November 30, 2013

Racing strategy vs. tactics

IT WAS DINGHY RACING that taught me the difference between strategy and tactics. I started off thinking that the priority was to make the boat go as fast as possible, and I did quite well for a while, won a few races here and there. Raced on the bay in summer and bashed out through the surf in the warm dry winter to race on the Indian Ocean.

But then a man came along who consistently beat me. Peter Ashwell became my nemesis. It was a frustrating thing: he didn’t seem to be sailing any faster than me, but somehow he was always ahead at the finish.

One day, at a barbecue on the beach after a race, he explained my problem.  “You lack disparate attention. You can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time,” he said. “You’re good at tactics but you’re missing out on strategy.” 

I was naturally insulted, and went off in a sulk to think about it. But eventually I discovered he was right. I used to concentrate solely on making the boat go faster. On the beat, I would watch the jib like a hawk. I mean, it was fierce concentration. I actually got to the stage where I could anticipate it was going to flutter at the luff, and react so quickly on the tiller that it never got a chance to luff at all. Meanwhile, I had no idea what the rest of the fleet was doing or what subtle changes were taking place with wind speed and direction. Inevitably, I lost ground when wind switches favored my opponents or I accidentally found myself in a lee-bow position. And then I would have to concentrate even harder to go faster.

Peter and I eventually become good friends.  His diagnosis of my problem would be described today as an inability to multi-task. I’ve never been any good at it.  My poor brain can’t handle more than one task at a time if it’s going to do a decent job.

Peter explained the difference between strategy and tactics. 

“You’re going to out to win the race,” he said. “What’s the strategy? Well, the southwesterly wind looks like it’s dying, and if it does the likelihood is that a new wind will fill in from the east, so we want to position ourselves over toward the eastern side of the course while we can still get there.  Then we’ll be in a position to reach to the next mark, rather than have to beat. That’s the first strategy. There might be others as the race progresses.

“As for tactics:  don’t pinch in this light wind, foot it. Don’t sheet the main in hard. Loosen the mainsail luff until small crinkles appear. Loosen the foot until the deepest chord is well aft. Keep still. Keep the boat upright. Watch the jib.”

I never solved my particular problem. I’m still no good at multi-tasking. I’m still all tactics and no strategy. But I did realize, eventually, the difference between winning a war (strategy) and winning individual battles (tactics).  I also realized that you can give your crew the task of watching for wind shifts and other boats coming toward you on starboard tack while you concentrate like hell on pointing high and making the boat go fast. And after that breakthrough we gave Peter much more of a run for his money.

Today’s Thought
Not to the swift, the race:
Not to the strong, the fight:
Not to the righteous, perfect grace:
Not to the wise, the light.

But often faltering feet
Come surest to the goal;
And they who walk in darkness meet
The sunrise of the soul.

— Henry van Dyke, Reliance

“It’s easy to identify the person who thinks a great deal of himself. His I’s are always too close together.”

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

November 27, 2013

How little fresh water you need

IF YOU’VE EVER spent time in the desert you’ll be aware that most town-dwellers are profligate users of water. It’s a tendency we have to learn to overcome very quickly when we put to sea because sailboats can’t carry much fresh water. It’s simply too bulky and too heavy.

For as long as I can remember, experts on public health have urged us to drink at least eight glasses of water a day, but I can assure you from personal experience that when you go cruising you can get by on far less, even in tropical climates. According to The Captain’s Guide to Liferaft Survival (Sheridan House) you can last indefinitely on a pint a day in temperate climates, two pints in the tropics.

My family and I once averaged just under half a gallon a day each on a six-month voyage in a 31-footer, and that included water for cooking and bathing, though I should add that we bathed in salt water and then used a small garden spray filled with fresh water to wash off the salt.

For planning purposes, though, it’s wise to count on a minimum of one gallon per person per day at a speed (for most medium-sized yachts) of 100 miles a day.

But let’s hope you’ll not suffer from thirst tomorrow:  HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!

