Friday, February 26, 2010

Key West 1981

In January 1981 I was keeping a big yawl on the Miami River. My college sailing buddy Leo called me and said he had a berth for me on a brand-new J/30, for the Ft. Lauderdale - Key West race. I joined him and we rigged the boat and raced hard, and we kicked ass. All that frozen night we hung so close to the reef - avoiding the Gulf Stream's 4 knots - we saw breakers to starboard. We were in Class D, and we beat all of our class, all of Class C, and most of B.

Arriving in Key West's Truman Annex, we were given pride of place in the old submarine berths. The Annex gates were open to downtown, the rum tents were free and a huge crowd, thousands, soon formed. (Note the guy in the spreaders.)

The scene was ripe for a wet T shirt contest and we dispatched the crew to roam the crowd for contestants. They brought back a dozen perfectly suitable and perfectly willing young women. The contest occured on the deck of our boat and the locker room was below. It was a time.

In due course a winner was crowned, and she chose to show the crowd her unadorned glory. You should have been there.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bookshelf (cont'd)

Back to the bookcase . . . On the left, Clipper Ships and their Makers, by Alexander Laing.This book is a wonderful survey of the clipper ships, the first ships to log 400 nautical miles in 24 hours. (The record is Champion of the Sea's 465 miles noon to noon, a record which no sailing ship bested until the last decade or two, and that a purpose-built yacht.) The book is to a great extent the story of Captain Nat Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, the genius designer. His Great Republic was, at 4,555 gross tons, the largest wooden sailing ship that ever was built or ever will be built.

Then, Salamina by the artist/author Rockwell Kent. This 1935 book is a first edition and a book of some modest value. It is elegantly illustrated, of course, and a pretty good tale of Greenland voyaging.

Surely most of us keep a copy of Knight's Modern Seamanship close at hand. For ship handling, working with tugs, salvage, mooring to an ice shelf, and helicopter operations, there are few better resources. First published in 1901, my 1972 edition is the sixteenth.

Of Heavy Weather Sailing I have previously written.

In 1934 my father was in the 8th grade at the Newman School, Lakewood, New Jersey. He was given this copy of Moby Dick as a prize for "Highest General Average." Years and years later, he had it rebound and gave the book to me. It too is illustrated by Rockwell Kent.

Next is a compendium of Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World and Voyage of the Liberdade, London, published by Rupert Davis in 1948, with an introduction by Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame! The author dedicated Sailing Alone Around the World thus: "TO THE ONE WHO SAID 'THE SPRAY WILL COME BACK.'" Amen.

A Sea of Words is a "lexicon and companion for Patrick O'Brien's seafaring tales." I have not used it much.

Finally, Dutton's Navigation and Piloting, a 1969 edition. The book is the definitive treatise on those subjects, and I believe is still the text at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Nylock Danger

Nylock nuts, or aircraft nuts, have a Nylon insert in them so they don't loosen. They are useful but not infallible.

A friend of mine was sailing to Bermuda when, after five days on the starboard tack, his windward upper shroud came adrift. He made it to Bermuda but he had to carry shortened sail.

The hounds - upper terminus - of his shrouds were at stainless steel tangs, as is typical. The tangs on both sides of the mast (port and starboard shrouds) were secured with a single big bolt passing through the mast, good and strong. But the bolt was secured with an Nylock nut and in due course the nut was able to work loose.

Better the bolt had been drilled with a 3/64 (1.5 mm) hole, so a cotter pin could have backed up the Nylock.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vineyard Boats

There are two of these long rowing boats in Vineyard Haven, moored to buoys on outhauls off the beach. I think they race each other with crews of five or six.
This is the great topsail schooner Shenandoah, built in the 1960's and used to carry passengers on week-long cruises. She has her masts and bowsprit out.
Soon I will liquidate my assets and buy this tiny freighter and carry cargoes wherever they take me. I'll outfit the wheelhouse and accomodation just so and it will be a wonderful life.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In a Flowerpot

Edgartown, at the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard, was the home of many successful shipowners and ship captains. Their grand houses, aligned not to the street but to the view of the outer harbor, line North Water Street.

Captain Thomas Milton brought this tree (Sophora Japonica) back from Japan in 1837, as a seedling!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Old Boats

This is the 55 foot (15 meter) Sparkman & Stephens yawl Kestrel, once a famous ocean racer, built about 1950. I saw her on the ways at Martha's Vineyard Shipyard and pulled over for the picture. I stopped in the yard office to ask about her and immediately got the close attention of a yacht broker. My distinct impression is that no reasonable offer would be refused.

