Boats Offer Lessons For Us and Our Organizations

Boats—I love all kinds. Raised in a small Wisconsin town, located where two rivers flow into Lake Michigan, boats were everywhere. Commercial fishing vessels lined the harbor, small recreational boats cruised the rivers, and huge ore carriers and passenger ferries slid by offshore. We “sailed” toy boats and dreamed of commanding real ones.

Then came college, marriage, graduate school, and getting started on family and career. Real boats began to appear: first, a canoe, and then a small sailboat that we carried on top of our car. Our next vessel was a 15-foot outboard, which was followed by "Sabbatical," a 34-foot trawler. My wife and I, along with our German shepherd, experienced an adventure when we spent six months cruising 5,000 miles from the southern end of Lake Michigan along a large clockwise circle to Mobile Bay, Alabama. The trawler was our winter home in the South for four years after which we sold it with the idea that our boating days were over. However, a few years later, while walking through a Florida marina’s stacked-storage facility, I saw a used, very clean 21-foot outboard. We bought that boat, used it for a dozen years, and recently sold it. We say it will be our last.

Sabbatical at RestConvert Theory to Practice

Boats, regardless of the type, can offer transportation, relaxation, contemplation, and adventure. They also teach by providing useful metaphors. For example, before our sailboat’s maiden voyage, I skimmed a book to learn the essentials of sailing. The first outing did not go well, at least initially, because as soon as I raised the sail, the vessel went sideways! I had forgotten to push the center board down. A gentle reminder that proper planning prevents poor performance or, perhaps, a theory understood is not necessarily a theory applied.

Lighten Up

I recall taking my youngest daughter sailing when she was about 10 years old. Yes, this time the center board was down. We were doing just fine when a sudden, strong crosswind turned the boat on its side flipping us into the lake. To this day, I can hear my daughter laughing as we both struggled to get the vessel upright and then crawled back into it. This experience offers two lessons. First, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. Second, we are much better off trying new things, failing (at least temporarily), and learning, rather than playing it safe. As noted by novelist Louise May Alcott, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Persist: Change is Challenging

I recall hearing an educator explain the difficulty of affecting change within higher education. He described faculty as a huge vessel with a tiny rudder. Our trawler had a large rudder relative to its size. However, after the wheel was turned, even that vessel seemed to be “thinking about it” before gradually moving to port or starboard. Some of you seek change, that is, you are leaders standing at the helm with your hands on the wheel. Confidently turn the wheel toward the desired course and persist with that position until your organization gradually comes around.

Maybe you are part of a department or organization in the private, public, academic, or volunteer sector and your group seems content in spite of a gathering storm. Your colleagues are like passengers on the Titanic who, even when they see the iceberg, respond by rearranging the deck chairs. Or worse yet, they turn all the chairs toward the stern in an attempt to avoid reality. Perhaps, because you see the light, you should step to the helm and steer a new course.

Confront Complacency: It is the Danger of Success

Failing to act in the face of obvious danger is clearly problematic. So is complacency, which can set in as individuals or organizations experience repeated successes. Consider these words of Captain E. J. Smith:

…but in all my experience,
 I have never been in an accident of any sort worth speaking about.
I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea…
I never saw a wreck and have never been wrecked,
 nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.

Who was Captain Smith and when did he offer these thoughts? He spoke these words five years before his ship, the RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg and sank in the north Atlantic.

Pursue Personal Goals

Your colleagues aside, how are you doing? Have you set your goals and are you navigating toward them or are you drifting off course? Richard Bode, in his book First You Have to Row a Little Boat, uses a sailing metaphor to offer this advice for achieving goals:

The frantic individual tacks too soon, jumping from job to job…
The obtuse individual remains on the same tack too long, investing too much time, talent, and energy in a course that takes him far from his avowed objectives.
But the seasoned sailor stays on the same tack as long as it appears advantageous,
and then…deftly changes directions.
…the confirmed sailor goes on tacking forever.

As we pursue our goals, each of us should be prepared to deftly change direction so that we gain new and valuable experience in the process. In the final analysis, each of us must have his or her hand on the tiller.

