Throwing Caution to the Winds

Looking Chilly

Nothing like having a window to look through when the weather is like this.

It is, by all appearances, the dead of winter.  There’s piles of snow all around—not as big as when we had the big blizzard two winters ago,but these piles have been around for longer now than those were, and keep getting added to a couple times a week.  Nor is it as long a winter yet as last year, which dragged on far beyond the bounds of decency.  Nevertheless, it’s bitterly cold, and often very windy, and nothing could be farther from most people’s minds than going out seafaring in weather like this.


February 2015 BlizzardWhich made it all the more astonishing when I heard a couple of weeks ago that a sailboat had set out from Jamestown, RI., bound ostensibly for Australia by way of the southern ocean, with two people aboard on the eve of a serious, well-predicted blizzard that dumped a huge amount of snow, had some storm-force winds, and brought dangerously low temperatures across New England. Almost needless to say before they were barely a couple days out they called for a rescue and abandoned the boat.

That very same weekend, a little further south along the coast, a trimaran was abandoned and the people aboard airlifted out.  All of this coming on the heels of the Rainmaker incident, a large, brand-new catamaran that sought to defy the North Atlantic winter weather, got dismasted, and was also abandoned after a crew rescue.

Now, I haven’t heard that any of these boats were in imminent peril of sinking—in fact, the search for Rainmaker’s presumed-still-afloat hulk was still ongoing a few days ago, so it seems the crew called for a rescue because they were wet, or scared, or cold, or afraid of becoming so.  Don’t think I blame them for it: I’ll never judge anyone who calls for a bailout under any circumstances, since even a little while of being beat up, and cold and wet and uncertain amidst the tossing wavetops, or the threat of the same, can be a terrifying thing.  No, I won’t say that they were wrong to call for help, but I will say they were wrong for putting to sea in the dead of winter, and for either not checking the forecast or ignoring it.  One smacks of ignorance, the other of arrogance, and both of stupidity.

Zartman's Sledding

Well, it’s not all bad to be out in the snow.

Now, to be fair, Danielle and I have done our share of things others might consider foolish—putting to sea with a near-gale and 17-foot swells predicted, groping around unknown fog-bound harbors in the dark, sailing to South America in a boat with a broken-off centerboard, messing around northern Newfoundland and the Cote du Nord in September, but always (I’d like to think), with an extra measure of caution, and a keen eye on weather and season.  And maybe it’s only providential that our number hasn’t come up, but I don’t feel that we’ve tried anything that seems THAT unreasonable or strains credulity—certainly nothing like putting to sea ahead of a howling blizzard in the dead of winter in a boat only recently bought off of eBay.  Or in a brand-new, pretty much untested boat, as was the case with Rainmaker, and astonishingly enough, a brand-new Alpha Cat that suffered a similar fate one year before that.

Snowy GanymedeIt’s not as though the perils of wintertime sailing are unknown.  The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, set circa the thirteenth century, has Sir Patrick, the best sailor of his time, bemoaning the news that he must put to sea in winter:

“O Wha is this has done this deed,

This ill deed done to me,

To send me out this time o’ the year,

To sail upon the sea!”

 They drowned, of course, Sir Patrick and his Scots lords, and left their bonnets swimming half o’er to Aberdour.  But closer to home, we have another cautionary tale: The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Longfellow, tells of a storm that wrecks a New England schooner with the loss of all hands during an ill-advised winter trip:

“And then the shrouds, all sheathed in ice,

With the masts went by the board.

Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank.

Ho ho! the breakers roared.”

Snowy Splicing Days

A good time for splicing lessons.

Whether these poems are based on actual facts matters very little; the fact is, three boats in barely three weeks this winter were abandoned on the high seas, making one wonder what the owners could possibly have been thinking.  Was it hubris? Ignorance? Arrogance? They might claim nothing more than a run of bad luck, but given this winter’s three, and last winter’s one, I hope sailors will think long and hard before attempting offshore passages in a season better suited for staying safely indoors, planning future voyages, and reading dark poetry.

Precautionary Maintenance and General Purging

Empty Everything Out

In Cartagena it was hot work no matter the time.

2011 01 01 boat yard 034

Looking back at this picture I could hardly even recall what our why we had these things…so glad they are not still kicking around for a rainy day.

There are few things more satisfying to my seafaring soul than periodically emptying the boat of EVERYTHING and giving her a good scrub and sorting and maybe a few coats of paint and varnish. Only one other time, in faraway Cartagena, Colombia, have we had the opportunity to do that to Ganymede, and after a year of living aboard with three tiny children and cruising hard in some dirty places, it was most desperately needed.  That time, as I staggered through the lounge in the boatyard with armload after armload of stuff to be cleaned and sorted, I received ever more incredulous comments from another cruiser who was limply fanning herself on a sofa in the crushing heat.  “Are you gonna take everything out?”

