Friday, January 29, 2010

Best Sailing Poem

There really is no question here: Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", 1798. This epic tells of a voyage and the horrors ensuing, and the return of one haunted survivor. Here is a selection of stanzas.

The poem begins with a wedding feast. Guests are entering the court, and one is detained -

IT IS an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'

He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

I  love that line "There was a ship" - such portent! The wedding guest has no choice but to listen ("He holds him with his glittering eye"), as the mariner tells of the ship's voyage south and into the roaring 40's:

And now the Storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

The ship enters a sea of fog and ice. Along comes an albatross, and with it good luck:

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'

But the mariner's horror is written on his face, and the wedding guest exclaims:

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!--
Why look'st thou so?'--'With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.'

At first the crew condemn the mariner for his act, but then they come around - and become complicit in his sin:

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.

Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red like God's own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

Bad trouble follows, and these familiar lines:

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

Now the sailors hang the corpse of the albatross around the mariner's neck, but that can't break the luck. The mariner is the first to spy the approaching ship, moving in a dead calm:

At first it seemed a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

My kids like that last verse - and what an image! The approaching ship passes before the sun, and its hull is seen to be unplanked ribs, its sails tatters, and two in crew:

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
'The game is done! I've won! I've won!'
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

And with that the crew drops dead - all except one:

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The wedding guest is terrified, and wonders with what sort of man - or ghost - he speaks:

'I FEAR thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.'--
Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down.

Now the mariner is alone with the bodies of the crew he killed, "alone on a wide wide sea". Even prayer deserts him.

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

I looked to Heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.

He tries to die, but cannot. It is nature (in this great first poem of the Romantic period) that saves him, for he becomes entranced with the seasnakes, their phosphorescence, and moonlight:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
Then coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Now sleep comes to him, and something else too:

OH sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,
That slid into my soul.

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.

The wind comes up and the ship begins to move, but who will work the ship?

Yet now the ship moved on!
The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.

The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools--
We were a ghastly crew.

The body of my brother's son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.

Their work done, the crew's souls leave them and they truly die. The ship moves on but the mariner's troubles are not yet over. Two spirits, perhaps angels, debate his fate:

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'

"And penance more will do" indeed. But the ship at last makes her home port:

Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray--
O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.

The pilot boat appears and approaches this strange, wrecked ship. As it approaches, a great sound is heard.

Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dead:
It reached the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.

Stunned by that loud and dreadful sound,
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot's boat.

Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat spun round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.

Finally ashore, the mariner's curse is to wander the earth, condemned to tell and retell his terrible tale. I'll let the poem finish itself.

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

What loud uproar bursts from that door!
The wedding-guests are there:
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper bell,
Which biddeth me to prayer!

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seem'ed there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!--

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Vessel of the United States

When I bought Journeyman she had these vinyl numbers on the bow, "ME something." So I documented her as a vessel of the United States, peeled off the state registration numbers and compounded the area.

For most yachts, the sole advantage to documentation is freeing the boat from bow numbers. There is no savings in taxes, at least in Maine, for every six months the Coast Guard sends each state a list of boat owners who have lately documented a yacht with a hailing port in that state, and the sales or use tax bill soon follows, and then the annual excise tax bills. But I still prefer a documented vessel to a state registered one - it's more seemly of a blue water craft.

Documentation is easy to accomplish. (I limit myself to "recreational" boats. The requirements for commercial fishing and "coastwise" boats, those carrying cargo or passengers, are different: consult your documentation specialist.) The process is administered by the National Vessel Documentation Center, in the lyrically named Falling Waters, West Virginia. I work with the agency a lot, and the people are an educated, helpful and careful lot, as good as any with whom I regularly work.

If you own a pleasure boat that is already state registered in your name, you send the following to the NVDC: Application for Initial Issue of Certificate of Documentation (CG 1258); copy of your state registration; Application for Simplified Measurement (CG 5397); and a personal check for $149.00 made to the United States Coast Guard. (All the forms are available at the link above.) Before you send the papers, call the NVDC and ask to speak to a documentation specialist and make sure your application is in order. Although the NVDC is good, they are exceedingly careful, as behooves the agency keeping title record to ships worth many millions, and they do not suffer errors, whiteout, and the like. For example, a slight difference between the name of the owner's name on the registration and the name on the CG 1258 will kick back an application.

The only difference if you are buying a yacht is that you must send the Coast Guard, instead of a state registration, an executed Coast Guard Bill of Sale (CG 1340).

