System and gear failure is pandemic throughout both the bio and techno worlds. Gear on a sailboat fails with a special panicy concern since replacements at sea are unavailable. The rich panoply of technical assistance spread through the Yellow Pages on land is as distant at sea as the moon.
Bio system failure, when you or I as healthy human animals get sick, have built in feedback loops that normally are self correcting. The wonderfully balanced and incredibly interactive mechanisms that pervade every fiber, molecule and gene of our bodies are inner directed towards our individual, and through us, our species', survival.
Not too many generations back, cures killed. The tale is told that George Washington, under a two front attack from his disease and his doctors, was heard to cry out,
Please, no more cures.
It was not until very recently, before the medical community arrived at a close vision of the real nature of disease, that responsible and caring physicians learned that their chief function was to be a reassuring presence and their true contribution was to prevent outside interference of the measured process of the battle that our bodies mount against disease. As this startling (for them) discovery permeated sick beds and hospitals, morbidity spiked straight down.
The built-in defenses of our bodies, with our billion year experience in bio survival, proved in the past (and in most cases still does) to be the first and last ramparts against failure of our bio gear. Until only a few seconds ago, as measured by man's time on earth, there was little that could be done to assist recovery from disease. We now have a few more or less feeble chemical assists for our feed-back loops but the basic processes of recovery are still as they were a billion years ago and probably will not change very much in the next billion, should we, as a species, live so long.
Failure of techno gear is profoundly different from bio gear failure. There are no built-in recovery processes. In some rare cases techno gear might warn of an impending problem, but short of redundancy, response to failure of the stuff we make and use hardly exists.
This comes, to me as an enormous surprise. With all of our demonstrable ability to warp and skew the physical world to do our bidding, there are precious few examples of regenerative feed-back loops in techno gear. We do have meters that tell us when things are not working. We do have safety valves that blow or let loose when pressures or temperatures become excessive and, in the thermocouples on our engines, there exists a primordial and rudimentary mechanism of self regulation. Should something really go wrong, such as a pump failure unattended, a thermocouple, straining its capabilities, will melt own with all of the rest of your engine. The more recent computer based protection systems are simply more sophisticated thermocouples. They adjust processes up to a point, they do not repair breaks.
I have come to accept the fact that techno gear, especially sailing techno gear, will inevitably fail and, unless I, mechano-amateur though I am, personally intervene, the failure is irrevocable. I have come to understand that on my sailboat, it is I who is the feed-back loop. It is I who supplies the regenerative capability, I am, and you are, truly the deus ex machina.
The key thoughts, and the central concerns in this essay, are the possibility of 'personal and amateur intervention.' Herein lies one of the deepest delights and most perverse motivations of Sailoring. In the real world I am not personally allowed to intervene in gear failure. Licenses, training and a union card are the precondition of intervention. I am excluded from a good deal of pleasure in 'fixing things.' I resent that exclusion and since 'they' cannot reach and limit me on my sailboat I take my pleasure in my sailing gear failure as a special gift.
The moments that I remember best from 25 years of sailoring are those terrifying events which resulted mostly from gear failure. The halcyon days, the romantic nights, races won and perfect landfalls achieved, all meld into the background of my mind. They are the 'noise' in which the really experiential happenings leap about. Memory is less triggered by the good stuff (to which sailors endlessly and mistakenly lay claim as their justification for Sailoring) than by those adrenilined moments, stuffed with panic, in which the sailor is rocketed into actions and activities for which he is ill prepared and, in the doing, amateur.
We are all seekers after experiences which stretch our sensibilities and our capacities to the limit. That is why madmen climb unclimable mountains and runners destroy their joints and tendons in unwinnable races. Terror is the ultimate experiential modality. It is the crescendo which pumps all of our juices to the surface and puts all of our infinitely complicated bio systems of survival to work.
I remember the time that my mast fell down in a storm in the most terrible sea there is. We were off the coast of then Communist Ethiopia in the Red Sea, not the most hospitable of places.
I remember also, when I first started sailing, I was in the Greek islands on a strange boat. The most common disaster of all occurred, I turtled a line with my third finger of my right hand inextricably tangled in the winch just as we poked our nose out from the lee of a little harbor into the snarly teeth of a Meltemi. The full jib, unreleasable, slammed us to windward toward a great rock guarding the entrance.
Another moment, on my first ever ocean passage, six days out from Bermuda and 18 days from the Azores, riding the tail end of a late season hurricane, our only head clogged solid. I was seasick and painfully nauseated from the declogging odors but strangely, I was, for that disgusting and messy while, supremely happy.
Approaching Oman from the Indian Ocean, the stainless ball that held my headstay in place simply snapped.
Three days out from Galapagos heading toward Tahiti, our drive shaft quietly parted leaving a flailing, freely rotating propeller which cut deeply into our speed.
I remember the meltdown of our plastic muffler taking my engine power with it..
I remember the day that my satnav, two lorans and a GPS all shut down at the same time.
I remember the endless agonies of our iron wind to which everything that could happen did happen and continues to happen. Pumps, starters, filters, injectors, gaskets, you name it, have all gone belly up at one time or another and often times in tandem.
I recall many blown out sails.
And so on and so on.
We emerged from these confrontations, and a score of others, by unlikely and interesting combinations of luck and ingenuity. This, I believe, is a major part, perhaps the largest part, of the satisfying experiential quality of sailoring.
Imagine the other scenario. Passages in which nothing breaks, nothing goes down. Passages in which you are merely an interested spectator in a process in which your vessel is the 'tube' and you are the boob.
I am sure that you have had such passages. Do you recall those nonevent passages with any real affection? Did they add anything to that precious store of learning events on which your skill as a sailor is founded? Did they get your juices flowing? You bet they did not.
As for me, I disremember most of sailoring other than the crises. I do have some pleasant memories. The green flash in the Pacific. The succession, ad infinitum, a nauseum, of stunning sunsets. The special joy attendant on the moments of departure and the moments of arrival. Sure these are memorable, but they are without effort and are thus merely narrative, at best anecdotal and at worst they cover up in your mind the true grit of sailoring.
The true grit of sailoring is meeting nature on its own terms. The enchantment of sailing is the opportunity, untrammeled and without limits, to use your unique and unparalleled opposing thumbs and your monster brain in active confront of problems that must be solved in the immediate now and only by you.
We, homo sapiens sapiens, did not emerge as a dominant specie by being reactive, but by being proactive, creative, problem solving, stubborn and compulsed. On land there is always someone else around who is better trained and more completely diplomaed than we and takes away from us the special satisfaction of dealing, here and now, with a leak, a break, a clog, a bend or a slip.
On land they take these tasks away and leave me with my unquenched, internalized compulsions. On the seas I thumb my nose at the experts and bumble happily along keeping my precious, mostly chaotic, little Universe afloat and awhirl.
Just like God.