August 30, 2012

Beware the tentacles

LANDLUBBERS SOMETIMES ask me if I’m frightened of the open sea. Well, of course, I am. Any sensible sailor knows what can happen out there, and those who survive are the ones with the greatest respect for the sea. I’m also scared of what’s IN the sea, especially sharks.

But those same landlubbers are often surprised when I tell them that my greatest fear concerns sea monsters. Anyone who goes to sea knows that you should be more afraid of tentacles than jaws. Sharks are well known and understood. They’re a visible threat with known consequences. It’s the mysterious giant squid that puts the fear of god into honest seafarers.

David Attenborough, the famous adventurer and biologist, says in Life on Earth: “Squids grow to an immense size. In 1933, in New Zealand, one was recorded that was 69 feet long, with eyes nearly 16 inches across, the largest known eyes in the animal kingdom.”

Even so, we haven’t yet discovered the biggest squids because they are extremely intelligent and difficult to catch, Attenborough says.

He concludes that it’s by no means impossible that the kraken and other legendary sea monsters that are said to be able to rise from the deep and wrap ships in their tentacles, really do exist.

Meanwhile, next time you’re out at sea and you catch a squid on a trailing line, take care. Michael Greenwald, an author and yachtsman, caught one of about 30 pounds in mid-Atlantic. It squirted him in the face with a powerful acid and tried to drag him overboard. By the time he had struggled free, and washed his face, the acid had eaten holes in his woolen sweater.

Jaws might be a good name for a horror movie but tentacles are much more frightening.

Today’s Thought
The mind which knows how to fear, knows how to go safely.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiæ

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(28)“Don’t worry, sir, he can’t possibly drink it all.”

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

August 28, 2012

One tough sailor

I MENTIONED in my last column that the Vendée Globe was the toughest sailboat race in the world.  It certainly attracts the toughest sailors.  I was recently fascinated to read an account of the 1996/97 Vendée Globe that described how Englishman Pete Goss rescued Frenchman Raphael Dinelli after Dinelli’s 60-foot boat sank in the icy Southern Ocean.

Derek Lundy’s book, Godforsaken Sea, is a wonderfully detailed record of the misadventures that plagued that particular race.  Pete Goss was 160 miles downwind of Raphael Dinelli when Dinelli’s boat capsized in Force 11 winds.  The mast smashed a hole in the cabintop and soon the deck was awash. Dinelli lashed himself to the deck and awaited rescue.

Goss himself was in trouble enough himself in those enormous seas. He had been knocked down three times and almost pitchpoled a couple of times.  In hurricane winds of 70 knots he hoisted a tiny storm jib and tried to beat back to Dinelli. He was knocked flat immediately but he nursed his boat upright and found he could sail at five or six knots about 80 degrees off the wind.  Every half hour or so he was knocked down again and the boat sustained severe damage but he carried on. Once he was thrown across the cabin and landed on an elbow that had become infected early in the race.

Just before Dinelli’s boat sank, the Australian Air Force found him and dropped him two life rafts.  Goss eventually came across him after two days of bashing to windward and maneuvered under that little jib in enormous seas to pick him up. Dinelli, in a typically Gallic gesture, handed Goss a bottle of champagne from his survival suit and then fell flat on his face in the cockpit. He was thoroughly chilled, as stiff as a board, and unable to move.

Goss nursed him back to health and dropped him off in Hobart, Tasmania, 10 days later.  Goss continued the race, but when he was about 1,000 miles west of Cape Horn, he decided to do something about that infected elbow of his. For a month he hadn’t been able to bend it at all and he had lost the use of his arm completely. Now the big, crimson swelling ruptured and there were protruding hernias of soft tissue and  copious secretions.

With the boat running and rolling in 15-foot seas, Goss strapped a flashlight to his head and a mirror to his thigh. He picked up a scalpel and began to slice open his elbow. He ran into trouble straight away.  Blood dripped all over the mirror so he couldn’t see what he was doing. “Shit,” he thought, “I’m going to cut a tendon or cut my arm off in a minute,”  So he put the scalpel in his teeth, mopped up the blood with a cloth, and started to fax the race doctor back in France for instructions.

But the doctor’s fax machine had broken down. So Goss faxed race headquarters and asked for instructions.  While he waited, the wind picked up, the boat heeled, and all his medical equipment fell off the table.  In considerable pain, Goss, swallowed two “bloody great” tablets he found in his medical kit, but the instructions were in French, which he couldn’t read.  He began foaming at the mouth. The tablets should have been dissolved in water first.  “It was quite funny, really,” he said.