(Some folks think only a U.S. built boat can be federally documented. No so - you can document a yacht even if foreign built, but for recreational endorsement only.)

In a few weeks - precedence is given to commercial vessels - you'll receive your Certificate of Documentation. You must keep it aboard. It will have a seven digit number, assigned to your yacht, along with marking instructions. You will mark your ship's name and hailing port (including state) on the transom or elsewhere, and you will emboss, weld, drill or otherwise indelibly mark the official number into the "main beam" or equivalent of your ship. Welcome aboard.

Last year the state sent me a silly little blue decal indicating I had paid the excise tax, and told me to stick it to the outside of Journeyman. The State of Maine can drop dead - this is a vessel of the United States!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oysterman's Knot

Everyone knows stopper knots - for many sailors, the first knot learned is the figure eight, and for that matter the overhand knot is a stopper knot. Other stopper knots involve going around the standing part three or more times, instead of twice as in a figure eight. No matter how many times the standing part is passed, however, these knots are all of the same diameter. What if a fatter stopper knot is needed?

Enter the Oysterman's Knot, so called by the great Clifford W. Ashley, born New Bedford 1881 and author of The Ashley Book of Knots. The book claims to have "7000 drawings representing over 3900 knots". It was a labor of eleven years.

The oysterman's knot is easily tied - I'll let the pictures tell the story. It must be drawn up carefully and worked tight.

You can see that this knot is quite a bit wider than a figure eight (shown below, with an oysterman's knot) or similar stopper knot. It is useful to know.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


It is better to sail than to read, but reading is good too. I have always collected sailing books and lately I have become a bit more focused on my collection. As will not surprise you if you have been following this blog, I like best the books from the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's, when one could sail without checking one's email.

I thought I would show some of my collection, so I took a series of photos.These are some of my oversized books.

At the top is Ashley's Book of Knots, about which I lately wrote. Next is L. Francis Herreshoff's The Common Sense of Yacht Design, 1974, a book I warmly recommend. The book is packed with information and shows, among other things, how little sailing has in its essence changed, and no one writes like cranky old Herreshoff.

Below is Sailing the Great Races, Robert Burton 1979. A bit dated, more so than Herreshoff in a way although it describes a much later time (bloopers, 12 Meters with trim tabs), and a snapshot of 1970's ocean racing.

Arthur Beiser's The Proper Yacht. Beiser is a physicist, independently wealthy I think, and he owned the big fast steel Alden ketch Minot's Light. "I start from the premise that no object created by man is as satisfying to his body and his soul as a proper sailing yacht." The book is a series of essays discussing particular yachts, and it is very good.

The next is an outlier, Shang by Dixon Merkt and Richard Grave, the latter the father of a friend. Shang Wheeler was a genius at duck decoys and the book is a real find for those interested in the decoys of eastern Long Island Sound, and who isn't.

 Across the Western Ocean by William Snaith. Snaith was an architect, and the book is the story of his 1961 passage from St. Johns, Newfoundland to England aboard Figaro, his storied 47 foot centerboard yawl. He is an insightful and happy writer and this book is nearly as good as his On the Wind's Way, a must have.

Brings us to Ships of the World, a sort of encyclopedia of ships, by a friend, very well done, and a book I really must spend some time with some day soon.

The two matched volumes are from the United States Naval Institute, Destroyer and Submarine, an official history of actions involving those classes of U.S. ships in World War Two. It is pretty terrific stuff, wonderful illustrations and comprehensive. (Click on the photo, it's worth a good look.) I believe Samuel Elliott Morrison was involved in the editing. These books were the gift of my wife's uncle Truman Bradley of New Haven, who commanded a squadron of patrol-torpedo boats in that war, bringing them from east coast U.S. to the western Pacific. He was a consummate yachtsman and a great guy, much missed.

To the right, Nowhere is Too Far, annals of the Cruising Club of America, a club to which I do not belong but would like to, then Phillip Rhodes and his Yacht Designs. (I do love Rhodes, who's shear is as distinctive on a Widgeon as on his 97 foot Curlew.) Then a 1995 yearbook of The Catbook Association featuring Oscar Pease, the last man to scallop under sail in Vineyard waters, with whom I painted boats as a boy and whose cat Vanity has since been desecrated with AN OUTBOARD MOTOR BOLTED TO A BRACKET ON THE TRANSOM, like putting lipstick on La Pieta, and finally The Bay and the Sound, photos by Norman Fortier.

