The Nature of the Contest
The scientific and religious opportunism of our age notwithstanding, it is becoming increasingly evident that there is a grand contest afoot in the universe. The contest, in short, pits the survival of enclaves of complexity (of which the species and the institution of man are supreme examples) against the rising tide of simplicity, or what scientists call increasing entropy. Now whatever else scientists disagree on, they all agree on one thing: entropy - a physical measure of disorder - is increasing in the universe. Moment by moment the universe is becoming more simple, more homogeneous, more divested of its "information content." The plague of simplicity is gaining the upper hand in the universe at large. How it is that patterns of enormous complexity - living things - have managed to survive for so long on earth continues to remain a mystery.
It should be obvious by now that this is not a "user-friendly" cosmos in which we are living. To the contrary, the material first-principle that governs it is in every respect predatory with respect to human life, human welfare, human safety and human survival. Does this universal first-principle have a name? Yes, scientists call it "Entropy Law" (the second law of thermodynamics). What does it do? Statistically, it discriminates in favor of patterns of simplicity, to the detriment of patterns of complexity. One could say that it selects patterns of simplicity for survival, while selecting patterns of complexity for extinction. Entropy Law is constantly at work, trying to reduce everything of complexity and "high information content" down to the order of pre-Big-Bang simplicity. In short, it is trying to reduce the whole lot of us back to the diminutive order of dust.
The institution of Man is quite likely the most complex pattern in the universe. The human endowment of creativity itself involves a complexity-generating process, giving rise to new forms. That is, in-form-ation. If the cosmos could be modeled after a giant computer (some scientists do model it that way), then the institution of Man would represent an isolated cluster on which dense patterns of enormously complex information have been written - and are being constantly added to. This would be fine and well if the universe was devoid of Entropy Law, for in that case human survival would not be an issue - it could be taken for granted. Unfortunately, entropy is very much the antagonist of in-form-ation. Entropy is like a "virus" that is going around trying to corrupt every scrap of in-form-ation in the cosmos.
Given that this is an "information-hostile" universe, given that the mathematical complexity (information content) of a single living cell is astronomically high, and given that the overall mathematical complexity of a single human being is of an order of magnitude that is altogether off the cosmic scale, it is not too difficult to arrive at a more universal, more scientific understanding of the meaning of "survival." Human survival is very much an issue in this universe. It cannot for one moment be taken for granted on stable land, much less be taken for granted at sea.
The human struggle to survive, to prosper, to build, to create complex wealth, to enjoy "liberty," articulates itself against the backdrop of an information-hostile cosmos such as this. Every endowment from God, every providence, every gift, every good thing that we humans deem of worth and value has an inverse relationship with Entropy Law. Everything that we hold dear is in constant jeopardy of being vandalized, corrupted and reduced by Murphy and the devil that enforces Entropy Law. Every physical aspect of human survival, including the plight of a sailor in a storm at sea, has to be understood in the greater context of a universe governed by Entropy Law, a universe in which, statistically speaking, every pattern of complexity is fugitive and outlaw.
Quantum mechanics itself shows deference to Entropy Law. Viewed individually, quantum events may give the appearance of behaving in a random and unpredictable way, but a large collection of quantum events always conforms to Entropy Law, otherwise scientists could never predict large-scale events - nor be able to design and produce such things as transistors and superconductors. All the "quantum densities," all the "gradients," all the "high points" and all the "tight knots" of universal complexity and information stand to be diluted, de-graded, ground down, unraveled and corrupted by the devil that enforces Entropy Law.
