Vigor’s Black Box Theory

Vigor’s Black Box Theory

By John Vigor

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 2, Number 4, July/August 1999.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …

is it that some sailors go quietly about their business, consistently making
quick, safe, and satisfying passages, while others lurch erratically from
port to port amid a series of catastrophes? Is it luck? No, it’s the Fifth

I first stumbled across the concept more than 30 years ago, when I was a newspaper
reporter in Durban, South Africa. One of my early assignments was to cover
a speech by a visiting American yachtsman and scientist, a talk he called
“The Fifth Essential for Successful Yacht Voyages.” He talked about it for
a full half-hour, but never once mentioned what the Fifth Essential was. “I’m
not superstitious,” he said, “but I am not going to name it. I’ll leave that
to you to work out.”

He listed the first four essentials in this order:

  1. A well-found ship
  2. A good crew
  3. Adequate preparation and maintenance
  4. Seamanship

Mighty Neptune

As he wouldn’t name the Fifth Essential, he could only describe how it worked.
He offered some well-documented examples of how it had affected the lives
of yachting pioneers.

We soon got the idea. Take Joshua Slocum, for instance. During his circumnavigation
he was chased by a pirate vessel off the coast of Morocco. He cracked on all
sail, but the pirates were still bearing down on him. Determined to give a
good account of himself, he ducked down below for his rifle. Suddenly a squall
hit the Spray. When his little vessel was under control again, he glanced
back and saw that the squall had dismasted the pirate ship, which lay wallowing
in the wreckage of its spars.

Then there was Harry Pidgeon, who sailed twice around the world singlehanded.
On one occasion, when a change in wind direction set his yawl, Sea Bird, sailing
toward the coast while he slept below, the boat ran aground on the only sandy
bay in tens of miles of rocky coastline. Furthermore she had to pass over
a rocky ledge at the entrance to the bay. Had it been low tide when Sea Bird sailed in so confidently, she would have gotten no farther. As it happened,
Pidgeon was able to refloat her, refit her, and carry on.

Over the years I noted the same theme recurring in talks with such splendid
seamen as Bernard Moitessier, Jean Gau, and Eric Hiscock. In fact, I expect
all of us who have sailed for any time have had similar experiences – and
thanked our lucky stars at the time. But it isn’t luck, really. There’s much
more to the Fifth Essential than mere chance.

In 1986, when I started fitting out my own 31-footer, Freelance, for a voyage
from Durban to the United States, I reduced the Fifth Essential to a simple
system of accident prevention. In the Freelance corollary to the theory, every
boat possesses an imaginary black box, a sort of bank account in which points
are kept. In times of emergency, when there is nothing more to be done in
the way of sensible seamanship, the points from your black box can buy your
way out of trouble. You have no control over how the points are spent, of
course; they withdraw themselves when the time is appropriate. You do have
control over how the points get into the box: you earn them. For every seamanlike
act you perform, you get a point in the black box. Points come in so many
ways it would be impossible to list them all. But I can send you in the right
direction. Let’s say you’re planning a weekend cruise down the coast, and
time is precious. You have been wondering for some weeks if you ought to haul
out the bosun’s chair and inspect the masthead fittings. It has been a couple
of years since you checked everything up there, but it would mean delaying
your departure by an hour, maybe more, should you have to change a shackle
or something.

If you finally give in to the nagging voice inside you and go aloft, you earn
a point in the box. If you don’t take that trouble, your black box will stay
empty. If you sniff the bilges for fumes before pushing the starter button,
you’ll score a point, just as you will for taking a precautionary reef at
nightfall or checking the expiration date on your rocket flares. Thinking
and worrying about what could happen is also a good way to earn points – if
the wind started blowing into your quiet anchorage at 40 miles an hour and
the engine wouldn’t start, or whether you should put a couple of reefs in
the mainsail before you climb into your bunk, just in case.

No matter how good your seamanship, there are times when there is nothing
left to do but batten down the hatches and pray. If you have a credit balance
of points in the box, you’ll be all right. People will say you’re lucky, of
course. They’ll say a benign fate let you get away with it. But we know better.
That luck was earned, maybe over quite a long period.

Not that there’s any room for complacency. If an emergency drains all the
points from your black box, you must immediately set about replacing them
by tending to your boat, your crew, and yourself in a seamanlike way and by
practicing extra caution for as long as seems right.

It may seem unfair that you cannot check your credit balance in the black
box, but it’s just as well. If I knew I had sufficient points to get me through
a weekend, I might not bother to go up the mast before setting out. Not knowing
keeps us on our toes.

In practice, however, your conscience will be a good guide. Have you put off
changing the engine oil for the umpteenth time? Does the port navigation light
still need a new bulb? Be careful. You may be running low on points.

In the same way, your conscience will tell you when you have credit. You will
glow with that quiet sort of confidence that inspires crews and makes for happy voyages.

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