August 25, 2016

Go ahead, read a book

THERE ARE SOME who believe you can’t learn sailing from books; that the only worthwhile teacher is experience, often bitter experience.
I don’t think this is entirely true, but I don’t waste my time arguing with them.
It was the irrepressible Will Rogers who opined: “There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.”
I believe that books provide the knowledge you need to experiment with your boat in all kinds of weather conditions. Books tell you what your options are, and how certain arrangements of sails and rudder worked for other people in light air and heavy. Without books, our knowledge of sailing would be limited to conversations with a few close associates, and we would never be able to break free from their near-sighted biased experience.
In any case, as an author myself, I’m very much in favor of people buying books to increase their knowledge of sailing and widen their skills. Reading is not a waste of time, despite what others might tell you. Remembering something you once read may make life easier for you one day. It might even save your life. So go ahead, read a book, and let some other silly bugger pee on the fence.
Today’s Thought

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
— Theodore Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”)
Tailpiece

“Where did you get that black eye?”
“At a night club. I was struck by the beauty of the place.”

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August 24, 2016

Girls vs boys for crew

A   MAN WHO WANTS to go deep-sea cruising with his family has a problem. His loyal wife, who crews for him on their 32-foot sloop, is happy to go along with him, but he is worried about his two daughters, aged 16 and 14.
“If they were boys I wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation,” he says, “but I’m not sure girls will be able to handle the hardships.”

Well, I don’t know these daughters of his, of course, but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit old-fashioned to regard girls as lacking in the ability to handle crew duties aboard yachts. What they might lack in brute strength they surely make up for in ingenuity. You only have to be able to read to know that girls of 15 and 16 are sailing bigger yachts than his around the world on their own these days.

Besides, boys don’t always make idea crews anyway. The last time I crossed an ocean with a son, who was then 17 years old, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about him.

As we were the only two watchkeepers, he had specific orders to call me if he spotted another vessel at night. He had specific orders to call me if he thought a sail change was necessary. He had specific orders to wear a harness and tether when he was alone in the cockpit at night.

But he was 17. He was becoming a man. He couldn’t help himself. Nature was pumping testosterone through his tissues. He didn’t obey any of those orders. Although he was color blind, he guided us through a fleet of fishing boats one dark night way out in the South Atlantic while my wife and I slept below. I nearly had a fit when I found out.

And when we were running fast in the southeast trades I was woken up one night by the thud of footsteps running forward along the cabintop. My untethered son was jibing the foresail singlehanded, shifting the pole from one side to the other. I lay awake, staring into the darkness, listening to the noises, waiting for the thuds that would indicate he was returning to the safety of the cockpit. But they never came. Had he gone overboard? I reasoned — I hoped — that he had returned along the side deck. I wanted to get up and peek out of the companionway hatch, but I didn’t want him to know that I had caught him in an act of disobedience because that would have forced me to impose disciplinary punishment or else lose my power of authority over him, such as it was. So I lay there fretting for another half hour until it was time to go on watch and I could decently make an appearance. And there he was, sitting in the cockpit, neatly buckled up and looking the picture of innocence in the moonlight. I could have bitten him. But I didn’t ask him why the jib pole was suddenly on the other side.

I don’t think a girl would have disobeyed her father/skipper like that. Girls don’t have the same impulse to prove they’re macho.

Or do they? Maybe now I’m the one who’s acting old-fashioned. Well, if I am, I can’t help it. Old-fashioned is what I am. Like it or lump it. But my advice to the would-be cruiser is simple: Go for it. Invest some trust in those daughters of yours. I’m sure it will be amply repaid.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan

Tailpiece
Did you hear about the short-sighted moth who blundered into a 2-year-old’s birthday party? He burned his end at both candles.   

August 22, 2016

Why all the unhappiness?

IT’S A SOBERING THOUGHT, but the success rate among people who plan to go long-term cruising under sail is only 35 to 40 percent. What is the problem here? What makes 60 percent of cruisers unhappy?

Well, two things spring to mind. The first thing is that most people need a goal when they go cruising. They need to feel they have a plan, that they are making progress, and that they will eventually accomplish something worth-while. But too many people don’t put enough thought into creating a goal. They believe that they can just take off into the sunset with a champagne glass in hand and find happiness on the way. They can’t.

The second thing is that they don’t understand what happiness is. It’s not the evanescent feeling of joy and laughter you get from watching the clowns. It’s not nonstop smiles and jokes. It’s far deeper and longer-lasting than that.

