February 27, 2014

Practicing the big bang theory

The Disease Called Cruising

17. Gas by the Bucketful

IT WAS DURING the dog-days of an English summer. We were baking in a breathless calm alongside the wall in the harbor of Ramsgate. And we were in trouble. We had gas in our bilges.

The night before, we had brought the 72-foot ketch Thelma II into Ramsgate after a two-week cruise of Brittany. Someone had turned on a gas burner and forgotten to light it.

The gas being heavier than air, had sunk into Thelma’s deep bilges and escaped notice until morning.

We immediately shut off the supply at the bottles, opened every hatch and porthole, and rigged up the windsails to ventilate the boat. But another windless day had dawned and we waited in vain, creeping around the yacht with exaggerated caution, afraid of doing anything that might cause this floating bomb to explode.

We had a bilge blower, an electric fan that worked off the ship’s bank of 12-volt batteries. But neither Gary, the professional skipper, nor I, the mate, could bring ourselves to switch it on.

“They’re supposed to be spark-free,” said Gary, “but . . . “

“Yeah, it only takes one spark,” I said.

We explained the position to the owner and his two guests, who, with unseemly haste, made plans to go ashore for breakfast at a hotel as far away as possible.

“All we can do is pray for wind,” said Gary, “and be very careful not to make any sparks meanwhile. Don’t smoke. Don’t touch any light switches. Don’t turn on a radio. Don’t let metal touch metal.

We had never felt so helpless.

“If it’s in the bilges,” said the owner, stepping onto the quay, “why don’t you use a bilge pump?”

He left us with that thought. In fact we had two hand bilge pumps, besides the electric ones.

Gary shook his head. “Could be metal parts working against each other. I don’t like it.”

But it gave him an idea. “Tell you what,” he said, “We’ll bail it out.  Better than sitting here doing nothing.”

Within 15 minutes the residents of Ramsgate were being treated to a most unusual sight. The crew of the Thelma II would appear on deck, one after another, and solemnly pour seemingly empty buckets into the harbor.

Down below, we dipped our plastic buckets into the bilge and then slowly and carefully made our way on deck. It was difficult, at first, to know when your bucket was empty. You had to keep sniffing, and maybe pour some more. But, in the end, we figured that 30 seconds would do it.

That seemed a very long time, with people staring silently from the dockside. In true British fashion, they were too polite, too reserved, to ask what kind of lunatic ritual we were performing.

After nearly two hours we stuck our noses deep into the bilges, sniffed hard, and declared them gas-free. What little we hadn’t been able to scoop up had probably been sucked into our lungs and processed.

Just in case, we all went ashore while Gary stood at the cockpit controls and flipped the switch for a bilge blower. We saw his hand move. Then he grinned widely. It was working. No big bang.

“All r-i-g-h-t!” We cheered and yelled.

The natives shook their heads doubtfully and pretended to be studying seagulls.

Today’s Thought
Danger, the spur of all great minds.
— Chapman, Bussy d’Ambois

Teeth is very nice to have,

They fills you with content.

If you don’t understand that now

You will when they have went.

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

February 25, 2014

The fizz that accidentally exploded

The Disease Called Cruising
16. Long Calm, Short Temper

I HAD BROUGHT on board a large bottle of Eno’s Fruit Salts, a white powder that fizzes when you put it in water. It’s supposed to cure indigestion and constipation, but I liked it to drink simply for the fizz.

It was hot and humid in the south-east trades and the yacht’s drinking water was warm, flat, and tasteless. Ours was a small sloop and we had no storage space for soft drinks. So every day I would drop a large spoonful of Eno’s into a mug of water and enjoy the sensation of a thousand little bubbles popping in my mouth.

We had been at sea for three weeks when I noticed that my good old friend Nick was helping himself to my Eno’s. Not only helping himself but flaunting the mug in front of my very face while he slurped away.

All four of us were feeling snappish at this stage, after six days of calms. Tensions build up easily on a small boat at sea, and calms make things decidedly worse. I knew this full well and I was determined to be very mature about this blatant and continuing theft. I would not indulge in the depths of pettiness to which the others had sunk in the past week. I decided to say nothing at all to Nick.

Quite obviously, he imagined the Eno’s Fruit Salts belonged to the ship’s stores. He didn’t realize that they were my personal elixir, a special treat that I had had the sense to provide for myself without depending on others all the time, as some thoughtless people do.