Today’s Thought
It’s a miserable business, waiting till thirst has you by the throat before you dig the well.
— Plautus, Mostellaria

“My husband would be lost without me He’s absolutely helpless.”
“Is that so?”
“Yep. I even had to find the recipes for him before he could cook the Thanksgiving dinner.”

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

November 24, 2013

What's hidden under water

IT HAS ALWAYS SEEMED a little strange to me that one of the most important parts of a sailboat is usually totally hidden from view. When you look at a traditional cruising sailboat in the water you can’t see what’s below the waterline: that fairly deep keel that extends a long way fore and aft.  Neither can you see what what’s hanging from the bottom of a racing boat, or a modern cruising boat, that deep narrow keel that looks more like an airplane wing than part of a seagoing yacht.

Those people who know boats will have a good idea of what’s under water, of course. Just looking at the shape of the hull will tell them what to expect. But people who are new to the sea won’t know that a long, full keel will make a boat act very differently from one that has a small fin keel.

There are many people who will tell you that a fin keel means speed, while a full, old-fashioned keel means slow going and bad pointing; but the late Bill Crealock, a well respected yacht designer, once told me:  “A racing boat accelerates quicker, but there’s no reason why cruising hulls can’t be just as fast over long distances.”  And indeed, his words were proven when one of his best-known cruising designs, the Westsail 32, came first in class in the regular race across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii.

Few boats are built with traditional keels these days, and some modern cruising designs have evolved keels that are neither fish nor fowl. They’re a compromise between the efficiency of a fin keel and the directional stability provided by a full-length keel.

To help restore the lost tracking ability that is such an advantage in long-distance cruising, they often have a skeg built on the after-end of the hull, to which the rudder is attached. The shortened keel is marginally more efficient in hydrodynamic terms, but the steering is quite a lot more tiring in terms of short-handed amateur crews, particularly the popular mom-and-pop teams.

There seems to be nothing terribly wrong with this compromise arrangement, apart from its propensity to snag stray ropes and lobster pots on the skeg and unprotected propeller, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s really necessary to depart from the traditional full-blooded cruising design that served so well for so many years.

The Westsail 32 I mentioned above is an offshoot of the double-ended Colin Archer type, for example—a Scandinavian lifeboat and pilot vessel.  Their ability to tow two fishing boats off a lee shore in a gale was legendary.

And I can never help smiling when I hear people say fin keels are faster.  If 5 knots is slow, is 6 knots fast?  Aren’t they both slow? Cruising is primarily about safety and dependability, comfort, and seakindliness. Although much faster speeds can be useful in avoiding bad weather, cruising is not primarily about speed. That’s what airplanes are for.

Today’s Thought
There  is more to life than increasing its speed.
— Mahatma Gandhi

“Still got your horse?”
“Nah, he was too polite for me.”
“Yeah, every time we came to a jump he insisted that I go first.”

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November 21, 2013

Keep the barf bags handy

IT’S ALWAYS A THRILL when the mailman brings the West Marine Christmas flyer.  It’s an honest little publication. Its aim is bold and straightforward. Nothing hidden here. No sneaky product placement. No subliminal editorial copy, paid for under the counter, to fool readers. They just want to sell you stuff.

And, talking about stuff, what’s not to love about the two pages of stocking stuffers?  Of course, West Marine takes it for granted that you’ve got some big stockings to stuff.  Some of their stocking stuffers start at $129.99, like the Anti Seasickness Band that helps you “avoid the discomfort of rough seas.”

Now for many years we’ve seen little wrist bands that are supposed magically to prevent seasickness.  Some people with easily manipulated minds are convinced that they work. They believe seasickness is all in the mind, and that some little wrist band pressing on the wrist can inform your mind that it has got it all wrong, and the boat isn’t actually crashing up and down on huge waves generated by the storm, but is actually nice and still and calm and quite unable to make a person want to spew his dinner over the side.

