Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mutha of Invention

If you've never seen one, a Prowler rudder flap mechanism is sort of like having a small swiss watch made of nylon sitting in your tiller. It is controlled by the skipper via the tiller extension, which connects to the tiller via several satellite uplinks, a modem, and a rubber hose. But this is not just any rubber hose, mind you! It is a rubber hose worthy of German engineering awards, with RTV applied strategically to internal worm gears, small transverse hoselocking fiberglass keys, and small springs to maintain an all-important, quintessentially hoselike circular cross section while being tortured at impossible angles by the skipper! Within the tiller itself, this same highly-engineered and reinforced "hose" attaches to a worm gear actuating beautifully drilled acme threaded captive nuts, sliding one of them fore and aft when the tiller is twisted. This nut in turn pushes or pulls a small rod from a model airplane, which in turn tilts a cam and pushes on another rod. It is this final rod which plunges headlong and fearlessly down the trailing edge of the rudder, only to be held captive by a rotating brass barrel within the wafer-thin rudder flap itself. This assembly is the sort of robust, beautifully designed mechanism one expects from a builder with a thorough understanding of both his product and his craft.

Of course no mechanism is immune to abuse, and in this case the rubber hose itself is generally the first element to give up the ghost when abused by newbies or simply used a lot. Mine failed and was shortened once, only to split nearly in two a short while later. Thankfully neither of these failures caused any hardship in returning to shore. Not a great inconvenience, and relatively easily repaired - with the proper tools. And good light. Some patience doesn't hurt here either. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

None of these qualities were in great supply this past Sunday, when a small group of enthusiasts gathered to put the Prowler through her paces. Naturally I had overlooked the needed repair from the previous weekend, as my foils live in the back of my van most of the time and only emerge when they go on the boat. Fortunately on Sunday I noted the broken tiller hose before we all got fully rubberized in our wetsuits, so that a repair was easily effected in the warm Southern California sun with a minimum of discomfort. OK, that last part is a lie. We were all suited up and ready to go, and I pulled the rudder out of the van with no extension on it. Hmmm...

Perhaps this would be a good juncture at which to note that at least one of the members of the group had driven two hours to try the boat. And that this person has a habit of writing in sailing publications with a rather large readership.

I have often found when confronted by such moments that the most useful demeanor is one of puzzled nonchalance, of the sort one might assume had aliens snuck in through the van's air vents and sabotaged the tiller in an effort to keep foiling technology from reaching the rest of the galaxy. This strategy generally buys me enough time to figure out whether I am completely screwed, or only mostly screwed, before a small mutinous riot ensues and whatever credibility I possess in the world of Mothing (admittedly not much to begin with mind you) evaporates like starter fluid from hot carbon fiber.

As one might gather from the description above, the Ilett adjustable-flap tiller/rudder is not a machine to be disassembled without trepidation, a controlled environment, and a small team of Swiss watchmakers in white lab coats with magnifying jeweler's loupes to relentlessly track and recover any and all lost micro-components. So while headlines such as "Moth Newbie Bombs Utterly in Attempt to Impress Well-Known Journalist" and "Back to the Farm League for LA Moth Sailor" flashed through my mind, I reflected calmly upon my mantra: This looks like a job for some Duck Tape.

Now before you get all hot and bothered about my conflating avian species with adhesive products, I'll have you know that I've done my research on the subject. It is well known that during World War II ducks were in fact employed alongside women in factories to help fill the shortage of qualified male workers. In some of these factories, ducks rose to levels of management, and some even managed to sock enough cash away to go out on their own as war profiteers in the tape industry. Hence the name Duck Tape. Enough said.

Where were we...oh yes - assembling swiss timepieces on worktables consisting primarily of sand. After a moment's flirtation with an orange screwdriver, a voice from Vancouver echoed through my head, recalling a certain afternoon spent on hands and knees in the lawn searching for critical elements of a Prowler tiller adjustment mechanism. Not wishing to add to the folklore on the subject, and well aware that the most deadly element of a recoverable situation is overconfidence in one's ability to reassemble complex mechanisms, particularly when dressed in a wetsuit with rivulets of sweat pooling in its nether-regions, I offered to no one in particular, as though expressing a view that the tiller might in fact spontaneously recompose itself, and has done so in the past on numerous occasions, the statement: "If only we had some tape".

Before we proceed further, a bit of background. When God invented the four wheel drive, four door, long bed diesel Ford pickup, He kept it to himself for many eons knowing, in fact, that if any reasonably industrious, independent human ever obtained such a vehicle, they might in fact be able to accomplish feats formerly reserved only for Gods and the cast of Star Trek. The ability to summon soggy rolls of Duck Tape from ether was apparently one of the long list of said feats, fiery thefts notwithstanding, which confined Prometheus, his Ford pickup, and his liver-eating eagle to a remote mountaintop in symbiotic immortality. Fortunately for the purposes of our story, the secret was already out, and just such a roll of Duck Tape emerged from just such a Full Sized Crew Cab Diesel Ford pickup. Man, I love it when a plan comes together.

Elitists among us might opine that Duck Tape is no match for the ingenuity of Swiss watchmakers, but in the interest of brevity, suffice it to say that they would be wrong:

Though a first attempt suffered from inexpert application, a retape of the joint provided a stable tiller universal (and more importantly an entirely stable foiling experience) for the whole afternoon. Duck Pride! Look on my works, ye reclusive Australian artisans, and despair! For I am Ozzy-mandius, conjurer of Duck Tape, ruler of nutshells, king of infinite space!

Ok, on aesthetic grounds we are not quite up to Pininfarina standards. But the smile on my face from doublehanding the Moth in divide-and-conquer mode for hours, capsizing in a huge variety of ways, losing my hat, recovering it, and finally succumbing in a tag-team mothing session to a rather-too-large windless patch, is none the smaller for it.

Of course it may have transpired that, despite mutual consent and due entirely to uncontrollable circumstances, said writer, sailor, and otherwise generally intrepid adventurer was left rather ungainfully bobbing about in Long Beach harbor with a longish swim to shore. If so, I expect to be roundly pilloried shortly in the sailing publication of your choice. But with any luck I'll have a chance to make it right down the line.

On which note a concluding poem:

I Could Give All to Time

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time's lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except - except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

- Robert Frost


Hepialidae said...

A Moth sailor only needs two things in his toolbox: duck tape and WD40.

If it moves and it shouldn't, add duck tape.

If it doesn't move and should, add WD40.

M02Andy said...

Brilliant Karl !

When do we read about it and where in the 'press' ?
Looking forward...

Karl said...

It went up a few days after I wrote this, on Sailing Anarchy. Search for Lia Ditton and you will find it, nestled in amongst her other pieces for SA.