January 31, 2013

Where the wind is freer

I OFTEN THINK life would be a lot easier for sailors if air were colored instead of being invisible. A smoky pink might be nice, or a cheerful yellow. Then we could see what was happening to the airflow around our sails, and easily adjust them for maximum efficiency.

As things are, however, we have to do a lot of guessing. We also have to put great faith in the pronouncements of scientists who assure us that the moving air we call wind changes speed as it gets higher. Apparently, friction between the air and the ground, or water, slows down the lower layers of wind. The difference is perceptible, they tell us, even over the short distance from deck to masthead.

That in turn affects the murky business we know as apparent wind, a combination of the true wind and the forward movement of the boat. On the mainsail, it means that the apparent wind is freer at the head than the foot by about 5 or 8 degrees. That’s why the head of the sail should fall off, with a gradual twist all the way up the leech.

On most boats I’ve sailed, it seems to do this naturally all by itself, though I’ve never tried to estimate the number of degrees of sag at the head to see if it got it right.

It’s unlikely that your mainsail will maintain the same angle all the way up the leech from the clew to the head of its own accord, but if perchance it does, don’t try to make adjustments. It’s too complicated. Take the sail to a sailmaker and ask him or her to build in the twist that should have been there in the first place.

Of course, one angle of twist can’t be correct for all wind speeds. That would be too simple, and nothing is simple on a yacht. There are, indeed times when you don’t want any twist at all. The death roll so familiar to Laser sailors on the run is blamed on the top of the sail twisting to leeward and forming a shape like the blade of a fan that pulls the boat over suddenly to windward.

So ask your sailmaker for a slight amount of twist, a sort of run-of-the-mill kind of twist, nothing excessive — and hope for the best.

Today’s Thought
It is folly to complain of the fickleness of the wind.
— Ovid, Heroides

There was a young woman called Hall
Who wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
The dress caught on fire
And burned her entire
Front page, sports section, and all.

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January 29, 2013

Home from the virtual sea

Francois Gabart and Macif, the winner of the REAL Vendée Globe race around the world.
HOME AT LAST. I’ve just finished sailing around the world in the Virtual Vendée Globe race. I crossed the finish line in France 79 days, 20 hours, and 31 minutes after the start.  I don’t suppose Jules Verne would be interested, wherever he might be now, but I did just manage to go around the world in less than 80 days.

I wasn’t among the winners, though. I was number 11,176 over the line, though in mitigation I should explain that there were 472,737 boats racing, mostly skippered by mad-keen Frenchmen. You could say I came in the equivalent of 11th out of 473, and that certainly sounds a lot better — but I should have done better.

The Virtual Vendée, which takes place at the same time as the real Vendée Globe singlehanded, non-stop race around the world, is far more competitive than I had imagined.  Four years ago, the last time the Virtual Vendée was held, I loafed along and left my boat to her own devices for weeks at a time.  I came in 91,801st.  This time I determined to beat that result, but I still didn’t reckon with the ferocious French.

I soon learned that you could lose thousands of places overnight if you didn’t stay awake and change course for every wind switch.  I think tens of thousands of Frenchmen must have lost of a lot of shuteye in the past two-and-a-half months.

This computer game, as I’ve said before, is a sort of cross between geometry and snakes and ladders, and after I’d got the hang of it, or most of it, I was doing reasonably well.  I worked my way up through the pack week by week until, five days before the finish line, I was placed 2,815.

Then I made the colossal strategic blunder of  heading the short way (east) instead of the long way (west) around that great area of doldrums known as the Azores High. I lost 8,400 places in five days. Even when I was on the last lap, the fates were against me.  Heading east in the Bay of Biscay I was doing 23.4 knots and still losing places because others, more cunning than I, had found even stronger winds to blow them to the finish.

I have said before that anyone who places less than 10,000 in the Virtual Vendée must be an expert. I can’t count myself in that distinguished company, unfortunately, but I must say I enjoyed myself immensely, apart from the last five days.

Meanwhile, out there on the real oceans, the real Vendée Globe racers in their 60-foot planing dinghies were having their own problems with collisions,  masts falling down, and keels falling off.  But the winner, Francois Gabart, in Macif, averaged more than 15 knots all the way around the world, and in one 24-hour session he averaged more than 20 knots.