Other people, like me, don’t believe a word of it.  We have learned about the balance system of the inner ear and how it clashes with the message that the eyes are receiving from the stillness of the cabin, and we know all about what causes seasickness — except for why people have to go and throw up their dinners.  It’s still a mystery to us that, when what you observe with your very own eyes gets into a fight with the balance system of the inner ear, the stomach has to stick its big nose in and interfere.

However, all that aside, West Marine now presents us with a new twist on the wrist band. The $129.99 wrist band is electric. Yes, sir, electric. It has an off button and an on button and it applies “gentle electrical stimulation to the nerves in your wrist” to provide “fast, moderate relief from nausea and vomiting.”

As I said, maybe if you have an easily manipulated mind,  an electric shock in your wrist may be able to break up the family feud that erupts when the stomach pokes its big nose into a fight between the eyes and the inner ear.  But I fear that most people with minds able to resist a moderate  amount of manipulation (for example, those who are not tempted to buy the Golden Gate Bridge for ten bucks) might be a little disappointed in the efficacy of the all-electric anti-vomit wrist band. And god help you when the battery runs down. Keep the barf bags handy.

Today’s Thought
A good gulp of hot whiskey at bedtime—it’s not very scientific, but it helps.
— Dr. Alexander Fleming

“You’re an hour late for work.”
“Yes, sorry boss, but I fell down the stairs and hurt myself.”
“A likely story!  Since when does it take an hour to fall down some stairs?”

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

November 19, 2013

What is the magic of sail?

WHENEVER I SEE a forest of masts in a marina or mooring field I wonder what the magic is that makes people keep buying sailboats. I mean, the world of commercial sailing ships ended a century or so ago, overtaken by the cheaper and more reliable mode of transport known as powered vessels.

Why do the vestiges of that long sailing era still linger on in little pockets in the richer areas of the world when we know full well the advantages of powered pleasure boats? What makes people settle for sailing boats when power boats offer more space below, length for length, and more speed, and more dependability because they’re not subject to the whims of fickle winds?

Why, when the wind is against us, would we choose the long way to our objective, the funny zigzag way, when we could go there at twice the speed, straight as an arrow, in a power boat?

There used to be a reasonable objection when boat engines made an excessive amount of noise and smelly fumes.  But modern engines, both gasoline and diesel, have overcome those faults — and many so-called sailboats use their auxiliary engines to motor from anchorage to anchorage in any case.  Why have a mast and sails on a charter boat in the West Indies, for example, when the object is to enjoy the sub-tropical beaches and snorkeling at different locations around the islands?

There are many cute designs for powerboats of all sizes these days, including trailerable boats with outboards and comfortable accommodation for a couple of people for weeks at a time.  They’ll cruise at 15 knots, top out at 20, and find shelter in the shallowest gunkholes.  Who needs an expensive mast and boom and sails and all the paraphernalia that goes with a sailboat? What sense does it make?

The only practical advantage of a sailboat is that you can sail around the world in one, whereas most powerboats can’t carry enough fuel to get them across an ocean.  But then, how many of us buy a boat with the intention of sailing around the world when you can get almost anywhere on earth by air in 24 hours or less for a fraction of the price?

And yet . . . and yet . . . There is something about a sailboat that stirs the blood and gladdens the heart, something a powerboat lacks. I’m not at all sure what it is, exactly, but it seems to me, looking around at all those masts in the marina, that I’m not alone in feeling it.

There is something about a mast on a boat that gives it a presence on the water. It makes a statement. It gives proportion to a sweet hull and asserts its character for all to admire.  I won’t even mention the difference between a powerboat and a yacht under sail.  Mankind probably hasn’t made anything more beautiful than a sailing ship. 

The fact that so many people ignore the practicality of powerboats for the ineffable attraction of sail must say something about the nature of the human soul. Something good, I like to think. Long may it be so.        

Today’s Thought
Whether or not the philosophers care to admit that we have a soul, it seems obvious that we are equipped with something or other which generates dreams and ideals, and which sets up values.
— John Erskine,  (Durant, On the Meaning of Life.)

