A sailboat is a microcosm of life
We’re sailors. Sailboats have been part of our lives for decades, beginning with my husband Todd’s 17-foot sloop, the AtLast, so titled because his mother finally got her garage back when he finished building the boat in high school. Eventually we sold the small sloop when we developed competing interests such as family, and I refused to help my husband paint the wooden boat, yet again. Ever since then, we’ve had various small boats, from small catamarans, windsurfers and even a sailing canoe, to a snow-kite and an ice boat here in Anchorage. Todd built the ice boat in our garage here in Anchorage in an attempt to accommodate his need to sail in the subarctic winter–I christened it Risk for Injury, because those were the first words on page one of the design plans. The ice boat can hit speeds of up to 60 mph if unencumbered by various limits. Todd is not allowed to take the craft out alone (that’s another story). Sailing on ice in winter does not really feed our fix for sailing, and sailing in the summer up here has to compete with many other interests during a very short summer. We generally wait until we head to warmer climes to sail.
This month, we have burned through many people’s allotments of fossil fuels to come to the cruising grounds of the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) to warm up and to sail. We have done this trip many times before, typically during the off-season in the summer when we lived in Florida, in order to unplug from high-pressure jobs. But I am sensing that traditional vacations where we fly somewhere far away to go sailing may be on the way out. We have some discretionary income this year, and who knows how long it will hold its value/meaning? So this is one last fling in the BVIs, with a flotilla of two boats and thirteen sun-starved Alaskans–the winter has been grim this year in Alaska, with lots of dark but little snow.
Sailing can be a cheap vacation if we rent a boat that we share with friends while provisioning, cooking, and sailing ourselves. Americans often feel that we must buy our own things, but renting a boat for the occasional use is far cheaper than owning. We have watched many friends and family members struggle with boat ownership, and the old maxim, a boat is a hole into the water into which one pours money, is really true. Over the years, the charter boat industry has become a monopolized industry, paralleling the development in many other industries. There are fewer but larger companies to charter from. This year, during high season, the charter docks for those companies were full of boats, and it was easier to find anchorages alone. The charter industry appears to be hurting from the global economic recession.
I’m writing this post organically this time, using pen and paper, sitting with my coffee in the quiet mornings, before the trades freshen for the day in response to the heating sea and land, watching brown boobies and pelicans feed on schools of fish in quiet anchorages. My thoughts circle the idea of sailboats as a slice of life that demonstrates on the small-scale the limits of energies, materials, and wastes, the importance of teamwork, and how technology changes over time as surplus energy continues to flow.
Energy, materials, and limits on a boat
Sailboats are a microcosm, a small system that shares the same characteristics as larger, more complex systems. The most noticeable feature of a sailboat is the limit of both renewable and non-renewable energies. We cannot control the wind, but we can direct the sails to capture the renewable energies. When the wind is up, sailboats jump along wave tops, within limits. They can’t head directly into the wind–to go to windward, we have to tack, and that takes more time and effort. Sometimes we sail fast, and sometimes we sail more slowly. We wring added speed from the boat using larger sails such as genoas and spinnakers, and through the development of knowledge and skill in tuning the sails. The wind is variable but unlimited over time, with daily and seasonal pulses, and occasional larger pulses from storms. Otherwise we must fall back on the non-renewable energies of a diesel engine, which provides steady, invariable power if our technology through engines and the entire edifice of global supply continues to run. Over the long-term, our diesel fuel is limited in accessibility and control of the source, through a complex system that is dependent on marina supply, cost, political and military might of a country, global trade, and other vagaries.
Boats can be designed for efficiency and comfort or for speed, but attempts to maximize both usually fail. If our charter company rigs our boat for maximum speed with large sails and a stripped hull and ballast, then we will need more skillful crew who must scramble frequently to change and manage sails to prevent the boat from broaching or capsizing during changes in available energy due to changing weather. “During self-organization, these systems reinforce (choose) pathways with the optimum load for maximum output” (Odum, 2007, p. 38). Our charter boat in the Virgin Islands was rigged for optimum load for maximum output with inexperienced sailors, which means it was under-canvassed. With inexperienced sailors, too much rigged sail on a catamaran may result in the use of costly boat insurance and a ruined vacation.
