August 31, 2014

Ice buckets and an appeal to God

Dear God

I’m sorry to interrupt while you’re laboring on your Mighty Works of Wonder, but I have a question for You. What is all this fuss about buckets of ice water? Why are the newspapers and the TV newscasts filled with pictures and stories about people pouring cold water over themselves for the privilege of paying $100 to a charity? Have You in Your Wisdom, decided to drive the American public mad?

At the risk of repeating myself, I must ask why American reporters and news editors suddenly find this weird behavior newsworthy. Every damn newspaper (beg Your pardon) every newspaper you pick up carries report after report of people dunking water over thousand-dollar tailor-made suits or the finest haut-couture dresses.

I ask why the fuss, because we in the Pacific Northwest have been doing this for centuries.

We call it sailing.

And nobody ever made a fuss about it.

You, being omniscient and omnipotent and omnivorous and all that, will obviously know already that sailing in the Northwest is like being in a cold shower tearing up 100-dollar bills. Every time it blows from the southeast and you have to beat home, she lays over and puts her shoulder through those steep oncoming waves and sends a great shower of 45-degree spray back over the people in the cockpit. And every time it blows from the northwest and the wind is against the tide, and you have to beat around the goddam (sorry, beg pardon again) the ordinary island again to find sheltered anchorage in the lee, it’s exactly the same as pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over yourself. Only more expensive, because you first have to buy a boat.

But the point is, getting wet while sailing in the Pacific Northwest never went viral. It never send waves of paroxysm through Facebook or Twitter. It never brought YouTube shuddering to a halt. So what is the fuss all about? Would You kindly delegate one of your angels to investigate and let me know?

Oh, and a couple of other things while I have Your Heavenly Ear.

Could you please help me to be kinder to West Marine? Every time they send me a boating catalog I find myself criticizing them and making fun of them. I don’t mean to do it. I just can’t help it, honest. One of these days they’re going to sue me, and my wife will divorce me, and I’ll be in deep doo-doo, if You’ll pardon the expression. So if You could top up my soul with a little extra-strength Kindness, I’d surely pass it on to West Marine.

Another thing: in case You’ve been too busy creating sunbeams to notice, You’re making life very difficult for our President with all the stuff You’re allowing to happen in the Middle East and the Ukraine. Not criticizing, You understand, just sayin’. But when the President’s unhappy, millions of people are unhappy.

Finally, as I know You to be a Loving and Generous Creator, I wonder if You’d mind sprinkling a little pixie dust over me, so that everything I touch turns to gold? Just like You did for that feller Croesus, remember? I’d really appreciate that.

I tell You, talking about ice buckets and sailing in the Pacific Northwest has made me long for a nice little house on a white  beach in some protected bay in warm waters down south somewhere, with a pretty little Folkboat at anchor just offshore. Or, OK,  I’d settle for just a 16-foot Wayfarer if things are not looking too bright in the Celestial Exchequer. Can You manage that?

Yours in eager anticipation,

You know who, of course.

Today’s Thought
Editors may think of themselves as dignified headwaiters in a well-run restaurant but more often they operate a snack bar . . . and expect you to be grateful that at least they got the food to the table warm.
— Thomas Griffith, How True: A Skeptic’s Guide to Believing the News

A shipwrecked man was captured by cannibals. The cannibal chief asked: “What was your business among your own people?”
“I was a newspaperman.”
“An editor?”
“No, I was just a copy editor.”
“Well cheer up. Tonight you’ll be editor-in-chief.”

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

August 28, 2014

Advice for the Alaska Race

HERE ARE SOME HINTS AND TIPS for anyone considering entering next year’s boat race from Washington to Alaska via the Inside Passage. They’re contained in an article I wrote a couple of years back for Small Craft Advisor magazine, one of the sponsors of the 750-mile race, which has a first prize of $10,000. It’s open to any boat without an engine.*


Adventurous newly-marrieds sail and row the Inside Passage to Juneau

IT WASN'T the kind of honeymoon cruise most petite blonde brides dream of.

Four days after their wedding ceremony, Elizabeth MacDonald and her brand-new husband Mike Kleps set sail on a 900-mile cruise from Washington state to Alaska in an open, 15-foot racing dinghy equipped only with sails and wooden oars.

The  Bellingham-based couple's goal for this marathon sail-camping  trip  in the summer of 2011 was to experience nature at its wildest. And experience it they did. For seven weeks they had almost daily encounters with wolves, whales, bears, dolphins, sea lions, and eagles as they landed each night at primitive campsites. They watched whales making bubble traps to catch fish; a brown bear’s head wobbling from the salmon wriggling in its jaws; gleaming white and blue Icebergs floating from tidewater glaciers. "We wanted to feel the satisfaction that comes with bringing the hazy outlines of a dream into bold reality," Mike explained.

Ignoring all kinds of warnings, this adventurous, nature-loving couple doggedly rowed and sailed north in their 53-year-old boat, quietly dealing with the wilderness hazards of the Inside Passage route through the Strait of Georgia and  Seymour Narrows into Johnstone Strait and  north to Juneau. It was challenging sailing as they fought fierce winds, fog, extreme tides, fast-flowing currents, reefs,  and lots of cold rain from depressions spinning down from the Gulf of Alaska. In three areas they were exposed to the full force of ocean swells from the North Pacific.

