W is for Wanderlust

This post is a bit more mystic, in that it covers a singular aspect of why people sail. This is not so much for power boats. I’ve heard it said (and it rings true for me) that folks who go on powerboats go with the intent of going somewhere or doing something in particular, whether it’s fishing or trawling or skiing. Sailors go with the intent of enjoying the going, not the getting somewhere. I believe that feeling is the edge of wanderlust, the simple desire to move.

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The first time I can remember feeling wanderlust was as a five year old child, watching the television show ‘Adventures in Paradise.’ The waving palm trees, the schooner Tiki, and the adventures of Captain Troy were all I needed to light the spark.

The term ‘wanderlust’ has its origins from the German words wander (to hike) and Lust (desire). According to Wikipedia, in modern German the use of the word Wanderlust is less common, having been replaced by Fernweh (literally ‘farsickness’), coined as an antonym to Heimweh (homesickness). I rather like that as a definition for wanderlust. ‘Farsickness’, for to me the longing feels like a sickness of sorts, similar to the ripped heart of lovesickness, but a longing for what is beyond the horizon literal and figurative.

Wanderlust is universal, it seems. Many people, disillusioned with the greed sickness of the modern commercial world, have taken off to parts unknown, many of them single-handed. There is a book by Richard Henderson, ‘Singlehanded Sailing’, that covers the techniques of handling a sailboat on your own. How to set up self-steering, various rigs, anchoring, etc are but a few of the subjects, but the opening chapters cover the huge number of people who have faced the sea alone. The reasons for singlehanding are various. From Henderson’s book, actual answers are “I proved to myself I could do it alone”, “I simply had to”, “Restlessness was nagging me”, “The best way to find peace” and my personal favorite, “Because I bloody well wanted to.”

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A man named Howard Blackburn is one of the most remarkable of all singlehanders, because the man had no fingers. He lost them to the sea when fishing in a dory as a young man from a Glouscester schooner in a blinding snow storm. He lost his mittens and his fingers were frozen stiff, but before he lost all feeling, he formed them into cupped sockets so he could still row. He could not reach the mother vessel, so he struck out for Newfoundland. He was 5 days at sea in that dory, lost all his fingers, many toes and half of each thumb. After all that, he still went to sea as a singlehander and went transatlantic twice. There had to be more in his soul than just ‘Oh I’ll see if I can make it’. Wanderlust had to be part of the very fiber of his being. And speaking of transatlantic, I’m reminded of Helen Tew, an 88-year old grandmother who sailed eight thousand miles in a 26 foot gaff cutter (not alone, her sons were with her), proof positive that wanderlust is not limited to the young. Sir Francis Chichester and Sir Alex Rose were 66 and 60, respectively, when they completed their circumnavigations. I take heart from them, knowing from that that it’s never too late to start an adventure. But for me, the one to take the cake for pure wanderlust is Harry Pigeon.


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Harry Pigeon was a landsman until relatively late in life. He was 48 when he yielded to his yearning to visit the South Seas so he built his own boat, the Islander, and studied navigation in the local public library. His first circumnavigation took four years, his second took five years. The thing is, he didn’t do it as a test of bravery, or a publicity stunt. He did it because he wanted to see more of the world. At the end of his book, he wrote: “My voyage was not undertaken for the joy of sailing alone. It was my way of seeing some interesting part of the world … any landsman who builds his own vessel and sails it alone around the world will certainly meet with some adventures, so I shall offer no apology for my own voyage. Those days were the freest and the happiest of my life.”

So perhaps that’s what wanderlust is really about, freedom. When Bernard Moitessier abandoned the around the world race when he had the thing won, his communique to his Sunday Times contact read: “Dear Robert: The Horn was rounded February 5, and today is March 18. I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.”

The literal, physical act of going is freedom, of ever seeing new things, meeting new people, breathing deep of what the world has to give, up to the last moment when we shuffle off this mortal coil, the absolute refusal to die before our time.


“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

(Dylan Thomas)


So wanderlust, distilled to its core, is lust for freedom and the deeply branded belief that it’s never too late for wonders. May we all, in our own way, be thoroughly infected by it.


V is for Varnish


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We’ve all seen them, the insanely pristine beautiful yachts with deeply gleaming varnished finishes that appear impervious to all that Mother Nature can throw its way. It’s pretty, no doubt about it, but before you let your heart make your boat finishing decisions for you, just remember, varnish takes a great deal of work to apply and upkeep must be done seasonally to maintain that gloss finish.

