July 3, 2011

The law of unaverages

THE LAW OF AVERAGES produces some painful statistics for amateur sailors. This year, according to the law of averages, some of us will jam the dinghy painter around the propeller shaft. Some of us will drag anchor and go aground. Some of us will have fires in the galley. Some of us will lose a mast. Some of us will fall overboard. Some of us will drown.

There is no gainsaying these statistics. They are horribly real. They are average because they actually happen.

So what can you do to beat the law of averages? It’s quite simple really. You must turn yourself into an unaverage sailor. And you can do that by becoming a devout follower of my Black Box Theory.

You’ll find the long version over there in the column on the right. Just click on Black Box Theory. The short version is that I believe there’s a black box on every boat, a box that stores good-luck points. You earn these points by constantly doing small but seamanlike things to keep your boat in good order.

For example, if you sniff the bilges for fumes before pushing the starter button, you'll score a point, just as you will for taking a precautionary reef at nightfall or checking the expiration date on your rocket flares. Thinking and worrying about what could happen is also a good way to earn points – say, if the wind started blowing into your quiet anchorage at 40 miles an hour and the engine wouldn't start. If you take the time and trouble to put a couple of reefs in the mainsail before you retire for the night, you earn a point for the black box. If you get up at 0300 and go on deck in the pouring rain to check if your anchor is dragging, you earn a point.

But no matter how dedicated your seamanship, there are times when there is nothing left to do but batten down the hatches and pray. If you have a credit balance of points in the box, you'll be all right. The points withdraw themselves as needed and you will survive while others suffer a crueler fate. Afterward, of course, people will say you were lucky. But we know better. That “luck” was earned, maybe over quite a long period.

I have to believe that most amateur sailors don’t bother to do all the seamanlike things they should, and it’s because they’re most that they become the average. Your aim should be to become an unaverage sailor with the help of the Black Box Theory. Unaverage is good. The law of unaverages is on your side.

Today’s Thought
My soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.
— Longfellow.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #217
How big can waves get? The U.S. Hydrographic Office says the relationship between wind speed (in miles an hour) and wave height (in feet) is approximately 2 to 1. In other words, a wind of 50 mph is capable of raising a 25-foot sea. Furthermore, the length of an average wave, from crest to crest, is about 20 times the height. So a wave 25 feet high would have a length of about 500 feet and would be moving at a speed (square root of length, times 1.34, remember?) of about 30 knots. If there is a current running against the wind, however, waves are inevitably shorter, steeper, and far more dangerous.

MEN — don’t worry about your hair falling out. Think how awful it would be if it ached, and you had to have it pulled.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Oded Kishony said...

Black box philosophy is very useful off the boat as well-

Keep in mind that a corollary to the law of averages is; 'randomness is lumpy' which means that events tend to occur in clusters, not evenly distributed.

Just finished reading "Small Boat to Freedom" Wonderful read, Inspiring. I recommend it highly!

Aaron Headly said...

I quick note for the armchair sailors out there:

Step one is to find a boat to keep your black box in.

Step two is to go sailing.

Seriously. Go to your area's Craig's List page and find a small sailboat that needs a new home. There's a 15'8" SIidewinder in Oxford, MI (of all places) here for $300. Includes a trailer.

Step three is to install a black box and start filling it up.

Cheers, and good luck,


Rational Root said...

Like the golfer who chipped out of a bunker and landed the ball by the hole.

"Lucky shot" said a spectator.

"Funny thing is, the more I practice, the luckier I get".