Hiker and backpacker

Mike Kleps, a practicing  lawyer and former public defender with a background of hiking and backpacking, had traveled widely and walked the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails from border to border. During his travels he visited Thailand, from where he sailed to Turkey in a 60-foot sailboat as crew. For years he thought about a boat trip to Alaska. In 2005 he actually built a kayak for the trip; but he decided he wanted to sail, and he thought it would be too complicated  to add a rudder, leeboards, a mast, sails, and perhaps an outrigger. So he gave up on that idea.  Next, he and Elizabeth bought a rowboat.  But it wasn't big enough to carry their camping gear. Then a friend died and Mike inherited a 15-foot Albacore, an Uffa Fox-designed fiberglass planing dinghy called Hot Tuna.

Elizabeth, a licensed electrician who works mainly on big commercial projects, had little previous sailing experience. She was not particularly interested in the esoterics of sailing itself; nevertheless she came to like it "Because when you're sailing you're not rowing."  After some practice, she could row for an hour or so without rest, working two oars. Mike says she's the most adventurous person he knows. And, like any good sailor, she can sleep almost anywhere in any position—athwartships across the dinghy; on her back in a floppy  net hammock (bent in half like a jackknifed semi); even on the bare marina walkway at Campbell River.

They never even considered an outboard motor. It didn't enter their thinking.  They wanted to experience Nature in the raw and make as little impact as possible. So they fitted Hot Tuna  with two sets of 10-foot oars and two rowing positions, often rowing together with all four oars. They could row at 3 knots and keep it up for hours. In fact, they made surprisingly good progress with daily runs of more than 40 miles on occasion, sailing whenever possible and rowing when it was not. There were also times when Elizabeth would man the helm and sail the boat while Mike rowed—their equivalent of motor-sailing.

Inshore counter-eddies

This trip emphasized the importance of working the tides and they made good use of counter-eddies close inshore when the current was against them. In addition, Mike often threw sticks out into the water to gauge the current before setting off.

Their major daily concern was finding a place to land and camp every night, one that had reasonably protected water for the boat to float in. In their planning, they consulted two guides written by long-distance cruising kayakers. They carried one small tent and cooked on a small camp stove fueled with white gas. Although locals along the way told them the summer was running three weeks late that year, it wasn't particularly cold until they got far north. Even there, their sturdy rain gear kept them dry, and exercise keep them warm.

Although Mike and Elizabeth were cooped up cheek-by-jowl together in a 15-foot dinghy for several weeks, they mostly managed to avoid conflict because their lives were filled with so much physical and mental activity connected with sailing the boat, navigation,  finding campsites, and cooking.  However, they admit to three occasions when tempers flared.

There were times, also, when the weight of many warnings bore down heavily on Mike.

Before the trip, a sailor at the Bellingham Yacht Club said, “No, you do not want to do that.” He had just heard about their honeymoon plans. "His response was like others," said Mike. "The trip was reckless, too hard; they pictured us soaked by days of rain, rowing fruitlessly against winds and currents; they weighed our degree of naiveté and saw us capsizing in strong winds on a long crossing, far from help.

Even during the trip, fellow sailors on yachts tried to persuade them that they were biting off more than they could chew.

Intimidating report

Mike's confidence was dealt a further blow when he met three kayakers who had just rounded Cape Caution, the next hazard on Hot Tuna's route. "Their report was intimidating," said Mike.

"They had rain and fog every day. They rounded Cape Caution in the fog, hearing waves crashing on shore and on rocks offshore. An inlet that ebbed well past low tide, surprised them with strong current and big chop . . .  They had very detailed charts and navigated in the fog by counting the minutes from one point to the next. They noted that 25-foot tidal swings and big tidal flats made landings challenging."

Naturally enough, Mike felt worried about the days ahead. He had some rough moments of doubt due to the unfavorable accounts by the kayakers and the general lack of confidence, from almost everyone, in Hot Tuna's ability to make it past Cape Caution and on to Alaska. Perhaps things were just going to get too difficult from here, he thought. He even tentatively suggested going home.

"But neither one of us was ready to go home," he said.  He had the full support of Elizabeth . . . "and we managed to have faith in the value of taking the trip one day at a time."  Mike also applied his experience as an estate planner in managing risk  and weighing it against reward. He finally decided the risk was both manageable and worth it. 

Needless to say, they got around Cape Caution just fine, and never looked back all the way to Juneau, their destination.

Elizabeth and Mike are modest about their achievement and shy of dictating advice to others but one thing they mention as very important is the need to find a workable method of anchoring the dinghy offshore every night.

They used a 4-pound Bruce anchor on 8 feet of chain and 100 feet of line, ending in a block, through which was threaded an endless 300-foot circuit of three-strand line leading back to the beach. The boat itself was attached to this line so that they could haul her in or out to the anchor line.  In theory this enabled them to let the boat lie at anchor 150 feet from the beach. It wasn't a perfect arrangement because the three-strand circuit line sometimes twisted on itself.  "Perhaps a different kind of line would have helped," said Mike.  Nevertheless, it mostly did what they wanted, and kept the boat floating through various stages of tide.