First, let’s look at a couple of definitions. Varnish is a transparent, hard, protective finish or film used in wood finishing. Classic traditional varnish has three basic components: drying oil, resin and a solvent. Drying oils are vegetable oils that dry in the air to form a solid film. Examples of drying oils are tung oil, linseed oil or walnut oil. Examples of Resins are amber (though it’s a little expensive, I would think), rosin (pine resin), or shellac.

(As a small interesting factoid, pure Shellac is a completely natural product that is scraped from the bark of trees where the female lac bug secretes it to form a tunnel-like tube as it traverses the branches of the tree. The number of lac bugs required to produce a single kilo (2.2 lbs) of shellac has been estimated at up to 300,000. This means huge numbers of insects on the host trees, up to 150 per square inch. Ick.)

The third component, solvent, is traditionally turpentine, but in more modern formulas solvents are more often mineral spirits like paint thinners.

To get back to the nautical applications, marine varnish, or ‘spar’ varnishes are formulated not necessarily for appearance (or UV resistance for that matter) but for flexibility. When sails are attached to spars, the spars flex under the cyclic loads, so if the protective finish is too hard it will crack and water will get in and there goes the protective qualities. Less severe but still important, decks flex as well (hell, let’s face it, the whole boat flexes as it goes through the water) so it’s not just for spars.

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Varnish works much better applied in a number of thin coats rather than one or two heavy coats. According to John Vigor, the minimum number of coats of varnish required to get that deep gleaming professional look is 8 to 10. No that is not a misprint, 8 to 10 coats. Now bear in mind that before the varnish is applied, the surface on which it’s applied has to be completely dry, sanded, smoothed with bronze wool (as opposed to steel wool, which puts a gray tint to the wood), grain filled if necessary, and sealed. Only then can you apply your 10 coats of varnish. Between coats some people wet sand with insanely fine sandpaper. Before each varnish application, wipe the surface clean with a tack cloth dampened with a compatible thinner. Don’t work outside if it’s too hot, too cold or too damp, as that will cause the varnish to cloud. Don’t stir the varnish in the can or you’ll introduce bubbles. Swirl it gently in the can to mix it if you really feel it’s necessary. According to Vigor, mostly it isn’t, but for me the habit of stirring something before I dip my brush in it is just so strongly ingrained I don’t know if I could avoid it. One small bit of advice here, and this goes for paint as well as varnish, when a bug lands on your freshly applied surface (and they will, in spite of faith) do not knock them off immediately. I know that sounds weird, but stay with me. Let the finish dry and then knock them off, leaving the tiny tidbits of their teensy toes behind. If you try to get them off whilst the finish is still wet you’ll just end up buggering up the finish.

The previous paragraph illustrates why I’m not a great proponent of varnish. I don’t consider boats as furniture, because if they are actually used on the water the finish will inevitably get a little banged up, whether from coming into the dock, errant tools dropping on them or simply a clumsy misstep (and I tend to be clumsy at the worst times). But if you love making things pretty rather than spending time on the water, by all means, go for it.

U is for U-boat

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U-boat is, of course, the German term for submarine, usually associated with World War II. The true German term is Unterseeboot, or literally ‘undersea boat’. If we go back further, the father of the modern submarine was a Irishman named John Philip Holland (in the photo below), who designed the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy in 1900.

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And on Saturday Aug. 26, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt became the first president (and to my knowledge the only sitting president) to submerge in a submarine. His wife Edith was (similar to her reaction to him going up in an aeroplane) apoplectic. But Holland’s designs, of a boat that ran on internal combustion engine on the surface and batteries below, were the first practical designs of modern underwater craft.

Parallel to this, the Germans developed their own submarines. Their first one sank in 1850 on its first dive in Kiel harbor. After that they got better, of course, and by the time WWI started had a fleet of 28. Overall, in WWI and WWII, the undersea boat was very effective, but ultimately not decisive in the outcome of the war.

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The operational principles are pretty simple. I guess I should have posted this little tidbit under ‘B is for Buoyancy’. All you have to do is remember the basic principle of buoyancy (in water). If something is lighter than its volume of water, it will float. If it’s heavier than its volume of water, it will sink. There are actually woods (such as lignum vitae) that are sufficiently dense (like yours truly) that they sink in water. So the basic theory of the operational submarine is that you start with a pressure hull (that’s the tank with the people inside that resists water pressure) and attach ‘ballast tanks’ to that. When the ballast tanks are full of air the boat floats, when the ballast tanks are full of water the boat sinks. Generally speaking, WWII U-boat ballast tanks were shaped a little like parakeet cuttlefish on the ends (stay with me here, it’s just a rough shape comparison) that were welded alongside the pressure hull (which was usually cylindrical in shape to resist pressure more easily).

