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Weather Patterns in an Economic Storm: COVID-19, an Allegory

At some point in the career of a mariner, the weather will catch up to them, and there will be nowhere to go but wherever they are.

A situation exists to where it’s not safe or possible to move forward or go back to where you came from. Maybe you are near shore – you duck into some cove or bay, find a break. Getting in there might get you out of the main fetch and fervor of the terrorism of a seaway, but you’re still dealing with the wind ripping around peninsulas or through valleys. The fjords are often no respite, with williwaws coming down like errant microbursts, heartless, frequent, and forceful.

If you’re offshore, or far from a good (or better) place to hide, you are unfortunately left with limited options. Generally, the goal is to maintain steerage as efficiently as possible, keep it pointed (more or less) into the weather, secure things, tank down if you can, and restrict all unnecessary deck operations. If it’s bad enough, you might set up a communications schedule with the coast guard or home office, and let them know what’s happening every hour or so. You contact other boats in the area. You watch the crew, make sure any passengers are alright. You hope the steward froze a few lasagnas when the weather was nice to throw in the oven, and you deal with it.

“No One would have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in a storm”
-Charles Kettering

In practice, what ends up happening is pretty boring. You zig zag back and forth for hours or days – however long it takes to pass. You’re not trying to get anywhere, but rather trying not to get blown further away than necessary. It’s a lot of attention at the wheel, it can be tiring and stressful, and to do it right takes energy and focus. You spend time telling worried people it’s going to be okay, and try to play down sensationalism. On the bigger boats, maybe the laundry gets closed down, the galley, the shower, the gym. Crew gather silently on the bridge, nonchalantly sipping coffee and waiting in the dark to hear the voice of NOAA or pore over the weatherfax. They get edgy. If you’re on a larger boat an autopilot can sometimes handle things, but you still have to work the throttle if a gust blows you off your heading.  As the boat turns away from the wind, it exposes more of itself for the wind to push against, so it’s an exponential effect. If you use too much throttle or over steer, you’ll push yourself right through the wind and end up with the same problem – back and forth, back and forth. The gyrocompass clicking like a geiger counter.  You learn to make tiny, frequent course corrections. If you’re in an inlet or channel, or behind some island providing a lee, there’s only so much room to travel. Sometimes there are other boats trying to share that space. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Somehow, it always feels like it’s night time.

“One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sign,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye”

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

On a smaller, lighter boat, it’s a lot of patience, feathering, and finesse. It’s having trust in your equipment. Overall, it’s uncomfortable. It’s always not a matter of if something will break, but when. You spend a lot of time considering what your options are, and what’s likely to let go, and what you’ll do when it does. You often have to lean on other people a lot more than you might otherwise, and you tend to go over action points of the worst case scenarios.

There is, I’m sure, a better term for this. A sailor would maybe generalize it by saying they were “hove to”, but heaving to is admittedly a specific and different thing. When I was working on the research boats offshore, we just called it being in a “weather pattern”.

On those boats – you’re set to be at sea for months anyway. You’ve got plenty of fuel, food, spare bits, parts, safety equipment, and usually everyone aboard has formal training, licenses, and have drilled for emergency scenarios routinely. There are passengers to watch, sure, but at least the crew is mostly skilled. On the smaller boats, that’s not always the case – sometimes it’s just you and the passengers, maybe a deckhand or guide. It becomes more important to keep calm, but you there’s no chance you’ll get away with convincing them that everything is totally okay either. Secretly, the major concern becomes efficiency, fuel conservation, and team management.  It’s not enough to know how to keep the boat floating, you also have to think about what happens when the storm is gone. Will you have enough fuel to make it to port? Will your passengers remain calm and patient until you do? Are you actually in control?

“Son, I’ve got two balls – and neither one of them is made of crystal”
– John J. Burns

These types of thoughts are crossing my mind a lot lately, and I catch myself drawing comparisons between weathering a storm at sea, and the current social, medical, and economic disaster that we are experiencing with the COVID 19 pandemic.
In this parallel, I’m a crew member of a small business caught in an otherwise unavoidable “health storm”. Probably, some of you reading this are also at the helm of such an enterprise, or even more likely than that, helping crew one. Quarantines and travel restrictions – not to mention actual illness – may have shut us down, slowed us down, or both. We are then, all of us – trying to hold our own respective weather patterns.
Odds are, you’re stuck inside, can’t work, or aren’t allowed to work. Those who do go to work are scared to get sick, or get others sick. Many have spent the last few weeks reading CDC recommendations or calling bankers and lending houses to defer, cancel, and restructure financial obligations. They have researched ways to increase liquidity, and watched stocks, money market funds, or retirement accounts rise and fall repeatedly. Perhaps they’ve talked to the SBDC, perused, or researched unemployment benefits for the first time in their lives. They’ve reeled from state and federal mandates, put in place with no warning, and struggled to understand what that means for them.

I’m guessing they’re sick and tired of anecdotal information overall, and desperate for someone to give them a solid answer regarding when or if things will go back to “normal”. They may be scratching at the barrel of their Netflix accounts, or revisiting their joy of baking. They are all of us, and the point is, for each of us there are similarities to draw, and frustrations to compare. The thought that misery loves company comes to mind, and while that may sound depressing, it’s bad to you know you’re in an awful scenario, but to be or feel alone in that awful scenario is worse yet.

Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs.”
-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

So, please read: You are not alone. Please know, right now, that if you lost your job, laid off your staff, or don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills: You are not alone. You were not a bad employee. This isn’t a result of poor business acumen. You don’t deserve to feel anxious about whether or not you’ll be able to make your lease, rent, mortgage, insurance premiums, utilities, payroll, credit card bill, or god forbid afford groceries. To be spontaneously reliant on a confused and stressed bank, credit line, or government for assistance out of the blue isn’t fair. You don’t deserve it, you didn’t do anything wrong, you didn’t cause this to happen.

The option is singular: keep floating. We all got broadsided, the whole fleet is caught in it. Storms – real storms – the ones that aren’t forecast and truly come out of nowhere, are insanely rare, but they happen, and they’re terrible.  I’m hoping we, collectively, all have enough fuel in the tank to maintain steerage until we get a break in the weather, and can get home and fix everything that broke. I hope we as a country don’t spend the long night spinning the gyro, oversteering through the ditch, or knocking the bajeezus out of everyone involved while trying to keep things pointed straight. I hope we can keep our passengers calm, our crews safe, and ultimately that the weather report begins to moderate. If some of us don’t make it to the end… well… my guess is we sure as hell won’t be alone.

I hope you can keep from feeling alone, anxious, or scared. I hope you and your family are safe, healthy, remain positive, and have enough under the mattress to carry you through. I hope that May rolls out with a job to do and a customer to do it for, a paycheck in the mail and a stock market on the rebound. Ultimately, because our livelihoods depend on it, I also selfishly hope that you want to come to Seward and stay in a cabin, take a water taxi, and go fishing, or camping, or kayaking. Our communities need you, and want you to visit as soon as it becomes safe to do so.  If you can’t swing your trip to Alaska this year, or even down the peninsula to Seward if you already live here, please try to shop locally and support those small businesses in your vicinity, you make a difference to them, I promise.
Until then, from those of us at Miller’s Landing, I wish us all the same luck.

-Chance Miller.