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.

Headlamps

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.

Portholes

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.

Seamanship Undefined

Timeless Navigation Equipment

Know your equipment well and use it often.

There’s a lot of talk, in online forums, on blogs, and in magazines, about what exactly constitutes ‘Good Seamanship’.  For some it seems to boil down to having more stuff: good seamanship is about having three or four independent navigation systems in lightning-proof Faraday cages scattered throughout the boat; a second liferaft; AIS; personal and main EPIRBS; Radar; Satphone; Spot tracker; MOB pole; self-inflatable lifejackets with PLBs; a sailplan on file with someone onshore, and watertight tubs of spares and backups for for everything onboard that could possibly fail.  They might also have, in addition to several automatic electric bilge pumps, an engine-driven pump that could empty an Olympic-size swimming pool in 45 seconds, and a Y-valve to turn the engine-cooling pump into an emergency bilge pump as well.  None of these things are a bad thing, and a careful selection of gear is a necessary part of good seamanship, but not the only nor even the most important thing.

A stern hung rudder, the best possible option.

A well attached rudder has little chance of failing.

For others, it’s about the boat. “There’s two inches of solid glass in that hull that was laid up BEFORE the 70’s oil crisis!” they exult. “No way this baby’s going down!” They might add: “The rigging’s three times bigger than the manufacturer’s original specs, and our whisker pole was the boom off a shrimper.  This thing is indestructible!.”  Now there’s lots to be said for a monumentally over-engineered boat, and a good seaman looks for strength and build quality in the vessel he chooses, but it is again not the most important thing.

For others yet, it’s about rules.  “Ten rules of good seamanship”—there’s been a few articles like that in the mags over the years.  This is the one I’m most uneasy with, since during our voyages the practice of what seems good seamanship to me has involved breaking each of the usual ones sometime or other.  One reason I dislike lists of hard-and-fast standards is that the sort of cruising we do involves a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, and inflexible rules stifle that to a certain degree.  Take for an extreme example a person I once knew who took a SCUBA course which taught her that immediately upon surfacing, no matter what, the snorkel must be deployed.  It caused her great distress and confusion when coming up after a dive I floated serenely in my BC with nothing in my mouth at all! (She also thought that unless stabbed with a fork beforehand, potatoes would absolutely not bake properly—so again, an extreme example of mindless rule following).  What’s my point? Just that while rules are useful as guidelines for those gaining experience, there comes a time when one must move beyond them and assess each situation as it comes.

Shaking out a Reef on the Fly

Breaking about 50 rules at once…

Let’s take one of the commonest ones for an example: “Never enter a strange harbor after dark.”  Well, that is certainly good advice for someone unfamiliar with buoys and lights and what a ship looks like coming out of a narrow channel.  But for someone who has experience running channels in the dark, is adept at reading the chart and can keep his bearings, it can be a complete non-event.  In fact, that’s why ports and harbors have lighted navigational aids!

Lighted Navaid in Newfoundland

This buoy can be easily identified at night by the pattern of its flashing light.

I first became comfortable entering strange places in the dark while crewing on the boat of an airline captain.  Piloting by lights at five knots was nothing to him—he was used to steering by lights while flying exponentially faster in an airliner, and we routinely made foreign approaches in darkness.  When Danielle and I took off on our own boat, though I was—and still am, I hope—far more timid and cautious than he, I had done enough nighttime entrances to be able to do so comfortably, and the more we cruise the more I’m convinced that it’s a skill that should be practiced against a time of need.  There has been more than one occasion where good seamanship—a due regard to the safety of the boat and crew—required that a strange and unlit harbor be entered in pitch blackness rather than spend an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous night outside.  Of course I try to avoid entering any place, strange or not, after dark, but knowing that I safely can do so at need is a source of comfort when landfall is imminent.

Crossing the Straits of Belle Isle

Long days at the helm in the northern summer.

