Don’t forget those star parties in the sky

August 2004

By Dodge Morgan

I find the wonders of technology overwhelming in practice and underwhelming in concept. While I find myself failing to master the technical gear I own, I have also developed a deep distrust of technical solutions in general.

Consider my boat, Wings of Time. The number of electrical and electronic control switches festooned all over her number into the high three digits, and the alternative functions available from these controls are literally numberless. I conclude two obvious results of the awesome technological complex confronting me. One is that I will never dip below a thin surface of the vast capability offered me and two is that I am constantly fighting with repairs.

What should I be doing on board? I should be sailing and drinking (not at the same time) and sweating and laughing at simple things like myself and exulting in sunsets and empathizing with the motion of waves and delighting in the star parties of the sky.

No. Instead, I am either taking another course in remedial humility by re-discovering the depths of my technical ignorance or I am trying vainly to fix stuff.

Remedial Humility: I sense there are enough wires and terminal strips in the boat to satisfy a nuclear power plant operation. I have learned to run the powerful chart recorder machine with a total of just three operating steps but when, just for the fun of it, I punch in other functions I can get a plethora of information, like the tides in South Africa, that is hilariously useless.

I play with the buttons that control the information given on six displays of sailing instrumentation and wonder what in hell do I do with a reading for my electrical voltage or even for my velocity made good or my true wind angle or true magnetic wind angle (there is one). I look at the telltale and find what I want.

I can set up the automatic pilot to bring me automatically to a waypoint, but it cares nothing of the wind direction so that is another stupid feature. Even the CD player can confound me with a mind of its own. Putting a waypoint in one of the “simple” GPS machines takes enough keystrokes to write a novel.

Fixing Stuff: If there is one constant in my tech-sensitive sailing life, this is it. I do not like to live with devices that do not work right or at all. When you combine this character flaw with my fix-things flaws, you have a marvelous working example of emotional chaos. My only solution has been to stick with the simplest gear failures, like burned out lightbulbs and, thank the fates, these never do abate.

Experientially I am not a Luddite either. I flew fighters in the ‘50s and have started and run companies that qualify as hi-tech. But even when I was younger and more tuned to the prevailing technologies, I was suspicious of them. I read the official hype about how our all-weather fighter force could locate, track and destroy with utmost precision any incoming attackers and marveled that they were talking about me and my fellow pilots with our aircraft and weapon systems.

Once I was ordered to fire off my complete F-89 load of 104 rockets at a mountainside in Alaska. The thrust almost stopped me in mid-air, and I watched rockets tumble and skew all over the sky in front of me. So much for precision, and lift a toast for the evidence that the other side was no better. In business, I could read the technical data heralded for a competitor’s product with the firm knowledge that my company did not have to match it to beat it.

So now in my old age, I slide happily behind the helm of my 78-year-old schooner Eagle with the happy knowledge that what breaks I can repair myself with a marlinspike, duct-tape and WD-40.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86.