Nobody in the heydays of the clipper ships could have imagined a singlehander putting up a performance like that. To tell the truth, I still find it hard to imagine it myself. The Vendée Globe skippers are truly the wondermen and wonderwomen of the sailing world.

Today’s Thought
There be triple ways to take, of the eagle or the snake,
Or the way of a man with a maid;
But the sweetest way to me is a ship’s upon the sea,
In the heel of the North-East Trade.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Long Trail

Can anyone explain why we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put all our useless junk in the garage?

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January 27, 2013

A sailboat is not a democracy

PEOPLE AROUND HERE have gotten quite spoiled by democracy. Women no longer have to chain themselves to railings in order to vote for their political leaders. Kids no longer have to be silent at the dinner table. They’re allowed to speak now, for goodness’ sake, without even having been spoken to first. And modern guests on yachts, well, they seem to think they have the right to sit anywhere they like, even on the top step of the companionway. They also talk, nay chatter, without permission, and even use the head without asking. Such extraordinary liberties.

There can be only one boss on a sailboat. By the very nature of things, a skipper must be a dictator — a benevolent dictator if you’re lucky. There can be no democratic committee meeting about whether or not to take in a reef, in the face of an approaching line squall. There can be no split vote on the question of whether or not to put the engine in reverse with the dock fast approaching.

Call me Captain Bligh if you must. I don’t mind. Bligh, in fact, has often been unfairly characterized. He was a very skilled navigator who chose to apply the shipboard rules quite strictly. But he applied them fairly, and he safely delivered to their destinations those who spoke only when spoken to.

One of the persistent fantasies of democracy is to imagine you can be the boss and everybody’s friend at the same time. Forget it. Just be the boss.

Today’s Thought
In some circles, Stalin has in fact been making a comeback. ... His portrait hangs above the dashboard of trucks, a symbol of blue-collar nostalgia for a tough leader.
— Serge Schmemann, NY Times, 31 Oct 86

“What is your age, madam?”
“Officer, I’m approaching 50.”
“Yes, but from which direction, madam?”

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January 24, 2013

We still need the adventurers

 AM I DREAMING, or has it become more difficult to have a real adventure these days, compared with 50 or 80 years ago?  I ask because I’ve just been reading about Dana Lamb and his wife, Ginger, who set out from San Diego, newly married,  in a home-made 16-foot sailing canoe with a rifle and $5 between them, and ended up three years later in the Panama Canal after 16,000 miles of adventures and exploring. That was in the early 1930s

In the Great Age of Exploration, all sea voyages were adventures, of course. Charts, such as they were, were marked with areas that said “Here be dragons,” and “Terra Incognita.” Fearsome sea creatures—krakens and giant octopuses—adorned the borders. But now we know what to expect. The dragons these days come in the form of government officials, greater regulation, more rules, and more paperwork.

Nevertheless, in an age of ease and luxury enjoyed by many, it’s not so easy to have a real adventure nowadays unless you try very hard. A rifle and $5 in cash don’t make it any more.

Cruising under sail these days is split into two categories: 1. The liveaboard wanderers, and 2. The dedicated adventurers.

They’re not hard to tell apart. 

The wanderers are probably older, richer, and more cautious. They own over-appointed and complicated boats.  They don’t like to be confronted by the unexpected. They prefer an orderly, regulated life and no surprises — or at least, just little adventures, if any. They spend a lot of time planning.

The dedicated adventurers are usually fewer, younger, poorer, and less worried about taking risks. Their boats are simpler and more Spartan. They live on adrenalin. They thrive on not knowing what’s going to happen next. They cultivate an almost carefree confidence in their ability to cope with any sudden new circumstances.  To them, just about everything is unexpected. And exciting.

My dictionary describes an adventure as a “daring enterprise, an unexpected or exciting incident, a hazardous activity.”  It sounds very much like something parents strive hard to prevent happening to their children.

I would class Eric and Susan Hiscock as liveaboard wanderers (in fact, they had boats called Wanderer) and Bernard Moitessier as an adventurer. The Hiscocks planned meticulously and worked hard to bring their plans to a successful conclusion. Moitessier, on the other hand, was a nautical hippie who shot cormorants for the pot with a catapult.  He gathered the eggs of protected sea-birds and begged a dog-food manufacturer for free samples of their product for his pantry.

