Watch out when you think you know a lot

October 2008

By David Roper

I have eaten lunch in the Driftwood restaurant on Marblehead’s waterfront with the same three guys (a group known locally as “the boys“) once a week, 52 weeks a year, every year for the past decade. Over these 500-plus lunches, many conversations have been about boats, since three of us are ingrained sailors. (The fourth is polite and presumes to be interested in our marine talk; sometimes, he even asks questions to appear insightful: “Hey you guys, what’s a spritsail anyway? Does a schooner really have to have the forward mast shorter than the after one? Why have so many boats gotten so ugly?”)

One lunch a couple of months ago, it was time for me to head off cruising to Maine as usual, and sail there alone as usual. In a weaker moment, I blurted out that over the past few years I have begun to get, well, a little scared several days before departure. I expected to get clobbered by “the boys” for being a wimp, but instead I found heads nodding in understanding. The oldest of us – a former dentist, physicist, systems analyst, military think-tank specialist, wooden-boat aficionado, and friend and admirer of the late great L. Francis Herreshoff – spoke up quickly and candidly as always.

“Sure you’re scared,” he said. “Though you’re stupid overall, David, even you are starting to know enough to be aware of what can happen out there. That’s healthy. I get scared too.” The third veteran sailor in the group nodded in agreement. The nonsailor in the group, a professional silversmith, simply shrugged.

It all got me to thinking. When we start to believe we know a lot, are we, whether we know it or not, entering a danger zone where the possibility of mistakes seems somehow lessened? This, I think, may apply to all things, from cruising to neurosurgery, and has to be important, since we all make mistakes. Though I did know one person who claimed to have made no mistakes, and that was my egocentric journalism professor in college. The sign on his office door read:


The only mistake I ever made occurred once

when I thought I was wrong;

And then…

I was only mistaken.

Cruising mistakes are ongoing and, as far as I can tell, never-ending. Just in the last two trips between Maine and Marblehead, I have accumulated six more mistakes, most of which I could have predicted to have happened. So why did I make them? Good question. Perhaps, as my friend said, it’s just because I’m stupid. But I think it’s due to a false rationale that: (a) It probably won’t happen or break today; (b) It’s not supposed to get worse so it probably won’t; (c) I should get going to sea and will have time to attend to it out there later; and, the all-important one, (d) I need to get home.

Here are my six mistakes from the past two trips:

1. Believing the forecast and its maximum wind prediction. (It predicted 15 knots; it blew 30.)

2. Thinking I should get going right away and eat later, once out there. (Ever try to open a can of Dinty Moore beef stew with a rusty can-opener in five-foot seas while holding on to the wheel?)

3. Not putting the waterproof cover on the chart kit. (How could a chart possibly get soaked under the dodger anyway?)

4. Never installing that automatic bailer in the dinghy for towing in high seas or heavy rain. (Why, I’ll just climb into all 7 feet, 10 inches of it while it’s half-submerged alongside the boat in those five-foot seas and then bail it out.)

5. Never figuring out a way to secure the big bronze hawsepipe cover to prevent it being ripped off and allow heavy head seas to flood into the anchor locker. (A wave couldn’t lift that heavy thing up, could it?)

6. Thinking that last long leg would somehow be easier because it was getting into home waters. (Why should the waters I know pose a challenge… geeze, I KNOW these waters so they’ll be OK waters.)

But I think the biggest cause of mistakes comes from the simple fact we are creatures of the land and not the sea. We may always want to “get out there,” but it isn’t long before all we want to do is just “get home” to that snug harbor.

Here’s a striking example of that: Years ago four men were delivering a friend’s precious wooden schooner from south of Cape Cod to Gloucester. Though it had already been a long day when they transited the Canal, they decided to push on and sail across Massachusetts Bay rather than put in at Plymouth or Scituate and start fresh in the morning. With the darkness came heavy downpours. Visibility went to a few hundred feet at best.

It was before GPS, and they were dead reckoning, looking anxiously for the light at the end of Eastern Point at the mouth of Gloucester Harbor. Their depth sounder wasn’t functioning. Their chart was soaked and hard to read. They were all tired and hungry. Deep down, all these veterans on board knew that the prudent thing to do would have been to turn around, head out into the open ocean right behind them to a point of plenty of sea room, put two on watch, and just wait for dawn. Instead, they continued in, thinking of that snug harbor, hoping to see what they wanted to see.

Then one of them spied a high, five-second flashing red light they took to be Eastern Point Light, on the outermost point of land of the east side of Gloucester Harbor. But they were baffled when they didn’t see any of the other lights shown on the chart, including the bright flasher at the end of the Eastern Point breakwater, or the flashing buoy 500 yards to the west of it. They also expected to see the glow of lights from the city of Gloucester. The picture didn’t fit, but still they pushed on, despite running almost blind and with no depth sounder.

They continued for another long mile, seeing nothing until finally spotting a dim, green flasher ahead. They wanted to make the scenario work, and determined this must be the inner flashing green 7 noted on the chart towards the head of Gloucester harbor. Deciding to ID the buoy for sure, they turned to port and steamed towards it. Suddenly, there was the crack of timbers and crunch of keel on rock as the schooner drove high up onto the ledges of Straitsmouth Island – seven miles northeast of flashing green 7 at the easternmost point of Cape Ann. That first light they had seen – the high, five-second flashing red light – was actually the Thacher Island lighthouse.

They saw no other lighted buoys after that because there are no other lighted buoys between Thacher and Milk islands, which is where they really were. They saw no lights of the city of Gloucester because they weren’t near the city of Gloucester. And the flashing green 7 buoy they finally turned toward to ID was actually a flashing green lighthouse on the eastern tip of an uninhabited island surrounded by ledges. The schooner was kindling by dawn, but no lives were lost.

Anyway, boys, that’s why I get just a wee bit scared when I head to sea.

David Roper sails out of Marblehead, Mass.