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Good judgement can save careers and lives

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I recently watched the movie The Perfect Storm again. In case you’re not familiar, it’s the story of the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts that is lost with all hands, in the middle of a giant convergence of storms back in 1991.

The movie certainly causes one to question the judgement of the captain to go as far as he did and then have to wrestle with this monster storm. I couldn’t help but feel this tragedy did not need to happen.

This got me thinking of some other recent tragedies at sea and poor judgement certainly seemed to be the common denominator in each incident. One was the Costa Concordia. The captain of this Italian cruise ship decided to veer off the usual course on a January night in 2012 and do a little sightseeing a little too close to shore and struck a reef. The ship quickly took on a huge amount of water and heeled over on her side. Thirty two lives were lost.

To compound this captain’s problems, he decides to abandon ship, leaving trapped and stranded passengers behind. This was one of the most shocking tales of bad judgement I’ve ever heard. I understand how the grounding could happen, this captain was reportedly a bit cocky and had done this swing by the island shore before, and this time he just screwed up. Ok, this is really bad, you’ve run a cruise ship aground, but then to panic and run away was just deplorable. Careless bad judgement followed by panic and weak character and bad judgement earned this captain 16 years in prison.

Another sad and tragic story was the sinking of the tall ship HMS Bounty. Once again judgement plays a huge role in this avoidable tragedy. The veteran and respected captain decided to head out on the North Atlantic in a leaky replica vessel with mostly inexperienced crew and tangle with hurricane Sandy.

Come on! What are you doing out there? Most of the crew were thankfully rescued, but the ship was lost and the captain and one crew member perished. The captain’s judgement was the ship was safer at sea than in harbor with a hurricane approaching. I’m sorry, not this ship and not this hurricane. If your pumps can’t keep up with the incoming water, things can come apart pretty quickly. This one bothered me. I have captained some wooden schooners over the years, I owned a wooden sloop for 10 years, I know a little bit about what ships of that type can withstand. This was no contest, and it all took place because of a judgement call, a bad call. This is not just my opinion. In a scathing 93-page report, the United States Coast Guard summed up the case in six words: “The ship should not have sailed.”

This is serious business, taking lives out on the open sea. It calls for sound, sober good judgement at all times. It can be about smaller day-to-day issues or big, lives-on-the-line issues, but as captains, we must think things through.

Each of these stories had other factors that may have steered these captains toward their decisions.

The Andrea Gail had money and a successful end of the season haul influencing things. The Costa Concordia had an element of overconfidence and carelessness. The Bounty had a captain with unrealistic faith in his ship and her capabilities. These factors trumped their good judgement. Good judgement that they all had demonstrated on other occasions in their careers. These were all veteran captains who got to where they were with skill and plenty of good decisions.

I hope this can be a reminder to all captains out there today. Don’t let those aforementioned factors cloud the sound decisions and good judgement calls that must be made. This doesn’t just pertain to captains, all crew; all positions on board must exercise good judgement.  

Here is a definition I came across for “good judgement.” It means, “To choose worthy goals and set proper priorities, thinking through the consequences of your actions; and basing your decisions on practical wisdom and good sense.”

Indeed, that’s pretty good, and let me add: Listen to your gut and learn from past experiences of yours and of others. It can be a great life and career on the sea. It can also be tragic. Good judgement calls can keep us on the right side of that line.

Enjoy the voyage.

Capt. Rob Gannon is a 30-year licensed captain and certified life and wellness coach. Contact him through www.yachtcrewcoach.com at rob@yachtcrewcoach.com.

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