Democritus, one of the leading Greek philosophers, taught that the goal of life is happiness. He said that at all times man should seek happiness. And, of course, you probably remember that the pursuit of happiness is part of one of the most famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence.

So what is happiness, then? Democritus described it as a state of mind, an inner condition of tranquility, a harmony of the soul, a combination of reflection and reason ... in fact, what amounts to serenity.

My own theory is that happiness is serendipitous. It sneaks up on you and ambushes you when you’re quietly going about your normal day-to-day cruising activities. If you set out purposely to pursue happiness, it flees in front of you and you can never catch it. But ignore it, and it will creep back and embrace you.

So, before you go cruising make sure you understand what happiness is. Make sure, too, that your cruising plan is based on a solid goal. And then, if you have a good number of points in the Black Box, happiness will wrap its welcome cloak around you and you will find the serenity you seek.

Today’s Thought
Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman — or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle.
— George Burns, NBC TV, 16 Oct 84

Tailpiece
“Why don’t you play bridge with Jim any more?”
“Well, would you play with a man who keeps aces up his sleeve and cheats every time he writes the score down?”
“Of course not.”
“Neither will Jim.”

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

August 18, 2016

How to stay in charge


I’VE SAID IT BEFORE and I’ll say it again: one of the loveliest aspects of sailing is being in full charge of a boat in heavy weather. It’s wonderful to be at the helm of a boat in a gale of wind, a boat that responds with fingertip control, rising buoyantly and firmly to oncoming waves, or surging confidently downwind on a white blanket of foam. In both cases, it’s the correct sail area for the strength of the wind that determines the amount of control you have, and therefore the ability to reef or changes to smaller sails.
And yet I can hardly believe the number of sailboats I see with no reef points on the mainsail — or, if they have rows of points, no reefing lines reeved, ready for action.
I am not talking about dedicated club racing boats, of course. They never reef if they’re just racing around the cans. And they are therefore never fully in control, either. The number of broaches and pitchpoles confirms that. No, I’m talking about family daysailers and ordinary weekend cruisers.
This lack of ability to reef always worries me. I regard reefing as an essential safety factor, especially in boats that normally carry a lot of weather helm. Many boats require to be sailed fairly upright if they are not to be overwhelmed by weather helm, but all too often, instead of properly reefed mainsails we see skippers simply spilling wind from the mainsail, using the so-called “fisherman’s reef,” allowing the sail to flog mercilessly and strain the mast and rigging to breaking point. It’s panicky, heartstopping stuff, and you can’t carry on for long like that.
Because of the problems with reefing the mainsail, many skippers start by rolling up the jib. In most cases, that shifts to center of effort aft, thus adding to weather helm and lessening what control the helm has left.
The ability to reef the mainsail quickly and easily is, as I said, an important safety feature, especially for singlehanders. And, without it, you’ll never experience that snug feeling in heavy weather of quiet power and control, that wonderful feeling of being in charge of a calm, powerful, and almost-sentient being when Nature is throwing its worst at you.
Today’s Thought
He that will use all winds must shift his sail.
--John Fletcher, Faithful Shepherdess.
Tailpiece
“You should give up smoking.”
“Why?”
“It takes years off your life.”
“Nonsense. I’ve smoked since I was 16 and I’m 60 now. What do you say to that?”
“Well, don’t you see? If you’d never smoked you might be 70 by now.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for another Mainly about Boats column.)

August 16, 2016

Beer today, gone tomorrow

IT MAY NOT have occurred to you, but when you place a boat in salt water she is on a highway that leads to every continent in the world. The road isn’t as obvious as a freeway, but it’s there all the same and waiting to be used.
Here are just a very few fascinating places the great sea highway leads to, and the most important things to look out for:
England: Villages like Loose Chippings, Cheatem Krooly, and Lesser Badmouth-in-the-Dell; fish-and-chips; and warm Newcastle Brown Ale.
Scotland: Haggis; bagpipes; men in skirts with hairy knees; and Orkney Blast.
Australia: Beach barbies; fearsome flies; crocodiles; and fine Foster Lager.
New Zealand: Sheep; Pardeys; and Steinlager.
South Africa: Wild animals dressed in green and gold, and apart from the national rugby team, other wild animals in game reserves; braaivleis; and cold Castle Lager.
Holland: Cheese and clogs; botters and boeiers; and Amstel Lager.
Germany: Sour krauts; happy Hamburgers; and Becks Beer.
Mexico: Refried beans; sombreros; and Dos Equis.
Canada: Rockies; Mounties; and Molson.
Today’s Thought
After nine days ... I’d gotten used to the horizon, to the orderly rhythm of the ship, and all of a sudden the world came flooding back. I found myself looking at Nova Scotia and thinking about my mortgage. —Sarah Ballard, Sports Illustrated, 1 Oct 84