Some of the rules descend into plain silliness—“Never leave the cockpit without a safety line;” or “Never stay awake longer than 20 hours in a row.”  Well, I’d like to never be awake longer than about 14, but there have been times when safety and prudence—good seamanship, in fact—demanded a thirty-hour trick at the helm.  And while we generally tether in when things are getting rough, it would be absurd to do so ALL the time.  You might as well insist on being tied in while going up the stairs in your house.

Prudently Sounding into an Unknown Harbor

A prudent mariner will carry a manual sounder, even if equipped with an echosounder.

There are others which space will not allow me to discuss at length, such as never getting into wind-opposed currents or sailing AT ALL when a hurricane is somewhere in the same hemisphere, that, while certainly good rules of thumb, aren’t always practical or possible.  No, good seamanship is not found in the inflexible adherece to lists of rules, nor is it measured by the suitableness of the boat or the amount of gear and stores it carries aboard; it’s an elusive, flexible mix of all three, blended with heavy doses of experience, prudence and good judgment.  The good seaman is one who after taking reasonable precaution and preparation for the passage in view will be able to deal intelligently with every tribulation he is handed underway.  I’m not much of a seaman at all even by my own generous definition—unforeseen trials underway usually serve only to drive home how bad a decision it was to go seafaring just there or then, and I wind up wishing I’d been seaman enough to simply stay ashore. We’ll probably never be able to quantify exactly what good seamanship is: we can only just go out to sea, do our best, learn from our mistakes, and go to sea again.

Spring into Action

Easton's Beach

The shells we scavenged at the beach in early spring had lovely ice formations inside.

 We had begun to despair, some of us, that spring would ever arrive.  As the season advanced into what should have been balmier temps and calmer weather, the onslaught of winter in New England raged on unabated.  “Remember how we thought last winter was bad?” the guys at work kept saying.  “It wasn’t nothing compared to this.”  It was bad enough I suppose, for them—no one finds getting up and driving to work in 15 degrees pleasant, especially with all the snow we had this year—but for us who need good weather to commision boats before a fixed deadline it was even worse.  What if it didn’t warm up enough to pull down the canopy until two or three days before moving-out date, when the marina’s seasonal rates skyrocket?  There would be no time for all the projects I had lined up that require electricity, or room to spread out.  Paint wouldn’t dry, caulking wouldn’t set, and we’d have to head out to the mooring field with the boat still in shambles.  It was an excruciating thought.

Sightsailer

Preparing to paint Sightsailer for the coming season.

The same would apply for my summer job at Sightsailing of Newport, where there were three boats to get ready for summer, all of which need sanding and painting and re-bedding of various parts.  It was still very wintry when I left Morgan Marine in Bristol, the shiny orange mold that had been my winter project almost ready for use, and not a little chilly the next week as work began on Sightsailer, grinding, sanding, and unbolting hardware with gloves, coats and hats pulled low.

Giant Corn Syrup Bubbles

Common ingredients and a few scraps provide endless fun in the sun.

Slowly though, but most reluctantly, winter has been releasing it’s grip.  In one violent deluge last week that left basements flooded all over the state, the snow was all washed away, and temperatures began spending more time on the proper side of freezing.  It’s still not spring in earnest, mind you—we still have a fire morning and evening, but one can go outside for a few hours in the middle of the day without fear of frostbite.  With the arrival of long-awaited warmer weather,  the ususal flurry of spring activity has gone into hyperdrive.  Where at the shipyard ours were usually the only cars around, it’s now hard to find an open space to park, and the sound of sanders, grinders, polishers and all manner of hoists and boatlifts fills the air that so recently was filled with driving snow.

Lavac Installation

Big changes for little Ganymede

We’ve gone into hyperdrive on Ganymede, as well, trying to install a new head and holding tank before having to move to the anchorage; trying to dig out from the clutter of winter.

In a concession to everyone’s need for more space, we rented a storage unit, and have begun ferrying boxes out, two at a time, which is all that will fit in the car.  “This box isn’t full,”  I said, opening the lid of one to find only a few items in the bottom.  “We should put more stuff in it.”

“We can’t.  We don’t have any more things that fit in that category.”

