“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)
Early on in my career as a captain, I ran aground following the advice of a friend knowledgeable in the local waters. At the time of the grounding I was at the helm, nervously doubting his directions, while he was standing on the bow acting as guide. Following his directions carefully, we ran hard aground on an outgoing tide. My friend claimed immediate responsibility, stating clearly for everyone to hear that he would pay the bill, and that it was his fault we ran aground. He was a wealthy retiree and I took him at his word. We called the local boat towing company on the VHF radio and they pulled us off with no damage to the boat. The bill for the tow company came in at $345.00. I was in college at the time, and it seemed like a crushingly large expense. Since he didn’t have his wallet aboard, I paid the tow company and trusted him to get the money to me later.
Months later I brought up the incident to an old, retired, and greatly decorated Captain. Since he knew the friend in question and had heard the same story from both of us, I thought that I would ask his advice on how to collect this debt.
The Old Captain quietly thought for a moment and said, “As captain you are second only to God.” I thought it was the most conceited statement that I had ever heard. So conceited, in fact, that I could not believe this man, who I greatly respected, was saying it. I nodded, unsure of how to respond, and we carried on with other conversations.
“As a captain you are second only to god.” The sentence bothered me for days. How could this man, whom I knew to be very intelligent and kind, say something so conceited and power hungry? As I woke a few mornings later the sentence, going around in my mind, completed its circle and like a mythical snake began to eat its own tail. The statement, indeed I now recognize it as a fact, isn’t just about power and authority, although it does apply to both. More importantly, it is about responsibility. The only being more responsible than the Captain aboard his boat, is God. It is a thought that I remember every time I step on board a boat -- whether as captain or crew. It is one that I believe each of us should consider any time that we are in a leadership position, or being lead by someone else.
I never did receive the promised payment from my friend. Looking back on it now, many years later, I consider it some of the best tuition money I have ever spent. The lesson I learned that day on the water; and from talking to the Old Captain, is not only the foundation for being a good captain, but possibly the most important one in my life.
The quote and the lesson extend far beyond my time on the water. The Old Captain later told me that he received the quote from an even Older Captain when he was just starting out as a young captain. That is over one hundred years of wisdom contained in a single grain of truth. The tradition of an Old Captain telling a new captain probably stretches the idea back to the beginning of sailing.
I still find new meaning in that sentence, more than 20 years after the Old Captain first told it to me.
Whether you are a new boat owner out for your first cruise with friends, or you hold a USCG Master Unlimited All Oceans ticket, it is your understanding and actions in the face of that responsibility that makes you a qualified captain.
Ultimately each of us must judge our own actions as captain or crew. As captain you decide whether you are doing the best you can. You set your goals and objectives. How do you want to be as a person and as a captain? It is up to you, no one can make you better or worse than you allow yourself to be.
It would be easy to blame my friend for running us aground. If I did, I would be cheating myself: I would allow myself to dodge the blame in my own mind, and believe I was a victim of my friend’s failed integrity. If I did that, I would be cheating myself out of much more than that $345.00.
I learned a lot by taking the responsibility for what happened that day. Once I followed the advice of the Old Captain and accepted the responsibility of my position, the lessons of that day become clear. It was no longer about the money I felt owed; it was about what I was going to make of myself as a person and a captain.
Once I took responsibility for the incident I started learning as a captain. Just some of what I learned the day I understood the words of the Old Captain: I learned that I had betrayed myself and that I had to learn to trust myself, my knowledge and my instincts. I learned that I had more to learn about how to rescue myself from a grounding. I learned that others under my command are fallible and what that can mean to the entire ship and her crew. I learned to better evaluate the abilities of my crew. I learned that the inability to lead well can have consequences. I learned that as the captain I am in charge, and that I cannot abdicate any portion of that responsibility or its consequences to anyone else aboard. I also learned some of my first lessons in true leadership. My confidence in my sailing and navigation abilities actually increased that day, just by taking responsibility for them. It was also the start of the long and continuing process of not only mastering my field, but being able to teach others through that mastery, helping each of them become better sailors and people than they thought they were.
Every time I step aboard a vessel I hear the words of the Old Captain; “As captain you are second only to God.” The feeling is one of great humility and carries the weight of responsibility. I can hear the voices of my teachers and those who taught my teachers, passing their biggest lesson down through the ages to me.