22 April 2018

Cruising without fuss

Eric Hiscock (probably most people haven't even heard about him these days) admired his mentor, Roger Pinckney, because he 'cruised without fuss'.  Doing anything without fuss seems antithetical to the twenty-first century approach to life, where even news of one's breakfast is photographed and distributed, in one assumes, the hope of receiving the plaudits of the masses.  (Why else would one do it?)

However, my heroes and heroines cruise without fuss.  Yes, I know that we refer to all genders as heroes these days, but dammit, my heroines are women and deserve to stand out separately.  My particular heroine is very much someone who cruises without fuss.  She blogs quietly and is virtually unknown beyond a small circle, but her blogs are inspirational and her way of doing things an example that those who say they can't afford to go sailing, would do well to follow.

I'm talking about Shirley on Speedwell, who has just blogged about transiting the Panama Canal.  As ever, the event was quietly understated, but her excitement came through.  She mentioned, in her previous blog, how when she came to organise herself to go through the Canal, she was warned about the dangers of venturing into Colon and "thought of the many times I have walked through the town between the supermarket and the bus terminal without any problems."  This sums up Shirley so well.  She is part of the real world, not on the outside, a tourist looking in.  She wanders alone around places that young men would be frightened to visit, not out of any starry-eyed faith in humanity, but rather with a realistic approach to what constitutes danger.  She brings this same sanity to sailing, and although her non-sailing friends appear to think that she's intent on committing suicide, sailing across the Pacific in her 25ft Vertue, she is well aware of all the other Vertues that have crossed oceans and been around Cape Horn.  She also knows that many, many small boats have crossed the Pacific and she knows herself and her boat well enough to realise that while the prospect may be daunting, she and Speedwell are more than capable of making the voyage.

Knowing one's capacities and having the courage to follow through on that knowledge are two very different things.  So many of us are frightened of being frightened.  Shirley is a heroine to me, because she can rise above that fear and achieve her dream.  And doesn't feel that it's necessary make a fuss about it.

18 March 2018

STIX nonsense

I have been busily defending my wee boat, of late, against those who would have me believe that she's not fit to take offshore.  And by offshore, I mean 10 miles from land, heading for an island off the coast.  Why is this?  Because under the RCD (Recreational Craft Directive) promulgated by the EU, she is Category C - fit only to be used inshore along the coastline.

Now, let us ignore for a moment, that sailing along the coast is probably the most dangerous bit of sailing that one does, why is my boat so disparaged?  In a nutshell, it's for the simple and (supposedly) sufficient reason that she is less than 32ft long.  Shall I list the boats under 32ft that have made outstanding passages: Wanderer II, Shrimpy, Mingming and Mingming II, Trekka, Novo Espero, Erik the Red, Sopranino, Emmanuel, Felicity Ann, Moonraker, to say nothing of countless Vertues, Contessa 26s, Folkboats and the numerous boats that have taken part in the various Jester challenges?

The so-called STIX factor that dictates this arbitrary ruling, relies largely on LOA and displacement.  It does not take into account such things as: whether the boat is inherently unstable upside down, like many of Bolger's designs; it doesn't take into account that the mast may well be hollow and trap water.

Moreover, for some inexplicable reason, while a Contessa 26 is deemed unfit to go offshore and a Contessa 32 just scrapes by, the RCD blithely suggests that catamarans are fit to sail around Cape Horn.  Now, I know that catamarans have sailed around Cape Horn, and that some of them are very seaworthy vessels, but quite honestly, the average white plastic monster, lumbering across the tropical oceans of the world, is barely fit to take out of the trade winds.  These boats are full of heavy gear, which will not be included in the original design specs, which gave them their Cat A: "All habitable multihull craft shall be so designed as to have sufficient buoyancy to remain afloat in the inverted position".  In spite of their lack of ballast, they probably displace more than the air that would be trapped in them if they went upside down: and any single one of them is perfectly capable of turning upside down, should it encounter a breaking wave either longer than it or wider than it, something that is not unusual south of Cape Horn. Moreover, if you look at most of these cats: how long would they stay inverted before they started breaking up?  A fat lot of good it is, having an escape hatch when all you have to escape to is a life raft in the Southern Ocean!  The RCD should be scrapped, if only for giving a false sense of security to the deluded individuals who think that their mass-produced, floating condo is fit to go south of 40.

A conspiracy theorist might suggest that the RCD has been set up purely to encourage people to buy big boats: better still, as it was only introduced relatively recently, lots of existing boats don't have a 'category' so your wannabe ocean girdler is put off buying it because they can't classify it.  No worries, mate, we'll just by a new Category A boat  and we'll be fine.  Safe to go round Cape Horn, don't you know.  I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that there is a lot of pressure to consume, and consume means buying new.  No doubt those who advised the committee that finalised the RCD were well meaning: on the other hand, how many of them had sailed offshore in small boats? 

What a load of cobblers.

Even more cobblers is that this magical STIX category says that the boat must not remain inverted for more than 2 minutes.  Why?  Because that's as long as a person can hold their breath.  Well, I should expect that in the sort of conditions where a boat is likely to capsize, most people would be down below anyway and, one would hope, have rather more than 2 minutes' worth of air in the boat.  A good boat, a boat that is unstable upside down (but not necessarily RCD Category A) won't stay upside down for 20 seconds, let alone 2 minutes, but while your Category A boat is upside down, water will come in through the ventilators and probably, through the sliding hatch.  Surely these are covered by the Directive?  No, it simply says: "Particular attention should be paid where appropriate to: ... ventilation fittings."  Not that all ventilators must be waterproof when the boat is upside down,  (probably because such ventilators - they are made - are quite expensive and would erode the manufacturer's profit).  And the number of sliding hatches that are waterproof under several feet of water, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  And again, the mast will fill with water, being as how it's a modern pointy rig with everything running down inside the mast: and imagine the loads on that when the boat decides to sit up again.

Oh, and by the way, just in case you happen to be outside when all this happens - there is no provision for a strong point for the attachment of safety harnesses in the cockpit!

But small boats aren't fit to take offshore.  End of argument.

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.