Monday, January 25, 2010


We were entering Whale Key Passage in the Abacos and we had a line out. Just where we might have predicted it there came a mighty tug and soon we were gilling a ten pound King Mackeral. Ashore for drinks at Green Turtle, we asked the Bahamian tending bar how she'd cook it, and she said "fry it up, steak-like." So we did, for two great meals. have caught many fish trolling: King Macks, Mahi, Tuna of various sorts, Blues, and others. I use a cuban reel, and load it with a hundred feet of 300 pound mono, available from fishermen supply stores. I drill a 1/8 inch (2 mm) hole through the reel, pass the end of the mono through, and secure it with a figure eight. I put a leaded trolling lure on the line, with a wire leader and a multiple swivel. You want a strong single hook, and you want gloves to tend the line. The kind sold in fishermen supply stores - the cheap orange knitted ones with "pleasure studs" - work great.

This lure is typical of the ones we use, but for the tropics one with red or yellow or both works best.

First light is always a good time to have the lines out, and ideally the boat is making six knots or better so the lure has good surface action. Sometimes we lead the line a little bit up the backstay to give the lure some skipping action.

When we get a fish on the line we luff up and bring the fish alongside and gaff it. We try to get the fish right into a garbage bag or a bucket and we quickly cut the gills out to bleed and kill it. We usually eat it several meals a day until it is gone.

We never troll at night, and when things get interesting - a squall coming up, maneuvering, anything at all - the lines come in. Otherwise when you have to back down or something, there is trouble.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Name

Suppose you have some athletic sort of boat, a 505 or a Melges 20 or a big fast racer/cruiser like a J133, and you're in need of a name. You leaf through a nautical dictionary or maybe the weather section of Bowditch and come upon . . . Katabatic.

Rhyming with "acrobatic", a katabatic wind is a gravity wind. Just as water runs downhill, so does cold, heavy air run down through warm, light air. These winds, sometimes referred to as "drainage flows", occur worldwide where mountains meet the sea.

A huge icefield lies behind the mountains of southeast Alaska, and glaciers fed by the icefield run to the sea. Prolonged high pressure causes very cold and hence heavy air to pool on the icefield, until some shift in wind or change in pressure tips the cooled air down the glaciers, where the air accelerates by gravity to speeds which may exceed 100 knots. That's a katabatic wind, and when it suddenly hits tidewater it's a force to be reckoned with. As one would expect with such a spectacular breeze, there are myriad local names, including williwaw (Alaska), mistral (western Mediterranean), pampero (Argentina) and bora (eastern Med).

You've found your name.

The Coast Guard has a site that allows one to search for federally documented vessels by name. I just searched, and found one Katabatic, recently documented. Just last year there were none, but there's room for another.
"Never mind the mistral, we're playing!"

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Here's a subject - L. Francis Herreshoff wrote an entire essay on "Naming the Yacht", see his wonderful  Reader. I can't go so far, but there are some rules.

1.   Some names are taken or retired. You think you can call your little sloop "Running Tide", or "Shenandoah", or "Ticonderoga"? Sorry.

2. You must not name your boat after how you earn your living, as in "Decision" for a lawyer, or "Net Gain" for a financier. No matter how subtle, how clever, it's bound to be a bit tacky.

3.   If possible pick a name that works well on the radio.  There's a boat down Cape Cod way, I think a charter fishing boat, called "Dazed and Confused", and we hear them on the VHF a lot. Speaking as a former watchstander in a Coast Guard rescue coordinations center, that's a terrible and, well, confusing name to be broadcasting. And there's a pretty Pilot 35 in Edgartown called "It Never Entered My Mind". Obviously.

4. If you don't like the name of a boat you have bought, change it. But if you think you might like the name, keep it for a while and see if it grows on you.  Your boat may have made friends in many ports and if you change the name they won't know the boat.

An acquaintance breeds draft horses. He sometimes waits as long as a year to finally name a foal. When I bought Journeyman she was "Vagrant", a name which in years gone by no doubt had a carefree, Gypsy air. I turned over various names in my mind - McWhirr, after Conrad's skipper of the Nan-Shee, was one - but none seemed right. Journeyman, which came to me several months after we took delivery, was an instant fit.

In tomorrow's post I will bestow upon the nautical world a great name for a certain type of yacht, interesting, cadenced,  maritime, and so far as I know used little or not at all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Heavy Weather Sailing"

I lately bought this great book by C. Adlard Coles, the British sailor who went on to found a nautical publishing house, still a fine source of nautical titles. Coles wrote Heavy Weather Sailing in 1967 and it is in its 6th edition, now with material from other authors and editing by Peter Bruce. I paid $12.00 for a 1969 first U.S. printing, not rare, just a bit less than the book's $12.50 price in 1969.