It is August 13, 1979. A fleet of glistening white yachts is headed for Fastnet Rock. Complex, composite hulls and elaborately-engineered superstructures hold their shapes against the forces of the sea. Carefully sewn sails strain in the wind, harnessing Energy. Masts and riggings have been precision-tuned like violin strings. A host of sophisticated navigation instruments place critical information before the eyes of helmsmen and navigators. Highly disciplined and resourceful human beings with diverse identities and backgrounds set their faces to do battle with the elements, with Murphy, and with the clock. You and I would associate this picture with some form of spiritual order and elevation, and we would be right. We would do well to remember, however, that the physical order of the universe is governed by Entropy Law, and Entropy Law takes a disdainful - predatory - view of such complexities. Now picture the same fleet twenty four hours later, plundered, devastated and reduced to simplicity by the sudden gale. Picture dozens of yachts that have been knocked down, capsized, rolled and dismasted. Picture torn life rafts, random debris and a few lifeless bodies floating in the water. This second picture is something that you and I would call "evil," "chaos," and "disorder." And yet, it is this second picture that Entropy Law universally discriminates in favor of. This second picture is more representative of the elemental "order" of which Entropy Law is choreographer. Indeed Murphy himself is a purveyor and practitioner of Entropy Law, always looking for ways of making complex things unravel and fall apart at sea.
Whatever Entropy Law may in reality be, Einstein himself said that it was the premier law of all the sciences. The great physicist Sir Arthur Eddington referred to it as "the supreme metaphysical law of the entire universe." The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy went so far as to say that Entropy Law determines the rise and fall of civilizations - and even the freedom or bondage of nations! No doubt the pathological influence of Entropy Law can take on myriad gross and subtle shapes here on the planet earth, from twister and tornado to crime and cancer. What we are presently concerned with, however, is the sort of shape it may assume at sea, and how we may deal with it. Know your enemy is the first rule of engagement in any sort of warfare.
In order to "survive," one must understand exactly what it is that one is trying to survive. To understand the grosser implications of Entropy Law on the planet earth is to understand the urgency in the sound of police, ambulance and fire engine sirens as they speed by. It is to understand the haste with which Coast Guard personnel run down the dock, when there is a vessel in distress. It is to understand the roar of a C-130 Hercules, taking off on a search and rescue mission. It is to understand the urgent tone in the voice of Paula Dinius during the Queen's Birthday Storm - Pan Pan! Pan Pan! Pan Pan! This is the vessel Destiny.... It is to understand the note of finality in the last broadcast of Quartermaster's skipper, Bob Rimmer - Mayday, mayday, mayday! It is to understand the heightened sense of urgency that prevailed in the Wellington Rescue Center in New Zealand, people running in and out, phones ringing, messages flashing, lights blinking, buzzers sounding, ships being re-routed, search and rescue aircraft scrambling.
The sea is a fair metaphor of the greater universe in which we live. In many respects the sailor's contest with the sea is a microcosm of the greater contest between man and the devil that enforces Entropy Law, only much more intensified. Hollywood has only recently started to exploit the drama of this ancient conflict. Epic motion pictures such as Monolith Monsters, The Thing, Terminator, Star Wars and Independence Day all pit the survival of the human race against the plague-like proliferations of some unrelenting, elemental adversary. But the whole business is very ancient. Man has always had some intuitive knowledge about the nature and scope of the mortal contest. In point of fact he has had to resort to myth and superstition to try to rationalize it in past ages.
Hollywood fantasies notwithstanding, the more rational metaphor of "man against the sea" has been a favorite topic of poets and philosophers since antiquity. The most prevalent metaphor in human literature, the sea has been seized upon by great authors like Whitman, Stevenson, Tennyson, Conrad, Longfellow and Masefield to create timeless literature that strikes an apprehensive chord in the soul of the reader. And this apprehension is most decidedly felt by those of us who venture offshore in small ships of our own. It has a way of descending on us like a cloud the moment that we begin undoing the mooring lines. It stems from a deep-down - intuitive - knowledge that the sea is an indifferent medium on which energy flows from high to low potential without any regard for the sanctity of our lives, that she has no respect for us, that she has been consuming the souls of sailors since antiquity, and that, like Hades, her appetite can never be satisfied.
