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A Lesson on Sailing, Preparation, and Prevention.

Bernard Moitessier pictured on his boat. Photo Credit Adventure-Journal

It has been a while since my last post. I’ve recently been involved with a graduate medical education program as one of associate directors which has taken up a considerable amount of my discretionary time.

At our most recent weekly meeting we were discussing some strategies to help the residents prepare for board exams. As suggestions were being offered from those in attendance it reminded me of an article I had read by Stuart Brand called “On Maintenance.”

I won’t review the entire article here. I've provided the address below:

In brief, the story focuses on three sailors that competed in the Golden Globe race of 1968. The first sailor was well experienced and prepared to deal with whatever problems came about as he travelled around the globe. His boat was a standard wooden boat with typical canvas sails and glass hatches with standard rivets and hinges. He brought many tools and supplies on board to repair all his equipment if something broke. Throughout his 30,000 mile journey many things did break. He spent much of his time fixing one thing after another. He had to create makeshift instruments to replace broken ones. He ultimately finished the race but almost died several times in the process. Real grit, but unnecessary toil.

The second sailor really didn’t prepare at all. He was an innovator and electronics wizard. His boat was poorly prepared to sail. His supplies consisted mainly of parts to repair his radio and other electronic devices. The first few months of the race didn’t go well. He didn’t have supplies to repair his boat and was falling far behind. To repair his boat, he snuck on shore to purchase supplies which was against the rules. It wasn’t long before he figured out he wasn’t going to complete the course. He did manage to use his radio to deceive journalists in London regarding his location, suggesting he was much farther along than he actually was. Eventually, the shame of having his ruse found out and the burden of the task was too much for him to bear. He loses his mind and abandons ship. He is never seen or heard from again. A cautionary tale of blind optimism.

The third sailor spends months preparing his boat for any problems that may arise while out at sea knowing full well repairing anything in rough conditions would be very difficult. He builds his boat out if heavy weight steel. His rivets are air and watertight. He applies 7 layers of paint to his boat to prevent the steel from corroding. His equipment is easy to maintain with few complicated parts. He doesn’t have to bring a great deal of extra supplies or tools because he prepared ahead of time. His motto was “A new boat every day.” He let nothing fester. If any part started to malfunction, he fixed it right away. His boat was light, fast, and easy to maintain. Even though he started several weeks after the first sailor it was clear by those back home, he was going to win the race. However, he decides not to finish. He is enjoying his time so much he keeps sailing. Instead of going back to London, he sails to the pacific isles where there is more sun and less stress than Europe.

The first sailor was credited with winning the race despite his constant struggles and the faster sailor deciding there is a greater prize in a different direction than the finish line.

Mr. Brand concludes the article with the following.

“Knox Johnston’s approach was whatever comes “deal with it.” And he did. “Donald Crowhurst hoped for the best, and it killed him”

“Moitessier prepared for the worst, and it freed him.”

I absolutely loved this conclusion to the article. How many times growing up have we heard this lesson?

When I was finished telling the story one of the residents commented, “But Dr. Falatko, he didn’t win the race.” I replied that he had gained something much greater, his freedom.

But I really wasn’t satisfied with my response. There was something deeper embedded in that statement. What exactly was he freed from? As I thought about it more, I realized the daily maintenance of his boat and disciplined preparation “freed” him from burden of the task in front of him.

While the other sailors toiled with failing parts and sinking boats, Moitessier was enjoying himself. So much so that he continued his journey an extra 7,000 nautical miles. He realized he developed the skills necessary to sail anywhere he wanted.

My advice for preparing for board exams would be the same as the moral of the story, “A new boat every day." "Don’t let anything fester.” When you identify a gap in your knowledge write it down. Close it the next day. Then repeat the same process. Over and over build your knowledge one gap at a time until there are no holes in your boat. When you’re on your own, you’ll be ready. This is how you become a master of your craft. Slowly. Diligently. Regimented. Difficult times will always be burdensome, but the anxiety, self-doubt, and fear that comes with them will be a part of the past.

He wrote, I spend my time reading, sleeping, and eating. The good quiet life with nothing to do. When a storm came, he wasn’t worried that his boat was going to fail.”

- Bernard Moitessier

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