Dead Reckoning: A Sailor’s Wisdom Applied to Personal Growth

Cast away, course set and true,

To port o’ call ‘cross the Blue,

Beware the currents, fast and strong

Dead Reckon, lest ye be Dead Wrong

Forgive me . . . my inner voice tends to speak with a pirate accent on occasion.

For as long as ships have sailed the Seven Seas, sailors have passed along wisdom in the form of phrases and sayings. These poetic jewels speak a universal language, one intended to guide a sailor’s judgement and influence an appropriate course of action. I had scribed the verse above as a nod to a personal favorite: Dead Reckon or Dead Wrong.

The saying itself represents a treasured Rule of Thumb for those navigating open waters:

Be vigilant in your commitment to Dead Reckoning, or once you determine your true position, you could be “Dead Wrong”.  

The process of Dead Reckoning estimates your current position when access to electronic or other visual aids is not available. It factors in anything that can influence your position, such as your speed and direction, wind, currents, waves, etc.

Some no longer see the value in Dead Reckoning, and say “Tall Tim, I can just look at my GPS to find out where I am”. True . . . but there is a lot at stake when you are surrounded by water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Has your GPS ever taken you to a road that has been closed for five years? Mine has.

There is symbolic relevance in Dead Reckoning for anyone who has “charted” a course for their success. Whether that course is a straight line or more of a pleasure cruise, you’ll want to have an idea of where you are, given the current state of your environment.

But before we cast off . . . let’s climb aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, a 295-foot Barque (Sailing Vessel), the platform used by the Coast Guard Academy to impress upon young Cadets “a love for the sea and its lore” . . . and relive a lesson in the value of Dead Reckoning.

Get This Ship Off the Rocks!

That summer we departed from New London, Connecticut, bound for a Goodwill Tour of Europe’s historic ports and coastal cities. Sail Plans called for a 21-day transit across the icy North Atlantic, with a destination of Cork, Ireland, as our first port-of-call.

It was pre-dawn on the 21st day . . .  

Technology in the Northern part of the globe has improved, but at the time was spotty and inconsistent. The ship’s surface radar had been our only set of “eyes” for days. Dead Reckoning our most recent position put us maneuvering into Cork Harbour later that afternoon.

Suddenly, the Sail Stations alarm sounded. Huge, obnoxiously loud alarm. Not good. The Radar Technician had picked up a signal he originally thought was another vessel.

It turned out to be Ireland.

When I made it on deck, people were running to their stations, the wind was howling, rain was coming down sideways. One of the more seasoned Officers, who sported a red beard and whom we naturally assumed was born with a pipe in his mouth, bellowed “No one’s having breakfast until we get this ship off the rocks!”

I wondered if I was having a sea-induced lucid dream, but there was no time to waste questioning reality.

A few intense and exhausting hours later, we had adjusted course and confirmed our position. By sheer will and determination, the Eagle had steered clear of harm’s way and was heading into the magical port of Cork.

The lessons I learned that day stayed with me long after my career in the Coast Guard ended.

The Academy selects only the finest Officers to develop its Next Generation talent. Those assigned to navigate the Eagle tallied well over 200 years of service experience among them. You could scrape enough sea salt off that team to sell it by the pound.

Their performance had been a working model of vigilance, possessing an innate ability to remain attentive and alert, while mindful of potential danger or necessitated course of action.

Yet, even with that much experience, knowledge, and vigilance, a successful crossing came down to an educated “Best Guess”. If they had waited for technology, for some practical validation, without turning up the intensity and trying desperately to determine where we were . . . who knows what the outcome might have been.

Let’s Make It Personal      

Consider that every person is their own vessel, the S.S. This Is Me.  

You set a course for your dreams and a timeframe for which you expect to arrive. That destination is your Personal Infinity Point (PIP).

You set sail loaded with hopes and aspirations, places you want to go, things you want to accomplish and see. You also have a cargo manifest in the form of foundational values, beliefs, and commitments, either to self or to others. Which is good because these act as ballast, providing stability . . . you’ll want that if you happen to encounter rough seas.

Your sail plan, or cruise itinerary, is referred to as a Personal Development Plan (PDP) in shore language. Once underway, your intent will be to stay as close as possible to your intended course, maintain progress, and arrive at your destiny as planned.

The journey itself will require vigilance on your part, an innate ability to sense when action is needed, or when danger threatens your progress. While the pandemic is an extreme example of this, there are currents at play that you must always consider . . . changes to society, advances in technology, adjusted lifestyles, new products, innovative techniques, etc.

