Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Meaning of a “Closed System”

My “Soggy Duck” friend, Ken Oestreich, along with his wife, Monica, and two kids, Sophie (7) and Max (2), spent four days after our Soggy Duck weekend aboard Whatcha Gonna Do sailing out to the islands near La Paz for four days.  Below is a blog post Ken wrote following his visit.

After spending the better part of a week on Whatcha Gonna Do with her crew, I have a new relationship to what it means to be independent.

Independence isn’t so much that you get to go where you want (true) when you want (true). It’s not that you don’t have to pay attention to days of the week (also true). Independence doesn’t necessarily mean that you can disrobe and sail as a family whenever you want (sadly, true too). The independence I’m talking about is self-reliant independence: That you have to bring along everything you plan on needing, for any type of contingency. There is no opportunity reach outside your world if you need to.

Life on a boat is quite independent in this way, and we got a brief taste of it when sailing with WGD’s crew near La Paz. When you’re at sea, there’s no quick run to the market to get an extra gallon of milk. There’s no jaunt out to Home Depot because you need an extra nut or bolt. There are no utilities to supply endless electricity, water or natural gas.

And this is what had me re-think how the majority of us live – in a large, interdependent, interconnected set of systems. Mathematically (and biologically) our typical lives are “open systems”. We always have more resources available somewhere for us to consume. But on a boat, just about all systems are “closed”. You leave port with what you have, and that’s that; make-do with what you have.

I was first impressed with this concept with an opening volley on Michael’s Rules of Water Usage (to be referred-to henceforth as MRoWU). There is only so much fresh water kept on the boat: So don’t leave the tap running while you brush your teeth, or while you do the dishes. And don’t shower too long. Now, although MRoWU point out that fresh water can be manufactured on-board WGD, it comes at a price: Electricity. And to generate electricity, you need Diesel. So again, if you want fresh water, you’d better carry fuel. No diesel, no water…. the need for fuel is to be weighed-against the need for motoring if/when the wind stops. Again, a closed system with tradeoffs.

My next run-in with the concept of a closed system on-board Whatcha Gonna Do was with Barbara’s provisioning the galley. Think about this: Most of us run to the super market 1-2 times a week – to buy dinner for a few nights, re-stock a box of cereal, buy a gallon or two of milk. And, if while preparing kebobs you manage to run out of onions or peppers, you run down the street for a few. Not so on the closed system of the boat. Barb pointed out that you might have to plan meals weeks in advance, and carefully buy supplies in anticipation. Now, mix-in the fact that your perishables might only last a week or so (ok, maybe longer for potatoes) and you have to carefully plan for a sequential series of meals over many weeks.

Then there is the concept of operations and maintenance. A cruising vessel has pipes and wires and fittings and harnesses – by the dozens. Each system (electrical, fresh water, hot water, engines, generators, pumps…) needs maintenance. So think: specific tools, spare parts, filters, oil, cables, connectors. (Ever seen the movie Brazil?) If something goes wrong or breaks, you’d better have on-hand a full set of spares – and tools to install them. Again, the concept of closed-system independence was driven home to me when I peered into one of WGD’s engine rooms (yes, two of them). There were neat shelves of tools and parts – not to mention glues, pastes, sealants, paints, wires, fittings… and the list goes on. It all has to be on-board just in case.

It was really very impressive that Mike and Barb had thought-out nearly everything they needed – or could have needed – in advance of their voyage. Try that at home… for one weekend only use battery-powered devices, only drink the fresh water in the bathtub, and only eat what’s in the pantry. I guess that’s a taste of living in a closed system -- and kudos to Mike, Barb, Harrison and Danielle for making it all work so effortlessly and elegantly.

1 comment:

  1. Ken, very well said - so eloquent!
    Michael and Barb are very calculated in all they do. They complement each other and plan with great detail, always well thought-out. Their love and devotion to each other shines through in all they do (once they agree about their disagreements).
    Now this is becoming a bit too sappy, but as a parent I'm allowed...