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Max Thorpe: Decision making under pressure

Insight

27 November 2019

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It is widely regarded as the toughest race on Earth. From the security of dry land and day-to-day comforts, this statement can seem an exaggeration. However, nine days into my attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean in a specially built two-man ocean rowing boat, it was living up to its name, and more. 

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is a punishing race from the Canary Islands to Antigua, pitting teams from around the world both against each other and the merciless open ocean. In December 2017, nine days in, Chris Williams and I were leading the race and were on track for the world record.

The conditions were brutal and perilous, with the enormous ocean swell growing larger every day until we faced waves of over 15 metres. We were later informed that these had been some of the worst conditions in over a decade. Having never been in the open ocean before, we didn’t know any different as we powered ahead of the competition.

Soon though, our race lead and our pursuit of the finish line in Antigua lost all importance. On the ninth day, a huge rogue wave picked us up, turned us upside down and slammed us back into the sea. When we emerged to the surface, we were shaken but thankfully conscious and unhurt. But, as I went to open our cabin door, plumes of thick toxic smoke revealed the unimaginable and unprecedented: the impact of the capsize had caused an electrical fire, destroying the vital pieces of communication and navigation equipment.

Our race was over. But, as sea conditions immediately worsened, the fight for our lives had only just begun.

 

Over the next few months, I’ll be writing blogs about the lessons I learnt from my near-fatal attempt to row across the Atlantic. In due course, I’ll reveal more of the story and offer an insight into how Chris and I narrowly survived the worst of Mother Nature and made it back alive.

For this first blog, I want to explore how my decision making was affected by the pressure of the challenge. I had to make some tough choices in an unimaginably hostile environment and learnt a lot in the process.

The pressure builds

As soon as we left the Canary Islands, the scale of the challenge began to dawn on us. The intensity and energy of the ocean would increase day after day. Our rowing shifts consisted of alternating every two hours, around the clock, meaning sleep was minimal – an hour or here and there. The sleeping cabin itself was aptly named the ‘tumble dryer’ for the way we would be thrown from wall to wall as we attempted to recover.

We had predominantly focused on the physical side of the challenge, conditioning our bodies and in turn building mental toughness to withstand rowing 12 hours a day each. The real struggle, however, was the combination of complete isolation and the ruthless conditions driving sleep deprivation and ultimately real emotional agony. Furthermore, neither of us were nautical individuals and had little sea-faring experience. In hindsight, I believe we were psychologically underprepared for the challenge.

The conditions and the challenge continued to force us to ask hard questions of ourselves, but with our lead in the race under threat, our competitive nature ensured we pushed hard and utilised the power of the waves to drive us towards Antigua.

Accepting our fate

We were 1000km from land when we capsized. I will always remember that moment in slow motion as the wave picked us up and slammed us onto the water. I will never forget the force with which we hit the water – it devastated our cabin, destroying our electrics and igniting a fire. Fire is scary and threatening when it’s on land. At sea, in a small vessel, there is nowhere to run. It is like a fire starting in a room where the exit door is locked. You must confront it.

The site of the capsize

Chris and I were clearheaded. We identified what we could and couldn’t control and then prioritised the controllables.

First, we had to accept our new circumstances. We set off our emergency satellite beacon and the resulting gut-wrenching feeling of accepting our race had ended will stay with me forever. It was strange shift in focus and a complete pivot of our goal. From pouring all our blood, sweat and tears into reaching the finish line on the other side of the Altantic, in a single moment we now had to focus on something we hadn’t prepared for – survival against all odds.

We extinguished the flames but the cabin was irreparably damaged. We had no time to wallow in self-pity, as the conditions worsened, and waves of over 15 metres were now towering over us. Each and every one of these extraordinary waves took our breath away.

All of our attention was now focused on keeping the boat upright as we would be almost vertical on these waves. We stopped rowing and for every minute of every hour, we threw ourselves against different corners to literally push the boat over the crest of each wave. It was a brutal fight lasting for hours.

Retreat

We were heavily reliant on a clear view of every wave to ensure we effectively timed heaving ourselves over the top of each one. So, as the light started to fade, we knew we had another big decision to make.

Choosing our next course of action required some difficult discussions. With the protection of the main cabin lost, we sought another option. We decided to empty a small storage cabin on the boat, but it was only the size of a large suitcase and therefore touch-and-go whether two grown men could fit. Additionally, were acutely aware that by barricading ourselves in this cabin we would be giving up the proactive resistance against the waves and handing a large portion of our fate to the ocean. Realising we would likely not survive the night up on deck, we shoe-horned ourselves into the tiny cabin. It was a massive decision but it was now made and we had to look forward.

Rescue

We were in the cabin for around 8 hours. Consistently battered by the ferocious waves, we often didn’t know if we were upside down or the right way up. After the longest night of our lives, we saw something flicker on the pitch black horizon – a light and hopefully, a lifeline.

Finally, we crawled out onto the deck and were faced with a breath-taking 250m long, 20m high oil tanker powering towards us. The tanker hit us head on, almost crushing us, and immediately we knew the war was not over.

The tanker to scale with Max's boat

We found ourselves right in the between the waves - the unstoppable force - and the tanker – the immovable object. The tanker crew had lowered ropes down to us, but as the waves climbed and fell, these lines of rescue weren’t accessible. As we reached the back of the tanker, it started to come down on top of us and we knew it was seconds away from crushing the boat.

In ocean rowing, the most important rule is to never separate yourself from the boat. This is because the sea moves much faster and stronger than you expect, and if you fall overboard it’s almost impossible to get back to the vessel or for the boat to get back to you – especially at night and in a storm.

With imminent danger, we made a decision to go against that rule. We looked each other in the eyes, silently affirming our decision, and unclipped from our boat and leapt for the rope and ladder. Chris caught the rope. I caught the bottom level of the ladder. As we hung from the tanker it became apparent the crew could not pull us up. As minutes ticked by, I lost my grip and fell into the ocean.

I’ll reveal what happened after that in a future blog.

Lessons

This experience taught me four things about decision making under pressure:

Focus on the controllables

When facing difficult circumstances, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in things that you can’t change. Effective decision making requires an ability to identify and accept what you can’t control before pinpointing and focusing on what you can control.

Compartmentalise

During tough moments, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by what you are facing. That makes compartmentalising decisions extra important, so that you can focus on what’s achievable at each step in order to succeed.

Once you’ve made a decision, stick to it

In a high-pressure situation, indecision can undermine the possibility of success by slowing process and draining energy, so once you’ve made a decision, trust your judgement and commit to it. And remember, choosing not to act is a decision too.

Know when to break the rules

They say that rules are made to be broken and I have always had an element of that in my character! There are times when you can see that the consequences of acting within man-made boundaries will result in certain failure, at which point it is incumbent upon a leader to take risks. A long shot is better than no chance at all.

 

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