On Water

by · November 27, 2009

I like water.  Big surprise there, I’m sure most people like water, especially sailors. Water floats our boats, after all.  It does other less important stuff, too– Makes forests grow, produces food, and carves gigantic tourist attractions out in the boonies for our amusement. Water makes the ice in highballs, it is the primary constituent of beer and wine, and if you lose the corkscrew over the side, you can actually survive by drinking straight water until you reach civilization again. Great stuff.

Sailors have an interesting relationship with water.  We prefer to skim over the top, and get cranky when our boats submerge. We throw large quantities of money into building a nice hull to keep the water out, then turn around and drill holes in it to let the water back in. We love the refreshing calm of a nice quiet anchorage, and the adrenaline charge of a boisterous bay or mountain lake. Water outside the boat, good.  Water inside the boat, bad, unless it’s in a tank.  If the tank is full, good.  If the full tank is connected to the head, bad.

Most people never give water a second though beyond turning a faucet or flushing the john, but anyone commanding  a vessel interacts with water in a rather fundamental way. It’s part of the magic of sailing.

The interface between water and not water is an interesting place. I am spending a lot of time trying to master that interface, because I’m always poking and prodding the nooks and crannies of my local lake. I don’t know why, but for me the fascination is not necessarily sailing from Point A to Point B, (notwithstanding all the coolness that entails), but the slow unveiling of a small cove’s nether regions. Or even approaching a dock, or trying not to run over some dingleberry swimming by the launch ramp. To me the thinner the water, the the more jagged the interface, the more challenging the approach, the more fun.

Indulge me in a Melon Farmer digression for a minute. I get to play with the interface even when I’m not sailing, because I live in an orchard. Every two weeks during the summer I have to irrigate.  The Water District tells me when the water is coming, and at the appointed time I wander through the trees to open six valves. When the water arrives, it’s a force to be reckoned with. A typical irrigation brings enough water to cover most of my land with a foot of water; if I don’t manage it, it manages me and I end up watering the driveway, the road, the neighborhood, half a mile of dirt road. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at managing water on my land– I built berms and spillways, and can snap the whip and make the beast go where I want it.  Unless a gopher has decided to drill through one of my berms, in which case a few panicked minutes with a shovel usually finds me standing triumphant, albeit mud-spattered and sweaty.  I employ five cats to deal with the gophers, but sometimes they slack off.

When I first moved to Arizona, I decided to build an underground greenhouse.  It’s not as silly as it might sound– My plan was to use the earth to moderate some of the fierce heat of the summer. So I dug a huge hole by hand in the side yard, a hexagon 15 feet across and six feet deep. (I like digging holes, okay?) The neighbors would come by to check on the progress and scratch their heads over the nut digging an underground greenhouse. My project was going well until I had a berm break one day.  A big berm break. I watched probably two thousand gallons of water, leaves, grapefruit, cat poop, bugs, and god knows what else pour into my greenhouse until I had a nice little inland sea going. Oops.

I gave up on the underground greenhouse idea after a couple of repeat gopher-induced floods. Three dump trucks of dirt later, the hole was filled in. The neighbors were confused. They asked my why I filled the huge hole up.  “because it’s done,” I replied,  as if I were stating the obvious.  The neighbors backed away slowly.

A word of advice: Don’t  build an underground anything on the same land you flood irrigate. Trust me on that.

Anyway, sailing is kind of the same thing (except there are fewer dead bugs and grapefruit). You have to manage water.  Lots of water. Fail to manage water, and it doesn’t matter how well you’ve set the sails. Managing water means not letting too much of it into your boat, of course, but also making sure that you actually have water where you need it, and gently interacting with those places lacking water.  Any schlub can throw a bunch of fenders over the rub rail, and blast away with the engine when coming in for a landing.  To me, a big part of being a sailor is being able to do the same without needing fenders.  or even an engine (when I’m feeling frisky). 

I’m still working on it.  I hardly ever have to pull thorns out of the hull any more. And I still buy epoxy in little tubes, from Home Depot. So I must be doing something right.

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