Post A to Z follow up

I’d like to take this post to expressly thank everyone who read my little scribblings. When I’m safe and secure in my little writer’s garret my ideas feel great, but out in the open where the light of reality shines bright I’m afraid they’ll wilt like an orchid stuck in the Sahara. Roweee, a lovely blogger at, suggested that I follow up the challenge by listing my a-to-z posts so folks, especially new visitors I guess, can have a synopsis of the subjects I’ve covered. I think this is a great idea, so here goes:

A – A is for Anchor (or how to keep things in one place without really trying)

B – B is for Boat (a hole in the water in which you pour money, or ‘I really need this gadget for the boat, I really do!’)

C – C is for Circumnavigation (or round and round we go,  no matter how old we are)

D – D is for Dinghy (or the biggest little dinghy in the Navy)

E – E is for Engine (or how I make this damn thing go faster?)

F – F is for Fire and Fire Extinguishing (or how do I put this damn thing out?)

G – G is for Grog (or how else are we going to keep our spirits up?)

H – H is for Hulls (or you too can make it float)

I – I is for Inox (or the Swiss get it right)

J – J is for Jib (or what is that sail on the pointy end of the boat?)

K – K is for Ketch (not kvetch, it’s Ketch!)

L – L is for Lifeboat/Liferaft (or what to do when the big boat goes away)

M – M is for Multihull (or how many of these things do we need?)

N – N is for Navigation (or where the hell are we?)

O – O is for Oar (or how to pry your boat through the water in one easy lesson)

P – P is for Paint (or how did I get more on me than on the boat?)

Q – Q is for Q-ship (or deception is the order of the day)

R – R is for Rope (no way I’d feed you a line)

S – S is for Seasickness (Bleh and I do mean bleh)

T – T is for Tallow (the little-dab-will-do-yah for boats)

U – U is for U-boat (Aaahhh-oooo-gah, Dive, Dive!)

V – V is for Varnish (an art in itself)

W – W is for Wanderlust (not all who wander are lost)

X – X is for X Marks the Spot (or all things arrrghhhh)

Y – Y is for Yard or Yardarm (What is this strange wooden thing we hang sails and sailors from?)

Z – Z is for Zulu (or how do you spell that?)

I have more block in blog posts than I thought I would have, The last week in June I’ll be going down to the Outer Banks for another writer’s retreat, so you can expect more scribblings/photos of nautical sorts of things whilst I’m there, also posts that relate to ongoing research for the new book ‘Suzy and Dodge.’

Thanks for reading.

T is for Tallow



a to z - tallow

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

a to z - ropeth 2 a to z - ropeth

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

a to z - q-ship U Boat & USfreighter

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.

a to z QShip_aft_combo.jpg57c3c465-1b26-4ca8-9cee-05706151031aLargerQ-ship_gun

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.

a to z - Q-Ship 2

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’.

P is for Paint

The sea is a harsh environment and most things on a boat, if they’re not stainless steel or aluminum, need to be coated in some fashion. Even fiberglass requires a gel coat to keep out the water and salt that would damage the structural integrity of the material. Moreover even fiberglass needs antifouling bottom coatings if it’s a boat that lives in the water most of the time. So for all boats and for wooden boats in particular, that generally means some kind of paint. Bottom paint is a peculiar animal, meant for antifouling, which means there’s chemicals in it that keep algae and barnacles and other nasty things like teredo worms or shipworm from devouring your vessel right out from under you. By the way, the naval shipworm, or Teredo Navalis, is not a worm at all, but a special bivalve mollusk adapted for boring into and living in submerged wood. The creature literally eats wood and has been the scourge of sailors since mankind began to put wooden boats on the water. They really are disgusting creatures and all kinds of methods have been developed over the years to keep them at bay. They only live in salt water, so old time sea captains used to run their ships way up rivers periodically to the point that the water was mostly fresh and anchored there for a few days to kill off the worms. In colonial times they used to cover the ship in thin woolen felt, soaked that down with pine tar and installed another covering of thin planks on top of that as a sacrificial layer. In naval vessels where expense was less of a limitation, hulls were covered in copper. In one more diversion from the subject at hand, I’ve learned on a survival show that they are actually edible if you’re in extremis and can dig them out of driftwood. Sort of like eating a very long slender raw oyster.

Yum yum yum.


