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More risky business

If going to sea is a form of rolling the dice, can we improve our odds and regularly beat the house? Photo (c) Max Mulhern
I'm returning in this post to a topic I've mentioned previously, both in the context of boat maintenance and the mindset I've come to believe is the most conducive to safe sailing. I believe that risk assessment at sea must be balanced with a willingness to improvise, to persevere and to take calculated risks based on a correct valuation of one's own skills. I suppose I could title it "What Statistics Taught Me about Sailing", except that would drive most readers away.

Risk in our culture is poorly understood, to which I attribute a societal de-emphasis of basic math skills (we now have 40- to 50-year-old teachers who were raised with nothing but "new math" or variations of same, and whose incoherent textbooks on the subject reflect this). Our society, by which I mean much of the Anglosphere , tends to focus on disasters in our news and entertainment. We see the results of the hurricane or the passenger jet crash and do not consider all the years the town wasn't blown down, and the thousands of hours the plane continued to fly. And then we move on to the next asteroid threat, global warming-killed polar bear cub, or celebrity side-boob.
A great book, and it even has a nautically themed cover!
Perhaps more to the point for those expecting to rely on investment income and/or pension schemes to finance their sailing plans, we collectively seem to have trouble counting past dos cervazas, and this general innumeracy is allowing a numerate elite to either fleece us in the name of capitalism, or to simply arbitrage crisis after manufactured crisis, knowing that if we can count to Octomom, we are liable to forget things like poorly vetted corporate bailouts and the "guarantee" of undercapitalized entitlements. I'm using American data because they clearly as a nation have lost the ability to count, or to distinguish the colour red from black, but the same could be said for the EU and, if only to a lesser extent, Canada.
Here's where, if you can read, you can read about how you can't count

The common thread is the absence of political will to stop making unfunded promises, and the absence of actuarial acumen necessary to see which promises, in light of anticipated risk, make any sense to be making in the first place. Sailors can learn a lot from books on investing and gambling, by the way, or by hanging out with actuaries, which I would not have naturally assumed before I reacquainted myself with the math and probabilities that are a common feature of life on the water.

There is also what I, and quite a few others, refer to as the problem of scale: People evaluate risk not on the basis of quantifiable observation, i.e. data, but on emotional responses to perceived dangers (see the evolution of childrens' playground equipment). As an aside, my wife, a reasonably rational biologist with a Darwinian turn of mind, has suggested that the upper middle-class habit of having fewer children or just one child later in life has, to put it bluntly, made them more precious than would be the case historically. A horde of unruly, undersupervised crotch spawn are, evolutionarily speaking, somewhat more expendable, even if few people wish to think of their offspring in such species-wide terms. Precious snowflakes are therefore precious because, like snowflakes, they are perceived as being one-shots, unique, and singular. This is the perception, despite the fact that we live in a world with over seven billion people, top of the list of sound reasons not to have two or more kids. Hell, our Western society arguably doesn't really like them in the first place. But if you only have one, the notion that the world is a perilous place for tykes to teens can be pervasive.

Where this factors into risk, and more specifically, the risks of world cruising, is that despite teaching my kid to swim and watching him regularly turtle sailboats in order to reboard and bail them out since age 7, our decision to "take a child to sea" still elicits occasional critical comment a good five years after I first bitched about it. My unproven contention, based on a sample of one, is that the occasional plummet from the monkey bars of life is salutary and instructive. I don't want to endanger my son, but I feel a limited amount of potentially dangerous activity teaches him to recognize new dangers more easily. Besides, the contention that life ashore is safe and going to sea will get us, or our son, drowned ignores the quantifiable risks of daily life for a young person ashore, many of which are merely new and technically complex ways to demonstrate bad judgement and the effects of peer pressure. It also fails to recognize the conceit that a child missing the opportunity to haunt malls and basement "media rooms" in a depressive and confining teenaged funk instead of touring the world shows an appalling, to me, self-regard as to the worth of what we all laughingly call a life.

