Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘True’ Vs Technology: Adrian Morgan on Sailing Gadgets

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Adrian’s Monthly column muses on sailing with a dependence on technology, versus the old and ‘true’ way… looking up out of the cockpit.

When Technology Dies

Oh the silence in the cockpit, when the bleeping ceased, as the battery died, and the instrument that once showed where I was, and how far I had to go and in what direction cut to black. I still had a compass, analogue speed, depth, or rather height, and a 150,000 chart. All now was quiet save for the rushing of the wind and a gentle creaking sound. The distracting dials and warning tone gone, a peace came over me. I realised that much of what we call essential was in fact dispensable. Could I not still find where I was, feel the strength of the wind and judge my drift or leeway with reference to land marks? Bring her safely home? Crucially, I was still in touch with the forces that dictated my progress. I could feel the rise and fall in the seat of my pants, and compensate with a slight correction of hand on stick, not tiller, for this was a glider, 9,000ft above the Moray countryside. And yet the same would be true for any yacht deprived of chartplotter and autopilot, her skipper forced to stream the Walker log and keep track of where they were by reference to an Admiralty chart, for altimeter read leadline and compass. 

In my years sailing yachts, and occasionally racing them, it was always a given that on stepping up to any strange wheel I would be warned that the wind instruments were not working, or showing apparent  angles that differed port to starboard, or that the autopilot was unreliable, and so on. Adding to the frustration any yacht owner feels when his gadgets go down is that manufacturers bring out new and ever-better bits of kit every year, it seems, with less thought about all the old bits of kit that now need new bits inside to keep them working. Could you get a NavMarine CourseMate 45 remote wind sensor, four years after it was replaced by the “new, totally upgraded CourseMate 60”? Could you heck, perhaps on eBay.

They do say that yachtsmen are fair game.  A stainless shackle for a an engineering project is £x, the same for a yacht is £x+50%. In fairness chandlers have a hard time keeping stock of the, er stock. Fellow comes in wants a 3/8 twist shackle, with captive pin. “Ah, now we’ve got a 3/8 but not twisted, sir.”  In fairness, the inability to replace a shackle on a yacht, to use a cliché, “is a First World problem”.

The Good Old Days

Lucky those who went sailing in the old days when the catalogue from Simpson Lawrence, the venerable, much missed purveyors of bronze and galvanised stuff in Glasgow, remained much the same year in year out. There was certainly a huge selection from complete fold down vanity units, with copper basin and spigot, to an assortment of anchor windlasses, porcelain and gunmetal loos, bronze hatch cover hinges, shackles etc, but all were common to pretty much every yacht in any harbour you might care to drop anchor in (no marinas then). Today you’ve a choice of hatches from twenty companies, all with their own hinges, seals and fittings.

Torn Towards Technology

Today the average yachtsman with an eye on the racing scene is torn between emulating the outrageous, French foiling mob, who flash around the world in weeks, monitoring screens, with powered winches to trim sails,  and without ever touching the tiller, as against the other lot, attempting to turn back the clock and circumnavigate with only the instruments Sir Robin would have used on his solo circumnavigation in 1968. Which way do you turn? Embrace technology for all its expensive, sometimes temperamental worth, fill your cockpit with screens and readouts, and let the autopilot do the steering, or KISS? Instinctively the owner of a classic yacht will tend towards the latter, (whilst not chucking the chartplotter out with the bathwater.)

As to seats of the pants sailing, which is essentially what happens when the screens go blank, blank or not, the best advice once given to the skipper of an America’s Cup helmsman was to keep his head out of the boat, and make only passing reference to the instruments. And it is the same advice given to pilots: keep your eyes outside the cockpit. Watch the instruments but stay in touch with the elements. Isn’t this what sailing is all about? An autopilot may be able to steer better than you, but is it having any fun?

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