19 July 2017

Twentieth century sailing books

As a complete, and welcome contrast to the contemporary sailing books I've been reading, I found that Kobo e-books have some classics lurking in their 'store'.  There was a time when I owned both of Edward Allcard's books - more than once - but they have been left behind on various boats, I hope still loved and cherished.

However, I found Single-handed Passage was on offer and immediately bought it.  What a joy to read after my recent books.  Here is a man who is perfectly content to be sailing at 3 knots on his 34 foot yawl; he contemplates and 80-day passage with equanimity; he takes his mainsail down or heaves to at night so that he can sleep in peace; after two days of calm, culminating in a magnificent sunset, he writes "It was a fitting end to a delightful interlude."  What a sense of peace emanates from these few words.

Edward Allcard is at sea just because he wants to be.  He is not trying to prove anything or to compete with anyone - even himself.  He just wishes to take his ship from England to New York by 'the Southern Route'.  He looks at a couple of atlases, maybe a routing chart or two and sets off.  He has no schedule, no-one he has arranged to meet, no flights to catch, no job or business to 'get back to'. Occasionally he can pick up the BBC on his little portable radio and listens, bemusedly to dance music, with pleasure to the female announcer's voice.  He reads books, he contemplates the ocean; in calms he lies on the side deck and gazes into the incredible blue depths below him.  He takes plunge baths off the bowsprit and watches with resignation as the gooseneck barnacles grow.  He is a happy man with a deep understanding of why he is out on the ocean.

As I said, I have read his books before, but I don't recall reading this one with so much pleasure.  Maybe it's the contrast with my recent reads, maybe it's the contrast with the madness of today's world.  Whatever, it makes me want to go and do likewise.

I wouldn't want to be sailing his heavy gaffer; I would hate to be without a self-steering gear, where he seemed quite content to spend 12 hours at the helm; I don't want to cope with cotton sails and manila ropes, but maybe I, too, have lost much in my demand for easier sailing.  (And that's before we even talk about junk rig, although Mr Allcard does say he hated going on the foredeck.)  I suppose we all choose our level of challenge, but I think it's attitude that I'm talking about.  The attitude that accepts complete solitude; no communications and no sense of "I must go faster".  I think he and I are in harmony here.

There is no publishers name in this book (apart from W W Norton on the title page), so I can only conclude that this is a Kobo initiative.  If so, I hope they do more.

Kobo also have Ralph Stock's The Cruise of the Dreamship. It's very cheap, so may just be an e-book facsimile and a bit rough around the edges, but it is one of the most wonderful sailing books every written.

Edit:

Two things I meant to mention.  The first was simply amplifying what I was saying earlier about Mr Allcard's wonderfully low expectations: he was very happy with a week's run of 522 miles, in fact so much so that he took Sunday off, something that he'd been intending to do at the outset, but because he had left late in the season, had felt the need to press on.  So hard was he pressing on that he was quite content with a run of 472 miles the following week.  472 miles!  Less than 3 knots!  Quelle horreur!  It just shows what an amazing difference self-steering gears have made to passage-making - and expectations.  The vast majority of boats crossing oceans these days, would have been motoring every time the speed dropped below 4 knots, let alone 3.

The other thing is much, much sadder.  Earlier in the book he passes a brown bottle bobbing along.  Not only does he comment on it (not something one would be likely to log these days) and speculate on whence it came, but he remarks on how few foreign objects he sees at sea.  And this from a low and often slow boat.  Later, as he admires his surroundings, he writes: "It was pleasant to think that all the beuaty of the sea had been unspoiled by the scar of civilization, and that I was lucky enough to enjoy exactly the same sights as" Columbus.  Not these days, alas.  Especially in calm conditions, you can't look over the side without seeing something plastic floating in the water.  You don't even come across those beautiful glass floats any more.

But I am one of the lucky ones: the first time I crossed an ocean was in 1975 and there was very little sign of plastic about then. While my memory lasts, I can enjoy that recollection.

29 June 2017

Twenty-first century sailing books

You will have noticed that I'm an old fogey: behind the times, out of date, on a different planet, even.  Maybe I always have been.

I ranted recently about Laura Dekka, but in fact she came right and finally stopped racing herself.  Good for her.  But why is this apparently so difficult?  The book I'm reading at the moment is by a bloke I actually know, and he's a great bloke with lots of Right Ideas.  However, I'm getting very irritated with him.  He's always wanted to do a long passage on his own.  Right?  He knows he will probably never do it again.  Right?  He is aware that the time is fleeting and that he should savour every minute of it.  Right?  Wrong.  At the moment, he is suffering temper tantrums and raving because there's not enough wind.  Worse - it's too hot and he has too little fuel to motor!  And his computer has died on him so he can't get his GRIB files!!  Horror of horrors.  He's in the Trade Wind zone: if he could get a forecast there would be nothing he could do about it, apart, perhaps, from having another breakdown.

