Navigation Safety: Rule of Thumb, Constant Bearing

This information, in slightly different form, was originally published on boats.com.

It's not always easy to tell someone how to spot something far away. Mariners, like carpenters and tailors, can estimate with their thumbs.

There are plenty of times on boats when a lookout has to relay a sighting on the horizon to someone else on board. This can be tricky if the second person can’t focus right where the lookout is pointing.

Rule-of-thumb-doug-logan
Going out the channel, the first green can is about a thumb to the right of the big island, and about a fist to the right of the nun. The second green can is about half a thumb to the right of the nun, a couple hundred yards farther away.

Hand-bearing compasses and open binnacle compasses are the most accurate tools for sighting angles, but for quick-and-dirty measurements the handiest thing is...your hand. A closed fist held at arm’s length covers about 8-10 degrees of the horizon. Three fingers near the tips cover about 4-5 degrees. A thumb’s width covers about 2-3 degrees. But you don't really need to think about numbers. Most people’s fists, fingers, and extended arms are close enough in size and length to transfer effective ballpark estimates back and forth.

If there’s a reference point close to the object you’re sighting, you can just call back to the cockpit, “It’s two hands to the right of the light. " Or, "It’s just a thumb to the left of that anchored blue boat, maybe a mile beyond.” And the helmsman or navigator can put his or her own hand up and orient their search to the same criteria.

Two things to remember: Sight with one eye closed to avoid parallax confusion, and keep your hand at arm’s length when sighting.

How to tell if you’re on a collision course in a crossing situation.

For people new to boats, or who don't have much experience at the helm, it can be a bit alarming that boats on the open water are allowed to scamper around with no traffic lanes, no stop signs, and no traffic lights. The Rules of the Road are there for a reason, and anyone at the helm of a boat should know them. However, knowing them and knowing how to gauge situations and act on them are different things.

Crossing situation
The bearings of these two boats aren't changing as their distance apart decreases. They're converging on a single collision point. The give-way boat should take action to avoid the stand-on boat, and make the action obvious so there's no doubt in the mind of the stand-on helmsman.

One of the most vexing problems for new boaters is the crossing situation, and knowing how to judge who's going to cross whom. If it's not obvious, then it usually comes down to the concept of "constant bearing, decreasing range," which is the perfect definition of a collision course. Here's how to tell:

  1. Hold your course
  2. Take a bearing on the other boat, either by sighting across an open compass or with a hand-bearing compass
  3. A little while later, take the bearing again. If the second bearing is the same as the first, your courses are converging on a single point. It will be a collision or a close call.
  4. If you’re the give-way vessel, start altering your course sooner than later, so the other boat knows what you’re up to. If he’s the give-way vessel, watch him like a hawk and be prepared to avoid him. Most people on the water don’t know the right-of-way rules, or don't know how to put them into action.
  5. If the bearing is changing, you won’t collide. The faster the bearing changes, the farther apart you’ll be when you cross.

But wait, there’s more. If you can see land behind the boat you’re converging with, you can gauge the danger of a collision without compass bearings. Some people call this concept "gaining land” or “making land.”

  1. Again, hold your own course steady.
  2. Watch a feature of the distant land near the bow of the crossing boat, and keep watching.
  3. If that land feature disappears behind his bow, he’s gaining land on you, and will cross you. The faster the land disappears behind him, the more distance he’ll cross you by.
  4. If the land feature draws ahead of his bow, as if he’s falling behind on the land from your perspective, then you’re gaining land on him, and will cross him.
  5. If the land feature stays right where it was on his bow when you first started looking at it, then you’re on a collision course, or one that's too close for comfort.

Radar, AIS, and other electronics can help you gauge range and bearing to other vessels, but they all require you to take your eyes off the water and look at them. In normal boating
situations in decent visibility, and especially if there are a lot of boats milling around, your eyes, your compass, and fixed references will serve you better.

-- DL


The Boy Who Fell to Shore: A Cautionary Tale

Boy who fellThomas Tangvald was born on a boat under sail. He was a toddler when his mother was murdered by pirates in the Sulu Sea. He was not yet ten when his stepmother was struck by the boom and swept overboard in an accidental jibe far offshore, never to be found. And he was fifteen in 1991 when his father and young half-sister died, tossed up on a reef on the windward side of Bonaire, boat and people smashed in the middle of the night. Thomas at the time was being towed 300 feet astern of his father aboard his own leaky boat. Neither vessel had an engine. Neither had a VHF radio. There was nothing Thomas could do. He abandoned his own boat before it was wrecked, and survived the night on a surfboard. The next day he identified the remains of his father. His half-sister’s body was found the day after that.

In March of 2014, when he was not yet 40, Thomas Tangvald left French Guiana, bound for Brazil singlehanded aboard another decrepit sailboat, and has never been seen again. He almost certainly perished at sea, leaving behind a wife and two young children. But, bearing in mind the story of his short, intense, fascinating life, told by Charles Doane in The Boy Who Fell to Shore, it’s possible to entertain the thought that Thomas somehow survived, as he had survived so many other scrapes, and might be living somewhere removed from the tainted modern world from which he had learned to distance himself at an early age.

