What really makes anyone an expert, asks Jonty Pearce in his latest Yachting Monthly blog
As our experience and sailing skills grow, sailors may become at risk of considering themselves experts. Indeed, those of us foolhardy enough to dare to put pen to paper are at risk of believing that they might even know what they are talking about – a grievous error to make. I am content in my status of falling far short of such perfection. Indeed, though at 57 being possibly at the peak of my skills as a GP (dementia and memory loss has not yet overtaken my wide experience), my work is still known as General Practice. Practice makes perfect, they say, but I would argue that in both the fields of sailing and medicine those who claim to know it all are sadly self-deluded.
Which brings me to ponder on being an expert. Or, as a close sailing friend transformed the term into: an Ex Spurt. An ex is a has-been, and a spurt is a drip under pressure. This describes me perfectly – and I hate being under pressure, where the temptation to leak is overwhelming. I am also in the habit of describing myself as a pillock of the community – those who claim to be pillars have set themselves too high and are in danger of falling off. Or, more likely, being pushed off.
But we do need our experts. How do we choose them? How do they develop? I have previously touched on the frisson of anxiety that seems to be shared by experienced skippers before taking to the sea. Is expertise gained by overcoming this fear, or by encompassing it into our pre-departure risk assessment? Is a Day Skipper an expert, or do you need to have passed the milestone of Yachtmaster Ocean, or even instructor? When do we become accomplished enough to think that we are qualified to write a book? The answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind, the answers are blowing in the wind. For as each gale is survived, each Atlantic breaker is surfed down, and as we roll back for more after each Southern Ocean knockdown we gain the experience that takes us closer to the peak of the sailing pyramid of proficiency. I am never going to try to climb that high. I doff my sou’wester to the hardened sailing salts whose sea-stiffened oilskins drip from the back of the yacht club door on their return from another ocean girding adventure. I am never even likely to cross the pond – circumnavigating Britain, exploring the Baltic, and traversing the French canals to the Med are my post retirement targets.
But never forget that we can become experts in our own fields. Does a sailing expert need to have mastered sailing round Cape Horn, traversing the North West Passage, and drifting weed-bound through the Sargasso Sea before acceptance into being a sailing great? Gladly, no. We can still look up to those whose skills have been honed to near perfection in their own spheres of interest. A dinghy sailor whose succession of wins leaves them a name to be whispered in awe might be totally at a loss on an ocean-going yacht facing high seas. A world class ocean racer might clutch his head in despair when faced with the cat’s cradle of lines on a tall ship. And a regular sailing coastal cruiser could be totally confused aboard an East coast sailing barge. Each discipline can produce its own masters who honour us with their words of wisdom, recording their hard-won lessons in the written word. Without such pioneers to carve their way to the top of their own respective trees our own lives would be poorer and potentially lacking in inspiration.
Experts do not seem to be chosen – it is more a matter of emergence. Few set out on their adventures with the intention to develop into an expert, though many will return so regarded. There is no such danger for the likes of myself – I am content bumbling round the cellars of humdrum rather than ascending to examine the windvane of virtuosity at the roof’s peak. I will merrily remain a has-been, a drip under pressure, and enjoy the easy life.