Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Surviving The Perfect Storm

A sailor is not a real sailor until he's been in a storm at sea. He's not a real sailor until he's puked his guts out, been scared shitless, held on for dear life and prayed to God for his very survival.

I've had such an experience. And it looked like this: (Click on image below)

It happened in September, 1983, on a cruise from Greenwich, Connecticut to Bermuda. It was my first time on Sea Fever, a Bill Tripp designed 44 Mercer Sloop. I was a last minute crew replacement. I had never ocean sailed before and was not prepared for what was to come.

On day three we ran into the storm. It was called tropical storm Dean. There were 10-12 foot seas, driving rain and winds gusting to 50+ knots. I was so scared, disoriented and seasick that I was unable to function. After we finally arrived at St. George's harbor and cleared customs, I got off the boat, went to the airport and flew straight home.

A few months later, I ran across an article in Sail magazine about the adventure of another boat that had been caught in the same storm. This inspired me to take a course in heavy weather sailing. For the next six months, every time the clouds came in and the wind came up, we went out. We practiced what we were being taught in real time. I was seasick a lot! But I was no longer afraid. I knew what to expect. I knew how to handle the boat. It was no longer dangerous, it was simply heavy weather sailing.

That was 25 years ago. And as I look out to starboard now, its clear to me that my training will come in handy yet again. We are not going to be able to outrun this storm. I calmly run down the essentials with my first mate, Brett. There are only three things on my list.

1. Inform and ready the crew for what is about to happen.
2. Take care of the ship and make sure nothing breaks loose.
3. Take care of the crew, conserve their energy and keep morale high.

Not knowing what the future holds causes fear and anxiety. Not knowing what to do can cause us to freeze at a critical moment, or to panic and blame others for our fate.

But not this time. This time we are prepared. The crew knows exactly what can happen and what they must do when the time comes. We follow our checklist. We take nothing for granted. We don our foul weather gear, our life vests and run the life lines. We make the ship ready.

There is healthy anticipation, a sense of adventure, and the ship is secured quickly.

Sandwiches are made and the coffee is all set to perk. Hand pumps are positioned as back ups. Batteries are charged, Sails are reefed and Brett and I agree at what point we will heave-to. We set the watch schedule and the crew secures their gear.

At 20:00 hrs the wind reaches 40 knots. It's pitch black on deck and the rain is stinging and cold. The seas are running 6-8 feet. I take a fix and, having plenty of running room, order us to heave-to. Heaving-to allows the boat to stay in place and bob like a cork. But more importantly, it allows the crew to rest and conserve energy.

Brett hands me a cup of freshly brewed coffee as I come down the ladder to the galley. He shoots me a knowing smile. We're not in survival, we're simply heavy weather sailing.

The world has entered what many are calling the perfect economic storm. We have not been able to outrun it. As leaders, here is what we need to be conscious of, in order to make it through: Keep our heads. Realize that this is an important opportunity to stretch ourselves, challenge our crew, and focus the energy as we go through this together. Learn from this experience. Savor it. Look for the silver lining, the hidden opportunities, and the chance to develop mastery and greatness in yourself and others. Because as surely as this storm will pass, there will be others.


Sail on.