June 20, 2010

I Actually Go Sailing


I actually went sailing Saturday.

Well, I had to.

The next item on my endless list of boat maintenance projects was 'calibrate the autopilot', and, there's no getting around it, to do that you actually have to take the boat out of the slip and go sailing.

So, in yet another example of how irony is everywhere in my life, my obsession with boat maintenance finally forced me out of the slip in which it usually imprisons me.

It turns out that, as bays go, this one we've got in San Francisco is quite a fine one for sailing on.

Being in the silicon valley, it has a very web 2.0 menu-driven system for selecting windspeed. First, you ask your crew what wind speed range they would like, enter that in the web page, and up pops a chart of where to go to find that.

Today, my crew suggested, "If you put the rail in the water, thunderbolts from atop Olympus shall smite thee." I entered that in the web page and the flash animation spelled out "wind shadow of Angel Island".

So, off we went.

Of course, to get to the wind shadow of Angel Island, you must first traverse the Evil Berkeley Circle, site of Tillerman's 2011 West Coast Laser Slamdown.


We got an early start through the mild 25-knot gusts before the chop had built to a height that eats Lasers for lunch.


It was somewhere around here that my wife snapped this amazing picture of me. What's amazing about it is that I'm actually smiling - an open-mouthed, genuine, unforced toothy grin. That is actual joy on my face - a miraculous rarity.

Actual un-Photoshopped close-up view showing genuine sailing-induced joy on my face

I am normally a dark, brooding sort, caught up in the sobering social and economic dilemmas of our times, or trying to figure out why some computer user at work is seeing images from the Hubble telescope on their screen instead of today's stock chart.

But I'd managed to find the perfect balance of sail plan and trim to keep us punching through the chop at a good clip while fooling my crew into thinking we were in a 10-knot zephyr, not the raging gale that was hitting us. You have to be a sailor to understand that joy.

Eventually, we found the Angel Island wind shadow, things calmed down and warmed up. Sandwiches were eaten, and another spectacular San Francisco Bay afternoon smiled upon us.

If I were the CEO of some badass oil company that had just visited a plague upon mankind of biblical proportions and wanted to put all of that out of my head for an afternoon, I think this is exactly where I would choose to be.


June 17, 2010

Some Blogs Are Just Evil


Some blogs take too long to read,
but still you muddle through.
Some blogs make you guilty
for exercise you didn't do.
Some blogs make you read them
When you should be doing laundry.

And some blogs are just evil.

Some blogs make you say things
you regret you ever said.
Some blogs say some things
that you regret you never said.
Some blogs make you read them
And then miss your morning train.

And some blogs are just evil.

Some blogs make you wish
you hadn't stuffed your mouth with cornflakes.
Some blogs make you laugh
until your belly starts to ache.
Some blogs make you read them
When your boss is looking on.

And some blogs are just evil.

Some blogs make you want
to sell off all your assets.
Some blogs make you want
to sail off in the sunset.
Some blogs put a song in your head
they never should have written.

But some blogs are just evil.


June 15, 2010

Dear Abby:


I'm trying to make some sense out of the story of Abby Sunderland, the sixteen-year-old who was recently dismasted in the southern Indian Ocean while attempting a single-handed circumnavigation.

I wonder if the worst part of Abby's ordeal isn't ahead of her.

The swirl of controversy and media attention that awaits her when she gets off the fishing boat that rescued her may be worse than anything the Southern Ocean was able to throw at her.

I'm always amazed, when something unfortunate like this happens, at the number of experts who materialize with opinions about what should or should not have been done.

Of course, this is not just the story of a shipwrecked, single-handed sailor. There are the questions of whether Abby was too young to attempt such a voyage, of whether she did this freely or was pressured by parents with egotistical or commercial motives. There's even the question of whether writing a simple blog post like this just contributes to the hype that encourages such things.

You certainly won't find any expert opinions here, though.

I'm writing this to sort out my own thoughts. I've wavered from one side to the other since this all began. Should we leave Abby and her family alone to do what they want, or should we join the chorus saying any such attempts are foolhardy and just endanger lives, including those of rescue crews?

At the bottom, and I think what is almost always forgotten, is that none of us know Abby or her parents. None of us was on that boat and can know whether she handled the situation as well as she might have. We can make all the generalizations we like about whether sixteen-year-olds should be out on the ocean alone, but none of us knows if this is that one extraordinary teenager who just might be up to the task.

