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Personal Minimums:

Making Good Decisions When You Aren’t Thinking Straight

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Copyright © 2004, Laurence Shick

 

“But the degree of a ship's danger is progressive and at the same time indefinite…safety and fatal hazard are not separated by any sharp boundary line, but shade gradually from one into the other. There is no little red light which is going to flash on…”

Admiral C.W. Nimitz, 13 February 1945

When bad decisions happen to good sailors

 

We’ve all seen it happen: you’ve been in a developing situation that, had it been handled in good time, would have been easy to deal with. But you put off acting, and then had to deal with a much more challenging—possibly dangerous—problem. Or at the end of a passage, you tried to enter a port under conditions that were at best marginal, under no greater pressure than the desire for a dinner on shore in peace. One hopes that the god who watches over sailors gave you a better outcome than you deserved.

 

Three examples should be enough:

·        Close to home, I participate in this pattern when I put off reefing in a rising breeze.

·        A touch of queasiness means that the Dead Reckoning plot is not kept up to date, so a cross-current is not noticed.

·        For a larger and more bitter example, look at the disaster in Cabo San Lucas in 1982, when a wind shift from an offshore storm drove ashore and wrecked much of the cruising fleet anchored there.

 

What’s going on here? Why do competent sailors make bad decisions? More importantly, is there something that can be done to help us avoid these traps?

 

When we’re honest with ourselves, we admit that various pressures can cloud our judgment. Risk factors like fatigue, schedules, wishful thinking, or the desire to be thought “tough”—you and I could point to cases where we sensed one of these little demons sitting on our shoulders, whispering in our ears.

Demonbusters

 

It’s possible to get these demons under control, once we admit their existence. If we are at risk of making bad decisions under pressure, the solution is to make the risky decisions, as much as possible, before the pressure comes on. How? Three steps:

 

  1. By having a personal set of policies, or previously-made decisions, each of which helps us recognize a risky situation as it develops, and which reminds us of our recommended behavior.
  2. By solidifying our commitment to the policies, by writing them down, and by announcing them to others.
  3. By executing those policies as the relevant situations arise.

 

For example, one such policy might be: “I won’t enter unfamiliar harbors at night. I’ll either heave to or divert to a familiar harbor.” Obviously, each skipper’s risk factors will be different, based upon your own experience and training, that of your crew, the state of your vessel, and other considerations. For most of us, a review of mistakes we got away with will provide a rich list of risk factors.

 

In my own case, I remember with discomfort an evening spent anchored off of pretty Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. During the night, the wind shifted and rose until it was gusting to 50 knots, and the beach of China Cove was a lee shore perhaps 100 feet behind our stern. If any part of our ground tackle failed, I knew that we’d be on the beach before we could react. And yet I did nothing to get us out of there.

Personal Minimums

 

I discussed this experience with my brother, Kevin, who is a Federal Aviation Agency (FAA)-licensed aviator, and he introduced me to a practice that is common in the aviation community: Personal Minimums. With aviation Personal Minimums, an aviator will list and categorize his personal risk factors (say, amount of crosswind when landing), set a threshold (perhaps 20 knots), and indicate a planned alternate behavior (divert to another airfield). The FAA mandates certain minimums or maximums for each aircraft type, for example, a maximum crosswind during a landing. But Personal Minimums are individually selected by each aviator, based upon his knowledge of his own skills and experience, and may voluntarily be more restrictive than the FAA’s standards.

 

Research has shown that good intentions are more likely to be followed up if several psychological levers are activated. To offset the pressures that contribute to bad decisions, to provide psychological commitment to the Personal Minimums, the Personal Minimums are written down, and signed by the aviator. Ideally, the aviator will discuss his Personal Minimums with others—it’s harder to back out of a resolution that others know about.

 

With the list of Personal Minimums in place, there remains only execution. Before takeoff, an aviator would go through his list of Personal Minimums, evaluating each against the current conditions, external and personal, and noting whether the conditions exceeded his personally-set bounds. One rule of thumb in aviation is:

 

If you have marginal items in two or more risk categories, don’t go.

