Philosopher of sailing

The letter below was published in Cruising magazine this month:

If it does not prompt a few cross letters from traditionalists in the next edition, I’ll be surprised, especially after the recent finish of the Golden Globe round-the-world race using sextants and traditional navigation – just as they did on the first race 50 years ago, which was won by Sir Robin Knox Johnston in Suhaili. It was also the race in which the sad figure of Donald Crowhurst cheated in desperation and then disappeared from his yacht.

A victorious Knox-Johnston 50 years ago

Electronics were banned in the anniversary race, though I did read somewhere that they all had to sneak in a satellite phone just in case.

If the old guard don’t complain about my letter, then things have changed more than I expected….


PS I know I’m more than old enough to be part of the Old Guard, but I think modern electronic navigation is wonderful, and it leaves more time for actually handling the boat.

Compasses and sextants obsolete?

  I like this passage in the latest book by Daniel C Dennett, a celebrated philosopher and writer about cognitive science who specialises in the evolution of the mind:

“Already it would be criminally negligent for me to embark with passengers on a transatlantic sailboat cruise without equipping the boat with several GPS systems. Celestial navigation by sextant, compass, chronometer, and Nautical Almanac is as quaint a vestige of obsolete competence as sharpening a scythe or driving a team of oxen. Those who delight in such skills can indulge in them, using the internet to find one another, and we celestial navigators can prudently bring our old-fashioned gear along, and practice with it, on the off chance that we will need a backup system. But we have no right to jeopardise our lives by shunning the available high-tech gadgets”.

He is giving modern navigation as an example of technologies so far superior to anything humans can do that they “usurp our authority as experts”. There are very good practical and moral reasons for giving way to them. 

Good sense, though not sure it will get into the yachtmaster syllabus.
Daniel C Dennett: From bacteria to Bach and back. Allen Lane 2017. Also the source of the quote in the previous post. He must be a sailor!