They say that poor preparation and lack of experience are the parents of adventure, and there’s no gainsaying the fact that a modicum of planning is necessary for any sensible sea voyage, if only to avoid being in hurricane territory at the wrong time of the year.

But we also need the adventurers. Human beings have a unremitting urge to explore the limits of their accomplishments. Every year we break records. We run faster, we jump higher, we climb taller mountains, and we reach farther into the stars.  We constantly transcend ourselves.

And in the small world of ocean cruising, we need the dedicated few to go out and throw themselves fearlessly into adventure, to discover, to explore new horizons. It’s our small contribution to the store of human knowledge and experience that will enable us one far-off day to make the greatest discovery mankind can ever hope for — to know who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.

 Ø Dana Lamb’s book, Enchanted Vagabonds, is now available as a print-on-demand volume. If your local bookseller can’t print it, go to abebooks.com

Today’s Thought
Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.
 — Rebecca West

“I want one of those new terrorist stoves.”
“What the heck’s that?”
“One with an eye-level guerilla.”

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January 22, 2013

Delights of the Northwest

I FEEL QUITE SORRY for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the delights of the San Juan Islands of Washington State and their northern continuation, the Canadian Gulf Islands. For some reason, you don’t hear much about this sleepy, largely undeveloped archipelago of state parks and cozy anchorages. It doesn’t generate the publicity some other parts of the country enjoy, despite the fact that boating is big business here. Some of the largest sailboat charter companies in the United States are located in the fascinating inland body of salt water known as Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

Here and there you’ll come across bustling little resort harbors such as Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor where you can refuel, reprovision, and indulge in highly civilized gustation, but in the main the mantle that lies over these welcoming islands is one of peace and tranquility. Here the stars actually blaze at night in snug anchorages and the moon throws solid black shadows on the deck. During the day, the scenery is magnificent — blue water, green forests, and lofty background mountain peaks capped with brilliant white snow all year.

In summer and fall, the air that drifts off the islands smells sweetly of warm pine and cedar. In winter and early spring the weather is mostly cold and damp, but many people still use their boats year-round.

The aspect that greets your eye in this archipelago is almost exactly the same, in most cases, as it was hundreds of years ago, when Native Americans plied these waters in their dug-out canoes. They still do, as a matter of fact, but now only occasionally, and for ceremony and pleasure rather than for a living.

The roiling currents provide a fecund, fertile habitat for a host of sea creatures ranging from whales, orcas, porpoises, and seals to geoducks, mussels, and those famous Dungeness crabs.

My wife June and I have seen ospreys and puffins, eagles by the dozen, seagulls by the thousand, and even the shy, dainty phalarope. I had wanted to see a phalarope ever since Alan Paton wrote a novel called Too Late the Phalarope and I couldn't pronounce it. One calm day in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we came across a small tight-knit group of them floating on the water, fluttering and agitated for no reason we could discover, except that they might have been in a feeding frenzy.

But the sight that sticks in our minds right now is that of a tiny sea otter living just on the Canadian side of the border, near South Pender Island. We cruised up to within a few yards of him before we could make out what was happening. He was lying on his back, clutching to his chest a fair-sized crab, and trying to take bites out of it. But he was surrounded by half a dozen large seagulls, all floating on the surface, jostling each other, pecking voraciously at his crab and trying to wrestle it away from him. Time after time he would submerge with his meal to get rid of the gulls, but he couldn’t stay under for long and as soon as he reappeared the birds would fly over with great squawks of indignation and continue the assault with their strong, sharp beaks.

I don’t know how that particular battle ended, because we soon drifted away, but we couldn’t help feeling sorry for that sweet little otter, outnumbered as he was. It wasn’t a fair fight, but of course Nature knows nothing about fairness, only survival and extinction, so even if we could have weighed in on the side of the otter it probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the Great Scheme of Things.

It makes me wonder about seagulls, though. They’re actually only scavengers; rats with wings, really. How is it that they were given such desirable gifts? They’re beautiful to look at. Their flying skill is wonderful to behold. They can swim in water and walk on land.

Something unfair here, surely? Especially if you’re a decent law-abiding Northwest otter just trying to eat a peaceful lunch.

