Confessions From the Helm

Every mariner has a sea story. If you have been to sea long enough you will acquire a full spectrum of yarns, fish stories of all sizes. It is inevitable. To have not acquired, means you never left the safety of a sheltered port or enough days afloat. These experiences fabricated over time, the necessary lessons, good, bad, and ugly, to sustain a successful career or sink it. You find through the years, those that protect their lessons and experiences, in the attempt to advance their image as the flawless professional. Lording their title as Master, Captain as the ultimate authority upon the sea. Protector of some secret knowledge that can only be learned, by one as seasoned with as much salt spray as the Ancient Mariner. To those who have gone down to the sea. Soaked in her waters. Rode upon her waves. Sailed over the horizon. Know truly, and feel in their souls the meaning of Jimmy Buffett’s lyrics,” Mother, mother ocean, I have heard your call”. She is our church, temple, cathedral, a sacred place we go to worship. A place to heal and of pain. A confessional and we must confess.

Like the sea, a career of experience will have an ebb and flow. We will be set by forces felt and will drift by unseen circumstances. The observance of this flow, smell of the spray, taste of the sea and feel the rhythms provided by waves traveling unobstructed across a vast expanse, is best when shared with others. Confessed. I have shared these confessionals and will always cherish my time with other mariners, kind enough to share their confessions with me. Reviewing in my mind a warm spring day in Ft. Lauderdale, lounging in the cockpit of a 27’ Catalina off the Las Olas Isles. The “Ocean Cowboy” drinking rum and cokes, no ice. Taking in the stories of being underway, under sail, island hopping the Caribbean from seasoned mariners. The adventures to me at the time of exotic ports, a distant dream I wanted to achieve. Stories of their experiences, but always shared with the ugly, the bad as well as the beautiful. Lessons of close calls with death, meant to heed as a warning and not make the same mistake twice. Shared with me graciously, to never make the mistake for me the first time. Usually with laughs of, “oh shit was that a close one”. These early maritime mentors showed me great kindness in the sharing of their stories, time, and a cocktail or two. The only expectation to be, a lesson that I must learn and pass the sea painter line of knowledge. As well as a boat drink.

Command is hard. You have been tested and been found worthy to attain the credentials. Trusted to assume the responsibility of not only the material but in many cases the lives of passengers & crew. With this trust is the expectation of competency. A single mistake can create doubt in this belief and degrade the trust by all. A mindset that can slow the process of growth, through fear. Fear of someone learning, we are all flawed individuals. We make mistakes. In choices, judgements, evaluations, maneuvers, just F’ing Up. Captains F Up. But what comes out of these mistakes, is what is most important and long lasting. The Exxon Valdez the El Faro just to name some mistakes that triggered an after-action review, a study into how and why. They created change. A discussion. A confessional.

It would be nice, if Mariners where required to attend a self-help group of other deeply disturbed individuals, who have also found the sea calling their name. Well in most sea towns that would be the local AA meeting. Maybe get a twofer, AA and confessional of your maritime failures? That would never work. The mariners would end up getting the AA’ers back on the bottle. The problem is that not all mistakes are oil disasters and the loss of ship and crew. I would think 99% are close calls. The feeling of your heart in your throat. In the vast majority of the Holy Shit moments, how does the lesson get learned? Better yet past down. As you envision this in your mind, it probably is thinking of a massive vessel, but what about all the lessons on smaller vessels. The chance of an incident, lesson to be learned is far greater on a small vessel. Where is your group, how do you confess, as well as receive confessions to grow?

Most mariners usually make the joke to one another of those that have been aground and those that will. Never those that won’t ever. Why? Because that is the nature of having a life at sea. I am not talking super tankers, massive freighters, I am talking at some point with enough time at sea on some vessel, you will bump bottom. This is but one example of an incident that one will experience in a lifetime afloat. Let’s compound that by the multitude of other scenarios at sea that can go wrong, a lesson to learn. I used to advise vessel owners looking to hire a Captain, as well as when I was hiring a Captain to ask them a question at the end of the interview. “What is your biggest F’ Up onboard a vessel you were operating?” This works on some many levels. If it is they haven’t or some small petty little thing, they are either lying to you or don’t have enough experience. If it is something that they explain in detail and without asking, own their mistake. Even better, describe what they learned from it, you got a good one. They not only learned but was willing to share what they learned from it and will pass this knowledge on. They feel the relief of this mistake through there confession of sharing with others.
Confessing is not all about untethering a mistake, it is a review of experiences learned. It is a sharing of experiences, sea stories, no shitters. They are shared on the mid-watch, hot cup of coffee in hand, in a booth at the Southport Raw Bar, and while waiting on the forecastle at special sea detail. There is no special small room at the side of the church required to release your sin or concerns. Like the sea and its vast openness, all that is required is someone ready to receive knowledge and the desire to throw out the heaving line, pay out your experience.