Spiritual Components of Survival
In a universe such as this, the free and independent mobility of man under mast and canvas is nothing short of inspirational. Sailing across an ocean is much more than a pastime. It is a superlative affirmation of human liberty - a celebration of the freedom that God bestows on living things and on man, in spite of the ironclad imperative of Entropy Law. Albatross express that freedom on the wing; whales and dolphins on the fin. Poets express it by pen and verse; ballerinas in dance; athletes in Olympic competition; Benny Goodman expressed it with his clarinet; Anne-Sophie Mutter with her violin. What artists express and celebrate with brush and canvas, we sailors express and celebrate with mast and canvas. And what a grand celebration it can be at times. In the words of Joseph Conrad (speaking about the beauty of sail):
The setting of their sails resembles more than anything else the unfolding of a bird's wings; the facility of their evolutions is a pleasure to the eye. They are birds of the sea, whose swimming is like flying. In charge of a capable man, the cutter seems to handle herself as if endowed with the power of reason and gift of execution. One laughs with sheer pleasure at a smart piece of maneuvering, as at a living creature's quick wit and graceful precision.
(The Mirror of the Sea, 1906)
And yet, at sea man is always at war with the elements. Why is this so? Why couldn't it be "fair winds and following seas" all the time? Perhaps it is so because God structured the universe in such a way that it would afford "challenge," "risk," "enterprise," "courage," and ultimately, "liberty" itself. Certainly, and as the scientist Stephen Hawking points out in A Brief History Of Time, an omnipotent Creator could have structured the universe any number of other ways. He could have created a bland and easy cosmos where entropy might have increased at a much slower rate, in which case spring might have been eternal, you and I might have lived to the ripe old age of five hundred, and maximum sustained winds in the worst storms at sea might have amounted to twenty-five knots! A Cosmos-Designer could in fact have created the universe a proverbial "Disneyland," if you will, for the benefit of the faint-hearted and the spiritually anemic. And yet He seems to have chosen otherwise. He has seen fit to custom-design the universe exactly the way that it is, perhaps to give purpose, meaning and value to the struggle of the sailor laboring against the gale.
Putting out to sea is not the same thing as going to Disneyland. Disneyland is easy but it is also unreal. Crossing an ocean, on the other hand, is very real. Very real indeed, and not something to be trifled with. As the last paragraph of the official inquiry on the Fastnet tragedy of 1979 reminds us, "In the 1979 race the sea showed that it can be a deadly enemy, and that those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in the full knowledge that they may encounter dangers of the highest order." On land we humans may be able to build the bulwarks of industrial and technological complexity that shield us from elemental forces. When we put to sea in a little sailboat, however, we come face to face with those forces. In the words of the great seafarer Carleton Mitchell, "Every small vessel that ventures offshore is a lonely entity, face to face with the most elemental force on planet earth." Ultimately, out at sea our only practical bulwark and defense may end up being the discipline that we call seamanship.
There is something very ancient and inspiring about the image of a lonely sailboat struggling against the sea. Perhaps this is because such an image is evocative of the jagged edge of Man, rising up in a cosmos that is being ground down to curvature, smoothness, compromise and homogeneity by Entropy Law. From time to time we have to remind ourselves that this jagged edge has spiritual foundations, and that it can only be borne up by strong spiritual sinews. It takes spiritual strength to keep that edge well-honed. The human ability to "stand up," in a cosmos in which every material gradient will eventually "fall down," is rooted in spiritual strength. If we are to survive, the greater part of our struggle must be fought with spiritual weapons. Upwards of ninety percent of the struggle of a sailor in survival situations may be a spiritual one. Material trust alone - reliance on gadgets and things - is no substitute for the potent weapon of the human spirit itself. In the words of John Rousmaniere, "The human spirit, no matter how it is manifested, is the best survival tool there is." This is so because the ironclad imperative of Entropy Law can only rule over the material things of the universe. It cannot rule over the non-material spirit of man. So, in taking proper inventory of all the components that contribute to safety and survival at sea, we would do well to put the spiritual component at the very top of the list. Indeed, if any form of human struggle is to be successful, it must of necessity exploit the weapon against which the devil and Murphy are powerless, and that is the spiritual weapon. This statement does not admit of religious rigmarole or superstition. It just means that a strong, determined, enterprising spirit is to be most valued at sea.
