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Lessons from the Bounty — Pride

Tall_ships,_Belfast_Lough_2009_(10)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1447997As I have mentioned before, I am a new mariner.

I’m not new to the sea, however. I’ve been in and around big water my whole life. I divemastered for a living, for a while, and then taught diving after that for years. I was teaching when PADI’s slogan was that diving was “Safe, fun, and simple”. Which, it was, but on top of that, you had to remember one critical thing; the sea is older and bigger and stronger than you, always, and that “safe, fun, and simple” is predicated on a great giant layer of respect.

Or, simply put, you cannot put pride before the sea. You will lose.

Reading Mario Vittone’s dispatch from the Bounty hearings, day 5, is very, very hard. There’s a tight knot right behind my solar plexus; the spot where surivival instinct lives. Once again, I think that Vittone’s restraint in reporting is deeply admirable. I have a whole new respect for rescue swimmers in specific and the Coast Guard in general (not that I didn’t respect the heck out of them before this). It has got to be incredibly hard to suspend judgment, knowing that some mariner’s bad decisionmaking is putting you and yours in harm they didn’t need to be in. Considering how human it is to judge, the fact that these men and women go ahead and go anyway (was Eddie Aikau’s motto “Semper Paratus” too? I have to wonder) is … powerful.

Day 5 is all about preparations for what was to be Bounty’s final journey. It throws me right back into the chaos and madness of the month between when we learned we were moving to Texas, and the frantic preparations to the boat before taking an unanticipated 5,000 mile journey. I put out calls for help on every platform I have access to, and most of what I got back was a faceful of “you’ve never done this before, and you’re taking crazy risks, and you’re putting your family in danger.” I got almost nothing back in the way of actual practical help (THANK YOU beyond words to s/v Majestic and s/v Totem, who were shining and glorious exceptions to that.) I think that was mostly because I was looking online; we hadn’t been in San Diego long enough to get help there, and the marina we were in was short on actual mariners and long on dock limpets. Eventually, I was reaching out to the writers of blogs and of books, and really, to everyone and anyone, for as many inputs as I possibly could. I needed information, and I was not going to let condescension get in my way. And I got condescended to plenty: “If you have to ask that question, you aren’t ready for this trip.” And I wonder how anyone ever leaves the dock with that kind of attitude? The point of sailing is to sail, isn’t it? To cross oceans?

Jason and I adopted a prioritization that was a joke from our sailing school; the first rule of sailing is, keep the water out of the boat. You check the hull, the throughhulls, the bilge pumps, you check for leaks, you caulk everything… you keep the water out of the boat. You have power bilges (and you check them) and you have manual bilges, and you check those too, and recaulk all the fittings, and make sure everyone knows where the handles are, and where the backup spare handles are, and how to improvise a handle if necessary, plus how to rotate through pumpers should need be. You make sure you have a range of plugs and quick epoxy. We filled the bilges and emptied them a few times, just to make sure it was all working. Then, you check the seals on all the hatches, and you dog them all, and run water over them, to make sure they’re all solid.

Rule 2 is, keep the people in the boat. Lifelines, inspected. Jacklines, inspected, installed, checked, restowed. Harnesses, checked, fitted, CO2 cartridges checked, replaced if necessary, all PFDs outfitted with lights (with fresh batteries) and whistles, EPIRB registry checked, battery checked, tested, MOB plan reviewed, location of all knives and wire cutters (including the huge ones for cutting the wreckage clear from a dismasting) confirmed and checked.

Then, there’s everything else. Check the radios, make sure everyone knows how to use them. Make sure that everyone knows which channels are for what, and how to respond to a hail, and to speak properly. Make sure that everyone knows where the ditch bags are and what’s in them, and how to use them. Make sure everyone knows how to bail from the hatches if the boat flips. Make sure that everyone has a task in an emergency, and knows how to execute. Make sure there’s a solid place to deploy the liferaft from, and oh yeah, get the liferaft opened up, inspected professionally, and repacked. Check all the fire extinguishers. Check that all the tools needed for everything are where they need to be. Check that paper charts are onboard for every mile of the journey, and that everyone can at least read them. Check that everyone knows how to hail the Coast Guard or Navy in both English and Spanish. Make sure the weatherfax is working and that you’re getting signal and know what to do with the information you get. And on. And on. And on.

So if I know that, and I think that I know practically nothing about boats… how is it that none of the crew of the Bounty, a tall ship fercryingoutloud (I am in awe and fear of tall ships, and have always assumed that anyone on them is More Nautical Than Me)… how is it that they sailed into a hurricane without even testing all the bilge pumps? How could that possibly have happened? The whole time I was doing the prep on my vessel, I was picturing my babies having to jump into a heaving black sea… check everything. Then check everything again.

I have to wonder if the crew of the Bounty, faced with the same condescension as I faced, just didn’t know how to check things? Or if people assumed, as I did, that they must know already because, hey, tall ship sailor? I wonder if my overactive imagination paired with my maternal defensiveness shielded me from giving a wet slap what other people thought, to the point that I found enough answers to keep us safe?

The other thing I’m hearing and hearing and hearing again in Vittone’s report is that the crew of the Bounty somehow thought that by not using things, they would not wear out. I’d laugh, if it wasn’t entirely tragic. In six years of living aboard, I’ve learned that there’s a balance between use and overuse and maintenance and “out of sight, out of mind” on a boat. Zippers are a good example. If you don’t use a zipper fairly frequently, it will corrode or stick or get gummed up. So bags of gear, for example, need to be opened, greased, and closed again. Often. So do the zippers on foul weather gear, and boots. The outboard engine needs to be started routinely, and the gasoline changed fairly regularly. Even things you aren’t using, like the winches, need to be cleaned every six months, because the more you clean a thing, the easier the job is, and the more likely you are to catch problems before they’re problems.

You have to wonder how it is that these people were so very nautical, but so very not-salty. And I wish I could sit down with the Captain and ask him what he was thinking. But then I have to remind myself that no one will ever ask him what he was thinking again. And the knot reforms behind my solar plexus… the knot that says, it’s better to ask questions and be thought a fool, than to say nothing and then prove it. I got told I was an idiot for asking more than once. And I just kept asking until I got the answers I needed to keep that horrible picture of my kids in the sea out of my head.

Because there is no place in the sea for pride.

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