Drifting on about technology

 (Continued . . .)

The channel narrows and we pass close to ruins of the South Hooe Mine on the outside of the bend.

(Click on image to enlarge)


All the way along the reaches of the Tamar from here was a busy mining area. In its heyday, more tin, copper, silver and arsenic were mined in this region than anywhere else in Europe.

The mines eventually ran out and the mining came to an end very suddenly in the late nineteenth century, the villages and towns emptied and Cornish miners spread all over the world.  In a small cemetery in Russell, New Zealand, I was very moved to find the grave of a young miner from Cornwall who died in the late eighteen hundreds. He had made the long voyage, found work . . . and died shortly afterwards, far away from home.

Once the mining had finished, the landowners landscaped the land and it was turned over to market gardening, but a number of remnants of the industry can still be seen – like these useful cuts in the bank.


Up to this point, alongside my the chart and the gps, I have been relying on the channel being buoyed,  Now we are coming to the end of the buoyed part of the river. The waypoints on the gps have held up. Apart from the schoolboy error finding the buoy at the beginning, my voyage up the Tamar is going well.

The sun is hot, there is no wind and the engine is ticking over smoothly, my camera is at hand, the temptation to daydream is overwhelming . . .

“. . . and deep down there is something niggling me. It has to do with the technology I am using and the fact that I am in an element where, for centuries, no such technology existed, yet they managed perfectly well to navigate this river – navigate everywhere, in fact, without it. Had the technology existed centuries ago, I have no doubt they would have used it but that’s not the point – they didn’t need it because they developed ways of pilotage and navigation that worked without it. And, notably, in making it work, seaman developed a pace, an attitude, an approach to being and working on the water that differed from being on land. Now that numbers-based digital technology has become universal on land and water, it has affected this pace, this attitude, this approach.

The question I am asking myself is this, “Is this is a good thing, there’s nothing to worry about and I should ‘build a bridge and get over it’ or, in grasping the new technologies, have we thrown out too much hard won knowledge, skills and attitudes – knowledge, skills and attitudes that would still be useful?”

A simple example: I am sitting in the cockpit of my boat looking at a readout which is showing my speed, the distance to the next waypoint, the estimated time we will get to that waypoint and the estimated time when we should reach Cotehele. I can change the screen to a map showing the boat as a little triangle pointing along its course. I can produce a compass on another screen or I can change the compass to a track  to show whether I am on course or not. I can zoom in or out of these screens. Compared with what is available today, this is simple technology but even though I have been using it for several years – (and I have been using and regularly upgrading computers ever since I first bought an Apple lle in 1983), I still find it amazing.

However, I notice that this gps device creates in me what I think of as a land-based, high-charged attitude – a desire to speed up, to work the numbers. I become mildly competitive – trying to increase the speed, trying reduce the eta and so on. This is not wrong – every competitive sailor, every merchant sailor, every naval sailor will tell you how useful and important the numbers are.

But there are knowledge, skills and attitudes that go with a non-digital world that are in danger of being lost. My generation is the last one to have experienced a pre-digital era. My grandson with his iPad will have no such concept. Even if some of those pre-digital knowledge, skills and attitudes are now superfluous, there are within them many elements that are unique. They deal with the fluidity of life, a fluidity that can’t be controlled by hard numbers however much we try. The wind, sea and sail triangle is a practical metaphor for this. We have to set our sails to match the wind and the sea, we cannot influence either the wind or the sea to match the set of our sails. Maybe one day people will harness them, maybe not. In the meantime, we cannot merely ignore the wind and sea, we have to live with them, matching their pace. And this requires certain approaches, certain attitudes.

Similarly, we can control parts of our lives but not the whole of them. Science has yet to find the answer to everything – (by everything, I mean the full physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual everything). yet we are exposed to ‘everything’ every day, here and now, even if we are not aware of it. We focus on the little bits we do know. And, in this digital era, we are moving faster and faster in our small worlds, chasing the numbers, confined by whatever version of the technology we are using. It is as though we are stuck in a groove waiting for an upgrade. The way we act is governed by the software we use. At the same time the world goes on around us, sometimes with spectacular successes but also with the most disastrous of failures.

Please forgive the reflective sailor but I don’t imagine I am alone in thinking this. There are attitudes and approaches to living that are becoming buried – experiential, instinctual, practical approaches that come from actually living and doing. Converting these into a digital language and presenting them through digital media creates an artificial barrier. I am not knocking digital media, it is fantastic – (I am using it to present this to you), but it is one part of life not the whole of it and we seem to be losing track of this. I am sure in decades to come the software will marry seamlessly with humanity – (I blanch as I write this), but in the meantime there is a disconnect – a gap between the screen and real life. We need to rediscover ways to cross that gap.”.

Travelling up the river, getting that off my chest, I relax. The balance has changed – the sights and sounds around me have become more important than the numbers in front of me.


Lost in thought, I take the next bend too sharply. Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of the depth sounder – 1.4 metres. I wake up abruptly. We should touch the mud at 1.1 metres – (I must check that out sometime, but not here).

I push the tiller away from me and bring us back into the channel, closer to the trees. The colour of the water changes, There is a line of leaves following the tidal current in the main channel. I can hear the crows call from the trees. . . . And I sense the irony of the last few moments. Yes, the numbers are still useful – but “part of it, not all of it”.


The quay at Pentillie Castle with the Bathing Hut slip past, followed a short while later by . . .


. . . Halton Quay where the the clerk’s office to the lime kilns became the smallest Anglican chapel in England.

A little further on, I discover that I have made another schoolboy error with my waypoints . . .

(All images taken by Bill Whateley)

(Continued . . .)

2 thoughts on “Drifting on about technology

  1. Pingback: Beyond Steeple Point . . .

  2. South Hooe was the site of an important advance in mining technology. William West first introduced the concept of a Steam Capstan here, an innovation that saved a fortune in manpower costs. Capstans raised and lowered pitwork in the shafts, and before West’s invention at South Hooe manual labour had to be called upon whenever work had to be undertaken in the shafts. My book ,The Last Great Cornish Engineer , tells the fascinating story of West. I will be at the Looe Literary Festival this weekend, reading from the book.


    When I will try to explain why a navigator has ended up writing a book about an engineer!

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