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Misanthropic musings on technology and its discontents

On a message board I frequent, one poster was commenting on the increasing isolation he feels in his small town due to technology, or rather, his failure to participate in the broader culture because he and his family don't watch television. Being not much of a "joiner", I could sympathize, but I don't necessarily buy into the vaguely Luddite sentiments expressed.

It's not so much the tools as the toolmakers, or probably the job site. The creation of post-war suburbia, and the cessation of walking most places, has fostered this sort of isolation. I live in the middle of a large city, and I don't own a car. I have a TV, but it has "rabbit ears" (I used to be a TV critic, so I do know what I'm missing, if missing is the right word). I have purposely limited the normative exposure to certain technologies (car, cable TV) in favour of different choices. While this was once driven by sheer financial strictures, now it's primarily a straight-ahead decision not to participate in "car" or "TV" culture.

These decisions can easily lead to both social isolation and smug bastardry, I will freely admit. I bicycle or walk or take the streetcar (trolley to some) that stops outside of my house. I work alone from home, so I try to chat with people if only to get out of my own head occasionally. In fact, my wife calls me one of the friendlier misanthropes she's ever met, not that one gets to meet many misanthropes, I suppose. But I like people one-on-one, but I tend to want to avoid "humanity", particularly the band leaders in the parade of stupidity, ignorance and factionalism that constitutes a lot of what we laughingly call public life in North America.

But it's an effort for me, although I doubt that would be obvious if you met me in person. And I think it's an effort for a lot of people, because (and this may seem a strange observation) of the decline of formality in social interaction in the last 100 years. I'm all for a blurring of the social distinctions that used to see poor people "tipping the hat" to their "social betters", but these days everyone is on a first-name basis and one is expected to immediately go to an informal mode of speech and to pretend that strangers are in fact dear old friends. The use of "Mr." and "Mrs./Ms." to refer to business acquaintances, one's childrens' teachers, service people and social contacts is nearly extinct, except with health professionals and in law courts, and I think this paradoxically isolates people by forcing an artificial intimacy at times.

I would argue that technology, on the other hand, when actively and creatively used, is a great tool for communication. I have, for instance, filed copy to magazines and newspapers for nearly 20 years now, and done so from home since 1990. It's been a very productive choice for me to work from home, because working in an office can be a bit of a waste of time. Frequently, I find time at the oddest spots in the day (I am writing this at 0600 hours on a Saturday morning), and am able to knock off in two hours the work that would take me a full day in a noisy office. And if we factor in the cars I haven't bought, and the gas I didn't burn running them, I feel better about the occasional motorsail with the 50 HP diesel!

I used to be a letter-writer, as in pen to paper. Now I use e-mail and I've started this blog to keep track of my progress on getting our boat ready for long-term cruising. While it may serve only as a warning to others, the fact is that I've read so much useful information online from other cruisers, either preparing to go, underway, or recalling their adventures, that I felt obliged to "give back a bit". Also, the proper use of communications technology will allow me immense latitude while on board to receive helpful information, such as GRIB weather files, chartplotting information, e-mails, educational materials or "distance learning" for my child, and to stay in touch with my rather modest family "back home". It will also facilitate making a living while underway, as well as the usual financial transactions that are hard to imagine doing via stamps and paper these days.

I would say, therefore, that the technology is not at fault so much as our inability to edit the gush of information those technologies bring. Choosing active (like message boards, web pages and e-mail) over passive forms (TV, movies) helps, as does a willingness to "turn things off" and an ongoing engagement with the natural world around one. As another poster pointed out, achieving a balance is the goal, and although this balance point will vary from person to person, it's pretty clear when it's been reached.


"The Loaner"

Here is the dilemma (and I am painfully aware that my dilemma of "one too many sailboats" is absurdly trivial): I have, with my wife, a new sailboat. See below. If it is not destroyed and our health, will and money hold out, we want to go to sea as a cruising family.

Nice, eh?

I had a boat already, a boat suited not for cruising the South Pacific independent of marinas and fuel pumps for weeks at a time, but a classic plastic racer. Think "MG ragtop" versus "Land Rover equipped for safari". This boat I had bought myself, and largely repaired myself, and certainly sailed alone a fair bit. And, sentimentality aside, it was and remains a near-perfect boat for the sort of short-haul cruising and daysailing I have tended to do on Lake Ontario. The new boat has attributes of a different, more oceanic kind: it needs more than 10 knots to get going, and points less well even as it goes downwind rather better.

