plunge in the same spot in the sea.  No sooner does she start to move forward than another wave comes along and stops her dead in her tracks again.  All she’s doing is flinging her head up and down and going nowhere.

I didn’t know it then, and neither did my mentor, apparently, but in the absence of any major design fault, hobbyhorsing is caused by too much weight in the bows and stern, but particularly in the bows, where heavy ground tackle often accumulates. Weight aloft also contributes to the moment of inertia, which is the prime cause of hobbyhorsing.

When you lighten the ends of the boat by moving heavy weighrts more toward the center, and you remove excessive weight from the mast, the difference in performance—and comfort—is often remarkable. (And much appreciated by young crews who are beginning to wonder how much longer their egg-and-onion sandwiches are going to stay down.)

Today’s Thought
 To have a stomach and lack meat, to have meat and lack a stomach, to lie in bed and cannot rest, are great miseries.
— William Camden, Remains.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(12) “You don’t have to eat it, sir, it’s just for decoration.”

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

July 10, 2012

The price of ice

A READER IN CALIFORNIA wants to know if he needs to install a freezer on his 35-foot sailboat, which he is planning to use for a circumnavigation next year.

I know why he’s asking.  For some reason, Americans, more than any other nation on earth, love ice. We use it in big chunks in iceboxes, and in small chunks under our oysters, and in medium sized chunks in our cocktails.

The phlegmatic British will drink their beer warm if necessary. Indeed, some actually prefer it that way. They say that chilling it inhibits the volatile vapors that give beer its best flavor. The French don’t need ice for their wine and the Canadians are quite happy to suffer in silence for the sheer joy of sailing. But Americans need ice.

That means two things:

1. You’d better be able to fix your reefer yourself if you plan to cruise to less-developed countries.

2. You’ll never have to wonder what to do with your spare time.

You can buy a 12-volt refrigeration system to fit an icebox that will draw nearly 6 amps at full load. That means you can run it flat out for about 7 hours on a 100-amp-hour battery before you need to start recharging, according to the 40-percent rule.

For a bit more, you can buy what is probably the most popular system among American long-distance cruisers, the holding-plate system.  This requires a compressor coupled to your engine or a separate generator that needs to be run for about two hours a day.

One way or another, you pay quite dearly for ice on a small boat.  If you can train yourself to do without it you will lead a happier life, with more time to enjoy the people and scenery around you.

It’s true that nothing brings more joy to the heart of a sweaty sailor than the tinkle of ice in a tall glass.  But if you can’t make ice yourself, there is an alternative. Look around the anchorage for a boat flying Old Glory. Most American boats have ice. And Americans have a well-earned reputation for generosity.  If there’s one thing more joyful than the sound of ice in your glass, it’s the sound of someone else’s ice in your glass.

Today’s Thought
The Americans are a funny lot; they drink whiskey to keep them warm; then they put some ice in it to make it cool; they put some sugar in it to make it sweet, and then they put a slice of lemon in it to make it sour. Then they say “Here’s to you” and drink it themselves.
— B. N. Chakravarty, India Speaks to America.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(12) “It’s OK, sir, I know that one. He can swim.”

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

July 8, 2012

Welcome to Dekkerspeak

I SEE THAT Laura Dekker, the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator, is still busy writing a book about her round-the-world adventure. She’s now crossing the Pacific en route to a new home in New Zealand with a crew, a young man called Bruno Ottens. She’s still appealing to the public for money to fund her trip, and also apparently busy inventing new English words.
“Mweh,” she says in her blog, “I felt so bad.” And again: “Blegh ... the wind has dropped ...”

She should take care. By the time she gets to New Zealand, the Kiwis won’t be able to understand her, thanks to the mwehs and bleghs and whatever else she might be cooking up linguistically.

*   *   *

WE LIVE in rude times. Perhaps Congress sets the example for the ill-natured discourse that pervades our country today. There is a lack of good old fashioned courtesy, and a whole host of demands for individual rights that are not in the interest of the community as a whole. Too much liberty is being taken in the name of free speech to indulge in foul language, spoken and written — harsh language that is intended to shock, if not hurt.

Women are as guilty as men in this respect. Recent blogs by women sailors in Seattle are rife with four-letter words. Unnecessary four-letter words. They add nothing but foul language to the narrative, except perhaps an indication of the writer’s nature.

I understand that modern American women find themselves in direct competition with men in many ways. They certainly seem to sense a need to match men in profanity. But not all men use f-words in their regular speech, and even fewer use them in their written language. The presence of a four-letter word does not of itself add artistic merit to written language. It adds only shock, and then only to start with. Swearing is a poor and lazy substitute for lively, descriptive writing, which demands those other nasty four-letter words, hard work.

I, for one, could use a little gentleness, a little modesty, a little reserve, in the blogs I read. I don’t care to know that the lady sailor was upset because the f-ing anchor got f-ing stuck in the f-ing mud. I don’t care to know that the lady blogger moving aboard her new boat found a nice place to stow her thongs. Where she keeps her intimate underwear is not my business. Or anybody else’s.

Today’s Thought
Politeness is the flower of humanity. He who is not polite enough is not human enough.
— Joubert, Pensées

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(10)“You must be from animal welfare, sir — I’ll fetch him a spoon at once.”

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

July 5, 2012

Discovering Higg's bosun

I SEE THEY’VE FOUND Higgs’ bosun at long last. Found him in a cave in the Swiss Alps, of all places. The news has made headlines everywhere.

Capt. Higgs should never have let him ashore, of course. His bosun never drank on the good ship Hellfire, but every time he set foot on land he fell prey to his two weaknesses, booze and broads.