Modern boats also have limits of materials such as water and food, and places for waste to go. If we don’t provision adequately in port, we run out of various things while under way that Americans may view as essential. Our large catamaran had two, large 125-gallon water tanks whose levels were visible. But the Water Information Program suggests that the average American uses 176 gallons of water per day, compared to 5 gallons per day for the average African family (that may be an underrepresentation of the problem of embodied water use). As Americans, we are not used to water or other restrictions. My daughter reacted to the idea of limits (especially on vacation) with an air of insult, calling me a water nazi when I suggested that perhaps we could do better on water conservation when eight of us burned through the first 125 gallons of water in 3 days. From habit, I tried to limit my own water use, and I use very little since I’m a sailor habituated to sailing on small boats with tiny supplies of water. But what I didn’t use got used instead by others without awareness of our limits and customs of heavy water use. Experience helps–any swabbie who has previously run out of water behaves differently on a boat. Having clear, visible limits also results in better awareness of inputs and outputs to a system. Our boat this time allowed us to see how fast we were using water. On earlier boats there was no water gauge, and so the gurgling, sucking noise attached to a dry water pump was a rude surprise, especially to the uninitiated.
When drinking water runs out, it is a sharp reminder that even though we are surrounded by water, fresh water is a precious commodity that we waste amazingly on land. Fortunately for us on vacation, we avoided conflict over water by paying for easily accessible refills at marinas during our gunkholing. If we were cruising sailors attempting to cross an ocean, our boat culture would have needed to evolve quickly into a much more efficient, restraint-based, cooperative culture or risk strife with threat of failure to complete our journey, or worse. That transition would have required development of rules and respect for the commons of water, food, and labor. Americans may assume that it is our manifest destiny to pump our wells dry, and then go find some more from elsewhere and use that too, since that is all that we’ve known how to do for the past 40 years in this country.
Outputs are clearly visible on a boat. Removal of a bag of trash in the dinghy to someplace on shore is a visible cost, $3 per bag. On larger boats, when there is no place to send trash away, it remains aboard somewhere, in a lazarette or locker, as a stinky reminder. If our boat is small, it may be towed aft in the dinghy if there is no room aboard, as a visible, odorous decoration following us about. In the old days, the trash went overboard, and it still does in some places and situations. But Americans on vacation in a pristine sailing ground are new to the idea that their trash and waste actually have to go somewhere. Holding tanks from the heads fill up while anchored. People are rather appalled at the holding tanks that open into the ocean after we get underway–the waste stream is a visible reminder in the azure Caribbean Sea. Trash and waste removal on a large cruise ship is a different matter–cruise ships have gotten away with dumping it overboard for many years because people do not see it and the costs are borne over the longer term by the ocean, not the vacationer–out of sight, out of mind.
As we sail about the ocean, we are by ourselves, free to sail about in many directions, with wind direction and shoals as the main limits. But when we come into a crowded harbor, suddenly there are many boats, moorings, shoals, traffic, and other complexities. A harbor is an analogy to a city. We used to sail on and off of our mooring ball or anchor, but the anchorages have become more crowded over the years. So now we must use the motor to navigate crowded harbors, especially with a large boat. Costs go up in anchorages; there are no overt costs on the open ocean. We run from storages of food, water, and batteries, and from renewable energies of sun, wind, and waves. But in city centers, we pay for a mooring ball, we go out to eat onshore, we reprovision, we pay for someone to remove trash from the boat, we might buy something to fix something on the boat, and so on. The wallet comes out, and expenses go up in city centers.
What benefit technology?
With our large, modern sailboat, we have to run the engines for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening to charge the battery bank. Over the years, the technology on sailboats has evolved to the point that the electronics and twin diesel engines on a catamaran need three batteries–one for each engine and one for the house of electronics, lights, and other technology. Electronics have expanded from a simple depth finder to sophisticated GPS, autopilot, charts, and so on. Similar to the expanded technology in cars, while the basic mode of transportation hasn’t changed in terms of sails and sheets, the accessories have expanded profusely. How much of this is necessary or desirable? I still like the organic feel to a chart spread on my knees as I (wo)man the tiller. Private cruising boats may be equipped with wind vanes or solar panels to augment battery charging, so they are less reliant on the engine. But the bulk of recharging on most vessels, even those with renewable systems, is still dependent on diesel engines. Sailors accustomed to cruising use less of everything, as they are much more attuned to their limits, in terms of inputs and outputs of food, water, and energy.
