September 23, 2016

We're no longer trucking

IF YOU READ a lot of books about sailboats you will surely come across mention of a part of the boat called the truck. Quite often it’s in a phase such as: “She is a real sea-going vessel from truck to keel.” This might puzzle you because most sailboats don’t have trucks these days.

There are, in fact several meanings of the word truck. There’s the vehicle, for a start, such as the well-known pick-up truck. There’s also the noun that indicates “dealings with” someone: “That boatyard robbed me blind. I’ll have no truck with them in future.”

But the truck we’re concerned with here is a flat disk of wood fitted horizontally on the extreme upper end of a mast of a sailing ship. On ships with more than one mast, it was found on the tallest mast.

It usually had holes bored down through it for flag signal halyards, or small sheaves instead, if it was a fancy truck. In old navy days men used to man the yards as a salute in honor of a visiting sovereign or high official, or in celebration of a national event. In ships of the line this display was topped off by a man standing on each truck.

If you know how the movement of a ship is exaggerated and quickened at the top of a mast, you’ll understand that this was an onerous duty for the poor soul chosen to man the truck, especially when you consider that the only way he could stand on this lofty perch for hours at a time was by steadying himself with the help of a small iron rod temporarily inserted in a hole between his feet.

There are very few sovereigns who need saluting these days, and probably just as few private yachts  with mast trucks big enough for a person to stand on — but I think that’s something for which we can all be truly grateful.

Today’s Thought
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get him into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail with the chance of being drowned.
— Dr. Samuel Johnson
“Any sovereigns in your family?”
“No, but I had an uncle who was a Peer.”
“Really? I had an uncle with bladder trouble, too.”

September 21, 2016

When might ain't right

AUSTRALIANS cruising under sail have developed a well-earned reputation for contempt of authority. One lovely example I came across involved an Aussie yacht and an American warship.

Not many of us realize it, but American warships roam freely over all the oceans of the world, bossing other vessels around, including small sailboats.

I myself was highly indignant when, in a British-flagged 30-footer, I was stopped by a U.S. guided missile cruiser while I was minding my own business in international waters 200 miles off Puerto Rico, en route from the British Virgin Islands to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was sailing with my wife and my 17-year-old son.

The 548-foot-long USS Wainwright came roaring down on us out of the path of the sun and scared the life out of us. They made us all line up in the cockpit and grilled us about who we were, where we were going, what passports we held, and a whole lot more. They had no good reason to stop us, and they had no right to ask those questions. We were angry and resentful, but we were so intimidated we didn’t even dare take a photograph of them.

But the Aussies, aboard the 45-foot steel ketch Hinewa in their own waters, weren’t so easily intimidated. Here’s what they reported on a sailing bulletin board:

“We were off the Queensland coast, just outside the exclusion zone for a joint Aussie/U.S. landing exercise — just around dinner time. The weather was pretty dull so we decided to heave to for the meal and watch the show by eye, night-vision glasses, and radar.
“All of a sudden, ‘American Warship 123’ challenged us on Channel 16 by name, warned that we were close to the exclusion zone and that the boat would be seized if we entered it — and asked our intentions.
“We thanked them for the call, explained we were half a mile from the exclusion zone, hove to, and were in fact slowly moving away from the zone.

“With respect to our intentions, we then advised that we were still considering what pudding to have, but that we would definitely be having coffee afterwards.
“They don’t have a great sense of humor.
“I must admit we were a little miffed that we, an Australian-flagged yacht in Australian waters, could be challenged by a U.S. warship.
“But the scariest thing was, they must have been close enough to read our name on the bow (in the dark), yet we never saw them — no lights, no radar return near-by and nothing through the night vision.”
Today’s Thought

He who is too powerful seeks power beyond his power.

— Seneca, Hippolytus


“Have your eyes ever been checked before?”

“No, doctor, they’ve always been brown.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)

September 18, 2016

Voyaging across Europe

EVERY NOW AND THEN I come across someone who has never heard of Negley Farson. So I have to do my duty and educate them, as I have done with others many times before.

Farson was an early 20th century American author, adventurer, war correspondent and (more relevant to this column) a sailor. In the 1920s, he and his English wife, Eve, sailed a 26-foot wooden centerboard yawl called Flame from England, through the canals, rivers, and lakes of Europe, over the Alps and right down to the Black Sea. It was an extraordinary voyage that took them eight months.

He describes it briefly in his famous autobiography, The Way of a Transgressor, although he did in fact devote a whole book to this boating trip. It’s called Sailing Across Europe. Both books are still in print, together with many others of his, including a classic on fishing, which he loved dearly.

Flame was probably the first boat of its kind to go through what was then the only freshwater link across Europe connecting the North and Black Seas. It climbed over the beautiful Frankischer Jura mountains in a series of steps — 101 locks in 107 miles.

“So shallow and so overgrown with weeds was it, that we could not use our motor,” Farson reported, “and I hauled Flame, with a rope around my waist, over the Frankischer Jura range! As soon as breakfast was over, I would go out on the towpath and turn myself into a horse. Flame was 2 1/2 tons deadweight, and it took me three weeks to pull her over the mountains for 107 miles.”

