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When Momentum Is the Enemy

Making good decisions at sea is about much more than going with your gut.
The best commercial skippers know good decisions at sea are made after identifying potential risks in advance. Alamy

The best commercial skippers know good decisions at sea are made after identifying potential risks in advance. Alamy

Twelve years ago, the cruise ship Empress of the North was on a routine cruise in Alaska. The ship was carrying 206 passengers. The ship was also carrying a new third mate, fresh out of maritime school. Sensibly, there was a plan to have the new guy overlap with the senior third mate for a week, to learn the ship and its routines. But on the first day of training, the senior third mate fell ill. The captain slotted the new guy into the watch rotation. After all, he had a license. The third mate was paired with a seasoned deckhand in hopes of offsetting the inexperience.

Without any orientation to the navigational equipment or emergency procedures, and without the support of another licensed officer, the new third mate took the first underway watch of his licensed career at midnight. A little over an hour later, he was faced with a choice: whether to go north or south around a small obstruction named Rocky Island. Either way had plenty of deep water, and there should have been no problem. But as the vessel approached the island, a curious thing happened. The seasoned deckhand—without discussing the decision with anyone—chose to go north. Then, he doubted his choice, panicked and attempted to go south. Calm metastasized into confusion. The third mate tried to take charge, but it was too late. The ship slammed into the island at full speed, at the foot of a lighthouse. Thankfully, everyone on board was safely evacuated.

When a thing goes wrong, it may seem to come out of nowhere, but that is rarely the case. Along with the unspoken transfer of control from the officer to the deckhand, this story raises questions around decision-making at many levels. Decisions made at the last minute are coin flips, and that’s no way to run a boat. Instead, try to identify potential risks in advance: navigational hazards, weather, the effect of darkness, and the fortitude of your passengers. This type of planning is elementary, and if you already do it, don’t underestimate the importance of what you are doing. It is what keeps you from having to flip a coin in extremis.

The seeds of this accident were sown hours earlier, when the captain put the new third mate in charge with insufficient support. It was a default decision—the path of least resistance. He could have juggled the watch schedule of the other officers, or stood watch with the new third mate himself (at least until daylight), or provided clearer guidance on the preferred route. The decision made was the most convenient, but clearly not the best.

Sometimes, a default decision really is the best way to go. But each of us is born with a marvelous capacity to see what we want to see, and not what is there. The path of least resistance can disguise options that are less convenient, but safer. Don’t leave the dock if you aren’t prepared to improvise, but make sure your improvisation isn’t setting up something worse. And don’t put people in positions that they are not prepared to handle.

Momentum greases the skids for default decisions. The Empress of the North had already sailed when the senior third mate fell ill. The schedule, the watch rotation and the passengers’ hopes were already in motion. This confluence of expectations can create an almost irresistible force, even for the most safety-conscious mariner. Momentum was at work for the new third mate too. He wanted to be a team player. We all do. Once he received his battlefield promotion, in his mind, there was no turning back.

It’s important to question the effect of momentum on your decisions. We all tend to become invested in the plan, whatever the plan may be. If faced with a hurricane or an engine that simply will not start, the decision to postpone is easy. But when the information is murky—a marginal forecast, batteries not holding a charge as well as usual—the desire to proceed and hope for the best can be powerful. Knowing the effect of momentum at the outset is a line of defense against setting forth in the face of facts that say you shouldn’t.

On boats, a lot of bad decisions seem to center around getting somewhere on time. When the captain of Empress asked the new third mate to take the watch at midnight without the scheduled orientation, the mate agreed. Questioning the decision of the captain on the first day of work is a situation most of us would prefer to avoid, but the mate had some constructive options that fell well short of mutiny. He could have requested more guidance on the route, a daylight watch or the support of another officer. Or, he could have simply said he was not comfortable taking the watch without having completed the legally required safety training. This last point should get the attention of any captain, and compel a rethinking of the plan.

Momentum is abetted by the illusion that you have no choices. In reality, the choices may not always be obvious, but they are almost always there. The perception that you have no choice is one of the surest signs that you are about to make a poor decision. After the grounding of the Empress of the North, it was absurdly obvious that the captain could have juggled the watches of more seasoned officers, or taken the watch himself, or have joined the new third mate at intervals.

Experience usually produces good decisions, but not always. The new third mate was clearly inexperienced; he did not know what he did not know. The captain was experienced, but that didn’t help him with this particular decision.

Samuel de Champlain made 27 voyages across the Atlantic in the early 17th century. He ventured far and wide throughout the interior of a North America that was largely a mystery to settlers at the coasts. Prevoyance is the word that he used to describe his approach to thinking ahead, blending experience with an awareness of what he did not know to arrive at the best possible decision. Prevoyance sounds a lot like listening to your gut. So, listen to your gut when making an important decision around the safety of your boat and those who are along for the ride.

Most of us make mostly good decisions, both ashore and afloat. This is probably due to our own versions of prevoyance. Like Champlain, we are often faced with making decisions with imperfect information. But here’s the thing about decision-making: Even when we do make a poor one, it rarely brings serious consequences. Either the matter at hand just isn’t that momentous, or a quick course correction saves us.

The good news is that life contains more near-misses than actual accidents. The bad news is that the experience of rarely having to pay full price for poor decisions means that we end up thinking we are better than we are, and that is nectar for complacency.

I was recently invited to sail on a 50-foot schooner in Maine. The owner was keen to get going. He asked me to steer the boat out of the harbor while he readied the sails. Somewhat flattered, I was on the cusp of saying “sure” when I thought about the Empress of the North.

This channel was narrow and unbuoyed. The chart showed three submerged rocks somewhere along the port side. And there was a shoal somewhere to starboard. There was good water in between, but where? I didn’t even know our draft.

The owner gave me a look of slight disappointment when I declined the assignment. Inconvenient? Damn right.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of our sister publication, Soundings.