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

“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

“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

“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

“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.”

October 17, 2016

Reversing magnetic north and south

DEEP DOWN in the southern hemisphere scientists are trying to find out when the North Pole is suddenly going to become the South Pole.
According to the British Geological Survey, a world-renowned geoscience center, “The Earth’s magnetic field has had many highs, lows, and reversals in its past. The last reversal was around 800,000 years ago. So the Earth is known to be able to re-generate its field and has done so during human pre-history.”

A report from the scientific body says that South Georgia sits within a weak spot in the Earth's magnetic field known as the “South Atlantic Anomaly” (SAA). In this area, radiation from space penetrates deeper into the atmosphere.

“The SAA is growing and spreading westwards from South Africa as the Earth’s internal magnetic field rapidly weakens in this region. Scientist believe this may be evidence of a coming reversal in the direction of the Earth’s internal magnetic field,” says the report.

Well, I knew that scientists had examined ancient rocks whose construction revealed that the magnetic field was once reversed, but I never realized it had happened several times, and I never thought it would occur again in my lifetime. Can you imagine what’s going to happen?

All our maps, charts, and  atlases will have to be redrawn with a new north at the top, a north that we call the south at the moment. Geographic globes will have to be remade upside down. You can throw away your GPS and compasses  because the sun will rise in the west and set in the east. The blue bits on bar magnets will have to be painted over with red, and vice versa.

Antarctica and the penguins will be at the North Pole and all the polar bears will have to move to the South Pole. The South Pacific will swop names with the North Atlantic. The Northwest Passage will become the Southeast Passage and the trade winds will blow northwest and southwest.

South Carolina and North Dakota will have to change to North Carolina and South Dakota. Google Earth will have to turn upside down and have all its lettering changed. And lord knows what-all else.

Gawd, what a mess. I can’t believe those secretive scientists are springing this on us at the last moment. I’m having a hard enough time coping with the concept of global warming. The idea of turning the whole world on its magnetic head is overwhelming. I think I need to lie down for a while. Either that or drink a beer. I think I’ll try the beer first.

Today’s Thought
The more science learns what life is , the more reluctant scientists are to define it.
— Leila M. Coyne, San Jose State University

An Italian immigrant was having trouble with English irregular verbs.
“I can’ta weara my wool skirt anymore,” she said. “I have send it to the cleaners and they shrinked ... shrank ... shrunk ... Oh!” she broke off in desperation. “I putted on weight.”

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

October 14, 2016

Sinning and loving it

SOME OF MY BEST memories of cruising under sail go back to times when I woke up well after dawn and let my eyes dwell on the moving light show overhead.
The water is sparkling this sunny morning in this quiet cove. It throws its dazzling reflections onto the white fiberglass over my head in the V-berth. And a deep feeling of bliss suffuses my body. There is simply nothing more luxurious or blissful than lying late in bed on a small boat, knowing that people on other boats in the anchorage are dutifully scrubbing their decks, wiping the dew off their varnish, and generally hopping around attending to the tasks of the day.

But it wasn’t always thus. I was brought up by proverb, idiom, maxim, and commandment, both Biblical and parental. (“Thou shalt not question the hour of bedtime.”) It was a time and place when Puritan virtues were esteemed. I never took too much food and I always cleaned my plate. I never talked to an adult until spoken to. I was taught to submerge myself in the team, never to stand out from the crowd. I washed behind my ears because cleanliness was next to godliness. I always went to bed on time. I never argued back. I would never have dreamed of having my nose pierced or my navel tattooed. Punctuality was the courtesy of kings, of course, and lying abed in the morning equated to sloth, one of the deadly sins. Early to bed, early to rise, on the other hand, made a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Actually, I couldn’t tell if it made me healthy, but I certainly became suspicious, years later, when it failed to make me wealthy or wise. I eventually had a serious talk with my conscience, which agreed (though rather reluctantly) that lying abed in the morning, though possibly sluggish, unproductive, and anti-social, should not be classified as one of the seven deadly sins.

Nevertheless, deep in the folds of my grey matter there still lurks a primeval suspicion that my parents were right. And that’s what makes things so delightful. There is simply no bliss greater, no pleasure more profound, than that which springs from sin.

I draw the sleeping bag up around my chin and shut my eyes. A happy smile parts my lips. It’s morning. It’s late. I’m still in bed. It’s wonderful. I’m probably sinning, and will be for another half-hour at least. And I don’t give a damn.