They were now over the backbone of Europe, beginning the long descent to the Black Sea, but they missed disaster by inches at Ratisbon, where they shot beneath a bridge built in the year 1300. “Once out in that swift current of the Danube pouring out from its gorge above Kelheim, we were helpless. The steeples and roofs of Ratisbon simply raced at us as Flame hurled her weight at the one navigable arch of the bridge. We had taken out masts out to get under this arch.

“Not until the last minute did I see that the peasants at Kelheim had directed us to steer through the wrong arch. It was choked with rocks so that a white froth of rapids was sluicing through it. I had to swing Flame sharply to the right and try to hit a small open hole of arch by the town wall.

“We just made it, grazing it as we shot through. All I saw of it was a row of open mouths from the Ratisboners wondering what on earth was this little craft doing up above the bridge, some yells as we shot perilously at the bridge — and then the sun was shining on the back of my head again. The bridge was being snatched away into the distance behind us, Ratisboners wildly waving us a goodbye salute.”

On their way to the Black Sea, Farson and his wife experienced many more hair-raising adventures (some even life-threatening)  in countries recently destabilized by the Great War, and their journey makes wonderfully exciting reading. Great stuff for the cold winter nights that surely must be coming soon.

Today’s Thought
Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes. And the cities you see most clearly at night are the cities you have left and will never see again.
— Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road

“Do you prefer American girls, Canadian girls, Mexican girls, French girls, or German girls?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another mainly about Boats column.)


September 13, 2016

What to expect from a boat

ARE YOU A SAILOR who is happily agreeable to being overtaken? If so, you are a rare bird, for when another sailboat comes shimmying past it’s not easy to remain calm and let that little smile of insouciance play on your lips. It’s not easy to keep the knuckles from going white while gripping the helm, or the teeth from grinding themselves down to the gums.

But the sailors who can do this most successfully are those who have come to an agreement with themselves about what they expect from a boat. Most often, they are cruising sailors who, knowing that all boats are compromises, have decided that seaworthiness, interior space, ease of handling and seakindliness are more important to them than speed and the ability to point higher than anybody else.

This is not to say that all cruising sailors have the steely self-control not to hurl insults at the boat that overtakes to windward, but on the whole they are more even-tempered than the excitable racing types who, having spent large fortunes on boats and gear with the express aim of going faster than anyone else, may be excused for getting their wimmies in a froth when some rotten so-and-so comes past them.

The point of all this is to know before you buy a boat exactly what you want to do with it, and then to find out what kind of boat will fulfill your requirements. If you omit these vital steps in successful boat purchase you will surely be disappointed, and your boat will join the thousands that sit in their slips week in and week out.

Modern wide, shallow boats with fin keels go fast and have bountiful accommodation. Old fashioned skinny boats with low profiles, pretty sheerlines, and modified full keels, will look after you in a storm at sea.

Fin-keel boats will be faster in light weather, because at low speeds, the majority of resistance comes from skin friction, and they don’t have much skin down there. But at higher speeds, when the wind pipes up, the main resistance comes from making waves, so old fashioned designs are at less of a disadvantage, and in fact will often outperform beamy shallow boats to windward in choppy seas. The skinny oldsters can slither snake-like through the chop while the fin-keelers bang and slam and pound their speed away.

One of the most experienced small-boat sailors was the British ocean racer and publisher, K. Adlard Coles, who said: “A good heavy-displacement yacht is at least as equally able as a light one at sea. I used to be a light-displacement fan, but I have been converted to heavier displacement by Cohoe III, which I have found to be a better sea boat ... the principal difference is the immeasurably improved windward performance in really heavy weather. She can stand up to much higher winds.”

Today’s Thought
The race by vigor, not by vaunts, is won.
— Pope, The Dunciad.

“Basil, you’ve been drinking beer again!”
“No my love, not a drop of booze has passed my lips.”
“What have you been up to, then?”
“I’ve been eating frogs’ legs at the club.”
“Oh, sorry, it must be the hops I can smell.”

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


September 11, 2016

Darwin, and yacht evolution

I SOMETIMES WONDER how yachts fit in with Darwin’s theory of evolution. I guess it’s fairly obvious that really bad yachts will sink and automatically remove themselves from the gene pool. Or they will be so slow and clumsy to windward, or so skittish downwind, that their owners will take an ax and chop them to bits.
ut what distinguishes a good modern sailboat from a bad old one? I can think of seven areas: ease of handling, seaworthiness, comfortable accommodation, seakindliness, speed, weatherliness, and affordability.
Ø Ease of handling? Lighter, stronger fabrics for sails and lines have made handling much easier (along with fancier winches and line stoppers).
Ø Seaworthiness? I'd call it a slight improvement.
Ø Accommodation? Definitely better.
Ø Seakindliness? Probably no improvement on the whole.
Ø Speed? If we leave aside the ultra-lights and multihulls, perhaps just a little improvement.
Ø Weatherliness? Much better, through improved rig and keel design, and better sails.
Ø Affordability? Yes, more affordable now because of mass production.      
So I think we have to agree that on the whole sailboats have indeed evolved for the better. They're living longer, too. Fiberglass is turning out to have a very long life, despite a few outbreaks of bottom pox here and there.
Today's Thought
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species.
Blessed are the pure in mind, for they shall inhibit the earth.