Cate-what?  This was news to me, and we’ve been married since the Dark Ages.  My wife explained this new side of her patiently:  “This isn’t new.  The purpose of boxes is not to pack them brim-full; it’s to segregate unlike things.”

“Isn’t that an inefficient use of space?”

“If all you want is to use the smallest amout of room, then we can just shovel everything into a pile in a corner of the shed.  But I want to be able to find everything again.”

Storage Unit Boxes

It looks so empty until we consider putting it all back in the boat again.

Sharp as a tack, me, I saw her point and bought more boxes.  We’ve filled nine big ones so far, and the boat doesn’t feel any emptier, though she says we have loads of locker space freed up for the overflow of everyday things that would otherwise go on the cabin sole.

One bit of clutter we don’t have to worry about is firewood.  I had thought, looking at the giant pile of wood I laid in at the beginning of winter, that we’d be disposing of or trying to store a third of it in boxes at the end of winter.  But no, we ran out of wood before we ran out of winter, and all that’s left of the half-cord I was so proud of is heaps of sawdust on the side deck.

Garlic Sprouts

Even without a green thumb and a sever lack of sunshine, garlic has been, by far, the most gratifying plant to grow.

Tentatively we experimented with the charcoal I use for the barbecue, and found it to burn most excellently in our woodstove, and moreover to last better than our normal firewood, since there were still hot ashes in the morning when I went to re-light.  I secured a couple of armloads of kindling from my old friends at the Coronet shed, and now, however long it takes for spring to warm up, we’ll still have cozy mornings and evenings in between busy days of preparing for the summer season.  And it will be most welcome when it comes.

The Perfect Cruising Boat

Irwin 27'

Our first boat, a 1967 Irwin 27′, was far from perfect, yet served us well and taught us much.

Every so often, an aspiring seafarer will log into an internet sailing forum and ask, “Exactly what is the perfect cruising boat?”  Unless they’re ‘Trolls’ looking for mischief, they usually receive a giant heap of contradictory and subjective answers, since everybody has a different idea based on various levels of experience, competence, and mostly, preference.  Almost every make and model of boat is held forth by someone or other, and the waters only get muddier with each reply.

Rigging Acrobatics

Be sure, a child will use every inch of space she can get into.

Even more elusive is defining the perfect family boat, which in addition to everything else has to be roomy enough for all the kids.  Most of the cruisers we encountered on our travels who also had children had chosen catamarans—biggish ones in the forty+ foot range.  There were some on monohulls, but usually pretty big ones—by our 31-foot standards.

The Perfect Cruising Boat

Photo by Green Brett as Ganymede returned to Newport this fall.

The perfect cruising boat, if you ask me, is of course our very own Ganymede.  Strong, simple, easily handled—there’s nowhere that boats have gone that Danielle and I would hesitate to take her, given the chance.  But there’s the thing of it—she’s the perfect cruising boat for two, but not so suited for five.  Not that she’s let us down; we’ve sailed 12,000 miles in her with our three children aboard, but the tightness of quarters is becoming less than ideal.

Old Coronet Rigging

Big old gaffer blocks

What the aspiring seafarers really want is a formula; a rule to help sift through the bewildering array of options so they can optimize their boat search.  I have come up with such a formula—one born in the crucible of nearly five years aboard in a broad range of places and situations.  Here it is: You need about thirty feet for the first two people and six feet further for each additional person.  So our ideal family cruising boat would be about fifty feet long.

Cruising Cat

Most families we have met cruise on a catamaran.

This might have seemed laughable twenty or thirty years ago when folks generally cruised on smaller boats, but nowadays 48-foot catamarans are commonplace, 64-foot monsters like the Sundeer are seen here and there, and middle-of-the-road cruisers measure in at forty-odd feet.

Dawns Early Light

Dawn, time to for a watch below.