Many’s the time Capt. Higgs rescued his bosun from the arms of a blousy blond in some tavern of ill repute, but the good Capt. forgave him for all his sins. Nobody had ever made the Hellfire run so smoothly. When the bosun was on board everything worked like well-oiled machinery. When other ships were in trouble, whether it was a question of bad accounts or saving sails from destruction in storms, the bosun was there smoothing things out on the Hellfire. He was the glue that held everything together, the brains behind every scheme and the brawn behind every movement.

His reputation was world-wide, and while there was evidence for all to see of how smoothly he could make things work, some naysayers actually doubted that he existed at all.   

To tell the truth, even Capt. Higgs didn’t know what the bosun’s secret of success was. The captain often said discovering the bosun was like discovering electricity. Nobody knew what electricity was at that time and nobody could have imagined the many uses we put it to today. But Higgs discovered the bosun, so the bosun keeps the universe together and Higgs gets all the credit.

I just hope they’ll extract the bosun from that Swiss cave before the Swiss broads find him. Or he finds them.

Today’s Thought
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.
— Pope, Epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton

“Waiter, here’s a fly in my soup.”
(9)“Not to worry, sir, they dissolve in a few minutes.”

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

July 3, 2012

Nature's wonder material

ALTHOUGH FIBERGLASS has proved an efficient and long-lasting material for boat-building, it still doesn’t match up to wood in many ways, in my opinion. Wood is Nature’s wonder boat-building material.  And it’s as good for the job now as it ever was.

It’s stronger, pound for pound, than fiberglass. It’s stiffer, pound for pound than steel, aluminum, or fiberglass. It floats, it accepts fastenings well (you can actually attach things with nails or screws), it’s plentiful, and it’s easily repaired with simple tools. On top of all this, it’s biodegradable and it’s warm and appealing to the human soul.

Unfortunately, a wooden boat cannot be mass-produced as simply and cheaply from a standard mold as can a fiberglass craft.  And unless you make special arrangements, a wooden hull won’t last as long as a fiberglass one because, besides being biodegradable, it’s also easily digested by a variety of hungry microbes, borers, and sea worms.

For a one-off hull, however, there’s still nothing to beat wood. The tendency these days is often to seal the wood during construction with several coats of epoxy resin. This is supposed to make it resistant to rot and give it a life that should last as long as fiberglass. The coating of epoxy is efficient at blocking the passage of water and so will keep the wood drier than most bugs can stand, but no epoxy coating will block the passage of water vapor totally. That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea to coat thick timbers with epoxy. They only have to swell a little and the epoxy will split, allowing water to enter and effectively become trapped there.

I believe a better approach is to laminate thinner pieces of timber so that each individual piece is isolated and encapsulated, but I still have doubts about totally sealing wood with plastic resins.

In my limited practical experience in these matters, I have always felt it safer to paint one surface of the timber with ordinary oil-based paint that can “breathe” and allow trapped moisture to escape. My gut feeling is that no matter what you do, water will find its way in sooner or later, and you’d do better to provide a path for it to get out again.

Today’s Thought
Ingrained in most of us is a creative spirit, and nowhere can this find a better reward than in building a boat.
— Edwin Monk.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(8)“That’s funny, madam, most people find cockroaches.”

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

July 2, 2012

Talking to strangers

HOW DO YOU CONTACT a strange vessel by radio? It can be faintly embarrassing to call on VHF when you don’t know the name of the vessel. It’s not much use to broadcast: “Big vessel on the horizon heading towards me, come in please.”

So what’s the best way to go about informing someone that they’re on a collision course with you?

Well, there’s probably no best way that covers all circumstances, but we may be able to figure out some essentials. First, you have to attract the other vessel’s attention, presuming he’s listening on Channel 16. The best attention-getter is the vessel’s name, if you can see it, or if you have AIS. But, presuming you can’t see it, how do you address this unknown vessel?

If it’s a class of vessel you can describe accurately, such as a tug-and-tow, an aircraft carrier, or a submarine, you have an advantage straight away. It’s almost as good as a name. Otherwise, confine yourself to “motor vessel” or “sailing vessel.”  I say this because you might be tempted to call “freighter,” and I know from experience that some container ships or car carriers won’t recognize themselves if you call them “freighters,” and they won’t reply.

The second thing you need to establish is roughly where you are. Your ship-to-ship VHF range is restricted to a few miles, so it’s reasonable to describe your position as “Admiralty Inlet” or “Juan de Fuca Strait,” but much better if you can place yourself off some well-known landmark shown on the chart. “Two miles south-west of Houndstooth Point” or “Vicinity of Buoy E12.” Don’t be tempted to give your exact GPS co-ordinates in this initial broadcast. Right now, you’re just trying to establish communication.

Thirdly, tell the other vessel where you are in relation to him. Say you’re directly ahead of him, or on his port bow, or wherever. And, if you can, guess which way he’s heading: “Vessel steaming south” etc.

Fourthly, give him your boat’s name.

Here then, are a couple of examples of reasonable attempts to contact another ship or boat under way:

* “Tug steaming south two miles west of Cherry Point, this is the sailboat Scuttlebutt on your starboard bow, do you read please? Over.”

* “Power vessel in Bellingham Bay, this is the sailboat Scuttlebutt directly ahead of you. What are your intentions, please? This is Scuttlebutt. Over.”

* “Sailing vessel on port tack two miles east of Heron Island, this is the sailboat Scuttlebutt on starboard tack. Please reply Channel 16. Over.”  

Today’s Thought
A good talker, even more than a good orator, implies a good audience.
— Lesie Stephen, Life of Samuel Johnson.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(7)“Yes, sir, it’s the flavor of the week.”