May 27 2009

working with your hands

Tag: humorous,musingsjonny5waldman @ 5:35 am

Matt, Jon and I couldn’t help noticing the recent NYT  Magazine article, “The Case for Working With Your Hands, about the value of the trades – how they are real, knowledge-based, tactile, lose-yourself-in-the-work, challenging, valuable, and fun; how they bring moments of elation and failure; how they’re high-stakes, with an always present possibility of catastrophe, and how they demand and produce plenty of integrity and responsibility. As one commenter noted, working with your hands brings to mind a certain Danish proverb: “You can do the work of the mind without the hand, but not that of the hand without the mind.”

Of working on old motorcycles, the author writes:

“Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.”

It’s the same on boats and bikes! He continues:

“Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.”

I particularly liked the author’s disenchantment behind a desk, pushing paper, representing an organization and its purported mission. I also liked his loathing of a style that demands an image of rationality but not indulging too much in actual reasoning, and his confoundedness of an inner-office ruled by provisional morality and logic, and his recognition of the divide between reality and official ideology.

Get reading!

May 22 2009

Seeking volunteers for…

Tag: humorousjonny5waldman @ 7:03 am


…Boat work!

It’s slow! It’s frustrating! It’s messy! And expensive!

There’s tons to do!

You won’t finish half of what you started, and you won’t start half of what you wanted to!

Small project? It’ll probably grow bigger than you ever feared possible!

Big project? Just be glad you don’t have to deal with it for the next month!

  • Unemployed? Come on by!
  • Energy to burn? Come on by!
  • Unskilled? That’s OK! On-the-job training provided
  • Like drinking on the job? So do we!

Why not? Who cares? NOBODY!

For more information, contact Jonny, on Syzygy, at the Emeryville Marina.

May 17 2009

quick update

Tag: boat workmattholmes @ 5:41 pm

just to let you know what we’re up to . . . Jonny and I are taking the boat apart, starting too many huge projects all at once, and getting way in over our heads. Good times! We are simultaneously rebuilding the fridge, moving the propane locker to build a lazarette hatch, and rebuilding the entire radar arch/bimini/solar panel setup. A few pics:

May 12 2009

Learning to Weld

Tag: boat work,preparationmattholmes @ 4:32 am

When I was growing up on the farm my dad would weld out in the shop all the time. And so I placed that activity in the same realm as everything else shop-related: loud, dirty, greasy, uncomfortable, involving flying hot shards of metal, and as a result I wanted nothing to do with it.

The boomerang of rebellious devil-may-care youth may fly far, but oh how often it eventually ends up right back where it started . . .

Since buying a boat I have become more and more fascinated with welding. I decided we needed a new radar arch to accommodate our future wind generator, solar panels, and radar antenna, and that I needed to learn how to weld so I could make it myself (of course, right? how else? everything always all by ourselves). Like Jon with his sailmaking–like everything else we’ve done–I went big all at once. I got a membership to the Tech Shop for $70/month, paid $50 for the introductory TIG welding class, and bought $250 worth of 20′ long sections of 2″ diameter 304 stainless steel pipe that were a real hassle to cart around on top of the xterra down the highway.

Maybe I used my learning to weld as an excuse to make a radar arch, or maybe I used the radar arch as an excuse to learn how to weld; either way at this point I’m in ‘ass deep to an elephant’, as jonny likes to say.

Turns out welding is absolutely amazing. Totally space-age modern-marvel out of this world activity. Welding is proof of how far science and technology has taken us. The welding machine that I use at the Tech Shop is a box approximately 1′ x 1.5′ x 2′ in size–much smaller than a suitcase. It plugs into the wall, and it hooks up to a gas tank. Then you grab a stylus-shaped “torch”, bring it close to a piece of metal, and press your foot on a pedal on the floor–and then would you believe that little machine ignites a 1/4″ cone of light hotter than the surface of the sun. That’s right: instant 10,000 degrees in the palm of your hand, a little mini sun that melts metal. (Crazy!) You have to wear a face mask too dark to see through in full daylight; without it the 10,000 degree arc will blind you in seconds. (Scary!) You have to wear gloves and cover all exposed skin, because it creates so much UV that it will give you a sunburn in a minute. (Hot!) When you hold that torch, your hand is 6″ away from a tiny 10,000 degree cone of orange and green plasma that dances on the metal. Now why didn’t they tell me THAT when I was younger? Who wouldn’t want to hold the sun and fire it up and melt some metal with 10,000 degrees of blinding light?

