Monday, July 23, 2012

Risk Management

If you have been hanging around here long enough you probably know that I collect denarii' by driving the corporate airplane hither and yon. My official title is (try not to laugh) – Director of Flight Operations / Chief Pilot. All corporations seem to like big titles; “Airplane Driver” would be more accurate. In reality though, what I really am is a professional risk manager. Among other tools, my department uses a paperwork procedure called a Safety Management System. It is geared directly at identifying the first link in an accident chain and includes 13 risk specifics that must be categorized on every flight as “Normal”, “Slightly Elevated”, “Elevated”, or “Unacceptable”.

I am also a risk taker, some might say “rush junkie”. I fly jets for a living, playing high speed chess with thunderstorms that dwarf Mount Everest and once held a low-level card for flying unlimited acrobatics close to the ground.  I ride very fast motorcycles (sometimes very fast) and sail tiny little boats on a great big ocean whenever I can – with the plan to live that way someday. I have not survived this long by ignoring the multitude of things that can get me killed in any given week. Managing risk, spotting potential hazards and working to minimize them, is as ingrained into me as is breathing.

And because it is, this past weekend at the lake left me puzzled as to why my assessment of risks had slacked off, disappointed that I have been making some very poor decisions, angry at myself for being so easily sucked into a potential disaster, and completely embarrassed at my part in putting so many people at such unnecessary risk. I am not criticizing anyone but myself – learn what you will without judging anyone but me.

Let us admit that Lake Carlyle is a benign environment. It is hard to imagine a chain of events that would lead to anyone getting hurt, though it must be admitted that nearly every year someone manages to get killed there. It is shallow, doesn’t have much fetch, and I sail a 42 foot blue-water boat in what is, essentially, a sailboat simulator. A thousand or more people gather every weekend to party, sail, go boating, swimming, tubing, wading, sit around fires, cook out … Middle America being Middle Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

But consider this:
- A moonless night with a partial overcast.
- The enthusiastic consumption of gin, beer, and rum. Of the adults on the 6-boat raft,  the only two I'm sure were below the legal limit for driving were Deb (who barely drinks at all) and me (who simply abhors the idea of being out of control in any way, shape, or form.) Two of the others may not have had much to drink, I wasn't really keeping tabs; but when the chips went down I wasn't sure who could do what.
- 3 kids on holiday.
- One of the adults suffering from at least 4 days of abdominal pain without going to a doctor (no insurance) but still choosing to be several hours from help in the middle of a lake in the middle of - basically - nowhere.
- Allowing my boat, with its over sized ground tackle, to be the “anchor” boat in an overnight raft several miles from any point of access to shore.

Anywhere but the lake and I would go absolutely ballistic at anyone being so dull to the potential for disaster.

Long story short, no one got hurt. But at one point I was trying to hold a basically incoherent, alternately inert and then combative person on the fore peak of a sailboat being helmed by a single crew member trying to get us back to the marina for medical help. None of us were wearing a life vest. The person I was holding had passed out cold on the deck of Kintala, narrowly missed cracking her head open on our mid-ship cleat as she fell, and I simply didn’t have enough capable people around to get one on her inert form.

The skipper of her boat had moved from the end of the raft and pushed his bow against the stern line between Kintala and the boat next to us - pinning the three in place with his anchor roller about at Kintala's midships. It was the only way I could think of to get her moved, as there was no way to carry her across the tangle of rigging that is a sailboat raft-up. And that’s how I ended up clinging to the fore peak.

I was too preoccupied with the unfolding drama to think of putting a life jacket on myself. About half way to safety I really wished I had thought of it when she passed out yet again (having come to trying to stand up to “check on her kids”) and damn near fell through the life lines. (Said kids were asleep below and yes – I know that borders on criminal negligence. There is no defense for being in the middle of this debacle.) I had one leg hanging off the bow, one arm wrapped around her, with the other hand gripping a cleat to keep us both from going overboard. I knew if she fell into that black night in her condition the chances of surviving without aid were nil. I also knew (having once been a trained rescue swimmer) that going in after her could prove fatal as well. But I know me, and I probably would have gone in after her anyway. (It is my observation of many years that there is precious little distance between “brave” and “stupid”.) I was, literally, holding on for dear life on our quiet little lake during a placid summer’s eve.

When the highlight of the evening is that no one is dead or maimed, one can bet it has been a bad night. Clearly we made it back, no one got hurt, and I suspect Deb is the only other person who knows just how close we came to having lead parts in a tragic news story. My guess is that the consensus of those around the marina, who hear the story, will be it was never as serious as these words imply. So be it.

Kintala’s days of being the pivot boat in an all-out party raft-up are on hold. Such antics are not getting us any closer to blue water. In fact, should someone get seriously hurt on our boat due to what a court would find as negligence, we could lose everything and never see blue water at all. I love the folks at our marina, count them as good friends, hope to learn a lot more from the excellent sailors that fill the ranks, and will be glad to lend a hand when ever I can. But risks are being taken that I have been slow to recognize and am uncomfortable sharing. Kintala will be spending a lot of nights out on her own. And I’m going to be a damn sight more careful than I have been, even on our quiet little lake.


bob said...

luck is a fluky thing. One of our local bloggers (John Vigor) talks about the black luck box into which you can put tokens each time you do something ahead of time to forestall problems, and from which withdrawls are made in dire circumstances. He explains it better than me, of course. Sounds like your black box was full.

There are lessons to be learned here - would you care to write this up as an "I learned about sailing from that" article?

s/v Eolian

TJ said...

We are big fans of John Vigor's "black luck box" and, much as our modest skills and sailing knowledge allow, try to keep it as full as we can. I'm sure that;
1) The chips in our box were enough to get us through last weekend without disaster, and
2) The box is pretty much empty now.

It might be fun to try and write up a story ... I'll think about giving it a try.

SailFarLiveFree said...

The bad part about cruising is the people you leave behind at the marinas and anchorages you visit. The good part about cruising is the people you leave behind at the marinas and anchorages you visit. It's never quite that simple, but owning your own island (aka "cruising boat") is a worthy endeavour.

TJ said...

So far as I know Kintala is the only boat at the lake being preped to head for deep water, so there is a bit of a disconnect between us and even the people we hold the most dear. During the weekends everyone else is on a mini-vacataion. Deb and I are working on our home and trying to learn the basics of living aboard. Sometimes the two clash a little. No one's fault; just two different things happening.