Toying with such notions leads to clouded thinking. So does tempting fate and getting away with it too many times. Doane is careful to separate the regrettable conclusion from the fantastic.

Thomas’s story had to be told within the context of his father’s life, his guiding principles, and his achievements. Peter Tangvald was one of a generation of shorthanded and singlehanded ocean sailors who started their adventures in the 1950s and ‘60s, and who wrote and appeared in books and magazine articles that captured the skills, derring-do, and romance of the calling, but often didn’t do a great job of revealing the downsides of the lifestyle and the character flaws of some of its pursuers. Peter was a skilled sailor and a charmer (he was married seven times)  but also dogmatic, reckless, and lucky well beyond the standard issue of the sea gods. His was a tragic act to follow but, almost inevitably, Thomas had to try.

Peter and Thomas, their many women, and most of their friends were part of the global cruising and liveaboard community, which is much larger now than it was when Tangvald the elder, along with Robin Lee Graham, Bernard Moitessier, and a handful of others became famous among sailors. Even with YouTube and TikTok and harbors stuffed to the gills with plastic boats, it’s still a small part of the sailing population and a minuscule part of the population overall.

Charlie Doane (an old colleague and friend) is no stranger to this community. If you’ve read his earlier book, The Sea is Not Fullyou know how well-qualified he is to speak on the topic. He has walked the walk plenty. This is from his introduction to the new book: 

“For the fact is most people living on land don’t even know such a community exists. Just as Thomas for a time could not imagine there was a much larger society beyond the harbors and anchorages where he touched land, those on shore can’t see that those littoral refuges and the sea beyond them are home to a much smaller society…

“Once inside the bluewater cruising community, you soon realize how small and tight-knit it is, with only one or two degrees of separation between most persons within it. You realize also how spread out and dissipated it is, and how, in spite of this, people often run into each other again and again. We are, I’ve always liked to think, a small tribe spread out over a very large territory.”

Telling the story of the Tangvalds, père et fils, became a mission for Doane. He's done it expertly and compassionately, with the help of surviving family and friends who provided memories, insights, and documents. With members of the cruising tribe as a Greek chorus, he spins a fascinating, inspiring, melancholy yarn, one that will provide rich connections for anyone who has spent time in that world, as well as both inspiration and caution for those who might want to become part of it. 

- DL


Get Your Boat Ready for a Hurricane

Organize your thinking, gather your gear, and have your plan in place. If you have to act, act decisively, and give yourself time to help your neighbors on the water: Their preparedness will have a direct impact on your own success in avoiding damage.

(This article originally appeared on boats.com.)

NCH-1938-hurricane-high-water-sim-560px
A simulation of the storm surge in New England at the height of the Hurricane of 1938. Yellow areas show a surge 10 feet above norma. The red areas were worse. Image courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.

Sooner or later, anyone who keeps a boat for long in a hurricane zone will have to deal with the threat of a major storm, and possibly the reality of the storm itself, whether as a direct hit or a glancing blow. Well before a hurricane threatens, you should have a firm set of plans about how to prepare.

Strategic thinking

  • How protected is your boat in its normal berth from wind, waves, and storm surge? This question applies just as much to a boat that lives on a trailer in a low-lying area, or under a big tree, as it does to a slip-dweller or a boat that lives on a mooring in a big harbor with an open fetch to the sea.
  • How crowded is the place where you keep your boat, and even more importantly, how do your neighbors keep their boats – are they squared-away and seamanlike, or are they slobs, or ignorant, or absent? (Very often, people who have done a good job preparing their own boats for storms are undone by the boats of others breaking loose and sweeping down on them, taking out mooring lines, dislodging anchors, ripping out cleats, and causing hull damage and even greater losses.)
  • If you can have your boat hauled out, what will the conditions be like on shore? How high above high water could a storm surge reach? (There have been cases when boats hauled out in advance of a storm have then floated off their stands and been damaged in the boatyard.)
  • Does your boatyard, marina, or town harbormaster have plans in place that will help to safeguard everyone, or is it every boat for itself?
  • Are there changes or requirements in your insurance coverage in the event of a named storm?

While there are always exceptions to the rule, the smart money says to haul your boat if you have time, if only because it tends to reduce the number of wild cards and possible damage sources. If a haul-out isn’t possible or advisable in your case, the next decision will be whether to leave your boat where it is or try to get it to a better harbor or hurricane hole. Of course, a lot of other people will have the same idea. Hurricane holes tend to get mighty crowded in a hurry, but often there’s a spirit of cooperation involved, and at least you know you’re in the company of other people who care about their boats.

Whether you stay put or head for a safer harbor, there are some seriously important moves you need to make in order to help prevent damage and loss, both to yourself and to others.