Today’s Thought
Worldwide travel is not compulsory. Great minds have been fostered entirely by staying close to home. Moses never got farther than the Promised Land. Da Vinci and Beethoven never left Europe. Shakespeare hardly went anywhere at all — certainly not to Elsinore or the coast of Bohemia.
— Jan Morris, “It’s OK to Stay at Home,” NY Times, 30 Aug 85.

“How am I doing?” asked the battered boxer between rounds.
“Keep swingin’ pal,” said his despairing second. “You might give him pneumonia.”

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January 20, 2013

Life doesn't end at 30

 THE OTHER DAY I read a blog written by a young woman in Georgia. She has a lovely home, two handsome kids, and a good-looking husband. But when you read her posts you get the feeling that  she seems (against all the odds) vaguely dissatisfied, vaguely unfulfilled.

Maybe she feels trapped. Maybe she feels she’s not getting all she should be getting out of life. She certainly seems unduly concerned with the fact that she will be turning 30 later this year. She has a large countdown clock on her website, and it’s ticking over seconds and minutes as you look at it.   

She has the word “Wanderlust” tattooed on her foot. And somewhere along the way, I believe, she has been entertaining thoughts of escaping from it all by sailing away on a yacht. But she is stuck in that tide in the affairs of mankind that sucks them swiftly away from the sea and boats, and strands them for the best part of two decades on the reefs of Marriage, Career, Home, and Bringing up Children.

This a dilemma faced by many adventurous souls, and the message is plain: you have two realistic choices. You either do it before you settle down and raise a family, or you do it afterward. It’s true that there are a few couples who go cruising with small kids, but for obvious reasons they are few and far between.

This young woman’s problem is that by the time she and her husband are free to fulfill her adventurous dreams of cruising and voyaging under sail, they will be 50-plus and faint-hearted.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Somewhere this young woman has gotten the idea that life, any decent kind of life, ends at 30.  I can tell her from my own experience that it doesn’t. One of the best days in my life came when I was 35 and a policeman called me “Sir” for the first time. I felt grown-up at last. The decade of my 40s was terrific. When I was 50 I packed my wife and youngest son on a 31-footer and sailed for six months from South Africa to America.

I know it’s hard for a 29-year-old to believe that a 50-year-old can feel as fit as he or she did at 21, and enjoy life every bit as much, if not more, but it’s absolutely true. And the extra years bring many compensations, not the least of which is a larger cruising kitty that enables you to lead a fuller life while you explore.

At any one time, hundreds of couples in their 50s, 60s, and even 70s are cruising around the world in small sailboats. A friend once met a yachtsman in the British Virgin Islands. He was in his early 80s, and he was battling to free a rusted shackle from his anchor chain.  You or I would have taken a hacksaw to the shackle and bought a new one for a couple of bucks. Not him. He was determined to get it working again.  “If this old bitch of a boat didn’t give me so much trouble I would have died long ago,” he said.

So I would counsel the Georgia woman to cultivate patience. The good life is not as short as you seem to think, ma’am.

Today’s Thought
If time were the wicked sheriff in a horse opera, I’d pay for riding lessons and take his gun away.
— W. H. Auden

Teacher: “How many times can 2 be subtracted from 6?”
Pupil: “I’ve done it 10 times and it always comes to 4.”

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January 17, 2013

When is a house not a boat?

 THE HIGHEST COURT IN THE LAND has ruled that a houseboat is a house, not a boat. The Supreme Court decided 7-2 that a gray, two-story craft about 60 feet long is not subject to maritime law.

That’s bad news for the the city of Riviera Beach, Florida, whose officials relied on maritime law to place a lien on the home for unpaid dockage fees and damages for trespass at a marina. The craft was later seized and destroyed.

The owner, Fane Lozman, argued that it was a house, which would have protected it from seizure under state law. And now the High Court justices have agreed with him.  He says he will ask the courts to reimburse him for the cost of the house(boat), including the furniture and personal possessions that were destroyed after it was impounded.