Even if bourgeois homebodies of my acquaintance aren't secret binge drinkers, they are probably drivers. People get into cars every day, perhaps even mulling over how that crazy boat restoring guy is to drag his wife and kid off to some Third World hellholes to get kidnapped, raped and killed by terrorists, and maybe not even in that order. Perhaps those same people are killed on the highway. Crazy Boat Restorer Family sails on, bereaved, occasionally becalmed, but breathing.

Clearly, many people who know boats see less risk. Many people are supportive, and it's a rare day aboard (in the parking lot until late April) that I don't get a query about our progress.  Still, it's clear that we as a society have explicitly accepted that the perceived freedom of driving on highways (or in America, to have a nearly 1:1 ratio of guns to people, I suppose) is worth the risk of owning such devices and accepting the rather immutable physics involved. The difference from accepting the same sort (if not degree) of risk in sailing is that for a car crash or a gunshot wound, there is an extensive and usually prompt response from various rescue personnel; doctors are, in fact, standing by. Throw in airbags and seatbelts, and it is much harder to die in a car than it used to be. Conversely, I suppose, speed-obsessed idiots can now go higher velocities without getting culled from, and thereby improving, the human herd. Win some...

By contrast to the ambulances and cops and Jaws of Life available to pry the doomed driver from her metal coffin, the sailor is effectively alone. Short of developing SAR-based methods of teleportation, and beyond a rather modest radius of range, there is no way to get from shore fast enough to prevent a drowning, and even reaching a boat in a timely fashion is dependent on inding and alerting nearby ships capable of diversion. As often as not, they find some debris and a small slick, and that's if the distressed vessel's crew activated some sort of floating beacon. Even today, fully equipped sailors and their modern boats can disappear without a trace, leaving nothing but informed speculation.

If this is the possibility with modern boats, imagine the risk evaluation required with a 52-year-old wooden replica built for a movie.

The end of a wooden world.
This is, or rather, was Bounty, built in 1960 for that year's remake of the famous tale of mutiny, breadfruit and alleged quarterdeck tyranny in the South Pacific. When it sank off the east coast of the U.S. in the vicinity of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it was thus three years older than Bluenose II. This is a wooden replica schooner itself so ravaged by time and the sea that it has recently been rebuilt so extensively that some question whether or not it can be considered the same vessel.

Here's the thing about tall ships, at least the ones planked in wood and sealed with caulking irons, oakum and some modern version of pitch: they take vast amounts of skilled labour, gear, constant maintenance and sacks of money to keep afloat. This is because wood was about the only option for warships much bigger than a coracle. It is not because it is a trouble-free or potentially easily compromised material, particularly given traditional construction techniques and issues inherent to using wood as a ship-building material.

While all ship-building nations knew of wood's shortcomings, it's not as if there were alternatives before technology had advanced to the point of manufacturing plate iron and steel. Building and maintaining say, a navy in light of knowing these shortcomings (including a practical limit to length and average lifespan) meant extensive assessment of risk and its mitigation through practical measures. The Royal Navy's triumphs during the Napoleonic Era, for instance, were not primarily a function of stout-hearted tars within superior ships, as the Royal Navy generally had a greater number of slower, if perhaps better-built designs, but rather of the vast network of supply and services, and a logistical committment second to none. You could have a great navy only with shipyards placed strategically to victual, repair and restock them. Some notable battles were fought with an eye to preserve RN supply lines, and less to bloody Boney's nose.

Despite all the triumphalism, the cost of having a Royal Navy both large enough, skilled enough and serviced enough to essentially blockade the rest of Europe nearly broke Britain's economy. By contrast, today's wooden ship replicas are not at risk from cannon-fire and do not feature impressed crews, but they still are vast sinks of money and sponges of skill, merely to keep them afloat.

