Group: Forum Members
Random thoughts on the challenges/dangers of labor-saving gear
I sometimes get interested in what I think of as a meta-picture, the ripple effects if you will, and it seems to me that the shift to labor-saving devices has a largely unacknowledged ripple effect in the emphasis for the crew away from the muscular (acknowledged) and toward requiring more mental (unacknowledged). Our modern devices are not an unequivocal mixed blessing they look to be at first blush. There is a ying and yang that must be accounted for and it seems to me that these labor-savings modern gear/devices often go hand-in-hand with demanding more personal discipline: personal discipline without which disaster might occur. And where dangers were not a potential with the replaced system.
Possibly, the best example are winches and the proliferation of powered winches on new vessels and retro-fitted on older boats. Those of us with ordinary strength would have to work hard to do damage to the boat or self with conventional winches. muscle power always gives one feedback. Power winches, on the other hand, hold danger to the boat (pulling the clew out of the headsail) or worse, trapping/losing a finger in the line wraps on the winch. And it may be quite easy to work the powered winches properly and safely in everyday sailing, but when it is a midnight fire drill, and you are wet, tired and a little seasick or the crew is inexperienced and scared: mental discipline is harder to come by and forgiving, fault tolerant systems are appreciated.
I could make the same comments about in-mast furling systems as well as in boom furling (a well-set-up slab reefing system is hard to beat for ease of reefing and fault tolerance). We could go on with chart plotters and electronic navigation (just a few years ago an experienced navigator used the zoom feature of his navigation system improperly and ran aground on a race). *
In essence, I am suggesting that we trade ease of muscular effort for an increase in mental discipline and that we need to pay attention to the trade-off. It seems like, in some ways, a different sort of skill set is necessarily emerging as for these devices to mesh well with good seamanship: a mental discipline that allows these labor savings/ modern devices work safely for us: not something often talked about in the sales brochures.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
*Another example: It used to be that I mapped out any kind of tricky or low vis passage on paper, writing down the AtoNs, lights, turns, courses, distances etc. and then took this into the cockpit with me. Now I have a chart plotter under the dodger and I do far fewer of these “crib” sheets mentioned above.
Having a cockpit chart plotter is a wonderful thing and I would not go back, but I have to be more disciplined and push myself to review the courses upcoming, think about the lights I expect to see, if at night, and not succumb to “winging-it”. A couple of times I have been caught short, fog descended or things looked different in “real” life than they do on the plotter and it is always impressive how one small discrepancy or confusion can cascade into something bigger.
Or take roller furled mains: a night-time fire drill with a conventional main with slab reefing is certainly a challenge but one is unlikely to do damage or get into trouble. With roller furled mains, a hurried skipper, an inattentive new crew, a wildly slatting main are all recipes for the main becoming jammed and unable to be doused or furled and the cascading problems resulting from this.