Rhumb Lines January 2017 Issue

Caught Between Two Homers

Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo’s report on risk management in this month’s issue sent me scouring the Internet for the origins of “risk.” Most dictionaries trace the word back to the 17th-century Italian “riscare” or “rischiare,” translated as “to run into danger.”

However, the etymology I found most fascinating came from Rolf Skjong, a Norwegian scientist and bureaucrat involved in maritime safety regulation. According to Skjong, the word comes the Greek navigation term “rhizikon, rhiz,” which means “root, stone, cut of the firm land” and was a metaphor for “difficulty to avoid at sea.”

The “root” in question is that of a lone fig tree protruding from the cliffs of Scylla, where Odysseus clung desperately until rescued by a turtle. Our hero got himself into this pickle the same way most of us do. He messed with the wrong guy (Zeus), went heavy on the wine, and let a witch (Circe) do his routing.

Circe tells him to avoid the Charybdis whirlpool by steering close to the cliffs of Scylla, where a monster dwells: “Hug Scylla’s crag . . . top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew.” Poor Odysseus, so cursed by fate, loses both ship and crew, . . . and is left clinging to his rhiz.

To be caught between Charybdis and Scylla—that pretty much sums up the plight of the cruising sailor today, particularly the one who is intent upon chipping away every risk.

From Pascal’s coin-flipping days to modern-day chaos theory, the final word on risk-taking belongs to the realm of mathematics. Quantitative risk analysis, now carried out by computer, underpins almost everything we do. The beds we sleep in, the cars we drive, the boats we sail—somewhere along the production line, a circumspect microchip has evaluated the chance of bad things coming our way.

Our fascination with reducing risk has engendered a multi-billion-dollar insurance industry and filled glass towers with bureaucrats like Skjong, who, while they appear to be squeezing the fun out of life, are pulling levers to help preserve our days. Taming risk isn’t cheap or easy. This is why the debate between industry self-regulation—widespread in the marine business—and government oversight has become so heated recently.

Virtually every organization that sets recreational boating safety standards is to some degree advised by people employed within the industry being regulated. These inside experts provide important guidance and input. Sometimes this arrangement works amazingly well; other times, you can see the feathers in the foxes’ teeth.

The marvelous thing about sailing is that no matter who’s watching over our world, no matter how many certification stamps we have on our boat and its equipment, no matter how many licensed pros have verified that our systems comply with protocols, risk is ever-present. To me, one line in Naranjo’s analysis of risk rings louder than the others. “To be completely safe under sail means the dock lines will remain fastened more often than not.”

For some of us, that element of risk is precisely what draws us to sailing. It helps confirm a belief that perhaps not every flip of the coin or roll of the dice boils down to luck and algebra. As we hand-steer in a steep following sea, or reef down in a midnight squall, the sense that we can be masters our fate is too compelling to dismiss. Sure, the witch may have steered us wrong, and Zeus may have conjured up an epic gale, but ultimately, our survival depends our own good sense to reach for that thin root.

For me, sailing is the surest evidence of free will—proof that we bear responsibility for our words and deeds. And in those instances when even our best efforts aren’t enough, we can take comfort in the words of another Homer (Simpson, of cartoon fame): “I’m a risk-taker. That’s why I have so many adventures.”

I believe he says this words just before his car plunges toward a cliff.

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