A little old lady with a broken leg was warned by her doctor: “Now don’t go walking up stairs with that cast on, or you might do yourself another injury.”
Six weeks later she went back to have the plaster removed. “Is it OK if I walk up stairs now?” she asked.
“Perfectly all right,” said the doctor. “Your leg is quite strong enough now.”
“Great, thank goodness for that,” she said. “It was hell climbing up and down that drainpipe with the plaster on.”

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

November 18, 2013

Pay attention to the tides

I’VE NOTICED that many beginning sailors pay less heed to tidal currents than they should. I guess that in these days of reliable, powerful auxiliary  engines, tides don’t come into their calculations much. Tides are regarded as being irrelevant, or at most, a little irritating.

But even if you could rely implicitly on your engine, you should know about the huge effect tides can have on a boat under sail alone — because sooner or later your trusty engine might develop a hissy fit and thumb its nose at you.

So, let’s say there’s a nice steady breeze and you’re making 6 knots through the water. If a 3-knot current is flowing against you, you’ll make only 3 knots toward your destination. If that same 3-knot current is flowing with you, you’ll make 9 knots toward your destination. If you’re not impressed by the difference between 3 knots and 9 knots (or three times the speed), you should be.

Tidal currents vary tremendously from place to place and time to time, so, if you sail, you badly need to know what the current is doing to you. You can get that information from annual tide and current tables for your area, either in book form or from the Internet.

It’s no good trying to guess. Looking over the side or spitting in the water isn’t going to tell you which way the current is going, or how fast. But a GPS receiver will indicate your speed and direction over the ground. By the simplest arithmetic you can compare this with your speed through the water, either taken from your regular speed indicator or estimated by shrewd guess, to find the speed of the current.

So, if your engine has the sulks, work the tides. Anchor until the worst is over, or work the close-shore reaches where counter-currents and back-eddies often prevail.  Tides come in two varieties. They’re either for you or agin you. Make sure you know which is which.

Today’s Thought
The ebb will fetch off what the tide brings in.
— Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia

“Boy, I’m always grateful I wasn’t born in France.”
“How come?”
“My French is so lousy they’d never understand me.”

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

November 14, 2013

No need for navigation precision

THERE MUST BE VERY FEW of us who don’t use GPS for navigation these days, but I get the feeling that we often wonder what would happen if those faint electronic signals from those distant satellites suddenly stopped coming.  Would we be able to navigate with sufficient precision to get safely into port?

I was often bothered by that nagging thought until I realized that yacht navigation wasn’t what you might call precise in the days before GPS, and still doesn’t need to be now.  The very movement of the boat rules out 100 percent precision at sea, whether land is visible or not.

At first, you might be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult it is to get decent cross-bearings of features on shore, for example.  Working with a hand bearing compass in a seaway can drive you crazy.  Then, gradually, you realize that whatever you can get is good enough, and you relax, just as the old-timers did.

You develop a kind of feeling for it, and if you suspect your bearings aren’t accurate within 10 degrees either way, you sort of adjust them before you plot them on the chart, and you use with animal cunning the scraps of information they provide. This is why navigation is as much an art as a science.

The point is that you’re not kidding yourself, whether you’re working with a hand bearing compass on a costal passage or a sextant at sea. Any fix is better than no fix — but at the same time, you know that only a fool would trust it implicitly.  You, on the other hand, not being a fool, would interpret your fixes in the most pessimistic fashion and set a course that might not be the shortest or most convenient, but should certainly be the safest.

I often hear long-distance cruisers say that their back-up, in case of GPS failure, is another GPS receiver.  But the problems that might lead to a lack of navigation data do not necessarily stem only from hardware or software glitches on your boat.  The U.S. military has shut down the system for a short period before now, and who knows when a GPS satellite will develop a fatal wobble, and crash into the others, and bring the sky down on our heads?  A second GPS isn’t going to help in that case.

