Our Brave Experiment

SUBHEAD: We wanted to sail. The solution, of course, is to get rid of the house, the car and the job.

By Dmitry Orlov on 13 June 2012 for Club Orlov -  

Image above: Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg "Sails" for "The Wreck of the Zephyr", 1983. From (http://www.chrisvanallsburg.com/wallpaper/sails1280x1024.html).

 [Author's note: This is the last in the series of three posts based on the talks I gave at the first annual Age of Limits conference in Artemas, Pennsylvania.]
Exactly six years ago—a year or so before my first book was to be published—my wife and I sold our condo in a Boston suburb, liquidated most of our belongings, moved the rest either into storage or aboard Hogfish—our 32-foot sailboat—and sailed off into the North Atlantic.

 This was rather brave of us, since, up to that point, our seafaring experience was limited to a weekend sail from Boston to Salem and back, which is the nautical equivalent of dangling your feet in a swimming pool. I did have some prior sailing experience: I had sailed dinghies around Boston's Charles River Basin (a smallish expanse of flat water between the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and the Longfellow Bridge).

 Once that became too boring, I joined Courageous Sailing Center and went on to sail somewhat larger boats, including the sporty J-22, around Boston Harbor. The typical summer afternoon excursion involved tacking out and around the nearest harbor island on the afternoon sea breeze, anchoring somewhere for a picnic, and sloshing back on the tide and the dying breeze just as the sun was starting to set.

While this doesn't sound particularly courageous, just getting out into the harbor did take courage: Courageous Sailing Center is located in a deep, winded-in pocket between two piers, and the only way to get out of it and out into the harbor it is by short-tacking through an obstacle course of moored boats.

If you haven't realized this yet, the approach I am taking with this article is that too much information is generally a good thing; however, I am not setting out to write an encyclopedia of sailing, so I will throw a lot of terms around without pausing to define them. If you don't understand something, then let Wikipedia be your friend.

My decision to buy the sailboat was a long time in the making. I had started researching sail-based transport some time before then, having come to the realization that, once fossil fuels are gone, sailing will once again become the only way to navigate the planet. I had also realized that the world has changed since the world's last sail-based merchant marine (Finnish) ceased to exist (right around World War II).

For one thing, there just isn't the supply of dense-grained old-growth timber from which to construct wooden ships using classic time-tested methods. The available timber is from new, smaller, fast-growth trees, which have loose grain structure with widely spaced rings, and even it is in short supply, very expensive, and weak. For another thing, over the course of this century sea-level rise associated with global warming will put most coastal port facilities underwater and out of commission. If you don't believe this, that's fine by me, because I believe my own eyes, not you. Just last week a freakishly high tide put the floating docks at several marinas in the Boston area within a foot or so of floating off the tops of the pilings.

If we are planning for one or two decades from now, let's do the reasonable thing and plan for docks and waterfronts that are awash at high tide and quickly washing away altogether. This means that the sailboats we build need to be beachable: they need to take to the ground safely and settle upright, instead of flopping over on their keels and holing their sides on rocks. Many other, similarly practical considerations occurred to me in the course of my research, and I spelled them out in an article I wrote at the time, The New Age of Sail.

I then found and purchased Hogfish, which is the type of boat I described in the article: a custom-built ocean-going sharpie. It is a shoal-draft boat, drawing only two feet when normally loaded. It is very solidly built; the builder, Chris Morejohn, who has built some 60 boats over the course of many years, had lost a boat in the Gulf Stream when it collided with something, possibly a submerged shipping container. The next boat he built was designed to survive such a collision without damage. The hull consists of over an inch of cold-molded, laminated plywood, with a very thick fiberglass hull built over that.