As can be learned from Mario Vittone's excellent reportage on the professional mariner-oriented gCaptain site, perhaps the old Bounty was neither crewed to the level of seamanship required by wooden ships, or perhaps any ship; nor was it maintained or skippered in what we might evaluate as a risk-averse manner. As usual, money might end up being the issue. Even in our modern age, with (presumably) more regulatory oversight, insurance surveys and general engineering-based critical thought than was the case aboard the average Royal Navy frigate of two centuries past, it always comes down to money and the willingness to defer maintenance or use the wrong materials or hire "cheap and strong" as required. One of the key takeaways of most tall-ship operations of which I'm familiar is that new crew love the romance of big sail, but that as those experiences are comparatively rare, there is a question whether the skills such crew learn from the "tall-ship pros" are in fact the correct skills through which they can safely work the ship in all conditions.

Even though the Bounty inquest's conclusions lie in the future, much of what I've read so far reminds me of the fate of Pride of Baltimore, which I covered in my boat book blog a few years back.

We think we've learned a lot since this fed the fishes, but perhaps we haven't.

A point that Vittone, himself an experienced U.S. Coast Guard member and a clear, concise writer, made about the call of the Bounty's captain to take the ship out to sea instead of battening down in a relatively close hurricane hole, is, in the context of how we manage risk at sea, worth quoting in full.
"[The captain of Bounty] had faced down storms before and won, he had tangled with hurricanes and made it home, his experience was that if he headed into harm’s way, he would get away with it.  He had clearly confused the lack of failure with success, [my emphasis] and may have begun to truly believe his own advice."

Given my own comparatively limited time at sea, and the zero time spent on wooden ships apart from visiting the things on nice summer days, I'll risk being considered an armchair admiral when I state categorically that Bounty had no business taking a worn and ill-equipped tall ship with a green crew, dubious maintenance and no real reason to be there into the teeth of one of the largest hurricanes on record. I thought that strongly when I heard the news and saw Bounty's decks awash, but the current proceedings underline it in red streaks.

In the captain's experienced deck shoes, however, would I have done differently? I like to think so, because I feel I possess the requisite suspicious, gloom and paranoia of the undrowned skipper. I expect, if not the worst, things I haven't planned for, but for which I must, in my attempts to mitigate risk, have a response, from the level of "this chewing gum will serve until port" to "step into the raft, dear".

But I can't be sure. Like this notorious incident of a hot-shot pilot overestimating his skills and underestimating physics, a record of dodging bullets may promote an entirely illogical contempt for them, or conversely, a belief in one's own immunity from their effects. Eric Tabarly's fate comes to mind, too. Perhaps experience can breed a complacence that is dangerous, but that approaches in tiny increments.

A touch beyond the AVS, alas

Needless to say, incidents like those of Pride and Bounty (and Picton Castle and Concordia and even the race boat Wingnuts), so clearly filled with nautical and mortal consequence, focuses the mind. It should encourage a sort of heightened safety awareness, like that possessed by the manager of a fireworks factory, I suppose.

Aboard, one is surrounded by minor hazards that must be recognized and managed, and occasionally practiced for (I've changed a seacock in the's a process with almost more drama than water, and there's a fair bit of water). To lessen the risk of a single source of knowledge and skill aboard going down with injury or worse, for instance, my wife is taking a diesel repair course and I am taking a course in Marine First Aid and CPR. It's a neat reversal of our accustomed roles, as she is clearly going to be the ship's doctor, and I have grown comfortable with engine arcana. But we both feel that the mitigation of risk relies on both similar and complementary skill-sets. Anyone standing watch alone, at night, in a gale, must be able to work the boat for that watch, unless a real emergency arises. Learning how to distinguish that from something that can be safely ignored until watch-changeover, or which can be fixed sufficiently with self-adhering tape or a reef knot or two, is part of the seamanship all must possess or must be in the process of acquiring.

More complex than the average passagemaker, but the ratio of awash containers to fist-sized meteorites is probably similar.