“All of it!” I gasped, sweat streaming in rivers.

“I’ve lived on my boat for thirty years and never done that!”

Sewing in Cartagena

In Cartagena we took advantage of the electricity and space to indulge in some sewing.

2014 11 18 002

Still a favorite pastime, sewing with plenty of space and the aid of electricity never gets old.

I pretended to be too out-of-breath from carrying the stove to be able to answer.  What could I have said?  “I can tell”?  Hardly appropriate, though true.  “You probably ought to”?  Telling others how to conduct their seafaring lives is the quickest way to being unliked.  I’d like to think that my silence spoke volumes, but likelier it fell on deaf ears.  Anyway, whether I set a good example of not, when we packed Ganymede up again she was spicker and spanner than ever, we knew where everything was and how much of it we had, and having got rid of tons of unnecessary junk, we had elbow room galore.

Our next chance at a full emptying did not come until this fall, when we moved into a rented house, four years after having emptied her in Cartagena.  It has taken more carloads than I can count to get everything out of her, but now she’s empty again, and scrubbed down, and ready for some much-needed paint and varnish, which we hope to apply when the weather begins to warm up again.  Deadeye and Lanyard InspectionTill then, all her stuff is at the house, slowly being gone over as time allows: lamps cleaned and serviced, anchor and chain awaiting galvanizing, canvas getting patched, locker lids painted, and most importantly to my mind, her rigging getting a complete overhaul.  We last did that in the winter of 2011-2012, when I had a tabernacle built so we could easily strike and step the mast ourselves.  It was then that I changed over from the rusting galvanized turnbuckles and shackles to aluminum deadeyes and lanyards.

Standing Rigging Inspection

A thorough inspection of deadeyes, lanyards, and all standing rigging.

Though I have no fears that my synthetic shrouds may be getting worn—after all, the far older synthetic shrouds I took apart for inspection after several hard years in the tropics were in pristine shape—I find it prudent to periodically go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.  Not that I don’t perform frequent inspections aloft while cruising, but it’s nice to stretch everything out at ground level and eyeball it closely from time to time.  A lot of lashings that are now over five years old will get replaced just as precautionary maintenance, and all stainless steel fasteners in the aluminum mast will be backed out and in again, just to make sure the Tef-gel they were bedded in is still goopy.  I can also cram more Tef-gel and Lanocote in appropriate places, and generally make sure everything is properly shipshape and not corroding into valueless white powder.

Painting Oars

Look, no wakes! It’s amazing how it changes your perspective.

Having a house with a little garage to do all this in is, of course, most convenient, and it’s just too bad that the boat is so far away, and the weather so cold that I can’t reasonably go down to her after work.  But the longer Spring takes to come, the more coats of paint I can get on the oars and locker lids, the better I can get the rigging serviced, photo 5and by summer Ganymede should be looking and sailing her very best again—better than ever, in fact, since every tweak and improvement of the rig makes her appearance neater or increases her efficiency.

Abednego Marine

Salty Sailor

Demeanor, comportment, habits, and behavior, the wool sweater and sou’wester say it all.

One of the pitfalls of reading too many books in your youth is that you’ll go into situations with preconceived ideas of what things should be like.  Having read an inordinate amount about old time sailing, and whaleships, and cannons and such, I had some pretty strong ideas about New England schooner captains; their demeanor, comportment, habits, and behavior.  So as soon as I was holding a captain’s ticket, and working on a schooner in New England (no matter that I wasn’t actually captain of that schooner: I was a captain, I was on a schooner, it was New England) I began to feel the necessity of acting like one.  Now I’d like to think that saltiness I have already in spades, language is coming along nicely (was I really mumbling “Hast seen the white whale?” a few nights a go in my sleep? You’ll have to ask my wife), smoking a pipe will have to wait till I’m all grown up.  Beard? Check.  Waistcoat? Check. Sou’wester? Several. Pegleg? Well, let’s not push it.  The only thing missing was a proper New Englandish schooner captain name.  Not that Benjamin wasn’t overused in those old time whaling days, but I needed something more flavorful. Ahab. Obadiah. Peleg. Ishmael—something along those lines.

Damaris and her Camera

Totally worth it!

What actually stuck was kind of accidental.  Damaris had just discovered the recording function of her child’s camera, and had begun surreptitiously recording things I said, no doubt for later blackmailing purposes.  Her favorite recording was a phrase from a book I’d been reading to the other two children: “Hold your hush, Abednego!”  It was played back for my benefit, with shrieks of laughter, more than a few times.  Then my wife took it up, whenever she wished to gently remind me that even a fool when he is silent is considered wise.  And so it naturally followed that all summer long on the schooner I was Abednego—“Captain Abednego Hooch, if you please; and be so good as to belay your halyards clockwise on my ship!”

