Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Appreciating the Zen of Boat Maintenance

Everyone accepts that maintenance is a part of boat ownership, a necessary evil for most of us. The questions for a boat owner are what kind of maintenance is required and how much time, blood, and money it will demand.

The character of boat maintenance spans a very wide spectrum. For newer boats, maintenance is mostly about shininess with fiberglass polish, varnish, and wax. For old beaters, maintenance is disaster mitigation and control, an exercise in emergency medicine and triage. The right tools are often unavailable and correct parts unobtainable. MacGyver-like solutions allow the sailors and boats to survive an “incident”, but leave the boat needing at least as much corrective repair as before.

I have been at both ends of the spectrum and found little satisfaction at either one. Even with my new laser, I’m falling short. There is a kid at the club who keeps his 8 year old boat shinier than mine. He wet sands and polishes seemingly every time he uncovers the boat, and somehow the sand that finds its way into every little corner of my boat is magically repelled from his.

Most of my high school coaching tenure has been spent at the other end of the spectrum. Our program began by using four very old (30 years, give or take a decade), battered, leaky Tech Dinghies borrowed from a local college with an on again, but mostly off again, sailing program. They were held together by a mishmash of hardware, duct tape, and habit, and the repeated breakdowns were repaired with whatever parts were on hand at the local hardware store. The boats were an embarrassment and a source of endless frustration.

Boat maintenance can seem to be a losing battle against entropy, the physics word for the tendency for the universe to move toward disorder and degradation. No matter what you do, the boats are going to steadily become at least a little worse than they used to be.

At some point, however, there is an opportunity to overcome entropy and actually make the boat better. After the gloss is off the fiberglass, the rigging is well used, the lines are sun faded and worn, and the blades or keels are nicked, there lies an opportunity for redemption. Big boaters who spend more time at the dock messing with their boats than sailing them understand this. It involves a certain intimacy with the boat and a reverence for the function and value of each part. It requires an understanding that each part contributes to the whole and the whole depends on each part. And an important part of that whole is the guy who labors to keep it all working and in balance. The person who does the maintenance can be at one with the boat, and a little piece of Zen-like happiness is possible.

For me, this started to happen after our sailing team acquired a second batch of boats to grow the program to 12 one-design boats. I started noticing the different style vangs and the many subtle variations in the way the boats were rigged and, in some cases, the way they were built. The anal instincts in me craved some consistency, and my competitive side demanded equal boats. We found enough money to buy necessary hardware and new lines. We installed interchangeable parts where the exiting ones were no longer quite interchangeable. We repaired fiberglass scars and defects, especially the broken rear corners that are an inevitable part of a 420 used in competition by junior sailors. We made the boats better, and those of us involved, made ourselves better.

Now that we are again replacing one of our sets of six boats with newer used boats, we are going through another round of upgrades. This time, all boats are getting revarnished tillers, matching tiller extensions, refurbished pivot bolts and bushings, fiberglass damage on the blades repaired, and new downhaul and tie down lines. All control lines will be brand new and identically colored-coded. It is really satisfying to breathe new life into older boats. Life is good.

Aside: Every year, there are one or two kids who spend a lot of time doing this. For some, this is the best part of their sailing experience. Seems like a very good thing when kids in this throw away culture learn to take care of something.

In the first few years as I was losing the battle with entropy, my goal was just to spend less time on boat maintenance. I am finally realizing that the goal should be to spend the allotted time dedicated to preventative and restorative maintenance. Kaizen. Old boats are not my enemy; they are my opportunity to make improvements. Old boats have always created opportunities for kids (and adults) to learn to love sailing and for their keepers to discover the rewards of maintenance. Always will, I suspect.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Help a Grassroots Sailing Organization

Not knowing how well publicized the fire at the University of New Hampshire boathouse has been, I want to publish this this letter from the team captain. All boats, equipment, and the boat house are a total loss.