So I thought: "Well, the sensible thing would be to sell it. You can get a nice radar and a pair of those purple Crocs for the new boat."

But when has owning a boat been about the sensible thing?

So I thought further, and realized that if planning for a five-year circumnavigation represents the victory of hope over experience, I might as well emulate the late Chairman Mao and harvest crops not yet budded. I decided to keep the old boat, but to give it away.

Quite the head-scratcher, isn't it?

Here's the plan: I find a person willing to take on the running and storage costs of the boat (club fees, dockage, insurance, winter storage and its maintenance chores), and sell the boat to him for an agreed price. Then I don't take his money. Instead, I become a lien holder for the entire amount, and for a fixed term (until my projected return). He becomes the go-to guy for insurance and fees, and in return gets the use of a boat he can race cheaply. At the end of the term, I can reclaim the boat, sell it to him for the previously agreed price, or if he doesn't want it, sell it on the open market and give him a commission of that price.

This allows me to maintain a real hold on a boat that I am essentially loaning without the difficulties of being called back from the ends of the earth if a crane drops it on someone's head, which would be the case if I were a co-owner, and not a lien holder. As a lien holder, if an insurance claim is made, the cheque goes to me. On the other hand, if the fellow who's borrowing the boat tires of it or want to bail on the deal, I can simply take it back or attempt to replicate the deal elsewhere. It's "please drive my car while I'm away" writ large, or a type of lease of the "no money down" variant.

The fellow in question is a decent sailor who already owes an eight meter race boat, and who also happens to be our general contractor. I have no fear that he'll maintain the boat. I also intend to maintain it myself (protecting my interest, so to speak) in the two years until we go. I also intend to keep sailing her on occasion, just so I remember how to work a tiller now that I've got two hydraulic wheels with which to play. There goes Valiente now, the wee boat in the to a new berth three miles west. Mixed feelings, yes, but relief also that keeping two very different boats won't play havoc with our finances and divide quite so radically my boat-altering attentions.

My hope is to eventually get Valiente back in 2014 or so, and to sell Alchemy in Europe as a "proven design". My fellow cruisers think I'm delusional, anticipating that I will ever go from a comfortable pilothouse cruiser back to a cramped and frankly Spartan racer that will be over 40 years old. Perhaps my fellow cruisers are right. I spent several years getting Valiente the way I like her, however, and I feel she's an ideal boat for the kind of sailing we do around here. So this is a blatant attempt to have it both ways, I suppose, and hinges on an improbable set of circumstances.

In this way, it's quite like the idea of encompassing the world.


The old girl

While both myself and my wife need to acquire salt-water sea time before we depart (as crew, probably on deliveries...more on that later), we aren't entirely new to the sailing game.

After adventures in the world of the late '90s, I unexpectedly fell prey to a management change and lost my job. This wasn't the tragedy it might have been, as I also had a pretty decent freelance designer and writing business on which to fall back. And the compensation, or "go away and shut up" money was generous, so much so that instead of doing the sensible thing of someone rounding middle age might do, such as buying a mini-van or paying 9.2% of the remaining mortgage, I bought an old sailboat.

This is Valiente, a 1973 Viking 33 cruiser-racer built by Ontario Yachts. I bought her with my "compensation" on August 31, 1999. The next day, we learned of the death of Doreen Valiente, a British author my wife and I admired. Add to that the fact that Valiente is Spanish for "brave" and also is easily understood over the radio, and the choice of name was easy.

This boat, while a year older than the missus, is quite fast and is strongly built. I've had her out in 40 knots of wind, and we've cruised Lake Ontario in October in 25-32 knots of steady breeze with a four-year-old on board, so we've had some experience.

I had, purely due to my own mechanical ignorance, some engine problems that led to replacement of Valiente's "Atomic 4" gas engine in 2005. I eventually figured out that the exhaust system, and not the engine, was at fault, and replaced that as well. I also hit on the idea of "recycling" modern sails from racers, who will frequently find minor flaws in a sail used to race that won't bother the economy minded cruiser.

So by 2005, I had an old boat with a rebuilt engine, refreshed sails, a new fuel tank, new exhaust system, new batteries and several modifications only of interest to the obsessive-compulsive sailor.

So naturally, we got Alchemy and the process began all over again, although with the new boat (1988), there is much less to redo and undo than on the old.

Still, the fact remains: I own two boats, and yet am not twins. More on how I'm trying to resolve this embarrassment of nautical riches in the next post.