What happens to old yachts? The wooden ones do better than glass boats. Not every wooden boat can end up in the collection of Mystic Seaport, but is it so bad to end one's days as a rotting planter, or in a decaying cradle in a grassy boat yard, soon to return to the soil from whence one came?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Woods Hole

The ferries for Martha's Vineyard depart from Woods Hole. Wood's Hole connects Buzzard's Bay and Vineyard Sound, and a ferry captain told me he has seen eleven knots of current in the strait! I take Journeyman through Woods Hole from time to time and I am always very careful. It is the kind of passage where everything can be going just fine and then a little engine trouble or an awkward crossing happens and suddenly you are in real trouble. Lots of wrecks and collisions in Woods Hole.

Woods Hole is one of the world's great centers of oceanographic research. It is home to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the Bigelow Laboratory, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Sea Education Association (R/V Westward and R/V Cramer), and Coast Guard Group Woods Hole, a major base. It's a salty place.

The town is beautiful and full of wonderful nautical details.

I love this sundial on the waterfront, complete with a correcting table. (I tried it, and it is accurate.)

I also saw the most wonderful houseboat. Who wouldn't want to live here?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

To The Vineyard

Apologies for missing today's post . . . Tomorrow I am headed to Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts and a center of wooden boat building. If you are a regular reader of this site, you know that I have spent many happy days there, fishing and boating and growing up. I promise some good posts showing the winter boat scene on the Vineyard, boats a-building, and more - stay tuned.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Best Knife

When I was a teenager I taught sailing, for several years for Offshore Sailing School, and then on my own using my father's Soling. One of my students came to be Jos, Joslin I think, whose last name I can't recall. He and I sailed a lot together and his preference was for long sails, as in Edgartown to Menemsha, say 30 miles. Jos was much older than me, perhaps as old as thirty, or even thirty-five! He smoked cigarettes and always brought a thermos of European black coffee, the latter exotic then, and I enjoyed both on those long, long sails.

Jos was an artist in metal. He cast abstract sculptures and lived in a cottage supplied by his patron, a wealthy New York City woman with a waterfront place up island. Jos did know metal and at the end of that summer he presented me with a knife he had made. He bought the Morseth blade, and explained to me that it is layered so that the backbone of the knife is very strong and tough while the edge is made to stay sharp. Perhaps you can see the layers in this photo. He made all the rest of the knife, including the Micarta handle, and he engraved a sentiment on the end of the handle. I keep this knife in the pocket of my car door.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Knife redux

Here are a few of the other knives that are part of my life. To the right is a Swedish knife I keep in a sheath screwed to the bottom of the caddy just inside Journeyman's companionway. It snaps into the sheath, very secure, and is really sharp. Its serrated edge will cut even heavy, wet rope, and it handles limes with aplomb.

The next is a Laguiole knife from southern France, the gift of my father. The area around Thiers is famous for these knives and has been for centuries. The knife has a highly polished long thin blade, horn grips with brass inlay, and intricate figuring, including the emblematic bee. The sheath is tanned cowhide, beautifully sewn. I keep this knife at work and use it to cut oranges at lunch.

Doesn't every boat have a rough knife that can be, for example, heated at the stove and used to seal rope ends?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


A friend's grandfather used to tell him, as a boy, "A sailor without a knife is like a whore without a" you know what. Profane words indeed to a nine year old lad, but true.

I like knives - have generally carried one and almost always have one on my belt when under way. I don't think much of carrying a knife in one's pocket - how quickly can you get at it in an emergency? And what if you are wearing foul weather gear? When it is blowing it is particularly important to have a knife at hand, and good luck to you if your knife is in your pocket under your foul weather pants.

On the right is my father's knife. He doesn't sail much anymore and he gave it to me. I cleaned it and oiled it and put a sharp edge on it but I don't carry it, just keep it in my gear box on Journeyman, a talisman.

The knife is traditional as of say thirty years ago. It has the peculiar blade shape of an old fashioned rigging knife, a shape I believe was intended to cut rope with a mallet rap on the back of the blade. It has a marlinspike, which can be pretty handy, and the oval cut item is a shackle wrench. My father used to keep his knife on a lanyard attached to his belt loop, and he and I argued about whether that was a proper way to keep a knife, for I felt it hindered his ability to reach way out to make a cut, or to hand the knife to a man who needs one right now. Don't think we ever settled that one, or a good many others besides.

My last couple knives have been Gerbers with a three inch blade, locking. The knife costs less than lunch, beer and a tip, it takes and keeps a good edge and the blade is sturdy enough to take some abuse. The sheath is a swiss army knife sheath with the flap cut off - you can see where the snap closure was riveted (I drilled out the snap). I used to buy the sheaths at LL Bean but Bean may not carry them anymore - I bought the last one at Freeport Knife.