But is the Supreme Court right? Let’s be clear about this. The Inland and International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea define a “vessel” this way:

“The word ‘vessel’ includes every description of water craft, including nondisplacement craft and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking for the majority, opined: “We believe that a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics, would not consider it to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water. And we consequently conclude that a floating home is not a vessel.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy dissented.  Sotomayor said the court had now created “a novel and unnecessary ‘reasonable observer’ reformulation . . . and errs in its determination.”

I agree with the minority. The maritime definition of a “vessel,” as quoted above, does not concern itself with practical degrees or with how a houseboat might look to a reasonable landlubber. It merely says a vessel has to be capable of being used as a means of transportation for humans or things. This particular craft was towed to the marina, so it must surely be capable of transporting humans or things (furniture and household goods) on water.  Indeed it had already done so.

According to the Associated Press, more than 5,000 Americans own floating homes, many in the Puget Sound area. Some look more like boats than houses, while others are definitely more house-like.  But now that the High Court has made it a subjective decision, relying on a “reasonable observer” to decide between house and boat, it becomes important for the court to define a “reasonable observer.”  For instance, is a landlubber who knows nothing about boats a reasonable observer?

I predict we haven’t heard the last of this.

Today’s Thought
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
— Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

A husband sneaked home at 3:30 a.m. to face a thousand words from his angry wife.
“So home is the best place after all,” she said.
“Dunno about that,” he replied, “but it’s the only place open.”

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January 15, 2013

Is there a hump in your sheer?

IF YOU WERE a yacht designer, what do you suppose the most important line in your drawings would be? The bow, perhaps? The stern? The waterline?

Well no, according to some of North America’s best-known designers, it’s the sheer line, the curve of the deck line from bow to stern as you look at it from the side.

Francis S. Kinney, in Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. calls it “perhaps the one single line that crowns or damns the whole creation.”  Steve Killing, in Yacht Design Explained, calls it “the most prominent and significant line on a hull, It not only defines the character of the boat, but if done well will be (in truth must be) beautiful at any angle.”

And that’s the problem, apparently. When you’re drawing the sheer line by hand, it’s next to impossible to guarantee how it will appear from all angles.  “Sheers that look fine in each individual view can end up having some harsh curves when viewed in three dimensions,” says Killing.

Strangely enough, he claims that sometimes, if you look at a boat from a point off the starboard bow, the sheer can have a hump that appears seemingly out of nowhere about one quarter of the way back from the bow. But, conversely, if you look aft from the same vantage point. the sheer near the transom can appear much too straight.

Luckily, modern designers have found a tool that helps them find the perfect sheer line for any boat — the computer. “Many scoff at the use of computers in yacht design,” Killing adds, “dismissing them as inhuman, permitting none of the art required by the truly talented designer.”  But, in his experience, there is more opportunity for the designer to perfect the look of a boat on the computer screen than there ever was on paper.

A good design software program produces graphics with such speed and accuracy that a designer can now economically run through 10 subtly differing versions of a custom design and do a “walk around” on the screen with particular attention to problem spots that otherwise would have caused surprises and embarrassment on the workshop floor.  It also enables the designer to be sure that his all-important sheer line will always look right, adding beauty and elegance when viewed from any angle.

Today’s Thought
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
— Francis Bacon

A dentist was just finishing up the annual examination of a millionaire Texan oilman.
“Perfect,” said the dentist. “Nothing wrong with your teeth.”
“Well drill anyway,” said the oilman. “I feel lucky today.”

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January 13, 2013

Handling gales at sea

THE IDEAL WAY to experience your first gale at sea is on someone else’s boat — preferably someone with experience of gales in that very boat. Then you can see for yourself what a gale feels like. You can look and learn, and not be weighed down by responsibility. You can figure out what you need to do with your own boat when you finally make the break and cross an ocean.

But all too often the ideal situation never arises, and one day you find yourself heading to sea wondering what will happen when the wind pipes up and you have to reduce sail and do your best to find the combination of canvas and helm that will make her comfortable, or at least as dry and steady as possible under the conditions.

Some of the world’s most experienced long-distance cruisers recommend the use of a sea anchor and a trysail to heave to in violent gales. Now, while powerboats and shallow-drafted centerboard sailboats will often lie quietly to a sea anchor streamed from the bow, few deep-keeled cruising yachts will lie bow-on to the sea in this fashion.

