Stories on Maritime Leadership

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Rowing the Lifeboat- Lessons in Teamwork

rowingShips routinely lower their lifeboats to keep them ready for deployment in times of emergency. It was during one such exercise in my second year at sea that I learnt a valuable lesson in teamwork.



The ship was anchored off Kandla, a port in the west of India and one where strong tidal currents are usually found. Seeing that there was nothing much to do, the Captain ordered a team of eight to lower the boat and try it out.

So down we went down in the boat, unhooked it from the ship’s winch, started the engines and made a round of the ship. We took photos of the ship, us having a good time, and most of us being junior officers freely engaged in useless banter.

As we were heading back to the ship, the engines failed. The Fourth Engineer got on the job immediately, trying to fix the engine. Now, the currents in that anchorage were strong, and within minutes we were drifting away from the ship.

The Third Officer was the most experienced officer in the boat though he had only a few more years of sailing experience than us Cadets. He called for the rest of us to start rowing.

rowing a lifeboatNow the oars on the boat are provided as a back-up control mechanism for the boat in case the engines fail. In reality, we had never rowed such a big boat before and the oars are quite heavy. It took us a few minutes to get our rowing started as we had learnt only in our basic training more than two years ago and our skill was rusty.

After positioning ourselves, we started rowing and it was anything but. We were all rowing at a different pace and rhythm, and the boat was simply swaying from side to side without moving ahead. By now we were drifting further and further away from my ship. There was a whole lot of yelling and shouting going on, and on top of that the Captain was telling us over the radio to get back soon to the ship. It would be dark in a few hours and we could end up drifting out to sea if we did not do something soon. I could sense the panic setting in.

Having lived near the sea throughout my life and having some knowledge about boats, I suggested to my senior officer that he start pacing the rest of the guys. We quickly recounted our training, and agreed we all dip our oars on the count of ‘down’, and recover on the call of ‘up’, all together. After a few tries, we finally got our act together. We were now rowing as a team, and we felt a new life run through the boat. Hurray, the boat was finally moving ahead, and soon we were moving closer to the ship. The Captain also got excited, and now cheered us on. The rest of the ship’s crew was also watching us, cheering us on the loudspeaker. It was as if we were performing at the Olympics, though now for dear life!

Finally we made it to the ship, all on our own. The Captain who was initially annoyed at the way things went out of control, finally let us know that he was proud of our team-effort. So were we!

We learnt a few valuable lessons in teamwork that day, though the hard way:

  • A team needs to work together. It does not matter how strong one person in the team is, unless we work together, the team does not move forward.
  • A team needs a leader, and needs to follow a leader.
  • The leader needs to coordinate work within the team, and make decisions for the team.
  • Communication is everything, communication is what makes teams work together. In this case, it was the leader saying ‘up-down’ and the team following the rhythm.
  • Always have a back-up. Don’t just rely on only one driver.
  • Keep your skills polished by testing them routinely.
  • Don’t give up if you don’t succeed at first.
  • Presence of mind solves everything!
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