The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon: And 101 Other Things for Young Mariners to Build, Try, and Do on the Water

The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon: And 101 Other Things for Young Mariners to Build, Try, and Do on the Water

by David Seidman

ISBN: 9780071628372

Publisher International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press

Published in Children's Books/Arts & Music

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


You don't need a surfboard to catch a wave. Your own body can do the trick. Ideal bodysurfing waves are anywhere from 1 to 4 feet, breaking on a gently sloping beach that allows would-be surfers to wade in comfortably. Avoid the crashing surf that you'll find on beaches with a sharp drop-off. Here's how to get started:

1. Start in about chest-deep water, watching seaward as the waves come in. Spend a few moments getting a feel for the waves' timing, figuring out where they break. You want to be waiting just outside that point, so that as you start swimming, the wave reaches you just before it breaks.

2. When you're ready to go, push off with your feet in the direction of the wave, using a swimmer's crawl to gain momentum. In deeper water, try swim fins; they'll give you that added burst of speed required to get into position.

3. Once the wave begins to propel you forward, stop stroking and extend your arms forward, continuing to kick with your feet.

That "Yes!" moment comes when you actually surf the wave, rather than simply flounder your way through the movements. Aim downward. This changes your center of balance and allows gravity to push you down the wave face. Once you're skimming down the face, your head and shoulders will naturally rise, and you'll begin to plane on your chest like a human surfboard.

Avoid heading straight at the beach. Think like a real surfer and angle across the wave's face in the direction it breaks, extending your inside arm, palm down, so that it glides across the surface of the water.


Regular beachgoers have probably heard of rip currents. These are nothing to take lightly. They happen when breaking waves strike a beach with such force and frequency that water piles up on the beach and is then pulled back out to sea into the troughs of approaching waves. Rip currents can be extremely dangerous, especially when weather conditions have heightened wave action. The currents are responsible for roughly four out of every five surf-zone rescues.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), rip currents are most likely to form around low spots or breaks in sandbars, and around structures like piers, jetties, or the "groins" that typify erosion-prevention projects. The currents can extend out through the surf line, in some cases hundreds of yards offshore.

Your best defense is to learn to recognize the signs of being caught in a rip current. Usually you'll notice that you're being pulled out and away from the beach or farther away from a landmark. The most important thing is not to panic and "fight" the current by trying to make your way back to shore. In most cases, it's a losing battle. Instead, swim (or paddle, if you're on a surfboard) parallel to the shoreline until you're out of the rip current, then angle your way back to shore. Sight a location on land to determine which direction you're actually moving.

If you can't get out of a rip current, conserve your energy and tread water, or even float. Allow the current to dissipate, then swim back to shore. If you're too far out, try to catch the attention of a lifeguard or someone on the beach by waving your arms and shouting if possible.

Experienced Young Mariners can learn to identify the "look" of a rip current. Watch for what looks like a channel of choppy water or a noticeable difference in water color. You can also look for the movement of seaweed, debris, or sea foam heading out to sea. Many coastal areas publish a daily rip current outlook in surf-zone forecasts. Find them online at


Ask those who have spent time at sea and they'll have plenty of creepy stories. But all the odd things that seem to go on usually have a straightforward explanation.

For example, the moon can look like it's rapidly flying across the sky. When seen behind fast-moving, broken clouds, the moon appears to be moving—not the clouds. Without a point of reference, our sense of motion is thrown off. You can also get the same feeling from objects on the water. When a large freighter passes slowly behind a buoy, you can get the impression that the buoy has come loose from its mooring and is drifting in the opposite direction.

Another phenomenon is the "dancing lighthouse." If you closely watch a fixed point of light in a blackened room for a few minutes, the light will appear to move. Imperceptible (at first) movements of your eyes or even minute changes in the tension of your eye muscles cause this. The brain then interprets this as motion since there are no points of reference in the dark. This is why you should never stare at a far-off light at sea, such as a lighthouse. Not only will the light seem to move, but its characteristics may seem to change as well. It is best to scan your eyes back and forth slowly to prevent strain, and to use your light-sensitive peripheral vision.

Lights can also change colors unexpectedly. A buoy's green light can initially appear to be yellow when far off, and you may think you have found a white light instead. This is because green light is made up of blue and yellow. Since the shortwave blue light is more easily diffused, the yellow is often all you see. Then, too, buoys with white lights may have a reddish glow when first sighted. White light contains all colors. So when the shortwave greens and blues are filtered out, you're left with yellows and reds.

