Sunday 30 March 2014

Sailing Into Maturity

The screen saver image of sailing.
A rite of passage, perhaps.

How do we grow up? We go to school, get some education from the school environment in addition to that from home. Then we perhaps go on to study at a tertiary institution and get some more education.

Education as opposed to training. According to Wikipedia, education in its general sense is a form of learning in which the knowledge, skills, and habits of a group of people are transferred from one generation to the next through teaching, training, or research.

Training, on the other hand, is defined by Wikipedia as follows: Training is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and competencies as a result of the teaching of vocational or practical skills and knowledge that relate to specific useful competencies.

So, in one case you learn some techniques and a craft, if you will. In the other case you get taught habits and behaviour.

In my younger days we had national service in the armed forces. This forced one to stand on your own feet and understand that the world does not revolve around oneself. A rite of passage in itself, as your parents also got used to the idea that now you are an adult. Letting go of your mother's apron strings, so to speak.

Are you mature enough to take charge of a boat like this?
S/V Georgia, once the largest sloop in the world.
Some of the indigenous people here in South Africa still has the practice of a circumcision ceremony lasting a week or more and a rite of passage before you are regarded as a man. The girls have a similar rite of passage.

But in our modern urbanised society children increasingly live at home until quite an advanced age, sometimes into their late twenties. Well, for me that seems an advanced age. Yes, work is scarce for young people nowadays. But living at home under your parents' guidance seems to be not quite the right idea in terms of reaching maturity and self sufficiency as a useful citizen of your country.

Here in South Africa we have what is generally known as a democratic society. Everybody has a say in government. However, to me it also entails taking responsibility for what one perpetrates as one stumbles along your life's path in the search for happiness and contentment.

Enter the sailing world.

I had this gleam in the eye for sailboats and sailing in general from a very young age, but never had the chance to go sailing until I was a student at university. I remember my first sailing experience with some nostalgia. It was on a racing dingy and we swam more than we sailed on that day. A sobering experience at best.

My next sailing experience came when I made a concious decision to dedicated myself to sailing. A lifestyle change, if you will. I went into keelboat sailing. Sailing boats that can take you across an ocean. And the first, most noticeable impression was that one needs to take responsibility for the boat and those who sail with you. You are dependent on each other. Your very lives may depend on this coherence, if you will.

Are you also lost in the land of nod?
And a sailboat is not a democratic environment. No, it is very autocratic indeed. This idea comes home on every course that I teach. On more than one occasion I had to enforce an instruction in some way.

Sometimes it is simple and quite funny. A student that is scared that the boat will capsize when it heels and then refuses to steer the course as instructed. This person then steered a course that kept the boat upright, but aimed directly for the shore about three hundred meters away. I had to keep my foot on the tiller to keep the boat pointed in the right direction. The student in question quickly overcame his fear of the boat heeling and we all had a bit of a giggle afterwards.

There are more examples of this nature. Overcoming fear and extending one's comfort zone. There is another aspect of personal growth, however. This relates to the educational part of sailing a boat. The part where one learns the habits and gain knowledge of the sailing environment. And this knowledge does not relate to the finer skills and arts of sailing, but more towards the management efforts in and around a boat.

The part where one needs to understand that managing the boat is an autocratic process and that  teamwork is imperative. Aping around when your shipmates are dropping and stowing the main sail is not on. And the skipper's decision is final. There is no arguing on whether to make way against the wind or to have a nice outing instead. Is there enough food, water and fuel on board? Who's responsibility is this? What happens when something breaks? Phone a friend does not help, you are out in the ocean.

There appears to be a lack of understanding authority. Complete with a lack of understanding responsibility and accountability. Coupled to a lack of management skills in terms of basic decision making. A fear of making decisions or simply a lack of interest.

Hanging on to the apron strings, perhaps?

Increasingly, I get the idea that young people entering life after school lack some of this understanding. Is it due to the easy life in an urban environment? An easy life at home? Does the education system fail us?

Where is the natural rite of passage into adulthood? Who knows.

But it is most satisfying to see people grow in their maturity during a skippers course. And emerge as skipper material after some psychological growth during the week.

On a boat you can sail into maturity...

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2014-03-30

Friday 21 March 2014

Baking As An Artisan: A Whole New Experience

Up to now I have been a dabbler in cooking and baking. With varying results, as can be expected from a dabbler.