Nevertheless, even if he didn’t know they were mine, he should have asked. That, surely, is what a reasonable person would do, isn’t it? That’s what I would have done. In any case, no reasonable man could use as much Eno’s as Nick. He didn’t suffer from indigestion or constipation.  He just saw it and wanted it. You know the type. It’s a weakness, a character flaw that affects some people.

Every time Nick went past with his fizzing mug, grinning with asinine pleasure, I felt something tear my insides apart. Finally, I resolved to speak to him, lest by too much restraint I should cause myself some deep and lasting psychiatric harm.

I worked out a simple and graceful sentence, a jocular reminder that the Eno’s actually belonged to me, not the whole darned ship. But when it came time to say it, it came out differently. To my astonishment, what I said was: “Fer Chrissake keep your thieving hands off my Eno’s!”  Worse still, I shouted it.

Nick took one look at my slitted eyes and contorted face and jumped backwards, apologizing profusely.

Suddenly I was overcome with remorse. “I’m sorry,” I said. “That came out wrong. I didn’t mean that. Here, take the bottle. It’s yours.”

But no, he wouldn’t accept it. Wouldn’t dream of doing me out of my very own precious Eno’s, he said.

“Fer Chrissake take it and shut up!” I hissed.

Nick blinked his eyes like a spaniel whose master has just delivered him a swift kick in the crotch. He looked hurt and confused. He took the bottle and put it with the galley stores on the little shelf behind the stove.

And there it stayed for the rest of the trip, untouched by either of us.

Today’s Thought
I really can’t hate more than 5 or 10 years. Wouldn’t it be terrible to be always burdened with those primary emotions you had at one time?
— Han Suyin, NY Times, 25 Jan 85

 “You say the tow-truck guy charged you $50 a mile for towing?”
“Yeah, but I got my money’s worth — I kept the brakes on all the way.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

February 23, 2014

Of bubbles in compasses

The Disease Called Cruising

15. Hello Kero, Goodbye Gin

BUBBLES IN COMPASSES are pesky things. Small ones don’t really affect the performance of the compass much, but they wobble and get magnified and attract attention to themselves all the time.

A bubble in your main steering compass is not only very distracting for the person at the helm but socially unacceptable, too. Sensitive visitors will ignore it, as they would a cockroach in the galley, but others more crass will comment loudly and make dire predictions about the accuracy of your landfalls.

Decades ago, when I started sailing, nearly all compasses developed bubbles. It didn’t seem to matter much. In fact it was a marvelous excuse to get out the gin bottle.

The compass fluid then was colorless alcohol, which didn’t freeze in cold weather. Gin was another colorless alcohol with warming qualities in cold weather. Furthermore, it was carried aboard every well-found sailboat. So we simply drove the bubbles out with gin, and then we swallowed some ourselves to celebrate our cleverness.

But expansion chambers and seals on compasses have improved over the years. Bubbles don’t occur as frequently any more.  Nevertheless, I thought I knew exactly what to do when my Sestrel porthole compass developed a bubble. I poured myself a large gin and shared it with the compass.

To my horror, the gin turned into a little glob of sludge that crouched menacingly at the bottom of the bowl, plainly visible to visitors.

I took the compass out, drained all the fluid, and took myself off to the Sestrel agent to get some more. To my astonishment, I learned that the modern manufacturers had abandoned alcohol while I wasn’t looking. They had gone over to a petroleum-based damping fluid. The Sestrel people called their fluid Sestroil.

As usual, it was unreasonably expensive. But that wasn’t the worst part. The agent simply didn’t have sufficient of the precious Sestroil to fill my whole porthole compass. They could let me have enough to top it up, to eradicate a bubble, but that was all. I said thanks, but it was too late for that.

Since the fluid in my compass was petroleum-based, I called the technical department of an oil company to see if they had a substitute. They were no help at all. They couldn’t help me unless I could furnish the technical specs of the oil required.

So I called the manufacturers of the compass, Henry Browne & Son, in Britain, to get the information. It turned out that they’d gone bust. There were plans to start production again, but meanwhile there was a world-wide shortage of Sestroil.

