Monday, December 17, 2007

On Seaworthy

I Googled the term the other day and I swear you can find a blog or a website advocating sailing in bathtubs as the safest means to cross an ocean. One fellow who proclaims to know about seaworthy characteristics says to buy a Hinckley, the Rolls Royce of sailboats, because they have solid steel rigging instead of braided wire. I've never seen braided wire rigging on a boat. I think he means solid rod rigging versus 1x19 stranded wire rigging (19 wires wrapped in a spiral around one wire). He seems to equate rod rigging with strength in an offshore boat, yet you cannot coil up spare rod rigging and bring it aboard with you, but you can coil stranded wire as spares. You cannot splice a broken rod shroud, but you can do an emergency splice on stranded wire rigging that will save your rig and get you to shore. Hummm, maybe, just maybe that's why serious, seaworthy offshore boats have stranded wire rigging. Do ya think?

Another fellow actually argues on his site that lack of a keel and water ballast is the answer to a seaworthy boat--now that's a stretch and tall tale most sailors just can't make; but he does. He says if your boat has a keel and it runs aground, the boat will topple over. Therefore you should buy the kind of boat he has, an unnamed 20-something foot sailboat that can carry a 50 hp outboard on the stern. Yeah, right. Lots of those are making long passages!

An old friend of mine, a farmer from Minnesota, built his own boat, a Bruce Roberts design, from plans. He was used to building cabins in the woods, so he built his boat pretty much the same way--house wiring, PVC piping, and to be safer, the hull and deck three or four times the thickness specified by Mr. Roberts. His boat rode two feet lower than her DWL when launched. Seaworthy?

The interesting and sometimes amazing thing about sailboats is the diversity of their design and variety of opinions of their owners. Sailboat "captains" will come almost to blows over the stupidest things, like solid wire rigging versus stranded wire, or crimped wire connectors versus soldered wire, or CQR anchors versus Bruce anchors. And unlike religion or politics, there is but a narrow vale of patience for differing opinions before the captain declares you a total idiot for not agreeing with his view on the subject of keeled boats toppling over when aground and how wrong that is. I was almost thrown off a neighbor's boat once for disagreeing on the subject of crimped connectors--now there's something to ruin a friendship over!

I made friends with a fellow at a boatyard once who was rebuilding a CSY to sail around the world. He had done a great job cosmetically, but was mucking around with the rudder. His boat had a lot of weather helm--CSY's are very beamy boats with shallow modified keels and they will wear you out with a heavy helm. His solution was to make the rudder larger. It's a common solution and a wrong one, but you couldn't tell him that. I told him he just needed more headsail or more bowsprit or a smaller main--he would have none of it; the rudder would fix everything. Of course it didn't. All it did was act as a larger lever and decrease the force on the helm, but the rudder was cranked over just as much, slowing the boat. For someone bent on sailing around the world, you would think he would seek broad advice. Nope. He read a book or, more likely, talked to someone who also modified their rudder and so his course was set.

Speaking of rudders, my neighbor for a while at a marina in St Pete sailed a very pretty Catalina 30--another boat with a lot of weather helm. His solution was remove the rudder and install a factory fix, two rudders welded in an inverted Vee configuration. I told him all he would do is overstress the rudder post and the rudder post bearing. He would have none of it--he paid a yard a lot of money to install the expensive rudder(s) and in the first blow, bent his rudderpost and jammed his rudder(s). If you sail long enough, and spend enough hours in dock chat and boatyard chat with your neighbors you will hear it all. Like the owner of a beautiful new Sabre who polished (and ruined) the gelcoat of his topsides with Flitz metal polish.

Opinions of sailors seem often 90 percent justification for what they own, what they have built, what they have modified: they read a little and they become advocates for that author's often equally idiotic views. God protect small animals and sailors! In fact there is rarely any single answer, any single unlimited truth to seaworthiness. You can cross oceans in anything--in boats as small and unsafe as bathtubs or in the the best ocean-going sailboat--either may provide a safe arrival, or may provide you with tall tales, or may drown you in the process--the bathtub or the Hinckley. Expense is no guarantee of survival; Hinckleys have broached, suffered bulkhead failures and rig failures. They are lovely boats but they break just just like anything else. Size is no guarantee either. Lin and Larry Pardey have sailed around and around the world in small sailboats, 30 feet and much smaller.

In my view, seaworthiness is more a state of readiness and preparation than anything else. It is not the depth of the keel, but its strength and efficiency. It is not the solid or stranded wire of the rig, but the health of each component of the standing rig: the wire, the toggles, the turnbuckles, the mast tangs and the chainplates. It is not the displacement, but the usability of the boat: it can be sailed, managed and repaired by one person. It is not the number of crew, but their experience, their ability to adapt and improvise, and their desire to succeed. If you have these seaworthy attributes, you can sail that bathtub anywhere you want.