When all is said and done, you can still trust your arm, your eye, your compass, your sextant and good old man sun far more than you can trust a silicon chip or a bunch of wire and solar cells hurtling around the ionosphere.

Today’s Thought
Science is some kind of cosmic apple juice from the Garden of Eden. Those who drink of it are doomed to carry the burden of original sin.
— Lewis M. Branscomb, Director, National Bureau of Standards, 9 Apr 71

“What’s that bite mark on your arm?”
“Oh,  I was at the vet’s office when a man came along with a basket and said: ‘Watch out, there’s a 10-foot snake inside.’ ”
“What did you do?”
“I laughed and said: ‘You can’t kid me. Snakes don’t have feet.’ And I opened it.”

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

November 12, 2013

Winter is Icumin In

THE CENTER OF U. S. BOATING ACTIVITY has shifted south recently, in this month of November. On the West Coast, it’s south of the Oregon-California border, or perhaps even a little south of that.

In theory, it’s possible to sail all year round in Seattle and San Francisco, and people do, of course. But most sensible people don’t. The days are mostly short, cold, and gray now, and rain is plentiful. Coastal winds in the Pacific Northwest sometimes reach 90 knots in November.

On the East Coast, most boating is centered south of Cape Hatteras, with its average minimum November temperature of 48°F. Hatteras is where the warm Gulf Stream slices away from the coast and changes its character.

South of Cape Hatteras, this warm-blooded “river in the ocean,” as Benjamin Franklin called it, is cohesive and clings fairly close to the coastline. Predominant onshore winds transfer vast amounts of its energy to the land, maintaining sub-tropical temperatures that are only occasionally, and briefly, interrupted by cooler blasts from the north.

But up north, in New England, where they suffer a long hard winter, boats are already hauled out on dry land and sheltered under canvas or shrink-wrap plastic. The spoiled ones languish in boathouses of their own, where healthy air is free to circulate in and around them, but most stand cheek-by-jowl in the boatyard and wait patiently for spring.

Up north on the Pacific side, and south of the Canadian border, where the salt sea doesn’t freeze, most boats spend the winter in the water, tugging impatiently at their mooring lines while moss grows on deck and hoar frost does its best to separate the varnish from the teak.

And this is the time when sensible gray whales start their long trek down the West Coast from the Arctic, where they have spent the summer months building up a thick layer of blubber, to warm and sunny Mexico, where they will breed. Clever whales. No winter shrink-wrap for them.

Today’s Thought
The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.
— Bryant, The Death of the Flowers

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just's umbrella.

— Lord Bowen

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November 10, 2013

Hidden treasure of the sea

ONE OF THE GREATEST WONDERS of the sea is the sheer amount of life it sustains, most of which goes unobserved as we plow our way through or over it.

William Beebe, the famous naturalist, writer, and explorer, once undertook the laborious task of counting the number of tiny creatures he caught in a net. Here’s his account, from The Arcturus Adventure (G. P. Putnam’s Sons):

“One dark moonless evening I put out a silk surface net, the mouth of which was round and about a yard in diameter. At the farther end of the net a quart preserve jar was tied to receive and hold any small creatures which might be caught as the net was drawn slowly along the surface of the water. This was done at the speed of two knots and kept up for the duration of one hour.

“When drawn in, the net sagged heavily and we poured out an overflowing mass of rich pink jelly into a flat white tray. This I weighed carefully and then took, as exactly as possible, a one-hundred-and-fiftieth portion.

“I began to go over this but soon became discouraged, and again divided it and set to work on one-sixth of the fraction on which I had first started.”

After many hours of eye-straining and counting under the microscope, Beebe conservatively estimated that his 1/150th part of the hour’s plankton haul came to 271,080 individuals.

“If we multiply this by 150,” he said, “we get 40,662,000 individuals . . . a very conservative estimate.”

Most of the these individuals were primitive crustaceans, which make plankton a rich, nourishing food, even raw.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning that all these creatures that we call plankton were caught at the surface on a dark night. Beebe repeated the experiment in full daylight and caught only about 1,000 individuals instead of 40,000,000.

