Godforsaken Sea

Just finished Derek Lundy’s Godforsaken Sea, a book about the 1996-97 Vendee Globe, a solo non-stop sailboat race from France down the west coast of Africa, around Antarctica, and back to France via the east coast of South America.  In the best case you’re by yourself for 100-150 days amongst some of the world’s roughest waters and highest winds.  In about half the cases you don’t make it back at all, leaving your capsized boat to sink while you bob about in a liferaft waiting for the Australian military to pick you up.  Gerry Roufs, a Canadian sailor in the ’96-97 race, vanished without activating his EPIRB, leaving behind a young wife and daughter.

Even if you get seasick just looking at a boat, as I do, and have never understood the attraction of “racing” along at 1/5th the speed of George H.W. Bush’s fancy powerboat, the book is interesting.  Sleep turns out to be a huge challenge for the competitors.  A properly captained boat maintains a continuous watch for (a) big waves, (b) other boats, (c) other bad stuff.  Sadly this isn’t possible with only one person on board so the next best thing is to sleep in short stretches.  It turns out the optimum rest in the minimum time for humans is achieved with 6-7 hours of sleep per day broken up into at least two periods.  Most people get their best sleep between 3 and 6 a.m. and then between 3 and 5:30 pm.  Sleeping for one long stretch every night is wasteful and may be a purely cultural phenomenon.  Note that some of the world’s most productive individuals, e.g., Winston Churchill, were known to supplement a short night’s sleep with an afternoon nap.  People in Buenos Aires must be doing this as well.

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, in Wind, Sand and Stars (a must-read, by the way), said that “the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”  As the sailing machines get more sophisticated and the world a bit smaller you’d expect sailboat races to become safer.  Boats are in constant satellite beacon, email, fax, and satphone contact with race officials and support teams back home.  If things go really badly the sailor can always activate an EPIRB and out come the Australians to pick them up.  Humans, however, apparently are able to factor in all of this new gadgets and use them to shave time off the records rather than increasing their safety.  A sailor with an EPIRB and a radar will go farther south, which shortens the distance around Antarctica but also greatly increases the probability of collision with an iceberg (maybe detected by the radar in advance) or some flat chunks of ice.  Sailors accustomed to the Australians’ heroic efforts have come to grief when they ran into trouble in Chilean waters, the Chilean Navy and Air Force being disinclined to take risks or even to initiate searches.  Lundy notes “Because the technology was there, because they could stay in contact with the world and call on its search-and-rescue resources when they needed them, the sailors did theings they might not have done if they hadn’t had the technology on board.  The reckless swings deep into the higher latitudes of the fifties, sailing fast through the drift ice, cutting the mileage to the Horn–these were all recent Southern Ocean tactics, adopted in the various BOC and Vendee Globe races.”

This human attitude is familiar.  For example, a friend is using my minivan right now back in Boston.  Someone in a big SUV ran into her little Honda Civic on the highway and then ran away.  The SUV driver was going 20 mph faster than all the other cars on a snowy miserable Boston night.  He probably felt safe with 4WD, antilock brakes, air bags, and seat belts, not to mention 5000 lbs. of extra bulk, and did things that someone in a simpler smaller car would not have done.  Insurance statistics show that antilock brakes haven’t lived up to originally high expectations for preventing accidents and saving lives.  People apparently factor the extra protection into their calculations and use it to push right back up to their previous limit for risk.  Reference:  “Condoms and seat belts: the parallels and the lessons”, Richens J, Imrie J, Copas A, Lancet. 2000 Jan 29;355(9201):400-3.

In Redefining Airmanship, a book for flying nerds, the author cites a U.S. Navy study that found that total flying experience did not reduce accident rates.  Pilots who had more than 500 hours in the same type of airplane were safer in that airplane than pilots who were new to a type of plane.  But otherwise the pilots with tremendous experience weren’t any safer than young punks.  The very experienced pilots were indeed more skilled but they used their skill to take more risks and tackle more ambitious projects, pushing right up to the point where the statistical risk they took was the same as when they’d started to fly.

Back on the theme of the Southern Ocean, it has been summarized in fewer words:

Below 40 degrees south there is no law;
below 50 degrees south there is no God.

— Old sailor’s saying

I’ll be there on Tuesday (Ushuaia, Argentina, 54 49 South latitude).

13 thoughts on “Godforsaken Sea

  1. Heinlein covers this in Tunnel_In_The_Sky; Rod Walker’s coach doesn’t want him to take a gun because he’ll feel “3 meters tall and covered with hair”; unarmed, he’ll be much more cautious.

