In his new book, Knowledge 2.0, former professional sailor, navigator and, rules advisor for the British America’s Cup challenge, Mark Chisnell offers a ‘user’s guide to knowledge’.

Knowledge 2.0 tackles tricky questions such as: how much is survival in extreme situations down to chance? How much self-confidence is too much… and can lead to disaster? Each area of knowledge is illustrated with examples from sailing.

“Competing in sailing’s elite events – the Olympics, the America’s Cup or professional ocean racing – requires high-level knowledge across many disciplines. It demands knowledge of science, engineering, data analytics, computer science, simulation and modelling, deal making, finance, human resources, management, marketing and communications – and that’s before anyone gets in a boat,” explains Chisnell.

In the following extract, he reveals how legendary sailor Michel Desjoyeaux’s extreme problem-solving abilities helped him win the Vendée Globe.

Knowledge 2.0, Staying Afloat in the Information Age was published on 6 February 2024

Finding a solution

There are many times when the problem is not the sifting of knowledge, not the sorting through it looking for information we can trust – sometimes the problem is the absence of knowledge, the lack of a solution to a problem.

What is probably my favourite story in the book turns on an inspired piece of thinking. However, it’s not the brilliance of the solution that’s the point (dazzling though it is): the point is that this kind of thinking can be learnt, can be practised and can be improved.

“It was the last day of 2000 and, when I started the engine the previous day, I’d heard a bad noise, but I didn’t care. The day after, I wanted to start it again to charge the battery and nothing happened when I switched on the contact and pushed on the start button… So, my first job was to remove the starter to understand why it didn’t switch on. I removed it from the engine and then I opened it, and I found out all the brushes are more or less dust, nothing repairable.”

The speaker was Michel Desjoyeaux, also known as Mich Desj, or ‘Le Professeur’ for his analytical, intelligent approach to life. And on New Year’s Eve 2000 he was leading Ellen MacArthur in the Vendée Globe, deep into the Southern Ocean and on the way to Cape Horn. “My press officer told me, ‘But, you should have a spare for this, no?’ And I told him, ‘No. If I carry a spare part for this, then I carry two boats, which is not efficient.”

The engine had been built by Yanmar and Desjoyeaux had good contacts there, so his first act was to talk to them. “They told me, ‘Oh, we are very sorry, something [like this] happens one time in one million maybe, and it’s a very low occurrence issue you have now, and we are very sorry, we can’t help you because there is no solution.’”

The response must have seemed like the end. The rules are strict for the Vendée Globe race: there is absolutely no physical assistance allowed – so for Desjoyeaux, a stop anywhere to pick up spare parts would mean that he was out of the race. How could he possibly fix the starter without the parts? It would have been a harsh ending to what had been a brilliant performance to that point.

However, Desjoyeaux was no ordinary sailor; there’s a reason he’s known as Le Professeur.

Michel Desjoyeaux grew up in his parents’ shipyard in Concarneau in Brittany and sailing was his life from the very beginning. “My home was attached to the yard, and the yard was our recreation when we were young. We didn’t need to go on holidays anywhere – I mean, we didn’t want to go on holidays anywhere, because we had everything we needed. I also did all my school lessons until I was 10 with my mother, who did the teaching at home.”

It’s hard to imagine a better background for becoming familiar with marine engineering.

Desjoyeaux was just 20 when he competed in his first round-the-world race as crew for the legendary Éric Tabarly, and he followed that French icon into sailing history with a series of exceptional achievements. Few would argue that he is the most successful solo racer of all time, having won the Vendée Globe not once, but twice.

Ingenious problem solving allowed Michel Desjoyeaux to sail PRB to victory in the 2000/2001 Vendée Globe. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot

In 2008/09 he overcame a 40-hour deficit to win. He’s won the probably even more competitive Solitaire du Figaro three times, along with two major transatlantic races. Desjoyeaux is also an innovator, and pioneered the canting keel on a 1991 Fauroux-designed Mini Transat that also featured a pivoting carbon mast, and asymmetric spinnakers set on a long bowsprit.

But one of the most extraordinary moments of his career came after his discovery that he couldn’t start his engine in the Southern Ocean. “I switched off all the electronics that were not useful, only the [auto-]pilot with the compass left; no displays, no computer, no satellite connection, no weather forecast, nothing. The minimum possible, no navigation lights, I was fully in the Southern Ocean and I didn’t need lights because there was nobody [around]. And I spent a lot of time at the helm to save energy, preferring to sleep during the day when there was a little bit of sun for the solar panel to help me… during those days I tried to understand what I could do to try to find a good solution.

“I was a bit farther [east] than New Zealand, so it was too late to make a U-turn. This was very lucky for me, because I think that if I would have been able to get to Australia or New Zealand, then certainly… I think that maybe I would have postponed, stopped the race, put the traffic indicator light on to turn left.”

However, stopping wasn’t an option, so Desjoyeaux had to find a solution. It was a very long way to Chile without power; particularly without the desalinator, autopilot or communications.

Starter motor internals had disintegrated.

Reframing the problem

The state of the starter motor and lack of spares forced Desjoyeaux to look at the problem another way. Could he start the engine without it? The boat did have a second alternator, the device that turns mechanical energy into electrical energy to charge the battery.