But by deploying a parachute sea anchor on a bridle, the bow of a sailboat may be angled within 50 degrees or so of the wind and waves, and the boat’s forward motion will be checked. She will then lie directly to leeward of the turbulent currents caused by her sideways drift through the water.

This  churning “slick” encourages approaching waves to trip, plunge and dissipate most of their energy before striking the boat. Because every hull reacts differently, and because sea conditions vary widely, the best combination of sails, and the sea-anchor size and position, must be found by experiment.

It’s definite leap of faith to sail over the horizon for the first time when your only knowledge of correct procedure has come from reading books; but you can improve on things by practicing near home in heavy-weather conditions whenever you can. That will fine-tune your book knowledge to the particular unique requirements of your boat and  give you the confidence you need when you set sail on your first sea passage.

Today’s Thought
The goal is not to sail the boat, but rather to help the boat sail herself.
— John Rousmaniere

There used to be a time when a fool and his money were soon parted. Now it happens to everyone.

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January 10, 2013

When love goes wrong

LADIES — is your man cheating on you? Does he, perhaps, have a secret love? Could that love be a boat? Could he have a boat mistress hidden somewhere? Or could he be actively looking for one? Yes, I assure you, he could.

Here’s how you can tell:

1. Have you noticed changes in his appearance lately? Are there spots of anti-fouling paint on his sneakers? Does his T-shirt smell of diesel fuel? Is there waterproof grease on his jeans? How about varnish in his hair? Hmmm . . .

2. Is he practicing reef knots on his shoelaces and bowlines on his necktie? Hmmm . . .

3. Is the cunning so-and-so being too nice to you? Showering you with gifts, texting you every hour to say how much he loves you? Hmmm . . . Men don’t do that after the honeymoon. Not unless they have a secret love.

4. Is he using the internet non-stop, spending hours on Boatworld .com and MarineTrader.com? Is he chatting on the Cape Dory website? Check his browser history. Is he wiping it clean after every session? Hmmm . . .

5. Does he no longer seem attracted to women?  Has he stopped buying Playboy and suddenly subscribed to Cruising World? Hmmm . . .

6 .  How about your sex life? Is he losing interest? Does he have lots of nighttime headaches? Does he have a picture of a  sleek 30-Square Meter or a curvaceous Westsail 32 in his wallet? Hmmm . . .

7.  Is he extra grumpy around the house? Does he deliberately start fights so he can storm out of the house? Hmmm . . . You know where he’s going, don’t you? Straight down to the marina to lust over a 30-year-old Catalina 30 tall rig going for $17,500 with a low-hours diesel engine.

But fear not, madam. Remain calm. Tell him of your suspicions and be prepared for him to deny them. Also be prepared to deal with the consequences if he won’t come clean. Divorce is inevitable because men don’t change, especially the ones who cheat and run away with flighty boats. But divorce needn’t last forever. He’ll probably come crawling back and plead to be forgiven as soon as he receives the first bill from the boatyard. Then you, madam, will be in the pound seats.

Today’s Thought
How do you know love is gone? If you said that you would be there at seven and you get there by nine, and he or she has not called the police — it’s gone.
— Marlene Dietrich, ABC, Doubleday 1962  

The works manager phoned the railroad station.
“Are you the passenger section?” he asked.
“No, honey,” purred a female voice, “I’m the goods.”

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January 8, 2013

The No-No-Nobel Prize

A LETTER FROM Ivor Tungin-Cheaque, chairman of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club, says:

O Honorable Lord and Master:

Greetings O Wise and Wonderful One, and allow me to convey certain news items that will undoubtedly be of great interest to you.

By lucky happenstance I discovered last week that Crown Prince Eirik of Norway, a keen yachtsman, had persuaded the Nobel Prize Committee to award you a Special Nobel Prize for spreading knowledge of peace and seamanship to the great unwashed masses — a first of its kind.

I went into action immediately. As you in your infinite wisdom are well aware, members of your Silent Fan Club are forbidden to contact you or praise in any way your unmatched intelligence and unrivalled literary skills. Because membership is automatic until a member is expelled, you have the biggest fan club the world has ever known.

Obviously, the last thing the Crown Prince and the august Nobel prize Committee would want is to be expelled from the Silent Fan Club for accidentally praising you in public.

