When In Doubt Wind the Clock or How to Handle Problem Solving under Stress

This may seem strange in a world where the windup clock has gone the way of the Dodo. But once upon a time clocks had to be wound. This fact is only tangent to the story at hand.

Why Wind the Clock?

The T-37 Cockpit.

The T-37 Cockpit.

Many years ago (in the time of the wind up clocks), I taught primary flying in the US Air Force. The trainer aircraft was the T-37 . I was tasked with coaxing, cajoling, brow beating, and otherwise urging my students from complete novices who had never been in an airplane (and in many cases could not walk and chew gum) to being able to fly the jet-engine, T-37, by their selves and perform a whole host of required tasks – instrument, formation and precision navigation – to name only a few. The Air Force furnished them with a checklist aid their memory. It included the steps to start the aircraft and all the other necessary actions to get it safely off and back onto the ground. Included in this check list was a set of emergency procedures to be followed in case of fire, engine failure, or a fuel leak etc. But, what it did not mention was that most emergencies were far more subtle and sometimes complex. The fledgling pilot would often (read most of the time) go and use one of the canned emergency procedures even if it was the wrong thing to do. The classic example is the pilot who pulled the fuel shut off handle on the wrong engine in a fire, because the lights in the handles were wired backwards – leaving him with a very heavy glider. So I taught my students that the first step in any emergency was to WIND THE CLOCK. This gave them time for the increased blood flow to reach their brains, the initial surge of adrenaline to drop, and their sphincter to close. It had the added benefit in that it did no harm. Aside from the fact that clocks got over-wound on occasions and the maintenance types were puzzled. Then when the student had calmed down a bit and his (or her) brain was in fact working, they could go on to solve the problem.

Some years later, I had a student tell me about an incident where this principle had saved the day. He was up teaching in the same trainer and flying in the weather. The T-37, in those days, had one attitude indicator in front of the student in the left seat (the instructor sat on the right). It also had two turn and bank indicators, one on each side. For some reason the attitude indicator failed and indicated that they were upside down. That was fine as we were all taught to recover from an unusual attitude using the turn and bank indicator (not an easy task – but doable). He had, however, a failed turn and bank indicator on his side which he did not know of. So he was receiving three different indications of what the aircraft was doing of which only one was right and that was the one of the student’s side as far as possible from him. He thought about the problem, determined which one to believe, recovered the aircraft and brought them both home. What saved him and his student is that he spent a moment to think about the problem while “Winding the Clock”.

Wild Matilda

Wild Matilda

Most problems in sailing are not as time critical as flying. Fire, an impending collision, or a major hole are probably the few exceptions. But, stress is present in both flying and sailing. Stress in sailing comes from long days, heavy weather, and fatigue. Lack of sleep, change in diet, and anxiety contribute. The result is the problem solving skills are taxed at a time when they are needed most.

Earlier this year I had a classic example. I had just completed a 27 hour solo sail from an island just south of Saint Martin to the Saints. I was glad to be in and looking forward to a good nap. When I remembered that I had not heard the refrigerator run in a while. Mine is a holding plate system that runs every so often to keep the boxes cold. A quick check of the boxes reveled that the holding plates were beginning to defrost. I said several expletives – for stress relief. I then ran the thermostats on both boxes to full cold – nothing. So I was faced with an electrical problem with the refrigerator. I could wait till I was better rested, but I would likely lose much of the content of the freezer and the beer would be warm! Or, I could work on it now. After all who can drink warm beer (pardons to my British friends).

I grabbed my two major tools for electrical problems, a Fluke 73 Multimeter (now almost 40 years old) and a short length of wire. I quickly determined that there was power to the control box. Opening the control box, I started tracing voltage through the circuit (bless Grunert for putting a wiring diagram inside the cover of the control box). A half hour into the problem, a cup of coffee, and a few false starts, I narrowed down the problem to the high pressure switch. This device protects the system against the failure of the cooling water supply. I could run the system by bypassing the safety valve, but at a risk of major damage to the system. So where to get a new valve? To make matters worse, I would need to open up the system to replace the valve and so would need a dryer and a vacuum pump. At that point I said some more heartfelt expletives and started to fill my second cup of coffee.

I was in the process of pouring the coffee, when the refrigerator turned on! I jumped and poured coffee over my hand and the counter – more expletives. Then a very large light bulb came on over my head. Of course! The pressure switch has a built in time delay. In my fatigued state, I failed to remember that. The time delay is to allow the system to cool down before turning on again. I quickly checked the thru-hull, strainer and pump. All ok. The problem turned out to be an air lock in the hose from the pump to the refrigerator that the pump could not clear. Opening a hose at the pump was able to restore the flow and the refrigerator was up and running.