Seize Opportunities

Successful navigation is partly dependent on timing, on responding to opportunities. Examples are venturing out between storms, moving through shallow waters at high tide, using currents to safely ease into a slip, and taking advantage of a tail wind. Achieving personal success and significance are also dependent on timing, on responding to opportunities. The caution that we engineers prudently bring to our planning, design, and construction work may cause us to miss personal and professional opportunities. Consider William Shakespeare’s timing advice:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
and we must take the current when it serves,
or lose our ventures.

 Match Tactics to the Situation

Early one morning, we moved our trawler out of its slip and headed toward open water. Somehow, I allowed the vessel to drift to the starboard side of the channel and the trawler began to run aground. Being inexperienced with large boats in shallow water, but very experienced with large cars encountering snow drifts in northern Wisconsin, I acted instinctively and “stepped on it,” that is, pushed the throttle forward. As you may suspect, this drove the boat into even shallower water requiring an expensive tow. Isn’t that what we sometimes do in our personal, community, or professional life? We find ourselves in a new situation and instinctively or thoughtlessly “plow ahead” applying old, inappropriate tactics.

Stop and Think

Months later, in order to avoid imminent running aground, and drawing on the preceding experience, I slipped into reverse and gently nudged the throttle to stop the trawler’s forward motion. The good news was that we did not run aground. Bad news: I backed over a Styrofoam float attached to a rope which was attached to a wire crab trap. The ball, rope, and crab trap quickly wrapped tightly around the propeller shaft and, in doing so, tore out the skeg, an extension of the keel, resulting in about a thousand dollars worth of damage. The float now sits on my bookshelf and reminds me of the lesson: going further forward may not be advisable. However, before backing up, or going in another direction, let’s stop and think about our options.

Avoid Regretting What You Did Not Do

Each of us has options and opportunities, even if we are not in a predicament. “Everybody’s got a boat on the ocean,” according to songwriter Kenny Loggins. However, not all of us recognize and exercise our options as explained by Loggins when he goes on to say “Not everybody’s sailing out to sea.” Having a boat is a given, but it is not sufficient if we want to realize our potential. Each of us needs to pull away from the dock. Are you “sailing out to sea”? The following thoughts are attributed to writer and humorist, Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things
that you did not do than by the ones you did.
 So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Be that Port in a Storm

For two days, wind and waves held us in a marina within a protected bay on the north side of Lake Ontario. We were eager to cruise our trawler south across the lake to Oswego, New York, an approximately four-hour trip. Finally the forecast called for reduced winds and waves so, first thing in the morning, we headed out.

As we moved from a protected bay into the open water of Lake Ontario, we encountered moderate westerly winds and waves. Ever the optimists, we headed south across the big lake. By the time we were almost two hours into our trip, wind and waves had gradually increased and, regretfully, we decided to continue rather than turn back. Conditions worsened. We were forced to continue southerly, parallel to the wave crests, least we head into the waves and risk having to run far on the long east-west axis of the lake. Increasingly large waves beat against our beam. When our 34 foot, eight ton vessel was between crests, the waves were so high that, from our position standing at the inside helm station, we could not see over the waves.

Sabbatical rocked and rolled violently. My wife stood at the helm station and skillfully steered the vessel while our German shepherd crouched beneath her feet and slid from port to starboard to port…I tried to deal with flying and sliding objects. Neither of us had ever, and have ever since, been so terrified.

Soon, and very fortunately, we saw a pair of tall stacks in Oswego. Inspired by that visual goal, we continued on and eventually and very gratefully entered the calm of the Oswego harbor.

Some say “any port in a storm” and we profoundly experienced those words. All of us, whether as a result of poor judgment, like our Lake Ontario experience, or circumstances beyond our control, eventually encounter violent seas but many of us then find safe ports. That comforting place may be a loved one, a trusted friend, or an understanding colleague. When we find a safe harbor we are most grateful. Maybe, as a result of the experience, we will be moved to be the port in the storm for someone else.

Are you trying to navigate your career, department, office, or organization through rough waters or toward a vision? Perhaps I can assist. Click here for a summary of business, government, education, and association clients I have served and the manner in which I helped them. Feel free to email me at or call me at 219-242-1704.

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