November 1, 2016

One last word

IT’S AN AUSPICIOUS DAY. This blog has just notched up a million page views since its inception on October 20, 2008. Actually 1,000,116 page views as I write this, according to my Blogger statistics page. More than 1,230 columns altogether.

My grateful thanks are due to you, my loyal readers.  I don’t know what makes you choose this blog from all the hundreds or thousands that now inhabit the boating blogosphere, although I have to admit it is unusual  in some ways. It appears three times a week. There are no ads flashing for your attention. There is no begging for beers. It’s  not larded with bling or eye candy for entertainment. It’s just for sensible people who love boats and who are content  to read plain words.

One strange thing I might mention is that  the name of the column is Mainly about Boats but nobody calls it that. It’s just known as John Vigor’s Blog, a name I wouldn’t have chosen myself because few people know how to pronounce Vigor. It’s not your fault, or even mine.  I wasn’t around when that pronunciation was first decided upon and passed down through the ages. For the record, it’s VIGH-gore. but I have learned to respond amiably to anything from VEE-gore to Vigger.

That millionth page view has come just in time. I fear I am about written out. Almost everything I know about boats has been discussed in this column, but I’ve always been concerned about being boring or appearing to be a know-all. Meanwhile, I am getting long in the tooth, so my thoughts now are turning toward quitting while the going is good; that is, before WikiLeaks releases my secret e-mails and I find myself accused  of sexting  pictures of boats rather than girls. 

How will you live without me, you ask? (Yes you did. I distinctly heard you.) Well, there are archives over there on the right, of course. More than twelve hundred columns preserved for posterity. Unfortunately, I have no idea how long posterity might be, according to Blogger. I’m sure they need the space for other bloggers, so if you want to riffle through the assembled collection, now’s your chance.

Once again,  my heartfelt gratitude to all of you who have accompanied me on my little blogging adventure over the years; and a special word of thanks to the billions of members of Vigor’s Silent Fan Club who have so faithfully kept their promise never to praise me. Your task will be much easier now.

Fair winds and good landfalls,

John V.

October 31, 2016

The nose always remembers

I WELL REMEMBER the first time I smelled a yacht. I was 14, and because of a lucky meeting on the beach beneath our small-town home, I was the caretaker of a 28-foot, hard-chine wooden sloop called Albatross. (Rich people from the big city 30 miles to the north. Weekenders.) I had Albatross to myself after school all week.
Every afternoon I'd row out to the moorings in the dinghy and just sit in wonderment in the cramped cabin. It was all new to me, the teak-and-holly sole, the mysterious quarterberths, the V-berth in the forepeak, and the gasoline engine hidden under the companionway ladder.

But it's the smells I remember now, many decades later. It's the smells that jar my memory of that sweet little boat bobbing on her mooring in the hot sunshine.

Tarred hemp from the forecastle, kerosene from the galley, along with denatured alcohol. The subtle aroma of teak bulkheads and old white paint overhead. Faint smells of gasoline from the engine compartment, and that peculiar smell of damp sailcloth that no sailor will ever forget, coming from the V-berth where the spinnaker was stored in its bag. Coffee from the food locker, and a metallic tang from the galvanized anchor chain. And if you pressed your nose to the bronze portholes you recognized a link back through the centuries to the Vikings and beyond.

All these scents mingled with salt-laden sea air in Albatross's cabin and I was entranced and bewitched. It was sheer magic, and I was never to forget it.

And just the other day I was reading Maurice Griffiths, the well-known British sailor and author. He, too, knew about the smell of a yacht:

"There is indeed something about the smell of ship that stirs a man's blood, a seductive, persuasive odor of oak and tarred rope and canvas and paint, of varnish and oil and galley smoke and rust, that exciting scent that clings like an aura to every shapely little schooner with her jib-boom steeved above the quays, and drifts on the breeze from every fishing smack that puts to sea; a haunting smell that goes to a man's head like wine and makes him yearn for a free life, open air and a wide horizon, and above all for the kick of a tiller under his arm and the scend of a stout little ship beneath his feet . . . Oh, I know." 

