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Making a Sailing Risk Management Plan

Let’s face it, stuff happens. It’s not the fact that they happen that is bad, it’s being unprepared for how to anticipate situations and manage them effectively as a team that causes a lot of drama...which will suck the joy out of any liveaboard experience.


Some of the apprehension about sailing comes with so many unknown new situations I know we will be in, and it can get overwhelming. It’s a bit easier to be comfortable thinking about managing risks in sailing when you are confident you have great seamanship skills and enough experience being tested over years of gaining offshore sailing experience...like my husband. Some things for him come second nature. Then there’s me.


For many of us who are taking on the liveaboard lifestyle with our spouses, much of this is new. And, even if one of the people in the couple has a lot of experience, that doesn’t mean together you can make great crew because you share a different appetite for risks and may even have different ideas about how to problem solve. I worry a lot and tend to be hyper-vigilant because I’m not fully comfortable yet, and he’s like ‘la-de-da, ain’t life grand.’


I get that taking on a new lifestyle means taking on new hazards and risks that I may not be familiar with, which is scary, but it’s also exciting to push myself past my comfort zone and clearly I’m not alone. As sailing and cruising goes more mainstream because sailing has literally gone socially viral, there are more people jumping in with perhaps less experience...myself certainly included.


So I wanted to take a more methodical approach to how my husband and I manage risks associated with liveaboard sailing in some practical way. And give us a process for how to think about risk together, help us have important conversations about potential situations and how we would handle them. But let’s also be honest, this is a bit about me getting my inner control freak on and wanting some kind of structure for how to prioritize what I should be worried about.


In business in general, risk management models have been around for years to address these same problems in a business context. Companies hire professional worriers, lovingly referred to as attorneys who are tasked with helping generally manage downside risk of any major decision or potential issue. So whether a business or organization is just starting out, has to comply with certain regulations, or is expanding into a new area or adopting new business processes, there is a way to manage the inherent risks that come with change and ongoing operations. The idea is to have a proactive strategy for identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks as a best practice to ensure good outcomes for the business or mission. It’s also used to ensure there’s alignment across the organization/team so everyone is on the same page about what’s important and what to do if an event happens. It documents procedures and who is responsible for what so the people know what to do when something happens. Just putting this kind of plan in place helps reduce risk because there is thought given to potential hazards which may not have otherwise been detected.


So I set out to create a risk management plan for us as part of our transition because I didn’t want to later be in a crappy situation and argue about when to worry and what to do...especially if we have different risk tolerance levels, which we do. Among other things I didn’t want to air out all our interpersonal dynamics in a crowded anchorage, so I felt it best to get our house in order before we released the lines.


I need to start off by saying there’s a difference between general safety rules and having a proactive approach to continuously managing risk and adapting to various circumstances or passages over time. General safety rules might be...always wear your life vest when not at anchor or don’t boil water underway. These are typically related to reducing the risk of injury or death. But a risk management plan is more holistic and accounts for the context of where you are and all aspects that could create a compounded set of problems that hinder the mission overall. It’s meant to break down a potentially large set of factors into tangible decision points and actions that reduce ambiguity of response and situation management; and just like the weather, it should be reviewed and on a regular basis.


So safety rules and point in time procedures like man overboard, are part of a good sailing protocol. But I believe for us, we take a more holistic approach and build it into how we operate as crew, together we can anticipate and mitigate risks as situations happen, and reduce the severity of the problems so we can ultimately increase our chances of achieving our mission.


So let’s start there...what’s our mission? Well, we want to sail around the world and experience new people, places and circumstances for as long as we can without dying or wanting to kill each other. Yup, that’s pretty much it. Buried in there are things like health and safety, weather and passage planning, boat and equipment, financial planning, and interpersonal crew dynamics...among many other things.


The basics of the model for risk management are simple and have been around for years. Here’s the basic steps:


CONTEXT - Establishes the scope, context and appetite for what risks you will be trying to mitigate. So for example, for us, we are just trying to tackle the first six months, leaving our life behind, moving on to the boat and having our first shake-out season. The desired outcome is to get our lives on the boat, make sure the boat is operating safely and manage a sailing season in the Med. The next phase will be preparing for our first Atlantic crossing, and at that time we will reassess this plan altogether.


