Dealing with crisis while surrounded by alligators

Monday, April 9, 2012 | |

Family vacations are the last place I expect to encounter a crisis, but that’s what happened to us a few days ago at Mayakka River State Park in Florida. Everything turned out fine, but I think there are lessons contained in the story about dealing with a crisis at home, on vacation or at work.

The story

We arrived at the park, expecting to rent kayaks to explore the lake and wildlife for a few hours. The lake is filled with large birds, turtles and flying fish, but the undeniable stars of the show are the hundreds of alligators that live in the lake, some as long as 15 feet.

The park was out of kayaks, so we settled instead on renting two full sized canoes. We pushed our boats into the water, a short entry channel to the main lake, but noticed immediately that the wind was going to make paddling a huge challenge for a crew of one adult and one small child. We paddled like crazy (at least the adults did), but the wind pushed both of our boats against the shore. Finally making it out of the channel and into the mouth of the lake, the wind completely took over and blew us whichever direction it pleased. Even turning around seemed impossible and it wasn’t long before we had the canoes stuck in shallow water, getting our paddles caught in thick grass that covered the lake bed, parents getting short with the kids.

We hadn’t seen any alligators, but another family, also in canoes that were blowing sideways, had somehow managed to spot one not far from us. Frustration and worry now completely took over and we knew we had to come up with another plan to get ourselves moving in the right direction – any direction - and fast!

We decided that returning to home base was absolutely necessary and that our best chance of getting there was to tie the canoes together and get everyone in one boat, all paddling together. If that didn’t work, we had the option of waiting to be rescued, but we didn’t notice anyone coming around to see if the hapless boaters were okay. Another option was walking the shore line, dragging our canoes behind us, but the possibility that alligators could be hidden in the weeds on or near shore made this option significantly less attractive.

Using our paddles as poles, we pushed away from the shallowest water and got ourselves pointed in the right direction. The kids needed a lot of coaching to know on which side to paddle (read constant yelling), but very slowly, we were moving. I noticed about seven or eight giant vultures circling high overhead and couldn’t help but think that they had noticed our predicament.

After nearly an hour of struggling against the wind, we had made it back to our starting point. We barely had enough energy to pull our canoes onto shore, but we were safe and greatly relieved.

The lessons

1. Communication: When you realize you’re in trouble, communication to everyone involved needs to be clear and firm. The parenting handbook regarding calm, polite conversation goes out the window when kids need to know exactly what is expected of them, especially when failure to follow instructions puts their safety at risk.
2. Decision making: Speed and certainty are critical. Democracy might be best thrown out the window - it was in this case.
3. Contingency plans: Always be thinking about what you’ll do if Plan A doesn’t work and don’t be afraid to admit your current plan is a failure. Having options eases tension and frees your mind up to...
4. Take action: It’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, but you’ve got to get moving before the alligators find you.
5. Identify the vultures: In a crisis, vultures are only distractions and should be ignored - no good can come from allowing them to affect your decisions or your actions. Remember, they aren’t hoping for you to succeed.
6. Never rent canoes and enter an alligator lake on a windy day: Trust me.

Have you had to deal with a crisis? What advice would you add to the list?


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