Now That's a Snafu

The caption mentions a shaft seal leak, and it's easy to see how it happened.

I'd never be one to cast a stone here, because I've caused or dealt with this situation a few times on a smaller scale. But holy crow, I'm glad I wasn't the one to lose track of that particular line. Looks like maybe 36mm polyester braid with a tensile strength of around 24 tons. Take a few wraps of that around a propeller shaft and you could stop an icebreaker.

Checklist for Spring Launching

This information, in different form, was originally published on Boat Trader.

For boaters in the haul-out-and-hold-on zones of the chilly north, spring is a busy time. As soon as the weather breaks we start burrowing in garages and workshops, getting our gear together for launching. Of course the ease and speed of commissioning a boat in the spring is directly related to how well it was winterized when the leaves turned in the fall. Assuming that you put your boat away right, here’s a checklist of basic commissioning items to help you get underway.

Time to take off the winter coat. If you used shrink-wrap, it needs to be recycled.
  • Uncover your ride. If you use a high-quality tarp (not one of those lousy blue things) dry and fold it carefully for next season. If your boat is shrink-wrapped, take or send the old wrap to recycling. Do not throw it in a dumpster. It will come back to haunt you as a ghostly plastic nightmare.
  • If your topsides are looking dirty or drab, wash and compound them first, then wax them with good marine paste-wax. It shines better, protects better, and lasts longer than “easier” liquid wax products. No pain, no gain.
  • If you use an electric buffer, inspect the pad carefully for any debris that you might grind into the gelcoat. And keep that buffer moving – don’t hold it in one spot to hit a problem area, or you’ll have a problem area.
  • Don’t wax non-skid deck areas! Wash them and you’re done.
  • Use acid-based rust and stain removers sparingly, be careful how you rinse them, and avoid using them over an aluminum trailer.
  • Apply your antifouling paint. Don’t paint your running gear with copper-based paint without a barrier coat, and don’t paint your transducers at all.  If you have more to paint than just the bottom, here's a boat painting guide that will help.
  • Replace hull zincs.

Mechanical Systems

  • Outboard engines that have been properly inspected and winterized in the fall should be ready to roll. Even so, it's a good idea to take off the cowling and have a look around. Mice and other critters can make mischief over the winter. Double-check wires, hoses, hose clamps, oil condition, water intakes, and zincs. 
  • The procedure for inboard engines can vary quite a bit depending on what type of boat and engine you have, and can include different plugs, cooling system prep, and parts replacement. So you’ll have to follow the manufacturer’s specific recommended procedures. But the following items are pretty much universal:
  • Check all hose clamps and fittings. Tighten as necessary. Check hoses for cracking and chafe.
  • Check your wiring. Electrical connections suffer in the winter from temperature changes and humidity. Clean your terminals, change them if necessary, and spray with a corrosion inhibitor.
  • Check throttle and shift cables, lubricate with marine-grade Teflon or grease.
  • Check your seacocks for free movement and lubricate as needed. Open those that need to be open for launch (raw-water intake!) and close those that need to be closed.
  • Make sure your strainers are clear and clean.
  • Check steering cables or hydraulics for proper tightness, wear, leaks, and smooth movement of the engine, rudder, or outdrive.
  • Double-check fluid levels — lube oil, transmission oil, lower unit oil, coolant, etc. (These should have been checked or changed in the fall.)
  • Check heat exchangers for deposits and obstructions. Clear out your old zincs and install new ones. (Again, it's best to do this in the fall. And don't use acid cleaners with zincs installed in the heat exchanger.)
  • Check cooling water impellers and replace if necessary.
  • Check belts for wear and proper tension.
  • If your engine needs new spark plugs, wait to change them until after you’ve burned off last fall’s engine fogger residue.
  • Check engine zincs, replace if necessary.
  • On stern-drive boats, carefully inspect outdrive bellows for cracks and deterioration from winter weather.
Review your hose clamps before launch.

Plumbing Systems

  • Drain all plumbing lines of antifreeze. (You used the non-toxic pink stuff in the fall, right?) Dispose of it properly.
  • Fill your freshwater tanks.
  • Flush the plumbing lines with fresh water long enough that coloration (from the antifreeze) is no longer visible. Then, flush a little longer.
  • Open raw water intakes for the head, raw water washdowns, live-wells, and other plumbing systems.
  • Check all your hoseclamps for rust and tightness.

Boat Trailer

  • Spray all connections with contact cleaner.
  • Test your brakes if your trailer is equipped with them.
  • Grease wheel bearings (if you didn’t grease them in the fall), lubricate hitch mechanism, overhaul winch cable or strap and check for wear/weakness.
  • Carefully check your tires (you blocked the trailer up in the fall to prevent settling, right?), including treads and sidewalls, and inflate to proper pressure. Do the same for your spare.

Safety Gear

  • Make sure flares, fire-extinguishers, and other required equipment is up-to-date.
  • Check PFDs and stow them in an easy-to-access place.
  • Test bilge blowers and bilge pumps.
  • Overhaul your anchoring gear and stow it so that you can deploy the anchor quickly.
  • Make sure your first-aid kit is stocked and up-to-date.

Miscellaneous Checks

  • Are the batteries fully charged?
  • Is the registration renewed and have you put the current sticker on?
  • Is your boating license on board or in your wallet?
  • Sunscreen, bug repellent, toilet paper, plenty of fluids for the crew?
  • Drain plug installed? Repeat: drain plug installed?
  • Check. Check. Check. See you on the water.


Navigation Safety: Rule of Thumb, Constant Bearing

This information, in different form, was originally published on

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.

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 hand or fist held at arm’s length covers about 8-10 degrees of the horizon. A thumb’s width covers about 2-3 degrees. But you don't really need to think about numbers. Most people’s hands and thumbs 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. A lot 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

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).



Ballet of the Ancient Mariners

This is a composite vignette from three 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.


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 other old hands are on deck, keeping 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.

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 nearly 30 years 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.

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