Risks, rewarding and unrewarding, considered.
What I see is my boat, auto helm still engaged, sailing away from me, her twin hulls cutting parallel grooves in the water that close up even as they’re made to glassy slicks that are just as quickly brushed away by the wind.
The impulse to swim after her comes and goes, as does the impulse to cry for help. There’s no hope of catching her, and no one to hear my shout. Why I am here doesn’t matter now because it cannot be undone. I am in the water, I am alone, and no one knows where I am.
When I sailed the mighty sloop INTEMPERANCE to the Bahamas and back (along with my lubber wife, daughters 8 & 2, our cat, and one of our Newfoundland dogs) we carried a 406MHz EPIRB, a hand-held VHF radio and GPS, a flair kit, and an 11 foot inflatable boat. Together these items constituted our insurance policy against a catastrophic failure of our boat or medical emergency.
18 months later, when I sailed the same boat from Montauk to Bermuda, on to the Lessor Antilles and then back to Montauk I added to her safety equipment a more extensive and powerful flair kit, a 4 person life raft and a SPOT Messenger.
I added the life raft because during the long offshore passage the inflatable boat we carried would be deflated and stowed. The life raft is self-inflating. In the event of a catastrophe if we could cut the boat away and bring it along and inflate it after the fact, so much the better, but at least we’d have the smaller, flimsier liferaft to keep us afloat. Then the EPIRB would — via satellite –let authorities know where we were and that we were in distress, and the VHF radio and GPS would let us communicate our precise location once would-be rescuers were within visual range. (It’s quite common for castaways to see ships and planes, even ships and planes that are actively looking for them, fire off flairs, only to go see said ships and planes disappear over the horizon. Imagine how discouraging that would be!)
I added the SPOT messenger because it added a layer of non-emergency outbound communication to our safety mix.
You see SPOT does something EPIRB cannot do: in addition to being able to send a distress call, a SPOT messenger can send an affirmative “We’re in this location and we’re OK” message.” It’s like having cheap sat phone that can only send three text messages: we’re OK, we’re not OK, and SOS.
After the trip with my family to and from the Bahamas my wife, daughters and our dog got back in our old Volvo wagon and drove home, leaving my and the cat to figure out how to get INTEMPERANCE from down east Georgia back to Montauk.
I solicited the internet for crew and the internet delivered to me one Ken Young. Just typing his name now I get goose bumps thinking how extraordinary lucky I was to have Ken come into my life.
“I’m old , small in stature and not very strong, and don’t have any offshore experience,” Ken said when I called him.
“The only thing on INTEMPERANCE that requires strength is raising the anchor. For everything else there are blocks and winches — if you can’t do something because you’re not strong enough that means either you’re doing it wrong or you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If we don’t get along I’ll put you off the boat at the first opportunity.”
Two days later Ken showed up in Valona Georgia in a red Nissan rental car. Ken hadn’t told me he was married to one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen, or that in addition to his previously enumerated frailties he also had a pronounced hump on his back. Ken’s wife saw him down to the boat, but even more fearful of boats and water than my wife, she wouldn’t even step aboard INTEMPERANCE dockside. They said their goodbyes, Ken and I cast off and promptly stuck INTEMPERANCE’s 7-foot keel in the mud of Shellbluff Creek at low tide.
The genesis of SPOT’s ability to send outbound “OK” messages is an interesting tale of misfortune and insight.
SPOT didn’t start as a distress messaging company. SPOT started off as Globestar, a would-be competitor to the Iridium satellite phone company, but something happened to Globestar’s satellite constellation and they were left with incomplete coverage. When you made a call on a Globestar satellite phone there was no knowing if you’d get a connection, or if you got one, how long it would last.
Globestar tried to deal with this by offering their handsets/service at (compared to Iridium) ridiculously low prices. In fact, back in the early 00’s my friend Bob Wise had a Globestar phone because it was actually cheaper to have a Globestar phone than to pay the exorbitant rate for a Caribbean cellphone, and neither were all that reliable anyway. When I was making arrangements with Bob for our 2003 trip to Serbia a lot of our phone conversations ended, “Bob? Bob? Are you there Bob?”
