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Keep Your Wits About You
Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 4:05 PM
Joined: 02/05/2008
Posts: 392

Dockwalk magazine’s new column, Worst Case Scenario by Kelly Sanford, highlights a hypothetical situation that captains may experience and offers advice from experts on how to handle it. The June 2011 column is about an onboard incident that went from a worst to a best case scenario. We’re republishing it here for your comments.

Over the past few years, both the What Went Wrong and Worst Case Scenario columns have covered a number of different scenarios for onboard emergencies. Often, it’s determined that the worst outcomes result from a domino effect of unfortunate circumstances and ill-fated decisions. But, as Capt. Russ Keys of M/Y Mirage contacted us recently to say, “I think there is just as much to learn from the times [when] it all went right.”

In July 2010, we discussed an incident in which crew attempting to triage high-water alarms in the engine room made a series of decisions and oversights that ultimately led to the yacht becoming a complete loss. Many years ago (pre-Mirage), Keys experienced a similar incident. But in his case — everything considered — it all went right. “I give a lot of credit to my crew because everyone kept their cool and what could have been a disaster was avoided,” Keys says.

The story begins with a familiar scenario. The boat was coming out of the shipyard and already had experienced a number of delays. The owners would be waiting on the dock in Lyford Cay in The Bahamas, so the crew would be making the crossing from Fort Lauderdale overnight. “Ideally, I would have preferred a daylight passage, but it was a trip I had done dozens and dozens of times, and I was experienced and confident enough to go ahead and make the trip at night,” Keys says.

“Several hours underway, just as the sun was starting to set, we heard a loud boom. Almost immediately, high water alarms were going off in the engine room. I knew right away something was really wrong and, of course, all sorts of things started running through my mind. When my engineer and I got down in the engine room, water literally was shooting up into the boat and [it] appeared to be coming in fast. All of our minds were racing, but I was so impressed that despite what we were seeing, my crew stayed calm and we went to work as team to get the problem figured out.

“You know, you can drill and drill all you want, but you really never know how your crew is going to react when something really bad happens,” Keys says. “Because my crew was able to keep their cool, we were able to get back-up pumps going and we found that a hose clamp had failed on a raw water return. We managed to make a temporary repair and get back to Lauderdale under our own power. Sure, there was a lot of damage — that tends to happen when you have seawater gushing into an engine room — but the boat was repaired and disaster was averted.”

Psychotherapist Dr. Michelle Sukenik has an explanation for the “X factor” that has some keeping a cool head under pressure. Some natural physiological reactions occur in the body and brain when a person is under stress, she says — the most notable that you may detect in your- self when under extreme duress is a sudden rush of adrenalin. Adrenalin triggers impulses, which drive decision making under stress. These impulses are loosely described as the fight or flight response.

“Everyone is capable of either response, but some people are naturally predisposed fighters and some people are predisposed to flight, and obviously the crisis itself will play a deciding role in which response is triggered,” Sukenik says. “Whichever impulse is engaged, that frame of mind is going to affect decision making.”

Sukenik explains further. “Although we can’t say for sure which response will be triggered in a person prior to a crisis, what we do know is that we can train the mind to override our panic response. It’s something that first responders, emergency physicians and military personnel do every day, and that [comes from] rehearsing possible scenarios and drilling.”

In this respect, the mind is very much like a muscle. Just because you cannot bench press your body weight, it does not mean that you’re destined to be weak. You can train your muscles to become stronger and you can train your mind to stay focused. Both take a lot of work, consistency and dedication.

The importance of engaging in this type of training cannot be emphasized enough. Well rehearsed situation management training is the very best tool in preventing a quagmire from turning into a crisis. And, although you may not be able to train for every specific contingency, all training (even unrelated training) can help you harness your ability to stay focused under pressure.

Yes, some people naturally will be stronger than others and naturally will be capable of staying calm under pressure. However, Dr. Sukenik gives Capt. Keys more credit than he is willing to give himself. “It is likely that this crew had drilled for emergencies, drilled recently and drilled as a team. When they saw the water coming in, they knew the appropriate response and did not have to defer to their impulses to overcome the situation,” she says. In short, the degree to which you take the time to prepare for and rehearse an emergency can play a deciding role in whether a crisis becomes the worst case scenario...or the best case scenario.

Click here to read Worst Case Scenario in Digital Dockwalk.

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