Contra Recklessness: The Black Box Theory of (Everything)
Having previously asserted that Bill Clinton lost the election for Al Gore, and that much misery throughout the world might have been avoided if Slick Willie had refrained from slicking his willy, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that the final decission in the 2000 presidential election was handed down by the US Supreme Court, and in a 5/4 vote. The most reductionist read of history is that the election was decided by one person, or parsing even more finely, by 20% of each of the five justices who sided with Bush.
With that, and with Richard Bach’s fondness for the uses of flight as a metaphor still fresh in our minds, I would like to introduce the readership of The League to John Vigor’s Black Box Theory:
Take Joshua Slocum, for instance. During his circumnavigation he was chased by a pirate vessel off the coast of Morocco. He cracked on all sail, but the pirates were still bearing down on him. Determined to give a good account of himself, he ducked down below for his rifle. Suddenly a squall hit the Spray. When his little vessel was under control again, he glanced back and saw that the squall had dismasted the pirate ship, which lay wallowing in the wreckage of its spars.
Then there was Harry Pidgeon, who sailed twice around the world singlehanded. On one occasion, when a change in wind direction set his yawl, Sea Bird, sailing toward the coast while he slept below, the boat ran aground on the only sandy bay in tens of miles of rocky coastline. Furthermore she had to pass over a rocky ledge at the entrance to the bay. Had it been low tide when Sea Bird sailed in so confidently, she would have gotten no farther. As it happened, Pidgeon was able to refloat her, refit her, and carry on.
Over the years I noted the same theme recurring in talks with such splendid seamen as Bernard Moitessier, Jean Gau, and Eric Hiscock. In fact, I expect all of us who have sailed for any time have had similar experiences – and thanked our lucky stars at the time. But it isn’t luck, really. There’s much more to the Fifth Essential than mere chance.
In 1986, when I started fitting out my own 31-footer, Freelance, for a voyage from Durban to the United States, I reduced the Fifth Essential to a simple system of accident prevention. In the Freelance corollary to the theory, every boat possesses an imaginary black box, a sort of bank account in which points are kept. In times of emergency, when there is nothing more to be done in the way of sensible seamanship, the points from your black box can buy your way out of trouble. You have no control over how the points are spent, of course; they withdraw themselves when the time is appropriate. You do have control over how the points get into the box: you earn them. For every seamanlike act you perform, you get a point in the black box. Points come in so many ways it would be impossible to list them all. But I can send you in the right direction. Let’s say you’re planning a weekend cruise down the coast, and time is precious. You have been wondering for some weeks if you ought to haul out the bosun’s chair and inspect the masthead fittings. It has been a couple of years since you checked everything up there, but it would mean delaying your departure by an hour, maybe more, should you have to change a shackle or something.
If you finally give in to the nagging voice inside you and go aloft, you earn a point in the box. If you don’t take that trouble, your black box will stay empty. 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 – if the wind started blowing into your quiet anchorage at 40 miles an hour and the engine wouldn’t start, or whether you should put a couple of reefs in the mainsail before you climb into your bunk, just in case.
No matter how good 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. People will say you’re lucky, of course. They’ll say a benign fate let you get away with it. But we know better. That luck was earned, maybe over quite a long period.
On a boat, on a climb, in the air, one is faced with a near constant series of actions and choices we can make. By taking some actions, we are reducing the effects of the unknown and uncontrollable. Other actions (or inactions) open the door to mayhem, sometimes only a crack, and sometimes only a slight crack is enough.
The sea doesn’t care whether your live or die. Best to control what (little) you can, as you can, and tip the odds in your favor.