Colors can throw you off in other ways. A red ship will appear closer than a blue one. But during twilight the opposite is true, with blue objects appearing closer. This is because after your eyes have become accustomed to the dark they are more sensitive to blue than to red. This is why red buoys seem to turn black as night approaches.

Your ears can fool you as well. Those who have been to sea likely will tell you they've heard voices calling to them. Your brain has a constant filtering process that selects frequencies of greater significance from the background noise. Without this, conversation would be impossible. At night when you're tired and open to suggestion, your brain can pick out combinations of frequencies within the noise of the wind and waves that sound like voices.


A weather glass is a simple type of barometer that was first made in Holland during the 16th century and remained in use on land and in ships until the 20th century. The classic weatherglass is a glass pitcher-shaped object partially filled with colored water that has a narrow, upturned tube leading from its bottom to a point just above the water level. Because the tube is the only opening, the water effectively seals the air in the top of the glass reservoir from the outside. Changes in the atmospheric pressure compress or expand the trapped air and push the water up or down the tube.

You'd have to be a skilled glassblower to make one of these old-fashioned weatherglasses, but you can make one from a plastic soda bottle. Not only is this easier to do, it is also a lot more rugged, while being just as accurate. This weatherglass also has the virtues of being inexpensive and maintenance free. If you wish, you can take it aboard as an auxiliary to the aneroid barometer (the one with a dial and needle indicator) that should be aboard every cruising boat.

Here's what you'll need:


1. Find a cork that fits tightly into the bottle's neck, put the cork in a vise, and drill a ¼-inch hole through it.

2. Smear a little epoxy on the copper tubing and push it though the hole in the cork.

3. Press the clear plastic tubing over the end of the copper tube.

4. Slip the rubber washer over the tube. (You'll use the washer to mark the water level in the tube at the last observation. This way you can see how much and in what direction the water level has moved.)

5. To keep your weatherglass level to get good comparative readings, make a simple string bridle to let it hang straight down from a hook. Begin by making a collar from a piece of copper wire that fits loosely around the neck of the bottle.

6. Now take four pieces of string about 4 feet long, double them, and pass the ends through the ring.

7. Arrange the tightened loops evenly around the collar and tie one line from each pair to a line from an adjacent pair using a square knot. Make sure the strings leading to each knot are the same length.

8. Repeat this step to make another set of knots.

9. Now gather up the free ends of the bridle and tie them together at a point a little more than a bottle's length from the collar. Cut off any excess.

10. To finish your weatherglass, attach the end of the tube to the bridle with a short piece of wire at a spot above the water level in the bottle; make sure the tube isn't pinched anywhere.

11. Pour about 1 cup of water tinted with food coloring into the bottle.

12. Put the cork and tube into the bottle's mouth, and hang your glass from the bridle in some convenient location.

Watch the weatherglass closely over the next few days. You'll see that when the outside air pressure goes up—usually a sign of improving weather—the water in the tube is forced down; when the outside air pressure goes down—usually a sign of worsening weather—the water in the tube rises.

You can graduate your weatherglass by marking the positions of the water level in the tube. In most parts of the world the needle of a "high" barometer would point to 30.50 (inches of mercury) and a "low" barometer to 29.50. The average reading at sea level is usually 29.90. Check your water level against a barometer or the local weather report.

Forecasting the weather with a barometer or weatherglass is all about careful and frequent observations of the rate and direction of the water. If you record your readings every 4 to 6 hours and plot the results on a graph, you'll have a good picture of whether the air pressure is rising or falling and—most important—how quickly it is changing.

Here's how to interpret what you record:


All Young Mariners should know how to talk like a sailor. By that we mean the particular words seafarers have devised over the centuries to describe the specifics of their craft. Knowing these words will tell people you know your way around boats and the water. They're also a good way to distinguish any landlubbers in your midst.


The big problem with taking your boat out to go fishing is finding the fish. But it can be easy, if you know what to look—or smell—for.

Smell? Yup, if you smell the distinct odor of something fresh like cantaloupe or cucumber, it may mean that bigger fish have been eating smaller ones nearby. The smell comes from the oils in the chewed-up fish as they float to the surface. The same oils will often make a smooth, thin surface slick, another sign that fish are feeding.

