Tuesday, February 13, 2018

No problem so bad that you can't make it worse

First off, no, we aren’t in the midst of a major Problem.  But I have been thinking about what we have “trova’d”, and this issue of dealing with problems is one of them.

So, while we aren’t in the middle of dealing with a major Problem, they are pretty much incessant in this way of life.  While back in Florida and on our way off the boat to a meeting, I went to shut down the generator and it wouldn’t turn off.  Most folks expect machinery to not start, but here we were in a time crunch and the motor wouldn’t shut down. 

Problems (with a capital ‘P’) are like that – they are always new-to-you and occur when you need the system that is misbehaving.  Which is only natural since, a) if you have already been through it, it isn’t such a big deal, and b) if you didn’t need whatever it was that just failed, you wouldn’t have found it to be broken! 

But what did I do about the generator?  I thought about whether we could just leave it running until we came back: not an option since we were to be away much of the day and there was no load on the generator, a bad thing for it.  Hmmm… how to shut down a diesel motor when the push-button switch doesn’t do it?  I pulled out the manual and reviewed the circuit diagram, found the actual switch on the electrical panel, and checked it’s function: nope, it was working correctly so no easy way to command a shut-down by by-passing the switch. I thought through what motors need, fuel and air and combustion…

Next idea - kill the fuel supply: tried that two different ways, and it didn’t work, seemed that the motor was able to suck fuel backwards in the fuel-return line.  Tried choking off the air inlet with a rag, added more rags, a plastic bag: nope, the motor was running badly now, but still running and sucking in air from somewhere. No easy way to kill the combustion in a running diesel …

Jennifer in the mean time had reached out to a knowledgeable cruising friend: he explained how to find the shut-down throttle solenoid and told us to manually trip it.  While the motor was running.  Of course!  Easy!  Reach in past the whirring parts and push on a gizmo I didn’t know.  But it made total sense, that’s how diesels are shut down.  In the end it was tricky but it worked.  Elapsed time: 20 minutes and we made it to our meeting.  The root problem is also still not resolved and we will have to address it when we get back to the boat from our holiday travels. 

What I didn’t do was let myself get worked up about it.  When we started out cruising, everything felt like an emergency and we semi-panicked whenever things failed.  Now we know a lot more, but even with things where we have no clue, we actually do have clues.  We have learned to stop, think it through, fight down the panic, and get on with it.

I learned the expression that is the title of this post from an Apollo astronaut in his TED talk about dealing with life in space.  It was his theme – that there are no problems so bad that you can’t make them worse.  In the case of spacecraft, nearly everything is life-threatening so you have to learn how to deal rationally with threatening situations.  It only feels that threatening on a sailboat, it is really nothing like as dangerous.  But you can still make things worse.  Like possibly sucking fuel backwards risking contaminating the injectors, maybe.  But I had anticipated that possibility and consciously took the risk, I was not just grabbing at the first possible fix.

Bottom line is that panic never got you anywhere except into more trouble.  Indulging in panic is really expensive.  And worse, like sea-sickness, it is infectious. 

What do I do about it?  That really is the right question. To paraphrase an old quip “never look at the panic, it only encourages it.”  The next time you are faced with a serious problem and you feel panic pushing in from the edges, just push it back, then face the problem you have to face, and get on with it.

Easier said than done, of course.  To get more practice, all you have to do is buy a boat.


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