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How long is a piece of string? From the America's Cup to the high mountains of Nepal

by Dr Philippe Rouja 11 Mar 2021 09:11 PST

When Francesco Bruni, the current co-helmsman of the Prada Pirelli Luna Rossa AC75 in the 36th America's Cup, called me up one evening in early summer 2017 I was actually in my basement trying in vain to get to grips with the mountain of stuff, junk my wife would call it, I had accumulated over the years.

"Philippe come to the base - they are clearing a few things out that I think you may like."

This was not the first time Francesco had called me. Friends both personal and with each other's families, our comradeship had been forged over the past three years during the America's Cup in Bermuda where Francesco was acting as expert race training helmsman for team Artemis in the 35th Cup that his regular team Luna Rosa took a break from.

Continuing to hone his skills as a helmsman in the world's fastest, most prestigious and most competitive class of sailboat the America's Cup 2017 foiling 50-foot catamarans, Francesco was calling me in relation to the end of this campaign. The races were over and the boats were being broken down and the racing sheds squared away - they were cleaning up and clearing out. Much of what the racing campaigns had used was being repurposed, stored for another sailing team or moved to another campaign. Some elements were not - in this case the jibs for the two test boats that were sailed to both train the teams and design the final boat that allowed Artemis to come third in the 2017 America's cup, a notable feat for its first attempt at the race.

The jibs were sadly not useful to anyone and difficult to reuse for sailing. Made of high carbon fibre material, flat black and dimensionally structured, they are built for purpose and difficult to repurpose. But Francesco knew my basement and my newly articulated philosophy. A recent marine science expedition I was helping with in the Sargasso Sea had included a semi-retired ex British Navy diver advising the team. While gathering scuba tanks from my basement he reflected on the mess and said:

"Lots of PUM in here."

"PUM I asked?"

"Yes PUM. It's a military term: Potentially Usable Material. P.U.M."

And there it was. I finally had an explanation, if not an excuse, for the state of my basement.

Francesco had shared in my mirth at discovering a name for my basement mess and also shared the method/philosophy that underpinned my collecting - it will be useful one day.

But admittedly as I hauled away seven black carbon jibs folded in blue Doyle sail bags - big heavy things - onto the roof of my car, I did have some doubts. It was a lot.

Many months later after Francesco and his wonderful family had left, I heaved one sail bag into the parking lot, opened it up and laid out a narrow long flat-black sail. It looked like it was going 50 miles an hour just lying on the ground. Admittedly I did have a moment asking myself: "What will these be good for?" A small moment of doubt as to its P.U.M.ness as my basement burgeoned with stuff.

I had a closer look, weighed the material with my hand, tried to imagine it as a tarp, a provisional water catch, a shade cloth? And then I noticed that running up the sail was a narrow hollow gunnel, a folded and sewn channel with a rope inside it running up the luff of the sail. It's not possible I thought, and as I went to the base of the sail, there it was, the end of what would turn out to be a 20-foot piece of dyneema - over ¼ inch thick.

I was ecstatic - whether I could use the sails or not was at that time still to be determined. In fact, four have gone to friends for specific purposes but this string - superman string - is always incredibly useful and expensive, coveted even. It is pretty amazing stuff, a triumph of intention in design, the pinnacle of human engineering. I had already repurposed short thrown away cut off pieces from the Artemis base as shoes laces, an emergency rope in the boat, the odd dog leash, but I had never had one this long, this perfect. Unexposed to the elements, protected in a fold of the sail, it was effectively brand new. What a find! In fact, I had a little moment of self-reflection: what had I done to deserve such luck? This expert level rope was as it were a little wasted on me. And of course there was more. In all I liberated three lengths like this. What an embarrassment of riches.

It is counterintuitive but there is a saying that the happiest a rich man can be is not when he is getting what he wants or giving away what he has in surplus, but when he is giving away something that he really covets, that it hurts just a little bit to let it go. There is a path to nirvana in renouncing something you want - if you can do it. I was rich in rope and I did not need it all, might never really need it at all. This P.U.M was too good for me. I would have to give (at least some of it) away, share some of this good luck. But who was actually deserving of this dyneema - of this potential gift? Someone who would never buy it for themselves but truly needed it? I wouldn't have to wait long.

One year later, a great friend Audette Exel asked me to host one of her colleagues Pralhad Dhakal, from Nepal. Pralhad is the Country Director for the international development work her organisation - the Adara Group - does in the remote Humli communities in the mountains of Nepal. He was flying through Bermuda to meet donors on his way back to Nepal.

Pralhad was in my basement and I was frankly embarrassed. Usually I am embarrassed because most people can't see what I see. They don't see the P.U.M. as I do. Much of what is in there does come from the dump or from someone else's garage as they clear it out. So to some, it might look like I have a problem. But here I was embarrassed because this basement literally contained a treasure trove of useful material for people in the remotest parts of Nepal who unlike me, can't just walk down the road to a burgeoning hardware store and pick up what they need. I was embarrassed by my riches.

Pralhad and I had just finished an illuminating discussion on his view of Karma. In the West it seems we regularly misinterpret the idea of Karma. I had asserted that a donor's generosity would bring them good karma regardless of the outcome of their giving if their intentions were good. But Pralhad helped develop my understanding of what the philosophy of karma really is. He explained his view that karma's true definition is dependent on intention and outcome. While giving is certainly a reflection of benevolence, you don't get the payout unless your giving, your good intention, actually leads to a good outcome. Pralhad was asserting that the good had to actually get done. The good result, the actual outcome of your benevolence, matters.