Essential storm tactics

  • Strip off all canvas to reduce windage. This means biminis, dodgers, awnings, mainsails, roller-furled jibs – anything made of fabric. It’s amazing how many people think they’ve done their prep work simply by folding down their bimini or taking a few wraps of line around a furled sail. When the wind gets up above 60 knots or so, it seeks out even the smallest weakness in canvas, exploits it, and almost methodically goes on to destroy the whole cloth structure and usually any metal framework holding it together, always putting enormous stress on the whole boat.
  • While you’re at it, also remove flags, ensigns, pennants, fishing rods, grills, life-rings, cushions – anything not screwed down that could present a surface to the wind.
  • If your boat will be riding out the storm on a mooring or at anchor, double or triple your attachment points, spreading the loads between two or more cleats, using a bridle if necessary, making attachments to through-bolted fittings, around masts at their partners, through bow-eyes, etc. Whenever possible, tie to heavy fixed objects on the land-side – bollards, pilings, trees – and remember to allow slack for the maximum expected storm surge.
  • Use chafing gear any place a mooring line or anchor rode runs through a chock or fairlead, or over a roller. There is some debate on the topic, but traditional leather or heavy cloth chafing gear, as opposed to hard rubber or reinforced water hose, is probably better in storm conditions when it is heat, developed from intense friction, that tends to weaken and destroy a line more quickly than mechanical chafing. In a pinch, any type of natural cloth, like material from a cotton T-shirt, taped or sewn onto a mooring line, can work.
    Dacron/polyester line resists chafe better than nylon and has a higher breaking strength. Nylon is stretchier. Use polyester for bow and stern lines, nylon for spring lines and anchor rode.
  • In slips, allow for storm surge in bow, stern, and spring lines. Use spring lines to pull your boat away from the dock, and work with the yard management and your neighbors to set up grids of lines that will help keep boats away from surging finger piers and neighbors.

  • Secure your hatches, ports, cockpit lockers, bow and stern lockers, and anchor locker. Tape over any openings that could take in solid water if the boat is laid over — engine vents, companionway doors or slats, engine space hatches, etc.
  • Hang fenders everywhere you can.

Beyond the must-do’s there are some should-do’s.

More storm tactics

  • Remove electronics – at least the displays if not the antennae.
  • Remove other valuables and loose gear that might get ruined, and that insurance might not pay for – binoculars, galley equipment, bedding, clothes, fishing gear, etc.
  • On sailboats, halyards should be replaced with thin messengers.
  • Make sure your batteries are topped up so that they can keep up with your bilge pumps.
  • Take photos of your own preparations, in case an insurance company needs them. Also it will help you remember for next time.
  • If you’re an outboard engine owner, be ready for damage-control by knowing how to “pickle” your two-stroke or four-stroke motor if it gets swamped in the storm.

One of the most difficult considerations is whether to try to be aboard your boat for the storm (assuming that there would be no prohibition by boatyard, harbormaster, or local authorities). It’s possible to imagine being able to reset fenders or adjust lines, or even run the engine to relieve tension on ground tackle. Whether any of this might be possible depends on the intensity of the storm and the surrounding conditions. A 60-knot wind and a three-foot storm surge is very different from 80-knot winds plus waves and six feet of surge. In the latter case almost nothing useful could be done, and the danger from the violent conditions and flying debris would outweigh any benefit of being aboard. Luckily, with today’s forecasting accuracy, and with your storm prep done, there should be plenty of time to decide. And let’s hope none of us will have to make such a decision this season...

 


Sweat Perspective in a Bitcoin World

About twenty years ago ago I made a contraption to produce electricity from food energy — an exercise bike connected to an alternator, connected to a battery, connected to an inverter. I was editor of Practical Sailor back then, and spent a lot of time in those days with a multimeter in hand, measuring electrical current in the gear we tested. I became really interested in how much energy it takes to run things, not just aboard a boat, but anywhere, and I developed a dislike for energy waste, energy show-offs (gear and people), and lazy or gross or ill-considered uses of energy. The conclusion in that column was that we were a long way from breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. Sadly, we still are. They’re built into too much of our culture and machinery, and they’re convenient and cheap. (I mean cheap in terms of our immediate needs, not in how they relate to the state of the planet; in that case they’re proving to be very expensive.) Worse, the demand for more and more power, even with renewable energy, still overwhelms ideas of conservation, efficiency, and better design, which are more effective ways to relieve the planet. Until pursuit of these things becomes cooler than the pursuit of horsepower it will be hard to make serious headway.

Seat of Power - Doug Logan photo
There's an automotive belt from the bike's flywheel to an alternator. The gizmo provided many hours of good exercise and a clearer understanding of how much energy it takes to power things.

The last two decades have brought some incremental progress in energy acquisition and policy. Sometimes circumstances or mother nature or even human progress can intervene on the positive side. Fracking and the exploitation of natural gas deposits, for all their negative side effects, have eliminated much of the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Public enthusiasm for electric vehicles, despite concerted push-back from fossil fuel interests, has brought about big new plans among major automakers. GM, as one example, has decided to phase out internal combustion engines and be at zero emissions by 2035: a remarkable change of policy in a massive American corporation. But the good progress often seems to have its legs cut out from under it.