Abby was able to get half-way around the world on a high-strung 40-foot racing boat. She handled 60-knot winds and seas that were at least 30 feet high for several days before she was dismasted. She had the presence of mind to keep the boat afloat (presumably she secured or cut away the damaged rig), keep herself warm and alert, and summon help.

Many boats with full professional crews have fared far worse than that in the Southern Ocean.

When I was sixteen, I had all that I could manage just trying to learn algebra.

Doc Haagen Dazs has brought up the argument of single-handed voyaging itself being unseamanlike. Technically, he's right. The single-hander can't maintain the perpetual watch that good seamanship dictates, which includes having someone on the helm to best manage the boat in the really nasty stuff.

But, going all the way back to Slocum, some of the most inspiring and encouraging achievements in sailing have been managed by single-handers. Should we have forbidden Chichester or Robin Knox-Johnston from attempting what they did?

There's also the matter of self-determination. Sailing is one of the few things left us that allows us to escape the bounds of what is safe, comfortable, and regulated. It lets us test what we've got against the worst that nature can throw at us, if we are willing to face the risks that we know are out there.

It may be absurd to suggest that this applies to a sixteen-year-old attempting a circumnavigation.

But, with today's technology, maybe it's not so absurd anymore.

If sixteen is too young, how about eighteen? Or twenty? Where do you draw the line? I know that we should be very careful when we start drawing lines. Are other factors more important than age? Training, previous sailing experience, physical strength, formal certification?

I still don't know how I feel about this. I know that I don't know enough about Abby to be making any recommendations to her or to her family. Joe Rouse links to a dark story about what the family's true motivations might be, but I don't know if that has any bearing on the larger issues I'm grappling with.

Abby, I hope that you are resting well tonight. You're going to need your strength to weather the storms that lie ahead.

I suspect that you're a better sailor than I will ever be.


June 12, 2010

Bon Appétit!


It's long been my conviction that having a view like this before you will transform whatever is on your plate into the best meal you've ever tasted.

Maybe that's why San Francisco has such a reputation as a great food town.

You don't have to work very hard to find views like this, here. I snapped this last week, walking back to the boat from a restaurant not far from O Dock. It's one of my favorite places because it's so close to my boat that I can find my way back even when somewhat inebriated.


Doesn't my boat have a fully functioning galley? Yeah, but when I've been scrubbing the deck all day and am dog tired, sometimes I want someone else to do the sauté. And I'm pretty much the same after a long day's sailing.

Carol Anne over at Five O'Clock Somewhere has asked that we do some fantasizing about food. No, not that kind of fantasizing. She's asking what we would serve a bunch of hungry water-borne interlopers if they showed up at our dock at the end of an active day of sailing, surfing, or paddling.

As I've already hinted, I'd probably serve some wine or beer, some canapés and watercress sandwiches, and then suggest we all go out for a real meal.

Somehow, for me, sailing has always been about navigating to someplace at the end of the day that has great restaurants. I can't help it. I'm a city kid.

I almost freaked out at Baydog's response to this writing project. Before you could say Tony Bourdain, there he was with a cream reduction and a basil chiffonade. I have no idea, nor do I want to know, what a basil chiffonade is. I'm almost certain, since it must have something to do with basil, that I wouldn't be very good at it. I'm not even sure you can say 'basil chiffonade' on a blog that might be read by women and children.

But, I do not go hungry.

If pressed, I will assemble some sort of O Dock sideboard from black olives, rosemary olive bread, soft cheeses, green olives stuffed with almonds, hummus, and a suitable merlot, riesling, petite sirah, or brown ale.

Followed by reservations at 7:30.

If you happen by O Dock at happy hour, the odds are good that I will take you out to dinner. Unless you all show up at once.

Then, it's separate checks.


June 10, 2010

Film Review: Sheditarod


The current movie season has been notable only for its lack of memorable films.

Until this week, that is.

Just released, and soon to be making the indie circuit is a little sleeper by New Jersey filmmaker Baydog.

The film is Sheditarod.

Its short 23-second run time belies the film's complexity and the subtlety of its themes.