This is exactly the kind of grassroots sailing organization that has been praised in this blog and several others. They support sailing every which way in their array of programs. If you can help them, please do. They are very worthy of our support.

From Chris Edwards of UNH's sailing program:

As some of you may not know, on March 3, 2010 the UNH Sailing Team's boathouse was set fire to, and all the equipment inside had been destroyed. The structure at the pond sheltered over 55 sailboats (Opti's, Lasers, Sunfish, Club 420's, FJ's), outboard engines, trailers, coach boats, tools, and other gear, all of which were lost in the fire. Estimates have been upward of $600,000. State Fire Marshall's Office has ruled the fire was incendiary, or intentionally set. The police are still investigating who started the fire.

We are still unaware of what type of insurance will be awarded as well.

As a co-ed student-run team, we work to promote an interest in sailing, in both recreation and competitive inter-collegiate racing. The team is open to any students who want to join, regardless of their experience. In the past fall season, we had over 50 active members on our roster. The majority of these students, many for whom sailing was a new activity, took the opportunity to participate in competitive racing in New England last season. In the spring, the UNH Sailing Team also coaches a combined regional Junior and Senior High School sailing team at our sailing center for their spring racing season which includes hosting the NH State High School Championship. Their season at the moment remains in limbo.

This fire has also affected the UNH Community Sailing Program, a summer sailing program open to local youths ages 6-18. The loss of their own resources including Opti's, Lasers, and those other boats they share with the collegiate team has jeopardized this organization and the summer activity of over 200 youth sailors.

The team is a club team and as such raises almost every penny for boats, equipment, regatta travel, coach's salaries and so forth. The sailors maintain all the boats, build the docks and essentially develop an ongoing deep sense of pride, commitment and leadership by being members of the UNH Sailing Team. We are extremely saddened by our loss but are grateful for the many emails, phone calls and offers of support.

This team will not be shut down. We will rebuild the centre, acquire boats and become stronger through adversity. Hopefully, through the support of the greater community of sailing, that process will happen sooner than later. Despite the extent of our losses, current team members, alumni, coaches, and our University advisors are optimistic and are moving toward the rebuilding process. We have suffered a terrible blow but are confident that our team bond and love of sailing will help us bounce back from this tragedy. We are currently working on some short term goals (allowing us and the Junior/Senior combined high school team to practice), mid-term goals (getting boats for the summer program and starting to create a structure for our sailing center), and long term goals (acquiring new or refurbished boats and replacing the equipment that was lost). We will rebuild, and we will continue to sail our spring season.

If you would like to donate to the team, whether it is tools, boats, electronics, parts, or even cash donations, we would be very appreciative. Any type of donation is valued. Any contacts or connections to boat or construction businesses are very helpful. Several corporate sponsors have reached out to assist us in this transitional time. On our website, we have a donations page with more information. http://www.unh.edu/sailing-club/

Thank you for your time, and we are grateful for your support.


Chris Edwards Brittany Healy
Captain Commodore

Monday, March 8, 2010

Accidental Manly Men

O Docker’s comment to my last post, Why Manly Men Never Use a Radial Sail, wisely pointed out that Manly Men characteristics aren’t limited to sailors of smaller, more athletic boats. The tendency to use brute force and a sense of bravado instead of intelligence and good judgment is evident in manly sailors of all boats. Perhaps there is a macho gene that takes hold of us and overrides all other brain functions when certain opportunities present themselves.

As I suggested in the last post, one of the compensations for our manly acts of foolishness is the opportunity for a good story. Here is my personal big boat tale of stupidity and inexperience triggering my Man-Up instinct.

At one point some years ago, I was a little bored with racing dinghies and thought I should expand my horizons to include comfy, cruising keelboats. I took a rather big first step and bought a used Pearson 36, a beautiful, comfortable, well made boat from a quality company… not counting some of the shitty lasers they made in an apparent sideline business. (Alas, they were driven out of business in 1991 by the recession and the introduction of a luxury tax on big boats.)

