Most of the time, I just don’t know

September 2006

By Dodge Morgan

It is true that any decision is better than no decision when sailing. There is a commanding ring to phrases like “hard-a-lee,” even if one is sailing by the lee at the time, a state that confuses which side the lee really is. The art of sailing is a symphony of decisive actions, the outcome for which is far less important than the bias for action itself. There are two statements that should never be heard on a sailboat. They are, “My final decision is maybe,” and “I don’t know.” I think that sailing is the only human activity where these admonitions are always true.

In the rest of life, I am finding that the most accurate and appropriate answer to almost everything is the simple three-word sentence, “I don’t know”. I believe there is a huge hidden “I don’t know” majority of us closeted out here, including many who are terrified by the thought of actually saying those words out loud.

There is a core beauty in those words “I don’t know.” An admission of ignorance is cathartic. It is more often disarming than disabling. It puts the monkey on others’ backs. It is an effective and attractively self-effacing technique for secure bosses to delegate responsibility. It is the prevailing answer for the most brilliant amongst us because true knowledge becomes the realization of how little one really does know. This hints at the conclusion that the effort of moving away from ignorance and towards understanding is, ironically, getting farther from each place simultaneously.

“I don’t know” can have different meanings from different personalities. From the arrogant and from women in general, it can imply, “And you don’t know either.” From the distracted, it can mean, “I do not give a shit.” From the control freak, it can be a slippery way to pass the buck. From the Alzheimer’s-stricken, it is the simple truth.

The classic boat designer Murray Peterson used the phrase, “up, down or a fork in your ass” to describe indecisiveness. He noted that there is almost always one person on board who plants himself halfway up or down on the companionway, galley just below and head in the wind, an “I don’t know” indicator if ever there was one.

Murray, a man of poetic decisiveness, also liked the story of a tall ship captain hitching a ride on a coasting schooner whose captain became intimidated by deteriorating weather and kept suggesting alternative ports of refuge on the passage from Blue Hill to Boston. The passenger captain finally broke his silence with, “Be you bound there?”

The admonition somewhere in this confusion is the need for each of us to make up his or her mind. I have. “I don’t know.”

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