04 November 2015

Second-hand learning

When I first started sailing, more years ago than I care to remember, my then-boyfriend got me into reading the old cruising yarns.  In those halcyon days, libraries would hang on to book a lot longer than they do now (there were, to be sure, fewer books being published and I dare say their budgets were a lot lower), which meant that in spite of the book having been originally published before WWII, they were still available (and I'm not that old).  Sadly, most of these books are long out of print and have not been republished as ebooks.  (Should some wealthy philanthropist be reading this, may I suggest s/he gets hold of all the copyright for the books in the Mariners Library and republishes them as ebooks?)

However, I am digressing from the main reason for this posting.  We all learn (or at least I profoundly hope we do) from our mistakes.  Men, in particular, it would appear, have difficulties learning practical skills any other way, but it is such a wasteful way of acquiring knowledge.  If we read these old cruising yarns, written in the days before any electronics (including a radio receiver) we can learn so much from these self-reliant and usually, self-taught mariners.  Their mistakes were honest and honestly recounted.  I remember, especially in my early days of sailing, some of these stories coming into my mind when a particular issue was creating a problem and requiring a solution.  It was almost as though I were drawing on my own experience, and this received wisdom helped me sort out the matter.

I was talking to a friend the other day, about a mutual acquaintance who has just started sailing, well into his 60s.  "Has he read such and such?" I asked.  "What is he doing about charts?  Did he get that cruising guide?"  'Oh", my friend replied, "he says he just has to learn from experience.  Once he's made a mistake he'll be fine.  That's the way I learn things, too."

But how sad and how dismissive of all that knowledge, acquired by others and made available to the rest of us, in order that we can avoid making stupid mistakes ourselves.  To my mind, there is a deep-rooted arrogance here, too.  An assumption that one's 'learning curve' is sufficiently steep that one will stay out of trouble due to one's razor-sharp reactions.  But what happens if, as a result of 'learning from experience', he damages somebody else's boat?  Or loses his own?  Or injures himself or somebody else.  Simply because he 'didn't realise that would happen'.  But if he'd read around his subject, he would have known it might happen, because just that same event occurred in Francis B Cooke's In Tidal Waters.

Maybe this unwillingness to take on board the wisdom of others explains far more than the 'shake-your-head' antics of other sailors.  Maybe it's why the human race keeps believing that the solution to a problem, is to take a lot of soldiers there and shoot people, in spite of the fact that history has shown over and over that this never produces a satisfactory outcome.  Maybe Messrs Putin and Obama, Assad and Mugabe also like to learn from their own mistakes and by experience rather than learning from the wisdom of others.