Slow-tech at sea
Since early childhood I have been gripped by the sea. Being a marine biologist - a reasonable career, I felt - was also a good excuse to be on the water or under it.
By the early 1980s, another obsession was developing: what helps ensure smooth running in nature, in what we do and in what we create? That is robustness simply put. One simple ingredient is spending more time, not less, as efficiency fanatics would have us do.
In 1981, virtually becalmed for 55 days in the Indian Ocean, I certainly had time to think about robustness. I began to have serious doubts about modernity’s obsession with efficiency and high-tech, and reluctance to keep sufficient in reserve.
We were on a slow boat to China: ‘Sindbad voyagers’ on a replica of a 9th-century Arab sailing ship. In the damp and salty conditions, one by one Sohar’s few electronic gadgets failed. The aids were partly to verify the ancient navigational methods being tested.
Out on the ocean, high-tech is not necessarily best. Equally, slow-tech can be no bad thing.
A century or more back, pilot cutters ventured from sheltered waters for the open Atlantic. Their purpose: to escort incoming shipping through the hazardous shallow waters to the safety of port, winter or summer. Pilot cutters were seaworthy, reliable and fast … if it was blowing hard.
But it is not just their stout construction, or kindly sea-motion, that makes pilot cutters so safe, appealing … and robust. More subtle forces, paradoxically, also come to bear. Because of their old-fashioned features - straight stem, long keel etc. - these boats can actually steer themselves, unassisted. Without anyone stood at the helm, or an auto-pilot, they just keep sailing. These boats manage to hold their course, simply with the helm lashed; surely a worthwhile boat trait?
Modern yachts are indisputably faster and more responsive. But because of their lighter construction and flighty behaviour, they will not so easily stay on course unless, of course, steered manually or by an auto-pilot.
But that’s not all. Perhaps nothing illustrates more forcefully the remarkable ability of a vessel - especially traditional sailing craft - to chill out when confronting the stormy seas. It is a slow-tech, safety measure called ‘heaving to’, and it amounts to sailing-but-stalled.
Once in that state, with the helm lashed, a boat can be left more or less left to its own devices. (It involves having the sails on opposite sides, instead of on the same side, and with the boat lying about fifty degrees from the wind.) In one story, skipper and crew simply went below deck in their Bristol Channel pilot cutter… to play Scrabble and bide time until the weather abated.
What’s more, heaving to also has a calming effect on the sea, not just on the crew. By drifting ever so slowly, the keel actually creates its own smooth slick of water, on which the boat safely perches and bobs. Yet metres beyond, the seas boil in anger. According to US yachtsmen and writer Larry Pardy, heaving to may be the ultimate survival strategy for impending hurricane-force winds
The final twist to this tale of chilling out is that slowing down by heaving to can also allow the storm to pass by.
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