Your magnificence will therefore be pleased to hear how your humble servant has resolved the matter:

Ø I contacted Scandinavian Airlines System, which had planned to fly you and your entourage to Oslo free and first-class for the ceremony.  They have now torn up your tickets and promised to make you pay double if you ever want to fly to Norway.

Ø The Hotel Splendifique in Oslo has canceled your free reservations for the Suite Majestique for the month of July and has erased all record of your name from its computers.

Ø I  am pleased to report that I was able to speak to Katie Couric personally and she has canceled your appearance on her TV show.

Ø Random House has abandoned plans for your best-seller and book signings.

Ø After some difficulty I was able to persuade the Pacific Seacraft company to intercept delivery of a new 34-foot ocean-cruising sloop they had planned as a surprise for you. They will now be donating it to the homeless.

Ø Finally, President Obama has canceled the White House reception in your honor. I’m told Mr. Boehner was very relieved because he had told Mr. Obama he wouldn’t come anyway, on principle.

I am proud to have been of service to you in this manner.

I close with admiration for your sage-like utterances, your ready wit and charm, the subtle thrust and parry of your sparkling repartee, and the wisdom, Solomon-like, that graces your princely brow.
Yours Humbly and Obediently,

IVOR TUNGIN-CHEAQUE (Chairman, Vigor’s Silent Fan Club)
PS: Please excuse the writing. They’ve given me a new strait-jacket and I haven’t managed to stretch it yet.

Today’s Thought
To communicate through silence is a link between the thoughts of man.
— Marcel Marceau

“I hear they’re now making a roller that helps you lose weight.”
“Yeah, a flesh-reducing roller.  My wife has had one for two weeks.”
“ Any results?’
“Yeah, the roller’s much thinner.”

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January 6, 2013

Life-saving reflections

NOTHING AROUSES OUR CURIOSITY quicker than a bright light flashing insistently on the far horizon. That’s why a signal mirror is one of the best safety devices a boat can carry.

John Butler, a former Coast Guard search-and-rescue pilot, says he and his crew have seen mirror signals from 43 miles away and Coast Guard records mention that rescue aircraft have seen them from as much as 100 miles distant.

Almost any highly reflective flat surface can be used in an emergency. The shiny side of a compact disk works well. Even a credit card can work. In 1991, four castaways used a credit card to attract attention when they were drifting 100 miles out in the Gulf Stream, where their plane crash landed. There must be sunshine, of course, and you have to aim the sun’s reflection by extending your arm, holding up your fingers in a V that embraces the target, and shooting through the V.

But the best reflector is a dedicated glass signaling mirror with a central device about an inch in diameter that produces a fireball or bright spot for precision aiming. Karen Larson and Jerry Powlas, founders of Good Old Boat magazine, made me a gift of one when I was still working for them. It was fascinating to play with it at home and on the boat, but luckily I never had to use it in earnest. I did startle a cat or two, and a neighbor was convinced I was spying on her, but no lasting harm resulted.

While there are several excellent glass and plastic mirrors on the market, the standard to beat is still the old standard GI-issue 3-inch by 5-inch glass mirror. It’s the simplest and most reliable safety device you can imagine, and like my old depth meter, which consists of a small rock on a light Dacron line, it will never break down through corrosion, electronic incompetence, or battery failure.

Today’s Thought
A soul without reflection, like a pile
Without inhabitant, to ruin runs.
— Young, Night Thoughts

Two salesmen were comparing notes on the plane.
“Does your wife miss you much?” asked one.
“No, she throws pretty straight for a woman,” said the other.

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

January 3, 2013

Bootless and wide awake

IF THERE’S ONE THING that singlehanded passagemakers like to talk about it’s sleep. Specifically, they like to discuss how much sleep they can afford to indulge in at any one time without risking their lives in collisions.

Some of them sleep for long hours at night when they’re well away from shipping lanes. Others prefer to stay awake all night and keep watch. They do their sleeping during daylight, when there’s a greater chance of being spotted by a ship. And still others sleep day and night for periods varying from 20 minutes to an hour. Twenty minutes is a common choice because that’s supposed to be the average time it takes a ship to reach you after she has appeared over the horizon.

