Archive for August, 2010

Dead Reckoning

August 25, 2010

Fog – my Dad used to take off pell-mell into the thick of it, armed with only a chart, parallel rules and sharp ears. Pre-electronics, the process was to lay a course from where you were to some mark, and then ‘walk’ the parallel rules across the chart to the compass rose to get the magnetic course. The chart course would be accurate (if you were strict with the parallel rules and checked your work), but was your own compass as accurate? given that large bits of metal like the engine could throw it off.

(There were compass adjusters in those days who would carefully take your boat in all directions, comparing your compass to their shielded one. They would then fasten magnets in odd places on your boat to compensate – it was an art to get it within a couple of degrees of accuracy the compass ‘round.)

In this process of ‘dead reckoning’, the course and the compass were as accurate as it got. From here on in you made your best guesses for leeway – you lose a few degrees downwind depending on its strength – and for tide, which you measure by watching the lobster pots along your way if there are any and recalculating if you enter a contrary tidal stream.

Preferably you’re going for a ‘noise-maker – a bell, a gong, or a whistle – which widens the target circle to the diameter of the sound. The calmer it was, the smaller the radius, and the circle was offset downwind of the buoy – harder to hear them upwind. Even in the calmest seas, the clappers would hit the metal bells somewhat, but on a calm day the whistles wouldn’t even groan; they’d just sigh, and you had to be right on top of them to find them.

If you were going for a simple can or nun, the target circle was determined by the visibility, often just a few hundred feet. In a 3-mile run, it’s easy to have a few hundred yards of error. You estimated your speed, so when your 3-mile run was done and there was no buoy, your start tacking back and forth in search of it. Often enough, it simply wasn’t findable, and you would set off for the next buoy from your guestimated position.

If you were heading for a point of land or an island, whoever was on bow watch was all eyes and ears for the thunge of wave on rock or the sudden appearance of a line of surf. Having been there many times, I can tell you the fog is deceptive, and you find yourself searching the water just in front of the boat, or the sky as you gradually lose your sense of horizon, since there is none. If the surf appears unexpectedly, it is a cause for much yelling and an immediate turn of 180 degrees – at the least you know the water you came in on was deep enough.

If you were sailing, you could hear the fishing boats around you, but other sailing boats – other fools out in the pea soup – were silent, so you blew your tin foghorn every two minutes to warn others of your progress. I still have his old foghorn right in my cockpit, and although the new shrill freon horn penetrates the fog better, I still use Edward’s old horn in anything less than an emergency situation.

And I think of him as my own navigational skills fade to nothing. (He didn’t brave the fog alone much; it was at least a two-person job – can I say that in my own defense?) As Annie and I sail in a 100’ circle of grey for 15 miles from Vinalhaven to Port Clyde to find a land line for my radio interview, the boats around us are clear blips on our radar. We do have a moment when the ferries to and from Carver’s Harbor pass right in front of us as we emerge into their ‘lane’, their own deep horns signaling each other with little attention for us as they approach. The sound bounces around in the fog, leaving us feeling that they are all around us, on top of us. They seem to pass close, according to the radar, but they never loom out of the grey curtains. Our own position is clear from the GPS, and the buoys appear with reassuring regularity. These two machines have taken the anxiety out of fog work, for sure, and who wants it back? But it has removed the satisfaction of well-done dead reckoning course work as well.


Stern Watch

August 2, 2010

There’s a lot of ingenuity where the land meets the sea meets the sky, where the Fire of our imagination stirs the three elements – Earth, Water, and Air.  The hull is made of heavy ‘earth’ material, yet it floats through the water powered by the air.  While not everything to do with boats is ingenious, it does involve engineering, or what my old mentor Bucky Fuller called ‘comprehensive anticipatory design science’.  Never use one word where four will do: design.  But it is anticipatory: you give it your best shot, but you never know what a boat’s capacities are going to be until it hits the water.

Simple ingenuity: Take rowing, for instance: get into anything that floats with two sticks, and pass them one way through the heavier element – water – and back through the lighter – air – and you will propel the boat along in a ‘preferred’ direction, as Bucky would say.  The more the wind, the more substantial the air element becomes and the more you want to feather the oars to keep your progress.  There is something in the sea’s movement and malleability that begs for a cleverly considered solution, not just the westward-moving sodbuster’s hard work and determination.

