Know-how - Defeating Murphy’s Law

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This is an interesting topic after last month’s piece on the essentials of seamanship, because the purpose of seamanship is to minimize the effects of Murphy’s law.

As I understand it, the principles of Murphy’s law are:

1. Mother Nature can be a bitch and often works hand-in-glove with Murphy.

2. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

3. When something goes wrong, it will occur at the worst possible time.

4. If the solution to a problem is mechanical, electrical or is otherwise easily fixable, the tools or materials required will be unavailable.

5. The more serious the problem, the more difficult it will be to gain access.

6. If there is more than one way to do something, and one of those ways will result in disaster, someone will do it that way.

7. Things will go wrong in any given situation if you give them a chance.

8. The one thing you overlooked or left behind is the one thing that will become most critical.

9. Murphy was an optimist.

10. Mother Nature can be a … you get the picture.

On the other hand, perhaps we should attribute this apparent perversity of nature to our own ignorance, carelessness or stupidity. When I was in the service I was indoctrinated in the concept that accidents were rare; examine the problem and you will find a cause — usually human error. Nevertheless let’s look at some examples of Murphy’s law, with an eye toward the above principles.

• A friend purchased a new 47- or 48-foot powerboat. Since it was new, he didn’t feel the need to have it surveyed. Within months he noticed small cracks appearing in the hull and boarding platform. Apparently the laying up of the hull had been interrupted during manufacture and was later continued without adequately preparing the hull for a good secondary bond. The two lay-ups were moving slightly, causing the cracks. (See No. 6 above.)

• A new powerboat had a faint odor of sewage in its beautifully designed master stateroom. When the master stateroom was installed it was set atop a kinked discharge line. (Again, see No. 6.)

• A sailboat sank after rising water in the bilge shorted out the batteries. The float switch for the relatively large-capacity single pump had been moved higher in the bilge to eliminate the noise of it cycling on and off too frequently. There was no adequate manually operated pump for backup. (See Nos. 2 and 4.)

• We were sailing aboard a friend’s 23-foot sailboat, and as we were making fast to his mooring on only one strand of his frayed three-strand painter we were hit by a microburst with winds reported to be 60 knots. We didn’t moor, the line parted when the wind reached us, the anchor wasn’t ready for deploying, and reefing lines hadn’t been rove. We tore through the harbor and almost lost the boat. Was that Murphy’s law or the cascading effects of our own lack of seamanship? (See Nos. 1, 2 and 3.)

• An incident that could be attributed to Murphy occurred when the thermostat on our Volvo MD2B diesel wouldn’t open. We sailed back to our slip and found there were no MD2B engine thermostats that would fit. We borrowed a battery-powered drill, drilled a hole through the thermostat, and began our cruise. (See Nos. 2, 4 and 5.)

• The electronics on a boat I was delivering began to fail in rotten visibility and high winds. We had a hand-held GPS but no spare batteries when the ones installed gave out. (See No. 8)

• I remember one short cruise when, after carefully checking off and loading everything we would need, we left the dock without our foul-weather gear. It was warm and sunny when we got under way. Guess what happened next. (See No. 8.)

• We really shouldn’t blame Murphy or Mother Nature when problems arise. Often the problems are due to a lack of respect for the waters on which we boat. Complacency and ignorance are the culprits. (Murphy, Ms. Nature … does that get me off the hook?)