But back to the subject at hand. Let me give you my own take on boat paint. I have a rowing and sailing skiff that I designed and built myself (photo above). I’m not saying I’m an expert of any way, shape or form, but my boat suits me and does the things I want it to do. I painted my boat bottom with marine paint. It’s the thing that was recommended to me as being the best and a friend of mine that was sailing across the Atlantic gave me a quart of beautiful stuff and I used it and it looked great. The problem was, that from then on I was bound to purchase that paint for the outside of the hull. Being marine paint it has a premium price. As part of my self-education, I read a book called ‘Skiffs and Schooners’ by R. D. Culler. Mr. Culler was a dyed-in-the-wool wooden boat builder, sailor and captain. In the chapter ‘Paints and Goo’ he put forward an idea that for me was a revelation. You do not have to paint a boat with marine paint. For him, topsides paint was generally white (as it tends to hide inperfections). His preferred choice of paint brand for topsides paint? Sears Weatherbeater. It is formulated for exterior, the semi-gloss chalks over nicely and best of all, it’s much less expensive. I took his advice one step further. For my boat’s interior/topside paint I chose porch paint, the paint for the floors of porches, the stuff that you walk on. It too is formulated for outside harsh environments, it is very hard (which is good for scuff and wear), it can be mixed in any color you want and best of all, it’s a quarter of the price of marine paint. So I learned two things from Mr. Culler. One, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and two, you don’t always have to do what the ‘experts’ tell you.

I’d call that a win.

O is for Oars

a to z - oars

Most folks who have been on the water, even in a jon boat, have rowed. Those big wooden things that the summer camp counselor gave you (along with the life vest designed by the Boston Strangler) that had splinters on the handles and seemed entirely too heavy are called oars. Those oars that seemed too heavy to you at the time? It wasn’t you. Those standard store-bought things are too heavy. And it’s not a matter of the pure weight of the oar. The problem is that they’re blade heavy, i.e. the part of the oar that’s outboard is far heavier than it needs to be to do that job. If the blades are made thinner and lighter and weight added to the inboard portion of the oar, the oar then balances across the gunnel. That means you don’t waste energy muscling the oar out of the water. You thus spend more of your energy pulling yourself along, which is where you want the energy to go. The short heavy oars from the local chandlery for dinghys and skiffs are usually very blade heavy and you just end up prying yourself along.

Let me dissuade naysayers who think oars are a lower form of propulsion, oh no. Oars are a time-honored tradition. The Greeks and other sea-faring peoples from ancient history turned rowing into an art. The triremes of old were the cruise missiles of the day, with banks of oarsmen driving their ships into other ships with underwater rams doing the damage. The bronze ram installed at the prow of the reproduction ship in the photo is, by the way, completely accurate, copied from a ram recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Mediterranean. It was designed to provide maximum damage to the attacked vessel and allow the ramming vessel to withdraw and ram again. Cool, huh? But back to the oars.

a to z - greek trireme 1

a to z - greek trireme 2

The figures show that the oars were about 20 feet long. Those oars had to have been balanced across the gunnel or the oarsmen would have been unable to lift the oar from the water let alone row at ramming speed. And think of the coordination of effort it would take, the training and teamwork required to ensure the oars didn’t get tangled up. The image old movies put forward with the muscular drummer and iron-jawed Charlton Heston is a likely scenario. In Greek triremes minus the chains, of course. The men who manned the Greek triremes at the battle of Salamis were free men, citizens of Athens who faced the great Persian empire and won.

The Vikings were also great rowers. The famous long ships were not only powered by the great square sail, but by oars. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river or fjord, to gain speed quickly and when there was adverse or insufficient wind to navigate.

viking vk_replica_ship

If you look closely at the oars in this replica Viking boat, you’ll see that the inboard portion of the oar is not round like the outboard portion. That is to keep weight inboard to balance the oar across the gunnels.

In more recent history you only have to look as far as the book ‘The Boys in the Boat’ about the University of Washington eight oared crew which represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and narrowly beat Italy and Germany to win the gold medal.

a to z - boyz in the boat

a to z - boys in the boat

Again, teamwork and coordination of effort won the day.

So the next time you go out on a lake for a picnic or fishing, remember you’re continuing one of the oldest seafaring traditions of all by using an ancient tool, the simple oar.