A bloody fine first day with a crab claw 1

30 January 2005     Editor    0 Comments.

Part One of an account originally posted on the ProaFile Discussion Group. We all thought it was a wicked good story. By Wade Tarzia.

My girlfriend tells the story about her father who saw someone waste a few hundred dollars on some unworkable scheme, and he wisely observed it had been money well spent because “how often can you get a lesson that lasts a life-time for just a few hundred bucks?”  My own father, well, I think he would just stand there shaking his head, perhaps with a slight grin.  I can picture the ghosts of both fellows making their observations on the day I became a True Proa Sailor.  I wrote most of the following narrative (some edits came later) late at night in a blood-stained shirt, hospital pants, no underwear, and a forehead fastened back together with Krazy Glue (really).  I will be spending money replacing various things that fell to lake-bottom, floated away, or was stolen by a shoreside vulture after the ambulance took me away—go ahead, shake your head, grin: perhaps it will be money well-spent.

The NOAA website said thunderstorms 50% likely, winds SW 10-15 knots.  But I just had to try out my new crabclaw sail for my proa or my e—buddies on the internet Proa Discussion group would never believe that I made a crabclaw rig or even HAD a proa—it was all winter long yada yada I just finished my spars blah blah How do you shunt the heel of the spars around the akas? (cross beams) ohIcan’twaittotrythisout - I’mgoingthisweekend - NonextweekendafterMother’sDay - Oh itrainedButnextweekend…..

I was furiously making last-minute parts up until the time I left.  “I forgot the parrel.  Damn, I need a cleat for the halyard.  Oh, I have to screw in those oak hooks I made months ago for the sheet.  And the seat, I can’t clamp my butt on the gunwales any more….” But that is what drill presses, belt sanders, jig saws, and heavy stainless steel screws are for.  Ah, the smell of sweat and burning oak (my drill press is running too fast for oak).  So I am finally at the ramp by 2PM.

Right away, the yokel factor sets in—yokels herd up to launch boats at the same time on a ramp that will fit two.  It’s a male ritual, like dock-side rollerball.  Women would not do this: they would just know who goes first, who needs to hold back, who needs help, and if they didn’t, they would talk it over.  This is not sexism; it is brain science.  I assemble my proa in the gravel away from the cement ramp, but a guy squeezing his giant Army truck in (it seemed like an Army truck) almost hits it any way.  My boat takes much longer to get together under a burning sun and amok the fumes of trucks, cars, jet-skis, inboards…. Its main hull (vaka) bolts together from two halves (a relic of when I had to build and store it in a corner of an apartment) but I recently converted all the rest of outrigger parts to lash-on to save time.  It seems that my new cleat-method of attaching akas and ama replaces time wasted on groping for dropped nuts and washers with time wasted on groaning and tightening the lashings and lacerating my palms; but the outrigger parts are more flexy, and that is more traditional, which, we all know, is always better.

And then the crab-claw sail rig—- it has become a beast out of science fiction, or Polynesian mythology.  It has a hundred octopus lines for shunting, staying, brailing….  They were thoughtfully arranged when I stowed them last night, tied off on their own cute little oak cleats.  Now, the highway gremlins have completed their work and wrapped the shunt line around the mast fork, and the stay entwines the mast heel tie-down, and the shunt-line, sitting there smiling at me like an innocent babe, snake-like braids itself like a wanton around any line-like object.  But it all gets untangled, and I impress the boaters by a constant mumble of foreign-sounding words to impress them with my wisdom—“Yes, people, this is just a high-strung, finicky rig, is what we have here, a touchy thoroughbred of a wind-machine.”

OK, I push off.  The wind is SW (note to myself: send the NOAA folk a check), just enough angle that I can almost sail off the ramp close-hauled.  The rig is looking very nautical, now, boom brailed up to the yard, mast at rakish angle, fashionable and keen, yes, yes, there is order here, even sense.  I don’t want to touch anything because it is so very nautical, just let me sit at the ramp with this brailed perfection and answer the questions of the curious.  But no, one must sail, in the end.  Release the brail, the wind is about 10 knots, and the inexpensive polytarp triangle shudders once and tightens, and I’m a real proa sailor at last, and now I’m going to have real proa stories like my buddies.  I might even become a proa silverback, an elder dispensing advice….