Use your binoculars to scout for birds hovering over one spot. They are probably going after small baitfish or the remains left by bigger fish feeding. Either way, that's where you should head to try your luck. Also look for a sudden eruption of white or a lot of ripples in one concentrated area. It's a sure sign fish are thrashing about.

You have to learn to read the water to find those spots where fish like to hang out. A good place is a line of weeds on the surface, driftwood, buoys, or anything else that is floating. These are good places for small fish in open water to find protection from bigger ones. And the bigger ones know this. If small fish are around, big ones will not be far behind.

A persistent turbulence in the water, called a rip, is created where two currents meet or where deep water is forced to the surface. Fish love these areas, too, as they are usually rich in nutrients. Lots of nutrients mean lots of phytoplankton, which mean lots of zooplankton, which mean lots of baitfish, which mean lots of the game fish you're trying to catch. Look for areas where you see the color of the water change. (For more on plankton, see Make a Plankton Net, page 110.)


We know what you're thinking: Who doesn't know how to skip a stone? You just pick it up and sling it, right? Not so fast there, hotshot. To truly master the skip you need a little more technique than the simple huck-and-chuck. Just ask Pennsylvania native Russell Byars, the man who holds the current Guinness World Record. In July 2007, Byars skipped a stone an astonishing 51 times.

Will the record be broken by the time you read this? Who knows, but we can tell you that world-record stone skipping appears to be a uniquely human skill. French scientists actually studied the phenomenon, and even built a robot to determine the perfect technique. They concluded that the stone should be about 4 inches in diameter, thrown at about 60 miles an hour, and strike the water at an angle of no more than 10 degrees to produce the least amount of drag. What they could not do was get the robot to produce any more than 20 skips. Take that, Mr. Roboto.

We won't make you take a crash course in physics here. We will, however, offer a few pointers should you ever wish to take either Mr. Byars—or the robot—down.

1. Choose your weapon and place. Thin, flat stones, anywhere from 1 to 4 inches in diameter work best. Your lake, pond, or inlet should also be still and flat. Look for a nice reflection on the surface. If you see waves, go for a sail instead.

2. Hold the stone like a seasoned "skipper." Rest the flat side against your bent middle finger, curl your index finger around the trailing edge, and place your thumb on top.

3. For best results, throw the stone sidearm, imparting a little spin by flicking it with your index finger as the stone leaves your hand. Aim for a spot on the water about 10 feet ahead of where you're standing, and keep the stone as level to the water as possible.

With any luck, the stone will reach a velocity of 60 mph, make contact at 10 degrees off the horizontal, and skip repeatedly across the surface.

Or who knows, maybe it will just go plunk. Either way, it's still fun!


How can someone possibly squeeze a model of a sailboat, or even more astounding, a model of a fully rigged clipper ship, into a bottle? The opening is way too small. There has to be a trick—and there is. You really do squeeze the boat in through that little opening. You build the boat outside the bottle with all its masts, sails, and rigging folded back toward the stern. Then you slip it in, glue it in place, and then—with the pull of a thread—pop up the masts and everything attached to them. It's a neat trick, though it requires a steady hand and some patience.

Here's what you'll need:

1. Wash out the soda bottle and remove the label. Remove any stubborn adhesive with Goo Gone or WD-40.

2. Lay the bottle on its side and, using a long artist's brush, paint a blue ocean for your boat to sail on along what is now the bottom of the bottle.

3. Measure the opening of the bottle and carve the widest hull that will pass through the opening—probably about 1¼ inches wide. You can use a piece of pine you might find lying around, or basswood obtained from a hobby shop.

4. Cut a 3½-inch mast from a cooking skewer or a thin dowel.

5. Cut another piece of skewer about 2 inches long to make a bowsprit (the pole—or in proper sailor speak, the spar—that sticks out from the front of a traditional sailboat).

5. Using a pin or needle, push a small hole into one end of the mast and the bowsprit.

6. Glue one-quarter of the length of the bowsprit to the deck at the bow, making sure the hole you drilled is on the outer end.

7. Figure out where you'd like the mast to go on the hull, and drill two small holes through the hull on either side of the mast. Poke the magnet wire through the hole in the mast, bend it into a U, pass the ends through the holes in the hull, bend them up onto the hull bottom so they won't come out, and glue the ends in place. Check to see that the mast pivots up and down easily, and adjust as necessary.


Excerpted from "The Anti-Pirate Potato Cannon: And 101 Other Things for Young Mariners to Build, Try, and Do on the Water" by David Seidman. Copyright © 0 by David Seidman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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