Many viewers will see the running Wiener Dog as the film's protagonist, missing entirely Baydog's deft handling of characterization. Only after several screenings does the significance of the Woman in Sneakers become apparent. It is, after all, through her eyes that we experience the plot's twists and rollercoaster range of emotions. Her laughter is the only cue on the soundtrack, until the film's enigmatic conclusion, leaving us to wonder what she is experiencing and enhancing her mysterious aura until the dénouement.

Through most of the film, we are, of course, focused on the Wiener Dog and his determined uphill trajectory. The Sisyphean symbolism here is obvious, but creates a wonderful tension between our instinctive optimism - which cheers him on - and a natural fear that he will slip and roll backwards down the hill, as would be expected of a Wiener Dog.

What draws us to the film's center is the syncopated rhythm that drums between the Wiener Dog's busy hindquarters and his flopping ears. The two beats are, at first, hopelessly out of synch, but gradually come into phase as the upward spiral progresses, a triumph of Wiener Dog will over entropy.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the leash, which both restrains Wiener Dog and propels the Woman in Sneakers (and, by extension, the viewer, through the brilliant use of Point of View camera work).

Is the leash our faith, which connects the physical world with the spiritual? Or is it merely a slobbery length of nylon webbing? As I noted at the beginning of this review, the film is nothing if not complex.

Sheditarod should be on everyone's short list of must-see films this season. It is a raw, early work from a director who has a brilliant future in the food industry.


June 9, 2010

Of Boats And Yachts


I'm mad.

Well, angry, actually, but I could be mad, too.

It's that damned autopilot of mine.

A few weeks back, I went into painful detail about how long it took to get it repaired and back into my boat.

But I'm still stewing about it.

That's because the first Catalina 30's didn't need autopilots. First of all, most autopilots mount on a steering wheel, and back in those days, there was no wheel.

The Catalina 30 don't need no stinkin' wheel.

The original boat had a tiller, with the mainsheet attached to the end of the boom, where God intended it to be. I've sailed Catalina 30's with tillers and they sail just fine, thank you.

The sheet was led to a traveller that ran across the cockpit, right next to the tiller. The jibsheets were an arm's length away. From one comfy spot, you could control pretty much everything you needed to sail the boat, all by yourself.

What a concept!

A photo from the first Catalina 30 brochure showing the original layout, with tiller, boom-end mounted sheet, and traveller in the cockpit. Please try to ignore the fact that the guy looks like he's dressed to cruise the Castro - not that there's anything wrong with that. Also try to ignore the fact that, like most brochure photos from the '70s, the guy is doing all of the sailing and the woman is staring off into the distance with body language that says, "Oh, Mr. Wonderful, take me away with you, please."

So, what happened to that nice, simple boat you could sail all by yourself?

Well, new Catalina 30's were sold to people moving up from little itty bitty boats. And those people went to the boat show to see all of the big boats.

At the boat show there were a lot of big boats. And some of those boats were yachts. You could tell the yachts from the boats because the yachts were the ones with the steering wheels. Great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheels. The bigger the wheel, the better the yacht.

And people who were moving up from little itty bitty boats to a great big boat and who went to the boat show thought,

"Why should I spend all of this money on a mere boat when I can get a yacht instead?"

And this was not lost on the clever marketing folks who sell Catalinas. They could sell a lot more Catalina 30's if they turned the simple Catalina 30 from a boat into a yacht.

But how could they do that?

Exactly - by adding a great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheel where the tiller used to be.

The Great Wheel of O Dock, which has, for generations, separated helmspeople from their sail controls.

Presto, instant yacht.

But the clever marketing folks at Catalina didn't stop there.

They knew that people who buy yachts eat canapés and watercress sandwiches. Everyone knows that.

And nothing can be more inconvenient, when you're trying to eat canapés and watercress sandwiches in the cockpit of your yacht, than to have the mainsheet and a bulky traveller getting in the way.

So, if this was to be a proper yacht, those would have to go.

It turns out that you can move the mainsheet to the middle of the boom if you add 26 fiddle blocks and ratchet blocks and bullet blocks and turning blocks and route the sheet forward to the mast, down the mast, through a rope clutch, and back to the front of the cockpit by adding another 26 turning blocks. Of course, with all of the leverage you lose by putting the sheet in the middle of the boom and with all the friction those 52 blocks add, you now need a winch to crank the sheet in.