Today's Thought
There is nothing like an odor to stir memories.
— William McFee, The Market

Tailpiece
“You need glasses.”
“How do you know?”
“I could tell as soon as you walked through the window.”


October 27, 2016

Lack of sleep -- the danger

CRUISING SAILORS undertaking long voyages need to be aware of the dangers of sleep loss. Apparently, a surprising number of sailors suffer from hallucinations caused by fatigue. And fatigue comes about when you don’t get a long enough stretch of deep, dreaming sleep.
Now I know that many long-distance sailors, particularly singlehanders, somehow manage to get by with many short snatches of sleep. Often they sleep for only 20 minutes and then get up to have a look around the horizon.  

But psychologist Dr. Glin Bennet, who interviewed competitors in a singlehanded race across the North Atlantic, discovered that 50 percent of them experienced one or more illusions or hallucinations.

I remember Frank Robb telling me of his experience. Frank was an intrepid seaman, a fisherman and a sailboat owner who learned his lessons in the stormy waters of the Cape of Good Hope, and who sometimes voyaged rather farther afield.

He was once singlehanding in his old gaffer when he encountered four days of rough weather in the Caribbean. As usual, he was deprived of wholesome sleep during that time, and when the storm subsided he wasn’t too sure of his position. But soon he spotted a fishing boat, and, in the distance, an island with a protected harbor.

He sailed in, waving to a launch crowded with sightseers, and found a good anchorage. With the last of his energy he lowered his anchor and went down below, where he passed out on the saloon floor.

Twelve hours later he woke up and went on deck. There was no land in sight, There were no boats around. Nothing but sea. The anchor was down, however, dangling uselessly at the end of a mere eight fathoms of rode.

Luckily, he felt no anxiety about his hallucination. He realized that sleep deprivation had affected his judgment, and that his overtired mind had invented the island to relieve him of the anxiety that was preventing him from getting healing sleep.

We now know that dreams are important. Fatigue affects you mentally as well as physically. It’s dangerous. And if storms prevent you from dreaming, your mind will eventually compensate with a parade of waking dreams called hallucinations. The good news is that hallucinations leave no permanent bad effects on the mind, so there is nothing to be frightened of.  To prevent hallucinations, it seems, you need an occasional uninterrupted sleep of six hours or more. And that’s not something that can ever be guaranteed for a singlehander. 

Today’s Thought
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
— Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism

Tailpiece
“Boy we had some excitement at our place last night. We had a burglar in the house. You should have seen my husband coming down the stairs three at a time!”
“Did he catch the burglar?”
“Hell no, the burglar was upstairs.”

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

October 25, 2016

What about hand tools?

SOMETIMES I FEEL VERY UNEASY when I see how dependent we have become on machines. Have we lost the art of working on boats with hand tools, or have we simply lost the will?

I mention this because I watched with fascination a discussion on a boating bulletin board. A poster wanted to know how best to cut through a small stainless-steel pin, one that looked about 3/16-inch in diameter. “Get an abrasive wheel,” someone advised him. “Or get a large bolt cutter with hardened steel jaws.”

“No, no, said another. Get a 4 1/2-inch angle grinder.”

I shoved my oar in: “Use a hacksaw,” I said. “It’s simple. It’s easy.”

Big mistake. A quick rebuttal followed: Cutting 416 stainless steel with a hacksaw would be incredibly difficult, said a boat owner who appears to be speaking more from hearsay than experience, and who has apparently invented a new grade of stainless steel. “Get a cheap 4-inch angle grinder and some metal-cutting blades. And safety goggles, of course.”

“No, no,” said the next poster in line. “An angle grinder can cause a lot of collateral damage. Use bolt cutters.”

“No, no,” came the follow-up. “Bolt cutters will crush the pin and you may not be able to get it out of the hole.”

And so it went on. The collective wisdom of the bulletin board ground away, taking longer than it would have taken me to cut the damn pin with my little hacksaw.

I grew up in an era when boat people used hand tools not only because they were cheaper and simpler but because they would work on boats in mid-ocean as well as they would on boats with umbilical cords plugged in to shore power. It is revealing to me that the first reaction now is to rush out and buy a power tool.

