Learning the ropes (and wires, and rods, and spars)

by on 05/05/12 at 2:56 pm

As an interlude, of sorts, in our hectic schedule of looking at boats, decrying their deficiencies and/or costs, and freaking out about where to live until we find one, Mandy and I had the opportunity to attend one of famed local rigger Brion Toss’ Rig Your Boat weekend workshops. These workshops are something of a rite of passage for local sailors hoping to head off-shore, it seems, and we expected that someday, should our ambitions extend themselves in that direction, we too might take the whirlwind plunge into the mysteries of tangs and forces and leads, leads, leads… always leads, preferably to be made fair!

This was a little sooner than we had imagined but forces seemed to align. We didn’t have a boat, of course, but we had a strong suspicion that we might find a better one to buy if we had some idea about how to rig them, so it seemed an ideal time to attend. And, we were house-sitting for some friends at Kala Point that particular weekend, which made the trip up to Brion’s shop at Point Hudson convenient.

We’d first met Brion and his wife Christian during the chaotic 24 hours of Lotus’ grounding, a fast-paced incident during which I could do little more than marvel at the dazzling demonstrations of nautical acumen on display. Even during the most pressing moments, however, Brion’s inclination toward teaching came through clearly: in the dead of night, by headlamp and flashlight, as he rigged the bridle critical to distributing the forces that would be involved in dragging the 102 ton vessel off the beach at 0500 the next morning, he nevertheless attracted a small crowd as he took the time to explain in detail what he was doing and why. Rapt young Boat School students wedged awkwardly wherever they could fit along the stern rail of the canted vessel to hear the impromptu lecture.

Thankfully, the back room at the loft is on a mercifully even keel, well-lit, and warm even on the most wintery spring day. Consequently, I picked up a lot more during the weekend class than I had on the chilly, rocking, dark deck of the Lotus… despite the best efforts of Ben, the friendly loft cat (as opposed to Audrey, the stand-offish loft cat), whose insistence that our actual purpose in attending the class was primarily to pet him was at times quite convincing. Fortunately, Ben took a time out for a nap atop some spare shackles and strops in the middle of our table and I managed to re-focus on what was happening in class.

As I suspected, much of what Brion does is actually magic, or at least math, which to me is pretty much the same thing. The theories, however, are accessible even to a layman (even if that layman requires his wife to deal with any actual calculating of numbers). To anyone with even a modicum of a sailing background, at some point about mid-way through the first day, the penny will drop and you will find yourself repeatedly saying, “So that’s why my boat is like that!” Because the underlying theme of the class is the inevitability of interacting forces as they impact the design of any craft bent on harnessing the wind to move through water… it is the foot-bone connected to the leg-bone connected to the thigh-bone, only played out in keels and hulls and shrouds the whole way from sea to sky.

While this makes the whole thing sound theoretical or perhaps meta-physical, the theory is interspersed with a considerable amount of hands-on practice that many neophyte sailors will not have previously had the opportunity to undertake, or at least not undertake properly. Among the hardest things, for me, was simply tying knots. It turns out it’s a lot more difficult to un-learn a knot you first learned to tie thirty or more years ago and re-learn it the Brion Toss way than it is to just learn it the Brion Toss way in the first place. On the other hand, the smooth and intuitive loops accompanied by explanations of not just what a knot is appropriate for but why it is, teaches you more about the basic craft of the sailor’s most important tool than you would learn in a hundred years of following rabbits in and out of holes.

If the hardware involved in rigging has seemed mysterious, Brion helps dispel it by forcing you to get right into the teeth of it with your own two hands. Assembling a Hanes or Sta-Lok terminal yourself is all it takes to demonstrate that it is not, in fact, black magic that is keeping your stick in the air, but an array of predictable forces and understandable mechanical connections that can be inspected, adjusted, and managed even without decades of nautical experience. If you’ve been too intimidated to punch a hole in your mast for wiring or hardware mounts, Brion shows you exactly how to do it and explains why it is not necessarily going to lead to the imminent collapse of that spar.

While all the information and practical interaction with real hardware was valuable, everyone’s favorite part of the class was the dock walk… a drizzly, on-site inspection of random sailboats stacked up along the floats at Point Hudson. Straggling along behind Brion, we squinted overhead and leaned down to minutely inspect fittings for cracks, deformation, or the harbinger of such defects, unfair leads. Gradually, with Brion’s gentle guidance, we became adept (or at least less utterly inept) at spotting rigging problems from the dock using nothing more than the Mark I eyeball and a strict application of that first rule of rigging: fair leads. Today, I find myself frightened to walk down any random dock after glancing around and quickly convincing myself every mast I see is a breath away from coming down on my head.

That none of them have so far is the ultimate lesson from the workshop. There is little in rigging that, once done, cannot be un-done again and one of Brion’s subtler points is that it is always possible to run the numbers and determine the ideal solution for your situation, even if that happens to differ from what you have already. Rigs are not immutable and neither are they necessarily perfect in their original factory configuration. If something is wonky or unpalatable, it’s not too late to take another look. And, if you’re in the same position we are in and haven’t bought a boat yet, knowing that there are options for failing rigs and having some idea how to price out the necessary repairs or upgrades very much strengthens your hand during the shopping process. We’ve already ruled out one boat on the basis of the necessary repair cost; some other sucker who hasn’t been through Brion’s workshop is going to pay twenty grand more for that boat than he thinks he is paying.

So we’ve managed to segue from an interesting educational interlude back into our more normal panicky boat shopping mode. Better equipped, better informed, and more inclined to dive in and fix potential problems with whatever boat we find… stay tuned!

One Response to “Learning the ropes (and wires, and rods, and spars)”

  1. thor nolen

    May 9th, 2012

    Very nice article! –thor (one of the other in that great class)

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