I am sure it was long ago that someone first held up their arms – and then an animal skin, and then a piece of cloth – up to the wind’s resistance to propel their primitive craft across a lake, down a river, and eventually out to sea.  But it took observation, experimentation, and a ping in the brain to shape and fasten the sail in such a way as to run side to the wind and then more refinement to climb up toward the direction of the wind, if not actually into it.  While people trickled or poured over the Bering land mass from the East to people the Americas with Anasazis and Abenakis, others moved west – from Babylon to Greece to Rome to Spain, to Netherlands, to England.  Finally their boats were good enough to leap off the face of Europe across the mighty Atlantic, starting with Columbus and Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci and John Cabot, followed by successive waves of fishermen, trappers, missionaries, and outcasts in an East-meets West confrontation that was disastrous for the industrious land-based AmerIndians and a ‘success’ for the upwind-sailing Europeans.

Bucky introduced me to this idea of the history of civilization being tied to the ability to sail ‘uphill’, so to speak.  He tended to dwell on the cleverness of going upwind and the design of boats having to withstand a ‘24-hour earthquake’ in the form of waves; the consequent decimation of the Indians is my own sour note, added to Bucky’s cheery techno-boostering.

Such are my thoughts as Annie and I bear down in the afternoon southwesterly on Bear Island, Bucky’s spiritual home.  I have been visiting this perfect Maine island for many years.  It has a little cup of a harbor at the leeward end with a couple of small beaches, rising through the woods to a meadow, with a huge summer house on the edge of a cliff looking south.  These islands were purchased by such aristocracy as a young country like America can boast (the Porter’s, with Eliot the photographer as the most well-known member, own Great Spruce, just to the north), and the Fuller family took this one over in 1904, building this house and a couple of others on the island, summering in successive years with successive projects that left the island in a state of genteel playground for the ever widening family.  Right through the 70’s the island was run by Bucky, my teacher, and by his sister Rosie, my friend.

She lived in the winter near my home in Newcastle with her husband Alphonse, who struck me as a patrician buffoon, but Rosie was anything but.  She might have had the education, and the mid-Atlantic tones of the Boston brahmins, but she was a pint-sized bottle of energy with her short Camels and long opinions.  I recognized in her determination something that I only half-recognized in the kindly Bucky, but must have been there: a ruthless ambition to be right.  It was she who stayed on the island all winter during the war – not an easy billet – to keep it from being sold.  In 2004, I attended the centenary of the Fuller family owning Bear Island, and though tributes to Bucky were much in evidence, it was really Rosie who should have been getting the accolades for keeping this jewel in the family that now sprawls over the world, and takes each summer in turns, like so many inherited properties.  As we pass a little beach on the south side, we see some children swimming who could be Bucky’s great-grandchildren, still on the same island as his grandfather.

I sailed myself here first in 1970, on a cruise with my older brother and our respective girlfriends.  My brother, a bit diffident, was loathe to bother the family, but I led our troop up the rutted dirt road traversed only by an ancient Land Rover they kept going from year to year to haul things up from the harbor the great house.  And sure enough, we were welcomed (this was before cell phones, my children, before you could announce your every few yards of progress through the world to all and sundry at any time of the day or night) to the table at Rosie’s house, our bottle of wine cracked and food shared at the groaning board of the family table.

After dinner, Rosie took me aside – “Go on, down to the Tea House, he’s waiting for you.”

The Tea House was just over a knoll, and in the gathering summer dusk we heard the unmistakable tones of Bucky’s Boston drawl, and we entered the soft ball of light from the kerosene lantern.  Bucky was sitting at an old wooden table with a man (the mathematician E. J. Applewhite, as I found out later).  They must have been hard at work on Synergetics, Bucky’s masterwork, but Bucky could not have been more gracious, turning our attention to us.  A  tiny milk-bottle of a man with thick glasses that made his eyes large and swimmy.  The original nerd, the glasses were held on by a string, and the ends of the bows were extra large with embedded hearing aids.  He had a ready smile, but only some really lit up the corners of his eyes.  His mind, so capacious and quick, must have reeked with impatience for the rest of humanity, but Bucky was always kind, always attentive, always patient.

As I was his student, they deferred to me and I asked Bucky some questions.  But since I was his avid student, my questions were coming from his point-of-view, so there was no contrast, and the conversation faltered.  My brother, an artist and literary polymath, broke in and started asking questions I would never have thought to ask: what about Freud? and Robert Frost? what about Communism? what about various schools of art?  Andrew Wyeth?