These are Ganymede's plans, but different plans are on the table now!

These are Ganymede’s plans, but different plans are on the table now!

It was a great summer of being Abednego, and when I discoursed with my shipmates about the schooner I’d like to build some day, they began referring to it as the Abednego Schooner.  Getting used to the sound of that, when I started up a little rigging business and needed a name that was closer to the beginning of the alphabet than Zartman Marine would have been, well, there it was.  And here it is: Abednego Marine.  Though my attempt to raise capital for it through Kickstarter met with pretty resounding defeat, we’re still moving forward with it all.  More slowly, to be sure, but there should shortly be an online catalog and order form for Dyneema soft shackles, custom-length strops, and synthetic rigging parts on this site; the name will take you there.  We hope, as time and funds allow, to continue into machined toggles, Dyneema-stropped wooden blocks, aluminum belaying pins and other traditional ideas that modern materials are making feasible once more.

Halyard Toggle Shackle

One of many variations.

It might be wise, trying to go into business, to read books about that—how to cruch numbers for breakfast, squeeze blood from turnips, shortsell, upcharge, boost productivity and who-knows-what.  But every time my hand strays toward the bookshelf, it’s drawn again toward my seafaring collection, and I get lost in square-riggers, fogbanks, codfish and salty decks.  Can’t help myself, it seems.  Good for business? Maybe not, but we’ll embark on it anyway and see where we fetch up.

The Day of Small Beginnings

Drill Press

It was hard to get rid of the drill press, but we have other tools at the top of the list for the next shop.

One of the hardest things about setting out cruising five years ago was closing down the business I had created, selling off all my shop tools, and knowing that there would be no more time, money or space for projects not immediately involved with boat maintenance.  Not that that was huge cause for regret—after all, the business, the tools, the hillside shop in the side yard had all been calculated to speed along the process of building Ganymede and getting back to sea.  But the Ganymede project  had been fun—so many things to improvise, to design, to invent, and I’d become so used to having the table saw, drill press, and air compressor, that I could barely imagine cruising without them.  I even considered cramming my smaller drill press into the sail locker to bring along, but this being patently foolish I sold it instead.

Toggle In Use

A toggle from the tack of the jib has proven simple and reliable.

I didn’t have much opportunity while cruising full time to miss my shop and tools, but now that we’re contemplating a prolonged shoreside stint, the tinker in me is rearing his head once more.  After two winters in a row of building things for other people, my hands are itching to get to ideas of my own that were born long ago during Ganymede’s construction, or that I worked out from necessity during our cruise.  In short, I’m ready to get a little shop, start a business again and get to making things.

Halyard Toggle Shackle

Simple synthetic halyard toggle shackle. Easy to place and very secure.

In the interest of starting small, a friend suggested that I simply add a sale page to this website, get a credit card app, and sell Dyneema soft shackles and custom-length strops, which I can easily make without a big investment in tools.  From there I could branch out into local rigging, which I’ve already been doing on the side here and there around Newport harbor whenever a friend needs a new mainsheet or halyard spliced.  It got me thinking, though: why not go to the next level and put out the handy toggle shackles I’ve been testing on Ganymede for the last few thousand miles?  Standard Dyneema soft shackles with diamond knots are readily available from West Marine, but my own version—which I find easier to use with cold, wet fingers in the dark—are not.

Toggle on a Strop

A quick toggle on a strop served to raise Ganymede’s mast last fall.

Of course that led to the next thought, that the small supply of wooden toggles I’d made while I still owned a lathe would soon be exhausted, and then what?  The best thing to do would be to have aluminum toggles machined, in sufficient quantities to keep the unit price within reason.  But that would require an investment greater than I could responsibly risk—especially not knowing if I was the only person in the world interested in the endless rigging uses of the toggle.  It seemed that I needed an investor, but who would venture their capital on something so small, especially when the margin for profit will be so slim even if it succeeds?

Peak Halyard Toggle

Old design meets modern materials: our peak halyard toggle.

It took a few days of puzzling it out in circles in my mind before the solution hit me.  I first heard about Kickstarter a year ago while cruising Newfoundland, when Jim Thereal, a local who befriended us and ran me around in his car for some errands, suggested I use it to raise money to write and publish a book about our voyage.  Not that that’s a bad idea, but here was a more immediate use for it: why not see if I could crowdfund the first run of toggled shackles?  If there’s enough interest and contributions to be able to make the first batch of toggles and defray the ancillary expenses of starting up a business, it will be worth the time spent setting up and managing the Kickstarter campaign.  And if we can get Zartman Marine off the ground, there’s a whole bag of neat little gizmos I’d like to eventually develop.  But for now the goal is to raise $10,000; for toggles, Dyneema, shop rent, destruction testing, possible anodizing, business licenses, postage, Kickstarter’s commission, etc. etc.

