Posted by at 04:17PM - Comments: (9)
Author Kathryn Miles has written a gripping article on the tragic end of the Bounty, the replica of the original Bounty used in Hollywood movies that went down in Hurricane Sandy, claiming two lives, including the captain's. The article, which appeared in the March issue of Outside Magazine and is available online, offers a detailed and even-handed account of the ship’s sinking. Miles suggests many causes for the ship’s foundering, but it seems obvious that the ship never should have sailed. So the question remains: Why did it?
The story attracted wide national attention on Oct. 29 last year when the U.S. Coast Guard released a heart-stopping video of the helicopter rescue, in which a Coast Guard rescue swimmer repeatedly went into the water to help several of the 14 survivors into a rescue basket. Miles’ article raises a number of crucial questions, but sadly the one question that will never be fully answered was lost with the ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, whose body was never found: Why in the hell did he set sail into the path of a hurricane?
While this tragic story raises many points of discussion, one in particular passage grabbed my attention:
“One question will be whether Walbridge was capable of making sound judgments, both before leaving the dock and after he was injured. In extreme cases, subordinate officers can be held accountable if the master is deemed unfit.”
Miles seems to suggest that someone in the crew should have relieved the captain of his command when he became injured, or at least talked some sense into him when he did not follow his original plan to sail east. I would go back even further. According to Miles, Walbridge gave crewmembers an opportunity to leave the ship before leaving port, but no one took it, nor did anyone offer a strong argument against going. She quotes crewman Doug Faunt as saying the crew respected Walbridge’s knowledge, they had a plan and were “ready.” In the end, it is clear that the plan was foolhardy, and the captain, the ship, and the crew were not at all ready.
So what do you think? Should have one of the other officers stepped forward and contradicted his cockamamie scheme? Surely some of them knew this was a fool's errand. As Walbridge's friend, Captain Jan Cameron, captain of the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II, put it: The decision to set sail was “so amateurish as to be off the scale.” And should those officers who remained silent be held partially responsible for the ship’s sinking?
Would YOU have spoken out?
This leads me to the bigger question: Is the maritime realm suffering under the same power-structure paralysis that has been linked to airplane clashes, as author Malcom Gladwell describes in his book Outliers?
One those crashes, Korean Air Lines Flight 801, occured just a few miles from where my wife Theresa and I were living aboard in Guam while working at the local newspaper. We were close enough to hear the explosive concussion as the plane was flown into the nearby hills. We both were called in early to start working on the reams of depressing copy coming in from reporters on site. Months later, the first post-accident reports were released, reshaping the way I think about power structures aboard ships, on sports teams, in business, or in any successful organization.
According to more than one post-crash investigation, culture did play a role in the accident. The captain and his flight crew were Korean. One of the junior officers knew very well that something was wrong with the plane's approach, but he did not speak up. The studies suggested that this was because of the extremely rigid hierarchical structure of Korean society. Contradicting an elder, much less one who is a superior, is strongly discouraged in Korean culture, and Gladwell--who also discusses the crash of Avianca Flight 52 in his book—suggests that a pilot's cultural origin plays a bigger role than just about anything else when it comes to plane crashes.
On Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, which gauges the extent to which those in positions of power are respected, the U.S. enjoys one of the lowest numbers in the world. In the U.S., inferiors routinely question the decisions of superiors (as any father of a teenager today can tell you), and are even encouraged to do so. This distance, however, widens significantly on board a ship where, as they say, “there can be only one captain”— and there is very good reason for this.
Decisions on a ship often need to be made in a pinch, and in some cases, hesitation can be fatal. But many of the recent tragedies among recreational sailors seem to trace back to the “go” or “no-go" type of decision that Walbridge faced. Should we sail with this group of rally boats? Do we enter this port at night, or stay hove to off the coast? Do we reduce the watch from three to one?
These aren’t snap decisions. There is plenty of time for the crew and captain to deliberate. But is this open deliberation taking place? Sadly, it seems that boats with hired-gun professional skippers seem as prone to disaster, if not more-so, than those boats more casually sailed by owners and their friends. Witness the two incidents in California races—one in the south and one in the north—last year. Could a natural deference to the captain's authority haved paved the way toward trouble in either of these accidents?
To look at it more broadly: Is good judgment aboard cruising boats—many of them crewed by male captains sailing with their wives—being compromised by a too-rigid power structure that discourages crew from speaking out or raising questions? Is the average American cruising boat as vulnerable as a KAL Flight 801 bound for the hills of Guam ... or the Bounty setting sail toward a hurricane?
I doubt it, yet I think these questions still merit serious thought. When several experienced seamen are inspired to sail into the path of a hurricane with a man like Captain Waldridge, one can't help but suspect that the culture of captaincy clouded good judgment—that of the captain and of his crew.