Friday 30 January 2015

On Being A Skipper

Many of us dream about a seawards life, independent of the land and making your own decisions. Programming your own life in accordance with your dreams, bowing only to the wind and the waves.

An idyllic life, no less.

I did exactly that. I changed my lifestyle from being a suburban dweller, commuting daily to and from a bureaucratic institution, to the life of a sailor. Granted, I do not own a boat. And I operate from a fixed base. I introduce and instruct others in the gentle art of sailing. Quite satisfactory, one would argue. Sailing for a whole week at a time and getting paid for leading this idyllic life style.

Yea, right.

Idyllic Hout Bay afternoon
Nothing in this life is free. Including this life style. There is a pound of flesh to be paid in return. And this comes in the form of responsibility. Accountability also, if you wish to play with semantics.

Who gets to explain when things go wrong? The skipper. And who is to blame if there is no more food on board? The skipper, of course. When someone gets hurt?

Always the skipper. As an aside, keel boats can kill you if you are careless, they are not dinghies that will simply capsize to tell you that you have done something stupid.

A heavy burden, if you are not alert. And even skippers get overloaded when they are not careful.

My experience of the last week is a case in point. I have the doubtful privilege of losing the Danbuoy, MOB light and life ring. The very safety equipment that is used to assist a person after falling overboard, the Danbuoy being a flag on a floating staff to keep a position indication of the person in the water.

It happened in broad daylight in a sheltered bay. So, how come the equipment was lost? The answer is “very easy,” actually.

We were doing some MOB (Man OverBoard) drills in Hout Bay, our neighbouring harbour. A sheltered bay on the Cape Peninsula. Also notorious for heavy winds. At the time of the exercise the wind was blowing 10 knots, gusting 15 in glorious sunshine. We were happily doing the MOB exercises, the day skipper students taking turns at the helm.

Quiet Hout Bay morning
Then the wind picked up and went from 10 knots gusting 15 to blowing 20 knots gusting 25 within ten minutes. I ordered two reefs in the main. While we were reefing the main, the wind went from 20 knots gusting 25 to 27 knots gusting 35 and picking up. We were in the process of reefing, so I ordered the mainsail to be stowed. The jib had unravelled itself while still being furled, with a piece of sail flapping in the wind on either side of the sheets wrapped around the middle on the furler.

After all that was secured, we set out to retrieve our equipment still floating in the water. However, by this time, which was under ten minutes time span, we had lost sight of the danbuoy. The water had turned to a frothy half a metre chop by then, obscuring everything that was floating lower than half a metre out of the water.

Hout Bay in 33 knots of wind
We set out on a rectangular search pattern, but gave up after an hour, the equipment lost. We made an official report to the Maritime Safety authorities and the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) after docking safely back in Hout Bay harbour. This to ensure that they do not launch a search and rescue mission in the event that somebody else retrieves the equipment. Heavy liability there, if you forget and there is a fruitless expense on the side of the autorities. The authorities treat this in the same vein as a bomb scare. So we were covered there, at least.

All crew safe and sound, the boat back in harbour, tied alongside safely. Search parties sent out to check on the shore and harbour wall returned with empty hands. We then performed a lessons learned debriefing on board.

We were basically prevented from all sailing until we could obtain another set of equipment. Safety first and foremost.

Having had this experience, I then asked myself what could have been done differently to prevent this. And I did some very deep soul searching.

In the end, the answer is very easy: It was the skipper's fault. Mine. So, why did I not get this one right?

A very easy management problem to solve, viewed from an armchair. Don't overload yourself as the skipper. There is a crew. Use them. Delegate.

And make very sure you understand the vagaries of your local waters, even if you think it is OK, it's your own back yard and you understand the weather.

I did not, with results to show.

Another deceptively quiet early morning, leaving Hout Bay

And above all, remember that a person in the water will not be visible at fifty meters away from the boat in a half meter choppy sea with foam. Even in broad daylight.

A scary enough thought to give me nightmares.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2015-01-30

Sunday 18 January 2015

Ciabatta: The Next Experiment

It has been a while since I made ciabatta.

