Don’t press your luck

Everyone is familiar with Murphy’s Law – anything that can go wrong will, and usually at the worst possible moment. I’ve been a believer in this theory for as long as I can remember, without ever really giving it much thought.

The eight years I spent in the Coast Guard picking up the pieces from assorted tragedies and misfortunes certainly fed this belief. And over 20 years as a merchant mariner never gave me any reason to doubt it, or so I thought. But lately I’ve had a complete change of heart. I’ve come to the conclusion that Murphy was wrong, at least in most cases.

So, where do I come off declaring that an American institution like Murphy’s Law is a sham? It’s because, in the end, it just breeds dangerous behavior. It’s the functional equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, or the hot stove that doesn’t burn you when you touch it, despite your mother’s warnings. Eventually you begin to ignore it, which then sets you up to fail.

I should’ve caught this much sooner. There are exceptions, of course, but the reality is that most of the time nothing goes wrong, even when it should.

How many times have you seen a deckhand stand too close to the bitts or a capstan while surging a line? Do deckhands frequently get pulled in and dismembered? The answer is almost never. So, they keep doing it, dismissing those concerned over their safety because their own experience shows that they are worrywarts. Or how about the captain who refuses to make sure that the crew keeps all the main deck doors closed and dogged whenever towing up short or doing a ship assist? I’ve seen this major safety oversight all too often, yet tugs rarely trip and sink.

One day, however, despite steep odds against it, something finally will go badly wrong and people will be injured or killed. Best practices must be determined, taught and adhered to not because danger constantly lurks, ready to snatch you at the first mistake, but because most of the time you’ll get a free pass even when you do really dumb things. But eventually, if you’re in this business long enough, your luck will run out.

About the author

Joel Milton

Joel Milton has worked aboard fishing boats, pilot boats, Coast Guard cutters and small boats, dredge tenders, offshore crewboats and supply boats, towing vessels, a small container ship, and a wide variety of small craft including an inflatable yellow “ducky” The Piker.

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