Narrow and cluttered

They had considered sleeping on the boat at night, but the Albacore is a fairly narrow and cluttered with gear. Furthermore, the bilges were usually wet because there was a small leak where an old hole in the bottom had been patched. Pulling the boat up on the beach every night was not on the cards, not only because of the often-difficult terrain, but also because even with rollers the boat (nominally 240 pounds) and its 200 pounds of gear was simply too heavy for the two of them to manhandle at the end of an exhausting day. They would also have had to be continually moving the boat up the beach as the huge tides rose and fell.  Low tides would, of course, leave the boat stranded at the top of beach. 

In the navigation department, they had an Evergreen chart atlas, from which they tore out pages as they went; but they also relied heavily on a rudimentary Garmin GPS chart plotter to find their campsites. Mike complained that it didn't give them enough detailed information—but, he admitted, it wasn't a marine GPS. "I'd like to see GPS improved for small boat sailors and kayakers wanting to land on beaches," Mike said. "The software is out there."

Their strategy under sail was one of caution. They had capsized in Bellingham Bay once during a practice run and didn't want a repeat performance. They therefore reefed the mainsail early. The sail had one deep set of reef points, and the area could be reduced further by rolling it around the boom. When the wind was fair they used a  distinctive spinnaker—one that Mike made from a military surplus parachute. "It worked very well," he said.

Why the hard way?

But why a windward passage, you might ask?  Why do it the hard way?  Most long summer passages on the Inside Passage are made from north to south because, in theory, the prevailing wind is northwest and only disturbed by occasional southeasters bringing rain. But their research revealed that  reliable facts were hard to come by, and notions about the direction of the prevailing wind were often contradictory. Besides, the racing dinghy was efficient to windward, and easily rowed.  Whatever the case, their choice was obviously justified by the fact that they regularly made comparatively long daily runs.   

"As it turned out," said Elizabeth, "when wind was fair (from the south) it was mostly raining.  When it was sunny there was either no wind or it was blowing too hard from the north to make progress."

Before they left Bellingham, Elizabeth made up boxes of provisions to be picked up at small towns along the way. Their camping-style menu was necessarily limited, but one unexpected favorite was old-fashioned pemmican. Elizabeth had bought tallow and mixed it with shreds of beef dried in the oven, plus currants  and maple syrup.  "On its own it was pretty unappetizing," she admitted, "but when we heated it with dry beans it was great." It became, at least temporarily, their favorite dish and they raved over it. 

As for future plans, there is a niggling background notion that it might be nice to sail around the world. Before that, there might be a small boat they can actually sleep on.

Meanwhile, when friends ask them how their marriage is going, they say with a wink: “It’s gotten a lot easier after the honeymoon.”    

Sidebar 1

Sailing vs. rowing

Here are Mike and Elizabeth's rough estimates of how  the trip went:

Ø Mostly sailing—33 percent of the days.

Ø Some rowing, some sailing—50 percent of the days.

Ø Mostly rowing—16 percent of the days.

"Sometimes we would sail 25 miles by noon and call it a day. A few times we rowed in the morning and then caught a breeze in the afternoon and would make 45 miles."

Sidebar 2

Weather experienced

Mike and Elizabeth  offer the following estimates of weather conditions during the trip:

n Very rainy—20 percent of the time.

n Cloudy with some rain—25 percent of the time.

n Some sun—55 percent of the time.

"The word from the locals and boaters along the way was that the summer was wet and cold, and everything was three weeks behind schedule, including  salmon, orcas, and bears. We had two weeks of mostly sun before we had our first cold, rainy day. For many of those rainy days, we managed to be in towns (Port Hardy, Namu, Prince Rupert, Petersburg, or Ketchikan) for the worst of it."

Three sections of the trip were exposed to ocean swells: (1) Cape Caution; (2) Milbanke Sound; and (3) Dixon Entrance. "We carried a VHF radio and barometer, which we used to check the weather before making long crossings."

Sidebar 3

The winners

Mike and Elizabeth won Bellingham Yacht Club's "Boating Family of the Year" award for 2011. They left Hot Tuna in storage in Juneau and put her up for sale.

Sidebar 4

Albacore specs:

Hull type: Centerboard dinghy

LOA: 15.00 feet

LWL: 14.83 feet

Beam: 5.33 feet

Max. draft: 4.75 feet

Sail area: 125 square feet

SA/Disp: 51.83

Weight: 240 pounds

Rig: Fractional sloop

Designer: Uffa Fox

Material: Wood or fiberglass

First built: 1954

Number built: 8,000 +

U.S. Albacore Association:

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

For all of you vegetarians who have been lusting after a nice juicy piece of organic verse, here’s something to chew on:

The vegetable broccoli,
While not exoccoli,
Is within an inch
Of being spinch.