On the positive side there were some very successful moments. Successful outcomes of baking and cooking efforts that got highlighted by others too. It keeps one going, knowing that your humble efforts are seen by others in cyberspace after all.

Then things happen. Call it Karma if you will. Or an Angel looking after you. You get noticed by others who may find your skills useful in their world. And so it was for me, being part of the birth of a restaurant. A bistro, actually. Complete with a bakery.

A friend opened a new bistro and bakery. I was asked to help with the bakery. What a privilege! My meager skills were becoming useful!

The start: Multi-grain mix with the sourdough
We had some experimentation with various recipes along the way before the bistro opened. Again with mixed results, as there was no prover yet. But recently the scene changed and a prover appeared next to the oven. Complete with adjustable temperature and humidity.

Time for proper baking.

This time it was for real and we decided on a multi-grain sourdough loaf. I baked this before at home, so we reasoned that the risk of getting it all wrong was low. The original recipe is from Peter Reinhardt's book The Bread Baker's Apprentice. A very useful reference to have on hand. Again, in this case, as you will see shortly. I used a variation of the original recipe for baking at home, about which I wrote a blog post recently.

Of course, doing the same thing on a larger scale is simply not possible. Triple the quantities of ingredients and there will be something not quite in the right ratio. The dough will be too dry or not salt enough. Or some such thing. Luckily we were aware of this and checked every now and then as the work progressed.

A proper mixer
You are now working with industrial quantities, not a cup or two of whatever. The yeast comes in a block of about 150x150x350 mm. Five odd kilograms, I venture. You cut off a piece and weigh it. Not a sachet of 6 grams of instant yeast. And you get to weigh the other ingredients. Volumetric measures simply do not work in this environment.

Enter Peter Reinhardt's book. The book gives quantities in bakers terms. Percentages of the main ingredient. Percentages are scalable, so it was a cinch to get the right ratios.

Or so we thought. You need to read the book very carefully. Peter Reinhardt also says in the book to check every now and then too see if the dough is elastic enough and has the right taste. Which is what saved this batch of bread.

For a start, we deviated from the recipe by using existing sourdough from the refrigerator. No soaker. So we were left with a problem of getting more flavour out of the multigrain part. We got past this by using warm water. The next part of using our own initiative came when the dough was mixed and found too dry and brittle. Which meant too little gluten. So more flour was added, which made the dough much drier. This required more water.

Not your home style bread pans
We carried on by adding flour and water alternatively until the dough was quite elastic, would hold a thin membrane and tasted nice. Of course, this played havoc with our original measured quantities. The next batch of loaves would need an adjustment on quantities.

We also found that the different types of flour had different moisture content. The flour used was stone ground full grain flour. Another difference. This probably had the biggest effect on the water quantities. I get the idea that the full grain flour is heavier and soaks up much more water than other flour. Something to be aware of. Of course, this is South Africa and the flour will differ in cultivar of wheat too. Another major difference.

We found this out with maize flour in Mexico. The coarse maize flour available in South Africa makes the most amazing maize porridge, but is useless for making tortillas. In turn, the maize flour sold in Mexico for making tortillas is useless for making South African style porridge. Believe me, we tried. And failed. Several times, in fact. In the end we just accepted the fact that we shall not be eating the crumbly style mieliepap with our steaks from the braai while in Mexico.

Going into the prover. Garnished and cut
Something to bear in mind. Flours are different across the world. Make an experiment before launching into full production. Baby steps. Take it easy, go slow. I teach this to my sailing students too.

Eventually we decided the dough was ready.  The blob of around 6 kg was left on the table to rest, covered with a plastic sheet against drying out. As can be expected from a sourdough, the first proofing took quite a while. The coarse multigrain mix also has an effect, no cause for alarm if things go slow in the beginning. The dough doubled in volume before it was divided into blobs of around 700g for the second proofing.

Here I learnt another trick of the trade. Take the blob of dough in both hands and fold it into itself using both thumbs. This has the effect that the side away from your thumbs get stretched, making for a nice looking loaf. The seam on your thumbs' side gets to be squashed together nicely and goes on the bottom of the loaf. We decided on putting the garnish of rolled oats on before the final proofing, along with the requisite cuts on the top.