Then someone at Globestar had an idea.
What if instead of using their incomplete satellite constellation to offer unreliable discount voice service, what if they used it to offer premium texting outbound service to the growing “X-games” market? Texting, especially outbound-only texting doesn’t require syncronnisity, as long as the text is transmitted in a reasonable amount of time, that’s good enough. Thus SPOT was born. It works like this:
The original SPOT messenger had three buttons: OK, HELP, and SOS. Here’s what would happen if/when you pushed each of the three buttons:
If you pushed OK the SPOT transmits its ID number, it’s GPS coordinates and a “OK signal”. This signal would be picked up by the Globestar satellites and passes along to the SPOT servers. The SPOT servers would match up the ID number with a user account, append a pre-entered short user “OK” messages from the database (“This is our location. Having a lovely time, wish you were here!” or whatever) and then email the time of transmission, GPS coordinates and pre-programmed message to a user inputted list of up to 50 email addresses.
If you pushed the HELP button it would preform the same operation as above, but look up the pre-entered “HELP” message (“We’ve had a problem that does not require S&R. Please get on the ATV and come to this location.” or similar) and send that out to a different list of up to 50 email address.
If you push the SOS button the SPOT does the same as above: a precoded message gets sent to a precoded list of email address, but it also acts as a quasi EPIRB. When the SOS button is pushed, the SPOT transmits it’s location to the Cospas-Sarsat satellite constellation, the same satellites uses by 406MHz EPIRBs and initiating the same international search and rescue response as an EPIRB.
To use the SPOT service you need to purchase the device and a subscription, which is about $100/year. If I recall correctly, the SOS feature functions whether or not the subscription is active, but other messaging functions require an active subscription. We used a SPOT without incident on INTEMPERANCE’s trip to and from the Antilles, and it was both fun and reassuring for friends and family to be able to track our progress during the many days that INTEMPERANCE was hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
A rising tide lifted INTEMPERANCE from the muddy bottom of Shellbluff creek and a couple of hours later Ken and I were passing the Sapelo Sound sea-buoy. A fresh breeze was on our port quarter, there were about two hours of daylight left, we were making for the Charleston sea-buoy about 100 miles away, and a pod of dolphins were providing escort, jumping in the waves and playing on our bow-wave. I was at the stern, fiddling with the Aries wind vane, a wind-activated self-steering device that I had not been able to get working for the entire time my family had been aboard INTEMPERANCE. The 18 hours from Florida to the Bahamas and the 18 hours back, my wife and I traded turns at the wheel, hand-steering for two-hours at a stretch.
My hopes for getting the Aries working were renewed because I found out that the new delron bearings on the steering shaft had not been broken in and made the entire system too tight. Before getting underway for the journey home I had eased them with some sandpaper and this was my first chance to see it would make a difference. If it didn’t, hand-steering the 1000 or so miles home was going to be tedious.
As I fiddled with the vane, Ken remarked that my approach reminded him of Statistical Process Control (during our time together I would learn that Ken had managed factories, managed a couple of Gran Prix race car teams, spent 10 years in Kentucky being a dirty farmer with his wife and young children, had been a raw milk pirate before it was cool, and a few other things that don’t come to mind right now.)
“Statistical Process Control?” I clicked the vane one click to port and waited to see if that would correct the rounding up problem we were having on the gusts. And as the sun went down and the dolphins jumped and surfed, Ken explained to me that Statistical Process Control was a way of breaking down an manufacturing process into its components, and then factoring the acceptable degree of variation in each components to achieve the desired end result.
“Before SPC,” Ken explained, “we couldn’t find the fine edge of how good we had to make things. It was hard to identify the point of diminishing returns verse cost, so things tended to be either poorly made crap, or well made things that would last forever.
“Now it’s like having a dial on the factory with a cost read-out. You turn the quality knob up, you can see the cost go up, you turn the quality knob down, you can see the cost go down. If you feel like ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to” and that companies are fucking with you trying to see just how crappy they can make something and you’ll still buy it, you’re right.”
