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From Crab Pots to Broken Pistons: Embracing Challenges and Building Resilience

In late December of 2018, my wife and I, along with my brother and sister-in-law, were transiting from Naples, FL to Key West for a New Year’s celebration. After some morning fog cleared, we were able to increase speed to 15 knots, our intended transit speed for the next several hours.

We were doing well navigating amidst the ubiquitous crab pots that dot the Gulf of Mexico as much as 50 miles offshore.  Without warning, a very loud “BANG” sounded from below, followed by a rumble and one of two 800 hp motors stopping abruptly.

“Crab pot,” my brother called out. It made perfect sense that we had just wrapped a crab pot line on one of our shafts.

I looked in the engine room to make sure nothing was amiss. In extreme situations, it’s possible to dislodge a shaft by hitting an underwater object. I wanted to confirm there was no flooding. We keep tools, plugs, and rubber stuffing material handy for just such unplanned contingencies. An unprepared boat can sink in minutes.

All looked ok in the engine room. Next step would be to stop the other engine and get in the water to unwrap or cut what would be an obvious mess. I suited up in a scuba tank, we rigged a safety line, donned my trusty knife and I was about to slip in.

I turned to my brother and said, “hey we’re in open water here, how ‘bout you grab your gun just in case.” (Yes, it’s perfectly normal to carry a gun on open water transits—there is no sheriff to call when off shore).  The gun would be used in the unlikely event of a shark coming upon us to investigate. Upon his return, I slip in the water expecting to see an obvious knot of line around the shaft.

Nothing. In crystal clear water it was obvious from a distance we did not hit a crab trap as thought. I climbed back on board. In retrospect it would have been simpler to lower a Go-Pro camera on a stick into the water to confirm this obvious lack of a crab trap line.

So, what was it? I had no idea. I attempted to restart the motor. It turned over but would not go into gear. In my mind I thought we had damaged a transmission by hitting something underwater which caused the motor to stop. Nothing obvious from the exterior of the motor was wrong.

We made the decision to return to port, hoping to get a mechanic to help. Worst case we would leave again tomorrow. Opening up a large motor is for skilled hands certified in that type of work. A new CAT 800hp motor runs over $100,000. Not something I was going to “tinker” with.

That evening the CAT technician arrives. I describe the symptoms. He checks the transmission oil and sees nothing but clear oil—a good sign. He proceeds to unbolt the head cover that hides the working parts of the valves at the top of the motors. He lifts the cover and immediately says, “well we aren’t going to fix it here.” He proceeds to lift some obviously broken parts out of the top of the motor. My heart and stomach sank.

“You took a water slug somehow. At least two broken pistons (of four). This will be a ‘top-end’ rebuild,” said the tech in a very matter-of-fact tone. “Seen it before, water seeps in and interrupts the normal combustion, causing a much worse combustion that breaks metal.”

We salvaged what we could of a “fun” week in the keys as we slunk home on one motor. The unknowns of a motor rebuild loomed heavy. Boaters appreciate the weight and emotion of the moment. It’s a costly repair that can’t be ignored. In simple terms, it sucks.

How many of us jump to the first instinct in response to a symptom?  A lost sale, for example? “It must have been price.” “The other guy had inside help.” “Their technology can’t possibly be better.”

Our brains will let us rationalize anything.

It made such perfect sense that we must have hit a crab pot that my mind jumped straight to the knife-wielding solution without serious question, even willing to jump into open water with my brother as lifeguard!

How does your team work through challenges? Do you have a process by which you examine unexpected situations? Do you turn to an old hand who’s seen it all before? Do you begin positioning a solution before you’ve really defined the problem?

It’s possible to take precautions in advance—the navigation plan, review of the weather forecast, readiness for a flooding episode, carrying dive tanks and knives “just in case,” having a weapon on board, “just in case,” knowing who to call for mechanical help. Those are prudent contingent actions.

Do you have things in place to prepare for the unexpected in business? Do you test those plans? Who knows about them? Can they be implemented in your absence?

We survived a motor rebuild. At the time it felt like a catastrophic failure. It was merely a problem that required resources and expertise to fix. We found both.

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