Friday, October 28, 2011

A Bit Of Wisdom We Can Borrow From Sailors

There is a poorly kept secret among sailors that rarely makes it into the awareness of folks who don't sail: One is safest in the deepest and most remote waters, and most at risk close to shore and near other boats.  A smart sailor tries to ensure he/she has plenty of sea room at any given time.  Sailors get a bit anxious when something gets inside their personal bubble.  A sailor's personal bubble, by the way, is a lot bigger than you'd think.  In fact, prior to GPS, the general wisdom was to go around obstructions marked on the chart by a mile or more, just in case you weren't where you thought you were.  This is still good advice, by the way.  More than one sailor has trusted the GPS a bit too much and ended up on a reef.

The reason a sailor likes a lot of sea room is because there is only so much he/she can control.  A sailor can control which way the boat is pointing, sail trim and... that's about it.  Really, he/she can only control how the boat moves through the water - which is also moving most of the time.  The water's current, waves, and the wind have a constant impact on the boat and where it ends up.  In the wrong conditions, a sailor can do everything in his/her power, and still get pushed into a nearby obstruction.  Because of this, maintaining as much sea room as possible is vital.  Even when racing, sailors give the other boats plenty of room, because it's embarrassing to smash up another sailor's boat when a wave pushes you into them.

How does this apply to motorcycles?

I think we can agree the safest places to ride are those places where other people are not operating their vehicles, and there aren't a lot of things to run into.  A square mile of blacktop with no obstructions would be a pretty safe place to ride.

Of course, it would also be impossibly boring after an hour or so, and such a place doesn't exist anyway.  Here in the real world, we spend most of our time riding in areas where there is traffic and/or plenty of obstacles to avoid.

Motorcycles are uniquely nimble, in terms of motorized vehicles.  They accelerate quickly, require little space to maneuver, and modern motorcycles have effective brakes.  This leads, I suspect, to a bit of overconfidence on the road.  I regularly see motorcyclists tailgating, sneaking into tiny gaps in traffic, and generally using as little space on the road as possible.

I'm not going to say that finding the opening isn't a heck of a lot of fun, but the cost of playing in small spaces is a lack of a cushion if things go wrong. 

There are roads here in Phoenix where traffic bunches up on itself.  Everyone is driving roughly the speed limit, but crammed right next to one another, and right on the bumper of the car ahead.  I shudder to think of the pileup that is going to occur one day when something goes wrong and no one can stop or evade in time.

The only we can control is how we move through traffic.  When I find myself in situations where I don't have enough space for evasive maneuvers, I do whatever is necessary to give myself a safety cushion.  If I have to slow down and annoy the S.U.V. behind me, so be it.  I can be patient.  If I can pass or change lanes, I will.  The more space between me and that distracted driver in a Lexus, the better.

Seek out and maintain ample "sea room" while you're riding.  I guarantee you'll find your rides more relaxing and enjoyable, and you'll have increased your margin of safety.


Anonymous said...

Good advice- maintaining your bubble gives you room to react in an emergency

Plus, it's my opinion that the average level of driving skill among the general population is shockingly low- there are some stunningly incompetent drivers out there, and they will squash us like bugs if we don't watch them constantly

Lucky said...

Agreed. And even the best drivers goof up now and then. It's best to give everyone plenty of room for error - then it's just embarrassing, maybe irritating, but everyone escapes unscathed.

Mark Spearman said...

When I was trucking, I took The Smith System course a few times. It taught the same principle about space. Combine space with keeping a mindful eye on the big picture and looking far ahead to anticipate upcoming obstacles and you're going to be very safe.

In heavy traffic slowing down is usually the only way to get space. As you get it cars will always dive in your empty space. If you keep allowing for the space as the take it, you will still make progress though.

In mild traffic you would be surprised how light traffic actually is if you keep allowing for space. Many times, the traffic is only bunched up in packs and once they pass, you find you're alone on the road. Pick the pace back up and you'll maintain that huge space for a long time.

If you have the space, only legal and equipment capabilities hold you back from speed. Being safe doesn't have to be be boring.

Lucky said...

Mark - Good point. When I ride the Vespa, I've noticed that very thing. If you let all the idiots pass, you end up with the road to yourself.

And when I'm in the twisties, if I get caught behind a slowbie and can't pass, I'll pull over for 30 seconds or so. Sometimes it's a long enough head start for them that I don't ever catch up again.