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On the rocks

This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.

Dear Mary and Jack,

This is another story of departure from a harbour. I was still officer of the deck, still on the same ship (See The day I (nearly) cut a fishing boat in two), just the following year. We were weighing anchor from a mooring point in the gulf of Tadjoura, just north of Djibouti. The coast there is very wild. Villages are few and far between and at night there are no lights ashore, except for Djibouti itself. We were leaving Djibouti sailing north, before turning East to enter the Gulf of Aden, which links the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. There was a sliver of a moon, enough to see it, not enough to shed any light around.

Gulf of Tadjoura NASA - Wikimedia commons

The starting sequence was a bit messy. I had underestimated the complexity of the navigation, and skipped a couple of steps in the underway-from-anchor checklist. Unlike in the aforementioned article though, I was not alone at the bridge and my missteps happened in full view of the CO (Commanding officer) and the XO (Executive officer, the second in charge).

I immediately understood that I’d landed in a world of trouble when I realised that the anchor was high and clear, but my map operator was not fully ready.

When a ship weighs anchor, she does not stay put. Sea currents, the wind, her own propulsion (even in neutral mode), everything concurs to make her drift. How these various factors combine is anyone’s guess. But she will usually drift towards somewhere you do not want to go, like on the rocks.

So once the anchor is high and clear, the ship is en route, and you need to have position, speed and heading. You need to conscientiously drive it somewhere. I knew were we wanted to go, I knew the headings, but my map operator was still fumbling with finding the right map, and so I did not know where we were. And for anyone who’s tried, a heading from an unknown position is as useful as a cello in a cooking contest.

Of course, the CO asked the question of how I was ascertaining our position, as he could see for himself what the situation was. As I came back with a nervous “dunno-for-sure-we-haven’t-moved-that-much-map’s-almost-ready”, I saw his brow furrow and I could foresee my seafaring career being flushed down a smelly drain. After a few minutes it was all back to normal. We were sailing in deep waters, all was well. But I’d been caught red handed behaving like an amateur…

The lesson of this story starts of course with “Thou shall be prepared”, but that’s only the start. It also and mainly lies in the way the debriefing took place.

First the CO, who was probably very frustrated, judged it better not to do this himself. Maybe he did not want to waste his time with a stupid “not prepared” situation, but I suspect he also did not want to do the debriefing whilst feeling angry. His very absence actually made me realise how disappointed and unhappy he was about the situation, and that was a very powerful message. He sent the XO. The XO was an extremely competent man. He’d sailed round the earth, defused underwater explosives and mines, and done all manners of adventurous things. He had a way about people. He just liked them, and always approached them with humility and respect. I liked and respected him a lot (Still do).

He first asked me to step out on the wing (Small open space on each side of the bridge), so that we’d have a private chat. He did not skin me alive in public, and still today I am grateful for the decency of this simple gesture.

He simply asked me how I thought it had gone. I said I thought it had been a disaster. Above all the emotions I was feeling at that moment, one stood out that I did not expect. I felt bitter. I thought I was intelligent, I thought I’d done well at all the exams and the studies, and all the book swatting and paper scratching, and the sea training periods, and taken in all the feedback like a good student, and here I was defeated by a stupid checklist. So I simply finished by saying: “Look I realise I’m not good at this”.

He said: “Well son you are right about what you’ve said before about it not being your best work, but you’re wrong on the last count. You’re not bad at it. But being “good at it” like you say, doesn’t mean being successful without preparation or work”.

He said some other stuff, but that bit stuck. I still see him telling me this. He was not teaching me about the technic of navigation. He was telling me I had the wrong attitude. He was telling me that nobody is beneath running a simple checklist if it means we won’t be on the rocks.

And he was telling it to me in a way that made it plain that although I’d screwed up, he (and the CO) cared for my person and my potential as an officer. They wanted the ship to sail true and safe, but they also wanted me to thrive and grow.

I have several times afterwards encountered that same brand of sharp yet benevolent debriefing. It’s that attitude to which I often refer to as being “Tough on the fact and soft on the people”. It means you’re going to say some things that may be unpleasant to hear, but you will do it face to face, privately, in a way that respects dignity. You will avoid shaming and blaming, you will point the facts and ask for self-appraisal. Because let’s face it: Nobody comes to work to fail.

This was in 1998, and almost 20 years later I am not sure I have fully mastered this skill, but dear Mary and Jack, if you are able to, your people will give everything they’ve got, and then some. It only takes to try.

Keep well!


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