February 6, 2014

The Black Box Theory

 The Disease Called Cruising
9.  Points in the Black Box

ON EVERY boat there’s a little black box. You can’t see it, but it’s there all the same. It’s full of points that help you get out of trouble. At least, it should be full of points.

Every time you do something seamanlike, a point goes into the black box. Every time you whip a rope-end instead of leaving it to flap itself to fluff in the breeze, you earn a point. Every time you study the chart before entering a strange port; every time you climb the mast to check the topmast fittings; every time you remember to use the bilge blower before you start the motor, the points pile up in the black box.

At sea, the system starts to work two ways. Firstly, you can continue to stuff points into the box (it accepts an infinite number) by taking seamanlike actions — say, by reefing the mainsail after you hear a gale warning on the weather forecast, or by putting on your safety harness every time you come on watch.  Secondly, you can start to draw on your account.

In all small-boat voyaging there is an element of risk that cannot be eliminated. Indeed, it is the lure of danger (and overcoming it) that attracts many to the sport. Inevitably, therefore, there will be times when the ship and her crew are in danger to some degree, despite all the precautions you might take.

This is when the points start expending themselves. You have no control over when and where they’re spent. But they know when they’re needed. When horror is rife, when the mast is crashing down around your ears, those chips come rushing out of the black box to fight on your behalf.

But they have to be available. You must have earned them in the first place.

That’s why some boats and some sailors survive gales and capsizes when others don’t. Some boats will go aground on the only rock for miles around. Others will happily blunder through a maze of reefs.

Some people have a name for it, a four-letter word ending with u-c-k.  But on our boat we don’t believe in l-*-*-* and we never pin our hopes on it. We try, instead, to earn points for our black box. We know that if misfortune catches us with an empty box we’re in trouble. Fate allows no overdrafts.

So there’s really no need to wonder why some people and some boats seem to be treated by Fate more kindly than others. It all depends on how much you’ve got in your black box.

Incidentally, you can never tell exactly how much credit you’ve earned, so you can never relax completely. If you examine your conscience you will have a fair idea of how full your black box is, but to be sure of having enough points you must keep learning the ways of the sea, and the way of a ship in the sea. And you must keep putting your knowledge to practice.

In other words: Look after your ship, and she’ll look after you.

Today’s Thought
Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.
— New Testament: Luke xii, 35

“Why has your dog got such a flat nose?”
“He keeps chasing parked cars.”

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






biglilwave said...

John, does varnishing put points in the "Black Box"? Because if it does, I believe it should earn bonus points.
Every time I varnish I feel like a fool. Maybe it works as the saying, "God looks after fools and children".

John Vigor said...

biglilwave, lavishing any kind of love and care on your boat earns you points for your black box. Varnishing certainly helps because it gets you closer to the fabric of your boat and helps you discover rot or damage or missing bits before these things become dangerous. Varnishing is also good for your soul and makes you patient and thorough -- two very good traits of the accomplished seaman.

John V.

Eric said...

I just found your blog... stellar work! I think your "black box" idea will work outside of sailing too. Fortune may favor the bold, but has a soft spot for the prepared.