The Wrong Argument: Why Experience Doesn’t Matter - Soundings Online

The Wrong Argument: Why Experience Doesn’t Matter


The pilot responsible for the greatest airline disaster in history, Jacob van Zanten, had been a pilot for 21 years when he misjudged the risk of taking off into fog. He killed 538 people. Captain Lee Joon-seok had more than 40 years of experience when he gave an order that contradicted everything he had ever learned as a professional. More than 300 passengers and crew on his ferry died; most of them were in high school. And on January 28, 1983, NASA, an organization made up of a team of long-experienced professionals, decided to not listen to other professionals who told them something was critically unsafe. They launched the Space Shuttle Challenger anyway, killing all seven aboard.

Last week, when I suggested that perhaps racing sailors may be made safer by the implementation and enforcement of a few rules, I was just trying to start a discussion. I expected some pushback and I got it, but wow, did some people let me have it. Egos are predictable if nothing else and fans of racing and racers alike attacked with the same version of an old argument. “We are professionals with years of experience and know what we are doing. We know the risks and manage them!” But here’s the problem: most don’t actually fully understand the risks. The experience of a professional is as likely to be in the way as it is to help. Experience is a rotten teacher.

I’ve been speaking to experienced professionals of one maritime ilk or another on ocean survival and rescue since 1994. I’ve stopped being amazed at how much they can know about their jobs and their boats while still understanding so very little about the water that surrounds them.

“Under five minutes!” is the most common answer I get from professional captains when I ask how long it takes to become hypothermic in icy waters. It’s not true. A marine insurance underwriter once complained to me that “over four hours” was too long for the Coast Guard to recover one of his clients who went overboard during the day close to shore. Four hours is speedy and above average. And earlier this week I wrote a letter to a high school rowing team to talk them out of allowing their long-experienced coach to train the kids on a sub 45-degree river.

The coach’s professional advice to a concerned parent was, “The kids are good swimmers; they can make it to shore if they go overboard.” I’m sure he’s a nice guy with decades of experience, but he had no earthly idea what he was talking about.

Professionals do not understand the risks better just because they have been exposed to them more — they have just managed to dance around them where novices may not have. Or, as Laurence Gonzales puts it, “The word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.” That’s it. It is exactly that experience — the experience of nothing bad happening — that allows the experienced to nonchalantly decide which rules to follow and which ones don’t apply to them or shouldn’t.

So, when a career sailor decides that it is not necessary to put his crew into life jackets as they work on the unstable deck of a boat speeding through the open water at 18 knots, he is not making a professional risk decision, he is a teenager texting and driving because he’s never been in a wreck while doing it.

Here is what I know — for sure — from my own (very limited) experience. The ocean has no idea how good you are. It doesn’t care how many races you’ve won or how many miles you have under your keel. If you find yourself off your boat and actually in the water, your experience as a professional whatever-you-are means nothing.

Things are actually pretty safe now in the world of boats and boating. There really is only one thing left to achieve to get us the rest of the way: we’ve got to change the way we think. NASA didn’t have any idea what they were doing. A 20-year rowing coach knows how to row, not how to swim in cold water. And somewhere in the air right now a very senior pilot is being talked out of a tragedy by a rookie who is on his first professional flight.

So, try to be less proud of your experience. Quit bragging about how long you’ve been at the helm. A lack of humility can get you killed. We are all students here— or should be — and listening to each other and having conversations about options should never anger a true “professional.” 



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Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.

An aerial photo of a barrier island.

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