Marlin in Risk Management…

Adam Flaws | February 23, 2023

A marlin speared by friends, within a few hundred meters of us 

Recently, I spent a Saturday chasing marlin off the west coast of New Zealand’s far north. Conditions were ideal and it was a beautiful day on the water. Me and a couple of mates spent the day trolling hookless plastic lures, with the aim of raising a marlin. Once a marlin is spotted trying to gobble up a lure, one of us then slips into the water and shoots it with a speargun – well that is the plan anyway…

As things transpired, we had an opportunity, but couldn’t convert. After talking to my colleagues on the Monday, and reflecting on some aspects of the decision-making process, an interesting thought dawned on me.

As risk professionals, with “operational” backgrounds, and therefore experience in risk identification and mitigation and threat and error management to ensure safe and successful delivery of objectives. Do we take similar approaches to our private lives and the decisions we make outside of our work environment?

In other words, “does a background in risk management change the way we think and act in our everyday lives?” I’ll try to answer that through reflecting on a recent marlin fishing expedition.

Here’s the scenario I found myself in a few weeks ago.

I was heading out chasing marlin with a speargun. Now, ask anyone with any game fishing experience, and you’ll get a picture of a big, fast moving, explosively-powerful fish with a sword (albeit a relatively blunt one) attached to its face. I was planning (all things going according to plan) to get in the water with one, and get close enough to shoot it with a steel spear propelled by oversized rubber-bands. Having successfully achieved that, the plan then involves hanging on for dear life while being towed around the ocean long enough to tire the fish out enough to again get close enough to issue a coup de grâce.

Add to that, the fact that this all takes place after crossing a bar that is renowned for its treacherous nature in all but the most benign conditions. Once the bar has been dealt with, you find yourself miles from shore in a stretch of ocean that is notorious for its extreme currents, unpredictable sea conditions and the fact that there is no safe-haven to retreat to if conditions turn nasty – All in a 6m tin boat.

Sounding like some “interesting” risk management considerations? I’m not done…

On this particular trip, I would be one of a three-man crew. I had not dived with either of the others, nor had I ever set foot on the boat we would be using. Neither of them had any experience chasing marlin with a spear (I have less than 10 days’ total experience in this arena). This would be a learning experience for all of us, on a number of fronts.

Taking all of these factors into account, one might decide that this particular trip wasn’t worth the risk – and without mitigations for each of the above, one would probably be right in making a no-go decision when weighing the likelihood and consequences of an adverse outcome.

Going back to my original question. Would an “average Joe” off the street have thought seriously about the potential for something to go astray? Would they have seen the potential for the holes in the cheese to line up? Would they have weighed up the relevant factors and the potential for error chains to contribute to some catastrophic outcome?

Maybe… Maybe not…

This is where risk management came into it for me. Pretty quickly, I was able to mentally check off some risk controls that I was able to ensure were in place to minimize the risk, whether through reducing the likelihood of an adverse event, or reducing the likely impact if an event did take place.

  • The forecast was good, and had been stable for several days leading up to our trip. Multiple weather models had been consulted and were in congruence.
  • The boat owner and skipper had recent experience crossing the bar, and we would be navigating across in company with a local who was vastly experienced in local conditions.
  • A number of other vessels would be fishing in the same general area, so as to provide some degree of mutual support in the event of an issue onboard our vessel.
  • I had personally checked the safety equipment onboard the vessel (EPIRB, VHF, flares, lifejackets etc.), and brought my own personal locator beacon (PLB).

These controls mitigated the risks associated with crossing the bar, conditions, isolation etc. to an acceptable level in my view. That left two key risks as I saw it; the physical risk associated with spearing a marlin and the subsequent tussle that would ensue, and the risks associated with an unfamiliar crew conducting an unfamiliar task.

The physical risk of injury or death related with spearing the fish was addressed as best as possible through extensive research over the last 5 or so years. I have talked at length with a number of friends and acquaintances who have shot and landed marlin on spear. I have watched countless YouTube videos of marlin being speared and read reports online to try to understand what would happen if and when I got the opportunity to shoot one. After conducting this research, I reached the conclusion that the risks in this particular area were sufficiently low that they didn’t require further mitigation (which was useful, as any additional controls I could think of would be impractical or impossible to apply).

The risks arising from an unfamiliar crew conducting an unfamiliar task were not able to be set aside. I was acutely aware that our collective lack of experience and lack of shared understanding as to the general approach, sequence of events and expected responsibilities could potentially spell disaster – not only for our chances of achieving our goal, but also in a safety context.

You don’t have to dig very deep into maritime incident reports to find mention of Bridge Resource Management as a contributing or causal factor.  Inexperienced crews, poor communication and a lack of a common plan (or “shared mental model”) are commonly cited as key factors in the vast majority of incidents. How could we avoid such failures leading to us coming unstuck? The key would lie in our ability to get on the same page and develop a shared mental model.

The 3 hour drive to our chosen boat ramp provided the ideal opportunity for us to discuss the “operation” in detail – from the key bits of safety equipment and their use, to a common understanding of what exactly each person was responsible for in the event that a marlin did show up amongst our teasers, regardless of who was on deck, the helm and the lucky guy who would be on the gun (we would rotate through the roles at set times). By the time the we had launched the boat, everyone knew exactly what to expect, what their job would be, what they would each do and say, and in what order key things needed to happen in order to ensure success. Contingency plans were understood and a number of “what ifs?” had been discussed.

The result of this detailed planning and “table-topping” was that a comprehensive shared mental model and accompanying communications plan were developed. This reduced the risk to an acceptable level, and we were all comfortable to undertake the task ahead.

As things panned out, we managed to raise a marlin as planned. The planning proved effective and everyone carried out their roles as discussed. Everything went seamlessly up until the point the diver (unfortunately the opportunity arose at a time I was on deck and not on the gun) pulled the trigger. What exactly caused the issue, we will never know, but the end result was a miss, and our one golden opportunity for the day was squandered. And while we didn’t catch our fish, we made it home safely.

So, circling back to the initial question “does a background in professional risk impact the way we think and act outside of work? Or would an average Joe off the street take a similar approach to things, or at least land at the same conclusions?” Having reflected on the above question through my own experience as described here, I’ll stick with my original answer – Probably not.

Due to my background, training and chosen career; risk identification, assessment and analysis as well as practical experience developing and implementing pragmatic, real-world risk controls has shaped the way I think and act. The key benefit I see in this, is that I am able to approach potentially risky situations with confidence that I understand the associated risks, and have controls in place that reduce risks to an acceptable level. This means I am comfortable to do things that others may not be, or conversely, that I am aware of potential issues and consequences that others might recklessly ignore or be blissfully ignorant of.

Do you agree?