|Cartoon by Gary Larson
The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.
-- From Frank Herbert's Dune
-- Printed in large, friendly letters on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
When Panic Rears It's Ugly Head
Panic is one of the very worst dangers we sailors face.
Panic may paralyze us. It may send us into a frenzy of useless or even detrimental action. It may benumb the mind or send it reeling.
Panic, more often than not, is a far greater danger than the conditions which invoke it. Indeed, it can strike in a total absence of danger if a situation is misread.
Panic is one of those reactions that might work sometimes toward survival for prey animals, and it may be that we humans spent a good chunk of our evolutionary childhood in panic-augmented flight.
But panic on board – whether of captain or crew – is not our friend. It can overwhelm anyone, but especially the unprepared. It's contagious and can debilitate an entire crew. At worst, those caught in its grip are a danger to themselves, the crew and the vessel.
Fortunately, we can reduce its onset with training, and break its grip with breathing and focus. We are none of us immune to panic, but neither are we its helpless victims.
Panic - and climbing out of it - is serious business, for which it is well to be prepared.
It was a dark and stormy night...
Well, not stormy, yet, but one was bearing down on us. And it was dark... that nebulous kind of dark where even silhouettes are blurred and indistinct.
We had fetched the reef-bound entrance to a fjord. Just the sort of place that wind, when it hits, funnels together and venturies itself into a rage (venturi = wind + furies?). But we were ahead of it and dropped anchor close in the lee of a sheltering island.
Before we could set the anchor, however, the first lick of squall pounced on us and stripped it, blowing us back into exposed water, embayed by rock and reef, lost in blinding rain and intensified dark.
This is not as dangerous as it sounds, but calls for close sailing in tight quarters, with strong, confused winds. It was just a matter of navigating between the lighter water smudges bracketing the island, visible at either end of our tacks. Round up and stall in the blackouts. Work our way into the inky lull between them and anchor on soundings. Not an everyday occurrence, but we've practice aplenty.
Anke went forward to haul the anchor, while I raised sail, an operation that briefly fouls the deck with loops of halyard. Normally this is cleared at leisure as each sail is raised. But, with trouble close to leeward, there was no time for niceties. Sails and anchor up, we set course close-hauled, intending to tack back into our island's lee.
Anke returned to the cockpit and took the helm while I set about clearing the decks by feel. Despite the fact that I couldn't see any of the lines, I put my head down for a moment from sheer habit. A side gust hit, and we heeled hard and SLACKTIDE rounded toward it in a swoop, dumping power and regaining her feet.
As my head came up, I found that I'd lost my bearings. Neither wind nor the sketchy blots of black fell into a pattern I could recognize. Which way to turn and how long before burning up scant searoom? Panic clamped down hard. Heart pounding, mouth gone dry, knees weak and knocking, mind clutching wildly at any purchase within that churning darkness.
Breathe x four, and my mind began to work again. Still disoriented, but ready to do the sensible thing... ask Anke what's where.
And she soon set me straight.
Note: If we'd both been lost, an unpanicked assessment would quickly reveal standard options; heaving to or dropping anchor till bearings were regained. If we drag, we can row out another, or dredge downwind (dragging anchor acting as a drogue to keep head up; back sails to skin through breaks in the reef (clearly visible for ultra-shoal draft as patches of smoother water between breaking water). If a lee shore (no breaks), ground out and step ashore if and when we must. The first happens now and then, the latter two once or twice.
Panic took me in its vice that night. It happens. And if we don't get a handle on it, it'll run us under.
So here are some tools we've found useful. While they don't all address panic itself, together they lower the odds that panic will take over. And once your mind is your own again, you're ready to take on trouble.
Take care of yourself – Dress appropriately for conditions. Get adequate rest. Eat and drink well (never alcohol, however, while at risk).
Outfit yourself – Reliable gear that works well together across real and anticipated scenarios gives you the physical basis to deal with emergencies.
Train yourself – Develop skills before you need them, and practice them in increasing conditions. If nothing else, imagine scenarios and response in detail.