Yachty people sometimes look at it and ask me whether it's ferrocement. I tell them that it's fiberglass with a wood core, and then they think that I don't know what I am talking about. Yachty people tend to have strong opinions, you see, whereas I couldn't care less. Hogfish could probably sail clear through a contemporary production fiberglass yacht, leaving two half-yachts foundering in its wake (but I will do my best to leave this hypothesis untested).
It is also uncapsizable: one of the initial sea trials involved sailing out into the Atlantic in a gale, with empty water tanks, and trying to get the mast to touch the water. It turned out to be impossible: Hogfish will wallow at about a 45-degree angle, with all sail up and sheeted in flat. This effect is achieved by using a low aspect ratio rig: 1 to 1.3 or so. The genoa is actually 1 to 1 (it's a fractional rig) and this means that it can be roller-reefed without adjusting the sheeting angle. At this point a typical snooty yachty person will snort and declare that this boat must sail like a pig. Not so; Hogfish does a perfectly respectable 7.5 knots off the wind, and 5 knots to windward, and points as high as most sloops.

Hogfish is designed to sail, not motor, and so the engine is rather underemphasized. It is an outboard that sits on a bracket under the transom, with the prop projecting to one side of the skeg. It motors at around 5.5 knots with a 10hp motor at full throttle, although I prefer a quieter ride and only go 4 knots when motoring. Where the oily, stinky inboard diesel would normally sit there is a large pantry.

The bottom is perfectly flat side-to-side (it has rocker but no deadrise) allowing it to settle upright at low tide.

There is a very substantial centerboard, but it is used only when maneuvering (to make tight turns) and when sailing to windward. On other points of sail, chine runners (little lips sticking out horizontally from the chine) catch enough water to prevent leeway. The centerboard is ballasted so as to bounce easily off the bottom, making it the depth sounder of last resort: if I hear the centerboard tackle jangling, it's time for a quick about-face.

The rudder is a kick-up rudder, its long blade normally kept down by a long nylon tensioner, but folding up and out of the way when encountering an obstacle. This combination of features makes running aground in calm waters a non-event: time to take a nap and wait for the tide to set you afloat again. I have done this on many occasions, both accidentally and on purpose.

In all, Hogfish has proven to be a versatile, safe and seaworthy design. Chris had spent 10 years living aboard and sailing Hogfish with his wife. They bore and raised their two daughters while aboard. All of the above still like sailing. And then we bought it, moved aboard, and sailed off into the North Atlantic... in mid-October, just to be funny, I suppose. Now, it may seem reasonable to buy an old sailboat to try an experiment or two, but what's all this about selling everything else, quitting the job, and going off sailing?

To understand this choice, you need to understand the economics of owning a sailboat in Boston. Given the prices that local marinas charge for dockage (almost same as rent or mortgage on land) there are just two purposes to which sailboats can be put here: ostentation (sport, showing off and so forth) and as one's primary residence. Most people manage to somehow make ends meet while owning a house and a car and holding down a job, but introducing a sailboat into the equation breaks the bank. The solution, of course, is to get rid of the house, the car and the job. Let us discuss these one at a time.

Just getting rid of the house and living on the boat is a giant leap in the right direction. The amount of stuff that can fit on a boat is much smaller, forcing people to get rid of junk they don't need and never use, and keeping them from buying more of the same because there is no place to put it.

Entire categories of expense, such as furniture, home appliances, various collections of useless, nameless objects, simply fall away. Inevitably, the savings rate shoots through the roof, and, a short while later, it becomes unclear why having a job is all that important: you have more money than time to spend it. Plus, you hardly ever get to go sailing because this thing called “the work-week” keeps getting in the way.

And so, the next item to go is the job. Jobs interfere with sailing. You see, one of the most important facts to understand about sailing is that it does not happen on schedule. You set a general southerly direction and, some months and many adventures later, you find yourself anchored in a turquoise lagoon fringed by yellow sand and palm trees somewhere in the Caribbean; you set a general northerly direction and, a similar duration later, you find yourself anchored in a rocky bay fringed by granite cliffs and pine trees somewhere in Maine or Nova Scotia—unless you decide to stop on the way.