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

August 26, 2014

A race for the toughest boaters

THE LONGEST AND TOUGHEST small-boat race in North America is being organized by the Northwest Maritime Center, a non-profit with a mission to engage people in adventure and discovery. The 750-mile race from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, is open to boats of any size as long as they have no engine. Entrants may row, paddle, sail, or all three.  First prize is $10,000.

Simplicity is the hallmark of the race, which starts on June 4, 2015. There are almost no rules and only three marks of the course, starting with a 40-mile sprint from Port Townsend to Victoria, British Columbia, which serves as a qualifier for the full race. From Victoria, competitors will follow the Inside Passage to Alaska with only two obligatory waypoints at Seymour Narrows, B.C.  and Bella Bella, B.C.

Entrants will be expected to be fully self-sufficient along the whole course, much of which is wilderness territory beset with strong currents, cold water, fog, rain, and stormy weather.

“Most people won’t have done a race that is this epic,” say the organizers. They advise prospective entrants to consider their physical fitness, tolerance for hardship, and their ability to operate and repair their boats safely with no support and a variety of adverse conditions — including the possibility of confronting wild bears along the way.

It’s estimated that the winner will cross the line in Ketchikan about three weeks after the start.  At that time, an official “sweep boat” will start off from Port Townsend. She will cover about 75 miles a day northward, and any entrant overtaken by the sweep boat will be marked as a non-finisher. Overtaken entrants will be offered any assistance they need, including a tow to the nearest spot of civilization.

Officials at the NW Maritime Center say they have no idea what kind of boat will do best. “There is an ongoing debate on whether the optimal boat will favor sail, oars, or paddles,” they say. “From the conversations we’ve had, usually sailors are scared of the rowers, rowers are scared of the sailors, and kayakers don’t seem to be scared of anything.”

Navigation, especially at night, will call for the utmost skill and experience, but the choice of boat is paramount. The debate is fascinating. The fastest boat will likely be small enough to be both sailed, and rowed or paddled. But it should also be big enough to carry a crew that can be split into watches, one watch on duty while the other rests. It should be small enough to take advantage of counter-currents really close to the shore, but big enough to provide shelter and cooking facilities for the watch below. It should be heavy enough to carry water and provisions for three weeks, but light enough to plane, if it’s a sailboat.

A First-Nations war canoe that can travel non-stop at 3 to 4 knots would be a strong contender, but much depends on the direction of the winds, which tend to blow from the northwest in summer — right on the nose. If a series of depressions spins down from the Gulf of Alaska, however, and cold, strong, rainy southeasters prevail, a planing sailboat could walk off with the prize.

No boat that I can think of would be perfect for this race, though a 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy with some kind of sleeping and cooking accommodation comes to mind. I don’t think I’d want to try it on a stand-up paddle board, although I have to admit there was one attempting to circumnavigate Vancouver Island last time I was up there. A multi-hull might stand a chance, depending on how many calms she encounters, and bigger sailboats might do well by going out into the Pacific Ocean after clocking in at Bella Bella.

No doubt we shall have a better idea of the perfect boat after the first competitors cross the line. All I can say at the moment is that this is going to be one helluva race, and I wish everybody the best of luck with Seymour Narrows and Johnstone Strait.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for Small Craft Advisor magazine about a Bellingham couple who sailed a 15-foot racing dinghy to Alaska on this very same course on their honeymoon. I’ll repeat it here in my next column because it contains some good hints and tips for anyone entering this race, though I should warn you that it’s long, 2,000 words or so. (But utterly fascinating, naturally.)

Incidentally, $10,000 sounds like a prize large enough to encourage cheating. Perhaps a more appropriate prize would be a perpetual trophy in the form of a small silver chamber pot or something similar.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out details of the race to Alaska. (Don’t neglect the FAQs.)

Today’s Thought
Design has taken the place of what sailing used to be.
— Dennis Conner, Time, 9 Feb 87

“Hey I just realized why I keep winning at poker and losing on the horses.”
“So why is it?”
“They won’t let me shuffle the horses.”

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

August 24, 2014

Amateur boatbuilders can do better

I LIKE TO THINK that most amateur boatbuilders underestimate their capabilities. Lacking the practical knowledge of the professional boatbuilders, they tend to choose boat designs that are specifically intended for those people who consider themselves boatbuilding dummies. And there are plenty of them.
The trouble with this arrangement is that a whole host of plans intended for the amateur builder produce boats that are overly simple, overly boxy and overly under-performing.

Simple, crude boats may be fine for minds hobbled by the notion that they are ill equipped to build fancy boats, but I believe too many amateurs are selling themselves short. You can indeed build a fancier boat — a boat to compare with a professional boat — if you are prepared to pay in time instead of skill.  It may take you longer to make that perfect scarf in the keelson or that delicate  joinery down below, but the finished product will be as good as anything that comes out of a boatbuilder’s shed, where time equals money.  And, what’s more, you will learn the skills and get faster as you gain your own practical experience.

Naval architect Ted Brewer agrees with this premise. “Provided the plans contain sufficient detail and the designer is willing to provide telephone consultation, and even special sketches if necessary to explain some part of the vessel, the amateur can produce professional results from professional plans,” he maintains.

