Adapting revisited. The limits of adaptation.
Droning on about how much humans “adapt” in my last blog reminded me that sometimes the adaptation suddenly, virtually without warning, ends.
Back on Bokonon in 1973, we had this very primitive diesel engine. I think it was 800 pounds and about 12 horsepower. On top of it was a “generator”, a little belt-driven machine that is supposed to charge your batteries. Most boats have an “alternator”, but ours was the most primitive of systems. We were even able to crank the engine by hand to start it. But if we wanted to have electric lights, including the “running lights” at night that tell other boats that we are there, we needed to generate some electrical energy for the batteries.
But this generator kept failing. My brother Howard would take it off, fuss with it. Take it apart, rewire the inside of it put it back together and it would work for a couple of weeks, and then just die. He’d take it apart, fuss with it again and again. and by doing this, he kept it trickling power into our batteries.
In 1974, we were crossing the Atlantic in a seasicky combination of swells that made everyone grumpy and semi-nauseous. Of course the generator died. Howard fixed it. Got really grumpy but didn’t throw up. 3 days later waves were even more choppy, it died again. By now we were so far from land and we hadn’t seen any boat for 2 weeks. Who wants to see our running lights anyway? Howard took the damn thing apart, fiddled with some wires, and put it back on the engine. It worked for about 10 seconds, and died.
I was on deck steering at the time. Finally I hear “Fuck this fucking thing!” and I see, as if in slow motion, the generator flying through the air and splashing into the water. We sailed Bokonon for more than a year after that, and never had (or really needed) electricity again.
When my dad was getting on in age, he had had a wide variety of ailments, but he, like all of us, was muddling through them, adapting. But each ailment was slowing him down a little more and a little more. More pain less life. While on the 2007 Transpac from Southern California to Hawaii, I heard from my daughter that his kidneys were failing. He was about to undergo dialysis. Ok, fine, says he, consenting to bend his life even more to continue it. But then they tell him when we do this dialysis, you can never drink alcohol again.
You know what he said? Fuck it, bring me a martini! He died a few days later, happy in his choices.


4:35 AM 13 June. Noticed that the “recommend use by 12 June” on my milk bottle was yesterday. Drinking the coffee with that milk in it right now. That’s what we do. We use things past their recommended use date. All (but one, Scott the bowman, age ??) of us on the Psyche are trying to keep our bodies together past their recommended use date. Adapting to every injury and ailment. That’s what we do. Adapt. The ringing in my ears really gets worse if I don’t keep my hoodie on. So I keep my hoodie on. The cancer spot on Jimmy’s ear needs to be bandaged every day. Everyone adapts. It’s what we do.

Well, on a sail boat, one adapts all the time. On Bokonon, we once bought a “fisherman’s anchor”, to use for anchoring in rocky bays. It has the classical Popeye look, with sharp flukes going out in two directions.
We found this anchor particularly difficult to get into and out of the hatch where we keep our other anchors, the more compact “CQR” style. So, we adapted to this difficulty and tied the fisherman anchor smartly to the rail back in the stern, with one of its flukes tight against the deck and the other fluke out over the water. Easy to get to, easy to put away. Adaptation.


One of my favorite examples of adaptation is a story a revered math professor, David Lange, back in the 80s once told me. As a young toddler, he refused to drink his milk out of a glass. He only drank it out of baby bottle, complete with its rubber nipple. Freud would probably have something to say about this, but David didn’t care. He wanted his nipple bottle. His parents conceded time and again for months upon months, I guess figuring that they would be able to use reason with him when he could talk. Well, as he became more cognizant with age, they finally told him, ok, you can keep drinking out of the nipple, but we aren’t buying you a new one. Ok, fine, says David, and happily sucked his milk down for weeks and month. As this last nipple aged, it developed more and more holes in it. Young David didn’t mind. He just put his index finger over one hole, his middle finger over another, pinky finger over another, etc. Weeks went by. David became more and more adept at using all his fingers to cover the increasing number of holes so he could effectively suck on the nipple. Finally, the number of holes in the nipple exceeded David’s number of fingers, and after a couple of weeks of making a mess and getting no milk, David finally gave up adapting and drank his milk out of glass. There are always limits to adaptation, of course.

We did a similar sort of adapting as David did on Bokonon.  We used to have an old inflatable raft, we tied to the stern of the boat. This raft kept springing leaks. We fixed each leak, but there were constantly new ones. But you have time on a boat, so we just kept fixing the leaks.


I think we would have done that for another year, but one night while anchored in sand using the CQR anchor (sandy bottom) the wind was blowing really hard offshore, you could feel it hitting one side of the boat with 40 knots, then quiet, then the other side of the boat. Pretty exciting, not much sleeping going on. Then in the morning we got up, and there was the “deflatable”, impaled on the outboard fluke of the fisherman’s anchor, and limp as a rag. That ended that adaptation story.

A wonderful woman in my yoga class started a couple of weeks ago. I don’t notice things that much, but I did notice on that first day that she limped pretty bad when she walked. Class starts. Downward dog.


This is the worst. It always feels like hell, and this body of mine just hates to stretch and jeeze I really started feeling sorry for myself, but adapted and made do, just the same.  This day, I noticed a very measured deep breathing coming from the direction of the new student in the class. I looked back toward her under my legs (see above), and figured out why she limped. She had an artificial foot. Jeeze, really, Bill, you are feeling sorry for yourself in down dog? I didn’t know it till later, but she has an artificial leg too. Actually her own leg doesn’t start until half-way up her thigh. Everything south of that is artificial. And there she is under there, just adapting. She later told us that she loves to experiment with whatever prosthetic anyone wants to let her try. She has been adapting like this since she was 12, when aggressive bone cancer almost took her life. Makes me realize that I haven’t even begun to adapt yet.

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