Going aloft

If you own a sailboat sooner or later you’re going to have to get to the top of the mast to deal with some mistake or repair. Lost halyards, flaky anemometer connections, jammed genoa tracks or a bad roller reefing system — you look up, mouth agog, and curse the fact that someone, most likely you, is going to have to go aloft.

In the days I raced with my father on our Wianno Senior, the Snafu III (#140), his rule for going aloft was quite simple and brutal. If you lost the halyard (usually accomplished by forgetting to clip it to the head of the spinnaker and then wildly hauling the loose end to the top of the mast) theny you were the one who went up after it. Climbing a spruce mast by “shinning up” while underway in a three foot confused Nantucket Sound chop ranks among the more unpleasant things I’ve ever done, especially for me, the Cub Scout who had to have his fingers pried off the stairs to the fire watcher’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts in 1968. I am terrified of heights, it is, with no doubt, the single biggest phobia I have. I get freaked out watching people on window ledges in the movies, let alone experiencing vertiginous terror for real.

I’ve been hauled up a mast by making an impromptu Bosun’s Chair out of a bowline on a bight and stepping into the two rings. The resulting choke hold on my nether regions was amazingly unpleasant, and the feeling of being winched up the mast by a person on the deck is pretty terrifying. If they mess up and slip then down you. Crashing 20, 40 feet down onto a winch or worse. Going aloft is serious business. Consider what it was like in the days of sail to go aloft in the ratlines and climb out on the end of a yard arm to take in sail in a serious sea.  A simple ride up a mast is a breeze compared to what those jack tar’s went through in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serious off shore voyagers like the late Bernard Moitessier install permanent mast rungs on their mast — think of backwards “7’s” bolted to the mast. This is very utilitarian and guarantees a fast run up the spar, especially underway, but I’m not inclined to drill out and through-rivet a series of such a solution on my 51′ tall Kenyon aluminum mast.

The solution? A real bosun’s chair. A $200 expense (I am not inclined to skimp just as I wouldn’t shop for a discount parachute) that gives me some firm support under the butt, a tool bag, and some certified hardware s the worst won’t happen while I’m aloft.  I’ll probably go with the Harken Bosun’s Chair, based on the video posted on YouTube by West Marine.

And I don’t intend to use it. That’s what teenaged sons are are for.

ThreeBays: Dead Neck Island

Three Bays, the non-profit established to improve the water quality in the Cotuit-Marstons Mills-Osterville area has an interesting history of the barrier island at the face of the three bays: Dead Neck/Sampson’s Island. I had seen some interesting development plans for the island dating back to the 1920s that showed an air strip, a polo field, and a bridge over to Oyster Harbors across the Seapuit River. But this article provides some fascinating details about how this important migratory bird nesting area was turned into an island by the people of Osterville (with somewhat negative coastal consequences 100 years later) and then saved from development by local philanthropists.

An interesting fact: my favorite spot on the Cape, a small cove that was once the primary point of entrance and egress for Cotuit Bay into Nantucket Sound is called “Cupid’s Cove” by people in Cotuit and “Pirate’s Cove” by people in Osterville.  Here’s what the article says about the impact of the Wianno Cut on the beach, something I’ve suspected for a long time.

“Again in the late 1980’s, he began another round of sand replenishment. It appeared that the jetty that had been built to create a gateway to Nantucket Sound was causing the island to lose much of its sand every winter.”

via ThreeBays: Dead Neck Island.

I’m a dues paying member

Kindle vs. iPad — the eBook experience

I was an early Kindle customer — ordering one in August 2008 when I returned from Beijing as a form of gadget valium to sooth my soul after the enervation of the whole Olympic experience. I took to it instantly, a perfect customer candidate given my travel habits and obsession with lightening my backpack of multiple five pound hardcover best selling door stops.  I read a lot.  Like two to three books a week on average, and the Kindle was instant gratification. I’d think of a book, read a review, or get a recommendation from a friend and I could flip on the wireless Whispernet switch and I was loaded nearly instantly with new reading material for the long haul to Bangalore or the short trip between Boston and Raleigh.

All was well with the Kindle and me. The eInk screen was perfectly readable, the matte screen easy on the eyes with no back splatter reflection. The books were cheap. My beefs came down to terrible hardware design — the page forward and page back pages simply suck — especially for a left-handed person like myself; and the other main beef was the utter antisocial aspect of not being to share books with family or friends. That remains, to me, to be the biggest crime of a digital book. It can’t be pressed fervently into someone’s hands — you have to read this, trust me — and then there’s the whole bibliophile loss of not having a tangible object in one of my many groaning bookshelves.

In April I went for the iPad. I told myself not to do it. It was irresponsible to piss away $500 on a 16GB piece of glass and aluminum, but what the heck, I needed some more gadget valium and I had a professional interest in the device to boot — having come off of the Skylight Smartbook project at Lenovo and being obsessed with all things consumer/content-consumption oriented.

Three months later and I don’t use the Kindle very much any more. And here’s why.