These questions started the old Fuller gears a-moving, and I have never been so rapt as I was for the next two hours, as Bucky soared through the major movements of thought in the early 20th century, as at home talking about the Impressionists and Jackson Pollack as we was about Lenin and Jung (whom he preferred to Freud, let the record show).  Bucky developed tensegrity, invented the geodesic dome, created the only new projection of the earth to get a patent, as well as making the first aerodynamic car, a manufactured aluminium house, and a lot of other things as well.  What attracted me from the halls of Harvard to sojourn among the hills of southern Illinois was World Game, an attempt to be comprehensive and holistic in addressing the world’s energy and food needs (still in existence:

This systems approach to problem-solving informed my reworking of the human locomotor system – Bucky Fuller meets Ida Rolf.  But that was all ahead of me – back on this night I was the acolyte, and once I had receded and let my brother run the questions, we had a glorious tour of the intellectual landscape.  After a couple of hours, Applewhite gently intervened and suggested it was time for an old man like Bucky to go to bed, and we left them and adjourned to the bluff at the high end of the island.  Perched there was a platform with just the frame of an odd geodesic dome (the ‘thirty-verty’), made of rough-hewn lumber, woven and tied together.  Lying on our backs with our heads together, looking up through the hexagons and triangles at the stars, it was easy to see the earth turning under the sky.  At the centenary in 2004, I helped rebuild this dome, which had sagged into asymmetry, as part of the event.

Our perspectives, we agreed, had changed.  We reviewed the night’s conversation, cementing in the salient and oblique points.  We stayed there another couple of hours – the night was warm – and then ambled the full length of the island back to our bunks on the boat.  As we past the Tea House, the ‘old man’ Bucky and Applewhite were still deep in conversation, having never moved.

So here I am, 40 years later, back at Bear.  I sailed into the harbor, but by now Rosie and Bucky are long gone, and my connections to the family with them, so we cast an appraising eye on how its being kept up (well) and then turn our attention another problem, which we solve by clever and unexpected (or so I think) use of the boat’s design.  The rest of this is just for sailors:

One of the welcoming arms of Bear’s harbor reaches up toward Great Spruce in the form of a long ledge and another reaches down from Great Spruce. There is a chink in the middle that I know is deep enough for us to get through, but it is small and I am not sure exactly where (the water in Maine, rich in plankton, is not penetrable with the eye below a few inches).  The trouble is the wind is blowing straight into it, so we either hold our breath and barrel through before the wind, hoping for the best (and maybe experiencing the worst: hung on a rock with the wind pushing you onto it), or go all the way around one island or the other.  Don’t want to waste that time; how to go through slowly?

This trick was actually taught to me by my father, and it makes use of the special characteristics of a yawl.  The yawl rig has a tiny little handkerchief of a sail on the rear, the mizzen, which takes a lot of ribbing, sometimes from other sailors who don’t see the point or like the look.  A small mizzen adds little power but a lot of maneuverability, in my opinion.  Put it up at night and you will lie comfortably in the wind at anchor.  Adjust it under sail and she’ll sail herself long enough to get a cup of tea below.  And you can do little things like this:

How to go through a dodgy passage when the wind is bearing you through it:  Turn the boat up, so it points like an arrow into the wind.  Take the jib away, but leave the main up – this sail is now flapping, acting like a wind vane.  Stand at the back of the boat with the mizzen up but loose.  By pushing the mizzen boom this way and that to catch the wind port or starboard, I was able to push the stern to the left or right, backing the boat slowly down through the passage.

Annie knelt below the boom on the stern with me, watching for rocks.  We have a ‘bow watch’ frequently when we are unsure of our depth – someone high on the bow can see dark or light patches that signal thin water.  But this is the first time we have need a stern watch.  By pushing the boom of the mizzen and occasionally tugging the sheet of the main, we were able to go through the passage at less than a knot; even if we had hit, it would have been a bump and a scrape, not a disaster.  Annie, dubious in the extreme about undertaking this, favouring the longer but safer trip around the islands, was delighted and impressed.

As it was, we never touched, and when I judged it safe, we unfurled the jib and backed it, turned on a dime and sped out of there in the usual forward way, to round up some minutes (instead of some hours) later behind the Barred Islands.  Here Annie left glass ten years before.  This habit she has of going ashore to break bottles on Maine beaches is not one I approve of (she does it out of the beaten path – swirly places are best, and she stirs it in), but damned if she didn’t find some pieces of glass she left there when last we stopped here ten years ago – now polished to a soft frosty matte: sea glass, a vanishing phenomenon in our world of plastic.