Editor’s note: Blame Games

From the May 2013 issue

One reason I like sailing is that it is one of the few endeavors in which the concept of individual responsibility still has meaning. It is much easier to blame someone or something else for the consequences of your decisions than to admit any fault on your own part—it goes back as far as Eve and the serpent—but on a small boat you soon run out of things to point your finger at.


I’m reminded of this every time I do something dumb on board. One fringe benefit of experience is that the magnitude of your mistakes tends to decrease; where once your errors may have resulted in sinking, dismemberment or drowning, their effects now usually range from slightly painful to rather humiliating and, often, moderately expensive.


There was the time an unsecured gallon of diesel toppled over in the cockpit locker during a particularly exuberant daysail and half of it glugged into the bilge. It wasn’t my fault, of course. That wind hadn’t been forecast at all. Damned NOAA.


There was the episode with the angle grinder, when I was trying to grind off the remnants of an old depth sounder housing glassed onto the hull. Who could have predicted the grinder would twist in my hand and cut through the cable for the new depth sounder? Poor design, obviously. Must send a stiff letter to Makita.


I’m trying to forget falling overboard one sunny day on the mooring while threading a new lifeline through a stanchion. It was that powerboat wake’s fault for making me overbalance; no one could have predicted that. Nor could they have predicted that unwired shackle pin falling out, with the result that the mainsheet came away from the boom in the middle of the night.  


I have other such stories, as no doubt do most boatowners. No matter how smart or careful you are, sooner or later you’ll do something dumb, and even though there will always be the temptation to blame something or someone else, you’ll know that you, yourself, were at fault.


When you’re in charge of a small boat on a big piece of water you know that just about every decision you make has a consequence whose effects will be felt—if not immediately, then in hours or days. Most of the dozens of small decisions we make each day in our landlubber lives have little or no meaning; fish or fowl for dinner, go to the gym in the morning or after work, mow the lawn or play golf instead.


It’s different on a sailboat. Small mistakes can lead to big ones more quickly than you think. I was once almost decapitated in a crash gybe in 20 knots of wind—was it the fault of the novice on the wheel, the kayaker he was trying to avoid, or the skipper—that would be me—who had given a greenhorn more responsibility than he was ready for?


Every mistake is a lesson learned, as long as you take ownership of it. Tell yourself that next time you forget to unplug the shorepower cord before powering out of your slip. You’ll feel better. Maybe. 

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