I built a wooden one-design racing dinghy with no power tools whatsoever. I had a beautifully made Stanley hand drill, which I loved dearly, and still have. And I had screwdrivers, saws and planes, files and sandpaper, and a large supply of elbow grease. I’m no shipwright, nor even a good carpenter, but it gave me great pleasure and satisfaction to work simply and quietly with my bare hands; so much pleasure, in fact that I went on to build another three dinghies of the same design — only for those I used just one power tool, an electric drill. I still have that, too.

When I lived in San Diego, I bought a wreck of an International Mirror dinghy that needed a lot of work. The only place I had to work on it was in a garage I rented under an occupied apartment. I rebuilt that boat with hand tools in almost complete silence so that the occupants of the apartment wouldn’t hear me and have me thrown out. I secretly sawed and sanded and repainted and glued and screwed while listening to the noise of the television above, and they never found out.

The famous American round-the-worlder Jean Gau, the Waldorf-Astoria chef, used a hacksaw to clear his stainless-steel rigging after he lost his bolt cutter overboard when his 30-foot Tahiti ketch, Atom, was dismasted while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

My boyhood hero, Henry Wakelam, built himself a small ocean-going yacht, a Thuella design by Harrison-Butler, without any power tools at all. He was working out in the open, in the bush.

There is great pleasure to be had in working slowly but effectively. There is deep satisfaction in developing the skills and patience to work with hand planes knives, saws and (if you have some toes left) the adze. The smell of curly new wood shavings thrills me still, as does the lack of noise, that infernal, unnecessary noise. It’s sad that too many people are now scared to do anything by hand, scared even to contemplate cutting a thin rod of stainless steel with a hacksaw. I can only hope this is a passing phase and that sailors will one day learn to use their hands again, just as their ancestors did.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

Tailpiece
“Does your husband always speak to himself like that when he’s alone?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been with him when he’s alone.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for another Mainly about Boats column.)

October 23, 2016

Driving designers crazy

NAVAL ARCHITECTS tell me that nothing drives them crazy more than a client who wants “small changes” made to an existing design. “Just another three feet in length,” some hopeful says, “and she’d be perfect for me.”

“Just six inches less draft and I’d be able to get across the sandbar.”

I understand that yacht designers receive special counseling about this. They’re taught not to pull their hair out, or strangle the potential customer, even if the latter move would improve the human gene pool. They have to explain, as gently as they can, that changes like that mean starting all over from the very beginning.

People who want to build their own boats are especially vexing. Because venturesome sailors have such individual requirements and are usually close to broke, they are often tempted to buy stock plans that a designer has drawn up for a small boat and enlarge them on a photocopier. And when disaster looms, as it will sooner or later, they blame the designer. What they don’t know about is the law of mechanical similitude, a very interesting law that applies to boats of similar shape. Interesting things happen when you alter the size of a boat.

Let’s say you double the size of a vessel evenly all around. Here’s what happens:
— Length, beam and draft increase 2 times.
— Wetted surface area increases by 4 times.
— Interior volume increases by 8 times.
— Weight increases by 8 times.
— Stability increases by 16 times.

Now think about that. The new boat would be 41 per cent faster and could carry four times as much sail. But the point is that even small changes in proportion cause large changes in stability, buoyancy, maneuverability, accommodation, handling, and seaworthiness.

So if you want a boat that’s five feet longer, remember the law of mechanical similitude. Find a boat that was designed from scratch to be five feet longer in the first place. Don’t be tempted to economize with the stretch of doom.

Today’s Thought
Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.
— Philip Johnson, Esquire, Dec 80

Tailpiece
“My neighbor’s dog keeps barking all night. I can’t sleep. I’m at my wits’ end. What can I do?”
“Buy it from him. Then HE won’t be able to sleep.”

