The Parable of Two Captains

September 12, 2017 - 4 minutes read

Two captains of ocean-going tankers recently retired.  Each had enjoyed a career of more than thirty years.  Each loved the sea and had worked his way up from deck-hand to captain of ships that were more than one thousand feet long – so big they could not fit through the original Panama Canal.

One significant difference between their careers is that the more senior, Brig, always followed orders. Twice during his career he had saved his ship after he sailed into the heart of a storm.

The slightly less senior captain, Freedom, had, on three different occasions, refused to sail into a storm that had been forecast because he feared it might imperil his ship and crew.  In one of those storms a slightly smaller ship sank.

One year before they retired, each captain was nominated for the British “Captain of the Year” award.

My questions to you are:  First, should either captain win the award?  Second, if so, which one?

Since Brig and Freedom were both nominated, I’ll assume that each captain was fully qualified for the award and that one of them should win.

But I would vote for Captain Freedom because he refused to sail into three storms.  I find him to be the better role model. He followed one of my most important principles in business:  Avoid disasters.  One disaster can sink a ship, a business, or a career.  Following the rules, and following instructions, is a good idea but not foolproof.

Perhaps my vote is colored by my extremely brief career as a boat captain.  More than twenty-five years ago I bought a twenty-six foot power boat with all of the proverbial bells and whistles.  Fortunately, one was a GPS system that had just become available.

One fine Sunday morning in 1992 I set out with eight or nine passengers for a one-hour cruise from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands for a day in Victoria, British Columbia.  One of our passengers was a foreign national who could not, by law, stay overnight in Canada.

After a beautiful day together we boarded my boat in the inner harbor of Victoria for our return.  The weather was foul. Our ship-to-shore radio was broadcasting gale warnings.  Totally inexperienced, I had no idea what a “gale warning” really meant.  I revved up our dual diesel engines, and off we sped.

Twenty minutes later I began to realize what a “gale warning” implied, as six-foot waves began to smash over the stern of my boat.  Ultimately one of my two engines sputtered to a stop.

When you have two engines and one fails, you get scared.  At least I did.  But I didn’t want my Greek passenger to face an immigration problem if we returned to Victoria, so I powered on.

Our GPS faithfully guided us back to Friday Harbor, though the two hour trip was one of the most harrowing of my life.  All of us finally stepped safely off the boat, and I never stepped back on.  I put it up for sale the next day when I learned that a power boat about the same size as ours sank in the gale and its three passengers were lost.

Captains Brig and Freedom, I would be happy to sail with either of you.  But I’ll never again sail with Captain Alan at the helm.

As I have often said, and now in capital letters, BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY.


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