The main weapon of the U-boat during WWII was the torpedo, though some ships were sunk using deck guns. They were pretty effective during the war, especially off the coast of North Carolina around Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Historically ships take advantage of the Gulf Stream flow on their way south and either sail closer to the Outer Banks on the way north or further out to avoid the flow. In any case it’s an area of much ship traffic and the U-boats took advantage of it knowing where ships were going to be. There were so many sinkings in that area it came to be known as ‘Torpedo Alley’. All through the war, oil spills, wreckage and bodies were not uncommon along those beaches, especially during 1942, a period the German submariners called ‘The Happy Time’, when they sank almost 400 vessels and over 5000 people lost their lives. There were three submarines sunk by the allies during this period and two of them still lie in about 115 feet of water off Cape Hatteras and south of Beaufort Inlet. One U-boat that survived the war (barely) was U-505, which is now located in her own hall in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The photo below shows it as it was being captured. She was the first warship captured on the high seas since the War of 1812. The display in Chicago is a beautiful exhibit and I heartily recommend you see it if you’re in the area. Walking through it shows just how cold, cramped and dirty life was aboard the U-boats.

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The Achilles heel of the U-boat was the fact it had to surface to replenish air and recharge batteries at least once a day for a few hours. The advent of airborne radar took advantage of this and even the development of the snorkel for U-boats did not help them very much. Added to that was the Enigma code machine that was captured on the U-505 that was instrumental in breaking the German’s radio communication code. That code breaking nulified the wolf pack tactics. 28,000 of the 40,000 German U-boat sailors were killed outright during the war. That’s a 70% casualty rate.

Two small points that writers may find interesting: Submarines, no matter the size, are always called ‘boats’ not ‘ships.’ Second, the word ‘submariners’ is pronounced sub-ma-REEN-ers, not sub-MAH-rin-ers. That might seems like a small thing, but when I mispronounced the word when I worked on them at the shipyard, the sailors very quickly disabused me of my initial notion. Something to keep in mind if you ever talk with one.

Next time ‘V’. Gotta think about that one, may have worked myself into a corner here.

T is for Tallow



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Tallow. The name is arhh-matey-arrhh and salty as can be. But what is it? Tallow is waxy fat from mutton (though you can make it from venison and other animal fats) used as lubricant on board ship. If there’s any sort of leather on board (oar leathers, protective edges on sail attachment points, the places where wooden spars rest against the mast, etc), tallow is the greatest thing for lubricant. It’s great for protection of things steel like handsaws. I also lubricate my oarlocks with it and anything else that just needs a little-dab-will-do-yah. The stuff never seems to go rancid, either, once the impurities have been removed. I’ve had one can of tallow since the mid-1980s and it has never gone bad. Historically it’s been used for lubrication of firearms and for frying food, sorta like Crisco. Presently it’s used commercially in a lot of products from leather conditioners to moisturizers to soap.

And better yet, it’s easy to make.

First you obtain the fat. A local butcher is great, but I have saved fat from when I get leg of lamb, trimming it before cooking and freezing it until I have enough to make it worth the process. Once you have a good sized chunk of it saved, you render it in a frying pan, slowly. Think of cooking bacon without any smoke at all, it’s that slow and low temperature. When it’s all liquid grease, pour it into an old coffee can or other metal can that is disposable. Let it cool. Then pour water into the can and put that into a pot of simmering water. You can put the can directly on the heat if you can control the heat on a very low setting. The idea is that you simmer the water in the can at a very low heat for a long time. The rendered fat will melt, become liquid. As it simmers right along with the water, all the impurities will drop down to the bottom of the can, leaving pure tallow at the top. After you’ve done this for a while (I let mine go for a couple of hours at least) you turn off the heat and let it cool. When it’s cool the solidified fat on top of the water is tallow. Dip it out, put it in a can and you’re golden.

The stuff is amazing. When you’ve been applying it to your oar leathers, etc, it soaks into your hands and turns them baby soft. Great stuff. I’ve thought of putting lanolin in it for hand cream, but that’s another project I’ll probably never get to.