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

October 20, 2016

Not always a sailor's delight

I BELIEVE IT WAS JESUS who spread the unconvincing rumor about a red sky at night being a sailor’s delight. In the Bible, (Matthew XVI: 2-3,) Jesus said, “When in evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: For the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.” Ever since, His followers have done their best to make a convincing case for this meteorological mythology. But they haven’t convinced me. Like most met. forecasts, even those from the highest and most impeccable sources in Heaven, this one is as likely to be wrong as right.

I mean, just think about it. Why should a red sky at night mean good weather the next day? What if there’s a cold front lurking just over the western horizon and it comes screaming through at 5 a.m.? Is that would you’d call a sailor’s delight?

And yet this old canard is quoted as gospel in all kinds of sailing circles. Wikipedia, the self-professed font all knowledge says: “In order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west in order to illuminate moisture-bearing clouds moving off to the east.” So what? What about the new storm system roaring in from the west overnight?

“Weather systems typically move from west to east,” says Wiki. Yeah, right. Tell that to anyone in the path of a hurricane racing from Africa to America. Tell that to anyone cruising in the northeast or southeast trades. Typically, Wiki? Typically? Hardly. Only in a few places.

The same kind of brainless forecasting results from a red sky in the morning being a sailor’s warning, of course. And why always a red sky? I’m sure most of us have seen sunrises and sunsets where clouds were reflected in all kinds of gaudy colors.

Pink sky at night,
Gay sailors’ delight.
Orange sky at night,
Fruit-lover’s delight.

Almost any color of sky at night would be somebody’s delight. But not necessarily a sailor’s, no matter what the Bible says and Wiki regurgitates.

Today’s Thought
To talk of the weather, it’s nothing but folly,
For when it rains on the hill, it shines in the valley.
— R. H. Barham, The Nurse’s Story

Tailpiece
“How do you like your new doctor, Ethel?”
“He’s great. So sympathetic. He makes you feel really ill.”

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

October 18, 2016

When a mast drives you mad

WHEN YOU’RE THINKING about buying a boat there’s always something you think of too late. Something that will keep you awake all night the very first time you drop the hook in a beautiful anchorage.
Slap! Clang! Slap! It’s the noise of the loose wires in the mast. The incessant noise of the loose wires in the mast. The noise that drives you mad with frustration as you lie wide awake at 3 a.m. in your nice cozy bunk wanting to tear the mast open with your bare hands and strangle those damn wires that go clang with every little movement of the boat.

I have seen instructions from the experts showing how to pop-rivet a small-diameter plastic pipe along one side of the mast. Apparently, if you thread all the wires and cables through that pipe they can’t move around enough to make a noise.

The other way, which is a whole lot easier, is to fit those nylon zip ties used to bundle up electrical wiring. You’re supposed to use extra-long ones, so that the stiff ends protrude, and place groups of four of them together so they stick out at right angles to each other. The ends should protrude more than the diameter of the mast, so they will bend in place with enough spring to hold the wires in the middle of the mast. The groups of four need to be about 6 inches apart all the way up the bundle. You then haul the wires up through the mast on your messenger line, fix them in place, and hope for the best.

I don’t know how long this arrangement will last. I can’t guarantee that the stiff nylon ends won’t make squeaky dozens of little scritching noises in the middle of the night, which might be more annoying than a few honest-to-god hearty slaps, but people who’ve done it assure me they’ve enjoyed nothing but silence.

On a long cruise, you’ll probably find that you don’t notice the slapping noises after the second or third night. Your brain just tunes them out. But the first night is always hell, no matter how calm the anchorage seems, and no matter how many Dark ’n Stormies you’ve taken as a medicinal aid to sleep.

So before you buy your next boat, put an ear to the mast and get someone to rock the boat from side to side. Then get a quote for dropping the mast and fixing the slap. Subtract it from the purchase price. No seller with the faintest modicum of conscience will object.

Today’s Thought
I never take a nap after dinner but when I have had a bad night, and then the nap takes me.
— Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Life, 1775

Tailpiece
“I find you guilty and sentence you to a fine of $250 and 30 days in jail.”
“Oh, please Your Honor, please I beg of you, please reverse my sentence.”
“Very well. I sentence you to a fine of $30 and 250 days in jail.”