  1. The iPad does more stuff than the Kindle and therefore has more utility
  2. Amazon wisely released an iPad app which is every bit as good if not better than the Kindle 1.0 software
  3. Even though the iPad is a self-regarding narcissist’s dream device — one could spend hours gazing on one’s own reflection — the lack of matte finish doesn’t annoy me
  4. The brilliance of the iPad is the same brilliance behind the original Mac. Where as Jobs first had the insight that people rather not type commands, but would prefer to point and click with a mouse; he scored again with the simple insight that a finger is better than a mouse. Besides, it is so much more physically intimate to idly read on the iPad and move a page back and forth with one’s fingers and not curse, curse, curse at the dumbness of the Kindle’s forward and back paddles.

I haven’t tried any other readers. iPad sort of takes the curiosity out of me.  But if I were Amazon I’d zero-price the things and give them away.

Skunk disappearance

This past weekend, while on Martha’s Vineyard, I caught a few strong whiffs of skunk on the road from Vineyard Haven to Chilmak. I had forgotten how strong a sentimental reaction that smell evokes in me and realized its been a few years since I’ve smelled skunk in Cotuit. Skunk, old garbage in the heat, and urine-like smell of privet hedges are the key smells of summer in Cotuit for me.

My theory is the coyotes have thinned down the skunk population to next to nothing; sparing me the annual washing-of-the-dogs-with-tomato-juice. Still, it was a surprise to smell the fulgent aroma on the Vineyard (where there may be no coyote population yet), and recall the story about how they were introduced by Craig Kingsbury (the person Steven Spielberg emulated with Quint in Jaws, and who’s head — Ben Gardner’s head — popped out of the sunken boat) out of spite against his neighbors.

Cape League Western Division preview | CapeCodOnline.com

The Cape Cod Times has posted its annual preview of the Cape Cod Baseball League season. Opening Day for the Cotuit Kettleers is at Wareham Sunday afternoon and I will try to be there. This is a strange time of year for the league — lots of players are tied up in the Collegiate Super Regionals, Team USA tryouts and the MLB Draft. Cotuit’s top player — Zack Cox at Arkansas and last year’s All-Star game MVP went in the first round of the draft to St. Louis. So it’s hard to really preview or prognosticate for another few weeks until the rosters settle down. These early weeks are interesting to watch because the players — most of whom are college freshmen and sophmores — haven’t played with wooden bats before, so it’s “small ball” with tons of errors and struggling batters.

“Outlook: The Kettleers hope the third times a charm, having fallen in the Cape League Finals the previous two years. It looks to be an entire new cast in Cotuit with 3B Zack Cox (Arkansas) drafted in the first round in this week's MLB draft. Cox was the All-Star game MVP for the West last year and hit .344 in 23 games for Cotuit before being sidelined before the playoffs with an injury. The Razorbacks sophomore was selected 25th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals, which leaves his status for a return doubtful.”

via Cape League Western Division preview | CapeCodOnline.com.

Fascinating obituary – Joan Hinton from bombs to cows

During my first visit to China in the spring of 2006 my step-sister took me along to a cocktail party for a Spanish filmmaker in an astonishing old home in the western part of Beijing. The host, an American, was a great raconteur and told me the story of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, the son of a remarkable woman who left the U.S. after World War II to join the Communist cause under Mao. I took some shots of his house, lost in the shadows of the skyscrapers popping out of the ground around it. And was all agog when he took me on a tour through the tunnels and catacombs below.

This morning, while flipping through the New York Times, his mother’s obituary jumped out at me.

“Joan Hinton, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, but spent most of her life as a committed Maoist working on dairy farms in China, died on Tuesday in Beijing. She was 88….

“In 1948, alarmed at the emerging cold war, she gave up physics and left the United States for China, then in the throes of a Communist revolution she wholeheartedly admired. “I did not want to spend my life figuring out how to kill people,” she told National Public Radio in 2002. “I wanted to figure out how to let people have a better life, not a worse life.”

“In China she met her future husband, Erwin Engst, a Cornell-trained dairy-cattle expert, who went on to work on dairy farms as a breeder while she designed and built machinery. During the Cultural Revolution, they were editors and translators in Beijing.

“Ms. Hinton applied her scientific talents to perfecting a continuous-flow automatic milk pasteurizer and other machines. For the past 40 years, she worked on a dairy farm and an agricultural station outside Beijing, tending a herd of about 200 cows.”

There’s a movie or book in her life. Grandfather invented the jungle gym. Mother founded the Putney School in Vermont. She qualified for the Olympic Team in skiing. Amazing. My condolences to her son Fred and her family.

Erg with a view

Venice May 26 068

Originally uploaded by dchurbuck

I was walking along the waterfront in Venice and came upon this guy on an ancient Concept 2 model A ergometer, cranking away in the May sunshine as the world went by in front of him. He was rowing outside of a Venetian rowing club — a big cavernous boathouse filled with rough water wherries and quads. Not racing stuff, but boats for a few people to have some fun pulling down the Grand Canal. I watched as a quad tried to make a go of it during the Venetian equivalent of rush hour — vaporettos, water ambulances, water taxies, freight lighters and garbage barges all chaotically skittering from bank to bank — but they weren’t getting much run out of the shell and seemed to be perpetually backing it down to avoid lunching their bow on something bigger.

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