So one of the keys to managing risk at sea is to have a proper context. A boat can be made only as safe as the habits of mind of skipper and watchstanders and crew allow. Some boats are run in a relaxed, seamless fashion...and then you see loads of labels, clearly marked stores of spares, secured stowage of tools and provisions, and you are shown the part of the log with the schematic where all the fire extinguishers are located, and the instructions for running the engine from a cold start that a second-grader could follow. Crew members will be seen testing hatch closures or walking the deck at dawn looking for pins or fasteners that have worked loose in the night. There is a culture of risk management aboard. There is seamanship.  That's how I define it, not just as the ability to splice or to do knots or flaking down lines or knowing when to reef, hand and steer. It's a bit more holistic than that, and it centers on risk reduction.

Other boats aren't obviously unsafe, but there may be seen a series of minor malfunctions, clearly past-due gear, pre-emptive jury-rigging, or just too much rust or wear for comfort. There's a lot of quite old boats still sailing on Lake Ontario, because freshwater is kind to fibreglass, but if I spot a 1970s gate valve below a boat's waterline, for instance, or single, non-stainless steel hose clamps in the head intake, I may elect not to crew with that vessel.  Sailors of even basic experience know that gate valves, particularly old, rarely worked ones, canstick and were usually made of zinc-leaching, hardware-store-grade brass. We know that non-SS clamps rust and fail and sink boats at dock (I have seen this more than once at my own YC).  It's 2013. Finding brass gate valves and hardware store single clamps on a boat has just told me that the skipper manages risk, if even consciously, in a haphazard or slack fashion, or, if I wish to be precise, in a fashion below which I care to participate. I must have a streak of bean-counter in me, or it's just an aspect of boat ownership I've developed, as pennies have had to be watched very critically.

Perhaps the finest account of red-blooded, lusty nautical book-keeping ever made

Another wrinkle is that risk management also has an element of psychology in it.  Careless or underinformed sailors fail to drown or lose their boats every day, but when they do, it is not entirely unexpected. I could supply a list of people for whom a nautical misfortune would not be an entirely unexpected event...but then why should the sea be different from the land in that respect?

And there's the secret, really: If you can recognize risk, and through forethought, preparation, maintenance and simple prudence can manage it, you are probably safer alone in the high latitudes than you are in the waters off Miami on a holiday weekend, because you aren't surrounded by people in heavy vessels who are not, or who are incapable of, managing risk.

This risk-awareness and management is clearly a process, however, and it can start as simply as the keeping of logs or checklists. I started this years back, mainly because I needed to think more schematically about what I had examined, fixed, serviced, lubed or reattached in the right order. Weirdly, the act of logging or ticking off a list means I rarely need to consult it again. I was driven to this habit, however, by early screw-ups of variable severity. I have been shy in this blog about listing most of my rookie or even hubristic and potentially fatal errors, but there have been some doozies, which I may one day be brave enough to share in the spirit of being a horrible warning. Providence preserves, however; I persist, older, with a few interesting scars, an even number of fingers,and, I hope, a touch wiser. I feel better equipped, thanks to at least a partial recognition of what I'm dealing with, to approach the challenges, both physical, mental and human, of the risky, but maybe not that risky, business of voyaging.

Arr, there be a reckoning ahead...


Boulter said...

Ah, you are such a sensible fellow, I wonder how you can stand still being on land with all the idiots.

Though annoying with all the nanny state laws the risk ignorant like to see passed, I see them (the ignorant)as a resource. Thank you to the anonymous bloke(s) who sold me 1500 shares of Methanex circa 2009 at about $8. I have enjoyed their company these years and given some of them back to your like minded buddies in the $20s a few years later. I'll likely pass the rest along when your "riskless" bonds start losing you money when interest rates rise one day and you then wish to buy (high) stocks. Actually, your bonds are probably already losing you money due to inflation and taxes and you are too stupid to know.

