Winter 2021

The Leadership of Old Fishermen

During the Covid-19 pandemic, announcements and news reports have often been preceded by the phrase, “During these un-precedented times,…” For many of us, this may be true; we have never lived through a global pandemic like Covid-19, times of social un-rest or extreme economic hardship. Like me, however, many of us in Canada come from families whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents lived through times (some even recently) where a pandemic and hardship weren’t called un-precedented, it was the harsh reality of their daily lives. There may also be other people in our midst that we could learn from. Do you have families at your school who have lived through a crisis?  How about refugee families? How did they get through their toughest times? Did they have little rituals, something they did each day to get them through tough times? How can we learn and benefit from the wisdom, experience and practices of these people to help us navigate our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic?

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” Franklin Delanor Roosevelt.

My own life has been greatly shaped and influenced by my Japanese Canadian fisherman roots.

My grandfather, father and older brother were all salmon fishermen on the Westcoast of BC. My fisherman dad used to say, “Michael, expect the un-expected.” As much as this drove me nuts when he would say this (as I would hear this with some regularity), his years on the boat and the lessons he learned from his own father (who sailed to Canada from Japan in 1898) proved that this was an essential principle of fishing and being safe on a boat. There were certain routines and rituals that my dad and his fishermen friends followed that served them well when the water was calm but especially so when the water was rough (the un-expected).

Routines and Rituals That Rejuvenate

As a teenager my summers were spent not hanging out at the mall, but on the deck of the Alpha, my dad’s 36-foot commercial fishing boat. We would head out of the protected waters of the Fraser River in early July, travel north along the stunning inside passage and not return until just before the start of school.

I enjoyed a lot of the rituals and routines my dad and his friends incorporated into their non- fishing time while we were away from home.  After chasing salmon for sometimes 48 to 72 hours straight with no sleep, everyone would come back and tie up to the docks. The next day, the docks would be quiet as everyone slept in to catch up on the essential hours of sleep they had sacrificed to maximize their allotted time to catch fish.  One of my favorite rituals came next. After days of shoveling down Spam, cold rice and green tea between picking fish out of the net, we had the fisherman’s potluck where everyone gathered on the decks of the boats to share their best dish. We would salivate as smell the garlic and black bean crab and freshest steamed mussels and clams just picked off the each drifted across the docks. This great food everyone prepared was always accompanied with a few shots of Crown Royal whiskey and great stories from that week’s fishing.  After the potluck and mending our nets, the evening would bring a walk up the ramp from the docks to the “Ofuro” (Japanese Bath) The “Ofuro” was not for cleaning off the stinky grime of fish slime and scales, but rather it was a beautiful red cedar bath meant to soak in, relax and ease the aches and pains of the week.

To my uninitiated eyes these activities seemed like random things we would do to fill the time until we went out to fish again. Time and experience, however, had taught my dad and the old fisherman, that to make it through a long season and be your best, you needed to be as disciplined in your recovery routines and rituals as you were in your fishing. In the book, “The Power of Full Engagement” performance psychologist, Jim Loehr shares this same insight.

As he was filming the top tennis players in the world in order to help them maximize their performance, Loehr became increasingly frustrated, as he could not see any significant difference in their competitive habits as they played. It was only when he began to notice what they did between the points he suddenly saw the difference. The world’s top players all had specific routines that would instinctively maximize their recovery between points. Many lower ranked players had no recovery routines at all, adding up to fatigue, poor decision making and execution later in the match.  When he hooked up the players to EKGs to monitor their heart rate he had another startling discovery. The top players who had recovery routines had heart rates that would drop as much as 20 beats per minute in the 16-20 seconds between points. The heart rates of the lesser ranked players without recovery routines remained elevated throughout the whole match. *p. 32 

During the pandemic what are your recovery routines that you can prioritize and draw on to keep you strong during the storm?

Stabilizers – The Things That Keep us Safe.

As I’m writing this piece, announcements of when the Covid-19 vaccines are to be delivered are at the top of the headlines. As we come closer to getting out of the pandemic, it’s easy to let our guard down and get sloppy with the routines that keep us safe. This is understandable as you, your staff, students and parents are all suffering from the accumulated stresses.

When fishing was over for the season and we were ready to go home, the old fishermen had set things that they did to handle any weather they might encounter. When my brother Doug first started fishing his enthusiasm to see his new bride would sometimes lead him to skip some of these routines. At the urging of the old guys Doug would slow down and follow their lead. They helped each other take the nets off of their drums on top of the deck and store them below the deck. They would fill the empty fish holds under the deck with ice. These seemed annoying, time consuming activities, however they were routines with a purpose. Shifting weight from the top of the deck to the bottom of the boat served to lower the centre of gravity of the boat and create more ballast. (Ballast is material used to provide stability) In this same spirit, when entering the waters that guaranteed rough weather on the way home, they would lower the stabilizers –, 2 poles that lowered towards the water, dragged 2 weights, one on either side of the boat…kind of like wings of an airplane. These “weighted wings” kept the boat from being thrown around by the waves. All of these routines, rituals and stablizers were critical, but sometimes even these time-tested fail-safes were not enough.

Tie the Boats Together

My friend Charlene recently shared with me, a story her uncle shared with her about making it home safely through one of the biggest storms ever. As they were travelling home from the fishing grounds, the horizon confirmed what the weather reports had missed. They had left the safety of the protected waters and were headed towards a massive storm. Some of the boats were built for speed and may have been able to make it to a safe haven before the storm hit. However, without hesitation, all the fishermen slowed their engines and manouvered carefully, so that all the boats, big or small, faster or slower, were aligned side by side. As the waves grew and salt-water stung their eyes, the fishermen steadied themselves on their decks and threw lines to each other, tying their boats tightly together. Once the lines were secure they set course for home. If they had seen the storm sooner, they would have turned around but at this point it was too late…they were in the storm. Experience told them that the safest way to get out of a storm once you are in it is to have the courage to point the boats on a slight angle into the on-coming waves and wind. The other unspoken reason for tying the boats together, was so that no one would get separated from the group. 

My hope is that as you are reading this article the Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed and we are all on the way out of this “un-precedented time” giving us the time to reflect on our routines and rituals that rejuvenate. If we are still in the middle of another Covid-19 wave my other hope is that you tie your boats together, take the waves head on and make it home safe to have a bath, hug your family, sleep it off and do whatever you do to keep yourself safe and stable. 

Mike Suto, B Ed., is a Franklin Covey Consultant and Coach with over 20 years of experience. Growing up the son of a Japanese Canadian commercial salmon fisherman interned during W.W. 2, he learned the importance of lending a hand and working together. Over coming cancer at 29 has given Mike clarity and laser focus on what is important in life.

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