Oh well, yacht owners don't mind that. They can just have the steward or the sommelier crank in the main a bit on their way down below to fetch some more watercress sandwiches.

Because if one of those yacht owners is actually steering from behind the great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheel, there's no way in heck they're going to be able to reach the mainsheet or the traveller controls from there.

So a boat that one person used to be able to sail single-handed became a yacht that requires a steward and a sommelier to sail.

(Wait, don't tell me you're going to Google 'sommelier'. That's just one of those snooty French guys whose job it is to guide you to the most expensive wine on the winelist.)

Of course, the clever marketing folks at Catalina have thought of a way around all of that. After turning this into a yacht that requires a steward and a sommelier to sail and charging you for a lot of fiddle blocks and ratchet blocks and bullet blocks and turning blocks and a winch you don't need, they will happily sell you something that turns all of that back into a boat that one person can sail all by themselves.

And that, of course, would be an autopilot.

At the moment, though, I can't think of why anyone in his right mind would want an autopilot.

Of course, I'm not in my right mind. I'm mad.

Maybe I should hire a sommelier.


June 7, 2010

Drill, Baby, Drill!


That Tillerman is such a worrywart.

He's posted a map of what the Gulf oil disaster would look like if moved to his home sailing grounds in New England. Of course, spread across a puny state like Rhode Island, the oil spill looks huge.

To put a more fair and balanced spin on this, let's look at what the spill would look like if centered over Sarah Palin's home town of Wasilla, Alaska.

Ah, that's much better. See, against a big state like Alaska, it doesn't look too bad at all. It covers only about five per cent of Alaska. You'd have to have twenty such disasters before you'd cover all of Alaska with oil. There'd still be plenty of pristine wildlife habitat left to destroy. No need to stop drilling yet.

Is it any wonder the former governor has a much more realistic outlook on the future of deep offshore oil exploration than the short-sighted among us?

As an Alaskan, Palin has direct personal experience with oil spill disasters. It's said she can see Prince William Sound from her house. And her experience with the relatively minor Exxon Valdez incident has taught her to think long term. Prince William Sound is expected to be as good as new just 30 years after the Exxon Valdez went aground.

Drill, baby, drill!


June 6, 2010

Today, I Was Not A Butthead


Today, I was not a butthead.

But, I probably should have been.

I was down at the boat again, doing this week's chores (do they never end?). A beautiful, late spring day.

The birds were shining. The sun was singing.

June was playing something of the coquette, teasing with just a hint of the warmth she can show when she's in a better mood.

For me, it was enough, though. I was in shorts and sandals as I scrubbed down the cockpit.

Then, a flash of sail between the rows of tethered boats.

Not the usual stately march of a keelboat headed out to do battle.

This had the quick stops and starts of a butterfly - a light dinghy was being tossed about by the unsettled puffs that were playing through the alleys and avenues of boats.

A sixteen year old kid was marauding the marina in a tiny sailboat, learning the ways of tiller and sheet. He had some of the moves down, and was showboating for whoever might be watching.

But puffs were new to him. He'd yet to learn about bearing off in the lulls. And he seemed a bit too surprised by what overtook him after a lull. I had once been a marauder of marinas.

And then I noticed. No lifejacket.

He was wearing just shorts and tee shirt.

I thought about the warm sun and the cold water. I thought about the puffs. A year ago, I wouldn't have given it much thought beyond that.

But my thoughts immediately went to Carol Annes's friend, a much more experienced sailor than the kid in the dinghy, who, for reasons no one will ever know, disappeared into waters probably no colder than these.

What to do? Should I chase after this kid I did not know and yell across the water for him to put on a lifejacket?

What are the odds he would have listened? What are the odds he'd think I was a total butthead? What are the odds that other adults in the marina would have thought me a total butthead?

In the end, I did what most of us do in situations like this. I just let it go. One of the worst crimes you can commit today is to be an uncool butthead.

But the moment stayed in my head and wouldn't go away. It stirred the old questions of personal responsibility.

To whom are we responsible? Ourselves? Our community? Our god?

When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, these questions were the focus of much public debate. I've watched all of that gradually slide into the 'me generation'. It seems that today most of us have all that we can do just getting through the day keeping the wolves from our own door without worrying about what's happening out in the forest.

So, was I a bigger butthead for not being a butthead?

What would you have done?