Back Page: The Future Was Then

  • Sheila J. Gibson

If it were possible to accurately, consistently foretell the future, day-trading would still be a viable profession and operating a casino would not be. By now, were we not supposed to be piloting flying cars, eating food pills for lunch, and letting our robot butlers handle the household chores? (Perhaps those are not the best examples of miscalculations, given that private jet ownership—outright or fractional—is at an all-time high, the nutritional supplement business is booming, and our homes have become very smart.) The point is that the futurists who made such predictions for the 21st century some 20, 30, or 50 years ago erred by extrapolating contemporary trends to construct an image of tomorrow. They assumed that the future would be driven solely by technology that was progressing at ever increasing rates. They were wrong.

Consider the video phone. Neil Steinberg’s 1995 book, Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres, and Total Flops, devotes some coverage to the video phone’s troubled journey as a futuristic product that consistently failed to make the leap into the present. Video phone technology has existed for years, but resistance to it has come from consumers who evidently (and sensibly, you might argue) prefer a world where you do not need to shave, comb your hair, or straighten your tie before picking up the receiver. Only recently has the technology been able to make a dent in the marketplace.

We managed to avoid the pitfalls of predicting the future in Robb Report’s March 1990 cover story on “Sailing into the ’90s.” The article concluded with a vision of what sailing would be like by the turn of the century, and the picture has proven to be accurate, except for a few notable details. Push button–controlled electric winches; electrically controlled mainsails, jibs, and anchors; onboard climate control; personal computers; and microwaves have all become standard items, as have navigation systems that can alert you if the anchored boat changes position during the night. The only false notes referred to items that were superseded by technology, taste, or both before the millennium arrived: LORAN, faxing, and 40-foot sailboats. In the 13 years since the article appeared, GPS has displaced LORAN, e-mail and Internet access have trumped faxing, and modern sailors have come to favor vessels that are at least 50 feet long.

Rather than congratulate ourselves, we should instead point out that the future described in the article had in fact already arrived by 1990. Virtually all of the details of the vessel described were options on at least one sailboat available at the time, the Hinckley Sou’wester 59, and Alden Yachts was producing 46- and 50-foot vessels that had everything mentioned in the article except fax capabilities. However, few sailors were embracing any of these new features. Yachting was experiencing a variation on the video phone dilemma. The technology existed, but consumers had not yet warmed to it.

In this case, the resistance was rooted in the sailing culture, explains Philip Bennett, senior sales director for Hinckley Yachts. “Sailors tend to be traditional, and skeptical about things that are complicated until they are proven,” says Bennett. Alden Yachts president David MacFarlane concurs. “The biggest thing, the only thing [with sailors], is confidence in reliability,” says MacFarlane. “When you are offshore, it is better to have trailing-edge technology rather than cutting-edge technology.”

Ultimately, the future was determined more by a revolution in sailors’ attitudes than the evolution of the technology. “All these things had their gestation in the last 10 years,” Bennett says. “Sailors saw them in use, saw they were reliable, and now they insist on them.” In particular, the electrically driven features have more than proven their practical worth. “They allow you to be self-sufficient for a lot longer with a smaller crew,” says MacFarlane. “It is like having another crew that never tires and never needs feeding. Today, you can sail a 60- or 70-foot sailboat comfortably because of the advances we have.”

What will sailing be like 13 years from now? We could venture a prediction based on the latest yacht designs and the technology that is in the pipeline, but we know better than that. The future of sailing will be whatever sailors want it to be.

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