Title photograph : Commander Bill King RN. DSO DSC.
An ocean post.
Very few sailors today will have heard of the late Commander Bill King and that’s a shame because he was an extraordinary man. He was the only British naval officer to have been in command of a submarine at the outset of the second world war and to still be alive and in command of a submarine at the end. The conclusion is obvious….that most submarine commanders and their crews simply didn’t survive as the loss of ‘boats’ was high. The cost to him though as he said himself was that his nerves were shot and he went back to sea as a sailor to help him find some peace, quiet and to recover.
One of Cmdr. King’s commands : HMS Telemachus i think.
The relevance to my ocean series of posts here is twofold today, firstly that Bill King was one of the nine sailors that set out to try and complete the Golden Globe race ie to sail around the world solo and non-stop. Commander King’s boat was the Angus Primrose designed Galway Blazer, designed and built specifically for a circumnavigation. It isn’t clear whether King’s original intention was to compete in the Golden Globe race, as he says himself “it kind of caught up with him”. At 58 he was also the oldest of the nine competitors. The story briefly told is that King and Galway Blazer ran into a fierce storm down near Gough Island in the southern ocean and he decided to take down all sail and lie ‘ahull’. What happened next is that the boat was then completely rolled over and inverted during the storm, losing both masts. Bill King and Galway Blazer survived and put into Cape Town. He did later go on to complete a circumnavigation on his 3rd attempt but only after a near sinking off the Australian coast when the later boat was in collision either with a whale but more likely a large shark.
An impeccably turned out Bill King and the second Galway Blazer just about to go down the slip at Souters yard in Cowes. (Getty images)
The RTE interview with Bill King
Everything that i am now going to attempt to put across in this post hinges on that interview, i could, Like Jordan Petersen talking about Nietzshe take any few lines and talk about them for an entire post…..maybe i will have to come back to them again. Today i want to talk about just 2 sections of the interview, first when he talks about his mental state before and during the race, secondly when he talks about the dismasting which ended his race.
In the first section that i would like to draw attention to he talks about his mental state after 15 years of commanding submarines : “a nervous wreck” but then contrasts that with his happiness in being out at sea in a small sailboat. It’s worth playing through that section a few times as he doesn’t say very much but not one word is wasted or out of place. That he found simplicity and peace ‘out there’ is clearly obvious and i can’t but help to make the contrast with Donald Crowhurst who only found madness and despair and John Ridgeway (former SAS officer) who wept every day during his time in the race.
The crucial section comes near the end of the interview when he describes, in very few words, the capsize/inversion and dismasting. He says that his decision to take down all sail and lie ahull was a mistake and only his mistake. For clarity i had to run that short section several times to catch each word exactly…..
“I should have gone on….that’s the answer.
Just remember this……if anything goes wrong in life it’s usually your own fault”
I haven’t added the next short section where he expands more on the theme of self-responsibility and making mistakes, acknowledging those mistakes and moving on from them, but how different an attitude when compared to today’s blame culture. Today of course i am in a minor ‘post-mistake’ state with my sailing life and that’s the side of life which is significant for responsibility and decision making. That might seem odd given that what i do is healthcare but i will try and explain that later on in the post. That i made a small but costly mistake with Inanda is obvious to me now as is my attitude that i have to draw a line under the episode , take the hit and move on.
I often say that i live 2 entirely separate lives, in one , at sea every decision and every mistake is my own. As a professional skipper in the past it is also true that everyone elses mistakes are also my responsibility especially so when i carried the extended duty of care for ‘guests’ on the boat. It didn’t matter that they often were people who had no sea-sense whatsoever and were quite frankly a danger to themselves and the rest of the crew, their mistakes were still my responsibility. If you follow this kind of thing that principle was recently re-affirmed in law and in the investigation into the grounding and loss of one of the Clipper race boats.
