Accepting risk: For those who go to sea, it’s far better than the alternative

June, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

There has been for some time a controversy over the cost and responsibility for rescues at sea. This controversy heats up each time an ocean race is blasted by heavy weather losses and every time a single-handed circumnavigation race is held. I recently wrote an essay for “Soundings” on this subject because, I gather, of my traditional if not popular views on it.

At the core of this issue is a philosophical question: “Where does the responsibility rest when we go to sea for the hell of it?” With some government agency, club or institution? With those who designed and built the boat and the gear carried on her? With the weather forecaster? Or with the individual skipper of the boat?

Our land lives are suffocated with the concept of secondary responsibility. We blame our parents for our bad luck and our jail terms. We sue fast food restaurants for the scolding of coffee we spill on ourselves. We take legal action against school committees for our lousy grades. We pass legislation to compensate ourselves for our senile-performance on the job. We blame the bullet for the wound from a shot we triggered at someone. When we become lost, we fault the mapmaker. We look to the government for help when we addict ourselves to nicotine. We look to lawyers for money when we slip on an icy sidewalk. We assume that when something bad or uncomfortable happens to us, it should not, cannot possibly be our fault.

This is a concept that does not belong on a boat. It is a concept that leads us to sailing seminars teaching as priorities how to fire off an EPIRB, call MAYDAY in the proper style, inflate a liferaft expertly and know the most efficient manner to receive a helicopter lift at sea. Why overlook the simple idea of keeping the boat in the first place? Being offshore in a small boat may just be the last place on the planet where one can have complete independence, where individual responsibility is bottom line and the reason one goes in the first place.

I asked my grandfather one time why he never learned to swim, since he sailed small boats so much. He answered that he’d rather concentrate on keeping the boat afloat and not knowing how to swim put some extra teeth in that responsibility. He said, “The real joy in sailing is that there is real risk and that it belongs only to you.” (He also said once that water is for drinking if there is nothing better, for washing if your own smell bothers you and for staying on top of otherwise.)

The issue of who is responsible for rescues at sea is an easy one. One goes out to sea, one takes the consequences, right down to drowning; one goes to the rescue, one bears the cost. And going to the rescue of another in trouble is a hallowed part of the sea culture, one that cannot be institutionalized with governments and insurance companies without robbing the going-to-sea act itself of its most significant pleasure, that of independence, right down to the core of the word.

In the many single-handed, round-the-world races so far held, the finishers number fewer than half the starters. The problem here, other than the absurdity of making a racetrack of the ocean, is that the race itself becomes more important than the circumnavigation. Experienced and highly competent sailors tend to push the envelope in design and personal performance too far (don’t you think something is wrong with a monohull that is as stable capsized as it is upright?). And the race encourages the less experienced and competent to enter because of a presumed safety in numbers. But it has also been true that rescues have more often been accomplished by a fellow sailor than by a government entity. And I have never heard of a competitor who claimed to be going because he knew an organized rescue was available .

Being afloat is very different than being on land and it is that difference that makes it so special.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives in Portland, Maine and is setting up camp on Snow Island in Brunswick.