Running Aground in the Seas of Commerce


My client, Bill, came to me in a panic. “I’ve hit a wall. My competition is killing me. Styles and trends are changing. I need to rebrand, repackage—start over—new website, new brochures—everything—as soon as possible.

“You might be right,” I suggested with a calm voice that probably annoyed him as much as it comforted him, “but humor me for a few minutes before you go running out the door to reinvent your universe. I’ll share a story that might offer you some perspective.”

Seeing that he was going to be unsuccessful at getting me to join his panic party, Bill sighed, pulled up a chair, crossed his arms, and motioned for me to go ahead.

A number of years ago I was sailing alone on my 26-foot sloop in the Bahamas. About a hundred yards off my beam, my buddy Strider, my sailing mentor, was sailing along in the replica he’d built of a 1911 Nova Scotian fishing schooner. It was always such a pleasure to see that classic boat under sail. The wind was just right. The sky was vivid blue. The water was clear as glass, and the sea bottom was a glowing fluorescent patchwork of beige and turquoise.

But perfection is a perfect excuse for disaster. One moment I was blasting along feeling like I owned the world, and then bump-bump-bump-bump, I parked the bottom of my boat on the sandy bottom and came to a full stop. I was hard aground.

Strider saw what had happened. He steered a little farther away and dropped anchor in deeper water.

I tightened up my sails, turned on the engine, put the tiller hard over … and managed to get myself stuck even more. Mind you, this was a full moon high tide—the highest tide we’d see for thirty days. I couldn’t have timed that grounding any worse if I’d planned it.

Defeated, I lowered my sails and set about organizing everything on board. When you run aground, your boat falls slowly over as the tide goes out. Everything not properly secured will fall out of place—cushions, books on shelves, sails, food—anything that’s not tied down or locked up. Imagine someone turning your house on its side. If you don’t prepare, you end up with a mighty mess.

Strider rowed over in his dinghy to see how things were going, wearing his usual zebra print exercise pants, a cowboy hat, and a pair of sandals he’d fashioned from old tire treads and leather straps. “How’s it going Dave?” he asked in the same annoyingly lighthearted tone I was now using to tell the story to my panicking client.

“You could help me out,” I suggested.

“Already working on that” he assured me. “There’s a loaf of bread in the oven and a fish stew on the stove.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s not quite what I had in mind. I need to set some anchors. If I use my biggest sails with the engine on full and run the anchor line up to the top of the mast to get her leaned over more and…”

Strider smiled at me and spoke calmly. “You’re hard aground. As far as getting your boat off, that’s not going to happen until tomorrow morning; high tide’s at about 8:30. If I were you, I’d put things in order here and then come on over and spend the night in my hammock.”

Aground in the Bahamas, 1991
Aground in the Bahamas with wet gear drying on the boom, 1990

I was less than pleased that my friend wasn’t willing to help me, but I let it go, straightened up my gear, and rowed over to Strider’s boat for dinner. “I don’t think I should stay here tonight,” I said. “As the tide goes out, my boat’s going to heel way over. If there’s a leak in a window or where the deck meets the hull, I want to be there to pump her out.”

Strider nodded. It was the prudent thing to do. “I’ll see you early for breakfast,” he said. “I’ll make us up some corn cakes and eggs … but hold on a minute before you row home.” He rummaged in a locker and handed me a coil of rope with a weight on the end. “This is a leadline,” he explained. “The line is marked in one-foot intervals. In the morning before you come over, row around your boat and take some soundings. Figure out where the deep water is so when you bust loose, you don’t end up sailing back into the shallows.”

I took the line and headed back to my boat. As darkness fell, so did the water level. My little sloop bounced awkwardly as she heeled slowly over. The side of the cabin that my bunk was on ended up being the “up” side, so I had no way to stay in bed. I pulled some cushions out into the cockpit and wedged myself in as best I could, but the full moon shone bright as a floodlight. The side of the hull begun to pound against the bottom. I caught about an hour of uncomfortable sleep when the tide was dead low, and then the process repeated in reverse. The pounding came back and then transitioned into awkward floundering. It wasn’t until dawn that my home was nearly upright again.

I took the leadline out in the dinghy and figured out where the deeper water was. I rowed two anchors out in that direction and hauled the lines in tight.

“How’d ya sleep?” asked Strider as my dinghy came alongside his schooner.

My response isn’t worth repeating in polite company, but I did appreciate the hot breakfast.

About a half-hour before high tide, we rowed over together, raised the sails and sheeted them in tight, started the engine and revved it up high, and pulled on those anchor lines. With both of us on the bow, the stern came up an inch or two. We felt a bump. The bow spun toward the anchors. We kept pulling and before long, she floated free!

Strider returned to his schooner and raised his sails. The clear water and the creamy pastels of the morning sky, the cool breeze, and the green of the Abaco pines behind us all sprang back to life. We got back to sailing across one of God’s finest works of art and continued on our way.

“I think you’re telling me I’ve run aground,” said Bill.

“Yes sir. It’s part of being a real sailor. When someone tells me they’ve never run aground, I know they’re one of those fat cats who never takes their boat out of the marina. It’s no different in the business world. Dealing with obstacles and setbacks is part of being a true professional.”

Bill nodded and laughed.

I placed my hands behind my head and leaned back in my chair. “So how can you make my sailing story work in your business? It may be that you do need a new website and a new ad campaign and all that other stuff…”

Bill interrupted me. “But what you’re suggesting  …  I think  …  is that I should wait for the high tide. The economy goes up and down. Every business has its cycles. If I am aground, maybe I’ll just float off when the tide rises, but if I do need a push, my efforts will be more effective when the water’s rising…”

“Yep,” I said. “That’s it  …  So what’s your plan?”

Bill closed his eyes and relaxed his shoulders. “I guess I have a long night ahead of me—and ‘night’ could mean weeks or months—but I’ll put my ship in order, take some soundings to figure out where the deep water is—where the best opportunities lie—and make sure my next move is a strategic one instead of a panic-driven spending orgy.”

I looked Bill in the eye. “So at the risk of sounding unhelpful, how about I buy you lunch?”

“Fish stew sounds good, Dave. Thanks.”


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Dave Bricker: StorySailing®