When we started sailing down here, the stove was a simple single-burner alcohol stove, the water tank was very small, and the ice box was a block of ice in an insulated box with a drain. Now we have a two-burner, gimballed propane stove, a refrigerator, and a freezer. The single toilet with no holding tank has evolved into two to four heads, all with holding tanks, hot water showers, and sinks. Extra accoutrements make sailing easy–lazy jacks on the mainsails that automatically fold and cover sails at the end of the day, electric windlasses to raise anchors, two-speed self-tailing winches, and dinghies with motors rather than oars. Because of technology, we need less skills and less strength. I can no longer slam my fingers or toes in a hatch cover, as the hatches have high-tech preventers on them. Large biminis and dodgers protect our fair skin. If we dive, we no longer have to worry about buddy breathing, as our regulators have octopus rigs and other safety features. Similar to the technology that has expanded on land, our use of technology at sea makes sailing easier and safer, but also makes us soft, less skilled and perhaps a little stupid, too. We need less physical and intellectual muscle, and fewer calluses develop.
Some things haven’t changed over the years. On a boat, paperbacks beat Kindles when inverters are scarce, and pen and ink beat the laptop for writing when exposed to spray and limited battery life. The rum is still plentiful and cheap, as long as we have provisioned enough (heaven forbid). As the trip progresses, we fall into timeless rhythms of day and night, storm and sun, gaiety and calm.
Working as a team
The human culture on a sailboat is a microcosm of life too. Traveling in a group of eight is a lesson in how teams form. Various business models exist that explain teamwork, and I am not current with the latest theories. But many of the theories describe the importance of top-down control and emphasize the importance of leadership in what gets done. In a world of gross excesses in managerial salaries, business theories that emphasize the importance of the leader rather than the entire system may also give too much credit to the role of managers in what eventually gets done. This focus on leadership may be part of a business culture whose goal is expanding bureaucracy, perpetuation and expansion of the status quo, and unfair pay scales for those at the bottom and top of the hierarchy. Spencer and Marx both suggested that the times produce the person and not the other way around. Our times have produced leaders who resemble pirates rather than effective captains of industry.
I like Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model that describes a more self-organizational model where teams develop over time within different systems at varying paces, through stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing. In this model, leaders change their styles as teams develop over time, based on the needs of people and development of the team, from telling and selling activities, to participating and delegating for high-performing teams.
Boats are notorious for requiring both teamwork and good leadership, especially when rapid decisions need to be made. During the first few days on the boat, as people find their sea-legs, everyone focuses on their own needs as they orient to the boat and begin to develop as a team. Communication is crucial here if leaders are to describe safety rules and shape functional roles for quick team development.
A group forms when there is a need–for sharing, gathering food and eating, for sailing a boat, for security, and so on. The more the need for group work, the more the need for cohesive teamwork. Groups go through an initial formative stage of introductions and getting to know each other. Teamwork develops either slowly or quickly on a boat, depending on dynamics and the need for cohesion. Rules are required on a boat that relate to conservation, since there are limits.
During the storming stage, strengths and weaknesses are revealed, conflicts are hammered out, and the group self-organizes or comes together through leadership to work on chores surrounding sailing, eating, and play. Leadership and communication can make a difference in how quickly and smoothly the process of bonding happens. If leadership is too strong, cohesion can devolve into a hierarchy dependent on tight control from the top, for better or worse. And if there are few tasks for the group to perform, groups may fall apart or never form properly for lack of need. With less tasks, such as a vacation where paid employees do the work on a cruise ship, either group cohesion never forms, or it develops through artificial means such as games from a social director who works to create an artificial sense of bonding. The best teams develop by overcoming significant challenges–smooth seas never make skillful sailors. I would add that diesel engines and twin props don’t help much in skill-building, either. The social culture of team work is part of our social DNA–without significant or challenging work to do within the system, it is hard to form bonds and to develop a sense of community.
Once groups form and storm, they norm. Culture develops on a boat as conflicts start to wane and groups develop a sense of camaraderie and social cohesion around tasks. A specific group culture may develop, with rules that fit the skills of the people involved, the tasks that need to be performed, and the level of commitment of those involved. Eventually, over time, teams become high-performing, with less direction and communication needed. Recognition of limits may become part of that culture, but only if the team is small enough and experienced enough to recognize and support values of respect for the commons.