And now he's worrying about his gas running out, so life has become, as he says, 'frugal' and he is measuring his water into the kettle to heat exactly what is required.  You mean he didn't do that before?  Surely every offshore sailor does this - if only to keep track of the water, let alone save fuel.  Isn't being frugal the watchword of the ocean sailor?


It's a while since I crossed an ocean, but I have done so many times and it was always a 'rule' that we didn't use our engine at sea.  Apart from anything else, the amount of fuel we carried was so little that the progress made would be negligible: just noise and heat for very little.  But much more to the point, the object of the exercise was to sail from A to B.  And, perhaps foolishly, I can think of no other reason to go on a sailing vessel from A to B unless you want to go sailing.  So I am totally bewildered.

What is wrong with these people?  You're on a sailing boat for heaven's sake, not a huge launch, not a ship.  You don't have a schedule: that's the whole point of undertaking great, long ocean crossings.  You are there to get from A to B under sail, using your wits, your skills and, above all, your patience, without which a sailor is nothing.  What's wrong with a quiet day on the ocean, going nowhere?  (Well of course the poor bugger has a bermudian rig, which is thrashing about whereas if he had a nice, junk rig, the sail would sit quietly, stopping the boat from rolling and ready and waiting for when the wind arrives.)  It gives you time to clean the galley properly; to go through the fresh supplies carefully; to (in his case) transfer fuel from the jerricans that he carries lashed to the guard rails in lubberly fashion; to have a leisurely sponge bath; to cook something a bit special; to lean over the side and watch the myriad tiny creatures in the sea (and mourn the plastic that comes past every few seconds); to sit in the cockpit with a glass of wine or beer and admire the clouds reflected in the sea and to reflect yourself, on the near-impossibilty that you are on this small boat, all alone in the middle of a vast ocean.

But does our hero do any of this?  No, he rants, he raves, he frets that he's not making any progress.  Well, buddy, some of the progress you could make is inside your head and this is being completely lost to this puerile obsession with needing to get there.  You have, quite simply, lost the plot.  And the tragedy of all this is that when you finally arrive at your destination, when you realise that it's all over, you will look back and want to weep at the opportunities you wasted, the energy you squandered on anger and frustration, the incredibly rare time for peace and contemplation you were offered and threw away.  Back in the futilely busy world of the twenty-first century, tweeting here and Facebooking there, complaining that you have no time you will regret for ever that when it was handed to you, dressed up in warmth, sunshine and quiet, you rejected it.

So sad.  So different from the books I read as a young woman, where people from (supposedly) far less busy lives and times, could relish the gift of being still and going nowhere.

05 June 2017

Taking your time

I've been reading Laura Dekka's book, One Girl, One Dream.  I put off reading it for ages, under the misapprehension that she was another victim of ambitious parents, being persuaded to break a record.  It was only after I heard an interview with her on the radio, that I discovered she was someone very different.

In many ways, Laura is the person I wish I could have been.  Bold, daring, self-confident and a fine sailor.  On the other hand, she's not that practical, although I have to keep reminding myself that she's only 14: she is so mature that she comes across as an adult, and even assuming the self-editing that would have come along when she wrote the book at age 16 or 17, she would still be regarded by most as 'only a kid'. 

However, she is, of course, very twenty-first century.  The boat is put together by Other People and she seems frightened of even mending a sail.  Again, she was only a girl and had hardly had a lifetime to learn skills, but her attitude seemed to be that one does things when one has to, but ideally, you bring in someone else to do the work.  It would be interesting to see what she's like now.  Does she repair her own sails and rigging?  Can she replace wiring?  Has she gone for a simpler boat, or does she still have all the bells and whistles that one can understand a young single-hander would want/be talked into.

I was amused by her feeling of relative poverty: she had, (as far as I can make out) two engines in the boat, AIS, chart plotter, radar, SSB, etc, etc, but in addition she had an inflatable catamaran to play with (what a sailor this girl is!), a small inflatable dinghy and a larger one, so that she could use an outboard motor!  In addition, she regularly ate out and had money for a drink or an ice cream ashore, when the fancy took her, and joined other people in hiring cars and other touristy things ashore.  As I said, very twenty first century.  I'm getting old!