Jib Halyard Toggle Shackle

Ganymede’s first toggle: the start of it all.

So here it is, dear readers and followers: a chance to be part of it all. Go to Kickstarter to contribute, catch up on progress, or simply to share with anyone you think might be interested.  The pictures are a little rough; the pitch a bit unpolished.  It may seem that a simple aluminum toggle on a bit of line is barely a start to anything at all.  But the day of small beginnings is not to be despised, and who knows where this will all end up?

Civilized Yachting, or, The Benefits of Dry Saltines

Ganymede's push toward Panama

Late summer has usually found Ganymede at an extreme of north or south.

One would think that having a job where you spent twelve hours a day sailing would leave you ready to not sail on your days off, but as summer wears on, I find myself as ready as ever to take Ganymede out whenever a day off is not filled with shopping and laundry.  Not that there’s very many of those days; shopping and laundry are just as insistent when not cruising as when you are, but even so we managed to go sailing on Ganymede on three of my last four days off.  It’s a mostly new thing for us, going out for a day sail and returning to the same spot—last year at this time we were at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, waiting our chance to squeak through the Straits of Belle Isle and struggle up the St. Lawrence River.  Two years before that we were sailing up the coast from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay; the year before that we were rounding the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, Ganymede’s southernmost latitude.  We’re just not used to not having to get somewhere when we weigh anchor and hoist the sails.  But this summer hoisting the sails has meant just a few hours of tacking around Narragansett Bay and a return to our mooring ball: we haven’t even gotten the anchor wet since we pulled it out of the mud in Stonington on our final stop before returning here last fall.

Ganymede sailing in Narragansett Bay

Ganymede sailing to weather in Narragansett Bay. photo by Green Brett

Daysailing, however, has its own difficulties.  When cruising, we usually set the sails, get them trimmed, and can go for hours, even a day and more without touching the sheets.  But in the confined waters of the bay we have to tack, gybe, or adjust every few minutes, and getting to windward is pretty important.  Our old cruising method of setting the jib flying, or not hanked-on, wasn’t working so well for several reasons.  First of all, without the jibstay to keep the luff in place, if the steerman pinched a little too far and the jib backed, we had to fall off really far to get it to return—not great for getting to weather efficiently.  We never really wanted to go that close into the eye of the wind when cruising, and if we HAD to, we just beat with main and staysail only, leaving the jib stowed.  But daysailing is all about performance, and getting around nimbly in tight spaces.  Which, of course, was what we had to deal with when trying to sail back onto our mooring in a crowded corner of the harbor.  Being among moored boats also precluded our normal method of getting the jib in, which is to turn downwind until the mainsail blankets it and it drops easily on deck.  Takes a lot of sea room to do that, and we needed to adjust to not having that luxury.

Innovative Jib Hanks for Synthetic Shrouds

A spliced Dyneema loop and a buntline hitch makes a simple soft jib hank.

There was only one alternative: to figure out a way to hank the jib to the stay.  Ganymede’s synthetic rope jibstay precluded the normal bronze piston hanks, which would fray pretty quickly through the cover.  Time to invent.  The solution was simple, but I had to splice a new jibstay, this time with a few round brass thimbles threaded on first.  On each of these I hitched a length of 1/8” Dyneema with a loop spliced in it.  For each of these soft hanks I put a grommet in the luff of the jib, added a downhaul to fetch the sail down easily, and we were in business.  Now we can pinch up to weather as high as the mainsail will allow, we can douse the jib at any sailing angle, and can leave the sail stowed to the lifeline with a simple lashing. The thimbles slide easily up and down the stay with no chafe at all.  We also added winches from the local marine consignment store to get the running backstays bar-tight, and Ganymede has never sailed better or more efficiently.

Sailing with Friends

Even with six extra people there’s elbow room to scull Ganymede back to her mooring in a calm.

Another difference this summer is that we have plenty of friends who are dying to go out sailing, so it’s not just us.  We’ve had five or six other families out with us to share the sailing, and usually we take the opportunity to fire up the barbecue afterwards and have a mini-feast.  I had thought it would feel crowded on Ganymede with up to seven extra people (that makes eleven all told), but it seems there’s always room for one more, even if it takes several trips in the dinghy to get them all aboard and back.  It’s a different feeling—far more social, for one, and lots more comfy sailing around the sheltered bay than being tossed by swells at sea, and it’s nice to know that dinner will be a the proper hour, and will be cooked on a stable boat without a chance of anything winding up on the deckhead, and bedtime will be at the appointed time.  Not that the other sort of seafaring’s that bad, either—up all night a thousand leagues from land in blowing rain and spray with nothing but wet saltine crackers and granola bars to eat has it’s charms—but our civilized yachting is feeling pretty good for now.