Americans have developed a highly specialized hierarchy of labor. We are a nation of specialists accustomed to paying others instead of learning to do a lot of general tasks ourselves. Does the habit of specialization interfere with the ability to form teams? American business hierarchy has developed during a time of security and energy surplus, which allowed fossilized, complex hierarchies to form where too much emphasis was placed on leadership, and not enough on resilient teamwork from the bottom up. On a boat, when bad things happen, while strong leadership from a knowledgeable captain is helpful, a functional team that knows what to do and how to respond without direction from above is even more valuable. A team of generalists who can fluidly perform each others’ jobs if necessary adds to that resilience. What happens in a complex, rigid, specialized business hierarchy in a real crisis, I wonder? We can probably throw most of the current business theories out of the window when that happens.
Closer to nature
Since we are closer to living in nature on a boat, respect builds for the wind, the weather, and mother Ocean. Where do these islands stow their trash? How much of their water is through catchment versus aquifer? The accessible coral reefs are suffering from too much tourist love, a heating, acidifying ocean, and overfishing. The beach bar proprietors insist that the lobster are fresh and locally caught, but the lobsters, conchs, and grouper are increasingly absent from the close-in reefs and grass beds. Tarpon are prolific, perhaps in part because they are not very edible, and we see less other small reef fish. There are less birds, and very few fish pots are now found in the islands, either through regulation or scarcity of fish, as a sign of depletion.
Cultural change over time
I lived in Puerto Rico during the mid-1960s, when my father, HT Odum, was chief scientist for an Atomic Energy Commission-funded project to explore the impact of radiation on Luquillo rain forest (Lugo, 2004). I first came to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands around 1966 by ferry. The shops were quaint and local, with subsistence crafts for sale made of coconut and other plants and flowers, local seafood in the restaurants, and local village cultures concentrated round harbors and boat transport. Jets were rare, and prop planes were for the rich. Charlotte Amalie was still a relaxed, quaint tourist town with a lot of rum and t-shirt shops, friendly steel drum bands, and a lively night life. Now, St. Thomas revolves around big daily pulses of multiple, massive cruise ships, and the shops have changed from island crafts to international jewelry, perfume, and boutique culture for the very wealthy during the day, with the poor scrounging through the dumpsters at night. There’s more crime, and our proprietor warned us not to walk down certain streets unless we were in a large group. Eating out is very expensive. Each year there are more navigation lights in the harbor, more cruise ships, and more houses on the hillside. There is less music, less joy, and less room for a garden, a locally based job, or other resilient forms of living. The islanders don’t look as happy as they used to.
How big is too big when the oil becomes more valuable?
Private boat sizes in the BVIs have become bigger on average over time. We see few 20 and 30-footers these days in the cruising grounds–aspirations and the wealth-effect have increased boat charter sizes to the 40 and 50-foot size. And at Christmas, the rich descend in their 100 to 200-foot boats. People with smaller boats eye the larger boats and are envious. Older people with more access to surplus resources, symbolized in our society by money, aspire to more status, comfort, or power. Those without an electric windlass or the convenience of an extra shower on the aft deck want one, whether the additions are truly useful or not. As long as there is surplus energy fueling the bareboat charter industry, the trend is towards ever larger and more complex vessels, even though there are many advantages to smaller boats in terms of flexibility, less reliance on nonrenewable energies, and less waste of resources such as water.
How big is too big? How much of our technology becomes counter-productive if diesel fuel is not available to recharge the batteries and run the props? On our 40-foot cat, we could still sail the boat without diesel, but we would need more workers to sail on and off anchors, and to raise the anchor, for example. Old sailing vessels had many smaller sails and a very large crew to make them manageable. How big is too big, in either boats or cities?
Once the surplus energy stops, small boats may come back into fashion. What will happen to the huge cruise ships (and the ports that they frequent) as economies stutter and vacations fashioned on buying luxury stuff in air-conditioned shops falls out of favor? Can we retool those big boats into old-fashioned ocean liners used for transport, or are they too reliant on fossil fuels? The drama that resulted this week when a Carnival Cruise ship was stranded with limited water and generator power after a fire in the engine room suggests that our large cruise ships, or at least their passengers, are too reliant on electric technology and luxury. And how secure will smaller, private boats be in an ocean with more pirates and less available resources? How much complexity is too much in boats, and in society? Our freedoms are based on energy slaves, and before that, on the backs of real slaves, as Newman suggests in his song below, Sail Away. What happens when we can’t use energy slaves anymore?
How did this post get so long? I must be on island time. This may be the last time we can make this trip–in the future, flights and charters may become more expensive, or inaccessible, or dangerous. We may end our sailing days where we began, gunkholing on small boats up and down the coastline of southwest Florida, the Keys, and the Tortugas.