Practising for Panic

It takes two mistakes to cause an accident. Or one mistake and a bit of bad luck. That’s the whole principle of defensive driving. If we assume someone might make a mistake, we can help avert the results. 

If your team, crew or family is not prepared for what might happen in an emergency, you’ve already made the first mistake and you’re an accident just waiting to happen. 

Take what happened in a recent sailing race. Picture a 50-foot racing yacht in a gust of wind so strong that the boat is lying on its side, the mast parallel to the surface of the sea. Water pouring into the cockpit. Sails thrashing. There is incredible strain on the lines that are holding the boat down, and the possibility for crew injury is high. If you watched the YouTube video at the start, this is a 35-foot boat in broad daylight. Did I mention that ours was at midnight? 

What Did the Crew Do? 

Well, in this case, a few of them panicked.  They stood and did nothing, shouting orders at everyone. Most of the orders were useless. Some were impossible. A few were downright dangerous. 

Trawling for Shrimp

Picture a 50-foot boat in a storm with the mainsail pulling it forward and the spinnaker (that’s the big brightly-coloured sail) in the water behind the boat, fully open in the water, dragging it back. 

To make a long story short, we survived. We got it together, figured out what rope was pulling where, sacrificed the equipment we had to, and got the spinnaker onboard. 

In Retrospect: What Was the Solution?

By the time the boat broached, it was already too late. The three or four crew had only been on board for one race previous. Most of them had come from smaller boats where communication is easier. They had noticed the problem of getting messages from the stern where the skipper was steering to the crew further forward. So they started shouting the orders. All of them. Over and over. They thought they were helping. 

What they were doing was practicing for disaster. Because what you practice in normal situations is what you do when things get tough. So when the chips were down, instead of going to their proper positions and doing their assigned tasks, they focused on other people and shouted for them to do something. Meanwhile doing nothing themselves. 

So the solution to this problem should have started weeks ago. What seemed to be harmless egotism turned into a life-threatening error. It’s up to the leadership to realize this potential, and fix the problem before it becomes a problem. 

And the solution is to practise something else. Set up the routines, explain the reasons, and then work them. Don’t be nice guys and let bad habits creep in.

But This Doesn’t Apply to Me
Sure, you think this only has to do with dangerous sports like sailboat racing. It applies to your family as well. You know the standard YA adventure movie, where the family of nattering teenagers gets stranded in a life-threatening situation, and they all settle down and pull together and win through? Not gonna happen. If your kids have been practising power games against each other for years, when the chips are down, they will continue. When it doesn’t work, they have nothing to fall back on, and then they will panic.

What Doesn’t Kill us…

Now, I’m not suggesting that you take your family, your team, or your workmates out on a survival course and put them in life-threatening situations. But you do need to challenge them, whatever way you can, while at the same time demonstrating that desired behaviours such as cooperating, following procedures and doing your share really work. If they have practised doing it right, when the crunch comes they have a good chance of winning through.  


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