Friday, February 20, 2004

Murphy's Law

by Captain Myles

Just as we were leaving Ventura to start our adventures, I discovered we had a stowaway crew member. Maybe he felt like he needed to make his presence known because KT was in no shape to be active crew (emotions had gotten the best of her.. AND her family wasn’t even at the dock to say goodbye.) The crews name is Murphy as is “Murphy’s Law”. It states, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.. now that’s not a direct quote but after years in the “real world” I couldn’t agree more. I had spent pretty much the entire year thinking about what could go wrong, checking and double checking.. (Completely anal would not be an understatement). People kept asking if I was excited, I wasn’t.. I mean I knew that there would be lots of good times, beautiful places to explore and cool people to meet. Come on.. It doesn’t take much effort to think of your ultimate tropical beach moment, maybe a nice drink, a bikini clad woman.. heck include them both. That’s the easy part …even though people who knew me at work probably still think I’ll never be able to slow down enough to enjoy it. Instead I spent my energy going back and forth through all scenarios,  what if… then...we’ll do this.. I think I scared my sister out of her mind with the stories I read about true life tragedies at sea. But I felt we were as ready as we could be.

Just as we exited the break water we ran into our first dolphin.. a VERY good sign in marine folklore… I thought this is perfect, the sun was lowering to the horizon,  it was OUR day, to let it all soak in, focus on the act of leaving and let the reality of our adventure set in. I don’t know why but I decided to check on the engine.. (anal again I guess) but there was water pouring in the packing gland.. uh oh.. I had added a new packing gland in the yard and followed the instructions to a T. It was a little hard to get everything packed in while sideways on my belly with a mirror and flashlight in my mouth manipulating two wrenches. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have the maintenance hassle of standard packing gland (slowly drips to allow the prop shaft to keep cool while not allowing the boat to flood). So I spent a small fortune on a drip less long life packing material at least 10 times as expensive as the “standard stuff’.  I let the engine run as recommended  (even a little longer).. but I guess Murphy wanted his fun too . It turns out that the material had finally seated and threw out a little excess which let the water in.. about ten minutes later (and 10,000 sweat calories) everything was fine, but our new crew member had made his presence known.

That was the first of many adventures with Murphy. On the way down the coast he decided to play around with our fishing. We only caught fish when we were busy, reefing a sail, listening to a SSB net, or doing something else that required our full attention. For some reason those “we’re too busy” fish always stayed on the hook. We’d reel them in and quickly let them go, hoping to catch another fish later, “when we had time”. The sad part is that there were many times we actually focused on fishing, and caught absolutely nothing, or something so big that it would break the lure!!  If I double checked the line and knots, the lure would break, if I checked the lure,  the line would break. Certainly not life or death excitement but it sure was frustrating.

When we were on our way to Cabo San Lucas, we hit our first lightening storm (off in the distance) KT thought I was hearing things but I knew it was there.. of course it was, Murphy had delayed the shipment of our lightening protection and we would not be able to install it until KT got back from her trip to the states.. “We won’t hit lightening by then” I thought.. “oh yeah” said Murphy. Luckily I had a backup plan (chain around the upper stays) that worked (i.e.. It kept my heart rate below 180 while the lightening flashed on the horizon all around us).

While we were in Cabo we were trying to find a spot in the deep harbor (75+ feet) where we could anchor.. It was blowing 15 knots down the beach with big powerboats all around, and a sailboat that had gone aground high on the beach. There were jet skis buzzing all around, people were falling off right in our path to a shoal area (with a nice view of the boat on the beach). We had done our circle check to make sure we had swinging room all around when the engine overheat alarm went off. We VERY quickly anchored, set the anchor and shut off the engine. Yikes. The fan belt was shattered.. Why couldn’t it have happened on the eerie glass calm night two days prior to Cabo?  Because Murphy wanted it this way. It also helped teach me a lesson..

While we were getting the boat ready, I decided to put alarms on anything and everything that could go wrong so we could tell even on a rough night with lots of background noise.. Bilge pumps got an alarm, who’s gonna hear the bilge pumps under the floor boards?  Thanks to a couple of people on the dock, I added an exhaust temperature alarm which goes off if the cooling pump gets blocked or the impellor breaks, The engine has a temp gauge AND alarm (actually two alarms). The only thing I didn’t add was the alternator low voltage alarm which signals when the alternator is not working correctly .. “like when a fan belt breaks”. I thought it’s a new belt, I need “something” to do while I’m “bored” so I’ll bring it as a project. Oops.. Guess what my newest alarm is?

