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Three Epic Fails

When I was buying my boat three decades ago, the owner gave me advice that I remember to this day. The advice was given in the context of boat ownership, but it applies to life in a much broader way. What he told me was simple enough: Think twice before you change anything. Make sure you understand why something was done the way it was done before you remove it or replace it.

Six years later, I fell in with a team planning a Pacific Cup campaign. They had a serious, offshore-capable 43-foot boat, that they were getting ready to go. It needed its 3-speed winches overhauled, and someone didn’t like the way the running backstays were rigged. The lines for the runners came to blocks at the transom, entering custom aluminum conduit that ran under the deck, exiting in perfect alignment with the winches. Ambitious volunteers disassembled the winches and removed the conduit in a day. I came in after the fact, with lots of questions and a little disbelief. The boat was never reassembled and never raced to Hawaii.

Also in the category of “seemed like a good idea at the time” were two boat projects being pursued in New Zealand by people I met there. One was an ultralight 50-foot catamaran. The other was a 40-foot racing monohull. Both projects suffered from the same ill-conceived idea: that the way to get a fast cruising boat was to start with a lightweight, high-performance design, and then add all the nice cruising gear you want, like refrigeration, watermakers, etc. The trouble is that there is a reason why traditional cruising boats have their full-bodied, heavy-displacement designs, and that reason is payload. When you load up lightweight boats with all the gear and provisions you want, they no longer sail the way you expected.

In the case of the catamaran, the boat made it safely from New Zealand to Tonga but was put up for sale when it got to Australia. The monohull project was never completed, with the boat being sold at a great loss. My point is not to be the holier-than-thou narrator, or to oppose change, but to point out that breaks from tradition can lead to horrible outcomes. We are wise to follow the advice I received when I bought my boat: when it comes to changing things that have stood for a long time, it is good to understand why they were done that way in the first place—there was likely a reason for it.

In the world writ large, there is always a tension between progress and tradition. The pendulum swings to its peak, testing ideas before they are moderated or abandoned, causing the pendulum to swing back, albeit with some possible advance. This is the story of society throughout time. Like the three failed boat projects, ideas will be tried until it is clear why things were the way they were to begin with.


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