~ Archive for December 16, 2003 ~

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).

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