There are lots of news stories these days about bitcoin. Whatever the merits or demerits may be of cryptocurrency as a means of value exchange, the computing power required by the blockchain process used to keep the system secure is massively energy-hungry. (There’s a side debate over whether it’s ultimately any more expensive than, say, mining for gold, but that’s really another issue.) The Cambridge University Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index  at the moment estimates a demand of 14 gigawatts, with an annualized consumption of 130 terawatt-hours. For reference, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that utility-power generation in the U.S. produced about 4.1 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2019 (not counting about 35 billion kWh of energy produced on a smaller scale by local photovoltaic arrays and the like). That’s 4100 terawatt hours. So keeping bitcoin secure currently requires the equivalent of over 3% of all the power generated by U.S. utilities. This is not a thoughtful use of energy in today’s world.

To put it into human perspective, when you ride an exercise bike or row an ergometer or stride upon a strider at about 75-150 watts of output, you might produce the equivalent of one kilowatt-hour in several workouts, maybe a week’s worth of sweat for most of us. There are a billion kilowatt-hours in a terawatt-hour. There are 18,653,737 bitcoins in circulation as I type. Each one is supposedly worth $58,115. The average kilowatt-hour in the U.S. today costs 13 cents.

We take energy, and the fuel that makes it, very much for granted, because most of it comes to us so easily and cheaply. It’s when we see the value of energy through the veil of our own sweat that we begin to appreciate both how spoiled we are to have abundant energy sources around us, and how stupid we are when we waste so much of the stuff. 

(If you'd like to read about the contraption, it's in an editorial column called Seat of Power (PDF file).

DL

 


Ballet of the Ancient Mariners

This is a composite vignette from three recent distance races, the 2017 Marblehead-to-Halifax Race, the 2018 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, and the 2019 Stamford-Vineyard Race, in which old shipmates — old in acquaintance and old in years — sailed together.

It’s fifteen minutes before the change of the middle watch. Frank unclips his tether and climbs below to brace in the galley, fill the kettle, start the gimballed stove, heat water, wake the morning watch. The boat surges ahead in steady deepwater waves, nearly rail-down, close-reaching with a single reef in the main. The foot of the genoa is hoisted on the topping lift to clear the glowing water thrown to leeward by the bow. There’s phosphorescence in the arrow-straight wake, stars up among high clouds. The night is chilly, but the breeze is fresh, settled, steady, and soon the sky will brighten.

2.2

A red light glows in the nav station; Frank is updating the log as the water heats. The oncoming watch starts reaching for handholds, swinging legs out of bunks. Those on the high side lower themselves to the cabin sole, feeling with their knees for the table to stop them. Those on the low side have to grab, pull, rise, settle back, brace. Legs into pants, pants into bibs, feet into boots. Glasses, contact lenses, small beams and glows from headlamps and flashlights carefully shielded. Mumbles, yawns, quiet words, no wasted movement; everyone knows where to reach, where to sit, where to settle, wedge, brace in a tilted, pitching world in order to gear up, stay clear, get ready.

There are so many years of offshore experience in this crew —centuries, forsooth, among port and starboard watches, skipper, and navigator—that everything is done with no more ado than a chuckle. If there are aches and pains they can be saved for an organ recital over a rum some other time. Make a lane, pass it along, lean back, lend a hand, dos-à-dos, pas de quatre. “Al, here’s your other boot. I thought it was a pillow.” “Charlie, coffee or cocoa?”

In eight or ten minutes the oncoming watch is in foul-weather gear, safety gear, boots, hats, gloves. They’re starting to clamber up the companionway, taking turns with the offgoing watch headed down toward the still-warm bunks. Hot drinks are passed up, the helm is handed over. The new watchstanders clip in and settle at their stations, quickly absorbed in the last and darkest hour of the night, the fine, focused sailing, the promise of a blue ocean dawn and a booming day ahead.

Frank is standing deep in the companionway, reporting position, sailtrim, weather, course to steer, speed to find. The off-watch is quick to skin off boots and seek their bunks, pulling upwards, slinging legs across lee-cloths, cinching hitches and hooks to keep themselves secure, or lowering themselves into leeward berths, stuffing padding against drawers and bulkheads, lying awake for a few seconds under loosely settled bags or blankets, feeling the rhythm of the boat plunging through the waves, knowing that the other old hands are on deck, and will keep the boat as fast and safe as any watch ever could.

-- DL


Tom Cunliffe Aboard Jolie Brise

Tom Cunliffe has published a video of a daysail aboard Jolie Brise, that most famous and dashing of Bristol Channel cutters. She's owned by Dauntsey's School in England, and has been skippered for the last 26 years by Toby Marris. In the 1980s, though, Cunliffe ran her, and he has splendid memories to share in the video.

The main lessons that come out of Cunliffe's presentation, and especially his discussion with Marris, have to do with seamanship, and here the back and forth is a balm to the soul. It's about knowing the heft and abilities and propensities of the boat,  knowing the current, knowing the breeze, and most of all thinking ahead. That's seamanship, or part of it, anyway.

