October 31, 2013

Drowning like a gentleman

I THINK I WOULD BE CORRECT in saying that most amateur sailors, and certainly most Americans, believe it is their right to be rescued when they get into trouble at sea, no matter how inexperienced they might be.

But I was struck lately how different things were a few decades ago.  I have been reading a memoir by Stuart Woods, entitled Blue Water, Green Skipper.  Woods has written 50 novels, including the best-selling Stone Barrington and Holly Barker series. 

In 1977, Woods decided to take part in the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race  (the OSTAR) in a brand new Ron Holland-designed 30-footer, which he named Irish Harp.  He came 63rd out of 125 entrants, probably because he loaded his lightweight racer with all kinds of heavy gear, cases of French wine, fancy provisions from Harrods of London, and an early model EPIRB.

He mentions in the book that “Blondie Hasler, one of the founders of the OSTAR, would probably not approve of this equipment [the EPIRB] since he was against any competitor making use of rescue services. He has been quoted as saying, a competitor who got into trouble  ‘ . . .  should have the decency to drown like a gentleman and not bother the rescue people.’ ”

Hasler was not entirely joking. The feeling was quite prevalent among ocean cruisers in the 1970s. Eric Hiscock said much the same thing in print, and never carried an EPIRB on any of his circumnavigations. He believed that people who worked on the sea in a professional capacity were fully entitled to any rescue services available, but he thought that people who went to sea by choice, for their own personal pleasure, should never expect others to risk their lives to save them when they got into trouble. Self sufficiency was the watchword, combined with a very stiff upper lip.

I must confess that I was influenced by these cruising stalwarts.  I crossed the Atlantic twice in boats of 30 and 33 feet that had nothing more than VHF radios in the way of emergency transmitters.

Technology has changed the way we communicate now.  We are all much more interconnected by satellites, cellular towers, and the Internet. We talk more and more  about less and less and we feel the urge to be in touch whether or not we have anything important to say. I don’t think that is going to change in a hurry, but I like to think there are still a few cruisers out there, perhaps the ones who are getting away from it all, rather than taking it all with them, who think and act in the manner of Hasler and Hiscock. We don’t hear much about them but I’m sure they do exist.

Come to think of it, aren’t the only ones we hear about those who make the headlines by getting into trouble?  Those who don’t harbor any hope of being rescued are the ones who sail quietly and competently from port to port without any fuss, without bothering the rescue people, and expecting fully that they will drown like gentlemen should the occasion arise.

Today’s Thought
Self-preservation is the first law of nature.
— Samuel Butler, Remains

“How’s work going?”
“Great. My wife just hired a new personal assistant for me.”
“Blonde or brunette?”
“Neither. He’s bald.”

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


Jack said...

John, I know one at least in the vein of Hasler and Hiscock.... Webb Chiles. I Think as "society" has be reliant of the Big Society, bordering on a Nanny State, we humans have lost the art of self preservation. True Mariners are a dying breed mores the pity.
It goes for landlubbers too.

Nathan said...

Thank you for this John. I see much the same entitlement malaise all around me in the States.

I am an aspiring sailor, doing my best to live life (land or sea, or anywhere) with some semblance of personal responsibility. When I go out, I expect I will buy an EPIRB, and I expect that money to be wasted, never used. Rather like my belief that motorcycle helmet laws should be abolished, but I think anyone who rides without a helmet is a moron.

More people, especially in the unimaginably wealthy USA, should "have the decency to drown like gentlemen."

momist said...

"Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won't drown." Arthur Ransome.

John Vigor said...

Oh Momist, thanks for bringing back memories of Swallows and Amazons. The best sailing books ever written for kids (and adults who don't want to grow up) in my opinion. Even better than my own similar book, though it chokes me to admit it.

John V.

biglilwave said...



Beyond a certain point

Rhys said...

A very sensible post indeed.

I have felt for some time that today's mariners, surrounded by gadgets and "outs" in the form of satphones and various Big Red Buttons, are failing to evaluate risk, which includes a failure to evaluate the consequences of failure itself. Our seagoing forebears lived in a world of math: navigation, volume, set, drift, LOPs, DR, and so on. They were able, with some reliability, to model their chances of making a safe landfall. Today's sailing is more reactive: one is presented with external observations and much is automated, if one is so inclined.

The result would seem to be a decline in the math-tempered prudence that mariners in the pre-"save my butt, SAR!" days had to exhibit were they not to be fish food.

I wrote about risk, math and seamanship in my blog a few months ago, if you're interested, although your comments were more compact: