“A Smooth Sea NEVER made a Skilled Sailor” – English Proverb
“Times of great calamity and confusion have been productive for the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace. The brightest thunder-bolt is elicited from the darkest storm.“ – Charles Caleb Colton
“To reach a port we must set sail – Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
“However bad the storm you are in, there is still sun somewhere over your horizon” – Ken Nutt
I’ve been thinking a lot about storms and turbulent times these days. Figuratively speaking, it seems the warm glow of the sun and light breeze has been replaced with a gathering storm. The building clouds of economic uncertainty are on the horizon. An undercurrent of change is already moving below us and a cold sharp wind is already blowing in our face. Whether its macro challenges or specific ones we face in our private lives, there is no doubt storm winds are blowing.
I used the storm metaphor specifically as I’d like to share a relevant story from my past. I had the fortune of growing up living near the water. Our house was a block away from the bay, and as fate would have it, my step-father owned a boat repair business. That combination meant a childhood spent on the water, and in time boating became my passion. Sailing, skiing, fishing – you name it. I literally worked two part time jobs through high school to fund my boating habit.
My step-father was also smitten by the sea. At times it felt as if he managed the business not only to keep the lights on and support the family, but to allow maximum flexibility for boating. As a result, any time good weather allowed we were on the water.
I can remember one summer day such an opportunity arose, and we wasted no time taking advantage. This trip took us offshore for a little king and snapper fishing at the Buccaneer Rigs (33 miles offshore east/southeast of Galveston). Close enough for our boat to reach the blue waters, yet far enough offshore to make it challenging should something go wrong. But the weather was holding, the boat running well, and life was good.
We’d secured the boat to one of the drilling structures with what’s called a “rig hook”. This is a 10 ft. long, hooked shaped tool that allows you to easily tether to such structures but quickly release when the time comes. Built from 1 ½ inch heavy duty pipe, it is designed to hold a boat in position and withstand the pounding and pulling of constant wave action.
The fishing was great – in fact strangely so – and we were engrossed in catching all we could. It was as if something had triggered the fish to gorge. Didn’t matter, because we were busy catching!
Actually, it did. The fishing action distracted us from the approaching weather. In the summer in Texas we often get afternoon “heat” showers. At times these storms can be violent, and appear suddenly out of nowhere. Such was the case that day.
By the time we noticed it was too late. First we felt a strange cold breeze, then a fairly stiff wind. Behind it was a solid black wall of clouds packing a fierce combination of rain and hail. All of this hit us with very little notice.
We first decided to ride it out. That worked briefly, but as the waves steadily built around the boat we began to fear capsizing. I scrambled to the front of the boat to undo the rig hook – only to notice the offshore platform to which we had attached was now hundreds of yards away, and our bow line dangled in the water. As I pulled it in I gasped at what I saw. The rig hook was no longer curved – it was in fact now a straightened pipe. The strength of the wind and the waves had ripped the tool from the structure with such force as to change its shape. This was no afternoon shower, it was a full on storm.
I won’t lie – I was in complete panic. Fortunately, my step-father had been through these before and settled me down. We quickly sprung in to action, securing the boat and bracing against the building storm. He was barking orders and I was moving with a purpose. Fear had been replaced with action. This was about survival, and all other distractions put aside.
We turned the boat toward shore and pushed forward. Wave after wave crashed over the boat as lightning literally struck on each side. My teeth chattered as each successive crest shook the boat to its core. But we pushed on. We knew the alternatives were far worse – Jumping ship was certain death, and floating aimlessly a prescription for sinking.
After an anxious several hours battling through one of the most violent storms I had ever been through, we made it safely to the protection of the harbor. And somehow in that moment, the sun came through the horizon with the promise of the future.
I tell this story for a purpose. There are times in our personal lives, and just as often in business, when the storm clouds surround us. It may be through no fault of our own, but they come nonetheless. They start with a cold, brisk wind, and suddenly we are engulfed in the chaos of the storm. These moments leave us scared and confused, and threaten our very existence.
So if I may, I’d like to share the lessons this experience brings to us all:
• These “storms” are not to be feared, but respected. Denial of their existence is not an option. Accepting the situation and reacting appropriately is your best course of action.
• To jump ship in these times is certain death. At the very least it’s an abandonment of your goals and principles, and at worst, a leap into the unknown.
• To do nothing yields a similar fate, as it leaves you vulnerable to the whipping of the wind and the crashing of the waves.
• It may require difficult decisions. Worrying about whether your “cooler” flies off the boat is of less importance than surviving the storm. Know what’s important and what’s not, and put all of your attention on the prior.
• With purpose and determination, focus your attention on the path ahead.
And as the last quote suggests, “However bad the storm you are in, there is still sun somewhere over your horizon”.