We humans sometimes invoke the notion of “luck” in a strange way, it seems to me. I have already written about our rental-car trip last Fall from Oslo to Kristiansand, Norway, during which I fell asleep while driving and slid along the guard rail which separated my lane from the oncoming traffic. I said we were “lucky” to have not incurred any personal injury. I could have said I was unlucky to fall asleep, but instead said we were lucky that it was not worse.
Why do we say we are “lucky” when something bad happens, but could have been worse?
The mathematician in me wonders if maybe we employ our concept of luck in a manner analogous to the application of the concept of conditional probability. I’ll resist the temptation to launch off into an explication of that concept and simply note that in addition to the mathematical concept of probability, in which we gauge the likelihood of event A occurring , there is the concept of conditional probability, in which we gauge the likelihood of B happening given that A has already occurred. Maybe we are likewise employing the concept of conditional luck, in which we say we were lucky that B subsequently happened (or didn’t happen) given that A had already happened.
But the philosopher in me wonders if something else may be at the heart of our tendency to say we were lucky when something bad happens that could have been worse. Maybe the invocation of luck in that circumstance is really our attempt to hide from the uncomfortable fact that the universe can be indifferent to or even hostile to our best interests. So instead of focusing on the fact that A happened, we focus on the fact that B happened (or didn’t happen) given that A had happened.
On the evening of Monday, March 23, we departed a little after 5 pm from Virgin Gorda, BVI and cruised through the night toward St. Martin. I took the first watch and was relieved by Barb at about 2:00 am. At about 5 am, I was awaked by Barb calling my name and by the sound of an alarm going off from the control console of our stabilizers. The display revealed that the port stabilizer was frozen in an extreme position, a fact soon collaborated by opening a hatch and gazing down. There being no obvious remedy, we shut both stabilizers down and reapplied propulsion power, only to note that our speed was drastically reduced. Suddenly we lurched ahead and attained normal speeds.
We were “lucky” that the seas were relatively calm, and that such waves as there were came essentially on the nose, so stabilizers were in fact unneeded. When we arrived at Marigot Bay, St. Martin, we had some breakfast and then I donned a snorkel and mask to have a look-see. I found a length of line jammed between the stabilizer and the hull, with a juice container/float pulled up tightly to the jam. I tried pulling on the line and then tried rotating the stabilizer fin, with no success. I returned to the transom and had Barb fetch a keyhole saw and a small hacksaw, with which I attempted to cut the line. I very quickly realized that the task was formidable, and so I returned to the cockpit and donned scuba gear. And then sawed and sawed and sawed. The problem was that the line was jammed all across the width of the fin. As I sawed I could see just a few dark strands floating away during each stroke. Ninety minutes later, one scuba tank depleted, the fin finally came free, with no damage done to the hull or the fin. Lucky, huh?
Next day we cruised down to Colombier Bay, St. Barths, and the following day cruised to Antigua. While out in the deep water between St. Barths and Antigua, we caught a tuna. Now that is what I call genuine luck!