Risk Management Reports

August, 2000
Volume 27, No. 8
Rowing and Risk Management

A metaphor is a useful tool in building understanding of a difficult idea. Several years ago, I tried relating the discipline of risk management to the art of varnishing, a summer trade that I ply for my menagerie of watercraft. Now it is rowing and risk management.

This summer I found myself again at the Craftsbury Sculling Center for a week’s application to the finer points of propelling a single scull through the water quickly and safely. Craftsbury is an ascetic setting in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, just beneath the Canadian border. No radio, no television, no newspapers (other than one copy of the Burlington daily). Cell phones don’t work and only two pay phones give access to the outside world. We row and eat (well and mightily, I add) three times a day, read and sleep. The focus on rowing is worthy of a monastery.

While skimming the waters of Lake Hosmer, half concentrating on the incessant advice of coaches trying to rid me of 50+ years of accumulated bad habits, I reasoned that the sculling process is analogous to our favorite discipline.

The rowing motion involves all parts of the body, in a continuous, circular effort of catching the water with the oars, driving them through the water, releasing the blades and recovering for the next stroke. As one coach says, “sculling is an art form—beautiful, graceful, powerful, rhythmic and speedy.” So too is risk management an art form, not a science, one that requires complete concentration, yet at the same time an almost ethereal relaxation and mystical separation from the effort.

Risk management, like rowing is a circular, repetitive process. Both require flexibility to respond to changing conditions: wind, waves, current, mental attitude, competition. Both require balance: seeking a blend of reward and punishment to master the current conditions. In sculling, I drive a 28 foot long pencil-thin shaft of carbon-fiber, something that is inherently unstable at rest, through the water to give it both progress and stability. Any organization is inherently unstable at rest: it requires successive decisions, all involving risk, to propel it into progress and change. Risk gives the organization meaning, motion and balance, the keys to its journey.

Scullers and risk managers are similar in one final way: both sit looking backwards, trying to figure out where they are going!

Concentration on all the parts of the process eventually leads to a fusion that enables the sculler and risk manager to transcend the individual parts and reach a point where it becomes almost effortless, where the process is fully integrated into the culture. Over-focus on one step or another and integration slips away.

One morning at Craftsbury I went out earlier than the other scullers to savor the quiet and the solitary calm of the Lake. At the far end I stopped, turned and paused on my oars. A blue heron stood on a log at the water’s edge, staring at me intently, having critiqued my rowing skill. He then turned and lifted effortlessly into the air, as if to disparage my puny attempts at integrated motion. We keep trying!

The coach and student ought to consider all aspects of modern scientific training. They should have an understanding of basic rigging, biomechanics, anatomy and physiology. . . . The sculler ought to have a keen sense of sculling history and tradition. . . .Besides this historical and educational perspective, the sculler can achieve a poetic sense of his own role in this tradition. It is this perspective that helps provide some insight into both the ecology of our natures and one’s external environment.

James C. Joy, The Art of Sculling, Dec. 8, 1978

Copyright H. Felix Kloman and Seawrack Press, Inc.

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