The downsides of technology

September 2009

By Dodge Morgan

Have you noticed how mankind keeps inventing marvelous solutions to problems some of us have, sometimes only to create new problems worse than those we sought to solve?

A D10 Cat can clear-cut a forest in one day that it would take a tribe of ax-toting Indians a lifetime to drop. A GPS-fed chart recorder can entertain the sailor totally away from seeing the wave action he is in. A 600-foot oil tanker can fuel a power plant for months and leak devastation to hundreds of miles of shoreline. A carbon-fiber spar can reduce weight aloft, which creates a motion in wave chop that will jerk the jam off a cracker. A fund based on financial derivatives can tactically enrich investors and help create the bubble that brings down the world economy.

Electric winches can trim sheets like magic and with an ease that rips the clew right out of a headsail. A computer chip that can store all the information in the Library of Congress can remember nothing anyone actually wants to know. An outfit of sailing gloves, $400 sneakers, shorts with leather fanny grips, and sunglasses can create a highly photogenic image to enhance the wearer’s ego and insulate him from any real feel of his environment.

A cell phone and Wi-Fi can put us in instant contact with the world and then, when missing, can turn a person into a paranoid. A boat constructed of epoxy greatly reduces maintenance time required and lasts almost forever as junk somewhere. A nuclear weapon that ends a horrible war can place the world on the lip of extinction. An onboard sound system can deliver sweet jazz at anchor and obliterate the call of a loon.

This dark side of progress shadows us everywhere, and the less we understand it, the more obvious it becomes. Ignorance is my special skill, so naturally I have a solution. And here it is:

Imbue yourself with the attitude and the mindset of a luddite and seek the friendship of a classical, wood-built sailboat. I mean a boat like my old Eagle, now 82 and my friend for 41 years. She is an easily managed 30 feet long on deck and five feet deep. Instead of turnbuckles to tense the rigging, she has deadeyes and lanyards and rigging that is right when the lee shrouds flop. Her four-sided sails capture a sail area that is low and forgiving to heavy winds, and the gaffs help when lowering sails.

She may be a mini-double-hernia rig, but her running rigging is block-and-tackle powered. She uses a half-hour to get sails up and under way, resulting in a satisfaction that such an event has become earned. Her only electrical gear is a depth-sounder, a bilge pump, two light bulbs, and an engine starter. Her engine is relatively young at 20 years, a three-cylinder diesel banger, her one curtsy to technological advance. She keeps food cold in an insulated box and cooks it on alcohol flame.

She leaks enough to keep her bilges sweet, but not so much as to require sleeping with a hand flopped onto the cabin soul. She has eight halyards and six sheets, delivering enough trimming options to consume all one’s time while sailing, yet assuring she will never be totally trimmed right, a perfectionist’s nightmare but a devil-may-care slob’s delight.

When a sail is over and the kedge is set, the stops are bowed up, and her sailors have popped a beer, she becomes the cove show-off gal, a role she well earns. All of life should be as simple and as demanding as an old schooner. And all of us should be dumb enough to know it.

Dodge Morgan and Eagle hang out at Snow Island, Maine, a couple of miles northwest of Cundy’s Harbor as the eagle flies.