For six hours Goss worked on his elbow, finally receiving the advice he needed.  He experienced immediate relief and the infection was cured.  For months afterward the elbow was still painful if he used his arm a lot, but it maintained steady improvement.

He and Dinelli subsequently became great friends, and President Jacques Chirac awarded Goss the highest civilian honor the French nation has to offer, the Légion d’honneur, for saving Dinelli’s life. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain invested Goss as an MBE.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the physical conditions in the Southern Ocean while all this was going on, if you haven’t been there yourself. All I can say is that the Vendée Globe sailors are a special breed, and Pete Goss is one of the toughest of the bunch.

Today’s Thought
He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.
— Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(27) “Yes, sir, he likes to practice high diving from the ceiling.”

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

August 26, 2012

The real and virtual Vendées

HAVING NOTICED that the latest Vendée Globe is starting in November, I was vaguely thinking of entering  the virtual game that runs at the same time.  This free Internet game lasts about 100 days as it mimics the real singlehanded, non-stop, around-the-world sailing race, but it has certain disadvantages for those of us living far west of the French headquarters on the Bay of Biscay.  Wind and weather conditions are updated every 24 hours at a time convenient to players in France.  That translates to the early hours of the morning on the West Coast of America.

Nevertheless, such is the fascination of steering your own boat in competition with 300,000 other virtual players that during the last race four years ago I did in fact stumble out of bed in the middle of the night and stab at the computer keys to put my boat on a new course with a new suit of sails. 

I must admit that I put her on autopilot under reduced sail for several weeks and let her jog across the South Pacific on her own, mainly because I had no chance of catching up with the leading 100,000 or so players, since I started three weeks late.  But I took over the controls again to round Cape Horn, which was surprisingly thrilling even when viewed on the screen of a computer, and guide her up to the finish in France.

This time around, the organizers of the 2012/2013 virtual Vendée are expecting half a million entrants, so the competition is going to be mighty stiff.  If you’d like to join in the fun, Google “Virtual Vendée Globe” toward the end of October.

As far as I know, there are no American entrants in the real Vendée Globe, the toughest of all singlehanded sailboat races, which forbids all outside assistance. Most of the 20 entrants are French, with a scattering of other Europeans. There is a trio of Brits, including Samantha Davies, who is expected to do well.

The boats themselves are simply giant 60-foot surfboards, very fast, very wide, and very unseaworthy.  In past races, several boats overturned by large seas in the Southern Ocean have remained upside down indefinitely because of their extreme beam.

I notice that Americans didn’t feature among the medal winners in the recent Olympic sailing regatta, either. This seems to be a bad time for American competitive sailing. I wonder what’s happening.

Today’s Thought
Thou shalt not covet: but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
— Arthur Hugh Clough, The Latest Decalogue

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(26) “If you throw him a small pea, sir, he’ll show you how he plays water polo.”

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

August 23, 2012

Good to be home

THE NICEST THING about the Pacific Northwest is coming back to it.  It’s so good to be home, even if the darn cat is yowling her disapproval of having been dumped at the cat hotel once again.

But Hawaii was good, too. Not at hot as I thought it would be at this time of year and less humid than I had imagined. Kauai, the Garden Island, is mostly surrounded by heavy surf, but we stayed in a house on Hanalei Bay, partially sheltered from the swells of the north-east trades. This is where the single-handed TransPac race from San Francisco ends. This is holy ground.

As the sun went down at happy hour, I sat contentedly sipping a cold beer, watching 20 or so anchored cruising yachts swaying from side to side like metronomes.  It has been a long time since I was in an open anchorage on a sailboat that did that, and I can’t really remember how annoying it is.  I do think, however, that it seems quite reasonable compared with the motion you experience on the open sea.  Nevertheless, I was glad to be sitting on an unmoving house deck near a large fridge with a heart-gladdening supply of beverages, and enjoying a stunning view of the bay and its magnificent backdrop of sheer mountains.

Hanalei Bay is wonderful for swimming, and the occasional sets of breakers are ideal for learner surfers.  The water is warm and translucent.  It feels like blood temperature after a minute or two.  The snorkeling is surprisingly good around the corner from the bay, in places where it doesn’t look like any fish should live. But they’re there, all right, perky little guys in bright technicolor uniforms.

My first experience of sit-on-top kayaking didn’t go well.  I disgraced myself by having to drop out of a group headed for the ocean after a short trip up the river.  I was the only one in a single kayak, and I couldn’t keep up with the doubles.  My shoulder hurt and my muscles ached. I’m obviously not in the shape I used to be in. I’m a rower and a sculler.  If they’d been sculling I would have shown them something, shoulder or no shoulder.