Today’s Thought
The avenues in my neighborhood are Pride, Covetousness and Lust; the cross streets are Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth. I live over on Sloth, and the style on our street is to avoid the other thoroughfares.
— John Chancellor, New York, 24 Dec 84

“Please tell His Honor what the man said when you opened the door.”
“Your Honor, he said he hadn’t had a bite for five days.”
“And what did you do?”
“I bit him.”

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

October 11, 2016

How to write a best-seller

WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME how to write a best-seller, I usually point them at E. Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994 for her novel The Shipping News.
This book deals with the two subjects I know best, boats and newspapers. Here’s what I learned from E. Annie:

First you have to look up a lot of obscure little words that will impress the Pulitzer Prize committee with your knowledge of obscure little words. Here are some examples that E. Annie scattered around in her book: Ruvid, plangent, nacre, vetrid, thunge, drenty, sadiron, pelm, caliginous, strigil, and ichor. That’s just for starters. You need lots more than that.

Next you have to persuade your readers to suspend disbelief. There are those of us cynics who find it very hard to believe that the main character, a non-swimmer, learned to swim in 15 seconds after his dinghy capsized in the remote freezing waters of Newfoundland and was rescued six hours later by his boss who just happened to be out fishing in his own skiff.

Equally, it would be hard to persuade us that another man, who was drowned, found, declared dead, and later placed in his coffin for the wake, woke up when his wife accidently stuck him with a pin, started coughing up water and came back to life.

And then there was the man who had a farewell party that got so out of hand that a mob of his drunken friends took axes to his seagoing yacht in the harbor and actually sank it — and he didn’t mind. Didn’t mind. I ask you.

Furthermore, there’s this thing about knots that goes through the whole book. I have to admit that I believe Turk’s Heads bring good luck, but I simply can’t swallow the notion that knotted strings can cast witching spells, influence events, and foment bad occurrences.

So how you make your readers believe these things — or, at least not mind being told such big fibs? Well, it seems that you have to bombard them with facts.

E. Annie obviously did extensive research into Newfoundland fisheries, boatbuilding, weather, weak jokes, and the staggering incidence of incest and sexual assault in the region. And she never leaves out a fact she researched. Line after line of facts, real facts, whether they have anything to do with the plot or not. Well researched facts are plainly the things that earn Brownie points for pusillanimous Pulitzer wannabees. They cover up the pusillanimity, if you see what I mean. As far as the author is concerned, such lists of boring facts may well be no more than corroborative detail, intended to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative (as Mr. Gilbert put it) but they do serve very well the task of pulling the wool over the eyes of the Pulitzer prize committee, and I commend this strategy to you.

But wait. There is more. If you are writing a love story, as this is, you must be careful not to make your main characters too lovable. I presume the Pulitzer people must have become too jaded after reading so many love stories about curvaceous blonde bombshells and handsome, dashing, muscle men. E. Annie must have known this because she was careful to describe her hero (um, well, main character, anyway) as fat and disheveled, with a hideous prognathous jaw — a man, moreover, of “cringing hesitancy.” And who was attracted to this timid tub of lard? A middle-aged woman with calloused hands, gray, mended dresses, and “taut thighs like Chinese bridges.” Holy cow. Chinese bridges?

Finally, here’s a hot tip from E. Annie: learn to write shorthand, diary style, in between the long lists of facts and lengthy paragraphs of dialogue. Leave out verbs and other important words, and let your readers make up their own sentences. Here’s what I mean:

“Saw her. The tall woman in the green slicker. Marching along ... A calm almost handsome face, ruddy hair ... Looked right at him.”

Well, that’s the most of it. That’s how you write a Pulitzer winner. There’s only one more thing. You also need to be a genius like Ms. Proulx. You have to understand human nature and the subtle relationships between people; and you need the skill to convey their emotions to your readers, especially the PP committee members who are struggling to see through the wool.

I’ll never win a Pulitzer prize, that’s quite certain, but there may be some of you out there who will benefit from the advice here, and that is sufficient reward for me. I wish you the best of luck.

Today’s Thought
Excellence is the perfect excuse. Do it well, and it little matters what.
— R. W. Emerson

“What’s that mark on your nose?”
“It’s from my glasses.”
“Why don’t you try contacts?”
“They don’t hold enough beer.”