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Good Planning and Bad Planning

The author finds that recent tragic events hold a lesson for all mariners when it comes to planning ahead.
Preparation for going to sea is everything—yet we can all too easily place our confidence in the wrong type of preparation. Here is a recent commentary on preparation that went sour: "The planning has always suffered from the experts’ assumption that an enemy would attack in a manner symmetrical to the defenses they already had in place, or that they planned to have," the political columnist William Pfaff wrote in the September 28, 2001, issue of Commonweal magazine. He was, of course, referring to vulnerability to the sort of cunning terrorist attack that we now are all too familiar with. The same principle applies to other lost battles against enemies of all kinds.

Take, for example, one of the worst battle defeats ever suffered by the US Navy. When four US and Australian ships were sunk in the first battle of Savo Island in August 1942, it was not because the attack was a surprise. In fact, a Japanese attack was expected. The problem was that the Allies made several assumptions about the nature of the inevitable attack that proved to be wrong. Planners believed that the Japanese would come by air or submarines during daylight hours, that the Allies’ carefully arranged early detection system would spot them, and that if the detection screen somehow failed, each ship’s squads of well-trained human lookouts would be alert. However—a big however—the attack came by surface ships in the dead of night in a rain storm that interfered with radar, and the pickets and reconnaissance aircraft were undependable, and furthermore the lookouts were so exhausted after almost two days of continuous combat duty that they were oblivious to the Japanese surface ships until they started firing. Subsequent investigations concluded that the missing component at Savo was not hardware but an alert, aggressive, and flexible state of mind called "battle mindedness" and that we sailors might call "alert, cautious seamanship."

Rationalizing weather forecasts into rosier visions is a one-way ticket to the land of adversity when headed offshore.
As a sailor, I cannot begin to count the times when I have taken a pessimistic weather forecast and proceeded to rationalize it into something favorable. Luckily, this carelessness has never badly harmed my shipmates or me, yet such thinking has led to any number of catastrophes at sea resulting from over-optimism on the part of even highly experienced, extremely competent captains. The fault sometimes lies with believing forecasts literally, as though storms, like chess pieces, can be precisely located on a perfect grid. In fact, even with today’s extraordinary technology, weather forecasts are rarely accurate to the degree that we often expect in other activities. According to a study of hurricane records by Hugo du Plessis (in the January-February 2001 issue of Ocean Navigator), forecasts by the US Hurricane Center are wrong by an average of between 47 and 165 miles (for forecasts between 12 and 48 hours in advance of the storm, respectively).

Obviously, then, it is a mistake to perceive a storm as a defined entity with a predictable track rather than as a wild force rattling around within a very large circle of uncertainty. A well-known recent case of cognitive dissonance between a forecast and reality is hurricane Mitch, which swept through the western Caribbean in 1998. Although the storm was carefully tracked using satellite imagery and airplane spotters, the storm still surprised everybody by unexpectedly altering course 90 degrees, turning smack into the path of a 282-foot sailing cruise ship, which sank with the loss of her entire crew. As Jim Carrier reported in his book, The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome (International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 1999), many of the explanations for the loss of the Fantome were mystical—and irrelevant. It was "like the storm went after the ship. Like the devil itself," claimed the cruise line’s founder, Michael D. Burke. But what really happened was that the crew had extremely limited options that depended for success entirely on the hurricane’s holding a steady course so they could try to slip around it. In the end, Mitch followed its own elusive laws and not the ones that humans attempted to impose on it.

Hardly a trace was found of the 282-foot steel-hulled Fantome or its crew after its encounter with hurricane Mitch.

One of the best warnings against the folly of this state of mind was made by US Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz. During World War II on December 18, 1944, a typhoon 300 miles east of the Philippines thrust itself across a sizeable portion of the American Pacific Fleet and capsized and sank three destroyers with almost all their crew. Another 28 US ships were badly damaged. In all, 790 officers and men were lost.

There had been a severe weather warning that, though incomplete, had distracted many commanders from actual sea conditions as they attempted to maintain the ordered course and speed. In a chiding order to the fleet about "the greatest loss that we have taken in the Pacific without compensatory return since the First Battle of Savo," Admiral Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander, wrote a primer on respecting the weather as it is rather than as mariners hope it will be. (The full text of the order may be found on the Naval Historical Center Internet site: http:// /faqs /faq102-4b.htm.)

Risk is inherent in our sport, but careful planning and prudent thinking are proactive steps to reducing it to acceptable levels.

Nimitz brilliantly laid down the fundamental rule that all authority lies in the captain’s personal judgment and weather eye: "There is no little red light which is going to flash on and inform commanding officers or higher commanders that from then on there is extreme danger from the weather, and that measures for ships’ safety must now take precedence over further efforts to keep up with the formation or to execute the assigned task. This time will always be a matter of personal judgment....The time for taking all measures for a ship’s safety is while still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than for a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions lest they turn out to have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy."

Because the sea is as likely to find a way around planned defenses as any cunning enemy, the response is to be alert, flexible, forehanded, independent, and at all times pessimistic.

Suggested Reading:

Heading Out to Bermuda by John Rousmaniere

Cruising Preparation by Tania Aebi

Prepare for the Unexpected by Tom Wood

Buying Guide: Boom Vangs

John Rousmaniere is offline  
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