Although there are literally thousands of stock plans available for boats, many were drawn up decades ago, so that the materials, engines, and hardware are often outdated. “Some of the plans still sold to amateurs were drawn back in the days when boats were built like icebreakers,” says Brewer. “Not only is this a waste of material and money, but such boats tend to sail like slugs. One stock design for a famous doubled-ended ketch requires such heavy timbers that you would have to own on oak forest to afford to build it at today’s prices. A modern laminated version could be built for 75 percent of the original design’s cost, and it would be easier to maintain, live longer, and perform better.”

If you have the itch to build a boat of your own you might like to consider that it takes as long to build a good design as it does a bad design. Furthermore, the resale value of the good design will be much higher.

Brewer has produced hundreds of boat plans in his long career, ranging from America’s Cup racers and singlehanded round-the-worlders to small mom-and-pop cruisers, but his single most popular stock plan has been his chine version of the Cape Cod Catboat, a 22-footer with a 10-foot beam and a draft of 2 feet 3 inches with the centerboard raised.  More than 300 boats have been built to this plan. “There is nothing in this design that cannot be handled by a competent amateur builder,” Brewer notes.

Today’s Thought
Great Estates may venture more,
But little Boats must keep near Shore.
— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard, 1751

“What did you get your girl friend for her birthday?”
“I gave her a bikini.”
“Why a bikini?”
“I’m hoping to see her beam with delight.”
Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

August 21, 2014

Crewing around the world

TWO QUESTIONS ARISE: 1. Can you work your way around the world by crewing on other people’s sailboats?  2. Should you have to pay?
The answer to No. 1 is yes, I believe you can. And to No. 2: Certainly not.

I have read and heard stories about round-the-world skippers who ask for money from prospective crews in two ways. They ask for passage money, and/or they ask for pantry money, a contribution toward food. Neither request is valid, in my view. The workman is worth his salt. A crewmember provides skill and labor and ought to be recompensed, either with cash in the normal way, or with food, accommodation, and a passage from port to port.

There are various ports scattered around the globe where long-distance cruisers more often take on extra crew. Durban, South Africa, where I once lived, is one of them. After following the reasonable gentle trade-wind routes for thousands of miles, the mom-and-pop cruisers are suddenly faced with the prospect of a tough passage around the Cape of Storms to Cape Town. It often seems to be a good idea to take on an extra hand to help with the rough-weather watches and sail handling. And if things work out well during this passage, it’s possible that the extra crewmember could go much farther with them.

There are several websites (listed below) that aim to put prospective crews in touch with prospective skippers. They’re interesting to read, but some are aimed more at professionals than others. More helpfully, there is a book that is intended for the amateur sailor, and even the unskilled amateur. It was written by Alison Muir Bennett and it’s called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Oceans: Crewing Around the World.

I haven’t read it myself, but I see that the respected British magazine Yachting Monthly has called it “an invaluable guide to crewing anywhere in the world,”  which is a valuable recommendation. It’s apparently packed with practical information about how to find a crewing position, what to expect from different kinds of skipper, and (most importantly) how to be in the right place at the right time of the year.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide also spells out ways of improving your odds of being taken on as crew and what will be expected of you under way. The author also provides “yacht migration charts” showing where and when seasonal bottlenecks occur.

I wouldn’t want to kid anybody by suggesting that you can just pitch up in one of these places and find a host of desperate skippers pleading with you to come aboard. It can take time and a lot of effort to find a compatible berth on a small sailboat, and skippers are a notoriously picky, not to say cranky, lot. All the same, whether they like it or not, they sometimes need to take on extra crew and the odds of success are with you. And so are the odds of bargaining away any suggestion that you should have to pay your way like some first-class passenger on the QE2.

Today’s Thought
There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen; and the gentlemen were not seamen.
— Macauley, History of England

“Pardon me, sir, I’m looking for a friend. Do you have a Sexauer on this ship?”
“Mister, we don’t even have a lunch-hour on this ship.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

August 19, 2014

Watch out for mangled life-buoys

AS USUAL, the new West Marine catalog is full of little surprises. The nation’s largest chandler, the country’s biggest marine superstore, is now selling pet toys and accessories. Toys for dogs, mostly. You might well ask: “Do dogs on boats need toys?”
The answer is “Probably.” After all, they can’t move around much; there’s not enough space to romp as dogs were built to do. They just have to lie there on the settee berth, spreading hair and slobber on everything and getting bored.

What dogs really want is to be ashore, smelling the local news on tree trunks and adding their own headlines to fire hydrants. Dogs don’t want to be cabin’d, cribbed, and confined on boats.

And they have to go ashore in any case because they’ve never managed to master the principle of the litter box, something that cats learn with ease in early kittenhood. Dogs need to scratch in real dirt, and the fouler the better, so they can get it stuck between their claws and bring the smells back on board to savor all night long.

