brown boat on sea

Lessons in Maintenance

What’s the best approach to maintenance — in software, sailing, or anything else? Hope for the best? Stewart Brand takes a famous solo, non-stop, round-the-world sailing race as a parable about maintenance styles that will win, go beyond winning, or drive you mad.

Estimated reading time: 60 minutes

Maintenance Styles That Can Lead You to Victory, Liberate, or Kill You

Using The Sunday Times‘ 1968-69 Golden Globe single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world sailing race as a parable about maintenance, Stewart Brand wrote an excellent article for Works in progress this summer about the maintenance styles of three of the nine entrants — the only one who finished, one who would’ve won but decided to reject the competition to sail even further, and one who tried to cheat, broke down emotionally, and committed suicide.

Why is maintenance the key theme, in Brand’s view?

Every piece of equipment on board, and the structure of the boat itself, would be stressed for months on end. Since going ashore for repairs was forbidden, maintenance would have to be ceaseless and done at sea. Failure of a critical element at a critical time could mean death.

‘My rule is, a new boat every day’.

Bernard Moitessier

Brand contends, “The different maintenance styles of the three sailors led directly to their different outcomes.” He summarizes their styles like this:

Knox-Johnston’s style was: “Whatever comes, deal with it.” And he did.

Crowhurst’s was: “Hope for the best.” It killed him.

Moitessier’s was: “Prepare for the worst.” It freed him.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the Golden Globe Race.

Bernard Moitessier won the maintenance race.

The interesting feature of Brand’s analysis is that there were two ways of winning. The superior sailor, Bernard Moitessier, turned out to be uninterested in the actual race in favor of a personal victory that illustrates his superior maintenance style.

The contest winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, was an incredible improviser and found happiness in the constant work, taking on a constant flow of serious problems as they came and doing even more maintenance just to stay sane. He noted in his journal, “Doing maintenance cures depression.”

The more profound “winner,” in Brand’s view, was Bernard Moitessier who “dealt with most of his maintenance issues in advance.” Moitessier also kept his technology simple and his load light:

‘My rule is, a new boat every day’. His years at sea had taught him that if you don’t fix something when you first see it beginning to fail, it is very likely to finish failing just when it is the most dangerous and the hardest to deal with, such as in the midst of a storm.

Knox-Johnston had a 69-day lead over Moitessier, but Moitessier was expected to win (although it probably would have been a close finish) as he reached the Atlantic and the home stretch to England. Moitessier, a vagabond sailor who had grown up in French Indochina, became disgusted with the idea of fame and the accolades that awaited him, despite his need for the prize money. According to his memoir, La Longue Route, he sailed on to the Pacific and Tahiti after relaying the following message to a passing ship that was published in The Sunday Times:

Mon intention est de continuer le voyage, toujours sans escale, vers les îles du Pacifique, où il y a plein de soleil et davantage de paix qu’en Europe. Ne pensez pas, s’il vous plaît, que j’essaye de battre un record. Le mot “record” est un mot très stupide en mer. Je continue sans escale parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être parce que je veux sauver mon âme.

My intention is to continue the voyage, still nonstop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe. Please don’t think I’m trying to break a record. The word “record” is a very stupid word at sea. I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.

Peter Nichols, Bernard Rubinstein, and Gérard Janichon, Golden Globe: Une épopée solitaire autour du monde.

Crowhurst, at the other extreme, “solved” maintenance failures by lying about his condition and location while spending more time maintaining an illusion of success than trying to fix his craft or save himself. His logbook, a mix of fact and fantasy, is regarded as “the most completely documented account of a psychological breakdown.”

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