By now, however, I had the bit between my teeth. I had a friend who was a chemist, and by dint of some clever detective work he discovered that Sestroil was not the secret magic potion that Henry Browne & Son had made it out to be.  It was, in fact, basically kerosene.

So I filled my Sestrel with lamp-quality clear kerosene at a fraction of the cost of Sestroil and it worked perfectly.

Unfortunately, there’s no longer any excuse to get out the gin bottle to celebrate the birth of a new bubble, but there are compensations. For instance, it’s comforting to know that next time the kerosene cooker runs out of fuel at sea, all I have to do is drain the fluid from the compass.

Today’s Thought

Change as ye list, ye winds! In my heart shall be

The faithful compass that still points to thee.

— John Gay, Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-eyed Susan


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

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

February 20, 2014

More helpful anchoring tips

The Disease Called Cruising
14. Anchor in Haste, Repent at Leisure, Part (b)

SOONER OR LATER you’re going to need help with your anchoring. Here are some helpful hints and tips.

Ø Ancient weather lore:

— “Red sky at night, anchorers take fright; red sky in the morning, anchorers take warning.”

— “When the rain’s before the wind, to your dragging anchor mind.”

— “When the wind’s before the rain, soon shall your anchor drag again.”

— “Rain before seven, drag before eleven.”

— “Rain from the west, drag two days at least.”

Ø Helpful proverbs:

A fool and his anchor are soon parted.

A watched anchor never drags.

Anchor as you would be anchored by.

Anchors of a feather drag together.

Feint heart never won fair anchorage.

If at first your anchoring doesn’t succeed, flee, flee, flee to a marina.

Least said, soonest anchored.

Nothing’s so badly anchored that it mightn’t be worse.

Small anchors please small minds.

The road to hell is paved with lousy anchors.

There’s no anchorer like an old anchorer.

To anchor is human, to forgive divine.

Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes anchor.

Wise men learn from others’ anchoring; fools from their own.

Ø And finally: Worse things do not happen at sea.

Today’s Thought
The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.

— Patrick L. Young, economist, author and entrepreneur

What do you call a Frenchman who explodes a grenade on vinyl flooring?
Linoleum Blownapart.

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

February 18, 2014

The REAL rules of anchoring

The Disease Called Cruising
14. Anchor in Haste, Repent at Leisure, Part (a)

ANCHORING is a frequent cause of disappointment and vexation among cruisers everywhere. The root cause is always the same: Lack of education.

If cruisers were to study the rules of anchoring with the same enthusiasm they devote to stocking the liquor cabinet they would seen learn that any faith placed in an anchor is misplaced; and thereby they would be spared the disappointment and vexation generated by falsely high expectations.

As a service to those as yet untainted by misplaced faith, I append the following rules, helpful weather hints, and ancient proverbs.

The basic rules of anchoring:

(I) All anchors shall demonstrate a natural tendency to drag until it is time to set sail, whereupon they shall set solidly and remain set despite all efforts to raise them.

(II) No matter how well designed, no anchor shall hold unless it is heavy enough for the boat.

(III) Any anchor heavy enough for the boat shall be too heavy for the crew.

EXCEPT: In order that the experts shall be confounded and dismayed, a lightweight anchor casually tossed overboard by an idiot sailboat charter party shall always hold in any wind at any time on any bottom.

FURTHERMORE: If a proper watch be set against the possibility that the anchor shall drag, the anchor shall not drag.

(IV) If the wind shall change its directions, or the tide its flow, the yacht shall drag her anchor line over the anchor stock and foul it.

(V) If the anchor cable be rope, it shall chafe through and part.

(VI) If the anchor cable be chain, it shall capsize the anchor stock and the anchor shall drag forthwith.

(VII) The speed of dragging (E) in knots shall be determined by the formula MC2, where M is the distance in meters to the nearest rock, reef or perilous shoreline, and C is the skipper’s coefficient of panic as evidenced by yelps, bellows, or screams per minute (YBS/min).

Where C reaches relatively high values, say 10 YBS/min or more, E shall become infinite.

[Next column:  Anchor in Haste, Repent at Leisure, (Part b)]

Today’s Thought
Drop anchor anywhere and the anchor will drag—that is, if your soul is a limitless, fathomless sea, and not a dogpound.

— Elbert Hubbard, Epigrams

A good-looking sailor with laryngitis knocked on the clinic door. A pretty nurse answered.