After I have cut off the flap I soak the sheath in water overnight. Then I put the knife in and wrap the sheath in sail twine to really bind it. When a few days later the sheath is dry, the knife has molded itself into the sheath. The knife won't come out if you are underwater or upside down but it is right to hand in an emergency, without even a flap to unsnap. That's my kind of knife.

The sail twine is handy for keeping a sail needle or two, see detail.

Last year my nephew spent a semester on the Cory Cramer, a school ship. When my sister consulted me on his gear list she passed over the knife, saying "he has a swiss army knife."

Those are very good knives in their way but no nephew of mine is going to sea with one. I bought a Gerber and the sheath, brought the blade to a razor with my Washita stone, made up the sheath as described, wrapped it in a kerchief and mailed it to the boy. Sweet! I hope it didn't get seized at transport security on his flight home.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Anchoring to Trees

Hal Roth's great book Two Against Cape Horn describes anchoring in far southern Chile, "where all vessels - unless they are large enough to keep up steam and have crew to stand anchor watches - take lines ashore. Unfortunately, in the beginning you doubt the necessity of tying ashore. My anchors are better. My anchoring techniques are good enough. My judgment is adequate. Lines ashore? Mooring to trees? Humbug!" Experience shows him, however.

Roth's technique was to take two lines ashore, say at a 90 or 120 degree angle from each other, and secure them to boulders or trees or great logs, or to anchors jammed in rocks. Then he carried out a third anchor line to a heavy kedge. "If all this sounds complicated, it is; but such a scheme is the only way of survival when the hurricane winds begin to blow. And exactly half the time the winds start at night which means you are quite helpless in the pitch black because you can't see anything . . . With a couple of lines to the shore and a little thought about protecting the rope from chafe, however, your vessel can withstand any strength of wind. The noise may be wearisome and the heeling from the gusts may upset your nerves a little, but you and your vessel will be safe."

I cruised once along the north shore of Lake Superior, for three weeks. We often anchored in tiny coves with no swinging room, to three lines taken ashore. It was very secure!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fjord Anchoring

In my last Bookshelf post I described a two volume cruising guide to Newfoundland and Labrador. I have never cruised those waters but I know anchoring conditions are often very difficult and williwaws or other high winds are prevalent. The guide contains a short piece by Stephen P. Loutrel (Lexington, Massachusetts) offering a method for anchoring his 40 foot (12 meter) Concordia Yawl (displacement 16,000 pounds, 7,000 kg) in fjords, where only a hundred feet from shore one is already in very deep water. As Mr. Loutrel's sketch shows, an anchor is taken ashore and set in the mud flats that may be seen even in steep fjords. A heavy anchor on heavy chain is set offshore, and the slope of the bottom gives this anchor the equivalent of excellent scope. Both rodes are taken to a swivel, see the sketches below. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

If there are no flats, one can wrap a boulder in chain and secure to that. Where the inshore rode crosses boulders and rocks, it may be necessary to buoy the line to prevent it from getting caught under submerged rocks. It is important not to set the rodes too tight, or in a strong cross wind the loads could become quite high.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Best Novel of the Sea

Moby Dick? The O'Brien series, which ought rightly be considered one huge novel? Swallows and Amazons? No. The first is wonderful but .  . . dated. The second is too fresh. The third is for kids, and is probably the best sea story for children.

My money is on C.S. Forester's The Good Shepard. Forester wrote not only the Hornblower books but also the wonderful The African Queen. The Good Shepard is his most nuanced book, beautifully told but with a degree of character development unmatched in his other works.

The protagonist is George Krause, the year 1942, the setting the winter North Atlantic. Captain George Krause U.S.N.,  is a midwesterner, career Navy, a devout Christian whose wife has left him. He has never seen action, yet by dint of seniority he commands the escort for a thirty-two ship convoy of merchant ships bound for England. He is captain of the destroyer Keeling, and under him are three or four British and Polish destroyers and corvettes whose skippers have seen three years of bitter war and who are understandably skeptical of the skills of the untested and much older Yank. A Nazi wolfpack descends, and over about forty-eight hours the battle rages, with only Krause's wits, intuition, training and guesswork between the submarines and the convoy's destruction. If you have read the Hornblower novels, you will be familiar with Krause's deep suspicion of his own skill, his loathing of any sense of self-pride or even self-satisfaction. The action is superb and unrelenting, told in real time. Read this book in a day or two, if you can, at the same pace as the action.