By way of illustration, the catalog shows what appears to be a bulldog pup savaging a round life-buoy, eyes tightly shut in bliss. This particular life-ring probably deserves a good savaging, since it’s too small to preserve the life of anything heavier than a dieting chihuahua. But the principle of teaching dogs that it is blissful to chew up the ship’s life-jackets  is surely dangerous. How long before there isn’t a decent life-jacket to show the Coasties when they next stop you?

Another thing that strikes me is that there’s no mention of toys for cats. Or for parrots. I guess that’s because cats never get bored. (Too busy planning how to get the dog into trouble.) And nautical parrots just spend their spare time swearing and complaining  about the food. So, for the time being, it’s dog toys that are being promoted. This indicates to me that more dogs go boating than do cats or parrots. It also indicates to me that West Marine, which researches these things thoroughly, is expecting to make some money in the near future by selling new life-preservers to replace those that get chewed up.

Today’s Thought
No one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success or “get rich” in business by being a conformist.
— Paul Getty, International Herald Tribune, 10 Jan 61

“I hear that hussy in the tiny thong got badly sunburned yesterday.”
“Good, I’m glad. She got what she was basking for.”

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

August 17, 2014

When the heater made ice

I DOUBT THAT THERE IS anything more shippy on a yacht than a small cabin heater. It doesn’t matter whether it’s black and pot-bellied, or stainless-steel and shiny. A heater always seems to add a large dose of old-fashioned character to a boat.

My favorite type is the one that uses kerosene. I grew up with Primus stoves on boats so I love them and understand them. There was one on a little Cape Dory 25D we once owned. June and I found her on an island in north Puget Sound, and sailed her home one bitter-cold day in February, when there was ice on deck. We stopped overnight at a marina in Anacortes, where we ran into an old sailing friend. He offered to lend us an electric heater because, he said, a cold night was forecast, but we scoffed and waved him away. “We have a nice Force 10 heater installed,” we said.

After a meal ashore, we came back to the boat and lit the heater. It had started life as a kerosene model, but the previous owner had converted it to gas. A small can of propane screwed onto the bottom.

We soon noticed something strange. It didn’t seem to be producing a lot of heat, and what heat it did produce rose to the top of the cabin and stayed there. What was even stranger was the fact that the can of propane was collecting a coat of ice. If we stood up in the cabin, the air was luke-warm from the belly-button up, and freezing cold from the belly-button down. As time went on, the layer of ice on the can grew thicker, so we shut the heater off, fearing that it was actually producing more cold than heat on average. Our bunks were below belly-button level, so we spent a very cold night aboard, having brought only light-weight sleeping bags with us.

One of the first jobs I did on that boat was to convert the Force 10 back to kerosene fuel.

It was a fairly easy job once I’d bought the right tools for flaring the copper tubing and so on. The new burner put out a lot more heat and never tried to make ice, but the hot air still hung around above belly-button level until we bought a 12-volt fan and mounted it where a reading lamp used to be. That stirred the air up nicely, distributing warmth all over the cabin.

But we rarely ran that heater because the fan used electricity, and I was scared we might flatten the battery overnight and not be able to start the diesel engine on a cold morning.

I have learned over the years that very little is simple on a boat, and the less you have to go wrong, the better off you are. So we didn’t have a heater on our next boat. Thicker sleeping bags and extra blankets did the job just as well.

Today’s Thought
She knows the heat of luxurious bed.
— Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

Some puns are better than others, but those jokes about German sausage are truly the wurst.

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

August 14, 2014

Short bow means faster boat

HAVE YOU EVER wondered what shape of bow is most seaworthy for a sailboat? For example, does a raked bow, or a spoon bow, better fit the shape of an oncoming wave? Does this mean that the bow will have more buoyancy than a bow that is more upright — a plumb bow, or even a tumble-home bow, as some catboats have? And is buoyancy important in a bow? Does it stop a boat on the run in heavy weather from plunging deep into the swell ahead and causing a pitchpole?

You’ve probably noticed that modern production sailboats often feature bows (and sterns) that are shorter and more upright.  Ted Brewer, the well-known boat designer, says in his book Understanding Boat Design (International Marine):

“The long spoon bow, now rarely seen except on meter boats, was de rigueur on sailing yachts for many years because it reduced the handicap rating, yet picked up waterline length and speed as the boat heeled in a press of wind. However, this was only an advantage when the racing rule favored a short waterline; on two boats of the same overall length, a short bow automatically gives a longer waterline and a potentially faster boat.”

Brewer adds that the shorter waterline of the spoon bow does have the advantage of reducing wetted surface when the vessel is running upright or slightly heeled, as opposed to the constant, greater wetted surface of the long-waterline, short-stemmed yacht.

However, “modern sailing yachts reduce wetted surface by fin keels and spade rudders, not by spoon bows,” he points out.

As to the question of seaworthiness, the extra-long overhangs seen on some classes such as the 30 Square Meter are widely regarded as safe only in reasonably calm water. Modest spoon, clipper, and raked bows appear to be the safest for boats designed to cross oceans. All the same, there’s no bow that I know of that can prevent a pitchpole if conditions are right.  (Or, should I say, wrong.) Even heavy-displacement Colin Archers, with their bluff buoyant bows, have been known to capsize heel-over-head.