“Is the doctor here?” he whispered hoarsely.

“No,” she whispered back, “come on in.”

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

February 16, 2014

It's not racing, dammit

The Disease Called Cruising

13. Racing? Rubbish!

HERE WE ARE, cruising along at a steady four knots on a beautiful afternoon, and suddenly we’re in a hole. Windspeed: zero. Boatspeed: zip.

Out of the blue comes another Deadbeat 31. Haven’t seen another one for years. We’re a dying class. Full-keel, heavy-displacement cruiser. No pretense at weatherliness. No fancy maneuvering. Just solid, dependable seaworthiness.

The other Deadbeat is still carrying the breeze. And heading straight for us, the dummy. Can’t he see we’re in a hole? There, the idiot has got himself becalmed with us, just 25 yards off to starboard.

He’s shouting greetings and comparing notes. Not many of us left, he says. Hardly surprising, I think, if he’s an example of the breed. Only lemmings follow each other over cliffs or into windless holes.

I see a little ruffle on the water ahead, a dark patch moving this way. I ease the mainsheet and move forward in the cockpit until I can just touch the tiller with my fingertips. Must keep weight out of the ends. Prevents hobbyhorsing.

My wife comes up the companionway and sees me stretched out. She notices the other Deadbeat 31. She purses her lips.

“You’re racing!” she says accusingly.

“No I’m not.”

I gave up racing years ago. Got my guts in a knot once too often. Too competitive. Found myself shouting at crew, luffing friends, calling for water when it wasn’t my right  . . . almost cheating, even.

“You promised me faithfully you wouldn’t, ever again.”

“But I’m not.”

“Then why are you sitting in that ridiculous position pumping the mainsheet?”

“Can’t I sit how I like in my own boat?”

The puff is nearly here. Pressure, we used to call it.  The other fool has his main pinned in tight and his jib is going to be aback before he knows it.

“I’m not going through this again. We nearly got divorced through racing.”

“Just ease the jib a fraction, would you?”

“No, I won’t. I’m not going to help you race,”

“My sweet, it’s not racing. It’s just being more efficient. We’re simply extracting the most efficiency out of the wind.”

“Oh, sure.”

We’re starting to move. We’re leaving him.

“Just ease the jib, please darling.”

“Don’t you darling me. You’re racing.”

“No, honestly, I’m just comparing our efficiency with his efficiency.”

Maybe if she sat to leeward to reduce windage . . .

“I wish there was a Racers Anonymous,” she says. “It’s a disease. You’re sick. You need help.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There you are, you see. You keep denying it.”

“I don’t need help, I’m not racing. Would you mind sitting down to leeward?”

We’re two boatlengths ahead already, footing nicely and well placed to cover him if he tacks. Racing, indeed! This is just comparative efficiency testing. Tomorrow I’m going to get that tiller extension I’ve been thinking about. Oh, and a couple of light-weather jib sheets.

Today’s Thought

I don’t meet competition, I crush it.

— Charles Revson, found of Revlon, Inc., Time 16 Jun 58


The man who thinks no woman is good enough for him may be right. But he’s also likely to be left.

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

February 13, 2014

A different kind of engineer

The Disease Called Cruising

12. The Gearbox Genius

WHEN YOU’RE cruising far from home, it’s difficult to distinguish the real experts from the charlatans. Luckily, advice is free in the nearest bar where cruisers gather.

But sometimes that doesn’t work, either. When my gearbox failed in the South African port of Durban, and the marine experts couldn’t fix it, the advice I got in the yacht club bar was conflicting.

The whole bar said the only alternative was Mac the Gearbox Guru. But half the bar denounced him as useless and totally unreliable. The other half lauded him as an eccentric genius. They all agreed on one point: “Never leave your gearbox with him.”

I found Mac in his little wood-and-iron workshop at the fish jetty. Hulks of rusted engines, some with their pistons hanging out, were dumped all around outside. Inside, outboard motors hung from the walls in various stages of mechanical death. Deep benches were covered with bits of engines and gearboxes that had been left for repair. On the floor, engine blocks were piled on top of each other. Around them, and all under the benches, were the bits that had fallen off.

Mac was a middle-aged, balding, ex-patriate Scot. He wore greasy blue overalls. He usually worked — when the mood took him — on the engines of deep-sea fishing boats.