There were lots of experiments with other types of bread, some more successful than others. I also made friends with the small gas ovens on several sailing yachts. These are a law unto themselves and one needs to be very careful to allow for free air flow around your baking, lest your food turns into burnt offerings.

My experiments with yeast and flour have been a growing success. At least, this is what I think. I specifically try to keep the process simple in order for the recipe to be accessible to the normal yachtie and amateur baker. The process needs to simple and not require any special tools or fermenting equipment. Like a refrigerator, for example. Most yachts do not have sufficient refrigeration space to allow overnight slow fermentation of your dough. Perhaps it is in these endeavours that I am struggling with an appropriate process to achieve the special results that I am searching for.

Talk about pioneering in a new field!

I have made several experiments in baking a proper ciabatta. Most have been successful, but the elusive big, shiny fermentation holes have always escaped me.

Very soft dough, second rise using
 a plastic bags and a place mat
 to keep the shape
So this time around I decided to go to a softer dough with higher hydration. In addition, I used a finer flour. All of the loaves I baked previously were quite tasty, but somewhat on the heavy side. After some consultation and interpretive reading of various recipes and methods, I decided on a mix of cake flour and white bread flour. Here in South Africa we don't get the 00- and 000-classification of flours. The list consists of cake flour, white bread flour, brown bread flour and whole wheat flour.
You may get sifted and unsifted variations, stone ground and non GM. That's about it.

For this experiment I used whole wheat unsifted stone ground non GM flour. Long words for decent flour. Four cups of cake flour and two cups of white bread flour made up the mix. That is enough for two large loaves or three to four smaller ones.

After perusing my copy of Peter Reinhardt's books “Crust and Crumb” as well as “The Bread baker's Apprentice,” I decided on a modified version. The recipes use a biga or a poolish. Both pre-ferments require overnight fermentation in a cool environment. This is difficult to achieve on a small yacht, so I settled for a direct method.

The ingredients are flour, water, salt, yeast. Some butter or other animal fat. That's it. Very primitive. Simple ingredients, focussing on the method and the relative quantities.

Making ciabatta requires a very soft dough. So this time I made a dough by measuring out the required amount of flour using a cup. Then I added salt and the yeast. After mixing these dry ingredients thoroughly, I added the soft butter and rubbed it in thoroughly by hand. Then I added water a little at a time, mixing it through every time until the dough had some even consistency. This I kept up until the dough was almost runny.

Very soft loaves, very hot bricks in the oven
I left the dough to rest for a few minutes while gathering my wits. This dough is not kneadable at all. You fold it using a wet ladle or a wet hand. Clean an appropriate area on your work surface and keep a jug of water ready. This is for wetting your mixing utensil and your hand.

At the start of kneading it is almost runny, getting somewhat stiffer during the folding process as the gluten develops. Eventually I transferred the dough to the well floured kneading board. By this time the dough was not really picking up much more flour from the kneading board and I was able to continue folding the dough for another five odd minutes. The test for the readiness is to take a small piece of dough and do a stretch test. Stretch it and see if you can get it to keep an almost translucent  film. If you can, the dough is ready for the rise.

I sprayed some spray-and-cook stuff on the dough ball to limit drying out before covering the dough and putting it aside to rise.
After the rise you need to form the loaves. This is where you may get into more trouble by losing the fermentation holes already formed. Handle the dough with care, it is still very soft. After this rise you may need a peel to transfer the loaves to the oven. They will be very tender and you will not be able to manhandle them.

Perhaps this is where the biggest problem lies. Dividing, forming and handling the soft dough may lose the gas in the dough. So there is a caveat.

The oven may be set to quite hot. I baked these loaves at 230ºC/450ºF for fifteen minutes, then set the oven temperature lower to about 180ºC/350ºF for another twenty minutes. And I used paving bricks in the oven as heat capacity to get the required oven spring.

Check the loaves towards the end. If they echo with a solid sound when tapped, they are ready. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for about twenty minutes to half an hour. They are still cooking and are filled with steam. This makes them very brittle. The steam needs to evaporate for the crumb to develop into something elastic.