But not matter what system you choose, it’s a fact that the great majority of singlehanders don’t get enough sleep — certainly not the same amount they’d get in a safe port, or nicely tucked away in bed at home. So even when they’re keeping watch by eye, as they’re supposed to according to the collisions regulations, they often find it difficult not to doze off.

There are various drugs you can take to stay awake on watch. Most of them are not very healthy in the long run, but I did run across one drugless method the other day that wouldn’t do anything worse than give you frost-bitten toes.

A military veteran said that when he was in the army he was taught to stay awake by removing one of his boots.

He said: “The brain keeps asking itself ‘Why have we got only one boot on? What’s the plan? What’s happening? Is this right? Should I be doing something? Will we die?’ And that makes it impossible for anyone to doze off accidentally.”

Well, I must say it’s a novel approach. I have no experience of how well it works, but it does occur to me that a really sharp brain would say to itself ‘Hah, he’s just trying to trick us into staying awake,’ and promptly fall asleep.

But I suppose army brains aren’t that sharp on the whole, certainly not as sharp as sailors’ brains, which live under the threat of severe punishment if they’re caught sleeping on watch.

However, if any of you would like to experiment and pass the results on to me, I’ll publish them for the benefit of singlehanded sailors. You never know; you might save a life.

Today’s Thought
It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.
— John Steinbeck

A military doctor was examining a man back from Afghanistan.
“Do you pass water normally?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.”
“Don’t go more than usual at night?”
“Um — no, sir.”
“When you go, does it burn at all?”
“Don’t know, sir. Never tried to light it.”

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

January 1, 2013

Time flies wiithout me

I’M NOT MUCH of a one for New Year resolutions, but if I were I would resolve to stop worrying about being made to feel guilty for wasting time.

I sometimes wonder why people try to make me feel guilty about doing nothing.  I mean, when I’m sitting on a boat with a beer in my hand and my mind in neutral, staring into space, and soaking up the peace, why should I have to be plagued by the almost incessant cries of the great unwashed public, insisting that I should be making the most of my time?  My days here on earth are limited, they point out, a gift from God that should not be squandered.  I should make every second count. I should be doing stuff, achieving stuff, and not just lying around like a lazy good-for-nothing slob. I should get organized and plan my life so that every precious second counts.

Luckily,  I rarely succumb to these feelings of guilt. I have inherited a very welcome natural resistance to over-exertion and over-achievement.  I can kick back in the cockpit on a calm day with my arm hooked over the tiller and never feel the slightest urge to multitask.

Nevertheless, I am often puzzled about where this pressure to indulge in frenzied activity stems from.  It seems to be a very American thing. I lived in Africa for many years and never noticed it there.  People in Europe and South America are  rarely as much affected by it as we are, either. And, of course, in Asia the gurus sit on mountain tops and wait patiently for enlightenment, not seeming to give a darn about how many minutes or days or years they’re wasting, when they could be rushing around achieving stuff.

The pressure often starts at a young age, when parents and teachers start suggesting that playing computer games is not as productive as completing homework assignments. And it never seems to slack off. When you are old enough to go out and seek work, bosses are notoriously biased against those of us who prefer serenity of mind to the mental chaos that comes from pursuing a dozen tasks and not being able to complete any single one satisfactorily.

If my time on earth is a gift from God, then surely it is mine to dispose of as I wish.  If I choose to spend it messing about on boats in a mindless sort of way, rather than rushing around building homes for indigent unfortunates or finding food for starving babies, then there should be no grounds for complaints from the busybodies trying to poke their noses into my private life.

To tell you the truth, there is something magic about doing nothing on a boat. When the blue sky is dotted with white clouds, and a warm, gentle breeze slaps little wavelets against the hull in a soothing symphony, what is more natural than to get out the cockpit cushion and place one’s body upon it (to keep it in position), and to let one’s mind wander into the dreamlike state that frantic seekers of meditation would kill for?

Sometimes I just sits and thinks ­— and sometimes I just sits.  And from now on I sits without feeling guilty.

Today’s Thought
I never had a watch nor any other mode of keeping time in my possession, nor ever wish to learn how times goes . . . When I am in a town, I can hear the clock; and when I am in the country, I can listen to the silence.
— William Hazlitt, On a Sun-Dial

Time flies like a speeding arrow.
Fruit flies like a rotten banana.

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