For 16 years I worked as an engineer on merchant ships. Mostly tankers, which saw me away from home for up to five months at a time. The work was physical, it was frequently carried out in temperatures exceeding 40 C and it often required working long hours, be it day or night. A certain level of physical and mental fitness was required. Just because I was female it did not exempt me from swinging a 20 lb hammer when required. And I don’t mean swing once, in a comfortable position, I mean swing over and over again, at odd angles, in sweltering temperatures, until high pressure pipe lines were secure and operations could resume. Lifting, taking apart machinery, opening and closing large valves. . . All this, and more, was routine work.
You may have now gathered I am not a delicate woman. I do possess more strength in my arms than the average female. There was even a point in time when I had more muscle than the average man on the street. Yet the cold fact remains I did not, and was highly unlikely to ever have, the same amount of muscle strength as my colleagues.
When you are alone and on watch or when the amount of work which needs to be completed means manning is stretched to one person per job, then the option of calling for muscle back up was not there. I was expected to do the work just like anyone else would be.
When a ship enters a refit yard it is one of the few times where there are plenty of people, not just a crew of twenty, of which four are engineers.
So what did I do? I learnt to use every mechanical advantage my body had. I don’t recall being taught this, other than the occasional suggestion along the lines of, “hold a tool handle at the end, it’s long for a reason.” There was a certain amount of failure before I could succeed in some areas. (I still have the scar and chipped tooth from one incident.) But over time the knowledge of how to use my body and the tools to the best effect grew and became second nature.
Never was this more apparent when I was lying on my back in a confined space, using a hammer on a knocking spanner to tighten up bolts above me. With me was the young, muscular apprentice who theoretically should have been doing the final tighten on each of the bolts I had done. The reality was the poor lad was forced to watch as I put an extra two turns on each of his bolts. I think his red face was due to the heat of the engine room. Or maybe he was short of breath. Or maybe it was because I had my boilersuit half undone, embarrassing things tummy buttons.
It’s probably pretty obvious where the martial art on these ramblings comes in. A good martial artist learns to use his body to the best effect. In an ideal world minimal strength is needed, body mechanics alone can be used. I would argue that muscle strength does produce a certain degree of endurance, which would be of use for multiple attacks. But perhaps that is a topic for another day.
So if I’m fully aware of this, why do I so often fail to act on this when I carry out a technique? The simple answer is time spent training. The more complex answer is as follows.
Like my engineering I need those odd comments. “Engage those hips, turn your head. . .” And again, like my engineering, I need to work out a certain amount myself. I still remember my complete joy and surprise the first effortless ipon seio nage I did. A large, tall guy launched a blow to my jaw, and somehow everything came together and he was on the floor looking equally surprised as I felt. The body mechanics were spot on.
Did I manage it with the next attack? No! Unlike my engineering I need to learn to adapt my body mechanics for a certain technique to a range of different attackers – small, tall, large, strong, fast, slow, well centred, all over the place. It is the learning how to feel, gaining the confidence to adjust, and developing the reflexes to varying attacks.
If I’m brutally honest, it took me four years of engineering (three of which I was an apprentice) before my bosses reported me as being a, “competent engineer who is capable of working on her own.” I can date that from the reports I used to receive every six months. It took another year before my reports read, “good,” and another year again before they read, “exceptional.” At which point I was promoted and had to learn an additional set of skills.
And that was me working full-time.
It is these thoughts that I have to bear in mind when I find myself puzzling over my slow progress in jitsu or aikido. The heart is willing, the body is normally ready to go, the theory is all there in my mind. But nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the experience of practising something over and over again until it becomes engrained in my body and I take full advantage of my body mechanics. Then I can throw a new muscular lad. Who I am sure has a red face because it is hot in the dojo. Or because he is out of breath. Or because my gi has swung open. Embarrassing things tummy buttons.