The type of welding I’m learning how to do is commonly referred to as TIG welding, which stands for “tungsten inert gas”. It’s more accurately called GTAW welding: “gas tungsten arc welding”. It is the most precise and most versatile, yet also slowest, most difficult, and least used form of welding. In TIG welding (as in other forms of welding), the metal is melted by heat created by an electric arc, EXACTLY like the static electric spark that jumps from your hand to the doorknob after you walk across a carpet with rubber soles. Welding is a sustained form of that static electric spark–if you could keep that spark going and then make it 100,000 times more powerful, you could be welding. In TIG welding, you connect the electricity to a thin, sharpened stake of tungsten (called the “electrode”) and then you bring the electrode really close to (but not touching!) the metal. Really close–like an 1/8″. Then you press the pedal to give it juice. And you have to hold it that exact distance while you move the torch along a path which you can hardly see because you have some dark-as-hell facemask on. And you have to move kind of fast but not too fast. And I haven’t even mentioned yet that with your left hand (the torch is in your right hand) you have to precisely jab (dab) a rod of “filler” metal into the melted pool of metal, to add metal to make the weld.

Get this: if the electrode touches the metal accidentally, or if you jab the filler rod into the electrode accidentally–both of which I do far too often–the event is punctuated by an even brighter spark and pop immediately followed by an accusatory green flame, which indicates that you have contaminated (i.e. fucked up) your weld with some of the metal from your electrode. At which point you have to CEASE AND DESIST, gingerly dismantle the torch (gingerly because it is still bloody hot, remember), and take your tungsten electrode over to the grinder to grind a fresh new uncontaminated tip onto it.

The whole thing is really hard. It’s really, really damn hard. It’s not hard to make any old arc, it’s not hard to melt any old metal. But it’s hard to get a result that doesn’t look like cyclops went wild on your metal with his phaser eye–I’m talking all black and gobby and bubbly and smoking crappy. And in welding (like in climbing), if it looks bad, it probably is bad: weak and worthless. Why is it so hard? There are tons of different settings, and it’s hard to tell which setting is having what effect. That little suitcase of a welding box is a freaking computer with a gazillion different options and blinking lights and whatnot. And then you have to have super fine motor skills to be able to hold both the torch and the filler rod so steady, and move them so quickly yet precisely, so close to the metal, all while you play this foot pedal to control how many thousands of degrees of heat you’re pumping into a tiny spot on the metal. And all metal is different, and different thicknesses need different settings, and each different joint requires a different technique . . .

All of which makes this radar-arch project daunting. I don’t want to add some ugly weak heavy janky piece of shit to the back of our boat now, do I? I agonized for months over what diameter and thickess and type of pipe to use, and how to join them, and where the support struts should go, and the moment of truth is coming in a day or so and I hope that it isn’t all shitty and stupid looking. I’ve spent a fair bit of time at the tech shop welding practice sections of tubing, and even at my best they are still black and ugly and melty. (You might well guess that at this point “ass deep to an elephant” may be too deep for me.) But I’m not getting much better and I don’t know what else to change and it’s time to move forward with this project and I think that my welds might be good enough. So tomorrow jonny and I go to the tech shop to make the first real welds on the actual radar arch. I KNOW they are going to be ugly. I’m hoping that they will at least be acceptably strong. I’ll post some pictures, regardless of how dissatisfied I am (especially now that I’ve laid the groundwork about how impossibly difficult it is :-). But damn! no matter what welding is a totally amazing thing that now I can (kind of) do!

*addition note: Pictures are complements of Jonny; I still have to add some shots of the resulting welds