Weapons of Spirit and Mind
Resolve and discipline, determination and obstinate endurance of will, a confident sense of humor, the refusal to give in to despair, the resilience to adapt to changing circumstances, the spiritual strength to persevere and prevail come what may - these are priceless commodities when the wind rises to Force 10. Unfortunately they cannot be packaged and bought over the counter. They have to be acquired in different ways.
Two illustrations. A yacht sinks and a young couple end up adrift in a life raft. Three weeks later the girl - a ninety pound weakling - is still alive, but her musclebound boyfriend is dead. What was the crucial variable? A fishing boat sinks off the coast of South America and the crew piles into two lifeboats. A spirited individual with leadership qualities takes charge of the first lifeboat. He is relentless. He is a reservoir of encouragement and hope. He sustains morale. He keeps goading, provoking and forcing his comrades to hang on for one more hour, one more day, one more week. The second lifeboat has no leader, no hope and no purpose. A month later the Chilean Navy finds the two lifeboats. All are still alive on the first one. All have long since died on the second. What was the crucial variable?
Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force survival experts all agree that there is no underestimating the role that spirit, mind and attitude play in survival situations. "Attitude is the main thing," said Mike Munroe, who survived the 165-knot winds of Hurricane Allen (1980) in a Givens life raft. While rescuers have marveled at the tenacity demonstrated by some survivors, they have also been perplexed and disturbed by those who seem to give up with little struggle, evidently the sheer will to survive having been the crucial determining factor between life and death itself. "It is a very hard thing to define, the will to survive," said retired Coast Guard search and rescue chief, John Waters (March 1988 issue of Soundings). The will to survive is born out of the quality of the human spirit itself. In an age in which sustenance for the soul has been reduced to junk food, the quality of the human spirit that can do hand-to-hand combat with the sea is difficult to come by. Some of us have been brought up on the empty husks of materialism and are, in certain respects, handicapped at sea. This is exactly the sort of handicap that the sea will exploit to the limit.
One does not tend to worry so much about the older, wiser generation. Rather one tends to worry about "generation X" out there, many of whom are now buying sailboats and nonchalantly putting out to sea as though they were off to Disneyland. Fortunately the desired quality of the human spirit is quite contagious. It can be transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact, it can be literally transmitted across the airwaves. In true survival situations, when a vessel is in distress and life's precious balm is hemorrhaging by the minute, there is a vast reservoir of spiritual strength, hope and confidence in the sound of another voice. Indeed sometimes the mere sound of a human voice, crackling over the radio, is enough to tip the balances in favor of survival. No doubt Jon and Maureen Cullen of New Zealand's Kerikeri Radio have saved many lives in this way. In the words of Jon himself, "You have to talk them through a problem, and convince them that they can do it.... They will all survive, if they have a will to live, and get confidence."
A reference, to illustrate the value of human communication in genuine survival situations, might be made to the plight of the yacht Destiny in the Queen's Birthday Storm. Recall that when Destiny fell off that 80-ft. wave Dana Dinius was injured and totally incapacitated. It then fell on Paula Dinius to take charge of the situation. Fortunately Paula did possess the spiritual qualities that we are referring to. Notwithstanding, her resolve and determination were reinforced by the crew of the Orion circling overhead. In the night when monstrous waves were using Destiny's broken mast as a battering ram against her hull, in the dark hours in which Paula and Dana were descending into the valley of the shadow of death, it was the voice of the pilot and crew of that Orion that kept goading them on. You will recall also that when the Wellington Rescue Center advised the pilot of that Orion to leave the scene and attend to a matter elsewhere the pilot refused, sensing that the situation was touch and go down below.
