Making a Split Second Decision, Shipwreck at Havana

“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.”

Saint James 3:4

As humans we have the freedom, the obligation, to make decisions. One choice we are not given is whether or not to choose. We are constantly faced with countless decisions every day. Looking at a restaurant menu can cause great anxiety for many even if they know that any selection will be satisfying. Selecting a paint color can be challenging even though the worst outcome may be that a visitor to you house thinks you have bad taste. Weightier decisions require tapping into all of our life experience, observations of the experiences of others, and research. Language provides the means for advanced learning.

Christopher Columbus said that a compass always seeks the truth. Along with a compass many other tools were invented by people who went before. A ship navigator’s manual from the seventeenth century could be upwards of two hundred pages or more. Navigators constantly made sophisticated calculations, providing information to the captain of the ship. With all of these calculations and decisions a captain could bring a ship to any port in the world. Arriving at the port he needed a new set of tools and different crew members to provide the needed perspectives to guide the ship to harbor. Crew members on small guide boats could view the fine details of the port, to precisely bring the ship to it’s docking location.

Port of Havana, Cuba

On a Sunday morning in the late 1600’s, Captain Francisco and his pilot were meticulously navigating a Spanish galleon into the Port of Havana, Cuba. They were stressed and behind schedule. The guide boats were directing the ship around a challenging obstacle to get back into port. There was a large submerged rock at the entrance to the harbor. If struck by a ship, the ship would be destroyed.

The town was relatively quiet except for the sound of crew members bellowing out directions from the guide boats up to the captain and the ship’s pilot. At about 8:00 o’clock a loud crash broke the air. It was immediately followed by the sound of twisting timbers, and sailors yelling back and forth from the ship to the guide boats below. Pedestrians on shore stopped in their tracks as they watched the tragedy unfold.

The galleon had been out by night loading contraband cargo at another nearby port before returning to join a fleet that would be heading to Spain. The idea was to avoid the 20% tax on all freight. They had planned to return to port while it was still dark to avoid suspicion of contraband cargo, but encountered unexpected delays.

So, in full sun, in front of the whole world, the captain and crew were in a rush to get the ship into port hoping to avoid any interrogations about the ships’s cargo manifest. Though it was risky, over lading the ships with contraband was standard practice and routinely overlooked. But sinking a ship would surely trigger a thorough investigation and criminal prosecution. It was a high risk venture. The earnings of from one successful voyage could earn enough to provide for the ship owner’s well being for life. A sunken or a lost ship could spell financial ruin for many investors and deplete the resources of the Spanish Crown. Those indicted in the crimes would suffer forced separation from the church and society, and possible prison time or worse.

Air Force One

Sometimes you have to make a decision even though you don’t have all the information. In movies the script can call for a pre-determined balance of success and good fortune vs. perceived failure. In the case of the movie, Air Force One, Harrison Ford had to connect one of two wires in the electrical system of his damaged 747. He played the part of a hero under stress who would save the day or end everything right there. He didn’t have time to research or ask anyone for advice. He had to make a split second decision. The script writers played in his favor and he chose the right wire. Otherwise the movie would have been shorter and the viewers would not have been able to identify the true villains in the story. That may or may not be a bad thing, either way there would be an outcome.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan said that when feasible he would meditate while riding on horseback or building a split rail fence, before making a major decision. The need for making quick split second decisions was harder and always up for his own critical review and that of the entire world.

50/50 Odds

The stakes were high. Captain Francisco and the pilot had to get into port safely to avoid unravelling of their lives and fortunes. They were under a lot of stress as they slowly brought the ship into port. Their hearts were likely racing.

The crew members on the guide boats below, yelled out directions. Captain Francisco and his pilot anxiously listened. At a critical point they were to direct the ship to the left (port) or the right (starboard). They called out the appropriate directions in Spanish, either:

A BA-BOR (port)


A ESTRI-BOR (starboard)

To make sure they were heard from the guide boats the crew members extended the last syllable of their directions. All that Captain Francisco and his pilot heard was the last syllable, , ‘ — BOOOOOOR!’ But which was it? ‘a-ba-BOOOOOOR’ or ‘a estri-BOOOOOOR?’ If they took no action they would certainly crash. If they guessed, at least they had a 50% chance of saving the galleon, the cargo, their reputation and their freedom. There was no time for further communication. They made a choice.

After the ship sank, cargo was quickly salvaged and inventoried by customs officials, revealing a quantity of cargo that was one and one-one-half times greater than what appeared on the official ship’s manifest. It took several months for the court scribes to gather all the witness statements as the prosecution continued. More decisions...

Had the 50/50 odds played in the captain’s favor or had he been better prepared for the unfortunate rhyme in the language, we wouldn’t be reading about this today.



Having been on the frontlines, I’m deeply familiar with life’s challenges and traumas. I’m inspired by courageous people who triumph and succeed.

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Wayne Beck

Wayne Beck

Having been on the frontlines, I’m deeply familiar with life’s challenges and traumas. I’m inspired by courageous people who triumph and succeed.