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

September 9, 2016

Let's get flapping again

I’VE MENTIONED this before, but I still don’t see enough flags flying on small boats these days. Hardly anyone even flies a burgee at the masthead any more, which is a great shame because that colorful little triangle of fluttering cloth denotes  pride of ownership and bestows a disciplined liveliness on a boat.

And as for signaling flags, we might as well be talking about dodos, or pterodactyls, or home-based land-line telephones. And that’s another pity, because there is a huge section of the International Code of Signals devoted to the ancient art of sending messages by flags.

You can signal with one flag, or two, or three. There are literally hundreds of coded messages waiting to be sent, and anybody with a set of code flags ought to be absolutely itching to send a few. I mean, imagine you spot some old friends aboard a far-flung yacht in an anchorage —  but you don’t carry a VHF radio (because you don’t have to) and you don’t have their cell-phone number because you never wrote it down like you were supposed to. So now what? Well, code flags to the rescue, of course.

Get out the signal book. Look up the right signal and hoist the flags. Simple. There are codes for every occasion. For example, here’s a handy three-flag hoist: MEG. It means “Bowels are regular.” That’s a message your friends are always happy to receive. And relieved, you might say. Of course, that might not always be the case, so the people who drew up the international code cunningly also provided MJD (“Patient has flatulence.”) and MIO (“Patient has clay-colored stool.”) There are other codes describing sailors with other delicate variations of tummy problems, but we don’t need to dwell on that now. You can look them up for yourself in private after dinner.

One two-flag signal of particular interest is XP. It is not clear why the compilers of the signal book thought fit to include this hoist, since it means “I am in thick fog.” But perhaps they needed a belly laugh after dealing with all that sordid stool business. In any case, if you ever come across a vessel flying XP, if you can read it, it’s already too late.

One signal you might want to memorize is SN. It means “You should stop immediately. Do not scuttle. Do not lower boats. Do not use the wireless. If you disobey I shall open fire on you.” Heavens, what a vicious and belligerent message for two little flags to convey. The only reply I can think of is MEG flown in reverse order, which should be read as “My bowels are NOT regular.” Not now, anyhow.

The international code does not deal with flags alone, of course. All other forms of signaling by sea are covered, including the use of the human voice as transmitted by radio waves. It seems that radio waves may sometimes distort the human voice so much as to make it intelligible without the help of the international code. Now I fear very few of my sailing friends practice this, but it’s not sufficient to say “One, two, three and four” over the radio. The code insists that you say  unaone (oo-nah-wun), bissotwo (bees-soh-too),  terrathree (tay-rah-tree) and kartefour (kar-tay-fower.) In fact, here is the full list, just in case you want to impress the Coasties when they ask to come aboard and inspect your potty arrangements:

Figure spelling table

Figure or Mark to be Transmitted

(Code Word Pronunciation)











Decimal point


Today’s Thought
What harm in getting knowledge even from a sot, a pot, a fool, a mitten or a slipper?
— Rabelais, Works

The luckiest man is the one who has a wife and an outboard motor that both work.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)

September 6, 2016

How to fall out of love

ARE YOU IN LOVE with your boat? I ask because love is temporary insanity. Love is hormones out of control. But above all, love is giving.
It means new sails, new winches, new electronics, a new engine, new everything you can imagine to make your boat happy and love you back.
Love is Nature’s way of separating a yachtsman from his money. Love is Nature’s way of making a sailor go bankrupt. By my reckoning, too many of you are going to end up in debtor’s prison where no boats are allowed.
But I can help you here. I can tell you how to fall out of love with your boat. It’s all to do with remembering.
— Remember the time she wouldn’t tack, got into stays and embarrassed you in front of the yacht club that wouldn’t accept you as a member?
— Remember when the engine quit just as you were about to pick up the mooring buoy and the cover was still on the mainsail and you hit three boats sideways-on before you could get the anchor overboard? 
— Remember when you got seasick and your mother-in-law didn’t? Remember how she laughed?
— Remember when you came last in the Wednesday evening race because your boat ran into a big submerged plastic bag and deliberately wrapped it around the keel?
— Remember when the oil pipe split and spewed hot oil all over the engine compartment?
— Remember when the alcohol stove flared up, removed your eyebrows, and burned the galley curtains?
— Remember when your cousin with diarrhea blocked the head with wodges of toilet paper?
Think on these things, my friend. Remember the bad times. Ask yourself why you’re in love. Ask yourself if you really should be. And stop buying presents. Enough already. It’s only a boat.
Today’s Thought
But he who stems a stream with sand,
And fetters flame with flaxen band,
Has yet a harder task to prove —
By firm resolve to conquer love!
— Scott, The Lady of the Lake
I believe it was Kierkegaard who once remarked that the trouble with life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Nevertheless, some people do live in the past and they tell me it has one great advantage — it’s a lot cheaper.