Hi, I'm Daria

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The One About Being A Competent Team Member In High Stress Situations

Posted at — May 3, 2020

Or Lessons Learned From Not Crashing Your Boat Into The Pier at 70 Km/h.

(The idea to use a phrase “competent team member” comes from Competent Crew, an entry level sailing certification granted by Royal Yachting Association.)

tl;dr - Here’s my list if you prefer to skip the story:

  1. Pick a single commander and follow their lead, not that of random bystanders.
  2. Allow the commander time to think things through, keep silent while they do that.
  3. Choose a single plan and have the whole team commit to it.
  4. Keep an eye on others, but don’t push your help when they don’t want it.
  5. Use strict communication protocols to ensure correct information flow.
  6. Debrief and have a retrospective and a lessons-learned session with the team shortly afterwards.
  7. Celebrate the adventure.

If I had to point to a single experience that taught me the importance of being a good team member, it would have to be sailing. I got my sailing license after high school and I’ve been a lucky bastard to find a group of friends willing to try it out—and, importantly, that one friend whose dad owned an old sailing boat—during my first weeks at the university.

Every season we ditched the city life and went to be sea hobos, spending weeks getting lost in between the Baltic Sea and Skagerrak. We’ve spent years doing a lot of stupid stuff and sailing in any weather conditions, miraculously getting through any adventure from wicked storms through leaking boat toilets so by the time one of the big ones came, we all knew how to work together.

It was when we were approaching the city of Oslo in 8B wind. The marina we originally planned to dock in was a no go due to the direction of the wind. As we took down the sails and went further into the city negotiating our way in between ferries and other unfortunate sailors like us, we found a small city marina we thought we could safely dock in. It was on the first failed attempt that we found out that the issue with the engine occasionally not kicking into the right gear lead to a full on engine malfunction—we could not go forwards or backwards, all we could do is idle. Side note: how is it that this one thing needs fixing always craps out in the worst possible moment?

Following quick commands of our captain, we rolled out a tiny portion of the sail (you really only need about 1m2 out of 100m in such winds) and proceeded with making 8 shaped turns in front of the marina, disregarding helpful shouts from the pier.

Lesson 1: when executing challenging maneuvers, always follow the command of a single, explicitly designated person—and never go into situations in which you have to put your safety into hands of someone you can’t trust. While it makes sense to listen to people around to gather information, there are always multiple ways to solve a problem and following 2 great ways at the same time usually leads to worse results, than following a single mediocre one. Trust me, we did that in the past.

We spent up to an hour meticulously repeating the same maneuvers over and over again, tacking sharply on a small area. We kept the communication to minimum while the captain and the first officer went through troubleshooting and crossing out ideas at high speed. We kept our eyes on the surroundings and reported the important changes (“Guys, remember that docked cruise liner the size of Manhattan? It’s no longer docked and it’s coming straight at us!”). We offered our best ideas for them to consider. And we kept on tacking.

Lesson 2: Sometimes you’ve got to keep silent and let the commanders think, make up their minds and formulate the plan.

Turns out in that one hour our friends in command of the boat figured out that it’s possible to open the engine room and switch the gears manually, by pushing on some parts close to other parts, moving at high speed. They came up with a coherent plan of coming into the marina with one of them hanging out in the engine room and switching the gears following the command of the skipper.

That required one of our friends just hanging her head out of the cockpit, and relaying commands from the skipper to the engine. They told us the plan and listened to our concerns (we did think it was just about as crazy as you are thinking, reading this). They quickly explained why they think it was the best solution (and they did stick to their guns, while we watched a marina patrol rescue boat hanging out not far from us, ready to save our lives). And so we all agreed to do it.

Lesson 3: Listen to the plan, communicate your concerns, point out it’s weak spots, amend it using team’s input but then have the whole team agree on it. Once that happens, focus all your efforts on executing it as best as you can. Fineprint: unless everything goes to hell and you all need to improvise to avoid crashing into the rocks.

We made a trial approach to the pier to test out our team work and ability to control the boat’s direction and speed in those circumstances. We found the kinks, changed positions, clarified responsibilities where they overlapped, took a deep breath and went for the final docking approach. Each of us focused on doing our bit the best we could, and trusted everyone else to do the same.