In short and to get back to our story, I really wanted some of that good karma and also wanted to test the idea that giving so that it hurt just a little bit also delivered its own kind of unique reward. I also wanted to diminish my feeling of inequality and embarrassment staring into my basement full of P.U.M. But what could I give up that he could actually take back with him, something I found incredibly valuable that would also be useful and portable? So we were in the basement looking through a selection of material. Of course, they could use tools, lumber, an antique anvil, conduit, a solar inverter from a sunken houseboat. All useful but not something Pralhad could get on a plane back to Nepal.

And then there it was: perfectly coiled, cool gun metal grey, the tiny bundle of string/rope - the America's Cup jib dyneema. "My precious," I thought.

"This is the strongest rope in the world," I exaggerated pointing at a coil of string. "It will pull a jumbo jet."

"Really?" Pralhad tilted his head.

"Not quite a jumbo jet maybe, but really yes, it is incredibly strong. I really covet this stuff. It is super expensive. It came from a billionaire's sailboat and I rescued it from the dump, it is precious!" (Am I repeating myself?) "It will literally save your life", I said doubling down. "Take this, and I am not joking. Carry it in your backpack whenever you go up to the mountains."

"Really Philippe? This tiny rope? You jest."

And I have to be honest here - I began to doubt myself. I have seen it lift an entire America's cup yacht, one loop the thickness of my finger holding it all. It was under unbelievable tension and strain, but I had never heard of it breaking. It is the equivalent of steel cable eight times its size.

"Yes," I said. "It is everything I say it is." And as if to diminish my benevolence I added - "if you aren't going to carry it with you don't take it because I love this stuff. But believe me, it will tow a mac truck."

"Ok Philippe, if you say it then it is so."

And with that, a small bundle of rope made its way into Pralhad's backpack - stuffed inside a British Airways zippered toiletries sleeve.

Forged for an America's Cup foiling catamaran jib, rescued as P.U.M and languishing in a Bermuda basement awaiting a new purpose, then liberated again in the hands of a deserving hero, the rope innocuously made its way to the high mountains of Nepal lodged in a side pocket of an ordinary beige backpack. Perhaps forgotten, it bided its time.

After the earthquakes in 2015, Adara had started working in a remote community outside of Kathmandu, where every home in the village was damaged or destroyed and hundreds of people lost their lives. So in 2018, that same backpack was carried to a hard struck school and community in the mountains in the town of Ghyangfedi. Back and forth a dozen times, the little bundle of rope travelled. And then on a Friday afternoon, travelling up the mountainside one of two four-wheel drives became stuck attempting a river crossing.

Runners were dispatched to the adjacent mountain hamlets for rope or a tractor. Nothing. Men sat on haunches, chin to knees, watching the water, hoping it would stop raining. Young men got in the river and tried to push but the truck drove itself deeper still.

"That won't do - it needs a pull from the other jeep," one of the older men said. "But without a rope we can't."

And then Pralhad remembered!

"Wait!" he said, "I have a rope."

"Where is it? Why didn't you say so?"

Pralhad opened his backpack and produced a small toiletries case. He unzipped it and produced a bundle of rope. It could not even be seen from 10 feet away it was so small.

"That's a shoelace not a rope" "Tether a tent pole maybe" they laughed.

"No," Pralhad insisted. "It is the most superior rope in the world! It is superman string."

The crowd drew in.

"This man - this crazy man is going to try and pull a truck from the river with a piece of string!"

"Ha ha ha," one of them shouted across the valley.

"He is going to pull the truck with a piece of tooth floss!"

"You have to come and see this."

And then without ceremony - quite unlike the ceremony of lifting an America's Cup yacht in the air and onto the water - the first truck shifted forward to put on the tension and the second truck in the river went into gear.

"Wait for the rope to be tight," said the pulling driver.

The grey rope tensioned up as the first truck applied some gas. It did not break. In fact, it did not even stretch. That is dyneema's defining characteristic; it has almost no stretch and a strength-to-weight ratio eight times that of high-strength steels. It stretches so little and is so strong that a.5mm diameter line of it was used as a 30-kilometre space tether in the ESA/Russian Young Engineers' Satellite experimental release of a small re-entry capsule on 2 of September, 2007.

The pulling driver accelerated a little more and the truck behind nudged forward. The river truck driver consumed by his disbelief was late in applying the gas. An ordinary rope four times this thick would already have ruptured under such dead weight and he would have been at fault. But here the rope held and in his disbelief in low gear, he applied his foot to the pedal and within a millisecond the first truck jumped forward. The second popped out its river wheel ruts and then across the river and up the river berm and onto the road. Just like that they were out and the rope lay flaccid between the vehicles.

The mountain was quiet even the crickets paused. Mouths ajar - jaws slack - hands turned upwards. Men who had crouched now stood.

"What?" "Did you see that?" "So easy!" "It did not break?!"

And Pralhad emerged from the vehicle and stood in the road between the two trucks bent down and scooped up the rope and raised it above his head between outstretched arms and shouted to the mountains - "Philippe!"

And here is the picture Pralhad later sent me through the miracle of social media. It is a true story you see - there is the evidence.

How long is a piece of string?

It is as long as your heart can stretch. It is as long as karma can reach. It is when intention meets outcome. It stretches from Bermuda to Nepal, from the America's Cup to earthquake relief in a tiny town with people in need in the mountains of Nepal - Ghyangfedi.

We are all connected.

Philippe Max Rouja PhD is a Bermudian/French cultural anthropologist with 25 years' experience specializing in interdisciplinary marine science in coastal communities. Philippe filled in occasionally as a backup rescue diver for Team Artemis during the 35th Americas Cup in Bermuda in 2017.

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