Winches, ratchets, and memory


Ratchets are the key to modern sailboats. Winches. Stoppers. Tube blocks. These are critical components of modern-day sailing, and indeed the modern world. The ability to let something happen, or promote its happening, and then to …boom…, stop it from slipping back. This concept of ratcheting something is familiar to most anyone who has had to budge something that is large; a “come-along” to move a tree-stump, for example. The concept is particularly relevant to sailboats at sea: pulling in a sail with a sheet (a kind of rope or line). Pulling up a sail with a halyard (another kind of line). Every modern sailboat has multiple versions of this mechanical one-way street. Ratchets. We use them for virtually every move we make. The five crewmembers of the Yacht Psyche will be onboard Psyche on San Francisco Bay, 11 July, applying our muscle toward racheting in lines of all kinds.

Non-sailors don’t really get winches and tube-blocks and stoppers and such. By contrast, most sailors get them so well that they take them for granted, and hardly ever really think about them. Each of these different ratchet devices is a cool little discovery that made some bright mechanic a little money. The most ubiquitous, and on the old side, is the winch.


The man above is grinding in a sail using a winch. He is putting his strong left arm into turning that winch counter-clockwise. Every ootch of cranking he performs is captured by a ratchet, and saved. The ratchet is inside the winch!


As we crank the above winch counter-clockwise, its “gear” (1) moves past the pall (2), which uses an internal spring to constantly snug itself up to the gear as it travels past the next tooth, and clunks down, thereby saving that increment of work.   Both the gear and pall are firmly attached to the base (3), making this a capstan with a ratchet. What’s a capstan? Rewind back to the sailor/whaler days. Put your strongest crew to work on this, pushing one of the spokes of this capstan, and soon the massive anchor and chain will be off the bottom and on the deck!


These sailors sang sea-chanteys as they pushed. Yo Heave Ho. But other than the anchor, most pulling in those days not so long ago was done with a block and tackle. This is another way to gain mechanical advantage, and we still use it today, albeit not as much as the old guys did!


Easy to pull things together because the back & forth of the pulleys gives you marvelous “mechanical advantage”. But if you don’t tie it off after you’ve pulled it in, it will slip right back, abruptly stealing all the progress you’ve made, and potentially endangering your life! Block and tackle is fine and dandy, but it does NOT ratchet.

We need ratchets in life. I just pushed the “save” button on this blog. It is my computer’s ratchet.

Time is a ratchet. I’ve been on 4 transpacific yacht races. They are in the books. They can’t be lost. They happened. No way to undo them. My first was as a snotty-nosed, sea-sick love-sick paid hand on the Bonnehomme Richard in 1969 (we weren’t actually racing, but instead were the radio/escort vessel that relayed the daily messages to the mainland via HAM radio). The 20-foot seas for the first three days. The cheap mustard, spilled within the first few hours on the shag carpet. The endless puking and consequent dehydration. The surprise of a Dramamine suppository. The joy of my first food in three days, a peanut butter wonder-bread sandwich. None of these events can be undone.

But how about the memory of that time? Is it a rachet? Memory is a dynamic self-renewing, self-distorting, self-transforming process. Rachet is not a good metaphor, unless you imbue those palls and gears with psychedelically wobbly, decidedly unpredictable qualities. We remember things in a way that will improve our chances of surviving and leaving offspring, and this will only correlate with what really happened now and then! If mothers remembered the pain of childbirth as it actually happened, we would have gone extinct long ago. The memory of that kind of pain is normally stored as a “definitely do NOT go there again” category for everything except childbirth. But moms all over the world selectively forget that pain, and oftentimes do it again and again!  Memory. Such a distortion of the concept of a ratchet, that it seems almost silly to make the comparison.

But here is a cool example of how memory is a kind of ratchet.  My Aunt Louisa celebrated her 90th birthday last weekend. I was there. She and her oldest daughter “Petie” (also named Louisa, but her cousins still call her Petie) hosted a beautiful small celebration. Bird (my wife and longest ever love) and I had the honor of being invited. Petie asked us in her invitation to bring either a paper hat, or a poem, or something. I immediately knew what I was going to do. I would bring a ukulele and sing “Eddystone Light.”

Why? Because when my Aunt Louisa was young, early twenties even, she and my now-dead mom, Jane Wright, who attended Westridge School for Girls, used to double-date. Louisa with my mom’s now-dead oldest brother (Uncle Bobby), my mom with Howard Walter Wright Jr. (my now-dead dad). My dad knew some chords on his guitar, and loved to play this song. I’ve seen photos of the four of them on Siwash, an old (very old, but not dead!) yawl, about which you will read much more as we go along.

So, I figured this song would be ok for Louisa. A kind of a ratchet’s pall (see photo above), that would snap her back to that time, for which there are fewer and fewer reminders as she outlives virtually everyone in her generation. But Louisa’s response to my song (especially to the part, “Not the kind of buoy what’s a juvenile male.”) was much more than a reminder. This didn’t just make her think of her past. It made her think of the present and the future. I could tell, in talking to her afterward, that she realized that this meme, this social memory, was not being carried or maintained as she experienced it, but rather was was alive. It was part of a different memory, my memory, and was being carried forward by me, and my kids and my brothers and their kids, and my friends and their friends. It has been transmitted to these “offspring” in its altered form. This realization of the vibrant aliveness of social memory just thrilled her to her bones.  I felt it.  She, is the most amazing Auntie. She loved the idea of this song going forward in time and changing and adapting as it went. The idea of a social memory, a meme, has a looser, more dynamic rachet than does a winch.

Eddystone Light

One thought on “Winches, ratchets, and memory

  1. kbmiller65 says:

    Hey Billy! Your rendition of Eddystone Light was a high point of the evening! I tried the link you have in your post to the song but I get a 404 message. Here is a link to a Burl Ives cover:

    I am avidly reading your blog. Hope to “meet” your crew soon. Have a great time and don’t forget to program that beacon!!!


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