Cole's picture is below. They don't make them like that anymore.

Many books about heavy weather sailing are fun to read but reveal a dearth of experience on the author's part and bear little relevance to the way we really sail. Not so Heavy Weather Sailing. Distinguishing the book is that each chapter is about a cruise or race in which Coles got into heavy weather, concluding with the lessons learned. Chapter titles include "North Sea Gale", "Pooped for the First Time", "Three More Gales", "Bermuda Race Gale" and so on. And by "heavy weather" Coles generally means the 25 to 50 knot blows that a yachtsman may actually encounter, not the survival storms which we will probably never run into. Each chapter ends with conclusions, and the book is full of useful information about actually handling and sailing a boat in strong winds. There is material on survival storms as well, but none of it first hand.



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bedding: Tag Ends

Couple things I forgot to mention on this topic. First, a great timesaver in removing fittings is a Vise Grips pliers. Just lock the Vise Grips on the nut of the fastener, go on deck, and turn the other end. No need to have a helper below deck.

Second, a battery powered drill with a chuck that can accept your deep sockets will speed the work.

Here's the controversy referred to in my last post. Some folks think the method I described provides insufficient mechanical contact between deck and fitting - by reason of the interposed thickish rubbery compound - resulting in strain on the fastenings. Maybe so, and maybe that concern is heightened when bedding a turning block on an eighty foot maxi, as compared with the comparable job on my little crab crusher. It would take lab testing to find out.

In any case an alternative exists, which is to touch each fastener hole with a countersink such as is pictured
here. The idea is to create a little space around each fastener from which the compound cannot be squeezed out as the fastener is tightened down, see my crude rendering below. In practice, one simply spreads a thinnish layer of compound where the fitting will go, making sure to get a bit on each countersunk hole, and then one tightens down the fitting, all in one go. No need wait until the compound has cured before tightening down.

Does this alternative works as well as my recommended technique? My guess is not, because there is a dearth of thick rubbery adhesive compound between green water and the cozy accomodation of your yacht. But it may work well enough, and it is undoubtedly efficient. I actually have come to touch the countersink to most holes, even when using the "traditional" technique.


Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Bed, the last

Now all the hardware is up and the deck is repaired and you've got your new fasteners ready to go. Next step is to roughen up the base of the hardware and the corresponding deck surface, using 120 grit sandpaper. You may want to tape off the deck around stanchion bases etc. so you don't sand where you don't want to. Before applying bedding compound I wipe the two surfaces with acetone, to really make sure the surfaces are clean of all wax and oil and sanding dust. Remember, the concept is to allow the compound, which cures to a rubbery consistency, to form a good bond with both the fitting and the deck, so if the fitting shifts a bit under load the bond stays intact.

It is time to apply the bedding compound, but which one? I used 3M 4200, which is recommended for the purpose and performs well. There are other choices, including one or more of the Sikaflex products. I would avoid any oil based bedding compound, such as Dolphinite, unless - perhaps - you are bedding to a wood deck. (Here's a useful discussion.) The oil based products will degrade from the edge in and the result will be failure in five years instead of ten or more. I would also avoid 3M 5200, which is a very powerful, essentially permanent adhesive, not really a bedding compound at all.

Put a 1/16 to 1/8 inch (2 mm) layer of compound on the underside of your stanchion base or other hardware. Do the same to the taped off deck. Press the fitting to the deck and insert the fasteners, placing a little gob of compound under the head of each fastener before you press it down. Compound will of course exude from the work and you need to clean that up before it cures, a good reason for taping.

 Importantly, don't tighten the bolts or screws yet - just press the hardware down firmly but not too firmly. You want to leave a layer of compound under the fitting, a layer perhaps 1/16 inch (2 - 3 mm) or so, and if you press too hard you'll squeeze out all the compound.

Then you will wait until the compound has cured, and only then will you tighten it down. The result will be a fitting that can withstand even a hard direct hose spray, or green water, without leaking a drop.

Suppose your fitting has bolt heads that are exposed to weather, as do many stanchions. You have placed a bit of compound under each bolt head and pressed it down. However, if you let the bolt head rotate while you tighten the nut below deck, the bond under the bolt head will fail and you may have a leak around the fastener. To prevent this have a helper hold the bolt head perfectly in place above deck, using a wrench, while you tighten the bolt from below.