“You’ll have to get him interested first,” the barflies had warned me. “Otherwise he’ll ignore you.”

So I held out the bait. “The experts have been working on this gearbox for three weeks,” I said. “It’s cost me $360 so far and they can’t get it right. Now they’re saying we’ll have to send it back to Germany.”

Mac didn’t bite. “Leave it here,” he said. “I’ll have a look later.”  It was the kiss of death.

But I had done my homework. “I see you’ve got an Atomic 4 outside,” I said.  It had grown rust like a bear grows fur, but I knew it was an unusual engine to find in South Africa.  “Where did you get it from?”

“Fished it out of the bay,” said Mac, lighting a cigarette.

“Can you make it work?” I asked. “What about spares?”

“Hell, yes. Make my own.”

“What about the carburetor?”

“It’s brass. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

By such devious means I lured him on to the gearbox, first to the one on the Atomic 4 and then to mine.

Almost absent-mindedly he took it to his bench and cracked it open.

“Can you see anything wrong?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “Should work.” I was afraid he’d lost interest.

Then he put in two big thumbs. Slowly he began to knead and pummel.  “Hmmm,” he said. “Ah.” Something had gripped his attention.

Suddenly he began to disassemble it. To my horror, springs and shims and ball bearings flew out and started to disappear among the rusty debris.

Mac took no notice. He was like a concert pianist in full swing. His stubby, oil-grimed fingers were caressing the bands of steel. Obviously this man had magic hands. “Ah,” he said again.

I was on my hands and knees for about 10 minutes, gathering the fallen bits of my gearbox, but in the end I had it all.

Mac inserted a shim, reversed the positions of two gears, and put it all together again.

“How much?” I said.

“Och, how about $30?”

“Done,” I said.

That night, with the gearbox installed and working perfectly, I reported back to the bar.

“Charlatan? No,” I said. “Genius? Yes. Eccentric? Very. But thank god for crazy Scots engineers.” 

Today’s Thought

Genius is always impatient of its harness; its wild blood makes it hard to train.

— O. W. Holmes, The Professor at the Breakfast-Table


When his personal assistant kept making one mistake after another, the boss couldn’t stand it any longer.

“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded.  “Are you in love or something?”

“Of course not,” the assistant said indignantly. “I’m a married woman.”

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

February 11, 2014

How we changed a life

The Disease Called Cruising

11. Happy Circumnavigation

FOR SOME MONTHS we drifted gently from island to island, wafted by the trade wind, buddy-sailing with a 38-foot ketch called Evensong. She was six months into a leisurely circumnavigation with two middle-aged couples aboard.

It was quickly apparent to us that there was a class distinction among the men on Evensong. Alan was a bricklayer. Bernard was a research engineer. So it was always Alan who went up the mast, changed the engine oil, and dived to scrape the propeller. It was Bernard who told him to do these things because he was the captain. And he was the captain for one reason — he could navigate.

This was in the days before GPS, of course, and Alan was convinced he could never master celestial navigation. “I never learned geometry and trigonometry, never mind algebra and calculus,” he told us, shaking his head in dismay.

“Algebra?” I said. “Trigonometry?”

“Yes. Bernard does it all on an engineer’s calculator, but I wouldn’t know where to start. He says it took him years to learn. And he has a doctorate in engineering.”

June and I were sitting with Alan under a large shade umbrella on a deserted beach, watching the tide trying to suck our inflatable off the powdery sand. I liked Alan. He was always cheerful and ready to help you re-set your anchor or run out a warp for you. He was a good man to have by your side at sea.

I wasn’t so fond of Bernard. In the first place, he was a bore, a garrulous bore. An egotistical garrulous bore, as a matter of fact. But worse, he was a manipulator. He need to be taken down a peg or two.

It was December, approaching Christmas down there, south of the equator, and I thought I saw a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Next time I saw him I told him I had a little present for him. He looked embarrassed. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting . . .”

“It’s no big deal,” I said. “In fact it’s just one little sheet of paper. But it could change your life.”

He came aboard on his way back to Evensong, and I passed over a copy of the “idiot sheet” I used for celestial navigation. “Just fill in the blanks,” I said. “Ten or 12 easy additions or subtractions. No algebra. No calculus.”

“Is that all? Truly?”

