Preparing For That One Bad Day

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The Coast Guard practices for a reason. You should, too.

The Coast Guard practices for a reason. You should, too.

When you hear the name Chesley Sullenberger, competence and heroic calm under enormous pressure come to mind, don’t they? Sullenberger, who expertly piloted stricken US Airways Flight 1549 to a 155-life-saving landing on the Hudson River, will long be remembered as the very picture of experience. He was a flight instructor, developed vital flight safety programs and amassed an enormous number of safe flying hours. The passengers aboard Flight 1549 couldn’t have asked for a better pilot on that morning in January 2009.

Now, what comes to mind when you hear the name Jacob Van Zanten? I mean, besides who? He also was an instructor pilot, a leader in safety management and systems, and had an enormous number of safe flying hours under his belt. Like “Sully,” Van Zanten also inspired admiration and respect from his peers and was, quite literally, the model pilot of his airline. The passengers aboard KLM Flight 4805 in March 1977 also couldn’t have asked for a better pilot, but despite the similarities between the two men, Van Zanten would steer his passengers to the deadliest accident in aviation history.

While there is a lot of speculation as to Van Zanten’s reasons for taking his aircraft down the foggy runway at Tenerife airport without takeoff clearance, there is no dispute that he alone made the decision. It was an act that killed 248 people on his plane and another 335 on Pan Am Flight 1736. With decades of training and even the rules telling him “no,” Van Zanten’s judgment failed him and 582 others. He made a mistake a rookie wouldn’t have dared make. Why? He relied on his experience. Experience is a rotten teacher. It can make you believe all sorts of things that aren’t true, and it doesn’t matter if those things are positive or negative — experience can fool you.

You may try to make something work for years and fail. That doesn’t mean that something won’t work. (Edison anyone?). People make the mistake that “not working before” is the same thing as “won’t work ever.” That is, of course, crap. Likewise — as Van Zanten learned one second before he perished — previous success doesn’t equal future success. At the end of the day, judgment beats experience every time.

How this applies to mariners should be obvious, but I’ll spell it out. It doesn’t matter how many successful miles you have under your keel; if you think experience makes you safer, then you are not safer. You may have 10,000 safe miles under your keel, but none of them prepared you, at all, for one bad mile. For that, you have to do more. To be good at handling a bad day, you have to practice having bad days.

Preparing for a bad day is more than just having the usual drills. It’s is about having unusual, out-of-the-ordinary drills. By all means, have your man-overboard drill, but have it with you (the most competent boater aboard) as the person who goes overboard. Watch what happens, and don’t coach. Just observe and make corrections. I recommend trying out the following three bad-day drills to help fuel your judgment and intuition and get some experience (safely) with stressful situations.

Losing Your Engine Drill

For sailors who are thinking, no problem, this one is practiced by losing your engine close to shore on approach to an inlet. When this happens, many focus on restarting the engine and lose sight of everything else, including the closing distance between their hull and the rocks. Grounding following an engine loss is often tragic and almost always avoidable.

Practice calling in a pan-pan to the Coast Guard by actually saying the words you'd use, but without holding down the mic button. 

Practice calling in a pan-pan to the Coast Guard by actually saying the words you'd use, but without holding down the mic button. 

The drill: When you’re about a quarter- to a half-mile out from the inlet, pull back your engine(s) to idle. Depending on where you are in the world, you will almost immediately notice just how much you don’t like the idea of losing propulsion that close to shore and just how ugly things can get if you don’t act. Let that soak in while you run through your QRH (Quick Reference Handbook). You’ve got one, right?

This is where you:

1. Attempt a restart that fails.

2. Call a mock pan-pan. Grab the radio and do everything but push the mic button. Make sure you say all the words you would say if it were a real situation.

3. Don life jackets. (Do it, for real.)

4. Prep your anchor and be ready to use it. (You’ll want to actually do this.)

5. Estimate your drift to gauge how much trouble you’re in.

6. Start troubleshooting the power plant issue.

7. Throttle back up and motor yourself into a safe position, taking note of how far you drifted toward or away from trouble.

Get Sick Drill

This is one of my favorites because it forces you to answer a very likely what if? Someone getting sick or having a medical emergency happens all the time, but it doesn’t happen to you all the time. Practice these scenarios so you don’t get too caught up in “It’s probably just heartburn” thinking in an attempt to save your trip. (I’ve seen that one.)

The drill: A mile out from the inlet, at the beginning of a great trip you’ve been planning for weeks, have one of your crew act as if they have chest pains. This drill is more about setting in stone your decision skills regarding medical emergencies.

Your checklist for this should be simple: If someone complains of chest pains or has any other medical issue we can’t diagnose, we turn around. Do you know what to do next?

1. Call a mock pan-pan. Grab the VHF radio and do everything but push the mic button. Say all the words you would say as if it were real.

2. Break out your first aid gear. (Physically do this.)

3. Practice cardiopulmonary resuscitation. If you don’t know CPR, shame on you. Get schooled as soon as possible. This is where you will find out how difficult administering CPR underway can be. If you have an automatic external defibrillator aboard, break it out and at least inspect the equipment. (Don’t hook it up to anyone).

4. Button everything up and enjoy the rest of your trip.

If you don't know how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, you should. Once you're certified, make sure you practice performing it on your boat.

If you don't know how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, you should. Once you're certified, make sure you practice performing it on your boat.

Man Overboard Drill

Overboard drills are the most common drills I see done by boaters. And in all my experience, I’ve only seen one done well. “Train like you fight” is something that should be on your mind when practicing anything because, in an emergency, you will likely do what you practiced doing, not what you know you should do. The first thing to do in an overboard situation is throw flotation toward the victim. It’s also the least common first action taken in real overboard situations.

The drill: Anywhere during your voyage — and a safe distance from other boats or hazards — throw an actual floating object overboard. (I like old float coats or life jackets marked with your vessel name and “MOB Drill Gear.”) Announce to your crew that you, the most experienced person on the boat, went overboard.

What you are looking for from them next is:

1. That they grab the life ring and throw it. You can have a spare (also marked as “MOB Drill Gear”) in the cradle for the drill, but you want the crew to throw the device overboard toward the mock person in the water.

2. Have the crew to call, “Man overboard,” and point toward the target.

3. Everyone should put on their personal flotation devices as soon as is practical.

4. Mark and note the position. Many get wrapped up on when this should happen. I wouldn’t. If you end up needing that position, close will be good enough.

Pull a victim out of the water at the lowest point of freeboard and away from propellers.

Pull a victim out of the water at the lowest point of freeboard and away from propellers.

Hopefully, the crew does a good job of maneuvering your vessel to a successful pickup of both the target and the thrown flotation. If not, you’ve got additional training to do, and you just learned something valuable. To top off the drill, tell your crew they can’t find you and see what they do. Hint: They should call a mock pan-pan by grabbing the VHF radio and doing everything but pushing the mic button. They should speak all the words they would as if it were real.

Doing these bad-day drills will change your experience on the water. You will find out the difference between talking about what you would do and actually doing it. That can make all the difference in how you react when faced with decisions that require your judgment. Because when it comes to making decisions during truly bad days, none of your good days are going to help. Most of your experience means nothing, but you can change that.