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Random thoughts – Sailing and Project Management?

I was out sailing with my husband the other day.  It was a short sail – just a couple of hours, but long enough for me to be soothed into a thoughtful mode.  I started considering all the variables you need to take into account when you are planning a voyage.  Then, my mind went even further and started trying to compare those variables with project planning. 

Now you should know right off the bat, I am NOT a certified Project Manager.  I have not studied the PMBOK, or taken courses in ITIL (yet).  I make absolutely no claims in this area.  But, having been on a number of projects over my lengthy career, and made a number of voyages – although none as long as the projects – I felt there are certain parallels that can be drawn.

First off, in sailing, let’s assume you have a goal.  In our case, thatgoal may be to get from Portsmouth, RI to Block Island, RI.  The distancein nautical miles is 36, or 31 in ‘land miles’.  A nautical mile is the equivalent of 1.15 miles. Read more about it here. You are traveling in a boat which has an average hull speed of 6 knots, or 6 nautical miles per hour, whether or not you have wind.  Ideally of course, being a sailor, you would prefer not to use the engine and use wind for propulsion.   

Even though there are lots of snazzy tools (ie: GPS, Chartplotters, etc) let’s assume you do your planning the old fashioned way, with a paper chart, a parallel rule, a compass and a pencil.  You plot your course to avoid all underwater (and above water) obstructions.  You calculateyour heading, or compass direction, by using the parallel rules, with one side lined up with the line representing any particular leg of your journey (or LOP) and the other side lined up to a compass direction on the compass rose.  This will give you your compass heading (magnetic heading) However, because of the curvature of the earth and the earth’s magnetic field, you need to calculate what your True North as this may not be your magnetic compass heading, which you need to calculate based on your location by measuring the compass bearing of a landmark with a known magnetic bearing. 

Now, each leg of your course will indicate (once you factor in the magnetic deviation) what your compass heading should be.  Ideally, you will have calibrated your boat’s compass to point to the correct North.  You can then convert the length of each leg into estimated time to travel using your boat’s average speed times and the length of the line and the scale of the chart.    This will enable you to determine roughly how long (in time) you should be at which heading for each leg of the journey.

Now you get to add in some more variables, mainly (but not limited to) wind andcurrent.  You are traveling in a bay, which has high and low tides as you would expect.  But the tidal current will have an impact on your course and speed – at times the current can run 1-2 knots, either with you or against you.  So if the tide is high at 1 AM, are you going to depart at 1:30AM so that the current is with you (knowing you have a 6+ hour sail ahead?)  Will you wait until 2:00 PM, again, with a 6+ hour sail, you could be entering a strange harbor after sunset.  Or, depart at 9AM, figuring that the strongest tidal currents are at the beginning and end of the flood – so mid-tide will give you negative currents, but not at the strongest.   And of course, the tidal currents don’t always just go with you or against you, but also can affect your course but flowing perpendicular to your heading. 

And wind, naturally, because we are talking about sailing here.  If you are sailing northeast (say 45 degrees) and the wind is out of the northeast (anywhere from 30-60 degrees) you will find you need to tack, that is to point the boat so that you are not heading directly where you want, but at a minimum 15-20 degrees away from your waypoint, and then turn, sailing away in the *other* direction, just in order to make any headway.  But you need to adjust your schedule and your charts for each tack, as it makes your journey longer.  If the wind is more favorable in direction, is it favorable in speed?  Is it 2-5 knots (not so great) or 20-30 knots (bordering gale force, also not ideal).  You always need to check your marine forecasts prior to setting sail, and hopefully from multiple sources, plus a good look out into the harbor to see what is happening right there. 

Even with a wind direction that is favorable, and the ideal 12-18 knots, and the current either negligible to none, there is still more to take into account.  You’ve been calculating your position based on the distance traveled and the time it’s taken.  But, on your boat, you have two different speedometers!  One measures your perceived speed, that is, it is a small paddle wheel mounted on the hull of the boat, and the amount of spinning that takes place is your speed.  The other is your actual speed, which is a combination of wind, current, actual speed and time.  You could use your GPS to obtain your actual speed, as it is calculating your arrival at your waypoint, and showing you the speed at which you are traveling.  THAT speed is going to be higher than your manual speedo (if the current is with you) or lower (if the current is against you).   You can also chart your actual speed using compass headings, bearings, and other nav aids.

So, what does any of this have to do with project planning?  Well, you can probably guess the analogies that I will make, but just in case…

Goal – destination, or of course, your project goal.  If your destination is not clearly defined – how can you plot your course?

Distance – Or perhaps the scope of your project.  How far you have to go to get there.   

Speed – Of course, the time you require to reach your goal.  And your speed should be a reflection of the resources (wind, crew) you need to get there.

Plot your course – Blueprinting your course – what direction will you take, how long will it take you to get there, at what point do you need to change course to work on the next leg of your journey.

Obstructions – On a boat, you know your obstructions – sort of.  The big hard stuff around the edges – which you know about – and the hard stuff under the surface – which you hope you know about.  There will be obstructions found in the best-planned projects – it’s up to the skipper to be on the lookout and to nimbly alter the course when you find one.  In a project, this could be user resistance, regulatory changes, or resource availability, for example.

So, isn’t this obvious?  A good project – and a good voyage – have taken into account as many of the variables as possible.  We all know that there can be unplanned conditions – no wind, or no resources; it’s what the skipper and crew decide to do when these surprises occur that may ultimately determine whether you have an enjoyable sail, or not.

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  • Really enjoyed your analogy and admire how you tied a fun leisure activity to a project work context.
    I tried to extend the analogy of sailing/ project to the online community projects and thought there are other possible roles in the project/sail such as passengers and ship-owner.  And of course the container itself is important: the ship or vessel…
    Here on SCN the vessel could be thought of as the collaboration platform with some of us doing a bit of steering now and again. Many of us have no problem recognizing skipper and crew.  But what about destination or goal?  What would ours be here?  Knowledge? Reputation? Career Opportunity?