The pencil – A critical item onboard

I was struggling a bit to come up with a topic for this newsletter, then I read a fascinating article which was published in The New Yorker magazine in December of 2007. Here is a link for you: 

I did not see this article until after the article I wrote for the 2009 Ocean Voyager issue of Ocean Navigator that was recently published. Most of you probably have this issue, if not, make sure to run right out to the newsstand and buy it. 

There are a lot of parallels in the two articles which I thought I would point out in this newsletter, and also extend the concept a bit to make the point that perhaps the most critical piece of gear you can bring aboard as you set out on your voyages this spring and summer is none other than the pencil. 

The New Yorker article details the work of a medical researcher who found that by implementing mandatory use of simple checklists in hospital intensive care units, rather dramatic positive changes in outcome were achieved. These results included much lower rates of post-operative infection, which, in turn led to significantly lower health care costs associated with these patients, and, the best outcome of all, much higher patient survival rates. The author also told the very interesting story having to do with the development of the B-17 bomber, which crashed and burned in one of its early test flights due to pilot error, leading many to conclude that this aircraft was just too complicated to operate. By development of a checklist for the pilots, however, this plane went on to become a critical component of the Allied victory in World War II, and the use of a checklist has become standard procedure for just about all aircraft operations today. 

The article which I wrote in Ocean Voyager suggested that clearly defining categories of weather and sea state parameters prior to any voyage was a critical part of preparations for that voyage. I suggested that writing down these definitions was essential to implementing their use, and this is the similarity to the checklist article. While I did not develop a true checklist, one could argue that the process is somewhat similar: putting a pencil to paper to help make a voyage safer. Once these categories were defined, then by examining weather forecast data prior to a voyage, it would be fairly simple to assign the expected conditions to your previously defined categories to determine if conditions would fall into the “Ideal” category, the “Unacceptable” category, or perhaps one of the others which were presented. The end result is a decision making process which is simpler and more objective.

There are other situations where the use of a pencil can help with critical decision making while on an ocean passage. In particular, tracking tropical storms and hurricanes, which has obvious importance, can be done in a particular way by hand plotting the information available in public advisories. I will cover this method in the next newsletter, but for now, suffice it to say that getting this information on a plotting chart by using a pencil is critical. This is not only because you will end up with a very useful aid to your decision making, but that the process of transcribing the information by hand helps to input the data more completely into your thought process, thus leading to better decisions. It’s the same reason that the checklists for aircraft and medical procedures work, and also why defining (and writing down) category limits for weather and sea state will make for safer ocean voyaging. It’s also why many mariners still plot a route out by hand and continue to produce dead reckoning positions and plot them on paper charts. 

In this day and age of easy availability of great quantities of information nearly instantly through e-mail, the World Wide Web, and all of the hi-tech devices which deliver this information, it becomes very easy to look at a flashy display of important data, and think that you have absorbed all of the information you need. You will find, however, that taking the extra step of using the pencil to write down or plot critical data, even though it is readily available in a quick electronic form, will pay dividends in a greater understanding of the data, and ultimately better decisions leading to safer voyaging.

I suggest reading the two articles that I have referenced, and making sure that you have a few pencils on board, and don’t forget a pencil sharpener as well.

About the Author 

Ken McKinley earned a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from Cornell University in 1980, and attended graduate school in meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working as a meteorologist for nearly 10 years for a large private consulting firm in Massachusetts, he founded his own meteorological consulting firm, Locus Weather, in Camden, Maine in 1991. A large portion of his business at Locus Weather involves providing custom weather forecast services for oceangoing yachts, both racers and cruisers. Ken serves as an instructor for the Ocean Navigator School of Seamanship, and also as an adjunct instructor at the STAR Centers for Professional Maritime Officers in Dania, Fla., and Toledo, Ohio, and for MITAGS in Baltimore, Md. He has also taught meteorology at Maine Maritime Academy. He resides in Rockport, Maine with his wife and two sons. Ken’s Web site is: 

By Ocean Navigator