 

From Personal Minimums to Policies

 

Let’s apply this technique to sailing. Suppose you were considering entering a harbor. Risk factors for entering a harbor might include: darkness, reduced visibility, fatigue, unfamiliarity with the harbor, river bar, harbor entry on a lee shore, or a complex harbor channel. If two or more of those apply, heave to and wait for conditions to improve, or go elsewhere. That example shows that Personal Minimums can include as many risk factors as your experience indicates.

 

As I think of it, a policy is a simplified extract of your Personal Minimums, such as “Don’t enter a strange harbor at night.” Remember, the idea is to be able to recognize that a potentially dangerous situation is developing, so you want the list of policies to be short, situation-specific, and memorable. The work you do in building, and committing to, your Personal Minimums, and extracting policies from them, should plant the mental triggers that snap you to attention at the appropriate moment.

 

You may say that Personal Minimums and policies look a lot like SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), or just good seamanship, and you’d be right. The difference is that your Personal Minimums and policies are tailored by your self-knowledge to your skills and experience. Dirty Harry noted that “A man’s got to know his limitations,” but just knowing your limitations isn’t enough: that knowledge is the prerequisite for building the recognition and responses that keep you from running into your limitations.

Build your own

 

Where do you go to begin your own list of risk factors and policies? Remember, the object of the exercise is to recognize a developing situation before it becomes dangerous, before your options become limited. A few example policies drawn at random from several sailors might be:

 

Underway

·        The first time you think of reefing, do so.

·        Reef at sunset, particularly in the tropics.

·        Update the chart hourly, with both GPS and DR plots.

·        If compelled to sail along a lee shore, stay off the shore a distance in nautical miles at least equal to the square of the expected Beaufort wind force number.

·        Don’t enter a strange harbor at night; heave to or divert.

At anchor (see also the sidebar: “The Cabo San Lucas disaster”)

·        If a wind shift puts you within 100 yards of a lee shore and wind rises above 20kt, move, or move out.

·        At sundown, put the boat into “bug out” configuration (ready to sail out quickly if conditions deteriorate at night).

 

But other people’s policies won’t do for you: you have to begin with your own experience. An evening or two with no one looking over your shoulder should enable you to remember enough embarrassing incidents to form the basis of your own list.

 

Second, I’d suggest that you study John Rousmaniere’s Annapolis Book of Seamanship. In his chapter on “Emergencies,” he lists seven characteristics that he calls “The Formula for Disaster”:

  1. A rushed, ill-considered departure.
  2. The route is dangerous.
  3. The route has no alternative where the crew can “bail out.”
  4. The crew is unprepared.
  5. The boat is unprepared.
  6. The crew panics after an injury.
  7. Leadership is poor.

Refer to his the text under each of these headings for an explanation of specific, objective risk factors that you can adapt for your own list of Personal Minimums.

 

Finally, look for case studies. As W. S. Kals wrote, “Reading about seamanship is buying experience without getting wet.” As you read about an accident, ask yourself “How did the skipper get himself into this situation?” Bear in mind that you’re interested less in the immediate cause of the accident (running aground) than in the chain of causes (the grounding was caused by fatigue, which was caused by an attempt to keep a schedule). If the chain of causes is broken at any point, the accident does not happen. See the references for several sources.

 

With your Personal Minimums written down and discussed with your crew, you’ve built a mutually-supporting team that can help each other over moments of weakness. My crew and I have reached the point where one of us just has to say “We don’t enter a strange harbor at night,” and the matter is settled.

Once upon a time…

 

…a skipper arrived in a familiar harbor. The passage had been upwind, and soggy. With the ship snugged down, he was about to wrap himself around a sundowner, when he caught The Look from his first mate. A quick review of his Personal Minimums reminded him of a policy: after upwind passages of greater than a certain duration, the first mate got a Night on the Town. A quick signal for the shore boat renewed one of the traditions that had kept his crew with him for 30 years.

