Dirty Harry – played by Clint Eastwood as the tough cop in the movie of the same name and several others in a series – really understood what safety is all about. We all know the famous line: First, “You've got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Another favorite, from “Magnum Force”: “A good man always knows his limitations.”
Our nature as mariners is to always say “yes.” Can do. It’s easier to say yes than to say no when you know your decision will be questioned.
But safety often comes down to knowing when to say no because something is beyond your limitations.
I once refused to enter a port due to shallow water pierside. That brought the heat down on me, but the next ship ran aground. We’ve all gotten the call from ashore and management and told to do something. Ego and confidence drive us to say yes, and the same characteristics can lead us to disaster.
Whenever I received safety briefs and my crew said those famous last words, “Captain, if everything goes just right we should be OK,” I stopped everything to remind them of one thing: “When was the last time you saw everything exactly as planned?” Not in this line of work.
Everyone deserves at least one fair chance at a maneuver, but if the situation is so risky that you don’t have a fair shot and you said yes when you should have said no, you are on a fool’s errand at best, and a suicide mission at worst.
Examples of famously ignored limitations grimly stare us in the face. In the last few weeks alone there have been at least a half dozen allisions with the railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Miss., resulting in crunched boats, barges, and spilled cargo. Yes, it’s a hell of a set up in that turn to make the bridges, but these guys became victims of not saying no when they had mother nature, too many barges, and potentially not enough horsepower working against them.
How about the Bounty, lost off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in 2012? Fault was found with the captain’s decision to sail into the teeth of a hurricane. Similar speculation surrounds the loss of the El Faro in Hurricane Joaquin last October. Saying no to getting underway with a killer storm churning in your neighborhood could have made a difference, but I’ll leave that to the investigators to figure out.
After accidents I’ve heard all kinds of excuses – captains claiming they weren’t at fault because the company or the Coast Guard was supposed to tell them when to say no. I’ve also heard them say their jobs were threatened if they didn’t say yes.
Smitty, a great Master I worked for, told me; “You can always get another job but you can’t always get another license.” True. More true is that you can’t get another life if you or someone you are responsible for gets killed because you didn’t know your limitations and attempted something you shouldn’t have.
Limitations aren’t just about you, so don’t take it personally. They always involve the environment, the boat, the crew, other boats, and every other risk lurking out there. Understand that, and your ego shouldn’t wince at saying no.
Do I feel lucky?
It’s not about luck.