Monday, March 29, 2010

Memento Mori

This photo shows my father in about 1973, when he was 51 years old - my age. We were in St. John of the U.S. Virgin Islands for a family vacation, and we'd chartered a very good 20 foot sloop. In this picture we are sailing to Jost Van Dyke, reaching across the Trade Winds.

My father died last Wednesday. He had a wonderful life, and many memorable cruises and sails.  He was a great friend, a wise and good man, and many will miss him, including me.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Checklists are necessary for safe sailing. A good source of ideas for improving your boat and your preparation are checklists published for big races - just Google "race checklist sailing." I found this slightly off kilter but excellent checklist on the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club site. What is "scrutineering", anyway?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Important Stuff

Marine insurance is the oldest form of insurance on the planet. Lloyd's of London, where it all began, is still a major player. It began in a coffee house where shipowners gathered each day.

Used to be only a few companies wrote yacht policies, but now quite a few do. In my business I am surprised how often I now see yacht policies written by homeowner's insurers with an obvious lack of expertise, and I frequently run into adjusters for these companies who wouldn't know a seacock if it fell in their coffee. For my money, I would not buy a yacht policy except from a marine insurer.

Here's the problem. Yacht policies are subject to the same rules of construction as is the policy that insured the Exxon Valdez. That means the policy is strictly construed, word for word. There is, generally speaking, no attempt or ability on the part of courts to construe the policy in favor of the insured. This rule of construction is in contrast to the consumer-oriented construction courts give to all other consumer insurance policies (auto, home etc.)

To know what your coverage is, you really have to read the policy, and in particular the exclusions. (That's true of any policy - if you read nothing else of the policies you get in the mail read the declarations page and the exclusions.) For example, if your geographic limits exclusion covers your yacht only to 50 miles offshore, if you are outside that limit you have zero coverage. Same for layup dates and many other details. These new policies written by companies new to marine insurance sneak in exclusions and policy terms not seen in traditionally written policies and which tend to exclude many common casualties from coverage - beware.

Having said that, did you know that most policies will provide no coverage if your boat sinks due to a corroded seacock, or an old cracked engine hose that bursts, or other forms of "inherent vice"? It's true. Most policies contain the following language: "The perils generally excluded are wear and tear, gradual deterioration, or inherent vice, marine borers, vermin, loss caused by ice or freezing while afloat, loss to sails while racing, and petty theft or mysterious disappearance losses."

Beware. Ask your agent what these words mean and make sure you know the extent of your coverage. Some of these perils can be insured against, for additional premium.

St. Elmo's Fire

We were off Cape Hatteras in a thunderstorm, and I went forward to hand the main. As I looked up I saw that the mast and rigging were glowing blue. Cool, I thought, St. Elmo's Fire. The skipper thought otherwise. "Hurry up. And don't touch anything." Sound advice, if impractical.

Bowditch tells me "St. Elmo's Fire is a luminous discharge of electricity from pointed objects such as the masts and yardarms of ships, lightning rods, steeples, mountain tops, blades of grass, human hair [yikes!], etc. when there is a considerable difference in the electrical charge between the object and the air. . . . An object from which St. Elmo's fire emanates is in danger of being struck by lightning, since this type discharge may be the initial phase of the leader stroke."

I have seen it a few times on aircraft, where it is more interesting than worrisome, at least to me. On a boat it just scary.

I am not sure this photo is authentic - the lights looks like the glow of the landing light to me.I can find almost no photos of this phenomenon, but there is no mistaking the real thing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mary Celeste

On November 7, 1872, the brig Mary Celeste sailed from New York, bound for Genoa, Italy and carrying a cargo of alcohol in barrels. She was commanded by Benjamin Spooner Briggs of Marion, Massachusetts, who was also part owner. There were seven crew on board in addition to Captain Briggs, and also on board were Mrs. Briggs and Sophia, their two year old daughter.