I have been hard aground on two separate occasions. Bumped bottom on a couple of occasions. Rolled a vessel on her side in between two reef edges. Fire onboard, flooding, massive fuel leak out of the common rail fuel line, these are just a few of the issues I have experienced as a Master. Many more as a mate or deck watch officer. Lots of lessons learned while underway, maneuverings in close quarters. Not correctly anticipating handling characteristics combined with set/winds and drift/currents. Close calls. Lessons learned where I didn’t brief my crew or line handlers well enough, and they made mistakes. Upon review, it was my failure for not being clear, sharing my knowledge. The sin in this religion, a religion of the world’s watermen, drawn to the cathedral of the sea, is not to share a confessional. It is a Heaven or Hell decision, otherwise defined as Life or possibly Death.
Setting ego aside, leaving it on the wharf to set off on an exploration of your experiences. A discovery of value in learning from one’s experiences, to create an opportunity to share one’s story. These stories are not inclusive to experiences from the sea alone, but of life well lived. Captains, sailors, soldiers, coaches, teachers and most importantly family. A Ricky the Rope is a lesson shared. Although in a playful funny story, lesson about looking at the man behind the curtain. One that has value to seeing the world from a bigger picture or perspective. One not as funny, but still turned out luckily well.

I was a young father, new business owner and trying to provide for my young family. I didn’t have any margins to make a mistake. My young business was a company that did special projects, delivered yachts, and training called U.S. Powerboat. I could not afford an incident or mistake at this phase of my life, both financially and professionally. I was delivering a yacht from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to Annapolis, MD. It was on day 3 of the trip north, late in the afternoon traveling on the ICW passing Morehead City NC. I had just made the transition in the ICW between Morehead and Beaufort, under the road and rail bridges with Radio Island to starboard. Got clear of the No Wake Zone, got back on plane, looking with my binos for the ICW markers ahead. In the back of my head, I was already thinking of my end of day destination, hot meal, cocktail and a good night’s sleep. Scanning the horizon, I see what I believed was my next red marker. Set my course and was cruising along. As I was looking on my chart, this is pre-chart plotter on every boat, I had a bad feeling that the next marker was out of position. Before I could pull the throttles back to reevaluate, I heard and felt the worst grinding, violent and rumbling noise that every mariner dreads. Going hard aground. Heart in throat. I am screwed. A million thoughts running threw my mind. My family, I can’t afford to pay for this, how will it affect my family? My profession, can I work again in my profession? The vessel, how damaged, how do I get her off? On and on.

This is where years of listening to confessions and life experiences comes into play. Always, take a deep breath. I mean it. Stop, take a slow long inhalation, and let it out slow. Now, focus. But only focus on one thing at a time. First, the most urgent. The vessel. Problem solve. Look for any damage that could cause additional damage. Any leaks, taking on water. Flooding or fire. Good, next issue, how hard aground? What’s the tide, high or low, incoming, or outgoing. Can you be refloated at high tide and just need to wait or need to still be towed off at high tide. Contact SeaTow, discuss best actions and practice for getting you off. You work the problem one piece at a time, one evolution at a time till your safe. I got her off, no additional damage and was able to get her completely seaworthy and running to finish my journey.

So, many lessons. Let’s see, not 100% focused, in the moment when running the vessel. Assuming I knew exactly where I was on the chart when identifying a distant marker. When in question, I was moving to fast not providing the emergency factor of time to stop sooner. Running a vessel alone, without a second pair of eyes or interpretation. I do feel my decisions after going aground were good decisions, but I never would have had to make them if I had not had a lapse in decisions leading to the grounding. Since that time, I have told that story, my confession at least 6 times as I have passed that location to fellow mariners. In detail, passing the painter.

Please feel free to share my confession, I intend to share more-

Published by tvincent2014

Over 25 years as a mariner and maritime industry professional.

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