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  • Writer's pictureMike Defede

What I Learned from Being on a Sinking Ship - Part II

Last time, I started the story of how the cruise ship I took ended up at the bottom of the ocean. I’d recommend you read or re-read that one here. I thought this would be a two-part blog. My wife, Amanda, and I keep remembering more so it’s going to be three or four.

As I re-read the last blog, it struck me as so appropriate for the pandemic and the various reactions we see from leadership and businesses across the United States. No matter who you think is doing well or poorly on COVID, we never really know the quality of our leaders until a crisis and then it’s too late.

Lesson 3: “It gets worse before it gets better”

Last time we left off with the lifeboats being launched amidst passenger screams and the barks of a multi-lingual crew. It was chaotic, but no one was really panicked. The ship was close to shore and the most at-risk were being evacuated. At that point, we didn’t even have life jackets since half of them were on the side that was sliding into the sea. The remainder were in the rooms. It’s a bad idea to enter the bows of a sinking ship.

Maybe there is always a moment in an escalating crisis when people lose their minds. That happened when the ship’s horn started blowing. I whispered to Amanda, “what’s that for?” Then someone shouted, “Oh SH%^, we’re going to sink.” I would later read the blasts were the full evacuation signal which seems odd since we were already evacuating.

Suddenly we felt naked without an orange vest around our necks. People lucky enough to have a vest gripped them tightly, as they got envious stares. It had been obvious that the lifeboats weren’t enough for everyone but until the horn blast, no one seemed to care. Suddenly, people started talking about jumping and swimming for shore. Others cautioned that the ship would suck us under as it sank. It became clear that we were all pulling our knowledge of sinking ships from watching Titanic. Teenagers started playing “My Heart Will Go On” with their life vest whistles, which some passengers did not find amusing at all. Tempers started to flare. Amanda and I moved forward through the crowd to get on a lower deck and a better jumping point. Looking into the ship, we saw one of the ship’s officers running from the lower decks screaming Greek into a walkie talkie. He was soaking wet below his waist. It was a little unsettling, to say the least.

Lesson 4: Leaders Emerge and People Figure It Out

It’s probably worth saying that it took thirteen hours for the ship to sink and we were maybe 200 yards from shore. We weren’t in any immediate danger. The fear of the unknown is what had just asserted itself. More bad events kept happening unexpectedly such as the power going out and the boat actually drifting into a cliff, jolting us all. There was a rumor the Captain left the boat (turned out false). But was someone in control? It didn’t feel like it. People wanted to be told what to do, but the Captain had not been heard from. That might be the kind of leadership that led him to be sentenced to 12 years in prison for negligence.

Maybe there is always a moment in an escalating crisis when leaders emerge and sanity returns. In the void of leadership, certain people began taking charge. At first, we looked to the officers and crew. Many surged into action, but it was just as often the crew and not the officers who became leaders. The guy that figured out how to lower the lifeboats had moved up the ship, instructing other teams of crew on how to get the lifeboats launched. After the initial horn blasts, I remember watching another low-level crew gather several other crew members and then send them off in different directions. They re-appeared with life jackets hanging on each arm about 10-15 minutes later. A passenger at the front took charge of distribution by setting rules for who received them, focusing on the older passengers and those who couldn’t swim. This one act was able to stop fear from snowballing among the passengers. Everyone fell in line as the crew ran in and out delivering whatever they could find. As two young adults with no kids, Amanda and I were, appropriately, the last people to get a life vest almost two hours later. Another passenger started sorting people by risk level for full evacuation. Focus and calm started to take over. We had structure, rules and, equally important, people who could answer questions.

Now we just had to figure out how to get off the ship, hopefully dry.

Still to come – the islanders spring into action, we walk the plank, the ship sinks, American teenagers get a gift, we need a toothbrush and underwear, and we have dinner at the Hard Rock in Cairo.

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