If that first run could only have continued for the whole afternoon!  This rig is good, the boat is moving sprightlier than ever, and I start to regard my old standing lug as vaguely unmanly.  I try to see the much-discussed ‘vortex lift’ of a delta-sail, but, as has been suggested, it is invisible; Walt Disney would not have done it this way; he would have shown the huge lifting vortexes.  Disney


Spielberg would have given my first day with this legendary rig a real send-off….

The center-of-effort is farther back compared to the balance of my lug rig, so I have to sit more toward the rear of the hull on the protruding bolt I had cleverly situated right there on the aka seat because I figured my butt would be six inches to the right.  No matter; I’m 46, and who’s looking at my butt any more?  Did anyone ever look at my butt?  As the bruise ripens, the issue seems curiously important.

I cut across the lake and want to ram the farther shore before I disturb this rig, which is humming with mystic Pacific energy.  But, damn, I have to shunt sometime today.  I’m running out of “sea room,” which sounds so nautical I say it to myself, and run out of even more.  OK, now!  A skilled proa sailor accomplishes a shunt in 15 seconds at the most.  The endless guide-line on the heel of the yardarm is uncleated, the line is tugged to bring the tack of the rig over to the “other bow,” the line is heaved, torn, and stretched because I didn’t shape the deadeyes well enough and Demon Friction is invoked, but finally the rig tilts over to the other side, and, well, e-buddy Todd says he just lets go some lines, slaps his mast, and the rig falls into position while he sips a beer.  OK, 30 seconds.  Must speak to Todd.  OK, 45 seconds, done, take a breath, really, not so bad.


I am a true proa sailor.  Especially because I had to beat the yard heel around the akas, whose ends protrude 4 inches beyond the lee gunwale—a miserable, bitter, passive-aggressive four inches that is.

New discoveries are falling thick and heavy on me.  The thick-seeming nylon stay is stretching, so my mast is canting in two dimensions, and the sail is not performing as well as it could.  Note to myself: enough with Home Depot.  And the nylon rope that is my shunt-line does not quite pull the yard heel tightly into the bow, though I pull and re-cleat until my hands are cramping claws.  With the wind on, the rig is tight enough, but the yard heel is hanging a bit in space, and I hear it thinking: “Hmmn.  What force can I generate with this 5-inch play?  And how thick is the plywood around the bow?  Well, we’ll just see about that.”  The yard heel bounces a little and starts looking like a small but earnest pile-driver.  I try to uncleat the line and pull it tighter.

And then the other shore is close.  Shunt again—not too bad, I’m getting the hang of the sequence: let the sheet go, uncleat the endless shunt line, pull it and hope the heel of the sail tramways over to the other end of the boat— though another New Discovery wants attention.  The sheet wraps around the sail during the shunt.  The physics of this astounds me with its simplicity.  It is beautiful; life should be this easy to understand: when the sail weathervanes, it winds the sheet around it.  What have I missed on the Proa internet-group discussions?  Was it one of those short-but-wise messages I skimmed and said, “Yeah, yeah,” and skipped to get to the next one about making carbon composite masts in the basement with a simple home-built vacuum jig?  Why hasn’t Todd said something about this?  Why hasn’t Michael dedicated an entire link on his proa-webpage to the sheeting issue?  Is this why Rob likes the Baelstron so much?  I have to cut the sheet and grab for it as it whips by.

Shunt number three: “C’mon you f——r!  You damned f——r!”  The shunt line is twisted; the yard heel pauses midway, where the slack is greatest, and leaps for freedom, the way a yellow parakeet looks inquiringly at an open door when one is vacuuming and ventilating the room of noxious exhaust, and the parakeet rises up, up, up for freedom, and so too did the yard heel rise.  I stand, grab, grunt, wrestle it down.  The boat pirouettes.  The rig goes aback and comes down on top of me like a delta-parachute (something that can happen to True Proas, so it must be good, somehow), and the artist’s conception of a Gemini space capsule Rogallo wing re-entry comes to me in a vision from a childhood book on space travel.  OK, good.  Now I have an abackness story to tell.  But no one told me about the nutcracker effect.

Why hasn’t Gary, or Jerry, or Janusz described the nutcracker effect?  It is a significant force on one’s ankle.  It is a disarmingly slow yet crushing, levering, shattering pressure when the mast falls aback against the ankle that was somehow between the gunwale and the weight of two 14 foot Douglas Fir yards aided by the 32 ft per second squared acceleration of gravity, further abetted by a roughly 12-to-one levering ratio of the mast end pressing said ankle against said gunwale, a gunwale so narrow it seems that it is a knife-edge, my ankle a choice cut of meat, the mast the butcher…..  And that, comrades, is the Nutcracker Effect.  I muscled the rig away after some moments of trauma.  We’ll return to this Effect later on.