However, I found two rather sad things in the book.  She had no time to cruise - well, she was trying to circumnavigate and while she was at it, she had decided to go for the record of youngest circumnavigator.  And, of course, the lucky girl had her whole life ahead to go cruising, so I can understand that.  But what is far more sad, is that no-one had ever taught her how to heave to and wait it out.  Not only bad weather - she is far too feisty to do that anyway, to her bad weather is a challenge - but tiredness, going too fast, calms for that matter.  She loves being at sea, loves the peace and quiet, but as soon as the boat speed drops - below about 4 knots it would appear - on goes the engine.  She never felt that deep peace of being totally becalmed on a tranquil ocean and simply waiting for the wind.  Nor did she ever appear to enjoy the incredible pleasure of barely trickling along with a hardly discernible chuckle at the bow of the boat.  Worse, I really believe she didn't know how to heave to, because on occasion, she took the risk of going into a strange harbour at night, relying to a certain extent on not having any bad luck, because it would appear she didn't know how to stop her boat and wait.

The poor girl made all her landfalls by GPS (which, again, at 14/15 I can understand).  Doesn't everyone?  I guess so, but it's a shame to miss out on that incredible magic of feeling that you personally created the land that is appearing just where you hoped it would.  All voyagers should do this at least once in their lives.  But it's her relentless urge? conviction? lack of imagination? that made her turn on the motor when the wind dropped, that I feel sorriest for.  The boat always had to be travelling quickly and if the wind dropped, well that's what the engine is for. She probably never even knew what she was missing, but the I deep regret on her behalf that she never got to feel the true peace of being alone with her boat on a completely calm, smooth and empty ocean - empty even of wind.

13 June 2016

Are modern boats good value?

It’s a long, long time since I posted.  I must be getting mellow in my old age.
What got me thinking this morning, is reading (in the excellent Marine Quarterly) about Eric and Susan Hiscock’s first circumnavigation, in Wanderer III.  The boat cost them £3,300, which seems a risible sum these days.  However, I recalled that in 1952, boats were considered to be extremely expensive – compared with a house for example, the average price of which was £1,891, as I discovered when I did a bit of homework.

In today's prices, the hand-built, ‘one-off’ Wanderer III cost £80,322 – quite a bit of money by anybody’s standards, to be raised without a loan.  However, the Hiscocks had no children and, being the organised sort of people they were, had probably planned all this for a long time and carefully saved for the voyage around the world and the vessel that they needed to do it.  They knew they would be living on board for 3 years and in those days, not only was it a problem taking money out of the country, it would also have been a problem reprovisioning in a lot of places.  Tinned food would have been an expensive luxury in islands like the West Indies and the Pacific Islands. Thus their decision to buy a larger boat than their beloved Wanderer II.

The Second World War was not long over: rationing still existed in Great Britain and there was still a dearth of good materials available for boat building.  However, 60 years on, this great boat is still going strong.  True, Thies Matzen has replaced all the iron floors, knees, etc with bronze, but he writes of her: “Of course, she had to be well built, and she is. Wanderer III is traditionally planked and caulked and is well kept.”  And after nearly 300,000 sea miles, she is still crossing oceans – and not just in the Trade Winds:  Thies and Kicki have spent many years sailing south of 40°.

So how much would a new 30ft boat cost today, I wondered.  Well, apparently if I were to buy a 31ft BenĂ©teau, it would cost me £83,000 ‘on the water’.  I gather that one needs to spend some £24,000 over and above the basic cost of the vessel to equip her for ordinary weekend sailing.  However, that probably includes a heap of electronics that we could do without; on the other hand, I suspect a lot more ‘real’ gear would be required to circumnavigate, so let’s take the £83,000 to be what it would cost – about half the price of an average house in the UK (I checked).  And we are talking about a cheap and cheerful production boat, here, not something designed for crossing oceans.  (I’m not sure if any production boat builders would build a 31ft boat for crossing an ocean, because most people appear to think that 40ft is the minimum one could take offshore. I’m way out of touch with production boats, so had to make do with my Beneteau as an example.)  However, in real terms, this somewhat indifferent cruising boat would cost more than Wanderer III.  It makes you think, doesn’t it?  

But what makes me think even more, is the thought that for all our technological improvements: will our BenĂ©teau 31 still be tramping over the world's oceans in 60 years, having been a floating home to two couples for most of that time, and with only one major refit along the way?  Somehow, I very much doubt it.  There are still a large number of good, honest wooden boats alive and well and going about their business, particularly in Great Britain, where the climate is kind to carvel boats.  However, the modern sailor’s demands for space, comfort and large diesel engines will probably spell their demise long before the little ships themselves are no longer fit for duty.  Every now and then you read about them or see one up for sale: what a reflection they are on the honesty and integrity of their builders.  May they long be loved and cherished.