More seriously, there is the really unfortunate situation when we do risk so poorly as a society that we spend x dollars to save y lives, while missing the opportunity to spend x/10 dollars to save 10y lives.

The proponents of any particular policy scheme to reduce risk always trot out that you can't put a value on a life. Well, strictly speaking no you can't, but you can certainly estimate the value that the policy implies, and compare it to other implied policy values. Nope, (possibly) saving a life trumps all regardless of the opportunity cost to do better with a different policy in perhaps a completely different area. I wonder how many lives are saved with antibiotics now given to every Tom, Dick, and Harry for any possible minor risk, compared to all the lives that will be lost in the future when, if medical science doesn't pull a rabbit out of the hat, all antibiotics become useless.

Anyhow, as someone said, you can't fix stupid. So we are left with you sailing away from stupid, and my making money off stupid. Not an entirely unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Rhys said...

I don't actually own much in the way of bonds at the moment, as the provincial and utilities strips I bought in the late '80s have just about all matured at the 9-10% range, netting me, well...more sailing. One of the reasons I mentioned risk is because I've been investing for nearly 33 years, having belonged to a stock-investing club in high school. I have done well, if not rapaciously well, by studying macro trends and reducing fees. I am my own advisor, so if I wreck my investments, the twit's face is the same one I shave.

As for the saving of lives, I agree there's a tension between free will and the obvious thing, which would be universal rationing. I've read that the British, to mention one case, were never healthier than when they were eating what was good for them in the correct amounts, rather than what they felt like eating. It's probably why if you didn't get killed in WWII, you may now be enjoying your 90s, an unheard-of age in the middle of the 20th century.

In the realm of sailing is the EPIRB, a boon to the truly endangered, but also a means via which the incompetent or the merely clueless are being "saved" instead of done in, the old-fashioned way. Yes, that is a cold comment, but so is the sea. When we ask someone to climb into a helicopter for hours in a storm, and to endanger themselves with highly specialized rescues, I feel we'd better be stepping up from the boat, and not "I need a tow" or "I can't get the engine to start" or "I'm an old coastal sailor who overestimated his ability to pull off a solo ocean crossing by ten years". I won't bother listing names.

Antibiotics are another a very good example. So is the way our food is grown and distributed. As a species, we have a real knack for creating wonderful tools and methods, and then to abuse or misuse them in spectacularly wasteful or counter-productive ways.

I doubt I'll be able to sail entirely away from "stupid", as I will periodically have to get things stamped and pay bribes, but I hope to reduce my time spent with stupid, which is not often truly stupid, but merely the tragedy of habit over consideration. I don't actually hate our civilization, but I would like to experience others while they still exist.

Bill Bishop - Parmain said...

Risk is quantifiable to greater or lessor degrees, and is always associated with reward or gain. The difference between the prudent boater, and imprudent boater is in not necessarily understanding the statistics to calculate risk factors, but in understanding the cost of failure of any given task. We all do this every day. The boat is four feet from the dock. Can I make the jump? Statistically I can do it 999 times out of a thousand. My reward is I don't have to pull the boat in closer. The cost of encountering the statistical 1 in a thousand anomaly is potentially a broken something or worse. So though the risk is low, I pull the boat in closer. The reward is to small to allow the anomaly to occur. When the Bounty captain took all of those lives into the path of the hurricane, the reward was very low, and the cost of failure was exceedingly high. There was no excuse.

Rhys said...

Bill, why I very much agree with your comment, and have learned the hard way how often one can win (or lose) a thousand-to-one bet, I start to question when vast amounts of experience, as this captain had in his chosen field, act less as a means to focus on risk evaluation, and more like a set of blinders. It's like explaining the difference between "small" and "far away", I guess. Perspective seems to have been mislaid.

Although we'll never know what his logic was (maybe he was suicidal?), he must have thought he wasn't being manifestly unsafe, despite the very long list of "reasons not to take an aging prop ship into heavy weather".