By nightfall the windvane was steering the boat, and would steer INTEMPERANCE till the end of her days.
The catamaran Mon Tiki has all the same safety equipment we carried when we sailed INTEMPERANCE offshore in 2009/10: EPIRB, life-raft, hand-held GPS and VHF. But despite being an inshore and near-shore trip, there is a hazard faced that I did not face when we sailed INTEMPERANCE.
I am alone.
Considering Mon Tiki’s layout and railing I had made the decision that it is safer and more practical not to be harnessed to the boat and instead wear my PFD and my SPOT more religiously than I wear pants; that it would be better in the water free and clear with my PFD and SPOT than be dragged behind Mon Tiki at 6kts. My first inkling that this was a poor decision came back in late November of last year.
In late November of last year a friend and I were sailing Mon Tiki from New York City to Norfolk on the backside of a strong front. We left late Monday afternoon, reaching south along the New Jersey shoreline with a 20-30kts wind pushing Mon Tiki into double digit speeds.
By morning we had reached Atlantic City and I made the decision to bear off to the south and run directly before the wind. By noon we were 40 miles offshore in high wind and waves, well out of cell phone range, sails stripped down to just the jib to keep our speed manageable. Throughout we had been sending SPOT “OK” messages on the hour.
By the early morning of the second day we were about 10 miles off the southern end of the Delmarva peninsula. The night had been quite cold, but the wind had eased, and conditions had relented to a state of transcendence that can only be appreciated on the backside of a hard go. My phone had died the night previously, but then I remembered I had my fully charged laptop on board. I hooked up the phone to the laptop in the hopes of tweeting a sunrise photo.
Communications restored I texted my wife and also noticed that our SPOT updates had stopped getting through a couple hours earlier.
When I got ashore I went through an unsuccessful and somewhat frustrating series of trouble-shooting steps with SPOT technical support before it was determined my unit had failed and they sent me new one under warrantee. If you’ve seen my SPOT updates throughout the last three months, those have been sent from the replacement SPOT I got in December.
My second clue that my safety scheme was inadequate came a couple of weeks ago in Miami.
In the evening, after I wore my SPOT while swimming the red error light came on (When the unit is functioning properly the power button blinks green.) . This usually means it’s time to replace the batteries. The next morning the lights were out completely, and when I replaced the batteries I could not get the unit to power up.
I called SPOT and explained that this was the second time in three months that I had had a unit die and that I was alone on a boat, depending on the SPOT in case of an emergency, mostly especially in the case of going overboard (My SOS message reads “This SPOT is being worn by the helmsman of Mon Tiki, USCG #xxxxxxx. If the SOS has been activated it is most like a man overboard situation.)
I explained that I was underway and needed to find a local address that the unit could be sent to ASAP. That evening I called back with a friend’s address a few miles from where Mon Tiki was anchored and was assured that the replacement for the replacement SPOT was on its way.
Now you would think by this point might have realized that a SPOT is not a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and should not be relied upon to do what a personal locator beacon does, but to understand the difference between a SPOT and PLB, first I have to tell you what PLB is.
In short, a PLB is a personal EPIRB. It uses the same Cospas-Sarsat satellite constellation as a ship’s EPIRB, but instead of being registered to ship, it’s registered to a person, and instead of being the size of a quart of milk, it’s about the size of a hand-held GPS. And like an EPIRB, a PLB does one thing and one thing only: when you press the button it tells search and rescue authorities worldwide “I am here and I am in enough trouble that I want you to deploy nation-state level search and rescue assets and request any ships in the area divert from their route to assist in the search”. In short, pushing the button on an EPIRB or PLB is a big fucking deal.