Note to myself: ‘Nice rig when it is rigged! A terror when abacked.  A horror when all aback and a sail corner droops in the water.’  A kindly man in a pontoon boat (you know, awning, table, cooler, martinis, family and friends) comes by to ask if I am all right.  For one of those martinis I could be very much in need of help right now, but I think of the hard work of my virtual proa community of global buddies, their joys and successes, their pioneer spirit, not to mention generations of native proa-crew, and I say, ‘Wade, you are here for them, not for yourself.  You are nothing.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’ and I answer cheerily enough, briefly lecture on the proa when he calls it a ‘Hawaiian boat’, and in general make the blue delta now scooping up water into the clearest case of ethnographic study and predictable sailor-like behavior imaginable.

OK, my last shunt for the day—I can say that because I’m sitting here typing about it.  The sheet has wound the sail again; I reach for the knife; two more shunts and I’ll be pinching three inches of sheet in burning, distorted fingers.  I am noting that the boat is not really clawing its way to windward.  Not sure how bad the leeway is, but the last two shunts were probably done over the same GPS coordinates.  Paddle back against the wind?  No!  My proa buddies say, Make Many Fast Close-Reaches Instead of a Few Slow Beats; This Suits the Proa.  Still, I have been attempting what has always been for me the ‘mythical 45-degree tack’.  Oh blessed 45 degrees!  As far away as Parnassus, as ephemeral as The Rainbow Bridge!  On the way to reproducing the third exact set of coordinates, I see a motorboat and water skier ahead.  No matter.  They’ll be done fiddling around when I get there.  But I’m on a reach with a crabclaw, and yes, I am flying the ama, I am that one skinny hull in the water that sailors dream of making work.

So I’m getting there fast, and the motorboat guy is yelling at the skier guy.  I luff up, but the wind is still carrying me somewhy.  I yell, “I have no steerage!” because I don’t—I steer with body-weight shifts and sheet.  The boat guy looks, and turns away.  Closer still, “I have no steerage!  I’m coming through!” and I want to add, ‘I have goddamned right of way, too,’ but then, I think snobbishly (when you have just flown the ama, you feel at the top of the game) that these are weekend lake-powerboaters, and they don’t know what ‘steerage’ means.  Finally the boat guy answers his wife’s question with something sounding like “Sailboat!” spoken the same way I speak when I hawk up some spit, spit it, and then say, “That there insect is called the ‘pissworm’, but in Pequod Indian folklore it was called the paquatucamak, or ‘vomit-bug’.”  So he yells at the skier to “let go the rope, let go the rope, will you let go the rope?” and he guns off.  I apologize to the skier, but he says, “That’s OK, that’s OK, it’s still fun,” and I think he must be half answering me, half answering the boat-guy.

The boat-guy returns too soon in a roar and a wake, and now I am being blown into him again.  I stand and reach up to lift the boom and spill wind because…..the brailing line is jammed, pressed under the other brail and the halyard, and it’s jammed, because that’s why knots work—their physics is also beautiful—overlap rope, press firmly with a will, and it all holds.  But now I’m standing, with perfectly high center of gravity to reach for the boom to spill wind, when a gust hits.  And that’s why the ancients believed in gods and evil.  Caveman Grogg just wanted to peek at the wooly mammoth herd below the cliff edge, gets his feet tangled in vines with knot-like physics, then the gust, and soon he is dead, the mammoths have run off, the tribe starves, and never mind, it’s all past, and here I am in a proa that is flipping, with the ama scribing a semi-circle.  I need physics, geometry, and history to explain what is happening, but hold….

Have you ever noted that there is always time to say “Oh shit” between the initiation of an event and its consummation?  When the Killer Asteroid hits the earth someday, someone is going to say ‘oh shit’ a micromillisecond before the shockwave arrives.  And then the ama finished its perfect arc and caught me on the head as I was bobbing up.

Blows to the head are instructive.  They stop time.  You are functional, and everybody else is still.  You can see the wind itself paused.  This is the fine-print of Einstein’s relativity, and I think I’m on to something important.  Just hit me again and I can publish a paper in the Journal of Astrophysics.  The world came back, though, the boat-people were inquiring after my health, and I was saying I was OK, when they added, “You’re bleeding real good, buddy!”

 proas / boatbuilding / adventure