The maritime world was once known for its salty knowledge, passed down through the generations. Old sailors taught younger ones how to tie knots, about the mysteries of dead reckoning, ways to find where you are in the fog, how to predict the weather. There’s loads of lore about sailing, navigating, safety, maintenance-all, in the past at least, handed down from the more experienced to the less so. Father-to-son stuff; traditional knowledge best learned by paying attention. It was once the same with farming, cooking, crafts; the past instructed the present.

I’m not sure it’s the same today. Some years back a friend and I took off in our sailboat, bound for Eastport and points beyond. On board we had a new Loran unit (don’t laugh; I know Loran’s antique today, replaced by GPS, but bear with me). We had a fine book of instructions, which we studied diligently so we could figure out how to work the thing. When we finally got so we could push the right combination of buttons to get the information we wanted, we felt pretty smart. But as I said, that instruction manual wasn’t very far away.

After a few days we reached Campobello, New Brunswick, where my friend was due to get off and be replaced by his son, a fine high-schooler with a technological bent. Young Zach and I (and another friend who’d driven him over to Campobello) planned to sail on to Saint John. In the fog, no less.

“What’s this?” asked Zach as he peered down into the cabin.

“It’s a Loran, a type of navigation computer,” responded his dad, who was packing to go ashore. “Careful. Don’t touch it. We’re learning how to use it.”

“Cool,” came the reply from our newest crewmember, now crouched next to the Loran. “”Beep, beep, beep,” went the keys. His dad and I were sure, at that point, that all our careful programming had gone down the drain and that we (I, since he was leaving us) would have to start over again. “Beep-beep-beep” went the keys again, over our protests.

“Cool,” said Zach.

And as it turned out, he navigated us all the way to Saint John without reference to the book of instructions. For all I know, he tossed them overboard.

Zach and his fearless approach to that Loran unit exemplifies-to me at least-something new in the world of knowledge, nautical or otherwise, and its transfer between generations.  Buy yourself a new camera, a runner’s stopwatch, a computer, a smartphone, an iPod-virtually anything electronic with a keypad and a bunch of functions, and you know what happens. I’m really not an old fart (yet), but confronted with one of these devices and its not-so-helpful instructions, I always feel as if I should head over to the nearest grandchild or the local elementary school if I need help.

When I graduated from a regular cell phone to a BlackBerry a while back I had no idea how to keep it from ringing at inopportune times, or how to change my voice-mail message or make it do a million other little jobs-until my daughter-in-law took me and my phone in hand and fixed us up. Another young friend got me going with GPS when that came aboard-so successfully that when I moved up from a smaller boat to Karma in preparation for my trip south, I brought my old finger-printy GPS with me instead of getting a new one. It just felt more comfortable, and that piece of equipment got me all the way to Florida and back without a blip. (Secretly, I was afraid I’d have to set up a new one.)

It was the same earlier this year when I finally broke down and bought a digital camera-I was glad I’d waited, since the technology had improved so much over earlier models, but I still had to get help from friends, most of whom were half or one-quarter my age. Still lots to learn there, and the book and the supplied CD have been helpful only up to a point.

I’m not complaining. I am noting what I suspect is a new pattern in how we learn things. Being comfortable with technology, especially new stuff consisting of microscopic circuits and other fiendishly complex things that make it so marvelously capable, requires conditioning from a very early age. And because the way computers and their cousins accomplish their tasks is so different from the ways these tasks have been done in the past, the very young (for whom new stuff’s all intuitive because they’re not yet confused by the old stuff) are the best equipped to understand them. This insight may not be particularly profound, but I would insist that it represents something different in the way we’re passing along information.  An old guy once showed me how to do an eye splice and tie a bowline. I’ve been shown how to do a sun sight with a sextant and look up the angle in a book of tables. I know that calculating longitude (without GPS) requires an accurate clock. I confess that I haven’t helped a young person learn these skills yet, but all the while I’ve been shameless in asking kids how to run my electronic devices. I’ll keep on doing asking, but in fairness and for tradition’s sake, I’d better start passing on what I know about knots, celestial navigation and dead reckoning. If I don’t, and if the power goes off out there in the fog, we’ll all be in trouble.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.