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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Captain’s Challenge

Convinced that we could go for it safely, I laid out a series of alternative paths on the chart that could get us far enough south before any gales were due. Even at our slowest speed of six knots, we were almost sure to pass Tehuantepec before the winds were predicted to rise. We would do even better as winds rose behind us to help us along.

But as my logic and argument advanced, so did Pete’s resistance. We could not be sure, he said. We might be blown offshore and then get becalmed too far out to get back to land on our dwindling fuel supply. The seas might be even bigger than expected. The engine could fail. Of course there was no guarantee of success, but his scenarios were unconvincing to me. I had complete faith in the boat in anything short of a hurricane (65 knots of wind or more), and a strong belief that we could sail around the area of gales before they became a problem. If the crew couldn’t face a storm that might not really be there, which was more important — reality or their perception?

Any further delay now guaranteed that we would have to backtrack 150 miles to Acapulco to drop off Pete and Diane and bring aboard substitute crew. It felt to me as though Pete’s commitment to reaching Panama had collapsed, which seemed inappropriate for the one professional crewman aboard. I sensed he had other reasons. Was he simply afraid? Was Diane privately urging him to turn back? Was he hiding some information from me?

I asked myself: Should I exercise the captain’s prerogative to insist that we press on? Would that be wise leadership, or authority for its own sake? Then came an “Aha!” that released me from further doubt. Without Pete confident and committed at heart and willing to help the others, we did not have the critical mass to proceed. I had been raised on the sailing maxim, “If you wonder if it’s time to reef [reduce sail in advance of storm winds], it’s time to reef.” That moment had arrived. We had no choice but to turn back.

Lion-Hearted Prudence
Arriving several days later in Acapulco — now more than a week behind schedule — we discovered deep in the hold a leak in the engine exhaust system that might have caused it to fail at any time and left us without power. So maybe this vindicated Pete in insisting we turn back. On the other hand, the tropical depression that had worried him never developed. And although the 50-knot winds in the Gulf of Tehuantepec occurred on schedule, had we kept to the original plan we would have rounded them in time.

In the end, the time we lost in failing to press forward was somewhere between a week and 10 days. With a new crew aboard and the exhaust and fuel manifolds repaired, we continued the passage east, dogged by calms that now put us fully two weeks behind schedule. We would ultimately make it only as far as Jamaica by December 14, forced to leave the boat there to fly home for the holidays. My “official future” — to reach Florida by early December — had given way to a far less preferable timetable. Our assumed easy downwind sail had turned into a struggle to manage risks that we faced differently and could not tolerate together.

Later, when friends and colleagues asked me, “How was your trip?” I was tempted to complain: There was no wind to speak of, I didn’t get to test the boat the way I wanted to, and I brought crew who maybe should not have been there. But when I reflected more thoughtfully on the experience for its lessons and business applications, I realized that if I had applied my own scenario practice better to the sailing challenge, I would have focused sooner on the critical factors of competence and preparation.

 
 
 
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