Friday, February 16, 2007

There is something that truly stirs my soul when I see a sailboat outward bound into the evening, her bow squared away to the inlet rollers of Port Canaveral, her masthead tricolor glowing white, green and red, a solitary figure at the helm, feet braced against the cockpit, white foam thrown to either side of the hull as she slides into the longer waves of the blue Atlantic and picks up a southeast heading toward the sparkling jewels of the Bahamas. She is starting an adventure for her skipper and maybe her crew below stowing away food and supplies, starting dinner on the small stove and holding on with one hand until sea legs and balance return.

The picture is an oasis that beacons me, warms my heart and soul to see. I long to start my own passage—the sweet homesickness of missed family blended with the feeling of being home once again—my own way of being home—aboard my little boat, this cozy corner of protection on an endless bending plain of bluegreen white-capped sea. This exit from land and safety, this intentional separation from all the trappings of technology, transportation, and taxes, this departure is for me one of renewal in body and spirit: it gets my blood moving again, clears my head of land-bound mind numbing worries that pale in comparison to any sunset, and whispers to me the bubbling hiss of hull and keel knifing through the swells, the snap and crackle of new stiff sails pulling hard, the tension of rigging—the center of effort overcoming the center of resistance—that brings the tiller alive in my hand, and the swishy smooth straight wake aft as Florida drops below the horizon and stars dot the black night ahead.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

There’s a reason why they call it being “on the hard”. There is a cushioned softness to the Bristol when she is in the water. In completely still water tied at the marina, when you step from pier to her deck you feel it. It is not as if she leans or moves from the added weight to her decks; she doesn’t. It is more an acknowledgement that says…yes I am floating, yes I am ready to go.

Over the past 20 years of ownership, I had lost the uniqueness of that feeling, that cushioned floating softness of my boat in the water—after all, other than brief visits to boatyards a few times, she waited patiently for me to step aboard for two decades. But for the past 2 years she has been on the hard, and feels no different from a room in my house when I climb the ladder and step onto her decks. No softness, no flirting with me that she is ready to take me somewhere. Just blocked on my driveway, a solid rock hard keel sitting on two ancient railroad ties, sitting on 50 year old concrete tied to the earth. It is difficult to be patient sometimes and momentarily I want to rush all this work to completion just to be able to feel her floating again. Another year maybe and I will.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Zapped by lightning! The area of Central Florida I live in has the highest number of lightning strikes per year of any place in the country (just one more reason I don't play golf) and my computer was thoroughly zapped last night during an amazing storm. So my website will not be updated until a new computer arrives in about a week.

For those interested, I am currently epoxying Styrofoam panels to the inside of the cabin sides, and starting to add the finished layer of cherry plywood over the Styrofoam. I received 100 board feet of North Carolina 4/4 cherry last week so I can begin trimming out the cabinsides and building the drip gutters. The next step will be to cut the new holes for the new portlights. Stay tuned.....

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Trickle of Dollars—How I found the Bristol
Never read Woodenboat magazine when you are craving a boat. Never. With my family in Ireland and me batching it for a month, that magazine almost hooked me. Before I bought the Bristol, the reason I found myself in Essex, CT was to look at a 1937 wooden sloop—money in hand, common sense having already taken wing and remained in Orlando. I found this boat in the classified section, called the owner who mailed me lots of pictures; called the owner several more times with detailed questions. Everything he said pointed to a finely kept vessel, seaworthy, ready for extended sailing. So , I asked for and received a recent survey of the boat. The survey didn’t speak so highly as the owner, and warned in legalistic terms that the boat should not exceed its intended purpose—whatever that means. But I was in a fever for her—she was cheap, only 7 thousand dollars and I wanted a boat. I flew up to Essex to meet the owner who was bringing the boat down from Mystic to be hauled for the winter.
So I found myself standing on the public pier in Essex, scanning the harbor, looking for the boat whose picture I was holding. Lots of boats moored there, Hinckleys and Aldens, Little Harbors, and Morris Yachts, Bristols and J boats; their Awlgrip gleaming in the afternoon sun. The picture in my hand shows a freshly painted white gleaming hull as well, but the only older wooden 30 footer is this rust streaked relic that can’t be the boat I’m about to buy. Yet, as I stand there, her owner comes on deck, waves to me and hops down into a half deflated dingy and rows toward the pier. Sure enough he is the fellow I’ve been talking to for the past month, but I’m convinced he’s on someone else’s boat. But we row closer and closer to it until we are along side and I am tying the dingy’s painter onto a lose, corroded stern cleat. He makes no apologies for his outright lies to me, not the fictional photos he sent; instead starts giving me the grand tour. I am speechless. There are mushrooms growing in cracks in the cockpit floor. The main shrouds flop around in the gentle breeze—puzzling why they are so loose and takes me a few minutes to figure it out. He has lost the main halyard up the mast, so we can’t sail her properly, and he can’t get the engine, an old rusting Atomic Four, started, so we sit at anchor and he proudly shows off his ship to me. He invites me below. Three days of dishes are in the sink. The cabin stinks of gasoline and exhaust fumes. I ask to be left alone and he goes topside. Then, in the silence I hear it. The trickle of dollars down the inside of the hull. Little trickles of seawater trickling through the planking. The electric bilge pump cuts on and off like clockwork. I take my pocket knife and push the tip of the blade gently into the hull planks. It is like poking a knife into a birthday cake; no resistance at all. Rotten planks, seams opening probably from his sail down from Mystic. Then I take a closer look around the junked up cabin. Not only is she leaking, she has sunk at least once—there is a scum line about half way up the cabin sides. Before leaving I take a gander at the mast step. Just as I suspected: the butt of the mast is sitting in a pool of black water, more mushrooms here too. The butt is so rotten the mast is being eaten away from the bottom up, and that’s the reason the boat’s rigging is flopping around in the breeze.
I ask the owner to take me back to shore—he hasn’t said anything. As I climb up on the pier, he asks in an upbeat voice, “Well, what do you think?” I give him a droll look and walk away quickly before I’m tempted to throw him off his dingy.
Later on the taxi ride back to the Hartford and the airport, I drive by Brewer's Yard, and catch a glimpse of the Bristol’s stern—she’s on jackstands in a long line of other boats. I tell the cabbie to stop and pay him for the ride; I’ll catch a later flight. Woodenboat went in the trash when I got home; I’ve never bought another issue.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