Drills help immensely. But a word of caution... skills are most powerful when seen as modular – useful separately or in combination with others. Seen thus, they empower improvisation. Overfocusing on set drills can leave us unprepared when the real world deviates from the 'script'. I seen it happen!
Orient yourself – At all possible moments, know where you are. Where are your fall-backs? What is your fail-safe strategy? What is the path of least resistance?
In the Moment
Breathe! -- First thing you'll need is oxygen. Adrenalin kicks us into high gear and we start burning through O2 reserves like wildfire, and we need to up our intake.
I like the 'fourfold breath'... enough air to supply the brain, and counting helps focus and bring me back. Consciously use feature to ease yourself down. Four quick breaths are not enough to hyperventilate or delay your recovery. But do take more if you need to.
NOTE: We've since learned 'square breathing' from the USMC... breath, hold, exhale, hold. Repeat each step for a count of four. Especially effective for reducing panic.
DO NOT PROCEED until panic ebbs -- Until your mind clears, your actions are unlikely to be of help! Keep with it until you have yourself in hand. Note the distinction between panic and merely being afraid. You can function with the latter.
To Captains: If you allow your personal panic to persist, both ship and crew are as though rudderless. Your calm and confidence aid the crew to deal with their panic. You may have to relieve crew who cannot control their panic before it spreads lest they endanger the ship or themselves with panicked mis-actions.
TIP: If you are in the grip of panic, it may help to close your eyes for this step... this shuts out alarming visuals which, at this point, you are in no shape to process. Benefit varies from one individual to the next, however.
Assess, Address, Appraise – What are the dangers and/or damages? Option
Resources? Priorities? What is your plan? Are your actions producing their intended effect? What must be done to remedy, if not? Don't hesitate to trade up one plan for a better one, where possible. We need to home in on effective address, pronto
To Captains: This is your responsibility. If time allows, consider consulting with knowledgeable crew. Consider staying in the moment... what came before or comes after is likely irrelevant in the crisis.
Communicate – Make sure everyone involved knows their job. If time permits, fill them in on the situation and the why of what they're told to do. This helps them deal with their panic. Help them with that process where time allows.
To Crewmembers: Consider that your Captain may not have time to fully brief you. This is the time to 'put your head down' and perform each assigned task to the best of your ability. If you observe something urgent, report it, but consider that the Captain must rank that information into priorities to which you may not be privy. S/he may have you abandon your assigned task in favor of another as plans change rapidly. Resist the urge to act without instruction (at least such actions as dropping or raising sail).
Buy time – Actions which buy you time – to think, orient, improvise, etc. - can be invaluable, even when they don't directly improve your situation. Make the most of the time you've bought!
Attend to the ship – Damage assessment and control that hasn't been addressed during the emergency. Make all gear ready to run. Get to shelter, if necessary. Initiate repairs, if necessary.
Attend to the crew -- All present and accounted for? Any trauma or medical issues? Apply first aid, if necessary. Get help, if necessary.
ReAssess – What went well? Not so well? What could be improved? Has training adequately prepared each for their role? Was the ship's outfit up to snuff?
NOTE: As with any debriefing session, this is not a blame game. That someone panicked and/or was unable to to climb out from under it is not reprehensible, but rather grounds for further training. This includes everyday and emergency seamanship AND in techniques for ending panic.
In the following scene, from the movie Flight, portrays a (fictional) flight crew's response to mechanical failure.
I admire both the captain's expertise, and handling of the situation and crew. He is decisive and proactive in both respects. He plays a large role in keeping his crew from panic and moving toward a solution.
NOTE: This scene focuses on what happens in the cockpit but includes asides depicting physical trauma to crew in the cabin. It was 'loosely' inspired by a real life incident (Alaska Airlines flight 261) in which all passengers and crew perished).
Though ultimately unsuccessful, by not panicking, the real-life crew gave themselves and their passengers the best chance of survival. They were posthumously awarded the Airline Pilots Association Gold Medal for Heroism.
Please view with discretion.