The bilge pump alarm has actually saved us from a lot of damage already. Before each trip (and during long trips) I check the bilge to make sure it is empty. I know it’s a dry boat so any water there has to be coming from somewhere.. bad!! While we were anchored in Bahia de los Muertos (Bay of the Dead) we were having a VERY rare lunch out and sipping on cold beers, having a VERY small world experience (more on that later). We were all relaxed happy having met some new people getting ready for a relaxing afternoon on the boat when … beeeeeeeep beeeeeeep.. just as we were stepping on board.. huhhhh??!?

I lifted up the floorboards to find 8 inches of salt water (you have to taste it to know if it’s fresh from the tanks or salt from .. oh $#%@ we’re sinking). It turned out the salt water foot pump check valve had broken and was filling the boat as fast as possible through a ¾ inch hose.. which seems pretty quick when your out in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t consider myself a worrier but more of a thinker who thinks of options before they happen. I met Lynn and Larry Pardey (famous sailors) once and they said that you should always be thinking of escape strategies. Once it’s second nature, things start getting “luckier”. There is actually a theory specifically related to seamanship..

“Vigor’s Black Box Theory”
The basis of the theory is that there is no such thing as fortuitous luck at sea.  The reason why some boaters survive storms or have fewer accidents than others is that they earn their luck” by diligent and constant acts of seamanship. 
Aboard every boat there’s an invisible black box.  Every time a skipper takes the trouble to consult the chart, inspect the filters, go forward on a rainy night to check the running lights, or take any proper seamanlike precaution; he or she earns a point that goes into the black box. 
In times of stress, in heavy weather or other threatening circumstances where human skill and effort can accomplish no more, the points are cashed in as protection.  The skipper has no control over their withdrawal.  They withdraw themselves, as appropriate. Those skippers with no points in the box are the ones later described as “unlucky”. Those with points to spend will survive – but they must start immediately to replenish their savings, for the sea offers no credit.  
This method of “earning luck” was well known in the practice, if not in theory, to sailors in square-riggers, who were told:
               For six days thou shalt do all that thou art able;
               And on the seventh, holystone the decks and scrape the cable.

I could be the poster boy of someone who tries to earn their luck. We always walk the boat before setting sail to make sure we haven’t put the wrong sheet under the dingy tie-downs, that the interior is all tied down and ready for heavy weather etc. The times we haven’t done it are the times we’ve ended up needing too. I guess Murphy wants to keep reminding us. I actually think we have been very fortunate with very few (knock on wood) mishaps.. although I know Murphy has been spotted crewing on other boats as well.. when Sea Pilgrim NEEDS their rechargeable spot light .. the batteries go dead at that oh so critical point.. and EVERYONE knows that the minute you untie the dingy from its attachment point, the engine dies. It’s a fact of cruising life!!!

It is amazing how many people just go with it.. I’ve seen plenty of boats enter an anchorage drop their chain in a big pile and go ashore or down below.. How/why do they survive? I watched one charter boat fly through an anchorage dragging their anchor .. only to stop and say its set.. while still moving backwards at 3.5 knots. The only reason we knew what they were saying is because they were sooo close to us!! I even offered (quite politely I might add) how to check the anchor in these “strange” bottom conditions in preparation for the nightly “35” knot blow.. “What are the conditions, what’s the weather supposed to be, are we moving?” Were their questions! Did they re-set .. nope although after bout a 5 minute anchor stare fest on the bow the captain went below to enjoy a nice quiet evening.. and of course it didn’t bow!! Another multi-million dollar power boat set their anchor at least five times in 15 feet of water only to drag half way through the anchorage each time the wind hit 15 knots . When I asked if they were spending the night, they said yes.. when I let them know I thought they were dragging  they said they knew they were and that they had us on radar and were keeping an eye out.. yikes!! This was a 65 foot boat with an anchor smaller than any of the six I have on board.

I don’t know maybe this black box theory and Murphy’s law are just something I use to occupy my mind.. but it certainly keeps me from worrying too much and makes me feel that I am doing something proactive. I wouldn’t say I’m relaxed at the same level as an Olympic class athletes resting heart rate, but I figure with this relaxed lifestyle I don’t get much anaerobic exercise , so a little elevation in heart rate once in awhile is kind of like exercise.. yeah that’s it!!

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