Of course, hitting on a fifty-foot length was only the first step.  Long night watches at sea are the perfect time to let your mind wander, and during our last cruise Danielle and I did a lot of mental sketching.  The perfect family boat would of course be full-keeled, just like Ganymede, with a plumb bow and a rudder hung on a square transom.  With a displacement of about 40,000 lbs, she’d be a bit much for a tiller to handle, so there would be bronze worm-gear steering.  A solid bulwark all around, about eighteen iches high would be far better for keeping things aboard than lifelines, and without the frightful ugliness of netting.

80' Schooner Aquidneck

A small gaff headed schooner would carry much sail area that would be easily manageable at sea.

Naturally, she would be rigged as a schooner—any boat over thirty-five feet should have a second mast to spread the sail area out—and even more naturally she would be gaff-headed: Bermudian rigs require so much mast height, rig tension, winches, expense and complication that they make so sense for a cruising boat.  With 350 square feet of sail on the main and 250 on the foresail, each could still be easily hoisted by one person without resorting to winches.  The spars would be aluminum and the standing rigging synthetic: I’ve said before that now we have Vectran and Dynex Dux, there’s no excuse for using wire rope anywhere on a boat.

Propeller Cut-out

Having no inboard engine, Ben filled in the cut-out for the propeller before hanging the rudder.

In a concession to modern times and marinas that bill by the foot, the bowsprit would be easily retractable, with bobstay and shrouds tightened by cascading tackles for ease and convenience in setting up.  A heavy hull with the beam carried well forward for seaworthyness and inside volume would be too large for an outboard engine, so there would have to be one inside.  There is nothing worse, though, than cutting out the back end of the keel so you can drag a huge prop through the water: I would seriously look into a diesel-electric setup, with one engine powering two folding propellers, one each side of the keel, or two smaller diesels, maybe 20-ish HP each.  Either way, the engine room, placed aft under a 10X8 foot pilothouse, would be hermetically sealed from the rest of the boat.  Any through-hulls would be placed there, to minimize the risk of sinking, and there would be another collision bulkhead forward, dividing an ample sail/chain/tool/utility locker from the living area of the boat, just like Ganymede has.

Hard Working Kids

Joyfully hard at work.

We sketched it out one day on graph paper, just to see if everything we wanted could be made to fit.  It helps to have built one boat already and know just how big things really need to be, and how much headroom is desirable, and what width of door it’s nice to have.  It took a couple of tries, but we managed it in the end: one master cabin, three smaller ones, two heads, table for six, galley, woodstove, full-sized chart table, plenty of locker space: the ultimate family cruising boat, Zartman style, and with room to carry the children into their teens.

Sea Ice Forming

This winter we have found that dreams grow spectacularly in sea ice.

“Could we?” we wondered, thinking of the breathtaking huge-ness that project would involve; thinking of the astronomical cost of time and materials, not to mention a veritable Gordian Knot of logistics.  Lots of things had come together most fortuitously to allow us to build Ganymede.  A rent-free place to build her; an evening job that allowed mornings to be devoted to boatbuilding, an almost manic motivation to get back to seafaring as quickly as possible.  It seems highly unlikely that all the necessary circumstances could come together a second time for a far more ambitious project.

Daffodils in Snow

Like the hardy and persistent daffodil promising the coming of the next season, we press on toward….well, you never know.

Still, Ganymede started with a crazy idea, an idea that seemed foolish and unlikely and even impossible at times, yet here we are.  Most likely this vague schooner thing will forever remain in my mental filing cabinet as something I’d like to do someday, just like sailing the Northeast Passage over the coast of Siberia, or digging a cave-house into the side of a hill, or adapting carbide miner’s lamps to replace the kerosene lighting on Ganymede.  Most likely, but you never know.  You simply never know.

Building Boats Again

What do sailors do when they come ashore? Build boats, of course.

7' fiberglass rowing dinghy

Fairing Ganymede's Cabintop

Fairing among friends.