But having to be somewhere by next Monday, or making sure that you are able to check your email at all times, or to join a daily conference call or two or three—these things all run contrary to nature's plan. You will end up fighting the elements instead of going with the wind and sitting out the bad weather, and will probably arrive late anyway.

Once your earthly possessions are down to a storage container full of stuff you will quickly forget what is yours... but there is still the car. The obvious problem with cars is that they don't fit on sailboats, and if you want to go sailing, it has to stay on shore.

If you are intent on sailing away with no specific return date (see above as to why that is generally the case) then it's best to give up the car altogether. Bicycles are another story: they can be partially disassembled, bagged, lashed to the lifelines, and ridden anywhere you happen to dock next. And so we got rid of everything that couldn't go on the boat, and set sail. In the course of a year, we sailed from Maine to Florida and back, with a long stop, haul-out and refit in St. Augustine.

The refit was called for because, while we were sailing down to Florida, everything on the boat broke. The original design was sound, but Hogfish had a couple of owners between Chris and myself, who Mickey-Moused a great many things in a multitude of amusing but, thankfully, sublethal ways. Hogfish, it turned out, was not a beautiful and/or unique snowflake. It was a learning experience, by the end of which I had attained a level of expertise in all parts of the sailboat, from sail repair to engine mechanics. Along the way, I also introduced a long list of improvements that made life aboard much more pleasant.

Not that it was particularly unpleasant to start with. A sailboat, and ours in particular, makes a very good survival capsule. The constant motion takes getting used to (some of the sportier sailboats have horrible, lurching, unpredictable motion that will break your ribs; ours doesn't) but the cabin is a safe, cozy, thoughtfully appointed sanctuary from the elements raging outside. I was often amazed when, after dousing wet flogging sails or resetting a dragging anchor in a howling gale, I would descend the companionway, to find the cabin warm, dry and well-lit, my wife reading a book and drinking a cup of tea, and the cat napping on the bed.

Most of the discomforts associated with life aboard have to do with being stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time: north during the winter, south during the summer, in the hurricane zone during the hurricane season. But if you avoid these pitfalls by unhurriedly sailing to and fro, life aboard can be positively pleasant.

Nevertheless, the pressures to make the experience even more pleasant are always there, emanating, as they do more often than not, from the female half of the crew. And so, I insulated the cabin, adding layers of foam, radiant barrier, and varnished plywood liner and trim throughout the cabin. I also installed a charcoal stove, for drying out the cabin on rainy, foggy days. I added solar panels and a wind generator, to make sure that we never run out of electricity for lights, instruments and other electronics.

 Lastly, I installed a propane-heated cockpit shower: the ultimate element of luxury is being able to take a hot shower aboard. But there are two things that make life aboard comfortable more than anything else: avoiding winter, and jobs.

And so, I have been able to validate the ideas I set down in The New Age of Sail. The boat design I described is a sound one; so sound that no amount of inexperience on my part or faulty workmanship on the part of the boat's intervening owners was able to destroy it or even damage it. Getting back to the idea of post-fossil-fuel-age sail-based transport, seasonal, personal sail transport to warm, sunny places and back is already a reality for those with more time than money.

The wind is free, so are anchorages, it is impossible to spend money while underway, and there are desperate people giving away perfectly serviceable sailboats for no money at all. The impediments for executing such a plan are, as I mentioned, the house, the job, the car, and inexperience, although, as I have personally demonstrated, inexperience can be overcome as part of the process if the boat is solidly built and forgiving in its design.

Beyond that, small-scale cargo for inter-island trade is already a possibility. There are many islands in the world that are in dire need of transportation options beyond the big ships that call less and less often and the fiberglass boats with outboard motors that are their only other option. At some point it will become obvious that larger sailing cargo vessels need to be built (the world's current total cargo capacity under sail is approximately zero). These need not be gigantic ships; even a 60-foot schooner can provide a valuable service. In fact, only a hundred years ago Boston harbor was permanently clogged with such vessels.