A lesson learned. I went off on a wholly wrong direction and found a problem that did not exist. The reason was I was fatigued and felt I was under a time constraint. However, I was safely on a mooring so at worse the beer would be warm. A more critical system and continuing or deteriorating conditions and who knows what might have happened. I forgot to Wind the Clock.

Planning For the Worst Case

My Perkins 4.108 just back from rebuild.

My Perkins 4.108 just back from rebuild.

The first boat I ever owned was a Dufour 31. It had a very finicky fuel pump and would stop without any notice due to air in the fuel. After it quit in several place that were more embarrassing than serious, I got so that I would continually think – “if it stops now what would I do?” My current boat has a Perkins 4.108 that is only marginally better at letting me know when it might quit but takes a longer long time to bleed the air out of the system. So I continue to think what I might do if something happens. It is good mental preparation for the worst case.

When I was teaching flying we encouraged the students to do this vary thing. They would sit around on rainy days and make up all sorts of hair raising emergencies for their fellow students to analyze and come up with a course of action. While most were totally farfetched, a good many were possible. They all gave the students a chance to think through the problem.


In Medicine, doctors have a very organized system of Triage. It separates those patents that are beyond help from those who can benefit from medical care and then sorts them into categories to determine who gets attention first, second, and so on. We have but one boat, but often more than one emergency at one time. As we are almost always shorthanded, we can only address so many problems at once. Things can occur like a pressing need to reef, water rising in the bilge, and some sort of electrical malfunction.


Oh for the Want of a Nail

This is very much like Triage, but problems happen in sequence. A minor one comes first. It leads to a more major one, and then to a very serious one. One example comes to mind. A friend was crossing the Atlantic singlehanded. She noticed a few of the screws holding one of the mounts for her rudder were loose. The weather was deteriorating so she decided to attack the problem later. The screws failed and the rudder was lost. A sea anchor was deployed, but that caused the forestay to fail and the mast was lost. But for a screw! The boat was abandoned; she was rescued.

Getting Help

North American F-100D

North American F-100D

Sometimes it is important to know when the problem is beyond you and you need help. I flew fighters in Viet Nam. Starting my F-100 on the alert pad one morning, I noticed my crew chief had turned his back on me and was running away. I looked over my shoulder and noticed flames licking up over my wing. The plane was on fire and I was carrying several thousand pounds of high explosives and 800 rounds of 20mm. It did not take me long to realize that the situation was beyond my control. I unstrapped, dropped the 10 feet to the tarmac and ran. I caught up with the crew chief at the large fire extinguisher. We looked at the fire and the fire extinguisher and concluded that we were not firefighters. The professional firefighters put out the fire before any ordnance cooked off and the plane lived to fly another day.

Help can be as simple as a confirmation that a course of action to fix a problem will work or to suggest an alternative. One advantage of having an older boat and being a bit of a pack rat is I have a lot of junk aboard. Out of that junk can come the parts to make a temporary fix or even a longer term repair. On a trip to Guyana two years ago, my DC powered refrigerator was failing. The brushes for the motor were badly worn. I did not have any spare. The nearest spare brushes were 400 miles away in Trinidad. But, we visited the local mining town and found that they had brushes for a starter motor for a British Military Truck (used in the mining camps). Two brushes side by side would be just a bit bigger than the brushes for my motor. So we went off to a machine shop. A guy with a hack saw, a vise, under a shade tree. The brushes were cut to size and installed. They worked for several weeks until I returned to Trinidad.

Some final Thoughts

Most problems on a boat are simple and can be solved in a straight forward manner. On occasion, they come at you like an elephant. Take a deep breath, wind the clock and solve them. When you seek help, use a large grain of salt. Often solutions suggested, while offered with all good intent, fail to consider that it is your boat and your neck that is hanging out.

One final “War Story”, I was pulling off a target and rejoining the flight when my wing man called me on the radio and told me that I still had two bombs left. I thought that was odd as I had counted the thumps as the bombs came off in pairs. Two thumps, two pairs, there should be none left. Hmmm. As he got closer, he shouted oh s***, you have a big hole in your wing. Now I knew what the second thump was. Double Hmmm. I flew that plane back to a base and landed it safely. I was feeling cocky with a large crowd watching as I climbed down the ladder and fell sprawled out on the tarmac.

Moral – Don’t get too cocky after you solve the problem and fall on your ass. It’s not over until you have your anchor down, your feet up and a cold one in hand.

4 thoughts on “When In Doubt Wind the Clock or How to Handle Problem Solving under Stress

  1. David

    Just wanted to say that ‘Winding the Clock” is an interesting, well written article. While still in bed this morning I checked my iPad and saw the link. I finished reading your post before getting up to answer ‘the call of nature’. That’s my measure of an good read !


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