04 November 2015

Second-hand learning

When I first started sailing, more years ago than I care to remember, my then-boyfriend got me into reading the old cruising yarns.  In those halcyon days, libraries would hang on to book a lot longer than they do now (there were, to be sure, fewer books being published and I dare say their budgets were a lot lower), which meant that in spite of the book having been originally published before WWII, they were still available (and I'm not that old).  Sadly, most of these books are long out of print and have not been republished as ebooks.  (Should some wealthy philanthropist be reading this, may I suggest s/he gets hold of all the copyright for the books in the Mariners Library and republishes them as ebooks?)

However, I am digressing from the main reason for this posting.  We all learn (or at least I profoundly hope we do) from our mistakes.  Men, in particular, it would appear, have difficulties learning practical skills any other way, but it is such a wasteful way of acquiring knowledge.  If we read these old cruising yarns, written in the days before any electronics (including a radio receiver) we can learn so much from these self-reliant and usually, self-taught mariners.  Their mistakes were honest and honestly recounted.  I remember, especially in my early days of sailing, some of these stories coming into my mind when a particular issue was creating a problem and requiring a solution.  It was almost as though I were drawing on my own experience, and this received wisdom helped me sort out the matter.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about a mutual acquaintance who has just started sailing, well into his 60s.  "Has he read such and such?" I asked.  "What is he doing about charts?  Did he get that cruising guide?"  'Oh", my friend replied, "he says he just has to learn from experience.  Once he's made a mistake he'll be fine.  That's the way I learn things, too."

But how sad and how dismissive of all that knowledge, acquired by others and made available to the rest of us, in order that we can avoid making stupid mistakes ourselves.  To my mind, there is a deep-rooted arrogance here, too.  An assumption that one's 'learning curve' is sufficiently steep that one will stay out of trouble due to one's razor-sharp reactions.  But what happens if, as a result of 'learning from experience', he damages somebody else's boat?  Or loses his own?  Or injures himself or somebody else.  Simply because he 'didn't realise that would happen'.  But if he'd read around his subject, he would have known it might happen, because just that same event occurred in Francis B Cooke's In Tidal Waters.

Maybe this unwillingness to take on board the wisdom of others explains far more than the 'shake-your-head' antics of other sailors.  Maybe it's why the human race keeps believing that the solution to a problem, is to take a lot of soldiers there and shoot people, in spite of the fact that history has shown over and over that this never produces a satisfactory outcome.  Maybe Messrs Putin and Obama, Assad and Mugabe also like to learn from their own mistakes and by experience rather than learning from the wisdom of others.

17 December 2014

Chart plotter assisted strandings

We all know that I'm a curmudgeonly Luddite and if you despise this aspect of me, then I don't suppose you read this blog.  As it happens, I rather like my little Garmin 76 GPS.  It's as old as the century and still does all that I want it to.  I find it very handy for working out how far it is from A to B, as I have all my usual routes fed into it and can extrapolate from them.  I feel no need to have anything better - not in the least because my handheld GPS is completely waterproof and needs no aerial - and I most certainly do not want a chart plotter.

I have used one of these devices, so am not coming here completely from uninformed prejudice, but while I can see its use for sneaking up a narrow channel in the dark, or poor visibility (as long as you are confident of your waypoints), I am at a loss why anyone should prefer to use a tiny screen instead of a 43 inch by 29 inch chart.  Where, pray, is the advantage?  However, by far and away the worst thing about a chart plotter, is that as you scale down ie, (for those who get confused about the difference between large scale and small scale), show a larger area of (land and) water on the screen, most chart plotters eradicate 'extraneous' detail.  Like buoys.  Or reefs.  Now the smallest scale chart will most definitely omit buoys and even anything but the most major lighthouses, but it will never omit a reef.  So if you are racing across the Indian Ocean, as a Danish boat was recently, and happen to make a blunder that sends you heading directly for a reef a couple of hundred miles north, north east of Mauritius (as far as I could deduce from the radio), then your navigator, placing his fix on the chart, will say, 'Good heavens!', or words to that effect, 'there's a bally reef in the way', and advise the helmsmen to alter course accordingly.

However, if he's sitting looking at his chart plotter, cranked down to small scale, the reef won't be shown and there will be no warning of its existence until the boat blunders on to it.