Eight days later the brigantine Dei Gratia, not far from the Azores, sighted a vessel under shortened sail and poor control. The Dei Gratia approached and haled the brig. Receiving no response they boarded her. No one was on board. The ship's boat was missing. There was three feet of water in the hold, but that was nothing unusual given that the weather had been somewhat rough. The forward hatch and the lazarette hatch were off. There was no evidence of fire or explosion, nor of foul play. The binnacle was knocked off its mounts and the compass destroyed. The chronometer, sextant, Bowditch, ship's register and other papers were missing. There was every appearance that the crew had abandoned the Mary Celeste in a great hurry - for example, the crew left its oilskins, valuables, pipes and tobacco.

The Dei Gratia brought the brig into Gibraltar and an inquest ensued. There were suspicions of mutiny, of pirates, and of insurance fraud gone bad. None of these theories had any real basis in proof or motivation. Nine of the 1,700 barrels of alcohol were empty, which was apparently not unusual for such a voyage in the days of wooden barrels.

To many, the leading theory centers on the cargo. The ship sails from cold water to warm. The alcohol warms too and gives off fumes. Perhaps there is a low-order explosion (although no evidence of that was found), insufficient to damage the ship - or leave a trace - but enough to rattle the crew, which drags off a hatch to ventilate the hold and then hurries into the boat to give the hold time to air. Although the crew intends to return to the ship, because he is not a fool the captain brings his instruments and papers. A squall comes up and drives off the ship and the ship's boat sinks. But what about the destroyed binnacle?

The mystery of the Mary Celeste has never been solved or satisfactorily explained. The Mary Celeste (that is the correct spelling) wrecked on a Haitian reef in 1885.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Green Flash

In Griffith's great book Blue Water, he writes that the voyager is "a connoisseur of sunsets, a seer of the green flash." Light from the sun consists of all colors, and each color corresponds to different wavelengths, longest for red, shortest for blue and ultra-violet. As light from the sun passes through the atmosphere, it refracts, or bends, and the amount of refraction depends on the wavelength of the light. Red is bent least, blue and ultra-violet the most. The shortest blue wavelengths are so refracted as to scatter amongst the air molecules and across the sky - we see light of that wavelength in every direction, and the sky is blue.

The green is refracted not quite so much as to scatter, and when the sun has set or nearly set, there may, under optimal conditions, occur a moment when the only light refracted sufficiently to reach the observer consists of green wavelengths. Sometimes the flash is bluish, and sometimes, very rarely, violet.

For this explanation I am again indebted to my 1966 Bowditch.

When I have a clear horizon at sunset I watch for the green flash, and I have seen it but twice. It lasts longer at high latitudes, as does the sunset, and Bowditch informs me that at mid-latitudes it lasts about .7 seconds. That seems right to me - a flash, but a long discernible flash.

On my cutter I always watched for the green flash, and my persistence became a matter of shipboard humor. It was generally held even by the captain that the green flash was a myth. One perfect evening we were off Jamaica, cruising downwind in the Trades, just beautiful. It was after dinner and there happened to be a few officers on the bridge, including the C.O. I had the watch, and I stood on the bridgewing and as usual watched for the green flash. The captain and some others joined me, the usual jokes being made.

Just as the upper limb of the sun sank the horizon, there appeared at that spot a brilliant emerald light, obvious to everyone. It stayed for a long moment, and then it was night.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Big Multihulls

In the 1980's big multihulls, eighty or ninety feet length overall, began making runs at some of the bluewater records: Atlantic crossings, circumnavigations, New York to San Francisco by the Horn, and so on. So many of these early attempts ended in structural failure or capsize. I remember thinking that as big as they were the boats weren't really big enough, that a trimaran or catamaran 130 feet (40 meters) or more could handle almost all seas and continue to make speed, and be strong enough to hold up. A few years later the monster multihulls made the scene, and the old records began steadily to fall. Here's a link to a great video showcasing a few of these big boats, including Banque Populaire V, holder of the record for fastest west to east Atlantic crossing.

Banque Populaire V has her sights now on the Jules Verne Record for fastest circumnavigation (departing and returning to the English Channel, and leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn to port).
The present record holder is the 38 meter (124 foot) catamaran Orange II, skippered by Bruno Peyron: 50 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes. You can see her in the video.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fastest Sailboat

There are all sorts of speed records for sailboats: distance in 24 hours, speed over 500 meters, etc. etc. The governing body for establishing records is the World Sailing Speed Record Council. The record for speed over 500 meters is an astonishing 51.36 knots, set by Alain Thebault in 2009. A photo of the boat at speed is below.

