September 10, 2009

The Black Box revisited

(Check in here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly About Boats column.)

OLD SCARFACE certainly stirred things up with his comments about John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet, Force 10, in the last column. To my great surprise he elicited a comment from Mr. Rousmaniere himself — or possibly someone purporting to be him. I say surprise, because John Rousmaniere is a national authority on sailing and seamanship, probably America’s best-known marine writer and historian, and the author of 23 books. I am amazed that he would even know about this humble column, let alone read it. I can only presume he has commandeered a small army of Googlebot mercenaries who systematically crawl through the Internet, pouncing on every mention of his name or his books, and dragging them into the spotlight for his attention.

In any case, in his comment he made a good point:

“No storm destroys every boat, a lot of crews do things right (or at least keep their mistakes small), and the most important decision may be the one made long ago — to ignore the rating rule and buy a good boat.”

I agree. I think it can safely be said that the old International Offshore Rule (IOR) that dominated the deadly 1979 Fastnet race 30 years ago did nothing to enhance the seaworthiness of the smaller sailboats.

But there is another factor I’ve always believed in. It explains, for me at least, why some boats survive storms and others don’t. It’s the Black Box Theory. Many of you will know it already, so I won’t bore you with great detail here, but basically it’s a reward system for many small seamanlike acts.

I always imagine that every boat has a secret black box that collects the Brownie points you earn for every seamanlike action you take. Every time you check the oil level on the engine, no matter how awkward it is to reach the dipstick, you get a point. Every time you buy a real paper chart of an area you want to explore, you get a point. Every time you get up in the middle of the night and go on deck in the rain to check your anchor bearing, you get a point. For that matter, you also get a point for even having an anchor bearing to begin with. You get points (quite a few actually) for imagining what would happen on deck and down below if your boat were turned turtle by a large wave, and doing something about it. And so forth, ad infinitum.

Now, it can happen to any boat, no matter how well found and well handled, that a time will come when human skill and effort can do no more to rescue it from a perilous position. But if you have points in the black box you can spend them to ensure that your boat will survive. You don’t have to withdraw the points. They expend themselves automatically as necessary.

Other boats battling the same circumstances as you, but lacking points in their black boxes, are less likely to survive.

Those who don’t understand the mysteries of small boats sailing on big waters will say you were just lucky. And, depending on how you define luck, or good fortune, they may be right. What they don’t know is that you earned your luck the hard way.

When Vergil said fortune favors the bold, he wasn’t thinking about the sea. Good fortune on small sailboats favors the cautious, the organized, and those with enough imagination to wonder what the hell can go wrong next.

Today’s Thought
Shallow men believe in luck. … Strong men believe in cause and effect.
— Emerson, Conduct of Life: Worship

Tailpiece
A playboy is a man who summers in Maine, winters in Florida, and springs at blondes.

1 comment:

JohnP said...

Your terrific Black Box idea confirms the addage that good intentions aren't enough. As a writer about early American voyage narratives, Donald Wharton, put it, “piety is no substitute for seamanship.”

John Rousmaniere