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.

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