The tops of the loaves are cut to help with even rising. Else you may get oddly shaped loaves. The proofing went fine. Having controlled temperature and humidity makes a huge difference in the process. So does having a proper industrial oven with controlled air flow. This translates to even temperature everywhere in the oven. So all the loaves bake at the same temperature, irrespective of where they are in the oven.

Bistro style: Checking taste and texture
The last surprise came with baking time. Having an oven up to the proper temperature and proper air flow has a major effect. These loaves baked in about twenty minutes. I did not have time to enjoy a cup of coffee peacefully before the message came that I should get myself over to the oven to see what was going on. On arrival, my friend was already unloading the loaves, the baking done.

The results were outstanding. A crisp and chewy crust with a wonderfully soft crumb. The bread had a distinct after taste of sourness coming through, with the crumb getting sweeter as you chewed. A wonderful result indeed.
Real bread, artisan style

For me, a new perspective on baking. Don't follow blindly, think for yourself. The results are your responsibility, not someone else's. And don't let your fears stand in the way of a culinary adventure.

More of life's small lessons, I guess.

This blog post also linked to Yeastspotting!

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2014-03-21

Monday 17 March 2014

Awareness: A Change In Perception

The last week saw me instructing yet again on a sailing vessel. New people, freshly off the street, so to speak. Young people that saw the inside of a boat for the first time ever when they stepped aboard. Boarding the boat to embark on a Competent Crew course. Some of whom have never been out on a boat on a dam, let alone going to sea.

This is one of the wondrous things of  the sailing world.  To introduce people to the vagaries of sailing. No engine noise. Only the sound of the sea and the wind. Every now and then a creak or gurgle from the boat as she cuts through the water making happy sounds. Very romantic indeed.

But the most wonderful part is in seeing the change in the people as the week progresses. I see the change from street-wise kids from suburban backgrounds to a person with some sense of wonder and a light in their eyes for more adventure.

Especially after sailing into the night. This must be one of the most effective eye-openers you can have, without using chemicals. Bear in mind that these people are not mere passengers on board. No ma'am, they are sailing the boat themselves. Harnessing Nature's forces and feeling the wind and the spray on their faces. Getting blisters on hands not used to the coarse and salty lines. Trimming sails on a small boat requires real effort.

And all this while having to think about where they are going, where the wind is coming from and taking note of other vessels and obstacles.

Then the sun sets. In the Cape this is always something special. Table Mountain with its table cloth, signalling heavy wind in the form of the famous Cape Doctor. Perhaps some clouds to the south and west. The city lights coming on little by little as the dark settles in. The wan sound of the foghorn on the isolated danger mark just outside the port entrance. Those small details that make you feel very alone and small on the open ocean. Especially if it is your first time out on the water.

The darkness of course transforms everything. After all, this is when the little voice in the back of your head starts to subvert your reverie and asks questions to scare you.

I recently had a student that had a real wake up call when the boat started to heel as we left the dinner spot. He had never experienced a sail boat heeling. We had no wind out of Cape Town, so we motored to a suitable spot near Robben island. Dinner was completed shortly after dark, by which time the wind had come up. We then proceeded to sail back to port in a steady wind of just on twenty knots. Wonderful sailing conditions on flat water.

In the dark. That part was a real revelation to this person and he got a real scare for a few minutes as the boat heeled under the full sail. Having this new experience in the dark. Scary? For a novice, certainly. This fear was short lived, however, changing into an elation and a smile that got broader as we sailed on into the night.

This last week had the same revelations to me. I yet again saw the looks of apprehension turning into broad smiles as each of the students changed their perspective.

This change is wonderful to see and to experience along with these people. After working hard at learning the knots and the ropes, this was the reward for their hard work. Really learning the ropes. No pun intended, except on a boat ropes are called lines...

Somehow, along with all this, I get the idea that they all changed their way of thinking about adventure. Forever they will now judge a new experience or base a decision on the emotions that they experienced on the course.  And you may well ask how this pertains to awareness.

SV Georgia.
Until recently the largest sloop in the world

Well, it is clear to me that all of these people think about risks in a different way after having had the experience of sailing and living aboard for a week.

And the learning and perception changes make them all more aware of their own psyche as well as what goes on around them. For some more than others. An introduction to yourself, after a fashion. Peter Senge's book  “The Fifth Discipline” comes to mind. In the book he discusses the concept of personal mastery. Knowing yourself and understanding about your own limits, being aware of your limits and learning more about them.