Here's an excerpt. Keeling and another destroyer have attacked a submarine and it has surfaced with damage, but hugs Dodge to prevent Keeling from getting a clear shot:

Keeling's turn to starboard presented her whole port side to Dodge and the sub. All five five-inch guns came training around as she turned, and at the same instant the sub with her wheel hard over and taken momentarily by surprise by Dodge's abrupt alteration of rudder diverged from her. Ten yards - twenty yards- fifty yards of clear water divided the two ships, and before the U-boat could turn back into the sheltering embrace of her enemy the five-inch opened, like a peel of thunder in the next room, shaking Keeling's hull as a fit of coughing will shake a man's body. The sea seemed suddenly to pile up around the gray U-boat, the splashes were so close and so continuous around her; with the square gray bridge only dimly to be seen in the heart of it like an object in a glass paperweight - and, in the heart of it too, over and over again, a momentary orange glare as a shell burst. Also in the heart of it showed momentarily a vivid red disk, just once. Through the noise of the gunfire and the vibration of the recoil Krause heard a rending crash and felt Keeling undergo a violent shock which made everyone on the bridge stagger; a shock wave like a sudden breath passed into and out of the pilothouse.

The last paragraph is just action, and the book is marked by its examination of the extraordinary Krause, as portrayed in desperate battle. It is a remarkable novel of the sea.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bookshelf (Continued)


Back to the bookcase. On the left, a nice copy of The Rover by Conrad, first U.S. edition, Doubleday 1925. Doubleday put out a lovely edition of Conrad in those years, and they are still available at a pretty good price, although I don't see them in the used book stores as often as I used to.

The Salem Frigate by John Jennings, first edition 1946. I've never read it! Maybe now I will.

Then a paperback edition of Conrad's The Shadow-Line, which he published in 1917. The author's note, protesting that the book does not in fact bear supernatural elements, has a line I like: "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state." Amen, as it were.

A 1939 Little, Brown edition of C.S. Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower, with drawings by N.C. Wyeth. The volume contains three novels: Beat to Quarters; Ship of the Line; and Flying Colours. Forester has lately fallen into the shadow of the indisputably great Patrick O'Brien and his Jack Aubrey series, books I read and re-read, and own. But I loved Hornblower and a year or two ago I read many of them again. To my immense relief the books hold up. O'Brien's otherworldly erudition is absent, but the plot, writing, character development and nuance remain vibrant, and there is none other. I do not say Forester is the better, nor O'Brien, only that both are superb and unmatched except perhaps by the other.

Next, in two volumes: Cruising Directions - Newfoundland - With Some Material on the Labrador, published by the Boston Station of the Cruising Club of America. The books were the property of one of the finest cruising sailors I ever knew or expect to know, and were given to me by his widow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lifeline Project Part Two

The tools I used for my lifeline project were: Vise Grips locking pliers; socket wrench;  swaging tool; Dremel Tool and cut off wheels; safety glasses; and needle and sail palm.

First I made up four 30 foot lifelines, at home where I have a nice bench vise. I put a sleeve (ferrule) on the wire rope, placed a thimble in the vise, brought the wire rope around, and brought the wire rope through the sleeve again. I put the swaging tool on the sleeve, then tightened it down firmly on the tool, so it gripped but did not yet crush the sleeve. Then I pulled on the wire rope and worked the swaging tool so the wire rope was tight on the thimble, and tightened down on the swaging tool in earnest. 1 by 19 wire needs two sleeves. Using the Dremel Tool and cut off wheels, I trimmed the wire rope so just a sleeves' length of extra wire rope stood out from the sleeve I had just installed. (To avoid nicking the standing piece - the lifeline - I guarded it with a knife blade while I used the cut off wheel to trim.) I then tightened down on that second sleeve as well. The sleeves elongate a bit when crushed, so the sharp ends of the wire are covered, see above photo. Works great, and strong.

Holding the swaging tool tight against the thimble while simultaneously tightening down on the tool is difficult. A second pair of hands would make the job much faster and would improve the result. I used a socket wrench on the swaging tool. Perhaps a portable electric drill that could accept a socket wrench would speed the work.

The Dremel Tool and cut off wheels make a fast and precise cut of the wire. Using a hacksaw would be slow and sloppy, I believe. But you absolutely must use safety glasses, for the sharp little pieces of wire go a-flying.

An alternative to a swaging tool such as the one pictured is the large tool which looks like a bolt cutters. My tool cost $30.00; the big tools cost north of $150.00. Mine works well enough and it is small enough to stow aboard, should I wish to do so.