The Genie of the Lamps

Building Dams Again

Reminiscent of the dams we would build for laundry day when sailing in the tropics.

Even though it’s happening more and more often, it doesn’t fail to astonish me whenever I get an email from a blog reader in a faraway land—I’m still getting used to the idea that EVERYONE who cares to do a casual Google search with the words “Gaff” or “Ganymede” or “Cruising Family” will stumble across our blog, regardless of what country they live in.   It astonishes me even more when a gentle complaint sent over the ether gets a response: it was a surprise recently when a semi-irate missive to the Newport Maritime Center got them to fix the showers so they would be both hot AND wet at the same time.  So imagine when a gentle complaint via Blog got a quick and gracious response from a country far from here!  It was hardly to be believed.

2014 07 21 Exeter Hikes 057I’m speaking of an email I received from Quirinus Bogaarts, who works for the Den Haan lampmakers of Rotterdam, and who had stumbled across our recent blog posting (no doubt using the casual searchword “Ganymede”) in which I discussed the lighting misadventures we’d had with his firm’s lamps.  He was eager to confirm what we’d learned by hard trial: that most of the problems we’d had were due to bad kerosene, but he was able to explain the why of it in interesting detail.  I imagine that by now they’ve tried burning everything short of coal tar in their lamps, as Mr. Bogaarts had a very good handle on why bad kerosene would drip out of the lamps, why it burns with a peculiar “rabbit ears” flame, why it consumes wicks at a frightful pace, why it fosters the untimely shattering of chimneys.

We may be staying in one place, but we're still busy exploring!

We may be staying in one place, but we’re still busy exploring!

I also learned from his email that the paraffin sold here in the ‘States specifically for lamps is not the best stuff to use—he prefers purified kerosene, which does not evaporate so quickly, nor does it leave a waxy residue behind like paraffin does.  As I mentioned in the blog post that precipitated his communication, we had begun to have an inkling of all these things, and were happily using the lamps again full-time with good success, but it was great to have his email full of tricks and tips and encouragement.  It was like having our own personal lamp guru answering our concerns specifically without having to go through the monumental bother of posting on an online forum and getting six thousand contradictory responses, which is what usually happens when I seek answers online.

2014 07 21 Exeter Hikes 073Perhaps the secret is to not be seeking nor expecting answers at all.  I certainly wasn’t when we made that first blog posting, and now thanks to my lamp genie I understand and appreciate my lamps all the more.  I wonder what else I should blog about with an end to better understanding it? The outboard motor? The propane stove?  The LED headlamps we love to hate?  I guess the possibilities are endless.


Multiplied Exponentially

The Navigator

“The Navigator, by C.W. Ashley” Apparently he could do more than tie knots.

Going to captain’s license school is kind of like getting a college degree in English: it’s absolutely useless for any practical purpose, but a necessary evil if you want to do something that requires a certificate stating that you can spell.  Or operate a boat for hire, in the case of the former.  If you go to school to try and learn how to write, it’s probably hopeless already, and if you go to captain’s school to learn seafaring, you already don’t qualify for a ticket.  The reason people go to captain’s school—the reason I went, two nights a week for an entire grueling winter—is because the good folks at captain’s school have sorted through the enormous pile of information you could learn, a lot of which you probably know already if you’ve been to sea long enough to qualify for a ticket, and sifted out the things you need to learn.  If they’re any good, they’ll hammer in all the difficult things by patient, nagging repetition, touch lightly on the easier things, and ignore the rest.

Charlie WingIt’s possible to study the materials on one’s own and take the test at a Coast Guard Regional Exam Center, but after watching several people struggle with the unwieldly textbook, and fail the first two of three possible tries, and have to drive multiple times to Boston and pay a small fortune for parking, I chose the convenience and streamlined-ness of going to the school across the street from where Ganymede was docked.  It was considerably more expensive, of course, but being able to study in town and take the exams right there and pass them first try because we’d been taught how to navigate the Coast Guard’s devious multiple-choice tests made it worth the price.  The school also knew, more or less, all the ancillary things—medical exams, drug tests, background checks, oaths, applications, sea service forms—that must be endured or procured to send to the Coast Guard along with the school certificates.

Merchant Mariner CredentialThose ancillary things, which I spent most of the winter chasing down, were a worse tribulation than two nights a week of classes.  Both the faraway office where I paid $130 to have them decide I wasn’t yet a terrorist and the office of Doctor Susan, who made very sure I wasn’t really a woman hiding behind a luxuriant beard, were so cleverly hidden that I missed them both and was very nearly late for my appointments.  There were endless squares to check off, not a few blind alleys (“Police report? no, we don’t need that anymore,” the helpful Coast Guard lady on the phone told me.  “The background check covers that.  Besides, we do another background check when your application comes in”) that would have been nice not to have been told I needed in the first place.  It felt very like jumping though a lot of silly hoops while throwing handfuls of money right and left.