Today’s Thought
Regardless of type, every boat is a compromise of four basic factors: seaworthiness, comfort, performance, and cost.
— Ted Brewer, Understanding Boat Design

Blessed are the pure in mind, for they shall inhibit the earth.

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

August 12, 2014

What's going on down below?

I OFTEN SENSE a feeling of guilt when people explain why they aren’t using their boats as much as they (perhaps) should be. Indeed, there are a good number of boats that seem never to move from their marina slips. And, just as often, the pundits will seize upon this fact to proclaim the merits of small boats, compared with big boats.
A few years ago I mentioned in this column that Don Casey, the well-known sailor and author, had some profound words on this topic: "When you have a modest, simple boat, you can sail at the drop of a hat, no small advantage for  a pastime entirely dependent on the vagaries of wind.... Smaller sails and lower stresses make smaller boats easier to sail and arguably safer for a small crew.... Small boats are handy, tacking easily through narrow waters. They can also traverse thin water. In fact, given seaworthiness, a small boat can take you everywhere its  larger sibling can go and lots of places beyond the big boat's reach. Small boats are also more economical to own, operate and maintain.... The ploy I favor is to own a boat substantially smaller than what you can afford."

This is all true, of course, and as a lover of small boats myself I have no quibble with it, on the understanding that “small boats” are boats of 35 feet or less. But it does overlook one important point.

When I look at a full marina, especially on a cold and miserable winter afternoon, I wonder how many unseen people there are aboard those boats. Are the boats really as deserted as they look?

Just because the boats are not out sailing doesn't mean they're not being used. I have spent many happy hours down below on docked boats. Some of them were bigger than I could really afford, but they offered comforts that smaller boats could not match.

Nothing feels more cozy than the cabin of yacht when the wind is howling from the southeast and cold rain is drumming on the skylights. What better way is there for the harried city worker to relax than to stretch out on a bunk with a favorite book or good music on the stereo?

To go below into the womb-like confines of a cabin smelling of teak and lemon oil is to shut out the worries of the weekday world. And alone, or with a loving companion, there is a satisfaction approaching bliss in doing nothing in peculiar, in simply relaxing in a snug little vessel floating on a highway that — if you wanted to — would lead you to all the exciting, exotic places in the world.

Even in summer, an afternoon spent in the sunny cockpit, happily tying a Turk's Head on the tiller, or lazily re-varnishing the little spot where the jib sheet rubs on the teak coaming, revitalizes the spirit and feeds the soul.

You may sometimes feel the pressure to go sailing when you don't particularly want to, simply to fall in with the popular notion that you have to leave your slip to prove that you're a proper sailor and not a veranda yachtsman.

But you don't have to fall for that. How you enjoy your boat is up to you. You don’t need to feel guilty for not sailing it every waking moment. And if you can afford a “big boat,” that is, something of 27 feet or more, in which you can goof off standing upright, why should you make yourself miserable in one with no more than sitting headroom?   

Today's Thought
The bow that's always bent will quickly break;
But if unstrung will serve you at your need.
So let the mind some relaxation take
To come back to its task with fresher need.
— Phaedrus, Fables                                                   

Confucius say: "If man think by the inch and talk by the yard, he will be kicked by the foot."

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

August 11, 2014

Why I don't like heroes

LAST WEEKEND I watched the golf on television, and I got to wondering why people love their heroes so much. Almost every move made by Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson brought the crowd to ecstasy. The gallery exploded with applause and whistles when one of them actually sank a putt.  It occurred to me, however, that if I were a golfer I wouldn’t want to watch the masters at work.

It’s the same with yachting. When I read about how John Guzzwell heroically saved Tzu Hang or Marcel Bardiaux dived to move a heavy anchor along the sea bottom to save his boat, I don’t feel exultant. I don’t cheer or whistle or stomp on the ground. I simply feel inadequate.

I know I’ll never be able to emulate the feats of the sailing greats. They’re not normal. They’re supermen. They have talents I can never possess and it makes me feel jealous and resentful. How can I love and respect and adore people who make me feel deficient and incompetent?

The sailing heroes I worship are the unsung ones, the ones who make their way from port to port, and across oceans, using a minimum of talent and drama. I like the skipper who loses an anchor now and then, or who forgets to compensate for the current and ends up where he didn’t want to be. Such sailors make me feel good. They make me feel it’s only normal to have to go back to rescue the dinghy because I didn’t cleat the painter properly. They make me feel it’s not a crime to run out of fuel because I left the damned spare cans  in the trunk of the car again.

I like them because they’re not capable of anything heroic. And most of all I like them because they’re not better than me.  I realize what that says about my character. And I don’t care.