Seamanship, as a state of mind, is too often undermined by technology. It's not old-fashioned to say, for example, that modern, light-displacement plastic boats with wide beams, shallow bilges, fin-and-bulb keels, and conveniences like bow-thrusters are fine things that can take shorthanded modern crews across big bodies of water, usually without muss or fuss, and that when push comes to shove offshore, a vessel like Jolie Brise, progeny of experience and seamanship across generations, will preserve you when your own skills are overstretched.

Joliebrise3
Jolie Brise. Photo courtesy of Dauntsey's School

Any aspiring offshore sailor should watch this video. And any coastwise sailor who relies on mechanical forces to replace finesse, or electronic things to replace brains, should watch it, too. Consider, not with a screen, but in your mind's eye, matters of displacement, hull form, sail area, and sail plan. Consider the natural forces acting on the boat. Consider the gear you have available to do your bidding. Know when and how to co-opt the forces of nature, the forces of sail, and the mass and tendencies of the vessel.

Here's Cunliffe with a line looped around the tiller so he can steer from the weather rail. There are deep grooves etched in the tiller from helmsmen over the decades: "The great thing with these boats is always to make it easy on yourself," he says. "Don't fight it, because it'll beat you every time. What you've got to do is work with the boat and work with the wind. You haven't got a great big winch like a dustbin that's going to make everything easy for you. Instead, you've got your own sense of timing, and that's worth a dozen winches sometimes."

For some basic background, read Pilot Cutters: A Lasting Appeal.

- DL


Remembering Arvel Gentry and John Letcher, Pioneers of Sailing Science

It was a quarter-century ago that Sailing World published "Fluid Dynamics: How Modern Science and Sailing Discovered Each Other." (You can read it here in PDF form.) The main players covered in it, Arvel Gentry and John Letcher, have gone to Fiddler's Green, Gentry in 2015 and Letcher in 2018. Both were geniuses and gentlemen of the sport.

Almost a quarter-century before that article appeared, Gentry had written a series of lessons in Sail magazine that debunked some of the popular concepts of how sails worked. "Gentry and company were weighing in with talk of stagnation streamlines, separation bubbles, starting vortices, Kutta Conditions. They were saying outright that much of what modern sailors had been taught about lift and drag on an airfoil was just rot. And they weren't appreciated."

They weren't appreciated because, as sailors and human beings, we tend to simplify concepts until our brains are comfortable with them. Well, as Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." To this day, despite the prodigious advances in both the hardware and software that have made computational fluid dynamics (CFD) commonplace in the design of vessels, sails, and underwater appendages, there's still plenty of mystery in how these structures operate in the real world, and it's not for want of either brain power or computer power.

CFD_Shuttle
A CFD image of turbulence behind the space shuttle on re-entry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What aero-hydrodynamicists and computer engineers have been able to do with CFD is create an animation of dynamic events, and they can make pretty accurate predictions of how things will work given a particular set of imagined conditions. But of course fifteen degrees of heel angle are not always fifteen degrees. And real waves don't observe a constant height or frequency. Windspeed varies. Wind direction varies. The same goes for the set and drift of water current. Then add in the human factor: People steer differently, and trim sails differently, and move around the boat, changing everything all the time.

As the Fluid Dynamics article says, "The essential challenge... is in trying to make a vessel move nicely through two fluids simultaneously, part of it stuck down into thick, slow-moving water, and the other part stuck up into thin, fast-moving air. Add peripheral challenges like waves, local wind dynamics, geographical effects on both fluids, and the limitations of  boat design, and you've got an excellent puzzle to solve." Which is why people like Gentry and Letcher have always been drawn to the sport, and why sailmakers and Formula One engineers and aeronautical engineers enjoy talking to each other.

There's still mystery in sailing because the elements we sail in are always chaotic, slightly or greatly. It seems likely that there are some people who, by nature or practice or both, are better attuned to the what's coming through the chaos pipeline than the most powerful and sensitive computer program. Will that always be the case?

- DL 

 


The Gold-Rush Clippers

This is a slightly altered version of an article written for the May 1989 issue of Sailing World after Thursday's Child, skippered by Warren Luhrs, bettered the record of the clipper ship Flying Cloud on the New York to San Francisco run via Cape Horn. Flying Cloud's record had stood for 135 years. Reprinted by permission.

— DOL


Picture of the world of 1848. The Industrial Revolution was almost complete. Scientists and inventors had changed the face of society with steam engines, electrical wonders, and the machines of mass production. Everywhere, it seemed, farmers were leaving their fields and joining the lines of factory workers. The modern rules of life were facing down the old ways, and there were full-blown political revolutions happening all over Europe. There was a new book out called The Communist Manifesto, whose authors were taking things a step farther, talking about the inevitable triumph of the industrial working classes.

FC - Wikimedia commons
Flying Cloud, designed by Donald McKay, held the New York to San Francisco record for 135 years. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Victoria was queen. In three years there would be a Great Exhibition with a Crystal Palace and other wonders of the modern world. There would be a yacht race around the Isle of Wight, with a black schooner from America taking home the trophy that would bear her name.