Last year a production boat raced the TransPac right out of the box. Every deck fitting leaked and the race was a misery. The technique I've described here is not well suited to production, because each fitting has to be attended to twice several days apart. I believe many boat builders don't use it, for that reason. Instead, they lay down some compound, then tighten the fitting down hard, leaving too little compound to form a good seal.

There is, actually, a touch of controversy about this technique. In tomorrow's post I'll explain the controversy, I'll describe an alternative, and I'll describe how one can incorporate the alternative into the above-described technique for an even better job.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Argo Merchant: Now It Can Be Told

On December 15, 1976, the tanker Argo Merchant grounded on Fishing Rip, 25 miles southeast of Nantucket. She was loaded with 183,000 barrels (7.7 million gallons, or 24,000 tons) of home heating oil and similar products. stranding was on sand and despite ten foot seas the ship stayed largely intact. By dawn the next day six big tugs were on scene, with combined horsepower much greater than that of the tanker. The tanker had grounded at the bow, and the entire ship swung with each change of the tide. The prospects were excellent, in short, for getting her off and avoiding calamity.

There was one problem: getting the ship off would require pumping 800 tons of the cargo into the sea, to lighten the part of the ship most heavily aground. ("Lightering", or pumping the oil into a barge or ship, was not possible due to shoal water and inadequate equipment.) A friend of mine, who commanded the tugs on scene, told me the request was made to the Coast Guard for permission to jettison the oil, no one would give the authority, and despite the best efforts of the salvors the ship stayed stuck. On December 21 she broke apart in heavy seas and the entire cargo was lost.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Forty Fathom Bank

A week or so ago I nominated Conrad's Typhoon as the best nautical novella or short story. With a work of such stature one might think there would be no competition, but in fact I seriously considered naming instead Les Galloway's masterpiece The Forty Fathom Bank.

Self-published in 1985, and in 1994 - four years after the author's death - picked up by Chronicle Books, The Forty Fathom Bank is a haunting story of the greed and evil which may lurk in us all. Like Conrad, Galloway was a merchant seaman and the book is authentic in its nautical detail, but that's the least of this troubling tale. I am not going to give a synopsis (here's one) but I will offer the book's preface, a quote from Socrates:

And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pilot Chart

A friend of mine has invited me to cross the Atlantic on his forty foot sloop! At least, I think he has; he put the word out to a number of his friends, and I immediately threw my hat in the ring, so I hope to go along. The crossing is in June.

There are two legs, and I can do but one of them: Portland to the Azores; or the Azores to Gibraltar. Which one should I do, if given the choice? For me, the prevalence of good sailing outweighs all else, so of course I consulted the pilot chart for June North Atlantic.

In the early to mid nineteenth century, U.S. Navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury distributed special logbooks to ship captains and asked them to record wind speed, direction, calm, ice pack, icebergs, fog and similar data. Maury created charts depicting this data in graphical form, and the pilot chart was born. The data continue to be collected, and one authority states that the April North Atlantic pilot chart depicts data drawn from more than four million observations. pilot chart is divided into rectangles of 5 degrees. Each rectangle contains a wind rose. The percentage of time the wind blows from a certain direction is indicated by the length of the arrows. The arrows fly with the wind, with the fletching up wind, as it were. When the wind is so often from one direction that the arrow would be quite long, the percentage may be given by number; in this example 40% of the time the winds are due north. The number of feathers indicate the average force of that wind by the Beaufort scale, so that in this example 40% of the time the wind is due north and the average north wind blows at force 7, or about thirty knots. The number in the circle indicates percent of calm, here 3%

Pilot charts also indicate the limit of pack ice, prevalence of bergs, percentage of fogs and gales, ship routes, ocean currents, typical tracks of rotating storms, and other information useful to anyone planning a voyage. God bless Matthew Maury!

Back to my dilemma: Portland to the Azores, or Azores to Gib? The June North Atlantic pilot chart (it's an 11 mb PDF file) shows that most of the time the winds are south to west about force four (about 15 knots). From the Azores to Gibraltar, on the other hand, winds are on the bow much of the time, so I'll ask to do the first leg.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to Bed, the Second

Now that the hardware is up, look closely at the deck around the fittings. This is the time to repair any big dings or cracks in the gelcoat. If the crack or ding is under the fitting, no need to match gelcoat - just smooth the area with thickened epoxy. If the drilled holes in the deck are ovalled or otherwise suspect, you may want to fill the holes with epoxy and redrill them. To do this, put a piece of masking tape across the hole on the deckhead or underside of the deck. In case that leaks, put some newpaper under the hole. Then inject epoxy into the hole, using the syringe sold by West System dealers. Simply dripping the epoxy into the holes typically leaves voids and is ineffective. The syringes are cheap and reuseable.

