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To Heck with Hubris

I remember attending a boat-show-related event several years ago where a panelist—a big-time boatbuilder—told a guy in the audience who was thinking about making an Atlantic crossing, “Well, John, if you’re businessman enough to be able to afford one of our boats, you’re certainly capable of crossing an ocean in her!” While this was not the most fatuous remark I’d ever heard concerning the risky business of seafaring, it came close. Proposing that money, or the mere ability to make stacks of it, might somehow qualify a person to tangle with and survive one of the most elemental and irrational forces on the planet seemed at the time—and still seems today—like a stunningly naive bit of hubris.

I think a brief but telling experience I had just this past weekend may help me elaborate. It was early Saturday morning, and I was standing on Betty Jane’s foredeck, half-heartedly painting a window frame, when the delightful cacophony of children’s laughter came wafting across the water. After looking around for the source of the cheery sound, I spotted an outboard-energized Boston Whaler towing eight little dinghies single file past the harbormaster’s office, each crewed by a couple of PFD-accoutered kids. The yacht-club-sponsored on-the-water class looked like a big duck and a bunch of ducklings, all playing follow the leader. Everybody seemed to be having a superb time, especially my friend Steve, who was driving the Whaler and thereby familiarizing his charges with tiller usage and other seafaring basics. “Pay attention,” he yelled. “Stay in line.”

The scene was an evocative one. And as it faded from view, I was drawn to reflect upon the great importance that tradition plays in the lives of most true seafarers. When I began working on commercial ships as a young man for example, the intensity of seafaring tradition I encountered there actually shocked me. “Just do it—don’t ask questions,” my rough-and-ready mentors would say, most of them older men with lots of genuine experience at sea and little interest in a young fellow’s callow, often impractical, and sometimes dangerous theories. I chafed under what at first seemed like intransigent unreasoning ignorance, but because my options were limited at the time, I began to learn, albeit grudgingly.

Today, I look back in gratitude. The seafaring knowledge I’ve acquired over the years has come slowly and laboriously, but also steadily, thanks to all the people who’ve so generously shared with me the ever-so-practical customs, beliefs, and practices that were bequeathed to them by their elders. And the price I have been expected to pay for this ongoing education, in almost every case, had little directly to do with business, money, or even the talent for making money.

Time and attention always counted more. After all, there’s only one way a guy can learn to successfully wheel a Great Lakes ore-carrier through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie and that’s by devoting his undivided attention for a rather long time to learning the techniques involved. And when you think about it, developing the skills needed to rapidly tie a bowline in the dark, or back a twin-screw sportfisherman into a slip, or steer a little dinghy in a straight line, or, for that matter, cross an ocean safely in a comparatively small vessel, calls for the very same sort of long-term focus.

Yeah, business is important. And boats cost money. But oceans, unfortunately, don’t make deals.
 

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