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From the pilothouse

Jan 1, 2003

Not long ago I went sailing on San Francisco Bay with a couple who had recently completed construction of a steel-hull cutter. They'd had it sailing for a few times over the winter, but they were still interested in putting it through its paces on the Bay, and the weather didn't let us down. (See this summer's American Yacht Review 2001 for the complete story on the boat.) It was blowing a pleasant 15 knots out of the west, which, combined with an ebb current flowing in the opposite direction, conspired to build some steep and breaking seas at the Golden Gate. As we tacked our way to sea we discussed the boat and its abilities, fiddled with the sheets, halyards, and runners, enjoying ourselves in the process. On our way out we met with a fleet of nimble racing craft, running with the breeze for the finish of the double-handed Farallones race - as in the photo above. The boats were scooting close to the north side of the gate, their skippers cleverly using a counter current flowing close along the shore.

Our conversation drifted toward sailing literature, including some of Bernard Moitessier's writing. Moitessier, a hero of one of the hosts, inspired many of the boat's custom features (the other host thought Moitessier's writing too hokey and sentimental). And we also considered Richard Henry Dana's classic Two Years Before the Mast, a favorite of mine.

In discussing Dana's book we speculated that much of the Bay area would be unrecognizable to him now, covered as it is by skyscrapers, tract housing, apartments, container and refinery facilities, and some of the most impressive sprawl the world has ever seen. But Dana would have recognized the physical characteristics of San Francisco Bay: its strong currents, cold water, patchy fog that rolls in from sea, the cool and steady onshore breeze, and the massive swells that pile in from the mighty Pacific. In fact, later in the day I discussed Dana again with Bay area yacht designer Tom Wylie, who said that he loved the book, since he could, from his perspective as a sailor, appreciate the San Francisco Bay Dana described in his book: being drenched and chilled by the wind and fog, delayed by the quirky currents, and gratified by the forceful breezes. Sailors everywhere are in tune with these things, the rhythms of nature on the ocean.

As a result, sailors are a pious lot. We go where the wind blows; we never pollute, and we condemn powerboaters as lesser beings, less pure. But, deep in the innards of most of our sailboats is an engine, typically well hidden and sound-insulated. But it's there - the prideful sailor's dark secret.

In this issue's special section on engines and thrusters, our contributors have imagined the sailor's approach to maintaining and managing mechanical devices. Being in tune with an engine's habits and respectful of its limitations is akin to keeping an eye on the weather when wandering the world's oceans or preparing to head offshore. Our three contributors to this seciton, Steve D'Antonio, Chuck Husick, and Dave Gerr, have offered their thoughts on being in tune with the mechanical rhythms of these devices. This awareness of one's surroundings, whether listening to an engine's steady growl or keeping an eye on the thruster's hydraulic pressure or elecrtical draw, is an awareness that Dana and his shipmates -- and even the romantic Moitessier -- would have understood.

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