When I turned 50 a few years ago my internist announced I needed a stress test to measure the condition of my heart. Great news when you are standing in your underwear and expecting an all clear from your doctor. I asked a worried “Why?” And he said he had not detected a problem but wanted to be sure I was OK. So I got wired to a special treadmill and ran up hill until my pulse reached 190 (the doctor said it would either reach that number of I’d have a heart attack somewhere below it—more great news). The outcome was I reached the number and kept on running, while he admired the short peaked blips on the printout from the plotter my wires connected to. Everything fine, we’ll do another in 10 years.
Last night I did open heart surgery on the Bristol. I removed her starboard main chainplate, installed at the yard 36 years ago, just to make sure she was OK. I have put Sally B through some deliberately harsh stress tests over the years, and like running stairs when you are 50-plus, the condition of her chainplates and main shrouds are a constant, murmuring worry at the back of your mind. The chainplates attach the shrouds to the hull and keep the mast from falling over. They are the main aorta, the central element that keeps the boat alive. And, like the heart, they are buried inside the boat, just their tips exposed through the decks. If not bedded correctly, rainwater will seep down them causing crevice corrosion to the stainless steel and quickly rotting the wood knees they bolt to--the equivalent of clogged arteries that can happen at any time.
So I removed the starboard chainplate, the nuts painted over long ago, cracking open for the first time as the socket bit and turned the nut. the ratched working in the cramped space under the side deck. The bolts had to be driven out with a hammer--a good sign. Finally the three bolts were out. Expecting the worst, I found, like my internist found with me, that things were fine. There were some rust stains, but no rot and no fractures of the metal. She could have sailed with those old chainplates for many years to come. But I will give her new ones, stronger than the old metal; chainplates that will take her safely across the seas. Standing there in the cabin, looking at the strip of metal in my hand I can’t help thinking how long it has kept me safe and secure as the Bristol beat through heavy seas, heeled too far over from me not reefing early enough, strained at her sheets and still brought me safely home.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

I have such a craving I started rereading Moitessier and relishing every word. Now, there was a guy that loved sailing and was nuts about sailboats. The facial features of Clint Eastwood and the original boat hippy:

“I have no desire to return to Europe with all its false gods. They eat your liver out and suck your marrow and brutalize you. I am going where you can tie up a boat where you want and the sun is free…”

In the final leg of the London Sunday Times Global single-handed around the world race, Bernard decided winning (he was far out in the lead) such a race was a hypocrisy to his true nature, came about and sailed back to the southern ocean, there to sail around the world again, a total of some 34-thousand miles before he finally stepped onto a firm sand beach.

I understand some of what I think Moitessier was thinking. Sailing, especially alone is a very personal experience. To be in solitude as long as he was in that race amplifies the intimacy of your thoughts and your fears. For me, sailing alone is in part a religious experience: no place can you see the majesty of God more clearly than a sunrise out far away from land. No place can you more clearly want and need God’s help than in a storm at sea at night. The fame and fortune awaiting Moitessier in London was sacrilege to the solace and succor of the sea and his time with her. Better to be loyal to what had protected him for so many thousands of miles.

Where the rest of us need at least some amount of food and water while sailing, Moitessier found Zen in a solitude oneness with the sea. Just breathing sea air was sustenance enough for survival. Ashore, usually shipwrecked, he would build his own boats out of whatever he could find, and in faith with his French blood, always seemed to have a pretty young girl offering help and assistance. He sailed with what he had, navigated as best he could and used his sea sense to warn him of danger (sometimes it didn’t work very well, but he learned to listen closer). Moitessier sailed what he had, his habit was the sea not the boat on the sea. His lesson is one of not losing sight of the horizon because of gear or lack of gear; money or lack of financial support to sail. His lesson is sail for the trip not the destination. It is a lesson in life as well.