May 10 2009

Happy Mother’s Day

Tag: introspectionJonathon Haradon @ 8:26 pm
“I just want my mom to approve!” I huffed to my dad as we chatted one evening on the phone, a year ago, about my plans for sailing around the world. There.  I said it.  After 31 years of doing my damndest to assert my independence from my parents, I realized I wanted desperately for my mom to approve of my future plans. Her reception, three years ago, of this cockamamy idea to go sailing around the world with my two best friends could be termed luke-warm at best.  She was officially Strongly Against the Idea, for the obvious reasons. “You’re abandoning a career,” she’d said.  “You should stop being so reckless.  Why don’t you settle down with one of those nice girls with whom you keep finding a way to go separate ways. Why do something so dangerous?” Her disapproval grew as our plan slowly manifested.  Shortly before we bought our boat, if I wanted to even talk about the sailing venture when i called home, I had to make sure only dad was on the line, otherwise I would face grim silence.  It only took a few times of sensing the steely look through the phone, and am pretty sure I sometimes heard teeth grinding together, before I realized to not bring up the topic. I vented sometimes to my sister, admitting to her how important it was for me to have my mom say something to the effect of ‘go have a great time son!’ But why was it so important?  I suppose it’s obvious, she’s my mum.  I wanted them to be proud of my life, to think they had done a good job raising me, because I sure thought they had.  I wanted validation that my life is worth something, and if my mom didn’t approve, then it filled me with self-doubt. My sister’s advice was always the same: Talk to her about it.  Let her know how you feel. I couldn’t take it upon myself to face that conversation with my mom though.  So, cowardly, I avoided confrontation and discussion about it. But I sensed an olive branch at an unlikely location. My mom, dad, sister, and I were in a large children’s furniture store, surrounded by baby-cribs and pint-sized dressers, over a dozen example baby rooms perfectly laid-out with every required baby accessory, shopping for furniture for the niece on the way.  My mom pointed at a large map of the world and quietly asked where we might be going.  Where was our route?  I sketched out an idea for her, mentioned a couple of places that I was really excited about like Thailand and India.  Then I gave her a hug.  I hope that hug said what I didn’t:  Thanks for asking mom.” And, “I love you.” And,  “Thanks for playing the role of parent and making the first step towards reconciliation.” I felt better, but still uneasy.  And so a few months later I took the next step, and asked her if she and dad would come visit me in San Francisco over Thanksgiving, the winter holiday I usually spend with the fam.  She had adamantly declined previous invitations the summer prior, but this time she agreed they would come out. Three months later, my mom stepped aboard Syzygy.  I showed her around the boat, pointing out work we had done, highlighting our safety improvements as well as some of the things I had learned along the way. “See these wires, Mom? They’re called stays and we put in brand new over-sized ones all around the boat so our boat would be super-strong.  The deck is a little slick right now, but we are going to put down a new rough surface so that it’s safer to walk around on.  See these?  They’re called fairleads and I helped install them.  Hey Mom, check out the engine room!  This is what I love learning about.  Let me show you.”  I watched her furtively but intently, assessing her eyes, her noises, her tone.  ‘What was going through her head?’ I wondered. I’m quiet by nature and often hold emotions inside; a trait I inherited from my mother.  So she was hard to read as she walked around the boat listening to me blather on anxiously.   But I think seeing the boat drove home that this concept I had been talking about for three years was real.  After seeing the boat, seeing the work and effort put into the boat, and hearing about the learning derived the experience, I think it came through that this wasn’t just a larger version of the carefree adventures we had taken so frequently in the past that, in the end, are individually trivial and superficial.  Jonny, Matt and I had worked hard at creating the opportunity for a life-changing experience involving enormous sacrifice and choices, and that we would emerge afterwards with an experience that would profoundly affect us; this will be a time of such greater import than the week-long climbing getaway. I think the enormity of our collective effort was made real when she saw the boat.  Or realized that I define those superficial carefree trips, but this trip, this trip will end up being part of what defines me, and by extension, a reflection of the values she raised me in me.  Values of which I am extremely proud. The next  day, Matt and I treated my parents to a Thanksgiving dinner.  I’d never been in charge of a Thanksgiving meal before, though in the past I had taken on such important T-day duties as setting the table, making ice-tea, and heating up bread. Despite repeatedly being ordered to stay out of the kitchen under threat of being cut off from the wine, most of my pictures from Thanksgiving have somebody posing for a picture, and my mom in the background, in the tiny kitchen quietly trying to help.  In the end, Matt came through with a stellar turkey, my side dishes were generally a winner, and the meal was a success. The next day was another big day.  We were going sailing.  Matt played an excellent role of knowledgeable captain, correctly intuiting such a role would help put minds at ease.  Not that he was acting; he was just being clear in his captain-worthiness.  This was the first time that any of us had taken the parents sailing, and the wind was perfect for it.  Enough wind that we were able to move along at 5-6 knots, but not too strong.  We rarely heeled over much, allowing everyone onboard to walk around without having to hold on for fear of falling over. As we sailed out through the bay, I talked to my mom about the wind, the sails, work to be done and plans that we had.  We relaxed.  We drank some wine.  We laughed.  And finally came the moment that happens whenever we have someone new on the sailboat. “Would you like to take the helm for a while mom?  I’ll be right next to you.  It’s a great feeling.” She demurred initially, but with some more prodding from my dad and I, eventually wrapped her little hands around the wheel.  I could tell she enjoyed it.  Enjoyed the wind in her hair.  Enjoyed feeling the pressure on the wheel from water sliding over the rudder.  And at that moment, I felt like everything became O.K..  She was silently saying, “Go have a great time son.” Happy Mother’s Day mom.  I love you.

May 03 2009

Me and my boat

If you couldn’t tell, things are coming along swimmingly aboard Syzygy. I’m immensely proud. (Yes, that’s me on my banjo on my bike on my boat, drinking a beer, in black and white — how’s that for vainglory?) I’m writing regularly about Syzygy — the work, the preparations, the doings in this new sailboat world — for Outside magazine’s blog — we have our own little Syzygy page, even. I’m proud of these ramblings, too, and should have re-posted them here, but I hope you’ll understand that I was busy. I was probably cutting another hole in the boat. I’ve written about the hundreds times I’ve done that (cut holes in the boat, and also written about San Francisco’s notorious wind, about removing janky parts, about the modern history of metals, about the love/hate nature of sailing, about waging a war on stainless steel, about the cult of the Valiant, about inspiration from a sailing legend, and more. The pipelines are full, too. Enjoy, -Jonny