The imperfect sailor

Team Vesta Wind/Volvo Ocean Race
Team Vesta Wind/Volvo Ocean Race

It took me a trip inland and a guided tour of a famous landmark to have an insight of how imperfection and errors are an important part of human beings’ nature. Not that I was unaware of that, but the power of insights lays in making a meaningful reality of what is known and obvious. Also, that same day, November 30, the impossible happened, as a yacht equipped with the latest navigation technologies and manned by highly trained crew ran aground on a remote but charted reef in the Indian Ocean during the Volvo Ocean Race.

But let’s move back to what originated that insight. I spent Thanksgiving holidays with Kate and her family in their hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have a particular affinity for this city, that goes over my love for Kate and her family. Once known as the land of coal mines and steel mills, today the City thrives on prestigious educational and medical institutions and sport enthusiasm (Let’s go Pens!). The hilly terrain of Pittsburgh makes for spread-out neighborhoods and offers wonderful vistas of the downtown skyline, the confluence of the three river that built the city (Monongahela and the Allegheny forms the Ohio River), the steel bridges and the industrial archeology. These exposed bones give Pittsburgh a rugged appearance, but its core is made of precious and sophisticated knowledge and history. And hey, it’s ketchup country!

Vista from cousin Jeff''s home
Vista from cousin Jeff”s home

The Cathedral of Learning (or “Cathy” for Pitt students) is an historical landmark of Pittsburgh and its unusual and catchy name pushed me to ask Kate to take me there. The building is part of the University of Pittsburgh campus,  and is used for educational purposes.  It’s a tall splinter of stone raised in the middle of shorter buildings, like a long finger showing the vertical path of improvement that education and knowledge can lead to.

Kate & Cathy
Kate & Cathy

Inside the building, the Nationality Rooms, “rooms that show the good things immigrants brought to America”, function as regular university classrooms, and they can also be visited as an attraction. The rooms were designed to represent the culture of various ethnic groups of the region and were realized by fine artists. During Christmas time they are also decorated following the tradition of each country.

We took a guided tour of the rooms as the perfect tourists would do following the leader and the group for almost all the 29 rooms. The tour guide interpreted the marvelous artworks and told stories and curiosities. In the Hungarian Room, he challenged us to find a small imperfection in one of the panels of the ceiling. One of the birds of the several identical ones depicted was missing white dots on its wing. He explained this flaw as “a deliberate act” of the artist to underline that only God is perfect. Trying to reach perfection would be a sin and a chance to attract bad luck.

the ceiling of the Hungarian Room
the ceiling of the Hungarian Room

I have heard that story before, applied to different cultures. It doesn’t matter if the story is about Navajo rugs, Chinese floors, Japanese gates or Hungarian ceilings, people attribute the imperfection in an otherwise masterpiece work of art to the intention of the artist. I couldn’t find any academic study or ethnographic account that report this cross-cultural phenomenon but the role of imperfection in human life is well known.  The Wabi-Sabi aestethic from Japan for instance consider transience and imperfection as part of life, and so the chipped bowl and rough surfaces of artifacts are seen as ideals of beauty.

Wether it is a documented fact or an urban legend, a marketing tool or a good excuse, the story of “deliberate imperfection” suddenly made me feel good, because I constantly face my imperfections as a sailor and boat guy and I need solace when it gets rough on me. I didn’t grow up sailing, and I was 27 the first time I put my feet on a sailboat, nonetheless I made some headway in making this my profession, with lots of mistakes and impeferction of course, but also through professional training and practice. What we are asked as skippers and crew is to be perfect, or at least to try, because errors can be very expensive on a sailboat, and also very dangerous, even fatal.

To help us in this job navigation technology has improved dramatically in the last 30 years, as well as the cartography of the oceans. Electronics and instruments have become more and more important aboard new yachts. Also professional sailors have to comply with ever more complex and strict standards through training and study, which include non-electronical navigation (as dead reckoning and astro-navigation), in case something goes wrong with electronics onboard.

Despite all this, Team Vesta Wind hit a reef in  Cargados Carajos archipelago while sailing at 19 knots of speed, with no consequences for the crew but leaving behind a totally disabled 6 million dollar yacht and abandoning the race. The instruments were functioning and the skipper, Chris Nicholson accepts “ultimate responsibility” for the errors that lead to the accident. Human errors made by some of the most competent sailors in the world. Unfortunately being less than perfect can cost you the victory in a race like the Volvo.

Self-confidence and augmented reality can play against us when we don’t pay attention to warnings and we assume everything is ok. When we set sail aboard Tranquility for our first voyage we were far away from having the perfect boat or the perfect conditions. We had the only option of sailing the North Atlantic during winter time, and we did it with the maximum attention. Being conscious of that made us more alert and careful, we know we were imperfect sailors on an imperfect boat and we behaved accordingly. Recognizing imperfection in our lifes is an act of honesty, not an excuse to stop improving. It allows us to learn, forgive and move on.

Thanks to The Library of the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, GA for giving me a beautiful and quiet place to write this post.