Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Rule of Three

The little blue and white Cessna lifts off gently into the air, rising toward the little puffs of clouds. It's a beautiful day with just a bit of wind and it's my first cross country solo flight. On my lap sits my knee board, charts marked with my route and notes about radio channels to use at the airports I have to stop at clamped in its jaws. My hands, although sweaty from nerves, hold the wheel lightly but firmly, remembering my flight instructor's warning about feeling the plane's responses instead of man-handling it. I'm heading to Ohio from a small town south of Pittsburgh and I'm a bundle of mixed emotions - excited that I made it this far, worried that I might fail this test and let my instructor (who also happens to be my husband) down, and flat out scared to death of being this far away from familiar territory. I fall into a rhythm, though, checking my waypoints and listening to the thrum of the engine, wary of any hiccups. After half an hour or so, I glance down at the chart for my next waypoint, glance up, and there right in front of me is a large set of interconnected radio antennas that extend to a height above my flight path. I'm headed right for the support wires. Wanting to panic, wanting look at the chart and see where I went wrong, wanting to figure out where the hell I was, I instead look for traffic in all directions and turn the plane smoothly to avoid the antennas, hearing in my head my instructor's voice, "Always fly the plane first. If you get into trouble remember that - fly the plane first." I turned off to a section of empty fields, stabilized my flight and then studied the chart. Under the Rule of Three, this would be number one.

So what does this have to do with a sailing blog? There are a lot of similarities between flying and sailing, and I'm not referring to the oft-cited bit about the sail being like an airplane wing. I'm referring to crew and cockpit management. I'm referring to inexperience, and I'm referring to fear. In the Facebook group Women Who Sail that I belong to, I hear the stories over and over again, those of some nightmarish docking attempt, or a passage gone bad. While flying speeds leave you less time to deal with issues that come up, sailing emergencies require the same type of response. You must be trained to respond automatically, to quickly assess the issues at hand and to choose the appropriate response to yield the result of safety. Since many sailors are relatively new, like I was in the cross country trip described above, they are frequently lacking those response skills. Fear abounds. The trick, whether flying or sailing, is to follow the Rule of Three.

Major problems almost always begin as a progression of small events that, coupled together, begin the downward spiral of loss of control. Stop the progression, and you most likely will stop the event. Any irregularity that makes you uncomfortable, that makes you stop and take notice, should be considered one of the three. On past flights, we've had an instrument go out. No big deal as there are usually backups, but we still chalk it up as an event. Not too long after the instrument failure there might be some unexpected weather showing. Second event. Shortly after that you might develop a headache. Event three. At this point we always find a place to land. Three strikes you're out. On a slow-moving sailboat, there might not be any place to "land" nearby, but you can find an open piece of water and heave-to. Or if the event in question happens while trying to dock, you can leave the harbor and anchor for a bit, or heave-to, giving yourself time to take a break and regroup. If you're leaving for a long passage and the three happen early in the trip, you have the option of turning around and going back, waiting for another weather window.

The success of the Rule of Three depends very heavily on you being situationally aware, and in addition to inattention, it can be hijacked by pride and, more often, by a pressing adherence to a schedule. It can be very humbling to abort a docking maneuver with a dock lined with fellow sailors. You can also be pressured into doing something you're not comfortable with because the daughter you haven't seen for a year is waiting at the airport for you to pick her up. You must make a commitment at the onset to follow the Rule of Three. All crew members must agree to it, and no one may challenge a crew's assessment of an event as being one of the three. If anyone is unhappy, it affects the whole crew.

Clearly there are some catastrophic events that happen that are completely out of our control. Take the anchored sailboat that was slammed into at Elliot Key in Biscayne Bay a few years ago - drunk boater in a very fast-moving boat and zero chance of avoiding the accident. In those cases, just as in a flying emergency, remember to always sail the boat first. There's a tendency to freeze, to panic, but get control of the boat first before you stop to assess the situation. Those catastrophic events are clearly another level of discomfort, but committing to follow the Rule of Three is a sure-fire way to maximize your safety and comfort.

I did safely return to my home airport that day. My instructor was pleased, and I had chalked up a learning experience that would also help me in my sailing adventures. The Rule of Three is an easy piece of safety equipment to add to your boat. So the next time you hear in your thoughts...

Stop. Regroup. And arrive happily and safely.

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