The planet Neptune had recently been discovered. Big city doctors were beginning to use general anesthesia in surgery. Steam locomotives and short-run railroads were common; European mail could be delivered from Boston to New York in a matter of hours by train and steam packet (when it absolutely, positively had to get there overnight). It was almost incredible, but you could send a message at the speed of light: Morse’s telegraph lines were being strung up everywhere. Edison and Bell had arrived — they were in diapers, but they were here. In July, there was a big women's right convention in Seneca Falls.

Not far away from all this modern hubbub, along the Mississippi in places like Independence and Council Bluffs, the westbound traveler looked across the river and saw… well, Indians. What lay on the other side of the Big Muddy was about as different as you could get from the world of Queen Victoria and Karl Marx.

Out there, these were the days of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, mountain men and isolated trappers.The great trails through the wilderness — the Santa Fe and the Oregon — had been traversed, but it was no cakewalk for settlers to get to California and Oregon. There were the Comanche, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Crow, and it wasn’t even close to the time of the last battles when they were driven off their land once and for all.  Cochise and Geronimo were peaceful young Apaches in 1848, and wouldn’t be heard from for another 20 years or so. Sitting Bull was a teenager. George Armstrong Custer was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Ohio.

In 1848 there was no question that the Native Americans ran the continent west of the Mississippi. Even if you were wise enough to enlist the services of an expert trail guide, it was by the good graces of the natives, or your own smarts, or luck, that you made it through without a fight.

Then there was the territory itself. The rivers carried names like Snake, Wind, and Cimarron. They were places called Hell's Canyon, Muddy Gap, Devil's Hole, Cripple Creek, Purgatoire, Death Valley. Winter was terrible in the mountains, and the desert was worse. If you strayed off the trail in a blizzard, or took the wrong cutoff, you were — not to put too fine a point on it —  doomed. There were grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes. And smallpox. Heading west was something to mull over carefully.

Rush to the Gold

Early in 1848, gold was discovered on John Sutter’s land in the Sacramento Valley. Word spread quickly, and everything changed. Danger? Hell — California here I come! By the end of the next year, 80,000 people had rushed to the Pacific. Emigrants of all nationalities flocked from every direction as fast as possible, by any means they could. For Easterners, one alternative to the risky wagon train was to ship themselves around Cape Horn. Most people booked passage on the scores of slower vessels, some decrepit, some sound, that were thrown suddenly into the California run. Others who could afford it demanded faster transport.

It wasn't only the Forty Niners who needed delivery to the coast; the goods to sustain them had to get there, too. Prices were astronomical in California, and there were huge profits to be made by getting the goods there quickly. For a few years, until the market was glutted and freight shipments lay wasted in the streets, ships bulled their way around the Horn laden with anything and everything their owners could throw on board. The faster the ship, the better the profits while the prices held high.

King philip

The Gold Rush didn’t create the clipper ship. Fast sailing ships had been called clippers for a long time, and they’d be known by that name well after their day in the spotlight. American sailors had developed a serious appetite for speed after the War of 1812, when it had made all the difference between a loss and a standoff with the world's greatest naval power. By mid-century Yankee ship design had reached a high stage of evolution, and sailing speed was a matter of interest not only to shipowners, to whom it meant good business, but to the public, excited by the idea that faraway exotic worlds were being pulled within reach. When R.H. Waterman brought the bark Natchez into New York after a 78-day run from Macau in 1845, he was lionized in the streets.

The early years of the Gold Rush did, however, make legendary a certain breed of clipper that sailed for about a decade between ‘49 and’ 59. These ships were unique in two inseparable ways: They were built strictly for speed at the expense of cargo-carrying ability, and they were driven by speed demons. Waterman was such a demon, famous for his China passages aboard Sea Witch and Natchez, and there were maybe a dozen others who became household names  in their time. Some, like Philip Dumaresq, commanded several ships; others were associated with a particular clipper, even if they sailed her for only one record-breaking passage: Ashbel Hubbard of the Flying Dutchman, Freeman Hatch of Northern Light, John Williams of the Andrew Jackson, Josiah Cressy of Flying Cloud, Asa Eldridge of Red Jacket, and J. N “Bully” Forbes of Lightning.

Of all the designers and builders who entered the fray, Donald McKay quickly rose to the top of the heap. Even before the decade of the California clipper, the speed records set by his ships had eclipsed many others. It wasn't just that McKay's ships were fast; they were outstandingly handsome, sturdy, and well-finished. These attributes helped them lure the best drivers, and success begat success. They became legends in their own time. McKay made his name with his first clipper, Stag Hound, launched at his East Boston yard in December of 1850. His second, built the next year, was Flying Cloud.

Flying Cloud is a good focus for a clipper ship discussion for two reasons. First, her record run from New York to San Francisco was not bettered for 135 years, until 1989, and then only by a high-tech, high-performance sloop that could skim the water with no cargo aboard. Second, she truly represented the state of the art. Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Maritime history of Massachusetts, summed her up this way: “McKay built faster clippers, but for perfection and beauty of design, weatherliness, and consistent speed under every condition, neither he nor anyone else surpassed Flying Cloud. She was the fastest vessel on long voyages that ever sailed under the American flag.”

