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Yuppie 911: our inspiration to live up to the ideal of sailing

2010 January 4
There are times when I wish GPS had never been invented. One of those times was when I read about Yuppie 911.

Two men went hiking in the Grand Canyon with their teenage sons. "In the span of three days," the Associated Press reported, "the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls."

The panic button was on a personal locator beacon, a gizmo you can buy for less than $100 that sends a distress signal and GPS coordinates at a touch of that button. The signal goes to a private company, which then alerts search and rescue organizations, which have no option but to respond to save people from whatever dire threat it is that they're facing. In the case of the Grand Canyon hikers, the threat was water that "tasted salty."

After the third rescue summons, the rescue team forced the hikers to get in a helicopter and took them back to a safe world where there was plenty of sodium-free bottled water. The rescuers apparently did not have the authority to confiscate the personal locator. Pity.

You don't have to be a pessimist to see this as a sign of a decadent society: Self-reliance and personal responsibility don't matter anymore because you can push a button to have your sorry butt saved from whatever difficulty you got yourself into.

That difficulty doesn't even have to rise to the menace of salty water. Another hiking party reportedly pushed the button and caused a rescue mobilization because they wanted their families to know they were going to be late and their cell phones didn't work. Now there's an emergency-no cell coverage.

The fellow who coined the term Yuppie 911, Matt Scharper, the head of California's search and rescue operation, lamented the fact that his "personnel are placing their own selves at risk for somebody that's just uncomfortable or didn't plan or prepare" and pointed out that the GPS locators let people take risks they would never have considered before. For a mere hundred bucks they can buy bragging rights to adventures that will enthrall their friends, neighbors and office mates.
What does Yuppie 911 have to do with sailing? Quite a bit.

I'm not saying that sailors have been abusing rescue services in as egregious a way as those hikers. There has been some of that on a small scale, sailboat owners calling the Coast Guard because they ran out of fuel, that sort of thing. (That's why the Coast Guard got out of the towing business.) And there have been a few instances in which sailors pursuing their sail-around-the-world dreams put themselves in situations they weren't prepared to handle and in desperation activated their epirbs. It can at least be said for these rescue supplicants that the trouble they got themselves into was the real thing. Their problem wasn't that their drinking water tasted salty; it was that without rescue they would be immersed forever in salty water.

What Yuppie 911 really has to do with sailing is that it should serve as our inspiration to live up to the ideal of sailing, which is to master the skills and develop the judgment that make us self-reliant at sea. This is the essence of sailing. Almost anyone can step into a sailboat and in a short time learn how to make the boat move more or less in the direction they want it to go, but that is merely to dabble. Mastering sailing means to master the ancient sailor's imperative of knowing how to "hand, reef and steer." It comes with study, practice, the advice of mentors, the patient accumulation of experience. It is the ability to handle a boat in heavy weather, to anchor in a blow, to splice a line and repair a sail, to fix what breaks, to understand weather, to navigate without GPS, to sail the boat to the dock when the engine is out of gas, to know all of these things so you don't have to push the panic button.

Sometimes it seems this is not widely understood even in the sailing community. The "safety police" who bust this magazine with their scolding letters to the editor every time we publish a picture of someone sailing in breezy conditions without wearing a life preserver trivialize the principles of safety at sea. PFDs are to sailing what parachutes are to flying-no substitute for knowing how to handle the craft in dangerous conditions.

This is not about some sort of macho mentality that dictates that real sailors don't ask to be rescued. The point is that real sailors will use their skills and judgment and do their damnedest to stay out of trouble, or get out of trouble, before asking others to put their lives in jeopardy to save theirs.

Sailing is the anti-Yuppie 911. This should be its great appeal. Sail enough and it's certain your sailing competence and your self-reliance are going to be tested. Those of us who would like to see the decline in sailing participation reversed should keep in mind that this is what sets sailing apart from many of the ways you can spend your recreational time. Maybe our slogan should be, "Try sailing-it's not easy."

That might attract people who are best cut out for sailing. Yuppy 911 types need not apply.