During trials SailRocket, a contender but not the record holder, touched 68 knots and then crashed. (Scroll down the link for an astounding video.)

Perhaps more fantastic is the record for distance over 24 hours, set by the 40 meter trimaran Banque Populaire V, shown here. The distance covered? 908 nautical miles, giving an average speed of 37.84 knots! She set this record during her successful 2009 bid to set a new record for a west to east passage of the Atlantic under sail: 3 days, 15 hours, 25 minutes and 48 seconds, Ambrose Light to The Lizard, 2,880 miles, average speed 32.94 knots.
If you please, in 1952 the S.S. United States, considered the fastest liner ever built, set a record for an eastbound crossing at an average speed of 35.59 knots. And burned a lot of Bunker C to do so.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Moth Racing

If you don't know this class, check out the Moth, a single-handed, foil lifted dinghy capable of 25 knots. The moth, an "open class" design, lifts in as little as 6 knots of wind, and sailing one looks extremely challenging but so much fun. The world championships are going on now in Dubai.

Foil lifted sailboats have been in development for 75 years. The breakthrough that allowed the Moth to succeed is sensors - wands - at the bow which determine the height of the hull above the water and, though a linkage, cause minute changes in the angle of attack of the forward foil to prevent the wing from nearing the surface and ingesting air, which of course destroys lift and causes a crash. You can just see the wands in these two shots.

Gotta try this boat. Bet I could make it go.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting To Be That Time

When I am rigging Journeyman it is handy to have a knife, needlenose pliers, and both flat and Phillips screwdrivers at hand. This set up serves me well. The sheath holding the pliers is one I made years ago when my snap on sheath snapped off and dropped overboard, fortunately while I was holding my knife. I just trimmed off the bottom of the sheath. The screwdriver switches between flat and Phillips.

You can make a similar sheath for pliers out of the Nylon sheath sold with the Mini Maglight flashlight.

Monday, March 8, 2010

America's Cup

They just finished racing the America's Cup. Did you notice?

What a shame to see this great event, one of the finest in all sport, raced since 1857, degrade into a marginalized, eccentric sideshow, followed by few and won as much by lawyers interpreting the deed of gift as by the sailors and designers.

Maybe I'm just a crank, but the whole thing went to hell when they dropped the 12 Meter class in favor of, first big exotic monohulls and now whatever goes. The point of match racing is to place two closely matched boats on the same course so that strategy and tactics and boathandling determine the result, rather than raw boat speed. The 12 meters, with their fat displacement hulls, did just that, and the result was superb racing. Should we go back to the 12's?

Australia's Gretel II (KA 3), and Intrepid. Intrepid beat Gretel II 3 races to 2 in 1970. In the 3rd race, Intrepid won by half a boatlength after 24 miles of racing.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What is it?

A few years ago I had an elderly client who was in reduced circumstances. He lived on his yacht, an old wood harbor tanker (fuel hoy) converted to a schooner, unique, capacious, and run down.

He had no money and I didn't have much of an expectation I'd earn anything on the case. But one day he brought to my office this very beautiful inclinometer, about 19 inches high, apparently in its original case and with the original glass. He died soon after, and I like to think he knew I'd appreciate and take care of this lovely old thing.

So far as I can tell without removing the instrument from its case (which I don't want to do for fear of marring the brass), it has no maker's mark. My client could tell me only that he thought it might have come from a steamship.

I am finally getting around to making inquiry to nautical museums and dealers, and I'll let you know what I find out.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Best Fish Recipe

I know, that's an absurd claim, and I don't really mean it. But I do love a whole fish, and I believe I am approaching a true understanding of their cooking.

