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.

U is for U-boat

a to z - u-boat-cutaway

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.

a to z - JohnPhilipHolland

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.

a to z - plansTyp_XIV

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.

a to z - U505_bez_tekstu

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



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.

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.

H is for Hull


The hull is, of course, the roughly boat-shaped thing between you and the water. There more kinds of hulls than a dog has fleas, limited only by the inventiveness of the human mind. There are monohulls (displacement hulls and planing hulls), catamarans, trimarans, Chesapeake Bay deadrises, Carolina flares, scows and barges, all kinds of hulls. A displacement hull is designed to go through the water and a planing hull is meant to skim along on top of it. The photograph below is of a ‘hull’ that was an upside down table with an outboard motor attached. Apparently with enough power you can get anything to plane.

hull for a to z

A lot of fun as a lark exercise in thinking outside the box, but bit limited in practicality insofar as cargo or passenger capacity and definitely for calmer water.

Then there is the plethora of materials.

There is the ubiquitous fiberglass. It’s everywhere from dinghys to fishing boats to yachts. A friend of mine that is a dyed-in-the-wool wooden boat man called fiberglass sailboats ‘fur lined Clorox bottles’, because some manufacturers line the inside of the cabin with carpet for insulation. Fiberglass does have advantages in initial low maintenance, but over time it blisters (if there was any moisture trapped during the layup process, something you won’t know until a few years down the road). That maintenance is just as much of a pain in the bottom as wooden boat maintenance with the added disadvantage of it being itchy as all get out when you sand on it. Think of the itch of the pink fiberglass insulation and multiply it by a few. Ick.

clinker builtDORA03

Wood is the classic material, but there are too many construction variations to even keep up with, let alone cover them all here. Among the aforesaid variations are planked (carvel and lapstrake/clinker are the two most basic configurations), plywood on frame, strip built, tack and tape, and cold-molded. Investigation into particulars of those construction techniques are, as our old school text books used to say, are ‘left to the serious student.’

Hulls are also made of metal. I know anyone who has fished in lakes has at least seen the old riveted aluminum jonboat, but for larger craft welded aluminum enjoys a certain favor amongst those who are not overly impressed by the chores of maintenance, but you have to watch out for galvanic effects of seawater. Steel has not only been a viable material for larger craft and ships, but for smaller ones as well, as Bernard Moitessier’s yacht ‘Joshua’ in which he sailed one and half times around the world was steel. Not a bad recommendation for durability.

And if there ever is a leak in any hull, just remember that the best bilge pump in the world is a scared man with a bucket, keeping the water out.


E is for Engine

tohatsu outboardtohatsu 2013_6hp_3

This subject is timely for me right now, because I’m finally in the process of looking around for an outboard engine to provide auxiliary power for my sailing skiff. I know, I’m a blow-boater and have called power boats ‘stinkpots’ more than once in my life, but now I’m thinking about sailing on bigger water on the sounds of North Carolina and that makes it a safety issue. Years ago I had a tiny little outboard to power a daysailer sailboat. At the time all I could afford was a rebuilt Sears Gamefisher with a whopping 1.2 horsepower. No, that 1.2 hp is not a misprint. It ran well but sounded somewhat like a kazoo with hemorrhoids and was vastly underpowered for anything but very calm conditions. The boat I have now is a little heavier and I’m going to be sailing on bigger water so an increase in horsepower and dependability is essential. I’ve settled on one, I think, but the selection process has been long and that is as it should be.

Engine selection should be based on what the boat is or might be used for. An outboard engine to power a small sailing skiff like mine to get me off the water when it’s glassy calm and I see black storm clouds on the horizon will be very different from an inboard auxiliary to power a 150 foot yacht commanded by the rich and shameless. An old rule of thumb is that the engine should be powerful enough to give a speed of at least 2 knots (that’s 2 nautical miles per hour) against a Force 5 wind with the weather shore at least 2 miles distant. A simple old formula for estimating that speed in knots is to take the square root in horsepower, multiply that by 15 and divide by the beam (that’s the width) of the boat in feet. That is for a displacement hull (one that goes through the water), not a planing hull (one that rides on top).

One final word of advice on boat engines, and this goes to inboard engines especially, be sure to check the oil level every time before you run it. Just like a car, if the level is low you may well have a leak and that could lead to engine seizure. But for a boat engine if the level is high, it’s entirely possible that water has found its way into the oil sump. In that case you could crack the cylinder head, break a piston or both, just by cranking it.

All in all, marine engines are pretty durable things, they have to be in order to do what they do. Just be certain to perform your preventative maintenance (PMs), including flushing the engine to get the salt out of it and mothballing procedures at the end of the season so you won’t have to pull your arm out of the socket cranking it the next year.

Happy boating!