Admitting that a five day US Sailing course in bareboat cruising might not have taught me all I needed to know, when I picked up the boat I brought along an experienced friend who I will call Ralph Snodsmith. (No offense to any real Ralph Snodsmiths out there.) Because the new home of the boat was a full day’s sail from its current location, our trip began with some two hour jockeying of dry land transportation so that we would have a car waiting at journey’s end. The water part of the trip got underway in unusually calm Sippican Harbor in Marion, MA. As we motored out, it only seemed logical to raise the sails to be ready for Buzzard’s bay, known for its frequent 15 – 25 knot winds and 4 foot waves. As Ralph raised the main, it caught on a mysterious line, halting the process. The line appeared to go from a grommet on the luff forward along the boom. Not understanding the function of this line, we untied and removed it. Minutes later, another similar line became another obstruction and was handled in the same way. Finally, the main was up. Unfurling the 135% genoa followed efficiently. Geared up for the tumultuous Buzzard’s Bay, we found a sheet of glass. Humph. This never happens. Thank God for diesels.

The next segment of this under-powered power boat trip was through Cod Canal, passable only with a favorable current. Competent mariners for sure, we had timed this correctly. With apparent wind only generated by our movement, we kept the main up and furled the genoa. My first trip through the canal was smooth as silk.

To those of you anxiously awaiting the manly men part, thank you for your patience. It’s coming shortly.

On the Massachusetts Bay side, we finally found the wind we came for, a comfortable 8 – 10 knot off shore breeze. Finally the rumble of the diesel could be silenced and the peaceful beauty of travelling under sail power could be savored. Moving north at 5 knots on a close reach with flat water, life was very good. Man, was I smart to buy this boat!

Getting up to Plymouth Harbor, the wind had picked up to about 12, and boat speed went to 6 knots. It was really cool to have instruments that actually measured these things. In dinghies, we just make up these numbers by the seat of our pants based on our self proclaimed expertise and narrative needs.

Proceeding northward past Marshfield beach, the wind had built to a solid 15. The boat was heeled 18 degrees. (Measurement based on a crude tilt-o-meter and a poor memory… in other words, made up.) Half an hour later, the wind was up to 20 and the boat over to 25 degrees. (Same measuring system, but you get the trend.) Boat speed was about 7 – 8 knots. Boy, this was fun!

My experienced friend, Ralph, cautioned, “If this wind keeps building, we should think about reefing the sails.” Instead, we skipped any thinking and just enjoyed the ride for the next half hour as the wind built to 25 and the boat was over to 30 something degrees. Fifteen minutes later, we finally got serious and decided it was time to shorten sail. Ralph confidently wrapped the genoa furling line around the winch and began pulling. Nothing happened. Pulled harder, the line did not move. “The furling line must have jumped the spool. I’ll go forward and put it back on,” Ralph said calmly. I was in good hands.

As the wind had increased, it had moved forward. We adjusted to a close hauled course, and even with a short fetch from land, waves were starting to build. I was happy it was Ralph bouncing up there on the bow. It seemed he was up there for quite a while, and as he crawled back to the cockpit, I was hopeful that we were going to get this boat back to a more comfortable heeling angle.

“I couldn’t get it. The line looped over itself under the spool and I just can’t get it undone. We’ll be fine like this.”

“Maybe if we reef the main, it will help,” I said tentatively, trying to be helpful.

“Why not,” responded Ralph. “We’ll give it a try.”

We surveyed the situation. There were two grommets at the luff of the sail. All we had to do was to find some line to make an outhaul and lower the main

“Maybe we can use one of those lines we took off getting the main up,” I suggested.

“You know,” Ralph said thoughtfully, “those lines were tied to those grommets before I removed them. Maybe they were reefing lines.” (Doh!) “I’ll just retie them.”

Turns out that those reef points are pretty high off the cockpit seats when the main is up. Judging from the considerable reach of the 6’2” Ralph, the lower one must have been about 7 and a half feet up, just a little too high for him to get. (Aside: The nifty jiffy reefing system on the boat worked really well once I learned how to rig it properly.)