When Ganymede launched, three years after construction began, and six long years after we had moved ashore to start the boatbuilding process, I had felt like never building a boat ever again.  After all, I had built 15 or so dinghies, as well as the molds for them all, and used up several 55 gallon drums of polyester resin in putting decks, cabin, bulkheads and rudder on Ganymede.  My memory of that time is mostly of endless grinding, sanding, itching, and sanding some more.  There was also lots of sticky stuff, and plenty of terrible smell.  Everything related to boatbuilding, from melting lead for ballast to browsing catalogs for parts and equipment, had lost its lustre.  It was time to go cruising, and it felt great to not have to get into acetone any more, or mix paint or apply varnish.

2014 02 10 Vanquish 002I hadn’t really wanted to get back into boatbuilding when we returned to Rhode Island for the winter, but it seems that one of the main things going on here in the winter is boatbuilding and repair, and all my friends who were in a position to recommend jobs are boatbuilders as well.  Well, it had been a while, anyway, since I had bathed in acetone, so I took a place at a fiberglass shop that builds the Vanquish speedboats—high-end semi-custom 26-foot runabouts.

2015 01 27 Vanquish 011My particular job was to be building a plug for a redesigned deck mold.  For my readers who aren’t conversant in fiberglass-ish, a plug is a full-sized prototype of the object you want to make, from which molds are made to make the final product in.  Sounds complicated, and it rather is.  First we made a sacrificial deck to modify, and I spent a few days laboriously cutting various bits of it away with a sawzall.  Then we had to build the new interior into it with MDF—a cheap sort or pressed board that works easily and doesn’t warp or move.  For several weeks we built shapes—settees, consoles, bulkheads—screwed them, glued them and installed them.  After that we either chiselled them back out for newly-invented modifications, or after spending several days making nice fillets all around with Bondo, had to put in an addition that completely covered the fillets anyway, and had to be filleted in turn.

Woggs Plug

A mother/daughter fairing team for the Woggs plug.

It was just like old times dinghy building, really: fairing compound on, sand off, apply again, but on a much larger scale.  Before the plug was ready for primer, we had mostly sanded off, by hand, fifteen gallons of fairing putty.  The shop, usually pretty messy anyway, was thick with MDF dust, Bondo dust, and curled bits of spent sandpaper.  I had hoped to learn perhaps a few labor-saving tricks that I hadn’t known when I was working on my own, but it looks like the only shortcut to plug-building is to make everything very carefully so as not to have to fair it too much.

Mold Waxing

Daddy’s little helper waxing away

It was a big day, yesterday, when the plug was finally deemed ready for the last coat of primer.  None of us had fingerprints left—the pads of our fingers had all been sanded off.  It looked pretty sleek, gleaming black and looking miraculously perfect.  It looked done, in fact, and in a way it is.  All we have to do now, all we’ll do for the next two weeks or so, is to sand some more, around and around with ever finer grits of paper, till the whole shebang is mirror smooth and ready to wax.  It seems strange that only a few days after all these months of labor are poured into this thing, as soon as the mold comes off it, in fact, we’re going to have to cut it up and toss it in the dumpster.  In a way I’m glad, since we’re pretty sick of the old thing by now, but at the same time it seems a shame to toss it out after all that work.  And unless I miss my guess, the person who’s worked on it the most, the person who was hired specifically to help with this, will be the one who has to chop it up.

Ah well, it’ll be just like old times, and after a four-year break from it all, it’s not so bad to be building boats again.

 

 

No Metric Equivalent

Water temperature is measured according to whether on not Mommy swam.

Water temperature is measured according to whether on not Mommy swam.

Three kids tuckered out at mid-day measures some successful play.

Three kids tuckered out at mid-day measures some successful play.

I saw one time, at a museum in Virginia, a curious watch with only ten hours marked on the dial.  It turned out to be a rare relic of a little-known attempt by French horologists to measure time in metric.  It was hubris, perhaps, that made them think they could also cram time into their newly-invented system of measure: the French had, with varying degrees of success, managed to measure a couple of things in centimeters and kilograms, and were raring to convert the whole world to their way of thought.

Sometimes, the stage of the tide can be known by distinct color changes in the water.