A Captain's Ticket!On the whole, I was relieved beyond measure when a packet with about fifty pounds of paperwork was finally mailed off and I had only to wait for the Coast Guard machinery to digest it all and render judgment.  Judgment, however, was delayed by a solitary signature I inadvertently left off of one of the scores of papers I had signed and mailed; a signature whose absence so offended the eagle eye of the examiner that the process could not proceed without.  So after a delay of a couple weeks while they mailed it back so I could mail it back again, things were on track, and just a few of days ago my ticket came in at last: a little orange booklet the exact size of a passport, giving me permission to operate sail and powerboats of up to fifty tons for hire, and also to engage in assistance towing.

Ganymede transits the Panama Canal

Cruising on Ganymede, pictured here transiting the Panama Canal, accrued valuable sea time towards a Captain’s ticket.

It was a most gratifying arrival, not only because of all the effort involved in getting it, but because here in Newport more than anyplace else we’ve been, a captain’s ticket multiplies work opportunities exponentially.  As soon as schooner season is over in November an exodus begins, with scads of boats needing delivery to warmer climates.  In early spring, boats need fetching back.  Most of the owners (or their insurance companies), prefer a licensed captain, and the chance of making a little extra money before or after a long meager winter is not to be despised.  If it wasn’t for the better opportunities for work that come with it, I would never have bothered to get a ticket, but hopefully in a couple of years the tribulation will be forgotten while the benefits continue to accrue.  If we don’t get to cruise long-term on Ganymede again, being able to make a career of messing around in boats will perhaps be second best.

Chimney Chronicles

Anchor Lamp

Capella’s trusty anchor oil lamp.

For the nearly five years that we’ve been living full-time aboard Ganymede, our lighting situation has been a never-ending saga.  Being a boat without 12-volt electricity plumbed in, we naturally turned to oil lamps for cabin lighting.  We had saved three already out of our beloved little Capella—the first boat we owned and cruised in—so it was not too bad to buy two more gimballed cabin lamps for a total of four in the salon and one above the berth.  The salon four were from the Den Haan lampmakers in Rotterdam; the one for the berth a smaller one from Weems & Plath.  We were also given a huge Trawler hanging lamp, which while it gave an enormous amount of light was far too big for the cabin, and we jettisoned it at the first swap meet we went to in La Paz.

Ganymede's Interior

Even Ganymede’s lighter redwood hull ceiling can make a lamp seem less bright than an all white interior.

Now the thing about oil lamps is that they burn oil—paraffin or kerosene (or mineral spirits, in a pinch), and paraffin can become expensive, not to mention hard to find in certain far-flung places.  We had managed to always keep a good, clean supply of paraffin in Capella, and the two lamps had shed more than enough light in the white-painted cabin to do almost anything by.  But Ganymede, though her deckhead is white, has a lot more dark surfaces that propagate the light but poorly, and is also far bigger inside.  So she was already harder to light properly, and a tragic intrusion of water into our oil supply, early on in the cruise, rendered it less efficient than it ought to have been.

Trawler Lamp

The trawler lamp did provide much light and heat which we found less desirable than the space it required.

It took longer than it should have to discover that our paraffin supply was adulterated, and separating the water out was messy and time consuming.  But then a worse problem arose.  We were in remotest Mexico, heading into even more wildsome parts, when we began to need more lamp fuel.  Paraffin (predictably) proved imposible to find, and the best we could get was a low-grade kerosene.  To its credit there was lots of it, and it was pretty cheap, but it needed no outside intrusion of water to make it unsuitable for burning.  Not that it wouldn’t burn; it certainly would, but dimly and with a powerful choking odor and a black smoke that put smut all over the deckhead and dropped bits of soot here and there out of the sky.  It hardly mattered by that point, since  we were in latitudes too hot to want to light oil lamps much, and our huge supply of Mexican Mix lasted until long after we had returned to the ‘States on the other side of the Panama Canal.


Once the girls drew some pretty funny looking pictures because the yellow lamp light distorted the appearance of the colors they chose :)

Our first winter back ‘stateside finally saw the end of the smutty Mexican kerosene, but the odorless, smokeless paraffin suitable for lamps was more expensive than ever, so I tried out the kerosene sold in bulk as heating oil.  Though it was unmistakeably better, it still guttered more than was seemly, and we continued to burn wicks up at an astonishing rate.  Along with it our lamps developed a new quirk: even when not filled much above half, the kerosene would wick itself out and trickle down the body of the lamp to drip on the upholstery, the wood stove, and whatever we were cooking on the range.  Not fast, mind you, but enough to fill the boat with an everpresent aroma of kerosene, and make Danielle throw out whatever food it may have landed on.  This was puzzling, since it had never happened on Capella, and seemed to become more prevalent as time went by.  It was moreover heartily annoying, and added to the expense and fragility of the chimneys….

