Editorial April 2008 Issue

Happily Aground Again

I’m not sure why this month’s Ocean Tested review of the new forward-looking sonar from Interphase Technologies, the SE-200 (page 14), gives me the creeps, but it does. The technology, which promises a digital representation of the seafloor

Sailing Sonar Tools
Photos by Andy O’Grady

ahead, is impressive, but I can’t help but feel like we’re opening Pandora’s box.

Imagine that the SE-200 always worked as its promotional literature suggests, giving us adequate time to react to underwater obstacles ahead. Should the technology become affordable and widely accepted, groundings may become so rare that the world’s bays and estuaries will be populated by sailors who’ve never been humbled by the sudden heel of their boat as it wallows onto a mudflat.

Part of what distinguishes sailors is that our affliction—this incurable addiction to wind and water—requires that we confront our own limitations. Each time we clear the bell buoy, we are embarking on an act of submission, surrendering ourselves and our good little ship to whatever the ocean might deliver.

This reality makes equipping a cruising boat a somewhat quixotic quest. We grind and sweat and gird our boats with the gear we’re convinced we need. Each item is meant to liberate us and make us self-sufficient, yet often the effect is just the opposite. When we finally do shove off, it is into a wilderness that instead of bolstering our ego, illuminates every weakness. Each step toward launch day is thus a step toward self-confidence and, paradoxically, a step toward recognition of human frailty.

So what happens when the uncertain doesn’t seem so uncertain anymore? Tools like GPS, real-time satellite weather, and the SE-200 inflate our confidence to the point where it is all too easy to believe we can outwit the elements. A dangerous smugness comes creeping into the sailor’s psyche. "What me worry?"

Sailing Sonar Tools

The SE-200 paints an underwater view of Trollfjord’s submarine “trolls” near Lofoten, Norway.
I fully appreciate devices that keep sailors safe and help reduce the risks at sea. But I also believe a harmless and truly humiliating grounding experience is essential to a sailor’s schooling. Some of the most powerful men on Earth have driven their boats onto reefs in spectacular fashion ... and the world is a better place because of it. Everyone needs a little ego check now and then. Of all the dangers that can put a ship, a planet, or a people in peril, pride is the most insidious and potent.

And this is what worries me about a device that promises to keep me off the rocks. If I never run aground, I might never recognize these deeper truths, nor learn to face my own shortcomings. A sensible dose of humility is what sets the sailor apart from the rest of humankind. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m digging through the lazarette for the $%^& kedge ... again.

Darrell Nicholson

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