She was 229’ long on deck, 235’ from knightheads to taffrail. Her maximum bream was 40’8”, and she drew 21’6”. She registered at 1782 tons. Her rig is described in Howe and Mathews’s American Clipper Ships 1833-1858: “[L]ength of foremast, 82 feet; topmast 46; top-gallant, 25; royal, 17; and skysail mast, 13. On the main — 88, 51, 28, 19, and 14 ½. On the mizzen — 78, 40, 22, 14 and 10. [Length of] yards; on the foremast: 70, 55, 44 ½, 32 and 22. On the main — cross-jack, 56, topsail, 45; topgallant, 33; royal, 25; skysail, 20. The foremast was 35 inches in diameter, the main, 36, and the mizzen, 26. Diameter of the foreyard, 20 inches; main yard, 22; and cross-jack, 16 inches. The bowsprit was 28 inches in diameter, 20 feet outboard. The jib-boom was divided at 16 feet and again at 29 feet, with a five-foot end. The spanker boom was 55 feet long; gaff, 40 feet; and the main spencer gaff, 24 feet. The masts all raked alike, 1 1/4 inches to the foot.”

The terminology doesn’t come naturally to the modern sailor, but once you’ve located all these parts in your mind’s eye, you begin to see an awesome picture. What the particulars make obvious, even in an age of hollow aluminum extrusions, plastic, and carbon fiber, is that this ship was gigantically sparred for her size. Like other “extreme” clippers she was meant to spread many thousand square yards of sail and keep most of it up in heavy winds and seas. That was the way to speed records and profits.

On Flying Cloud’s maiden voyage in 1851, Josiah Cressy took her out of New York, around the Horn, and to San Francisco, in 89 days, 21 hours, anchor-to-anchor— an astoundingly fast passage. On her fourth voyage, begun on January 21, 1854, she bested her own time, arriving at anchor in San Francisco 89 days, 8 hours out. This was the record that stood until 1989. (There has been a longstanding debate over whether the record should have been credited to the Andrew Jackson, a clipper that made the run in the winter of ‘59-’60 to the pilot grounds inside the Farallon Islands in 89 days, 4 hours, but was then becalmed and couldn’t make port until the next day. A tempest in a teapot, you say? The most rabid fans of Red Sox and Yankees could not have been at greater loggerheads.)

The clippers of the 1850s represented a great leap forward in naval architecture. They had sharp entrance lines with radical concave bows, moderate or low deadrise with flattish bottoms and shallow, clean runs aft for minimum drag. With their enormous sail areas they were radically fast by any standard. Compare them to what came before: The original American naval frigates like Constitution, Philadelphia, and Constellation, which outsailed the British men-of-war in 1812, were occasionally capable of 12-knot speeds. Early merchant clippers like Sea Witch and the famous Baltimore ships like Ann McKim could do a knot or two better. Flying Cloud had her best day’s run during her sixth and last voyage around the Horn in ‘56 — 402 miles at an average of 16.75 knots. In 1854, the McKay-built Champion of the Seas made 465 miles noon-to-noon on December 11-12 in the Roaring Forties — an average of almost 20 knots. It would be 40 years before a steamship could equal that. In Southern Ocean conditions it’s still a good day’s run for a 21st-century warship.

The thoroughbred clippers weren’t just temperamental to sail, they were downright frightening. In order to set records they had to be sailed at the far edge of sanity. Riggers would often be sweating over the last of their work as the ships were being towed out of harbor on their maiden voyages. Everyone understood that the hemp would stretch, and that if sails weren’t reefed at the right time, and sheets and yards weren’t tended properly, and if the helm weren’t handled perfectly, gigantic objects would start breaking.

Crockett

It’s hard for modern-day sailors to picture the mayhem when things did break. On her maiden voyage, Sovereign of the Seas, built by Donald McKay and commanded by his brother Laughlan, lost her main topmast, mizzen topgallant mast, and foretopsail yard over the side in a gale off Cape Horn. With a record to set, there was no option of cutting the rigging away and heading into Valparaiso for repairs. McKay re-rigged her then and there. “Theoretically, it was impossible in the heavy weather that existed to save the massive spars,” said Carl Cutler in his authoritative Greyhounds of the Sea. “...It required herculean efforts merely to prevent the spars from pounding the ship full of holes, let alone getting the ponderous weight of the spars and the backstays on board again…

“Within 24 hours the fore and main topmasts and mizzen topgallant mast, with all the yards, sails, and gear attached, were back on board and the work of re-rigging was underway. It was a task that involved everyone engaged in it in the utmost danger. The main topsail yard alone was a stick that must have weighed considerably more than three tons without the hamper attached to it, and the work of disengaging such a spar from the snarl of rigging in the heavy seaway that prevailed was a thing to tax the courage of the bravest and most active sailors afloat.”

