Good Cruising Philosophy: Vigor’s Black Box Theory

Aboard Winterlude we have lots of “cruising rules” such as no alcohol until the anchor is securely set and no getting out of the cockpit underway unless someone else is in the cockpit.  But one “rule” that has served us so well, is not even ours. It’s author John Vigor’s Black Box Theory.

Directly from John Vigor’s “The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge” comes the Black Box Theory:

John Vigor's Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge

John Vigor’s Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge

“The basis of the theory is that there is no such thing as fortuitous luck at sea.  The reason why some boaters survive storms or have fewer accidents than others is that they EARN their “luck” by diligent and constant acts of seamanship.  Aboard every boat there’s an invisible black box.  Every time a skipper takes the trouble to consult the chart, inspect the filters, go forward on a rainy night to check the running lights, or take any proper seamanlike precaution, he or she earns a point that goes into the black box.

In times of stress, in heavy weather or other threatening circumstances where human skill and effort can accomplish no more, the points are cashed in as protection.  The skipper has no control over their withdrawal.  They withdraw themselves, as appropriate.  Those skippers with no points in the box are the ones later described as “unlucky”.  Those with points to spend will survive- but they must start immediately to replenish their savings, for the sea offers no credit.”

So every time we get ready to lift our anchor or leave the dock, we double check  as much of the equipment we’ll be using as we remember.  For example, the windlass needs to work…. trying the foot up/down buttons to insure it works before leaving the dock is a chit in our black box.  Removing excess windage on the boat when we’re expecting a bad norther, chits in our black box. Making sure the reef lines are in the proper places and functional, more chits (note, we don’t always do as well as we should, but we try!).

The idea is to THINK through anything that you’ll be doing and make sure anything you need to work, works.  There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out something underway that should have been checked ahead of time.

Dolphins Accompany Winterlude on Passage

Dolphins Accompany Winterlude on PassageSailing In Cristobal Jetty, Panama Canal

So before you leave the dock or lift the anchor, think through the events of the day.  Specifically think about what systems you’ll need to work and then check the filters, check the alternator belt (ours loosens itself on a regular basis), check the running lights, etc.  Early on, we had a checklist of things to do before we lifted the anchor or left the dock.  We probably should dig up that checklist because we don’t always remember everything and sometimes it comes back to haunt us!

After checking on the boat itself, review the planned sail for the day — think through alternatives in advance.  What if you arrive to find the anchorage full?  What if the wind or waves won’t let you get there.  Have alternatives available and pre-planned.  Look over the navigation required ahead of time.

All of these things will add chits to your black box, so that when you need them, they’ll be there!

Do you have an imaginary black box aboard?

What things are on your checklist?   Leave a comment and share!  THX!  J


  1. A quote from Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) became our mantra in preparing for a hurricane (it’s always hot and no wind as you’re preparing):

    “The more I sweat, the luckier I get.”

    In other words, the more we did to prepare — taking sails and canvas off, putting backup snubbers on the anchor, securing the dinghy below, and so on — the “luckier” we were in that we had no damage while other boats nearby had problems.

  2. If you happen to dig out your checklist can you post it so we can see the type of items on it?


    • Hi Karen! Which checklist would you like, we have one for almost everything. 🙂 Cheers! Jan

      • Jan
        You mentioned in your Black Box article a checklist for leaving the anchorage or the dock. Do you mind sharing it with me? We close on our new boat on Monday and I am sure the first number of times will be chaotic.

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