Here were the excuses:
  • "The boat was going very quickly".  Well, about three times as fast as the average cruising yacht, running in the Indian Ocean.  About the speed at which a decent-sized ship would travel in times long before GPS.  Considerably more slowly than a WWII bomber.
  • "GPS isn't always that accurate".  No?  Well, since that nice Mr Clinton turned off the 'wobble factor', it has been sufficiently accurate for courier services to navigate by.  I dare say it will show you when you are within cooee of a fair-sized reef.  And if it isn't that accurate, why are they relying on it so heavily?
  • 'The charts aren't always accurate".  Well, true, but the French and the British were squabbling over that bit of water a couple of hundred years ago and had a pretty good idea of where all the bits of rock that might damage their ships were located.  And if the charts aren't that accurate, is it not rather poor seamanship to go hurtling along in that manner?
Did they say: "the navigator was incompetent"? No.  Did they say "we had the wrong scale set?" No.  Did they say "we had no paper chart to provide a reality check to the chart plotter"? No.  They blamed everything from the weather: breezy, the time of day: dark, to the technology.  The one person who received no share of the blame at all was the navigator.  But of course, it's far too traumatic to admit "It was my fault".  Poor fellow would probably require counselling.

Of course, we can all make this mistake and many others; I am far from the perfect navigator.  A kind guardian angel guided me through a cluster of rocks on one occasion when my pilotage was well out.  They were well large enough to wreck my boat.  I've come out of the hatch to see the beach but a few yards ahead.  I've hit a navigation mark before now and run aground more times than I care to remember.  But in each and every case, it has been my fault.  Sure the charts have sometimes been misleading and the navigation mark wasn't where it was shown, but as I was doing the navigation, the responsibility was mine.  GPS and chart plotters add to the information available to the navigator.  It should be easier than ever to avoid shipwreck.  No-one can blame the chart plotter for assisting the stranding - but it's increasingly common to hear it being used as an excuse.

08 December 2014

A strange fetish

Dave Z's comment recalled me to myself.  I have been musing muchly of late, but for reasons best know to my subconscious, have not inflicted such musings on an innocent world.

I've recently encountered one of the stranger boating fetishes on several occasions: this strange insistence that a cruising boat - pardon me, 'expedition vessel' - has to be built of steel.  For strength, you know.  Well, the only time I can think of the strength being of real value is when you run ashore on a solid object, from which you can easily access dry, and inhabited land.  What's the use of having a steel boat that takes longer to crush in the ice than that built from another material?  You still get crushed.  Or being marooned high and dry and largely intact on a reef in the middle of nowhere?  You're still marooned.  Oh, of course, you turn on your 'device' and magic the maritime equivalent of the AA to come and take you home.

But sarcasm apart, and I admit I was being a teensy weensy bit sarky there, why this fetish for steel?  Sure, I know that you can hit solid things a lot harder with a steel boat and get away with a few dents, but isn't the object of the exercise not to hit anything so excessively solid?  How many people do you know who have lost their boats because they weren't built of steel?  How many times have you hit a solid object with something other than your keel?  I've been aground more times than I care to think about, but it's invariably the keel that has taken the major impact.  Now, if you are sailing around in a delightful barge yacht, or traditional Chinese junk, you will ground on something less solid than steel (although the junk, with its watertight compartments, would take a bit of sinking), but on the other hand, with such shallow draught you are less likely to hit anything and if you do, you can step off the boat and set to on your repairs.  And if you are sailing such a quirky boat you probably don't regard it as an 'expedition vessel' (or take yourself ridiculously seriously).  Because, at the end of the day, isn't this what it's all about?  The steel boat, built brutally strong and undoubtedly with rope reels on deck, fore and aft, is a statement.  "Look at me: I'm about to do something really, really heroic."

But a 29ft, wooden yacht sailed the NW Passage last year.  (Yes, I know that's not quite the same as doing it 20 or 30 years ago and they had plenty of support, but it's still not to be sniffed at.) The late-lamented Shrimpy was sailed (somewhat carelessly, it has to be said) on to a reef and was patched up in a couple of days. 

40 or 50 years ago, nearly everyone was sailing wooden or (later) fibreglass boats.  They sailed without radar, GPS, or any other of the aids that nowadays most people require to cross the Irish Sea.  Their charts were limited in number and out of date.  There were no cruising guides.  If they had engines, they were unreliable: no forecasts, rarely tide tables.  But they sailed safely and happily around the world and generally didn't end up stranded on reefs.

So I'll continue to say that my perfect boat will be built largely from wood, thank you very much.  And I'll get rid of that extra draught, so that running aground is less of an issue.  And have something light that bounces rather than being self-destructively heavy.  And all the time that I'm not running aground (or being crushed in the ice) I will be sailing something built out of a material that is pleasant and easy to maintain or alter, and intrinsically beautiful.