Sometimes, the stage of the tide can be known by distinct color changes in the water.

There was one problem, though: while arbitrary values like length and weight can be measured by means of any standardized unit, the passage of time has to be measured with a system compatible to the rotation of the earth—in short, the measure of a circle cannot, to this day, be sensibly forced into a framework limited to tens and hundreds and thousandths.

 

Apparently, it's not noon. Yarr-harr-harr!

Apparently, it’s not noon. Yarr-harr-harr!

There have been several other notable things which have proved un-adaptable to Metric—marine and air navigation proved impossible with it, and are still conducted in Nautical miles.  The incredibly lame UTM grid with which the Metric System seeks to replace Latitude and Longitude only works at the Equator—everywhere else there is too much distortion to conduct any sort of cartography using it.

We measure wave heights by how challenging the surf-landing.

We measure wave heights by how challenging the surf-landing.

If only the earth were a cylinder it would work splendidly.  It has been the spherical nature of the earth, in fact, that has been the downfall of the Metric system since they day it was thought up.  Originally the Meter was supposed to be one-forty-thousandth (a number not evenly divisible into 100, by the way, destroying the entire purpose of it from the start) of the distance from the Equator to the pole.

For kids, years are less important than stages, imagine this guy with a six foot wingspan!  How he will soar.

For kids, years are less important than stages, imagine this guy with a six foot wingspan! How he will soar.

What the scientists tasked with cooking up an alternate system of measure forgot, or perhaps never knew (being as we have seen weak on spherical geometry), was that the earth is an oblate speroid—it is slightly flattened at the poles, therefore their base distance was not also a quarter of the way around the equator, like it was meant to be.

Occasionally, officials measure importance by how many stamps they use.

Occasionally, officials measure importance by how many stamps they use.

It took some time to discover this, since astronomy requires a working knowledge of spherical geometry (on which they were weak, remember), and by the time someone pointed that out, the newly-minted metersticks and ten-centimeter rulers were already in stores.  What followed was not a return to the sensible system that had been and continues to be in use to this day—nor even a tuning up of it, or re-checking to make sure it measured up: no, instead their new standard length, the Meter, went through a series of definitions, each of which proved inadequate and was discarded until relatively recent times, when it was finally fixed as a distance requiring some serious scientific equipment and controlled laboratory conditions to figure out.

Good measuring makes good cakes, this one was for the anniversary of launching Ganymede in 2009.

Good measuring makes good cakes, this one was for the anniversary of launching Ganymede in 2009.

And perhaps that is the problem with the whole system: it purports to greater accuracy than Nature herself allows.  So what if the old-fashioned yard is based on the length of a certain monarch’s arm?  And so what if the distance around the equator isn’t exactly divisible by yards of that length?

How fast can you scull, Dad?  Faster than you can swim.

“How fast can you scull, Dad?” “Faster than you can swim.”

One goes into marine navigation knowing that; knowing, moreover, that the Equator in his calculations is an average value, fluctuating with tides and oblique spots in the gravitational field.  The navigator knows, also, that a day is not exactly 24 hours long, and instead of attempting to cram nature into a rigid scheme that might be simple if it worked, he adjusts and corrects and learns to live with and love the tiny variations that help to keep him on his toes.  And given good conditions and decent instruments, an even mediocre navigator can get along quite well.

Just imagine counting music in 100's...

Just imagine counting music in 100′s…

But here the specious cry: “So what if the Metric system is limited and based on unscientifical principles?  The WHOLE WORLD is using it exept for us!”  I might have believed that last statement once, but it turns out that the more foreign countries I visit, the more places I find still using gallons and fathoms and inches.  The only country in Central America (and we’ve been to them all by now) that uses the Metric System almost exclusively is Costa Rica, and they’re the one least worth a visit.

Ten ton cutter

Ten ton cutter, I can’t say enough about her.

Even so, your boat is measured in feet upon check-in and –out.  Surprisingly, even in Quebec City, the heart of French Canada and almost more French than France itself, they asked me to translate my boat length from meters back to feet so they could assign a marina slip.

