Never trade luck for skill

September 2005

By Dodge Morgan

I have been fascinated with the meaning of luck since an early age, when I first become aware that I was one lucky bastard. The awareness is visceral, like when one knows when the answer will be “yes” before the question is posed or when the wind is going to veer to a reach when there is no evidence to support the knowledge. I am not sure that these premonitions really do fall into the definition of luck, but am sure that they occur more often to those of us who are rewarded with the more serendipitously achieved lucky event, an event that is, simply, something very positive and helpful that lands on one as an astounding surprise.

In the Indian Ocean on American Promise, after posting a record solo time from the equator to the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, I wrote in my journal: “Luck passes to me like sand through an hourglass, made timeless because, when the top globe nears empty, I mentally flip the thing to start over. A very clever technique, don’t you think?”

With all my planning and wind and weather preparation, I still had not a clue that I could sail quickly through the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone or doldrums) fueled by small squalls, or pass through the horse latitudes on a solid reach without having to fret over the history of jettisoned animals. Clearly, luck.

At the time I fell overboard in the Southern Ocean, I first felt that my personified version of the boat was what had her see me and luff up. Later, it became more rational to rack up the rescue tactic as luck. I did, for a (lucky) change, have a lifeline on so was yanked in tow. Forty-degree water soaking through three layers of heavy clothing is breathtaking in its own unique way, and there was no way I could haul myself through the six-knot current of the boat’s way. So her stall upon a temporary wind variance saved me. Luck again.

How many dark nights have I sailed the old schooner calmly into an anchorage only to find upon daylight that I was alone and had somehow found the only break in a reef not much wider than my beam? Shortly after exhaling a quick “whew,” I would decide to rest back on the fundamental belief that the tricky reef passage happened just as it should have happened, and that, had I visibility, I probably would have not attempted an entrance at all. Luck is the better ally again.

How many times have I watched the boat achieve perfect trim by a wind change rather than by my fussing with the sheets? How many times have the seas abated just as I was ready to cook myself dinner? How many times have I dropped anchor without a chart to learn at low tide I am in the only good hole in the cove?

I do have a few ideas on the meaning and causes for luck. Luck begins with no individual favorites, leaving her immense favors strictly up to our own devices. She generally runs an equal-opportunity operation, but may bias against very bright people. Why do you think the intellectuals call her “dumb luck”? Like those unfortunate to belong to religious cults are told, when belief can’t be rationally explained, “You’ve just got to have faith.” One thing for sure, you cannot be lucky with a sour outlook.

So the luck falls to the happy-go-lucky whose mantra is, “Never trade luck for skill.”

(Personal post-script: Fellow Points East columnist Tom Snyder won the coveted “Worst Finish” award again in this year’s Snow Island Bang-and-Back Regatta. The award is not a measurement of Snyder’s Blue Moon sailing skill, but is simply that this hilariously lucky fellow is handicapped by just being fun to watch.)

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