The zip-lining went quite well though, after I screwed up enough courage to fling myself off those lofty towers.  Nine separate zips over river valleys, ravines, and forest canopies hundreds of feet below.  I even learned how to turn in mid-air to face forward, instead of zipping along sideways or backwards like a bag of dirty washing.

The only sour note came at the end of the trip, at Lihue Airport, where a TSA security guard patted me down, made me empty my pockets, and closely examined the contents of my wallet. He was a natural bully, peremptory, and sarcastic to boot, quite unfit to be dealing with the public. But he had the power to make me miss my flight if I raised any objections, so I played the scared rabbit and he lost interest in me.  In days gone past I had the upper hand in situations like this.  I was a newspaper columnist and I would write stories about what happened to me.  I named names and the bullies learned lessons.  Now, however, I’m just one of the great suffering hoi polloi and have to take my lumps with the rest of them.

No matter. It was a great vacation and it’s wonderful to be home.

Today’s Thought
Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days, and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.
— Ada Louise Huxtable.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(25) “Don’t put him on the cloth, sir, his feet are all wet.”

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


August 10, 2012

Paying too much?

JUST HOW MUCH of your hard-earned cash can a boatyard owner expect to get his grubby mitts on every year? How do you know if you’re shelling out more than the next guy?

            In Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, Francis S. Kinney asks: “Just how much is upkeep per year? Not many owners will tell you--they don’t want their wives to know.”

            There’s probably still a lot of truth to that, and perhaps it’s better if you really don’t know. But Kinney offers a couple of hints.  If you do little or no maintenance for yourself, you can relate actual costs per year to the original cost of the boat when new in this way:

             Wooden and steel boats will need between 5 and 12 percent of the original cost per year.

              Aluminum and fiberglass boats will need between 2 and 5 percent of the original cost per year.

            For current values, you should adjust the original cost of your boat for inflation; that is, regard it as the actual price you’d pay for your boat if it were delivered brand-new today.

            If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, you can expect to hand over expenditure on maintenance to a boatyard owner.

            Now, there are about 2,000 boats in my local marina, with an average value (at today’s new prices) of at least $30,000. That’s $60 million. At 5 percent, the boatyards’ annual share of that for maintenance is $3 million and the average yearly bill should be $1,500. Do you get the feeling you’re paying the boatyard bill for everyone?

Today’s Thought
What is infamy, so long as our money is safe?
— Juvenal, Satires

Now hear this . . .
IF ALL GOES as planned, there will be no Mainly about Boats columns for the next 10 days or so.  We’re off to Hawaii, to the island where Captain James Cook (probably the greatest navigator and explorer the world has ever known) was killed in 1779.  I hope the natives are friendlier now.

Meanwhile, if you scroll to the very bottom of the page you’ll find nearly 600 past columns under the heading “Labels.”  Rummage around in the pile, click on something, and see what you come up with.  It’s all free, non-fattening, and guaranteed hygienic. And best of all — no advertisements.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(24) “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, sir. You’re not allowed to have pets in the dining room.”

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

August 7, 2012

Curing weather helm

NEWCOMERS TO SAILING are often surprised (and perhaps a little dismayed) when they discover that their boats suffer from weather helm. In their innocence, they never expected to have to pull their tillers up under their chins every time their boats heeled over in a puff of wind. Why, they ask, should a boat try to head into the wind just because the hull tilts one way or another?

Well, it’s not an easy question to answer, but here are some of the factors that cause weather helm on the average deep-keeled hull:

Ø Excessive beam, especially beam carried far aft

Ø A mast raked too far aft, or positioned too far aft

Ø The hull assuming an asymmetrical shape it heels

Ø Sails that are cut too full, or have stretched over the years

Ø The fact that when a boat heels, the center of effort of the sails moves farther out to leeward, away from the centerline of the boat, and thus has more leverage to shove the boat into the wind.  That’s why it’s usually advantageous to sail the boat as upright as possible.

Well-balanced boats have very little weather helm, and are more seaworthy than unbalanced hulls.  The problem is that unbalanced boats, such as the old International Offshore Rule racers, and the modern 60-foot racers,  are faster than balanced boats. That excessive beam carried far aft allows them to carry more sail. So their owners are prepared to take their chances, and strong, experienced crews help mitigate potential disasters.

The famous British designer, Laurent Giles, clung to the old philosophy that a yacht should have “the utmost docility and sureness of maneuvering at sea, in good or bad weather.”  He tried to design yachts that would maintain a steady course when left to their own devices, but respond instantly to the helm in heavy weather when there might be large seas to dodge. He also stressed that only a well-balanced yacht is capable of being left to her own devices, sailing, hove-to, or under bare poles.