In survival situations those who are isolated are in graver risk than those who have some way of communicating with other human beings. This is where complex human technology can now keep the devil at bay. It all began with VHF which was useful, but had a very limited range. Single sideband pushed back the envelope. Then came Inmarsat. The advent of the global cell phone is about to close the gap of human communication at sea. The "isolation factor" can now be taken out of the formula of survival. No one is saying that black boxes should be made a substitute for other things, or that they should be used as crutches out at sea. Notwithstanding, black boxes are products of human creativity and ingenuity. They do belong in our human arsenal of warfare.
At the very least do not put out to sea without a 406 Megahertz EPIRB. Make certain it is properly registered before you set out. If you go missing out there, loved ones will send the whole world out to look for you. If it is known that there is an EPIRB on board the task becomes infinitely easier. If not, then the search and rescue operation may very well turn out to be a dangerous and costly exercise in futility. Millions of taxpayer dollars may end up having to be spent and hundreds of search and rescue personnel may have to risk their own lives in a wasted effort to comb vast stretches of otherwise empty ocean, in the vain hope of accidentally sighting the hull of your boat. Taking along an EPIRB is not an indication of spiritual weakness. Machismo has nothing to do with it. The forces that generate storms at sea are elemental in nature - they originate within the corona of the sun. At times man is no match for such forces. Let us remind ourselves of the words of the great seafarer Hillaire Belloc, "The sea drives truth into a man like salt." Presumably he meant there are times when the best of seamen can do little or nothing to help themselves. Even so, at such critical times all seamen can do a great deal to help those who are risking life and limb to rescue them. The responsible seaman will do everything in his or her power to facilitate his or her own rescue, should that rescue become necessary. This means having an operational EPIRB on board, preferably one with a GPS module included.
Hurricanes and typhoons have been known to sink battleships and destroyers. Again, we humans are no match for such forces. On the right boat, with the proper tools, proper skills - and a great deal of luck - it may be possible to push back the envelope of survival from sixty knots of sustained wind to eighty, and possibly even a hundred. Clearly, however, there is a certain point beyond which the statistical probability of survival drops off sharply. What then is the wisest course of action? What is a sailor's axiom of first principle? It is, and has always been avoid bad weather if you can. This means choosing your seasons and your routes carefully. Remember the old adage that has saved so many lives at sea? Here it is again: NEVER PUT OUT TO SEA ACCORDING TO CLOCK OR CALENDER. Wait for a weather window. Ask for knowledgeable advice and heed it when it is given. In this connection there are a number of professional and amateur route forecasters around the world. Get to know them and avail yourself of their services. Foremost among the professionals is the renowned Bob Rice. For a reasonable fee Bob Rice Weather Window, Inc. will do a professional job of route forecasting for you. Some of the others, among them Canadian Herb Hilgenburg (sadly, now retired), will do it for free, though you may have to wait your turn to talk to them on the radio. These route forecasters know their trade, and their tools are improving all the time. Most have access to the same high resolution satellite data and basic NOAA models. All have intimate knowledge of most of the wind and weather patterns of the planet earth, and some use sophisticated software to make educated guesses about the unknown. They can deliver a constantly updated weather prospectus, "site-specific forecast" and/or weather maps to your sailboat via SSB, Inmarsat or global cell phone. Yes, you will need more complex black boxes. And yes, the devil and Murphy will do their best to make them fall apart at sea. But some of our black boxes are very reliable now - reliable enough to give Murphy and the devil fits.