Inspect the hardware too. Stainless steel generally does not fail without first showing signs of failure, including incipient cracks.

The stemhead fitting on Journeyman, which came off as part of this project, is stainless steel and runs about ten inches down the stem and ten inches aft of the stem along the centerline. The forestay attaches to this fitting, as does the jib tack, so you can bet it takes some strain. Journeyman is thirty-eight years old, and that fitting might well be a candidate for failure.

After removing the fitting, I carefully polished it with Bon Ami, removing every trace of oil, wax, paint and corrosion. After washing it to get the scouring powder off, I wiped the fitting down with ordinary light oil, "3 in 1" type. I then wiped the fitting with a dry paper towel to remove most of the oil, and I dusted it liberally with colored chalk dust, the type used in chalk lines. (Every hardware store carries it.) I wiped off the chalk, then inspected the entire fitting with great care, using a magnifying glass.

I was searching for tiny hairline cracks, made visible only by reason of the chalk sticking to the residual oil remaining in any cracks. This is a cheap but pretty effective form of non-destructive testing, a variation of dye penetrant inspection, one you can do at home. It's a good trick to know.

Continued tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Bed

Summer before last, I was beating in a strong breeze when a puff drove the rail under. I looked down the companion and saw water pretty well pouring in at the chainplates. Guess I put off rebedding long enough.

In two or three posts I'll explain how I undertook the job of rebedding most of Journeyman's deck hardware. It was a hard job, but it's paid off with a dry boat, and it should last five, maybe ten years.

Deck hardware on a boat shifts under strain, no matter how tightly fastened. The theory behind bedding with modern compounds, such as the 3M 4200 which I used and recommend, is to ensure that this highly adhesive, flexible material can adhere well both to the underside of the cleat, stanchion base or other hardware, and to the deck. Thus when the fitting shifts the cured compound shifts as well, keeping the deck watertight. Therefore, as in using any adhesive the surfaces have to be clean, oil and wax free, and roughened up.

I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing I did was remove all the stanchions, the bow and stern pulpits, and the chainplates. Quite useful in this laborious task were a short throw socket wrench, crescent wrenches and a Dremel tool with plenty of cut off wheels. You will be working at all angles, trying to get the nuts off the underside of these fittings. You want a nice, smooth short throw wrench with ample pawling, the kind sold in auto parts stores, so when you can turn the wrench just 20 degrees or so you are still getting something on the nut.

You want deep sockets for the wrench. These sockets are deep enough to reach the nut even when the bolt is pretty long.

I have seen ratcheting crescent wrenches, and were I doing this project again I'd get one or two in the sizes I most needed.

A Dremel Tool is an irreplaceable tool in so many applications, including in this project. I used one with a cut off wheel to cut off bolts just above the nut, when the bolt ended in an interference making getting the nut off impossible, as happens. This technique saves anguish and rending of garments. You can even use a cut off wheel to split a frozen nut. Use safety glasses - the cut off wheels sometimes go to pieces.

Once I had the nuts off the fittings came up easily, except for the chainplates. These were well and truly stuck. I tried leverage of various sorts, and I finally put an auto jack on the chainplates and pulled them up.

Once the fittings are up you have to decide whether or not to reuse the bolts. I generally didn't. Mine were tired and sometimes a little bent, and with all the time and effort it seemed a poor economy not to replace the fasteners.

(To be continued.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Constrictor Hitch

Among the most useful knots is the constrictor hitch. It acts like a clove hitch, but it locks down upon itself. You can use it as a quick whipping, to start a lashing, to secure a sack, and for jury rigging a topping lift to a spinnaker pole. It's handy in emergencies. It can be easily tied on the bight, or by passing an end. Worth knowing, although it takes a bit of time to learn when tied from the end. It is more easily tied on the bight.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Schooner towing house

In the 1950's Joey Smallwood, premier of Newfoundland, Canada, decided to close 250 of the tiny "outports", coastal villages with small populations and few services. The people were relocated to the towns and cities, and some folks brought their homes with them - or tried to.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bowditch Redux

Owen Chase, first mate of the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 sank after being rammed by an enraged sperm whale, wrote an account of shipwreck, murder by lot and cannibalism of the victim which probably inspired Melville's Moby Dick. The Essex sank in minutes, and:

"My companions had not saved a single article but what they had on their backs but to me it was a source of infinite satisfaction, if any could be gathered from the horrors of our gloomy situation, that we had been fortunate enough to have preserved our compasses, Navigators and quadrant. After the first shock of my feelings was over, I enthusiastically contemplated them as the probable instruments of our salvation; without them all would have been dark and hopeless." items to have in your whaleboat, especially since the Bowditch of that era included a table listing hundreds of remote oceanic islands by latitude and longitude.

