The bridge was a technogeek fantasy. Where an experienced sailor would expect to find a familiar row of gadgetsradar, sonar, radio, GPS, and so onwere four large flat-panel computer display screens. The three young men took seats in front of these and started pressing buttons. Soon enough they were making small quivering sounds that suggested all was not right with the computers. On one of the screens was a map of Holland. The map focused on the area immediately around us, perhaps twenty square miles. A miniature Hyperion inched stealthily across it, like a boat in a video game. But according to the computer map we were chugging on top of a farmer's field, and heading toward an airfield. The slender canal we were actually on lay three miles to the east. Any captain using the computer to run the boat would think he was heading full tilt into an aircraft watchtower.
I walked out onto the deck to find that the same map occupied the computer screen in front of Allan Prior, the man Clark had hired to captain Hyperion. Allan was from the old school. He'd won the Whitbread around-the-world race in a sailboat so stripped down that it looked vandalized. Allan himself looked vandalized; the wind and the sun had ravaged his complexion. Allan did not believe that sailboats should be run by computers. Now he was staring straight ahead, attempting to avoid a large ferry that was making a dash across the canal. "Don't bother me with that," he said when I asked him why his boat was in the middle of a wheat field. "That's a computer problem." Clearly, he was in no mood to consider the undeniable fact that his entire boat was a computer problem.
I returned to the programmers on the bridge. After a couple of minutes of furious typing, they had the boat back on the water. Yet the head programmer, a fellow named Steve Hague, retained a certain dubiousness. His eyes darted back and forth between the edge of the canal and the map on which Hyperion chugged along. All of the computer's gauges seemed to be either inadequate or inaccurate. A captain steering off themwhich Allan Prior at that moment declined to dowould not only think that he was sailing through a wheat field. He'd think he was sailing through a wheat field in the wrong direction. For no apparent reason a red light flashed on one of the screens. It said, DANGER, DANGER, DANGER.
Steve punched some buttons. According to the computer we'd been grounded. "It is truly unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation," he said, at length.
Yes it was. Just a few hours earlier the weatherman had predicted Force 4 sailing conditions. Force 4 implied pleasant winds of twenty knots and seas of perhaps six feet. Even before we left the canal and passed through the locks into the North Sea, the report lost its credibility. The gauges on the boat that measured the speed of the wind had frozen at fifty knotsthe computer had not been programmed to register winds any higher.
As we passed through the lock and into a harbor, we could finally see why Wolter Huisman muttered to himself. Fifteen-foot waves crashed against the seawall and flicked their white foam thirty feet in the air, where it mingled with falling snow. Gusts of wind blew at seventy miles an hour. The boat suddenly began to rock too violently for anyone to stare very long into his computer. The programmers scrambled out from the bridge and onto the deck, where Allan and Wolter stood together in the snow with pretty much everyone else: twelve boatyard workers, seven crew members, two Dutch friends of Clark's, a photographer, and a German television crew present to document the launching of the world's first computerized sailboat. The only person missing was Clark himself, but, then, people who knew Clark knew better than to expect him to be where he was meant to be. Sooner or later he'd turn up, usually when he was not wanted.
Excerpted from The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, by Michael Lewis. © October 20, 1999 , Michael Lewis used by permission of the publisher W.W. Norton & Company.
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