And then he goes on to discuss the same subjects in a group environment. Learning organisations. Groups of people that have to work together experiencing the more abstract characteristics of their group or organisation.

And it so it is the same for sailing a boat. There is some form of organisation required, otherwise the boat will go in one direction only. And there is some team awareness required, otherwise the crew will not be able to tack through the wind or turn the boat around.

But the best part of all of this learning is that this awareness come unconsciously through the adventure.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2014-03-17

Sunday 9 March 2014

On The Other Side Of Fear

This last week was very interesting from a psychological point of view. Sail boats and sailing have some interesting aspects that us sailors sometimes forget about.

For a start, getting anywhere is quite easy. You get in the boat and just sail there. Except of course when the place where you are going to is on land. But otherwise the idea stands. Going to a place by road is slightly different. Going by road is always the same. You may take a different route, but there is only so many routes from place to another.

On the water it is different. Especially when sailing. There is a myriad of routes to follow to get to your destination. Add to this the changes in weather and the experience gets quite varied.

I had the opportunity to live through this yet again during the last week while introducing people to the art of sailing.

We were on the water for a night sail. This was the students' first sail, so we set out on our voyage shortly after lunch. The idea was to get in some decent sailing before sunset. However, shortly after leaving port at Cape Town the wind died, so we had to motor to our destination to the north of Robben Island. A reminder that you can harness Nature but you can't control her.

Later in the afternoon a breeze came up and we could sail the last bit before heaving to and cooking dinner. The sunset was an exquisite sight, as always at sea.

The wind increased twenty knots to over during our stay, making the preparation of dinner a whole new experience for the new sailors. A galley bobbing around where nothing stands still is not something that you will easily find on land. Dinner at dusk out in the open with some water splashing aboard every now and then added yet another part to the experience. I sensed that the students were somewhat apprehensive as the wind was blowing quite hard as the day came to an end. Some real adventure afoot for these novices.

The fun started shortly after dinner. The dinner service was packed away and the boat secured for the sail back to harbour. By this time it was quite dark. There was only a small sickle of moon. Robben island was silhouetted against the city lights of Cape Town. A wonderful sight indeed.

Except for the students. We had a heavy wind against us, making the going quite tough. And of course the boat heeled quite dramatically. It was then that I realised that the heeling of the boat was quite unexpected for some of the students. Something strange to me. Not having sailed before, there people did not quite understand that a boat may heel under certain weather conditions. The fact that the keel will stabilise the boat and prevent it from capsizing altogether was totally lost on these people. It was dark and the boat was falling over.

There were some very wide eyed people aboard on that night. Being the instructor has its moments, as I had to be extra cautious at this time to ensure the safety of those aboard.

I read an article recently about fear and personal growth. There was a statement to the effect that your future lies on the other side of fear. Susan Jeffers wrote a whole book about this subject. Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway. Quite an apt title.

The realisation then came to me that I am but the guide to my fellow sailors. A guide through their fears, no less. The sailing instruction is but a vehicle for the experience. Then I felt good about this. Being a guide and a mentor rather than a technical instructor feels a lot better.

One's understanding of the behaviour changes. Along with that comes a change in one's own behaviour. Perhaps it is thinking at a different level. Who knows.

As fate would have it, the wind died half an hour after dinner and we had to motor back to Cape Town.

For all of us it that half hour after dinner was like a portal through to another dimension of thinking. And it was enlightening.

The next day was not much different. We left Cape Town port for a picnic at anchor off Clifton beach. Shortly after leaving port the fog set in. Not too heavy, just enough to have only two hundred meters of visibility. Safe to sail, but tricky to navigate into a rocky cove. More apprehensive faces aboard, your intrepid instructor hopefully showing an unperturbed face.

Mother Nature smiled at us and the mist cleared just as we arrived at Clifton. We anchored and had a marvellous picnic in the cool autumn day.

By the time we got back to port the students were all changed people. Not only did they have an adventure, they also were changed in their mind sets. Hopefully for the better, making them stronger in their thinking. Not that they were in danger, but just having had that little bit of new experience. The experience of passing through their fears.

The physical experience perhaps much less scary than the psychological one.

A rich life indeed.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2014-03-09