Captain Chase. He was twenty-two when the Essex went down.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Nathaniel Bowditch, 1773 - 1838, was a mathematical prodigy born in Salem, Massachusetts, son of a shipmaster. As a teenage apprentice to a chandler, his brilliance and scholarship were so pronounced as to attract the attention of Harvard's scholars. He is said to have studied twelve languages, the better to read original texts, and at age sixteen he translated Newton's Principia from the Latin. By age twenty he may have been the outstanding mathematician of the country.

Given his prowess, residence in a great seaport, and background, he turned to navigation. Although by this time Mr. Harrison's chronometer had solved the longitude problem, those clocks were generally too expensive for most ships and cumbersome and very complex methods of determining longitude (by "lunar distance") remained in wide use.  In fact, Christopher Columbus's method of latitude sailing (sailing first to the latitude of the destination and remaining on that latitude to arrival, using noon sights) remained common technique.

Bowditch determined to change all that, developing a simplified method of finding longitude. The forward to my 1966 edition of his American Practical Navigator, a book known across the globe as simply "Bowditch", states: "His simplified methods, easily grasped by the intelligent seaman willing to learn, paved the way for yankee supremacy of the seas during the clipper ship era."

The book was a commercial success, has emerged in more than seventy-five editions to date, a million copies printed, and it remains in print. The latest edition has an interactive CD. (I have a 1936 and a 1966 edition. An 1807 second edition is listed on ABE Books for $4,500.00. I want it.)

Bowditch went on to have a long, prosperous and happy life, with many, many honors. On his 1838 death the Salem Marine Society wrote:

"In his death a public, a national, a human benefactor has departed. Not this community, nor our country only, but the whole world, has reason to do honor to his memory. When the voice of Eulogy shall be still, when the tear of Sorrow shall cease to flow, no monument will be needed to keep alive his memory among men; but as long as ships shall sail, the needle point to the north, and the stars go through their wonted courses in the heavens, the name of Dr. Bowditch will be revered as of one who helped his fellow-men in time of need, who was and is a guide to them over the pathless ocean, and of one who forwarded the great interests of mankind."

There is, if possible, an even larger context in which to view Bowditch. By teaching the cook and the boatswain to navigate, he removed the great mystery from celestial navigation, and as always when important knowledge is democratized, there was a profound and beneficial social effect.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Latitude for the Common Man

A post or two ago I wrote "The determination of latitude is simple; in less than an hour anyone can be taught how to use a sextant to measure the sun's height above the horizon in degrees at "high noon" (local apparent noon), and how to correct that "altitude" for time of year (declination), height of eye, refraction, and error of sextant. The result of this "noon sight" is latitude, accurate to a mile or so if the sextant work is good, and no clock needed."

Here goes. Using a table in your Nautical Almanac, look up the approximate time local noon will occur at roughly your longitude on your date. A few minutes before that time, take your sextant, put the appropriate sun shade on, and make yourself comfortable on the bridge wing or wedge yourself into the companionway of your yacht. Sight the sun through your sextant. The sextant shows you two superimposed images: one of the horizon, and one of the sun or other body. Move the sextant arm until the sun is brought down to the horizon. Rock the sextant back and forth slightly, and the sun will describe an arc that should just touch the horizon. You will observe the sun to climb, and you will adjust the sextant accordingly, to keep the sun just kissing the horizon in its arc. In a short while the sun will pause, and then begin to come down; local apparent noon has occurred. Read and record the highest altitude the sun achieved.

Now correct your sextant reading for instrument error, height of your eye ("dip"), refraction, and semi-diameter of the sun (16 minutes, usually, and always added). Instrument error is read from a table in the sextant case. Dip and refraction are from simple tables in the Nautical Almanac. Each is either added to or subtracted from your sextant reading, as indicated. The corrected result of your sextant reading is the sun's observed altitude, or "Ho".

Subtract the Ho from 90 degrees to get the "zenith distance."