“Truly. It’s all you need for sun sights. Most cruisers start out with a form like this. After a while you don’t even need it. You just write it all down from habit.”

You could see a little lopsided smile of enlightenment starting deep down inside Alan’s brain and spreading slowly to his face. He nodded his head and tapped one big bare toe slowly on our teak-and-holly.

“Happy Christmas,” said June.

A week later we saw Bernard clinging grimly to the bosun’s chair, going up the mainmast for the first time. He looked very nervous.

Alan, who was winching him, grinned and stopped to wave as we motored past.

“Happy circumnavigation,” I said.

“You bet,” said Alan, winking and giving us the thumbs-up.

Today’s Thought

This world has been harsh and strange;

Something is wrong; there needeth a change.

— Robert Browning, Holy-Cross Day


There was an old lady of Worcester

Who was often annoyed by a rorcester.

She cut off his head

Until he was dead,

And now he don’t crow like he yorcester.

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

February 9, 2014

How we disappointed the blondes

The Disease Called Cruising

10. Cruising the Canals

WE WENT to England and found what we were looking for at a tiny boatyard in Faversham, 30 miles south of London. She was a Thames Estuary One-Design, a lapstrake centerboarder about 18 feet long. She was called Salty Dog.

My friend Bob bought her for 100 pounds. Somebody had added a small cuddy-cabin. We added two bunks and a kerosene cooker. Then we set off for Sweden.

We were young then. We had heard rumors about those gorgeous Swedish blondes who ran half-naked through the woods, pursued by young men with birch branches or something. We needed to check the truth for ourselves.

We slipped around the coast to Dover and, picking our weather, crossed the English Channel under sail to Calais, France. There we entered the vast system of rivers and canals that criss-crosses Europe. With the mast down, our little Seagull outboard shoved us along at four knots through the lovely countryside.

We had adventures with locks, opening bridges, non-opening bridges, the Seagull, and, above all, the local populace. People invited us in for drinks and meals. They opened their homes to us.

One quiet Sunday afternoon in Belgium we stopped at a pretty little village to fill our water jugs. A large fountain outside the nearby cafe turned out to be a burst water main. We went in and asked if we could fill our jugs.

The proprietor laughed and pointed outside. “No water,” he said. “Have a beer while it gets fixed.”

We sat down at a table, and an inebriated foreman crane driver immediately came across and asked Bob to put out his pipe. “It stinks,” he said.  Then as an afterthought he added: “That your boat? Where are you from?”

We told him we’d bought her in England and sailed across. “Omigod!” he roared.  “Across the North Sea? In THAT peapod?”

He plied us with cigars and gin. He invited Bob to light his pipe again. He dragged strangers over to meet us and buy us drinks. Soon the whole village seemed to have crowded into the cafe. A crew of workmen, sent to fix the burst main, joined the roaring party.

Then the mayor arrived to find out why the repair was taking so long. “Meet our friends from over the North Sea!” cried the crane driver. “Our dear, brave friends.”

 The mayor bought drinks for everybody, including the repair gang. They finally got the water under control at 11 p.m. That called for more celebrations.

At midnight, the cafe proprietor’s pleas for everyone to leave were dismissed with loud guffaws by our glowing, crane-driver host.

“Our friends sailed to see us in that tiny boat,” he said, pointing to Salty Dog in the gloom outside. “Right across the stormy North Sea. You wouldn’t throw them out now, would you?”

In the end, he didn’t have to. An irritated squad of policemen arrived on motorcycles a half-hour later and shooed everybody out.

We were glad to collapse into our bunks.

We never did see Sweden on that trip. We never did get to chase those lovely blondes through the woods. Friendly people in France and Belgium and Holland just keep holding us back. It took us three months to get from Calais to Amsterdam, which is about 125 miles as the seagull flies. We ran out of time. We were sorry to disappoint the blondes, but we had to get back home.

Today’s Thought

The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.

— William Sloan Coffin, Address at Trinity Institute, San Francisco, 7 Feb 81


Adolescence is a period of rapid change. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for instance, a parent can age as much as 20 years.

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

February 6, 2014

The Black Box Theory

 The Disease Called Cruising
9.  Points in the Black Box

ON EVERY boat there’s a little black box. You can’t see it, but it’s there all the same. It’s full of points that help you get out of trouble. At least, it should be full of points.

