Editorial August 1, 2002 Issue

Walking the Beat

I imagine it's like this with city police as they walk their beat: Check the beauty parlor window to see if Dan is hassling Doreen. See if the Thompson kids are in the alley. Touch the grip of the pistol. Listen for the poker game on the second floor of the hardware store. Note the out-of-state license at the parking meter. Adjust the squelch. Sure, the whole time you're sniffing for donuts, but your routine is what gets your job done and keeps you out of trouble.

What's true for beat cops in the city is also true for sailors. It's the habits of seamanship—the things you check constantly, or have checked constantly for so long that awareness of them is almost subconscious—that are the most important elements of a safe and happy life afloat. These habits are born of a constant, low-grade paranoia that comes from having met Murphy many times. It's not always visible to the casual observer, except maybe as a kind of restlessness.

While the casual observer may simply be enjoying the day, with the water hissing by and the sun sparkling, our closet paranoiac is quietly walking the beat—noticing the sheet tension and lead position, thinking about what ports and hatches are open, listening for sounds that are right and sounds that are wrong, watching the weather, coiling, cleaning, restowing, always planning the next move, and planning what to do if that move doesn't work out. If the engine is running, she's checking the gauges all the time, and in case a gauge is wrong, she's looking over the transom every few minutes to make sure cooling water is issuing forth. If the going is boisterous, he's lifting the bilge covers for a look once in a while, and making sure things are stowed right, so they won't come flying across the cabin. She's checking the gas valves, the head seacock. He's making sure the heavy-air jib is on top of the pile, that the boathook is lashed securely, that the Lifesling can be deployed without a snarl, that no one's sitting to leeward of the traveler car...

In the August 15th issue, a reader asks the PS Advisor a series of questions about battery charging, and I'm once again reminded of how unapproachable, if not arcane, some of the systems on boats can be. In this case it's a problem of understanding, then choosing among, a big array of smart chargers and regulators, dual-output alternators, high-output alternators, doubled alternators, battery combiners and isolators, Eliminators, smart inverters, dumb inverters, extroverted inverters, and any conceivable combination of all the above. Cripes.

Some of these pieces of gear are complex, some aren't. The real trouble is that they not only vary in use and efficiency, but overlap each other in their capabilities. The boatowner is presented too complex a mix of options, not even including how the stuff is made, mounted, and maintained. And few of those items are fixable on board.

Nigel Calder, as usual, can illuminate the field clearly, and there are specialists who will think through things with owners and install the gear. (In the PS Advisor we quote from the website of electrical systems expert Peter Kennedy, in Annapolis.)

For me, the old beat is too ingrained. I actually prefer the hassle of paying attention to the charge indicator every time I go by the panel. It's a reflex now, like glancing in the rear-view mirror. And that simple red isolator switch—I'd miss exercising it manually, even considering all the terror it caused me when I was a kid and I was threatened with summary execution if I turned it the wrong way and fried the diodes. And all those requests: "Honey, can you turn the switch to BOTH?" What would we talk about? What would become of all the ancient red-switch rituals?

As a sage whose name escapes me said, "Man makes the habits, and habits make the man." It goes double for cops and sailors.

-Doug Logan

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