Skylight Hatch

Ganymede needed a new hatch with glass panels to provide extra light for high latitude cruising.

But let me turn aside and talk about lamp chimneys for a while.  I can hardly believe that a lamp chimney is more difficult or expensive to make than a common water tumbler, yet West Marine wants $36 apiece for Den Haan chimneys!  Weems & Plath, not to be outdone, gets $18 for each of theirs, which are far smaller and crack more easily from the heat of the flame.  Often a chimney will rend itself in pieces with the heat of the first use, and one evil night saw three brand-new Den Haan chimneys shatter themselves asunder just moments after being put on the lamps.  One could wish that for $36 apiece they could make the things out of tempered glass, at least!  For a company that claims to have been making lamps for over a hundred years it seems they still have a ways to go.  I had begun to despair of affording to light my boat at all when I stumbled across Southern Lamp Supply on the internet and discovered that they sell globes that fit the Den Haan lamps for $6 each.  Not that these don’t shatter just as readily and randomly, but you get six colossal failures for the price of one.


Large portholes let in wonderful amounts of light on a sunny day.

But back to adding the expense of chimneys to the bother of dripping kerosene (which by the way is a design flaw of the Den Haan gimbaled cabin lamps.  The little Weems & Plath Atlantic lamp has never dripped a drop), I was about to just put candles in all the gimbals and be content when some clean-burning, lamp-ready kerosene came our way.  Danielle tried it out, and the results were night-and-day.  Not only did the flame burn brighter and cleaner, there was no smell, and the lamps ceased to drip.  After a few days of use, she noticed that the wicks had needed far less trimming, and the chimneys didn’t soot up to a dingy, perpetual gray if they lasted unbroken more than a week.

So the lamps are back in our good graces, and though there’s still much room for improvement, especially along the lines of sturdier chimneys, it seems that a lot of the tribulations of oil lamp use can be mitigated by coughing up the extra money for nicer fuel.  Not only do they burn brighter, they dispel moisture and warm up a brisk evening without creating a choking fug in the cabin.  Strange to think that in the four++ years of daily life aboard we’ve only just now had a chance to let our little lamps shine to their full potential.  I wonder what else we’ve been missing all this time?

The Root of all Evil

Newport Harbor AnchorageInevitably, the arrival of spring in Newport heralds the arrival of boats—boats by the hundred, flocking to the sailing capital of the East Coast to enjoy one of the most famous, picturesque, and pleasant bays in the world.  And with the arrival of so many boats, the laws of supply and demand being what they are, dockage rates naturally skyrocket.  And so, in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, all the winter liveaboards vacate the marina and scatter to various anchorages and mooring fields for the summer.  It was extremely pleasant, a few days ago, when we moved Ganymede out of the marina; out of the fishbowl of public scrutiny we’d been in since the winter canopy came down and passers-by could look straight into the portholes.

Narragansett Bay Sailig

Rarely is there a day without boats on the water in Newport.

It’s better out on the water—much more sailorly: you commute by dinghy to go ashore; lines, oars, knots, water, seaboots are a daily thing; there’s always the chance of going sailing on an afternoon off work.  But this year the big move out was tainted by an ugly cloud: an anchorage restriction, rumored for years but never truly believed, was passed by the Newport Waterfront Commission last fall.  This Newport anchoring ordinance decreed that a boat can no longer anchor freely in the designated anchorage: the limit on anchoring is two weeks, then the boat must leave for four days before it can anchor again.  The stated reason for this was to prevent the wanton use of the anchorage as free storage for uncared-for boats.  While admittedly this has been a small problem in the past, the real reason is far more simple.  It’s about money.  As long as people are free to anchor, the local mooring-rental mafia sees dollars slipping through their hands.  But make free anchoring not an option for all of us who live and work in Newport harbor, and a hefty chunk of our hard-earned money is perforce forked over to them.

Having known since late winter that this was on its way, and being law-abiding folk in general, we had secured a mooring for the season, though the rent was more than twice what we pay for winter wharfage.  But other long-time anchorage dwellers, arriving from other parts without an inkling of what transpired, have been forced to scramble to find moorings.  Many cannot afford it, and will have to shuffle from pillar to post to stay within the law, and risk a ticket if all they want to do is live in peace as before and go to work.

Bowen's Wharf

It’s so nautical!