Fresh whole fish by their nature cook beautifully, inclined to be moist and succulent. When we catch the delectable Black Sea Bass off Journeyman, we bring them home on ice, already cleaned and gilled. After making sure they are well scaled, we pat the fish dry, roll the fish in olive oil and salt it and put it in a very hot frying pan. (Every smoke alarm in the house will go off.) A couple of minutes later we turn the fish, and after another minute or two the fish, frying pan and all, goes into a very hot oven, as hot as yours will go. Don't cook too long - the backbone should be just pink - but make sure it's done: cut down to the backbone at a thick place.

The fish might be shared by you and another, and you will eat it mostly with fingers and right down to the brain case, which you should feel free to crack and suck. Fantastic! This technique works with any nice round fish, two, maybe three pounds, but the fish must be very fresh.

There is a delicious variation by a local fish restaurant of national renown, Portland, Maine's Street and Company. I don't know Street's exact recipe, but here is the version with which I am currently toying.

In a heavy saucepan using plenty of olive oil I saute a slivered medium onion, a couple of slivered shallots, just a little garlic (one clove), and a cup or 1 1/2 cups of carrots cut to the dimension of a match stick. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, or some chopped tomatoes and cook a little more.

To the cooked vegetables I add a bit of basil, maybe a touch of oregano, a nice pinch of saffron, and some vermouth or other dry white wine, and a cup or two of water or vegetable stock. I would not add salt - the shellfish will take care of that. You will have a highly aromatic rich heavy stock, an inch or two deep in the pot

Meanwhile I am frying the whole fish on the stove top, just as in the first recipe but in a dutch oven or frying pan with a tight cover. (The frying is done with the fish uncovered, however.) After the fish has cooked briefly but hard on each side as in the first recipe (but without salting), pour the contents of the saucepan over the fish and cover, so it braises in just an inch or two of liquid, not entirely covered by the liquid. At the same time put in some shrimp, maybe northern shrimp, and some mussels, almost as garnish for each plate but they add their flavor too as they open. Simmer covered until just done, and serve right now.

At Street each diner gets a fish with the very aromatic and rich stock and shellfish, served in an oval copper casserole right from the hot oven where they finish the dish. You could finish it in the oven too, maybe briefly putting the uncovered pan under a hot broiler when it is nearly done, so the fish browns and crisps just a bit.

You can buy a baguette and slice it on the diagonal and fry the slices in olive oil until they are browned on both sides. Put one crouton in each wide soup dish and dish the fish and broth over the crouton. Put a few more fried slices on the table to sop the broth. Some good.

This is a wonderful way to cook fish but the fish must be very high quality. Did I already say that?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


We have a painting of New Haven harbor made in the 1850's. The painting shows at least twenty boats and ships, and most of the boats are tonging oysters, as in this detail. New Haven and surrounding waters produced vast quantities of oysters until poor water quality either killed the oysters or made them essentially poisonous from coliform, vibrio (aka cholera) and other bacteria associated with sewage. The entire fishery was pretty much written off by the 1960's when something wonderful happened: the 1972 passage of  Senator Ed Muskie's Clean Water Act. Now the fishery produces 450,000 bushels of oysters annually, with 70,000 acres under aquacuture, affording 300 jobs. Thanks, Ed!

Oysters are cultivated on the Martha's Vineyard ponds where I like to spend time, and a consequence is a proliferation of tasty wild oysters exactly like those costing a dollar a piece in the market, and far more in a restaurant. They are so briny and good, fresh from an icy salt pond.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fine Art

To calm us all down from the weekend's lurid post, I offer you details from an 1850's oil by George Durrie, a New Haven painter. These are from one of his many "East Rock" and "West Rock" pictures, and it shows a man in a dugout canoe or pirogue on his way up the Quinnipiac River. Despite the light breeze he is making pretty fair speed, judging from the wake and the ripple at his steering oar. The pirogue is rigged with a spritsail, a rig that sail, mast and sprit could be bundled into his dugout in a moment's time. (Click on the pictures to enlarge.)

Dugouts have a long history in Connecticut: indeed, in 1988 divers found a prehistoric dugout sunk in a lake. Mystic Seaport, the great maritime museum, has the transcript of a 260 minute1967 interview with Fair Haven oysterman John Thomas (born 1881), who relates that one of his dugouts could carry fifty bushels.
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