“Plankton will have nothing of the sun or even of moonlight,” he observed, “and remains well below the reach of the stronger rays.”

In fact, the very word plankton derives from the Greek word for a wanderer — a reference to its habit of migrating upward in the ocean at night, and down during the day.

Today’s Thought
Shipwrecked men in an open boat, if their lot is cast on waters rich in plankton, never need to starve to death if they can manage to drag an old shirt, net, fashion, through the water at night.
— William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure

 “They’re such a devoted couple next door.  Every time he goes out he kisses her. Why don’t you ever do that?”
“Why should I?  I hardly know the woman.”

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

November 7, 2013

No more scoffing at captains

 I USED TO SCOFF at skippers of sailboats who referred to themselves as “Captain,” but my attitude has softened over the years.  I have slowly come to realize how the responsibilities of a small-boat skipper compare with those of the captain of a large sea-going freighter or cruise ship.

Both face the same storms, currents, rocks, winds, and navigation problems. Both have to understand the dangers and problems confronting them, and make plans, and communicate with land-bound authorities. Both are responsible for the safe stowage of ballast and cargo, and both have to ensure there is sufficient food and water aboard. Both are responsible for human lives.

But the big-ship skipper has a whole crew of officers and men to help him, each an expert in his own right. The average cruising sailboat skipper carries this huge burden alone, or, with the help of, at most, a couple of amateur friends or family.

Herman Wouk described the onerous duty of a ship’s captain in The Caine Mutiny:

“You can’t understand command till you’ve had it. It’s the loneliest, most oppressive job in the world. It’s a nightmare, unless you’re an ox. You’re forever teetering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes. . . . “

And Eric Hiscock pointed out that one of cruising’s greatest fascinations is that the basic knowledge you require is identical whether you intend to crawl from gunkhole to gunkhole along the coast or make an ambitious dash across the open ocean.  As he said:

“The most modest ditch-crawler must in some part equip himself with the same knowledge and experience that would serve to take his yacht (if she were of a suitable type, and well-found) across the oceans of the world.”

So I don’t scoff at sailboat captains any more.  I just wish them good luck while they meander through that infinite gloom.

Today’s Thought
I believe that all of us have the capacity for one adventure inside us, but great adventure is facing responsibility day after day.
— William Gordon, Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, Time 19 Nov 65

“Any hint of a proposal yet, dear?”
“Yes, Mom, several. But he just ignores them.”

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

November 5, 2013

The question of seaworthiness

NO MATTER HOW SMALL a sailboat we may own, we all like to think she’s seaworthy.  There’s a bit of Walter Mitty in all of us that likes to take it for granted that if the worst came to the worst, and we had to flee from a devastated country, our sailboat would be capable of taking us across oceans until we found a safe haven.

But what really makes a boat seaworthy?  Well, a seaworthy boat is one that is:

— Able to recover from the inverted position without serious damage to her hull, deck, rig, rudder, or interior, and without taking on substantial amounts of water.

— Strong enough to look after herself while hove-to or lying ahull.

— Seakindly: that is, free of violent, extravagant, jerky rolling and pounding.

— Well balanced, docile on the helm, and easily handled under sail at all times.

— Agile downwind, to maneuver out of the way of plunging breakers.

— Habitable, that is, able to carry ample crew, with good headroom and comfort, plus water and supplies, for extended periods.

— Able to beat to windward, or at least hold her ground, in all but the heaviest conditions.

— Capable of good average speeds on long passages.

Well, that’s the theory. But the truth is that no boat can fulfill all these requirements to perfection, since many are mutually exclusive. For instance, the long keel that allows a boat to hold her course well also makes her less maneuverable. The widely-spread-out sail plan that helps balance the helm also makes her less efficient to windward.

Everything in boat design is  a matter of trade-offs. One desirable feature must be sacrificed for another. But the most successful designs spring from a kind of mysterious resonance that occurs when sacrifices, judiciously made, add up to a net gain.

