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December 30, 2009

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Safety is often a question of vigilance and that is why a dangerous airport will often have an excellent safety record. All those white-knuckle pilots are alert and attentive. For the same reason an ultra-safe plane often has a terrible safety record because pilots easily get lulled into a sense of contemptuous complacency.

One aspect of this situation was discussed by Dave and Jaja Martin, two sailors who met in the Carribean, married and spent the next 15 years sailing around the world while raising three kids. Dave Martin's analysis of his behavior in sailing from Oregon to San Diego without life rafts or flares reveals some unique thoughts on the question of safety.

Years later, when asked to give a lecture on survival gear for yachts, he never once mentioned anything about beacons, flares, rafts, drinking water, rations or the like. He instead lectured on his winter-time activities of manual labor, running, skating, etc. as well as his good nutrition and sleep habits. He considered this winter-time activity to be the best thing he could do for his boating safety the other nine months of the year. He was then fit enough to stand long watches if he had to, to look at charts carefully, to scan the sea and be alert to danger and to be able to think clearly. He knew his audience had come to the lecture prepared to hear about the latest gadgets for launching a life raft in the midst of a storm while bouncing signals off the moon, but he felt that rather than focusing on how to abandon ship quickly it was more important to focus on how to avoid being in a situation where one had to abandon his boat in the first place. His lecture drove home the point that safety is usually a matter of being physically and mentally able to cope with whatever hazards may present themselves. If an ordinary housecat can transition from domestic to wild each night, a weekend adventurer should be able to transition from an urban mentality to a rural mentality. Its not a matter of electronics.

Oh sure, for someone who fails to make the transition properly and somehow comes a cropper it is nice to have the latest electronic gadget sending out his position report accurate to half a millimeter, but transistors are not foolproof. One can have some sort of electronic tether but it is no guarantee of safety and nor is it likely to be an invitation to undue risky behavior. Batteries fail, equipment gets shorn off in a fall, signals get masked by ledges or reflected by distant ridges. The thoughts are on the trail, the scenery, the solitary footfall ... not on the satellite gear or cell phone. Telling Big Brother where you are all the time means that you might as well stay in the cubicle for all seven days. People have guns and ammunition available, that doesn't mean they shoot at themselves recklessly. People have electronic beacons with them, that doesn't mean they will suddenly think they might as well jump off a cliff, since rescue is sure and swift.

Costs of rescue? Ask the rural businessmen what the cost of not having the tourists in the first place is.

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