Anyway, getting back to SPOT: a week after giving them my temporary Florida shipping address, I called up to see where the unit was. It was an odd address and maybe it had been misdirected, and without getting into the details of what I’m sure was just as frustrating a phone call for the SPOT customer service rep as it was for me, that’s when I realized I had been taking a terrible risk with my life. That awful little vignette that I opened this essay with flashed through my mind. I imagined pushing the SOS button on my SPOT and waiting and waiting and waiting…
I realized in that phone call is that neither SPOT device nor SPOT the company, was really in the search and rescue business; I realized that, in consultant speak, the SOS function was a marketing decoration, and that actually providing the level of support implied by offering an SOS feature on their text messenger was way outside their area of core competency; and where my life was concerned I wanted to be in a company’s sweet-spot, not out on the margins.
I got off the phone, sent email to a friend who spent years at the “tip of the spear” in the search and rescue business and asked him for a PLB recommendation. A couple of hours later he wrote back, “Without question or reservation and hands down. ACR.” which as it happens is the same brand as the EPIRB Mon Tiki carries.
None of this casts SPOT or me in a particularly flattering light, so I’m going to try and knit together some of the loose threads so this post is less about villains and victims, idiots and heroes, and more about The Way Things Are.
20 or so years ago I was reading an article in WIRED magazine about a culture clash within Bell or AT&T or whatever the big telco of the day was. The clash was between the old-school engineers who built the rock solid reliability of the one-to-one, always on connection between telephones that was our telephone system 20 years ago and the nu skool upstarts who were pushing packets as the future.
In short, the old guard saw the benefits of IP as a poor trade-off against the lower reliability. The young punks saw all the possibilities that packets opened up as being more than worth the drop in reliability, and that packet technology was only going to get more reliable with every passing day. Obviously packets won out.
But if it seems like washing machines and dishwashers do not last as long as they used to, they don’t. They work better, come in more colors, and don’t last as long. It’s the first two points that matter for the customers you can actually build a business on. For them appliances are more like clothes than capital investments; they’re going to be replaced long before they wear out. Those of us that kwetch that Kenmor at our mom’s house, the one that’s been there since we were kids and is still chugging away while we’ve replaced our own washing machine three times would do well to remember that that Kenmore cost a month’s pay. It’s easy to romanticize the past when you don’t have to actually live in it.
But Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s observation that “some risks do not amortize” need also be kept in mind. My same S&R friend recently gave a talk at Los Alamos National Laboratory about “error trapping”. In an era of “ship and iterate” and “command z” a zero fault tolerance mindset becomes increasingly foreign. We are less exposed to these sorts of risks, but they are no less sharp. You can’t be half pregnant, or half dead, or half in the water watching your boat sail away.
I also want to walk back what I said about what the activation of an EPIRB means. The “I am here” part is true. The level of distress it represents has become murky. Here’s why:
Like everything else electronic, boat electronics have seen massive increases in capability while they have become smaller, less power-consuming, more reliable, and less expensive. Where as it used to be uncommon for even offshore avocational sailors to carry an EPIRB on their boats, now, starting at about $500 they are commonplace. PLBs are even less expensive; about $250.
And because they are commonplace, their misuse is also commonplace. EPIRB, sat phones, GPS give people false confidence.
The old adage was that if a yachtsman ventured offshore he should be prepared to “drown like a gentlemen” and not bother the authorities with the consequences of his yearning and whimsy. But these days it’s not unheard of for people to deploy an EPIRB because sailing offshore was simply more than they bargained for and they were scared (I have been there. If I could have been taken off INTEMPERANCE durning the gale we stood between Montauk and Bermuda in ’09, I would have happily traded my boat to be back safety back in my warm bed. Only the shame that I would have felt asking people to risk their lives to help me when I wasn’t really in trouble — only in over my head and scared — kept the EPIRB in its bracket.)
In fact, non-emergency EPIRB/PLB activations (out of gas, someone fell and got a scrape, etc.) have become so commonplace it’s not unheard of for the first step for S&R authorities to take to be to make sure that it’s not a false alarm and then to only take action when it can be established that the distress call is authentic. It’s not supposed to work that way. The presumption is supposed to be that an EPIRB signal means someone’s in real trouble until proven otherwise. But the more people that have these devices the more they will be misused. That’s just the way it is.