EL FARO

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes featured a report on finding the remains and voice recorder of the cargo ship, El Faro, that was tragically lost in a hurricane last year. Though the show didn’t play the complete transcript, it was sufficient to gain an insight into the crew’s final hours.

Though this is certainly not the only explanation of these events, the premise of this blog and my book”see my book“, can, I think, shed some light on the actions and events in those final hours.

What particularly stands out in the transcript is the behavior and dialogue of the crew and captain. Both seemed to stand in stark contrast to what was happening in and around the ship. The ship was clearly bearing into a hurricane that was also bearing ever closer to the ship itself. All the while, the crew and particularly, the captain clung to a routine, “a script”, that governed all such voyages. Even as the storm grew in fierceness, and the ship tossed and tipped accordingly, the captain as he was accustomed to do, went to bed. He retired to his cabin and did not reappear for 8 hours, during which time it is assumed he slept. He is quoted as having said, “I slept like a baby.” When he returned to the control deck, the ship was already listing badly from having taken on water through a damaged hold door. Yet his dialogue was reassuring and perhaps even dismissive. “It’s like this in Alaskan waters every day.” The crew asked after his coffee and whether he wanted sweetener. He answers, “Splenda…not the real sugar.” And the mate proceeds to comply. They were all within 50 minutes of perishing.

Without belaboring the dis-associative dialogue that transpires, (you can access this CBS report and others yourself for verification) I would venture an explanation. I think Captain and crew were caught in an habitual and fatal script. Rigidly scripted behavior can be a real advantage in certain venues….military, medical, police, fire, theatre, etc. But there can be times when that rigid adherence to script prevents critical thinking.

In war, in battle, in the operating room, in public crises, on a high wire, the practiced rituals very well might serve frequently, but the participants may at times need to realize they are outside the box and change accordingly.

A new book my Michael Lewis called, The Undoing Project, explores the many aspects of expert decision making. The central theme is how often expert opinion and action is in error. The cause: emotions that too often delude the expert.

In the case of the El Faro, I believe that the practiced script they had so often enacted in both calm and stormy weather had in all cases, till now, worked. But habitual, scripted behavior is always inherently dangerous. It locks up your critical faculties. The more often you enact it and it proves successful, the more reliable it seems and goes unquestioned. Whether in the operating room, in battle, or in crisis one must keep living the events and not the script.

Lewis’ book feature two psychologists, Kahneman and Tversky who by exploring events and people’s efforts to predict or deal with those events found expertise and logic wanting in the outcomes. Habit and expectations cloud critical faculties.

Not to in any way diminish the tragic loss of life on the El Faro, I think the tragedy was in part set up by sailing into a known storm within a script that had always worked before….until it didn’t.

We must always know when we are in a script. Our lives depend upon it. Not knowing makes us blind and unresourceful. Being locked in a script, whether in relationships, a bad marriage, a bad job, a toxic life style is never good when uninspected. A script is often comfortable. Comfort leads to pattern, habit. Even if you like the script you are in. Knowing it, being aware of it, is crucial. That kind of awareness, I think, could have saved the crew of the El Faro. It can save you, too, when storms approach your comfort zone.

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