The Black Swan Theory Of Cruising – Updated

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Our approach to yacht design (as well as investing) is captured by Nassim Taleb’s black swan theory of economics.

The theory developed by Nassim Nicolas Taleb explains:

  • “The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
  • The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  • The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs”

What excites us about this is how Taleb helps us to articulate our historically conservative approach to yacht design, construction, and what we like to call defensive seamanship.

We go cruising to relax, and perhaps have a controllable dose of adventure. The normal risk factors are not great, and can be dealt with by a well schooled crew with a seaworthy yacht. But what about the Black Swan events? Take another look at item three above. To paraphrase the folks at Wiki who put the definition together, it is human nature to ignore the possibility of Black Swans.

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Years ago Mike Parker, who along with his wife Carol own the first FPB 64, Avatar, got us into chasing glider distance and speed records (Mike holds a variety of world and national marks). Mike is also a flight instructor and taught what could be called the Parker Black Swan Theory of cross-country glider flight safety. This entails adding additional safety altitude to what the glide computer indicates is required to make it to the next landable area based on the terrain and weather risks. The extra safety margin is insurance against areas of sinking atmosphere, or if expected lift fails to turn up. Glider pilots get into trouble when they use this altitude (or fail to take the time to gain it) to speed the flight, leaving nothing in the bank for those Black Swan events.

There is a direct corollary here to cruising. Boat handling and weather skills, preventative maintenance, and good design are the equivalent of Mike’s extra altitude. When you give some of those away, there is more risk and less factor of safety with which to cover yourself.

A couple of examples of how Taleb’s and Parker’s philosophy is (or isn’t) applied in cruising:

Let’s say you are anchored in a beautiful lagoon in Fiji. The weather is benign, and the forecast stable. In the middle of the night, you are awakened by a squall, which typically would be short-lived. But in this case, the squall strengthens as it continues to blow. If you stay put, you risk being driven ashore, and if you leave, you are operating blind through an area that demands eyeball navigation. This makes you dependent on your electronics. But what if they fail?

This was exactly the situation faced by Pete Rossin and FPB 64-3 Iron Lady. His Furuno navigation system locked up, as they were exiting the anchorage. Iron Lady hit the corner of the reef, and pounded in the surf for several hours. The extra factors of safety built into Iron Lady allowed them to escape with minimal damage. Click here to read a detailed post of the ordeal.

Perhaps you are taking a local sailor for a ride, and he suggests a shortcut, which turns into shallow water and breaking seas. The combination of waves and navigational hazards means that if anything goes wrong, there is real risk of catastrophe. If there is any lack of steering control, if boat speed is compromised, or failure in any critical system, there is simply no way out.

Owner Peter Watson experienced this scenario on FPB 64-6 Grey Wolf off the infamous Needles near the Isle of Wight, in a tide-against-wind gale. See the video and analysis here.

Experienced seamen know to take any weather forecast over 48 hours with a hefty dose of skepticism. What this means in the real world, when you’re on a longer passage, is that — to some degree– you’re rolling the dice. If you lose, it helps to have both the experience and the yacht design characteristics to carry you through. This was the situation in which FPB 64-4 Osprey found itself, at the end of a passage across the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia. Unforecast storm force winds and a breaking bar harbor entrance were a part of this Black Swan event. For a detailed debriefing from Osprey’s skipper, click here.

Black Swan maintenance dictates dealing with problems early, before they become bigger.

  • The first priority is to understand weather, storm avoidance, and tactics.  A handle on weather offers security and comfort bonuses in everyday life, at anchor and at sea, and helps sniff out Black Swans that may not be part of the normal weather forecast
  • Reliability is another key element. Staying ahead of maintenance, dealing with incipient problems when they are first noticed is critical
  • Familiarity with emergency procedures, and practice with storm gear (canvas and drogues) will make the decision to use this gear easier to execute under duress
  • Stay alert and proactive, rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate

If you are evaluating your own vessel, thinking of upgrading her, or looking at another, here are some items to consider:

  • Basic structure and the ability to withstand collisions and groundings
  • Watertight bulkheads
  • Integral tanks forming a double bottom
  • Keel and rudder engineering, and factors of safety
  • Ground tackle system, including anchor sprits, anchors, chain, shackles snubbers, windlass, and chain stopper
  • Fuel system, filter size, and the risk of debris being stirred up and clogging filters in heavy weather
  • Capsize resistance and inverted stability or lack thereof
  • Steering control in heavy weather
  • Quantity, accessibility, and necessity of through-hull penetrations
  • Window and door structure
  • Rig factors of safety
  • Storm canvas, drogues, and their attachment points

We have long acknowledged that Black Swan risks exist in life (ashore and afloat). We don’t dwell on them, but do maintain an alertness to their possibility, and take practical steps in our yachts (and investments) to mitigate their impact.We don’t live in fear of Black Swans, but we accept that unforeseen negative events occasionally occur.

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“The key to this design goal was the ability to deal with heavy weather with a margin for operator error.”
–Bluewater Sailing Magazine
For more information on the FPB Series, e-mail Sue Grant: Sue.Grant@Berthon.Co.UK.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (March 9, 2016)




9 Responses to “The Black Swan Theory Of Cruising – Updated”

  1. John Harries Says:

    A really great piece, Steve. Should be required reading for anyone that goes offshore. Also for anyone who designs, builds or maintains boats that will go offshore. It should be posted in every marine service department.


