Nautical math, and the infernal roll

Some of life’s more vexing issues, it turns out, can be solved by putting to sea aboard a small boat. Photo by Christopher Birch

May, 2021

By Christopher Birch
For Points East

I find it odd how the math crowd refuses to entertain the idea of dividing by zero. Mathematics is the last place I would expect to find such a defeatist attitude. They say it can’t be done, but there must be a way.

These are the sorts of things that I think about when unable to sleep in a rolly anchorage: There must be a way to divide by zero. And, there must be a way to stop the boat from rolling. We just need to work on these problems a little harder.

The roll always seems to start in the middle of the night. The current switches or the wind changes, and what was a tranquil millpond at sunset slowly morphs into a churning cauldron at midnight.

Enduring the roll is my first plan. If I could quiet that manual bilge pump handle rolling back and forth in the winch handle bin, surely I’d be able to fall back asleep. Nope. Maybe if I had six more elbows, or a way to fire my anti-log-roll muscles in my sleep, I could get some rest. But in my current bodily configuration I’m stuck wide awake doing core exercises when I’m meant to be sleeping.

A string of bad options cross my mind. I could try some sort of scheme with a stern anchor. That sounds exhausting, and probably wouldn’t do much good. I could move to a better anchorage. But where? Every good spot is more than 10 miles away. I could sleep on the cabin sole wedged between a sail bag and the foot of the mast. The hard truth there is that wet sail bags and cold aluminum spars make for bad sleeping companions. Crew morale must have been pretty low out there on the ship clogging the Suez Canal, the M/V Ever Given. It’s worth pointing out that at least they weren’t rolling during their pit stop in Egypt.

Eventually the motion gets me to the final stage of grief: Math. Those waves rolling the boat are overflowing with math. I remember that much from school. The solution for beating them has to be math-based. Calculus, perhaps? Or physics? Anyway, I’ve yet to rule out the possibility that the solution has something to do with dividing by zero.

Let’s try a word problem. There are six bilge pumps on the shelf in the store. You don’t divide them by anything. How many bilge pumps now sit on the shelf in the store? Ah . . . six? A mathematician would state that the answer is “undefined.” Yet I’m standing here looking at the six pumps on the shelf, clear as a Gulf of Maine sunrise. Final score: Reality-1, Math-0. Turns out this whole dividing by zero thing might not be so hard after all!

As a people, we can do better. We needn’t roll when we’re trying to sleep. Instead of yammering on about the challenges posed by multiplying the reciprocal and the resulting inability to satiate the wants of the outdated proof, we should find a new proof that works.

The catamaran people will tell you they have it all figured out. Well, I’ve lain my head on that pillow once or twice and I’m here to tell you they don’t. You never have any idea which of the four ends of one of those cats is going to find its buoyancy mojo next and deliver an unexpected jolt. I’ve got that math figured out. It’s called random number theory. This sort of surprise attack from an unknown corner is one of the few things less conducive to sleep than incessant roll.

I’m aware of gyro-stabilization. I also know there is nowhere near enough room in the budget, or the boat, for one of those machines. Besides, running a generator all night to power such a contraption won’t be good for my sleep or my neighbor’s sleep, either. I’m thinking of something simpler. Like dividing by zero.

More nautical math: If the captain of the Ever Given is never given a new job, how many rolly anchorages will he find himself in next year? Not such impossible math, really.

Recently I finally put two and two together and figured it all out. The answer is a quantum sort of thing that involves time travel. Foundational math texts, known as counting books, were hiding the answer in plain sight for any child to easily find. One white sail on the clear blue sea, undivided, is happily still one white sail on the clear blue sea. Beating the roll and dividing by zero are both accomplished by simply pulling up anchor and sailing off into the dawn.

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years. He is also, apparently, on the path to becoming a bodhisattva.