The word for mayday, the well-known sailor’s exhortation, is an anglicized phonetic form of the French, m’aidez – help me.  While mayday is reserved for only the most sever situations, less vital requests for assistance are almost more difficult to ask for.

On our way into San Francisco harbour we were debating what we could do to celebrate our arrival.  We fixed on mimosas and bacon as the most indulgent things we could think of.  But before we could realize our version of opulence, we had to sort out the engine, which we had to shut down 100 feet from the marina.

After turning back from the dock we sailed around in front of the marina trying to figure out what to do.  Over the VHF radio we heard somebody hailing us.

“Boat with the bluewater burgee, ahoy, boat with the bluewater burgee.”

“I think that’s us,” exclaimed Fiona, surprised.

A dinghy was approaching and a woman was holding a radio up to her face and looking right at us.  I guess it was us.

“Ahem yes…yes…this is us.” I was frazzled and it was hard to think of the right thing to say.

We thought they noticed the smoke from our engine and were coming to assist us.  However, they had only seen our burgee and were coming over to make friends.  I tried to play it cool and make small talk with them.  I didn’t want to belie the sick feeling in my stomach that we were floating around a busy harbor without an engine or to fail to uphold social convention.  It amazes me how we can master ourselves when somebody else is watching.  Barb and Bjarne were kind and immediately offered help after we begrudgingly told them of our situation, but with a small electric motor on their dinghy there was little they could do.  But it felt good that somebody else knew that we had lost the engine, even though it was hard to tell them.

We live in groups, societies, because it is advantageous to our survival.  Groups are not advantageous to the survival of all types of animals.  For example, animals living in forested areas are often better off in singles or pairings.  It would look ridiculous for twenty, or a hundred, mule deer to hide behind a single tree.  Whereas animals that evolved in wide open areas, like the African savannah, where it is more difficult to find cover, are often found in large groups, the size of which depends on many factors.  The Kalahari Bushmen live in groups of around 26-30 and it is suggested that this is the ideal group size for humans; the one most closely aligned with our social instincts.

Bushmen playing

But there is an odd contradiction.  We rely on the group for safety, yet often when we need assistance, especially when it could be construed as making us weaker in the eyes of our peers, we can’t ask for it.  If the group comes to see us as weak they might not want us in the group any longer, or our status in the group might drop.  It’s a sad game of pretend strength.  When we really require assistance of the group, we can’t ask for it.  It’s like an insurance policy that can never be cashed in.  How many times have we tried to fix something ourselves, or gotten lost, and it would have been made so much easier if we had just asked for help.

When we first bought this boat, three years ago, we were very new to the world of boat ownership.  We spent a couple of weeks in the yard cleaning the bottom and making some other repairs, but mostly we poked at things and wondered what they were.  When it came time to relaunching, we were very nervous.  Our fears were confirmed when, ready to leave the dock, the engine wouldn’t start, it wouldn’t even turn over, just…nothing.  Our only real comparison being to cars, we decided that the battery must be dead.  So against our instinctual fear of looking weak and silly, we asked for help from the marina.  They sent a fellow down with a battery charger on a dolly.  But before he hooked up the battery charger to the battery, he asked us if our batteries were on.  On?  What does that even mean?  Well, they weren’t.  We didn’t even know there was a battery switch.

Back to San Francisco and the problem with the engine was that our alternator had seized after the ball bearings had become loose.  Either it was a faulty bearing pack, or I was over-tensioning the fan belt and put too much strain on the bearings.  On the night before we arrived in San Francisco the alternator had begun to squeak.   I was planning to investigate the noise upon arrival, but obviously didn’t get the opportunity.  It is further proof that problems, not just with sailboat engines, rarely arise without warning.

We sailed to a floating breakwater and tied to it.  Luckily, we had a spare alternator and, once the old one had cooled down, were able to swap it in.  While on the breakwater, we were almost assailed by assistance from various people in the harbour.  It was a great feeling and it dissolved the fear and hesitation about asking for help.  Two fellows from the San Francisco marina stood on the breakwater with us while we switched out the alternator and then asked if we would like them to follow us into the marina in their boat just in case anything went wrong.  For a split second the old fear came back, but was quickly replaced by a feeling of community and safety.

alternator running
Alternator (top-right) spinning again

“That’d be really nice,” we said.  “Thanks.”

It’s hard to ask for help and that’s why we should be offering it at every opportunity.  If somebody looks like they are in distress don’t wait for them to ask for help.  It’s not insulting to ask somebody if they need help, it’s liberating and wonderful, and is the foundation of our society.  In sailing we have more opportunity to require assistance than the average member of society and I think that’s why there is such a culture of helping one another.  International Maritime Law requires a captain of any vessel to assist another vessel in distress.  Imagine if that extended to the rest of society.

An hour later we were luxuriating in the cockpit with mimosas and an entire pack of bacon.


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