“There was a big additional pulley at the front of the engine, and the two alternators were horizontal, one each side. So, my first idea was to remove one belt of one alternator and drill a hole to be able to put a screw in and attach a pad-eye to the pulley.”

The pad-eye would allow Desjoyeaux to attach a rope to the pulley. “Then maybe four or five turns [of a rope] around the pulley, then find a second block on the front of the boat and go out from there to the cockpit and on to a winch.”

The rope, a red line, that Desjoyeaux had attached to the pulley on the alternator would allow him to turn the engine over – just as a rope starts a lawnmower engine, or an outboard. Once it was led out from the interior of the boat on to the deck, he could try using the mechanical advantage of the boat’s winches to help him pull.

Alternator pulley became a rope pulley starter

Cold start

“I turned the winch and I understood directly that the load was not necessarily very big. I had the capacity to pull this load… but with just a winch, I would not be able to pull long enough and hard enough to make it start. It was cold, the temperature was between zero and 5°C, so it’s not very easy for a diesel engine to start. And I didn’t have enough battery to pre-heat the engine.”

Back at the Yanmar offices, they had been able to start an identical engine manually. “One of the things we asked them was how much you can unscrew the injector.” Desjoyeaux’s engine didn’t have a decompression lever, fitted to older engines to allow them to be manually started using a hand crank. They reduce the pressure in the engine, so it’s easier to turn it over. Then, once the rotation of the engine has begun and it has momentum, the pressure is reapplied and the diesel explodes.

“I unscrewed each injector… it’s three-quarters of a turn on each screw to have the minimum pressure to make turning it over easy, but also the minimum pressure to make the explosion possible when the engine compresses the diesel. In the Yanmar factory, they were able to start the engine with three people pulling on the rope.”

With an overtrimmed mainsail the red line finds its way back to the engine pulley – releasing the mainsail then spins the engine

Harnessing the wind

“I was confident,” he explained, “because I realised that the load to turn the engine and try to start it was not very big. We didn’t need tons, we just needed maybe two or three hundred kilograms.” Desjoyeaux, a master problem solver, knew exactly where he could find a force that would pull a rope with 200kg or 300kg of load: the sails.

“I tried to make a system to pull with the jib… it connected directly to the jib sheets.” The idea was that if he released control of the sail the wind would pull it, and the starter rope with it. “The problem is that when you ease a sheet you get a very big load at the beginning, but the sail collapses completely and you are not able to maintain power long enough to start the engine.”

Desjoyeaux realised that the jib wasn’t powerful enough. “I didn’t want to use a bigger sail or a sail [like a spinnaker] that could break, because I will need to do this operation every day. So, my idea was to go to the mainsail.” Desjoyeaux sailed PRB on an angle that normally requires the mainsail to be set at about 50° or 60° off the centreline. Instead, he pulled the mainsail in as hard as possible, over-sheeting it so it was as close to the centreline as possible.

The red line was wrapped around the engine pulley at one end, and then run via the mainsail (attached to the boom, the spar that controls the mainsail) to a fixed point, where the other end was attached. Once everything was in place Desjoyeaux released the mainsheet. The load from the over-sheeted sail pushed it out at huge speed, transferring this force to the red line all the way back to where it was wrapped around the pulley.

Another shot of the solution

“So, my red line [attached with the turns around the engine pulley] goes to a pulley at the back of the boat, up to the boom, back to the mast foot, the mast base, back to the cockpit. When I needed to start the engine, I prepare my rope in the boat and on the engine with five turns.

“Then I trim in the mainsail more than needed for the performance, I pulled on the red line, pulled on the winch very strongly, removed the mainsail sheet from the winch, put the contact on the engine, burn the diesel arriving at the injector with a small spark to heat it just before the injectors. And then I come to the cockpit, open the clutch of the mainsail, and then it pushed the main out… the first time I tried this, the engine started. It was incredible because it means that I was able to continue the race.”

Alone in the Southern Ocean, Le Professeur had figured out a fix that enabled him to finish the race without stopping for spares and beat Ellen MacArthur to win his first Vendée Globe. It was an exemplary piece of problem solving that was used again by Sébastien Destremau in 2016 – and quite probably by others.

Creative thinking

The one advantage that Desjoyeaux had was necessity – they say it’s the mother of invention, and it may well be he was able to figure out a way to start his engine simply because he had no other options. He was forced to focus on the actual problem, the real goal – starting the engine – rather than getting distracted by the apparent problem, a broken starter motor.

Substitution bias, or attribute substitution, is a cognitive bias that’s usually applied to decision making. We tend to substitute an easier or more obvious question for a hard one, and there’s something similar going on here.

The actual question is ‘How do I start the engine when the starter motor is broken?’ – but the easier question to try and answer is ‘How do I fix the broken starter motor?’ because that’s the thing right in front of us. Perhaps the impossibility of repairing it forced Desjoyeaux to shift to the real question and look for solutions to that problem. Whether the complete absence of other options helped him or not, this was an exemplary piece of problem solving. The problem in front of us isn’t always the one we need to fix.

Buy a copy of Knowledge 2.0, Staying Afloat in the Information Age from Amazon 

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