“We’ll be fine,” we told ourselves. “We can handle a little wind and the boat heeling over.” We were tough guys, manly men of the sea. Heeling over was not really a problem, only an inconvenience. The formidable weather helm just required a little muscle to keep the boat on course.

That eastern shore from the Cape Cod Canal up to Hingham where the boat was to be docked is a lot longer by sea than it is by car or appears on a map. Passing five towns may seem quite do-able, but these towns stretched for miles and miles. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we were just beginning to see parts of the third town, Scituate.

Now the wind was consistently in the high 20’s. We watched the anemometer readout, taking pride in our manhood with every gust. The highest was 33. We were pretty impressed with ourselves to be under full sail in this wind. At this point, the boat with a five foot freeboard had its rail buried in the water. No problemo. We could handle it.

As we approached Scituate harbor about 5:30, we noticed a lot of boats out. They had reefed sails. “Must be the Wednesday night race,” my knowledgeable companion observed. We were going to go right by them, affording a good view of the race. As we approached the fleet, we noticed a boat on the left reaching toward the other boats. From a distance, it was clear she was going to cross us with no problem. As we got closer, it wasn’t quite so clear that she was going to cross. Still nearer, it looked like it was going to be very close.

“Just to be safe, bear off and give him plenty of room,” Ralph suggested. With more speed we’ll cross him and give him plenty of room to go behind if he has to. Or we’ll just go parallel until it gets sorted out.”

With considerable effort, I turned the wheel to head down. When the boat didn’t respond, I turned harder.

“Let’s go! Turn down!” Ralph shouted with more intensity than usual. “It’s getting too close!”

“I’m trying! It’s not going!” (Funny how large boats behave like dinghies in this respect. Full sails in big wind completely overcome the rudder in steering the boat.)

By this time, all aboard the other boat were hollering at me too. They were in complete disbelief that some asshole just out cruising might actually hit them during a race. Sweating, I began imagining the shattering of fiberglass that would occur when a 15,000 pound boat going 7 knots broadsided another boat. As the boats came within a few boat lengths of each other, Ralph simultaneously yelled “tack!” and dumped the main. The dumping of the main allowed the ruder to take over just enough to turn the boat and avoid the stern of the other boat by five feet. The two of us finally exhaled, but the screaming from the other boat continued. We hung our heads in shame for causing the close encounter, but we also secretly prided ourselves on our quick reactions and heroic disaster avoidance skills.

Having a modicum of sense, we admitted to each other as we sailed on that our unfamiliarity with a new boat had caused considerable anxiety to everyone on both boats. But what could we have done? Under full sail in that wind, a big boat is really hard to handle. In the end, no one was harmed, no property damaged. No big deal.

Checking the time, we realized that there was no way we were going to reach our destination before dark. Our vast experience told us that navigating an unfamiliar harbor at night was a potentially bad idea. Besides, we were tired and really needed some beers.

Being the veteran sailors we knew ourselves to be, we radioed the harbor master and requested a mooring for the night. He gave us a mooring right on the channel, not allowing us to demonstrate our boat handling skills in tight spaces. Maybe he had already heard about us. After finally fixing the genoa spool, we stowed the sails and closed up the boat for the night.

As we rode the launch in, who did we pass but the sailors on the boat we narrowly missed. Fortunately, they did not recognize us as we turned our faces away in casual manly avoidance. However, halfway through our first beer, our would-be victims strode into the bar. We were going to have to meet this head on as real men do. After a friendly greeting, we apologized, offered to buy them a couple of beers, and laughed at our close call. We earned forgiveness, at least in our minds, at the very reasonable cost of two beers each.