One last point remains to be made, and that is that seaworthiness also includes the skill of the crew and their experience with that particular boat.  Many an unseaworthy old bucket has made it to the safety of port because her skipper and crew knew and understood her foibles, and how to nurse her through a storm.

Today’s Thought
My soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.
— Longfellow, The Secret of the Sea

“Mom, is it true what they told us at Sunday school, that people come from dust and go back to dust?”
“Yes, dear, that’s right. But what makes you ask?”
“I just looked under the fridge, and someone is either coming or going.”

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

November 4, 2013

The most helpful languages

WHAT FOREIGN LANGUAGES are most useful to yacht crews  planning to go world cruising?  English, of course, is the recognized language of the sea, but not everybody on land speaks English, and you have to make contact with those people sooner or later or you’ll never be able to buy provisions and beer.

For those plying the traditional trade-wind routes around the world, I guess that French and Spanish are the most useful.  If you want to get off the beaten track and explore the Amazon or the Yangtze Kiang, then Portuguese suggests itself, along with Mandarin, the most spoken language on earth.

That having been said, the great majority of native English speakers seem to believe that English alone will serve them in any civilized country.  They are also notoriously lax about learning other people’s languages.

This subject came up recently on a bulletin board run by the British magazine Yachting Monthly. Here are some comments from posters on their Scuttlebutt thread:

“I was very impressed with the language skills of the French when I visited their country - even little children of five or six years old can speak French much better than I can.”

“I have spent my 40 years seafaring and shore-based marine life studying languages.
I can say ‘Two beers please, my friend’s paying’ in numerous languages.”
“I have some ancestors from way back who conquered 75% of the known world just so that I do not need a foreign language, & just a little more recently my father & grandfather went to war to save me having to learn German.
“Thanks to them all, English is the second most widely spoken language, Mandarin being the first.
If I have a problem with the odd ignorant foreigner I just shout louder in English.
“Does not always work but suits me just fine.”

“Most Greeks speak excellent English and they seem to sense that I am American even before I speak. Even at highway toll booths, the attendants instantly sense that I am American and tell me the price in English. Many times, I have gone into a store, picked out what I wanted, and taken it to the counter without speaking. The clerk always addresses me in English. I did a demonstration of this in front of one of my cousins. She was amazed and asked the clerk how he knew that I am an English speaker. The clerk responded: ‘Americans smell different.’ ”

Well, I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a complaint but as long as foreigners addressed me in English, I wouldn’t pursue the matter.

I was once anchored off the tiny island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil, when the local bumboat came alongside — a small wooden boat rowed by three young boys. They offered us fish, but what we wanted most was fruit, vegetables, eggs, and beer.

We spoke no Portuguese, but they understood about everything except the eggs.  I tried one of my two words of Spanish (huevos) but they shook their heads. So I did a little pantomime of a hen flapping her wings, cackling, and laying an egg, which caused great mirth among them but seemingly created some degree of comprehension. Then I held up my fingers to show that I wanted two dozen eggs. That caused much consternation and headshaking, but after a short pow-wow they rowed off purposefully toward the beach, indicating that they would return later.

"What do you make of that?" I asked my wife June.

"Oh, I expect eggs are scarce here," she said.

"I suppose we're not likely to get two dozen, then."

"Who knows?" she said, laughing. "Anything could happen."

She was right. They came back with no eggs at all. They were proudly holding up a dead chicken.

My son Kevin could hardly contain himself. "Maybe you need acting lessons, Dad," he snorted.

"You're lucky they didn't bring two dozen live chickens," said June.

Today’s Thought

How amazing that the language of a few thousand savages living on a fog-encrusted island in the North Sea should become the language of the world.

— Norman St. John-Stevas, British M.P., NY Times 10 Jul 84


I expect my wife to be the same in 20 years as she is right now.”

“But that’s unreasonable.”

“Yeah, that’s what she is right now.”

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