Every time you do something seamanlike, a point goes into the black box. Every time you whip a rope-end instead of leaving it to flap itself to fluff in the breeze, you earn a point. Every time you study the chart before entering a strange port; every time you climb the mast to check the topmast fittings; every time you remember to use the bilge blower before you start the motor, the points pile up in the black box.

At sea, the system starts to work two ways. Firstly, you can continue to stuff points into the box (it accepts an infinite number) by taking seamanlike actions — say, by reefing the mainsail after you hear a gale warning on the weather forecast, or by putting on your safety harness every time you come on watch.  Secondly, you can start to draw on your account.

In all small-boat voyaging there is an element of risk that cannot be eliminated. Indeed, it is the lure of danger (and overcoming it) that attracts many to the sport. Inevitably, therefore, there will be times when the ship and her crew are in danger to some degree, despite all the precautions you might take.

This is when the points start expending themselves. You have no control over when and where they’re spent. But they know when they’re needed. When horror is rife, when the mast is crashing down around your ears, those chips come rushing out of the black box to fight on your behalf.

But they have to be available. You must have earned them in the first place.

That’s why some boats and some sailors survive gales and capsizes when others don’t. Some boats will go aground on the only rock for miles around. Others will happily blunder through a maze of reefs.

Some people have a name for it, a four-letter word ending with u-c-k.  But on our boat we don’t believe in l-*-*-* and we never pin our hopes on it. We try, instead, to earn points for our black box. We know that if misfortune catches us with an empty box we’re in trouble. Fate allows no overdrafts.

So there’s really no need to wonder why some people and some boats seem to be treated by Fate more kindly than others. It all depends on how much you’ve got in your black box.

Incidentally, you can never tell exactly how much credit you’ve earned, so you can never relax completely. If you examine your conscience you will have a fair idea of how full your black box is, but to be sure of having enough points you must keep learning the ways of the sea, and the way of a ship in the sea. And you must keep putting your knowledge to practice.

In other words: Look after your ship, and she’ll look after you.

Today’s Thought
Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.
— New Testament: Luke xii, 35

“Why has your dog got such a flat nose?”
“He keeps chasing parked cars.”

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





February 4, 2014

What a fool the man is

The Disease Called Cruising

8.  Anything to Keep the Peace

THIS FOOL thinks I’m interested in buying his boat. I can tell by the smirk on his face that he thinks I’m hooked. What a jackass.

Well, it’s true that I did have to call him three times before he’d take me out. But still. That doesn’t mean anything.  Just wanted to try her for the hell of it. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.

“Very handy to weather,” he says.

Well, yes. Obviously. She’s a C&C 28, one of their finest. She darn well ought to be good to weather. But that doesn’t mean I want her.

Entirely the wrong kind of boat, actually. We’ve agreed on a cruiser, June and I. Something nice and safe and sedate. Lots of space below. Room to swing a cat or two. Comfortable double bed.

If he thinks I’m going to buy this low-slung, lightweight racing machine, he’s got another thought coming.

“Try her on a reach,” he says. “Pull off, and I’ll ease the sails.  See how nicely she tracks?”

Yes, okay. She fairly flies across the long, lazy swells from the east. Hardly needs a finger on the tiller. She has that thoroughbred feel. Not that it matters. No matter how much he grins, this boat is not for me.

“Pretty sheerline,” he points out.

Well, duh. Everybody at the club has mentioned that at one time or another. A delicate sheerline. Goes perfectly with that reverse transom. She is one of the last really pretty IOR racers. Now they’ve all gone fat and funny. Ugly. Not like this little darling.

We run home. He raises the spinnaker and I trim the sheet from the helm.  She holds up her head and sends spray flying, millions of tiny drops glittering in the afternoon sun.

“Like her?” God, it’s almost a leer, that silly grin of his.

“She’s okay,” I say carefully. “Not what I’m looking for, though, I’m sorry to say.”  He’s not going to catch me like that.

June is waiting at the slip when we get in.

She takes one look at me and pulls me aside. “You’re going to buy her, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve got that silly look again.”


“You’re in love. It’s written all over your face.”

“Am not.” I don’t know what she’s talking about. Sometimes she’s very obtuse.

The owner invites June below.  Good luck. No room to swing even half a cat down there.