In days of old, of course, candles were made of tallow. You can do that too. The easiest way to do it is to make a jar candle because pure tallow can be used for that. If you want to make a dip candle or pour one in a form it’s a good idea to add something like beeswax, or alum or even resin (not certain what kind) to make it hard enough to stand up to warmer temperatures. There are all sorts of recipes for that online, but I’ve personally never done it so you’re on your own.




S is for Seasickness

Blehhh. Seasickness is an unpleasant subject for anyone. I suffer from it myself and had to put away my youthful plans to sail about the world singlehanded partially because of it. Oddly, my own seasickness does not come from either pitch or yaw, but from roll of the boat. That and the smell of diesel fuel. I guess there’s no fuel like an oil fuel. Ahem, I said there’s no fuel like a … <cough>.

Back to the business at hand, a few small tidbits of information about mal de mer. First, it is caused by the motion of the craft (duh) but it’s a little more complex than that. Most folks when they feel the effects will tend to concentrate on how they feel, on the inner world or close their eyes and try to sleep. This is the worst thing you can do, because it causes the brain to get conflicting signals. The motion sensors in our ears tell us the world is moving and the eyes still show a world that is still. This contradiction of input causes the brain to send out an alarm (ahhooooga, ahhooooga) to the body to stop all processes, including digestion. The solution, or so I’m told, is to concentrate on the horizon until the horizon appears/feels fixed and horizontal. This synchronizes the visual and motion inputs to the brain and forces us to switch from the reference system of the boat to that of the earth. So they say.

A few more little factoids about seasickness:

  • It’s completely unfair, but women tend to be seasick more than men; it takes less motion for them to become nauseated. Infants and the elderly are less susceptible. On a large ship on a transatlantic crossing up to 30% of the passengers will be sick. On a small sailboat the percentage is a little higher and in a small inflatable liferaft the percentage is up to around 60%.
  • The symptoms follow a fairly standard order: frequent yawning, slight headache, dry mouth, pallor, cold sweat, nausea and finally, hanging over the rail.
  • Lying down is the best position, followed by standing up without holding on to anything (unless you’re on deck and are in danger of going overboard). The worst position is sitting down. For me in particular, sitting down and reading is a killer.
  • The medications to counteract seasickness must be taken before sailing or rough weather.

In my own experience the wrist bands are completely ineffective. Some swear by them, I swore at them as being useless …ahhh … junk. Yes I’m sure that’s the word I used, junk. There are medications that can help. I have tried Scopolamine to great effect. When I was younger it made me bulletproof, it was great. Now that I’m over the half-century mark, it just gives me cotton mouth. I’ll try it again in future if I need to go on a ship but for right now, ehhh.

Another medication that apparently is quite efficacious is Promethazine. Unfortunately this is known to cause drowsiness, but ephedrine is known to counteract this and the combination (so I’m told) is known as a ‘Coast Guard Cocktail.’

I’m also told by those who have been seasick a lot that the only sure cure for mal de mer is to sit under a tree for a while. I’ll try the scientific one the next time I start feeling it, but in the long run by this time I’ll count on the latter solution every time.

R is for Rope

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Sailboats use a lot of rope. There’s rope for rigging, rope for halyards, rope for running rigging, rope for anchor rodes, etc etc ad nauseum. Before I delve into some of the details of rope, I must make one little definition. Rope is the stuff before it’s installed in its functional place on board, i.e. raw material. Once the rope is installed as a jib sheet or a halyard it is referred to as a line. So if it’s used for docking it’s a ‘bow line’ or a ‘stern line’ or a ‘spring line’. There are a few ‘ropes’ on a boat. There’s the ‘bolt rope’, which is the rope that goes around the edge of a sail (not something you have to remember unless you’re sewing sails, usually), a tiller rope (to secure the tiller when you walk away from it) and a foot rope (to slide your feet under when you’re leaning out over the gunnel or working a square rigger.) Anyway, rope is the material for making lines.

There are two basic kinds of rope designs: laid or twisted rope and braided.

Twisted rope is the stuff of salty splices and intricate arrr-matey-arrr ropework. Twisted rope is just that, twisted. I’m not talking about its need to talk with Dr Freud. I mean that as the rope is made the fibers are literally twisted from one end. When you put three of them together and twist the ends of all three they naturally twist together like snakes in a menage-a-trois. If you control the passion correctly they will lay alongside each other in spirals and that is ‘laid’ rope. You can actually make your own twisted rope from soft sea grass if you parallel two or three pieces together and twist from one end. Twisted or laid rope is made of all sorts of material from hemp (yes, from the ‘evil’ marijuana plant, even George Washington had it growing at Mount Vernon for making rope), nylon, dacron, manila, polypropylene, and sisal. The last two are horrible on your hands, so I wouldn’t use them for anything other than cheap anchor rodes for dinghies.

