Editorial February 2006 Issue

The Muddy Truth

This month’s issue reminds me that even as boats and gear continue to evolve at a lightning pace, there are some things that technology just can’t fix.

For our boat review, we hop aboard a Tartan 3400 (see “Tartan Clad”), one of the most progressive production sailboats on the market today. The boat is a charmer, for sure, walking that fine line between speed and comfort as adroitly as her Sparkman & Stephens-designed predecessor did in her day. But even an epoxy-resin hull and a carbon-fiber spar can’t resolve the dilemma that has vexed sailors from Day One: Sailing, it seems, requires a bit of wind. With the help of a lightweight reacher and a feeble sea breeze, the Tartan we tested finally produced a bubbling wake, but the lesson of that glassy sea — how easily Nature’s whims foil the best laid plans — is not lost.

And when PS equips a center console test boat in the Florida Keys with the latest digital charts (see "Digital Charts"), we suddenly find ourselves with an intoxicating array of technology (power, power, POWER!) at our fingertips. So seductive is the intelligence of these blinking screens that it’s easy to believe that the reefs, and shifting sandbars of the Keys have finally met their match. This delusion dies fast. At one point during testing, when all our senses tell us we’re merrily underway mid-channel, our plotter reports that we’re plowing right through terra firma, mangrove roots and all. Whether the chart or the GPS fix was in error, is not the point. So long as the seascape continues to change, to rely on the “zoom” key in close quarters is to court peril.

Finally, when we assemble an arsenal of steel and aluminum anchors to battle pliant, seemingly harmless mud (see “Anchors for Muck for Under 200 Bucks”), we’re reminded that some bottoms just can’t be tamed. When submitted to a load of only 500 pounds, very few of our test anchors managed to hold fast. For the sailor bound for ooze-bottom Puerto Plata, in the Dominican Republic, silt-lined Benoa Harbor, in Bali, or, closer to home, one of the many soft-mud anchorages in the Chesapeake or San Francisco Bays, the test’s sticky conclusion will be of special interest.

Yes, it seems that despite all the advances of the last 100 years, we are in some ways no better off than the generations who sailed before us. We can’t still cruise on a whisper, our charts still lead us astray and even our best anchors still slip in soft mud. I suppose this should bother me, but it doesn’t. In fact, I think we’ll all sleep a little easier tonight knowing that progress hasn’t yet replaced a weather eye, good sea sense and a steady hand on the helm.

Darrell Nicholson

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