  2. I’ve never really had much respect for people who risk their lives doing pointless things, like climbing mountains or flying hot air balloons around the world.  I can understand humanitarian workers who go to war-torn Afghanistan to rebuild the country.  I can even understand botanists who traipse through treacherous rain forests in search of new species of plants.  But sleep-deprived sailers who race through Antarctic waters, just to win a competition?  Nigga, please.

  3. I don’t need to understand the feeling to believe that some people really “need” to do these things. What really pisses me off is when people take risks like this when they have small children at home. How on earth is this being a responsible parent?!? When people depend on you for their well-being, it is not the time for death-defying.

  4. Its all about the rush, pushing it beyond yourself. Its intense, and despite what some of you may say you’ve all done it at one time or the other. Oh, you probably don’t do it now because your “worried about your kids” or being a “responsible parent.” Well shit, don’t get out of your bubble then because life is full of risks. Might as well have some fun doing what you enjoy instead of sitting there and waiting for the statistical buggyman to come kill you in your sleep. I’ll take bungy jumping off a bridge of base jumping any day.

    Though sailing through waters with icebergs, thats just…too freakin cold.

  5. Sure Chris, but would you go base jumping when you had a newborn child at home? If so, you’re a rather selfish individual…

  6. Am I in the mood to have children? Why, considering the lifestyle I enjoy, would I have children? At the same time though, I could call you a selfish individual for getting into your car and driving to work. Seems about equal risk of death in that to me jumping out of an airplane with an expert, certified instructor. Atleast I don’t have to deal with other idiots falling at 9.8M/s2

  7. Better tell people who join the military or drive cabs for a living not to reproduce. I have a feeling a lot more of them have left children father/motherless than individuals racing across the Atlantic or climbing K2.

  8. “a friend is using my minivan ” Why are you allowed to have a minivan, which is large, fuel inefficient, obstructs traffic and dramatically outweighs a honda civic, but I can’t drive an SUV?

  9. Ethicist Peter Singer makes a convincing case against owning any sort of expensive vehicle.  See his essay, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”, which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine.  Here’s an excerpt:

    In his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die, the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea.  Here’s my paraphrase of one of these examples:

    Bob is close to retirement.  He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure.  The Bugatti is his pride and joy.  In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement.  One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track.  As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track.  Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train.  He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked.  Then nobody will be killed — but the train will destroy his Bugatti.  Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch.  The child is killed.  For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

    Bob’s conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong.  Unger agrees.  But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children.  We can give to organizations like UNICEF or Oxfam America.  How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases?  (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.)  Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed.  By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old — offering safe passage through childhood’s most dangerous years.  To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers:  (800) 367-5437 for Unicef;  (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America.

    Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child’s life.  How should you judge yourself if you don’t do it?

    Full text of the essay: http://www.petersingerlinks.com/solution.htm

  10. Hi Woody,
    I’m – inter alia – a flying nerd, having been a flying instructor for more than a quarter of a century. My experience – here in Europe – is that pilots are really cautious up to about 100 hours. Then they get blase’ . The most dangerous time is around 300 hours. After 1200 hours you get cautious again. New plane types and new (weather) areas get you awake too. Even as an instructor I like to have another instructor check me out regularly, we all form bad habits.

    As a Xmas quiz at the local flying club I put 10 problems into my own plane one evening and then had club-members – one after another – do a pre-flight check for a night cross-country, reporting the problems they found. The best found 8, the average score was 5. Some pilots went home much sobered that night, I can tell you!

    Stu Savory CFII

  11. Alex, your sentiments are commendable, but have you thought about why there are so many hungry children? People who weren’t ready to be parents decided to pop out children by the half dozen. What we need is population control. That way, fewer children will be born into poverty in the first place.

  12. Woody, who are these people that you write about? Are these your friends, or you just making a strawman so that you can vent?

    Most people are by nature stay-at-home moms and dads. That’s how we ended up with billions of people on this planet, but some of us choose adventure over diapers. That doesn’t make us irresponsible. We just realize that this is a historically rare time when there are more than enough people on this planet, and there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of willing moms and dads, so the few of us who don’t want children can have our fun without jeopardizing the future of the race.

  13. Peter Unger should get outside more often, he would find that the only unmanned trains are circling Christmas trees, and horns were made for honking. He also forgot to mention that the parents of the kid playing on the train tracks were no doubt out bungee jumping or surfing! …Writing a book about where to donate your money, I didn’t see the clip about his donating the proceeds to UNICEF? Must not have sold well.

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