Tailpiece Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder if you are
(Up above the footlights’ sheen)
Forty-nine or seventeen.
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

August 14, 2016

Other ways to start engines

JUST A FEW days ago I overheard a cruising sailor bemoaning the fact that he could not start his very expensive diesel motor because his comparatively cheap starter motor had failed. It reminded me of a column I wrote several years ago pointing out that cruising sailboats are rarely pure sailboats these days. There are very few that do not carry engines of one sort or another. The reason for this is that, even if you normally keep your boat on a mooring, sooner or later you’re going to have to maneuver in a harbor or marina, and small-boat harbors and marinas have become so congested that most are not navigable under sail in anything much over 20 feet in length.

It is actually possible to maneuver a boat in a crowded harbor by warping and kedging, or even sculling, as sailors have done for centuries, but we have either lost the skill or the will, and certainly the patience, so we now find ourselves far too dependent on the engine to get us out to where we can use the wind to sail.

And to get the engine started in the first place, too many of us are dependent on the electric starter motor. It would be a great relief if we could start our engines by hand, instead of having to rely on electricity, and indeed a few inboard diesels can be started by hand, but they are necessarily of low horsepower and fit only for small yachts.

Now, there are other ways to start engines. One way is to use a small hand pump to pressurize a tank of air that will spin the engine vigorously for a couple of minutes. Think what a blessing that could be when your battery is flat or your solenoid has passed on to its final resting place. There are clockwork engine starters, too, that you can wind up slowly and easily before releasing them to spin the motor over.

But these mechanically simple starting aids are not common and they are therefore expensive, so the great majority of sailors are stuck with electric starter motors. They are obviously not ideal for boats, but because most boat engines are derived from the ones landlubbers build in huge numbers for their cars, tractors, and generators, we are stuck with their method of starting them.

The one thing you can say for electric starters is that they don’t draw much energy from your battery. Surprisingly little, in fact, if the engine is working properly. For example, starting a medium-sized diesel will draw about 4,800 watts. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but even if you crank away for 20 seconds you’re taking only 2.5 amp-hours from your 12-volt battery. That’s about half of what a dedicated CD player would consume if it were running 4 hours a day. And even with a modest 30-amp charge, your alternator will replace that energy in less than 10 minutes.

Nevertheless, this is not the best way to start a marine engine. Salt water and electricity don’t get on well together, and most of us could well do without that sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach when you turn the key and nothing happens but a little “click” that foretells all kinds of trouble and frustration to come.

Today’s Thought
Simplicity, most rare in our age.
— Ovid, Ars Amatoria

Tailpiece
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
“Yes. Do you have medical insurance?”

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

August 11, 2016

Curing pre-cruise scruples

I HAVE NOTICED to my astonishment that there are still some old-fashioned women who insist on being given a wedding band, or at least an engagement ring, before they will embark on a cruise for two under sail on a small boat.

It therefore behooves every male skipper to keep handy a medium-sized ring of some metal resembling gold, fit for the wedding finger of the left hand of a female exhibiting a case of pre-cruise scruples.

In addition, the well-prepared skipper will keep handy the following script, which is to be read aloud in the privacy of the saloon before the cruise starts:

“Now hear this; now hear this. To all whom it may concern, let it be known that under the powers invested in me by the Merchant Shipping Connubial Bliss Act, as captain of a vessel engaged in peaceful commerce and flying the flag of the United States of America, I do take this woman, Flossie Splendide, to be my lawful wedded wife, with all the duties that implies, for just so long as this voyage shall endure. I may now kiss the bride, etc.”

The skipper should sign and date this script. It would be as well to make a copy for the lady, too, in case you are boarded by the Coast Guard, so she can demonstrate that everything is above-board. Once a lady has caught the scruples, she needs all the paperwork she can get.

Today’s Thought
If a man wants to leave a toothbrush at my house, he can damn well marry me.
— Michelle Triola Marvin. (On winning a court case against common-law husband Lee Marvin.)

Tailpiece
"How’s you love life been lately, Ethel?”
“Terrible. Either I get a man who’s so slow I want to scream, or else a guy who’s so fast I HAVE to.”

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