When it comes to building such vessels, the choice of building materials is likely to be limited. Traditional wooden construction is out of the question; the old growth forests that were used to build the tea clippers in the mid-1800 in East Boston, where I am sitting now, no longer exist. Fiberglass is made using oil and natural gas as feedstocks; these are likely to become exotic along with transportation fuels.

Steel, especially recycled steel plate from large, soon-to-be-useless diesel-powered ships, will be useful for a time, although welding does require a good supply of electricity, compressed gases and rare earths such as Chinese-mined lanthanum for electrodes. Beyond that, ferrocement, then fiber-cement, will be the remaining choices. Cement and short-strand glass fiber can be made using a solar concentrator from limestone and silica, in a process that can be made self-reproducing without the use of fossil fuels or advanced technologies.

I believe that the design that stands the best chance of success in an unstable environment of shoaling, unmarked channels, eroded or submerged docks and waterfronts and wild weather throughout the year is the design I have been experimented with: an ocean-going, heavily ballasted sharpie or cargo lighter that is beachable. Since Dacron (long-strand polyester) for sails is unlikely to be available, the sail plan must work with weak and stretchy fabric, such as reed or grass mat, and there is just one sail plan that fits: the Chinese junk rig. In fact, old Chinese naval architecture and practice have much to teach us beyond the rig. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if, when the time comes, thousands of Chinese sailing ships will show up out of nowhere and mop up all the remaining ocean freight business.

Sailboats, especially ones that settle upright and can be hauled out of the water, can be put to many uses beyond transportation: they can be used as libraries, as clinics, as factories or mills (anchored in a swift current, they can generate power using an undershot wheel) and as secure storage (with the surrounding water forming a moat for protection).

This brings us to the inevitable question about pirates. I would like to assure you that, since the invention of reliable, accurate firearms, mutual assured destruction has prevailed on the high seas: anything that floats can be sunk.

A typical way of fighting off pirates now involves a drill similar to shooting skeet: toss a bottle in the water, and blast away at it with a shotgun. Sometimes a simple show of arms is enough: thrust a hand holding a rifle out of a hatch, and the erstwhile pirates say “Thank you, have a nice day” and move on to a softer target. Add to this the fact that one man's pirate is another man's freedom fighter/revolutionary. Piracy is and has always been about class warfare.

If you are floating by in a well-appointed yacht, teak and bronze and your Rolex glinting in the sun, then it is a point of pride for a pirate to take you down. But if you are floating by in a shantyboat with patched sails, laundry flapping from the lifelines and a couple of goats tethered to the mast and trying to eat your sails, then maybe the prates will just want to be your friends. Finally, piracy is just another way of doing business: continuation of commerce by other means.

And there is much more of a chance of that inland, where people can easily find you (on the road, most likely) whereas out on the water it is very much hit or miss, especially if you are in no hurry and sailing random courses far out of sight of land rather than shooting a beeline from headland to headland.

Having done all of this exploratory work, I am now contemplating actually getting started in the sail transport business. Just one sixty-foot boat would roughly double the world's overall sailing cargo capacity. It doesn't have to be built from scratch: there are many possible retrofits. These can sometimes pay for themselves, if one pulls and sells the engine.

But one thing I discovered is that it is best not to try to do it in the US. First, too many people here still have their heads up their asses, and they won't smell any better once they pull them out. (Pardon me for cursing like a sailor.)

Secondly, there are too many laws here, and too many lawyers. Lastly, it's a big huge world out there, full of easy-going, friendly people who won't have too many issues with you not keeping to a tight schedule—which you won't be, because you will be sailing.

 See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Moving local goods by boat 3/7/12
Ea O Ka Aina: Polyneisans again tour the Pacific 8/15/11
Ea O Ka Aina: Clear Sky over Polynesian canoes 7/12/11
Ea O Ka Aina: The Sail Transport Network 6/4/11
Island Breath: Sail Technology Reemerges 12/25/07
Island Breath: THe Polynesian Package 8/24/07
Island Breath: The Future of Ocean Sailing 8/15/06


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