While the 4-5 day forecast remains somewhat elusive at the present time, the record is fairly good when it comes to 48-72 hour predictions, and that record is getting better all the time. Forty eight hours of advance warning can translate into some useful - site-specific - advice at sea. Advice such as the following (stated hypothetically): "The low pressure system that you are in is moving at twenty knots. If you stay put you should be out of the circle of 50-knot winds within twenty four hours. If you run with it, you can expect to be in 50-knot winds for three more days...." Or conversely: "The tropical depression to the north of you is stalled and strengthening. If you can sail a hundred miles south in the next twenty four hours, you should be in a safer position."
Sometimes a distance of a hundred miles may mean the difference between seventy or fifty knots of sustained wind. Route forecasters are providing this sort of invaluable advice to vessels at sea daily. Even when the weather is routine and boring they can impart rhythm, structure and order to long ocean passages. Quite often the radio call becomes the high point of the day on such passages, relieving the tension of vertigo and isolation. And if the yacht does actually run into heavy weather (sometimes unavoidable) some route forecasters can play the part of "mission control," as did Jon and Maureen Cullen in the Queen's Birthday Storm. You will find a list of route forecasters in Appendix II at the end of this publication.
Tools of Knowledge
It takes an uncommon and enterprising sort of individual to put out to sea, fully prepared to deal with any eventuality out there. Happily the sailing community is full of such individuals. On the other hand it takes a reckless fool to put out to sea ill prepared and ill equipped, under the pretext that "there is someone up there watching over me." While a statement such as this may in fact be true, it is also presumptuous to ask someone up there to do for you what you are perfectly capable of doing for yourself. At the very least do not put out to sea without a thorough understanding of the disciplines of seamanship. While there are no government regulations preventing you from doing so, there are nevertheless some responsible steps that you must voluntarily take before putting out to sea. Foremost among them is some serious "reading up" on some of the literature that has been written on the subject of heavy weather tactics. You will find a list of such books in Appendix I at the back of this publication.
If you have never done any sailing before, take the course in boating safety offered by the Coast Guard. Try to take other courses in sailing and seamanship if you can - there are a number of schools and academies that offer them around the world. Cruising World, Sail and other boating organizations offer seminars on seamanship. Try to attend one. Unfortunately there are very few hands-on courses offered on storm tactics at the present time. This is probably because heavy weather conditions can't be duplicated in a controlled environment - there are no "safe storms" to go out and practice in. Apart from going out on windy days and trying to hone your skills in realistic conditions, the next best thing is to study up on the lessons learned by those who have run into storms at sea. The greater portion of this publication deals with such "case histories." Study them well. The files in this book may very well end up being the only "crash course" you take before you put out to sea in a vessel of your own.
Think of this book as your stint in boot camp. Within its pages you will be forced through the gauntlet of gales. You will be battered by storm waves. You will be deafened by the shriek of the wind. You will be ridiculed, put down, compromised, brow-beaten and violated by the elements, but you will have to pick yourself up and carry on. You will learn how to deploy and retrieve state of the art heavy weather weapons. You will learn how to do hand-to-hand combat with the devil and Murphy alike. You will broach. You will get knocked down. You will capsize. You will pitchpole. You will fall overboard. You will face hypothermia and nearly drown. You will watch in anguish as your new sails are reduced to ribbons before your eyes. You will lose expensive gear due to chafe. You will learn how to crawl through barbed wire on your belly, the sea exploding all around. You will find yourself sliding about on the forepeak on a dark night, white-knuckled and knees bleeding, trying to unravel a mess of lines as cold waves wash over you.
All this you will do, and more, vicariously, in the pages of this book. And when you have finished reading your mind will be better prepared for combat. When the sea throws down the gauntlet, when the forecast is Force 10 Imminent, it will not come as a shock and a surprise to you. It will be as if you have been through all of it before. You will remember your harsh training in boot camp and start doing things "by the numbers." You will sound "battle stations," size up the enemy, assess your options, decide on a course of action, and act on it with all the resolve you can muster. More you cannot do.