Alvah Simon: Sages of the Sea

00:00, Jan 07 2013
Alvah Simon
Max Nelson of Spinnacle uses an especially heavy rope on his deck bucket with oversized knots. This acts as a counterweight that will tip the bucket into a self-filling position every time.

I was a young sailor, as enthusiastic as I was inexperienced, and trembling with excitement as my younger brother and I made landfall in that hallowed gateway to adventure, the Panama Canal. In the disgustingly dilapidated yet ever so exotic yacht club bar sat a cabal of weathered old salts, a treasure island of cruising experience. I was trying to soak up the wisdom of the ages and sagas of the sea when I overheard one rough looking character say he was on his fourth circumnavigation. In spite of our paltry cruising kitty I walked up to him and said, "If I buy you a beer, would you give us a few tips on successful cruising?"  He looked us up and down and smiled.

Actually, it wasn't until his second free beer that he decided to offer his sage advice. He looked around, not wanting to broadcast too many trade secrets. My brother and I huddled close thinking we were about to hear something of amazing profundity.

"You know how sometimes the labels wash off the tin cans in the bilge, and you don't know what the hell's inside there. Well...", he paused for effect, "open it in the morning! That way, if it's peaches, you can have it for breakfast. But if it's peas you can wait to have it for lunch or dinner." Well pleased with himself he ordered another beer, and when the bartender came to collect he pointed at me.

Well, I suppose the old rake had a point - a lot of small tricks and techniques can add up to more efficient, affordable, or safe sailing. So, for the cost of a single beer, I promise, I would like to offer a few small ideas that others have shown me that, simple though they may be, actually work.

When it comes to boats, my mate Max Nelson of the yacht Spinnacle and I seldom agree; but on the ever so rare occasion he comes up with a winner. The deck bucket is one of the most used pieces of equipment on the yacht, cleaning up after hauling that mud-chocked anchor, washing down the blood from a freshly caught mackerel. But it takes a deft hand to get it to hit the water just right when trying to fill it. That is unless, like Max, you use a particularly heavy rope with especially large knots at the bucket end of the bridle. These knots act as counterweights making the top much heavier than the bottom of the bucket. Just drop the bucket to the water, any old way, and watch it tip itself over and self-fill, every time.

But that's if you can get the anchor up. Clearing the anchor of kelp is problematic because kelp is heavy, tough as rigging wire, and hangs well below the bow, just inviting you to pull your back out. But if you have a heavily serrated knife lashed to the end of your boathook, it is a breeze to cut away. I use an industrial hacksaw blade with the back edge filed down to a knife edge. This way I can use the sharp blade or the heavy-duty serrated edge to hack through the medusa-like biomass. We used this daily on the endemic kelp near Cape Horn and have always kept one at the ready since.


Extra sail ties, spinnaker pole topping lift, winch handles, flu caps - there are plenty of items that are used up near the mast or foredeck and are more handily stored up there than way back in the cockpit. A mesh bag with an elastic opening at the top can be lashed to the granny bars. This will hold the lot; it dries out quickly, and is easily removed for cleaning or replacing.

There is one more item we keep in there. The same hawsehole that lets your anchor chain slide below is also an alarmingly large hole in the wettest spot in the boat - the foredeck. Keep a fist-sized slug of plumbers putty in the mast pulpit bag. Press this malleable goo around the chain; it will completely seal the links and the hawse hole. Sticky as it is, it still comes off the chain easily in a single piece. It is reusable, with a several-month lifespan.

A simple and quick system for a mainsail tie is a double bungee cord running under the boom from the gooseneck to the boom's end. Lash the two strands to each other every meter with a sliding plastic hook between each lashing. To contain the sail, simply reach over the downed mainsail and pull one cord over the top, hooking it with the other cord on the other side. This creates a secure diamond shaped lashing end to end. There are no ties to store or blow away as they are always attached and at the ready.

Apparently bureaucrats worldwide find something viscerally pleasing about that authoritative thump of a rubber stamp hitting the paper page. If you doubt this, look at your passport and explain to me why they turn to the middle of your passport and slap that huge stamp smack in the middle of an erstwhile clean page. We had an "Official" stamp made for our boat, with the vessel's name, a line for the Captains signature, date, etc. Eagles and other symbols of power are good. And don't be shy, let it fly. Stamp your crew list, stamp your provisions list, stamp a copy of your VHF license. They like this as it affirms and validates their positions. You are saying, "Other people don't appreciate how important all this paperwork is, but I know. Would you like a copy of my mother's birth certificate - in triplicate, perhaps?"

As to that pesky problem of the labels washing off those tins in the bilge, my brother and I simply wrote the contents with an indelible marker on the top of the can. But the lesson I learned that day was well worth the price of a few beers - Never trust a salty sage, especially one sitting on a bar stool.

For more cruising reading this summer, you can now purchase Lin Pardey's Bull Canyon: A Boatbuilder,a Writer and Other Wildlife from the Amazon Kindle store. The editors have chosen this work for their monthly 100 recommended ebooks list. Until January 31, the eBook is on sale at a reduced price of just $2.99. The book was chosen not only the warm reviews it received but the fact that it was one of two finalists for the WILLA Cather Literary Award in Creative Non-Fiction.

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