Experience = figuring things out x time spent

I’ve been thinking a lot about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. As I remember he says 10,000 hours devoted to a pastime is generally a mark of ability. He claims it’s sort of an experience quota that ensures that performance can be executed competently and repeatedly.

I started thinking about this when Selena emailed an oblique musing to the effect of “I hope you’re not too old to be doing this.” Meaning cruising to Alaska, round trip, nearly every summer. It’s been a while since I counted the 365 days that would pre-qualify me to work for my Captain’s license but I’m sure I’m there now. You need to be out moving on the water for at least 4 hours each of those days.  So I’ve put in my days.  There’s no way, however, I’ve spent 10,000 hours out on the water in a moving vessel, even if you count my days canoeing and leading canoe trips in the Adirondacks.

Still, Jack and I are getting closer: more competent and more confident.  We don’t stop learning when we stop moving between passages. We’re still on the water. Dropping anchor is an art born in continuous problem solving. Where do we drop? In what depth? Where are we in the tide cycle? Is it ebbing or flooding? Is this a spring tide with a 24 foot feet of water rushing in and out in a six hour period? Or is a neap tide with a mere 8, 10, or 12 foot change from high to low? And do we have the swinging room we need? Where is the wind? And where might it be in the middle of the night? Should we snug into that sweet one-boat cove? Or stay father out? The are just a few of the variables to consider. On this trip we’ve been experimenting. For instance, anchoring very close to lovely, rain-forested shores, then rowing around Aurora and the larger anchorage in the dinghy with our new handheld depth meter, and often re-anchoring to ensure a good night’s sleep.

Docking has even more variables. As we approach a dock we need to manage our speed and angle of approach in relation to the wind and the current. Currents are always current. Their direction and velocity change with tidal effects including sea level, current speed, and the effects of the contours of the sea flooring physical infrastructure such as breakwaters. Every dock is different, every dock is a challenge to be met. Some cooperate, others catch us unaware, others we understand in their complexities. Docking includes tying up. I step off at the shrouds, midline in hand to wrap under a toe rail or snag a cleat before grabbing bow and stern lines, which I’ve drawn midships. Then in response to wind and currents and to make sure we stay put, spring lines need to be placed. Lines aft spring the boat forward, forward lines spring it aft.

We still mess up quite a lot, and that’s a plus in the experience column. So is limiting damage, being open to negative consequences of the more benign variety. Little by little we’re getting a grasp on the multitude of variables that affect performance in sailing and navigation. It’s okay to repeat an action or rehearse the performance on that particular stage, under those specific conditions. Raising the anchor and doing it all over again is productive practice.

Apart from boat handling, there’s the challenge of  keeping our summer home shipshape. Problem solving and active learning continue once the vessel is secure. A ship is a body of systems that need to be monitored. Fuel, oil, transmission fluid, water with coolant. Filters for raw and bilge water need to be cleaned. Electrical inputs from solar and through alternators and draws for fridge, pumps, and lighting need to be understood, batteries checked, the location of breakers not forgotten. Do we have adequate drinking and wash water? A management plan for recycling, garbage, greywater, urine and feces produced on the ship? Ordinary housekeeping on board requires mindfulness and know how.

Step off the boat into the dinghy and there’s more to productively ponder. Which of those shellfish, seaweeds, and shore plants are edible and which might kill you? Can I explore that shoreline between those rocky islands or will a current flat me away faster than I can row against it? Bears swim; will they follow me?

Consider being tied up at dock in a northern port. What a wealth of boat forms and functions! How are these boats fitted out? What’s the rigging? Where’ve they been and where are they headed? Talk to people about the work their doing on their boats. Chat with gill netters repairing nets or longliners baiting their halibut hooks. Or if you need a break, simply put out a folding chair and sit in it. You learn at lot of stuff.

As magical as coastal cruising can be, there are very few off hours. You stay engaged, if in a progressively relaxed manner once you’ve put in some time. Sure, you need several hours of unbroken sleep at your destination. Getting to a safe and sound place calls for the skills practiced underway – predicting weather, timing currents, navigation, sailing, piloting. Coastal cruising calls for a complexity of endeavors and ceaseless figuring it out. Then, it seems to me, experience matures into competence and confidence.


Author: Carol McCreary

10 Inside Passages to Alaska. 10,000 miles. 10,000 hours on the S/V Aurora. This is the story of how Jack and I took up sailing late in life and are now finally getting the hang of it.

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