Civility at Sea

I was excited to be back on the tour schedule after a few days away from the lake and one difficult shift working on the docks. I had watched tour after tour line up, board, and leave without me. It was tough since I wasn’t getting much social interaction this year. I relied on the hundreds of small conversations with passengers to get my kicks. So being back in front of 100 new faces was a little more rewarding than it usually was.

Sometimes at my work we take everyone out on the lake first before heading into the city via the Chicago Harbor Lock. Instead of waiting at a standstill with the yachts and pontoon boats, we get the speedboat ride out of the way first. The lake and river portions of the tour should take around 75 to 90 minutes on a good day. But there is always the risk of something or somethings happening to slow us down. During the busier weeks in the summer I’d given tours that went on for three hours. This turned out to be one of those days something went wrong.

A testy group had boarded the boat. The first mate had already heard them complaining about the lack of cup holders and not being able to sit with their group all together. The choppy lake didn’t help their mood as water viciously cut across the front few rows of seats. The same seats we just assured them were the driest on the boat. Kids were upset, adults were frustrated and embarrassed to be dripping wet while others had stayed dry. They all looked at me to help them somehow. I did manage to stand in the way of the strongest splashes but I was nowhere near wide enough to block it all out. 

Soon the boat slowed down to approach the locks, but almost right away the captain was informed that everyone would be delayed by a fire boat coming from the river into the lake for an emergency rescue. This boat would take up the entire lock itself, further delaying our journey. The rain was also a threat. The crew had a schedule to keep and if we waited for the fire boat, we’d be pushing back departure of our cruises for the rest of the day most likely. He asked me to take a vote from the passengers whether to wait and be late or to head back to the dock and give everyone a refund.

It was normal to take such votes on our boats. There are a number of issues that can pop up during a cruise and we try to be as honest as possible with the passengers about what they are voting on and what the likely outcomes of each choice are. When we’re behind schedule on very hot days, passengers usually vote to go through Millennium Fountain rather than wait for it to turn off. This allows us to catch the lock before it closes. Total time saved: 35 minutes. Not bad for a refreshing spray in the middle of July. As the tour guide there are usually ways I can spin the choices presented to the passengers. I’ll make one option sound much more pleasant or even like the expected decision (“the boring tours choose to wait it out… but it’s up to you”). But on this day, I was faced with plainly giving them two bad options. Wait in the rain and be late or head back and wait to get a refund (also in the rain)… basically wasting an hour of their lives. 

The vote came back 42 to head back and 35 to wait and continue the tour. Of course 23 people did not vote. I was hoping we’d get a majority. That would allow me to pass the responsibility of the decision to the voting results. But instead I had to confer with the captain. We compared the complaints of both possibilities. If we went back, those who wanted to continue would say we robbed them of an experience they had paid for. If we stayed out, we’d be met with furious passengers who would miss later engagements, plus everyone would be soaking wet and we might lose the support of some of the 35 that had voted to continue. We decided the safest bet was to head back to the dock.

Now that the decision had been made, it was my job to get as many people to see the decision as the best way forward. I needed to prevent frustration as much as possible. There was a possibility of fighting breaking out. The mood had been sour the whole trip. We had voted openly and people knew who had voted with them and who had voted against them. There were pockets of support for one choice or the other and some of them had vocal leaders willing to prove their reasoning to me. At this point I was brought back to situations around the world that reminded me of this one. Some civil unrest… someone in charge losing their grip on control… the loudest voice taking the whole group down a dangerous path. It was the presidential election in Uganda, the visa raids in China, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Indonesia. I was happy to be dealing with my current situation in America where I felt the angriest of the passengers would most likely write a strongly worded email or simply say something snarky as they left the boat. I wasn’t worried about being attacked with a machete or pushed overboard.

But then I asked if this American version of failure was really better than any of the others. The USA claims to be a light of hope. We are the democracy that saved the 20th Century. Every vote matters. But our leaders seem to love their own ideas more than the country. They put their own interests ahead of their duty to their constituents. I was staring at a microcosm of our national problems on my 70 ft boat. And I held the microphone for the next four minutes as we headed back into our dock. This was a chance to address this social deficiency

Instead of filling the time awkwardly with facts about Chicago, I decided to address the issue on everyone’s mind. I said “I’d like to apologize to everyone. That’s what we do now isn’t it? We apologize to anyone who isn’t happy with the shared reality we live in. I’m sorry to those who wanted to ride through the river no matter how long it took. You bought a ticket and you have every right to expect us to fulfill that promise. I’m sorry to those of you who got wet when you thought you wouldn’t. Our marketing team doesn’t want us to scare people off but obviously we can’t give you a speedboat ride while going slow enough to avoid this kind of splashing when the weather is like this. Our other option would be to cancel the tours all together.” 

The two sides still saw the situation as an “us vs them” battle. I knew I needed to get everyone on the same side. I reminded them that the reason we were thrust into this mess is because there is someone in need of emergency help out on the lake. Maybe an entire boat of people drowning as we speak. Maybe there’s a family whose patriarch and boat captain has suffered a heart attack and they are stranded out there. Once everyone felt bad about arguing over what kind of boat tour they were having on holiday while people were possibly dying on the lake I stepped in to make my final point. “Some of you are sitting next to people who voted against you. You feel they betrayed you. You feel your reasons are sound and they are in need of an education on how society should work. They need to understand what you already understand. You can’t imagine living in a world where people like that are making decisions the way they’ve just done. But this is our reality. They have just the same feeling about you. They have their reasons for voting the way they did. They are adults too with decades of experience dealing with people. They have families, jobs, they pay their taxes, and you’ve all decided to come to Navy Pier in Chicago for a boat ride today. You probably have a lot in common. So try to see the person sitting next to you as a human. And if their vote really bothers you, ask them to explain their reasoning instead of just shouting yours at them.”

“We need to relearn how to be civil. Not just to live together, but to make the tough decisions that are surely coming. We have an election in 2020 and we need to know how to live together. This is a good chance to practice.”


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