For the blog i was trying to find a really simple example from my own experience and here is one. The boat i always wanted was the Frances 26 and about 10 years ago i finally managed to buy one with the layout i wanted. After 2 refits she was almost the boat that i had in mind for my own long distance sailing and i kept her in commission all year round mainly on swinging moorings near Torpoint on the Cornwall side of the river. One day i had the horrible shock of the moorings manager leaving me a message that the Frances had nearly sunk, was in his marina but taking on water steadily and “what did i want to do about it”. Of course what we did was to go straight down there and have her towed around to the yard where the boss then cleared the hoist and got her straight out for me. It was too late to save the engine, the electrics and some of the interior and we quickly found the problem…..the lower rudder mounting had come loose and water was coming in through there. That the boatbuilder had done an appallingly bad job when the boat was built was obvious but it was my mistake early on not to have corrected a potential problem with the strength of that lower rudder mounting when it came up on the survey. If that had happened at sea i first might have lost the rudder and could have lost the boat completely and all through a simple error of ommission. The financial hit was quite hard in that i had to buy and fit a new engine, the good side of the mistake is that i got a new engine, learned the basics of fitting one and aligning it, even better was that it forced me to learn all about 12 volt electrics. The surveyor who picked up the original problem passed my own work on the electrics with the simple praise of asking me to go and do his own switch panel, sadly that never worked out.
Today i know more about boats and sailing because i made a mistake with the Frances, that mistake, and correcting it is one of the reasons for rejecting Inanda so quickly and i have the benefit of some new skills.
The second part of this post goes off in the polar opposite direction and that is an explanation of what i started to say earlier in the post about living 2 very different lives. I have a life as a sailor where i am an owner/skipper and mainly have to do my own work so that i can afford to sail. At sea i am my own skipper and my only extended responsibility is usually to my partner when she is aboard and to the other boats around me. With Inanda and a 5 foot bowsprit combined with a long keel and not the most powerful engine i could have done far more costly damage to other boats than they could have ever done to me ! The opposite side is that i am a very small cog in the very large mega-machine that is a modern acute hospital. The culture that i actually work in had until very recently an overt attitude that we did what we were told right there and then with no argument, secondly and crucially it had and still has a total blame culture despite what the organisation says it has.
I have written about this kind of thing in a few posts in the blog but not so far in relation to my work in healthcare. I did write about some disasters at sea, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsize and sinking was one. I always wanted to write about similar situations in medicine/nursing and healthcare but to be honest they are depressing posts to write. I have one largely finished which covers my view on the whole Mid-Staffs episode…largely forgotten now. I work in an environment which tries to be, has to be, maximally efficient and by that i mean does the maximum amount of work for with the least amount of resource ie staff. It’s recognised that it’s impossible to have maximum efficiency/productivity and simultaneously have maximum (patient) safety.
The first ‘King’s’ principle that i titled the post with is, in my opinion, a critical one for the self-reliant ocean going sailor. That is to recognise that when (not if) something goes wrong at sea it is often the skipper’s fault and yes there are circumstances that can overwhelm even the most competent driver and the best prepared boat. The second ‘Kings principle’ that i want to mention is something that resonates strongly with me and that is a profound happiness that he found and i find at sea on long voyages. He says that that he was never bored at sea, if there wasn’t much that needed doing he simply read great literature. In a future post i want to return to this theme because i have been thinking about it a lot recently and contrasting a simple life at sea with the complex but mind-numbingly tedious one i live at work.
My sailing life has if anything been more typified by my mistakes and errors rather than by any great degree of competence although it is improving slowly over time. Accepting and thinking about my own mistakes and then learning from them has been an essential but bruising process sometimes. If this sounds like a negative post well it isn’t, mistakes and human error are almost inevitable. I think that we sailors are lucky in that seamanship requires us to make larger and smaller decisions all the time and the quality or failure in our preparation and decision making reward us equally with a well sailed passage or a miserable , even failed one. Very few people normally get that instant reward or just as quick smack in the face in fact ‘normal’ society seems to want the very opposite ie no responsibility, no difficulty but would much rather lay the blame for life’s greater and smaller problems at the feet of others.
Then again those people don’t get moments like this.
In memory of Commander Bill King ( 23 June 2010- 21st September 2012)