I then threaded the wire through each stanchion, measured a point about eight inches (20 cm) from the stern pulpit termination point, and installed another thimble. You see this thimble, a solid thimble, in the photo at right, with the Spectra lashing. I would have preferred to use solid thimbles at both ends of the lifeline, as more stable under load - I didn't have enough.

Having placed the thimble, I secured the Spectra to the shackle with a bowline, brought it through the thimble, repeated, heaved the lashing taut, and tied two half hitches around all the parts of the lashing. I then sewed the tails of the bowline and the hitches with Dacron sail twine, seized the shackle pins, and called the job good. Which it is!

Once you have rebuilt your stanchions and lifelines, you will never again happily suffer anyone pushing your boat off the pier using the lifeline or stanchion. That puts a terrible load on the gear - tell them to use the edge of the deck!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Most sailors are aware, or would be if ever they gave it a thought, that there exist private weather services which will tell you when to depart for a blue water voyage. During the voyage these services will, all for a hefty fee, advise you on your best route. Surprisingly, though, the best North Atlantic weather routing is provided free by . . . Herb.

Known to sailors on both sides of the pond as simply Herb, Herb Hilgenberg lives in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, a long way from tidewater. Since 1987, strictly as a hobby, Herb has provided daily ship routing and weather service ("South Bound II VAX 498 Net")  to anyone who calls in on 12.359 megahertz. He'll provide each yacht with a five day route forecast, and advice on avoiding bad weather, and he'll update this data each day. It's no regurgitation of officially produced material, either, but his learned interpretation of several numerical models, among other input. All he asks in return is a report of wind, sea state, barometric pressure, and other local observations. He provides this service like clockwork, and in doing so has won the great esteem of hundreds of sailors, as well as the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal  for his role in many mid-ocean rescues.

As Herb says on sign off: "Have a good watch."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lifeline Project

Journeyman's lifelines were vinyl or PVC covered, a type I do not trust. Nor does the American Boat and Yacht Council, which, in Standard H-41, warns that covered stainless steel lifelines risk hidden rust and, obviously, are incapable of thorough inspection. In my opinion covered lifelines are a hazard and no one wishing to remain aboard should have them.

My rebedding project included a thorough inspection and improvement of each stanchion and pulpit, so I was quite comfortable with that aspect of the system. For those interested, BoatUS, which publishes a surprisingly solid members magazine, wrote a good piece on stanchions and pulpits. Certainly replacing lifelines without inspecting stanchions and pulpits would be a questionable effort.

Locally fabricated and installed, lifelines would have cost me about $800.00. On the web I could have sourced them for about $400.00. I made my own for $130.00.

The new lifelines are 1 by 19 number 316 stainless steel wire rope, diameter 3/16 inch (4.76 mm). 1 by 19 wire rope is made up of 19 single strands, and it is commonly used for standing rigging (stays). 7 by 19 (pictured at right)  is made of 7 strands, with each strand made up of 19 wires; it is quite flexible and is used in halyards.

Lifelines are often made of 7 by 19 or 7 by 7 wire rope. The 1 by 19 I used is pretty stiff and thus is more difficult to work with than 7 by 19 or 7 by 7. The advantage of 1 by 19, pictured at left, is that it doesn't pinch arm and leg hairs nearly as much as 7 by 19 or 7 by 7, no small concern! The individual wire size being quite a bit larger than in 7 by 19, the 1 by 19 is also more resistant to chafe (which can occur where the lifelines pass through stanchions) and stranding.

I used the following materials in my project: 120 feet wire rope; 8 solid stainless thimbles; Nicropress sleeves or ferrules; and 20 feet 1/4 inch (6.3 mm) Spectra line.The solid stainless thimbles are important and a nice find. I sourced these items at Jamestown Distributors, a company I find helpful and knowledgeable and with good prices.

I did not reuse the turnbuckles from the prior lifelines. They were bent and old and I mistrusted them. Instead, I lashed the lifelines taut. When I called the rigger at Jamestown Distributors I told him I planned to lash the lifelines and he said "the way we used to do it."

Exactly. Further, lashed lifelines have several advantages over lifelines tightened by turnbuckles. They are much cheaper - I saved at least $150.00 by not using turnbuckles and terminal hardware. They are lighter, and the weight saved is relatively high. Finally, lashed lifelines can be slacked with the slash of a knife, useful if you are trying to get a man in the water over the lifelines and into the boat. Try quickly slacking a turnbuckled lifeline sometime.

Later this week I'll discuss my fabrication of the lifelines. They came out really well, and after two seasons I remain quite happy with them.
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