Next is IDENTIFY RISKS - In that context that was set, this means making a list of all the things that could possibly go wrong which includes all kinds of things from bad weather, to late boat delivery, to system or equipment problems, etc. Once that list is established, we ranked them in order of impact on our overall mission so we had some kind of hierarchy. When doing this we were able to collapse things into categories that were closely related or created snowball effects to other things or created a multiplier effect on others.


Next ASSESS RISKS - Of all those things we ranked in order of severity of impact to the mission, we ranked them in a second column in terms of how likely it was for them to happen. For example, having to abandon ship would be a huge risk, but of all the things on the list it was low in terms of likelihood in the big picture. In business, you essentially multiply the two rankings together and you can get a prioritized Risk Matrix which determines the top risks you should be proactively finding ways to avoid or mitigate.


This brings us to the next step, MITIGATE RISKS. Then we agreed to sort the list by the highest scoring items and tackle them ten items at a time to create risk strategies for each item. This would come in the form of protocols, prevention tactics or guidelines...like agreeing to reef when the wind reaches a certain level. And some of these things are still under negotiation.


This whole thing is a closed loop, so the idea is that as you create your risk plan, you find new and better controls to put in place that help you better manage over time. For example, if you know risk on any items is much higher if one or both of you aren’t well rested, you commit to getting the right amount of sleep during a passage no matter what. Or, choosing to invest in a high quality chain to lock your dingy down to avoid theft versus relying on a standard line. Or, a list of standing orders like on night watch the skipper is always woken up if another ship is spotted on the horizon.

All that being said, my husband and I went through this assessment exercise and came up with the following:


So for each one of those options, we thought through preemptive measures, the guidelines, procedures if necessary and also took into account the crew’s combined risk tolerance, not just the skippers...this was a negotiation but with shorthanded crew it means that if the skipper is fine and dandy, but the first mate…(your’s truly) is freaking out anxious and can’t get the necessary rest and has sleep deprivation...it doesn’t make for a solid crew situation and actually compounds the problem.


This process not only helped us think through the remediation, but also wrestle to the ground agreed upon guidelines like when to reef. It also helped us think through what kinds of things we wanted to prioritize as backup or safety equipment or to double check with the commissioning agent when we get the boat. For example, we know hatch covers lost and steering issues are a thing, which made our top list of risks so we can be sure to double, triple check those items during handover.


In addition, if crew overboard is a major risk, what can we do around the boat and with our personal equipment to decrease the chances of this happening in the first place. Mandatory double jack lines on our life vests and mandatory use on passages for instance is obvious. In addition to personal epirbs and the like for MOB, I’m also considering getting an infrared night scope that hopefully we never have to use. PS, after all my online research on this google started serving me ads for hunting gear, rifle equipment, ads for joining the NRA, and oddly black ski masks which was bizarre...all of which I just think is hilarious given my personal stance on firearms and the fact that I don’t make a habit of robbing banks.


Anyway….so what did I learn?


Going through this process of creating a Risk Management plan was both insightful and incredibly useful. It definitely helped my husband and I talk through things and not rely on reading each other’s minds or trying to debate situations, real time. But it forced us to get on the same page so we can work better as a team under high stress situations. If read the blog Power Struggle, you may be able to identify with the shifting roles between us as we transition from land to sea. Building a Risk Management approach and plan allows us to proactively agree on ways we will handle situations without it becoming a conflict between two people in an effort to solve a problem.


Yes, I realize he’s the skipper, but I also have a responsibility to solve problems to keep us both safe and I can’t be helpful either by standing around waiting for him to figure it out and tell me what to do if he can’t see the big picture without my help. I’m much more helpful and empowered if I can understand what might happen and possible ways we can work together to resolve it.


UPDATE: For more information, I also co-authored a blog on this topic with Amy Alton on Out Chasing Stars. With her experience and the framework I've outlined here, she give additional examples of how they have used a Risk Management Plan on their vessel, Starry Horizons.


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