Within 30 hours they were making 12 knots. For the record, the main topsail yard on Sovereign of the Seas was 19.5 inches in diameter and 70 feet long, about twice the size of a typical utility pole, and much heavier. To be put back in service it had to be hoisted about nine stories into the air with hemp rope and wooden blocks in a violent rolling sea, by men in soggy and inadequate clothing being whipped by a cold wind.

On the other hand, imagine the thrill of a fast passage. On February 12, 1853, Laughlan McKay took Sovereign of the Seas out of Honolulu, bound for New York with 8,000 barrels of whale oil. They were extremely shorthanded, with only 34 crew in addition to the officers. McKay closely followed sailing directions given to him by Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, then director of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Maury would soon publish his Physical Geography of the Sea, which would set the standard for all modern oceanographers. For now he was pleased with McKay’s confirmation of his theories: Sovereign made New York in 82 days, obliterating all previous records. She averaged 378 miles a day for four days straight, and 330 miles a day for another eleven-day period. In mid-March she recorded a 24-hour run of 430 miles (later analyzed and reduced by the Navy to 410.7 miles in 23:18, or about 421 miles in 24 hours). A letter from one of the ship’s officers to a friend in Boston is quoted by Howe and Matthews:

“The day we ran 430 miles she had the wind on the larboard quarter and carried all drawing sail from the topsail down, but had the topmast been sound she could have borne the topmast studding sail also. The sea was high and broken, the weather alternately clear and cloudy, with heavy showers, and at night we had occasional glimpses of moonlight. She ran about as fast as the sea and when struck by a squall would send the spray masthead high. Now and then she would fly up a point and heeling over skim along between the deep valleys of the waves, and then, brought to her course again, righten with majestic ease and as if taking a fresh start would seem to bound from wave to wave.”

On Sovereign’s earlier, maiden voyage, the re-rigging triumph would probably have been impossible if it weren’t for the fact that Laughlan McKay was a master carpenter, having served as such aboard the frigate Constellation, and had brought with him a mostly hand-picked crew of 105 — a huge crew to ship aboard a clipper. Most clipper captains were unable to attract decent crews, either in numbers or expertise, and sailed shorthanded, as McKay did in his Honolulu-New York run. Those who did ship out were generally miserable about it, and were treated miserably as well. They were paid a few dollars a month to endure unheard-of hardship and danger with no time off, bad food, and bad company. “Americans would not willingly accept such wages for such work,” said Morison. “Coasting vessels, paying $18 a month, absorbed the Yankee boys with a craving for the sea. The shipowners could have obtained American crews had they been willing to pay for them, but they were not. Like the factory owners, they preferred cheap foreign labor.”

The crew problem, the rise of steam power, and the cost of operating fast, low-capacity ships in pursuit of markets no longer frenzied — these were the main factors that brought about the demise of the Gold Rush clippers. But the 1850s, a decade of often painful social and technological transition that foreshadowed the American Civil War, were golden years for some of the most exotic ships ever to sail.

 


Anchored for a Storm, August 2020

Hobbes would have described the weather event as nasty, brutish, and short. It hammered Connecticut on August 27th from the northwest through Bethany, North Haven, Hamden, and then, big-time, Branford. The town had 99 percent of its power knocked out, with lines down everywhere and hundreds of trees sheared off, uprooted, or otherwise mangled.

We were anchored in good mud, upwind of a marsh, in four feet of water, with the oversized ground tackle we've lugged around on Pup for 17 years so that we can sleep at night. As a last-minute thought I led the rode from the bow roller to the big midships cleat that's bolted through the cockpit coaming. This provided a little extra stretch and helped with the shock-loading. I'm not sure the bow cleat would have held. NOAA reported multiple microbursts with windspeeds in our zone at 90-100 mph, or 80+ knots. Melissa's video below is three clips from the first couple of minutes when it hit. Then it got really windy for a little while and she stopped filming so she could hold on with both hands.

In those few minutes we were busy, running in gear and trying to stay behind the anchor rode to take some strain off it. We had our PFDs close at hand, and possibly should have put them on. But I've never liked the idea of being trapped under a boat with an inflated PFD, and thought, well, we can always walk ashore...

A word about NOAA, an agency that does a lot of good work with not enough money and, it must be said, under extra pressure these days from some dubious non-scientific outsiders: Their 24-hour weather predictions for this storm had been very good, along the lines of "There's a strong potential for nasty weather to develop by tomorrow afternoon. Keep an eye out for it." That was enough to make us cancel our cruising plans and stick close to home. And the warnings did increase in urgency the next day, but what had been expected to be some severe thunderstorms coalesced very quickly into something much more powerful, and the system moved so fast that NOAA's marine emergency alerts began to arrive less than half an hour before the weather did. Even then, we could clearly see what was approaching us on radar from a smartphone app while listening to NOAA weather warnings over the marine VHF that focused on danger in White Plains, New York, over 50 miles west of us.

We didn't have time to run far, but we were only a few minutes from where we wanted to be in case of really bad weather — in the shallows, with sticky mud to anchor in, room for plenty of scope, protection from waves and flying debris, and a soft place to leeward if we had to scud or wade.

There's a good discussion of the whole event by Ryan Hanrahan of NBC Connecticut.

- DL