Circumstances forced us to make a last-minute change of our recent New Year’s boat trip destination from the originally-planned Key West to St Petersburg, FL, 25 miles to the north of our homeport. We stayed two nights at the Renaissance Vinoy marina, positioned nearly directly under the city’s New Year’s fireworks display. Only a last-minute cancellation of another boat’s marina reservation made this schedule adjustment possible for us.
On New Year’s Day, our planned departure date, we woke to heavy fog. The forecast indicated it would clear between 10-11 am, in time for our 11 am departure. On cue, the fog thinned, and visibility improved around 1030 am. I could hear small planes taking off from the nearby St. Pete airport. We got underway as planned, knowing the conditions would only improve.
Our navigation track home would be the exact reverse of our arrival track. Marine chart plotters leave a dotted trail of where the boat has been; we would be following the trail back. Radar was energized, and our automated identification system (AIS) transmits our location to others and receives location information from other nearby boats, each via VHF signal. Boats using AIS are identifiable by name, even beyond line of sight in all conditions. I felt confident maneuvering in the less-than-ideal conditions, again knowing it would improve as we progressed.
As we cleared land and moved into Tampa Bay, the fog did not clear. It hung heavy for the first couple of hours. About an hour into the transit, the US Coast Guard closed Tampa Bay to shipping due to the poor conditions. No worries for us. We were transiting slowly and had a good electronic picture of the few boats underway. Approaching the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the upper spires of the iconic bridge span became visible about 1/3 of a mile away. I noticed a vessel approaching from the opposite direction on AIS, and it appeared we would meet just on the seaward side of the Skyway.
I called the other vessel, named Taurus, on bridge-to-bridge radio:
Me: Taurus, this is Reverie channel 16.
Other boat: This is Taurus.
Me: Good afternoon, Captain. This is Reverie, confirming port-to-port passage.
Other boat: I don’t see you
Me: This is Reverie, just clearing the Skyway bridge outbound, I have you on AIS and radar. Do you see me on AIS? (At this point we were about 1000 feet apart but not visible to each other, although Taurus should see me on AIS)
Other boat: Ok, I’ll come starboard.
Not answering my question.
Both boats passed without incident. The other boat, Taurus, had radar energized as I could now see the radar antenna rotating.
About 30 minutes later, the temperature and due point changed just slightly, and the fog cleared. This revealed a beautiful New Year’s Day in Florida. Our trip, which should have taken two hours, took just over four hours.What was wrong in this sequence of events reminds me of companies attempting to navigate through unfamiliar waters. Click To Tweet
In the case of the boat Taurus, the Captain had the proper equipment. But he appeared to not be using it properly, or at least nor to his advantage. The weather conditions were poor but manageable to skilled mariners of appropriate size boats (large ships require more room to turn and stop, hence the port closure to shipping traffic).**Taurus was following the channel but not paying attention to the environment around him. Focused on his own boat, the Captain of Taurus was doing what a lot of people do—sticking to a plan that no longer makes sense.
Communicating maneuvering intent during a period of uncertainty cleared any doubt about how the vessels would pass in the tighter confines of the channel under the bridge.
Maneuvering through these conditions
Thinking of how companies maneuver during less-than-ideal conditions:
- Do you use the tools at your disposal? Does your team know how to use them properly, and how do you know they do?
- Do you communicate intent with your leadership team, customer, supplier base, and workforce to mitigate or remove ambiguities?
- When conditions are less than perfect, do you and your team change the plan or simply power through and continue to execute the original plan?
- The military has a saying, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”
- Mike Tyson simplifies it, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
- Do you acknowledge that some things (like weather, legislative timelines, customer decision committees, and unplanned personnel loss, for example) cannot be controlled and must be adapted for?
- Do you and your team have the expertise of a skilled mariner? Do you have and use the right specialty tools, such as specialized subscription services that report on your customer’s behaviors or the behaviors of Congress?
- Do you consider where, when, and how you will train others on the team to fill multiple roles and deal with challenges?
- Have you considered specialized external support that might lift your entire team?
There are tools within reach. If they are not in your toolkit, they are still within reach—of course, you may have to buy them and then train to use them!
**Some may not be old enough to recall the collapse of the old Sunshine Skyway bridge when a ship hit the bridge during a storm; see details and photo here.