Fathoms of ever useful potwarp.

Fathoms of ever useful potwarp.

Of course, in the other portions of Canada we visited on our recent cruise, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the Metric System is a faraway notion that doesn’t enter into day-to-day life.  I was scolded in Lunenburg for trying to buy shock cord in anything other than feet; a man in Newfoundland told me he needed “just a few more fathoms of fencing”.  Firewood is measured in cords, fishing boats are measured in feet; fish hauls in pounds, codfishing depths told off in fathoms.

The best charts measure in degrees and fathoms.

Can you fathom navigation any other way?

In fact, fathoms are so much alive in the business of navigating that old charts are far more in demand than the shiny new government issues with depths in meters.  More than once we set a new-edition chart aside in favor of an older one, which wrinkled, rubbed and stained as it might have been, still had very accurate soundings where the metric charts had only a blocked-out area and a note “area not surveyed to modern standards.”

Much of boat design is measuring the value of every space and how it is to be used.

Much of boat design is measuring the value of every space and how it is to be used.

It seemed incomprehensible that people at the supposed cutting edge of science couldn’t pull off with fancy metric echo sounders what John Cabot and Captain Cook and Henry Hudson did, and very accurately at that, with lead weights on a string.  Their unwillingness to print a sounding that might be a few centimeters shy of spot on has made them create a far greater hazard to navigation by not having any soundings at all, and we stood off from more than one bay we might have gone into if they’d left the old-fashioned soundings in place.

Light Air, an ideal wind force and more than a light breeze is more than could be wished for.

Light Air, an ideal wind force and more than a light breeze is more than could be wished for.

But not all their charts are metric, and all their tidal current calculations are done in knots, as well as the windspeeds in the marine forecast.  They’re like a popular British sailing magazine I read from time to time, where they give boat lengths in feet, followed in parentheses by the length in metres.

Ganymede was built a dram at a time.

Ganymede was built a dram at a time.

Having been told they should convert, they give a nod to the metric system, but the measurements that matter are still done in standard.  That’s as it should be, and I expect one day the meter and liter and kilo and UTM grid will end up where they belong, as curious museum displays alongside the failed metric watch.

Immeasurable joy.

Immeasurable joy.

Now What? How to Become Landlubbers Again

Ooops, isn't this the way to open my mail?

Ooops, isn’t this the way to open my mail?

The worst thing for me about taking a break from cruising is having to find a job.  Not the job itself, mind you—just the looking for one.  It seems the most depressing thing on earth to fill out endless reams of applications, wondering, fearing, hoping the phone will ring and dreading it won’t.  I expect it’s the same for all cruisers who are re-integrating.  There’s always a sort of dazedness to coming back on shore, with the million things that need immediate attention.  Address changes to cancel (“Ah, the notorious Zartmans!” said the man at the post office the first time we went in), marina paperwork to fill out, library cards to see to—the list goes on.

Ah, what merry times in the Maritimes.

Ah, what merry times in the Maritimes.

It helped a little, this time, that we were not arriving somewhere entirely new, but returning to familiar ground in Newport, RI, where we’d spent a whole year before sailing off to the Canadian Maritimes.  The network of in situ acquaintances proved invaluable to settling in quicker, and, as is usual, to finding a job.  Even in this age of LinkedIn and Monster and Craigslist, the best way to hook up with work is still to know someone who knows someone who’s hiring.

Ganymede is all settled and snug, come what may.

Ganymede is all settled and snug, come what may.

It was good, though, that it took a couple of weeks to get something steady.  There was a lot of work to do to settle in: rigging and sails to send down and fold for the winter; ground tackle to rinse, dry and stow; a shrink-wrap canopy to build.  It snowed the day we moved Ganymede to her proper winter slip, and I spent some very cold days doing temporary work at the boatyards.  But before too long (ah, the leisure of the unemployed!)  Ganymede was all snug for the winter, with canopy built and lots more room down below with all our overflow now stored on deck.  Not that that helps for long, since it seems a rule that no matter how much room you have it can quickly get overtaken with clutter.  Of course, the kids have had to live so long with no room for extra things, unable to accumulate treasures as freely as children like to, that now I think they’re accumulating extra, just because they can.