Today’s Thought
The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.
—Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality

"How's your glassblower friend?"
"Not so good. He inhaled by mistake and had to go to the doctor with a pane in his stomach."
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

August 7, 2014

Wave sets in the ocean

I USED TO SCOFF at the surfers’ notion that ocean waves arrive in sets of 7 or 9.  They could never explain why that should be. They were adamant, however, and later in life I discovered that there were many people with scientific training who agreed with them, although they had no explanation for it either.
I put the theory to test once on a tropical beach on the island of Fernando de Noronha, off Brazil, where ocean surf was pounding the only beach where we could land in our inflatable dinghy. I stood off, outside the line of breakers, and started counting swells.  I found it difficult to tell whether one breaker was bigger than another, but I certainly wanted to miss the biggest ones because I didn’t have any experience of landing an outboard dinghy on a beach through heavy surf.

But the swells did seem to arrive in sets, as my surfer friends had claimed. After each set there was a calmer patch, and that was the signal to gun it for the shore, riding the back of the last wave ahead.

We did this many times, of course, and the biggest problem seemed to be deciding whether the particular set you were watching comprised seven waves or nine. If it was a nine-wave set, and you started off on the seventh wave, you could be in trouble. There didn’t seem to be any pattern  that I could decipher. Sevens and nines rolled along in a totally random fashion.

Another problem was the variation of the size of individual waves in each set. You could never tell when one wave was going to be smaller than the others, which is what we would have liked to have known. But there were usually one or two that were bigger than the rest, sometimes one after the other, sometimes not. In the end, we mostly crossed our fingers and hoped we had timed it right, between sets.

It’s natural to be fascinated by waves if you sail on an ocean or a decent-sized lake and, indeed, there is an awful lot to be learned about them. One of the first things you learn about waves on the open ocean is that the water in them doesn’t move forward with the wave. The molecules in a deep-water wave merely move up, forward a tiny bit, and then down again.  You can achieve almost the same effect by laying out a line on the ground and snaking a wave through it.

Guy Murchie put it rather nicely when he wrote in The Seven Mysteries of Life:

What’s an ocean wave made of?

At first glance, nothing but salt water;

But keep your eyes on it ten seconds . . . twenty seconds . . .

You’ll notice that the water is roused

Only momentarily by the wave

Which passes it by,

That the wave leaves the molecules and bubbles behind,

That the wave in essence is a kind of ghost

Freed from materiality by the dimension of time,

Made not of substance

But energy.

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

“How much is a bottle of brandy? It’s my nephew’s birthday and he likes brandy.”
“Well, madam, it depends on the age. Seven-year-old is quite reasonably priced. Ten-year-old costs a bit more. Twelve-year-old can be quite expensive.”
“Gee, that’s terrible. My nephew is 25.”

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

August 5, 2014

You're a champion of champions

I DON’T SUPPOSE you ever think of yourself as being someone quite exceptional; but you are. I mean, the mere fact that you use a small boat for pleasure singles you out from the great unwashed herd. After all, the number of people in this world who go boating purely to make themselves happy is probably fewer than 1 percent of the population.

But, in addition to that, you are a Very Special Person for another good reason. In fact, you are  incredibly special because the improbability of your being here on Earth at all is literally so extreme as you make you a mathematical impossibility. That’s the view of the late Guy Murchie, renowned author of The Seven Mysteries of Life (Mariner Books). I’ll let Murchie explain:

“To begin with, you are a champion of champions, genetically speaking, because you are the product of an inconceivably complex and diverging web of ancestors, spiraling and branching back for billions of years into the primordial ooze of the proto-Earth, not a single individual of which, man or woman, animal or vegetable, ever failed to grow up to maturity and to beget viable offspring, while most other creatures around them, including many of their own brothers, sisters and cousins, faded away, and the majority eventually disappeared forever into extinction.

“This has to be true because of the finite dimensions of Earth and because, if your ancestors hadn’t been such top performers that they were 100 percent successful in procreation, obviously your ancestral lines of descent would be broken and you could not exist.

“But this is only the beginning of your improbability. Have you ever considered the odds behind conception, when only one out of tens of millions of sperms succeeds in siring a new offspring? . . . If we calculate very conservatively that each of your direct ancestors had somewhat less than one chance in a million to be conceived and raised to maturity (as he or she obviously succeeded in doing) your first-generation improbability (something a mathematician could write as 10--6) would still increase backward in time by several exponent numbers in each generation of each line of your descent, multiplying generation by generation to the population limits of your species, thereby reaching in the millennium now ending an improbability number far exceeding 10--110.  I chose 10--110 because that is the reciprocal of a thousand times more than all the atomic vibrations of all known space-time.

“Which, putting it rather mildly, would imply that your conception was inconceivable — and that, if anyone in some wild moment ever got the impulse to call you ‘impossible’ or (more diplomatically) ‘miraculous,’ he or she actually had a more than reasonable claim to being right.”

So there you are. Not only are you exceptional, but, because you are a boater, you’re in the top 1 percent of exceptional human beings. You are, in fact, so exceptional as to be totally improbable, at least mathematically.  And, as Murchie points out, only your actual presence here and now prevents you from being quite impossible.

Today’s Thought
Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.
— Ralph Ellison, Time 27 Mar 64

The Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette) reports that a city council meeting was held yesterday evening.
“The chairman of the Works Committee was asked to give figures for how many people are employed by the City, broken down by sex.
“ ’Not too many,’ he replied. ‘Liquor is more of a problem for us.’ ”

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