It seems unfair that a few careless people taking advantage of a rightfully free anchorage should be able to ruin the dwelling place of an entire community—for that’s what we were, from young fellows just starting out in the boatbuilding trade, to families raising children, to semi-retired septuagenarians; a whole little village on the water—but really that was only an excuse.  The Mooring Mob would have found some other pretext if that one hadn’t been ready to hand.  It’s happened all over Florida; it’s spreading like a cancer to other places: where some lame reason or another is cited for keeping people from anchoring freely, when we all know it’s because every free anchorage keeps money from the coffers of the avaricious.

Newport Mooring FieldTruly it has been said that the love of money is the root of all evil.  And now a great evil has been done to sailors in a place that prides itself on being one of the sailing capitals of the world.  On the day that the Waterfront Comission passed that ordinance, Newport lost—nay, stamped underfoot—one of the things that made it such a wonderful place.  And all for money.  It was a sad day for Newport; a sad day for freedom.  A great place for sailors to live and work? Not anymore.

Why is a Schooner?

Schooner Mystic Whaler

The Mystic Whaler is a replica of an early New England schooner.

For as long as I can remember there has been a story of how the particular sort of boat known as a ‘Schooner’ was named.  When the first one ever built in New England was launched into the harbor, a bystander is supposed to have exclaimed in wonder: “See how she schoons!”  People tend to disregard this tale simply because it seems so unlikely, but no one can offer a better etimolygy for the word, so I say we may as well go with it.

Dugout Canoe in Snug Harbor

Instead of having a rudder, the Kuna Indians steer with their paddle from the after end.

But wherever the name came from, there are few nautical things more New England-ish than schooners.  At one time they carried the bulk of the coastal trade up and down the eastern seaboard, were used for every sort of fishing, and routinely travelled as far as Panama to trade for coconuts.  Among the San Blas islands of that Central American country are many places with very Yankee-sounding names—Elsie; Gertie; Nellie; Snug Harbor—obviously a legacy of the coconut traders, and many of the dugout canoes there sport sprit and gaff-rigged sails, which seem in all likelyhood copied from the characteristic sails the schooners flew.

Schooner Aquidneck Crew

Sheer simplicity!

The summer before last, after sailing from California to New England over three years by way of the Panama Canal, I was hired as crew of Aquidneck, an 80-foot schooner that in season does five sails a day around Narragansett Bay.  She’s the biggest of several schooners that sail out of Newport, and I was amazed at how easily that much boat can be handled by a captain and two crew.  She’s rigged in the traditional schooner way: big gaff-headed mainsail; smaller gaff foresail; staysail; and jib.  There are no winches to crank or furlers to jam—all the hoisting and sail control are done with old fashioned tackles and manpower.  Best of all, the steering mechanism is an old-fashioned worm-gear; the sturdiest, most reliable method of steering boats too big for a tiller.

Ganymede Sailing toward Nova Scotia

Even on our own nickle,every penny counts and not one was put to waste.

It was a wonderful summer, and without question the best job I’ve ever had—how many people get paid to go sailing?  And all this time I’d been sailing Ganymede on my own nickel!  I even had a twinge of regret last spring when we sailed for Nova Scotia that I wasn’t going to get to sail on Aquidneck that summer.  Of course that soon passed in the nonstop excitement that was our summer cruise, but we knew even before we sailed away that we would be returning to Newport, and (hopefully) returning in time to work on the schooner again.

However much our plans went cockeye last summer (you can read all about it a dozen or so blog installments back), we did make it back to Newport, and I got my berth again on the schooner.

Schooner Aquidneck Recommissioned

Freshly recommissioned, Aquidneck ghosting through Newport Harbor in a light air.

Several weeks before the sailing season began found us out at the shipyard where Aquidneck had been stored for winter, painting, sanding, scrubbing—the annual tale of preparing for summer.  As launch date approached, preparations reached a fever pitch.  The protective plastic canopy came off; painting projects got their final coat, the worm gear was re-assembled; varnish applied.  As soon as she was launched I spent nearly six hours up the masts rigging tackles and reeving halyards while my shipmates clapped on seizings and bent sails down below.

Sailing Narragansett Bay

A schooner ride is a cool option for a hot day.

The last week went in a whirlind rush that culminated in our first sail of the season.  What matter that it was cloudy and still a bit on the chilly side?  The wind was glorious; the schooner put her rail right next to the water, and away we went, tack after tack, down Narragansett Bay.  The other schooners, of less substantial underbody than Aquidneck, all had reefs in, or went gap-toothed (which is when the foresail in not hoisted at all), or both.  But Aquidneck loves a good breeze, and seemed as excited to be sailing again as we were.  If it were only that first day that we were to sail, it would still have made all that work worthwhile.  But we have a whole sailing season to look forward to; hundreds of sails, each one unique; each one a chance to share the magic of wind and water and boat with our guests.  If any of my readers are in Newport this summer, I urge you: come sailing with us. See how she schoons.