Again using the Almanac, look up the sun's declination for that date. Declination is the sun's "latitude" on the celestial sphere. For example, you learned in fifth grade that on the winter solstice the declination is 23.5 degrees south, and that on the equinoxes, it is zero degrees, or right over the equator. But you don't really have to know this to reduce a noon sight: you just have to know how to look up declination for a given date.

Add the declination to your zenith distance, if the delination is the same name as your latitude. That is, if you are in the northern hemisphere, and declination is north, add the zenith distance and the declination. If you are in the northern hemisphere and the declination is south, subtract the declination from your zenith distance.

The result is your latitude!

An example. Suppose you are eight days out from Boston headed for Ireland. You consult your Almanac, determine the approximate time of local noon for your date and approximate longitude, take a good noon sight, and correct it for dip, index error, refraction and semi-diameter of the sun. The result - 47.23 degrees in this example - is your Ho. Then:

               90.00 degrees
minus       47.23 degrees Ho
Result:      43.37 degrees Zenith distance

You consult the Almanac again, and find that for the date the sun's declination is 06.04 degrees north. So:
               43.37 Zenith distance
plus          06.04 declination

Result:     49.41 north latitude.

It is just that simple. Sights other than the noon sight are harder, but it's all just adding, subtracting and tables, and, for other than noon sights and Polaris, time. And it is way, way cool.

Tomorrow's post is about a great, unsung American, the man who taught the cook and the boatswain how to navigate by the stars.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Knut Haughland, last surviving member of the Kon-Tiki expedition, died on Christmas day. In anyone else's life the 1947 expedition - six men, a large balsa log raft, Callao, Peru to the Marquesas in 101 days - would have been the greatest chapter. But Haughland was also a storied commando in the Norwegian resistance, with many violent exploits and escapes. On one occasion the Gestapo trapped him in a maternity hospital where he had installed a secret radio. He shot his way out.
Haughland on left, with Bengt Danielsson.

The Kon-Tiki expedition, organized by Thor Heyerdahl, sought to prove that the South Pacific could have been populated by prehistoric migrations from South America. Averaging 47 miles a day, the six men drifted and sailed in the Equatorial Current and finally reached land over a thundering reef in the Marquesas. They had traveled 4300 nautical miles all in pretty fair order, considering. Heyerdahl made the expedition famous in his book by the same name.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How to Tell Time

When accurate clocks became available to the navigator, it became essential to determine and track the error of the individual chronometer, so shipboard time could better be determined. Error consists not merely of how fast or slow the timepiece is relative to Greenwich Mean Time, but also of the rate of error, the rate at which the error is increasing or decreasing. By knowing both the error at a known date, and the rate of error, an accurate estimation of the precise time can be made some weeks or months after the last occasion on which the chronometer's time could be compared with actual time. (Actual time was, and is, itself determined by observing the transit of an astronomical body with the observer's meridian, using a special instrument and perhaps performed at a naval observatory.) In the afloat services, the chronometer is never reset except by a shop ashore, when the chronometer is exchanged for servicing. Rather, chronometer time is corrected, when the sight reduction (translation of sextant sight to line of position) is performed, by reference to the chronometer's known error and known rate of error.

The ship's chronometer is itself set to Greenwich Mean Time, that being the time used for all celestial navigation. G.M.T. has apparently been replaced, in one of those highly suspicious modern developments, by "Coordinated Universal Time", which seems to be the same as G.M.T.
Today, while chronometers are still carried, precise time is determined by listening to a "time tick", broadcast by the U.S. Navy from Fort Collins, Colorado on WWV. The time tick is broadcast on 2.5 megahertz, 5 mHz, 10, mHz, 15 mHz, 20 mHz and 25 mHz, the lower frequency broadcasts generally being better received during daylight, the higher at night. (You can hear a sample of the time tick on the WWV web site.) In practice, the navigator sets a stop watch to the time tick, and the stop watch is then used to determine the precise time of each observation.

Not so long ago every major port in the world signaled noon with a "time ball", hoisted on a mast at the port office. At five minutes to noon, the ball was hoisted to half-staff. At one minute to noon, the ball was hoisted to the masthead, and at the instant of noon the ball dropped, perhaps accompanied by a gun. I last saw a time ball in St. George's Bermuda two years ago, and I'm not sure it's still in use - I hope it is.

6-5-4-3-2-1 --- Happy New Year!!!!!!!!
If all this business about time balls seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you have seen a rather elaborate example on New Year's eve. How many people watching that celebration have any clue that they are seeing an important nautical tradition, one that once represented a triumph of technology?

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