For risks big or small, the same basic principle always applies: prevention is better than response. Still, events can unfold quickly, so as risk and consequence elevates, so too should your relative level of preparedness. But sometimes we humans fool ourselves into thinking that we’ll always see it coming with time to spare.

During a conversation about the operation of small open boats in bad weather, an acquaintance of mine who was a bayman (inshore commercial fisherman) said to me that over a period of 20-plus years he had never once worn the lifejacket that he was required to carry in a readily accessible location. He fully expected that any occasion when he had to don a lifejacket was highly unlikely to occur. 

“But if it ever gets bad enough, I’d put it on,” he allowed. When I asked him to define “bad enough” he just shrugged. When I asked how he could be so sure that he’d be able to get to it quickly enough and don it securely enough to do him any good, he developed a blank stare that signaled end-of-discussion. 

There’s a conflict inherent in that line of reasoning, especially considering the number of baymen that can’t swim and have drowned over the years without lifejackets on. By the time things get bad enough to scare you into finally acting, you may be in no position to do so, or your efforts may prove insufficient.

My bayman friend routinely stored his beat-up lifejacket stuffed up in the bow of his sharpie, with the anchor piled on top of it. The helm was located three-quarters of the way back towards the stern.

For me it was easy to see that those few feet may as well be a mile once waves start breaking over the bow or the stern and swamp the outboard motor or flip the boat over. For him it was not worth considering.

The lesson here is to give yourself as much room as you can to recover from your own mistakes. We all make them.