These loaves came out the best I ever achieved. Very nice crisp crust, very soft, sweet crumb. But the elusive large fermentation holes have yet again escaped me.

So now I sit here and ponder my next experiment with a cup of coffee and a generous slice of fresh bread covered in real butter.

Remember, always use real butter.

This post also linked to YeastSpotting!

All images taken with a Samsung S4 smart phone, Snapseed and ViewNX2 edits.

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2015-01-18

Monday 12 January 2015

Withdrawal Symptoms: Sailing Into The New Year


This last Christmas season saw me doing nothing. Yes, nothing. Perhaps it is the Cape Town spirit getting to me at last.

This doing nothing included final convalescence from my torn biceps muscle, with a shakedown cruise across False Bay to Simon's Town. A wonderful trip indeed. The do nothing bucket list also included lots of beer. It is high summer here after all.

There is something to say for doing nothing along with your nearest and dearest.

However, the laziness eventually gets you. One can only read so many books and do thus many crossword puzzles before the withdrawal symptoms catch up. I had to take a deep breath and count to ten many times to just calm down.

How wonderful it was when the sailing school contacted me to book my time for instruction in the new year! Sailing again. Out of a wonderful place too.

The Cape Town waterfront marina has something special to it. There is a serene quietness in there at both ends of the day. Being at the back of the main harbour activities, the noise from industrial vehicles and -activities and so on does not reach the marina. Couple this with Table Mountain and Signal Hill standing guard over us and you get the idea of a peaceful, almost Zen-like mood.

Clifton beach  with Table Mountain standing guard
Of course, the sailing is exquisite, as always. I had a group of students on competent crew course, which always has some adventure looming. This time was no exception.

The competent crew course is very interesting to taxing, as the students literally have not ever been on board a boat. It is up to the instructor to get these young people to a level where one can begin to enjoy the sailing, as opposed to having the fear of God put into them due to their lack of knowledge and experience.

We got past this hurdle quite fast and was able to have a sail in decent wind of twenty seven knots, gusting thirty on the second day of the course. Everybody had a whale of a time after the first ten scary minutes of worrying that the boat will capsize. Then the real fun started.

The jib furler came adrift and I had to send someone forward to go and clear and stow the sail.
This was done with some splashing as expected. We carried on sailing, doing some point of sail manoeuvres, then motored back to our mooring.

Dinner. Chile con carne a la The Hungry Sailor
There I sent one of the students up the mast  to retrieve the furler. All on the second day of their course. Talk about adventure!

The next day we sailed to Clifton, one of the most picturesque beaches in the world. We were blessed with a balmy day too. The whole world and their friend also had the same idea, so it was quite festive with all the boats at anchor off the packed beaches. The students took a quick dip in the cold Atlantic water before making a scrumptious picnic lunch. Much fun was had by all, until we hoisted the anchor.

Or at least, we tried to. The anchor was stuck fast and I had to make a fast plan before everyone else departed the anchorage. Our neighbour helped with pulling a spare mooring line doubled around the anchor chain in the opposite direction. Soon the recalcitrant stuck anchor was tripped and we could sail home.

By Friday afternoon these students had broad smiley faces and little skin left on their palms. The vagaries of an introduction to yachting.

These adventures really set me thinking about what I do. I am the instructor and normally are quite tired by the end of the course, both physically and mentally. Yet I cannot remember when last it was that I enjoyed a week on the water so much. Not even mentioning the fact that, really, a bad day on the water beats any desk job ever.

I got home and sat in wonder for a while, counting blessings. Perhaps one gets a bit blasé about the sailing and then needs a break from sailing altogether. Just to clear the mind.

But your soul tells you it is time to get back on the water. And Kenneth Graham's story “The Wind in the Willows” comes to mind. I quote from Wikipedia.

In the story, Mole and Rat are rowing up the canal in Rat's boat. They are discussing nautical things and life in general when Rat is heard to utter:

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing... about in boats — or with boats. In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not.”

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2015-01-12