Many years ago, I was 20 years old, alone on my boat with 15,000 miles laid under the keel toward completing a single-handed circumnavigation. There was still plenty of water left to cross, nearly half the planet, with a reserve of learning opportunities as bottomless as the sea itself. Off the coast of Sri Lanka, en route for Djibouti, once again an event reminded me of what can happen when manuals aren't consulted and instructions aren't properly followed.
The stuffing box popped out of the stern tube and the Indian Ocean became the unwelcome teacher, wedging her nasty foot in my companionway door. A screwdriver and a pocketknife lost to the bilge later, I got rid of the foot by cramming the stuffing box back into the tube and tightening the hose clamp that held it there—temporarily. Intent on driving the lesson home, for more 2,000 miles of westward progress, every time I put the engine into gear, the stuffing box escaped, and the Indian Ocean forced its way back in.
The fault was all mine. I had literally invited her over and when she arrived, I called her an intruder. Some host I was. The stuffing box problem had nothing to do with the corrosive effects of time, or the routine breakdown of sacrificial parts that weren't meant to last. I knew it was completely due to a lack of attention, a sort of carelessness that happened to be essential to my unintentional yet stubbornly applied method of learning by making a mistake first, then cleaning up the mess. Easily overwhelmed by mechanics, I could only admire from afar the merit of a more proactive approach, and the stuffing box had never made the grade on my maintenance list.
Once it had declared itself needy and seized itself onto the shaft, I consulted the engine manual which clearly stated that it should have been greased regularly via a small nipple. In hindsight, I could remember staring down at the protrusion with absolutely no idea as to how the grease would get transferred and what tool would ever affix itself onto that piece, if it could even be found. The obstacles between me and proper maintenance created a minefield of potential pitfalls—grease guns incompatible with nipples, greases of uncertain viscosity, trips to too many hardware stores with clerks shaking their heads—which had been enough to help me completely ignore the stuffing box until the day it copped an attitude because of my neglect.
However, the subsequent days of attempted repairs in ill-equipped countries and the amount of inconvenience and worry that it gave me outweighed the relatively small investment of time it would have taken to prevent the whole aggravation. It also forced me to pay attention, to really investigate and become familiar with the operation of a stuffing box and its relationship to the shaft and propeller in a way I would have never understood as fully as I did when it stopped working. I ought to be the poster girl for the alternative, experiential education of learning from mistakes.
Some people are really good at absorbing and understanding theories and applying them to real-life models. Others need to experience the real-life model before beginning to understand the abstraction of the theory, and this path requires a lot of room for error. It was the route I took then; it is the route I still take now, despite all the chances I've been given to change direction.
Take the subject of celestial navigation as another example. During the year before I set sail, I took a course in a classroom full of guys who nodded thoughtfully and intelligently after only one demonstration of a tilting plum orbiting around an orange while my brain got hotter and hotter. I didn't get it at all. Declination? Azimuth? Greenwich hour angle? I flunked the course so big time that I can't even remember taking the final exam—a moment to forget.
I shrugged my shoulders and photocopied my father's dummy manual with the calculation process broken down into an easy-to-follow formula without all the theory. I was only 18 and hadn't scared myself witless often enough yet to not trust that I would be able to figure it out. Being in the middle of the ocean and not knowing my position will be the best motivation to learn, I told myself. Sure enough, after several passages spent working with the formula daily and getting lost and found, I finally did come to understand what the instructor had been talking about in that classroom of humming fluorescent lighting.
I have often thought about those guys who took the class with me, wondering if their frames of reference only consisted of dividers, rulers, and trigonometric lines and angles. Or had they been able to visualize the sun chasing and leading a boat west as it cast shadows on the water through patches of clouds? Could they have been seeing the moon rising over the horizon to brighten a windy, dark night? Were they able to feel the oppressive heat when the sun's declination matched the latitude? Did bedtime get later every night until it got recalibrated by the next time zone? I couldn't have learned to navigate any other way, without actually living, sleeping, and eating by the progress of the heavenly navigational aids and I now know this would hold true for many others as well. It's just another method of learning, visual and tactile rather than intuitive.
Several times a year, I lead learn-to-sail flotillas for women and try to impart some of what I have learned. To a novice, the points of sail and how course and sail trim are interdependent are as incomprehensible as Local Hour Angle once was for me. No matter how many times I talk our way around the circle, from head winds to beam winds, to jibing through tail winds, to beam winds on the opposite side, and tacking back through head winds, the quizzical and frustrated looks persist. Physically tacking and jibing these charter boats full of nomenclature—sheets, booms, blocks, winches, bows, sterns—through the points of sail can make it even more confusing. I usually end the lessons by saying, "Look. Forget the words and theory. What you need to do now is rent a little daysailer and muck about in your area. You need to feel the wind, play with the sails and the tiller, and see how the three interact." For many of us, no amount of sophistry will make a jibe or a backwinded jib more understandable than repetition of the actual experience and mistakes.
The way I learned about stuffing boxes, navigation, and points of sail used to make me feel guilty and defensive, as if preparation and study had been an option for me, as if it were a matter of the right and wrong way. I've come to realize it isn't. If I had insisted on preparing by the book first, and if I had worried about everything the books say, I'd still be in the armchair trying to understand the words. Real-life messes have taught me how to be a good sailor, navigator, mechanic, and ultimately, a great troubleshooter. Each one has taught me what different problems look like and then, how they may be fixed, or avoided, in order to clear the decks for unannounced visits from new troublesome guests because, you know, they've got my number and, boy, do they keep coming.