June sticks her head up. “She’s got the sweetest little galley. Sure you don’t want to buy her?”

Maybe I was a bit harsh when I called her obtuse. Maybe I should make it up to her. “Buy her?” I say. “Well . . . if that’s what you want.”

“No, it’s your decision.”

“I guess so, if the galley makes you happy.”

Strange creatures, women.  We agree to buy a decent, solid cruiser and now suddenly she’s urging me, begging me on her knees practically, to buy this beguiling little courtesan, this seductive, curvaceous little beauty that sails like a witch.”

Well, okay, okay. I’ll go along with her. Anything to keep the peace.

I just wish that fool of an owner would stop grinning, though.

Today’s Thought
Business is like sex. When it’s good, it’s very, very good; when it’s not so good, it’s still good.
George Katona, Wall Street Journal, 9 Apr 69

If you can't fix it with a hammer, you've got an electrical problem.

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

February 2, 2014

An unappreciated sacrifice

The Disease Called Cruising
7. Beer for the Gods

WE CROSSED the equator on April 7 at 2245 hours, 200  miles off Brazil, making directly for the West Indies.

June and I sat in the cockpit of our 31-foot sloop with our 17-year-old son, Kevin, eating delicious chocolates given to us for this special occasion by friends ashore.

By next morning the sea was very confused. Freelance’s motion was violent. Cloud cover was complete and it was raining heavily. Obviously it was time to propitiate the gods, to make sacrifices.

It was the first time any of us had crossed the equator under sail, so a ceremony was called for. I requested the presence of all hands on the foredeck at noon, dressed in bathing suits, but when the time came it was too rough to stand on deck, so we held our crossing-the-the-line ceremony in the cockpit.

I made an eloquent supplication to the gods of the sea and the wind, Neptune and Aeolus, begging for fair weather. It was a moving little oration, even if I say so myself, although Kevin squirmed uncomfortably. Teenage cynicism caused him to have grave doubts about the need to pay homage to ancient Greek and Roman gods, if, indeed they existed at all. He was also afraid that his father was meddling with black magic, with powers beyond his ken.

Nevertheless, he was an obedient (if fidgety) crew, and June was an enthusiastic participant. So I produced the sacrifice — two whole cans of beer from my precious six-pack — and in one swift movement I shook one, ripped it open, and squirted it all over June and Kevin.

They both gasped in surprise. “I never thought I’d see you waste a beer like that,” June spluttered.

I explained how necessary it was. We had to abase ourselves before the gods.  And, to prove my sincerity, I cast the other, unopened can into the sea for the gods to enjoy.

Unfortunately, my request to the gods for fair weather went unheeded. In fact, the weather grew steadily worse.  The wind blew on our starboard beam at 20 to 25 knots day and night. Under a working jib and a double-reefed mainsail, we plowed on, reeling off 130 to 140 miles a day, with water cascading over the decks.

For 11 days it was unsafe to stand upright outside of the cockpit. We crawled everywhere, awash to the elbows. For 11 days, Kevin looked very grim.

Then the weather eased.  Then June was able to cook an unforgettable three-course meal — our belated crossing-the-line dinner. And then Kevin felt free to voice his suspicions.

“I don’t think two beers was enough,” he said, betraying the innocence of one with no concept of the magnitude of the sacrifice involved. “The, um, gods must have thought you were very mean.”

I didn’t try to explain to him how great a sacrifice it is for a beer drinker to hand over two-thirds of his total beer supply to a couple of strangers — two whole beers out of a paltry six available for a 16-day non-stop passage.

 “My son,” I said, “it’s not the value of the sacrifice that counts but the sincerity with which it’s offered. If there had been any disbelievers among us — for example, anyone who might have been tempted to scoff at the power of Neptune or Aeolus, or (heaven forfend) question their existence — things might have been much, much worse.

That shut him up. He was nice and quiet and thoughtful all the rest of the way from the mouth of the Amazon to Bequia island in the West Indies.

Today’s Thought
Was anything real ever gained without sacrifice of some kind?
— Arthur Helps, Friends in Council

“What would you be after having there in that bag, O’Flaherty?”
“How many?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Well then I’ll guess how many — and you can give me a prize if I’m right.”
“I don’t have a prize. But I tell you what — if you get it right you can have both of them.”

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