In the fulness of time, and perhaps just a little before, my vast network of friends and well-wishers paid off, and I was invited to work at Goetz Composites in Bristol.  My task was to help finish a boat re-fit, and I spent a pleasant (if often chilly) four weeks installing lights and plumbing and other small things on an 80-foot carbon-fiber ex-raceboat.  Before that project came to an end, a full-time project came along, also in Bristol (lots of boatbuilding going on in that town), making a prototype interior for a re-designed speedboat.  Work starts early (6:30 AM!), but the building in which I get to spend my days making patterns out of MDF (a kind of glorified cardboard) is well heated, and life is inevitably settling into a pattern.

When looking at this just listen for the rustle of grasses followed by a hoodling roar

When looking at this just listen for the rustle of grasses followed by a hoodling roar

Now I’ll tell you the surprising part: contrary to most people’s idea of cruising, which is one of endless leisure under coconut trees with a fistful of cool beverage, this full-time job with a daily commute and seemingly endless errands is a lot less work than full-time cruising with the kids has ever been.  Sure, there’s cruisers who do the shady relaxing thing, but they usually don’t have children, nor do their boats move very often.  We’ve known cruisers whose only ambition is to lounge about in their underwear and browse the internet—you can do that with almost any Central American cellphone SIM card—and we find that completely acceptable.  Cruising should be done at your speed and in your own style, whatever that may be.  But our style is of necessity less relaxing—we have places to go and see,  and the children don’t allow for leisurely lounging.  Cruising for us is more like in one of Masefield’s Bo’sun’s Yarns:

“Them’s the works o’ the Lord you sees in steam ‘n’ sailing ships,-

Rocks ‘n’ fogs ‘n’ shatterin’ seas ‘n’ breakers right ahead,

‘N’ work o’ nights ‘n’ work o’ days enough to strike you dead.”

Ben will never forget waking up from a brief nap after our most exhausting first family over-nighter to discover the kids savagely painted from head to toe--anything to allow immediate rest, I had thought at the time.

Ben will never forget waking up from a brief nap after our most exhausting first family over-nighter to discover the kids savagely painted from head to toe–anything to allow immediate rest, I had thought at the time.

For a couple with small children this is especially true, since arriving in port after a long, stormy multi-day does not mean you can collapse into bed and sleep to your heart’s content.  Usually the first concern is to get a decent meal into the children, and tidy up the inevitable chaos belowdecks.  Then however unrested you are, they’ve had far too much rest and are generally crawling up the bulkheads and bouncing off the deckhead, and so must be taken ashore at the first possible moment.  Even a week in port, even tied up wharfside, translates to endless work, since usually there’s ship’s stores to round up, lessons to keep up with, and the nonstop cleaning that living in tiny spaces necessitates.

Lovin' the grill in the backyard.

Lovin’ the grill in the backyard.

So we’re taking our leisure, now that we’ve become landlubbers again.  There’s no heaving up the anchor pre-dawn, no all-night watches, no concern for the weather—we simply don’t care what it does, since it’s consequences are so slight when you’re not trying to go anywhere by sea.  It’s nice to take a walk whenever we please, to do laundry at will, and to have all the running water we can use ready to hand.  Still, in spite of all the benefits and lesure we’re enjoying,  there’s a slight sense of regret—not that we’re not cruising just now, since winter cruising only happens in places we’ve no interest in, but that we’re not planning anything else.  The overwhelming factor of landlubbing is it’s permanence—even folk who seem to flit from city to city and job to job spend several years in each place—and looking ahead to a long stretch of not going anywhere is the scariest thing we’ve encountered for years.  I have no idea how we’ll adapt to shoreside life, or whether we’ll be able to stand it in the long run, but for now we’re finding it pretty restful.  If it’ll last remains to be seen.