We were, however, still 10 miles from the car we planed to drive home. Being single at the time, I had no one to call, and it would have been an admission of failure to ask Ralph’s wife to make a rescue trip. No biggie. Ralph said he would use his manly charm to find a ride back to the car. So effective was Ralph’s “charm” that it was actually one of our victims who located someone going our way – an absolutely shitfaced drunk. Not to worry. It was late, few cars still out, secondary roads.

It was, in fact, no problem. Our new friend was one of those highly cautious drunk drivers, never breaking 20 MPH all the way back to our car.

Getting into the car, we breathed a long, deep salt air sigh of relief and satisfaction. We had conquered a 33 knot wind without conceding an inch of sail area, we had avoided, nay prevented, a disaster, we had made new friends, and we had a good story to tell and perhaps embellish. A good day for two manly men of the sea.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why Manly Men Never Use a Radial Sail

A few weeks ago, as I sat eating my quiche and reading about Tillerman’s adventures in frostbiting in 18 - 30 MPH winds, I thought about how courageous he was in conditions where I might have wimped out and used a radial.

For anyone who doesn’t sail a laser, I should first explain what a radial is. Lasers can accommodate three sizes of sail – full rig, radial, and 4.7 – each one getting successively smaller. The idea is that smaller and lighter people can step down the sail area and still sail with the same hull. It is also a way for sailors to deal with increasing wind by reducing sail area, just like every big boat in the world does. It would seem there is ample precedent for the wisdom of this concept.

Nevertheless, manly men never reduce sail on a laser no matter what the wind, their physical limitations, or their sailing deficiencies. (A few shorter, lighter, perhaps smarter men are notable exceptions to this rule, but they have Laser Radial World Championships to prove their prowess.) Below is a list of 6 excellent reasons why manly men continue to defy conventional big boat sailing wisdom and never cop out with a radial.

Radials are for girls. It’s simple in the Olympics – men sail full rigs, women sail radials. Period. End of story. It doesn’t matter how big or strong the women are or how small the men are. It’s a gender issue, and only girls sail radials. Gender identification can be a slippery slope, and no manly man wants to take even a first step down that slope.

Radial sailing girlie girl
Radials are for weaklings. Radials suggest a smaller stature, and we all know it is the strong, tall, manly men who control the world, run the corporations and get elected to political office. (i.e. Scott Brown and Mitt Romney – we are so shallow in Massachusetts.) Never mind that when the wind approaches 20, radials are just as fast upwind, even with the best sailors sailing full rigs against radials. When everyone is overpowered, the big guys lose their edge, and it becomes a contest of boat handling and wave management, but that’s no reason to make those things easier by using a smaller sail. Manly men are tough enough to struggle with the bigger sail in the toughest of conditions.

Radials are too slow. Manly men always go for maximum speed. Being in control doesn’t matter. Even though the two sails become about equal upwind, downwind the big sail always goes faster if it stays upright. The more Adeline the better. Damn the consequences, full speed ahead!

Manly men aren’t chicken. Regardless of the amount of wind and the size of the waves, a smaller sail is an admission of fear. Fear is not acceptable in the code of the manly man. Even if every sailor on the beach understands that radial sails are just a common sense reaction to the conditions, no manly man wants to be the first to suggest it. He is understood by the others to have conceded that his thingie is smaller than the other guy's thingie.
Fearless manly man
Manly men like to overcome disasters. The bigger the disaster, the more spectacular the crash, the tougher the man who accepted the pain. Actual sailing injuries provide fodder for great stories of heroic recoveries. Manly men welcome the potential dangers of a bigger sail and want to be filmed having spectacular death rolls that would scare women and children off the water forever. Taking risks is for the manly. Being smart is for the nerd.

Heroic manly man
Manly men will always prevail. If they can’t stay upright, they can still demonstrate their prowess with powerful swimming and skilled boat righting techniques. Rather than meekly accepting the limitations of their skills and using their judgment, they can claim to be heroic, life saving first responders… albeit of themselves. A declaration of victory is what it is all about.

The marks of a manly man are strength, courage, desire for adventure, and the ability to prevail over whatever comes. God bless you, manly men!