There are many types of braided line, but mainly there’s solid braid, hollow braid, kernmantle and marine braid (or braid on braid). Hollow braid is just that. When the braid is done it forms a rope tube, if you will, with nothing in the middle so it’s literally hollow. Solid braid is also just that, when the braid is complete it is a solid piece, like nylon line at the hardware store. Kernmantle is a combination form, which is a straight line core (the kern), covered and controlled by a braided tube (the mantle) on the outside. Parachute cord is of a sort of kernmantle construction. Kernmantle is used a lot for climbing applications, as it’s very strong and easily handled, but modern halyards and sheet lines are of the marine braid type, as it’s also strong and easily handled but also that it’s more easily spliced. Marine braid is a braided core with a braided mantle. Marine braid kinks less than laid line, so it’s easier to coil. Braided rope comes in all sorts of materials, nylon, dacron (and other polyesters) and the more exotic materials like Kevlar (which is wicked expensive, in my experience used only by the rich and shameless.)

Much discussion goes on about what design and material is superior for what application. Laid rope is easier to splice and is usually less expensive. Just stay away from cotton plow line for nautical applications, as it gets very stiff and recalcitrant when it gets wet.

So much for rope talk. I hope you don’t think I was feeding you a line about anything because it can be a knotty problem to string folks along. (Sorry, but I’m really tired, I had to do it.)

Q is for Q-ship

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During the Great War, U-boats were a truly great menace. The Admiralty, being strapped for funds, did not have the resources to organize the convoys that were so successful during the Second World War and the depth charges of 1915 were primitive and fairly ineffective. The only way to sink a U-boat was to ram it or sink it with gunfire. The problem was how to lure it to the surface. The answer was the Q-ship. A Q-ship was a seemingly innocuous vessel, like a tramp steamer, a fishing trawler or a coastal cruiser sailing vessel that was in fact heavily armed with the guns camouflaged. The term Q-ship originates from their original home port, Queenstown in Ireland. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Great War. In addition to their armament, the cargo holds were usually packed with floatable stuff like balsa wood, cork, or even sealed wooden caskets, so that even if they were torpedoed they would not sink very easily, again a lure to draw the U-boats in closer.

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The first unassisted Q-ship victory (as opposed to a Q-ship posing purely as a decoy) was in July of 1915, when the Prince Charles, commanded by Lt. Mark Wardlaw, sank the U-36. The civilian crew received a cash award. Yes, it was not uncommon for Q-ship crews to be civilian, since they had to pose as civilians to maintain their appearance as slow fat civilian prizes. The method was this, that the ship would be converted from a freighter, for example, and armed to the teeth with cannon, which were then covered up with droppable panels. The freighter would then sail in sea lanes were U-boats were known to patrol. Often the U-boats would surface to sink vessels with gunfire in order to conserve their torpedoes. When the submarine was close enough, the vessel would drop the gun-camouflage panels, raise their battle ensign and open fire. By the way, it was necessary to raise the battle ensign first to maintain the legitimate use of the ruse de guerre or ruse of war. Deception has always been part of warfare, examples being the Royal Navy during their wars with the French flying under French flags until they were close enough to engage, which is known as flying false colors. Uses of ruse de guerre that are not legitimate would be firing from a hospital ship or combatants posing as medical personnel, basically anything that involves treachery or perfidy. The actions of Quisling or Benedict Arnold are prime example of that.

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So the Q-ship is within the ‘rules of war’. Eventually they were largely phased out because they were, overall, found to be not all that effective when compared to the cost. In the Great War, British Q-ships sunk a total of 14 U-boats against a cost of 27 Q-ships, and were only responsible for about 10% of U-boats sunk, which was below the use of minefields. That made service about one of them extremely hazardous duty, especially since the Germans sank them with some anger, having viewed them as being an underhanded tactic. Which is really backwards, since they were talking about a vessel intended as defense against submarines, who’s raison d-etre was undetected surprise attack. Is that ironic or not? You be the judge.

Q was a tough one for me. I’ll try harder for ‘R’.