References and acknowledgements

 

My thanks to Kevin Shick for introducing me to Personal Minimums.

 

Internet web sites come and go. All of the sites listed below were current when this article was submitted.

 

An Internet search for the phrase “personal minimums” (with the quotation marks, for most search engines), will give pointers to a number of sources on the aviation practice. I found the following helpful:

·        The psychology of Personal Minimums: http://www.hf.faa.gov/docs/508/docs/cami/9806.pdf

·        A Personal Minimums checklist: http://tnwg.cap.gov/es/FAA%20Pers%20Min%20Cklst.pdf

·        Personal Minimums and having a “Plan B”: http://www.aopa.org/pilot/features/mos9711.html

 

For the Formula for Disaster, see Rousmaniere, John. The Annapolis Book of Seamanship. Simon and Schuster, 1999.

 

For an analysis on the Cabo San Lucas disaster, see Pardey, Lin and Larry, The Capable Cruiser, Norton, 1987. See also Dashew, Steve and Linda, Practical Seamanship, Beowulf Press, 2001.

 

For case studies on accidents, see:

·        Coote, Jack, Total Loss, Sheridan House, 2002.

·        British Marine Accident Investigation Bureau Safety Digests, http://www.maib.dft.gov.uk/publications/safety_digests.cfm

·        US Coast Guard’s Index of Command Decisions on Appeal (go to http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg00/cg00j/ and search on “appeal”)

 

Biography

Larry Shick has sailed for four decades,in waters from California to Ecuador, and Colombia to Mexico.

Sidebar – The Cabo San Lucas disaster

 

I have extracted the following set of risk factors from several accounts of the Cabo San Lucas disaster of 1982.  The risk factors fall into two broad categories: how likely is it that things will go bad; and, how bad can things get, when they go bad?

 

How likely are things to go bad?

·        Is the weather uncertain? Are there mixed signals, missing or unreliable forecasts, scanty data, or unseasonable conditions?

·        Is there an extra-high tide predicted? This would tend to dislodge those who have let out minimum scope or who are in marginal holding.

·        Do we have inexperienced neighbors? If it’s early in the season, if we’re close to a charter operation, or if there have been conspicuous displays of Wrongful Anchoring, watch out.

How bad can it get?

·        Is the anchorage crowded? A crowded anchorage increases the likelihood of the 10-pin effect (one boat drags and fouls two others, which drag into three others, and so on). Also, if you need to get out, there will be more lines in the water, and other debris blown overboard, which can snag a prop or rudder or foul an engine intake.

·        Is your own rapid exit inhibited? Are you anchored bow-and-stern, have a flopper-stopper in the water, or need to bring the dinghy on deck? As the Dashews point out, your stern anchor rode has a high likelihood of fouling your own prop.

·        Do you have limited dragging room in any direction? Remember that a frontal passage is typically accompanied by a 90-degree wind shift. Also, are you situated so that you can’t let out more scope if things start to go bad? This takes away one of your best countermeasures. Being anchored bow-and-stern doesn’t relieve you from evaluating these conditions: strong winds on the beam create enormous forces for boats anchored bow-and-stern.

·        Is there likely to be a “herd instinct” in operation? At Cabo San Lucas, cruisers used the VHF to reassure one another that things weren’t so bad, with disastrous results.

 

To use this Personal Minimum rule, count up the risk factors for your current situation from both categories. If you have three or more risk factors present, in any combination from the two categories, strongly consider moving on.

 

The rule can be used another way. Suppose you’re in a crowded anchorage (one strike), anchored bow-and-stern (two strikes), but in an otherwise satisfactory situation. The rule tells you that you’ll need to watch the weather like a hawk, and a skeptical hawk at that, looking for any cloud on the horizon (so to speak) that would accumulate the third strike that would advise you to be on your way.

 

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