Perhaps it will be your values and beliefs that change, as in “We’re having triplets?

As the assigned Navigator of your Life’s Journey, the principles of Dead Reckoning offer sage, salty advice to help guide progress in your personal development:

  • Update your calculations when you have a known “Fixed” position:

There will be significant reference points along your journey that (a) confirm your position, (b) allow you to update your timetable, and (c) determine your next course of action.

Life events such as Graduation, Licenses or Certifications, promotions, terminations, career changes, getting married, having children, empty nest, etc. all mark a confirmed position. This is not to predict progress, necessarily, but to provide a point from which decisions relating to your future can be made.   

While a Performance Evaluation may serve more as a call to action, it can also be significant enough to validate your position. If your Leader confirms your readiness to advance, or by contrast calls for additional training and time in position, you may have to consider the impact on your immediate plans.

  • Factor in Wind Speed and Direction:

Dead Reckoning requires you to physically measure the wind speed and direction, to sense the impact it is having on your vessel. This cannot be accomplished below deck. You must be topside and engage with the elements.

Likewise, there are factors throughout society that may impact progress along your course. The best way to determine the impact of these is to be “in” the environment. We’ve referenced changes in technology as one of the more influential factors, which can work in your favor as momentum, or slow you down . . . requiring additional development or acumen prior to regaining your predicted pace.

This is when your vigilance will pay off. Consider your own speed and continue to stay abreast of performance requirements for your Next Level position.

Perhaps the most fitting example of “Dead Wrong” in Personal Development Planning is learning that you are missing qualifications . . . while interviewing for your Dream Job. Be in the environment, be curious, and be engaged in your growth and development.

  • Factor in Current:

Current is the most difficult element to consider when practicing Dead Reckoning. Working below the surface, it is invisible to the eye but still a constant presence. There may be surface indications – other boats at anchor, buoys being pulled in a specific direction, objects adrift and floating by.

While it may appear calm at times, the ocean never sleeps.

As mentioned, you have a cargo manifest full of values, beliefs, and relationship commitments. The exercise becomes even more personal, because only you know the depth of connection between these and your passions. The values and beliefs of those around you can change, or perhaps you begin to simply see the world differently.

Like the ocean current, your Leaders will not be able to detect the true influence of values on your personal development. When appropriate, share what matters most to you, beyond the surface accomplishments and reference points.

I was once overlooked for a position that required extensive travel, without being offered the opportunity to apply. My leaders had removed me from consideration because I spoke so fondly of the time I spent with my family. They had interpreted my surface appreciation for family time more important than my deeper value of growth and advancement.

There are always new lessons to be learned. This potential for additional enlightenment may be something that you had not factored in.

But then . . . Life overall is a Journey of Discovery.  Do the best you can, trust in yourself . . . you’ll make the correct choices.

Sailing to Paradise

There are many “vessels” that will depart on their journeys without a sail plan, without the perceived need for Dead Reckoning – “I need not knowledge for where I am, for I know not where I am heading”.

Okay, that wasn’t a pirate voice, but something more regal like The Commodore, I’m afraid.

This isn’t judgement, there is nothing inherently wrong with that approach. Part of the beauty in being human is the concept of free will.

What I am saying is that I have seen the results of this approach as both a Coast Guard Officer and Learning Professional. Once you are beyond the sight of land, or once you have entered life and moved beyond your most recent reference point, it can be extremely difficult to determine what direction to take. Everything begins to look the same.

If your desire is to incorporate structure in your Personal or Professional Development, then a good Sail Plan . . . sorry, Personal Development Plan is great place to start. This is when the principles of Dead Reckoning will apply, requiring the vigilance to remain attentive and alert to changes, to possess an innate ability to sense when action is needed.

Plan on facing obstacles along the way and remember this fact: there has not been a shipwreck recorded in the history of time that was blamed on the geography – “This is when the rocks got in our way.”

You are the Captain of your ship and are responsible for its growth and development. Become comfortable with the maneuvering capabilities of your vessel and learn to use them to maintain progress along your course. Also understand the limitations involved . . . it is not the prudent seaman who steers their ship into harm’s way.

Lastly, have a great soundtrack in mind. Something that will keep the wind in your sails and the spirit of adventure in your heart. For as the words from John Denver’s Calypso remind us “To live on the land, we must learn from the sea”.

Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!     

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