In greatly simplified theory, the best-mannered boat would be a narrow-beamed double-ender under a low rig.  She should have similar areas immersed fore and aft so that the hull doesn’t dip at the bow or stern when heeling or rolling.

But yacht design is as much art as science, and naval architects don’t always get it right, not even the famous ones like Laurent Giles. The basic design factors for balance and seaworthiness are well known but there are too many pieces in the equation for every hull and rig to be perfect in all conditions of wind and sea.  Now and then, however, the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place, sometimes by sheer luck but more often by a lot of sweaty pushing and pulling, and a particular boat design earns a reputation for docility and easy handling in all conditions. Such boats are rare, but the newcomer saddled with weather helm will find that experience will eventually calm his beating heart. There  are many little tricks involving rigging, the setting of sails, and even the distribution of weight in the hull, that can ease the tug on the tiller or wheel.  It takes time to understand a boat but most of them will respond in the end.

Today’s Thought
Thus, thus I steer my bark, and sail
On even keel with gentle gale.
— Matthew Green, The Spleen, 1.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(23) “Please don’t wave your spoon about like that, sir — you’ll frighten the poor thing.”

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

August 5, 2012

A win-win wind solution

A FEW DAYS AGO I mentioned that the season of calms was coming.  I mentioned that the oldtimers used to whistle for the wind. “But what can you do if whistling doesn’t work?” asks a reader in Victoria, British Columbia.

Well, another way to conjure up a breeze is to stick a knife in the mast.  Bit of a problem, actually, if your mast is aluminum or carbon fiber; and I once met a round-the-worlder who said it had never worked for him anyway, even though he had a wooden mast.

Instead, he always ate baked beans when the wind died away. He swore it had the desired effect; that is, the wind would return within the hour. He had more than 50 cans of Mr. Heinz’s vegetarian beans stuffed into a locker under the V-berth. Needless to say, he was a singlehander, so there was no crew to experience the interesting side effects of this ritual.

One sure way to bring the wind back is to embark on some shipboard project that demands hours of calm seas and easy motion, such as varnishing the topmast. By the time you have made all the preparations, and even before you can apply the first lick of varnish, the wind will be howling.

A more subtle ritual would be to share a good bottle of wine with the god of the wind, Aeolus. One glass for you, one glass for him, ad infinitum, with some subtle hints for a decent wind thrown in now and then. The lovely thing about this ritual is that if it doesn’t work, you no longer care.

Today’s Thought
No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs one light seed from the feather’d grass
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
— John Keats, Hyperion.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(22) “Well, sir, they have to keep warm somehow, you know.”

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

August 2, 2012

Hail to our patron saint

ACCORDING TO ALEX TREBEK, host of the TV show Jeopardy, there is a patron saint of yachtsmen. His name is St. Adjutor and he was an 11th-century Benedictine monk who was bitten by the travel bug in 1095. He joined the First Crusade and witnessed “many miraculous occurrences,” none of which, however, involved yachting.

Mr. Trebek didn’t mention it, but St. Adjutor has rival in St. Elmo, a legendary martyr who has been around much longer than St. Adjutor, keeping busy looking after mariners in general, not just yachtsmen. He is famous for his fiery balls — glowing discharges of static electricity seen on ship’s spars during electrical storms. They’re known as St. Elmo’s fire.  He also used to be the one to turn to if you had cramps, colic, or intestinal trouble. He was a sort of general-purpose runny-tummy saint.

Old-time sailors had quite a few gods and helpful saints to appeal to when they were in trouble. Poseidon (Neptune) was regard as the top boss of the sea from about 1600 BC to AD 400, and Aeolus, a son of Poseidon, was controller of the winds.

Nike was highly respected, too. She was not the owner of a Japanese shoe factory but the goddess of victory, to whom all racing skippers needed to pray.

And then there was Vulcan (Hephaistos) the god of fire, a superb blacksmith with the power to install magical qualities in metal objects. When your engine breaks down, Vulcan is your man.

Thor, in Scandinavian mythology was the god of thunder. Thor had a magic hammer called Mjollnir, which he hurled like a lightning bolt at all who displeased him.  I mention this so you’ll be forewarned. The less you have to do with Thor, the better.

Finally, let’s not forget Bacchus (Dionysus). He was the god of inspiration and ecstasy, two things every sailor thrives on. He represented the irrational impulses that humans are subject to, such as the desire to go sailing. And, of course, he was the god of wine, the consumption of which explains (to some extent) our irrational impulses.

Today’s Thought
All people have their blind side—their superstitions.
— Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia: Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist.

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(21) “One moment, sir, and I’ll call the spider.”

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