My late-July, vacationing brain is having trouble grasping and focusing on big issues, so here are a few thoughts on smaller ones.
Wind and Weather. Bob Dylan famously told us that we don't need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind blows, yet the wind itself can tell us which way the weather will turn. There are two guides that ask you to stand with the wind at your back (this wind is the one created by the prevailing pressure system, not the sea breeze or other local wind). The rules apply in the Northern Hemisphere. South of the equator, face the wind.
Buys-Ballot's law says that when the wind is on your back, low pressure is to your left and high pressure to your right. With that information, and your awareness of circulation around fronts and cells, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
The crossed-winds rule, a more sophisticated guide developed by the English meteorologist and sailor Alan Watts, is ingenious. With your back to the wind, look aloft for indications of wind direction at high altitude. If the flow of cirrus clouds or the flight path of birds is from your left, the wind is from your left and the weather probably will deteriorate in the next few hours. (The wind is veering, so a depression approaches.) If the wind aloft is blowing from your right, the weather probably will improve. (The wind is backing, so a high is approaching or a low is clearing out.) If the wind above you is from the same direction or from the opposite direction as the surface wind, the weather probably will not change.
The principles behind the crossed-winds rule are three. First, wind aloft is parallel to isobars of constant barometric pressure. Second, when isobars cross each other, different types of air are mixing and the weather will change. And third, as Watts explains it in his book, The Weather Handbook, "The wind veers with height when a warmer air mass is on the way and backs when a colder one is coming."
"Painless Safety" Safety. After the U.S. Sailing Association a year ago required that crews wear life jackets at the start and finish of races, you would have thought that the American Revolution was breaking out again, with Safety-at-Sea Committee Chairman John Bonds playing the part of wicked King George depriving people of their liberties. Subsequent surveys indicated that the rule has introduced many sailors of larger boats to the ease and security of habitually wearing modern life jackets - a custom so regularly followed in small boats (for example, at the lake where I'm sailing this summer) that putting on a PFD before going aboard is as automatic as trimming sheets when heading up.
This happy learning experience was recently repeated in the Transpac race to Hawaii. The sponsoring Transpacific Yacht Club required anybody on deck at night to wear a life jacket and a strobe light. My old friend Robbie Haines, who has been winning big races for years and who was aboard Roy Disney's Pyewacket, later reported in the racing newsletter Scuttlebutt: "Having just sailed 2,300 miles, [I found that] wearing a PFD at night is painless. I've lost many friends that would have most likely been saved if they had only worn a life jacket. I encourage all race organizers to at least investigate this 'new' idea. I'm sure five years from now we will all say 'why didn't we do this sooner?'" Pyewacket's crew wore "fanny pack" PFDs - inflatable life rings stored in small pouches worn on belts - made by Stearns and with small strobe lights sewn on. The gear didn't stop the big sled from breaking the Transpac record.
With this gear, someone who goes over the side is visible at night and has personal flotation right at hand. (A wearable automatic inflatable PFD and a water-activated strobe light would keep an unconscious person afloat and visible.) This simple protection benefits everybody involved: The swimmer is less likely to drown and get lost, and a quick pickup imposes much less risk on rescuers because the longer and more difficult the search is, the greater are the chances of panic and mistakes that may endanger the searchers themselves.
Books on Design. While writing some entries for The Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers (which will be published next year by W.W. Norton), I've been thinking about this fascinating vocation. If you're interested, too, consider some of these books (all the publishers named have Web sites).
Yacht Design Explained, the newest manual, is handsomely illustrated and written by the successful Canadian designer Steve Killing (with Douglas Hunter) and published last year by W.W. Norton. It's very good on the basic principles and on the tools of the recent technological revolution transforming the profession. Ted Brewer's older Understanding Boat Design is a relatively non-technical guide to how monohulls are designed, Chris White's The Cruising Multihull is a good survey of cats and tris, and C.A. Marchaj's Seamanship is a highly technical analysis of cruising design that may give you second thoughts about some recent boats (all three are published by International Marine).
Olin Stephens, the most successful living yacht designer, describes his fascinating life and career (which began in the 1920s) in his superb autobiography All This and Sailing, Too, which Mystic Seaport Museum will publish in October. There are some fine older books by designers, too, among them the works of the fine English designer-writer Maurice Griffiths, whose love was shoal-water cruising. My favorite is his The Magic of the Swatchways, available from Sheridan House, where you'll find the following lilting description of the pleasures of casting off:
"I found my pulse beating with suppressed excitement as I threw the mooring buoy overboard. It seemed as if that simple action had severed my connection with the life on shore; that I had thereby cut adrift the ties of convention, the unrealities and illusions of cities and crowds; that I was free now, free to go where I chose, to do and to live and to conquer as I liked, to play the game wherein a man's qualities count for more than his appearance."
If you can't agree with that, you're not much of a sailor. I like those words so much that I've chosen them to lead off the third edition of The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, which Simon & Schuster will publish in October.