Six simple machines

By Christopher Birch

“When it comes to applying leverage, there are only six tools,” Alex told me in his thick German accent.

Having wandered the aisles of Home Depot, I was dubious.

He continued: “The screw, the wheel, the wedge, the incline plane, the pulley and the lever.” Alex explained how all the tools in my bag were merely variations of these six simple machines.

Alex Markhoff — Yachtsman, Teacher, Moral Authority. March 22, 1940 – Jan. 4, 2018.

I had spent much of the day servicing winches on a customer’s sailboat. One of the big cockpit winches was frozen. It had been neither turned nor bathed in a long time and I couldn’t get it to budge. I knew Alex, the marina manager at Boston Waterboat Marina, to be both wise and helpful, so I made a pilgrimage to seek out his counsel. Clearly pleased to have been asked, he stood from his chair with his smile beaming out of his full white beard. “When facing a mechanical problem, the best first step,” he coached as we walked back to the boat, “is to decide which simple machine is best suited to provide the necessary mechanical advantage.”

“The screw can do incredible things,” he said, opining that we might be able to induce enough longitudinal force on the winch drum with a threaded rod secured to the stern cleat. This was quickly followed by the observation that in America, it’s the worker who gets screwed. Eventually we landed on a statement that to us seemed evidently true: “You fall into an ethical morass when you make your living off the backs of other people’s labor.”

The wheel, he admitted, was his favorite. “Endlessly helpful and historically significant, too.” He knew of an approach, like a needle on a record, where an infinite number of gear ratios could be achieved by adjusting the radius length from needle to spindle. Although not obviously relevant to the task at hand this day, we agreed it was always wise to take the long view on history, especially where it pertained to the wheel.

Alex moved on to the next simple tool. “The wedge, like a duck’s bill, can do more than just peck its way out of an egg,” he began. Then, as an aside, Alex warned me that he currently had a swan in protective custody in one of the marina bathrooms and didn’t want me to be alarmed if I happened upon the animal when visiting that room. The other swans were being horribly mean to this one bird – “nearly drowned it” – and Alex had taken it upon himself to institute a cooling-off period by catching the bullied bird and depositing him in the bathroom. The downy white feathers stuck in Alex’s sweater suddenly made sense.

Next, the incline plane. “There aren’t a lot of mountains at sea level, but the tide will go up and down a couple of times a day,” Alex mused. Because of that, a maritime sort of mechanical advantage is sitting around waiting to be harnessed at all times. “Severely underutilized,” he said. The plan involved lashing the winch to the top of a nearby piling and then waiting while the angle of repose was exchanged for an angle of steadily increasing load as the boat dropped out from under the winch drum. While we waited for the tide to fall, it was pointed out, we’d have ample opportunity to clean the waterline, which was filthy, and quiet the halyards, which were clanging, and mend the torn sail cover zipper. All of which were emblematic of the plague of laziness that had become all too common in yachting of late.

The pulley. Staring us in the face in this winch-littered cockpit was the boom vang, its potential mechanical advantages gaily singing the song of success. If we created a lattice between the other cockpit winches, we could secure the boom vang to a sturdy cleat on the bow and then, using a dock line and oar, we would create a tourniquet that would pull at the stuck winch with all the force we could ever want. “Would you believe my shoes are 40 years old?” Alex asked. He assured me they were and that he would know because he had owned them since they were new. I learned that there was no sense in throwing something out when it is well built and can be made to keep going.

“The lever is incredibly popular and justifiably so,” Alex continued. “But leverage in the context of business is a dubious thing,” was the unexpected warning appended to the observation. Alex scowled and recounted the fable of the fat American tourist who, when on a visit to Barbados, advised a relaxed local fisherman that he should ramp up his operation and buy more fishing boats and hire more crew so that he could catch more fish, ultimately enabling him to retire to a simple life of fishing and relaxing on some tropical island. Leverage gets you nowhere, was the take away.

Eventually our planning period came to a close and we set ourselves to the task of freeing the stuck winch.

We tugged on the thing together – and it popped free.

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.