Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The importance of being handy

A few days ago, I received this complimentary blog comment from reader Steven:

Hi John. I started following your blog a few months ago and I am finally caught up :-) You've done such a great job here and I know I am not alone in being inspired and educated by what you have written. I am going to be scheduling sailing lessons for next Spring, it will give me time to raise the money. Anyway, I wanted to ask you a question and hoped you could help: Do you have to be handy to own a sailboat? I am useless with tools and I noticed you are having your boat repaired by the yard. Many of the sites I have read the owners always seem to be doing all repairs themselves. I know I am not capable of doing that without being bitten by some sort of radioactive spider. Are you a handy person by nature and plan on doing a lot yourself, John, or are you more like me? Thanks for your time and keep up the great work on the blog.

Here is my response, which I am posting as a blog entry so it doesn't get lost in a comments section:

Steven, the work I am having done on the boat involves skills and materials that I have no experience with, like machining metal parts and repairing fiberglass gelcoats. I am more of a home repair guy, able to do basic carpentry, plumbing, electricity and painting. I can also fix stuff that breaks, so in some regards, I would be considered fairly handy.

In answer to your question, I don't think it's absolutely critical to be handy to be a successful sailor and sailboat owner but it definitely helps. If you limit your sailing to coastal areas with well-equipped boatyards at every point of contact, then you may never need to worry about fixing anything on your boat by yourself. But if you sail far away from familiar shores, which can be a little scary all by itself, then having the confidence that you can fix most of the things on your boat that might break will help tremendously to reduce fear and stress.

Unfortunately, confidence can only be gained through experience, which means that you need to expect that things will go wrong. The trick is to control the things that can be controlled and to not worry obsessively about the rest. The best place to start is with preventive maintenance. Almost every piece of equipment on a boat comes with a maintenance manual. It is critical to read those manuals and follow their recommendations. Many times, this will involve buying suggested tools and spare parts. It will also involve a schedule, which means you are maintaining your equipment at routine intervals. If you can do this, you are eliminating most of what can go wrong through simple neglect and inattention, and you are building your confidence in your ability to use tools and fix things. You are becoming handy.

One more point: More than anything, being handy is an attitude more than it is an ability. It is a willingness to take on a problem instead of running away from it. When something breaks, if it's not an immediate emergency, then get the swearing out of the way, take a few deep breaths and start looking at what went wrong and why it might have happened. It doesn't pay to fix something if you don't first fix whatever it was that caused it to break. Take the time to figure out a lasting solution, using trial and error as needed. As you try different options, you will learn more about the particulars of the problem and be better able to apply your innate creativity. After several successful experiences with fixing things, you will know in your gut that you could jury rig just about anything it would take to keep your boat moving toward its destination.

An excellent book that touches on some of the points I have made here is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I have read it twice and expect that I will read it again someday.

Thank you for your readership and kind comments. Best of luck to you in your sailing future!

1 comment:

Steven said...

Hi John, thanks for posting that. I thought a lot about your answer. My plans were to start off very small with sailing, take the lessons, take time learning and maybe joining the club in the area that would let me share time on their sailboats. My question was geared more towards way down the line, in doing some of what you talk about for the future, which is circumnavigating. One of my dreams would be to sail to the South Pacific Islands - like maybe 10 years from now. I am talking about after, hopefully, years of sailing and practice. You are gearing up for something like that yourself with Little Walk from what you've written - and I was wondering if you thought you could do those things without being unbelievably handy. For instance I just read a book, "Kowabunga's South Seas Adventure" - the author sailed a Flicka 20 to Tahiti - and there is a passage where his engine goes and it was heartening to me when he described himself as not having a clue how to fix it. I think I'd be in the same "boat" with that. It has taken me years to be able to hang a shelf straight :-) Anyway, sorry for being so long winded - don't want to hijack the blog or anything. Awesome job, like I was saying, and I will check back everyday for updates with the Valiant 40. - Steve