  2. John Poparad Says:

    We used to call those low probability-high impact events when we did some risk studies. It was almost impossible to get people to take actions to mitigate the possible impacts. The comment usually was; well it isn’t very likely that will happen. I think what would upset me the most was that I’m the one who said it wasn’t very likely to happen when I started the presentation. What I wanted was for people to look beyond the probability of occurance to the impact! The second upsetting thing was the smug look that would come from having said no and saved what was usually a very small amount of money by not taking mitigating action. Unfortunately, the impact usually went far beyond the decision maker as in the case of my current band wagon; the impact of an EMP event, either man made or natural, against the electric distribution web. But that’s another story.


  3. Matt Marsh Says:

    Another nice post, Steve- and so very accurate and insightful.

    You’re not the only cruisers to think this way. John Vigor talks about the same idea now and then; he calls it the “black box theory” ( http://www.johnvigor.com/Black_Box_Theory.html ). The premise is that “luck” has very little to do with anything on a boat; rather, the points banked in your boat’s imaginary “black box” when you perform various seamanlike acts can be redeemed, in time of emergency, to prevent that engine mount from cracking or that spreader from collapsing when you need it most. The boats that make it through nasty storms aren’t lucky, they just had a lot of points in the box (someone went up the mast to check the lamps and blocks, someone changed the fluids in the motor, someone took the trysail out to check for frayed threads, someone disassembled and cleaned the seacocks before launching, etc.)


  4. Ward Says:

    @Matt Marsh: I remember seeing that same article – or one that said the exact same thing – many years ago, but I would’ve guessed that I saw it in SAIL. I’ve always liked that idea of a box that you can contribute to, but you can’t know for sure if you’ve got enough positive karma in there to cover a screwup, so you have to be sure you’re always contributing. And you don’t know if you’ve used up a lot or a little on a minor mistake, so you have to learn from your mistakes and work extra hard to build up more points in the box when you make them.


  5. Mick Says:

    Well reasoned and interesting piece Steve. I don’t wish to be argumentative but while anchored in some ‘not perfect’ anchorages (tucked in the reef in Moorea, Barrier Reef, New Caledonia are a couple of memorable instances) the ‘Black Swan’ route would have seen us exit in the dark into a difficult exit. As it eventuated, we hunkered down, ran the engine or put another anchor down but stayed put. The outcome in these cases were nights without sleep. I’m just saying that the additional risk of exiting has to be evaluated in the calculations.

    Steve Dashew Reply:

    Hi Mick:
    We were in exactly the same situation 30 yeas ago in Takaroa lagoon (Tuomotus) and used the same tactics of running the engine to reduce anchor strain. You are right to point out that it is sometimes better to wait it out if you have no escape.
    That said, the Black Swan approach would have you keeping watch for weather convergences, the usual cause of the trade winds switching directions, and heading out of the lagoon before the present anchorage becomes risky.

    Peter Rossin Reply:

    Hi Mick

    Pete Rossin here. To put things in context, we saw some lightening on the horizon around 11 PM – while in all probability a local squall, we put the dink aboard and turned on all the electronics and activated our inbound track so we had a route out as a precaution. Radars were both on and the track out was both shown on the radar screens, the Furuno chart plotter and separately on our MaxSea chart plotter.

    When the squall hit, it blew 70 plus knots and our big Rocna (which had never dragged before or since) did putting us on a lee shore. No sooner were we underway (and following our track), when BOTH MaxSea and the entire Navnet system went down at just the critical point when we were trying to round the corner of the reef. Afterward, we learned from Furuno that there was a software glitch between MaxSea and Furuno (both of which were sold by them to us) that caused both systems to lock up when Tides and Currents were activated in both systems.

    Point here is not to make excuses. The point is that even when you take every conceivable precaution, things beyond your control can jump up to grab you. Now I rely on two separate nav programs to avoid such “software glitches”.

    The other strategy could have been to leave earlier from the anchorage. That also would have also meant a night departure into a reef filled waters. As far as holding position, that might of worked – until we lost everything at 3AM in a 70 knot blow with no radar, GPS or chart plotters as help.


  6. Max Says:

    Is this swan named “Murphy”?


  7. Shannon Says:

    I call them low likelihood high cost events. In a marine environment it’s a no brainer to plan for those events yet many don’t. It amazes me how many people muddle through life without a thought of preventing the next problem large or small. Some people call me a perfectionist. I wouldn’t say I am a perfectionist but I do like things to work as designed & I have little tolerance for preventable or foreseeable failures. One of my friends said I was the luckiest person she knows because I seldom have bad things happen. Is it really luck? She then talked about when she got stranded on the side of the road due to a radiator hose & her accident due to an old tire & several other totally preventable things. She is a great friend & I love her to death but she doesn’t think ahead. Unfortunately I think her mindset is more common than people that do think & plan ahead. That’s what I love about your designs. You think about prevention. You plan for the unlikely but serious if it does happen event. I couldn’t own a boat that doesn’t take these things very seriously. The cost of not doing so could be very high indeed.