Lesson 4: Keep an eye on other team members to make sure they don’t get into trouble, offer to help them if you think they need it, but trust them to handle their task and be able to judge whether they need help, and communicate that need.

What followed probably took about 10 minutes total, but due to stress it both felt instant and taking forever at the same time. We focused on communicating loudly and clearly over the noise (it ain’t easy to yell effectively across a 12 meter boat and be heard despite the roar of a geil). We followed the structure of communication used in sailing (acknowledging receiving the command and reporting immediately as it is fulfilled or you hit a blocker is a must) to make sure everyone knows what to do and command has always up-to-date status of the situation (as a skipper, over time you learn to keep a mental checkbox during maneuvers and tick items off as you hear incoming confirmation from crew members).

Lesson 5: The more stressed you are and the harder the situation, the more need there is for following strict, structured communication protocol, learned and practiced ahead of time. Communicate precisely and concisely. Clearly assign responsibilities. Give out tasks explicitly. Acknowledge hearing the task you’ve been assigned with. Communicate the need for help if you need it. Communicate the need for extra time if your task is taking longer than expected. Communicate finishing the task. Communicate when something in the environment changes and can impact the execution of the plan.

I can’t stress this enough, but seriously—no matter how bad the things are, no matter the mistakes made, keeping the information flowing in the right amount and in the correct directions is the only thing that makes the difference between smashing your boat against the rocks, and docking safely.

We managed to dock the boat in one of the most precise and best executed maneuvers we have performed throughout the years as a crew. Unbelievable as it felt, nothing went wrong. We secured the boat, cleaned the deck, divided responsibilities between the crew and went on to fix dinner, figure out docking fees, find out that we docked in a communal marina reserved to locals and took someone’s slot (luckily, they weren’t coming in that night since they got stuck outside the city due to the weather), look for locals to recommend a store in which we could find replacement parts for an engine, examine the engine itself, all at the same time.

Then we gathered for dinner cooked by our friend, seating safely cuddled into the cockpit of our boat, with nothing else to do than eat and relax, safely out of the storm for the first time in hours. We proceeded with emptying the bottles of rum and releasing the tension by excitedly discussing the events of the day, recapping minute by minute what it looked like from each person’s perspective.

We spent hours bickering about different ideas we had during the process, sharing the thoughts we had as situation developed, praising each other for things we did well, pointing out what needs to be improved next time (one of us disregarded a basic safety instruction of throw the rope, and only then jumping out of the boat onto the pier, and instead jumped with the rope in hand, risking slipping and being pulled into the water between the pier and a 10 tone yacht pushed by strong gail). We decompressed.

Lesson 6: When the high stress situation has passed, you finished your task, and finished all the cleanup that comes at the end, set aside time for the whole team to go through the whole adventure and do a retrospective. Let everyone share their feelings, thoughts, concerns, ideas for improvements for the future. Identify and verbalize what went wrong. Identify and verbalize what went well. Make sure you use this learning on your next adventure, and hopefully, handle it even better.

Lesson 7: Celebrate docking and getting everyone to dry land. Whatever you went through is over and it’s time to let the stress out. Prise each other—you went through a hell of an adventure, and everyone contributed to that. Have fun and enjoy this moment mindfully. It will bring you closer with everyone involved.

For this one evening docking in Oslo that went superbly, there were hundreds of docking maneuvers we butchered. We made all sorts of mistakes—we scratched the boat in weak winds because we were careless. We sailed out into storms we barely got out of because we were naive, cocky and very young. We made a mess in countless marinas all around Scandinavia because we argued while executing maneuvers. We had to repeat docking because one of us did not make a proper knot. We fucked it all up in any way a sailor can.

There’s plenty of learning we got out of those adventures, together with a lot of remorse, hurt feelings, hurt boats and sometimes hurt people. We laugh at those old stories now and silently prey to the Neptune, and loudly pour him rum, hoping he will always let us dock safely. Docking in stormy Oslo wasn’t the most heroic thing we did throughout the years, but for once our crew work, our communication, discipline, focus and execution worked really well.

I like telling this story because I’m proud of what we did, and no matter what context my current adventure is in, those hard earned lessons from the sea stick with me. So don’t listen to my waffling, just go try some sailing.