Stewart Brand Takes Us On “The Maintenance Race”

Human life is driven by the essential drama of maintaining — of ensuring continued survival and working against the drive of entropy. Yet maintenance is a largely unheralded presence in our lives.

Maintenance is all around us. On every level from the cellular up to the societal, human life is driven by the essential drama of maintaining, of ensuring continued survival and working against the drive of entropy.

Bernard Moitessier’s yacht Joshua was the model of perfect maintenance in his 1968 circumnavigation of the globe

Yet maintenance is a largely unheralded presence in our lives. We are fascinated with the people who begin great works — from ancient rulers who ordered the building of pyramids and other great monuments to tech founders who announced revolutionary devices. The maintainers downstream of those grand beginnings, the craft workers who made sure the rock-hewing tools remained sharp or the software engineers pushing patches to cover every new security vulnerability, get short shrift in our cultural memory. Who’s the most famous maintainer you can name?

At The Long Now Foundation, we care deeply about maintenance. The prospect of the 10,000 Year Clock relies more on its maintenance than its building: if its mechanism is not wound every 500 years, it will not continue to run. Over the course of its lifetime, it will remain in its maintenance phase for far longer than it spent being built.

The Clock is an obvious example of the value of maintenance. Long Now Co-Founder Stewart Brand’s upcoming book on maintenance hones in on more examples, collected from history and the world around us. Its first chapter, out now as an audiobook on Audible, tells the story of the 01968-01969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first solo, non-stop yacht race around the world. It’s a story that’s been told again and again since 01969.

The retellings of the race usually focus on the daring and grit of its nine competitors. Stewart Brand’s The Maintenance Race instead focuses on the different approaches to maintenance that the three most famous (or infamous) racers took.

The eventual victor, Robin Knox-Johnston, brought with him a wealth of experience in the merchant navy that gave him a genuine enthusiasm for maintaining his vessel. Brand quotes Knox-Johnston, who, months into the “endless ordeal” of repair, noted: “I realized I was thoroughly enjoying myself.”

The cheat who perished in his attempt, Donald Crowhurst, was a brilliant inventor with perhaps the most technologically advanced boat. His failure and despondency were driven by his initial optimism and belief in elegant solutions. Brand, an optimist himself, notes that optimists “frequently resent the need for maintenance and tend to resist doing it,” instead preferring to live in the world of ideals rather than the drudgery of constant tasks.

The final sailor of Brand’s chosen three, Bernard Moitessier, defies easy characterization. He was perhaps the most impressive sailor of the group, on pace to win handily, but he did not finish. Instead, he kept on sailing, taking a longer route to Tahiti. Moitessier pared down his racing set up to the bare minimum — the less stuff you have, the less stuff you have to maintain. His decades of experience honed his designs down to fine, easy to maintain points: a steel hull reinforced with seven coats of paint to prevent corrosion, a slingshot for communications rather than a heavy, complex radio system, warm clothes instead of a heating system. His philosophy was one of simplicity. “Only simple things,” he later recalled, “can be reliably repaired with what you have on board.”

Bernard Moitessier’s voyage set the record for the longest non-stop voyage in a yacht thanks to his devotion to preventative maintenance. © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

While Knox-Johnston won the official race, Moitessier won the Maintenance Race — his philosophy of maintenance, which he once related to Brand as “a new boat every day,” exemplifies how preventative maintenance can lead to a certain “undefinable state of grace,” a focus and serenity that can be hard to find.

The first chapter of Brand’s book is full of remarkable details of the three racers’ journeys, but perhaps the most exciting part is the rest of the book it foreshadows, still unwritten. The philosophy of maintenance that The Maintenance Race begins to outline resounds throughout the human experience, and Brand’s book promises to trace maintenance through different scales with compelling stories.

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